The rising of the sun brings a strip of bright light across your eyes. You lower your lids and inhale slowly through your nose for four seconds, focused on the slight coolness along the edge of your nostrils. You hold that breath for another four seconds, striving to balance an unsteady calmness against the pernicious weight of memory. You slowly relax your lungs, the air easing past your lips, accepting these few seconds of respite from the paradoxical sense of feeling both heavy and hollow.
After many long, long days, and multiple sessions and pharmaceuticals, you have assented to ease back into daytime activities. A brief walk feels manageable. Your view through the slatted kitchen blinds reveals no neighbors walking about. A pair of squirrels spiral up a nearby tree, rising out of sight into the full foliage. Yes, a simple walk.
* * *
For three years you have appreciated the solace of this small condominium development, the private drive, the quiet of oak and fir, the indifferent neighbors. For three years you have taken solitary late night strolls alongside the adjacent woods, pausing for wild turkeys to cross to or from the arboreal slope of their ancient home. You have noticed the narrow path leading up from visitor parking. A walk would be both a healthful activity, you have been advised, and a helpful distraction. Yes, a short hike through the woodlands will suffice, away from those who may deem to engage you.
Mistakes of the past have prepared you. Although the day is sunny and warm, you know the woods will be shady and cooler. You remove the Hawaiian shirt from Macy’s and put on the L.L.Bean long-sleeve flannel. Branches and thorns may hinder your way. You replace the J.Crew linen shorts with Levi’s 505 jeans. The path will be uneven, rough with fallen sticks and rotting branches. You lace on Adidas non-leather athletic shoes in place of the Teva vegan sandals. Hanging vines and twigs may catch you unaware. To protect your face, you don a pair of Ray-Bans and a Panama hat from Tommy Bahama. This last, a gift from your daughter, Zoey, shows its age now with discoloring in the crown and a hole worn through the front of the brim. Finally, you fill a water bottle, add a few ice cubes and a splash of lime, place it inside a Nike drawstring backpack, and grab your house keys. You pause at the door for a quick check – heartrate, breath, stress – and step outside.
* * *
At the corner of visitor parking, you cross a narrow verge of trimmed grass and take a step onto a beaten path between a small rhododendron and a chain link fence. The start of this narrow trail has seen some use recently. The ground is firm and clear of vegetation save a sparse littering of dry, crumbling leaves. You notice a stick at the base of a tree on your left. It is about four and a half feet long, perhaps two inches across at one end, tapering to a jagged point. The bark looks knobby and rough with dead lichen. You pick up the stick and test its strength against the ground. It flexes easily, too easily for your taste, and the grip is wider than you would prefer. This stick is barely useful as a walking aid. Still, it can serve to divert spider webs and thorny vines. You take it as a temporary hiking staff while you watch for one that is better.
A second step up the path begins an incline toward the undergrowth. A dull glint from the base of the fence on your right snares your attention. You pause and lean toward the small object, using your stick to brush aside a few leaves. Half covered by dirt is a small cylinder with a weathered blue body and metallic endpiece, maybe chrome or stainless steel. Curious, you pick it up for closer examination. It is a little longer than your hand is wide, and as thick around as a finger. There is a small, silver button on the side. Pressing it does nothing. You wonder if it is a tool or some kind, or a toy, or perhaps an electronic gadget with which someone got bored. Zoey would know, you think, if she were here. Still, it is trash, and you feel uncomfortable leaving it on the ground. You turn back to drop the object into the nearest dumpster.
* * *
Across the private road from the visitor parking area is a row of owners’ SUVs and hybrid hatchbacks in their designated carports. Each cluster of condos has its own Trash & Recycling Center. These consist of corroded green dumpsters and drab green plastic recycling bins surrounded by a forest green wooden structure bordered by actual green shrubbery, all serving to mitigate the idea that your neighbors produce any garbage. The closest dumpster is some forty yards away. You turn right and start walking up the private drive, the unfamiliar object in your left hand, the knobby hiking staff in your right.
An old gasoline-powered vehicle rumbles from behind, its tired engine grunting as it clambers over a striped speed bump. You take one step back, allowing extra room for the habitual mail truck. It pauses alongside you, creaking and moaning, the driver’s sliding door wide open. The mail carrier has held this route for longer than you have lived here. His full beard and unkempt eyebrows are gray from the years, his walking shorts faded blue, his legs wiry and tanned from the miles.
