On My Block

I'm wandering around the block in the middle of the afternoon. It's a cool day in January, maybe twenty-five degrees. The sky is a featureless gray, and the sun isn't visible at all. The wind's blowing pretty swiftly-- blowing the pant legs of my khaki pants until they whip. I've got a warm coat on-- but it only covers me to the waist. I'm still wearing my work shoes-- scuffed and ratty. The wind makes not altogether displeasing whistling sounds in my ears, blowing the shorter long hairs that aren't held by the hair-band back into my face. I keep pushing them back.

I'm half way from my house to the next cross street, walking away. I'm not really sure why I'm walking. I've never done it alone in this neighborhood-- always with somebody else. Now she's gone.

It's taken me over a year to do this.

I look at the houses around me, being sure to avoid staring at windows and doors. They're cheap, like mine. Middle-class palaces-- $150K and down. With manicured bushes, one and two car garages, flowerbeds, and birdbaths.

There's no sidewalk-- so I walk in the street. I contemplate the little bits of gravel that have been spread on the chip-and-seal pavement when the ice came last week. The pavement's cheap, too-- new and black, but masking what I know to be patchy underneath. It's like all the houses on the street-- its outward appearance is deceiving.

I'm coming up to the cross street. I could turn back for home now. I want to turn back for home. If I do, though, I wonder what they'll think. They'll see me walk to the end of the street, about face, and walk back. Won't that look suspicious? I throw out the idea of going back home, and resign myself to finishing the walk around the block. Somehow the walk around the block is long enough not to attract suspicion in-and-of itself.

I turn the corner at the cross street, and start walking a little faster. The wind is turned into my face now, and I squint. If I close my eyes most of the way, and let my eyelashes block most of the light, I think I can see little single-celled creatures crawling around on my eyes. I watch them wiggle and writhe while I wonder why my father tried to get me to play tennis when I was a kid. I should've had fun then, because I wouldn't be in this predicament now. Chalk another one up to hindsight.

I keep walking, eyes semi-closed, wind whipping my pant legs, little creatures wiggling, and chill creeping into my ears.

For a little while, at least, I can tell myself that when I get back home, I won't be living in my cheap house, with my cheap life. I won't be struggling not to be noticed by my neighbors for what I really am-- noticeably different and out of place. They're young couples with kids and wheelie recycling tubs leaned up beside their houses. They have dogs that they walk around and around and around and around the block. They have swing sets in the back yard, wading pools, riding lawnmowers, credit card debt, and a sense of good Christian decency. They come home after work every day. They have supper together. They have televisions, the backbone to take an incorrectly made fast-food sandwich back to the counter, and adequate ambient lighting. They vacuum more regularly than I do.

I'm at the end of the little cross street now, and I turn to my right. The houses here are a little less faux opulent. There are rusty cars in driveways, and the sidewalks up to front porches are cracked. The trees encroach more closely on the homes. Everything is a little shabbier-- but it's really still the same as everything else I've seen, under the layer of age that has built up on everything.

I hear a little yappy dog barking at me from behind a house, in a fenced in yard. He can tell that I'm not from around here, and runs to the edge of his fence to protest my passing. A car goes by, back on my street. I turn to glance, putting it squarely into the periphery of my vision. It's silvery, and sensible. Somebody old is driving it, I think. I keep walking, wishing all the more to get a house or a tree or anything between the dog and me so that attention will stop being drawn this way.

Actually, I can tell they're all in the houses looking out at me, barking dog or no.

I can't and won't look. They'd see me and look away, quick as lightning. They'd never acknowledge that I know they're looking-- to keep me wondering about my sanity and guessing about their motives, all at the same time.

All eyes are upon me. In the mornings when I get into my car, in the middle of the night when I get home, during the hot Saturday afternoons when I follow the mower around the yard, and in the lazy Sundays when I go back to bed at four o'clock because I can't concoct any reason to remain awake or alive, the eyes are there.

