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August 15, 2022

The Walking Man

By Steven Servis

Martin Bolenesky lived comfortably in a well-kept neighborhood on the outskirts of a small town, Forester, set along the Atlantic coast in New England with his teenage twins and naturally pretty and brunette wife. Life for Martin was preferable, clean, organized, and familiar. He was down-to-earth, nicely dressed in a suit and tie, and he always brought out the best in his coworkers with his exuberant personality. He was organized and knew where everything was and the various happenings around town right down to the city bus schedule, though he'd never taken the bus. Martin even knew the day of his retirement, six months from the very day, according to his bosses, the Wesvaults, who were planning to close the doors of the law firm in Forester and merge with a much larger New York City firm. Martin was to be laid off; he was neither angry nor happy about it. There was, however, a distant feeling of exclusion, not having been invited to New York by the Wesvaults, which caused Martin some pause. But he wouldn't have gone anyways, his life and family in Forester.

In the morning, after Martin read the newspaper and threw it in the wastebasket, he tightened his tie and walked past the BMW key that hung from a nail in the kitchen door molding. He devoured the eggs and toast his wife Amelia prepared him, completing his morning routine early. He walked through the threshold once more, passively reached for the key, and paused. It was not there. He sneered.

For an everyday man, a lost key was not unusual, but Martin was far from the average man. He was aware of intricate details, colors; subtle changes in environment, and to his mind, a car could not exist in whole without its original, factory key. Because of its small size and high risk of misplacement, Martin paid special attention to its whereabouts, carefully placing it where it belonged each night upon arriving home.

He frantically searched the house, Martin on the verge of running late. He asked his son and daughter if they had seen it. They, of course, had not, nor had they paid the slightest attention to its whereabouts. Martin was shocked by their passiveness; he didn't understand why his family did not share his panic.

"Just use your spare," Amelia suggested, slightly annoyed by his bickering and whining.

"Well, I don't have a spare," he informed, frustrated.

"Martin, why?" Her mouth gaped, her eyes faintly wide.

Martin cringed. "I don't need a spare; I don't misplace things." He dismissed her, flailing his hand. "I put it right there on the nail, the same place I've put it every evening since the day I bought it."

The twins scurried out the front door to catch their rides to high school. Martin's spirit sank; he was hoping one of the kids would admit to having taken it. However, if such were the case, he wouldn't find it today, the kids scurrying out the door with their backpacks mounted.

"That's irresponsible, Martin," Amelia sniped carelessly, her spiteful words cutting into his heart like an axe to an innocent, her judgmental eyes burning into his unguarded back. He took a deep breath.

"I need a ride," he muttered, weighing his professional work duties over the ego that wanted to deliver the retort she deserved. "Would you drop me off?" He asked through gritting teeth.

Amilia reluctantly chauffeured Martin to the office. Her semi-white beater -- rust holes in the fenders, bald tires, and a cracked windshield -- rolled up to the front window of the law office. It was her father's car, and she'd inherited it after he'd passed three years prior. She sold her BMW when Martin gave her an ultimatum between the two cars, driveway space limited at the house, and she used the money to buy a brick dedicated in her father's memory on the church wall, her father a committed patron.

She smugly steered the vehicle into a wide-open parking space directly in front of the gaping front window. Martin, with his suitcase balanced on his lap, avoided eye contact with the paralegals and interns working the front desks. He stepped out with effort, catching his balance as he lifted himself upon the tall downtown sidewalk. Amelia smirked, said she loved him, and drove the bomb away with a violent, grinding shift into second gear.

Martin wondered if the interns hadn't noticed -- or perhaps they were hiding their volatile faces -- but they seemed too busy to acknowledge the slightly embarrassed lawyer. Whatever the case, Martin wasn't in the mood for social interaction; he passed the giggling interns in deluge, still heavily concerned with the whereabouts of his lost key. He meticulously reviewed his experiences, recalling the detours he'd made the night prior after carefully parking his car in the driveway. He remembered opening the door and sitting down to supper. He remembered kissing Amelia good night and tucking himself in. But no matter how hard he thought about it, the hundreds of days he'd placed the key on that peg were diluted into a single, vague thought. He could not decipher one day from the next.

He checked the clock. Realizing Amelia was considerably late, he made a hasty call home, which was answered by his son on his way out to a track meet at school. He'd not seen her. Martin hung up the phone and checked his watch. What has my life become? He pondered. Could I be losing my mind?

