A stubborn man wearing cartoonish golf shorts walked down a concrete path that ran parallel to a river that’s only a river by name. It’s not the lyrical Ohio or majestic Mississippi. He believed it fell somewhere between a stagnant, neglected motel pool and a grease puddle under a wrecked Taurus in a junkyard. Joshua Hoover was not impressed. He glanced at his wrist: 513 steps. A marathon for the living dead, he thought.
A newly divorced woman in lime-green shorts, black tank, and mirrored sunglasses walked in the opposite direction on the same path. Her tiger eye balayage head constantly swiveled toward the water. Emily Burke saw the river as she saw herself: beautiful in a beholder kind of way, steady, and always there, just like she was for Ben and the kids and her coworkers at Elite Staffing who took advantage of her generous, empathetic disposition. Need someone to cover a shift? Call Emily. Need a small loan until payday? Ask Emily. Always there but never seen. She checked her wrist: 7032 steps. 280 calories. Huzzah, she mumbled to herself, hoping the man approaching didn’t hear.
Luke Thompson cocked his arm back and snapped his wrist, casting the line out twenty feet into the belly of the Great Columbus. The giant stone beneath his butt, the glorious sun, the summer break from bully central, the pull of nature, all of it belonged to him. He thought: this is my spot, my time, my escape from an invisible life. We’ll be at the next game, promise. We’ll read your story later. Crying solves nothing, it’s only a bruise. Your dad is tired, honey. Your mom is tired, son. And not much else. Love without genuine conversation. An unconditional, exhausted love.
But he’s always enjoyed the sights and sounds down here: birds singing to their friends, geese honking at any two-legged intruder, fish and turtles splashing and flopping, avoiding hooks and heat, bicycles pedaled by wild, desperate feet. And he was addicted to people watching, like the two walkers, a man and woman, gliding past each other to his right. His curiosity tracked them, noticed they passed without speaking, same as mom and dad. The rod jerked in his hand, disrupting his trance. He smiled loudly.
Emily had one thought before rushing past the man in the silly outfit: Do not engage me. Please. I’m here for fitness, for reinvention, for an idea that won’t form on my lips or mind, but it’s there, a secret drumbeat of hope pounding in my ear. Do not engage me. 7, 839 steps. 300 calories. 0 fucks given.
Freddie Bannister took a break from mowing the steep hill above the river and leaned against a white oak, the shade a welcome reprieve from that sadistic sun. He slashed a hand across his throat at his partner. Daryl switched off the weed eater, offered him a Winston Light.
“See that clown walking toward the lady in the slick shades? I’ll bet you lunch tomorrow that he turns his head like the exorcist to check her out when she walks by. Guaranteed,” said Freddie.
“No bet,” said Daryl. “He’s wearing goofy shorts and a backward ballcap. Of course he’ll look. He’s got prick written all over him.”
“You’re a seer of truth,” Freddie said, just as Joshua Hoover twisted that massive melon of his around and eyeballed the backside of Emily Burke. Unsurprised, they took another drag.
Freddie missed his wife. They worked different shifts to keep from hiring babysitters, and he mainly saw her on the weekends. All of his friends said he had no business being with her, that he was punching above his weight. He never argued that point. She wouldn’t be home until well past midnight, but he was determined to stay up until then, even if he had to drink seventeen pots of coffee after Wheel of Fortune. He lifted up his foot, ground the cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe, tucked the stub in his pocket. Freddie fired up the grass killer and went back to work.
Luke managed to catch a couple of catfish, which he placed inside a plastic grocery bag. He hoped his parents would be impressed. Maybe they could clean them together and grill them out on the deck later this evening. Family, food, and a drug called attention. Or he could make up a story about his day. Like how a pretty woman in bright green shorts accidentally fell into the river and he dove in, pulled her to safety. And how she called him her sweet, handsome hero, rewarded him with a kiss, but not just any kiss, a kiss that he’ll never wash off his face. A kiss that landed like a wet firecracker on his cheek. Nah, he thought, the medium-sized catfish will have to do. He grabbed the bag and rod, began the two-mile trek home.
Joshua wasn’t a big fan of exercise or the underwhelming Great Columbus Motel Pool. Or change of any kind that required sustained effort. The answer was not here. He quit, got in his car and drove straight into the heart of nowhere at an obedient 35 MPH.
After sailing far past her goal of 10,000 steps, Emily stood on the path, hands on her hips. She stared at the aggressive, not-quite-beautiful water and knew she had to keep moving, too. The river was unstoppable. The river was freedom. She will come back tomorrow and the next day and the next. I’ll get through this, she thought. I am more than a wife, mother, and ATM.
She nearly jumped out of her baby blue running shoes when an annoyed goose honked at her. A long-dormant laugh erupted from her throat, drowning out the familiar scream of an unseen lawnmower.
Chris Milam lives in the past. His stories have appeared in Rabble Lit, Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, The Airgonaut, (b)OINK, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.
Image: Ant Rozetshky