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The Long Walk

September 9, 2013

I used to love taking walks — very long walks sometimes. Everyone knows how much I love music, but, at one time, I had more and I actually did walk all the way from East San Diego to Del Mar Heights, a 45 minute drive. It took me a night and a day to walk it. It was cool. I guess that’s where I got the idea for the following story.

The Long Walk
by Sean Michael

My pen flew across the room, steno pad in tandem I pulled the cigarette from my lips and snubbed it in the ashtray, thinking that I should quit smoking, then slid another from the pack and lit it. The cherry flickered in my dimly-lit, smoke-filled living room as I took a drag.

What am I living for? The question I’d been asking myself with repetition the last few days and scouring my brain in search of an answer that made sense. Problem is nothing made sense. But in the words of Socrates, just before being sentenced to death: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” so I ventured the question anyway. I was halfway through my fourth smoke and, I swear, on the verge of making sense when an anxious rapping came at the door and disrupted my thoughts.

I peered through the peephole and saw my neighbor. He was in his mid-forties, bald, pudgy, always smoking a cigar like some sort of big shot (real Cubans–bullshit), flaunting different scantily clad women, most of whom looked like tired prostitutes, and bragging about starting a pornographic production company called Insatiable. Great. The last person I wanted to see. In all truth, I wasn’t keen about seeing anybody at the moment, especially my pompous neighbor. Nevertheless, I opened the door.

“What’s up, Gary? It’s ten o’clock at night, so what can I do for you?”

“My good friend! Wanted to ask you a favor,” he spoke around the unlit cigar between his teeth.

Gary and I were not good friends. My first instinct was to tell him so and close the door in his face. “What can I do for you,” I repeated.

“Was wunnerin if you had some batteries I could borrow, two double A. Mine ran out and I can’t go to the store. These girls at my apartment,” he plucked the cigar from his mouth and gestured over his shoulder with it. “They are HOT and READY if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I don’t have any batteries. Good luck with all of that,” I started to close the door.

“Hey, hold on a sec,” he blocked the door with his hand. “You can come over if you want. Just be an ace and grab some batteries. These sluts can’t get enough and they do anything for the camera,” he chuckled and put the cigar back between his teeth. “I might need some help with ’em. Could always use a stud in the picture.”

“That’s you, my friend. Good luck with those batteries,” I pushed the door shut. The cherry on my cigarette had reached the filter. I put it out and lit another one. Nasty little instruments of a slow death, cigarettes are.

I picked my pen and pad up off the floor and paced a few laps around my small apartment, trying to create brilliantly poignant verses. When there was nothing to be written I dropped the pen and pad back on the floor and opted to take a walk instead.

I left through the back door, which led into an alley. The cool night air was refreshing. I’ll be able to think better out here, I decided and took my usual route through the park. A few gangbangers were sitting at one of the tables keeping sentry. As I walked, one of them jogged toward me.

“Hey, James! That you, vato? Let me get a cigarette.”

I knew some of the gangsters around here but gangs weren’t really my thing, I’m more of the loner type. I stopped and reached into my pocket for the pack of cigs and held it out to him. “Here Franko, take the whole pack. Share it with your homies.”
“No shit?”

“Yeah, I quit.”

“Since when?”

“Since now. Here, take them. I’m out of here.”

“Alright, alright. You know I got your back, white boy. Enjoy your stroll and, if you run into any problems, let Big Franko know. This is my hood!” The gang life was all that Franko knew; I couldn’t blame him. He’d been running the streets of east San Diego since he was twelve. His father, his mother, his brothers were all from the gang. It’s what he lives for, I’m sure.

Georgia_Street_Bridge,_San_DiegoThe Flower Street bridge was a place I went sometimes when I needed to sort my discursive thoughts. It was usually desolate this late at night, and the solitude was like a warm embrace. I went to the middle of the bridge and sat on the ledge, recumbent against one of the tall gates that rose on either side. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I began to think aloud in a whisper, at first.

