when he did, it was usually just before nightfall, when his restlessness would not let him wait for the darkness, or just after dawn, if his footsteps had taken him farther afield than usual.
but mostly he walked at night.
and death was everywhere with him, in front of him, at his back, at his fingertips.
most commonly in the speeding cars and trucks which filled the roads at all hours.
whizz. whizz. whizz. speeding by.
and only a step, it would only take a step - a matter of an instant - to step in front of one and be obliterated.
and there were the bridges and overpasses and elevated tracks everywhere - some not so high as to ensure death if he jumped from them - but many that surely were.
and even surer than the cars and bridges - the subways with their screaming black juggernauts that nothing could hope to survive.
and that could be stood inches away from!
compared to these, hardly worth mentioning were the dark streets filled with dark desperate people - men but also women - “armed to the teeth” with guns and knives - suspicious, hostile - so easily insulted and provoked if one cared to do so.
but these - presented as so terrifying in the newspapers and films and television shows - were as nothing compared to the roaring death all around one in the streets and bridges and subways.
and how strange - that the millions of people he walked through hardly seemed to notice.
were they really unaware that death was all around them - a step away, a split second of an impulse away?
and so he walked with death, night after night.
he usually timed his walks so that he returned to his room just before dawn.
he would stop at the little convenience store beside his apartment building for his daily sustenance.
he would buy a can of diet pepsi, or yoo-hoo chocolate drink.
he liked the little plastic wrapped sandwiches which had been delivered from exotic locations.
a ham and cheese sandwich from akron ohio, or an egg salad sandwich from fort worth texas.
he knew he should buy an apple or a banana for health treasons, but rarely did.
he would take his humble purchases and enter the apartment building and get into the old whining elevator up to his solitary lair.
night fell over the stadium, and the football field.
the reporters had finally gone home.
the last tv truck disappeared down the road back to the city.
only one light was left burning - the light in coach’s office.
tommy walked down the dark corridor.
he pushed open the door to coach’s office.
“you wanted to see me, coach?”
coach was seated behind his desk. there was nothing on the desk, not even his phone.
all his banks of video monitors had been turned off and were dark - something tommy had never seen before.
“yes, i wanted to see you, tommy, but not for very long.”
tommy looked around for a chair - there weren’t any.
“you thought you could play me for a chump, didn’t you, tommy? didn’t you know who you were dealing with?”
so that was the way of it. “so - uh, you’re not backing me up on this - this little unpleasantness?”
coach folded his hands in his lap and leaned back in his chair. he stared at tommy.
“you know, tommy, you never had me fooled, not for one minute. i always knew you for what you are - a cheap two-bit grifter. a tinhorn pretty boy playing the long con. looking for any angle, as long as it isn’t straight. it’s just the old army game, isn’t it, tommy? business as usual. lining up the hayseeds from here to oneonta and shavin’ em dry. “
“gee coach, that’s kind of harsh. i thought we had some good times together.”
“no, i had some good times, and you were just along for the ride. as long as you had enough brains to keep your nose clean. which of course you didn’t.” coach shook his head. “you think i can’t find a million guys like you falling off hay wagons all over the world from here to china? and that i can’t make them just like i made you?”
“if that’s the way you feel - “
“it’s not the way i feel, it’s the way i know. the roads and the jails are filled with guys like you - guys who think the whole world is a little old lady with a pie on her windowsill -
who’d rather bum or con a nickel than earn an honest dime. you know what the problem with the world is?”
”no, tell me.”
“there are too many guys like you in it. and it’s up to guys like me to use you up and throw you away.”
“come on coach, it was my first offense. give me a break.”
“first offense! yes, first offense since the last one. what next, are you going to show me a picture of your mother? take that strawberry sherbet out to where they unload the turnip trucks and find someone who just fell off one. or go down to the docks and find a banana boat with a fresh coat of paint. now get out of my sight.”
coach opened a drawer in his desk and took a notepad and a pencil out of it and put his head down and started writing.
“goodbye, tommy. the door will close itself behind you when you leave.”
tommy turned and left. the corridor was just as dark walking back down it as when he came in.
outside, he crossed the neatly trimmed lawn in front of the complex and headed out on to the deserted highway.
he started walking. again.
under the same dark skies he had walked beneath for thousands of years, with the same mocking moon and silent stars.
yes, you thought you had it made this time, didn’t you, tommy?
you should have known better.
how many times have you thought you had the brass ring, not just in your hand but in your pocket?
and then the patrol car comes up behind you, or the khan’s men on their horses, or uncle bud russell with his dogs , or the federal men in their helicopters…
yes, you’ve seen and done everything - almost everything - in those thousands of lifetimes, haven’t you, tommy? been a slave and a thief and a gladiator - built pyramids in gondwanaland and egypt - fought in arenas in atlantis and rome - burned towns and villages with attila and the black prince and quantrill - played hoops with moctezuma and bowls with sir francis drake and rugby with the duke of wellington and poker with wyatt earp and cloud of dust football with teddy roosevelt -
and played every con in the book and added a few to the book yourself - leaving a trail of empty-pocketed yokels and widows and orphans that would stretch end to end from the earth to the andromeda galaxy…
and when times are quiet and there is no war on, you have been a preacher and a prophet and a holy man…
always on the move… past the farmers with their backs bent under the sun in the fields with their cows and sheep …
past the solid citizens in their tailor shops and blacksmith shops and drugstores and insurance offices…
what did that professor in heidelberg call you? the eternal mercenary… yes, and the eternal cannon fodder - and the eternal con man - always ready to be rounded up for the next chain gang to build the next road… the endless road…
there is only one thing you’ve never done and never will do.
an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
and you’ve been so close, so close so many times to the big score or at least the snug berth…
with the farmer’s daughters, or the burgomeister’s wife, or the servant girl at the back gate of the palace, or the widow you take your sweet time robbing…
but then the war is over, or the husband comes home, or the game gets broken up, or the sheriff knocks on the motel door at 4 in the morning…
or they take you out and hang you or shoot you at dawn…
sometimes by yourself, sometimes in a crew… sometimes to a cheering crowd, more often not…
forever… with your millions of brothers … on the same road… under the same dark sky… atlantis… babylon… samarkand… port royal… casper wyoming 1873…