"Young man?" came a tentative voice from the hallway. "Is this seat taken?" It was a woman who looked to be in her seventies.
"No, be my guest," I motioned towards the seat across from me. People so rarely travel the rails these days I wasn't used to sharing a cabin. "Can I help you with that?" I motioned towards her bulky luggage.
"I'd really appreciate it." I put her luggage snuggly between the seats. We sat across from each other, she took out a pocket book. The train began to move, so I closed my eyes and began to meditate.
Before the woman came into my cabin it had smelled faintly of beer, now it had the musky smell of the old lady, the smell meshed perfectly with her long floral dress and platinum curly hair. The only sound was the increasing cadence of the train wheels on train tracks. Their frequency came to a plateau.
"Young man?" It was the same question from the same woman. "Are you asleep?"
"No," my eyes snapped open, "I was just..." I didn't think she would understand meditation, "resting my eyes."
"Oh. I couldn't help but notice you don't have any luggage." Did she expect a response? "Do you live in Krickwood?" Krickwood was the only stop this train made.
"Visiting friends or family?" She was determined to have a conversation.
"No, I'm drifting right now. Krickwood was the only ticket I could afford." That wasn't true, it was just in the right direction. "I plan to hitch my way west once I get there."
"Oh. Where are you headed?" She seemed concerned in the way strangers are concerned about people they've just met. They think they should do something, but they can't seem to think of what.
"I'm trying to make my way to Los Angeles, you're not headed that way, are you?"
"Oh, no. I'm afraid not. You see, I live in Krickwood." She immediately regretted telling me where she lived. "I was just visiting my niece, she just graduated high school."
"Good for her."
"Did you graduate high school?" There was that sense of concern again.
"I graduated two years ago."
"If you don't mind me asking," she paused to see if she should continue, "why didn't you go to college?"
"I just didn't want to." In an attempt to lighten the mood I said in a light tone, "I have a bad case of wanderlust."
"Ah, where have you been?" Still the feigned interest.
"I went up and down the east coast, hitching mostly."
"Any reason other than wandering?" People can't really understand wanderlust unless they have it themselves. This woman looked to be a life-long homebody. "I mean, are you looking for a job?" She emphasized the last word.
"No, I'm looking to write."
She looked me up and down, "You're a beatnik? Like that Kerouac fellow?"
I chuckled, "I guess you could say that. It's a funny coincidence, actually. I left New York city right after I graduated, my friends threw me a party they called Beat it Beatnik, it was their idea of a joke."
The old woman put her book aside. "Where did you go first?"
"I headed up into Canada."
"What's it like up there?"
I straightened my posture. "It's just like America, only colder." The woman cocked her head inquisitively. "I'm not kidding, they all speak English, but they finish everything with 'aye.'"
"Didn't you miss being in a big city?"
"No, I went to Toronto actually." She seemed confused. "Toronto, is a big city, almost three million people."
Her draw dropped. "That many people?" I nodded.
"After Toronto I came right back, they wouldn't take American money." Her face soured a bit. "That's when I started down the east coast. I made a map." From my duffel bag I took my notebook. The notebook which I vowed would contain the seeds for a masterpiece before I returned to New York. It took a minute but I found a hand drawn map of the east coast and all the places I stayed. "Here," I pointed to northern New England, and traced my finger south along a dark wavy line. "I keep in touch with my folks, so when I heard my brother had moved to Georgia, I went to visit."
"When I was there I found out about a guy in California who might publish some of my work."
"Oh how nice." She leaned over the map. "What do the numbers on the map mean?"
"I keep a journal, the numbers are related to what happened there." I turned to a page at random and read a little. "When I was in Philadelphia I met a guy named 'Sleepy' he got me a job."
"What did you do?"
"Odd jobs. Most of the major cities I stopped in I took a job for a week or so." I flipped to another page at random and read a bit. After a moment I realized it was about Augusta, I couldn't tell her what I did there. "Nothing good happened there," I said and quickly turned a few pages. In truth I had grifted almost a thousand dollars from a clergyman.
