The Old Man and the Drifter
The Journey Begins
I was a young man, early twenties, barely scratching the surface of my life, barely sniffing the roses or tasting the sweet nectar, when one day I felt smothered by the routine of it all. Up at dawn, off to work, home dead tired, catch a little idiot tube, then off to bed, to be repeated the next day, and the next.
Weekends provided a respite, a break from the ordinary, a few drinks, some fun with friends, wasted days and wasted nights, a series of meaningless relationships and one-night stands, all a frantic search for God-only knows what.
Eighteen became nineteen, then twenty, then twenty-one and adulthood, responsibilities, the inevitable smothering as the internal pilot light flickered and the joy slowly ebbed. What had I accomplished? If this was a sampling of my life, then the next fifty or sixty years were going to be a slow waltz with the mundane and meaningless, those twin demons of twenty-first century life.
Is that all there is, I asked? Is that all there will be? What have I accomplished? How is it possible for someone to live a quarter of their life and have nothing to show for it? I had no accolades. I had grasped no golden rings. I was spiraling and I knew it, but what could I do? I was just one of seven-point-two-billion. What impact could I possibly have on this world?
Dejected and forlorn, I left work early one day and drifted, eventually finding myself on the side of the road, thumb held out, looking for a ride to anywhere but where I was.
And Then He Appeared
Hours passed under a downpour, for good Samaritans were in short supply that day. Finally, as the skies cleared, an old, rusted pickup truck pulled to the side of the road, and the driver motioned to me to join him. The truck had seen better days. The tires were bare, the original paint sanded away, the upholstery ripped in places and held together with duct tape. In fact, the truck greatly resembled the driver. He looked somewhat familiar with heavy gray beard, silver hair, and a face etched by time and fate. He reached out his hand in greeting, and his grip was strong, hinting at a life of physical labor. I guessed his age at late-sixties, but in truth I may have missed the mark by not adding another ten or fifteen. His smile was unforced and inviting.
“Looks like you could use a ride, young feller. Where you heading?”
I told him I had no plan, that I was heading in whichever direction he was going.
“Well, I’m glad to have the company. West is my direction, toward the setting sun, so I guess it is for both of us. Now let me turn the heater on. You look chilled to the bone.”
We drove for several miles before either of us spoke again. By then I had warmed up sufficiently to stop shaking. The rhythmic sound of the tires on the pavement, and the warmth of the cab, lifted my dark mood, and I found myself enjoying the company of the old man on the open road. Slowly we began to share information.
I told him of my dissatisfaction with life, and my feelings of having wasted the time I had lived to date. I told him of the silliness of it all, the rat-chasing-his-own-tail syndrome that was threatening to engulf me, and I told him that if this is all there is to life, then what’s the point of continuing? He was a good listener, only interrupting to ask a clarifying question. He showed no signs of being judgmental, did not preach to me, but instead encouraged me to pour it all out, and I did.
“I mean, what the hell am I doing? Have I made any difference in life so far? Work, eat, sleep, booze it up occasionally, nail some strange tail from time to time, but what’s the point? I could die tomorrow and nobody would give a shit. I could drop off the face of the earth and not one ripple would be caused in the pool of life as we know it. I’ve basically wasted twenty-five years, and chances are I’ll waste the next twenty-five, and twenty-five after that, and then I’ll grow old, tire, and die. What’s the point? I’ve never been in love, I don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, and I have no direction at all.”
But Enough About Me, I Said
“Listen to me, babbling on. You must think I’m a terrible bore,” I said. “Tell me something about yourself, please.”
He smiled at me, and the smile was genuine and inviting.
“I was just about your age when I started out on the road. It’s been a good life, but I sense it coming to a close. I’ve lived a long time, experienced much, but I think this will be my last road trip. I was married twice and buried both wives, one to cancer and the other to heart disease. God, they were good women, as loving as you could ever hope to find, and I miss them both something fierce.
“I had a son by one of them, but he died in a traffic accident. I’ve owned businesses but lost them. I lived in million dollar homes, but now I live in this old truck, traveling the back roads and meeting strangers such as yourself. I’ve held thirty jobs over the years, never could find one that satisfied me, damned near drowned off the coast of California, rode the rails, was homeless for a time, and saw some things in battle that no man should ever see. Yes indeed, it’s been a good life.” And then he laughed, and the laugh was infectious, and soon I found myself laughing along with him.
“Are you delusional?” I asked him. “What you just described is a lifetime of tragedy. How the hell can you laugh about it? How can you describe what I just heard as a good life?”
He didn’t answer for a while, just kept his attention on the road. Finally he pulled the truck into a rest stop. He reached back and grabbed a thermos of coffee and took a sip, then offered me some.
“Sure, I guess some might call my life a tragedy, but they would be sadly mistaken in doing so. I’m seventy-five years old, and my life has been full. You speak of having no purpose. Well, my purpose was to experience all of life. You speak of having no one who gives a damn about you. I was loved, twice, and experienced all the joys that love can bring to a man. I had the privilege of watching, playing, and loving my son for ten years, and I’ve been lucky enough to have close friends over the years who knew the true meaning of brotherhood. Yes, my businesses failed, but I gained wisdom in their failure. Yes, I lost my homes, but I found a safe place within myself where I could reside and never be unhappy.
“I guess it’s all about perspective, young feller.”
The Journey Ends
We drove for a few more days and then one bright, beautiful morning, as the sun rose behind us and the landscape transformed from grays to greens, he pulled over to the side of the road.
“My journey is over, young man. I’m going to drop you off here to continue your own. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.”
I found myself sad that my time with the old man had come to an end.
“I keep thinking you look so familiar. Excuse me all to hell, but I never asked your name, and here you were so kind in giving me a ride.”
He smiled that smile.
“My name is James Harding,” he said.
Was this a joke? Surely this was some reality television show. I was sure if I looked around closely I would find hidden cameras recording my reactions.
“Wait just a minute. My name is James Harding. How the hell could we both have the same name and meet randomly along an empty highway?”
The old man reached across me and opened my door. “Go live life, James Harding. Experience it all. Love like there is no tomorrow. Breathe deep and inhale all that life has to offer. Never fear the possibility of loss, but rather fear the possibility of never having lived life to the fullest. Let that fear fuel your every day. Now go. Life is good, and it is high time that you found that out in the only way possible. You’ve got to live life to fully appreciate it. And do you see that café up ahead? Your first wife is inside, waiting for you.”
Author’s note: Believe it or not, this short story was inspired by a television commercial. Inspiration will come if you are open to it. J Live a good life, my friends.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)