"Do you know what it feels like to be free, I mean really free?" The white hared man asked Jamie as they stood looking out over the frozen great lake. Waves trapped in crystalline motion slapped silently, motionlessly against the dock. She pulled up what was left of her tattered wool winter jacket, thin armor against the bone chilling cold. It had been a long time since she was warm, in any true way. Nestled in the straw at the bottom of a box car she had not been cold but not really warm either. To escape the chill she let her mind wander over the old mans question. Free, was she free now? Had she ever been free? At sixteen she had left that place her father called home, but two years on the road hadn't seemed to set her free of him. She heard his and the chorus of her peoples voices echoing in her head every time she took action, always the same chorus of disapproval. Through the long pause, as she felt around the word "free", the old man watched her with his foggy cataracted eyes, watched and waited.
"No," she finally said "I don't reckon I do know what it feels like."
"That my dear, is because it feels like nothing at all." He said, a sly sparkle flashing in his eyes. "Do you imagine the fish notice the water around them?"
"They do if they get caught in the damn ice."
"Exactly." he said with that warm smile that made her feel like a smart student. "It is in fact the bars or more to the point, what's beyond the bars by which the prisoner defines freedom. Help me to a warm place to lie down and I'll tell you a story, one I know you'll understand."
Maybe it was the way he had walked out onto the rotting wood dock, holding the rail and stumbling blindly along that made her feel sorry and protective of him. Or maybe it was a less valorous motive, loneliness. Taking his arm she guided him through the cold empty streets, up to an abandoned building she was calling home this week.
A high brick wall and the decaying building behind protected the courtyard from the chill winds. It was here that she built a fire from scavenged lumber, piling on more than usual. Small fires attracted less notice and discovery always meant moving on. But tonight she wanted to be warm, she wanted her aging guest to be warm. As the wood caught, flames leapt up, and warm air surrounded them. Fire light licked at the crumbling brick building exposing the now dormant ivy that hung on waiting for spring. Looking up she saw their shadows, tall as protective giants looming over them. It made her feel less insignificant, like maybe she did exist. So often in the streets people refused to even meet her eyes, as if she were a ghost. She used her invisibility to her advantage, like this morning when she had stolen the can of minestrone soup out of the back of a market. The box boy having his smoke in the back alley had averted his eyes, noticing her might imply having to take some action about her ragged condition.
As the old man gobbled down the soup, letting bits spill into his white beard, she wondered when he had last eaten. On the road she had met many drunks who forwent food in search of the numbing bliss of drink. She felt no pity or compassion for them. The only difference between them and the drunken ragings of her father were mere economics. But this man, what had he done to deserve so harsh a punishment?
The old man leaned back. Dropping the empty can to blacken in the roaring fire, he closed his eyes. Jamie watched him for a long time, had he fallen asleep? If he had, she hoped for him peaceful dreams, not the night terrors that so often plagued her.
"Once upon a time in the distant mythical land of Los Angles there lived a boy." He said, his eyes still closed he spoke with the rich rumble of a contented man. "This boy had so many things he wanted to be, silly things they told him. He was poor, his people were poor and their were things he could never do. You see he spent to much time in the public library, he read too much, and in his reading he had found a world that waited for him. A world where mothers didn't do other people's laundry and fathers didn't work two jobs so that on Sunday they were too tired to do anything but yell for peace. He, this boy, saw the world as a stage and he wanted to be a player, not one of the concealed stage hands but a leading man. At sixteen, a boy of man, he joined the army. The lie of age was simple, they needed bodies to fill the caskets they would send home from Korea and so they asked few questions. War was cold and hard and not for the most part very adventurous. The man-boy had the sad wisdom to see that here he was no leading man, he was the stage hand of a drama written and staring generals and politicians. He tried to share this insight with his fellow soldiers but with rock hard icy trenches to dig and death waiting over the next hill they didn't want to hear him. At last peace was signed, a victor assigned and the man boy was sent home. Still searching he took a job on a tramp steamer. He worked long hours turning bolts and greasing gears to ward off the inevitable demise of the ship that should have been retired years before. And as he worked he would see the captain or the first mate walking down from the bridge and he would feel a burning in his heart. They were after all, the leading men in this ships drama. And he was...?" The old man sat up looking at Jamie through his blurry eyes.
"Invisible." Jamie said, the sadness of the word filling her. The fire had died down some, so she threw several more boards on it, hoping to bring back the tall shadows to prove she was real.
"I knew you of all people would understand." He said, sharing with her that paternal smile that made her feel proud. A comfortable silence grew between them. Jamie pulled a stick from the fire. Stirring the coals she watched the sparkling embers float into the sky. Above them the clouds had gone leaving a glittering carpet of stars. When she at last looked down she found the old man staring into the fire, lost in his own thoughts.
"What happened to him, I mean... you know..." She asked, not being polite, she really wanted to know. It was as if she had found a man who had walked her path and might have some map to guide her.
"The boy man? He grew old." He said with out any pain, it was just a fact. "He saw the world, but kept his eyes glued closed by the sad feeling that he was doomed to be a stage hand to others dramas. And then one glorious day his sight failed, not in a metaphoric way, time had caused the real flesh of his eyes to fail. He could no longer read the books he so loved. He could no longer see all the leading men and women who played in dramas around him. He was in fact forced to look within. And do you know what he saw?"
"Loneliness?" She answered without even thinking.
"No, oh no my dear not that, he had felt that his whole life. Like our fish, he wouldn't have even noticed it... What did he see?" He was pressing her, and she felt no longer like the bright student. He had tricked her with his kindness and now she felt stupid again.
"How the hell should I know what he saw, he was blind right?" She snapped at him, sorry now she'd let him eat most of her soup.
"Close your eyes, and tell me what you see."
She did as he said, instantly feeling silly for listening to this crazy old man she quickly opened here eyes again. "Nothing, ok? nothing."
"Close them again, only this time keep them shut... Please no one but me will see and I'm near blind... Go on."
For reasons she didn't quite understand she wanted to please him, to make him proud, to win his smile. So she slowly closed her eyes. For a long time they sat in silence, he glassily staring into the flicker flames and her with her eyes firmly clenched. At first all she could see was the dancing light on the veins of her lids but then her mind started to drift. She could see the farm she grew up on, that old red dog she had loved so... Clean laundry floated on a line as she handed a shirt up to her mother. Her mother had died so long ago. Jamie could see her young self her head resting on her mothers dying lap. Drifting across time Jamie could see pieces of a life, a life she had lived. Opening her eyes she smiled at the old man.
"He saw himself." She said, in whisper.
"Yes, my bright shining child, he did indeed see himself. And in that marvelous moment he knew he had been the leading man in the tale of his life." The old man let out a low chuckle that rumbled and built into a full blown laugh. His eyes sparkled and danced, it was infectious, Jamie found herself laughing for the first time in many years. In that laughter she felt an empty place filling, she felt alive.
In the gray early morning light she awoke to see the fire was now mere ashes. A memory of the heat it had given two found souls. Moving to wake the old man she felt her hand on his cold face and knew he was dead. Kneeling beside his empty form she wondered why she felt no grief. He had found what so many had not and now his time was done. She kissed his waxy cheek, brushing the hair up off his forehead. Taking a charred stick from the fire she moved to the brick wall and with the charcoal end she scrawled in tall letters "Jamie Starr was here".
back to the Short Story Page.Invisible Ghosts, 19 April 1997