It’s a process. A mission. To do it exactly right. It begins across from Westminster Presbyterian where I enter the circuit. Once across the crosswalk, where the camellias bloom under the shady canopy of a group of redwoods, I turn left. To the west. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Each step. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Must be counted. Measured. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.
Why does that woman in 112 always look at me like that when I leave? I hate it. Her brow wrinkled and one eyebrow slightly raised. I can hear her sigh when she closes the door once I get to the stairs. Then I hear her talking. But, to who? I’ve never seen anybody else come in or out of her apartment. Maybe her husband is bed-ridden. Cancer. Maybe in the lungs. She hacks like she smoked once. Maybe he did, too. I dunno. A child. That could be it. At her age, though, it’d have to be a grandkid. The mother a meth addict and she’s taken him in, but the meth was there when he was born, so his disabilities keep him housebound.
After a couple of blocks, I reach the first challenge. Where 12th cuts into Capitol Park and snakes into the basement garage of the State Capitol. If the sign says “WALK” in its faint white lettering, I’m good to go. On track, I’ll hit 400 there. 401. 402. 403. 404. And, I’m back on the sidewalk. 405. 406. 407. 408. Trouble arises when the sign is orange. “DON’T WALK,” it screams silently at me. Naturally, I slow my pace and shorten my steps. I may hit 402 or 403 before I reach the street. Steps to catch up later. Across 12th and on towards the corner at 10th, I can continue. 410. 411. 412. 413. 414.
The counting becomes routine and I begin to look at the walkers going in the other direction. I don’t let them know I’m looking. I keep walking in my line, along the grass, but still on the sidewalk. Who knows what would happen if I weaved onto the grass? I keep facing forward, but I can’t help but glance their way. The women in their silk blouses, skirts and nylons. And walking shoes that completely change the look. I’d rather see them in heels. Ah, here comes one now. Wavy auburn hair, a snow white blouse that almost sparkles in the morning sun, and a skirt that hugs her hips and stops inches above her knees. No comfortable shoes for her, she walks in heels with a man, his tie loosened, the top button of his shirt undone and his sleeves rolled up. As they pass, I’m tempted to look back, but I don’t. With a last quick flick of my eyes, I see the metal on their fingers. Married. Yes, but, there’s something about them. To each other? No. But…
At the corner, I turn to the North. If I’m on pace, I should be right at 800. Two more blocks, past the water fountain, surrounded by rose bushes, and spraying water twenty feet in the air, I reach L Street and turn right. 1,200. 1,201. 1,202. 1,203. These two blocks can be a problem as well. If there are demonstrators that I have to work around. Even if I do, I still have time to make it up.
Yes, my cheeks are red. Bright and shiny. Particularly late in the day, after I have walked the circuit. How many times? Most days I have lost track. As the days progress, my face is not just sunburned. It is chapped and peeling. “Stop staring at me,” I want to yell at the other walkers. The judgment bleeds off of them. Too many times, I see walkers approach and move towards the outer edge of the side walk, while I keep my line on the inside. I know they see and wonder what’s wrong with me. The regulars and I know each other only by sight. No words are ever exchanged. If only they knew the importance of my task. They don’t, so I don’t yell. Instead, I scratch absentmindedly at the scabs. And walk. And count.
Four blocks later, I hit 2,000 steps. And, a block later, I reach the home stretch. The corner of 15th and L. 2,200 steps if I have managed this the right way.
On my last circuit in day light, I’ll turn left and walk the mile to Loaves and Fishes for a free meal. I don’t count those steps. Nothing to prove there. Just an empty stomach to fill and more strangers to avoid. The walkers stare at me in judgment. The homeless and druggies at the shelter are whacked. And stupid. The help isn’t any better. More nights than not, the women behind the table ladling out the slop, making sure nobody gets more than their share, speak to me of Jesus and the Lord. They do it quietly because they aren’t supposed to preach. They know it. I know it. I don’t need their beliefs. Did Jesus ever count his steps?
A right turn though leads me to continue. 2,201. 2,202. 2,203, 2,204. 2,205. Left foot. 2,206. Right foot. 2,207. Left foot. 2,208. Right foot. 2,209. Four hundred more steps and I turn right at N. A block from home.
It’s all of the other walkers who are fools. I may come out in the same pair of jeans and white shirt every day, adding layers of burned skin to my already damaged cheeks. But, I know that the circuit is not a mile. I’ve heard them say it. Some old, fat lady saying to her partner, “One lap,” while she huffs and puffs, “and we’ve put a mile in.” Fools. A mile has 2,000 steps. You walk around Capitol Park, you’ve hit 2,800 steps. Almost a mile and a half. I know. I walk. I count. Each step. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten times a day.
I work in downtown Sacramento. A few years ago, I started a project based on some of the characters I have seen there over the year. Tentatively titled K Street Stories, I view it as a collection of short stories that connect to tell a larger story. As with most of my projects these days, I got to a point and then got bogged down.
One of those characters was a man I saw regularly in and around Capitol Park, the beautiful park that surrounds the State Capitol. Weather permitting, he was always walking around the park in a white t-shirt and blue jeans. Weather not permitting, he was always walking around the park with a winter jacket on. Over the years, he deteriorated. His face showed more age, his shoulders were more stooped.
As he walked, he rarely looked at those walking by him, other than furtively. And I never saw him talk with anybody. He seemed to be in his own world, walking endlessly around the park. Turns out he had a story and I got it wrong.
That’s an amazing story. Yours, and the real one. In a strange way they kind of tell the same tale, of someone who has detached yet is supremely focused. But man, you nailed the feel of this guy. I can see him.
After I posted this, I realized the character is doing the same thing I am doing with him … making up stories about the people he sees but doesn’t engage with. Maybe that’s what we all do… Some day I hope to return to this series of stories and complete it.
Great story Mark.