I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Chapter 4 — K Street Stories
November 7, 2011Posted by on
Here’s Chapter 4, which introduces Fred Hairsten. The other main character, John McDougal, has played bit parts in the first few chapters. His story will come out later. And, as warned of elsewhere on here, it’s time for K Street Stories to go dark. There comes a point where I need to take this story back and finish it without sharing the development here. I have my ideas about where this is going from here — a grand event that will bring the characters together — but am curious to know if you have any suggestions. What happens from here. Sally and her long lost daughter. Ophelia and her not quite as long lost son. Sal and his anger — unfortunately, you’re at a disadvantage on that since I never actually finished chapter 3. I’ll give you a clue, though. Chapter 3 ends with Sal coming home and learning that his wife has left him. And, Fred, what’s up with him? How will he fit into all of this? Finally, of course, there’s John…
It’s a process. A mission. To do it exactly right. It begins across from Westminster Presbyterian where he enter the circuit. Once across the crosswalk, where the camellias bloom under the shady canopy of a group of redwoods, Fred turns left. To the west. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Counting each step. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Must be counted. Measured. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.
Why does that woman in 112 always look at him like that when he leaves? Fred hates the look. Her brow wrinkled and one eyebrow slightly raised. He hears her sigh when she closes the door once he gets to the stairs. Then there’s her talking. But, to who? Fred has never seen anybody else come in or out of her apartment. Maybe her husband is bed-ridden. Cancer. Maybe in the lungs. She hacks like she smoked once. Maybe he did, too. Fred can only speculate. A child maybe. That could be it. At her age, though, it’d have to be a grandkid. The mother a meth addict and she’s taken him in, but the meth was there when he was born, so his disabilities keep him housebound.
After a couple of blocks, Fred reaches the first challenge. Any interruption, any variance in his line, may change his rhythm, alter his stride, leaving him with ground to make up or steps to shorten. Where 12th cuts into Capitol Park and snakes into the basement garage of the State Capitol. If the sign says “WALK” in its faint white lettering, he’s good to go. On track, he should hit 400 there. 401. 402. 403. 404. And, Fred is across the street and back on the sidewalk. 405. 406. 407. 408. Trouble arises when the sign is orange. “DON’T WALK,” it screams silently. Naturally, Fred slows his pace and shortens his steps. He may hit 402 or 403 before he reaches the street. Steps to catch up later. Across 12th and on towards the corner at 10th, Fred continues. 410. 411. 412. 413. 414.
The counting becomes routine and Fred begins to look at the walkers going in the other direction. He stares sideways at them, trying not to let them know he’s looking, while walking along the edge of the grass, but still on the sidewalk. Who knows what would happen if Fred weaved onto the grass? Fred doesn’t. He faces forward, while continuing his sideways glances. The women in their silk blouses, skirts and nylons. And walking shoes that completely change the look.
Fred can’t help but be disappointed. He’d rather see them in heels. Like one of the regulars. Wavy auburn hair, a snow white blouse that almost sparkles in the morning sun, and a skirt that hugs her hips and stops inches above her knees. No comfortable shoes for her, she walks in heels with a man, his tie loosened, the top button of his shirt undone and his sleeves rolled up. As they pass, some days in the morning and others late in the afternoon, Fred is tempted to look back, but he doesn’t. With a last quick flick of his eyes, he sees the metal on their fingers. Married. Yes, but, there’s something about them. To each other? No. But…
At the corner, Fred turns to the north. If he is on pace, Fred should be right at 800. Two more blocks, past the water fountain, surrounded by rose bushes and spraying water twenty feet in the air, he reaches L Street and turns right. 1,200. 1,201. 1,202. 1,203. These two blocks can be a problem as well. If there are demonstrators, Fred will have to work around them, adjusting his stride. If he does, there is still plenty of time for him to make it up.
In the summer, Fred walks in a clean undershirt, so brightly white its glare causes passersby to blink. And blue jeans, so new in appearance one can almost hear their stiffness. And his cheeks are red. Bright and shiny. Particularly late in the day, after Fred has walked the circuit. How many times? Most days he loses track. As the days progress, his face is not just sunburned. It is chapped and peeling. In the cooler seasons, his cheeks are only slightly less enflamed, the coldness of the air dries his skin just as easily as the blistering sun burns it, and his shirt and jeans are covered with a winter parka.
“Stop staring at me,” Fred wants to yell at the other walkers. The judgment bleeds off of them. Too many times, he senses walkers approach and move towards the outer edge of the side walk, while he keeps his line on the inside. Fred knows they see and wonder what’s wrong with him, particularly the regulars. All the other walkers who ramble around the park a lap or two every day, without any reason other than to get out of the office and claim the value of exercise. The regulars and Fred know each other only by sight. No words are ever exchanged. Fred only wishes they knew the importance of his task. They don’t ask, so he doesn’t tell. Instead, in the summer, he scratches absentmindedly at the scabs and in the winter, burrows into his jacket. And he walks. And counts.
Four blocks later, Fred hits 2,000 steps. And, a block later, he reaches the home stretch. The corner of 15th and L. 2,200 steps if he managed the loop the right way.
If it is the last circuit in day light, Fred will turn left and walk the mile to Loaves and Fishes for a free meal. He doesn’t count those steps. Nothing to prove there. Just an empty stomach to fill and more strangers to avoid. The walkers stare at him in judgment. The homeless and druggies at the shelter are whacked. And stupid. The help isn’t any better. More nights than not, the women behind the table ladling out the slop, making sure nobody gets more than their share, speak to him of Jesus and the Lord. They do it quietly because they aren’t supposed to preach. They know it. Fred knows it and he doesn’t need their beliefs. Did Jesus ever count his steps?
