Michael Callahan started down the well-worn path leading from the edge of the woods. Michael was by himself but his passion to wrap up this project had long ago eclipsed any fears he might have for his own safety. His gut told him that he was being watched as he scanned the trees and underbrush for any signs that he might not be alone.
Five weeks of being on the road were starting to wear on him, especially in the damp and stifling heat of the Florida summer. Michael’s once chiseled physique had become rounder and he had given up shaving weeks ago. The reflection that now peered back at him from the mirror could’ve stepped right out of old Woodstock footage from the 60’s. He longed for the old comfortable routines of his life but, more than anything, Michael was itching to start what would be long months of editing. The only thing stopping him from heading home just yet was a nagging voice in his head that kept telling him he wasn’t done.
Michael’s eyes swept slowly and carefully, back and forth for any hint of movement. He felt a ghostly presence among the trees. Just ahead he quickly spotted what he had been looking for. Not far down the path was a sunburned man, wearing a tattered Yankees baseball cap and reflectively poking at a small fire with a stick.
Michael cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and called out, “Hi there. Are you hungry? Would you be interested in a free lunch?”
The man seemed relaxed and dazed from staring into the fire. Not being used to visitors, the shirtless man looked up suspiciously and said, “I always heard there was no such thing.”
Michael smiled and seemed truly entertained by the bluntness of this stranger.
“You’re right. I just have a couple of questions to ask you. In return I’ll give you as many subs as you can eat.”
The man, intrigued, stood up quickly and looked Michael suspiciously. “Are you a cop or some pervert?” he asked.
“What? Oh no! The name’s Michael Callahan and I’m just a storyteller or should I say a story-gatherer. There is no pressure at all. Just follow me if you’re interested.” He said as he went up the path in the direction from which he had come.
Michael knew that hunger was a powerful tool and he had used it many times in the past five weeks. He walked about twenty yards ahead and the man fell in step behind him on the narrow path and called out, “My name’s Jeremy. Jeremy Schiller.”
As a dingy yellow RV slowly came into view through the leaves Michael looked back and said, “Nice to meet you Mr. Schiller. Welcome to my humble abode.” as he pointed towards the old RV that was parked in a gravel lot.
Its once shiny chrome wheels were covered with dust and the cabin smelled sour from the trip cross-country. Michael unlocked the creaking screen door and held it open for his guest. As he walked behind Jeremy up the stairs he caught a glimpse of an Asian man in the distance watching intently from behind a large oak tree at the edge of the woods.
“Mr. Schiller, come right in and have a seat on the couch and make yourself comfortable.” Michael said. He was being overly attentive, speaking slowly and carefully, in a tone that is usually reserved for small children.
“I’ll get those sandwiches that I promised you but first let’s just talk for a minute. I’m traveling around this country of ours, gathering the stories of people like yourself in hopes of someday turning the footage into a documentary. Are you camera shy, Mr. Schiller?”
A hesitant smirk appeared on Jeremy’s lips as he took off his faded baseball cap and ran his fingers through his thinning blond hair. “Umm, no. I suppose not,” he said.
Michael walked over to a small video camera perched on a tripod in the corner. Turning it on and adjusting its aim, he said, “Good. Just try to forget this thing is on. Now, could you please tell me a little about you and your situation?” Michael reached over and handed him a cold bottle of Gatorade from a large cooler. Jeremy stared at the bottle for a long moment and then ran his sunburned finger down the tiny beads of sweat that had blanketed its label. He quickly cracked open the bottle cap, took a long drink and cleared his throat.
He began to speak, softly and humbly, “Well, where do I start? My name is Jeremy. These woods out here have been my home for close to I guess eight years now. It’s not a bad place here once you get accustomed to it. It almost feels like a resting place between two worlds.”
Michael seemed intrigued, “I’m not sure what you mean. Can you explain?”
