Edition 11: Flagman by Jim Lee
It is a hard task to live up to all that is asked of us, our names and our parents’ expectations. Casimir is worn down with world-weariness because of it. He’s hearing a voice, calling on him to be more. As the flagman signals, will Casimir continue to obey? SY
Casimir Pulaski Williams felt no particular relief as his dusty compact shuddered its way along the four-lane. Another day was finished. It had been no worse than most. Meaning only that he had felt useless, trapped and bored.
More of the same.
Another thread in the small gray fabric of his life.
Once, Casimir told himself, he had been proud.
Proud of his mother. Of her steady, uncomplaining nature. Of her perseverance. And of her determination to make their lives secure. Even, at some point, proud of the name she’d given him.
Casimir Pulaski Williams.
He frowned. Sighted the first of the temporary road signs.
CONSTRUCTION AREA—NEXT TWO MILES.
There had been no trace of such activity that morning, during his commute into Johnstown. But there was a second placard, urging watchfulness. And a third, mandating a 10-mph drop in speed.
Casimir eased back on the gas and his puke-green Chevy coughed. Bucked in willful protest. He gritted his teeth and continued on—as he had been doing his entire life.
Ignore it, Mother had taught him. Turn your back on anger—other people’s too, but even more especially on your own!
That was the way—the way to get-by in this world.
The way it had to be.
She always said so. And Casimir had listened. Even as a child. Even when jeering playmates pointed to his cheap clothing or made remarks about his ‘funny’ name.
His Goodwill pants were the best a recently divorced young mother could afford. This he knew—as he knew his name came from a great hero, way back in the Revolutionary War. A name, a man who linked his mother’s love of history with her Polish-American heritage.
And so Casimir Pulaski Williams turned from the taunts. Gritted his teeth. Went on.
But it had hurt. It hurt, quite badly.
Now he shook his head. Refused to remember.
The one thing he didn’t share with his mother: a fascination with the past.
Another sign stood by the roadside, its warning clear: RIGHT LANE CLOSED, 1500 FEET.
Casimir checked his mirrors.
Another sign came up.
RIGHT LANE CLOSED, 1000 FEET.
He eased his car into the other lane, not waiting for the next sign in the series. He cut his speed another 7 mph.
The next placard fell to his wayside with vague inevitability.
RIGHT LANE CLOSED, 500 FEET.
Another sign implored motorists to GIVE ‘EM A BRAKE and Casimir responded, trimmed another 12 mph from his speedometer then debated further steps. He was in no hurry to reach his bachelor home and the frail, cranky, waiting shell of his mother.
It should be Kazimierz, he heard without warning. She gave you his name, but anglicized it. Typical of her sort of half-courage!
Casimir gasped. Stabbed his right hand at the radio, but it was off.
Mother insisted on it being off whenever the vehicle was in motion. “Pay attention to the road,” she’d told him, countless times. “To the traffic, the other drivers. Be cautious, Casimir.”
Kazimierz, the heavy-accented voice taunted.
Hearing voices, Casimir thought. Am I going mad?
He shook his head.
There was stability in the swelling arc of traffic cones, the big familiar flashing electronic arrow immediately ahead. He focused his attention there—where, after all, it belonged. Another few mph trickled away as he read yet another Department of Transportation message.
Casimir shivered, though he couldn’t think why.
Then he allowed himself a bitter chuckle. He was always cautious, wasn’t he?
Yes, the phantom voice agreed. That’s how you came to put aside your dream, isn’t it? To turn your back on travel, joy, excitement? On life?
“No,” Casimir hissed back. “It wasn’t like that!”
Oh? He could hear the smirk on unseen, mocking lips. Thick, weather-beaten, very Polish lips. You like managing that gift-shop? That safe, secure and meaningless, dreary franchised existence she locked you into? You enjoy that, Kazimierz?
“No! I despise it!”
The words burst out before Casimir could think.
His face paled as he considered their truth.
And her—the one who taught you, made you like this?
Casimir shivered. He cut his speed to the recommended crawl and glared at the sweating flagman, standing at the fringe of an orange ocean of traffic cones.
Her face was lined and hopeless. Whatever figure she possessed was lost beneath the bulky, bright orange PennDOT jacket. Straggled wisps of dirty hair were visible under the grimy hardhat. Her left hand dangled limp. Her right moved automatically, mindlessly urging the string of vehicles along with her tattered gold flag.
She looks bad, Casimir thought. Worse even than the usual run of PennDOT flunky. Sickly, pathetic. And yet somehow—evil?
Sad and sinister, all at once.
Remind you of anyone, Kazimierz?
“No.” The word sounded false, even to Casimir.
He shivered again and upped his speed 3 trivial mph. He kept glancing into the other lane—the one isolated by the line of traffic cones. He watched the stoop-shouldered road crew as his aged compact glided past them. He watched each one as he fought what was rising up inside him.
A hawk-faced man rode the large, slow paving machine. Like some great and terrible beast, it crawled over an empty space between slabs of concrete and spewed dark, sticky patching material into the jagged wound. Then it crawled off. Left a self-propelled roller to flatten the machine excrement as it lurched toward the next pothole in its path.
Casimir found himself reminded of an insect he’d read about.
A kind of wasp. It laid its eggs on the bodies of live caterpillars. The eggs would hatch and eat away at their host, devouring the unlucky caterpillar from the inside out.
The paving machine was like that. It left thick, black globs of corruption between the chinks in the four-lane’s pale concrete skin.
It was supposed to help—to prolong the highway’s useful life.
Yet Casimir suddenly wondered if it only prolonged some inexplicable, inexpressible agony.
