A House Between
A short story by Michael R. Lockridge
Lewis Carroll Todd was a walkin’ man. He was not always given to walking, but walking was pretty much his life, now. There was a time when his wife would tease him about using the car just to go down to the road to check the mail. Probably only fifty yards but he would drive rather than walk. But she didn’t tease him, anymore. She was gone. And that is why Lewis had become a walkin’ man.
He had planned his life carefully. Even in high school Lewis had known himself rather well. He knew he was not an intellectual giant. He was an adequate student. Never much trouble. He was a passable sportsman, even making second-string for football in his junior year. He elected not to play in his senior year.
Lewis knew that he was just an average guy in an average small town. When he finished school, he could go work in one of the local mills. He could work his life away, and retire a worn old man. Oh, there was always college, but high school demanded about as much as his intellect could deliver. College was just not a workable option.
Neither path appealed to him. So, as so many small town boys before him, Lewis found his way down to the Army recruiter’s office. He poured over the catalogs with the tough but personable sergeant who served there. The sergeant seemed to like Lewis, buying him lunch on two occasions and regaling him with tales of military adventure.
Garbyville was too small a town to have an Army testing center. The sergeant put Lewis on the bus to Winston, a high adventure for a small town boy. A night in the big city, two hundred miles from home. Even with the testing, there was time for a little sightseeing before he had to catch the bus back home. Yes, high adventure, indeed.
The test results arrived the following week, just three days after Lewis graduated from high school. Lewis was already pretty sure of his choice of jobs offered by the Army, and the test results confirmed his selection. The recruiting sergeant helped him fill out the paperwork, and Lewis was soon on his way.
It was a twenty-year journey. Lewis saw the world, got promotions, and visited exotic lands. He picked up a souvenir during his second tour in Viet Nam. Two inches of shrapnel removed from his left lower leg gave him a scar to talk about. Not a common injury for a sergeant in charge of a records unit.
His habits were always moderate. He never married. Marriage was hard for Army wives, and he never wanted to inflict the lifestyle on anyone. His few relationships were much like duty stations; he enjoyed them, always knowing they were going to end.
Twenty years passed, and he completed his military career with reasonable distinction. He returned to Garbyville, acquired a comfortable home, and found work with the Post Office. Though the job required a lot of walking, it was not at this time that he became the Walkin’ Man. That came much later.
Now that he was beyond his transient military career, Lewis allowed his heart to open up to the prospects of marriage. Now that he was in his middle years, he new that the prospects of marriage were not great. Even so, he was open to the idea. Sharing the rest of his days with someone appealed to him.
He met Ada on one of his routes. It was just a chance meeting. She happened to be at her mailbox when he made his delivery. Lewis later learned that it took her weeks to “happen” to be there when he arrived. They talked long enough that first day that Lewis had to rush through the rest of his route to finish anywhere near on time.
Lewis courted Ada quite simply. Simple was all that Lewis ever really knew. She was charmed by his simplicity, and appreciated his life of moderation. She had not been widowed all that long, and it took some time for Lewis to win her trust. Shortly after that, however, he won her heart and her hand.
They enjoyed many years together, living their small town lives. More and more Lewis looked forward to finishing his Post Office career. The two pensions would allow for a comfortable retirement. Lewis wanted to travel with the love of his life, discovering the world together.
Ada had no children from her first marriage, and their late union made children a non-issue between her and Lewis. Though they both sometimes felt the lack, for the most part they were content, each with the other. They made a life that was simple and comfortable.
Finally the day came when the Post Office presented Lewis with his gold watch. He had only collected a handful of those combined pension checks when he got the phone call. Ada, who had been visiting her sister in Winston, had fallen asleep at the wheel on her way home. Lewis had not gone with her because her sister got on his nerves. Once again, he was alone.
Lewis started walking to help him with his grief. He found himself wandering his old routes, head down and feet shuffling. He often could not remember beginning his walks. He would come to himself far from home. Sometimes he was not properly dressed. He seemed to shave rarely, and sometimes forgot to bathe. He would shuffle back home and drop off into an exhausted sleep. Often this was the only peace he knew.
With time, he began to heal. He started to take better care of himself, seeing to his bathing and shaving, and dressing better. His walks became more deliberate, and he started to see the things going on around him as he walked. It was during this time of healing that he learned that he had earned the title “The Walkin’ Man” in his little town.
Lewis was surprised to find himself enjoying his walks. He met many people, and made new friends. He often stopped to help someone in their garden, or to wash their car. He came to know little children, shopkeepers, old people, and young people. His life began to take on a new shape and to have meaning once again.