“You see, sometimes in the morning, in the hazy moments after I wake the life I now live still seems unreal to me. During my waking hours, memories of the life I once lived drift in and out of the corners of my mind like a dream. These memories sometimes fill me with joy, most times they make me angry but nonetheless they are mine and they are all I have left. There are things I miss. Sometimes I close my eyes and swear that I can see Ashley and Genee playing on the jungle gym in the schoolyard in the thin light of March. It might sound strange but sometimes I’ll just sit among these trees and smile, thinking of something as wonderfully mundane as a trip to the old organic co-op to buy groceries or walking the dog through the neighborhood in the crisp air of fall. As each year comes and goes I’ve learned to value these memories more and more. You see, if you’re an optimist, time has a way of polishing the bad and leaving you with only the good. I’m finding myself revisiting the good now almost every day. There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my forty-three years on this Earth. The first is there are lessons to be learned in every second of life, the hard part is you must be awake for them. Second, none of us are entitled to a goddamn thing. If life is good, enjoy it and give thanks to whomever or whatever it is you believe in. If life is bad don’t blame anyone, just get busy fixing it. Time is the most precious thing and too many people waste too much of it playing the blame game.”
Michael nodded, “Hmm. Very wise words, Mr. Schiller. Can I ask what your childhood was like?”
“Well, I didn’t have a privileged childhood. I had two brothers, my parents were what you would call lower middle class and worked hard every day. My mother always told me I was born with a desire to chase after my dreams and she raised me to believe they were all within my grasp. Things never came easy for me but what I lacked in intelligence I made up for in persistence.”
Jeremy chuckled softly and continued, “I had a few years of college and was majoring in journalism but dropped out to take the plunge into the world of software engineering. We were smack-dab in the middle of the ‘dot com boom’. My friend Matt and I, you could say we had a fairly decent idea and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We started our own firm and opened up shop in an old warehouse in a trendy part of town. It wasn’t long before we had a staff of ten. That’s how I met Ashley. I’ll never forget the first day she came through the front doors to interview for one of our marketing positions. She was as bright as a ray of sunshine. Lord, she took my breath away, she still does every time I think of her.”
Jeremy stopped for a moment to gather himself, his eyes began to well up as he continued.
“Those years were a whirlwind and before I knew it Ashley and I were married with a beautiful baby daughter, Genevieve.”
“What a great name.” Michael said.
The grin of a proud father flashed across Jeremy’s weather-beaten face, “Thank you. The name was popular during the Victorian-era, Ashley felt an affinity towards that time. Our house was filled with all kinds of antiques. She always had such a great eye for a bargain; she would always buy the pieces dirt cheap and refinish them.”
Jeremy cleared his throat and continued, “Well, after Genevieve was born we bought a house in an exclusive gated community called, ‘Whispering Pines’. Ashley never had asked for any of this excess but I felt she deserved only the best of the best, the American dream you know? Whenever I would buy her anything nice or expensive she would look deep into my eyes and ask, “Do you know none of this is necessary?””
Michael noticed an ever so subtle twitch in Jeremy’s eyelid as he took another small sip of his Gatorade and continued to speak.
“The ironic thing was, this place, ‘Whispering Pines’ was the type of place I wanted to live since I could ever remember but once we had achieved this lifestyle, it never really felt like home. It seemed to me like everyone was just trying so hard to convince themselves and every one around them that they were happy.”
“How do you mean?” asked Michael, as he sat back in his swivel chair. His Zippo clicked as he lit a cigarette.
Jeremy’s brow ruffled as he leaned forward on the couch and looked Michael directly in the eyes, “It was more like a sickness, this endless aching for more things. It was a kind of darkness that slowly eclipsed every part of your life that had any meaning. More money, nicer things, more exotic travel destinations. People in that community had one thing in common, this tired, empty look in their eyes. You know what I mean?”
Michael squinted as he took a drag off of his Winston, “Yes, I’ve seen that look many times in my travels.”