Every Monday a preacher would walk by the park bench I was sleeping on. A homeless man informed me he was carrying all the tithes from the weekend masses. "Regular as clockwork" the homeless man would say. I followed the preacher to the bank, keeping out of site. After he left I went inside and looked at the tellers, one man was about my age, his name badge said "Neil." I wrote it down in my notebook. I asked to see their phone book and looked up the phone number for the church, I wrote it down as well. I also asked for a couple pieces of stationary. The next Saturday I called the priest and said I was Neil from the bank. I told the priest that the bank would not have lobby hours on Monday, but it would be no problem if I were to pick up the regular deposit. That Monday, dressed in nice thrift shop clothes, I picked up the regular deposit disguised as Neil, I even gave him a receipt made from the bank's own stationary.
The next page of my notebook I came to was about a city between Augusta and Atlanta. "I stopped for a day in Greensboro, they have an amazing restaurant where they have more kinds of tacos than I knew existed. In Greensboro I found someone driving all the way to Atlanta, where my brother lives."
"Did anything happen in Atlanta?"
"I found out about the guy in California, my brother and I talked about why he left New York. My folks were upset he was marrying a Chinese woman, they didn't tell me that on the phone. When I got there they were already married."
"That's too bad," she caught herself, "that you missed the wedding, I mean."
"Zhi-mu, that's his wife, was elated to see me. She said I look just like George, my brother."
"I realized I never got your name."
"I'm Charley," I held my hand out.
She took my hand, "I'm Edith, everyone calls me Edy."
Edith sat back, unsure of what to say next, so I continued my story. "After Atlanta I hitched for a week solid. That was rough so I decided to catch a train, and here I am, heading for Krickwood."
"Well, I hope you get to California soon."
"I'm really not in a hurry, my brother gave me enough money to fly there if I wanted." That was a lie, all the money I had was from the preacher.
"Ah, yes. Of course."
* * *
"I think this is our stop, Charley," Edy said. Our train was pulling into Krickwood station. "Would you help me with my bags?"
"Of course." I helped her unwedge the luggage from between the seats and carry it to a trolley. I grabbed my own duffel bag.
"Good luck to you." The old woman pressed a five dollar bill into my hands and winked. "Take care."
"Thank you," I waved to her as I stepped onto the platform. There were only a few other travelers, most people didn't take trains anymore.
Krickwood was a small station named after a small town. There was a sign for a diner nearby. I debated using the five dollars from the old woman to get something to eat. What the heck, I figured, I can always get more money. In my mind, she was not donating money to me, she was paying for the story I told her.
The diner was not hard to find. It was called "Charley's," what a coincidence. Inside, the lunch rush was just starting. I sat in a booth and ordered a coffee before looking at the menu. The waitress returned with a carafe and some cream. The booth and table top were sticky feeling, I felt uncomfortable. It also bothered me how the waitress didn't wear a name tag.
"Do you have any specials?" I asked.
She pointed towards a chalkboard near the entrance.
"I'll have the pancakes."
"Three or five?" She didn't waste words, or makeup by the looks of it.
She swiped her pen across her notepad and swept towards the kitchen just as fast.
While I waited for the food, I meditated. I thought about writing down what happened on the train, but it didn't seem interesting. There had been countless times I'd told my story to strangers like Edy, and I sincerely doubted this would be the last time. Each time I heard the door open I looked up, hoping to see an over-the-road trucker, no luck yet.
When the pancakes finally arrived my coffee was already gone. "Can I get a to-go cup too?" The waitress responded with a grunt. She lost any chance of getting a tip. A minute later she returned with a foam cup and my bill, but nothing to say. I ate slowly and watched the other customers, none of them looked like a promising ride. Every time the waitress walked by my table I saw her glaring, like she wanted me to leave. She was the only other one working, aside from the cook. It must have been tough, I decided to leave a small tip despite how she was treating me.
I left more than enough money on the table. Outside the sun was beating down as though it were angry with me. Two things I always kept in a small compartment of my bag was a toothbrush and deodorant, no one like a smelly hitchhiker. I set down my coffee, and applied the deodorant liberally. With a sip of coffee I struck out heading west. The highway in front of the diner was in good repair. After a mile of walking, and no traffic, I quickened my pace because I saw a forest on the horizon. A forest would get me out of the sun. It took fifteen minutes to reach the tree line, and still no traffic.
