By lance duncan
These days, you don’t go out often.
This isn’t new. You’ve never been one for busy night streets packed with bodies, or for bars. Or for piling onto a crowded couch and watching some random junk on a TV. Even going to the movies has never had much of an appeal for you. But somehow it’s different lately.
Lately, you find that sometimes, when you’re not having a great day, when you see people together who are happy—smiling, laughing—the emotion that arises in you is not envy, or jealousy. Rather, it’s simple hate.
This doesn’t happen always. It’s recent. And rare. But you catch yourself in it, once, twice, and it feels like slipping into the pit of a groove dug out by repeated daily habits, a consistently chosen rut carved out by choices that—while they always seem like good ideas at the time—have distinctive side-effects.
You like to take walks at night. You always have. But recently, you’ve found that the increasingly cold air—which initially you dreaded, being unused to living in a colder, higher climate—is something that you appreciate, look forward to, as an excuse to wrap yourself in a jacket and gloves and a comfortable hat, sturdy boots, all of it insulating you, holding in your heat, but also—and more importantly—forming an additional layer against human observation and potential interaction, a barrier reinforced by the darkness, which makes all walking encounters fleeting ones, occluded, governed by different animal rules of engagement and eye contact. In the cold night your essence is contained. Unbeheld.
When you walk at night you walk reliable paths, nearby ones that are comfortable, although you would like to change that, to walk longer and farther away.
When you walk, if it’s not too late, you look into the lit picture windows of the familiar houses you pass, seeing people alone, or in groups, or people in groups, alone. In one house, always two big TVs alongside each other, two guys playing different video games. In another, four or five cars always parked, parallel, slanted into the drive at an angle driven across an empty dirt yard. The people in this house are in their front kitchen always—young, professional-looking, busy inside the large glowing windows, together in the room but almost always looking down, at a table, their faces lit by laptops.
At this house and others with signs of heavily shared space you sometimes stop, briefly, and think a while about this rut of your life, about your walks at night, about the inertia of your choices. You consider these people who chose to live together, to commune their energies, combine their thought-forms, to work together to create domesticity: something that sustains them all, something that takes a contribution from each and creates a greater whole. You doubt you could live like that now, in a house that small, with that many people. You don’t like the way the word “domestic” sounds.
You think also that that something that nurtures those in the domicile takes something away from each, diminishes each individually. You imagine a life overtaken by the chatter of shared minds, insipid inside jokes, debates over chores, constant human noise. You think about how the place you live in is like a castle now, fortified and controlled, alone.
You think of that thing that nurtures and sustains, that domestic bubble of safety, security—(you’ve read that lonely people heal more slowly, have poor sleep, higher rates of heart disease)—you think of how you are such a picky, prickly individual now, and you feel the rut of the groove grow slightly deeper with each step you take down the chilly sidewalk of the nighttime street. Hidden bunnies run away on all sides.
Once, months ago, where this same street meets the main arterial of your crowded college town, you paused on a night walk at the squat office building there, looking in another window lit up by a nighttime cleaning crew, a ground floor office framed. A picture of a life.
It stung a small bit to gaze in, to see a person’s world confined. It was a woman’s office, her white sneakers waiting on the floor, her mousepad worn down at the edges and depicting a pastoral country scene in fall. The green fabric arms of her chair, threadbare. On her walls: paintings, a house on a picturesque broken seaside cliff, an old barn falling apart, slowly being reclaimed by the land. Wishful pictures of what human life could—should—be, instead of, on her desk: lotion to ward off the too-dry climate, a flat computer monitor, an adding machine. A well-used stapler. Rolodex. Pictures of her family, who are elsewhere.
The computer monitor had been left on for no reason, glowing solid blue at the Windows login screen, diodes slowly burning away, and attached to the inside of the thick office window, dangling from a metal spiral carefully fastened with wide pieces of translucent tape, three crystal-clear plastic snowflakes hung in varying shapes, their forms glowing from within, animated luminescent blue by the screen. The accidental beauty of this—the cold purity of something so cheap—surprised you.
You hike in the mountains alone, at dusk, and coming back down the trail, past the dry brush and scrub that climbs to the tree line, your mind mixes up the image with a picture you’d seen earlier that day of a witch, a simple pagan one, rendered in rough realism with digital ink, wearing a peasant dress and carrying an armful of herbs across a field, face downcast, her back to the trees, returning home cradling a bit of the primal, preparing to do her work with ingredients gathered, necessarily, from beyond the pale. For you that image mixing with the real, with the actual dry mountain field, is like sex, and the shape of a story forms in your mind. On the final leg of your walk an image appears of a black satin devil, lounging on mountain rocks, body lithe like a mountain lion, discovered by the surprised witch-girl and then tutoring her in dark arts, lessons of rites and herbalism, preparing her to take his demon seed into her belly. In your head this story writes itself.
