The Old One Walks On …

by Richard Freeland

The opium of the millennial generation—God is it sweet. I simply sit down, and days and months and years slip by, and the seductive glow of a blue screen coerces me into forgetting I’m alive. Years of addiction to false reality, an addiction to the whirs and clicks of a machinated world, planted a seed of bitter expatriatism. I got clean a while ago. Often I shove open my oaken house door and push through the iron bars of my gate and venture into nighttime. Night is freedom from this world. The world sleeps, the people sleep, and the machines, hopefully, sleep. Night provides the ultimate escape.

Striding through the dark I pass the same old man, again and again. He always finds me, or perhaps I always find him. I sail down ebony, river-like streets and the old man sails past me, always in the opposite direction. Two ships in the night.

The old one loves the dark, too. A vigor, an indispensable energy fuels his confident march, as if patrolling the night is his duty. He moves methodically, all patterns and purpose. Like a faithful sentinel, he finds me every time I stalk the streets. At the park and down the hill and before my home, and doubtless in a circuit of the entire neighborhood, the old one journeys onward.

His ritual, however, is incomplete without “the toast.” As the old one walks, he raises his arm. He grasps in his hand and holds high above his head a plastic chalice, a water bottle, an offering to spectating stars. The old one repeats this motion every several seconds.

“Sir,” I called out one occasion, voice ringing richly with firm genteel grace, the language of his generation. “Excuse me sir, why do you do that?” Silence. He walked on.

He spoke to me only once. Strolling through the park and shaking off homework-induced anxiety, I glimpsed the old one standing on the sidewalk under a street light far away. As I did, something stumbled out of the bushes to my right.

“Hello?” I said, outwardly confident but inwardly uncertain. Drunken mutterings answered me. My mind struggled to categorize the stranger ahead. A drifter? A dealer? A creature not to be reckoned with, I reasoned, and eyes fixed forward I continued to move. I could almost feel his presence, a few feet to my right, as I came parallel with where he stood—rooted in narcotic reverie. Grotesque. Angry. I strode past hurriedly, ears alert for the sounds of pursuit, half-certain an iron hook would slip into my back, pass through my kidney and poke out of my sweater.

Maybe I will look down and see an iron hook protruding from my navel, and maybe he’ll yank backwards and pull out my entrails urgently and carefully …

Looking ahead I sighted the old man, still standing under the street lamp, a familiar and reassuring sight. My feet carried me quickly to him. “Should I speak to him?” I thought. Standing next to the man in the light relieved my fear, but after arriving I didn’t know what to do next. He’d never been much of a talker.

“Hello,” I spoke, inwardly daring him to reply. The man nodded and stared into the distance. Curious, I renewed my efforts.

“Hey,” I said. “Did you see the person? The one in the bushes?”

“Hm?” the man replied. I repeated my question with greater vigor.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I’m hard of hearing. What’s that?”

“Did you see the person in the bushes?”

“Huh? Oh, yes. Yes, I saw them. I uh, I wouldn’t worry about that person though … You know I walk around here every night. I see people like them all the time. Maybe they’re angry at their parents, or they don’t have a home, or they got into a fight with their boyfriend, or their girlfriend … But they don’t mean any harm. They just want to be alone.”

As he spoke I examined the man closely for the first time. He looked like any other person. He spoke with deliberate reflectiveness. Google, polite but clearly embarrassed at my confusion, later explained “the toast” to be an exercise trend to raise one’s heart rate. In about two hundred seconds all the mystery faded from this enigmatic man I’d wondered about for years.

Then it all came rushing back.

“Don’t you ever want to be alone sometimes?” the man said, looking me right in the eyes, as if he knew I sought solitude out there in the darkness when the urge to escape threatened to overwhelm me. As if he sought the same thing, and so did the spectre from the bushes. They, however, belonged here out in the abyssal reality. I had a home. Our brief and chilling exchange concluded, and I spirited myself back into home’s embrace. The old one walks on.