Within minutes of entering the forest I felt relieved. The heat washed off me in waves of cool air. The trees were thickening and the road was becoming obscured by the darkness. Like a solar skunk, the middle of the road was well-lit, while the margins were in deep shadow. It would have been wise to check with a map before setting out, I had no idea where I was going. For awhile I considered turning back and returning to the diner, it would be dinnertime when I got there. Unless the locals had a strange lunch schedule to accompany their breakfast routine. Ultimately I decided to keep walking, uncertainty had been my adventure since I left New York.
My walk in the forest was a pleasant detour from the busy highways I usually kept to. The soothing sounds of the wind and birdsong mixed with the smell of forest dampness had an almost hypnotizing effect.
A patch of sunlight by the side of the road looked very inviting so I sat in the middle and from my duffel I removed my notebook again.
From summer's sweet shore
I hear the lull of the surf on sandy shores
From autumn's austere autobahn
I hear the buzz of the tires on tired treads
From fall's fateful forest
I hear the rustle of the leaves on lichen logs
From winter's white wonderland
I hear the crunch of the snow on slippery stages
The sun was overhead, only tree leaves kept my skin from direct exposure. On a fresh page I scribbled the abstract for a story much like the events which had transpired since I left the coast. I mentioned Edith, but I called her Edy. In the borders of the page I made notes of a few other poems I had written since I left Georgia. The outline was moderately satisfying. With my duffel repacked I stood back up and regained my stride.
* * *
The only sonance for miles was the call of birds and occasional clatter of small arboreal animals. Ahead there was a curve in the road, at the apex I spotted a mailbox. It followed that a house would be nearby. As I came nearer I noticed the peculiarities of the mailbox. It stood alone, with no driveway nearby, the mailbox had no label to indicate the address and the support was a living sapling which looked much too weak to support the box.
I figured there might be money in the mailbox, so I looked both ways, and crossed. The tug on the mailbox caused the sapling to buckle in my direction. It became necessary to hold the box and pry the door open. Inside the box was an envelope. The address on the envelope read:
There was no return address. It seemed like a prank, one I didn't get. Maybe I was just being paranoid. I held the envelope up to the light to check for cash inside, I couldn't tell. I checked around to see if someone was having a laugh at my confusion. With a finger I opened the envelope. I removed the contents of the envelope, there I found a white construction paper cut-out of a rabbit. It was a bit over the top Lewis-Carrollesque.
How could this be anything but a gag? I looked around again, nothing had changed, no hidden camera crew, nothing but birdsong and the dampness of the forest. There was no feeling of being threatened but I didn't want to be near this mailbox any longer. Using both hands I held the box and closed the door as I hurried off, the sapling swayed profanely with the weight of the now empty mailbox. I stowed the rabbit back in the envelope and this package I carefully wedged between two notebooks to keep it from being creased. If nothing else the rabbit might make for an interesting illustration.
I kept to the road religiously, and the road in turn kept westward with as much conviction. For a mile or more there were no twists or turns in the road. No mailboxes, no traffic, my footsteps were the only man made sound.
Behind me I caught the sound of rustling. My heart skipped a beat, something large was behind me, and moving. Dead in my tracks I turned to investigate the source of the disturbance. I saw nothing. Standing there stock still while keeping my eyes alert for the perpetrator of the forest unease. Again the sound, the sound of gentle but insistent rustling, but nothing I could see made the noise.
I stood stock still for a minute, perhaps this was part of the gag. Somewhere close a snow white rabbit might have been loosed by the pranksters. It was possible I had imagined it. Walking in the forest was probably making me paranoid, I hoped this was true.
A few feet away from where the the supposed sound came from I saw an ordinary squirrel climb down a tree. This squirrel wasn't afraid of whatever was over there. The rodent reached the ground without a noise, then pawed the ground to bury a nut, the sound of the burrowing creature matched the sound I had heard. I shamed myself for letting my paranoia get the better of me.
My imagination had fully run away with me. I sighed, turned and began to walk again, a little faster than last time. Now I was eager to be out of these woods. The position of the sun suggested it was afternoon, I had been walking for some time now. The thought of being in the woods at night held no prize. The only compensation I could imagine would be a good ghost story or two for my notebook.
Again I quickened my pace to the limit of a casual stride. Any faster and I would tire myself out quickly. I was creeping myself out.
