I wandered out of my neighborhood proper this evening for my regular walk, out of the familiar realm and into another, past the new-ish houses that line and dot the area and into the older parts, the more ancient, if that is not too exaggerated of a word for the homes and hearths that rest and belong in this other area. I walked past houses with fireplaces lit and burning and the myriad smells of different woods burned and smoking and was cast back into my childhood with the smoky meat and sausages of German towns and cobbled streets and gutters, wood-burning stoves lit and burning and casting their familiar aromas into those long-ago icy nights, snowflakes falling past slated roofs and through the beams of yellowed street lights. I was there in moments and out again as I beheld the gorgeous and modern houses that lined other streets, an elementary school with the shining SUVs and minivans leaving the parking lot with raised and lifted and monstrously-tired trucks as they left the evening conferences or whatever, pulled out of the parking lot and made their way and ways to their various houses…anyway, down those dimly lit roads that went to those other neighborhoods, not mine, but away.
I walked those miles and then, and came to the cemented ribbons of commerce and travel, that freeway beltway that circles the town and valley. On this side is the neighborhood, on the other are the stores and restaurants filled with people spending their time and money doing whatever it is they’re doing, shopping and eating and being and not wondering at what I was doing out there on the middle of the pedestrian-bridge those twenty-some and thirty feet above the freeway looking down at the passing cars and trucks and minivans, some of which might have just left the evening’s activities at a local elementary school, some of which might be passing homeward, so late, from their working days, or heading back, or to work as I stood there and looked at them passing so. My gloved hands slid their fingers through the chain link arched fence that covered the bridge and hung loosely there as those semi trucks and full and midsized pickup trucks and whatnot sped along.
I wondered at peace and how it could be found there, wondered if it was there, not just there to be found, but could it be there, suspended so high above those cemented passageways, four and six lanes heading their separate ways, four and six lanes times east and west, so eight and twelve lanes in their coming and going. Would it be possible to sit there above the traffic, suspended there above those passing vehicles and people, and have the hum of tires and motors become a relaxing and whitened noise that might calm a troubled soul? Standing there in that odd place, that suspended place that caused my steady soul to wonder at the fastness of the cement pillars and pilings, the metal rods that must be deep inside those cemented somethings, and the architectural skills and engineering genius that must have been utilized to allow for sway and movement and the natural jostling of wind and the shifting of potential liquefaction of the substrate and the contracting and expanding of freezing and warming concrete in their seasons and other things…it did wonder, my steady soul.
It wondered, too, at the darkness that must reside, I would say live, but that would seem to involve an effort to do so, to live, that is, but to reside could be equated to existing and that, it would seem, might not take too much effort…but I wondered, anyway, at the darkness that must reside in the hearts of other people, in their souls maybe, such seemingly impenetrable blackness that would cause them to join me on this midair walkway and look for ways to violate and pass-through the chain-link and then hurl themselves onto those concrete ribbons and under all of those passing vehicles that I mentioned and didn’t, just above in those earlier lines.
My mind wandered back, too, to an earlier life and an earlier occupation that was occupied, was occupied, indeed, so to speak, with concerns, with others’ concerns and our own concerns, mine and my co-workers, with those troubled souls and darkened hearts that found themselves up on those suspended places over the rushing traffic. I wondered how they could have come to that place in their lives, and so near their deaths, that they sought the heights so they could soar up and out from their own inner depths and fly and fall into a light that meant release from so many torments. I wondered what happened to that last loved one or friend, the last one of either, whose patience ran out, whose loving words finally failed that other one on the pedestrian-bridge. Were they scorned by lover or friend, by their oldest child or youngest child or their mate of one or two years, of two or three decades, or was it failing health or lost dreams or used-to-be’s? What did they lose…to find themselves there? It could be anything, I suppose…or everything, too. Their equilibrium, purpose, drive, meaning, orientation, world-view, or whatever…they might suddenly be in a place where nothing makes sense, where things aren’t where they used to be, where even the light is different than it’s supposed to be in their world, or in the place in their world that they used to occupy, maybe. Maybe if their shoes were on my feet, maybe, I might understand more than I do or can, maybe I would understand what it’s like to be them, if I could understand such a thing, but I don’t know. I didn’t walk in their steps, didn’t share their heartbeats, didn’t lay my head on a pillow next to theirs at night, maybe, or didn’t lose what they lost, or suffer the abuses from monsters’ hands like they did, or might have…I didn’t feel those things, maybe I didn’t, so I can only try to understand, as I might.
