"Sometimes, a man becomes lost and anonymous to the point of oblivion."
"I must have traveled ten thousand miles in the last year or so, and I just keep gettin' deeper and deeper with every step." The old man eyed the road suspiciously, as though it were a rabid dog and might suddenly turn on him. He scratched his unkempt beard and repeated, "Deeper and deeper."
Obligingly, Simian asked, "Deeper into what?"
"Oblivion, son. It's the only thing out here, you know." A sleek, new automobile roared past, its motor a mere whisper despite the brutal acoustics of the bridge. Its tires made smacking noises as they rolled through the puddles of rain. "You and me, we live on the other side of the window. On the other side of the door. For us, there is only this, and this is oblivion."
"What are you, old man? Some kind of poet, or something?" Simian realized he was trapped beneath the rampart for the duration of the storm, and only this old road dog for company. At least the geezer didn't stink. Much.
"Me? A Poet?" The old man cackled rancorously. "Well, yeah, maybe I am. Least ways, I know a thing or two, and ain't much afraid of tellin' people about what I know. That's why I'm tellin' you now; there's nothing on the outside but more outside. And endless outside is oblivion. Sheer, unforgiving, merciless oblivion."
"That right?" Simian sighed, resigning himself to the old fart's apparently ceaseless rambling.
With a groan of relief, he shrugged out of a heavy green backpack that had the logo of the National Forestry Service emblazoned on it. This he eased to the ground at his feet, arranging it so it wouldn't roll down the steep embankment and onto the highway below. Another car roared through the span, spraying filthy water in its wake like a ski boat. Where the bridge met the top of the embankment, there was a convenient concrete ledge that made for an excellent bench. The old man was already sitting there, and had arranged a small, makeshift stove alongside him, next to his bedroll and carryall. The stove was nothing more than a large Folgers Coffee can with a handful of sticks burning inside. Atop the flame sat an ample tin cup, supported by a little grill made of twisted wires.
Noticing Simian's interest in the steaming arrangement, the vagrant chuckled. "Go ahead, help yourself and have a seat. Just made myself a little instant coffee is all. Do you have a cup?"
Of course he did. Simian removed the top of his canteen, and proffered it gratefully to receive the thick, aromatic liquid. Cradling his big hands around the metal vessel to draw its warmth into his palms, the younger tramp took a seat adjacent to his much older peer, and began blowing cautiously across the surface of the coffee.
"Now, like I was saying," began the old fart once more, reclining more comfortably against the concrete abutment, "I must've traveled ten thousand miles in the last year. And maybe I done more than one MILLION since I first hit the road half a century back. That's how I know so much about oblivion. What I mean is, more than once I've stood in a crowd, surrounded by hundreds an' hundreds of people all swirling past, and been invisible. Invisible, know what I mean?"
"Sure, old man. I know what you mean. People are either stepping on or over street trash like you and me all the time. So what? They just don't want to see. That's all."
"No, that's not all. Not all, by any dip of the stick. You're young, still. How long can you have been on the road? One? Two years? Wait 'til you're fifty seasons on the pavement, and stumbling on.
"It's not just that people don't want to see..." the old man's gravelly voice fell silent a moment, as he paused to sip from his own mug of warmth, "...they CAN'T see. Any more than you can see a ghost. It's the oblivion of nowhere that eats into you until you're nothing. With every step, you just mire yourself deeper and deeper. And it don't take long before you're too far gone to get back. The point of no return is just about as far down the road as your first night sleeping beneath a bridge like this. After that, trying to get back is like a man trying to struggle free of quicksand. You see what I mean? You just keep gettin' deeper and deeper with every step."
Simian judiciously eyed his bedraggled companion above the metallic rim of his canteen cup. "It can't be that bad. I've been on the streets about eighteen months, but I'm only working my way across country, seeing the sights and all. This is like an extended vacation for me. Next year, I'll get back to the university and finish my degree. Next year, or maybe the year after."
The old timer grumbled rheumatically from deep in his chest. After a second or so, Simian realized it was the geezer's version of laughter. It ended with a fit of ragged coughing. To finish it all, he snorted, and spat a thick, lumpy wad of mucous into the rainfall beyond the shelter of the bridge.
"See what I mean? You're too far gone already, prob'ly."