“We were surrounded by all these nice things but weren’t fulfilled. I personally was too focused on the future to enjoy my life then. I suppose we all got caught up in the euphoria of it all. The one thing I noticed about this lusting after money was, after a certain point, it was worse than walking around hungry because this was a type of hunger that never left you.”
“I understand, please continue Mr. Schiller” Michael said.
“We lived in one of the largest houses in the community but still that wasn’t enough. We also needed to have the best vehicles money could buy, I drove a BMW 740i. The instruction manual for the damn thing was as thick as a phone book! Do you believe that? I bought Ashley a brand new Land Rover. At this point I could tell she was beginning to get a little worried we were in over our heads. She walked around in a cloud for the next few days. To ease her mind I logged onto my broker’s website and finally showed her exactly what our stock was worth. She was speechless. I will never forget the look she gave me. Her eyes were glazed, her mouth upturned in a silly smile as though she had just taken a hit of some potent drug. I pinpoint this as the precise moment she changed. Never again did she look me in the eyes and tell me the material things weren’t necessary. From that moment on we were both spending like mad and it was my fault. All my fault.”
Michael’s leg began to bounce nervously as he pulled a small notepad from the pocket of his wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and flipped open its cover. “How were you doing financially at that time, Mr. Schiller, if you don’t mind telling me?” he asked as he furiously scribbled notes.
Jeremy hesitated and his eyes took on a look of suspicion. Michael’s expression reflected the fear his questions had burrowed too deeply into the wounded recesses of Jeremy’s mind. He learned long ago people desperately want to tell their stories and a good interviewer knew to massage and coax, not prod and probe. He still sometimes got too anxious and forgot this, especially when he was truly engaged.
Although he still held a slightly guarded look in his eyes it seemed Jeremy’s memories had been locked away for far too long to be quelled. His words continued their flow, “Well, let’s just say we could’ve paid off everything, all of our bills, and lived out the rest of our days comfortably just off of the interest of what we had.”
Michael’s eyes widened as he took a sip of his coffee. “I see. Can I call you Jeremy?” asked Michael as his voice suddenly took on a more respectful tone.
“Sure you can. Does the offer of the subs still stand?” Jeremy asked.
Michael began to see beyond the tattered clothes and leathery face and saw a glimpse of what once made Jeremy such a successful business man. He had a certain “realness” about him. Despite his ragged appearance, in only a few minutes he earned Michael’s complete trust and respect.
Loudly digging through the loose ice cubes in the cooler Michael asked, “Roast beef or turkey?”
“Both please.” Jeremy answered politely.
“What happened next?” asked Michael as he handed him two subs, still dripping from the melting ice.
Jeremy unwrapped the sandwich hungrily and placed other down closely beside his leg. “Well”, he said his words muffled between chews. “The stock market crash happened. It was as though everything we had acquired went up into thin air. We lost the house. Shortly after we lost everything and Ashley left with Genee.”
“I’m so sorry.” Michael leaned forward and put his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. Jeremy jerked away but then smiled as if to assure Michael that everything was all right.
“I was too ashamed to take help from any of my family. It was too much for me to deal with at once. At that point nothing mattered. I felt completely numb and the only thing I could think of to make me feel better was to see the ocean, to feel the salt breeze on my face. So I left town and drove twenty-two hours straight to Cocoa Beach with nothing but the clothes on my back and whatever cash was in my wallet.”
Michael asked quietly, almost in a whisper, “What is the hardest part for you now?
“Of course, there was the loss of my family, there was also the shame, but the most difficult part was knowing there was nowhere to go. This was such a strange predicament and filled me with such intense anxiety. But after eight years, I’ve learned to come to terms with it. I’ve realized the life most people are living is not natural. It’s simply not the way life was meant to be. Michael, we have been conditioned to be nothing more than money making robots. The most difficult thing now is also the most beneficial for me. Out here, there are no laurels on which to rest, you’re staring your demons in the face every waking second so you’re forced to deal with them. This, I think, is what drives most people to the bottle or to madness and I came very close to both.”
