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DIFFERENT KINDS OF DEAD

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"In 2018 as a cop, I was battling depression and experiencing second-hand trauma, working daily amidst the broken lives of the Homeless. I wrote this short story to try to better understand the vast gulf between us, and in so doing, learned we are more alike than we are different.

This continues to be my favorite short story I have written, and I still cry every time I read it.

Meet Joe, a depressed homeless man who makes a deal with himself: find one beautiful thing each day or step in front of a train. "                                                            

-Joel Cutter

DIFFERENT KINDS OF DEAD
A Short Story

It’s that time again, time to die.

The chill wind cuts through your layers of dirty clothing, pushing the stench toward your nostrils. Enough to make you retch, but you have long since become accustomed.
Deep shadows reach across the narrow residential road. Easy enough to get hit walking in the street in the dark, and you have imagined it many times
Tires screech. Wham. Body flying, tumbling, crashing, smashing, bleeding...
But maybe not dying, so that wasn’t for you.
You didn’t see anything beautiful today, nothing new anyway. So it’s time for you to die, that’s the deal. You peer through the gloom, down at your old battered Rolex. The face is scratched, the silver dulled by dirt and grime, but old reliable speaks to you loudly.
8:49, Joe. Hurry up, or you’ll miss it.
Even as your feet pull you steadily along the dusty sidewalk, you continue to look. A deal’s a deal, but you still have four blocks.
You shift your fraying green backpack and glance to the right. There, in the driveway, half-hidden in shadows.
Lines of steel, skin of gold. Aggressive stance, yet peaceful in repose. You pull out your flashlight to get a better look. The convertible top is nicely redone, soft but durable, clean, smooth and black, not cracked or faded.
Just as it should be. 
You edge closer, breathing deeply. Oil, but fresh, not burnt. Gasoline, high octane if your nose can tell the difference. Through the pristine glass, your light reveals white leather seats, soft yet tight, nestled among shiny black trim and velvet-smooth carpet.
You realize water is seeping into your worn shoes. Easy enough with all the holes. 
Must have left this rare girl outside after an evening bath.
The world changes shades as a harsh glow suddenly illuminates the porch.
“Hey!” a voice behind the light says.
You experience loss, not fear, as you start to move away from the treasure. 
1969 Mustang GT, perfectly restored. OK, that’s pretty good.
---
8:56
Cold metal post against your back, oversized gravel at your feet. You stare at the steel tracks, then reach forward to touch. You feel it, feel the vibration of the coming beauty, the coming death.
You place your ear against the cold metal, close your eyes.
Hhmhmhmhmhmhmh. It’s coming.
Leaning against the post again, you relax a bit. A big thing coming. One big, strong final thing.
Lights behind you. Red and blue.
“Hey, are you all right, man?”
Familiar voices, Ugh. Time for some silent treatment.
“Aw, it's Just-Lookin Joe, told ya.”
You turn to look at the two cops approaching. One older, uniform a bit worn, face a bit tired, Big Arms With Glasses (BAWG), you have long since named him. The other you don’t recognize.
“Uh, he’s standing really close to the tracks.” Crisp uniform, new leathers, shiny badge, shiny face, distinct lack of cynicism.
New guy. 
“It’s OK. You’re just looking, right, Joe?” BAWG is friendly, but there is amusement in his voice as he uses your moniker.
You turn to look, and your feet crunch on the gravel as you step away from the tracks. You say nothing, just bob your head repeatedly as BAWG will expect. But you are watching their faces, watching for the truth.
The younger one changes first. The hint of fear and uncertainty in his face morph, twisting into a mask of panicked horror. You see with clarity that the retaining latch is disengaged on his gun, he has four knives clipped onto pockets, and his hand rests on his Tazer.
Ready for anything, but prepared for nothing. Terrifying.
“Hey, you think he was the Suspicious person with the car? That was only a few blocks from here.” The younger cop stares at you. He wants to take you to jail. Maybe he thinks it will ease his torture, make him safer.
Relax Officer. You are already dead on your feet.
“Oh yeah, definitely. He’s always looking at stuff, that’s what he does.” BAWG’s friendly demeanor is peeking out from under a heavy load, demons from past calls perch like acrobats in an inverted triangle on his back. You see the weight crushing him, the talons scraping at his skull, the venomous maws whispering in his ear, even as he speaks. “He’s harmless though, just loves trains.”
I wish I could help with that load, BAWG, before it’s too late for you.
“Look, uh, Joe. Just stay back from the tracks.” New Guy’s tone turns patronizing. “Freight train comes through at nine, and we don’t want you to get hurt.” He turns to go. BAWG stands there looking at you. He suddenly looks about ten years older and much paler. His eyes stare straight forward. The demons are now gone, but you notice a red trickle dripping from the side of his head.
The train comes with a roar, passes behind you. Red and blue lights flashing in front of you. You close your eyes, and the red and blue lights become a pure light glinting off that gold mustang.