* * *
For the second time I stopped dead in my tracks. Since entering the woods there hadn't been a sign, lamppost, driveway or pull off. The only piece interruption was the mailbox, otherwise it was the same stretch of road with the same trees on both sides, the road would turn once in awhile but that was the only alteration.
This might make a good ghost story. Briefly I considered writing all this down in my journal. The thought made me more paranoid. I needed to steady myself, first I inhaled a deep breath, closed my eyes and counted to ten while I exhaled. It helped. The process was repeated, and repeated again. Behind me I heard the telltale sounds of an approaching vehicle. I completed the last exhale and turned to see the vehicle. What I saw was a strong westward gale disturbing the upper leaves, not a car. When the wind reached me I had to catch myself to keep from being blown over.
On the wind I detected none of the forest dampness but instead the faint odor of warm city smog. There were no side roads I could have missed, the smell disappeared as quickly as the wind.
My eyes had become quite accustomed to the monotony of the trees and road, so when I saw a man fifty yards away I nearly cried out. At first I was relieved to see another person, and my eyes immediately searched for his vehicle or bicycle. He had none, there was no driveway nearby, he was simply standing in the middle of the forest fifteen or twenty feet off the road. I quickened my pace beyond a comfortable gait. He still hadn't noticed me.
When I was in ear shot I broke stride so as not to scare him. I figured it would be a bit unnerving to see a hitchhiker running through these woods. The man was near my height, maybe a bit taller and still motionless. He was dressed in simple white tunic with similar looking linen pants.
When I got close, I realized the reason he had not moved was because he was a scarecrow. Or rather a mannequin, it had a face. There were no crops to scare crows away from, nor could I discern any valuables to guard.
My eyes had been so absorbed with this white clad figure I failed to see three other similar figures nearby. This had to be someone's idea of a sick joke.
Maybe this was one of those Halloween terror trails. Little kids probably rode a hay wagon through here in the fall. Each of the figures ahead was wearing the same thing, the unisex tunic and simple white pants. The clothes were in perfect shape, not even dirty. These statues didn't have a speck of dust or dirt. These had been put here recently. Glancing down the road I saw many more figures lining the road. They seemed to be placed strategically, so it's possible they were here for a reason.
Putting these creepy effigies out of my mind as much as possible I regained my amble. I couldn't help but notice the mannequins closest to the road each had a different face, these were not simply cranked out on an assembly line, perhaps this was some artist's showcase or arena.
The wind had died completely, but the birds still sang. The dampness of the earth didn't seem as strong here, but the acrid smell of rotting wood was stronger, yet a pleasant reassurance of nature. For the next hour I walked through the midst of these queer figures, I estimated there were at least a thousand so far. There were probably many more because of the ones too far from the road to be seen. It struck me as odd to see two figures close enough to be touching, before this they had all been at least 10 feet away from their neighbor. The clothes on one moved, the wind must be picking up again. No, one had moved. A moment later what I had mistaken for a female mannequin began to move away from me, parallel to the road. She was in no hurry, simply going to the next statue. Maybe this was the artist, or the joker.
Beyond her the field of models continued quite uninterrupted. Her clothes were the same except for a red border on the neck of her tunic and muddy knees. As I grew closer I could tell she was adjusting the clothes of the models, she was very meticulous. Her attention was entirely focused on the sculpture in front of her. When I was in conversation range I stopped by dragging my feet and making quite a ruckus, at least with only birdsong for background it was loud.
She looked up slowly, she probably knew I was here the whole time but didn't wish to be bothered.
Excuse me, miss? For the first time I could see her face clearly. Uh, I was dumbstruck, her face was oval shaped, and in the midst of so many fake profiles she was uncannily and reassuringly human. Yet in a way she was more doll-like than anything else around us. The only make-up she wore was around her eyes, easily the most distinguishing feature on her face. The eyes betrayed a far eastern heritage. Calling her skin porcelain would be an overstatement, she had a very rosy glow but impeccable complexion. She looked no more than three years younger than me.
When her eyes focused on me I felt the weight of her appraisal, almost palpable in its intensity. Hello. Her voice was the delicacy of the china her complexion resembled.
