“The Mirage and the Rat Race”
By T.M. Schultze
Here was a rugged old man who exemplified the life of a hermit. He was an unkempt type, with wild, long hair and a patchy beard years removed from grooming. His clothing looked like ragged rawhides, like coyote skins pieced together, always seeming to come apart. He had a truly deplorable fashion sense. His home overlooked an expanse of pristine desert, which for all its natural beauty was hot, arid, unforgiving, and barren. This place seemed utterly inhospitable, and yet, here he was.
There was no telling what his name was, or if he even had one. You wouldn’t have been able to ask him because he never spoke a single word in his life. His vocal cords were as useful to him as his appendix. But, there were no awkward silences in the quiet man’s life. He had never seen another human as far as he could remember.
This reclusive man lived a life beyond his choosing. Living like a wild animal in this harsh environment, he seemed like a caged lion. The cage seemed real enough to him, but something was amiss. He knew absolutely nothing of his upbringing, of his birth, where he came from, and quite incredulously, he never concerned himself with these matters.
Why, you ask? Well, life to him was a considerable daily drive for sustenance. Food and water, water and food, nothing consumed his time, energy, thoughts, or ingenuity other than these most important things. The skills he used to do this were innate. He knew how to spot a riverbed where he could dig for water, or what rocks would yield him a juicy snake for dinner. He could build a fire with dry tinder. On the other hand, it is a shame he accepted these surroundings without looking for better climes, since a forest where he could better thrive lied only twenty miles to the north.
In those days, the animals were tougher to locate than in the past and the water more challenging to find. It had been a long time since the rains had come. His outdoor home was slowing starving to death, but each day, he awoke and repeated the same sordid routine from the day before.
Such focus on the here and now left him little time to ponder some of those questions we humans ask ourselves about our own existence. He knew not the comfort of having family, friends, or loved ones. He didn’t have any enemies. You wouldn’t either if you had to spend hours and hours every day looking for a meal.
It was late in the afternoon one particular day, with the sun blaring down upon the land, that this deserted man needed to relax, to rest his aching muscles and weary bones. His humble abode was a rock that jutted straight out from a small hill offering him a naturally sheltered area on the bottom. It was still exceedingly hot though. He leaned back against the huge stone, letting out a sigh and slowly building to a crescendo with an exceedingly long yawn. He was running out of water and tomorrow would need to find some or he would be in trouble.
This tired man drifted between sleep and occasional stirring as the sun finished its daily duty and darkness reigned throughout. This was the only time of day he looked to the sky. He hated the sun and the punishing heat it brought with it. He got to know the moon very well and after many years of trial learned to guess when the moon was at its brightest. Tonight it was full but coyotes didn’t howl in the distance. There didn’t seem to be any left.
He sometimes gazed upon all the little lights above, and with practice began to recognize patterns in their position. That evening, as he gazed at the stars above, he imagined the little lights as miniatures of the sun or moon. This uneducated man was a bit more inquisitive than I gave him credit for.
As he drifted back to sleep, his mind was still active. He thought of the extremely rare times when deer would appear in the hills above his home, near the dry creek running down by the camp. These occasions were sparse and it was fruitless to try to hunt them for game. He couldn’t gather his hunting implements quick enough. He once kept a spear on hand at all times, and in the only chance he ever had to pierce the animal, he had neither the strength to reach the target nor the accuracy to hit the bulls-eye.
As hunger crept into this dreaming man’s thoughts, he imagined being larger on the level of multitudes his size, so large and powerful that he could simply pluck these magnificent creatures from the ground with two of his fingers. Their elusiveness would be no match for him. He realized that these creatures offered a meal beyond his imagination, but being a beast many times his size would require dozens of deer, whereas his memory could only point to a couple he had ever seen. He still wouldn’t be able to comfortably nourish himself.
It was a frightening proposition to think that there might be a time when he could not provide for himself, and as his world continued to dry up he knew it might happen. He shivered. It can get hot during the day, but the desert certainly can get cold at night too.