So, I wondered about all of that and some, and more, as I stood there and listened to those tires and motors speed away from beyond and beneath me as I looked eastward in the darkened night and beheld the lighted forms of the mountains sitting there and understood and knew that they offered perspective to some people’s lives, but not others, that some problems are bigger even than mountains, or seem to be, and therefore are, and that comfort and peace might only come to some at the end of a brief flight from a pedestrian-bridge. Not my personal choice, mind you, and nothing that I condone…but I do understand…in as much as I am able.
Yesterday morning, on my drive home from the store where I had just purchased the week’s food and other household supplies, I was looking at the neighborhoods I passed and at the smoke and steam coming from roof-top chimneys and vent pipes. I also caught sight, through and beyond the clouds, of parts and pieces of the white and enormous mountains that line our eastern horizon. It was and is still amazing and weird and wonderful to find myself in this place in the middle hours of this last day of the year, in a place so new and strange and removed from where I was last year. As I drove those snow-lined streets back to our neighborhood proper, I happened to notice a mile-marker sign that was posted along the road. It said “Mile 11.” Now, I am familiar with state highways and roads that leave their freeway confines and become or pass along the same route as a city street, like US Highway 60 in Arizona that becomes or passes-along on Grand Avenue, bisecting the Valley of the Sun to take travelers on their way to Wickenburg or beyond, and I know of US Highway 89 that takes us from Flagstaff to Page, and to Kanab and Panguitch, and then marks a parallel course to I-15 as it leads north to Provo and Salt Lake, eventually becoming State Street that runs the central length of our city, but I was not familiar with any such state route or US highway that had turned into 700 East as it made its course through the city.
Seeing the sign made me wonder about the eleven miles that had passed on the other side of that mile marker and how many other miles existed in the opposite and other direction, whatever and whichever way that actually was. It struck me as odd, too, and maybe allegorical even, in the processing of what yesterday was and what today is in the marking of time in a year and this present time or era or segment of my life and my family’s lives in this time of crazy and dramatic change. We’ve come to this station and place in our lives, taken such drastic steps to find ourselves in a new state and locale, and work and living and natural environment and our heads and hearts and sometimes emotions are spinning and wondering and looking for something familiar to grasp and hold-on to as we attempt to regain our balance and direction. And here we are then, eleven miles from somewhere, remembering and thinking about the past and wondering about the future, holding-on to each other, leaning against one another in our little relocated family, awaiting the arrival of others and missing those who won’t or cannot join us…and our friends, of course, we remember and miss them too, those precious ones who, even from outside the circle of our family and intimates, loved us and brought us joy and companionship for the past twenty years and more.
So it’s not only us, but you, too, and then, who on this first day of a new year are eleven miles from somewhere. Where are you going, what are you doing, how are you, and we, too, going to measure this year when it’s gone, like we’ve done to the one that is just passed and passing?
There is that other place, that other realm, that inside curve on the edge of a hidden thought in a different something where the conscious mind travels to and from, migrating there and back as moments allow, as lucid instances of concentration escape their purposeful attachment to what is at hand and demanding a sorted and sort of focus and attention. Imagination and day dreams intersperse the required attentions and monotonous happenings between the wonderings of either and when, running clock and otherwise in free-falling moments of risk and fantasy and desire and what-ifs and then. The phone rings or a person is suddenly there, materializing out of their own thoughts, instantly demanding something of a mind and consciousness that is traveling on another plane, living and wandering in a place that is unattached to the present, existing in a future that is unknown and daunting and hopeful and defined in a dreamscape of glowing mountains and rippling streams and greens that exist in the artist-philosopher’s imagination as possibilities in another world, or a perfect one, or in another dimension in his thought or mine. To exist in that other place and time, to live within or among those other boundless boundaries that define what isn’t yet, but longed-for…this is what fulfills and informs the moment…this is the spirit or soul that treads the paths of the wandering mind…maybe….
