Saturday, August 11, 2018

Some Fiction, Based on a Dream, 2018Aug11

I walked home from work on Thursday. It had rained a couple hours earlier. One of those summer afternoon rains that catches you off-guard from outside the window. But it wasn't raining now, and I felt like walking. I'm always fascinated by being "among the people" on the bus, but sometimes it just feels good to hoof it. Roughly four miles to my brownstone apartment, it was a decent walk that would give me plenty of time to unwind.

"This town has nice sidewalks," I thought. Maybe not everywhere, but in my part of town, anyway. They're usually in good repair, with chips and cracks being the exception rather than the rule. City Hall had recently pushed through an initiative to repair or replace the ailing walkways around town, and they'd done a good job, even to the extent of adding sidewalks in places that were lacking. No longer do I have to step down onto the street for 100-foot sections of my walk home. It's clean grey concrete the whole way now. Now if they'd only fix the streets, we'd be onto something. A truck
rumbled down the road up ahead and struck a pothole puddle, splashing nasty water on my clean grey sidewalk. I purposely stepped on the newly wetted portion of sidewalk. It was dirty water, sure, but it's not like the soles of my shoes were any cleaner, and it was fun to hear the splashes of my feet striking down there. You've got to find enjoyment where you can.

I looked up toward the horizon. It's easy to get in a habit of looking at the ground when you're walking. Easy to look down and zone out, thinking about the sidewalks, or thinking about anything, I guess. This was just the start of my walk. Who knows where my mind would wander off to by the time I got home, and if all I did was look down the whole time, I probably wouldn't even remember this walk a day later. No, zoning out was not good. I'd already spent too much of my life zoning out. So I looked up.  The sky had been blue a mile ago when I set out from the school parking lot. Now some non-threatening clouds were moving in. I wondered if it would rain again later on, but it seemed I had plenty of time to get home before that might happen. And if it did start raining on my way home, so what? It would be a nice little adventure. Like I said, you've got to find enjoyment where you can.

My walk home was really something to see, if I wasn't zoned out. The breezeway over the turnpike was one of the highlights. Maybe a hundred cars and trucks zipped under as I crossed. I stopped and looked for a minute, trying to catch some of the logos on the tractor trailers as they roared by. Doing that brought me back to the stark reality that we are being advertised to. Always. Everything has a logo. Everything has a tagline. "Be a Pepper" had just passed through with "1.800.GoFedEx" not far behind. And you can't leave out the classic Coke truck, this one painted up to resemble a 6-pack of glass bottles, each bottle with some tempting ice-cold condensation on the neck and cap. We're always being advertised to, and it's okay with me. I often wish I was creative enough to come up with one of those logos or taglines. Creating something that would live on in the consciousnesses of strangers after my death was a dream of mine. I've tried a few times. A song here, a book there, occasionally a blog or YouTube video. Fame is hard to achieve, especially with lackluster dedication like mine. I guess I never stuck with anything long enough to see it through. Anyway, with all the budding artists out there, you either have to be lucky or wildly outlandish for your stuff to find its way to the top of the heap. Everyone's got skills, but normal Joes and Janes will never be noticed.

Just past the turnpike, there's a park off to the left. It's nice. Jenny and I used to eat subs on a bench there sometimes. And it was a specific bench, one facing away from the highway, though you could never escape the noise of the traffic. Even the prettiest parks have noise pollution. But this bench was in full view of the play set. We didn't have kids. Didn't want kids. Having children would be too much a risk to our lifestyle. But we enjoyed watching the kids on the play set, with their parents on other nearby benches, twiddling on their smartphones as Junior hung upside down on the monkey bars. It's surprising how rarely a kid gets hurt on the playground. If I tried half the stuff we witnessed, it would probably land me in the hospital. Even as a kid, I was never that adventurous, and I like to think it shows I'm smarter than some kid risking life and limb hanging upside down six feet up, but then again, they never get hurt, so I suppose they're smarter after all. It was always nice to let ourselves get pulled into that family-oriented world just a bit, see what it's like on the other side of the tracks, and then walk away. We'd finish our subs, turn away from the swinging kids and the phone-addicted parents, and just walk away, back into our childless freedom, maybe impromptu stopping at a store or theater on the way back to the brownstone. Life was good, and that park reminded me of those times. This particular day, I didn't turn into the park, but I caught sight of the bench across the row of bushes that lined the park. There was a parent sitting on it twiddling with her smart phone.

On down from that was a neighborhood, full of small, but well-kempt and charming houses. Most of the lawns were tidy and clean and pleasant. Though there was one frustrated gentleman trying to mow his front yard. The grass was still wet, but he seemed determined to get the job done. As I approached, he was hunched over trying to clear a clog from his push mower's chute. I waved as I passed. That was part of my southern hospitality tradition. He may or may not have noticed me, but at any rate, he didn't acknowledge me. He was too busy and too frustrated with that mower. "Mowing's for the birds," I thought. The good life begins with apartment living.