Enough light for one more day.
---
You shuffle forward in the food line at the homeless shelter, trying to ignore the smell and sound of those around you. A cacophony of voices fills the air. Excitement, inebriation, psychosis, anger, and depression are all waiting in line for free breakfast.
You sit at the well-worn metal table. The flimsy plastic tray quickly empties, but you continue to sit with it in front of you until he comes.
White, skinny as a rail, teeth grinding, eye twitching, Tattoos takes a seat across from you.
“You got it?” 
I have what you want, but not what you need.
Wordlessly, you look down, unzip the backpack, reach past your precious treasures, and pull the dirty orange bottle of Xanax out. There are six left. When you look up to hand him a pill, his face is a skeleton skull, missing most of its teeth, eye sockets empty. He sees you staring.
“The hell, Joe. Stop looking at me like that, creepy bastard.” 
You tear your eyes away from the skull, look down toward the thimble-sized baggie of white powdery substance half-concealed in his hand. Your hand reaches out as if to shake his, and the Xanax tablet in yours trades places with the baggie in his.
Tattoos stands quickly and walks away. You see his body wasting away to a skeleton even as he walks out the door.
---
Soft, clean, healthy earth at your back, a canopy of green leaves overhead. The light filters through the leaves in a brilliant cascade of natural joy. Each leaf an angelic halo floating above you.
The weeds in the ditch are itchy, though, and you absently scratch at your arms as you lie back against your backpack, surrounded by trash.
Wind teases the branches above, and the swaying creates a fluid motion that draws you in.
Trees are beautiful. Feels good to have them see me. Doesn’t qualify though, not a NEW beauty. Does feeling beauty count?
You wish it was enough.
Is a ten-dollar high beautiful?
The syringe lies on the worn handkerchief beside you. Needle capped with orange, liquid intensity visible within.
No, it’s not beautiful. It’s not ugly either, just enough of a kick to keep you looking. You watch your hands expertly guide the needle to a thirsty vein, push the plunger, flex fingers.
Your heart pounds. Ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom. Fingers tapping rapidly on the backpack.
Vision so clear. Think so fast. Ready to go, to go, to gogogogogogogoGO!
---
High noon heats up asphalt, making your favorite corner uncomfortably warm. Three layers of clothes don’t help, but it’s not like you have a safe place to store your things anymore.
Cars zip by, busy people in them. You look for quite some time, letting the sweat soak into your clothes, but nothing pure comes through.
A car twice in a row? Never that lucky, Joe.
Shouting behind you. You turn to see a sleek BMW, spoiled by an angry man, populating the burger-joint drive-through.
“Every time! Every time it’s wrong!” The man gestures as he berates a hapless employee. “I have a meeting in 10 minutes!”
You walk close, wanting to look at the car but distracted by the man. His noise is replaced by a roaring in your ears. You see him grow fatter and fatter, see cash accumulate on the dash and passenger seat of his car, as he grows noticeably older. He speeds up, and then suddenly goes still, clutching his chest in pain. Money fills the car.
Ah, so that’s it for you. 
You blink, and the man is back to normal, driving away. His license plate reads “MOMONEY”.
The Clear pumps through your veins. You look up to see the clouds zip by, then down at your Rolex.
Almost noon. Gotta find something.
You head down the sidewalk, head bobbing and jerking.
---
The sidewalk is so straight, hard, level, smooth, but just rough enough for traction. You scratch your beard, considering. 
Naw, too mundane. 
The large fancy red brick building, so close to your home, looms to the right, and your head slowly turns to it.
Friday, no crowd.
Your gaze catches on the sun glinting off the black steel railing. Bars, straight, even, strong, black, smooth, and satin. 
You stand looking at the bars, reach out to touch them. Strength, unity, a singularity of purpose.
To keep in or keep out? In or out, IN or OUT?
You take the small metal object from your pocket and tap it against the steel bars. Tink, tink, tink, tink, tink. You like the sound, even and regular, the same, like the bars.
“HEY!” Angry voice. “Get out of here, sicko! I am calling the police!”
 Your focus snaps to a daycare worker with several small children, who has emerged from the building. The kids walk to the toys inside the fence, as she punches numbers into her phone.
In AND out. Interesting.
You are mad at her for spoiling it. You wanted to look at the bars some more, and the kids didn’t seem to mind. You look at her for a moment.
What’s killing you, girl? What’s your truth?
“Yeah, there’s this GUY...”
She’s not dying fast enough. Time to move.
---
Water should fall down, but this water is going UP. You watch it, examining the contradiction. It leaps upward from the metal nozzle, rushing, soaring, reaching toward heaven. 
What if I could beat gravity, go up, up, up. Could I reach heaven?
Tears distort your vision, but you don’t wipe them. You follow the water up till it falters, trace it as it begins a random descent, then stare where it smashes helplessly and finally into the uncaring concrete.
No. All fail and die. 
The water drops which have splattered the pavement are quickly covered up by more drops, and then all run together in a puddle. 
