Michael Callahan started down the well-worn path leading from the edge of the woods. His gut told him he wasn't alone, but his passion to wrap up this project had long ago eclipsed any fears he might have for his own safety. He scanned the underbrush for any signs of movement.
Five weeks of life on the road were starting to wear on him, especially in the sauna that was summer in Florida. Michael’s once chiselled physique had become soft and shaving was a chore he gave up weeks ago. He looked like a character that stepped out of an old Woodstock news clip from the 60’s.
He longed for the old, comfortable routines of his life, but more than anything, Michael was itching to start the months of editing the footage he’d shot. The only thing stopping him from heading home, was a nagging voice in his head that kept telling him he wasn’t done.
As his eyes swept the woods, he felt a ghostly presence among the trees. He quickly spotted what he had been looking for. Not far down the path, was a sunburned man wearing a tattered Yankee’s baseball cap, poking at a small fire with a stick.
Michael called out to the man. “Hi there. I mean you no harm. Are you hungry? Would you be interested in a free lunch?”
The man looked up, but seemed dazed from staring into the fire. He sprang to his feet. “I always heard there was no such thing as a free lunch.”
“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 looked at Michael suspiciously. “Are you a cop or some kind of pervert?”
“What? I’m no pervert! My name’s Michael Callahan, and I’m just a storyteller, or should I say, a story gatherer. There’s no pressure at all. Just follow me if you’re interested in answering a few questions.”
Michael knew that hunger was a powerful motivational tool. He turned and headed back towards his vehicle. Within minutes, he heard the man’s footsteps crunching the forest floor behind him.
“My name’s Jeremy--Jeremy Schiller,” the man said as they neared Michael’s dingy, yellow RV.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Schiller. Welcome to my humble abode,” Michael said, unlocking the door and standing aside to allow the old man to enter. He thought he caught a glimpse of an Asian man 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 was being overly attentive, speaking in a slow tone that he might use addressing 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 video camera perched on a tripod in the corner. Turning it on and adjusting its aim, he turned back to his guest, handing Jeremy a cold Gatorade from a large cooler. “Good. Just try to forget this thing is on. Now, could you please tell me a little about you and your situation?”
Jeremy stared at the bottle for a moment and then ran his sunburned finger down the tiny beads of sweat that blanketed its label. He cracked open the cap, and took a long drink before clearing his throat.
“Well, where do I start? Umm, 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, once you get accustomed to it. To me, it almost feels like a resting place between two worlds.”
“I’m not sure what you mean. Can you explain?”
“You see, sometimes in the morning, in the hazy moments right after I wake up, the life I now live still seems unreal to me. During the day, memories of the life I once lived seem like they happened a hundred years ago. These memories sometimes fill me with joy--most times they make me angry--but nonetheless, they are mine, and they’re all I have left.
There are a lot of 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. It might sound strange, but there are times that I’ll just sit among all these trees and smile, thinking of something as mundane as a trip to the neighborhood co-op to buy groceries, or walking the dog in the crisp air of Fall. As each year comes and goes, I’ve replayed these memories over and over again. You see, if you’re an optimist, time has a funny way of polishing the bad and leaving you with only the good. There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my forty-three years on 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 a precious thing and too many people waste too much of it playing the blame game.”
Michael paused to reflect. “Hmm, you’re right. Very wise words, Mr. Schiller. What was your childhood like?”
“Well, I had two brothers. My parents, I guess they were lower middle class, but they worked hard, every day of their lives. My mother told me I was always chasing dreams, but 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 learned how to write computer code the summer of my sophomore year. It took me a year to master it, and then I dropped out of school. I took the plunge into the world of software engineering. It was good timing, 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. 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 first marketing positions. Lord, she took my breath away. She still does--every time I think of her.”
Jeremy stopped for a moment; 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, buying pieces dirt cheap and refinishing 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 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.
“The ironic thing was this place, ‘Whispering Pines,’ was the type of place I wanted to live in since I could ever remember, but once we had achieved this lifestyle, it never really felt like home. It seemed like everyone was just trying so hard to convince themselves, and everyone around them, that they were happy.”
“How do you mean?” Michael asked 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 eye. “It was more like a sickness, this endless aching for more things. It was a kind of darkness that slowly eclipsed every part of 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 we weren’t happy. 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 lusting after money, after a certain point, it was worse than walking around hungry. It was a hunger that a person just couldn’t shake.”
“I understand, please continue, Mr. Schiller.”
“We lived in one of the largest houses in the community, but still that wasn’t enough. I felt 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 top of the line 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. “How were you doing financially at that time, Mr. Schiller?” Michael asked as he furiously scribbled notes.
Jeremy hesitated, and his eyes took on a look of suspicion. Michael knew people desperately wanted to tell their stories, and a good interviewer knew how to massage and coax, not prod and probe. He’d forgotten this basic rule and hoped Jeremy would let it pass.
Although he still held a slightly guarded look in his eyes, it seemed Jeremy’s memories had been locked away for far too long. 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 from 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. What about those subs you promised me?”
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. There was a certain “realness” about him. Despite his ragged appearance, in only a few minutes, he earned Michael’s complete trust and respect.
Digging through the loose ice cubes in the cooler Michael asked, “Roast beef or turkey?”
“Both please.” Jeremy answered politely.
“What happened next?” Michael asked as he handed him two subs, still dripping from the melting ice.
Jeremy unwrapped the first sandwich and placed the other one on the seat beside his leg. “Well”, he said, his words muffled between chews, “the stock market crash happened. It was as though everything we had acquired disappeared into thin air. We lost the house. Shortly after, we lost everything, and Ashley left with Genee.”
