Travelin’ Man

Dusk came, and the boy lay silently as the signals from his friend became progressively stronger. He was not yet able to see them well, as they flashed green over and over again in sets of twenty, but he waited with patient anticipation for the night to come. His friend was calling him, and had been all day.

“Walk with me,” his friend said. “Walk with me. Let’s go, go, go.”

Like every night, Adrian bided his time. He waited until the other patients were asleep before quietly opening the curtains above his head. By this time it was black outside, and the muted green light, delicate and vulnerable, illuminated the room. Adrian held his hand up to the window and watched the green light splash it.

“Walk with me,” his friend said. “Walk with me. Let’s go, go, go.”

Slowly and silently, Adrian counted. One, two, three, four, five…all the way up to 20. The green light made him feel electric, gave him power. As soft as it came through his window, it was also dynamic, urgent. It reminded him of his mother.

“You can rest when you’re dead,” she used to say, and she lived these words like a motto. She had been unsettled, roaming, always moving, hungry for something. But now, she really was dead. The doctor who had delivered the news told Adrian he was lucky not be have been taken with her. The accident had been bad.

“Some black ice,” he had said. “The two of you just hit some black ice on the highway.” Adrian had never even heard of black ice before. All he knew was that his mother was gone and the pain in his legs was excruciating. The first few weeks were the worst, as he had swum from one ocean of agony into the next. Sometimes he wondered if he had been given pain medicine at all. It was the only time he had ever been to a hospital, aside from when he was born. And for the first time in his life, it seemed, he was not moving.

For a long time after the accident, he didn’t even know where he was. He and his mother had been traveling, as always, this time on their way to Greeley, Colorado. His mother had been guaranteed work at a meatpacking plant, and they were to stay with a friend of her friend. Apparently, they had made it as far as Kansas, and that’s where Adrian was now, in a hospital right on the outskirts of Kansas City.

His mother would have hated it here more than he did, he thought. The way you can’t move, the way there’s nothing to do, the way you see the same people every day. Mostly the way you can’t leave.

He remembered that one day she had told him, “Never trust anyone with too many keys.” At the time, they were packing the car, moving again. She had jangled her key chain in front of him. There was only one key on it.

“See this?” she said. “See this, Sweetie? This means I’m free. We’re free.” Adrian remembered the short jolt of excitement that ran through his body when she had said this. She had burnt something into him. For eleven years, she had inculcated in him not only a love of freedom, but an equally passionate hatred of immobility. Like a blind torrent she gushed through life, never stopping and never slowing down.

“Don’t let anyone ever trap you,” she said once while she was driving, her eyes on the horizon. This was Adrian’s enduring image of her. Her hands clenching the steering wheel and the small, tight muscles on her upper arms showing. She was brave. She was individualistic. She made change seem like such an adventure.

“Sweetheart, how would you feel about standing on top of one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world?” she had asked him one night about a year ago.

“Okay,” he had said. The next day they were on the freeway to Chicago and another job.

But moving constantly sometimes smacked of things other than freedom, things more sinister and scary, and Adrian had come to fear the consequences of staying in one place. Because whenever they did, there were phone calls. Snarling voices on the other end. Once, he had picked up a ringing phone at the foot of the sofa his mother was sleeping on.

“I want my money, you fucking whore,” the man had said. His voice was high-pitched and darkly infantile, with a tone so strained with violence it made Adrian’s sphincter contract. Almost immediately, his mother had woken up and grabbed the phone away from him. After listening for a few brief seconds, she slammed the receiver down.

“Let’s go, Sweetie,” she said, battling to control her tremoring lips and voice. Her eyes swept the windows and the street outside.

“Where’re we going?”

“We’re going to McDonalds.”

But they didn’t stop at McDonalds. At least not at one in that particular town. Three silent hours later they saw some golden arches and pulled in.

“Here we are, Adrian!” she squeaked in an odd sort of way, “Order what you want!”

It was the first and only time he had seen her truly afraid. And it was the first and only time he had heard the word ‘whore’. He still didn’t know what it meant. But he would have followed her anywhere. She was his hero and best friend.

After the accident, when Adrian had regained consciousness, the doctor had come into his room. He stood next to the bed, a heavy man with deep furrows in his forehead and a patchy, black beard. He looked as if he would rather be somewhere else.

“Son,” he said. “I have something to tell you.” Adrian, numb and confused, could only stare at him. The doctor sat down ungracefully on a chair. A large set of keys fell out of his pocket.

