by Nancy Means Wright
Most mornings I walk thirty to forty minutes before the long three-four hour write-sit at the computer. This isn’t just to exercise my heart, but to stimulate the brain. Especially for the times when I can’t think what should occur next in a story, or simply how to begin one. For it’s amazing the way something will happen during a walk and you think, aha!–just what I needed to sharpen a scene or add an intriguing new character to the mix.
Yesterday morning, for instance, I was feeling sluggish and a bit depressed. I’d recently finished a book and needed something to jog my brain and open up my senses. What should I do next? Write a poem or short story? Begin a new novel? I was drawing a blank. So I threw on my winter parka, and entered the Battell Woods behind my house–phase one of my walk. It was 37 degrees, but I shivered with pleasure as the November leaves filled my nose with a fresh, crunchy, earthy fragrance. From the start I didn’t lack for company, for a black cat was following on my heels. I knew enough not to touch him or he’d growl–he was feral until a neighbor began to feed him.
I hadn’t walked ten minutes when a man with a dirty green pack on his back thrust his way through the trees. He was a homeless fellow with a mop of wild brown hair–I’d seen him once, sitting alone at a community supper. His sudden presence gave me a start, and he realized it, for he backed up a step. I’d heard that some of our homeless sleep in these woods, at least until snowfall. How would he get through the winter?
When he scowled at my greeting, my heart picked up a beat. I mumbled somethng about “a chilly day” and offered him the banana I’d been saving for the end of my walk. He took it with a nod, peeled it back, then stooped to pat the black cat, and it didn’t growl. “It likes you,” I said, and he shrugged, then veered about and disappeared into the wood–followed by the cat! Was it his only companion? Had he been abandoned by parents, teachers, friends–was he a Robinson Crusoe, alone in a sea of trees? I was burning to know his past.
Coming out onto Seminary Street below, I met the white-haired widower with the wire-haired terrier. I didn’t know him by name, but he’d always smile and tilt his head to squint into my eyes, as though surprised to see me here and still alive. He almost lost his balance, but a neighbor, Reverend Bob, who is some kind of minister, came jogging past and held him upright with a blue woolen arm and a broad smile.
Next it was Peg from my poetry workshop, squealing to a stop in her ancient Subaru to tell me about a mutual friend’s 25-year-old daughter who’d died from an overdose. “Meth, heroin,” Peg whispered, “one of those. The family blames the boyfriend.” There was a story here, I thought, but how often had it been told? As though to confirm the tragic tale, sirens screeched as an ambulance raced down the street toward town.
A Project Independence van was stopped in front of a house I passed every day, to pick up an elderly woman who never wanted to go. Today she was vehement, almost violent. “They yak, yak in that place,” she shouted, “all nothings! No independence about it! I can’t concentrate on my book. I want to stay in my house!” The impatient, big-bellied man-of-the-house loomed over her. “I’m late for work, Doris. You can’t stay here alone. Get in that friggin’ van, you hear?” I wanted to tell him I’d take Doris to my house. She could read her book while I wrote (while I wrote about her?) But the man shoved the wheelchair up into the van and slammed the door on it. I saw a tearful face, a fist in the window as it drove past.
I walked past election signs piled up behind a black iron fence; a yellow dog barked ferociously at me. A small boy chased a ball into the street: “Get out of there,” the mother screeched, “you wanna get kilt?” A dad on a bicycle pedaled past, clasping a todder in front. I waved, and the child waved back. A middle-aged man stalked by, ignoring my greeting. He had on dark sunglasses, a zigzag scar on one cheek, a deep dimple in his chin–what should I infer from such a contradictory face? My villains tend to be ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
The rest of my walk was refreshing but quiet. A friend rolled down a car window as I trudged up the final hill: “Want a ride?” I waved her on. I was in stride now, feeling great, my heart thumping from the climb. I didn’t have a situation for a story, but I had a couple of characters for it: the homeless fellow, of course, and the whitehaired widower who always responded cheerily to my “good morning.”
Suppose the widower was well, taking a walk, passing the house of the woman who wanted to stay home to read her book–he’d seen that impatient man before, shoving the unhappy female into the van. He’d met the woman once at a church supper, found her attractive…..
she has already left for Project Independence, but someone in the house is screaming–a neighbor? The widower enters the house to help. and lo, the impatient man is flat out on the livingroom rug with a knife in the back of his neck. And there’s a homeless man in the kitchen, eating a banana! A cop car pulls up. Now Widower and Homeless are both suspects! (And what about the elderly woman?)
Whew! I was home by now, bursting at the proverbial seams, so many images in my head I didn’t know where to start. But I’d Walked around the Block, yes! So I fixed a cup of coffee (strong), booted up my computer–and started typing.
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