I finished my shopping, paid for the coming week’s food supplies and other staples and then passed through the automatic doors and walked out of the store and into the waiting parking lot. As I turned the corner from the entryway, I passed an alcove or recess in the building’s architecture and was surprised to see a small woman-girl tucked into it. I was caught off guard, naturally, as I wasn’t expecting to encounter someone hiding there.
She was a smiling, brown-eyed version of that hauntingly beautiful, green-eyed girl from that National Geographic magazine cover those many years ago…and had a sort of soft falsetto type voice that somehow reminded me of the one used by a certain dead pop-star when he talked to the media and tried to be so convincing of his innocence.
It’s hard not to respond to someone’s greeting when it’s something that you normally do, even when alarmed out of your reverie or processing of thoughts about your day or whatever.
I wondered if she was going to step-out and ask for money…just enough to buy some milk for her kid or gas for the car…but her eyes were too bright and the skin on her face was too clear…and still, the “Hello sir” wasn’t empty. It felt like there was something more coming…as I kept walking away, pushing my cart. No footsteps followed, not another sound, just the rattle of the cart’s wheels over the cobbles and into the parking lot.
I turned to look back and found her still there, tucked into that small spot, hugging herself into the slight corner of the building, wrapped in her brown or black or whatever colored jacket or hooded sweatshirt or whatever. I kept walking to my truck, pushing my cart ahead of me, and then turned to look again and saw that she had left. I didn’t see her walking anywhere and assumed…I don’t know what I assumed. I figured she was just gone.
I beeped the remote on my keychain to unlock the truck and then opened the front passenger door to load the groceries. I looked again through the other window, and through the palo-verde trees in the parking-lot medians, and back at the entrance to the store. She wasn’t there, by the store…she was in the backseat of my truck, just sitting there, smiling with her medium dark eyes imbedded in their pure whiteness and further enveloped in her slightly darker skin. She might have been 13 or 21 years old, I couldn’t tell. She smiled an easy smile.
“What are you doing in my truck?”
I’m just sitting here.
“I can see that. Why? Who said you could get in?”
You left the door open.
“I unlocked the truck so I could put my groceries inside and then get in myself and leave. I didn’t open the…I didn’t unlock the door for you.”
Well you must have left it open then. It was open when I approached your truck.
“You just got in on your own. Now…what do you want? Who are you…what are you doing here?”
What do you want?
“I don’t want anything.”
“Yes, really, I don’t want anything.”
How can that be…that you don’t want anything?
She leaned forward a little and slowly slid her hand into her jacket and held it flat against her chest…looking at me with that little smile, white teeth peeking out from between her full brown lips.
“I have what I want…so I don’t want anything. Now get out of my truck.”
Why were you at the store this morning? Didn’t you want something, didn’t you came here to get it?
“No…I needed some things. My family needed some things, so I came here to buy them.”
And you didn’t get anything that you simply wanted and didn’t need? You needed everything that you bought today?
“No. I bought a couple things that we didn’t absolutely need, but that I decided to get anyway…or I wanted them, yes. Wait. Do I know you? Who are you? What…why are you here?”
She leaned back into the seat and turned to look out the window and toward the front of the store again. I was still standing outside of the passenger front door and slowly placed one and then another bag of groceries on the front seat. She turned back and met my eyes again.
What else do you want?
“I want you to answer my questions…why are you in my truck and what are you doing here?”
I’m here to see if you want anything…to see if you have any desires…in life. That’s why.
“Who are you? I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before. You need to leave. Go on. Get out of here.”
You’re just uncomfortable talking about things you want…and you don’t want to confront yourself and your personal issues.