“What am I living for? Tis the query intent on driving me mad… My girlfriend’s found a new love interest. Smiles and says she loves me, then wrenches the knife in my back. And, my God, that pitiful breakup speech.” My voice had risen to a shout, a sardonic mimic of my ex-girlfriend’s. “You’re the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. You’ll find someone new, I’m sure. Any woman would be glad to have you!”

I fell back into a whisper that was quickly crescendo. “My life sucks, my job, my so-called friends. Did I mention my girl’s new love interest is my so-called friend? To hell with them!

“I don’t have any money, won’t make rent this month! My boss is shafting me on my pay. Give me some more damned money, would ya?! I can’t ask my parent’s for help, they practically disowned me! ‘You should have been a doctor, James, could have been a lawyer. Writing is a nice hobby but, honestly, your poetry isn’t that remarkable.’ You’re right , Mom and Dad. I just read through an old stack that should be burnt. To hell with it!

“My neighbor thinks he’s a porn star, wants me to join him in his apartment for an orgy. Maybe I should go over there and screw ‘em all, take names later!”

I ended in something between a scream and a growl. I opened my eyes and stood up breathing heavily. I was standing there catching my breath and staring at my shoes when I heard the faint sound of a woman’s voice. I turned toward the sound and saw a couple walking hand in hand, almost at the other end of the bridge. The woman had her head turned up toward her better half, saying something. He appeared to shrug. I watched them turn the corner and disappear.

I was embarrassed, wondering how much of my tirade they had heard. Then, thinking about it, I burst into gales of laughter. I laughed until my stomach hurt. I laughed with my head raised to the sky. I laughed with my face in my hands. I thought of the book, “Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, feeling like the main character in a classic of my own. Suddenly invigorated I walked off with no particular notion as to where I was going.

I wandered aimlessly for a while, staying mostly to the side streets and alleys and eventually making my way back toward the bridge, but I wasn’t ready to go home. Impulsively, I walked around to the freeway on-ramp and jogged down. It was about midnight and only the seldom car passed. I hoped I wouldn’t see any cops. What the hell… I walked on, sticking mostly to the shoulder. At one point I ran across the empty lanes and followed the center divide for a while.

Walking along the side of the freeway I discovered a piece of graffiti on the pillar of an overpass. Someone must have been having car trouble and found a marker to dispel the ennui while waiting for a tow. Written in thick block letters was:

Sweetly fragrant rose petals splayed across the sheets
like drops of blood fallen from the weeping stars.
Reposed, the woman in white and I, the poet.
Her caress is like a gentle summer breeze stoking
fiery passions. But I know it must end, this
morbid, impossible love. For she has lain ruin to
the hearts of many men and I shan’t be the last.

I wished I had thought of it first. I remembered what my language arts teacher had told me in high school. “Steal from everywhere and everything.” But she wasn’t telling me to plagiarize. She meant, take what others offer and be inspired to create your own. She was a poetess and sometimes shared her work with the class. And sometimes I stayed after school to chat with her. She was a dignified woman who cared for her students, would take the extra step for education, and I truly respected and admired her (I also had a crush on her). She was my writing mentor. She taught me a lot about the craft. The lesson most prominent in my mind:

“Some things about writing can’t be taught as a science. You have to read, study, you have to write and, as you do, you’ll figure it out. That’s the beauty of writing, you see. Sometimes it just happens and begins a life of its own. Adorn the page with your thoughts, James. Write what you know and discover what you don’t, and be passionate. Remember the words of painter William Doble: ‘A sincere artist tries to create something that is in itself a living thing.’ I can safely say, that correlates to the language.” It was the last day of school and before I’d left, She’d said, “Good luck, James Plat. Keep writing.” I felt a sudden nostalgia for those chats we used to have, Mrs. Hart and I.

I must have been walking a few hours by the time I reached the fifth Avenue exit. I walked up the offramp into downtown San Diego. I stepped around the homeless reposed on sidewalks and under awnings., bundled up in old blankets next to bags and grocery carts that, for the most part, held every worldly possession to their name. It was evident some had spent the day collecting cans and bottles, and when the recycling centers opened, they would have enough money for a beer, cigarettes, a hit of dope or a meal. Which they chose would depend on what they felt they needed most to make it through another day.

