Current Issue Fiction: "Walking Man" by Gabriel Welsch
Editor's Note: Readers of the print edition may notice a layout mistake on the last page of "Walking Man" -- an unfinished bit of character dialogue merged into the sentence that follows. We regret the printing error but are happy to provide the full-text, corrected version here.
He walks. Regardless of the weather. He walks along the main four-lane leading from town to the mall, past the Brass and Wicker Works, past the unfinished furniture store, past the bypass interchange, past the shifting neighborhoods high on the hills, past the gas stations and drive-thrus, past the H&R Block and the scraggly garden center, past a gutted and bankrupt Dunkin Donuts, past a trash-strewn Isuzu lot, past a heavy equipment rental company and its bright orange bulldozers, past the coal stink of the ceramics factory, and some days even past the mall, to the long fields sloping toward the prison, where I have heard even some of the inmates have noticed him while staring through their windows. All the people in all of the windows and cars who have noticed him these past many weeks have the same name for him: the Walking Man, and to my ear, despite other problems I have with the designation, it sounds too close to those men of virtue and beleaguered conscience in the movies, The Quiet Man, The Thin Man, The Invisible Man, The Six Million Dollar Man. I prefer, simply, Walking Man. No ‘the.’ Like Burning Man, Tax Man, Superman, Sixty-Minute Man, Zinjanthropus Man. Something mythic, something of a problem, something not wholly right. Because I know he is not wholly right. I know he is not wholly good. Walking Man is my brother.
He started walking in late November last year, on a day when it would have been an easy decision—or easier. Fresh from rain and an unusual push of southern air, amid sun and warmth sufficient that his first jaunt could be done without the need for a coat, he started. At the time, he didn’t care about the weather. Bored and frustrated with his life, he had exploded in a fight with Laura, his new wife. He would have hulked in a corner, his massive shoulders like a dark curtain between her and another room. Eyes dark in their deep sockets, his upper lip a tight line, everything about him would have simmered. He had married Laura because she was able to give it back. As dark as his coloring was, hers was light, but not soft. She was sleek, not slender. White and ashen, not blond and pale. Her hair she wore clipped back. Her fingers, wrists, and neck were never adorned. They would have faced one another across a chasm of insistent quiet. Then, on finding himself stuttering, blushed and speechless, he would have left the little brick house on Oneida Street with the intention of walking until rational again.
I am the one Laura called. After the first hour, she looked outside, figuring he had not gone far. When he was not there, or anywhere in town, she called me. I had been in a late-night last-ditch strategy session with Yuri, the main investigator who ran our cell lab and worked on attracting grants. We were out of money. The meeting revolved around a bottle of vodka kept in one of the specimen freezers, and we sipped and hatched desperate schemes. When my phone rang, we both laughed that it was the call, manna from heaven, and when I saw from the number that it was her, a woman who almost never called me, I stood so quickly my head swam. When I heard her voice, the scratch left over from weeping, I went to talk to her on the scrub of lawn between the lab and the hill leading to the offices of the college’s maintenance crew.
It had not occurred to Laura, to any of us, that he would simply walk for a dozen miles, turn around, and start back. When she called me, she projected strange calm, as if borne of purpose and fatalism. She sounded leaden and expressive at the same time. She finally said to me, “Just look for a little while, because I refuse to chase him any more, but I’m still worried.”
I coaxed my Nissan truck to life. That November, most of what I had was on its last legs. Without the lab’s grants, many of us had begun to dip into savings. My lease expired in December. For the first time in five years, I was set to be jobless, on the hunt again, following the frightening lure of soft money. I tried to buy very few things, and I could not have purchased a truck. To keep it running, I mounted a light fixture under the hood on cold nights, a single 60-watt bulb keeping the hoses loose enough and the battery warm enough that a half-dozen or fewer cranks would get the thing roaring again in the morning. But on weekends, when I resisted going out, when it would not be driven for a day or two, the first start was always about a ten-minute process, sometimes needing a jump from my neighbor, the skid steer operator and tomato gardener. He always rose before the sun, drinking coffee from a thermos, but he never lorded his good fortune over me.
That day the truck almost understood the need for haste. A mere few cranks, some gentle revving, and it was ready. As I pulled onto the main road, I nearly hit my brother, now shivering, in the shadows of the breakdown lane, walking with his bare arms ending at hands jammed in his jeans.
