Wanderer of the Wastes

A young man, a drifter, eats alone in an alley. He huddles beside an exhaust vent to warm himself, his jeans mud splashed, caked in grime. The shoppers go out of their way to avoid him, shunning away from the struggle in their midst. Steps quicken when eyes glance, the million miles on his shoulders, the scars etched on his face. He sits in darkness as one who no longer fears the night, a burn on the reel of all things normal.

“Walk on, preacher. Walk on, suit and tie. Walk on, café barista. Walk on, judge. Walk on, jury. Walk on, all I never knew. Walk on, just walk on.” He comments on the passersby.

His clothes are tattered as any man fallen from grace. Yet his silhouette, struggling to keep warm in the rain, makes the shoppers wary, as if he might morph into something dangerous. In poverty though he may dwell, he is not a husk, he is not a shell of glories forgotten. A lion perches, where they expected to see a crippled sheep.

The lion addresses everyone and no one in particular.

“I dreamed the world different than it was. Why can’t I seem to find that dream anywhere?

He answers himself. “Keep looking, keep going. El Dorado is just over the next hill. Bite through the acid, survive the nuclear winter, wander as a zombie into the golden streets.”

“Am I, perhaps, more dreaming than reality?”

Answering himself again, he says, “Remember what they say about antimatter. It collides through the universe, all the way to nonexistence. So you’ll go too, exploding against everything you touch.”

The Drifter talks mostly to his own mind. Isolation can fracture an identity. In solitude, every man is a ventriloquist, mouthing words of hope and futility. Miming both priest and debaucher, idealist and cynic, defense and prosecution. Weeping at one’s own jokes and laughing at one’s own tragedies.

“Sir, would you care to buy some artwork?”

A homeless quadriplegic wheels himself beside The Drifter. He presents several prints.

“I’m out of cash.” The Drifter unfurls a picture. “What you’ve painted is beautiful, though. Who is she?”

“It’s a picture of the kindest woman I ever met. She gave me a hug, told me I was a good man. She was crying. She said she could see me, actually see me, not just see my wounds. I loved her.”

“Was she real?” the Drifter asks.

“No, just a dream. You don’t meet kindness in this world.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

The drifter walks with the man a ways, across the business district.

Sapphire bulbs glow inside weaves of frosted tinsel. Soft electricity lights the Denver downtown. Pine boughs filter the dusk through evergreen spines. Santa’s rose cheeked smile hovers above a hundred storefronts. Peace on earth, good tidings to men, chatter from strip mall sound systems. A group of evangelists harangue another homeless man in one of the side alleys.

“We’d like to tell you about a man who suffered,” the evangelists tell the man.

“Where I’m from, that’s likely every man you see. And they probably suffered more than your man. Get out of here,” the homeless man replies.

“Joy to the world…,” the Drifter says, quietly, with a sour smile.

Footsteps echo between metro buildings, tapping as shoppers depart for home. The sky is a pink fluorescence, where city neon melts into clouds. Snow floats to earth, a tumble, a freefall, toward gasoline soaked slush. An owl’s shadow is visible briefly on the moon. Figures disperse from train station doors, sometimes into the arms of loved ones, sometimes into the dark alone. Bells waver, calling from dilapidated church towers.

The Drifter watches young mothers shepherd tiny feet through traffic. The children’s eyes haunt him. They flicker wistful through his mind. Human hopes gleam in a child’s eyes, something pure and unwounded dances. No limping monsters ripped bloody by hard luck exist in a child’s eyes. They are a universe where the goodness of god is never doubted.

“I’m not as terrible as your eyes accuse me of being,” he longs to yell.

The Drifter feels a sudden stupid need to justify his existence, before the mothers, the consumers, the Christmas pantheon. He wants to argue with the very gravity keeping him from floating into space. He wants to scream down the moon for reflecting cold sunlight. He almost begins his defense to the world jury, clears the bitterness from his throat as if to speak. Yet there is nothing to say, and surely, no one to listen. No futility is greater than attempting to be understood, no absurdity higher than conveying one life to another.

The Drifter leans his head against a steel grate, thinking. Good cheer and saccharine decor, the everglow of light, everything about Christmas inverts, becomes hollow, for a man with no one. He wonders if his sister burns a piece of sage for him, standing by the window, looking over snowy horizons. He wonders if the drums will sound on New Year ’s Eve, and someone will offer a prayer for the prodigal son, nephew, cousin, uncle. He wonders if the winds near the creek, the pines in the arbor, or the sand of a thousand dirt roads remember his name.

It could be. Or perhaps, no one remembers him. Save for the 3am winds, and the silent space, he conducts his life below.

“Climbed a thousand miles, what’s a hundred thousand more?”

The Drifter mutters to cavernous skyscrapers, mutters to no one but himself. He looks at his watch. He’s daydreamed too long. He needs to move.

Tom Swift Bird is an Oglala Lakota writer, musician, and activist. He attends Oglala Lakota College, where he majors in information technology and English/communications. He seeks to inspire creativity in others, while writing about issues facing the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He hopes to use his education to fill a need in his community.

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