Eventually, I found myself at a small, inconspicuous church next to Rosita’s Flower Shop. Wearied from walking for so long, I stopped and sat against the facade of the church. For some reason, as soon as I stopped walking, the phantoms of melancholy once again played on my mind. Maybe my depression is intrinsic, I don’t know. Anyway, I told myself there wasn’t much reason to be morbid and argued there wasn’t much cause for joy either. I decided I was thinking too much. I closed my eyes, trying to soothe the storm, and promptly dozed off.

The sun was beginning to rise when I awoke cold and famished. I remembered a 7-Eleven around the corner and went for something to eat. A breakfast burrito that spent a minute and a half in the microwave and filled my stomach in less time than it took to cook. I only had a twenty dollar bill in my pocket, and the cashier returned $18.50 in change.

I meandered through downtown and observed the busy people. Cars fleeted past. Homeless gathered in front of the Salvation Army, waiting in lines for a free lunch and shower. Under the awning of a boarded-up building I saw a white man and a black woman smoking crack. This is what they live for, I thought. Those in the fleeting cars to get to the next place. The homeless, with their carts, to make it through another day. The drug addicts, smoking in the shadows, for the next high.

Sometime in the evening, I found myself at a hole in the wall called NightCap. It was empty but for a couple of people at the bar, a few shooting pool, and the burly man serving drinks. I sat at the darkest corner of the bar and ordered a boilermaker, hard whiskey with a beer chaser. I’d only planned on having the one but ordered another when it was finished. I was buzzed pretty good by the time the girl appeared, almost thought I was imagining things.

“Hey,” she said taking the stool next to mine and pulling me slightly from the haze of inebriation. The first thing I saw were her hands on the bar–those delicate, feminine hands, nails adorned with pink polish. I looked up and nearly drowned in the scintillating pools of her blue eyes.

“Can I help you, pretty girl? Would you like a shot at breaking my heart? You’re too pretty for me, you know. Are you a real person or just a pretty person?” I slurred without thinking about the words before they left my mouth.

“Hmmm, what’s your name?” she asked.

“James. James frickin Plat.”

She ran her fingers through her blonde hair, pulling it over her right shoulder. Her pink lips curved into a wry smile, she said, “In case you were wondering, my name’s Marina Mustafina. Nice to meet you, James frickin Plat.”

I almost laughed. “You know, I’ve met a lot people,” I stated drunkenly. “They all go away in the end. My ex with my friend. My parents–that’s another damn story. You should leave now, Marina. Save yourself some time. It sure was nice to have met you though.”

She chuckled, a gentle sound from her lips. “What is this?” she asked. “Act like you’re not good enough and make the girl wonder why? Interesting tactic. Usually doesn’t work, but I’m still here so…”

“Yeah, it wasn’t a tactic. I’m a little buzzed right now. Things haven’t been going well lately but today I’ve seen people worse off. Soon I’ll be… Sorry, I shouldn’t be saying these things. I don’t even know you. Probably you think I’m pretty strange, huh?”

“It’s alright. Sometimes you’ve got to get it off your chest. And I don’t think you are strange. Just a guy who decided to get drunk in a bar–not so strange.”

“Actually, I decided to take a walk. Needed some room to think, some space to breathe. I found this place along the way. The walk was helping until all that bullshish, I mean, bullshit came floating back and… I’m not much of a happy drunk as you can tell. Not much of a happy sober either.”

Marina made that gentle sound again, like a wind chime being caressed by the lightest breeze. “Maybe there’s just not much to be happy about right now,” she offered.

“Got that right,” I said,

“Sorry, that didn’t sound like I’d meant it to. Do you have a pen?”

“Usually, not tonight. Kind of gave up on the pen.”

“Don’t do that,” Marina said knowingly. “ I’ll borrow a pen from the bartender and write down my number for you. If you…”

“Why?” I interrupted.

“Because,” she said sternly. “Look, you’re the one who should be saying this so just be quiet a minute, okay? I’ll give you my number so we can talk later. Hopefully, sober by then.”

