Part 5

September 2, 2016

Wolf Hollow County Park, Atglen, Pennsylvania.

The park is lovely. Wooded paths and bridges over water, and a mostly filled parking lot. Cars, but no people.

Where is everybody?

John and I don’t mind. Silence and solitude in the woods works for us. It allows us to get the most from nature. Allows nervous hearts to calm, to get perspective. We’re together. This is good. John loves me, and I love him, always and forever.

The map on the park’s board depicts the entrance to a circular path near our feet. It’s a swath cut through a lushness of grass. Up? Down? Either way is possible, and it probably won’t matter which way we choose. The bridges below we’ll undoubtedly cross one way or another, and we’ll see all there is to see. If initially we go high, the bridges and the water under them will later be our reward. This is our logic, so that’s our choice, and we aim toward the upward path.

No.

Wait.

A woman descends with a huge dog—a Doberman? They take up the trail and pass by—good morning, good morning—and then John and I begin our ascent. A thought niggles: why do they come this direction?

            But there is no sign telling us the path is one-way. Do you ever see that? I don’t raise the question. Still . . . why aren’t they coming up from the bottom? Wouldn’t that be logical? Somehow?

Later, I say, “She didn’t warn, she didn’t say once you get to the top, turn around. Whatever you do, don’t go forward and down. Whatever you do, don’t do that.”

            She knows. Something in her face—is the message there?  I know something you should know. That’s why she and Rover come toward us instead of up from the bottom. Because you wouldn’t—Well, you see—what do I know? She doesn’t know us, so she keeps it to herself, and I only get half a sense of something. A flutter, a disturbance in the field.

After all, there’s no reason you can’t start the downhill part first.

Of course, I can be reading great fiction into a headache.

The park is lovely, we know that from the start. The grassy path enters woods where the green, as we expect, secedes to dirt. Dirt with leaves and stones and roots. Rocks and—

Crack! Crack! Across the hollow.

“Gunfire?” I ask.

“Yup.”

John knows gunfire better than I, not that I can’t identify it. I just don’t believe in it.

But—“Yup.”

His awareness comes from years of participation in the army reserve. Even members of army reserve bands are required to fire. That’s how he knows. That or city life. Or just life. We’ve been married all this time, but his experiences and mine—one of us may live year-round in Lalaland, and it might be me. He was a top marksman. He was proud of that.

“Not so peaceful,” I say.

“Target practice.”

“Or target.”

“I don’t think it’s hunting season for anything right now,” John says.

“Maybe not.” How does he know? He never hunts.

Crack!

            Crack!

            Does it matter? They’re still bullets.

            “Kind of affects the peace of the place,” I say.

Oh, well. We’re not going to quit over a little gunfire. Practice. They could practice all day. We should go home and miss this scenery because of a practice? It could be worse. It could be not practice. We could be prey like in that old Robert Mitchum movie. There’s suspense for you. Some really grim music to go with it, too, you bet. Low horns and bass viols.

We continue. The gunfire is there, after all, and we are here, and—whatever. Maybe we’re delusional, and why aren’t we running for cover? Our heirs might ask that. They heard gunfire and they stayed? What kind of genes are in our gene pool? Don’t get married, anybody. Don’t!

When in Rome, and all that, except I’m not shooting any gun, period, even if this is Rome.

            “The more rural, the more likely,” says John.

Yeah, yeah. Nobody shoots off guns in cities. It’s all about rural parks.

Uphill, uphill, uphill, and we’re safe in this wooded paradise. We’re John and Sue, so we must be safe. It’s how we know.

When my brother Rob was little, he’d frequently dress himself in shirts that were both backwards and inside out. You could always see the tag below his chin.

We joked that that was how we knew it was Rob. Robbie. He was so cute.

Endearing.

“A mile point six,” John tells me, meaning the distance of the hike we’ve chosen. It’s information from the map, but the way John says it, it could be the infinite improbability drive out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “A mile point six.”

Anybody can do a mile point six. It’s not far.

Really?

I begin to wonder how the mile point six was measured, and does it take into account the different ways to step safely from one spot to the next? A string was used, I conclude, and not one attached to a leg. Just over the map between fingers, and maybe chubby fingers at that.

But it’s okay. The woods are beautiful, the sky is blue, and chipmunks keep watch.

Crack-crack!

The reports come farther apart. Then we stop hearing them. No more target practice. Or they’re using silencers. Or the sound passes over us since we’ve accustomed to it. No. That one’s not true. Not with gunfire.

“No moose or bears here,” I tell John.

“How do you know?” he asks.

“I just know,” I answer, but it’s not true. What do I know about Atglen?

In a movie, this is when a mama bear plus her twins appear and chase us up a tree, but no bears, no chasing up trees. Only the thought. Plus there might not be a tree handy. We might—what’s a mama bear do to you? Blood is involved, I think. Stitches if you’re lucky.

What if what if what if?

But we’re safe. We’re together.

Up and up we climb. Always up. How can it be always up? Isn’t there a sky to stop us? Some kind of roof?

There’s more dirt than rocks sometimes, and sometimes, there are more rocks than dirt, and I get good at finding roots ahead of John and pointing them out. He’s safe. Then he goes first, and then I’m the safe one. Up and up. Beautiful morning, not too warm, and I’m glad I had the sense to leave my sweatshirt in the car.

We’re working during our climb. It’s not a mountain and no bears or elk or moose ask us for the time, but we might not notice because we’re toiling and toiling, eyes only on where we’re stepping.

I’m warm, John’s a furnace. This is one area of our divine incompatibility. If I’m comfortable, he’s not, and vice versa, but I’m usually the jealous one. I’m jealous, and he’d like to be cold once in his life. Maybe. I think it’s happened three times since I met him. He’s never actually told me.

But no complaints. The air is the air, and we’re both sweating and toiling and progressing. Cracking jokes and making comments. Up and up, and the fact that we must eventually go down again is not a secret, at least not to John. I am an optimist in a fantasy world, thinking we could loop around the place at a rising altitude, hit a plateau, and voila! There, wrapped in golden clouds, is our car. No more hard work.

This all makes sense except for the little fact of the bridges we saw from the parking lot and that they were definitely on a lower level. It is there that we will emerge from the darkness, and we’ve only ascended. Not even a plateau to fool us.

But I believe in something or other that lets us, in some whipped cream world, step off the leveled path inside cloud nine and find our car. All washed and ready to go.

My fantasy ends when we find the apex, the acme, the zenith, and, guess what, we start down. Aren’t we there yet? We’ve been walking for years. Months, anyway, and the end isn’t in sight.

No looping back yet, not yet. Of course, we do have the option of retracing our steps. Naah! We want to see what’s around the next bend and the next bend and the next bend. Plus turning around might mean a longer walk than if we just kept going. Surely we’re near the end. How far are we into that mile point six?

The infinite improbability drive . . .

We can do it. We’re strong and healthy, and we’ve come pretty far. Too bad we must attend so closely to where our feet land, but, hey, nobody’s making us walk, and it is lovely in here without bears and such. Plus John’s cool—well, not exactly. He’s pretty sweaty. We both are.

We have the supermarket with the walk-in freezer for our post-walk activity. Is that his carrot on the stick? I don’t ask, me with my sweatshirt ready in the car. I’m hot and moist now, but the sweatshirt is still my security blanket in case the next ice age arrives before we make it home.

