I flew in the night before with a bad cold. The pressure of the take-off and landing blocked my ears and everything sounded faraway and muffled, giving me the impression that I was somehow removed from everything, like I was floating in a tank of water in view of everyone, but separate, of a different world.
It was cold, 17 degrees when I left the house. Sunday and Valentine's Day, there was very little traffic and despite the blockage in my ears, I could hear the chirping of the birds in the trees and the occasional crack of a branch in the woods as a deer, or maybe someone's dog passed through.
Along the bike path, the city had torn up a large swatch of trees and the earthy smell of ripe winter wood was earthen and sweet, like the smell of milk left over in a bowl of cereal. I walked down where the trees had been, looking at the sky and the thin clouds that drifted over the tops of the powerlines. The mulch of white pines and dry nettles was tossed over the snow like a grade school note ripped up and thrown away. A few stolid oak stumps crowned the soil, looking chewed and frayed at the ends, like pencils poorly sharpened. The scene was braided with the straw of dead grass which the snow and wind had tangled in spindly hummocks. Bluebirds and robins flitted down from the trees to search this newly turned earth for worms and insects.
I turned on to West Ave. at the end of the trail and made my way along the park where dry tree branches shook in the absence of a wind break. The snow was all mashed down on the sidewalks in icy bootprints of varied sizes. Under my feet, it squelched like ice cubes chewed between the back teeth. A few of the larger pines disclosed mantles of copper-colored needles that carpeted an immediate area around the base of the tree before disappearing under the snow along a ragged border.
I turned on Michigan Ave. and fell into reverie after passing Frankie's old house. The place had been painted and I had no idea who lived there anymore, but the attic window that I had looked out from many years ago was still there and looking into it, I began to displaced, almost like I wasn’t sure which side of the house I was on. I felt guilty, like I had stolen something just by having once been inside this house. I stood on the sidewalk and waited to see if there was any movement inside, but I saw nothing. The windows were dark, but unshaded. It looked empty.
The old water tower, the one I had climbed and spraypainted before moving was still hanging over the Westwood Mall like a rotten moon, the silver paint flaking off in rusty patches. What I had written was illegible, just part of the rust. Even my goodbye to the city had faded. Everything once familiar had been similarly oxidized with strangeness. I went back into the neighborhood off Michigan Ave. a little and couldn't remember where anything had been. I stood on the sidewalk, block after block, waiting for a familiar object to present itself, but nothing came, only the Tyvek logo stamped all over housing insulation where the siding hadn't been put up.
I went into a new Tim Horton's, for a coffee. I couldn't remember what had been there before. In front of me in line was a young woman with Down's Syndrome and her mother. "Do you want whipped cream on your hot chocolate?" The mother asked. I tried to push it down, but something about the scene overwhelmed me. A lump grew in my throat. The young woman didn't answer and her mother repeated the question. They both had ears like little sea shells sticking out of their cotton hats on the sides and the same dry-looking brown bangs spilling out of the front. Hot chocolate for Valentine's Day, with whipped cream, mom’s treat. I could hear the young woman’s mom proposing the outing in some house somewhere, probably not too far away, one with the paint flaking around the windows and one of those bonneted geese motifs in the kitchen. The radio in Tim Horton’s was playing a Beach Boys song; an elderly couple was crumpling newspapers, sitting by the glass case that held the cakes. The young woman nodded her head in response to the questions about the whipped cream but said nothing. She went to sit down, tired-looking. The mom ordered donuts. The total was just over six dollars. I couldn't help it, my field of vision softened and blurred and for a moment, with the tears in my eyes and the watery pressure in my ears, I felt like I was standing right there, underwater, like I was in one of those dunk tanks at the fair. I drew a ragged breath to fortify myself a little, stepped up to the register, ordered a coffee and walked out looking straight ahead so that I couldn't see anything else.
I crossed the parking lot and walked onto Matt's old street. The house had been panted a different color years ago, but the paint had already gone all scaly. The front porch was empty and a few pieces of paper announcing different things to the public were tapped up in the window. I didn’t try to read what they said, but looked back down the street trying to remember what it had been like years before, what it felt like to have the whole world starting at the end of that street. It looked small, was all I noticed, but the trees seemed to have grown.
The heavy smell of the McDonald's followed me up the street. It seemed a pervasive smell that had been following me all over town. The old supermarket was closed. I crossed the empty parking lot, shuffling through the tire treads and out back onto Michigan Ave. The Mall's Cinema marquee was still up, a large 1 and 2 and naked boards next to them. The sidewalk ended and I walked in the snow. The cars passed by, crossing the emptiness between storefronts.
I walked past the airport, looking out over the naked fields. A dead and frozen deer lay in a snow drift, the wind lifting and dropping hairs on her back. A part of cyclone fence had fallen down and beyond it, a backhoe sat up to its axles in snow. The larches offered up bouquets of robins in lieu of leaves and blooms to the grey landscape. I began to think how Christ would’ve had a good deal if he could’ve taken away the sins of mankind forever instead of them just coming right back. I wondered how the world would be different if he had died to remove the sadness of mankind rather than the sins, perhaps we would’ve been better off. I wondered if I would do it, I mean die to take away everyone’s sadness. In the moment, it seemed like a good deal. I didn’t want to die, but it just seemed like a nice thing to be able to do.
Over the highway, Jason and I had spraypainted something years, almost decades ago, and the concrete had drunk the words leaving a cold outline that no one had probably ever tried to make out. It was cold on the overpass. I didn't try to read the words either, having written them myself, I knew they couldn't have been worth reading.
I sat down in a Taco Bell and tried to remember the name for the condition of the young woman with the hot chocolate in the Tim Horton's. All I could think of was 'Tourette's syndrome.' From underwater, I listened to the pop music coming out of the radio. All the heartbreaks, emotional raptures and Saturday nights lost their intention and seemed to clatter to the floor, inert and lifeless from the speakers.
It was getting dark when I left and the wind had picked up a little, churned up by the passing traffic. The backhoe was mired a little deeper in the drifting snow and the robins were gone.
Down on Franklin, I suddenly slapped my forehead and yelled out "Down's!" It didn't matter what I looked like. I was alone on the street and indifferent to the passing traffic
I walked into neighborhood behind the old supermarket, trying to remember which street April had lived on. I could see the little house with its lamp glowing in the window in my memory, but everything looked the same and, in the dark, every house had a lamp on in the window. Street names from every place I had ever lived bumped around in my head and combined to form names that had never existed. I looked up and saw about ten deer with their heads turned toward me no more than 100 feet away. In the dull light, I could only see their ears and lighter bellies; their coats blended into the winter evening and their eyes looked pierced from the darkness, like little tunnels leading further into the night. I continued walking toward them and at fifty feet, they crossed the street, unhurried, and were gone.
I walked through the neighborhood without finding anyone’s old house, everyone was gone anyway. There didn’t seem to be much point in standing in front of these houses trying to remember different cars in the garages and different names on the mailboxes. Closer to the park, I walked past Justin's old house without even realizing it. I didn’t turn around.
I walked across the Frost Elementary playground between the slides and swings and saw traces of the same kid, over and over, at different ages, doing different things, making the same mistakes we all do, making them repeatedly.
The combination locks around the guide wire connected to the utility pole on High Street had multiplied. There must've been over fifty, my own lock somewhere among them, buried. It was dark now and I watched the snow falling through the streetlights onto all those combination locks and I kept thinking that line from Joyce about the snow falling on the living and dead alike. I started to brush the snow from the locks and then, remembering how far I still had to walk, stopped and continued into the pale glow of streetlights, the falling snow covering what I had only temporarily brushed aside.