She walked off in search of a pen. With the high heels, she was about my height. “Where did she come from, I wondered. It seemed odd that she had just appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and spoken to me, offered me her number. Then again, I was drinking, who knows what’s truly strange when you’re drinking? Marina returned and handed me a folded piece of paper, Which I slid into my pocket without scrutiny.

“Talk to you soon, I hope.” She smiled and turned away, giving me a pleasant view. I watched her leave the bar, again wondering where she had come from. I hadn’t always had such luck with women.

I finished my third boilermaker, left three dollars under the empty glass and found the jukebox, which nobody seemed interested in. I selected song ninety-nine, Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Sweet Child of Mine.” When the song ended, I left.

The stars were like diamonds, the sky, black velvet. Cool air filled my lungs as I took a deep breath and commenced walking. I was feeling a little bit better again but couldn’t help wondering, cynic that I am, how long it would last.

Down on Fifteenth near a place called Charlie’s Sports Bar that was teeming with inebriated sports lovers, a man sat on the sidewalk playing a Gibson Epiphone acoustic/electric guitar. I stopped and listened as his fingers moved dexterously across the strings. I reached into my pocket I had seven dollars left and I dropped two into the guitar case on the sidewalk next to him.

guitar“Thanks, brother,” he said without missing a chord.

“You probably live to play the guitar, huh?”

“Could say that,” he grinned and broke into a complicated riff.

“What’s your name?” I asked.


“Keep playing the guitar, Ron.”

“Will do.”

I walked off in search of the freeway.

I found a silver ring lying inconspicuously on the shoulder. It looked like it had been ran over a few times. I wondered if it had been somebody’s wedding band and how it had ended up on the side of the freeway. Had a scorned wife taken it from her husband and thrown it out the window? Had an angry husband thrown it from the car?

I slid the ring into my pocket and kept my eyes peeled for more lost or discarded items. All I found was a bag of empty food wrappers from Jack in the Box. I toted it for a while with the thought of throwing it away, but eventually dropped it back on the side of the road.

Before I knew it I’d walked all the way to North County, Del Mar Heights, a forty minute drive from downtown San Diego. Del Mar is a very affluent town. Many of the homes sat on a hill or a golf course. It was also where my parents lived. Without realizing it, I’d been walking to their house all along. I didn’t want to see them but found my feet leading me in that direction anyway.

Finally, I was standing across the street from my parent’s house. I was anguished. I wanted to knock on the door and ask them if I could sleep in my old room for a while–not because I missed it or them, I told myself–I was tired, very tired.

When’s the last time they thought about me, I wondered. When’s the last time we spoke? Would they let me in if I knocked? They’d probably accuse me of being whacked out on drugs. I’ll never hear the end of it, lectures about how I’m wasting my life. Hell, maybe I am. I don’t need their disdain… Forget it.

In the end I walked away. The sun was just beginning to pierce through the veil of night and I wanted a cigarette. I reached into my pocket and remembered that I had given the pack of smokes to Big Franko and his homies. In fact, I’d given up smoking.

I retrieved the ring I’d found on the freeway, my last five dollars (just enough for a transit ticket), and the folded piece of paper Marina had given me at the bar. I chucked the ring. It skipped across the black asphalt with a “ting, tink, tink” sound. I thought about tearing the piece of paper in half but unfolded it instead. In neat script were the words:

Don’t want to break your heart.

I couldn’t help but smile. Marina knew all the right things to say; though she was right, I should have been saying those things to her. Nonetheless, I was glad she’d said them to me. I slid her phone number and the money back into my pocket.

San_Diego_Sprinter_1I planned on taking the commuter train home. As I stood at the North County Transit Station waiting for the train to arrive, I asked myself that all too familiar question. I hadn’t arrived at a definite conclusion, but what I had sufficed–for the time being at least. After all, when does the quest for answers, meaning, peace of mind truly end?

Finally, the train arrived and I boarded the last car. I found a seat in the back, my mind and my feet glad for the chance to convalesce. I closed my eyes–Living for something… Probably a lot… Good luck to you… Mr. James Plat. Keep writing–and fell soundly asleep.

From → BLOG, Short Stories

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