But at home, it does not gel. You procrastinate. You print out the image of the witch, color on glossy paper, and cut off the white edges. You put it up on the wall—in the room where you want to write and feel guilty for not writing, and avoid, and where the idea of writing now feels like an enforced chore—with double-sided sticky squares you bought at Target. You expect inspiration to flow from this witch, like a totem. The witch sits on the big empty wall in a stippled sea of pale blue. Then at some point when you are not there, the picture falls off. When you visit the room, you are surprised to find it is gone. The absence—the blank white back of the image staring up from the floor—feels like a judgement.
You decide to go back to the mountain again, at dusk. On your favorite day of the year, no less—the old holy day of darkness and graves. Witch day, if any day is. It feels right. You start to catch the edge of the feeling you had before, start to feel the sense of the wildness that is both totally empty of the human and totally full of the natural, non-calculating alive. Deer cross your path, a surprise. But you don’t stumble upon a black Satan on the rocks.
Then, taking a break, lounging on a boulder with a sandwich, you look down at your own black jacket and realize it was you who you were looking for here the whole time.
Sometimes, lately, when you interact with others or merely talk to yourself when alone at home, you find your own words a surprise. Some things you say you find you didn’t think at all, and sometimes they make you laugh, your own voice speaking aloud some observation, some comment, that seems to come from an other, inaccessible, compartment of your mind. You begin to feel acutely sometimes that the narrative you think to yourself about your life is a story you write, an explanation afterward—that the action of it is something entirely else, something carried out by the same part of you that speaks your words aloud.
When this phenomenon occurs and you’re alone, it’s an amusement. Around others, it bothers you. On one night you go out, drink, talk to many people, and you find, perhaps because you’re drunk, that the part of you that observes seems completely cut off from the part that speaks, and is very unamused by your predictable banter. It’s probably partly just a negative mindset, a trick of perspective, alcohol being a downer—but you find your own words boring, trite, rehearsed—lines that play out as if being read directly from a record groove. And you get that same uneasy feeling you had on a walk: that this is a groove you’ve carved out yourself, and that it goes a bit deeper each time it plays, becomes more sharply inclined, so that the patterns of your speech, the angles of your relation to others, become more rote, flow downhill, and require more of an effort to climb out of.
On another night, on a walk, you stop at an empty basketball court on the crest of a hill, its flat expanse littered with the windblown debris of some catered plastic party, black discs of disposable serving dishes in piles spreading out, halfway-empty water coolers clustered together in the middle of the court as if for warmth, capped with nested plastic cups. The water you drain from a cooler and drink in amusement slaking your thirst, but tasting sour, plastic—unwholesome. A waning but bright moon in the hill’s open sky, illuminating the flattened wisp of something more like mountain mist than a cloud.
On the way back home, you walk by the small office building, and you’re greeted with a surprise. The light of the woman’s office is off, as usual, but tonight she has left her computer on a screensaver running—an endless slideshow of photos. Each image lasts for four seconds, and the next is random, obviously on shuffle, in no coherent sequence. You keep telling yourself you’re about to leave but you watch it for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Your legs start to get stiff. But the images don’t repeat. Most of the neat writerly assumptions you had made about this woman’s life bear out.
