Denton was now out running every morning, just as he’d done before his divorce. He hadn’t seen the mystery woman at all. He tried to empty his mind while he ran. Years ago he’d read something about Zen monks who would walk as a form of meditation. They would walk until they “became walking,” whatever that meant. And they would be totally involved in the act of walking. Denton just jogged along the outer trail of the park and tried hard not to occupy his mind with his problems. He thought that this must be the Western twenty-first century equivalent of the Zen meditation. Jogging around the circuit, then breaking into a run, trying not to let the many issues of the day interfere with these few minutes, maybe some music to help distract.
Westerners don’t really meditate; they just change forms of distraction, he reflected. It was a legacy from Descartes, a deep fear of instantaneous extinction if we are not thinking of something. We need to think to remind God that we are here and to not forget us. Denton thought it must be Western civilization’s commitment to making noise, either with the voice or with a machine, or simply making noise happen in our heads. The West exports noise and noisy machines. It’s a fear of not being noticed. What would happen if God forgot, just for a moment, that we existed? It could happen. He is getting old, at least 14 billion years. It only stands to reason that He would have to forget something at some time. If we make enough noise, we can be pretty certain that it won’t be us that He forgets.
As if to punctuate this thought, a young man on a four-wheeler whizzed past him, illegally driving on the jogging trail. As if the whine of the engine wasn’t obnoxious enough, the glorified toy vehicle left a visible cloud of oil fumes and unburned gas. Denton held his breath as long as he could, then breathed in shallow bursts until the cloud of liquefied ancient prehistoric organisms thinned out, and he made his way to a small deli a few blocks from the park. He had forgotten his bottle of water. He bought a liter bottle, and sipped it while sitting at a small green plastic table meant for an outside deck.
The store had been a neighborhood grocery for three generations. But it was too small to compete with the large chains, so the grandson of the original owner, rather than fight a losing battle, had put in a small kitchen and converted the place into a deli. His timing had been perfect, and business thrived almost from the moment he sold his first pastrami on rye with an extra large sour pickle. The store still carried a few groceries for some of the elderly customers, some of whom actually had known the owner’s grandfather. But the dry goods were confined to the back of the store, and were mostly dusty cans of soup and beef stew, some with yellowed price tags. They would cause the occasional problem as they sometimes scanned at the register at a much higher price, as the automatic inventory system kept up with rising prices while the sticker on the can of soup didn’t change. Invariably this would result either in an argument between the (usually) elderly customer and the cashier, or some form of irate response when the higher price posted in the LCD monitor of the cash register. The cashiers were all instructed to go by the price stamped on the item rather than the price from the scanner.
Vern, the owner, had contemplated getting rid of all the groceries, since they were more of a bother than anything else; the money came from sandwiches, beer, cigarettes, and Lotto tickets. Denton knew Vern, and would chat with him in the mornings before going to work, and sometimes bought a sandwich in the morning to take with him. He thought of buying one today, as the pastrami was just coming out of the oven, but remembered that he had a lunch date with Judy. Vern was short and wide, and could just reach over the top of the counter. He placed a pastrami brisket on the stainless steel table just behind the counter.
“Denton, how are you?”
“Pretty good, Vern.”
“You started joggin’ again, I see.”
“Yeah. Try to keep in shape.”
“I should try it sometime,” Vern said, grabbing hold of his stomach with two hands. “I need to get rid of this.” He smiled. “Joggin’ would probably kill me, though. I can just see the obituary: Short, fat deli owner drops dead of massive heart attack.” He sliced some meat off the end of the brisket and handed it to Denton, who took the slice of beef and slowly munched. It was the usual high quality that Vern was famous for.
“You better not jog then,” Denton said, still savoring the pastrami.
“Not until you teach someone else how to make this. You’re a valuable national resource, Vern.”
Vern smiled, and busied himself prepping up for the day. The breakfast crowd would be in soon, ordering egg sandwiches.
“You want a breakfast sandwich?”
Denton realized that he was hungry, so he ordered an egg sandwich, and in spite of the fact that he had a lunch date, ordered a pastrami sandwich too; he could always have it for dinner.
There was a loud whiny noise outside. Both men looked up and saw a four-wheeler pull up on the sidewalk. It was the toy that had whizzed past Denton on the jogging path. A teenage boy sauntered into the store. He walked up to the counter. Vern left the grill.
“Can I help you?” said Vern. The boy looked at the racks of cigarettes and asked for a pack of one of the more popular menthols. He reached for them, and asked the boy for ID.
“Don’t have no ID.”
“Well, I can’t sell you cigarettes. No ID, no cigs.”
“This is fucked up. This is fuckin’ gay. I buy them here all the time.”
“Not from me you don’t.”
“I buy them from the fuckin’ owner.”
“I am the fuckin’ owner.”
“This is bullshit.” The boy looked like he might start something, but Vern was on to him. He looked directly at the boy in a universal, unmistakable challenge. If the boy was dumb enough to try something, Vern was more than ready to toss him out the door. Denton walked over to him and stood nearby.
