n February the Walking Man
took on the task of heading for a warmer climate. Farms were far apart, covering a distance of ten miles. He walked from farm to farm along wooded paths; in many places the roads had not been completed. The names of the farms themselves attested to the rugged terrain over which he traveled, names meaning hills, forests, rivers and small lakes.
Weather records for that year would report a foot of snow in January and almost two more in February as well as freezing rain and extremely cold temperatures. Not only did the Walking Man complete this goal, something inside urged him to stop for a while in the large city that lay sprawling across the warm desert rimmed with the rubble of extinct volcanoes. Somehow he felt that among this entire outwardly inhospitable and desolate place that the wide expanses of wasteland might renew his energy rather than draw it away.
The sign attached to the chain link erratically thrown up around the construction site was nothing more than pressed plywood with Help Wanted spray painted in rambling black letters. Briefly they discussed the terms of his employment. The Walking Man would pick up odd jobs around the site for cash under the table no questions asked.
Karen and Elizabeth lounged around the South Pool at the hotel catching up on families, friends and jobs. Roommates for three years in college there was a lot to catch up on. Karen was now a mother of three, divorced after years of therapy helped her decide to leave her husband. No longer the "trophy wife" she got her teaching degree and reveled in teaching special needs kids.
Elizabeth was in Human Resources with a company that contracted with the government. Her East Coast Company had recently gone through a small hostile take over, unsure if new management would keep her or bring in their own, she flew into town for an interview. Karen lived a couple of hours away so they made plans to see each other again. Five years had passed since she had seen Karen.
Margaritas and beef nachos arrived. Silence hung in the air to catch its breath. With a loud ascending whistle the grackle rushed overhead, its prismed pinions reflected light from the pool catching colors that turned his underbelly dazzling white.
Avi papyrus! Karen chorused and both laughed out loud about the game that grown out of their genetics class. Egyptian Origami Birds that lived in arid regions of North Africa. Avi, Latin for bird; Papyrus for Egyptian paper it was a competition of chance using origami. By folding squares of paper the group of friends made shapes representing birds and designated the species Avi Papyrus. A die was rolled and out of the six chances whichever number came up determined whether or not the Avi chick was normal or had a deadly mutation. If the bird died a new one was "cloned" by the players. The one with the most survivors at the end of the term could declare their birds the new species.
G. I. Joe had been an odd duck since he hit campus, an art major and like a few others he had landed in Genetics 120 to get his science credits. Even in his twenties G. I. Joe experienced a receding hairline. Thin soft curls contrasted distinctively with ruddy cheeks.. Disappearing to who knows where for days even weeks, Karen and Elizabeth adopted him onto their group of friends taking notes and keeping him caught up in the class. He explained his absences by saying he was in the Army Reserves. No one ever learned his real name. The others gave him his nickname because he was a loner and they would see him jog around campus in khakis, combat boots and no T-shirt in 15-degree weather. At some point the classmates decided to include him in their game of evolution and chance during his prolonged absences.
At the end of the semester Joe surprised them all by concealing his Avi Papyrus around campus in various places where he had cleverly ‘camouflaged’ them using colored pencils to shading them to blend with their environment.
Any idea whatever became of him? asked Karen.
Elizabeth shook her head no first, then remembered,
“The summer after graduation I got a newspaper clipping from Joanne in New York where the reporter quoted him as saying that he had a wonderful girlfriend who supported him in his new ventures.”
What kind of business was it? Do you remember?
Elizabeth just shrugged with a far off look on her face. Shortly after divorcing her husband he had been arrested for taking kickbacks on military contracts and running a prostitution ring. She was relieved that she had taken the divorce lawyer’s advice and took back her maiden name because soon after that the IRS audited his whole family. It was as if she had never known the person she had married. Two years ago she had ended another serious five-year relationship when she discovered he was cheating. Thank goodness they never had any kids. She looked at Karen and said,
”Sometimes I feel like I’m on the outside looking in.“
After dinner they bought a pair of matching candles as mementos of their visit, returned to the room. Elizabeth asked for a match and Karen pulled one out of the matchbook handed it to her. They giggled as they recalled the little inside joke. Without the matchbook Elizabeth couldn’t light the match.
Exhausted from sun and sangrias they fell into bed. Elizabeth channel surfed and thought about tomorrow when Karen would return home to her family and wondered if she would meet someone new over the next few days before she flew back home. Karen drowsed while she watched the candles flicker and dance together. Like shadows they painted pictures on the wall.
The Jet Stream
The flame from the match singed his palm as he cupped his hand against the hot dry air. The blistering sun beat down on the Walking Man’s head. With a curse and small cry of pain he flung the matchbook where it landed in a puddle by the wheelbarrow. He had spent most of the morning mixing small amounts of mortar for masons as they built a wall out of slump brick.
It had been years since he smoked, “Only two.” he promised himself. The tip burned brightly has he inhaled deeply and released the smoke though his teeth. Yago the mason who had given him the smokes pointed upwards as a pelican glided overhead.
“Must have been caught up in the jet stream and blown off course.” Yago explained.
Walking Man squinted into the sky; suddenly the gritty red air buzzed and hummed mixing the oily smell of roofing tar and the cigarette smoke tinting the air with guilt. Like a song Avi Papyrus played uninvited in his head. It was a game his best friend liked to play. They spent hours together in the library making them out of paper. Eventually he struck on the idea to color them. Each one of them changed as he developed them becoming more intricate until he created one with a mutation that he knew would survive and began hiding them.
It took her three days to find the brown speckled paper bird hidden in the flowerbed by the library door. Beth loved all things avian and he came to tell her many of his deepest darkest secrets. He’d never quite had a friend like her before and he wondered
about that many times, especially during the last few years of his marriage when things got so far out of hand. After a too much wine one night Beth tapped on his window. He let her in and without a word they explored the physical side of their relationship. Stopping just short of consummation she suddenly stopped and left. They never talked about it; ever
He was deeply in love with Beth’s roommate but she would have nothing to do with him. It was as if Karen never even knew he existed so he took up with Carol, a smug sorority sister with a frozen smile and the best breasts that money could buy. Carol was a classic. Complete with big hair, big jewelry, expensive clothes with enough latitude and attitude for two normal human beings. Beth despised Carol from the moment they met, and but when she tried to warn him one day in class he shoved her away. He just wasn’t ready to hear it she supposed.
He was forever missing class but Beth was always there with her notes to catch him up. She was right about Carol and eventually there was trouble. Too much to drink one night on the rooftop, a careless match tossed in the pine needles that collected over the years and soon the science building was on fire. Both were put on academic probation and worked to pay for repairs. After that Beth started taking all her notes in Spanish, a metaphor. One of those quirky things about their friendship that left it all dredged it in doubt.
He tried to make it up to her by creating the perfect papyrus and left it by her door. It balanced with a light heft on the fingers. The long slender bill was slightly curved; each feather was delicately sketched creating a reddish brown plumage. The long neck was extended as if it was in flight. When he was gone the breeze skittered it into the little boy’s yard next door that whittled away the afternoon pretending to fly the fragile little bird across choppy seas and deep canyons and the tallest mountains. When his mom kissed and tucked him in that night she discovered it crumpled under the little boy’s pillow and threw it away. The following semester G.I. Joe returned to campus to find Beth gone. By the end of the year he had dropped out of school.
She smelled like cilantro
The foreman had advanced him some cash for lunch. Dodging traffic the Walking Man crossed the street to Rico’s. Bells tinkled as he entered the small Mexican café and she smelled like cilantro
and the sea. The Walking Man ordered two fish tacos with a side of rice and beans from Carmen who gazed at him languidly from behind the counter. Just water to drink when she asked, if he was going to stay a while he had to watch his money.
After the Walking Man finished he pulled out the second cigarette and asked the waitress Carmen for a light. She pulled a match out the book and handed it to him, laughed, then pointed to the No Smoking Sign.