He sighed and opened his desk drawer, picking out a prescription bottle from a slew of pens and supplies; then popping a couple of the football-shaped pills. He decided he would walk home. He locked the front doors, intending to buy a healthy snack at Ben's Grocer, Ben an old buddy from high school. He sauntered upon the sidewalk as the sun set and a chilly April breeze nipped his neck. He raised the ashen collar of his wool jacket. Such an unusual day, he thought. Ben will surely offer some condolences.

Martin walked; the street lamps suddenly lit, and he immediately noticed the ominous black of the closed Ben's Grocer, which sent him into panic. He ran at the red brick building and peered inside the doors, his hands smearing the glass. What happened? Ben hadn't mentioned anything of the sort the last time they'd met. Martin tried to remember the last time he'd seen Ben. It'd been months.

The signage stripped, he gawked through the gloomy windows, the store empty. A sudden nostalgic tribute crossed his mind: Best friends in the neighborhood, playing sports and video games together, and trading baseball cards, all the things expected of good kids. Martin wondered if this was what fate had in store for him, the dark side of life's Yin-yang.

His back hunched, Martin sulked along the sidewalks of Forester until he reached the front door of his home some three miles away in a neighborhood nestled on the outskirts of town, a historic area that originally housed the local mill workers. The old mill was now overgrown in woods behind the houses, the remnants of the paths the workers wore into the forest floor between the mill and their houses still visible to date. He opened the door and walked into the empty house, tossed his coat on the rack, sat in the recliner, and loosened his tie. Martin dosed off depressed, his mind overwhelmed.

Martin awoke when the late morning rays illuminated his eyelids. He immediately recognized something was off. The light of the sun didn't have the dull tint of dawn; instead his eyelids were flooded with the blinding whiteness of mid-morning. Is it Saturday? He asked himself. He cracked one eye and suddenly realized he'd overslept.

Martin started for the bedroom when he realized he was still dressed from the day prior. Tightening his tie, he bolted through the door, allowing the storm door to slam shut. Standing in front of his BMW, he searched his pockets for his key, suddenly remembering it was lost, as he looked back at his historic Victorian home. Somewhere in there, he thought.

He pulled his smartphone out of his pocket, and pressed "4" and "Call" which immediately phoned the office. The receptionist answered with an alertness that gave Martin a sense of disassociation and contempt.

"It's me. I slept in," he said with feigned indifference.

"Okay ..." she said sarcastically.

"I'll be there in a few minutes."

"You know today is the Barber Case, right?"

"I know that!" He assured and hung up with a fierce push of the red button.

Martin made off in a sprint down the sidewalks of Forester, his leather wingtips digging into the sensitive skin of his heels which bled a little in his black socks. With a right turn, he made his way along Highway 3 that led downtown, Martin in a steady sprint along the asphalt sidewalk, a painful grinding of bone on bone in his knees, the cartilage all but gone from an old injury. Vehicles sped past quietly with the exception of their tires, which heeded approaching danger, each sound excessive and unfamiliar to Martin. His heart pounded in his ears with the irregularity of a toddler drumming a stewpot.

As he trotted, Martin vaguely perceived a distant shout from a passing car when a Kum-N-Go slushy whirled at his face and hit him. The breath taken from him, he gasped for air as the ice slipped down his neck and shirt. Teens mocking from the window of an old truck sped away in a black cloud of gasoline-rich exhaust.

Martin stopped, cursed the world, and shook the ice out of his coat. "What is this?" He yelled aloud to the fate that had turned on him. "What are you doing to me?" Disheartened and angry, he walked the remaining blocks, passing Ben's Grocer disillusioned, and finally opened the glass door of the office to the sight of the interns who, to Martin, looked resentful.

Martin sat at his desk and powered up his laptop just as Brent Wesvault morbidly strolled into his office, shutting the door behind him. At once, Martin recognized the sorrowful eyes of pity in the elderly Wesvault. Martin's face burned red as he hastily apologized to Brent for sleeping in.

"Yeah, what happened with that?" Brent asked, so perplexed by the phenomenon that he almost forgot what he wanted to tell Martin.

"I just slept in. I told you."

"You would have missed traffic court." Wesvault knitted his eyebrows.

Martin's burning face flushed white and cold; his chest suddenly fluttered. He knew he had dropped the ball. "What do you mean 'would have?'"

