Joseph Cathcart is an old man. Also, he is very short-tempered. There are many reasons this could be. Maybe he’s weary of his age; maybe he wants to go back to his youth; maybe he hates modern-day conventions. It’s none of those things; it’s inexplicable at this point. Cathcart sports intense white hair that’s blinding in the light. His eyes, a misty blue, are set into a penetrating glare, leaving people to avoid eye contact with him. Like a suddenly outmoded battleship, his body is on the verge of collapse, every step he takes is followed by a creaking of the joints, his once smooth skin plagued by wrinkles, his once impeccable teeth falling out, looking like gnarled pieces of corn.
Cathcart leaves his squalid apartment at 8 AM every morning. His dwelling is stuffy, with little breathing room. Enormous stacks of old newspapers cover the apartment, reaching toward the ceiling, threatening to collapse at any second. Scads of dust have gathered on his mementos, and to move an inch, to disturb the sanctuary to a bygone era, is to bring about a tornado of dust that clog the lungs. So, he goes outside every day.
Outside, he’s restless. First, he visits friends at the park to play chess. All of them are from an earlier time; when in their most formidable years they were conscripted to fight in the Great War. The rattling explosions of shrapnel, the howl of guns ablaze, the rush of air and life that the grazing of a bullet brought, all of these were distant dreams as they met in the verdant calm of the park. Cathcart would play with his friends, but lost patience in the intricate game, the knights to queen b-4, the rooks to pawns c-2, the inevitable checkmate, sweep the pieces off of the board, and would begin to wander again.
Cathcart, at this point, would go off to a local eatery to enjoy a modest meal. He would walk over and enjoy Ruby’s, a 60s nostalgia diner. He’d order a hamburger, and enjoy the only thing that was timeless: cute, young waitresses. They stay the same as I get older, he thought. With lecherous stares, he’d enjoy this buffet of flesh, until he was escorted out of the room by a local security guard. He’d claw at him, acting dignified; it was his right as an American to stare all he wanted! He fought in the Great War so you could have the freedom to sport a dinky security badge, its cheap plastic molded at the local mall! Then, he’d go get groceries.
At the grocery store, he’d hobble along, hunchbacked over his cart. He’d pass very slowly, leaving the aisle ways to congest like so many cars on the interstate. He’d totter along, leaving in his wake very angry but respectful housewives. Not until he reached the vegetable aisle would his temperament explode. 30 cents a pound?! For tomatoes?! The effrontery! As if the food they offered wasn’t audacious enough, weighted down with preservatives, tainted with coloring, diluted with “secret flavors.” Now he wanted something natural, and they were charging prices that were highway robbery! He sputtered vehemently against the manager, with his goblets of spittle flying about in an unheard of rage. Mothers herded their children away from him as his arms flew about, and once again, he was escorted out of a public place.
that, he’d board the train home and watch buildings go by. Their spires seemed
to get closer to the sky every single day. The buildings seemed to proliferate,
ready to swallow up the tiny houses in their way, until all that was left in
the world was city. Parks, museums, libraries, and other monuments ultimately
succumbed to the spread of the cities, like a cancerous body finally yielding
to the disease. As he looked out the window, a group of young hoodlums walked
by. Grey hoods covered their faces as they approached him, and the largest of
“Hey there old man, what’cha up to?”
They began to encircle him, with a seemingly ominous purpose.
man, can you spare some change? I gotta buy this milk for my grandma, see, but
money’s hard to come by. How ‘bout it?”
Cathcart, distrustful, retorted “Get a job then, ya louse.”
And then the young men swarmed upon him, throngs of hands beating down on his supple body, reaching into his pockets, invading his space. They howled with laughter, beating into him and digging into his pockets like an exceptionally energetic archaeological dig. Cathcart waved his hands frenetically, saying “Disgraceful, the lot of you, trying to rob an old man!” Suddenly, one of them took hold of the silver cross around his neck, and Catchcart felt himself reach his breaking point.
“You will not overtake me!” he screamed, and he knocked the offending one back. The others paused, a break in their revelry. They looked at him, stared at him, and Cathcart punched one in his gaping face. His fist recoiled, he swung at another, and bringing it back, it was coated with a thin film of blood. “I will not be swallowed up by you, I fought for you, I fought for your freedom, what’s wrong, what’s wrong with this age!” he exclaimed. The boy was on the floor, blood leaking across the floor of the train. He wept for his mother, and Cathcart saw how young he was, and suddenly he saw how young each of them was. He quietly asked for his items back, and the boys consented without a word, shrinking away reproachfully. He stood until the next stop, until he left the train, feeling very old.
His hands grasped around the silver cross on his neck. He walked the full mile back to his house. As he went to lie down, he found an envelope enclosed inside of his mailbox. His son had finally written to him. He left a return address. Cathcart’s hands trembled around the silver cross around his neck, and cracked a smile.