A right turn though leads him to continue. 2,201. 2,202. 2,203, 2,204. 2,205. Left foot. 2,206. Right foot. 2,207. Left foot. 2,208. Right foot. 2,209. Halfway to his next turn, he walks past the rose garden where hundreds of plants bloom. He wants so desperately to stop and smell each one. He cannot. He knows. If he were to do so he may never come out of the garden again. Stopping and sniffing and eventually counting each and every bloom from one end to the other. Then doing it all over again to verify. And again to make sure.
No, the walk is it. He cannot handle another obsession. He may be mad, but he still has control.
Four hundred more steps and he turns right at N. A block from home. It starts every morning promptly at 8:00. Walking from his apartment, his internal conversation begins.
“If I get it right the first time, I’m done.”
“But, what if you don’t?”
“I’ll just do it again until I do.”
“What happened yesterday? Didn’t you get it right on the second try?”
“Yes.” Fred’s face lights up at this point. Getting it right is the point.
“How many more times did you walk around the park?”
And the light dims and is replaced with a vacant stare. “I don’t know.”
“Exactly. You’re a fool. No wonder your mother keeps you away.”
Fred shuts the conversation down and crosses the street. His mask returns. It’s all of the other walkers who are the fools. Fred may come out in the same pair of jeans and white shirt every day, adding layers of burned skin to his already damaged cheeks. But, he knows that the circuit is not a mile, no matter what the others may say. Some old, fat lady saying to her partner, “One lap,” while she huffs and puffs and swings her arms back and forth, “and we’ve put a mile in.” Fools. A mile has 2,000 steps. You walk around Capitol Park, you’ve hit 2,800 steps. Almost a mile and a half. Fred knows. He walks. He counts. Each step. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten times a day. Maybe more.
* * *
Or at least he did. Fred Hairsten no longer has to worry about the old woman across the hall. He no longer has a starting line. His anchor is gone. He’s adrift. Counting seems to be the least of his problems.
His mother, comfortably living in a gated community an hour outside of Sacramento with her afternoon teas and bridge games with “the girls,” paid his rent and made sure his kitchen was stocked with his favorites. Ramen and Kraft. Ho-Hos and Oreos. Creamy filling first. Neapolitan ice cream, of which he never ate the vanilla. Fred carefully cut and scooped out the white before dipping his spoon in, first all of the pink and ending with the chocolate.
The day before Sally finally told Buddy about her dream, before Sal came home to a quiet house, and before Ophelia and John stared each other down as the wind and rain bore down on Sacramento, Fred came home to his belongings gathered together in a few boxes in the hallway. For a moment, he stood and looked at the small stack. The hallway was lit only by dim fixtures at each end and the glimmers of light poking out from under the doors. In the gloom, he barely saw the white of a note attached to his door. Ignoring it, Fred took his key out and inserted it in the door, turning it without success.
Fred took the note and stepped back, not noticing the door behind him had opened a crack and the old lady was looking out at him or that a small trickle of blood leaked from a scab on his cheek. With a sigh, he jammed the piece of paper in his pocket, where it joined notes from each of the last five days. None of them read. He would call his mother in the morning and, until then, Fred could sleep in the park. He’d done it before. From the boxes, he pulled out the parka, a box of Oreos and a couple of packages of Ramen, and turned to go.
* * *
The only problem for Fred the next morning was that he was lost. He slept burrowed deep under the XXXXXX tree a few yards from L Street. When he rose with the birds and the sun and walked out to the sidewalk, he wasn’t near the camellias. The church wasn’t at his back. The few early morning walkers even looked different. They seemed … more serious. There were fewer smiles and more walkers on their own. With their arms swinging in rhythm, their eyes staring straight ahead even more than Fred’s usually do, they scare him.
Fred knew, deep down, that it didn’t matter where he started. It was still 2,800 steps. He could find a line, a tree, a tuft of grass sticking out ever so slightly on the sidewalk to mark a complete lap. Maybe today would be the day that he matched it the first time out and, instead of trying for two in a row, and then three and four, and crashing on the fourth try because of somebody who stops right in his path, forcing him to walk around and then losing track of his steps.
He looked to the left and to the right and turned back into the park with the Oreos and Ramen crammed in the parka’s pockets. If he could get back to N Street, he might be okay. After following the meandering paths, Fred came out by a gingko biloba tree. It was wrong. All wrong. Fred turned and began to walk and count. One. Two. Three.
When his stomach growled at him and he finally stopped, Fred was at 9,254. There was another park, a large bowl-shaped green patch of ground in the middle of a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. From a bench where he sat and began eating a handful of Oreos, filling first. Down in the bowl, two small children, chased by a young Hispanic woman, ran and laughed. A dog, leashed to a wagon, yapped at them with its tail wagging and its tongue hanging out of its mouth.
Once the Oreos were gone, Fred took a package of Ramen and dropped the spice packet away. He stuffed the dry noodles in his mouth, crunching them into a tasteless mush and swallowing. One of the children grabbed a water bottle from the wagon and took a couple of gulps before tossing it back and returning to the chase. Fred involuntarily licked his lips and ignored that his tongue felt thicker than usual.
With his stomach filled, Fred stood and began the walk back. If he could remember where he started, maybe he could match his strides. He began to count again. One. Two. Three. 9,254 was his goal.