by David James Keaton
It was years ago at my old apartment, before it became our apartment for a little while. The parking lot in front of the place used to be sunk into the ground about five feet on all sides, and it looked a bit like a huge community pool, maybe a bit more like the biggest cell in a TV dinner tray, the one that always held the meat. The inclines on the sides were gradual and only noticeable during the winter, when the tray filled with snow and slush and you needed a little extra gas to clear the entrance and hit the road.
New residents would spin their tires there for a couple days until they figured out the only way to start their morning was to keep a routine, maintain that speed.
You’d think this obstacle would have made me late for work every day, and, yes, I had to dig myself out or give the car another running start to get up the hill every January. However, those inclines were the only reason I ever made it to work at all, because those slopes would encourage my legs to start running right before I reached my car, if only for about two or three steps at the most.
And I kept that momentum until the day she moved in.
In film class, we learned that the first movie ever made was really just a blurry, black-and-white series of images showing a horse running. It revealed for the first time that between gallops, every one of a horse’s legs are off the ground at the same time. This is also true with humans, which the teacher proved in the second movie ever made, a man running. The third movie ever made, bizarrely enough, was some crazy short about electrocuting an elephant. It didn’t mean much of anything to me. Every movie made after that involved car chases.
However, according to those first two films, running is actually the act of throwing your body weight and catching it, if only for a second. Throwing and catching myself (something my brother could actually do with a football when, disgusted with my performance, he would try to play every position at once) was the one thing that gave me a sense of purpose or urgency in the morning. A jog of one, two, three steps tops, would wake me up enough to navigate the traffic and the red lights to get to work and behind that all-important cash register on time. I was actually running to my car to go to work without ever knowing it. I figured this out 28 jobs, 4 assumed names, and 13 different parking lots later, and I was never late for work again.
Until I moved here.
The day I bought that shovel was the worst. I was nine minutes late, exactly.
At first, I blamed the landscapers and the smoothing out and slow death of that small hill near the TV dinner, the one that had me flying to work like a racehorse and in the air for about zero point two seconds.
But it was mostly her. Once she moved in, she was always in front of me, just a couple steps ahead so that I couldn’t pass. And she wasted even more time turning around and slowing down, as if I was trying to hide something or sneak up on her. I wanted to yell that she was making me late for work, that I needed to run for at least three steps to get up off the ground, that I needed that small hill for momentum.
But that would have taken way too long to explain.
That was the day I went to the hardware store with a nervousness I used to reserve for buying pornography.
Once upon a time, the theater in our town let the kids pay for their tickets in milkweed. The government was sponsoring a program to collect the fibers to make parachutes, and it was also a great recruiting tool for cannon fodder, similar to those captive-audience military commercials they’d been sneaking in after the candy-bar cartoon warned you to turn off your cell phone. Someone somewhere figured that any kid who collected plants to pay for a movie ticket would also be broke and hopeless enough to find the prospect of patrolling through hateful glares in a foreign land exciting. Sort of like the attention a 7-year-old boy gets when he takes his new toy and runs up and down the aisles making sputtering airplane noises during a Holocaust film. I can tell you this with certainty: someone will take that toy away.
But what better way to let them start fulfilling this dream than by making parachutes? Hell, they’ll probably claim that a few good-sized frogs could make ammunition. Or a cup of snails could be ground up into tank treads.
The movie theater actually handed out empty extra-large popcorn tubs to collect the milkweed, and you’d turn them in right where they normally tore a ticket, and they added it to a growing pile. I noticed the pyramid of empty popcorn tubs on the way in, but I just assumed it was some kind of popcorn-eating contest, or a creative display for a new botanical horror flick.
And when I laughed at some kid with his bucket of milkweed and cut in front of him in line, the kid went for my throat, face all red, fists balled up.
Later, I remembered that kids got so mad because, to them, movies weren’t something you could watch again. I’d learned the hard way once before that the things happening on the screen were bona fide if some broke-ass kid could only see them once, and they would never happen again.
But even worse, he was angry because I was making him late.
Way later, after the parking lot was filled in and she was long gone, a retired neighbor on the ground floor asked if I’d recently gotten a new job. She said I didn’t seem as happy going to work as I used to. I tried to explain how I was still at the same job, that it was only the landscape that had changed. She just stared at me out her window, face framed between her lush hanging ferns, and silently sipped her coffee. I told her I could prove it, and the next morning dug through a pile of old photographs to find one that she had taken when she was watching me out the building’s basement window, her tight, black curls cutting hieroglyphics through the fog of her breath on the glass.
The window was actually below ground level, peeking around one of those drainage boxes people sometimes fill with flowers, and she was down there doing laundry, which was much too dangerous with all the exposed wiring.
But she liked to fling that window open near my feet and scare me when I got home from work. I fell for it every time. That final afternoon, she had decided to photograph my trek from the parking lot to the building, all the way up to the scare. The first picture in her series was supposed to show me getting out of my car, but the angle of the photo and the sunken parking lot revealed only my head floating in a sea of grass and asphalt. The girl was in the picture with me, but just like the first movie ever made, her legs didn’t touch the ground.
Her photograph stayed on my refrigerator for an hour, surrounded by magnetic haikus. I never used it for poems. Only taking the time to spell out Nick Cave song lyrics from “Wings off Flies.”
“She loves me… she loves me not… she loves me…”
Finally, I circled the girl’s feet on the picture, put it in an envelope, and slid it under my neighbor’s door. She never acknowledged the photograph, and she never greeted me with her morning coffee again. Eventually, her two ferns were moved to her kitchen window around the corner of the building that faces the highway.
Maybe the reason that picture scared my neighbor wasn’t the girl’s feet not touching the ground. Maybe it was simply the same reason I jumped every time I used to look down and see my ex-girlfriend peeking out near my feet. There just aren’t supposed to be heads down by the ground. But they work just fine underneath it.
I still can’t believe that she filled out my trail like that. It took years and about nine hundred pairs of shoes to wear it back down, but the morning after I buried her there, every blade of grass stood up straight and green, an effect I was unable to get from the milkweed seeds I dropped when no one was looking.
And there was still enough of an incline to get back my momentum. At least until the landscapers leveled it off. But like always, she stood back up, too, as straight as any goddamn flower.
The milkweed seeds worked, just not like the military advertised.
She moved back into the building the following Sunday. I knew it was her because she always carried the same number of boxes. And by Monday, she was slowing me down in the mornings.
I don’t need to buy a new shovel every month, but I do.
This story was originally published in Dark Highlands in October 2010.