He has been seen walking in construction sites at the edge of town, where they are putting in new stores: Krispy Kreme, an Office Depot, Applebees, PetCo; glimpsed atop parking garages, having scaled the steps to the roof only to circle it twice before descending; yelled to on bike paths deep in the scrub woods under the bypass, scowling his way past Spandex-ed young men calling at him to walk somewhere else; discovered by early rising seniors looking to walk while thrusting elbows back within the vinegary confines of the mall; even silhouetted on the ridge where a highway will someday run, far above the slope of road cresting the highest point in the county. In coffee shops, they discuss how his hair has grown, how it tumbles well past his shoulders now, the dark brown giving way to lighter strands but with a cast of grime, and women say how he was once a handsome man. Men talk about his beard, about how it must itch. Everyone thinks he is homeless, as he wears the same outfit each day. In the summer, a red t-shirt with a pocket on the left side of the chest, worn blue jeans, Asics running shoes. In cooler weather, the same outfit is covered in a Nike jacket with the college’s colors. He never wears a hat, sunglasses, gloves, boots, an umbrella, a ponytail. He never speaks to anyone. He is never seen, like Sid, the other local eccentric, eating from garbage cans or grumbling into the library. No one has seen him relieve himself. No one has ever seen him stand still. If he comes to a busy intersection, he will walk whichever way he can rather than wait for traffic, even if it means he turns entirely around and walks back in the direction from which he had just come.
I could see he was cold, but he refused to get in the car. So I drove beside him, flashers on, enduring horns screaming past me as I rode with one wheel in the traffic lane and one in the breakdown lane. Even right in front of me, even in the glare of the headlights, he couldn’t be seen well. On any curve, another car could have hit him. When we got to side streets, I pulled beside him again, told him several times to get in the car, but he wouldn’t do it. I asked him why, and he just turned to glare at me before returning his attention to the road.
I said, finally, “Your wife is terrified, you know. Is that what you wanted?”
He didn’t yell, but his voice was strong enough that I heard it through the open window, over the noise of the truck, without him looking at me: “You don’t know anything about it, so why don’t you go the hell home.”
“You’ll get hit by a car eventually,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
After a long pause: “You’re being ridiculous.”
Those were the last words he said to me that day, and for a long time afterward. If I had known that the ensuing weeks would have featured my occasional exasperated drives out to find him, to yell at him from the window, to heckle him while he walked, I would have demanded he keep talking until something halfway adult or sensible came out of his mouth. He decided to act like a seven-year-old, and leave it at that.
For several days, I just stopped by the house. But then I started staying longer, sitting on the defeated brown couch in their living room. I helped her pack his clothes in plastic tubs, so they wouldn’t collect any more dust. I mowed the lawn the last time that fall. I noticed the way her ashy hair fell into her eyes, how she had never pierced her ears, how she polished her nails only with clear polish. I helped her shovel out on a few snowy days. I washed her car a few times. I fixed a loose door hinge and a cracked sink trap. I noticed how her eyes and the set of her mouth could fix a person to a spot. I began to see what my brother saw. When I stayed one night to watch a movie with her, I awoke the next morning sprawled on the couch, an afghan over me. At breakfast, the neck of her bathrobe gapped such that I saw the ridge of muscle leading from her shoulder up to her neck. I noticed how slender were her fingers.
Finally, it happened. A van full of frat boys drove up one late afternoon as he walked near the prison. They flung open the door, pulled him into the van, and sped off. They beat the crap out of him, leaving him with a broken rib, pulp for a nose, a fractured eye socket, and a broken arm. They left him outside a cigarette outlet a few hours later, bleeding into the pavement, his breath clouding tiny puffs in the frigid air. One of the women who witnessed him being kicked from the back of the van told the newspaper, “They rolled him out the back, and he didn’t even scream when he fell on the pavement. They took off so fast to get out of there they almost hit my car.” She cleaned hotel rooms for a living, had done so in Miami before moving north to live with her sister, said she was not easily shocked. I asked her repeatedly if she had any chance to see their faces. She shook her head. “Bandanas,” she said. “They dressed like bandits.” It was not until my brother regained some of his health that he could tell us it had been a frat prank, that the boys were too drunk to keep that part to themselves. He didn’t know which house had done it.
The hospital ordered psychiatric evaluations due to the trauma of the beating, but when Laura and I told the attending about the walking business, they ordered a new round of questioning. The doctors would only talk with Laura about the questions. Whatever answers he gave, they never told us. We only saw them in the hall, running hands over and through their short hair.
