I met him on the Amtrak line to Central Jersey. His name was Walker, and his surname Norris. I thought there was a certain charm to that. He was a Texas man, and he fell right into my image of what a Texas man should look like. Walker was tall, about 6’4”, with wide shoulders and blue eyes. He had semi-long hair, tied into a weak ponytail that hung down from the wide brim hat he wore on his head. As for the hat, you could tell it had seen better days, and the brim was starting to droop slightly from excessive wear. Walker had on a childish smile that he seemed to wear perpetually, as if he were entirely unmoved by the negative experiences of his own life. I have often thought back to this smile, and wondered if I would trade places with him, knowing that I could be so unaffected by my suffering. I always end up choosing despair, though, because I am a writer, and so despair to me is but a reservoir of creativity. Still, there is a certain romance to the way Walker braved the world’s slings and arrows, almost oblivious to the cruel intentions with which they were sent at him.
“I never think people are out to get me.” I remember him saying, in the thick, rich, southern drawl with which he spoke, “Some people just get confused sometimes. Ma’ momma always used to tell me, ‘There ain’t nothing wrong with trustin’ everyone, but soon as you don’t trust someone trustworthy, then you’ve got another problem on your hands.’”—He was full of little gems like that.
As it turns out, Walker had traveled all the way from his hometown in Texas, in pursuit of his runaway girlfriend, who in a fit of frenzy, had run off with his car…and his heart. The town that he lived in was a small rinky-**** miner’s village that had been abandoned for years and had recently begun to repopulate. It had no train station and no bus stop, and so when Walker’s girlfriend decided to leave with his car, he was left struggling for transportation. This did not phase Walker however, who set out to look for his runaway lover in the only place he thought she might go to—her mother’s house.
So Walker started walking, and with only a few prized possessions, he set out for the East Coast, where he knew his girlfriend’s family lived. On his back, Walker carried a canvas bag with a few clothes, some soap, water and his knife in it. In his pocket, he carried $300, or everything he had that Lisa (his girlfriend) hadn’t stolen. The first leg of Walker’s odyssey he described as “the easy part.” He set out on U.S. 87, the highway closest to his village, and started walking, looking for a ride. He walked about 40 or 50 miles south, without crossing a single car, and stopping only once to get some water. It was hot and dry, and the Texas sun beat down on Walker’s pale white skin, but he kept walking, without once complaining. After hours of trekking on U.S. 87, Walker reached the passage to Interstate 20, where he was picked up by a man in a rust-red pickup truck. The man was headed towards Dallas, and agreed o take Walker that far, an offer that Walker graciously accepted.
“We rode for **** near five and a half hours on the highway to Dallas,” Walker would later tell me. “We didn’t stop for food, or drink or nuthin’. At one point the driver had to stop for a pisscall, that is, to use the bathroom, or at least that’s why I reckon we stopped; he didn’t speak but maybe three words the whole ride. He just stopped at this roadside gas station, went in for a few minutes and then back into the car and back on the road we went again. Real funny character the driver was, big bearded fellow with a mean look on his brow, but I never would have made it to Dallas if not for him, so I guess he can’t have been all that mean, huh?”
Walker finally arrived in Dallas as the nighttime reached the peak of its darkness. The driver of the pickup truck dropped him off without a word, at a corner bus stop in the middle of the city. Walker had no place to stay, nobody to call, and worst of all, no idea where he was at all. He walked from the corner bus stop to a run-down inn on the side of the road, and got himself a room for the night for $5. The beds were hard and the sheets were *****, and the room itself had no bathroom, but it served its purpose and it kept Walker out of the streets for the night.
The next morning, Texas Walker Norris woke up to a growl. It was his stomach, and suddenly, Walker remembered that he hadn’t eaten in almost two days. He checked out of the inn he had slept in, and stepped into the streets of Dallas, wearing the same clothes as he wore the day before, and carrying the same canvas bag with the soap and the knife in it. After about an hour or so of walking around the city, Walker came up to a small ***** restaurant that served food within his price range. He ordered Chicken Fried Steak with a side of home fries, and devoured them in seconds flat. After that, Walker took a stroll around the city, so as to take in the sights before he left. Eventually, he found his way to the city bus station, where he boarded a Greyhound bus to Tallahassee. It took him 26 hours to get there, and at the end of everything he vowed to never take a bus like that again.
“See I’m from Texas, and in Texas, everything is real big and free and stuff. So I ain’t used to being cooped up in nothin’ for a stended period of time. I tell you, I came off that bus shaking, sweating, you name it. The poor woman sitting next to me thought I was gunna have a heart attack.” Walker laughed.
