The holiday sale season was starting to warm up even though Thanksgiving was still three weeks off. Christmas decorations were already glittering in store windows. A relentless press of advertising for discounts reflected the jitters of retail managers worrying that the economic doldrums in which the country languished, an economic “slow recovery” – unemployment, hunger, low-wages – causing widespread misery, might impact holiday profits. It was a time when many people pursued inexpensive or free leisure pastimes like walking along the White River.
Julie and Mark were walking along the cement path that ran alongside the White River. It was a cool, blustery, sunny afternoon. Bicyclists and an occasional jogger passed by. To Julie, the bicyclists looked like they were mostly commuters rather than joy riders, focused on getting from here to there. The joggers were going nowhere in particular, the rhythm of their legs and arms, the sweat of the bodies in motion being their own rewards.
For Julie, the day was tinged with the bitter-sweet sadness of distant loss as the absence of her mother, now deceased, was all the more palpable due to the approaching holidays. As Julie wandered along the path, her hand in Mark’s relaxed grip, memories of her mom cooking for her yearly holiday party, the house filled with her mom’s friends, unusual fragrances and colors. Those were some of the best memories Julie had of her mom.
Tugging gently on Mark’s hand, she said “Come, let’s sit here”, pointing out a bench overlooking the bland river-scape. Indianapolis was, at the time, the twelfth largest city in the United States, but it still sported cornfields within the city limits and a plantation attitude rebranded as a “mid-western” work ethic. While parts of the city are breathtakingly beautiful, commensurate with the wealth of the inhabitants, the business district surrounding the the White River where Julie and Mark walked was not one of those glittering neighborhoods.
Julie tugged Mark’s hand in hers. “Let’s sit a minute, OK?”
Mark was hungry and no so much in the mood to sit, but acquiesced to his girlfriend’s insistence. “OK”, he laughed quietly. “For a little while.”
They plopped down on the bench, still hand in hand. In unison they stretched their legs out in front of them, leaned sideways against each other, and sighed. At that moment life felt good.
“I miss my mom the most at this time of year”, Julie said. “As the cold weather comes and the nights get longer, I think of homes with warm lights glowing in their windows. That was not my home, but looking back that is what I think of when I remember my mom. I mean, we were never hungry.”
“Not a real high bar to reach”, Mark suggested. Yet, he squeezed her hand to acknowledge her grief. Then they sat quietly, each feeling a tension between the desire to kiss and the sadness that hung palpable in the air. They therefore did nothing, sitting close to each other while the joggers and bicyclists went their respective ways around them.
They were not sitting on a bench by the Seine in Paris with booksellers sprinkled along the banks. Indianapolis is not a city of intellectual or artistic ferment; it is not the Athens of the Midwest, a title claimed by bothy Madison, Wisconsin and Iowa City, Iowa. Indianapolis exuded the despondent avarice of a middle tier manager aspiring to make it to assistant vice president before retiring. A hospital rose in the distance. A strip of clean cement adorned the river back. A utilitarian bridge crossed the river nearby.
Time dripped through the hourglass of life.
Mark kissed Julie. Julie kissed him back.
“I’m ready to go whenever you are”, Mark let Julie know, starting the process of getting up to move along.
“Yeah, I’m ready too.” Julie’s voice was wistful. Like a lot of her life, it was a wistfulness for places, events, companions that she would never find at home in Marion County, Indianapolis.
She heaved herself up from the bench, taking a few steps closer to the river bank, watching the water flow in the same way she felt the days of her life meander pointlessly along, doing what was necessary without passion or excitement. She pondered the waterway, pondered her life. Mark hung back near the bench waiting for her, ready to leave, but something caught Julie’s eye and she wanted to see what it was. She moved closer to the water.
Then she turned to Mark. “We need to call the police”, she said quietly. “My phone battery is very low. Can I use yours?”
There were tears in her eyes.