Downhill we go. Downhill with more and more rocks and roots and stones, loose and not, which we can’t know until they show us. Hold onto that tree! All mama bears allow us passage, our eyes glued downward so we don’t see them. They lets us by without a murmur, but maybe each of she-bears allows for a grin and a head shake. We’re so funny!

The path narrows as it descends, and the rocks sometimes move under our feet, and we hold onto trees and sometimes John lends me his hand after experiencing some of the bigger adventures ahead of me. But we don’t fall. Yes. We don’t fall, neither one of us. We remain upright and dignified. We don’t want bears and snakes laughing at us.

John tells me this: “I see where the path bottoms out.”

“Where? Yay! But where?”

I stop to look, but all I see is the path curving down and away. Neverland is still fictional.

“Trust me.”

Trust me.

That’s a joke.

John has said it to me so often. Once, in my parent’s silk-screening shop, I saw a red sweatshirt that pictured a cartoonish wolf. Under it: Trust me.

I laughed and told Mom why. I was tempted, but no. I’m not buying that for John. It’s too much like the truth with that sly grin. Something too right about it.

Trust me.

So Mom gave it to John for Christmas or his birthday. He still has it. It has paint stains now, but he has it, and it still makes me laugh. Mom!

We keep on. Twisting and turning and holding on and whoops when I clumsily find a root.

“Another one for you, John. Be careful.”

Trust me.

Sometimes, we just stop and look. So many trees have fallen. One sawn through and divided so hikers can continue without climbing over wide trunks.

“Hey! The creek!”

The ripple of noise, the small section of white water, the sparkle. Beautiful. So maybe I am glad the Doberman lady never warned us.

Across the creek appears an army of backpackers on a parallel trail. If we want, we can take a tangential path that includes stepping stones through a pretty good span of water and join the other humans. We could do it and get right to where they are. See what’s over there.

Where’s our sense of adventure? Where’s our enterprise? Are we afraid of a little water?

Where are those people coming from, anyway? They need packs? How extensive is this park? We didn’t bring anything but ourselves, not so much as a granola bar or a bottle of water, and maybe we’ll get lost and die of thirst because over there are people with all life’s requirements that we were too dumb to bring with us in our hands-free, backs-free, irresponsible glory.

Cartwheel!

But the path lowers, gets closer to where it will bottom out, and all those people!

“If we had to,” I say, “we could shout to them, and they’d come, right? Wade over to us and set up tents and stay with us until we were we were . . .”

“Come on, Sue.”

Yes, the path gets lower. Lower and lower. It also continues to twist and turn and sprout rocks and overturned trees. Where is the place of bottoming out? John said he saw it. My eyes work, too, but maybe you have to be those inches taller to get the perspective. Or I just don’t see.

I never see the foul on a basketball court, either. Never see the offsides in soccer. I stare hard and don’t see, and wonder how the basketball ends up in somebody else’s hands when I never blinked, and it was Robert Covington who had the ball. Not now. Not unless there were two balls and Covington swallowed one.

I once had a friend who told me about her experience in the delivery room. Contraction after contraction. I know this story. You feel like you’re in a fever and you’re going to die and you don’t want the baby anymore and let’s just get the hell out of here, and you’ll kick anybody in your way, you’ll kick down doors, except you can’t move.

“Transition,” John said through the nightmare air. Our daughter was in the chute. “Transition.”

Was he pointing at me? Transition, just like the lady in the childbirth class told us, and maybe I said something not particularly nice right then. He says so. I don’t remember that part. All sweetness and light, right? Gasp! Ow!

My friend, though, and her contractions.

“Just one more,” her husband said over and over. “Just one more.”

“And,” she told me later, “I believed him every time.”

That’s how it can be.

Is the path really bottoming out? Am I getting false encouragement? Am I going to die here with all those irresponsible backpackers in shouting distance?

Nah. He’d tell me the truth. It’s not like I’m having a baby. No doors. He told me the truth then, too. Transition! An ugly, hard-metal word that meant there was no escape.

We keep going. We have faith. Nobody will die of thirst here. Or childbirth.

Plus, oh, my gosh, the aromas! So great, you just want to stand and breathe them all in. How can you store this for the winter? If you only could . . .

“Look,” says John. “A birch tree.”

We saw them all over the place in Michigan, but they aren’t so common here. Maybe. We’re not tree experts, and maybe birches are as common as apple pie in Wolf Hollow, and maybe the bears ate all the other ones right before we got here, but I sort of doubt it.

Hey! There it is! The actual bottoming out. We’re saved!

Still a ways until the ornery dirt peters out, but we see grass, life-saving grass! Over there, over there. Still to cross is the last section of rocks and roots and lurking bears, but we see it!

John pauses to glance back at me. That look I can read. I smile. I just know him. He knows me.

“It would be silly to fall now.”

“Yup,” I say. “Silly. If you fall, I will definitely say silly.”

Nobody falls. We just keep looking, looking where we’re going. It seems like the smart thing.

One time, John’s mother climbed down the stairs in the house where she’d lived for twenty years, climbed down the stairs she could descend with her eyes closed. But that day, Anna reached the landing, looked over the last three stairs and stepped into the room. Fell into the room, astonishing John, who saw her do it. She was a heavy lady, and she shook the house.

“Really?” I ask John. “She shook that solidly built rowhouse connected to all the other rowhouses?”

“It’s true.”

Already there, she must have thought. Already there. What was on her mind? Was she going to tell something brilliant to John? We’ll never know.

“She got up laughing,” John says.

Laughing! She fell those three steps, shook the house so firmly planted among all the other houses, and got up laughing.

I did that once, too, minus the laughing. I fell and sprained my ankle by ignoring the last three post-landing steps in a dormitory when I was late for class. Boy, did I leap out of bed and tear down those steps! Three stories except for those last three steps. Fall! Get up and run quickly because you wouldn’t want to be caught having done such a foolish thing in public, let alone be late for class.

I’m different from my mother-in-law. I didn’t get up laughing. But I guess I’m like her enough. Neither of us looked where we were going.

Anna’s fall did not sprain her ankle. Why not? Because she wasn’t running? Me, I got a sprained ankle. Plus the rubber mat I hit left a grooved blackness that never came out of my white pants. A souvenir.

John and I keep paying attention.

In music, you don’t stop working until a measure after the music stops. If you do, seeing the finish line, you mess up. It’s natural. Races, music, life. You slow down when you see the finish line. And then you mess up. Run it out, run it out! And then relax. Afterwards, you can collapse, and it won’t matter. Much. Collapsing might still matter.

So we keep a vigilance.

We’re out. Done. All over.

We made it.

Grass, no rocks, and John says, nodding at a bridge, “We have to cross that to get to the car.”

The bridge looks familiar. We’ve seen it already from . . . my head swivels . . . up there?

I point.

“That’s where our car is.”

Along with all the other ones in the parking lot. Just where we left it. No golden clouds.

“Oh,” says John. “I thought we had to cross the bridge to get to the car, but we never went over the water.”

There had been the path from one side of the creek to the other if we didn’t mind getting our feet wet. Or our whole bodies. Only water!

“We can still take the bridge,” I say. “It’s only right there. Cross over and come back so we can experience it and see.”

