The letter was longer than he had intended and Jim’s penmanship had suffered towards the end, but now that it was complete he was satisfied that it said everything he wanted to say. He put the cap back on the pen, laid it across the bottom of the paper and left them together in the middle of the kitchen table. He made one last pass through the house to ensure that all the lights were out and that everything that could possibly cause a problem had been unplugged, picked up a small overnight bag off his neatly made bed and headed out to the drive to where his new Oldsmobile sat waiting.
It was a pretty car, a brilliant red Toronado Trofeo, a long and low coupe with a matching red leather interior. He marveled at its shape and the sleekness of its lines as he approached. From its concealed headlights to its rounded rear end, it was a good car he thought, a real homage to the cars that had come before it. Jim had wanted a Toronado when they had first appeared in his dealer’s show room back in the 60s, but with a house payment, a wife and three little kids to support, a luxury coupe was not something he could afford no matter how they might stretch the budget. It didn’t matter, he had decided, and frugality had paid off in the long run. He relished the moment and ran his hand affectionately across the leading edge of the hood as he rounded the front of the car to the driver’s door.
The aroma of fresh leather filled his nose as he opened the door and he flipped the driver’s seat forward to toss his bag onto the floor where it fell with a heavy thump behind the front seat. He pushed the seatback back into position and slipped down into the comfort of his deeply cushioned place behind the wheel. He inserted the key gingerly, feeling as the freshly cut metal scraped across the unworn tumblers, and then turned it to bring the V6 engine under the hood to instant life. He paused a moment to marvel yet again at the digital dashboard, the future really was here, then slipped the car into reverse and backed slowly out into the street. He did not look back as he drove away.
It was early and the traffic was still light as he made his way out of the dense suburbs towards the interstate. Here and there people were just beginning to stir, older folks mostly, like himself he thought as he caught sight of his own reflection in the window glass. The car was flawless around town, sliding silently through the morning mists and gliding effortlessly across the various ripples and rough spots it encountered in the pavement. Close to the highway he found a McDonald’s and his stomach told him that it was probably a good idea to get something to eat before hitting the interstate. Not wishing to sully the interior of the grand car with grease and crumbs, he pulled into the parking lot and went inside to eat.
To Jim’s surprise, the woman behind the counter was as old as he was but took his order with a happy efficiency that belied her years. He wondered why she was there, had it been poor financial planning or something else he couldn’t imagine? He didn’t ask, but ordered a small coffee and an egg McMuffin instead. His order arrived quickly and Jim thanked the woman before moving to an empty booth close to a window where he could enjoy the morning sunlight and admire the Oldsmobile while ate his meal.
There had been a time when even a trip to a fast food restaurant had been a luxury and, although he and his wife might have chosen another restaurant, due to the kids’ constant cajoling McDonald’s had become the de facto choice. The trips were necessarily infrequent but over time he had gained some appreciation for at least some of the items they served. He enjoyed his McMuffin slowly, noting the texture of the English muffin, the salty bite of the ham, the creaminess of the American cheese and succulence of the egg. The flavors and textures intermingled with every bite and he held his chewed food there in his mouth, savoring each bite for just an extra moment before swallowing it. It was an old habit, something he had learned to do as a child when times were harder and food was sometimes scarce. His mind wandered as he ate.
Lost in thought, Jim didn’t notice when a young man in a long dirty coat and carrying a backpack entered the restaurant and made his way to the counter. He was tall and thin, pale skinned with short cropped black hair. The boy ordered a meager meal and took a seat at a small table across the aisle from Jim and his presence snapped Jim back into the present. The two men’s eyes met for a briefest of seconds but there was a flash of recognition between them. It passed in an instant and the young man gave Jim a thin, close-lipped smile before he turned his attention to his meal.
Jim looked at the boy a moment longer and then turned back to the window as he popped the lid off of his coffee and took a tentative sip before deciding the beverage was still too hot to enjoy. He knew this boy, he realized, had met him at some point in the past but just exactly where escaped him. It bothered Jim. He was getting older, he knew, but his mind was clear and sharp even as other parts of his body became weaker. He sneaked a glance back at the boy who sat eagerly devouring a breakfast sandwich and willed himself to remember. He waited for it to come, concentrating hard as he looked at the young man’s chiseled features. The memory was close, tickling the very surface of his consciousness. It would come in a moment, he knew.
“I’m sorry, I must be a mess.” said the boy, “I’m probably eating like an animal. I haven’t had much food recently.”
Jim’s concentration broke and the memory slipped away just before it could boil to the surface. He realized he had been staring. “No,” said Jim perhaps a little too loudly, “I was thinking that I knew you. That maybe we had met before.” He blushed, ashamed he had made the boy feel uncomfortable.
“I’m really not from these parts,” answered the boy, “I’m just passing through.” He took a last bite of his sandwich, rubbed his finger in some of the left over oil and salt that clung to the empty wrapper and put his hand to his mouth.
“You look like you’ve been on the road a while,” said Jim, “Is that all you’re going to have to eat?”
The boy smiled. “Yeah,” he answered, “Sometimes it seems like I’ve been wandering around forever.” He looked at the wrapper and then crumpled it in his hand, a gesture Jim found oddly discomforting. “That’s all I’ve got the money for.” he said simply and moved to get up.
“I’ve been there” said Jim, “I rode in boxcars across the country as a kid back during World War II. I rode up North to Detroit to get a job in a factory.” He fished out his wallet and offered the boy a five dollar bill, “Tell you what, you go up and buy some more to eat and then come back and have a seat. I’m sure you look like someone I know, maybe you’re a son or a grandson of some old friend. Let’s talk it out.”
The boy hesitated but hunger prevailed, “Thanks.” He said carefully plucking the proffered bill from Jim’s fingers.
Jim watched as the boy went to the counter to order food, noting the way he carried himself, tall and straight. He knew this boy. The thought came with real certainty this time. This boy, not some father or uncle. But from where? It was odd.
The train let out a long low whistle and the line of box cars abruptly jerked forward in rapid succession. Jim was fifteen years old and had been on the road for almost three weeks. It had taken time to work his way down out of the hills to where the main railway line cut across the countryside and then another two or three days to figure out that it was pretty much impossible to jump aboard a speeding train on a level grade. He had met other young men along the tracks, of course, some of whom had been on the road longer and already knew the ropes. They taught him the tricks and helped him to navigate the often brutal world of the hobo camps that sprung up along the rails wherever steep grades and rail yards caused trains to slow enough to allow a man to jump aboard.
Harvey was a good kid. Jim had taken to him right away and, because he was only a couple years older than Jim, the two had quickly formed a strong friendship. They were both farm kids, running from a childhood filled with poverty, hunger and toil. They were headed North where they had heard that war production needed bodies and where the factories paid a man’s wage for a full day’s worth of work. Work they knew, they had been doing it from the time they were big enough to walk, and so they determined to head into the industrial heartland in search of their fortunes. Whatever they found, they knew it had to better than where they came from.
The train had been easy to board. Stopped on a siding and run by engineers and conductors who, unlike some of the hard asses who proudly kicked riders off their trains, had no concern whether or not a few stray men tagged along for the ride. Jim and Harvey had slipped into the empty boxcar before daylight and napped in a corner until the sun came up. As the first light of dawn painted the Eastern sky red, Harvey stirred and went to the open door to take a long morning leak. As he stood there mid stream, the whistle blew and the train jerked suddenly forward, throwing the boy off balance. Harvey yelped in surprise, grabbed at the air for a moment and then, unable to find anything to hold onto, toppled out the door.