He even began developing a personal style. The Walkin’ Man collected walking shoes, walking sticks, and a variety of curious hats. Children especially liked his cane of white ash, carved to look like a striking cobra. The rhinestone eyes would flash and dance with light as the Walkin’ Man strode along the highways, byways, and quiet streets of Garbyville.
Lewis would wear baseball caps of various teams. Often he would wear the caps celebrating local schools. He had Stetsons, sport caps, and several broad-brimmed hats of straw. Though he rarely wore it, he had a particular favorite. His prized hat was called a Deerstalker, made famous by Sherlock Holmes.
Here, toward the end of his days, Lewis had found a place in life where he seemed to really fit. Though he did not get to do the traveling he had hoped for with his beloved Ada, he was traveling each day in his old hometown.
“One of the best days for walking I have ever seen.” Lewis observed one morning. He was striding along a stretch of country road that was new to him. He could not recall ever having set foot on this particular road, and the newness put an added bounce in his stride. He enjoyed the gritty dirt road, the grass on the verge, and the trees lining the way. Fields stretched to the surrounding hills, and all felt very right.
The sense of rightness was shaken, however, when Lewis realize that he could not recall how he had gotten to this particular stretch of road. He did not recall selecting his Cobra cane for the walk, and was a bit perplexed. The Cobra was generally a cane he used in town. For country walks he generally preferred a sturdy staff, more suitable for side trips into fields and wooded trails.
Also troubling him was his hat. He rarely wore the Deerstalker, yet here it was on his head. A broad brimmed straw hat was more suitable for a country adventure, yet here he was, wearing what was really just a showpiece. Most peculiar.
Still, the day was lovely.
“The trees ” Lewis exclaimed. “They seem so alive So very real.”
Indeed, every leaf, every needle, every bit of bark seemed to stand out, to dance with life and color. Even the hills on the horizon ahead seemed more defined, more present.
Lewis stopped walking. Slowly he turned, taking it all in. As he did so, he noticed something else that seemed peculiar. When he looked ahead, this vibrant sense of life and presence was very pronounced. When he looked back the way he had come, everything appeared diminished, and less defined. The colors near the horizon in that direction seemed to be fading, even as he watched.
Lewis looked ahead, once again. The vibrancy, the life in the scene ahead called to him. He began walking toward this vibrancy, this glory that was calling to him.
He came around a bend, and saw a charming little cottage on his off to one side. It nestled into the hillside, and was surrounded by a picket fence. Growing all over the picket fence were climbing roses. As Lewis drew nearer, he could see a variety of flowers growing on the vine. White ones, red ones, and yellow ones as well. Very lovely. What gave him pause, however, were the blue roses. Blue roses Never before had he seen such a thing.
It was then that Lewis noticed the man standing on the porch. It was a very nice porch, shady and cool, and very inviting. The man stood easy, leaning on one of the pillars. He smiled as Lewis drew near, and gave him a little wave.
“Ahoy, the Walkin’ Man ” he said, as if he were the captain of a ship. Lewis was a bit taken aback. The man skipped down the steps and walked to the gate in the picket fence. “Come, have a cup of tea ” He offered, waving for Lewis to come in.
Lewis paused a moment, considering. The man was very peculiar, but did not seem threatening. A bit larger than average, yet he seemed sprightly. He appeared young, yet had a sense of great years about him. The name Tom Bombadil came to mind, though he new not why.
He stepped forward, and offered his hand.
“Lewis Todd.” He said.
The man shook Lewis’ hand. “And I’m Thomas Ross. Why don’t you mention the ‘Carroll’ when you introduce yourself?”
Lewis paused a moment. Twice this man had expressed knowledge about himself that he had no obvious reason to know. It was very upsetting.
“My parents were a bit pretentious in naming me.” Lewis replied. “I am not a man of great imagination.”
Lewis stood up. “I think I must be going.” He said.
“Oh?” replied Thomas Ross. “I was about to invite you to tea.”
“Thank you, no.” Said Lewis, as he edged down the stairs to the gate. “I think I shall be on my way.”
“Well, if you insist.” Said Mr. Ross. “Nice to have met you.”
“It has been interesting, Mr. Ross.” Said Lewis. He let himself out through the gate, and began walking down the middle of the road. He elected to not look back.
The road continued around the hill, and soon the magic of the day again engaged Lewis’ mind. The bright sunshine, the brilliant definition of the trees and grass, the wonderful sound of his feet on the grit of the road, all set him quickly at ease. Soon, the cottage was out of site, and nearly out of mind.