“Good afternoon,” says the driver. His expression agrees with his salutation, revealing little of what is and nothing of what isn’t. He looks at the label on a shipping tube. “Know where unit 459 is?”
You hesitate, not having spoken for some days. “No,” you rasp. Clearing your throat, you add, “I think we only go up to 433.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.”
You nod your head and consider asking who it’s for, as if you knew your neighbors, but opt for the comfort of brevity.
“All right,” the driver nods back. “Have a good one.” He lifts a hand by way of farewell.
You raise yours, still holding the blue cylinder. “Say,” you venture, surprising yourself, “um, you know what this thing is?”
The driver considers the object, his eyes and general countenance impassive. “What is it?”
“No, I mean I don’t know what it is. I wondered if you did.”
He offers a minimal shrug. “Sorry, can’t help you there.”
You nod in recognition of your shared ignorance and take a half-step back as the driver coaxes his vehicle forward. You appreciate that the conversation was terse.
* * *
Across the road, from between a black hatchback and a white SUV, comes an excited dog with curly white and brown fur and a shaggy muzzle. Behind it, at the other end of a taut nylon leash, is a small woman just managing to keep up. The dog approaches you, or rather your walking stick, as it gives two quick yaps. You turn away as to avoid engaging the owner, but the little dog persists in examining the stick.
The small woman catches up, taking in the retractable leash, winded and annoyed by straining against it. She is older than you, her white hair bobbed beneath a floppy pastel blue beach hat and matching windbreaker, sleeves reaching her knuckles, wide sunglasses guarding her upper face. She holds a balled-up plastic bag in her unleashed hand, prepared to clean up after her dog’s business.
“Heel! Benito, heel!” she calls out sharply. “So that’s what got him all riled up. It’s that stick of yours. He thinks you want to play with him, and I don’t give him a stick unless we’re at the dog park. He can run around all he wants at the dog park without dragging me all over the place.”
You nod, searching for words. “He has very curly hair.”
“Yes, they’re known for the tight curls in their fur. It’s supposed to be waterproof. Benito is a Lagotto Romagnolo. You won’t see many of them around here. Lagottos are rare dogs, an Italian breed. They call them Water Dogs because they were bred to hunt ducks. That’s why they have that waterproof coat. But mainly it’s mushrooms now, those truffles that people talk about. I don’t take him to water, just the dog park on Sundays.”
You look down at the dog, in part to avoid facing the woman. “Hello, Benito.” The dog ignores you.
“Benito Tortellini is what my husband used to call him. That was his favorite pasta. He always hoped Benito would find some of those mushrooms. They don’t have them around here.” Still minding her dog, the small woman asks, “What are you going to do with that thing?”
“Uh, just going to throw it away. I don’t know what it is.”
She stands upright and faces you for a couple of seconds. You can’t see her eyes behind the sunglasses, but her chin has dropped to reveal a small collection of mismatched teeth. “Why, it’s a stick. What did you think? We get sticks all the time falling from the trees around here. Don’t throw it away.” The small woman looks down at the stick, then back up at you, shaking her head slowly. “The grounds people take care of them.”
“Oh, I thought you meant this blue thing.” You can feel your heart rate quickening with growing annoyance. “This is my hiking staff. I’m taking a hike.” You start a long, slow breath, as you have practiced many times.
“Not much of a hiking staff,” she mutters. “It’s too knobby and rough. You should find a better stick than that. Look in the trees over there. Benito would chase it, but it’s not a good walking stick. What’s that other thing?”
You hold up the blue object for her to see. “Just some trash I picked up.”
“Well, that’s what you should be throwing away. I don’t want any trash lying around.”
You take another measured breath to ward off the mounting anxiety.
“You can toss that ragged hat while you’re at it. That hole is letting the sun right through. I can see it on your face. You need to be careful with the sun.” The small woman adjusts her hat downward, as if to demonstrate.
You have no reply and turn away as the dog leads the small woman across the road and toward the verge of trimmed grass.
