The Walk – Part One
Mateo stopped and stood across the street from the strip mall he had passed and shopped thousands of times. He only now noticed that it had aged over the decades. He wondered how it had eluded him before and then thought of the way familiarity could both magnify and hide change. He enjoyed its lack of pretense–the achingly utilitarian beige walls; the discolored wood tiles. It looked tired, but its blood still flowed.
The mall made him think of the proud humility of his grandmother’s home. It was a warm and comfortable hodgepodge of framed family photos and duck figurines and plastic plants and flowers. Then, after she had passed, the veil fell: the furniture revealed itself as unfashionable, the knickknacks as tacky and cheap. It was as though she had, through some alchemical process, breathed comfort and beauty into things that were old and plastic. It was as though she had kept the house alive with her own heartbeat just as the mall relied on the flesh and blood of its businesses and patrons.
In the parking lot of the mall a homeless man leaned against a shopping cart full of blankets, clothes and empty bottles, his skin weathered from the sun and cold, his beard a grey abandoned garden. Parked two spaces down was a German luxury sedan–spotless, shiny, and white: a four-wheeled creature far more expensive but far less valuable than the cart. The man looked toward the sky and spoke with familiarity to the gods who had betrayed him. Passersby stared and quickly looked away as if to convince themselves that there was an unbridgeable distance between their lot and that of the man they turned away from. Mateo’s heart filled with a sense of loving kinship towards both the man and those who turned away.
Mateo walked across the street and stood in a sparsely populated area of the parking lot. He looked over at the front of the Mexican restaurant that fed him weekly. He realized how intimate it was to order food from the same restaurant over time; how they knew what, when and how much he ate; how they could even infer how deeply he relied on habit and familiarity to cope with the vicissitudes of life. He pictured the dignified stoicism of the cooks, of how deftly they prepared his food with their honest bare hands. He thought of the young woman who worked the register, of the way she had stopped asking him for his name when he placed an order over the phone, of the smile that, like rays of sunshine, warmed him when he walked in to pick up his food. Mateo decided that it was time to resume his walk. He left the mall and walked toward the neighborhood across the street.
The Walk – Part Two
Though Mateo was sometimes content with his solitary life, he was terrified by the idea of being forgotten. It was as though by accepting that he could not access fleshly expressions of love he needed all the more to find a peaceful resting place in someone’s mind. On the day in question his loneliness was out of his awareness and instead found expression in the desultory gait of one who is rarely awaited.
Mateo was continually searching for beauty. As it relates to his soul it was more a matter of survival than inspiration. He could not, however, find beauty without first locating the flaws that amplified it. He paused his walk and looked appreciatively at the sturdy white pillars and brown trim of a small Dutch Colonial after being drawn in by the rusty mailbox in its driveway. The house was both stately and small and reminded him of the dollhouses he had secretly coveted as a young boy. He had seen in these forbidden dollhouses an opportunity to create the world in which he wished to live. He glanced through the windows of the home as though searching for evidence of its inhabitant’s contentment. Then, worried that he would get caught, he turned his gaze away and back toward the rusty mailbox. He reached out and gently ran his index finger across its lid before resuming his walk.
The Walk – Part Three
As Mateo turned a corner he overheard a couple arguing in their driveway. Their voices were sharp like razor blades and broke through the fragility of his peace. He fled by turning his eyes in the direction of a garden up ahead: red geraniums smiling at a sunny but crisp winter day, a lonely oak standing proudly amidst a yellowing lawn. The quiet returned to him.
Mateo shuttled between his thoughts and observations, between the inner and outer world. Lost outside of time he suddenly realized that he was nearing the end of a cul-de-sac. As he was turning back toward the main road a voice shouted to him.
“Hi there!” An elderly woman with a kind smile was waving from a bench on the front lawn of the last home on the block. She continued. “I just wanted to tell you that I see you walking here almost every day and I cheer you on whenever I do.”
He had seen her there before, always alone and with a book in hand. It was dizzying and disorienting to him that he could be seen; that the observer could be observed. He wanted to know what she was reading. He wanted to ask if they could sit together when they were lonely. If they could be friends. But embarrassed by the flood of unmet needs and disoriented by the shock of being witnessed, he could muster only a smile, a wave and a wobbly “Thank you.”
Mateo headed home overwhelmed by contradictory thoughts and feelings. He felt warmth toward the elderly woman. He felt resentful at the way she forced him to acknowledge his own existence. He felt both seen and alone. She had awoken him to all that he had and, therefore, to all that he lacked. He felt the old pain in his left knee. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He was grateful for the pain. Grateful for the awful, gorgeous fact of being alive.