“Damn,” he muttered, bending over and recovering them. When he looked up again, his face was bright red under his beard. They locked eyes.

“Son,” he said, “your mother is dead.”

Adrian, slowly and without any noticeable change in facial expression, moved his eyes away from the doctor’s and up to his forehead. The nurse touched the boy’s arm.

“We’ve visited 24 states,” was the only thing he could think to say, after a very long moment.

Over the weeks Adrian painfully came to accept that his mother was gone. He had very little memory of the crash itself. He had been sleeping in the back seat of the car when it happened. There had been the brief second that he had woken up and felt the car rising and dropping. He had felt like a droplet of water at the moment of evaporation. Then, impact and nothingness, followed by a long struggle up through pain so thick and so bad he wanted to vomit, to vomit his very existence out. In the ensuing weeks, it felt as if his legs were being crushed between two massive continents, and lucidity flickered on only occasionally between the pain and medication. He wasn’t well enough to attend her funeral, of course, but he was told that it had happened.

Adrian wondered if anybody had come. The nurse hadn’t mentioned that, and he hadn’t asked. He secretly knew the answer. He wondered who the hospital had contacted. Anyone whom they had called certainly hadn’t visited him. The nurses seemed to know this, and because of it took a particular interest in the boy. They tended to him with extra care, and always had time to give him a quick hug or squeeze on the arm. Adrian had been here for 17 weeks, and besides his mother, they were the closest thing to family he had ever known.

There was Carol, there was Beth, and there was Patricia, and between the three of them Adrian was always taken care of. But sometimes, unbeknownst to the boy, they would gather in the storeroom to talk.

“It’s just a horrible, horrible thing.”

“It’s definitely a tragedy.”

“He’s so damn young.”

“And his father…”

“Don’t get me started on that asshole!”

“God, it makes me so furious!”

“What a slimeball!”

“Yeah.”

“What a slime.”

“To think that a man like that…”

“Could be the father of such…”

“An angel.”

“He is…really. He’s a doll.”

“It breaks my heart. It really does.”

And they would walk back into his room, back into the room of the boy with shattered legs. “Crushed to a pulp,” is how the doctor had so delicately put it, and he had warned them, all three of the nurses, not to tell Adrian that he wasn’t going to walk again.

The doctor, with his abrupt manner and his claw-rake of a forehead, had come in several weeks ago to see Adrian. Since no one had come for him, he had explained, Adrian had become a “ward of the state”.

“Do you know what that is?” he had asked tiredly, when the eleven-year-old boy had looked at him without understanding. “That means that the state government is going to take care of you from now on.”

Adrian had lain there, silently, absorbing this new information. It sounded scary and his legs hurt terribly. After the doctor had left, Carol leaned over him and stroked his hair.

“Don’t you worry, Sugar, we’re gonna fix you right up. You just try to make yourself as comfortable as you can in the meantime. You can stay here as long as you like, okay?”

“Thank you, Carol,” the boy had replied, with genuine appreciation if completely different intentions.

Adrian was not yet sleepy. By now the darkness outside was complete, and he was receiving the signals from his friend even more distinctly. He counted them, 20 to a set each time. They seemed to give a soft green life to the room, to turn a setting that seemed so sterile by day into someplace magical. He imagined in the rhythmic green light that his room was the inside of a living, breathing organism, a healing place.

Adrian loved his friend. As the silent green pulses flickered on the walls and ceiling, washing over his skin, Adrian breathed deeply and was able to forget the pain in his legs for a while. Night was a time he had come to savor in his long, monotonous stay at the hospital. Head cocked toward the window above and slightly to the left of him, he allowed the light to glitter the whites of his eyes, transforming them into soft green lightning bugs, fat and hopeful of the unfolding spring. He counted, slowly: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.

And at twenty, he closed his eyes. He didn’t care much for the intervals between the sets of green. He didn’t care much for the other man’s signals.

They depressed him, told him he couldn’t do it, that he’d be stuck here forever. And so he kept his eyes closed as he counted again: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.

At twenty, he opened his eyes and the green flashes had begun again. He was happy. Time passed this way. Eyes open for a twenty count, eyes closed for a twenty count. Eyes open for a twenty count, eyes closed for a twenty count.

Thanks to this cycle, which he had devised almost as soon as he was transferred to this room, Adrian had gotten through the first 119 days of his stay at the hospital. He was so happy he had been moved here, to the second floor next to the window, where his friend was able to communicate with him so easily. He couldn’t imagine what it would have been like not to have met his friend.