“No, that’s fine,” says John.

It has been kind of a long walk despite the mile point six information that was part of the infinite improbability drive. Hard and long and a little scary. We don’t need the bridge experience. We want the sit-down experience, the it’s-over experience.

We ascend the hill—again a hill! But it’s grassy and smooth, rock and root free. Our car’s within sight, and no Dobermans block the way. All the people with their backpacks enter the parking lot after us. A bunch of older folks—is this a club? One of the men wears a tee shirt emblazoned NRA.

Okay.

Maybe they were the ones having target practice. Maybe not. Maybe we’re the targets, and they’ve caught up with us and now we’re in trouble, but somehow, it just doesn’t feel that way. We’re safe. John and I—we’re always safe together.

Water, warmed in the car, awaits. We drink it gratefully, happily, and head for the store with the walk-in freezer, me with my sweatshirt, John in a tee shirt.

The bears come out of hiding and line the exit. Wearing straw hats with colorful flowers, they wave to us as we leave.

By authorsusanshaw

Part 4

November 24, 2015
I should be in a band?
“It’s something we can do together,” John says, which really means the car ride to and from since he’s a trumpeter and I’m a flutist, and never the twain shall meet.
We belong to separate species. Jellyfish and bison. Maples and hockey pucks.
“Please?”
Okay. All right. I’ll try.
During rehearsals, I’m in the front, he’s in the back, and a whole bunch of people sit in between. We can’t even see each other. No note-passing, no smiles, no hand signals.
Flutes and brasses are oil and water. Oil and vinegar. One of them. Nobody told me that way back when. But John made me laugh.
So he and I go to the weekly rehearsals, and I admit the band has me getting my flute out almost every day, which hadn’t been true lately, and it’s something I do after the 20-minute timer goes off while I’m at my desk. That’s so I won’t sit so much.
Play-write-play-write.
I’m learning bits and pieces of the Rodrigo Flute Concerto, a piece that is harder than its musical value merits. But I have that challenge. That’s good. Tone exercises, breathing exercises, scales. Then back to my desk until again, the timer goes off. If I remember to set it.
The pair of us go every week, knowing we will miss more than half of a Sixers’ game, another reason to go out. They are now 0-15 or something hideous like that. The team doesn’t take my advice, like don’t all the time get rid of your best players!
I hit the ladies’ room before taking my seat. The band doesn’t take breaks, and that’s just too long. How does everybody else last? Or am I the only one with a bladder and other human parts? I live solo in a land of robots? Or is it vice versa? Maybe that’s the problem. I’m a robot. An android. With a bladder.
So we’re here, me in the flute section, John in with the trumpets, all having the best time. People like us, and this is good.
We play. We stop. Questions are asked from the peanut gallery.
Martin! Martin! How many measures between M and N? Who has the b flat in three after L? Martin!
Oh, to be Martin!
I’m reminded of Petey’s teeball days and how he called to his coach from across the field. Bill! Bill!
Oh, gosh.
Well, he was seven. Purple shirt, white pants, and Billll!
Once we encountered this god off the playing field, and Petey was so shocked and awed, he almost ran into a tree. This great guy! Larger than life! In person!
“Put up Silent Night!” Martin requests.
Trapped.
I don’t want to play Silent Night. I never think about Silent Night until it’s right here in my face and I can’t escape. You can’t have Christmas without Silent Night.
Until 2003, I didn’t care. Silent Night or no Silent Night. I didn’t even pay attention to it. Kind of a wimpy song, maybe, or not that interesting musically. But you can’t have Christmas without it. Every Christmas TV special ends with it. Every store plays it. It’s in the air like mists of snow. You can’t escape. Aaaagh!
2003 was the year Dad died.
Silent Night was the song Dad wanted Vera and me to sing the last evening he could still communicate. Brady’s birthday.
“Don’t die on my birthday,” Brady said.
Die on mine, I wanted to say. Die on mine. Nine months from now. Oh, Brady. Oh, me. Oh, Dad. He was dying in front of us, and there was nothing any of us could do. Oh, us!
Dad wanted his daughters to sing the two-part version of Silent Night that he’d taught us, that we’d sung together as little children, a two-part version he’d learned in high school. We sang it that night. We sang it and sang it and I thought we’d die of it while I sat cross-legged on his bed beside him.
I can’t remember the words now. I can’t bear the tune. It gets turned off in my house, avoided in my house, and sometimes when I’m shopping or otherwise out, there it is. It hurts.
A couple of weeks ago, I found it in the band folder.
“I discovered Silent Night in the music,” I told John on the way home.
“I saw it there before.”
He probably didn’t tell me because it’s a hot button. Or he thought, maybe it will go away. Maybe this year, she won’t care. Or forgot, just as likely. Huh! He doesn’t think that one bit. I wish I could forget it.
Silent Night. A viper waiting to strike in the night.
Since I discovered this particular snake in my band folder, I’ve been trying to figure out how to be out of the room, out of my head, out of the band, when Martin requests it. Such a harmless piece! No one expects Sturm Und Drang with Silent Night. It meant so much to Dad, I wish I could love it. Bring him back!
Well, it’s twelve years since Dad died. Will be. I’m playing this godforsaken piece. I’m trying to think of other things, which is option B, while I play. But I play. I haven’t died yet or broken down or screamed or flung my flute across the room. How could you?
It’s still a possibility.
Last night we rehearsed it. And then went on to another piece and interruptions of Martin! And where are you speeding up? And retunings. And
Then we went home and saw the end of the Sixers’ game. All ordinary.
No one played Silent Night for the Sixers, but maybe someone should have. Or, maybe they did. We didn’t watch the postgame show. Just went to bed because the day was all used up.
But I went to the rehearsal. I did do that. For John.
December 14, 2015
John and I return to Chesterbrook’s Wilson Farm Park. He wants to check out the bandshell again. He’s found it without me since the time we were here together, but he wants to look at it again. Me, I’m okay walking pretty much anywhere. You know. Comme ci, comm ca.
Leaves, trees, bushes. He wants to go, I want to go. Most of the time. Let’s walk! If we just keep moving! Walking in step, breathing the same air. Me is you and you is me.
The lot is empty when we arrive, and we can choose any number of places along the loop. We drive well into the area before stopping. I don’t know why. One space is as good as another.
“It doesn’t matter,” says John. “We’ll walk until we’ve circled the park.”
Were we parking to get closer to something—to the end of our walk? This logic has me perplexed, and my brain feel funny.
What’s logic, anyway? We’re starting here and ending here. Unless we don’t want the car anymore. Unless we get lost. Unless we get kidnapped or airlifted to the Azores. Unless we run away. Always a possibility.
Here’s the bench we saw packed with motionless, silent men. The bench is empty now, but I remember the sobriety of those moments. Men of all ages. Nobody eating or drinking or even chewing gum. Just staring.
“Who knows what that was about?” Me talking.
Usually me doing the talking. Although John does know how. His patter from the podium always makes the audience laugh. No podium today, and just me beside him in the wilderness. No jug of wine or loaf of bread, but we have the important things covered. We could still just lie down under a tree and be complete.
I think of the men on the bench and their aura of shock or fatigue, and that makes me remember one time in the car with Joseph. He was driving, and he commented on the pair travelling behind us. I looked back and saw what appeared to be a brother and sister. They were maybe thirty. The brother was driving, but other than that, they were almost identical, the way they sat, the sharing of a two thousand-yard stare.
Had they’d left a deathbed and were taking in the untakeable? Not digesting the undigestible? They were together and going somewhere, but conversation was beside the point. Their eyes saw something I couldn’t see but understood.
I wanted to do something for them.
And at the park, I’d wanted to do something for those men all about to be laid off or just having witnessed a coworker die. A sucker punch. The two thousand-yard stare on all six. How does that expression appear simultaneously on six men sitting on a park bench?
John and I walk inside these memories.
The little kids on training wheels come back to us: mama and little brother so far behind papa and big brother. Everyone smiled the kind of smile just east of laughter. Good smiles. The family’d probably taken their training wheels before the shell-shocked men. A good antidote or partial antidote.
Like John’s father holding and holding two-week-old Joseph after the funeral of John’s mother. Holding and holding him as if Joseph was some kind of life preserver. He was. How important is the holding! How important that child was that day! Today, too.
Soon after John and I begin today’s walk, a more serious walker passes us. Speedier, anyway. Maybe equally serious. But maybe he’s a fast-moving clown. We exchange greetings as people do.
Smile.
“Hello!”
That kind of thing.
An acknowledgement of another’s life. Sometimes we don’t get that.
“Couldn’t even look at us,” is what I’ll say.
I guess some people can’t. Sometimes it’s too hard. Sometimes it hurts for our eyes to meet, to let someone see inside us even that much. We need to hide, to protect our guts. Something is just too sore for even a mute, anonymous exchange.
We encounter the serious walker three times on our loop. Walking? Of course, we don’t know, maybe as soon as he’s out of sight, he sprints, chortling to himself about how he fools us! Chortling while he recites The Jabberwocky.
I’m not too surprised to see him the first time, well, maybe a little, since no one else is here, but three times does feels strange. Of course, another of course, is that he could be cutting across the fields and not even completing the loops for the sole purpose of astonishing us. You never know. His goal for the day might be to astound strangers.
We walk, John and I, enjoying the day. Soccer fields and baseball fields shine under a clear blue. A sign by the path reads, Playing Fields Closed.
Is that a dare?
“How can they be closed?” I give a sweep of my hand. “They’re open. Big as life. It’s a public park. Try closing the sky.”
“They just don’t want people playing on it and messing up the field.”
“So if I brought a soccer ball and wanted to kick it around?”
“Nobody would probably care if one person did that.”
“What if I brought a whole bunch of people? What if we all played soccer? In uniforms?”
“You’d end up in jail.”
“And then I’d write an article about how the township jailed a—”
And so it goes.
I don’t actually play soccer, although I do own a soccer ball, sort of by accident. We came across one on another walk. Brand new. It seemed stupid to leave it behind. The waste of a good soccer ball. But why? Now that I think of it. Why must we have a soccer ball? An anti-littering impulse, perhaps. A don’t-make-waste impulse, maybe.
I should bring it here. Kick it around with a bunch of friends until we dumfound someone enough to get arrested. Who would I ask? Fran? Martha? Charlotte? They’d be dumfounded if I asked them.
And what would that prove? That I’m still alive and relevant? That I’m crazy and nuts and irrelevant? Put ’er away! While Charlotte laughs and shakes her head, dumfounded.
Would John come to my defense? Would he ask, what did I tell you?
We keep walking. I don’t break any laws. We see the fast man again. Hear kids on the distant playground. Harmless, okay stuff.
John leads us from the loop.
“This is how you find the band shell,” he says, and starts onto another path.
I’d almost forgotten about the band shell.
“Find it? You mean they hide it? You need a map or a code or a password? Joe sent me?”
Haha.
“You mean that thing that looks like Stonehenge?” I ask.
How did we miss it on that first walk?
We meander through the terraced area which is dominated by large rocks.
“Easier to leave them here,” comments John.
I picture whole families aswarm over the rocks and terraces while a band plays American Salute. Or Danny Boy. On Wisconsin. Swarming families, teeming families, laughing families.
The audience area is separated from the shell by a four-foot wall. In between is the continuation of a path. A river could run through it.
“I suppose they don’t want the audience to rush the performers,” says John.
“Or they don’t want people to run in front of bikes.”
I don’t quite see the concertgoers at Wilson Farm Park as those who rush stages, but I don’t know. They could really let their hair down at Wilson Farm Park, and for certain band concerts, maybe they create a moat between the audience and the stage to protect the performers, a moat criss-crossed by sharks. You’d need lifeguards, of course. First aid kits. But sharks ought to be enough. Shark fins ought to be enough. You shouldn’t even need the whole shark, but they kind of come as a set.
We pace out the shell.
“It’s a little short,” says John. “We’d have to put the percussion to the side, but we could do it.”
“Or,” I suggest, “the percussion could be set up on the back edge and the drummers could stand on the ground behind. It would put them lower, but there’s room.”
“No, I like to see them.” John’s all reasonable. “This would be a good venue.”
We return to the path. Mr. Speedy passes us again. We’re almost friends, now.
John and I admire the pond one last time, and then there’s our car, as close as we could get it to the finish line.