We watched them as we sat on a hard couch near his room. While they murmured, she leaned into me, as if her strength had finally stepped out of her. Her arms took me in then, wrapped my waist, and as she shook with sobs, she pressed tighter. Her embrace felt better than it should have, better than I should have let it. I wanted to move away. Instead, I let my arm fall across her back, to pull her into me. She slid closer on the couch and wrapped one arm up around my neck. My cheek pressed into the top of her head. She smelled, to me, like a home, a sudden reminder of what I missed. I found myself wondering if she would kiss me, simply from the strength and near desperation of the way she held me. When she broke away, her face was all apology, even though she wouldn’t meet my gaze.
Sometime in the early morning, three days after the attack, he left the hospital. I can imagine a single nurse trying to chase him, or hollering after him, but I know he recovered his strength quickly. The walking had put him in the best shape of his life. He would only have needed to jog a little to outpace nearly anyone there.
The doctor who called us had not handled any aspect of the case other than dressing my brother’s injuries. His assurances were only that with a person as strong as my brother, it was likely the injuries would give him no further trouble; he had probably recouped sufficiently. Everything he said was soaked in irony, and he didn’t know it. When I put down the phone, Laura padded out of her bedroom. She looked at the rumpled couch, at the front door open for air, at me already dressed, but didn’t ask about the call. She knew. “He left, didn’t he?” When I nodded she went back into her bedroom and I didn’t see her again for two days.
The day he left the hospital, I drove out to find him and, to my surprise, when I saw him, he did not appear to be carrying anything to defend himself.
I drove as close to him as I could, trying not to run him off the edge of the road, but also trying to get off the road as much as possible. My hazards blinking, I followed him for about a mile. His shoulders glared back at me.
I pulled up beside him and rolled the passenger window down. “I’m living in your fucking house now. I’m taking care of things, watching out for Laura.”
A muscle in his neck jumped.
“Do you hear me? I am living in your house.”
After a moment, he said, without looking at me, “Don’t talk to me from your fucking car. You want to talk to me, you come out here and talk to me. Otherwise, we got nothing to say. You’re wasting your time.”
I wanted to cry, to run him down, to laugh, to scream at him. He had spoken to me. I wanted to say his wife’s name to him again, to hurl it at him like stones, like a handful of sand to get in his eyes, like a bomb. As I inhaled to yell it again, I stopped. It might have been the semi bearing down and beginning to swerve out to go around me. It might have been the dip in the road I could see coming. Or it might have been the realization that I could have made him worse then, could have said the name again in trying to get to him, and then really gotten to him. When I returned that evening and told Laura about the exchange, nothing registered in her face.
About two weeks after the hospital situation, Yuri called me on my cell. High-pitched and rushing, he told me the cell presentation had been a success, that the foundation director had been away for a while, but that during that time he had read an article on labs in Singapore doing similar work with cell matrices, saw industry potential, and had rushed back with the intent of funding us. For three years. I nearly dropped the phone. Three years of funding. I had visions of a new car, something modest, yes, a Civic probably, but still. Three years of no questions, few worries, some certainty, maybe a small house. Three years.
As I exulted in the good fortune, Yuri said, “Listen, it is only three years. We still have to start thinking now about the fourth year, or even the first month after the grant period. This isn’t over.”
“It’s over for a while,” I said. “We have time to breathe and do some work.”
“Do some work, sure, certainly,” Yuri said. “But we still have to think ahead.”
“We can toast the fact that we are working with more security.”
He chuckled. “You’re right, I guess. It could be worse. It could have only been a year. It could have been federal and all those hoops. I could be without a house. I could be that walking guy—have you seen him? Out on 26 every day.”
I wanted to say something, my head a sudden thatch of retorts, insults to throw back, of questions about how he didn’t know Walking Man was my brother.
Instead, I sighed and said, “This is great news, really. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” He may have said something else, and I thought I heard some protest in his voice as I pushed END, but he didn’t call back, and I didn’t stay at the lab. I went home, surveyed my now dust-rimed possessions, breathed the stale air of a house that might as well have been dead, and then drove to the Honda dealership and began talking with a young man about ten years my junior wearing a nicer suit than I have ever owned.
When I drove back to Laura’s house that night, the car felt great, the drive felt emboldening, and I felt decisive. When I strode in the door, she sat at the kitchen table reading People and eating a granola bar, still in her waitress uniform. She looked up, and I inhaled once before saying, “Are you holding out on me?”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“You’ve said all along you’re not sure why he is so angry, why he is persisting,” I said, “but it feels like you would have to know something, something I could use to talk to him, something that could make him stop.”