“Maybe you should go. By the way, it’s illegal to drive that noisy smelly toy of yours on the jogging path.”
“Fuck you, you faggot,” the boy said. Denton made a quick move toward him, and the boy flew out the door. Vern went back to work on Denton’s order.
“Damn kids are all punks today,” Vern said, hunched over the counter. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to throw kids out of here. Not just the boys either; girls too. They don’t know how to behave.” Denton told him how the boy had ridden by him on the jogging path. “I know.” Vern nodded. “There are signs all over telling them not to ride on the path. I don’t know if they can’t read or if they just don’t care.”
“A little bit of both, maybe,” Denton remarked. “The world is full of people who didn’t get enough attention when they were kids.” Vern smiled. They listened as the boy started his four-wheeler and peeled out, almost losing control of the machine and narrowly missing a parked car, the engine whining as if it was ready to explode.
“I have half a mind to call the police on the little prick,” Vern said while bagging up Denton’s order.
“Machine won’t last long if he drives it like that. Maybe you should sell him cigarettes, shorten his life a little,” said Denton. Vern looked at him and seemed as if he was about to say something, but changed his mind. He put Denton’s sandwiches in a bag. Since he had been running, Denton didn’t have his wallet with him, so Vern put the sandwiches on a tab. Another advantage of being friends with the neighborhood deli owner, thought Denton—just try charging sandwiches at a fast-food joint.
While he jogged the few blocks home with the sandwiches, he heard a woman’s voice singing again, and looked around. The entrance to the park was across from him, and he stopped and stared through the gates. He thought could just vaguely make the figure of a woman running on the outside trail, completing the circuit near the entrance. He heard another noise mixed with the woman’s song, a high-pitched whine, and leaped out of the way just as the punk on his ATV went flying by him on the sidewalk. When he looked up, the woman was gone.
In his apartment he ate the egg sandwich in the kitchen over a paper towel. Then, while taking a shower and getting ready for work, thoughts of his luncheon date with Judy filled his mind. This would be their first meeting since their date over the weekend. It wasn’t clear to him how things would go. He didn’t need to be psychic to know that she was probably angry with him for leaving without even staying for breakfast. For the life of him he didn’t know why he had left. It had been just getting light out when he woke up next to her. She was sleeping and breathing softly. It was an impulse that told him that he should go, just leave. He felt that he might be doing her a favor by not being there in the morning. In a way he was terrified of not having anything to say to her over a glass of orange juice, or saying something wrong. The evening had gone so well he didn’t want to screw things up in the clear light of day. He wondered if he believed this enough to persuade her that it was true.
The plants near the south-facing window looked dry and listless. Denton walked over to them and felt the soil, which was desert-dry and crumbled under his fingertips. He took his plastic watering can from under the sink, put a little plant fertilizer in it, and added water. While watering the plants he thought of the several places in which he’d lived nwith his parents. His was an engineer and had a habit of getting bored with his job about every two years. The blessings of having an engineering degree from MIT meant that his father was in demand, and could literally pick and choose his job; the flip side to this blessing was that that was exactly what James Pike would do.
Until his parents separated, and Denton and his sister, Allie, lived with their mom, they had packed up and moved every two years or so. So his image of home life centered on the plants that moved with them. Mom’s battered philodendron, a few African violets, and a fern that just would not die no matter how far it traveled or what sort of light it received. They also had their own special species of wandering Jew, a deep green variety with yellow and purple-tipped variegated leaves. He was convinced that it was the only one of its kind. It had once been left in the car for three days when they had to unpack in extra haste because they had arrived at their latest new home the day before the start of school. The poor plant had been accidentally left wedged in between the front and back seat of Dad’s car. James had heard it fly against the door while taking a sharp corner, and had found the plant lying on its side, the clay pot smashed against the rear door of the car. He brought the plant home and threw it in the garbage. Denton had rescued it, putting it in a new pot and trimming off the broken leaves.
That was the year that James Pike decided to announce that he was moving out. Denton kept the plant in his room until he went to college, then gave it to his mother. He had forgotten about the plant until she died, and he and his sister found it in a windowsill while cleaning out their mother’s house. It was in the same pot Denton had put it in so many years before, and had gotten so large that he and his sister had split it. He was thoughtfully watering his half of the plant and thinking of the various places the plant had been, the various homes he had created in his life. Even though it had been a bad business deal, he regarded buying the condo as the smartest move of his life. For the first time in his history, he was rooted to one place. That’s why he hesitated to find another job, a better job with better pay. That’s why he hesitated to do much of anything to change his life. There were times when he thought that every decision he had ever made had been the wrong one. This was irrational, he knew, but knowing that something is irrational, that it doesn’t make sense, is not enough to not believe it, or not act upon the belief. If we believe something, we believe that it’s true, no matter how little sense it makes to anyone else, or even to ourselves sometimes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Zeppetello is the author of the forthcoming title, Daring to Eat a Peach, a novel to be published by Atticus Books in November of 2010. He is the Director of Writing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and lives in the Catskill Mountains.