By authorsusanshaw

Part 3

November 22, 2015

We go to lunch at our usual hideaway, the Gateway Café, feeling guilty or strange because it’s usually breakfast we show up for. Him the omelet special with an everything bagel, me the blueberry muffin, grilled. Every time. Lots of imagination here. But if we show up for lunch, what will our waitress say?

Nothing.

She isn’t here, and someone young enough to be her daughter is, and this girl doesn’t know we usually come on Thursday mornings for a muffin and an omelet. She doesn’t say, “What are you doin’ here?”

We order sandwiches. Plain, calm, ordinary. No attitude at all.

“I’ll put that in for you.”

She leaves after that remark, and John says, “I’ve never heard anyone say anything different.”

“What?”

“She said she’d put our order in for us. Everybody says that.”

“What’s she supposed to say? That she won’t? That what do we think? We should go back to the car and go home and leave her alone?”

“And never come back. What made us think we could order lunch here just like anybody? What do they want with people like us?”

Etc.

I had a crab cake griller on sourdough, and John had a chicken parm sandwich with no tomatoes, which it said right on the menu. Chicken parmesan. No tomatoes. My sandwich had tomatoes with no heads-up about them. They just appeared.

“See.”

I hold up my sandwich.

“They give me tomatoes and not you. They just give them to me, no extra charge.”

Well, so sometimes it’s like that. You order the chicken, you get the chicken. You order the crab, and they give you crab plus all the tomatoes you want even if you don’t ask.

That’s how it works.

November 23, 2015

Today, we’re in Wegman’s.

I don’t really feel like being here. It’s cold outside, and I have work to do at my desk. I want to get some writing done, but the time until dinner stretches long, and maybe I’ll write better with a later start.

John would have gone without me. My presence is not required.

Plus, I’m not doing better with a late start, either. That’s just something I want to believe. Early, late, I can’t write. My brain is fried.

A later start. Yes. Put off the pain.

But maybe there’s something to be said for going out in the middle of the day, particularly if lunch is made late by two men, the adjuster and the insurance rep. Nothing like having total strangers decide if your damage is worth their time, plus taking your time while they do it.