They all know I'm a fraud, and that I'm not supposed to be here. I don't have a bread maker, a favorite television show, a basketball, or a beer light. I don't have racks of garden implements in the garage, or friends who come calling for dinner. I don't shovel the snow from the sidewalks, I only put out my trash every other week, and my water bills are the minimum charge, month after month. I'm suspect-- and I can't hide it.

I've made quite a bit of progress. The dog is far behind, and I've walked past my house on the far side of the block. The street begins to arc back to the right, starting to track back towards mine. It's not particularly quiet outside. The sound is the flat roar of the interstate highway, and in its droning, it takes the place of silence as a firm and constant underpinning to the closer sounds.

Another car's coming-- this time from right in front of me. I'm walking on the wrong side of the road, but I'm already sure that it didn't help disguise me. My clever ruse has been detected. I can feel the driver looking at me.

I don't look back at the driver-- I concentrate my stare on a rear wheel. The car is a kind of red-- an old Ford L.T.D., I think. Kinda rusty and boaty. Ahoy there. I can't look at the driver-- but I also wonder if not looking will affirm the driver's notions about me. The car passes slowly-- slowly enough that I think I can hear the individual stones in the gravel sliding around under the passing tires, being picked up and dropped behind as the car rolls over them. The exhaust rumbles louder as the car creeps by.

I'm most of the way there now-- back to my street. I follow as the street continues to angle right, turning myself slowly clockwise. Each step is a mere fraction of an hour, as I turn from twelve o'clock to three.

Far ahead, past the intersection with my street, I can see a girl walking a light brown dog towards me. She's on the opposite side of the road, and eleven or twelve years old. The dog is little-- standing not much bigger than a house cat. It strains at the leash, and pumps its little legs frantically. It's fuzzy, and the wind blows its wispy hair around. I don't know what breed it is-- but I know that it can't be much different from everything around me.

It's easy to see beyond the colors and textures, and see that everything here is really the same underneath-- everything but me. I find the contrast apparent-- and I can only assume that it's also apparent to everyone else. I didn't buy from the school fundraiser, I don't put letters I'm mailing out in my mailbox, the BBQ grill is gone from behind the house, and I don't have Caller-ID. They all can surely see it.

I'm not going to beat her to the intersection. The dog is pulling her too hard-- too fast. She's going to walk right by me because I won't be able to turn before we meet. She's going to see my work shoes and my khaki pants. She's going to see that I don't wear a wedding ring and that I don't hang pictures on the walls inside my house. She's going to know-- even at eleven or twelve years old. She's going to be able to see that I shouldn't be here. I look at the ground in front of me, and keep walking. Maybe she won't see the spot of white paint on my left shoe, at least.

She reaches the intersection first and turns to her right. My heart cries out with glee, but as quickly as it comes, the glee fades away with realization of the truth. She's turned away because she got close enough to see me. Everybody here turns away when they see me. People can see what I am, even from a distance. The dog is oblivious-- I've already fallen below even its contempt.

When the camera crew and the reporters came and interviewed me last year, the reporter said that they'd find it very important to mention that "one could be living right next to you", when it came time to introduce me. They shot a long shot of the front of my house, with my house number obscured by the camera van parked in the driveway. I never did see the video-- but I think everyone already knew that one could be living next to them. I'm sure I spent eight or nine of my fifteen minutes that day, on CNN.

I turn right again-- three rights have made me a left.

There's a big tree on the corner. Leaves are all over the ground, and I should be able to identify the type by the leaves, but I can't. They're broad as my palm and crackly gray. I think about the melting wax on the paper as I ironed the leaves between sheets of it, and put them in a binder. Clarence Thomas was testifying on the television, and the towel protecting the Formica on the counter was green and white. I might've still been able to save myself even back then-- before I grew up into this.

I dodge a mailbox, and keep close to the side of the street. I can hear a car coming behind me. I'm still walking the wrong way, and I feel guilty because I know it's not right, and I know that I was taught better. I can't switch sides, though. My house is on this side, and besides, if I cross they'll see that I'm crossing and notice me. I walk the wrong way because everybody else here does-- and would. Maybe if I act like them, they won't notice me quite as much-- my clever ruse.