All of a sudden it occurred to me that asking for directions on a road with no intersections seemed pretty foolish. Obviously the way out would be the road I was already walking. Her expression didn't change during the silence. I couldn't help but crack a smile, the perversity of the situation was too much.
The young lady's face lit up, her teeth were like her voice. Her eyes glowed and threatened to overpower her white shirt. With an incline of her head she beckoned me to follow her. Her feet were bare except for a tattoo, which I couldn't make out, above her ankle and only visible while she walked. She was heading away from the road.
Where are you going? I asked, hoping we were heading to a car on a different road. Maybe to another diner, the sun was beginning to set and I was hungry.
If all the mannequins were not facing the same direction, toward the road, I think I might have gotten lost quickly. The young lady seemed to have no trouble making her way, nor did her bare feet give her any problem despite the sticks I heard breaking under her steps. My shoes reassured me more than ever.
We were well away from the road, completely gone from sight when the field of statues stopped. The very last ones were facing the opposite direction, in fact they were facing the side of a decorative bridge in a clearing of the woods.
* * *
The girl stopped and I stood beside her, she was simply gazing at the bridge so I did the same. It was a crenulated ornamental bridge, probably one hundred feet wide and twenty feet at the crescendo of the balustrade. The wood was weathered but in good repair. The arch underneath the bridge seemed to be protecting a good deal of brush, the brush was so thick it was impossible to see beyond the bridge.
When I stood still it was possible to hear a commotion coming from the other side of the bridge, like the dissonance of many people far off. For the briefest moment I imagined the crew of a hidden camera show catching every look on my face. I disregarded the thought as more paranoia.
When the moment of expectation passed and I was simply standing dumbfounded next to this girl she took my hand and began her easy gait toward the bridge, directly under it. I gently steered her toward the edge hoping she would realize I'd rather take the extra time to walk around rather than through the thicket which clogged the passage of the bridge like a sink drain.
She paid me no mind but stopped before the thicket. Careful guiding of my hand indicated I was supposed to go ahead of her, but her look and posture suggested she was giving me permission. I stood dumbstruck. With a quick turn of her hips she scuttled into the copse, she made very little sound given the density of the branches. All of a sudden there was no more noise from her, she must be on the other side.
It seemed absurd to stand here on my own, so with as much care as I could muster I began to push through the branches. Halfway through I appreciated the grace with which this girl came through, I still could not see her, or anything on the other side for that matter. Finally, and with a few scratches on every exposed inch of skin, I made it through dragging my duffel.
The white clad girl was there of course, behind her was a door. There wasn't anything odd about the door, it was a regular color, it was supported by a door frame and had a regular looking brass handle. There was no window, but no wall either. The door was simply there.
The young lady seemed please I had finally emerged, and anxious too. What's your name? she asked. For all her silence and body language I figured I would be the one to break the silence.
Charley, I replied. Charley Wells. What's yours? The name Alice popped into my head, thanks again Lewis Carroll.
Quickly her face changed from a puzzled look, to one of mischief. She winked, opened the door and slid through all in one quick motion. It was a cute joke until I looked around the door and saw only the back of the door with its matching brass knob and wood the same color as the bridge. I touched the door, it had to be an illusion. I checked for a trap door, I saw this once in a movie. Only solid earth was below the door.
I tested the knob on the backside of the door, it was locked or stuck.
With my eyes closed I took a deep breath, exhaled while counting to ten. I felt calmer until my hand touched the brass handle, it had the feeling of having sat in the sun all day. With a twist the door opened easily. I swung it open wide and a delicate hand with skin almost like porcelain pulled me through.
* * *
I don't know what I expected to see on the other side of the door. A small part of me expected to see the forest I knew should be there, but no part of me expected to see what lay before me. Where there should have been trees I saw acres of bustling people, none of whom paid any attention to me or the girl still holding my hand.
With a tug at my hand the girl beckoned me forward. We seemed to be walking through a wide plaza crowded with throngs of people, they must have been making the noise I heard before. On my left and right were two huge buildings, mirror images of each other in shape and size but the similarities ended there. The building on my right was a warehouse covered in graffiti, on the left was a building which resembled a rectangular palace. Crowding the street between was the most eclectic bunch of people ever assembled in one area. A few people were adding to the graffiti on the warehouse, but going at it with such care they may as well have been painting the Sistine Chapel. Below them was a person drawing on the concrete with chalk, he drew with the same intensity as the painters. The colorful people occupying the middle of the plaza were talking casually amongst themselves. There were benches placed at regular intervals, most of the seats taken.