"We handed off our clients to the Mayborn's last week, Martin. I was going to tell you yesterday, but you seemed ... distant."

"What happened to six months?"

"This whole recession thing is hitting us hard. We're going to hang it up early and head to New York City; Wall Street's got bailout money and they're throwing it around like nobody's business."

Martin fell silent, and Brent didn't have to tell him this was the end. It was all over his face, in the wrinkles and the dark circles under his eyes. The Wesvaults were tired old men looking for an easy way out of this small town mess; they were too old to keep up with the crank addicts skipping out on their bails and lawyer fees anymore. The recession was like a mass consolidation of professionals, and now he was being thrown to the wayside. And in a few years, the only professionals with jobs, he thought, would be members of Phi Beta Kappa and Ivy League graduates. Becoming a professional was supposed to be the safest move; instead the recession had put a target on his back, and a hundred other qualified lawyers in town were prepared to take his job. Perhaps that is the reason for not being invited to New York. There was supposed to be opportunity, yet here I am packing my things like a damned pauper. Then he recalled everything that had been happening to him; sleeping in, the slushy, Ben, his wife abandoning him; he wondered if God was trying to beat him into mush, but he wasn't angry. I'm doing the best I can here, he thought. These instances are not within my control.

Martin crossed Main with a copy paper box full of pictures, pens, and his various university degrees. He wondered what the point of these life detours were; why did he work so hard just to be laid off? Why did he lose his key, only to have a slushy thrown at him as he tried to fulfill his professional duties? He walked the sidewalks of Forester, always headed here or there, but in truth, in the big picture, he wasn't headed anywhere at all.

As he walked Route 3, he listened to the passing cars, the tires on the pavement, the way the tires disturbed the air as they whistled along the road. He wondered if he had somehow ignored this reality, the street, the way the world existed harshly, violently; the sounds unlike his typical quiet commute to the office. At any moment, he thought, one of these giant vehicles could veer off the highway and kill me, but they don't ... Somehow he had avoided death for forty years against all likelihood. One distracted driver is all it would take, one man with too much on his mind, who wasn't paying attention to the pedestrian in the suit walking along the sidewalk.

Martin peered at the faces as they passed at sixty miles an hour, each only a flash in his sight, yet visible enough for him to interpret their features, to somehow understand the plight behind the face. A child, a father, a teacher, a businessman; they were all doing the same things: heading to work or school, fulfilling their patriotic duties to civilization. Martin wondered if he looked as they did: predictable, safe. No, he did not look like them today.

As he walked along a picket fence, he observed its intricate details, imperfections that one couldn't see from a car traveling even as slow as five miles an hour. He'd always imagined there was a house behind that fence, and he failed to understand the fence's purpose. It seemed the owners were locked away in a box. Perhaps they were so civilized that they had domesticated themselves, dwelling in their square like pigs in a pen unknowingly awaiting their own demise. But unlike livestock, they erected their own prison. He peered between the planks.

It was only a house. Clapboard, he thought; real clapboard. He'd always imagined the siding to be vinyl, like so many homes in the area; he'd even suspected a trailer home. Along the rear side of the property, along the picket fence, was a bench facing the home, as if the owners sat and admired their possession and all that it symbolized. Weeds and grass, however, were growing wildly, nearly covering the bench from visibility. Faded plastic toys littered the yard, and upon the front door was a piece of paper that read "Property of Chase Bank." I suppose, he thought, the fence couldn't keep the bank from taking back their house.

Martin rounded the corner and stood at the four-way intersection of Jefferson Street, his street, and he gazed at his home from afar, its white vinyl siding similar to the beige vinyl siding of his neighbor and his neighbor's neighbor, all the houses having been upgraded from clapboard in the nineties so the residents wouldn't have to paint them. In the driveway was a BMW, his BMW, and he realized he hadn't seen his wife since he'd lost his keys. His wife was lost, too, but in a different sense. She didn't care whether he lived or died, a consequence of twenty years of marriage.

Martin was predisposed to come home to children and toys in the yard, but the children had grown and were concerned with their social lives and activities, aspects of their lives uninvolving him. In the course of a day, he had managed to lose everything by the hands of fate; and the only things that certainly remained were him and the house that didn't seem to have a purpose anymore. Sure the house was physically there, but it no longer housed a family. Now three grown adults lived there and acted more like roommates than family. How could he have lost his key? He wondered. It was important to him, that key. It meant something -- safety ... his safety was gone now.