Jim, startled awake by the train’s sudden motion and Harvey’s shout, leaped up in an instant. He didn’t know how they had become separated, but he knew from his friend’s voice that he was in trouble. Without thinking, he bolted to the opening and jumped out into space. The train wasn’t moving fast, but he hit the ground hard, his momentum causing him to roll outward and away from the steel wheels of the boxcars as they churned continuously by. Harvey, however, had no such luck. He had fallen onto the tracks and now lay some thirty yards back, his legs severed by the wheels of the train. He sat there, staring in disbelief at the bloody stumps where his legs had been. The gravel around him soaked in his life and Jim noticed that the odd clumps of grass that grew up beside the rails were painted an especially beautiful, brilliant shade of crimson.
Jim ran to him, and cradled Harvey’s head in his lap as the boy began to wail. What could he do? He thought of a tourniquet and pulled his belt off but the blood was pumping out too fast. The leather became sickly slippery and there was nothing he could do to stem the flow. Another man appeared close by, his unexpected presence startling Harvey who assumed that he had also leaped from the train to help. There was no time for a close look, but the man was young, thin with dark hair. He seemed to know what he was doing and Jim watched as he put his hand upon Harvey’s chest; the boy’s shrill screams stopped. Jim looked at the man now, full in the face and noted his dark, deep eyes. Eyes filled with sadness and loss. The man gave Jim a thin smile and looked down at the dying boy.
Jim’s eyes followed the man’s gaze and his friend’s face filled his vision. The pain in Harvey’s face was gone and for the barest of moments, lucidity returned. “Sorry Jim,” he said weakly, “You’ll have to go on without me.” He took a short breath and turned to the man. “I want to go home, now.” he said simply. The man gave a small nod and closed his hand into a fist. In that instant, Harvey was gone.
The last few cars of the train rolled by and Jim was left alone with Harvey’s shattered body. How long he stayed there holding his friend in his lap he didn’t know, but eventually he knew he must get help. They buried Harvey later that day in a hobo cemetery in the forest alongside the graves of other men and women who had met their fate on the road and Jim carved a makeshift headstone out of a slab of sawed cedar. When it was done, he lingered in the camp for a couple of days, paid his final respects at Harvey’s grave and went back on the road.
The boy returned from the counter with two large sandwiches and a dollar in a half in change. He offered it to Jim but the man waved it away as the boy took his seat across from him. Jim studied the boy’s features again, trying to place them, but whatever part of his mind held the face in permanent storage seemed to be malfunctioning and Jim was left only with an odd tickling feeling inside his brain. “This is a real feast,” said the boy, “It’s been ages since I’ve had so much to eat.”
“You look like you can use it.” Said Jim smiling at the boy, “I’m Jim Jantzen,” he said offering his hand across the table.
The boy smiled and looked down at his greasy hands before answering. He started to wipe his hand on his shirt but Jim understood and waved the boy’s hand away. “Sorry,” said the boy with a smile, broader this time showing just the edge of perfectly straight, brilliantly white teeth. “I’m Malachi.” He said, “Malachi HaMavet.”
Jim sat back in his seat, “That’s quite a handle,” he said, “Your folks religious or something?”
Malachi’s smile returned. “I like that.” He answered, “Most people just tell me my name sounds funny. I usually tell them I didn’t choose it.” He said mimicking the line in what he imagined to be the sound of his own voice.
The two men laughed and Jim took a drink of coffee, now cool enough to really enjoy. His eye wandered out to his Olds in the parking lot and he felt a quick urge to be away, to get out and slip behind the wheel. “Nice car.” Malachi offered noting the pride in Jim’s gaze.
Jim turned his attention back to the boy and that tickling sense hit him again. He pushed it away and looked back out the window as he spoke. “You know,” He said, “A guy like me isn’t supposed to own anything like that.” He paused and took a sip of coffee, “I came up the hard way and a nice car was reserved for rich folks, college graduates and people from the right side of the tracks. It took almost an entire lifetime, “ he continued, “but I guess I finally made it. That car means an awful lot. It’s the end of my personal journey”
“It sounds like you certainly earned it, “ said Malachi as he wolfed down his sandwiches. “You’ve been more than gracious to me,” he said after finishing the last bite, “I hate to ask, but are you headed up the interstate?”