I was approaching the shopping district, if you could call it that. All the fine dining, classiest stores, and the best entertainment establishments are on the other side of town. But, considering that this is just a couple miles from home, it serves me well. It's everything I need. The Eatwells hole in the wall is a favorite of mine. I eat there every other week or so. I don't know how they stay in business. The city should have shut them down years ago, just based on cleanliness alone. And that lady who seems to do all the cooking there while smoking. I wonder how many ashes I've gulped down over the past few years that I've frequented the Eatwells. But the meal is always hot, the spaghetti sauce is always spot-on, and the service is quick if you sit at the bar. Jenny wouldn't eat there, so it became my little hideout when I needed to get away. No, Jenny and I would go to The Sub Shop. You can also get salads there, but we'd get subs. Ed, the owner, is always polite, and the high school and college kids he had making the subs are generally friendly. They knew us pretty well and would give Jenny extra olives. And they would give me just a few. My whole life, I could never stand olives, black or green, but Jenny always was a good influence on me. I wanted to like them, so I began to get a few on my sub, a few on my pizza, a few in my salad. I still can't eat them straight out of the can, but that's alright; I'm just happy to have developed a tolerance for them. Sometimes we would take our subs to the park, and sometimes we'd take them home, but usually we'd eat them there. A sub is best eaten before the bread gets soggy. There always seemed to be a table available, sometimes next to a window. It's a good place to people-watch. The four dollar theater's across the street. It was formerly known as the three dollar theater. I guess inflation hits everything, and besides, it's still better than going across town to the ten dollar multiplex, though the reclining seats at that one are extremely comfortable.

That day, though, I wasn't interested in the movie, which was one of the Jason Bourne pictures, and I wasn't up for a sub or a plate of ash-laden spaghetti. I was looking forward to getting home. But as I passed the little market next to the theater, it seemed good to go in. I usually take the bus home from work, and the stop is another mile down the road, nearly at my apartment. Passing the market on foot was too good of an opportunity to miss.

The woman who runs this shop is of Asian descent but is a second generation American. Her name is Anne. Anne smiles a lot. She's always smiling, every time I see her. She has a friendly voice and says hello when I walk in, and she asks how I'm doing. And without fail, she asks if I need help finding anything. I don't know why she asks that. I always say no, and I've been going there for years. I feel like I know the place as well as she does. But it's nice to be asked, and it's nice to be smiled at. Even the worst day can be improved with a smile, one of your own or one from a friend or stranger. Smiles are nice. The shop hadn't changed since my first visit. Dairy and meat in the case on the far wall, a small rack of produce in the back-left corner, cereal on aisle three, hygiene on aisle one close to the cash register, and drugs of all sorts behind Anne at the front counter, which was on the right as you walked in the door.

I looked at Anne as I walked in. She was behind the counter, as usual. "Hello, sir," she said, "How are you?" She smiled.

"Hi, Anne. I'm having a great day. Just taking a stroll home from work. Have you had a good day?"

Anne kept smiling. "Yes, sir. It's beautiful weather for a walk. Can I help you find anything?"

"No thanks, Anne." I smiled at her. "What do you recommend for dinner tonight?"

Anne cocked her head to the right and put a thoughtful finger to her lips. "Hot dogs are on sale. Maybe that and a bag of chips?"

Anne knew me well. "Thanks, Anne. That sounds wonderful." She smiled. I took a small black plastic basket and made my way slowly around the store. I hadn't come with a list, so I needed to be thoughtful about my needs. It was just like me to grab only what I needed for dinner, but it was better to buy enough for a few days of living. I covered each aisle and collected what seemed right, useful, or tasty. I threw in a bag of carrots, some razor blades, a box of Rasin Bran, a half gallon of 2%, an 8-pack of hot dogs, and a few other other odds and ends before getting back up to the counter. I took a Snickers off the rack for good measure.

"Did you want those chips with your hot dog tonight, sir?" Anne was still smiling.

"Oh yes! Thanks for the reminder." I left my basket on the counter and ran over to the junk food aisle, aisle five, and plucked a yellow bag of plain chips off the shelf. I started to walk away, but then thought better of it and switched it out for barbecue.

When I got back to the counter, Anne was half-way through ringing up my groceries. She finished my order, smiled, and said "$21.43, sir." I paid with a credit card. I pay for everything with a credit card, and I pay it off each month, too. I'm never good at keeping cash on hand. I always seem to have too much or too little. I do keep a twenty for emergencies, but I try not to spend it.

I took the bag of goods and looked up. "Thank you, Anne. I hope you have a terrific day." I smiled, really sincerely, and she smiled back.

"Thank you, sir. Please come again soon."

As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I nearly tripped on a young man, maybe nine or ten years old, standing by the door of the market. I thought he was on his way in, so I held the door from him, but he motioned that I needn't bother, and I looked at him and noticed that he looked sad.

"You okay?"

"No." He said quietly, not making eye contact. He was looking down, and all I could tell about him was the color of his hair. Sort of an odd brown with bits of red in it. I was concerned about him, so I knelt down and did my best to look him in the eye. His eyes were still aimed downward, so I looked at his forehead instead.

"What's the matter?" I said. "Anything I can help with?" I didn't expect the answer I got. I didn't expect any answer at all. Kids shouldn't talk to strangers, and in my experience, kids of this age generally don't.

"I had five dollars," he pouted. "I was gonna buy some things at the market with it, but on the way here, I lost it. It musta fell out of my pocket." I didn't know to trust him or not, but his expression seemed so genuine. It seemed like whatever he needed at the store was the most important thing in the world to him. Even if he was lying about losing the money, I wanted to help him out. I reached back and pulled out my wallet, hoping that somehow I had a five in there. I didn't. Just the twenty. I sighed silently and gave it to the boy. Even as he continued to look down, now at the bill in his hands instead of at the ground, I could tell that his expression changed to some mix of happiness and shock. He didn't say thanks. Shame on me for expecting him to. He just turned and went through the door into the market. The sun was getting low, and those hot dogs wouldn't stay chilled for long, so I continued home.