“Look…my personal issues? I don’t know you, ok. You followed me out to my truck and then got in without my asking, without my permission, and now you’re asking me about what I want, about my desires. I don’t know you. I don’t talk about those things with most of the other people in my life who I do know, so I’m certainly not going to talk about them with you…or…. Oh, I gotcha…you were talking about other wants and desires?”
She smiled and turned her head away again. She pulled her hand out of her jacket and started to reach for the door handle, hesitated, and then put her hand down into her lap where it found its mate.
Maybe I’m an opportunity…or a challenge? Aren’t you looking for a challenge…something to test you?
“Or to tempt me? Are you looking for a date or something? Trying to pick-up older guys in the parking lot of a store…so they can take you home or to a hotel somewhere and abuse you or share some of their own forsaken love with you, give you some money and then you go away and look for another person, another victim?”
Is that what you think, really…that I followed you out here to proposition you? You think I’m…a prostitute?
“I don’t know what you are, but I’ve seen it before. I’ve talked with young women or girls like you, or girls who conducted themselves like you just did, so…yeah, I guess that’s what I was thinking. You’re someone who needed some money and wanted to trade for it. I already asked you who you are and what you want and all you did was ask me what I wanted. You’re playing word games…like you’re trying to get me to ask you for something…all innocent-like.”
I’m just asking a question. What do you want? Is that so hard to answer?
“Are you in the habit of following strangers from a store and then climbing into their vehicles uninvited, simply to ask them what they want? That seems rather odd to me. Seems wrong, fake, misleading…certainly not on the up-and-up.”
“Yeah, like you’re up to no-good, trying to cause trouble…trying to get something…money for drugs or something. Or food, maybe, I don’t know.”
I had loaded all the groceries into the front-seat of the truck and still stood outside of it, talking to her through the open door. It started to drizzle again and the water drops were beginning to land on the inside of my glasses, blurring my vision of the little girl-woman sitting in the backseat. I couldn’t see if she was smiling or even looking at me, though her head was still turned in my direction.
You don’t know what you want, do you? You have no idea. You’ve got your nice life, your family, probably a couple nice kids and a good job that you might not even like anymore…and you don’t know what you want. You’re stuck and you don’t have a clue.
“What are you, my conscience…my soul…some undreamed dream or a ghost from a previous life…a guardian angel or an apparition from the future…coming back to save me from my own destruction or something?”
Maybe I’m you. Maybe I’m the question that you don’t ask yourself every morning when you look in the mirror…that question that haunts you as you sit in the nighttime darkness and wonder what you’re going to do with yourself…that quiet voice inside your heart or head that asks what you’re going to do with the next 20 years of your work-life…your career…and the other 30 or 40 years of your non-work life…maybe I’m your future. So…what do you want?
I was standing with one hand on the open door and the other on the edge of the door-frame near the top of the truck, kind of bowing my head to look into the truck at her. I looked down at the ground and kicked one of the pieces of landscaping rock or gravel that had gotten knocked out of the median.
She didn’t say anything, just kind of adjusted herself in the seat…maybe leaned forward a little.
“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe in this kind of shit.”
Again, she didn’t say anything. After a few seconds I looked up and she was gone. She hadn’t opened and closed the door, hadn’t made a sound…no smoke or vapor, no lingering scent, and no residue or smudges on the back-seat or window…she was just gone. I leaned into the truck and looked through the driver side front window toward the front of the store again, but she wasn’t there. I un-leaned myself from the truck, stepped backward and closed the door, and then walked around to the other side of the truck, looking out and through the parking lot, turned around a couple times and scanned the full distance of the store’s property that I could see…but nothing. She was gone.
I got in my truck and drove home. The store was less than a mile from the house, so the drive only took a couple minutes, even as I drove slowly and scanned the sidewalks and neighborhood looking for the girl.
After I put the groceries and other items away, I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I took off my glasses and brought my face closer…and looked into my eyes, one and then the other…looking…searching…the brown was different than hers…the whites not as white…not as young.
“What do you want?”
I couldn’t answer her…couldn’t answer myself….