It’s relieving when you find someone who feels the same way you do about Covid-19 risk and public safety. But what about those who disagree?
The usual hordes of walkers, tourists, day-trippers are nowhere to be found. There’s a couple up ahead, and in the distance, someone else with a dog. A woman heading my way veers right to hug the opposite edge of the path. As she nears she pulls her mask up. I adjust mine and give her a little wave. She waves back. It’s that small acknowledgement, that we’re on the same page with “staying safe,” that brings to mind my early morning encounter at the grocery store.
The worker at the grocery store at 6 a.m. is already stocking shelves when I arrive. I turn the corner onto an aisle and see her standing on a short step ladder, stocking cereal boxes. She’s placing the cholesterol-busting oatmeal cereals up on the high shelves, adult reach. On the lower shelves are the Lucky Charms and Trix and Cocoa Puffs, ready for any five-year-old’s grasp.
I stand back and watch for a moment. There’s something about her stance, her inwardness, that I respond to. Maybe she’s an introvert like me. She looks both sleepy and focused, as if she’s somewhere else, not here.
I’ve seen her here on past visits, either at the checkout stand or stocking shelves. She looks about in her forties, black hair pulled back into a ponytail, her mask covering her face. I can’t see if she’s smiling to herself or grimacing or looking blank. What I can see is that when she puts another box on the top shelf there’s a weariness in that gesture. She looks deep in her own world. Or some other world.
I wish she’d look my way so I could give her a wave or a good morning nod.On secondthought, I don’t want to intrude, to distract from what is probably, for her, a mindless task, something she could do with her eyes closed. Something she could do in her sleep, if she slept past that early morning alarm. She’s done this job a million times before. This is the way she starts her work day: stocking shelves, checking this price, checking that. That’s what she does; she checks, from dawn to dusk. She checks as the groceries roll past the scanner, checks as the days roll past, checks and checks, until break time, then checks again, right up to the closing bell.
I could watch her for a long time. If I stared long enough, maybe I could begin to imagine what her inner world looks like. I could find an opening into that interior chamber of her dreams. But I’ve got to get going, so I move a little closer, make like I’m scanning the shelves, all the while keeping away from where she’s standing. She stops what she’s doing, turns to face me, asks if she can be of help. I point to the Grape Nuts (top shelf). As she hands a box down to me, both of us reaching our arms out as far as possible to keep our distance, I say, “Thank you so much. And thanks for being here. How are you doing?”
It’s six in the morning. I don’t know why I ask. If I had to be at work at six, I wouldn’t want someone up in my face. I immediately feel I’ve made a mistake, interrupting whatever quiet reverie she’s having before the hordes come in. Is it because there’s just the two of us standing in this aisle that creates some sense of intimacy, of closeness, in a world where anything approaching closeness now feels in short supply? A closeness with strangers I now long for?
She steps down from the ladder, looks at me, and says, “It’s so hard. People are so angry.”
She proceeds to tell me how people yell at her, how because she’s Asian American, she gets a double dose of venom.
“I don’t get it. They come up to me, right up to my face, pull their masks down and start right in, pissed about something. Either we don’t have their product or they can’t find it and they want my attention now. If I ask them politely to mask up, they start in, who do I think I am, as if, as if I’m the one who . . . ”
She stops, shakes her head. At that moment, I realize I have no idea what she has to go through, can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to deal with that kind of onslaught all day long.
“Do you think they will finally take it seriously when the second wave hits?” she asks.
I tell her I hope so. I tell her I don’t get it either, why people are like they are. I tell her I’m sorry.
“You know. It sounds like you and I agree,” she says. “I have to tell you. It’s a relief to find someone who feels the way I do.”
I thank her and leave with my box. Looking back, I see her step back up on the ladder and return to her labors. I think forty hours, five days a week, eight hours a day. Those very structured days.
I tell her I don’t get it either, why people are like they are.
My foot hits a rock, I trip, stumble, immediately feel embarrassed, as if this will end up on someone’s secret funny video channel. I need to wake up, look where I’m going. I’ve been in another world. Who knows what I’ve missed while I was back in that grocery aisle.
I’m almost at the end of the berm, at the fork. To the left a wide path continues toward a planked walkway through fields of brush and undeveloped grassland. To the right, a tall cypress tree stands at a cliff’s edge. A slim path curves around it, just enough for one person to get by. One misstep and you could tumble down the cliff to the beach below.
This tree marks the spot I used to claim as my own personal writer’s residency. I’d sit at the base, my back against the trunk; a perfect spot to stare out at the sea. The exposed roots of the tree rose up from the packed dirt and encircled me like the armrests of a chair. It reminded me of the armchair my fisherman father bought for my mother after her unexpected hysterectomy. A place for her to rest and “let the world go by,” is what he’d said. When she sat in that chair she said she always felt, even if he was miles away on the open ocean, his arms were folded around her. That he was holding her when she was in that chair. Years went by, the chair’s fabric began to fade, and still she wouldn’t let it go. She had the chair reupholstered, again and again and again.
