The Last Long Walk Home

John Townes had no hobbies. He had never been much interested in gardening, and assembling jigsaw puzzles usually gave him a headache. Any other hobbies seemed either unappealing or tedious or just plain stupid. So when he retired, he found that he had much time on his hands.

Between lunch and dinner each day, he started to take a walk. At first, this, too, seemed rather pointless. But in time, he learned to enjoy his walks; the exercise kept him fit, and seemed to help his digestion, which had been troublesome at times. It seemed he walked more and more each day, until he was away from the house for two, even three, hours. At first his wife thought that this was a bad idea. What if something happened to him? How would she know? But after he had returned each day, like clockwork before dinner, her worries faded away, and she was actually able to enjoy the peace of not having him around the house, through which he was prone to prowl like a caged animal if he had nothing to occupy him.

One spring day, he was walking down a main street. The sun warmed his back, and a soft breeze played with a wisp of his gray hair.

It was a fine day.

He stopped at a red light at the corner, and waited while cars passed this way and that before him. He wondered that there were so many people and that all of them seemed to have a purpose. And the cars passed in such an orderly way it was hard to imagine that accidents were possible. They were so quiet now– so different from his first car, a Nash.

The light turned green, and he started across the street. He was struck by a strange feeling, then, just before he reached the opposite curb– a sudden feeling of out-of-place-ness– and he stopped in his tracks. He looked around. Nothing was familiar. The small deli on the corner he’d been approaching, the gas station he had just passed– everything seemed foreign. He was still puzzling over it all, when the driver whose path he was blocking blew his horn.

John quickly shuffled to the safety of the sidewalk.

He briefly considered the possibility he had walked too far, that he had crossed over into one of the suburbs.

Whatever the case, he was completely lost and wasn’t sure which way to go. Any direction was as good as any other, he reasoned at length, and so he turned to his right and continued walking.

Sooner or later, he would see something he recognized.

 

 

***********

 

 

The houses looked all the same– blocks lined with brick bungalows that seemed familiar and strange at the same time.

Draperies in the front windows were drawn shut. His wife would never have that. If the sun were shining brightly, like now, the draperies would always be open. “Let the light in,” she was fond of saying. “After you die, you’re in the darkness for a long, long time.”

At first he was panic-y, but soon he forgot that he seemed to be lost. The act of walking was somehow reassuring. If you’re moving everything is all right; it’s when you’re stopped, like a sitting duck, that you have to worry.

He shuffled along the newly laid sidewalks, murmuring to himself, remembering streets whose walkways were cracked and uneven and the sudden sharp impact of flesh on stone the time he’d fallen and broken his wrist and bloodied his forehead. The memory seemed so new he had to wriggle his wrist to assure himself that it had been a couple years since it had been in a cast.

“Yeah, years ago,” he muttered, and a woman who was watering her front lawn heard him and stared at him as he moved down the street.

Looked like Gene’s mother, that one, he thought of the woman. Oh, gosh, when was it she got killed? Just after the war– that’s right. Hit by a drunk driver. Gene and I were wearing our uniforms at the wake, sure. Heck of a thing– a guy coming back from the war– not home a week yet– seeing what he saw– and thinking everything is going back to normal, then, bam, your mother gets run down. Sad– so very sad.

He thought about the war often these days. Even now he glanced at the clear blue sky, and remembered the times he had seen the bombers, huge, hulking, gray, threading through the wispy white clouds. When the bombs hit the ground, it seemed the entire earth would shake. The tanks used to hop a meter off the ground, and when they fell back down their tracks would be embedded in the earth. Where had that been? Sicily? North Africa? No, that was Sicily, he was sure. North Africa– that was different. It had been hot– so very hot. And the bugs! You had to eat meals with one hand, and swat the bugs away with the other. He had been a cook then, and hadn’t marched much but rode in the cook wagon. He remembered, with great pride, the time he had made whipped cream in the desert so that the guys could eat it with their canned peaches. Imagined that, he thought. Whipped cream in the desert!

He must have said it out loud, too, because man, who had just parked his car at the curb, stopped to stare at him curiously, as though he’d hadn’t quite heard right.

“I made whipped cream,” John said, and the man frowned and shook his head, not understanding. People seemed so stupid these days. It irked John that more and more often people didn’t appeared to understand him. “Oh, mind your own business,” he grumbled at the guy, and continued walking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He came to another intersection. Small storefronts lined the streets, and people streamed down the sidewalks.