Michael was engrossed but looked shaken by Jeremy’s words. As if they touched his soul and peeled away its many layers, exposing some of his greatest fears. He asked his next question desperately as a snake bite victim searched for an antidote, “And what was it that saved you Jeremy?”
A deep smile flashed across the face of Jeremy Schiller as he finished the last bite of his sub and crumpled up the wrapper into a tight ball, “My savior came to me.”
“Do you mean Jesus?” asked Michael.
“Not exactly. Not directly anyway. I have to ask you something. Did you feel the presence out there in the woods?” Jeremy asked, still smiling.
Michael just nodded in agreement, not wanting to interrupt Jeremy’s flow of thoughts and words.
“I had bought an enormous jug of whiskey, stumbled into these woods almost a decade ago with the intention of drinking drink myself into oblivion.” Tears began to stream down Jeremy’s face as he continued.
“I was sitting out there in the dark in horrible, drunken misery when my savior came to me. He looked then just as he does now, he hasn’t aged a bit in all these years.”
Michael was beginning to wonder if madness had indeed gotten a hold of Mr. Schiller. Jeremy’s eyes took on a growing ethereal glow as he continued, “Through this drunken haze I remember seeing this thin, toothless Asian man. Honestly, he scared the hell out of me at first. He came out of nowhere and was dressed in rags from head to toe. He had duct tape looped around both of his shoes to hold them together but something about this man’s eyes left me speechless. His eyes were so humble and kind, they sparkled with so much pure happiness it was almost like there was a fire lit behind them. He didn’t speak a word but just held out his hand. This exact moment for me was a revelation. No words were spoken but this stranger who had nothing was standing there offering me something which was very rare, his total acceptance and unconditional friendship.”
"I think I saw this man you're talking about at the edge of the woods. What's his name?" asked Michael.
"Yep, that was him. I have no idea what his name is, he never utters a word, he just smiles but we manage to communicate just the same. He sometimes scratches pictures in the dirt. Mostly pictures of tanks and artillery. My best guess is that, in his former life, he is a Vietnamese refugee who has seen God only knows what horrors. He's taught me everything I know, the least among them is survival. He delivered me from my misery, from the land of the lost. Now I am truly free."
Michael was moved by Jeremy's story and the power of it changed something in him. He realized once again the nagging voice in the back of his head had served him well. This interview was the Holy Grail of his documentary and was a testament to the fact that one small act of kindness, something that costs absolutely nothing, can ripple forth in waves and touch the lives of countless others.
He looked deep into this homeless man's eyes and asked, "Jeremy, do you ever think you'll ever want to give the world another chance?"
Jeremy didn't even pause to reflect before he answered, "Never. Not that world! Michael, when your mind is clear you can see it so plainly. That world out there is too far gone; it is nothing but a fragile house of cards. Power and money are now the only gods left."
As they said their goodbyes and Michael handed Jeremy all the cash he had in his wallet, about two hundred dollars. Jeremy argued but Michael insisted. Michael figured this would keep the two from going hungry for a while and this comforted him in some small way.
Michael Callahan fired up the engine of his musty RV and started on the road back home to his life.
All the way home he daydreamed about how he would splice together the footage. The documentary that started out being about the perils of homelessness in America was transformed instead into a film about the root cause of the problem, the broken system that helped to create it.
Michael dedicated the film anonymously to "his savior" and called it, "TheAmericanDream". When it debuted at Sundance the very next year it was the surprise hit of the film festival. Michael had poured his entire life savings into the project, roughly twelve thousand dollars. The film grossed one hundred and twenty-three million dollars in its first year.
Time after time it was always Jeremy's interview that woke people up and touched their hearts. Michael went on to produce a string of successful films and acquired every single material thing he ever wanted but was very careful to live his life with a certain sense of balance. He discovered he had a wonderful knack for spreading the money around to those who needed it. He never forgot the lesson he had learned through listening to Jeremy, his savior.