* * *
As you approach the shrubs screening the Trash & Recycling Center, a turkey steps out from the far side into the private road. It’s a female, unsightly as birds go with their dark brown and darker brown feathers and bald head. She stops and gazes at you, and you stop and gaze at her, the two of you considering the other’s next move. You hold back in deference to her rights in this ancestral habitat. The hen resumes her slow strut into the road. Behind her comes a smaller version of the bird, followed by a dozen more chicks and another large hen. Their crossing is slow, haphazard, and halting, punctuated by scratching and pecking at dry leaves as they span the road.
You are in no hurry, so stand there pondering the turkeys’ lot. As you wonder why you have never seen a nest or a dead turkey, a car pulls up alongside you and stops for the procession. A wedge-shaped sign affixed to the roof of the car proclaims “Da Vinci’s Pizza” and a phone number. The driver, a young woman wearing aviator shades and a bright orange Da Vinci’s cap looks familiar. She turns to you before you could look away, so you nod and give a slight smile. Surprisingly, she breaks into a grin and waves enthusiastically. The young woman steps out of her door and looks over the car roof to you.
“Hey! You’re Zoey’s dad, right? Hi! Remember me? I’m Kaley.”
You gaze for a moment, collecting your memories, picturing Kaley with your daughter, moments of laughing, candles, dancing. And you see her also sitting, silent, tears on her face. “Oh, yeah.” You clear your throat. “Hi, Kaley. How are you? It’s been…it’s been a few years.”
“I know, right? Like over three years. So, are you doing okay? I guess you’re living up here now.”
“Yeah, well, things are okay. And you…did you finish school? I see you’re delivering pizza.”
“Yeah, I’m a pizza dude. It’s my weekend hustle. ‘Da Vinci’s – every slice a masterpiece.’” She shows the tagline across her orange T-shirt. “But no, almost. One more term. I skipped a year after…you know. I just needed some time.” She pauses and looks down for a moment. “Anyway, pretty soon I’ll have my marketing degree. Whoo hoo!” She pumps an arm and smiles broadly.
Another memory comes. Zoey and Kaley taking you to the mall, chatting up brands, comparing boxes and colors and logos. It was a special time, being invited into her world. She was so young. So alive. “Sounds great. Good for you. I remember that project you and Zoey did.”
“Yeah, right! That was fun. You were a great guinea pig. And we turned you super cas.” She winces a little at those words. “Well, those styles were cool back then. Did you ever wear them again?”
“Sometimes,” you nod. You point to your hat.
“Ha! Yeah, hats were cool. Maybe even cooler now. And look at you, a vaper.”
“What’s that now?”
“Your vape pen.” She points to the blue cylinder in your hand. “Going old school, huh? I like the new vape pods, but yours is cool. It goes with your whole outdoorsy kinda look.”
You nod and smile in feigned awareness. “Thanks, yeah. That’s what I’m going for.”
Kaley turns her head to check on the flock, which has mostly crossed the road. “Well, I better get going. Really great to see you.” She waves and settles back into the driver’s seat.
“You too, Kaley. Take care.”
The trailing turkeys scoot forward as the pizza car slowly advances and pulls away. You stand there for several moments, glancing at the turkeys, the pizza car, the vape pen in your hand. You turn around, feeling unusually calm, and head back down the road. Head down, you watch the tip of your walking stick splinter as you tap hard it against the asphalt with each step.
Your distracted walk is interrupted by a couple of yaps to the side. It’s that – what was it, some kind of Italian dog?¬ – approaching from across the road, the small woman in tow.
“Heel, Benito! Heel!” she calls out. One hand is clenched tightly around the leash handle. Her other hand holds a plastic bag full of soft lumps of dog feces. The small woman looks up. “It’s you again. With your stick!”
The dog comes straight toward your hiking staff. You lift it up and away as the dog yaps excitedly.
The small woman calls out from the far end of the leash, “Benito, heel!”
You raise the stick above your shoulder, like a rough and knobby javelin, and heave it past the dog, over the small woman, and into the bushes across the road. “Mussolini, fetch!”
The dog turns abruptly and dashes after the stick, pulling the nylon leash to its full length, yanking its owner and all of her shit back and away from you.
You have managed enough activity this day. It is a short walk now down the private road to your home. You tilt the brim of the straw hat up, feel the sunshine fall full upon your face, and let the little blue cylinder slip from your hand.