Meanwhile, hunger and thirst seemed destined to ravage his achy body, and as his mind wandered further from his normal consciousness, he had another terrible revelation. He had seen death before but never had the capacity to ponder his own mortality. He had seen a limping rabbit lapse into the unknown after a sly ambush by a rattlesnake. He had seen a rat, squirming in the talons of a hawk, victim of the brutal need for rations. These were just examples of things he had seen many, many times in this desolate place. Fear swept over him like a hot gust of wind that sometimes woke him in the night. His own death was certainly very disconcerting to him.
He imagined himself on both knees with one hand on the desert floor balancing his weight. His mouth was dry and he licked his chapped lips, ingesting sand as the wind blew over his face. His other hand was stretched out, trying to grasp a vision of something better, an oasis in this Hell that was his life. He could barely make out its image. He pointed his index finger as far as he could, like the shelter of a leafy palm with juicy dates was within reach. The wind was becoming so fierce, the sound howling in his ears, and the sand so grating, that cuts devoured his face and he couldn’t breathe. His attempts to inhale only produced a sickening wheeze that grew louder and more intense as he desperately tried to provide nourishment for his lungs.
He blacked out and with one eye open his gaze fell upon a dark vastness of uniquely shaped rock, uniformed in shape with sharp, square corners. They rose above for forever, it seemed. These shapes were complimented by rows of flat rock and stretched in two directions as far as he could see. This was a baffling and yet vaguely familiar scene.
Off in one direction, he could see hills that were green, like its surface was covered with the plants he had known only to be extremely sparse. He turned completely around to find the horizon was a deep crimson red, like the color of his own blood. Without warning, these huge structures began to move, and he had to pick up his feet because they were moving in the direction of the fiery sky. He tried to run, only finding himself losing to the ground’s will, and as he tripped and landed on the hard rock beneath him, he thought the ground was actually moving faster once he fell to oblivion.
The dreaming man with no name awoke breathing hard. He was clearly disturbed as he got up from under the rock that was his resting place. It was early morning, the Eastern sky a lighted orange before the sun overtook the horizon. Out he drifted, and all morning he wandered through the sands of the desert world he knew, and his mind couldn’t get off the awful dreams he had. He carefully contemplated the first nightmare he could remember, wary of every breath he took. He turned in circles and circles, viewing the horizon, imaging how these huge mountains could have such smooth surfaces. All the while, hunger and thirst were pervasive. He had thoughts of total helplessness. He was truly a scared man.
The early mornings were usually his time to hunt for rabbits, snakes, or other game, before the sun overhead made frolicking through the wasteland of his life too forbidding. But on this day, he lazily rambled to and fro, bogged down by a confusing sense of doom.
The sun was directly overhead pounding on his weak frame. This had been an unfruitful morning. As he rambled aimlessly he felt weak and soon the heat caused him to stumble, his head expressing anger at his failure to provide for itself, though no sweat poured down his dehydrated body. Dizziness overcame him; the mountains seemed to shift though he was standing straight. He could see a very distinct mirage – he knew his eyes were playing tricks on him – and it was even more obscured by the heat radiating up from the surface of the ground.
Just then, a vision appeared, a figure like his own, but with features he did not recognize. There were curves where he had none, and an alluring look with long hair. Fancy metals adorned this person, a sparkling feature he had never considered before. The skin was much softer and the face more refined. He was looking at something that was just like him, but very different. He was immediately drawn to this figure, longing to put his hand to the hand of this alter-ego, to understand why he was so attached to this thing. He had seen his own image in the pools that welled up when the rains came, and thought nothing of it other than acknowledgement of who he was. But now, he was absolutely entranced. He continued to gaze in wonder at this person, the image disappeared, and he fell to the sands, dry vomiting and coughing profusely.