And are forgotten.
You bring your Rolex up in front of your face, wipe your tears to better see it.
6:32. C’mon, I just need one thing. 
You stand, look around. You see a pretty soccer mom glancing up from her bedazzled phone to shoot you a dirty look.
Yeah? It’s my park too, woman.
A small boy and girl run up and start pulling on her arms, clamoring for something or the other. You see her truth then, and it isn’t pretty. 
She looks down at her children with irritation, and her face distorts into a silent scream. You see her go into fast-forward, tending to the children, giving them drinks, snacks, blankets, toys at a breakneck pace. Her tending to them is punctuated by glasses of wine, pills, a beer. As this continues, her jaw opens wider and wider, and her silent scream blasts the children. Their skin burns and blisters, but they seem not to notice. Her scream becomes fire, turning them to ash before back-lashing and engulfing her. Fire fills your vision; her scream becomes audible for a brief piercing moment, then both cease.
“Hey, stop looking at my children. I have my concealed carry.” She is standing in front of you, with one hand conspicuously thrust into her brown leather purse.
Sorry.
You reach down, hoist your backpack, and turn to go.
Sorry for you, not to you.
---
The sun is low. You are early to the tracks, but it has been an ugly day, and you welcome the end of it. You are back at the spot, the new railroad crossing. You stare at the steel, the gravel, the oily planks, the long, long, long, straight road to oblivion. You stand on and look down the tracks.
What is down there, at the end?
You look up at the sky, at a jet trail that looks like a railroad track reaching to the end of the earth.
What is at the end, for me?
“Hey moron, get off the tracks!” 
You don’t look at the face of the teenage boy as he rolls up, picks his board up, and walks across the sidewalk where it is broken by tracks.
On the far side, he hops back on, and you hear his wheels rolling as he leaves, receding. You hear more coming, more wheels behind you. Your gaze pivots back to the west, toward the park, toward the setting sun.
Orange sunlight filtering past flowing hair, outlining the lithe form. Taut muscles, sure footing, supple bending board, smooth-rolling wheels.
You watch, mesmerized as a young man with long hair approaches the crossing, working the board like a skillful lover. His face is thankfully obscured by his flowing hair so no evil truths spoil the tableau. He rolls toward the crossing at good speed, confident, full of purpose, not backing down from his destiny, bravely facing the clear end of his easy glide.
Steel resolve, meet steel tracks. Steel yourself, stalwart...
The skater reaches the point where the tracks break the concrete path but effortlessly kicks his board airborne, defies gravity. Your breath catches as the movement plays in slow motion. Leaping, spinning, flipping, gliding on air, surfing on the breath of the gods as he crosses the barrier, refusing to acquiesce to an interruption to his plan, to his purpose. He lands on the other side, still rolling.
Still alive. Steel, steel, steel, STILL. Still, he remains.
The moment, the light, the motion, the words replay. Time accelerates, and the darkness falls around you.
The light suddenly brightens, and an enormously loud sound blasts the moment to pieces.
You run from the tracks, heading in the direction the skater went as the train screams by behind you.
Still, I remain.
---
You sit on a rough log in the silky dark. Your tattered tarp is stretched above, but the sides are open so you can always be looking. There is a cluster of tents visible through the trees, ramshackle additions of plywood and tarps protruding. Most people cluster together, but you prefer it alone.
A fire burns over there, but no light disturbs the solitude of your camp.
Darkness, emptiness, nothing more to lose.
Your vision swims, and a tear tumbles to the things in your hand. Hard frame, cracked glass, faded picture. Another frame, white paper, fancy writing. Hard to see what you hold in in the darkness. That’s the point. Your fingers brush the picture.
I wish I could look at you. I want to see YOU, not your truth.
---
Clock tower, red brick, white face, black hands, old friend, old enemy. The bells tolls.
The bells tolls one. Tolls one, but for no one.
The smooth waters of the duck pond spread from your feet, reaching out like glass, like an ocean of solitude, a long smooth slide towards eternity. A duck paddles by, and you imagine you are that bird. Your mind takes flight and glides around the pond, trailing a wing in the clear waters, basking in the warmth of the sun as the wind ruffles your feathers.
“Ewww! He’s standing in the water, gross!”
You turn to look, see red and white, short skirts and tight tops. Perfect hair, perfect makeup, the fleeting and false beauty of youth.
Mental sigh. College girls.
Their truth is a familiar one and comes quickly. They transform into skimpy clubbing outfits before your eyes, wasted drunk, laughing, screaming, having what they think is fun. One bends over, long legs tanned and smooth, twerking as she looks over her shoulder, eyebrow cocked. The other smacks her lewdly on the ass. Both laugh and smile. In a split second, they are lying on the ground broken and bloody, entwined grotesquely with twisted metal and broken glass, still and staring, not coughing on the smoke that swirls around them.