“Well, now we’re getting somewhere,” he said to himself, and though he didn’t recognize any of the stores, he was encouraged by the sight of a large blue object sitting on the sidewalk just off one of the corners. It was a landmark, sure enough, a sign he was going in the right direction.

He walked up to it, placed his hand on the shiny blue surface. It was cold. He looked around, beyond the people passing by, but nothing else looked familiar.

He couldn’t have said how long he stood there like that, but when he looked down, he saw his hand was still resting on the mailbox. He snorted. “Sure,” he muttered, thinking, Of course you know a mailbox. They all look the same, no matter where you go.

Which meant he was no closer to getting home.

 

 

 

After he left the busy shopping district, he decided to stay on the side streets. This was where he lived anyway, right?

The streets here appeared older. The cement of the sidewalks showed many cracks, like starbursts or spider webs. He remembered the old rhyme from when he was a kid– step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. What a horrible thing to say, he now realized, but he couldn’t keep the rhyme from replaying itself in his head.

And he remembered wearing old shorts that showed the skinny legs and scabby knees, and walking down the street trying to avoid all the cracks in the pavement and cobblestones. And he remembered placing an Indian head penny on the rail of the train track, and how the penny was paper thin and smooth after the train rumbled past. And he remembered his mother yelling at him for wasting money that could be spent on food or something around the house. And he remembered the workers laying the tracks for the streetcars…. Yes, he could see it in his mind as though it had happened only yesterday…. The street was all dug up, and all the workers were black, and they were sweating under the sun as they dug, and they were always nice to him when he walked by, pausing in their work to smile at him, or wave, or ask was he going to the ball game? For some reason they always thought he was going to a ball game, although his parents could never spare the money. Well, maybe they were just kidding him– who knew. And he remembered the day he mother said that he couldn’t go outside; all the workers were making trouble because there was a strike. And he didn’t know what a strike was, but it didn’t sound too good, and his mother wouldn’t explain it all. So he sneaked out of the house to see for himself. He was walking to the place where the street was all ripped open, like a giant wound in the ground, when he heard the loud popping. Pop-pop-pop– it echoed through the neighborhood, and then pop-pop-pop again. And he heard the screaming and the yelling, and after a moment one of the workers ran down the street and past him without noticing him. His eyes were wide and wild, and he was holding his hand, and blood was spilling off his fingertips as he ran down the center of the street. And he thought that must be what a strike was– it was where somebody could get struck and hurt, and that had been why his mother hadn’t wanted him to go outside today, so that he wouldn’t get struck. But he couldn’t stay away now. He had to see what was happening. When he reached the work area, the policemen were all over, wearing their dark blue uniforms that were buttoned up the front with shiny brass buttons. They only workers he saw were laying on the ground, bloody lifeless lumps, and then a while later other workers arrived. These workers were white, and they helped the policemen drag the bodies over to the large gouge in the ground and let them fall into it. Then the new workers started to shovel in dirt until the old workers were covered. And the policemen stood by and watched. And the neighbors who had wandered over to see what had happened stood by and watched. And he, little Johnny Townes, who wasn’t supposed to be outside, stood by and watched. And when there was nothing more to see, everybody wandered away. Then next day, the new workers returned and finished filling in the earth, so that the timber could be laid, so that the rails could be put down, so that people could take the street cars to go to work or shopping, so that little kids could flatten pennies on shiny new steel rails.

He wondered that he could remember it all so clearly while his home address now seemed somehow to evade his mind. The only thing he was sure about was that there was a nine in the number– one-oh-nine or one-nineteen– or was it a seven?

The sun was by now starting to set, and the shadows of the trees he passed lay preternaturally long across his path. He felt a stab of pain, realizing he was very late, his dinner was getting cold, and his wife was probably peering through the front window of their house, wondering whether something had happened to him.

Again panic surged inside him, and to make matters worse a police car cruised by slowly. He felt a stab of guilt. Why should he feel that way? He had never in his life done anything illegal, but there it was– the dull knife-edge of guilt grinding away in his gut. He cast a dirty look after the police car, watching its driver craning his neck as he looked in the rearview mirror.

“Ought just leave people to their own business,” he mumbled to himself. “Have to go looking for trouble where there is no trouble at all.”

The police car turned on the cross street ahead and vanished. But John knew it would return– it was just going around the block.

“Well, what’s it all about,” he wondered. “Do I look like a purse-snatcher? If I do, I’m making the worse get-away in the history of crime.”

He tried to walk faster, hoping against all reasoning to elude the police car, which he knew would return.

