The Wanderer

Editor's Note: congratulations to HM Gruendler-Schierloh for winning the 2013 South American Short Story Contest.  This is the winning entry. 

Clutching an oversize canvas bag, the young man is crossing the large cobblestone plaza before he walks through the heavy wooden portal of the historic train station. His shoulders drooping, he looks around for a place to sit. The huge terminal is buzzing with the comings and goings of passengers, their voices merging into the humming monotone of a swarming beehive.

Unable to find a vacant spot on the crowded benches, he lowers his luggage to the floor and leans his tired body against the cast-iron gate separating the terminal from the entrance to the tracks. Scratching his week-old beard, he casually glances up at the digital board displaying arrival and departure times.

He is in no particular hurry to pick a destination.

He has waited so long to start this journey, he feels totally at ease to take his time to decide on where he wants to go next. He relishes the freedom of not having to be in any specific place at any given time. He is merely committed to moving forward-–to somewhere he has not been before.

After finally leaving home several weeks ago, he has no intentions to return there any time soon. It's not that he hates it there. It’s just that he doesn't again want to get sucked back into the role of bystander and observer of the mind-numbing game he saw his parents play for too long.

Growing up, he has been watching closely and listening carefully.

Even now, there is no doubt in his mind that his parents were trying their best to turn him and his sister into upstanding citizens. They took their offspring to church, showed up like clockwork at all those important parent-teacher meetings, cheered enthusiastically at little league games, and supported a slew of other extracurricular activities. Yes, his parents definitely kept striving and struggling to carve out an acceptable existence for themselves, for their children, and for society as a whole, as well as they could and knew how.

However, in spite of seemingly doing everything right, they didn’t appear to be happy.

Throughout the years of being an innocent participant of this fake domestic tranquility, he never felt at ease with this undercurrent of disguised misery in their household. The emotions he absorbed left him with a strange sensation of “never enough” and always “too much.”

His father, a quintessential Puritan, who had been brought up on a diet of “all work and no play” never wavered in his efforts of achieving his primary ambition--which was making, scraping up, and saving as much money as possible--and spending as little of it as he could possibly justify, which included scrimping on everyday costs like maintenance for the family.

Over the years, every member of his household grew accustomed and stoically accepted his mantra: There is really no reason to piss money away.

As much as he admired his father for his fierce determination, iron drive, steady hard work, and an almost super-human single-mindedness to achieve his life's goal, the young man ultimately never understood the purpose of it all. What good was a pile of gold just sitting there, in the form of stocks, bank accounts, and properties--while his dependents lived as frugally as possible.  His wife increasingly resented being deprived of some basic amenities that could have made her life easier.

The young man’s mother worked hard on supporting her husband’s striving, spending countless hours managing investments and clientele, in addition to taking care of the children and everyday household tasks. In the process, she put her own dreams on hold, always waiting,always hoping that her time to express herself would come later--once they had enough to feel secure. When that day seemed to retreat whenever she thought it close, she finally confronted her husband about it. His answer was, “Sure, you can do whatever you want to do --when you are done with everything else.”

Realizing that somehow her turn would never come within the confines of her marriage, she grew defiant… then indifferent… before she decided to opt out of the relationship altogether.

She would later refer to her actions as “pouring the baby out with the bathwater.”

Although she had planned to take both children with her, the young man felt sorry for his father having to be alone - and so chose to stay with him.

After his mother and sister had left, life as usual "before" settled into a life as usual "after"… and it was a disheartening existence.

Dad dealt with his own contribution to allowing his marriage to fail by directing the blame at mum for daring to do what she did. Then he turned inward to bemoan the misery of his unjust fate. Busy with licking his own raw wounds, he paid little attention to comforting his bewildered young son. However, in spite of the emotional turmoil afflicting all the family members involved, his father never lost sight of the bottom line. He kept right on making money, and soon found a pretty young lady to keep him company. The new woman in dad's life was rather independent and self-sufficient and, therefore, she posed little threat to his personal funds.

In the meantime, mum tried to carve out a new life for herself. Finally, free to pursue her interest in doing something creative, she gratified a life-long longing--but in the process, she depleted her resources and soon found herself struggling financially.

Taking the lifestyles of both of his parents into account, the young man came to the conclusion that he didn't have any desire to emulate either one of them. He determined to find a much more harmonious balance between financial greed and monetary indifference--eventually.

However, for right now, he just wants to look around, learn, and experience how other people in other places were conducting their daily lives. In addition to picking up some valuable insights, he is moving around looking for fun, adventure, and making memories.

Again, he glances up at the train schedules. Should he go east, west, north or south?

Since any direction is fine with him he opts for a train that is the next one to leave to a distant city.

He picks up his bag, heads toward the ticket counter and wonders once again why his few belongings would feel so heavy. They consist of the bare basics: a comb, a tooth brush, clothing for all seasons, a few granola bars, a bottle of water, and a small first aid kit.

The lightest but most significant item he carries with him is protruding a little from one of the zippered side pockets. It is a jagged piece of white paper on which he has scribbled:

<em>Own only what you can carry with you;</em>
<em> Know language, know countries, know people.</em>
<em> Let your memory be your travel bag.</em>

--Alexander Solzhenitsyn


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