An Original Short Story by: Ismael Manzano
Jean Bishop had little love in his life, if any at all; he bowed to no god, shared a bed with no woman as of late and shared private words with no one. He saw his family only as much as required and laughed only when it was necessary. His day to day life was routine more than anything and there was little room in it for additions, wants or needs. Breakfast, work, lunch, work, exercise, dinner, cleaning, sleep and dreams: that was the order of Jean’s day, and he seldom deviated from his course.
One Thursday morning on his way to his job as a regional manager of a multi-state import/export company, Jean fell in love. The man he saw was elderly, statuesque, slender, well dressed and walked with a gait of confidence and sophistication that seemed to waft off of him in waves. But it wasn’t the grey-haired man with the thousand dollar suit that had caught Jean’s eye and his heart; it was the lion-headed, solid gold, mahogany cane the man used to keep his stride strong. The masterpiece of a cane was thick and dark and seemed to glow in the light of the mourning sun; it even seemed to glow in the shade, and the lion’s head mounted on top was encrusted with fierce red jewels and bore a wide gaping mouth as though the thing was roaring a silent roar of triumph for the whole world to hear. Even the sound the metal tipped cane made as it struck the filthy and undeserving pavement was a magical score of brilliance.
Tap—tap—tap—tap, went the cane as the man led it down the street. Tap—tap—tap—tap, went Jean’s heart, as if to answer it.
The elderly man with Jean’s beloved cane walked swiftly across the street, down the next block, carrying all of Jean’s hopes away with him. Jean moved to follow, but lost the man in the throng of the early morning rush. His heart had never felt so heavy, and suddenly, that cane was all he’d ever wanted and all he could ever possibly need. That cane—his cane—would make him wise, like the man that held it, and elegant like the man that held it, and rich—yes, rich. In short, the cane would make him better, make his life better, in a way he’d never thought possible until he laid eyes on the divine head of the golden lion.
He stood, heartbroken and possessed, staring at the crowd into which his cane had vanished, wondering if he would ever see it again.
Work was tedious and hard and utterly uninteresting to Jean this day; though in truth, it had never been interesting at all. Still, he could think of nothing save that cane. Its bright mahogany finish and its shiny golden lion’s head haunted him at every turn, infecting his thoughts and hampering his work. All that he did, he did with the cane in his thoughts, and it was driving him mad. He’d forgotten to eat lunch and was forced to leave work early, and ended up wandering the streets for hours without eating dinner; he didn’t even notice that he’d forgotten to eat until it was well into the evening hour.
He made it home shortly before dawn, realizing at last that he hadn’t been aimlessly wandering the streets; he’d been searching for his cane. And it was his cane, he realized, only it was in the hands of another man—a man he hated with all his heart, he was shocked to discover at the thought.
He forced himself to eat, though he didn’t want to, and managed to get a couple of hours of sleep, his dreams filled with golden and mahogany and the sweet, tap-tap-tap-tap music.
Shortly after dawn, Jean went out in search of his cane, the echo of its music driving him. He hadn’t bothered to change his clothes or to call his job to let anyone know he would not be in that day. What did it matter what those people thought? What did it matter if he’d lost his job over it? His cane was out there somewhere, waiting for him to find, and Jean Bishop meant to find it, no matter the cost.
A means to an end, he reassured himself when the temperature dropped and the chill of the city threatened to unnerve him.
It was next Thursday when he saw the man with the lion’s head cane again, walking briskly and confidently through the crowded streets of mid-town. And it was none too soon for Jean who’d lost so much weight due to absentmindedness and had seldom a restful night, that he was on the verge of collapse. Though in truth, he would have managed forward if need be, managed for another week, another two, another year, if it meant finding the cane again.
A means to an end, he intoned internally.
The elderly man, looking every bit as elegant and prosperous as ever, walked away from the crowd of pedestrians and made his way down into a near empty street. Jean followed dutifully, listening with all his heart to the glorious tap-tap-tap-tap sound his cane made as it struck the pavement.
It wasn’t long before the man turned into an alley near a series of dumpsters that reeked so badly that most crossed the street to avoid its putrid stench. No one was looking. No one would notice.
Now was his chance; he hadn’t thought it would happen so soon, but there it was, prime and ready—his one and only chance. Jean followed the man into the mouth of the alley, the darkness pulling in around him the deeper he went. He could still make out the man in front of him, elegant and confident as always, walking several steps ahead, unaware of Jean or of the fate that was only seconds away.
Heart racing, Jean quickened his stride, advancing on the man. Silently, quickly, he told himself as he saw the man’s back grow larger before his eyes. Then, the man with his cane turned, wheeled on him so fast, that Jean almost gasped and gave up the hunt. But he steeled his nerves for what needed to be done and in a flash, his hands went up and found purchase around the man’s throat.
The man, grey of hair and grey of skin, did not cry out as Jean had expected, did not struggle or push against him. The man only held on tighter to the cane that had brought him to this end and, with eyes watering, stared at Jean, pleadingly. Jean had to close his eyes as he tightened his fingers around the old man’s throat, feeling the fragility of the muscles that he held, feeling the life ebb slowly away.
Within moments—shorter time than he’d expected—the taut muscles grew lax and the man slumped in his grasp for a second and then fell hard to the floor of the alley. Jean opened his eyes to see the cane—his cane—clutched tightly in the old man’s thin, lifeless fingers.
Grief filled him but he pushed it away. A means to an end, he told himself as he lowered himself on his haunches and reached tentatively for the hollowed cane. He’d become a monster and a killer, but not a thief. The cane was his; it had called to him with its tap-tap-tap-tap. Jean had simply answered its call and done its bidding.
A means to an end, he said to himself again as he pried the cane from the dead man’s fingers and finally—finally—touched his prize.
Holding the cane in his hands—hands that had taken a life—Jean realized with daunting clarity that it was not the great, awe-inspiring thing he’d once thought it to be. The wood was not mahogany but common wood, and the polish that made it shine was faded in various places and chipped in others. The lion’s head, upon closer inspection, was revealed to be a mere cat, and it triumphant roar looked more a pitiful mewl or perhaps a languid yawn. The gold was painted as were tiny studs he’d thought to be gems. All of the luster and the glory of the cane had gone with the man that had held it and now, in Jean’s hands, it shone with mediocrity and was utterly characterless. Even the sound of the tin tip striking the pavement sounded empty and weak.
Jean cried over the simple, five-and-dime variety cane that had once seemed divine, cried over what he’d lost and cried even harder over what he’d been left with. He would have chucked the damnable thing into the shadows of the alley, expect it was all he had left. He’d relinquished his life for it, taken another man’s life for it, he’d be damned if he would simply toss it aside like trash now. It was his now, better or worse, and he would hold it with him until his dying day.
Jean Bishop wandered the streets, tapping the cane against the cement, matching the rhythm he’d once heard. Tap-tap-tap-tap, groaned the cane. Tap-tap-tap-tap, it went, but never did it sound as lovely as that first time.
He frequented alleys from then on, tapping his cane, calling out to whomever would rid him of it. Often, he’d dress in clothing he could not afford and attempt to saunter with confidence he’d never possessed, if only to attract someone’s attention. He shouldn’t have been surprised that his call was never answered, but he was. Even when his fingers were as brittle as the cane and his skin as dull as what remained of its once shiny finish, he held on to the hope that someone would take from him what he’d taken from another—hoping that he could trick anyone into thinking the cane was worth taking.
Tap-tap-tap-tap, went the cane. Tap-tap-tap-tap, until Jean Bishop’s dying day.