The squad reappeared before he could even reach the cross street. It crept slowly next to the curb, keeping pace with John.

“John Townes,” the cop called out.

John glanced at him, only briefly but long enough to see that he was young, too young to be a cop, too young to be taken seriously. He kept walking, trying to quicken his pace.

“Oh, come on, John,” the cop whined.

“I don’t know you,” John said, refusing to look toward the squad car. His eyes remained focused on so distant point, and his jaw muscle bulged as though he was trying to crush his dentures together.

“I’m not going anywhere,” the cop assured him.

But John did a convincing job pretending the cop didn’t exist.

“I’m right here with you,” the cop added, the squad car crawling along at a painfully slow pace. “You’re not gonna get away.”

“I didn’t do nothing,” John complained.

“Who said you did anything? Did I say you did anything?”

“Just leave me alone!” John cried, now losing his patience.

When he finally reached the cross street, he had to pause at the corner. It felt as though he had run a mile. A pain flared in his side.

The squad car stopped, too, the cop regarding John with a bored expression.

When John looked toward the squad car, he seemed startled that it was still there.

“Remember me?” the cop asked.

“Oh, go away,” John said.

“John, just get in the car.”

“Why? I didn’t do anything. I’m a law-abiding citizen–”

“Yeah, I know–” the cop tried to calm him.

“–Why, I pay your salary!”

“Oh, you’re the cheap guy,” the cop murmured.

“What?” John demanded. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Get in the car,’” the cop said, trying to make it sound reasonable.

“But I didn’t do anything,” John protested.

“I didn’t say you did anything. I’m not arresting you. I’m just taking you home.”

“I can walk. That’s what I was doing– walking. No law against that.”

“So you know the way? You know where you are, then?”

“Yeah,” John said, but his voice sounded weak, hollow. He stared at the cop, and saw the cockiness on the guy’s face. It wasn’t the kind of cockiness you could take off and put on like a mask, but the kind that was always there, as though the guy had known from birth that he would always be right. John felt like punching the guy in the face.

“So where are you?” he insisted, and seemed to delight that John couldn’t answer. “Just get in the car, John. It’s going to be dark soon– then you would really be lost.”

John tipped his head up to look at the darkening sky.

“I must be late for dinner,” he said fretfully.

“You better get in,” the cop said mildly.

John shuffled round the front of the squad car, and climbed into the passenger seat and awkwardly shut the door.

“You better put on your seatbelt,” the cop suggested.

“Of course I will,” John snapped, already fumbling with the shoulder strap. “Never met a cop than knew how to drive worth a darn. I’m in the death seat, you know,” he said, a bit too loudly, and finally snapped the lock on the safety belt.

The cop started to cruise down the street.

“My meatloaf is probably cold already,” John complained. “Always meatloaf on Tuesday– I look forward to it.”

“It’s Friday, John,” the cop noted.

“Friday? That would be fish– I hate fish. You sure it’s Friday?”

“Yup.”

John made a face, and mumbled, “Fish.”

The squad car approached a major intersection that seemed familiar to him.

“Hey, I know where I am, now,” he said, looking ahead at the corner strip mall that had the small store where he had many ties bought vacuum cleaner supplies. “Sure, you have to take a left at the light up here.”

But when they came to the corner the cop turned right.

John was outraged. “Hey, hey, I said left! What’s going on?” he demanded.

“You don’t live that way anymore, John,” the cop said calmly, almost bored.

“I know where I live, and it’s back there,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “What’s your name and badge number?”

The cop almost smiled at the demand. His mouth didn’t move, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes.

“Mathias. Two-three-oh-four-seven.”

“Mathias, huh? Well, I’m gonna file a report on you, Officer Mathias,” John seethed. He sat icily for a moment, and then his expression softened. “Mathias?” he said, now wondering. “I had a friend named Mathias. Old Jimmy Mathias– I grew up with him. You wouldn’t be any relation, would you?”

The cop nodded.

“You’re not his son. I know that. His son was a nancy boy– you don’t look like a nancy boy.”

Here the cop burst out laughing. When he calmed down, he said, “ No, grandson.”

“Grandson, you say! That’s impossible. Jimmy only had one son,” John said, trying to figure out the discrepancy. “Well, I guess the guy wasn’t a nancy boy, after all…. At least for a little while,” he added, and sounded somewhat annoyed.

“I’m sure my father would appreciate the thought,” the cop said, not unkindly.