Three years after the release of TheAmericanDream Michael took a road trip from Manhattan down the coast with nothing more than his phone and a duffel bag full of hundred dollar bills. During the drive, he reflected on the fact that he had met Jeremy at the exact moment he needed to and how everything unfolded the way it did for a reason. He was awed by the fact that all actions and reactions are part of an amazingly complex web that can best be deciphered in reverse. If success would've ever come his way before, he would've have likely been sucked into the very same hellish world that Jeremy had narrowly escaped from.
On the drive Michael entertained many fantasies about what Jeremy would do with the cash. Now that his lesson was learned maybe he would finally be ready to make a brand new start with his wife and child. Maybe he would just hide the money in the woods and live out the rest of his days in peace, never having to wonder where his next meal would come from.
He took the Rockledge exit off I-95 and his heart thumped in his chest as he got close to the patch of woods that had served as the incubator of his rebirth. He quickly put his Prius in park and grabbed the duffle bag, making his way down the old well-worn path. But this time something seemed different. At first Michael couldn't put his finger on it. Then it dawned on him, the presence that he once felt in the woods no longer seemed to be there. He made his way deeper down the path and noticed a bright yellow bulldozer standing motionless near a pile of fallen trees with heaping mounds of twisted roots and raw earth on either side of it.
"Jeremy! Jeremy!" Michael called out frantically. While holding the heavy duffle bag, he called out Jeremy's name a few more times. With each time his voice became progressively quieter. He sat down on a fallen tree just long enough to realize how foolish his original intentions for making this trip made him feel. Michael smiled as he realized that this lesson had many layers and he had just peeled back yet another one. He knew in his heart that Jeremy and his friend had moved on to another place the moment that progress had encroached on their peace. Michael reached down and picked up a rock from the path, dusted it off and studied it in the shaft of sunlight created by the fallen trees.
In a year, when this magical patch of woods is destroyed to make way for yet another outcrop of cookie-cutter condominiums, as Michael liked to call them, he figured that he would have only the single stone to remind him of this wonderful journey.
All of a sudden, he felt a tingling sensation on the back of his neck and he noticed the hairs on his arm were standing straight up. His eye caught something in the sunlight near his feet. He reached down to pick up a weathered Ziplock bag. Michael unraveled the bag and in it he found a piece of paper with Asian characters flowing wistfully down the page.
He instinctively knew that he held something very special and kept it close to him on the ride home. The first thing he did when he came across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan was to head to Chinatown, the only place he knew of where he could get this treasure translated. He double-parked on the street in front of a small souvenir shop and ran in. The owner of the shop was a stocky man with a stump of an unlit plastic tipped cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. Michael inquired about the translation and the man happily obliged. He leaned over the outstretched paper on the counter and, with furrowed brow, quickly scribbled the following translated text on a piece of crinkled yellow paper.
From the Land of the Lost
This life is a free-falling dream
In which time is the only gravity
reach out, but there's with nothing to cling to
Until you awaken to discover your wings
these wayward wanderings will bring
many a lonesome stings
but your soul is a phoenix
and a most faithful guide
make your journey to the peaks
and take comfort in the sunrise
of each day born anew
taste the wine and know in time
that you will make your way
from the land of the lost.
Michael stood there enraptured by the wisdom of the words. He quietly thanked the shop owner and walked out of the shop in a blissful daze. To him, these words were a testament to him that no matter what negative forces were out there they could never, ever extinguish the good that dwells in the depth of the heart of humanity. Michael carried this poem with him on a laminated card for the rest of his days. It served as a reminder not only of Jeremy and the smiling man who never spoke, but most importantly it reminded him not to ever forget the things that mattered most; the sunshine, birdsong, the kindness of strangers. With these words, as long as he was mindful to hold the things that truly mattered close to his heart, Michael knew he would never, ever find himself among the ranks of the lost.