“Oh, my Lord,” says the insurance rep. His eye has scanned the laundry area. Not a thing of beauty.

“What do you mean?” I ask. Put up your dukes!

Sure, my kitchen’s ugly without the damage, but—what do you mean? This is my house.

“Nothing,” he says. “Just thinking out loud.”

Oh, my Lord!

            I’ll oh, my Lord him!

John’s response to their presence is to work longer and harder outside, clearing the gutters and raking. He may drop dead, but at least he’s not hanging loose inside, which turns out to be my job.

I will admit that the gutters are now cleared and more inroads into raking have been made. That’s good. Also, I will admit that John hates contractors and their ilk, no matter how wonderful they are as individuals, inside the house, even more so than I. I know an escape when I see it, even if all the leaves are raked and the gutters are clear. Task avoidant behavior. It’s sometimes worthwhile. But only one of us gets away with it. I didn’t get to hide.

Oh, my Lord!

So when the men arrive, John interrupts his work and hand-delivers them to me. My work stops while I try to think of the right things to say about water damage and what had been in the bathrooms before.

So the rep and the adjuster did that, we did the other, most the other as other as possible, and they leave with the promise of what will not be enough money to cover the damage, and we go to Wegman’s. It’s the sorbet to cleanse our palate before the next course. Wegman’s is at least not crawling with adjusters, nor is it full of water damage and mold. We’ll move here.

We’ll live in tents from now on. I’ve said that before. Diamond encrusted tents with pit toilets up the trail. But at least we’ll have diamonds. And no adjusters.

A trip to Wegman’s gives us the opportunity to buy kitty litter and yogurt and crushed walnuts. And to gaze at and think about a frozen turkey to be eaten maybe in February. A twenty-two-pound turkey? Maybe we should just buy a couple of drumsticks and leave it at that. We are no longer buying for the appetites of our children.

“Grapes!” I exclaim.

No grapes left in the house after a fruit salad I made which our company the other night gobbled up, two-year-old included, even though I’d put in two whole bananas. Note to self: don’t skimp on the bananas!

So grapes are one reason I should be tagging along, to choose the grapes since I’m the only one who eats them. That and the yogurt. John could choose any flavor in my absence, and that would just be terrible.

Wegman’s has green grapes and red grapes and purple grapes. I want the purple, which are larger and rounder, and, in my opinion, tastier and juicier. There are only four bags of these, however, on the far corner of a display table. A dark-haired woman of maybe thirty-five, certainly an adult, is examining them, taking up the only spot unless I don’t mind a certain chumminess, which I do.

She puts her hand first in one bag and then another, same as I will when it’s my turn, presumably testing the firmness of the fruit. I will do the same unless she takes all four bags. Don’t take all four bags!

I hover nearby while John explores farther into the produce department. There’s no crime in waiting, and I’ll find John again in this lifetime, probably. History supports this hypothesis. And maybe prehistory because we go back a long ways, I think through eternity, eternity in both directions. We have always been a pair, and we always will be.

However, there are no guarantees, and the what ifs hover.

Maybe the shopper is annoyed at my presence or maybe she gives up because the grapes are mushy, but, either way, she wanders empty-handed to another table, maybe one containing oranges or blueberries. I claim the open spot before somebody else grabs the premiere grapes. I take my time checking for firmness.

The grapes aren’t firm, not in the first and second bags. Well, some are, but too many aren’t. This is probably why the previous lady left grapeless, and I will do the same.

I’m checking the third bag when that same shopper returns—I’ve moved to the perpendicular edge, so there is room. She dives into the nearest bag, pulls out a grape, pops it into her mouth, and eats it!

She eats it and walks away.

What the—

Is there a policy here I don’t know? We can taste-test the grapes? We are each entitled to one, solitary, purple grape in each Wegman’s store?

Does she think I don’t notice? Is my presence what made her leave in the first place, made her refrain from the grab because she knew I’d see? But then the grape in question called her name too loudly, and she just couldn’t resist regardless of who saw?

No shame. No remorse. And she only wanted one? One?

O-kay!

I take the third bag with its preponderance of firm grapes and track down my husband. His eyes have that far-seeing, glazed look that comes from wondering where the chopped walnuts are.

I tell him about the woman and the purloined purple.

“Can you believe that?”

His response is mild. Or he’s in chopped walnut land.

But John’s seen an awful lot. What’s one grape?

Once, when we were in San Antonio, lovely San Antonio, a man approached us and pulled up his shirt. Gasp! The scar he revealed was terrible and huge and multicolor.

“I just got out of the hospital,” the man said. “I need some money so I can find a place to stay.”

They let him out like that? I was horrified. We had to do something.

John hauled me away.

“But John—”

“That’s a fake scar,” he said. “I’ve seen it before.”

True.

He had seen the same, exact scar only weeks before, the same one or its twin, in Philadelphia, after a rehearsal. And that’s not the strangest part. He’d seen it, along with our friend Rick, this hideous scar, and hadn’t bothered to mention it to me. For John, this was no big deal.

It’s what comes of teaching in Philadelphia, maybe. What hasn’t he seen? I find this out sort of through a sideways lens. On a need to know basis among many things I didn’t need to know. I did, though. I did need to know.

Do you love me?

Your wish is my command.

            Haha! True. I laughed when he would say that. Gallant John.

So here—the stolen grape—

“But wouldn’t you have been surprised? Just someone taking a grape and eating it like that?”

It had been a big grape, a big, purple one. It called to her bigtime.

“But,” I point out, “the shopper was a grown-up. No four-year-old. Wouldn’t you have been surprised?”

“Somewhat.”

Then we go on for the yogurt and the walnuts that are in hiding with the almonds and chocolates.

On to the kitty litter aisle.

“The gift that keeps on giving,” says John.

We have the cat because our grandson turned out to be allergic.

“Please?” begged our son. “Please?”

John’s allergic, too, but we took the cat. Why not? Except . . .

Ahead of us, a laughing boy of about twelve tosses something into a shopping cart and runs. His mother is the recipient of the gift.

“Wait,” she calls to him, although she is laughing, too, and can’t quite be annoyed. “I don’t want to buy this coffee. I don’t like flavored coffee.”

I don’t know how they resolve that, but, as I tell John in our kitty litter quest, “She should buy it, anyway, and drink it, because he’s made her laugh, and he’s done this for her.”

To laugh with a child!

I say this. I, who doesn’t like coffee of any kind, say this. Me, who won’t drink it for any price. But maybe I’d buy it after a son made me such a present. Dropping it into the cart and running off laughing like we were playing a game of glorious tag. I’d have bought it. Maybe drunk it. Once. And saved the rest to remember. Or wear like a brooch.

Precious.

I tell John this, and he smiles.

 

By authorsusanshaw

Part 2

November 19, 2015

            Today, John and I drive to New Jersey, me for lunch with Mom, John to eat with Clive. We take the Schuylkill to the Blue Route to the PA Turnpike. I don’t like any of those roads, but, other than that, it’s not a bad way to go, particularly if I’m not driving. I can still get tensed up and put my foot on the brake, but I haven’t seen that do any good so far, my brake being imaginary.

We drive under spitty clouds and are talking about not much when I mention the diamond dilemma. It’s not really a dilemma except I think of it once in a while, like an itch that won’t go away.