John peered out the window, placidly watching the apartment buildings and small storefronts they passed.

“Where are we going again?” he asked, as though it had never been an issue.

“Home.”

“I think you’re going the wrong way,” he said.

“You’re new home,” Mathias said.

“My wife will be worried.”

Mathias glanced over at him. A pained looked passed over his young face.

“Your wife died,” he murmured.

John was about to respond, but whatever he was going to say caught in his throat. His mouth remained slightly opened, and his lower lip quivered. “Dead?” he whispered, as he seemed to start the grieving process over again.

“Nine years ago,” Mathias said. “You remember, don’t you?”

John shook his head vaguely.

“No– well, I don’t know. It seems so unreal somehow.”

“It’ll all come back to you. You’re just having a lapse, is all. You have them from time to time.”

“Yeah, yeah,” John said as though not listening. With a hand gnarled with age and arthritis, he wiped away a tear that was forming in the corner of his eye. He couldn’t remember his wife dying, couldn’t remember her being in a hospital, couldn’t remember a funeral, but, still, something deep inside him told him that it was all true.

Mathias turned down a side street, and after driving a couple blocks, pulled up to a stop at the curb.

John looked around with little interest, looked at the tall old trees that lined the tree, looked at the houses, which were of widely varying styles.

“Why did you stop?” he finally asked.

“This is were you live.”

John peered through the side window at the large frame house. The aluminum siding had once been bright white, but now appeared faded and somewhat gray. The front porch was screened in, and he could see a vague figure, like a wraith, moving around just behind the front door.

“You must be mistaken,” John said. Dread started to flutter in his stomach, a strange, source less dread. “I would never buy a house like that. It looks– shabby. Why, it’s not even brick.”

“It’s your son’s house,” Mathias said.

“Oh, sure,” John said, as if that explained everything.

Just then the front door opened, and a woman stepped onto the stairs. She was wearing jeans and a light blue t-shirt. Her hair had obviously been dyed blond, and looked wild.

“Your daughter-in-law,” Mathias said.

John grunted, staring at the woman, not much liking the looks of her. She looked like a boozer, he thought– the type that lays about the house all day, drinking and not doing any housework.

Two kids, a boy and a girl, about seven- or eight-years-old, squirted past their mother and ran down to the walkway to goggle at the police car.

“Kids?” John muttered. Already he could hear their squalling over any little thing. He knew there had to be some mistake; he couldn’t possibly live under the same roof as a couple kids– no way would he be able to tolerate that!

“Your grandchildren,” Mathias explained. “They’re twins.”

All John could do was release a dejected moan. “They probably trample anything I’d plant in the garden, I bet.”

“They have a nice little basement in-law,” Mathias continued, sensing already the old man’s reluctance to leave the car.

“Basement apartment,” John muttered. “Damp basement– must be wonderful for my arthritis. You’re sure you’re not making a mistake.”

“Positive,” Mathias said. “We’ve been through this before.”

“Have we?”

“More than once.”

“Oh,” John said, the utterance hanging hollow in the hush of the squad car.

“You better go now.”

Mathias watched as John fumbled with the door handle. It was as though he couldn’t get a grip on it, his deformed knuckles not letting him close his hand enough to grip the handle.

Mathias suspected it was just a ruse– an excellent acting job. He had seen his kids do the same; as soon as bedtime arrived, suddenly, inexplicably, doorknobs didn’t work, toothbrushes vanished, and bellyaches began.

“You need a hand with that?” he asked.

“No, no,” John said irritably. “I got it– it’s just stuck a little. You know, a bit tricky. But what do you expect from a city vehicle, huh?”

Mathias watched as the old man struggled out of the squad. As soon as he had shut the door behind him, the two kids rushed toward him, and, each clutching a hand, towed him forward faster than his legs wanted to allow. The old man grumbled and griped something as he was tugged toward the house, but soon he seemed to accept his fate. They guided him down the gangway that led to the white picket gate that opened on a tiny yard. The old man was looking as though fascinated up at the side of the house, at the cracked walkway, at the flowers that bordered the house. Everything must seem new to him now, Mathias figured, the good and the bad, the happy and sad.

After the old man disappeared from sight, Mathias started the squad. Before he pulled away from the curb, he noticed that the woman was still standing on the front stairs. She raised her hand and gave him a weak, embarrassed wave– the way she had every other time he had returned the old man home. Every time there was an unspoken promise that this would be the last time, but it would only be the last time until the next time.

The old man would never have a last long walk home.

 

 

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