CHAPTER 9 – A HIKE DOWN THE HILL

@ 2014 Mary Anderson Parks

 

I am feeling a great tenderness, even for myself, gentleness toward the whole world, connected to everything. Just this morning I looked around me at the television and its antenna (like an insect!) and the furnishings and decorations and the clothes on my body, and I exclaimed, “None of this means anything! And yet it is everything.”

I’m finding joy in the choices that exist. I can choose to allow myself only glasses of water and tea, or I can sit here and eat a quart of ice cream. If I choose to be quiet, thoughts come, possibilities emerge, very slowly like a turtle thinking about whether or not to poke her head out of her shell. Tentative advances. Withdrawals. Finally thrusting her head into the light of day.

I have been going around this morning pulling up shades, one by one, then throwing windows open to stick my head out and breathe the air, fresh and pure after the rain we had in the night. Will it last, the pureness? There is no earthly way it can. Is that why people turn to spirit?

This is a day I will venture into the world. I remember the last time (a long time ago, not that mad dash to the post office) and fill my pockets with quarters for the homeless. I carefully button myself into a black coat, wrap a scarf around my neck, put on sensible black walking shoes, tie the laces and fold my socks down. I don’t worry that my legs show between my skirt and socks and I don’t look stylish. The path lies ahead and it is important to be ready to walk far on it. If I get caught up in appearances, there will be hell to pay. Must hell be paid? Who collects, exactly? Would I recognize the collector as being from the underworld? And why think of it as an underworld? Ah yes, because it is mysterious, unknown, cannot be seen clearly, buried as it is underfoot in the earth. It is the mystery that draws us to it. I feel that. Oh, how well I am thinking today!

I close the door behind me, carrying nothing but the weightless backpack on my shoulders, with only a coin purse full of dollar bills in it, because I will need money if I want to eat and surely I will on such a long trip. If the sun becomes too warm, I will put my coat in the backpack.

“Do you want to take the car?”

He has opened the door I closed. He stands there helpless, wanting to control something, me. I tried to forget he was watching my preparations, though part of me did hope he’d notice how very sensible I was being.

“I never take the car,” I answer, “and anyway you have my keys.”

“I could drive you. I’d be glad to.”

Oh how he wants me to want him to do that. He looks lost.

“Where are you going?” he asks, his voice a little fainter.

“Where the path leads me!” I want to go back and hug him, comfort him, but a voice inside draws me away, warns me not to be drawn back.

“It might rain,” he calls. “Do you want an umbrella?”

I turn and shake my head no. He doesn’t know what to do or how to take care of me.

“I am better,” I say to him from the end of the stepping-stone walkway. “You feel that, don’t you? I will come back. I have taken a little money with me. I will be all right.”

“Can I at least drive you to where you want to go?”

It costs him something to ask that, to risk another rejection.

“Not this time. I love you,” I respond to his plea.

We live on a hill. I had forgotten. That day on the bus I was too angry to notice. I will have to come down off the hill. The good part is that the path will be easy to find. All I have to do is keep going down. I laugh, thinking that. The goal is to go downhill!

“It’s a fine morning, isn’t it?” I turn in surprise to this voice that comes out of nowhere, certainly not from my head. A slender young woman in jeans and a worn flannel shirt is standing in a yard with a clay flowerpot in her hand.

“The loveliest ever,” I murmur. “Are you planting something in your pot?”

“Yes, I’m transplanting one of these begonias, though they never do as well when I take them into the house. I wonder why I keep trying!”

I like her frankness, her open face. It is kind of her to reach out to me with these words that tell me a little of her life.

I pause, pondering all that’s going through my mind. “We persist though,” I say softly. “I keep putting myself in the house, not quite in a clay pot, though I might as well be!” I laugh at the image of my feet sticking out of a pot. It would have to be a bigger one. The young woman’s face is surprised (why?) and interested. So I go on. “And I don’t do very well there in the house. I don’t grow or flourish or bloom. So today I have come outside.” A gust of crisp air whips through my hair and I shudder. “I can see though that it can be harsh out here, even at the best of times.”

“Yes,” the woman says. Her frankness is edging away, and she is too. “Well, I have to get on with this.”

“You do?”

“Nice talking to you,” she says, hurrying toward her house, but she sounds doubtful as though it hasn’t really been all that nice. And yet it has. Why doesn’t she know that?