At first, in the mix of photos, you don’t know who the woman is, but slowly the certainty of her identity emerges, despite the pictures featuring dozens of different people, many of whom reappear. The woman is older than you imagined, perhaps in her early sixties now, and she has a soft, kind face, often smiling. She seems bemused. Along with her you recognize her husband, a cheerful man with a beard who gains some weight over the years. In many of the older photos the woman is young—in the 1970s or 80s—or middle-aged, in ones clearly from the 1990s, full of artifacts like denim dresses and neatly-banged hairstyles. You realize the stark inescapable reality of the fashion trends of decades. Pictures of children in Christmas photos taken in the early 90s, no doubt some relations of hers, look almost identical to ones you know very well of you and your own sister, sitting in front of a fireplace in just the same way, the girls wearing excessively frilly dresses in a style now long-abandoned, one you had taken to be a unique choice of your mother’s, but no. Just a trend. Images of a child’s birthday party, probably from the late 80s, and Disney party hats you think you recognize, the style all so familiar, not belonging to your past, or really to this woman’s, either—to both, but neither. Something monolithic, in all of this. The pictures of members of her family at Christmas, in the mid or late 1970s. Exactly like the ones you had seen of your older cousins, your aunts and uncles and your parents and grandparents, in the years before you were born. Not slightly alike—exactly. Different people, different rooms, but everything is the same. The way the men sit, legs casually crossed. The way wrapped gifts are held on laps. The expectant expressions of adults who for a moment are free to be children—happy, excited, grimacing and narrowing their eyes at bad jokes just told. All of this you saw before and mistook as unique, as a ghost that was yours. You know with certainty that this woman does so as well—that to her these photos represent the very meaning of her family, what makes them unique, the very meaning of her life. All the photos of tiny blonde girls she cherishes—daughters of family members, haphazardly flowering with age as the sequence of images randomly progresses. All of the photos of adult men and women, certainly dead now, who were already old in pictures of 1970s weddings, wearing enormous glasses with square frames, one of the women with a hairstyle nearly identical to one your grandmother had at that time.
You shift your posture as you feel your neck and your legs become stiff, locked-in, the randomness of the display process making the procession of images oddly addictive and impossible to step away from, presenting a completely unpredictable gift of the past at exact intervals. You are overcome with the banality of it. You see every possible thing you could expect: every corny photo taken with heads and arms in fake stocks at an amusement park, the sepia dressed-up Wild West family photo that cost fifty dollars, a middle-aged woman very pleased on the prow of a boat, countless children at play, adults posing with props making various predictable jokes, photos posed by signs at natural landmarks, endlessly more young blonde-haired girls. Other girls who are older, overweight, not conventionally attractive. A young boy asleep in a stroller, looking as if he was caught passed-out drunk. A baby in a high chair, identical to all other such babies, its grinning face and bib smeared with food. Many wild animals, but never in wild environments.
You watch all this for long enough that the novelty wears off, overtaken by a sense of total cliché, of the absolutely predictable, and then somehow through the randomness and the pure saturation of images the whole thing becomes completely novel again, each image unrelated to the one before but essential to the whole, and you find yourself wanting to see one that is some kind of capstone, some summation, before you pull yourself away. But that image does not come, and aside from the realization that some of the woman’s family members must be in the military there is merely more repetition of the predictable same, and eventually, on an image of green Spring plants, you turn your head and walk away.
It occurs to you not as you walk, but as you write about it later, that the hundreds of images you saw of this one woman’s life, the life-sketch you made based on the still image of her office lit at night, are the essence of the domesticity you dread. While watching the parade of images, after a while, the main feeling you had, despite all the clear ties of love and family, was a kind of sheer disdain at the predictability of being human, the same emotion you feel toward the inscribed patterns of your own mental grooves—the tendency toward the repetitive, the comfortable, that which is sanctioned by routine, and also the influence of the invisibly all-pervasive, which—like the fashions in those old photos—affects you, contains you, whether you realize it or not. You can’t escape the completely encompassing feeling you had that the pictures of the woman’s life could have been from any woman’s life of her age and economic station, in America, and the complete surprise that the pictures of her family’s past were ones of your family’s past. Exactly.
And none of that is what you want, for yourself. For things to already have been written. You want to imagine. You want your own unique, individual life, one in which you make your own meaning, or rather, divine the true meaning that exists already in the world, but in an individual way, from your own singular angle, purified by the filter of your own mind, not trickling in from a broad perspective watered down and subtly, constantly foisted upon you by the endlessly grinding machine of society with its too-soon-stale but incredibly universal trends and styles. Somehow, you think that being a real individual, keeping your identity contained, being fiercely creative, will avoid these grooves. If you fight against this machine hard enough. But you know, at the same time, these grooves of your own. And you can see—did see—looking at this woman’s world, that there was something trite, banal, predictable, and utterly human missing from your own, and that it was love.
You resolve, with not much reluctance, to take fewer walks at night. You think that, rather than meeting yourself in the dark, dressed in black on a mountain rock, you’d rather meet someone else. And you know, from experience, that in the bright light of the sun the whole world intrudes, stimulates the mind, and quite often can shock you right out of a rut, especially—and almost always—if that light comes along with the glow of another person’s smile. Maybe, when you see that smile yourself, in your own way, it’s no longer a cliché.
Lance Duncan is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Colorado Boulder. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he writes fiction and nonfiction and is also working toward a career as a speaker. This is his first published story.