When Walker laughed, you understood why Texans are so proud of where they live. His was a low, rumbling bellow that built up into a thunderous, booming laugh, finally fizzling into the raspy chuckle of a man who had spent his whole life smoking, yet in perfect health. When Walker laughed, you felt something inside you shake and vibrate, both in fear and utter admiration of the giant Texan man in front of you. If men were measured by their laughs, Walker would certainly be hailed as king amongst men; but he wasn’t. No, he was just another man, a lowly man with a perpetual childish grin, despite the godliness of his bellowing laughter.
“When I finally got to Tallahassee I didn’t know what to do. I sure as hell didn’t have my wits about me, so I just stumbled all around the city like a chick without its head on. I swear, people must a thought I was a madman with the way I was walkin’, all wide-eyed and frazzled and stuff. One guy even tried to mug me, ‘till he saw I didn’t have no money on me. Well that and I got my knife out of my bag right on time.” Another laugh. “You know I knew one thing though, which was I needed to find a place to stay the night.”
So Walker found himself a little pub in Tallahassee, where he ordered one beer and a shot of tequila. To go with that, he got himself a burger, which he remembered as being one of the better burgers he’d ever had. Of course, this could have just been due to the fact that he hadn’t eaten a real meal in so long. At some point during this meal, Walker turned to the bartender, an Irish man with short red hair and muttonchops, and asked him if he knew where someone could find a place to spend the night in town.
“Well there are a few hotels in the downtown area but ah wouldn’t recommend stayin’ in them. That is unless ye got enough money to jus’ throw away like that, which ah know ye don’t because ah jus’ saw ye take yer money out to pay for the burger. That an’ the beer an’ shot. Anyway, ye could always stay in one of the cheap motels or inns in Tallahassee. That’ll only cost ye a few dollars for the night, but ye might end up with bug bites or worse. Frankly, I don’t see many an option for ye, less you wanna stay here for the night, which’ll only cost ye’, oh, about nine-dollars-whattaya-say?”
Walker was stunned by the quickness of the Irishman’s speech. He had never heard such a quick tongue in Texas, and everyone knew Texas was auction-ville. He didn’t know whether to trust the Irishman or not, but he didn’t have the energy or patience to do otherwise, and so Walker Norris paid nine dollars to spend the night in the back room of a Tallahassee pub.
As it turns out, the Irishman’s name was Jeremy O’Neill, and he had just come to America about a year and a half ago. He had left his hometown in Dublin, where he owned a bar very similar to the one he owned now, in search of a girl he had met that said she lived in Florida. As it turns out, Florida was a great deal larger than Jeremy had expected, and so he spent the better part of that first year working odd jobs and drinking his pay away. He had worked in over 25 different cities in Florida, and on well over 55 different jobs, before giving up his search and moving to Tallahassee. Jeremy wrote home to his brother, who had been manning his bar in Dublin the whole time Jeremy was away, and asked for some money to help start himself off. His brother sent him the money, and after working a while longer as a painter for a local construction company, he raised enough money to buy a small run down bar in central Tallahassee, the bar he now ran and operated. Unfortunately, the purchase had left him in terrible debt, and so Jeremy had set up a bed in the back room, where he often housed overly drunk customers for a price. This way, he could make back the money to pay for the rest of the bar.
Walker sympathized with the Irishman’s story. In Jeremy, he saw a bit of himself; the tired, broken traveler, in search of a runaway love. Jeremy’s story depressed Walker though, who was truly convinced his own would end differently. He knew, he felt, that he would find Lisa in the end.
Walker hardly slept that night, despite having paid nine dollars for a comfortable bed. Instead, he got drunk with Jeremy, as the two of them downed a bottle of whisky together, while sitting on the floor of the pub, talking. They talked about love, and life, and the existence of God. They discussed their childhoods and their respective journeys away from their homes. They laughed as they spoke of the women they loved and they cried as they listened to each other’s stories. By the time Walker had sobered up, it was already morning, and time for a brand new start. Jeremy gave Walker a free bottle of whiskey, which after serious protest, Walker put in his bag, next to his knife and the soap. In exchange, Walker tried to give Jeremy some money, but Jeremy stubbornly refused, like any Irishman would, instead telling Walker to go **** himself, and to send him a postcard when he got to New York. Walker thanked Jeremy for his hospitality, and left the bar, wishing deeply that he had slept, but not regretting a minute of the night.