I continue on down the hill. How frightening it is, with the sun going in and out of clouds that cast sudden gloom, and how wonderful, each house different, showing signs of the persons inside. Many houses have burglar alarms. Ours does not because I insisted, when he mentioned he was planning to install one, on my right to fling windows open at all hours of the day or night. I told him it would kill me if that right were taken away or if a horrible noise pierced through me when, unthinking, I opened a window at the wrong time. There is never a wrong time, I shouted, impassioned in my plea to save the remnants of my freedom. He ended by calming me, making love to me. My passion evoked his passion. It feels good to remember that and almost makes me turn and go to him. But the lure of the unknown, and of proving myself, is strong, and my feet and legs absorb the rhythm of the pavement under me and it takes a persimmon tree laden with huge orange teardrops to bring me to a stop. It stands in someone else’s garden, waiting to be plucked or blessed or kissed. It is perfect. And perfectly unexpected. Part of its beauty is that it appeared like a miracle, coming into existence for my eyes only.

In a fairy tale I would pluck one. But if I stay here, seduced by persimmons, I will never reach the flatlands. So I go on descending. But then a man’s footsteps sound behind me, sounding the way the footsteps sounded on the night I was brought down, felled. I turn with a jerk, my heart doing a lurching dance all on its own, and there is a jogger coming up on me, passing me already.

He will not stop and hurt me.

It is harder to go on after that.   The memory burst alive in flames. But I choke it down. I go on, my mind numb.

What had I hoped for here? I pass stores, windows filled with nonsense, people working at desks, looking out at me, and pumpkins, it must be near Halloween, but how can that be? Isn’t it summer? I want it always to be summer, and most of the time it is.   I smell food I no longer eat, meat smells, barbecue smells, all very strong and sudden and going by quickly, and sitting against a building is a homeless person, a woman with a hand-lettered sign I don’t read. I draw three quarters from my pocket and drop them into the little box the woman has set in front of herself, and the woman blesses me, and I feel a glow and a hope that if I am the one sitting there someday, kind people will come by and give me quarters, or even dollars. Will I bless them? I don’t know. It seems presumptuous in a way. And now a man, sitting not all that far from the woman. Do they know each other? They are the same beautiful chocolate color. Why do I feel this kinship with them? I know the answer to that, don’t I? But my lips are sealed. Keeping Mother’s secrets. I give him two quarters, put them in his outstretched hand.

“You have a good day, lady,” he tells me.

“I am trying,” I say. “I am trying to be real and see you, and if you see me, maybe there is hope for both of us. What do you plan to do with the money?”

“Get me a meal when I have enough.” His eyes show much feeling. I put another quarter in his hand.

The next one is standing up, holding a white Styrofoam cup. He is better dressed than the man sitting on the sidewalk. I wonder why he has to beg. He looks like he could work. Maybe there is no work. I drop a quarter in his cup and realize too late, when it splashes into his coffee and he rears back, that I have made a mistake.

He wipes coffee off his shirt, or tries to.

“I will buy you another if you like,” I say. “Maybe I should have stayed in my house. I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.” He is laughing now, so I feel better and pat him on the arm before I go on my way, careful not to pat the arm holding what is left of his coffee.

This all makes me want coffee myself, to have the good familiar smell of it entering my nose. But the restaurants I come to are full of people who know what they are doing. I hesitate at one doorway and don’t go in. I see food spread out on shelves behind glass and people waiting in line, and I am sickened by all the different foods someone prepared earlier, someone who maybe was sick or not clean. I guess I will not have anything after all. So now I must conserve my strength for the walk back up the hill. The people down here are locked in their own lives. There is no place for me except to keep walking.

I don’t turn around yet though. It is too soon to abort the forward march. It would be defeat to turn back this soon. I plunge into a side street and walk more quickly, looking purposeful. That is the way to be safe. The books tell you that. When did I last read a book? Maybe now I can again. I will find a library and ask for a library card and find a wonderfully true book and put it in my backpack.

There is a school up ahead. Children come out through the chain link fence gate, big children, bigger than I am, in long shirts over baggy pants. Some of the pants look like they will fall off soon. And each child has a baseball cap on backwards, with the visor pointing down the back of the child’s neck. Now there are some girls taking up all the sidewalk. They are excited and the one with the angry, scowling face screams “Bitch!” and pushes another girl, who shoves her back. I make my way through. “Fuck you!” a boy yells. They are not talking to me, I tell myself. I want to take them by the shoulders, one child at a time, and look into the child’s eyes to see what we could find to say to each other. One at a time might not be so frightening.

It was easier to feel love and unity with all things when I was alone, looking out my window. At the corner I turn, and then again at the next, and stride along until I am headed back up the hill. I will not look at the persimmon tree again. I will keep its perfection in my mind’s eye.

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