The Walk Home
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 1997

A piercing, explosive flash lit up the street on which he stood, momentarily turning the sidewalk into a river of molten silver. The trees and automobiles seemed to catch fire, and the storefront window to his right sparkled like a diamond. With the flash came the uncanny feeling of separation. The man felt suddenly as if this city street, formerly embedded in the bustling network of human life, suddenly hovered above the earth, without intersections or connections, like the silent, glowing orbit of a satellite.

As the effects of the great flash subsided, it occured to the man that nothing, after all, had really happened. The sidewalk became solid and lifeless again so quickly that it must always have been so. The flames in the trees died out just as quickly as they came, leaving behind (unexpectedly) trees rather than smoldering, obliterated stumps. Everything, it seemed, returned to the way it had been. The man, who had stopped walking in the instant of the flash, resumed his walk, shrugging off the unusual interruption.

He walked for a considerable time, stuck in a kind of reverie, before he noticed the stillness around him. Strange, he thought to himself, it was not yet dark out-it was five, five-thirty perhaps, in the evening, by the look of the sky-but the street seemed to have no one else on it. He looked as far as he could in all directions, confirming this impression. Again he thought: These stores ought to be open. There ought to be some last minute customers walking back and forth on the sidewalk.

These thoughts lead to a new, more disturbing, revelation: Why, he wondered were the stores all closed? Certainly a few would still be open. What kind of city is this, where all the stores close prematurely? Then: What city, indeed? What is the name of this city? Then: I don't remember the name of this city. How could I not remember the name of this city? I've lived here fifteen years, worked here-where?

Once he started examining his memory, he discovered that he had been struck by a kind of amnesia. He couldn't remember his name. He couldn't remember the name of the street on which he now walked, or the origin of his walk, or its duration, or its intended destination. Something liquid poured down into his eyes. Sweat? His empty mind spun around, anchorless, grasping for something definite and tangible.

Here, finally, was something tangible: I passed a man with a dull grey jacket. The man remembered having passed a stranger. The stranger wore a dull grey jacket. This was all. Trying to build from this, the man asked himself: When had he passed? Certainly, had had passed this stranger in the grey jacket before-before what? He sensed vaguely that something else had happened, something important, presumably some time after he had passed this stranger. What it was, however, he could not say.

It struck him suddenly that he had just passed the stranger in the grey jacket. He turned around just in time to catch a man, wearing a dull grey jacket, walking quickly away from him, receding into the distance. The strange dilation of time disturbed him. It seemed as though he had encountered the stranger in the dull grey jacket hours ago, not moments ago (as, evidently, was the case.)

The dead four-lane street stretched and repeated itself endlessly, traversing the full length of this cold northern city. Cars, like tombstones, lined both sides of the street, resting in the semi-darkness. Store windows, black or charcoal, hid behind shadows. Scraps of his memory came back to him, piecemeal, banal. When he was eight years old, some older boys had surrounded him on the playground and demanded he give them his basketball. The basketball had had a black patch on its orange surface, covering the place where the material had torn away from the seam. One of his playground tormentors had had a missing front tooth, which left a small rectangular gap. A black storefront window made the man recall, simultaneously, the black patch and the missing tooth, but nothing more from the incident.

When he was eleven years old, in summer camp, he had been playing tag, indoors, with his friend. In his excitement he had cut his forehead on the corner of an open closet door. The cut was not serious, and in his excitement he didn't notice it for quite some time. It was only when the blood dripped into his eyes that he noticed. He recalled the dripping of liquid into his eyes, the obscuring of his vision, but this was all.

Someone brushed past him. My name is Dale he suddenly knew. He froze in his tracks, astonished at the revelation. Greedy for more, he found nothing more. His name was Dale. The fact hung in space, suspended, like a star. My name is Dale took its place in his sparsely constellated internal sky, next to the black patch and the missing front tooth, next to the the blood dripping into his eyes, but disconnected from these, as they were disconnected from each other.

Who was that man who passed me? He hadn't seen the man approach. Perhaps the stranger had come from an alley, or out of one of the seemingly abandoned storefronts. Perhaps he had stepped out of a car, or run across the street. It had been the same man , he thought to himself, the one in the dull grey jacket. The stranger might have circled around the block after having passed the first time, running ahead and then doubling back to pass again.

