The Sun Never Rises: Chapter Five
On the Road Again
“We do what we have to do to survive, Katie. No shame in that!”
How true are those words, spoken by my protagonist, Max? Have you been there? Do you have any inkling what it would be like to have life broken down to those basic words….anything to survive?
The homeless are human beings and as such deserve compassion. That is my message…that is the reason for this writing exercise.
So lace up your shoes and let’s get walking.
On the Forty-Two, southwest of Cincinnati, heading for Louisville, hopin’ against all logic that winter will loosen its icy grip on our bones. With some money in our pockets, thanks to some hard work and the kindness of the Carter family, we left Washington Court House with something neither of us is too comfortable with, namely hope.
We hitched a ride this far, an octogenarian who really shouldn’t have picked up two strangers on a country road, more compassion than common sense in that woman, but it turned out fine for all of us. “Keep heading south,” she told us. “You’ll find warmth eventually and until you do, keep each other warm and safe. Now bless you, children, and God speed,” and off she sped into the winter’s gloom, a red dot rushing into the gray backdrop.
Walking in silence, that’s our way, a comfortable silence, the silence of two human beings who have come to understand the importance of companionship, of trust, of compassion, as semis rush by, their back-draft adding to the chill, digging deep into our bones, into the marrow, into connecting tissue, into the nerve endings, signals sent to the brain, cold, brutally cold, keep moving, for to stop is to invite lethargy, that heartless bitch of death.
We pass a horse in a pasture, a lone sentinel, blanket covering its back, plumes erupting from its nose, drifting in the light breeze. It looks sad, this horse, surrounded by hundreds of acres of desolation, a winter wasteland too damned cold, too damned unforgiving, and far off is a farmhouse, smoke rising from the chimney, smoke promising warmth to those invited, to those accepted, a cruel reminder of the haves and the have-nots.
“Do we have a plan yet, Max?” she asks for the hundredth time, as if I have a clue, but I understand it, desperate fingers of hope clawing for purchase on the cliff, the chasm yawning below.
“You said it yourself, Katie. We do what we have to do to survive, and right now that means keep moving.”
She thought on that a bit, digging her hands deeper into her pockets, seeking extra warmth in the depths.
“Is there ever going to be more than that, Max? Are we ever going to move beyond mere survival?”
She’s an intelligent woman, Princess Kate, educated by good schools, groomed for success at an early age, on that path until a night of horror sent her rushing off into the unknown, and I won’t insult her intelligence by lying to her.
“I don’t know, Katie. That’s the best I can give you.”
More Miles Pass By
The ground is harder in the winter. That’s a fact most people don’t consider, why would they, rushing from warm house to warm car to warm coffee shop to warm office, an over-abundance of warmth for those who have never known the comfort one sheet of cardboard can provide a bone-ass-tired body. The soles of your boots wear down with each step, simple physics, weight, mass, gravity, toss in some Newton, some friction, words and theories and truths learned long ago, long before the discharge papers, long before the sanctioned killings, long before the eager recruit signed on the dotted line, back when the rising high school jock thought the world was his oyster to shuck along the shores of the Puget Sound, homecoming king making his parents proud, going to serve his country, a bright future ahead of him, God bless America.
Yep, the ground is harder in the winter.
“We can do better than this, Max,” she says to me as we approach a four-way stop in the middle of nowhere, not a car in sight.
Her hand reaches out and grabs mine.
“I want to believe we can,” she says, and I don’t have the courage to look into her eyes, for fear she might see the truth of the matter.
A Bite to Eat, a Moment of Warmth
We grab a burger at Bob’s Drive-In in downtown Carrollton, on the icy banks of the Ohio, the wind digging its unforgiving fingers into our flesh, the warmth of the interior deceiving, eyes of the hired help watching us closely, afraid we might make off with a salt shaker or infect the respected clientele with whatever ails us, their scrutiny every bit as cold as the wind.
You don’t stay long in places like that, order the meal, pay with crumpled bills, eat it quick and back out into nature’s fury, the Forty-Two taking a sharp turn to the south, the unseen sun straight ahead now, warming, if nothing else, our imaginations.
“Do you have any kids, Katie?” my question blown south, past her ears, by a north wind that hates the homeless.
“No, thank God,” she says. “At least I can count that blessing.”
Deserted, rusting tractors in fields, crop nubs standing strong; outbuildings leaning to the south, ever-so-slowly losing the fight against nature; fences of barbed-wire and fences of white pickets; junk yards and junk yard dogs, old gas stations from another era, discarded dreams all littering that state road, the industrial north meeting the agricultural south, an invisible dividing line separating the two, and there we were, silent, invisible, to all who didn’t see us, non-existent.
Now I Lay Me down to Sleep
One of those outbuildings served us well that night, once a functional equipment shed on a functional and thriving farm, now simply a way-station for those looking to escape the thrusts and parries of nighttime cold. Roll out the mats, spread out the bags, zip them together and cling to each other in the gathering night, the darkness our pillow, the mournful wind serenading us as we pressed closer together.
“Did you ever want any kids, Katie?”
A laugh without depth followed.
“Maybe, Max, long ago, back in the days of Barbies and Kens, back when I didn’t know any better, back when I thought happily ever after was a truth rather than a bald-faced lie. Now? What would be the point, right?”
Somewhere a dog howled, or maybe a coyote. Not sure which, as if it mattered one way or another.
“How about you, Max? Ever think of having kids one day?”
The howling stopped, or maybe the wind simply overcame it.
“We were securing a village about ten klicks south of Kandahar, deep south in Afghanistan, two squads of us ground grunts, going building by building, one squad on the north end, one on the south, going to meet in the middle, you know? We were just about done, our squad finishing up, standing in the village center, watching the other squad approach us, when this little kid, couldn’t have been much older than six or seven, comes out of a building, walks up to the squad leader, Tommy Perkins, and explodes. My guys hit the sand immediately, and I remember looking up and seeing this red mist float by, red against sandy brown.
“I don’t think I want to bring a kid into that kind of world.”
“Because you’re afraid he might become another Tommy Perkins?”
“No, because I’m afraid he’d become another little kid who didn’t value his own life.”
She held me tighter still and, for a moment, I was warmer.
See You Next Week?
Max and Katie invite you to join them on the road next week. You’re not expected to bring anything. All that’s required is you be respectful during the journey.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc) #greatestunknownauthor