And the man was somehow like that, too.
Casimir did a double-take, even risked craning his neck for a third look.
The face was more lined, more venal than the female flagman. Skin flaked from his sharp nose. His jaw was locked shut and a purple vein stood out on his neck with impossible prominence.
The next man, leaning beside the roller, quivered incessantly. His black skin seemed to fade as Casimir watched. The wide nose, the high forehead went gradually transparent—no, translucent!
Beneath its surface, something wriggled.
Some type of sucking, massive, destroying parasite.
Casimir gagged. His foot pressed the pedal.
For once the Chevy responded without hesitation. He was nearly past the work area—nearly safe. He could see the end of the barriers. The conclusion of the nightmare gauntlet was mere moments in his future.
Oh, no, Kazimierz. It’s not that easy. . .
“Shut up!” Casimir barked.
The car drew alongside the last member of the road crew.
The worker’s back was to him, but Casimir stiffened anyway.
Something was wrong with the way the old man leaned on his shovel. Something was wrong with the greasy rag dangling from the man’s back pocket. Something was wrong with the nearby dump truck.
And Casimir Pulaski Williams thought he knew whose voice was in his head.
Feeble shoulders shifted under another of the orange jackets. The matching hardhat revolved. Twisted to face the passing traffic.
Safety, Casimir now understood, was only a well-meaning but foolish woman’s illusion.
The figure before him was old, tattered. Not his clothing—him—the PennDOT worker. His skin was coming off in great, jagged strips. They hung from a jaw caught squarely in the act of crumbling to dust. The wake of the passing cars and trucks caused the strips to sway.
His eyes were gone. They looked like grapes with the centers sucked out, leaving the empty squishy skins to collapse in upon themselves. Yet the worker could see: Casimir knew this beyond doubt. Could see right into Casimir’s soul, in fact.
The figure’s tongue was visible. It thrashed obscenely behind clenched, discolored teeth. It looked suspiciously like a fat, juicy maggot.
And again, Casimir heard the name he might have had.
Kazimierz. Better that you not bear his true name, huh? Even the weak, foreign version is too much for you to live up to, huh?
“I’m no hero,” Casimir conceded.
You’re a weakling. A coward. He—the real Kazimierz—risked everything for freedom. For Poland. Then for this new land—for this America. And each time, always for himself. For his cause. For his dream, he sacrificed—he lost everything. He made that last, desperate charge. He led his cavalry, flags to his left and to his right, straight into the array of British guns that held Savannah, Georgia in the grip of tyranny.
“I know,” Casimir wheezed. “I know. . .”
Is there no cause, the voice taunted, no dream for which you would die, Kazimierz?
Suddenly and for once, there was.
It swept over Casimir—a tidal wave of emotions, angry wild hopes and still wilder plans. It was the oldest, wildest dream of all—and still the best, the purest and the hardest to bear. The dream of freedom. Of full and total independence.
This was it, Casimir knew.
His one chance.
His single opportunity to break free. To ESCAPE!
He cleared the traffic cones, only to wrench the wheel hard to the right. His care swung in a perfect U, speed building as he floored the accelerator. The cones exploded out of his way and Casimir grinned tightly.
Time slowed as he bore down on his enemy. On all the fear and hesitation, all the weakness he had allowed to dominate his life. All the self-loathing that had burned so slow and deep, so painfully into his very being.
All the ugly, horrific things that mocking figure leaning on that shovel personified.
For that one long instant, it all made perfect sense.
He would smash his enemy. Crush him under the wheels of the onrushing Chevy. Then, at long last, Casimir Pulaski Williams would be FREE!
Free to put his Mother in the nursing home—not out of spite, but in acceptance of reality and without the haunting guilt that had held him back so far. Free to sell the stupid gift-shop. Free to finally travel.
To see some fragment of what he’d longed for, all his life. To really live.
Maybe—maybe even somewhere, somehow to fall in love?
Free to be something other than—empty.
Yes! It was going to happen!
And then—the monstrous PennDOT worker moved.
It was at the last possible instant.
He dove aside—with an agility that proved him as ageless as despair. He dove aside and Casimir heard the cackle in his mind as the flimsy compact smashed full-speed into the jutting bed of the fully loaded dump truck.
A fuel line ruptured. Sparks set off the gasoline.
Later, it would be impossible for investigators to determine if the driver had died from the impact or the searing fireball. Either way, it was surely a senseless act, committed by a suicidal madman.
They dismissed it as such.
Those who’d known Casimir Pulaski Williams were dumbfounded. The only good thing, they all agreed, was that his poor sainted mother was too lost in the depths of Alzheimer’s to grasp the tragedy. Insurance and proceeds from selling the family business ensured she could live out her time in the care and comfort of the Riverton Nursing Home.
Only Casimir, in the last nanoseconds before the darkness swallowed him, had understood. You cannot totally escape the flagman of your soul, he realized. Nor the path that he—as part of you—has set you on.
But you can resist.
You can turn back. Make one last noble, hopeless charge. You can always find a way to live up to the name you’ve been given.
Kazimierz, that nameless sexless ageless flagman murmured.
“Yes,” Casimir Pulaski Williams whispered. “Yes, that’s me.”
Then he screamed defiance and died.
In his eyes there was no shame in it—none at all.
Jim Lee is from a small Pennsylvania town better known for producing a movie Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller), the DJ who coined the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ (Alan Freed) and millions of tons of coal dust. A published writer and freelance editor since the early 1980s, he recently co-founded a nonprofit corporation to assist people in crisis situations and is now working on his first novel.