I don’t have a diamond ring. That’s okay because I don’t often wear the rings I have. Or any other jewelry, the reason being that I don’t like wearing jewelry, rings especially. They irritate my fingers somehow and make me fidget. I take them off. My beautiful wedding and engagement rings? I wear them for company. Usually. At some point in the evening, chance will put me at the kitchen sink where I remove them and forget the little circles on the windowsill until the next morning.

But I have those rings.

I don’t think my friends care if I wear rings or not. They know I’m married to John and vice versa. Or they assume it. We’ve put it out there as true for so long a time, it must be so. The fact is, the ceremony took place so far in the past, maybe my memory of it is not a memory but a mirage.

Maybe it never happened and the neighborhood boy who, when he came through the reception line, cried because I was now married, wasn’t there and he never cried. Oh, Charlie! Today, I want to hold Charlie and comfort him.

But John and I got here from somewhere unless our perceptions are the result of a spontaneous growth with built-in memory. A spear quivering in the ground. Sometimes I like that idea. None of this really happened. It’s only a computer chip’s input.

The problem is that neither my wedding nor engagement ring holds a diamond.

If you want to get technical, my engagement ring isn’t even my engagement ring. The original was stolen out of our apartment during our first year of marriage. Fortunately, I had been wearing the band, so they didn’t get that. Some money and two watches they took as well as my ring. I cried. A lot. Water down my cheeks and under the bridge. Not the culvert.

No diamonds, but I loved my sapphire ring, which we eventually replaced. A star sapphire. I love it, and I almost, sometimes, forget that it isn’t the original. The same guy gave it to me. He meant it the same way the second time.

But I don’t wear it. It irritates my finger, my hand, me. I give up. If you love me, give me flowers, cut flowers, so when they wither, I am guiltless. I can’t keep plants alive. No green thumb here.

“So,” I say to John somewhere on the Blue Route, aka I-476, but that has no personality, “if you’re a person who loves the beauty of a diamond, what would be wrong with owning a nice diamond and just putting it on the dining room buffet to enjoy the way you might enjoy a pretty clock or a painting?”

He is inhaling, getting ready to answer, but I speak first because I see the flaw.

“But if you leave a beautiful diamond ring on the buffet

—an article of furniture we don’t happen to own—

how long before some nefarious guest swipes it?”
John’s eyes are on the road. “Not worth it.”

We’ve had similar conversations before, and we both know where this is going. No ring. I don’t even want a ring. This irritates me. I like jewels. Just not to wear. Everybody else has one! But in fact, I just don’t want one. You wear it.

“But,” I continue, “what if you put the ring in some kind of glass dome, the way you sometimes see pocket watches or miniature clocks? But someone could still take it. Unless you glued the dome to the buffet.”

So far, John has not pointed out the lack of a buffet in our dining room. And the fact that we’d need a bigger house to accommodate one. And the fact that the children are grown and what would we put into it? Not that we’d have ever put children in it.

Chances are we’re not buying a buffet. Even to hold a glorious diamond.

What John says is, “You want to glue the dome to the top of the buffet?”

“No,” I say. “I don’t want to live like that.”

The car is quiet. Somebody’s zigging across the lanes, the rain is picking up, but it’s not too bad. Still warm out for November, sixty-two degrees. Too bad the weather for the marathon on Sunday will be so much cooler.

“We have some expensive stuff,” I say. Mournfully. Dolefully. What’s the matter with me?

“True.”

“And the house projects will cost a lot of money.”

“True.”

“I don’t really want a big diamond.”

“Good.”

“I don’t want to worry about a big diamond.”

“Also good.”

Roof leaks, water damage. New bathrooms, new roof, new this, new that. And contractors through the house forever and ever. And what about the insurance?

Maybe I’d rather think about diamonds. Maybe I’ll call a jeweler and go live in a diamond-encrusted tent. Bathrooms down the trail.

John drops me at Mom’s, and he goes on to Clive’s. Nobody gets diamonds.

Not in so many words.

November 20, 2015

            John says, “I have to make some copies at the barn, so let’s do that and then take a walk somewhere.”

I’m game.

But the phone keeps ringing, and we have to look for the title search to our condo from years ago. It isn’t turning up, and it isn’t turning up.

John says, “I wonder if we ever got it.”

I call Wanda, the realtor way down in Miami and ask, “Do you know how to get another copy?”

She does—we need to contact the original title company.

“Who is that?”

She finds what we need and gives me the phone number for the title company.

I call it and get a busy signal, which is itself a relic from the past. But I figure that enough time has elapsed, a new phone number can’t be so strange. I look the company up online and discover the headline: Foreclosure King Disbarred.

What? This is who I want?

The man’s in prison. There is no company anymore, nothing I can do to reach the crook unless I want to visit the man in jail. Then I’d probably get put in with him through guilt by association.

But what about the condo? We’re stuck with it forever? Or does somebody else actually own it, and the whole thing is about to go up in smoke? We’re going to jail, we’re going to die, we’re going to lose everything!

What if what if what if?

After another brief call to Wanda: You don’t really need that document—phew!—John and I finally, before it gets to be tomorrow, set off for the barn where there are never any horses or cows or any animal unless you count the occasional musicians, who can be animalistic enough. Even they are absent today, and just a lone dog named Digger behind a fence monitors our arrival. An animal, true. So there is one if you don’t count the two of us.

But on the trip to the barn, traffic is so heavy, John says, “Let’s not walk in Valley Forge today,” which had been his idea.

Me, I’m along for the ride. I’ll walk anywhere. Two people walking can go anywhere, each going one foot in front of the other. Two people with the power of many. Two. It takes two. Otherwise, it’s jellyfish and storm-tossed seaweed and fear because what if what if what if!

Where is the ground beneath my feet?

“Let’s go somewhere else,” John says, “and avoid the traffic.”

Why is it backed up both ways so early on a Friday afternoon? But, I don’t know, Thanksgiving is next week, and Christmas is coming. It could be about that.

When I was little and I heard that Christmas was just around the corner, I’d imagine going around that corner. There, I’d find Christmas with decorations and pretty things and smiling people and maybe even Santa Claus and presents. I didn’t really believe this, but I liked the idea. Just go around the corner, and everything you ever could want will be right there. Paradise and love and sweetness and light. No falling from great heights or running sleds full-tilt into trees.

So we go to the barn where John makes his copies and I wander the band’s rehearsal space. They call this a barn, and once a real barn did rise from the earth here, but not this building. No cows, no manure ever graced this edifice.

I covet the grand piano as I always do before going on to a Herman cartoon posted on the wall. A clothing salesman to an unkempt customer: If you buy this jacket, we’ll burn the one you’re wearing free of charge.

            Hahaha.

“Is it a member of the band to whom the cartoon refers?”

John doesn’t answer. Copying, you see. Concentrating. I don’t ask again.

We leave the barn and Digger, still behind his fence and still monitoring. We head for the old farm on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital, a place with wooded paths and ponds and cornfields.  We’ve been here before.

The hospital is still in operation, and maybe one thing the patients do for therapy is grow corn. Someone does.

John and I get out of the car in time to hear announcements braying from the high school across the street.

“Schools all sound like used car lots anymore,” I comment.