Jim smiled again, “Yes,” he said, “I’m headed to Las Vegas, eventually further.” He said, “There’s nothing to keep me here anymore and it’s time to be away. You looking for a ride?”
“Yeah,” answered Malachi, “I know most people don’t like to pick up hitch hikers these days. I mean, I could be an axe murderer or something.”
“Well you wouldn’t be the first guy who tried to take my head off,” said Jim with an odd, distant smile as he rubbed his scarred left collarbone through his shirt.
The first wave of Chinese troops struck without warning. The big guns cut them to ribbons but still they kept coming, wave after wave, into the killing zone until the barrels of the artillery pieces burned white hot and threatened to explode the shells before they left the muzzles. After the big guns had become unusable, the mortars took still more of them, score upon score, then the heavy machine guns, firing until they burned out their barrels, and then rifles, then pistols and finally it had come down to knives and fists.
The lines of barbwire in front of the trenches barely slowed them. The first few dropped dead atop the razor sharp strands, sacrificing themselves so that their comrades could walk over their corpses and flood down into the lines where the battle broke into individual hand-to-hand fights for survival. Jim’s entire world focused on the man in front of him, small, black haired with thin slits for eyes. The little man was bathed in sweat despite the sub zero temperatures and was obviously afraid as he faced the giant Marine.
Jim’s rifle was out of ammo, he remembered, but the enemy soldier was in no better position. Perhaps he had lost his rifle somewhere on the long run to the American lines but it seemed silly that he hadn’t stopped to pick up another as there had to be thousands lying around unused in the middle of no man’s land. Instead, the little man gripped a sharpened bamboo spear and despite the difference in their sizes he thrust it at the American with every ounce of strength he could muster. The attack was savage but Jim had been trained well and parried the thrust with the stock of his Garand before sweeping the butt of the rifle up and striking the enemy hard beneath the chin. As the man fell, another rushed into his place and Jim thrust his bayonet through his ribs and then repeated the motion on the next man who rushed up. More followed, man after man, and Jim killed them all. But still they came in uncountable numbers, a human tide.
Jim fought ferociously for his life and the bodies piled up around his feet. More men streamed over the edge of the trench and Jim killed them all as even as his friends succumbed one by one. A Chinese officer came over the top, a two handed sword in his hands and Jim lashed out hard with his bayonet, striking the man in the throat as his enemy brought the sharp edge of the sword down on the American’s left shoulder. Only the power of Jim’s own attack had saved his life, causing the Chinese officer to stumble back off balance and the sword strike to lose its killing power. Still, the blade was razor sharp and bit deep into bone and sinew, sticking there inches from his neck until Jim, in a blind rage, tore it loose and cast it aside.
Overhead, fire from the American side seemed to be picking up and the number of Chinese slipping into the trench lessened. Jim continued his struggle, one-armed and wounded but protected from the enemy’s attacks by the sheer number of dead and dying that surrounded him in the blood filled trench. The gunfire overhead reached a crescendo and, finally, the wave of Chinese broke and the tide receded. Jim, unconscious of his wounds and the carnage all around him, took a moment to push another 8 round clip into his weapon and, climbing to the edge of the trench, began shooting the enemy in the back as they attempted to flee back across the open ground to the safety of their own lines. He was still there, grimly killing anything that moved when his position was finally reinforced with fresh men.