Somehow though, this hearty man managed to get up and make his way back to the protective shade of his outcropping. You don’t live in the land of death without an instinct for survival. Back home, he was relieved to find a tiny ration of water which he gulped, though more air went down his parched throat than water. With his water now vanished, the end truly seemed near. While he often relied on cacti he would cut after the morning’s hunting was done, his newly acquired laziness left him tired, helpless, and amazingly, very lonely.
His mind was sharp with all sorts of new questions, about why he was the only one of his kind he had ever known, what it would be like if he could meet others like him, where he might have come from, and what it was about that magnificent person that made him so excited and so nervous at the same time. He had no answers.
The confused man tried not to sleep, keenly aware of how much an impact the night before had on his day, but he was exhausted from so much useless time spent in the sun. He couldn’t help his eyelids from falling on one another. He feared unconsciousness, unsure what it could bring. Would it be worse than before?
His mind still couldn’t depart from the image of that wonderful creature in his head. He thought of it as a missing part of his own existence, and thought this being could make him whole. Yet, it was something he could not find. He always felt that this daily routine was fine for sustaining him, but now he felt a hunger for something only others, especially this peculiar person, could bring to him. He looked at the stars above, wondering if perhaps each light had another person on it, hoping to find someone like him. Slowly, his mind eased into a quiet state and he finally relaxed enough to sleep.
The nightmarish man opened his right eye. He felt a rumbling, and a terribly sinister sensation of the sand beneath him shifting and swirling. Yucca plants stretched out of the ground and wound themselves around his arms and legs, pulling on him terribly. A huge voracious serpent, dozens its real size in scale, rose up, fangs snarling. It hissed and rattled, moving its head back slowly preparing to snap forward in a deliberate cunning, killer motion. The hiss was revolting, rattles blaring, and with its mouth open, it seemed to have the look of a sly smile, demonic in intent. The anticipation was too much for him and he fainted.
Suddenly, he stood before that huge expanse of rock once again, but this time, with clearer understanding. The structures that rose endlessly into the sky, he now knew they were buildings, and the flat rocks that stretched forever in each direction, he knew they were roads. He could see many humans like himself, millions of them, pouring out these fortresses and onto these roads like an army of ants, in single-file. These people were expressionless, moving in lockstep and devoid of happiness or emotion. He could see just beyond the city a huge fire, with the line moving into it, devouring the men and women of this huge dream world. Just then a huge whirlwind tossed him violently into the air, a hurricane of doom that put him in the very same line. He cowered in front of the suitcases and business suits while the edges of his blazer seem to fray from the heat. He was chained, like the rest, and as they got closer, the fire grew hotter, embers fell on them from above, smoke left them coughing and out of breath, and the ground was searing. The smell was putrid, a scent of omnipresent decomposition. Chains clanged every second as a condemned human took one more step towards death. It was impossible for him to stand for longer than a second. The nice leather shoes of those white-collars in front of him melted as the rat race power-lunchers were carried to the edge of the world.
Some managed to escape this doom, able to unshackle these chains and escape this ruinous line. He looked behind him and to his shock, saw men and women hugging at the top of the hill opposite the fire, presumed victors in the civil war of assertion and stagnation. One woman stood alone, and he wondered if she might be looking his way, pleading with him to break out of this prison. Unfortunately though, our shackled young man already surrendered. He did not even move his leg once to try to shake the chains free. He thought it was already too late.
The cliff grew closer and closer, his trepidation building in his heart as it beat louder and louder. Sweat ran down his body in huge buckets that turned into mist as it was instantly evaporated off his charred skin. He let out a huge scream as he looked down the vast crevice, a horrendous canyon of fire-laden lost souls disappearing into a red, magma-like sea. He fell at the edge but managed to grab the side with his fingers, desperate to hang on, only to find his fingers melting at the immense heat, finally surrendering to the blood-laden sea below as his cries could be hear for miles.
Just then, the office man awoke, jolting his head up, oblivious to the time. It could have been 6 in the afternoon or 5 in the morning. He didn’t know how long he had been at his desk. He ran his hands through the stubble on his chin. He had awoken at odd hours so many times over the years in this very chair.