When he would enter the home he would sit in his recliner, probably take a pill and fall asleep to white noise and the ring of silence. His wife would burst through the door in a manufactured rage, asking where he'd been, though it was her who was had not shown up. Such monotony and feminine turmoil was something, in fact, that would define the remainder of his life; his golden years were upon him, the only project left to do now was enter his tomb and die.

Forty years of meaningless tail chasing, he thought, as his neighbor cornered the intersection in a BMW and waved at Martin who didn't wave back. Somehow, he'd lived through all of it, and he was still alive. At any moment in this day he could have died; it was obvious that he was not in control of his circumstances. He had not lost the key. He couldn't have stopped Ben from going out of business. He couldn't have predicted that the Wesvaults would close the doors early, and a fence would not stop the bank from taking his home. His car did not make him safer on the road; he could still die, just as well. He had no control over his death; he could neither stop it nor make it happen. A burden was lifted from his shoulders.

If such were true, he was free to do anything. Martin had time to drive anywhere; he could fly anywhere on a passenger jet. He could go to Spain, he encouraged himself. But realistically, he wouldn't feel he had ever left the comfort of his home; his wife would demand they fly first class, stay in a four star hotel, and do everything but experience the labor that renders reality so unavoidable to the under-classed. What is visiting a jungle, the Mayan ruins, if one sleeps in a comfy bed, in a hotel on a beach in Belize? What's the difference, he thought, between one bourgeois neighbor and the next, between the various hotels around the world?

Somehow his recent mishaps had opened up a new possibility, one of uncertainty, of newness, of perpetual evolution. Martin could do the unthinkable. He could disappear. Travel off by himself -- but his wife would find him, so long as he had the money, sending lawyers to demand child support and alimony. What is money, anyway, but to spend? I take no pleasure in money, in things. In fact, today ... today was the best day of my life; not the getting canned part of course, but the freedom, the freedom is unparallel by any trip money can buy. Nothing can buy the degradation I felt when I was hit by that slushy. Or the pain in my knees, my heels, the blood. Real pain, real emotion -- money cannot buy that. The mill workers didn't take the road to the mill -- why would they, when they could just cut through the forest and avoid the traffic? And what pleasure that must have given them, to watch the rustling leaves, to feel the wind in their ears, to watch the trees sway, to walk in the rain, all before ever lifting a finger for work.

Martin wanted things to change; he wanted the windows and walls to fall away; he wanted to know what the weather was like by feeling it; he wanted to do things the hard way. He wanted to feel the pains of hunger, to beg on the street, to bath in a cold river, to feel his own death, his own life. He wanted to riot, he wanted to burn buildings, he wanted to kill. Martin was Martin no more -- he was not a slave or a machine or cattle or a pet of a richer man, a smarter man. No, Martin was something special, something undecided, unpredictable, unflattering, weary, and pungent. Martin, the real Martin, was not clean-shaven; he had a beard, bad eyesight, and he was slow. Martin was really slow, and he was tired of spending his life trying to keep up with society.

Martin dropped his box on the sidewalk, the glass of the frames broke and the pens skyrocketed and fell in the street. Then he walked along the road, Wheatley Avenue, which led to Derkins, and Princeton, and Main, and Highway 6, and Interstate 70, and further still. He walked without a plan. And Martin walked with determination when his knees wouldn't bend anymore and the pain was unbearable, and still he bore, and walked forth, the walking man.

And he rode the bus with the paupers, because he liked the paupers, and they talked with genuine voices, that cracked and swelled. He rode and walked and rode again for miles. Martin went everywhere. He saw the streets of New York City, Boston, and he spent the night on Skid Row. And Martin realized something important about America; he wasn't the only one who hated living in a pen. People like him were everywhere on the street, not because they were disabled, or mental, like so many of the homeless, but because they realized that the world is outside the walls of their houses, that the truth is in the experience, not the words, not the promises, and certainly not in cushy dream-world built by the many and enjoyed by the few.

Martin was a hero and you could tell by the determination in his face as he walked along the interstate, as if each step might be his last, his eyes focused on some distant point, a hill, and despite the staring and the heckling, he walked forth like a soldier. He was headed somewhere, Martin was. He'd broken the mold of society. Martin had become a walking man.

Article © Steven Servis. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-04-23
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