“It’s a city ordinance,” she explained.
A fiercely proud, independent woman of Latino heritage, her lips were full and her eyes unreadable. Black iridescent hair settled gently on her shoulders, she looked, not directly, but through the sombras. Expecting. The Walking Man saw a river of sadness winding along with that long ribbon of laughter. Grinning he put the cigarette away asking her where she had learned that little joke.
She explained that she was born and raised in Ecuador where she followed in the family tradition of weaving hats. When she was fourteen an American missionary came to their village to teach them English. American history was her favorite she told him. It was her dream to come to the United States and she had named her only daughter Madison after the fourth American President. English though was hard, but the American teacher had given Carman a piece of paper that she still carried in her wallet. She showed it to the Walking Man and they both chuckled reading it together, “Cuando usted no lo está mirando, esta oración está en englese.”
The conversation flowed easily, he tucked the cigarette away for later and went back to work. Carmen discovered his tip with a small gasp of delight; a dollar bill folded in the shape of a crane. Later, after work, she crossed the street with some sopapillas and invited him Madison’s fifth birthday.
The Walking Man had found a room at the local YMCA and fell into bed exhausted each night. Saturday arrived and before sunrise he caught a bus for the south side barrio where Carman and Madison joined him on a ride out to the county fair grounds to watch colorful hot air balloons launch and sail across a bright blue sky. Carmen talked about how her parents took all their savings to pay a coyoté to get her across the desert and into the U. S. When money ran out she used her body to pay the rest of her passage. Many in the group that had come with her weren’t as lucky. Dreams still haunted her sleep of being jammed into station wagon with twenty others and leaving behind those that had died overnight for the Border Patrol to discover.
By the end of the day the Walking Man began to feel something famailar stir in his belly. It was right there beside that crumpled black ball laying near the pit in his stomach. For the first time in a long time he dropped off to sleep with a small smile on his face.
Monday morning INS agents showed up at Rico’s. Carmen slipped out the bathroom window and went back to her place where she packed a few things. Madison and Carmen headed for Maritas who gave her a new social security number and a new name, Sedona. By the end of the week she had them moved into a trailer and was working at her new job serving up flap jacks at the IHOP along Exit 249.
Lingering around town the Walking Man searched in vain for Carmen and Madison for another week then decided to move on. Maybe the big city wasn’t what he was looking for. Checking out of the Y he took the downtown bus and got off near the freeway. Sticking his thumb out he walked backwards up the on ramp. At first he thought the white Camry was slowing down to pick him up when it swerved missing him by inches. As a horn blasted and tires squealed from the highway Sedona looked up from busing her table in time to see the Walking Man hurdle over a guard rail out of the way.
Karen regained control of her car. Scared to death that she had hit him she pulled over only to see him get up and wave that he was all right. She breathed a small sigh of relief, but her heart was racing and her face was hot.
The Walking Man pulled his hat down to shade his eyes from the heat of the noonday sun, lit his second cigarette watched the paper glow brightly and thought to himself that secrecy was a lonely way to live and fewer people would plunge so deeply, if they could see what winged them. Looking the rear view mirror Karen noticed something familiar about the man's gait and the length of his stride. She opened the door and started towards him, too surprised to think.
From the IHOP parking lot, Sedona watched the events unfold with the preternatural calm of one who has seen too much too often.
None of them noticed the shadow of the a brown pelican trace unerringly across the pavement between them. Powerful wings beat effortless strokes through the dust laden thermals bubbling from the sun baked terrain as it instinctively made its long journey back to the breeding colony along the Pacific coastline.
backstep| play it forward:
Many thanks to GrouchyOldMan who helped tremendously connecting dots and fleshing out the story elements.
I would also like to thank Rancid_Pickle for the challenge. It's been a lot of fun and hard work to bring the series forward to current editorial standards. A real test of my creative writing skills. Something I have been wanting to work and improve upon. It's always been a personal favorite and the hope is that it will be picked it up again.