As if one great viewing spot isn’t enough, the tree offers a second incredible perch. Months ago, some visionary hung a driftwood plank from the upper branches of the tree and created the perfect swing.
I step onto the narrow path and see the swing is still there! What good fortune. Someone has even decorated it. Yellow and red roses are woven into the swing ropes; nature’s embroidery. I go to sit down, then notice on the board there’s a small photograph, covered in plastic. A young man’s face, smiling up at me. A dedication. A memorial.
Who was he in life? Did he used to sit here, swinging, look out and try to make sense of all that doesn’t make sense in the world? As others have done? As I did? What were his hopes and wishes as he swung back and forth? His beliefs, his opinions? What was his favorite cereal?
This swing; now a memorial to this young man. And a memento mori for us. I feel a strange kinship with him and with all who’ve been here before, everyone who has ever sat here swinging. There’s that expansive feeling again, coming up out of nowhere. Something connects us, even if we’ve all never met, even if we don’t know each other’s names or what each of us had for breakfast.
I sit down on the swing and look out at the sea. The morning fog has lifted and taken the gray away. What’s left is a shining blue field. Lyrics from a song by Alison Kraus and Robert Plant come to mind and I start to sing softly, to no one, to all of us who’ve gathered here: Somebody said they saw me, swinging the world by a tail. Bouncing over a white cloud. Killing the blues.
After a while, I start back.
Something connects us, even if we’ve all never met.
There are more people on the berm now, groups of two and three walking together, single joggers, more dogs. Thirty feet or so away, two older men are standing, talking to each other. Both older, meaning my age. One, in a nylon green windbreaker and black helmet, stands next to his bike, facing a man dressed in black pants and jacket with a short white buzz cut. Even from this distance I can tell they’re having an animated conversation. Something in how they’re standing, how they’re gesturing to each other, emphasizing each point.
Both are unmasked. My eyes drift down to their necklines to see if there are folds of fabric or masks dangling there. Their necklines are free and naked. Those unadorned necks are making a statement.
Find a way around. Circumvent. As I get near, I walk a long arc away from where they are standing, as far as the berm path will allow. Still, parts of their exchange drift over. The man in black is saying, “I don’t care for the president but . . . ”
How many times have I heard this very beginning to a line of speech? “I don’t care for his Tweeting but . . . ” “I don’t care for the way he bullies but . . . ” I know what comes next. An excuse. A justification. A “Well, the other side is worse . . . ”
I catch another snippet: “ . . . marching towards Marxism . . . ” The man on the bike chimes back, “Yeah, and then there’s AOC . . . ”
Even though I tell my wife it’s not helpful to put rage-filled messages on social media aimed at right wing nut jobs, (The posts do no good, you’re preaching to the choir. You’re never going to win anyone over that way, etc. etc.) I can’t stop myself. I stare their way, stare straight at them, as if my stare is a sharp arrow that can speed from where I am to where they are standing and just shut that conversation down.
Then I do the next unhelpful thing.
I stand, facing them, and adjust the bridge of my sunglasses with my middle finger. I deeply adjust the bridge. I push the bridge way up. I allow my finger to linger there, long past that period of adjustment.
They keep talking to each other. They never glance my way.
I imagine one of them saying, “I’m glad to have found someone who feels the way I do.”
Two men at the end of the berm, together, in their maskless beliefs.
Maybe they’ll take it seriously, the second wave. People are so angry . . . and now I’m angry, too.
I look out to sea, at wave after wave after wave, a wide wale corduroy. I take a breath, take it in; the sky, the sea. A balm that calms. And then begin to wonder: If the young man who died was standing here, right beside me, what would he do or say? Or the workers at the entrance to the berm? Or the woman at the grocery store? I know one thing: If I was putting boxes of Fruit Loops on the shelf, I wouldn’t get to witness any of this. The view, the swing. How I wish she could be here right now. To see that sky, that sea, that . . .
There! Right there! A whale! Breaching! A huge humpback rising up out of the sea, straight up. Straight up, like a huge middle digit.
Is it my imagination or is that finger lingering there a second longer than usual?
I look down the berm. Everyone has stopped walking. Everyone is standing at the edge of the berm looking out, transfixed. Magnificent. Otherworldly.
I turn around and look back at the two men. They, too, have stopped talking, their mouths so open birds could build.
All of us. In this moment, we all feel the same way.
Toni Mirosevich's new book of stories, Spell Heaven, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in Spring 2022. The linked stories--about an overlooked community in a crumbling coastal town in the Bay Area--have previously appeared in Catapult, North American Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Toni is the author of six books of poetry and prose and lives with her wife in Pacifica, CA. Learn more on her website, tonimirosevich.com