Heading towards me was a group of skate boarders, they were moving at a good clip, and agile enough they didn't touch another person, but passed very close. Any unobstructed railing or bench in their path was jumped or ground with practiced skill. A group of bikers was close behind jumping and grinding the same benches and rails with equally impressive skills. Neither group seemed to be bothering anyone. No one except for a photographer with a tripod paid them much mind, she seemed to be paying close attention to only them, occasionally bumping into fellow pedestrians.
This plaza was like amplified life. The colors were as intense as a laundry commercial. I could faintly hear music coming from the buildings on my right and left. The rectangular palace seemed to have a string quartet while the warehouse was featuring a guitar solo. I was awestruck until the girl pulled my hand leading me forward toward the crowd. My revery was broken.
We passed a bench were an old man was sitting with a large clipboard drawing the palace in extreme perspective. The artist showed the concentration of someone giving all their attention. When he looked up at his subject he caught sight of the girl and tapped her arm. My dear, how's your project coming?
We faced him, giving me a chance to look over his drawing. It's going well, she said. It should be done before fall. I was slightly annoyed that she would talked freely with this man, but hadn't spoken more than a few words with me.
You expect to complete it that soon? The man had the look of awe and disbelief on his face.
I suspected her project had something to do with the mannequins.
You know what they say, she said with pretend admonishment, art is never really finished, just abandoned.
The man gave a good natured laugh. I see you've been talking to the writers.
Now the girl laughed too, I have been, perhaps too much. This is Charley, I held shook the man's hand, I'm showing him around.
Nice to meet you Charley, my name is David. I nodded to the pleasant old man. To the girl he said, I suspect you'll be taking him to see Jolene first?
I had no clue as to what their conversation meant. The girl giggled slightly, that's where we're headed now." She faced me, "you look like you could use a haircut." I nodded sheepishly. She faced David again. "Did you know Jolene even did the hair for some of my mannequins?"
"Really? I'll have to see that," said David.
We didn't seem to be in a hurry because she sat down, however she hadn't let go of my hand so I sat down too. She and David whispered between themselves. I overheard how she had her mannequins made out of pine and the tunics were simple cotton. Each face was supposed to be someone she knew.
Further up the avenue was an area cordoned off which contained the most brightly dressed people doing the most amazing circus acts, two people were juggling flaming batons, a contortionist was bent in such a way I could not determine the sex of the performer. Each act was being carried out with the skill of someone who had practiced it his or her entire life. Watching them was a group of a dozen or so people, some were watching on with astonishment, others were watching but chatting up the person next to them.
It was not until one of the observers pointed up that I noticed a man and a woman on a high wire. They were suspended forty or fifty feet above the jugglers and the contortionist, who I could now see was a man. Of course there was no net below the high wire walkers. Unlike everyone below, the two on the high wire seemed to show no concentration whatsoever. They simply seemed to be enjoying themselves up there. Their impartiality to the inherent danger was possibly their routine, I was certainly impressed by the ease with which they carried on.
On the other side of the avenue was an outdoor stage measuring approximately 15 feet. The stage was being attended by five actors still in costume, they were installing set items and background in a coordinated but rushed manner, it looked like they would be ready withing five minutes. The set was being made to look like the room of a Renaissance castle. If their enthusiasm towards setup was any indication of their acting ability it would be a very spirited play.
I noticed my hand was being pulled away from me. The girl was slowly pulling me closer, she probably didn't even realize it. It had been happening since we sat down but my attention was elsewhere until now. I was close enough to smell the combination of scents from the woods and her lilac perfume. The signature scent of my first girlfriend was lilac. This girl was nothing like my first girlfriend, this girl was interested in art and not afraid to hold my hand in public.
I felt a bit like a creep for having such a big crush on this girl so fast but she was so enigmatic I couldn't help but like her. She was also better looking than any girl I'd ever been with.
Her conversation with David was coming to a close.
Take care Charley, he said to me, see you soon Amara. So that was her name.