His friend was wonderful. His friend told him all the right things. Every night his friend told him that it was just a little bit longer, just a little bit longer until he could get out of here, ‘til he could get a move on. His friend reminded him quite a bit of his mother, actually. His friend was always moving, always pressing on.

The other man tried to communicate a different message. He told him to stay where he was, that it was good to wait it out – for eternity, maybe. The other man was rigid as death and stood in front of a wall of fire and tried to beam his presence into Adrian’s room, too. It was all Adrian could do to squinch his eyes shut and block him out. He was a liar. He said Adrian was never going to get well enough to leave and see the world.

That’s what Adrian’s mother wanted him to do. She always said so.

“You’re my little travelin’ man,” she would tell him. She herself had been traveling from the beginning. Her mother had carried her in her womb across the border, from Ciudad Juarez to a new life in El Paso, Texas. Her mother was tough, opportunistic, and good.

“You’re American now,” she had told her baby girl. “You can do anything you want. You can make a life for yourself.”

Adrian’s mother had almost grown up when she became pregnant with him. She was forced to temporarily defer her mother’s aspirations for her as she tried to cobble together a relationship with this man she was suddenly tethered too. He was not a nice man. He was not a good man. Adrian remembered very little of him. He remembered general feelings of dissonance and anger, mostly. He thought he remembered him shouting at her, telling her she was just a stupid Mexican and that she couldn’t make it by herself, but that might just have been a memory reconstructed from his mother’s bitter reminiscence.

She had bundled Adrian up when he was three and away they went, the beginning of eight years of migration – up and down and east and west all over the United States, by car and by bus, in and out of schools so often that he could only remember the name of the last one he had attended, sleeping on the couches of strangers and distant relatives and in motels and, even occasionally, under blankets outside. He never had any real friends, and all the faces in his life blurred into one another like raindrops into a puddle.

But despite the itinerant lifestyle, he could remember very few times when he had felt unhappy. His mother, freed from the unwanted grip of his father, was an exuberant person. She was larger than life. She was a dark brown beauty with the swagger of a conquistador that belied a deep wisdom. Adrian had always admired the brownness of his mother’s skin. His was a shade lighter, his father being Caucasian.

“That’s what’s wrong with America,” she used to say. “People come here and then their grandchildren get complacent. Then their grandchildren’s children get even more lazy! Who do you think built this country? It was the immigrants. Then they spout off a couple generations of kids and it all just starts getting leached away. You know, the people who’ve been here longest – the rest of us are just supporting them. Take us away and the whole damn system collapses. Look at your father, Adrian. He doesn’t even know when his family came to this country. Look at him. He’s a loser, Adrian. Don’t ever be a loser, Adrian. Don’t ever be a man who sits in front of a TV all day and can’t even take responsibility for his own actions.”

Adrian heard this speech many times from her. He knew she had her problems, too, that people wanted money from her that she couldn’t pay, that she cried sometimes at night, that she had nothing but her pride and a sort of mindless drive or hope – but watching her face as she talked to him this way made him feel strong. He knew that he was her hope, that he would make her proud, that everything would be all right as long as they believed in each other.

“Whoever heard of anybody in this country getting anything done sitting on their butts,” she would continue. “This country belongs to those who move. If you get lazy, you become like him. A nobody. He screwed up, Adrian. You don’t have to. Don’t ever stop moving, my baby. Move up, move around, move outward, move forward – just move.”

All these words came back to Adrian as he squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out the rigid man’s signals. And when he opened his eyes, his friend was at it again, calling him.

“Walk with me. Walk with me. Let’s go, go, go.”

Adrian smiled. It was late. He was getting very sleepy. He knew that it was time to say goodnight to his friend. So he shut his eyes one more time, pressed the button that raised the back of his bed, and waited a twenty-count until it was safe again.

When he opened his eyes, he was looking out the window into the nearly dark street below. There his friend was, right where he was every night. Adrian’s heart surged as his eyes traveled across the pedestrian crossing and up a post to the electric sign on the other side of the street. His friend, surrounded by the green around him, blinked benignly up at the boy.

His friend was determined. He was purposeful. He was always walking. He was always moving. He was always moving toward something good.

“Walk with me,” he said. “Walk with me. Let’s go, go, go.”

“Just a few more days,” promised Adrian with a somnolent smile. “Just a few more days,” he repeated drowsily, closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep.