By LINDA L. DUNLAP
When I see Toy Man jogging toward me on the trail this morning, I know I’m later than usual. Ordinarily we meet on the first bend, rather than here where the curve is less wandering. Nothing moves above Toy Man’s knees, and he tilts rigidly from side to side like a robot. He’s an old man, shrunken small, with a sparse gray beard lacing his chin and creases stenciled like birthmarks across his cheeks. I’ve learned to pamper my knees and, judging from his knee braces, so has he. Still, you have to admire his spunk. Every morning, he’s out here pounding away in his rocking gait with its odd contagious rhythm. Except for the beard and knee braces, he resembles my husband, Tinker.
Earlier before the sun rises to this heat, a thick shade blankets the path. Now the thin strips of sunlight slicing through the camphor trees feel surprisingly hot across my shoulders. Suddenly two bikers burst into the sunlight and swish past Toy Man. “I know your take on fat people, but they’re people, too,” one of them says. “No shit,” yells his buddy, then quickly ducks his head when he spots my gray hair. I smile to let him know I’ve heard the word before. When Toy Man raises an index finger in greeting, I smile at him, too. Today my intent is to leave everybody who crosses my path feeling better. I’ve got to do something; it’s a start. Already this morning, I stopped to chat with Cello Lady from upstairs in 205. She tells me she still pines for Elwood, her miniature dachshund with hair was as silver as hers. She’d practice with the dog curled at her feet listening to the music. Last fall, she had Elwood put to sleep. In the evenings now, I see her across the courtyard playing her cello alone.
I’m late because this morning’s poem on The Writer’s Almanac caught my attention, and I took the time to read it before heading out. It was about kindness, and how, in order to know it, you must know sorrow first. Only when you’ve experienced loss can kindness go out with you into the day. I’ve pondered this, trying to reconcile it with my intent. It’s a fact; I have noticed that Cello Lady is friendlier now that Elwood is gone.
I skirt a dead armadillo spread flat and squashed into the pavement. A tire tread ribs the horny shell. In this heat, it’ll begin to smell before long. I pause, wondering whether to pick it up and deposit it in a trashcan or let it lie. A can sits up ahead on the trail, but it’s a good distance away. I picture myself with the armadillo slung over my shoulder, the shell dangling against my back. Maybe I should just scoot it to the edge of the trail. Lila, my counselor, says indecision is a sign of stress. For example, yesterday I found myself holding two hats in Nordstrom’s wondering if I should buy the $52.99 or the $53.99. I wound up buying both. At home, I remembered I needed a black hat with a narrow brim, which neither of them is. As for the armadillo, I’ll leave it where it lies for now. I loop back at the intersection then come back this way on my way home. I’ll decide then.
Before Tinker lost his mind, he used to say it’s the intent that counts. Somehow it strengthens the resolve. I wonder how far up in the day my intent to leave a trail of smiles will last. In this week’s session, Lila said my problem was that I walk around unconscious. “Oh, you’re not the only one. Everybody does. Sleepwalking, I call it. Stay in the present. Focus on what’s in front of you.” Since counselors are keen on eye contact, she holds firm to my gaze.
No, I want to explain, you don’t understand. What’s in front of me is the problem.
With Toy Man and the bikers out of sight, I punch in the numbers on my cell phone and check my minutes. I’ve used a lot this month and have several days to go before they renew. It galls me to pay 45 cents a minute over my plan. It isn’t about the money, there’s plenty of that. It’s about being frugal and, of course, there’s the not paying attention thing again. I don’t mean stingy like my daddy, either. Frugal is about waste; stingy is about money. I picture Daddy at the kitchen table, content to riffle through his portfolio for hours. He liked to count his money, but hated to spend it. One afternoon, he stopped his tallying and broke a molar cracking a pecan for me with his teeth. He groaned and cupped his hand against his cheek as though the pain might spill out onto the table and down onto the scarred linoleum floor if he didn’t hold it tightly in place.
Lila says we marry our daddies so they’ll love us right this time, then they disappoint us this time, too. By the time Tinker came along, I think I’d learned that love isn’t about whether you do it right or wrong. Love is about love. The packaging it comes in is what’s confusing. Love to Daddy was cracking pecans for you. For me, it had nothing to do with pecans. Who wanted a pecan anyway? Love was about bride dolls and red rubber boots. Daddy was a child of the depression. How was he to know?
Tinker and I have had a good marriage. That’s not to say it’s all peace and quiet. I’m a strong believer in clearing the air—to a point, I’ve learned to add. A file resides on my desktop with the words, Keeping one’s mouth shut is never overrated. Then, next to that, Opportunities I’ve missed.
“Do me a favor,” he said once when I threw a head of cabbage at him. “Next time, would you use a lettuce? It’s likely to do less damage.”
“Tinker, the intent was to damage.” Then we laughed. My throwing came to a halt, however, the day I threw a knife at him. I’d aimed to miss, but a knife is a knife, anyway you look at it.
I have 30 minutes left on my phone, so I’m good. Sometimes I yearn to turn the phone off and pray nobody calls. I can’t do it, of course. What if I’m needed? Then I hit the disconnect button too hard and the phone flips out of my hand into a hill of pampas grass. I stand and watch, wishing I and not the phone had disappeared into the rushes. Poof! Gone! Then another wish, that no one will wonder, Where is she? Why isn’t she here? Before I can head off the feeling, I’m lost, awash in the shame and guilt of the thoughts. I try to live with no regrets, but don’t. Who does? The intensity of trying to live like that, day in and day out, is daunting. Maybe, as someone once said, the most we can hope for is to wind up with the right regrets.
Bending, I retrieve the phone and glance up to see the General on his tricycle with the giant wheels—another testament to how we end up where we began. He’s busy on his cell phone and raises his arm in a stiff salute. When sunlight breaks into a crazy polka-dot pattern across his face, I smile.
I’ve only recently begun walking the trail again. Immediately after it was finished, I was here everyday. Before long, monotony drove me away. For a while, I tried Tai Chi but although its languid to and fro had a gentle soothing effect, walking is my thing. I love the briskness of it, the efficiency and rhythm of a well-oiled machine.
At the onset, a good portion of the trail was banked by stands of loblolly and palmetto thickets while the remaining parts looked off onto solemn backyard fences. These fences were either boarded-up affairs used to seal the houses from sight or rickety chain lengths that closed in yards never intended for public view anyway. Now, some 15 years later, I marvel at how the view has changed. Wildly blooming plumbago, their blossoms a too-beautiful-blue for a name like a back ailment. Stately calla lilies backed by frivolous crape myrtles. The spruced-up look is a study in human nature. A backyard full of rusty lawn furniture and raggedy flowerbeds is okay for my family, but hold on! When anyone else is to see it, we’ll take a second here and spiff it right up.
The day Tinker turned 40, he woke up and decided he was tired of being miserable. The next day, he filed for divorce from his first wife and that fall quit his job in criminal justice to begin teaching school. He says men are reluctant to admit that one reason they divorce is because their wives get fat, but it’s true. Plus, he added, he and his brother had a knack for marrying women who felt entitled. Five years later he and I were married. Tinker turned 76 in June. We were wed on a lovely day in April—a perfect day with the edges still cool and the middle balmy, not like today with perspiration dripping down my nose. I never remember to bring anything along to wipe the sweat and use my shirttail now, leaving a wide swatch of damp. On the balmiest of days, I sweat. I do not glow—ever. I adore winter. I pile on coats, sweaters, fur-lined parkas, but once you’re naked, that’s it. I feel the sweat puddle in my navel and fan my shirt out to create a breeze. In the mornings now when I step outside for the newspaper, I long for a whisper of fall in the air. I haven’t felt it yet, but every morning, I’m hopeful.
My husband Ed had been gone a year when Tinker appeared in my life. Ed died in a freak accident on 1-95. He came upon a crash that had just occurred, slamming into a Toyota Camry that had stopped to help. Two little girls in the Camry’s backseat, 3 and 4 years old, were covered in blood and shattered glass. Miraculously, when the blood was cleaned away, they weren’t seriously hurt. The blood was from glass nicks. The state trooper, who came to notify me, told me about the little girls. Knowing about them did help. I still don’t know which is worse, a sudden death like Ed’s or a slow demise like the one I’m living through now with Tinker—the shock of one, the limbo of the other. Either way, it doesn’t get easier.
I never knew about grief until Ed died, the weirdness of it, the pettiness. I found myself making the most bizarre statements. “I just attended the funeral of a dead person,” I said to no one in particular, then had a sudden urge to laugh. When I finally removed my wedding ring, everyone stopped looking at my face and stared at my empty ring finger instead. I hid the naked finger in the pocket of my jeans. I’d slide it under my purse. I catch myself worrying my wedding band now and wonder if the finger can survive another wave of scrutiny.
Tinker said during his divorce, his only concern was for his daughter Carlene, who was 19 then and should have learned that everything wasn’t about her, but hadn’t. Even I had to admire how she handled the split. “Daddy, you don’t have to explain a thing,” she’d said when he told her. “What you and Mama do is your business.”
Carlene calls Tinker and me the little people. She’s a big-limbed girl who leans toward heavy. She and I never look better than when we’re under stress. The pounds have just fallen off us in the past year. When I gain, it tends to be around the middle. If I weighed 10 pounds, nine of them would hang at my waist. Through the years, I’ve somehow managed to stay fairly slim, but it’s a struggle. In the weight war, you learn to use the weapons at hand. There’s nothing like a fat ex-wife to keep you motivated.
My feet make sharp slap-slapping sounds against the concrete. Despite my short legs, I walk fast. I’ve moved quickly past the tennis courts and bamboo thicket and smell a sudden whiff of tobacco smoke nearby. When you quit, your nose develops buds like the taste ones on your tongue. For the first time, they wake up, perky and alert, like bloodhounds, eager to sniff out the smoky smell of the still-hooked sinners. Glancing around, I spy a man behind a screened patio puffing away on a cigar. The pungent smoke floats through the mesh and flavors the air, then dissipates. As ex-smokers feel it their right to do, I take a moment to feel superior and gloat. Then I think of the stuff I steal from Walgreen’s and climb down off my high horse.
At the edge of the trail, a woman wearing gardening gloves burrows a hole in the soil with a trowel. She plops in a daylily, then fans herself with the trowel. Behind her moss roses cascade from terra cotta pots on a tiered wrought-iron stand. This meticulous display of beauty is situated outside the fence, and it’s just for us. No one sees it but the joggers, the walkers, the bike riders who use the trail. The intent is to make our day a better one.
“You’re a plant lover, I can tell,” I say and stop for a moment to admire her work.
“Yes,” she replies. “It’s better than a Valium.” I understand her intent. I’m convinced it’s one we share.
I meet two kinds of people on the trail. My trail friends, who are nameless, until I give them a name. Our connections are the raised index fingers, the high fives, the salutes. I don’t know if Toy Man has a wife waiting for him at home. I don’t even know if he has a wife. Is the General really a general and, if so, of what? The other kinds are people I know on another level. They’re neighbors, the checkout clerk at Publix, old friends and colleagues. Joe Sullivan, one of Tinker’s friends, jogs toward me now in his bent-over arthritic gait. I wonder if he saw Verna Lassiter’s obit in this morning’s Herald. She taught with him and Tinker at the junior college. I wait until he’s close enough that I don’t have to yell and ask. He answers in his lifeless voice that was famous for lulling students to sleep, “No, but I’m not surprised.” He bounces up and down on the balls of his feet. I expect his voice to bounce, too, but even dynamite won’t revive the dead. “These days we don’t catch colds and flu, we catch stuff that can’t be fixed. Cancer, heart failure, strokes.” He throws up his hand and jogs off.
The question of how one catches cancer plays in my head, and our pharmacist at Colonial is almost even with me before I notice him. “How are you?” he asks. Fortunately I remember that “How are you?” is a greeting, not a question. “Putzing along,” I say. Then, as I do every morning, I turn and watch his backside as he moves past. I’ve forgotten to smile at him, but smile now at his hips, rounded and feminine, heaving like pear halves from side to side.
In the beginning, I stole only flowers from the grounds of the condo complex, which, if you think about it, probably shouldn’t even be in the thieving category. There’s an old country saying, if plant cuttings aren’t stolen, the roots won’t take. Besides, I live in the complex. Didn’t the flowers belong to me anyway? So my stealing started out innocently enough. I even had my reasons—reasons that Lila would label excuses. I can hear her now. One is about truth and the other about rationalizing. I know that; I’m no dummy. I also know stealing gardenias and jasmine isn’t about nice flowery smells to battle our stale condo odors any more than the stuff I steal at Walgreen’s isn’t about the stuff I steal. Say what you will about right or wrong. Don’t each of us salve our conscience in our own way, in the way that let’s us put our heads down on our pillows and sleep at night? Besides, the gardenia bushes were loaded this year. Who would notice?
Even after my stealing branched out to Walgreen’s, I kept my floral motif. Small boxes of Kleenex decorated in magnolia blossoms, ceramic picture frames with roses curling up the sides, freesia body wash. Gradually, the items I slipped from the shelves lost all sense of reason—Pez candy dispensers, a Phillip’s screwdriver, Scotch tape with sticky on both sides. I secrete them in my shoulder bag, feeling like a teenager who’s out to spite her divorcing parents rather than a 65-year-old woman who takes pride in how successfully in the past 10 years she’s divested herself of stuff. You spend the first 50 years of your life collecting; the second 50 getting rid of. But then, as I said before, I don’t delude myself that the stealing is about stuff. Since there’s no logic, I try not to think about the why or what will happen if I’m caught. I just do it. I wind up with bags of plastic pushpins, cans of marked-down tuna, packages of Barney toothbrushes.
I stand between the aisles and struggle for a long time deciding what to steal. My selections are better at Wal-Mart, but I’m not supposed to shop there. Carlene is passionate about their low wages, their unfair policies toward women. For my own principles, I’m willing to be inconvenienced just so much. Then I say to heck with them. I make sure the recyclables wind up in the recycle bin; I use stick deodorant rather than aerosol spray, but that’s about it. Carlene drives a Prius. She uses a mesh string bag for groceries. She marches for pro-choice and volunteers for Planned Parenthood. She takes her principles so seriously, it seems only right that I should, too. Does she need to know I duck into the plant department of Wal-Mart for the orchids that adorn our coffee table, the dendrobuims with the branching curves?
Tinker started out wanting to be a mortician of all things. He worked at Dunwitty’s Funeral Home his senior year in high school and loved it. In those days, hearses served the dual purpose of ambulances, too. When he realized that what he loved wasn’t embalming dead people, but driving the ambulances fast, he joined the state patrol instead. It didn’t take him long to figure out there was no way he could live on a patrolman’s salary. So he went back to college and majored in criminal justice. He thought he was really lucky when he found a job teaching driver’s training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick. After such a promising start, he was shocked at 40 to find himself behind an administrator’s desk with a wife at home who thought she was better than everybody else.
“Reckless drivers are killers,” he explained when we met, “especially when they drive fast, too. The idea is to drive cars fast when it’s necessary, but learn to do it safely.”
Personally I didn’t see how you could drive fast and safe. I thought it was either or, but somehow in Tinker’s mind, his reasoning made sense. For all of his love of speed, he was the most cautious driver I knew—before I had to take away his keys.
I don’t tell Lila about the stealing. What would she think? I’m no thief. Then I’m hit by the incongruity of the thought, like using fast and safe or steal and innocent in the same breath. Still, when I browse the merchandise at Walgreen’s, I never see baby blue Kleenex or the salmon-colored toilet tissue I used to like. When did that happen? I wonder, then smile at the irony. So who isn’t paying attention?
Behind me, I hear voices and glance over my shoulder to see three runners approach, young men who spread three abreast across the trail. They close ranks to pass and one of them says a little breathlessly, “When she wants a heart-to-heart and you sit down for an eye-to-eye, you say nothing.”
“Nothing?” the middle runner asks.
When they spot me grinning, one of them yells, “Isn’t that right? You don’t want us to solve your problems. You want us to listen.”
“It’s all in the book,” I shout as they speed past. “Read the book!”
Women Are from Venus, Men are from Mars. Then I realize they’ve probably never heard of it. The book came out years ago. Tinker and I loved it. It put into words so much of what we already knew. Men’s thought patterns are direct and linear—the facts ma’am, just the facts—while women’s thoughts are more detailed and rounded, stuffed with sidebars and vivid colors.
“Oh Daddy, what do you know?” Carlene scoffed when he dropped one of the book’s pearls into a conversation. I had to wonder what made her think she knew so much; she’d never even had a serious relationship. But then, like any good lawyer, she tends to think she knows everything about everything.
Then I chide myself. That’s not true. Sometimes she’s wrong. She never admits it, of course, but when she’s wrong she still argues; she just argues less.
Green Running Shorts whips around the bend now, the one where I usually meet Toy Man. She’s a regular, but someone who looks away at the last second before making eye contact. I don’t intrude, just look away, too. When she dodges my eyes, I know it’s nothing personal. It’s about keeping her space private and demands respect. It’s the same reason we stare at the ceiling while we ride down in an elevator. It’s why, in community living, where we live one on top of the other, we keep a cautious distance from our neighbor, but do it with kindness and tact. After all, these are the same neighbors we’ll see tomorrow and the next day and the next. We wouldn’t want to seem standoffish and rude.
Then another woman, one I haven’t seen before, pops into sight. As we draw close, I smile and glance down, aware that privacy isn’t the only reason to avert the eyes. Looking up, I gaze steadfastly over the head of the young woman, who obviously didn’t check herself out in the mirror after donning her exercise garb this morning. I try not to point and snicker. I keep my well-mannered gaze on the trees and away from the sharp outline of her left nipple under the thin fabric of her running top, and the upturned nipple’s bull’s eye aim at her chin.
When I’m past her, it registers with me for the first time what I’m looking at. It’s the schefflera tree, rising splendid and alone among the busy loblollies. Against the fine-needled pines, the tree is covered in large leaves that shine as if they were polished. Clusters of burgundy pods line the slender rods that perch in its top like an artificial flower arrangement. The stark uncluttered beauty reminds me of the simple oriental style from the Far East. I’ve never seen a flowering schefflera before, or such an enormous tree. Usually they only grow this large farther south. Here, in our area, they’re popular as houseplants.
At the intersection, I wheel and head back down the trail. When I reach the trashcan, I see that someone has put the crushed armadillo in a cardboard box and placed the box beside the can. It sits now, tidy and snug, awaiting the next pick up. I chuckle to myself. Tinker used to say, Don’t just do something, stand there.
Kitty and Nick pedal past on their lying-down bike that I’ve learned is called a recumbent. Kitty tells me the reclining position saves the back, but for long distances, is hard on the butt. They ride in tandem, each of them busy talking on their cells. To each other? I wonder. They pass, each lifting a lazy hand in greeting. Carlene says recumbents are for old people. Kitty and Nick are in their 50s, so I wouldn’t know about that, but they do look odd, like they’re lying in bed with nothing moving but their feet.
Suddenly I hear the scream of a fire truck ahead of me and glance up as it whips onto Mauphas. Automatically, I pick up speed. Veering left, I take the shortcut near the tennis courts. I stumble into a jog, faster and faster. Did he turn on a burner and forget? Did he find the matches? I break into a run, leaping over curbs and drainage ditches. Then it dawns on me. I don’t need to hurry. I pull myself up short and lean over with my hands on my thighs to catch my breath. Then I let my hands drop and leave them dangling in front of me. I stay bent over and watch them swing back and forth. Again I remind myself I have all the time in the world. I remind myself that he’s safe; he’s well-cared for; he’s happy in the nursing home—the litany of things I tell myself that lets me put my head down on my pillow and sleep at night. Carlene thought he needed to be put away. “He’s not my daddy anymore. Daddy’s gone. Somebody needs to make a decision.” I was never a match for her. Finally, I straighten and take a deep breath, the humidity hitting my face like a wet rag.
Turning back toward the corner crosswalk, I ignore the throbbing in my temple. I focus on what’s in front of me. A kid in a blue Sebring convertible with the top down stops and gives me a high sign. I wave him on. The beat in my forehead ebbs, then stills. The key to crossing in traffic is to take an immovable stance. I’ve learned that no matter how much the man in the tan Taurus yearns to prove he’s a gentleman, I stand firm. The problem occurs when I vacillate. He beckons with a smile. And I, determined before, now contemplate changing my mind. Misreading the look, the Taurus driver believes I’m staying. Too late, I decide to cross and step off the curb as he pulls forward. Now we’re both confused.
When a silver Subaru stops on one corner and a green Tundra glides to a halt on the other, I take my stance. I lift my arm to signal. Both drivers acknowledge they’ve seen me and I step off the curb confident that we’re all clear about who goes when. Suddenly from the corner of my eye, I see a racing bike approach. The biker in a neon yellow and black racing outfit sweeps up to the corner. Hesitating, he glances at me. Then he gives the stopped vehicles a quick scan. “I don’t understand what’s going on here,” he announces impatiently. Without taking a second to size up the situation and figure out his turn, he barrels forward, wheeling around the corner so close I jump back to the curb.
My toe catches and I teeter. When I’ve righted myself, I explode. “You idiot! Are you blind? Can’t you see everybody but you stopped to let me cross!” I know the jerk has heard me. He can’t help but hear—I ‘m screaming like a banshee.
He doesn’t look back, just pedals faster. I’m left with nothing but his receding back and my rage. I stare at his tight hard arms, the pump of his sinewy calves. Like a wild animal, I want to claw at his flesh, I want to tear the muscles from his taut limbs. Finally sunlight, tears and sweat meld his hornet-colored racing gear into a blur. “You despicable insect,” I mutter, a parting shot that’s lame and futile. I drag myself back onto the curb. Spent now, done in by my fury, I can only follow him with my eyes. For a moment, when he rounds the corner onto Zetterower, he is suddenly outlined against the sky like a piece of jigsaw puzzle. Then he vanishes, and for the longest time, I watch the empty patch of blue from where he disappeared.
Linda L. Dunlap‘s fiction has been published in many literary journals over the years. A resident of Winter Park, she has received two artist’s fellowship grants from the state of Florida, one in 1996 for her short story, “Melissa,” and another in 2000 for an excerpt from her novel, Digging Queen Esther’s Grave.