I can’t sleep in on Saturdays. No matter how tedious my week has been, how tired, how restless my nights—each morning, I find myself alert, heart beating unbearably in my chest, somehow certain that a burglar or another foul intruder had just escaped and slipped out the apartment window. And I just missed him. But the window remains shut, the building silent. After some moments, I slip on my sneakers, both of which remain tied from the last time I wore them. The door, when I lock it from the outside, shuts in the tomb of dim curtains and quiet fan-blades that are revolving to an end, and breathing in the morning, I climb into my car and drive to the fort.
This morning is chilly, depending on how you look at it. However, after the
frightfully long winter, of which this deteriorating atmosphere has permitted, a simple spring morning resonates perfectly with the locals’ yearning for comfort. A slight crowd has already gathered at the historic Civil War–era fort and park-on-a-hill, and they have all slipped into their own rhythms, their own movements along the asphalt loop which encircles the hill like a bead necklace. Parking beside the rustic-style museum, its lights still murderously dark, I take a sip of water and begin along the trail, bearing past the expanse of oak trees and tulips and sycamores and thousand robins. Why are there so many god-awful robins here, making their god-awful frenzied sounds?
By the time you complete the first circle of this loop, things come into focus.
Order. Disorder. The same strangers’ faces. By the time I finish the third or fourth, I’m surprised by how much I notice. The two middle-aged sisters with walking-weights begin to reek of sweat, masked gradually less and less by their perfumes. The occasional helicopters cross the skyline at almost perfect 25-minute intervals in their trips to and from the hospital down the street. A family holds back a German Shepherd from the robins and squirrels. An older man in sunglasses and a hoodie limps suspiciously by a group of parked cars. “Do you have the time?” asks the fellow of me. Instinctively, I glance at my wrist, though I’ve never owned a wristwatch. “Um, hold on,” I say as I reach into my coat pocket to produce my cellphone. “Quarter past seven.”
It is peculiar, to me, that the police officer is not only driving along this thin,
asphalt path, but also how he smiles at me, waves, as though justifying his armed
presence. His flattop haircut matches the grass, beaded not by dew but by a gradual sweat, which some people always seem to elicit. In bleak weather, torrents of rain, or clear skies, some people are always sweating. He couldn’t be here for me, I assure myself, I’ve done not a thing wrong. Twigs and leaves snap beneath the subtle groaning of his vehicle, and, volume on low, I can hear his radio broadcasting the victories of weather: “Sure feels like spring today, huh?” sings an enthusiastic host. “It’ll be a high of sixties and sunny. Thank you Mother Earth.”
There must be a clear, simple manner in which I could step around another person without causing a catastrophic fright to spiral them into self-conscious abyss. “Oh, you scared the jeebers out of me,” I can hear them say, now. How is it always that people freak out every time I sidestep past their shoulders? How could they think their own pace is enough to keep the world behind them at bay? I consider this, two paces behind the slow-moving older woman wreathed in a ribboned kerchief being lead along by her nurse. Presumably, she’d undergone some hip or knee replacement, and presumably come out her for PT, presumably getting only this chance to see the outdoors and the sunshine and the blue sky and the birds and squirrels before returning to the pale walls of her nursing home where televisions blink reruns at an unfazed audience. God, I have no
patience for sluggishness.
On this loop, passersby intersect at dualistic points along the grandfather-clock trail. The toddler wearing overly large, rubber galoshes recognizes me, I can tell, by the second time we arrive, in timely unison, on the loop by the parking lot. Dust shoots up from the tires of cars. Crumbled asphalt piles about in uneven corners. Trotting in place by his parents, the toddler watches me closely with grave eyes. Staring as only a toddler could. His hand raises into an unrecognizable wave, then, as if we know each other; but it seems this motion is not meant as a greeting, somehow. That stubby little hand is raised, instead, like a warning sign to not cross again, to not continue along that dreadful circle of asphalt. What could a toddler like this mean by his somber, threatening waves? Forcing a smile, I wave back, and I could hear his father say, “Come on now, say goodbye,” in his Middle-Eastern accent. “Goodbye,” cries the child over the wind, “goodbye.”
The cop, I notice, has stopped on the part of the loop that sits beside the main road. His sedan is parked, flashers on, and he is nervously shifting from foot to foot as he stands on the sidewalk, staring down at something unseen. Sweat glistening on his nervous flattop forehead.
“Do—er, can you stand?” he asks the ground. “Does it—are you in pain?”
From behind a bushel, I notice the shabby hand, the shabby coat, of an unseen figure. It shakes as it comes into view. The cop attempts to pull this figure to his feet, but to no avail. The figure has grown faint, and the cop has begun shifting nervously, again.
“Maybe it’s a hobo,” I think to myself, “Maybe drugs.” Though I immediately feel guilt at this thought, the image of the transaction is lost to me as I continue along the pathway.