Dale turned around. Seeing, at a distance, the dull grey jacket, the black ski cap$-$this time he noticed a ski cap in addition to the grey jacket-Dale had a powerful sense of repetition. The deserted street stretched out endlessly, as it had before. The nondescript cars rested silently in semi-darkness. The black and charcoal windows hid behind shadows.

These are the same shadows , he realized. He noticed a perfectly black one, just now, slanting horizontally across the storefront window to his right, half-obscuring the sign in the window, which said Hardware . It occured to him now that he had been walking past a hardware store before, that he had seen this horizontal shadow and this sign before, the first time the man in the dull grey jacket had passed. It occured to him that the first man had also worn a black ski cap, that he had had the same long, tangled hair. (He remembered, now, the long tangled hair-on both men$-$hair the color of pine.)

When Dale was eighteen years old he built a beautiful wooden loft for his college dorm room. He remembered this now-not the loft, not the college or the dorm room, not even the fact of college, but the hammering together of the loft. In his mind's eye, he saw the hammer (silver, with a black handle) beating nails (dull grey) into the wood (soft pine.) Now, as then, he saw the cracks in the wood made by the penetrating nails.

Dale saw him again, this man in the dull grey jacket, in the black ski cap, this man with the long tangled hair. He saw him, suddenly, six steps ahead of him. Five steps: He looks young enough to be in college... Four steps: ...but certainly he isn't in college. Three steps: He looks hardened somehow, and low-class. Two steps, one step in front of him, then suddenly- I built a house -he brushed past, and was behind Dale.

A single plank of wood, cracked by dull grey nails, began connecting to other planks of wood, which in turn connected to others, as his mental camera zoomed outward. He saw, in his mind, the whole wooden structure for the frame of a house- a house that he had built. He felt, now as then, the hot summer sun shining on him and on the the wooden frame, the warm sweat of exertion pouring into his eyes.

Unnaturally warm, in this cold northern city, he walked past the silent cars, past the repeating windows hidden in repeating shadows. Expectant now, he was not surprised to see, this time in the distance, the hardened young man. Was he a panhandler? Did he have a question? He seemed to look carefully at Dale. Strange, Dale thought to himself, he hadn't noticed before how menacing the young man looked.

Before the two men passed each other, Dale looked up to see the green canvas awning which jutted out from the hardware store, casting its shadow across the storefront window. In the moment before passing, the young man looked over, as if to ask a question, making a gesture of some sort. What was that gesture? Dale wondered. Then (in the instant of passing) The lights in the hardware store are on!

At first, Dale thought that the lights in the store had been switched on suddenly. Then he realized he had been mistaken before, in thinking that the lights had not been on all along. Of course the lights had been on, he understood: I am the owner of the hardware store, and I turned them on myself. (Funny, he marvelled, that this should have escaped him.) The street itself was not actually deserted but only relatively empty of people. He could see them, customers on this city street, coming out of the shops which would close soon, but which were not, now, actually closed.

Dale found the street less alien, more connected to the activities taking place on earth. An automobile pulled out from a parking space, one block ahead of him. A warm breeze blew from behind him, mitigating the late November chill. The details of his life saturated him: He owned the hardware store, here, on Garfield Avenue. He had a business partner named Roland Cook. Summers, Roland managed the business while Dale worked as a carpenter. (In his mind's eye, he saw, chronologically, eidetically, the entire sweep of wooden structures he had built.) Winters, Dale managed...

Approaching his own hardware store from one side, he saw, as before, the young man approaching from the other side. As the rest of his world grew more concrete and ordinary, the strange encounter to come seemed, in contrast, more puzzling, more profoundly out of place. Why was he walking on Garfield Avenue? Why did Garfield Avenue repeat itself? Why was he on the outside of his hardware store looking in, instead of looking out from within? Struggling with these questions, Dale registered only dimly that the youth held something in his right hand-what?

His confusion lifted, finally. He he had just told his employees, five minutes ago, to close the store themselves. He was leaving early, because he wanted to walk to the gym and play a game of basketball before heading home. This was certain, concrete, solid: Dale carried a basketball under his arm. He noticed that the basketball was orange and round, frayed somewhat around the brown seams. He remembered that he had just handed his wallet to the young man. He saw the young man slide a revolver back into the left pocket of his jacket. The revolver was silver, with a black handle. The puffy down jacket was exactly the color of the grey sky, and had a patch on the left elbow, made from black electrical tape.

Dale saw these details with perfect clarity, between the time his assailant shot him in the forehead, right above the eyes, and the time the lights went out completely.