“Nothing, then? Not a thing? Nothing to get your husband back?”
After a moment, she said, “Maybe I don’t want him back.” As she said it, her face twisted to keep from sobbing.
I resisted the urge to hold her. I made myself stay rooted to where I stood.
After a moment, I said, “You don’t mean that.”
Crossing her arms, she said, “You have no idea about it.” Then, a moment later, “I want you to leave. You have a house. Go there.”
When I left, an hour later, I was surprised to see how much stuff I had moved over to that house. I unloaded the car’s contents to just inside my kitchen door, in a house that had begun to look strange to me.
The next day, a Saturday, I woke before sunrise. I drove to the 7-Eleven near the house but out on 26, bought coffee, ate a too-moist breakfast sandwich, and filled the tank with gas. I lingered at the magazine rack. I kept an eye on my watch. I left the store, locked up the car, and leaned against it, watching the small rise to the east as my breath fogged around me. I retied my old sneakers, snugging the laces, marveling at how buoyant they made my feet feel, wondering when last I had worn them. Mostly I watched the hill, until about a half hour past dawn, I saw his fast-moving silhouette crest and darken against the red sky behind him. I strode out to the edge of the highway, scuffing at the gravel while I waited for him to descend the long slope. When he saw it was me, he picked up his pace and then abruptly crossed the four lanes of highway. I followed him and we were both aware that I was now committed.
He walked quickly. Soon, I was breathing heavily, forced to jog every few steps to keep up to him. Before long, my calves started to sting and a persistent stabbing pain had begun in the socket where my thigh joined my torso. At first, I thought about how he probably enjoyed my difficulties, the sounds of wheezing and puffing pursuing him. Then I realized that for him, this was not a competition, or one-upsmanship. More than anything else, it probably bothered him, bothered him that I was petulant and disrespectful enough to try to walk with him and pretend in my anger that I had some understanding of what he did. Further, that I had been living with his wife, in his house, had stepped into a life not my own. Had he spoken, I know he would have accused me of finding his life much more attractive than my own, and that I enjoyed his absence because of the vicarious pleasures it allowed me. He wouldn’t have used the word “vicarious,” but he would have meant the same thing. As I worked to keep up with him and kept telling myself that I was being a good brother, that my concern was entirely for him and not for the woman I had come to know, not as some means to forestall what I feared became more inevitable with her the longer he stayed away. As I kept up my insistences, I started to see wisdom in words he had not yet uttered.
I started to slow, and as we came to a corner and a traffic light, I did not see a dip in the breakdown lane. As soon as I hit it, my face and hands were in gravel, my body flat on the ground.
He whirled at the sound and stood looking down.
“You want to do this?” he said. “Then get the fuck up.”
My ankle throbbed. “I don’t know—I think something’s hurt.”
He pursed his lips and snapped his head to the side. When he looked back at me, I saw how red-rimmed and shadowed his eyes were.
“Then you are just going to lie there,” he said. He strode around the corner.
A week or two prior to my dawn walk with him, I had gone to the newspaper offices to post a classified ad for my old washer and drier. As I left the office, I had seen something red beyond a rotting and snow-covered picnic table perched in the office’s back lawn. I don’t know why I went toward it, especially as it had been so small, except that red was the color my brother so often wore, and I had become nearly desperate to see him whenever I could, worrying about his welfare, about where he had gone since the weather had turned cold. The newspaper offices were right along his route. It could have been him.
But it wasn’t. As I approached the woods line, I saw a set of footprints in the snow, at the edge of the trees, and saw where they entered the woods. They were the only sign of traffic at the back of the lawn. Once in the woods, I lost sight of the red color until I nearly stepped over a blind ledge that dropped down toward a stream. Cut into the bank was a lean-to roof, with a heavily twig-thatched roof, behind which was piled some garbage. At the top of the garbage, at about ground level, was an old two-liter bottle of Coca Cola.
I knew it was his. It had to be. The lean-to was built to withstand the apocalypse, the way he did everything, and within it were three neat rolls—bedding, presumably—wrapped in garbage bags. It was the tidiest hideaway that anyone would see.
I realized I would have to confront him, but I didn’t know how I should do it. There, in the woods, I had come across something that made a difference, that had huge significance. Only when I lay in the gravel on the roadside, having fallen and injured myself, did it occur to me I had been as bad as everyone concerned, hoarding something in a hideaway of my own that might have helped.