Little time was spent in Tallahassee that day. As soon as Walker got out on the streets, he asked around to find out where the closest highway was. A kind old woman with a cane and bonnet told him where to go, and Walker made it out to the city limits in no time. He didn’t even stop to look around a single time.
Once at the city limits, Walker went into a small roadside gas station, where he had a microwavable burrito and a large 50-cent slushy for breakfast. He stocked up on chips and peanuts, knowing full well that this may have been his last meal that day, and set out once again, after filling up his water supply. Walker had no idea where to go from Tallahassee, but he knew that if he wanted to reach his girlfriend’s mother’s house, he had to go north. So Walker started walking north, on a road the gas station attendant called FL-61, or Thomasville Road. He walked for something like seven or eight miles, before a group of college kids driving a camper pulled up next to him. They were students at the University of Georgia and were heading back to Athens from a road trip they had taken to New Orleans. The students offered to take Walker that far, and Walker, knowing only that this took him north, agreed.
The students drove a large camper with a mini-bar built into it, which they had made themselves, and stacked with beer and water. They had been down in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras season, and were now returning, thought the party had hardly stopped for them. As they told Walker, they picked a new designated driver every day, and he was appointed the job of driving until he got bored, while all the others downed their beers in the back of the camper. Because their system relied on the driver’s patience, they had almost doubled the time they should have made on their trip, often stopping at roadside motels so that the driver could get his drink on too. These were their “pit-stops”, where they often made the decision to either eat or court some of the local girls drunkenly.
This leg of the trip Walker seemed to glaze over quickly. He didn’t talk much about the ride, the conversation, or the people, but from what I gathered, from his smile and the way his eyes wandered, I could tell it was a fun one. Basically, the college kids, of which I figure there were about five or six, got Walker drunk and drove him all the way to Athens, Georgia, where they took him to their campus and introduced him to all of their friends. The leader of the group, a tall, athletic boy with long brown hair and dimples, let him sleep in his dorm for the night, and set him up with a ride to the train station the next morning. There, Walker bought himself a ticket to Atlanta, and said his goodbyes. Apparently, the whole group of students followed him to the station, where they gave him some food and said goodbye to him. One student gave Walker his parent’s number, telling him to call them when he got to Atlanta, if he needed a place to sleep. Then, from one minute to the next, Walker was on the train and gone.
When Walker got to Atlanta, he did not call his friend’s family right away. Instead, he went to the first place he saw with food, which happened to be a small, rundown place that sold corndogs and coke for a dollar per item. Walker bought himself three corndogs and a coke, and strolled over to a nearby park, where, he sat down on a bench and ate. As Walker sat, dipping his corndogs into a paper plate covered in ketchup, an old woman took the seat directly next to him, and started writing in a paper notepad. He looked over at her, and tried to see what she was writing, but she covered up her pad and his efforts were wasted. Still, Walker kept trying, and eventually the woman got annoyed and mentioned it.
“Sir, I don’t mind if you are curious, but it is terribly, terribly rude to read over another person’s shoulder as they write.” The woman’s voice was rough and beautiful, changed by time, but bettered, like fine wine.
“I’m sorry ma’am, it’s just that I’ve been on the road for a while now, and I reckon I haven’t really read anything in, ****, probably longer than that. See I’m lookin’ to find my girlfriend up north, on account of she took my car and ran away from home and all.”
“Well that is certainly a shame, but I don’t see why that should rid you of your manners.” The woman scolded Walker.
“Yes ma’am, I’m sorry. What I meant to convey was that, I mean, I kind of just forgot I guess. I haven’t had too much time to exercise my manners and all, but I know my mother would have educated me better, so I apologize but I just wanted to read something, because I think that’s something important, you know? I’ll stop though, because I don’t want to annoy you, so sorry.”
The woman seemed amused by Walker, much as a parent finds amusement in the cuteness of another’s children. His childish, simple smile bore through her like a sword, and suddenly, her own smile softened, and she opened up to him.
“Oh, don’t be silly. All you had to do was ask, and not be so unnervingly discreet about it.” She replied, as she handed her pad over to Walker, so that he could read it. “I’m a poet, see, or rather, I like to write poetry, on my own time. It relaxes me, and makes me feel good about myself. Take a look.”
Walker took the pad from the woman’s hands. They were pale and wrinkly, but were held steady as a rock, almost as if the age displayed had not affected them at all. He opened the pad to a random page, and started reading one of the woman’s poems. I asked Walker to recite it for me, but he said he couldn’t remember it. He did, however, say that it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever read, a lyrical, flowing, ode to t
A Short Story 2008