Two robins are fighting in the grass. They look like cartoon characters, the way they flush and flutter, stirring up clouds of dust and feathers. How is it their violence seems so innocent compared to ours? So brutally innocent. But I have no reason to stop for the birds or for the view of the hill slanting off toward that Civil War-era seminary. It’s beautiful as the sun peeks through a curtain of sycamores and blue sky and reddened, glowing clouds, but I don’t need to stop. I just need to keep walking, the loop seemingly growing smaller, less strange. The faces I know and they know me.
I’m coming up, again, on the pair of sisters, and I can just hear them speaking.
“. . . was it when you visited her?” the first sister asks. “Exactly,” says the second, “She pulled her roommate’s hair, stole her dessert. Threw her socks all over the floor. That’s what Janet told me. The things she does in there, I can’t believe it.” The first sister laughs, “It’s hard to see how their minds go, especially so close to the end.”
The end? This story, this cut-off from a tragic image of loss, disturbs me. How could they laugh amongst insanity? How can they laugh so close to death? For a moment, the only footsteps I hear are my own, but I’m shortly relieved of my solitude by a jogger, one new face that must have just joined the train of regulars on this asphalt path.
“On your left,” the jogger shouts as he passes me. Ah, and that must be it. That must be the code people use to sidestep the world’s sluggish pace, to keep going on and on and on.
Rounding the hill, again, I find the false hip-or-knee woman and her nurse have stopped at the whirling image red and blue lights. It’s not just them, so also stand the man in sunglasses, the joggers, the family with the German Shepherd. It’s the cop, again, to which their attention has been drawn—the flattop cop. Still pacing nervously over the helpless figure, he’s muttering things as a pair of EMTs drives up, removes a gurney from their truck, the first saying, “Let’s see if we can get you up, get you some help.” The shabby man looks up at her weakly. It’s a long shot to think he’d be able to just walk away by now. It’s a long shot to think that he’d also be able to pay the ambulance fee, that he’d have been fine if the cop hadn’t come and nervously told him to move, nervously told him help would be arriving in minutes, nervously tried to diagnose whatever brought him to that helpless place on the sidewalk. For what reason had the cop acted so quickly? Without waiting? Some people just want to see the world wait.
“He’s injured, I think,” says the jogger who passed me just minutes earlier.
“What’s that? Oh, I doubt he’s injured,” remarks the man in sunglasses, “Maybe just faking it.”
“This looks bad,” comes the voice of one of the sisters as they arrive at the scene.
But what is everyone stopping for?
My legs continue. “On your left,” I say as I pass through the clamor of people. I can’t stop. Not for this. The sun has warmed the air, and the crowd has gradually grown, joined, now, by the toddler in galoshes. He’s in a stroller, and his parents have slid into place among the onlookers. His mother asks her neighbors what’s going on, if there’s anything to do. His father is hopping up and down to see past the bushes, past the heads of strangers. But the child, his eyes are fixed on me as I try to silently slip past into the openness of the loop. Blinking, he reaches out, again, as I pass. But what does he expect from me? Once I break free from the crowd, I begin to breathe easier, the brisk morning air fresh on my face. I don’t make it far, however, before something strikes my shoulder. A chaffed branch, I notice as I glance down to the debris at my feet. Then, something else comes soaring through the air, smacking right into the left side of my expose neck. I scratch at it. Is that blood? Something is wrong. Turning, I can feel a heaviness slide into my stomach. Upright, both legs still pricking into overly large rubber galoshes, the child is there, his carriage and parents yards behind him, and he is snatching at pieces of earth and launching them with horrifying speed right into my direction. “Stop,” I shout against the commotion and sirens behind the boy. Gray eyes slanted, he ignores this and throws an ugly-size rock, which misses me by feet, exploding against the cement. What does he expect from me? To stop like the rest of this crowd? Another stone strikes me across the chest. Does he expect for the entire world to be in reach of his little, stubby fingers, for everybody to just be standing in some begotten crowd, somehow for every stranger, every person there, to stop, to wait, to not move until they are certain that the world as we know it has not been injured too far beyond repair? What could they be stopping for? I begin to run. Legs sluggish and heavy, a trickle of blood slides down over my throat; I begin to run. The crowd and the sirens and the child’s raucous, violent rubble soon drift away as I arrive, once again, at the hill where the sun is peeking through the curtain of sycamores, and the robins are fighting like cartoon characters. The glowing clouds have dissipated, for the most part, left by airplane trails overhead. There’s no point in stopping now.
Though born and raised in Florida, Joey Hedger now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he edits for an education journal. His own writing has most recently appeared in saltfront, Sin Fronteras, Jelly Bucket, and Freshwater. His chapbook, "In the Line of a Hurricane, We Wait," is set for publication later this year (Red Bird Chapbooks).