I pulled myself into a sitting position. I tried to stand, to put weight on the foot, but I had twisted something too badly. I crabbed over to the grassy side of the road and lay on the bank. A semi slowed to the light. The window descended and a man hollered to see whether I needed help, and I sent him on. I wanted to sit for a minute.
I called Laura then. She answered the phone groggily.
“I need you to come get me,” I started.
As I told her what had happened, she woke up more, angry and accusing. I stuck to the facts, tried not to speculate on his actions, or on my own motivations for being out there. But she kept prying. I thought about the hideaway in the woods, the neat bedding. But I kept my silence. I asked if I should just call an ambulance. She said no, she would come get me.
As the moments passed and the traffic increased along 26 and the sun brightened, a wind picked up and made it colder, rustled the leaves of the dense forsythia hedge above me on the bank. I was losing sensation in my fingers, wondering just when I should break down and call an ambulance.
Laura’s Prizm rocked into the breakdown lane a moment later. She wore only a bathrobe under a too-large down vest, probably one of my brother’s. She climbed out of the car and stood in front of me, shivering, arms crossed.
“What were you doing?”
“I followed him. I thought—”
Something crashed through the hedge above me. “Leave him there,” my brother said.
Laura’s mouth opened and closed several times, and she blinked rapidly.
“Get back in the fucking car, and leave him here.” He turned and looked down at me as though I were a dog yelping to be walked. “If he would just get up, he’d be fine. He would walk and maybe learn something.”
She straightened her neck and her head rose. “Where the fuck have you been?” Her voice wobbled. She closed her eyes, shook her head once, and leveled her gaze at him again. I could see her arms shaking.
“You have lost any right to ask me that,” he said.
Several cars passed, each one sending a whip of air to push at Laura’s robe. No one spoke, and I could only see Laura, gaze resolute, her eyes red. When cars stopped as the red light changed, amid their hum of muffled radios and muffler clatter, I turned to try to look at my brother.
As I turned, Laura said, “This is really beyond you, now, you know. I mean, I appreciate what you’ve done, but this is between me and him.” She glared back at my brother.
He said, “It never was any of your fucking business. At all.”
Laura grinned at me then, the way someone does when they are about to leave you at the airport for the last time, or when they know they will never see you again. Her neck straightened when she said, “I can handle this now,” but I could see she didn’t believe it.
I leaned forward, pushed myself up on to my good leg, and put a little weight on the ankle. Pain shot back into me. I could look at my brother and his wife more easily. He stood above me, arms out at his sides as if to draw weapons, his head hunched forward, everything about him poised for fight. Laura, despite the shivers, despite the humming car behind her and the bulky vest, looked ready to take him on. I wanted to be gone then, but stood there facing the fact that one of them would have to get me out of there. My brother did it.
“Around the corner, about a hundred feet, there is a bus stop.”
“You want me to take a bus? Where? That’s absurd.”
He shrugged at me, then looked at his wife. As he did, the bulk of his shoulders eased for a moment, and his face changed. It wasn’t that he relaxed or eased in his animosity. It was subtler. And she changed as well. They had communicated in a glance, and just as I realized it, Laura turned to me and said, “I’ll take you to the hospital. It’ll be fine. Go to the car.”
As I started to hobble to the Prizm, she looked at her husband. He still wasn’t saying anything. I fell into the passenger seat and stretched my leg out. As the car’s heat washed over me like a soporific, I heard him ask her, “You didn’t sleep with him did you?” She said, “You need to come home.”
He thrashed down the hill and, this time his voice lower, with more menace in it, he asked her again. She said, “Of all the things you ask me, of all the things you could say, why is it that?” They said nothing for a long time as his body softened to the point where it looked where he would fall down. She did not touch him. The morning came to life around us, more sounds of cars, more harsh light from a ragged sun. I don’t know if he asked her again, but for years afterward, I would often wonder why she just didn’t say no.
Gabriel Welsch writes fiction and poetry, and is the author of four collections of poems: The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013), The Death of Flying Things (Word Tech Editions, 2012), An Eye Fluent in Gray (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010), and Dirt and All Its Dense Labor (Word Tech Editions, 2006). His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, New Letters, Southern Review, Georgia Review, Ascent, Cream City Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. His story “Groundscratchers,” originally published in The Southern Review, was named a Distinguished Story of 2011 in the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories. He lives in Huntingdon, PA, with his family, works as vice president of advancement and marketing at Juniata College, and is an occasional teacher at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.