Jim was with them as Chesty Puller led the Marines away from the Chosin Resevoir and down to the sea and onto the Navy transports. It was a tough trip and despite his wound and the amount of blood he had lost, he had walked as much as he could so other men could ride. At one point, the Colonel’s jeep had pulled alongside and Chesty Puller himself had climbed out and insisted that Jim take his place in the heated interior. It was a crowded place, with several men obviously near death laid out across the back while medics tried to tend to them. One boy was especially bad and every movement of the jeep caused him to jerk and scream in pain. As the minutes wore on, the screams increased in intensity and then, silence. Jim turned to look and noted one of the medics who seemed oddly calm in his ragged, dirty clothes, leaning over the man, his hand flat on the man’s chest. The medic looked up and their eyes met for the barest moment. Recognition flashed between them.
The medic tried and failed to smile, his pale skin shining with sweat even in the extreme cold and his dark eyes, endlessly deep pools of blackness, were filled with tension and sadness. They held the gaze for just a moment and the medic turned his attention back to the boy. The wounded soldier looked up at the man and whispered something in a weak, tired voice that Jim couldn’t quite hear. The medic nodded just slightly and closed his hand atop the boy’s chest. As the boy breathed his last, Jim slipped out of the passenger seat of the slow moving jeep and resumed the long, miserable march to safety.
Later, safe in a warm bed on a Navy transport that smelled of oil, fresh paint and medicine, Jim saw the medic often. Although he was often deep in a haze of sedatives and drugs, Jim noted that the man would come silently into the ward in the middle of the night to stand over the beds of various men. At times he and Jim would exchange a knowing look and it seemed to Jim that one particularly bad night as the nurses fretted over him, the man had come and stood beside his bedside. But Jim had improved and, as so many men who had been too weak to make it passed, the medic’s nightly visits decreased. By the time the transport had arrived in San Francisco it was as though he was no longer aboard.
Their breakfast finished, the two men headed out to the Oldsmobile. “Wow!” exclaimed the boy as they took their seats, “this really is nice. Brand new, too!” Jim smiled and showed off the various features of the sleek coupe, its complex comfort controls and its digital dash, as they made their way to the Interstate on ramp. Up on the highway, Jim brought the car to a digitally accurate 57 miles per hour and set the cruise control.
Jim watched the boy out of the corner of his eye as the city fell away behind and the wisp of a memory bubbled to the surface. More memories followed in quick succession. The boy had been there when Bob Jones had his heart attack and died on the factory floor. He had been beside the road at the scene of an accident that Jim and his family had rolled past one rainy night. He had been there in the room when Jim’s own wife, Carol, had finally succumbed to breast cancer despite all the attempts that had been made to save her life. He now knew for certain what the man was.
Malachi turned to Jim and gave the man his broadest smile yet. “Have you figured out where we have met yet?” He asked in a surprisingly friendly tone of voice.
The road rushed forward and Jim kept his attention focused out the windshield, almost afraid to look directly at the boy beside him. “Yes.” He finally answered, “How many times have we seen one another? A dozen or two I would imagine.”
Malachi matched Jim’s stare out the windshield. “If you count all the times on the ship, several dozen actually, but you were in a bad state then. Other than that, only five.” He said, “Most people don’t recognize me when they see me these days, you know, but you and I have passed close to one another several times now so we’re practically old friends.”
“I imagine that most people have other things on their mind when you come to call.” Answered Jim just a little bitterly.
“It wasn’t always that way,” replied Malachi. “Times have changed. Think about it, how many people are ever actually there to witness someone take that last breath?”
He paused and then continued quite conversationally, “A hundred years ago I came for people in their homes and many people could recognize me, but in the modern world most people are pretty insulated. These days, the average person might not even be in the room when a loved one passes. The only time they may see me is when they stumble upon the scene of an accident but for, the most part, that doesn’t happen often enough for people to connect the dots.”
“Doctors know me.” He continued a little wistfully, “But they hate me, all of them except Kevorkian at least. They think of me as their enemy and they are constantly fighting me. There are serial killers who know me as well, but to be honest they are pretty creepy. Most of them are nuts and I hate the fact that they think I am at their beck and call. Who else then? Not morticians for sure, I’m gone before they even show up.”