He got up and had a look around his office. He kept it bare for years, only walls with the original off-white paint. No pictures could be found, just the essentials. He carefully fingered the sharpened edges of the letter from Elaine. He wrote her a letter two weeks ago which was politely returned with a different last name. He admired her from afar from grade school to graduation, and it only took him thirty years to confess his love to her. He still had not opened it, and he spent many lost moments recently reading the envelope over and over and over.
He eyes looked up and out his office window, over the vast expanse of cubicles lined up symmetrically to the other side of the building. Imagine a walkway, with work areas on each side, and at the end was a couch usually reserved for guests. On the other side where his office stood was an open window that offered a view of the streets below. He was afraid of heights and always hated looking out that window. Off in the distance, a single telephone rang four times, before apparently going to voicemail. On the walls were sales goals, a message from the CEO, and legal posters concerning minimum wage. The feel of the office was comfortably business-like, but to him, this was Death Valley.
He got up and poked his head out of the doorway, not a soul around save for another young man from the accounting department, walking past, exchanging that universal nod of acknowledgement that is a recognition of the other with a careful meaning of aloofness. He thought the guy was a lazy employee the late hour notwithstanding. He probably left some concert tickets at work. This was why he had the spacious office and the accountant had a small desk with cheaply carpeted walls.
The lazy accountant was leaving, perhaps to go home and help with his children’s homework, or make love to his wife, or cook dinner for the family, or cheer on his son at a football game. The company man though, he had a business to run. He had dedicated every moment since leaving college to this place. His mother called every once in a while to see how he was doing. He never talked to his family, though he sometimes thought of calling her, but he did not have her number in his Rolodex.
On the couch was a striking lady looking through some presumably important paperwork because this was off-hours at the office. He squinted to try to get the best look of her possible, trying to hide behind his door to not be detected. There seemed to be a haze before his sleepy eyes that made her mostly translucent, where the clearly perceptible details had to be mixed with his own imagination to produce a clear image of her.
She was a beautiful woman, the kind of girl you would be delighted to live next-door to and marry when you got older. She had on a pair of brown reading glasses, and she cutely fingered them as she looked over her work. She wore a navy business suit, looking absolutely charming. She rested one leg on the other, the top foot bobbing up and down as she was lost in thought. Her eyes sparkled like rubies. He couldn’t take his eyes off those eyes. She reminded him a lot of Elaine. He thought she was in sales, obviously, her looks she could help us meet our quarterly numbers.
The starry-eyed man had no idea what to do. Here he was, a potential mate without a mating dance. He envisioned the artist’s palette, with she the color black, and he the color white, and all he could think of was mixing those colors into a beautifully smooth gray. He memorized all of her lines and curves; he could read her like a topographical map. He wanted to run his hand over her peaks and valleys, and drink from her streams and lakes.
He wanted badly to speak to her. You know, something simple, like maybe a drink at happy hour or just to say hello. It was so quiet that the slightest stir from him would have called her attention his way. But as he opened his mouth, the words escaped him, like he did not know how to speak, did not know how to communicate, and did not know how to relate with others.
He thought that someday they could run off together and buy a beautiful house overlooking this oppressive city, hugging by the mailbox, relieved that they found each other. But what would she want with a man so deserted from the rest of the office that she may not even know his name? He was much too plain for a woman of this stature. And to make it worse, it was with a nightmarish trepidation that he thought of the window on his side of the building like it was sucking him away from happiness and out into a freefall of 70 stories to the asphalt below. This was his life, and it was tugging at him, trying to pull him over the edge. He pondered whether he could manage to make it over to her if he tried or if the current would pull him out the building. He was safe where he stood, with his knuckles turning white grabbing the doorway as hard as he could, but imagine if he took a chance. The wind was sharp and because she never once looked up, he thought he was the only person who could hear its menacing blow. It was at the office door he sat there thinking, whether to take a step forward, or stand here at the entrance to his office forever.