George used to enjoy weaving biographies for the occupants of one or another of the houses he passed, usually whichever one offered up a scrap of information in the form of a lit view of the interior, a snippet of audible conversation or argument, or even just a succession of lightings and castings into dark through adjacent rooms. Now he’s slightly shocked at how little he’s managed to glean about any of these families over the ten year span of his walks. It’s been another ten years of course, but he couldn’t say how many kids lived in any of these houses even when he still lived in the house on Union Chapel, whether a married couple lived there, what kind of jobs they had, or if they were retired. It was a memorable event, and he indeed remembers some, whenever he saw someone alert enough to the outside to notice him. The young girl with pop star posters leaning on the window sill of her bedroom on the second floor, the group of middle aged revelers on that precariously exposed balcony he just passed, once he even passed a young girl, alone, sitting on the grass near the Burning Tree entrance and looking out over the lake with her knees drawn up. He was afraid she would be afraid of him so after returning her greeting he walked on, as if he were on his way somewhere important.
All these people, enough to fuck up the world for eons, and somehow we find ways to remain isolated, each to his own bubble. George reaches for the phone in his back pocket. The bench is still a ways ahead but whatever brought him on foot to this neighborhood he has no business in has ebbed enough for him to feel foolish and impatient with his predicament. He’s got Vanessa’s name on the contacts list highlighted and is moving his thumb to the green call button when he sees out of the corner of his eye, beside the sidewalk a few paces back, his old oak tree. Still holding his thumb over the button, he turns, and forcing himself to take a slow, deep breath he gathers the view of the tree from the roots up the stem to the leafless spiking branches, continuing the progression upward over the crown into the darkening blue of the sky until his head is resting as far back as his neck and shoulders will allow. He hears the hum of distant cars and televisions and notices the scent of fabric softener. There is no wind. He closes his eyes and begins to spin around again, not to disrupt any whirlpool of wayward thoughts but only to help him feel more aware of where he is, to twist out of his negative inertia, to awake to some helpful realization. If he ever does write about this walk he’ll have to have his protagonist, the hero, arrive at some epiphany. So he spins, to make himself dizzy, to lose his bearings so he can properly orient himself. But he only makes it three turns before lunging at the tree and leaning against it with his outstretched hands.
“What are you doing, George?” he asks, breathless, he head hanging between his uplifted arms.
As a corollary to being an impostor, George always has the sense that even when he’s working he’s not really working but playing. So even as stress from teaching, or from any of the other jobs, like serving at various restaurants, gnaws away at the edge of his consciousness, he at the same time feels pressure to find and set himself to his real work, his real career. Now, leaning against his old tree, it’s not the papers he has to comment on that rankle him. “What the hell are you doing, George?” he says at a whisper. “It’s time to fucking grow up. It’s time to be a man.”
He lifts his head and looks at the yards surrounding the lake on the other side of the tree and his eyes light on the phone still in his right hand, braced against the bark. “Thirty-five,” he says. “How did I get to be thirty-five? And I’m still just dinking around.” Wasn’t something supposed to happen, he goes on thinking. Wasn’t there supposed to be some clarifying moment, when even briefly all the confusion and doubt lifted and I could see clear to my future? Instead, this—everything remains how it was, I remain who I am, and the years slip away. Too many movies, ha! Waiting for something to happen, feeling passed up, betrayed even, when nothing does; waiting for a clarifying moment, an epiphany—too many novels and stories—and sad that it’s not just people and houses crowded into anonymity, but moments, little pieces of time, of each day, of entire weeks, seasons, years, decades, one flowing into another and washing it away. Rushing water is never clear. And time…?—enough with your stupid metaphors. Finish your walk and get home.
George stands up and pulls away from the tree, looking down at the phone in his hand with its blank screen. Then he looks away, over his left shoulder to the rise beyond the lake and the sidewalk, to the tops of the telephone poles running along Union Chapel Road. Of course they’re not just connecting phones but carrying electricity as well, from some huge coal plant somewhere—and aren’t coal plants nicely hidden?—to all the houses in the city, all the businesses, all the schools, all the buildings where people go about being people. These wooden beams sticking up at the side of every road all over the country, but you almost have to be an archeologist to notice them, as invisible as they are ubiquitous.
Returning to his old ritual circuit without having made the decision to do so, George sets to pondering the resemblance of telephone poles to crosses. So obvious a comparison and yet he can’t recall ever making it, or coming across someone else who made it before. They’re a little too perfect to be crosses, sometimes having multiple crossbeams, and those white cylindrical packs on either side (transistors?), lending to them a mathematical quality, like an x and y axis hanging on the horizon, a grid for relative quantities of sin and forgiveness. And why, George wonders, do we need some myth about eating from the tree of knowledge—with its own mathematical dimensions—when there are so many real sins of origin? Genocide prefiguring all the sacred freedoms established with the declaration that “all men are created equal,” slavery prefiguring prosperity, war billed as prefiguring peace. And who will be our redeemer for the sins we don’t recognize or refuse to acknowledge, the plague of exponential population growth, the scourge of coal-scorched skies? As endless as the lines of telephone poles are, there are still too few to crucify all the human souls in poor countries we are this minute condemning to death for the sins of being poor and living bellow sea level.
George steps off the sidewalk and eases down onto the bench alongside the west tip of the lake. Behind him, an enormous lawn rolls over flattened earth with incongruous pines and neat, even grass, awaiting its first trim of the season. The sun has disappeared without fanfare. George holds up his phone, resolved not to check the time, not to see his eye staring back at him, the clock embedded in the reflection of his crow’s feet. Now that he’s ceased moving, he notices how tired he is, the slight throbbing ache of his feet and legs. As recently as seven years ago, George made a weekly run from his dad’s house to Metea Park, five miles down the road, and then back for a total of ten miles. He calculates that since leaving his front door he couldn’t have walked more than seven or so miles. The loss of his exceptional fitness contributes to the sensation of his slipping away into the void, as he lets go of what holds him together, piece by piece, and loses control over where the remnant lands.
And this is just like modern fiction, he jokes to himself. Some passive loser laments his powerlessness in the face of mass, impersonal forces. Willie Lowman, Mohun Biswas, Setha, Rabbit Angstrom, Holden Caulfield, Moses Herzog. James Williams writes a beautiful novel featuring a man who prevails over a less fortunate man, dangerous for what he lacks, and gets dismissed as a bourgeois panderer, a teller of fairy tales. You cannot allow your protagonist, the hero, to win his struggles against evil social forces because that trivializes those social forces, holds up injustice as a prop for the virtuous man’s (or woman’s) heroism. If Winston Smith withstands O’Brien in Room 101, then defeating Big Brother is reduced to a developmental inevitability, instead of a moral imperative. But if literature is to serve some social agenda, to promote activism, should it really restrict itself to passive characters?