Shaking, you blink, step out of the water, and turn to go. Nothing beautiful here.
---
You leave the duck pond and cross the train tracks, not at your special spot, but a bigger crossing.
Red and blue, red and blue, red and blue.
Here they come.
“Hey! SIT DOWN.” Not BAWG, then.
You comply but look to the side, not at the cop. 
No more dead faces today. 
You hand over your ID, try to ignore him. His radio crackles.
“Yeah Baker-Two, I’m out with him. Dispatch, check Lookin’ Joe for warrants.”
Another pair of tactical boots appear next to you. They just keep talking at you, so you reluctantly tune in.
“Joe, I said, do you have any drugs in your bag today?
“C’mon, you know he does. He’s a doper.”
Your jaw sets, but your shoulders sag.
Give me a break, guys. Am I really your reason to live?
You bob your head up and down, giving them what they want.
“See that? That looks like yes to me.”
“Yep, search it.”
Black rubber gloves snapping on. Don’t want to touch anything dirty while they violate your soul. You have no control as they unzip, remove, spread, examine your treasures. The things come clattering out, skitter across the sidewalk in front of you, the things you didn’t want to see, the things that hurt so much.
They say something about the syringe. You don’t notice because you are staring at the framed picture. A guy in a suit with a beautiful red-haired woman and two teenage kids, all smiling, all happy.
Arms getting pulled behind your back, cold metal imprisons your wrists. You don’t react, because you are looking at the other framed thing, parchment paper, swirling designs, fancy script: Joe Varrin, Doctor of Philosophy.
The cops move you as they search your pockets, and your face is thrust close to the picture.
No, no!
You don’t close your eyes in time, and the picture expands, envelopes you. You see them change. Your wife turns her head to smile at a man who is suddenly standing behind her, places her hands on his arms wrapped around her. Your daughter screams, “I hate you,” and hugs her mother and the new man. The picture flashes, and they are getting on a plane. Your son looks back at you one last time. Ball of fire, newsreels. The sad time.
A high, keening sound escapes your lips, and you shake violently.
“What the hell?” The hands release you, and you collapse to the ground crying and shaking.
“What’d you do?” A new voice, approaching. 
BAWG? He came.
“Nothing, he just started up. Never seen him do that before.”
The radio crackles as you lie sobbing. “Joe Varrin, seven, ten, nineteen sixty-five, clear warrants with a suspended driver’s license.”
“Crap, I don’t want to take him in just for some meth residue in a syringe,” Not-BAWG says.
“I’ll handle it. You guys can take off.” BAWG crouches in front of you. You don’t look fully at his face, just his mouth and jaw. Friendly words without visions of the demons haunting him?
A hand on your shoulder, not rough. “Hey buddy, take a breath and sit up for me, K. Just watch the cars for a minute.”
You do it and desperately focus on the cars. Sharp lines, round tires, bright colors, dark colors, shining glass, glinting chrome. Your breathing slows.
“Joe, I wish you would quit this stuff, it’s killing you.” He pauses, still crouching beside you. He strokes his chin with one hand while holding the clear syringe in a gloved hand, and you both watch the cars for a minute. “How about this, I throw this rig away and let you go, and you don’t do any more meth?”
---
You are tired, drained.
No more police today.
You veer from the sidewalk and head into the trees, the trees with all the paths. Discarded packaging from recently stolen items litters the pathway alongside older debris as you move into the seclusion of the narrow forest.
The trees are not beautiful here; they are shady and gloomy, overhanging the muddy pathway. Just beyond their branches, you can still see civilization. Cars, railroad tracks, apartments, backs of commercial buildings. Life is happening, just beyond your reach.
Bikes coming. Dirty white boys on BMX bikes. Trouble. Tattoos rolls up with a buddy, circling you, blocking you in.
“Gimmie the rest Joe.”
You say nothing, so of course, Tattoos’ friend shoves you to the ground.
Tattoos stands over you, head turning into a crumbling skull again. “C’mon I know you aren’t retarded. Give me your other five Xanibars.”
Et tu, Brutus?
Slowly, you shrug off your backpack, reach inside past the carefully arranged treasures. Your hand grasps the orange bottle.
WHAM!
You do not see the fist that hits your head, just see your world tilt and dim, then black.
Dusk filters through your eyelids, and you groan, rolling to a seated position. Alone.
Damn.
You reach for your backpack, then reach the other direction. You lurch to your feet, whirl around, back and forth.
No!
It’s gone.
---
Running now, through the darkness. Your broken shoes pound the sidewalk, and your breath comes in ragged gasps. Heart pounding, but not from the Ice. The shadows reach out from the houses and trees, hungry for you.
Nothing today. Finally.
Feet slowing, side aching.
Beauty is a lie.
Walking, limping, clothes torn, blood dripping.
At last, I die.
You look down at your wrist, to check the time. No watch. A strangled laugh escaped your lips. A bark of cynical despair. A sound that mocks life. 
Doesn’t matter. Three blocks to freedom.
The street lamp is out ahead, plunging the crossing into the quiet gloom of fresh night. You stride toward the intersection of life and death without fear.

