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Literary Passages

Survivor

That morning, the train whistle sounded like the strum of a guitar. A soft strum, now and again, without rhythm but tuneful. That was the same day he killed a dead man.

He’d limped along the parade route, stopping here and there but never finding the perfect viewing place. Sometimes he stopped among old men like himself. Beauty queens and business couples waved from their perches on the backs of convertibles. Some looked him right in the eye, if only for a split second, while they scanned the crowd for a more friendly face. Others pointed right at him, and called out, “Hey, Charlie.” He was a fixture in town, after all. People recognized him.

Charlie wondered what it would be like to be in the parade, looking down at himself and the old men, the groups of teenagers, the neighbors, the mother with one eye on the parade and the other on her brood. He moved back a block to meet the high-stepping marching band. Their decorated wool uniforms were holdovers from the past, like the parade itself. While the rows slipped by, he looked for the pale sweat of heatstroke on the young faces. Some would inevitably drop, probably right at the finish, as soon as they stood still.

The Shriners buzzed around in their formations, pushing Charlie back a step toward the curb. Tassels on the silly hats flapped and distracted him from the larger show. Finally, the fire truck, like a caboose, swept through, it, too, filled with uniformed men.

Charlie wasn’t wearing his uniform. He didn’t believe in it. That was then. There was a reason for it back then. He turned upstream through the dispersing crowd, headed for home. Small groups of glittered girls bumped and giggled. A few kids with their band uniforms unbuttoned, laughed and slurped their sodas. Charlie had missed the one thing he most wanted to see. The color guard, a precision team that included a couple vets and some young recruits. Five flags, for country, state, POWs, and civic pride. He knew one of the guards, but was pretty sure the guy didn’t recognize him anymore, or didn’t want to. Charlie had run into Bud a year or two back at church. Not that Charlie was a church-goer, but his niece had dragged him to the annual church basement cookie parade to show off her take on Grandma’s favorite cookies, chocolate oatmeal and cinnamon jumbles. It was a different kind of parade, but still highly orchestrated.

So Charlie had shuffled around the tables piled with cookies until he came upon Bud, standing with his wife behind some lacey sugar cookies. And Charlie had said, ‘well hello Bud,’ and Bud had looked right at him, right through him, or maybe right over him, past his shoulder, but definitely not focusing anywhere near his eyes. Their eyes never met. Charlie was forced to stay with the flow of the cookie parade, carrying on to the next table.

So Charlie began to doubt himself. Was that really Bud, or wasn’t it? Was he imagining the slight? At any rate, Charlie wasn’t going to be allowed another look, because he had somehow missed the color guard. He turned up the avenue toward home, away from the main street and bubbling baton twirlers and the clowns lined with candy. Four or five blocks further were the train tracks that divided the small downtown area – if you could call it downtown – from his residential neighborhood.  He’d avoid most of the traffic walking up this secondary street, but could easily cross the tracks on foot behind the warehouse. Other pedestrians had the same idea, so there was quite a crowd bottled up, even though the train had already passed. Charlie poked around the side of the street, hugging the storefronts and inching toward the front of the crowd, thinking of the sandwich he’d make when he got home.

But when he worked his way to the front, he realized only a few people were walking across the tracks. Most were stopped, pressed together or arms linked, hands to mouths, looking at someone down on the tracks. Charlie shifted his weight, pressing on his toes to get a better look. It was Bud. It must be Bud because there was a flag tangled around one leg. There was a uniform, but no hat. There were boots. Sirens sounded in the distance, then closer. Abruptly, Charlie stepped forward and over the tracks. He wanted to get a look at the face, and he wanted to go home. Charlie kept looking as he moved over the tracks, but no eyes looked back. It was hard to tell. He was pretty sure it was Bud, though. Pretty sure. Not certain. He would never be certain, but he walked on home because the parade was over.

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