Almost immediately another chimney presented itself through the trees. Lewis noticed that this next cottage looked remarkably like the one he had just left. The same color, similar picket fence. Similar roses growing on the fence. The similarity included the very unusual blue roses.
Lewis was not entirely surprised to find Thomas Ross standing at the gate.
“Is that offer of tea still open, Mr. Ross?” asked Lewis.
“Absolutely ” Thomas Ross replied. “And please, call me Tom.”
Tom ushered Lewis into the house, and into a very cozy kitchen.
Lewis was very glad to sit down. Standing had become difficult. As he sat by the table, Tom went busily about the preparations for their tea. Once again the image of that sagacious character from Middle Earth came to mind, though Lewis still could not quite say just why.
Finally, tea was ready and on the table. Tom sat down and began to pour.
“Mr. Ross.” Said Lewis. “Tom. Just what happened back there?”
Tom took a sip of his tea. He added a bit of lemon, and then looked long at Lewis.
“What do you last recall, before you came here, Lewis?” he asked.
“Just being at home. Last night. I was troubled a bit by indigestion, and it caused me to sleep poorly.” Replied Lewis. “But what does that have to do with what happened just now?”
“That may come clear in a moment.” Said Tom. “What is the first think you recall this morning?”
“Walking down this road. Being amazed by the wonder of the day.” Said Lewis.
“You don’t recall getting up? Preparing for the day? Setting out on the journey that brought you here?” Tom inquired.
“No. But then, when I first lost my wife, I often came to myself, far from home.” Lewis said. “ I could not always recall what brought me there. So, today was not especially peculiar in that respect.”
Tom nodded. “Yes, I can see that those were hard days for you.”
Lewis took a sip of his tea. He, too, added a bit of lemon. He took another sip, and then waited on his host.
“This place is a bit of a way station.” Said Tom. “Not all roads are easy, nor are all transitions. This is a house between.”
Lewis sat, and waited a bit more.
“There is no going back, Lewis.” Tom continued. “But, unless you are ready, there is not yet a going forward. I have not been ready to go forward for some time, but now I am. At least, I think I am.”
No going back. Slowly, it was dawning on Lewis what it was that this house existed between. He put down his teacup, and sat back.
“Lewis, please come with me into the next room.”
Lewis stood, and quietly followed his host through the doorway.
The room was most unusual. The walls and ceiling were hung with fantastic tapestries. The floor covered by exquisite rugs of intricate design. Every surface seemed to tell a tale in threads of various hues.
Around the room were pedestals, upon which were some interesting objects. One contained a wax tablet and stylus. Another a stone tablet, and tools to work the runes. Each one had some kind of recording device. Near a desk sat the last two in the series. One held a parchment and quill pen. On the other was an ancient manual typewriter with a sheet of paper on the platen.
On the desk was a computer. The monitor was on, and a blank page was displayed.
“Please, sit at the desk, Lewis.” Said Tom. Lewis did so. Tom sat down in a chair that had been placed near the desk.
“I have sat in that chair on so many occasions. So many tales I have recorded there.” Tom said. He sighed. “So many tales.”
Lewis waited. He remained confused, but a strange quiet was settling on him. A sense of rightness. Not quite destiny, but purpose.
“Will you record my tale?” Tom asked.
“Yes, I will.” Said Lewis. He placed his fingers on the keyboard. Though he had never been much of a typist, he felt ready.
Tom began to speak, and Lewis began to write.
When it was done, and Lewis had saved the document, they both stood up. The passage of time seemed not to have affected them, for they both seemed refreshed. Silently, Tom led his guest from the room.
Tom went to a closet near the front door. From it he withdrew a fishing vest, festooned with tied flies. He put this on, and then withdrew from the closet a very fine fly rod. He settled a very comfortable looking hat on his head, sturdy but very old.
“Well, time to give it a try.” He said, and opened the door. Lewis followed him out to the road.
Lewis stood by him, as they both gazed longingly down the road. The day was still bright, still astounding. Rich with life and promise.
He said no more. He shook Lewis’ hand, and then turned and walked away.
Lewis stood in the middle of the road, and watched as Thomas Ross walked out of sight. He waited a time, but he did not hear any footsteps coming up behind him.
“A bit of a way station.” He said, aloud. “A house between.”
He stood a bit longer.
“Some are not yet ready.” He said. With a sigh, he walked back into the house.