You smell the pungent aroma of the oiled planks first, but it is soon overpowered by the burnt-steel odor of the rails. Without a watch, you don’t know how long the wait will be. But you are here at last, and the long, fearful slide will soon be over.

“Quiet night.” The voice emanates from the shadows around a crossing guard post.

BAWG?

The man separates from the post like a clever shadow, a piece of darkness that has slipped its moorings and is free to roam at will. You know his voice but can barely make out his profile in the darkness. “I knew you’d come.” It’s hard to see if his face is dead or not. He moves away from the post and stands on the tracks, looking south for the train.

You look around. No red and blue. No partner to keep him safe. You hesitate, unsure of yourself.

He speaks again, still staring down the tracks. “I know what you are looking for now, Joe.” He closes his eyes and breathes in the night wind, inhaling the lack of light like a powerful drug. His voice cracks, “We’re all looking.”

You join him on the rails, studying him intently. BAWG? Here to join me in my final adventure? You would think he would be here to help, to talk you out of it, but when you step close, you can see the blood dripping from his shattered face. His future is written as surely as your own, and his face is what you see every time you look in the mirror. IF I look in the mirror, you can’t remember when you last did.

His pain spills over. “You lost your family. I get it now.” He looks down at his hand, and you realize he is holding a well-worn picture. “Mine left me. Ever since… I guess I‘ve been looking too.”

Your left foot is on the rail, and you realize you feel a slight vibration building. You reach down and feel the rail with your hand.

“Yeah. It’s coming, Joe.” His voice changes pitch, a quiet, strangled cry, “Coming for us.”

He’s crying. The darkness can’t hide the shaking of his shoulders, and tears mix with the dripping blood. You turn to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, facing the beyond and sharing his grief as tears of your own come unbidden.

This isn’t peace.

The vibration in the rails builds, and the gravel starts shifting too. In the distance, the white light of oblivion lowers its lance for a final charge. The rumble of the metal reaper beats the air, and the blast of its clarion shatters the thick fabric of the night. Blinding light savages the soothing dark. Your heart pounds, and fear pumps through your veins.

Fear.

Not fear of death.

Fear of not living.

BAWG screams. A howl of desperation and brave fear that wars with the horn of the beast. He crushes the picture in his hands, pulls it close to his heart as the last seconds slow to a crawl.

This isn’t beauty.

“NO!” You shout it, barely audible above the clamor of the train.

In slow motion, BAWG starts to turn, a look of surprise beginning to mix with his anguish and despair. His look speaks loudly, says he wants to hear what you have to say, wants to hear your story. But the train is moving faster than he is, and there is no more time!
You brace your left foot against the rail and shove off violently, hammering into BAWG with all your might.

 

-The End-

 

“The end comes. But not for us,”  you say when the train recedes.

BAWG is shaking, and stammers, “I didn’t know you could talk.”

“I didn’t know you cared.” You stare at his face, now smooth and whole in the moonlight.

“Why did you…” he jerks his head at the crossing.

“That’s not what I am looking for.”

“You sure about that?” He gives a strange little laugh, then regains himself. “What are  you looking for?”

“One beautiful thing each day. One thing more beautiful than the end.”

“You found it?”

“Better. I found someone who cares enough to ask.”

 

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