“The dying themselves know me, of course,” He added almost as an afterthought, “but to keep them in bondage for a bit of conversation, well, that’s needlessly cruel.”
Jim looked at the boy and noticed the unhappy expression and earnestness in his eyes, something inside him clicked into place. “You’re here for me,. You know what I’m going to do.” He said suddenly, thinking about the pistol in the bag behind his seat. “You’re a little early. It won’t be for a few days yet, not until I get out to Arkansas. It’s been so long since I have been there, but I feel like it’s time to go home now.” He said sardonically.
Malachi stiffened at the phrase but kept his hands in his lap. “It’s not time for you, Jim.” He said with real feeling. “I know you want it to be. I know you’ve been lonely with your wife gone and your kids away starting their own lives, but you can’t go through with what you are planning.”
Anger flashed in Jim’s eyes, “Why?” He asked suddenly, “Do you know what it’s like to lose the people you love, to be alone?”
Malachi looked back sadly, “I know what it’s like to be alone.” He said simply, “After all, the only company I usually have is a pale horse and he really isn’t that conversational.” He smiled at the joke, “I know you think now that you will go through with what you are planning, but in the end you won’t. Think about it, you know I’m right. You’re a fighter. You’ve seen so much but you still have so much left ahead.”
“Oh?” asked Jim sullenly, “What do I have left?”
“You have this car.” Offered Malachi.”And think of your grandchildren.”
“I don’t have any grandchildren.” said Jim, “My kids are too busy trying to get rich to start a family.”
“That’s what they think,” answered Malachi with a wry smile, “Times change and so do attitudes but life always goes on, Jim, you of all people should know that. Your kids’ plans are changing even now and your first grandchild will be here before next summer.” He paused and bit his lip, “I probably shouldn’t have said that, it’s still a surprise so don’t ruin it for them, Ok?”
“But you said grandchildren” said Jim giving him a sideways glance.
“So I did,” answered Malachi. “And in the fullness of time you will see several grandchildren before I pay you a professional visit.”
Jim eyed the boy, not really willing to believe what he was saying even as he knew it was a dead certainty. He laughed at the thought. “So now what?” he asked as the Oldsmobile beat steadily along.
“Now you go to Las Vegas and stay a day or two before you decide I’m right.” Answered Malachi, “It’s what I know you’ll do. Then you go home, pick up your pen and throw that letter in the trash.”
Jim was silent for a moment and then turned to look the boy full in the face. The eyes were the same dark pools he had always known but they held no sadness, they were filled instead a deep humor and and abiding compassion. He started to say something but stopped himself.
Malachi smiled and met his gaze. “It’s going to be OK,” he said. “I’m glad you aren’t afraid of me. I’m not as bad as people fear.”
“I don’t like it when people call me the Grim Reaper.” he continued, “They forget that I’m an angel, you know? They think I’m a curse, but at times I’m a blessing. I think you understand that.” His tone brightened as he waved at an approaching exit, “Hey, I have some business in the next town, can you pull up here?”
Jim bumped the brake pedal to bring the car off of cruise control and slipped the Toronado into the right lane and then up the off ramp where he braked smoothly to a stop. As the door opened, Jim found his words at last, “Say,” he said suddenly, “Since I’m going to be in Vegas I might play some ponies. You know any winners?”
Malachi laughed deeply and the effect was both chilling and warm at the same time, “I know there won’t be any fatal accidents,” he answered. “My pale friend might have an opinion, but I already told you he doesn’t say much.”
He climbed out of the car and paused to lean back inside before closing the door, “I appreciate the breakfast,” he said, “When you and I have real business together many years from now, your ride across the river is already paid.” The door closed and Jim found himself alone in the car. He paused for a moment before crossing the intersection and heading back down the ramp towards the interstate. He didn’t bother to look back, there was more than enough ahead.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.