The car passes, and I concentrate on the exhaust pipe as it shrinks in my view. I know that if I look inside, I'll see the man driving the black Volvoish car look at his perky wife in the passenger seat and say something about the man they just passed walking. I know I'll see her lean over and answer him, while the kids wrangle in the back seat with their stuffed animals, and their unrealistic opinions about what is normal and right. Maybe my opinions are the unrealistic ones.

I tap my teeth as I walk, and try to think of some music. I stop tapping abruptly, knowing that even though I think it'll look like I'm shivering, really everybody watching will be able to tell that I'm tapping my teeth in rhythm. Music. The cold isn't really noticeable anymore anyway-- it hasn't been for a while. I've reached terminal coldness. My ears sing quietly from pain and chill, but that's really my only discomfort. I should've worn a hat-- but that'd just have made me stick out more. I might as well have put on my black trench coat if I was going to do that. Maybe I should start yelling and waving my arms, too. I don't think it'd make any difference-- I'm as noticeable as I can possibly be.

It's getting harder not to break into a run for my house. I think about it rationally, though. If I break into a run, I'm going to be that much more suspicious and suspect. They'd never run to their houses. Maybe they'll think I need to go to the bathroom. I really do need to go to the bathroom.

Not good enough.

I trudge on at the same pace, and take solace in my house growing ever closer. I'm already starting to fumble the keys in my passenger-side front coat pocket, feeling for the house key with the green plastic wafer glued to the side of the top. I run my finger down the sides of other keys-- keys to my three junky paid-for cars. I know I should have a sport-utility, with a monthly payment and full coverage insurance. I can't seem to get over the way I was taught to live, though. I shouldn't pay my bills with checks anymore, and I should be shy and embarrassed about singing to myself in public. I know they all know that I don't scoop the cat box-- I just change the litter out wholesale. Shame. On. Me.

I'm starting into my driveway. There's one of those free newspapers lying beside the car-- the car that is too unlucky to be kept in the garage. I snatch up the paper-laden plastic baggie and tuck it under an arm. These papers had to be the first thing that tipped them off to what I was. Who I am.

If I'd only mowed the lawn more, and kept the bushes trimmed better. If I'd not parked a car on the street or let the weeds grow between the slabs of the driveway. If I'd bought curtains instead of spraying frosting on the front windows, purchased a big-screen television, and produced a male child by twenty-four. If I'd put up a privacy fence, used my air conditioner more vigorously, shaved my whiskers, and ate at home more than I do. If I'd used ATM's, given blood, watched football games, and hit him in the mouth to solve all my problems, they just might not know me.

They might not know me now it if I had hit him.

I might've been able to keep it all going after she left, and kept everyone from knowing about me. They don't see her car in the driveway anymore-- and they know that I'm not getting lucky, giving in to my animal desires, or cleaning the sinks nearly enough. They can all see that I'm "damaged goods", and should be living in an apartment with loud inconsiderate neighbors, mystery leaks, and shabby carpet.

I came here in peace, but deceived everyone until I'd taken root.

She's gone now, and this is my bachelor pad. I should know all-too-well that we don't take kindly to that type of thing here. No sir. This isn't the place for me to live like I am, alone and miserable. They have to lay all their eyes on me and concentrate their stares into a tightly focused beam.

I'm up to the front door, and fumbling with the keys. I pull open the outer door, jam the greenly adorned key home, and twist it in the lock. The door makes its characteristic "whoosh" noise as it opens, and I step in to let the outer door close behind me. Curtains close, fingers are pulled out of mini blinds which snap back shut, and attentions are turned to sitcoms, dinners, warm incandescent lighting, adornments affixed to white plaster walls, and the smug taken-for-granted comfort known to all around me. A comfort that I won't ever have.

© Copyright 2002 T.A Adjuster