“I’m so sorry.” Michael put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, but Jeremy jerked away then smiled, as if to assure Michael that everything was alright.
“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. I drove twenty-two hours straight to Cocoa Beach with nothing but the clothes on my back and whatever cash was in my wallet.”
“What is the hardest part for you now?
“There was the loss of my family, of course, but there was also the shame. The hardest part was knowing there was nowhere to go. It was a strange predicament and filled me with anxiety. After eight years, I’ve learned to come to terms with it. The life most people are living is not natural. It’s simply not the way it 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 easiest. 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 at the same time shaken by Jeremy’s words. He felt exposed as if his own deepest fears were on display. He asked his next question with the desperation of a snake bite victim searching for an antidote. “And what 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. “My savior came to me.”
“Do you mean Jesus?” asked Michael.
“Not exactly. I have to ask you something. Did you feel the presence out there in the woods?”
Michael nodded, not wanting to interrupt Jeremy’s train of thought.
“I’d bought an enormous jug of whiskey, stumbled into these woods almost a decade ago with the intention of drinking myself right 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 he came to me.”
Michael was beginning to wonder if madness had taken hold of Mr. Schiller. Jeremy’s eyes took on an 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. He came out of nowhere and was dressed in rags from head to toe. Duct tape looped around both of his shoes to hold them together, but something about this man 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, just held out his hand. This stranger, who had nothing, was standing there, offering me something rare; his total acceptance and unconditional friendship.”
"I think I saw him at the edge of the woods. What's his name?"
"Yep, that was him. I have no idea what his name is, he never talks, 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 he’s a Vietnamese refugee. He's taught me survival. He delivered me from my misery, from the land of the lost. Now I am a free man."
Michael was moved by Jeremy's story. He realized the nagging voice in the back of his head had served him well. This interview was the Holy Grail of his documentary. It was a testament that one small act of kindness, something that costs absolutely nothing, can ripple forth in waves and touch the lives of countless others.
"Jeremy, do you ever think you'll ever want to give the world another chance?"
Jeremy didn't pause before he answered. "Never. Not that world! 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, Michael handed Jeremy all the cash he had in his wallet. Although Jeremy argued, Michael insisted, comforting himself with the knowledge that the two hundred dollars would keep the two from going hungry. He fired up the engine of the RV and began his journey home.
The documentary that started out being about the perils of homelessness in America, was transformed. Instead, Michael knew the film would be about the root cause of homelessness, the broken system that helped create it.
He invested all he had, less than twenty thousand dollars, and dedicated the film to ‘His Savior’ and called it, ‘The American Dream’. It debuted the following year at Sundance and became the surprise hit of the film festival. It was released nationally, and in its first year, grossed one hundred and twenty-three million dollars. When interviewed, audience members credited Jeremy’s interview as the reason for the memorable impression that people walked away with from the theatre.
Michael went on to produce a string of successful films and acquired all the material things that spelled success, but he was careful to live a balanced life. He spread the money around to those who needed it and he never forgot the lesson he learned from Jeremy—his—Michael’s savior.
Years after the release of ‘The American Dream,’ Michael took a road trip. Leaving Manhattan, he drove down the coast with nothing except his phone and a duffel bag full of hundred dollar bills. He knew that he had met Jeremy at the exact moment he needed him. He had time during the ride to reflect 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 had come his way before meeting Jeremy, he was certain he would've been sucked into the very same hellish world that Jeremy had narrowly escaped.
Michael entertained many fantasies about what Jeremy would do with the cash. Now that he’d absorbed the lesson, maybe he would finally be ready for a new beginning. Maybe he would just hide the money in the woods, but he’d never have to wonder where his next meal would come from.
He took the Rockledge exit off I-95, his heart racing as he got close to the patch of woods that were the incubator of his rebirth.
He threw his Prius into park and grabbed the duffle bag, making his way down the familiar path. 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 was gone. Farther down the path, he noticed a bright yellow bulldozer standing motionless near a pile of fallen trees.
"Jeremy! Jeremy!" Michael called out frantically. While holding the heavy duffle bag, he continued calling, but his voice dropped to a whisper. He sat down on a fallen tree just long enough to realize how foolish he was. Jeremy and his friend would have moved the minute the bulldozer encroached on their peace. He picked up a rock from the path, dusted it off and studied it in the sunlight.
In a year’s time, when the magical patch of woods was replaced by another outcrop of cookie-cutter condominiums, he figured that he would have just a single stone to remind him of a wonderful journey. 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--a weathered Ziplock bag. Inside, he found a piece of paper with Asian characters flowing wistfully down the page. Instinctively, he knew that he was holding something of value.
There was nothing left there. It was time to go home. The first thing he did when he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan was to head to Chinatown, the only place he knew where he could get the treasure translated. He double-parked on the street in front of a small souvenir shop. A stocky man with a soggy stump of an unlit cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth, sat behind the counter. Michael inquired about the translation and the man happily obliged after he pocketed the twenty-dollar bill offered for his services. He leaned over the outstretched paper on the counter and, with furrowed brow, quickly scribbled the translated text onto a stiff yellow note card.
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 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 thanked him and walked out of the shop staring up at the sky in a blissful daze. The words on this card were a testament to him that no matter what negative forces existed, they could never, ever extinguish the good that dwells in the collective hearts of humanity.
Michael laminated the card and carried it with him for the rest of his days. It served as a reminder, not only of Jeremy and the smiling man who never spoke, but the lesson he too learned in the woods. He never forgot—the gifts--the sunshine, birdsong, and the kindness of strangers. As a result Michael never, ever found himself among the ranks of the lost.
~Eric Vance Walton~