The Country/The Country

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3. "Have a Nice day."

Keel walked regularly to Independence Square, the place the neighborhood’s old-timers still called ‘the village.’

For fresh air, fitness, a change of scene; also because as an early retiree he needed a routine to fill his solitary days.

He walked to feel alive, stretch his legs, enjoy the rhythm of bodily movement, the mental effects the movement produced: the lifting of mood, the distraction from self, the quotidian pleasure of stimulating heart and lungs. It amazed him that so many people never did this, never discovered this simple, inexpensive (as in ‘free’) pleasure. People walked to and from the bus station; you could tell their destination by the time of day you saw them passing. Quite a few people walked dogs. He wondered if they knew their ‘pet’ was the excuse they discovered for taking themselves where they needed to go: outdoors.

Keel’s own, pet-less daily route was down Pike Street, a roadway he imagined had once been important because it was clearly part of an older village layout. You could tell from the bends. It curved slightly around some physical impediment from a time when it was easier for people to work around a landscape than to simply flatten it as they would later do in the machine age. He suspected Pike was a cart-way when animals were driven through the village (now modest city) of Monro. Today it was just another residential neighborhood street, houses fronting all along its progress as it doglegged from the village square into a network of wider roadways that led in turn to other parts of the city; and then to neighboring towns and cities. Keel walked Pike Street simply because it was the quickest route into the square, and also because it was his habit.

There, he dropped into General Purchase, the square’s biggest shop, to look at the news-sheets on sale on the racks and see whether the headlines told of anything different from the stories he glanced at that morning in the news-sheet delivered to his front door.

If he ran into someone he knew, the headlines would give them something to talk about.

As a rule, he did not run into anyone knew. Why would he? Who, after all, did he know?

A college teacher at a private institution in a neighboring district, Keel had retired some years before, when the college asked him to. Lost touch with his colleagues. This did not feel strange to him. Keel has always lived alone. Walked alone. Thought alone. He was brought up by his grandparents after his mother died: a strange prematurely scholarly boy. No siblings, more interested in books and his hobbies than in the other kids. He learned people’s ways; he studied them. Learned the rudiments of behavior. Forced himself to get over his shyness sufficiently for polite conversation. Learned the buzzwords.

“How ya doin’, what’s up, nothing much, what’s new with you, same old same old.” “Have a good day.” A good night. A good weekend. A good vacation. “Yeah, wuddya do?”

“Just took it easy, mostly. Visited the old folks. No, no thanks, I’m a little busy this weekend. Tonight? No, I’ve got some work to catch up on. I have to do my taxes. I’ve got some papers to grade."

“How about those Cougars?” Those Bluebirds? The Coyotes?

His grandparents grew frail. Died the same year, within months of each other. People said that was usually the way it went. He had always visited on the holidays. When they were gone, of course, he stopped visiting. Once he drove all the way to see to the old place, rode down the street, cruised slowly past the house where he grew up -- it looked different (new owners painted it sort of pink) -- went to the cemetery to visit their graves. What did he feel for them? The same embarrassed absence of emotion he felt at all social occasions, planned or unplanned interactions, standing on the outside of conversation circles at faculty gatherings, neighborhood encounters.

“Hi, neighbor!”

It’s the woman two houses down. He recognizes her face. Her name? Can’t remember. He stops, smiles. He taught himself to smile decades ago; practiced in the mirror. ‘OK, how are you? Guess I’ll be going.’ He does not look back. He tried to learn to tell jokes, but gave it up since something more than rote memorization appeared to be called for. He tried to have opinions: I think people should obey the rules. I think the law should be the same for everyone, rich or poor. I think we should all look out for others. Other people have rights too. Do unto others. It’s a free country, but that doesn’t give someone the right to do something that messes things up for everyone else.

Keel walked on alone. He was a day dreamer. His thoughts took off and went where they wanted to. He assumed this was normal. He did not see anything wrong with it. He did not miss running into anyone he knew. After all: who did he know?

One single element in this pleasant ritual he did not enjoy. The house with the dogs.

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