John doesn’t answer. A retired Philly teacher, he probably doesn’t think echoing PA systems are the biggest school complaint. It’s partly why he retired on the early side. He liked his jaw intact, and so did I.

We take the path abutting the cornfield. No corn now, just the remains, all flat and stiff upon the ground.

“I thought this would be a good place,” says John, “all open and sunny.”

Which really helps because the air is around fifty-five degrees and brisk. I’m wishing I’d brought my heavier jacket or at least a scarf to fill the spot above the zipper. Why, I ask for the hundredth time, must the zipper quit an inch short? Yet, I still wear the jacket.

We follow the path, loving the warmth of the sun and each other. It’s just nice to be out. We’re selling our Florida condo without a moment to spare, and our actual home needs so much work, I think—I don’t know what I think. I want to rethink having purchased it in the first place. There’s a whole abyss filled with things like that. If I could go back in time—

We’re here for at least the second time, just the two of us—remember when it was always just the two of us?

It feels so different now. Just us again, but it’s different with far-flung children and grandchildren suddenly showing up. Yes, darlings, babies keep you up at night. Yes, darlings, babies are hard work. Yes, darlings, you can do it.

What help is that? We’re not even in the same state. These babies are not interrupting our sleep.

We sympathize and take walks, go on picnics, while trying to remember, trying to build, trying to see the humor in things so dumb as leaky roofs. Where’s the romance? Remember when I was cute? You’re still cute. Uh huh. Except I know. There is that mirror. And that neck. Death to all mirrors!

We’re walking and walking, and yes, there’s the fish hatchery, we remember that from before, and aren’t we taking the path—but it circles around so far, what, are we going to walk until midnight? But see the divergence? We can go that way.

“We should,” I tell John.

I’m remembering the time we got lost in the New Hampshire woods the day our grown son, on a stretcher, was taken out of our vacation home through a window and carted off to a hospital.

Don’t cry, Mom.

That was a lousy day. Going on that walk afterwards and getting lost and rained on and getting lost some more. How many hours did we walk? I don’t remember. I didn’t even know then. We just walked. There was no such thing as time or distance, and I hardly felt the rain.

Of course, we got lost. Was there any other choice? We were already lost. And the wind came up, and the rain poured down, and we were lost, and the lake flooded. Forty days and forty nights.

Still, we survived. Including Joseph.

But we won’t host the children for a vacation again. I don’t like Labor Day Weekends anymore. I’m staying home and hiding under the bed wrapped in a blanket and sucking my thumb on Labor Day Weekends, that’s what I’m doing, not rising from the ashes until Tuesday at noon and the smoke has cleared. My plan.

Give me morphine and leave me alone!

“If we don’t take that path,” I warn John, “we’ll have to swim the creek.”

That will be the end of nonswimmer John.

There does seem to be a body of water over there. Geese honking and all that. If the car’s on the other side, well, then, so be it, the car’s on the other side. The day’s a little cool for wading. Or getting swept into the Schuylkill if the creek decides to get cute. But if it’s what we must do—

“There’s another path.”

John points to one that extends behind the hatchery. In the sun, the slightly depressed grass had not caught my eye, but he’s right. We don’t actually know where the path leads, but there is a path.

We take it.

An adventure! We can still get lost! Yay!

Then John says, “Let’s just cut across the field.”

The cornfield.

Nothing indicates that we shouldn’t, and there is no farmer to care, and it is all just cut up cornstalks, anyway, and we can kind of see our car over there, maybe, unless it’s a mirage or wishful thinking, and we won’t have to swim or tread water or fight electric eels and sharks—breathe-breathe—so we traipse over the field like regular people with regular, normal steps with regular, predictable lives.

The sensation’s one of walking on frozen ground. The semi-hardness of the stalks criss-cross against the mud, but it is mud below the stalks, and not the frozen kind. Little corncobs are everywhere. Proof of actual corn. Not a front for a money-laundering operation. Real corn.

John and I talk about the rotation of the crops.

“They don’t do that anymore,” I tell him.

I kind of know this. I’d heard it somewhere, and it’s part of my store of half-knowledge. I’m a half-expert on many things.

“It’s important,” I continue, “because you use up the nutrients in the soil with one crop, then replenish with another, but they don’t do that anymore. You just get crops without the nutrients. The corn looks the same, but it doesn’t have the value.”

“They still rotate some places,” John says, and I don’t argue.

He could be right, and usually when I insist, I find I’m in error, and I get tired of being wrong and looking stupid.

I hope he’s right. Otherwise, the green beans we eat are better than plastic or Styrofoam, but maybe not by much. We’re still alive. There’s that.

The cornfield ends, and we step over the line of demarcation.

“No more Shoeless Joe,” says John.

Is that sad?

And what does Shoeless Joe have to do with cornfields or us?

I’m thinking about the Damn Yankees song, Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO. The tune is in my head, and the character was fictional.

There was a real one. I know that’s who John means. The real one. But what’s he talking about? Cornfields?

“Remember?” John prods because I’m obviously not following him on this metaphysical, metaphorical path. “They all disappear into cornfields in that movie. Field of Dreams.”

“Was that movie about Shoeless Joe?”

“That’s what it was about.”

“Kind of a silly movie, wasn’t it?” I ask, “but it struck a chord.”

We’re almost at the Mazda now. Not a mirage or a wish. A real car. And we’re not lost. Is that a good thing? Isn’t it possible to go and go and come out on some other side which isn’t lost but it isn’t found, either? I like that idea. How do you find that?

“I was always sorry,” I say, “that Burt Lancaster had to give up his dream to save the little girl. If he stepped out of the baseball field, he couldn’t go back. No, I wanted to say, don’t take away his dream and make him be a doctor! But they did it. They made that girl choke on a hot dog so he’d be a doctor instead of a baseball player. Lose his dream.”

How would the movie have gone without the hot dog part?

Why is it that so often it’s little children who make us lose our dreams? We give that sideways smile when they’re in a jam and do that thing we don’t want to do because of a child. Everybody does this. It’s the way of it all. And then, everything’s different. And we never have our dream. Or some piece of it. But the children are it, right? They’re all it. That’s the way it has to be.

I used to cut hot dogs lengthwise and sideways, both, so our kids wouldn’t choke. Why didn’t these people do that? Hot dogs are just the right circumference for choking kids, so you cut the meat in half.

You do this.

Both ways.

This isn’t a secret. These things don’t have to happen. You pay attention and make sure. Make sure!

A movie. Calm down. Just a movie. Plastic.

We have to have a reason Burt Lancaster doesn’t get to play ball. He has to be a doctor, although I’m not sure why. Why did I have to be flute player? Where was my cornfield, and why did I have to step out of it?

“We’re supposed to think the hot dog thing was all right,” I say beside the real, actual, out-of-season cornfield.

No James Earl Jones or Burt Lancaster here. Just us and cold reality.

Our kids never liked it that I cut up their hot dogs, but no kid of mine ever choked on one, either, and no Burt Lancaster ever had to give up his dream to save one of my kids.

Burt Lancaster, me, John. Kids, babies. All in a day’s work. Maybe.

John and I get in the car and go home. Copies made, walk taken, a movie remembered, plus some other things. Hearts, stars, diamonds.

By authorsusanshaw

WALKING IN THE WOODS WITH JOHN, part one

Hey everybody–

This is the first of many chapters of WALKING IN THE WOODS WITH JOHN.

Hope you enjoy the read!

November 17, 2015

John and I arrive at Chesterbrook and find the circular path behind the community’s small shopping area. Is there a bandstand tucked in this park? If it’s suitable, maybe John can arrange for a brass band gig.
“They’re doing something over there.” John nods toward a backhoe and a mound of dirt.
How can we resist the mud? The Tonka joy! The face-planting, unadulterated, liberalizing, finger-painting love!
Ahem! We are not four years old. We are dignified. We stand tall and blink. We are clean.
That’s the front we put up, anyway, until we can’t stand it. But so far, we aren’t running to play in the mud until we get caught and tossed into the klink—Giggle! Giggle!—still covered in mud. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Somehow, we walk away from the backhoe and temptation and see a small pond, no doubt dammed. Natural ponds don’t exist much near our home.
Rivers and creeks run everywhere, though, and down the hill from our home is a culvert-covered creek that flows over the street during heavy rains, and you’d be dumb then to cross it with or without a car. Not that people can’t be dumb.
I don’t know. Has it ever snagged anyone?
That culvert will collapse someday, you bet, but maybe that’s me being negative, and maybe water isn’t actually destroying the culvert that even when it was new, wasn’t big enough to keep branches and other debris from getting caught, nor deep nor wide enough to keep the water from pressuring the sides, any more than the previous culvert which one day, just gave up. Barricades, detours. Go the other way!
What we have are different logs in the new culvert, different water, different pebbles and different salamanders, but those facts are hard to prove, and I don’t believe in conspiracy theories so much. My lack of faith could be the problem. Maybe—what do I know—they are the same pieces of lumber recycled over and over again, some backwoods genie overseeing the operation which sends the same gallons of liquid, the same red salamanders, the same minnows, through the chute. I don’t investigate. Investigate a salamander?
Still, John and I drive over the culvert every day as though there’s nary a care in the world, eating granola bars and planning phone calls and talking about our children, and not thinking about the spot we’re crossing which could offer huge drama this very second. Someone walking over it, some eighty-pound person with a tentative step, might provide the last straw. The culprit might be a scrawny, punchless wind.
Or our car.
Joseph and Pete, teenagers then and clad in yellow ponchos, once went down to look at the flooding creek, just to see it rage. They came back laughing and speculating on their own idiocy. A crazed creek, so fast and so deep, touching it with a toe would spin you around. Please tell me they didn’t try that.
Maybe they learned something. Me, too! Don’t do that again! Don’t let your kids out of your sight! Right. Well, they were both at least six foot at the time, and I was no longer restricting them to the front yard without permission, and probably with it, too. Supposedly, we have sense by the time we reach that height. But maybe not. Maybe I should have said no. Maybe I should have grown taller. And gravel-voiced. And mean.
By someone’s authority, the way in which the periodic issue with the culvert is now handled is with a sign that reads: Roadway Subject to Flooding. Translation: How long can you tread water? Because no one will actually do anything about the flooding. Why would they do that? What could we be thinking?
And . . . we adjust. All us neighbors have learned to tread water while cooking broccoli and checking homework. The true multi-taskers.
Chesterbrook’s small lake reflects the coppers and reds and yellows of autumn trees, all brilliant in the afternoon sun. On one side of the trail is a pair of baseball fields. Beyond them lies a soccer field.
“Probably part of the deal,” John tells me, “the township insisted upon with the developers. At the very least, they could put in ballfields and a pond. Paths with benches.”
We come upon one of these benches. It holds, sitting elbow to elbow, six different-aged men. Three wear identical shirts emblazoned with a school name. Whatever they do the rest of the day, these men are quiet now, not speaking, not eating, just sitting, their eyes on something two thousand yards away. They seem terminally tired. One more effort, and they will liquefy and trail downhill to the pond. Maybe that’s how the pond is kept full. On broken dreams. What’s wrong here?
Whatever the guys do professionally, I don’t want to take it up. One stop short of zombiedom.
John and I pass on. Maybe with our backs turned, the men have become one with the bench. Are now statues.
Soon we come upon a young father with his son, maybe four years of age. Okay, five. Or three. The son is riding a bike, slowly, slowly, with training wheels. This kid can’t balance worth a darn. Someone was smart to put on those trainers.
Both males wear smiles. The dad seems slightly embarrassed in our presence, but we also see this: The kid’s a riot! That’s all over the man. Joy. Embarrassment. Pride.
It’s okay. We’ve all been there.
A little farther on, so the duo can’t hear, I comment that I hadn’t liked it when Joseph had learned to ride so early. Older than this kid, but still early. We discovered our older son, six, riding a yellow bike in the street with Petey, four and gleeful and sweaty and running in the grass alongside. What an image!
“Sure,” Quinn, the bike owner’s father, told us at the time. All calm and reasonable. His kids were older than ours and he’d seen everything. Plus what did he want with that old bike? “Take it home.”
I didn’t want it, but it came home with us. How could we say no?
But Joseph on a bike? In the street? What the heck? And Petey. I’m not over it yet. They lived through it, but I’m not so sure I did.
They still ride, they’re still okay. It was all right. I guess.
But this Chesterbrook boy is being encouraged. So soon? I want to shout at the dad. Are you an idiot?
The fact that my brother got hit by a car while swerving in and out of driveways on his bike when he was little has no bearing. Poor Brady! How did he survive childhood? How did any of us? Grandmum said we lived charmed lives. Magic. At least we had that going for us. There might be no other explanation for our survival. How are we all still here? Sleds into trees, dog bites, house fires, falls from high places, near drownings. Maybe there is a God. Maybe we provide him laughter, and that’s why we continue on. There goes that family again!
I just wish it didn’t hurt so much to be the clown.
Well, okay. The dad was there with his kid. It wasn’t an old, yellow bike, and it wasn’t in the street, and four-year-old Petey wasn’t running alongside except in my head where I keep all the children in all their ages full-time.
A little further on the path, John and I come upon what appears to be the other half of that family. Mama and son, maybe age two, and probably not that. This boy’s also on a bike with training wheels. They make them this small?
He can’t be that long into walking, but okay, why not ride? We can’t leave anyone behind! Well, except he isn’t going forward, not really. He goes forward an inch and then backward an inch. I don’t think they will ever see Dad and big bro again. Not until high school.
John and I move on, and who knows how long they stay? Maybe forever. Them and the guys on the bench. Permanent fixtures.
But maybe the Dad and junior the first go as far as the men on the bench, and maybe the men fractured with fatigue laugh and remember doing the same as these two, either as dads or sons, or maybe it was just fun to see. And maybe laughter makes them feel better, and they can go back to work and make it through another day and no longer liquefy into creek water or become one with a bench.
John and me? We keep on the path that brings us around to the pond again, still dammed into place with all the trees reflected in it. We never find the bandstand—how can you lose a bandstand?
But—find a bandstand, not find a bandstand. It doesn’t matter.
Later, we hear that it is farther up the same street. It’s there. It’s real, or so goes the rumor, another rumor, and maybe John will take his brass band there someday and light up the sky of some summer night with its glory.
Stay tuned.

By authorsusanshaw