D.E. Kern

I circle the development in 1,400 steps—or nine minutes—six to eight mumbled hellos to neighbors in waiting, two hearty greetings for those I know better. But I feel drained after one-half mile, one of three walks I will force upon myself between three classes and two meetings, because I take two pills to keep my blood pressure under 135/80.

Four months ago, the doctor told me new research calls for it to fall under 120/80 then sullenly told me we would visit the issue again in six months . . . so I walk.

This morning I plan on two laps while it is still under eighty degrees and the sun’s geometry is favorable. The mountains ringing my neighborhood—a tract of sixty-five to ninety homes—still cast a shadow across the road snaking up a gentle hillside before rounding off for a curve and deeper descent that offers a postcard view of the San Bernardino Mountains. In the foreground, outcropping hunch like Quasimodo over a bend in the Colorado River, the background a portal to saw-toothed peaks miles into the heart of the range.

My pulse affirms my effort as I walk down the hill into a bowl carved over time by a network of arroyos and eventually made habitable by excavation. But this morning I feel like an invader, a creature out of step with the rhythm of the bird songs and the skittering of three juvenile rabbits through a tangle of desert marigold.

It is the doctor’s voice I hear as I round the corner nearest my home, and a second lap feels doable, pleasant even.

I wave to the guy across the street, a neighbor in waiting always waiting to tell me I left my garage door open or overwatered my lawn. My breathing is heavier, not labored, but low harmony for another chorus from mourning doves in their makeshift nests.

Halfway up the hill I come up on the home of a woman I have heard through the grapevine is dying. We scarcely know each other, but there have been waves, an occasional “hello” or “My, this is some nice weather we’ve been having, don’t you think?” But most often there is just a nod.

Due to my approach, I’m not certain if she is sitting on her porch or if, for that matter, she can see me. Yet I find myself praying—eyes closed as if squinting against the first light—she is not out. I would be uncomfortable after all.

I am still sixty yards off, about twenty-five steps when you consider my short stride, when she hails me. “Good morning.” Her voice remains crisp, refuses to be driven to the periphery.

I choke out, “Morning.” I think about the number of steps that will get me past her . . . out of range.

I consider asking how she is, but the question is inane and gives away the fact I really do no want to know. A voice from farther inside my head says . . . this is my disease.

But what would I offer in terms of a second sentence? Just riffing on the possibility of what she may say in reply scares the life out of me. See—I cannot be relied on for intelligent choices with words.

“How far do you walk?” She drums fingers on the frame of her walker, something new since I last noticed her. I wonder if she is anxious.

“About two miles a day, but I split it into two walks.”

“Soon the heat won’t let you do it.”

I shrug. “I suppose.” Realizing I’m not yet past her I add, “That’s when I switch to swimming.”

“I seem to remember you saying that.”

I stammer under the weight of more words. “Yeah, I’ve got to do something about this.” I drum my stomach, a tribal warrior warning against deeper forays into my domain. “Well, I guess this walk isn’t going to finish itself.”

I eye the curve, and my pulse quickens, a tell-tale echo in my ear. I catch myself keeping tally of the beats . . . 86, 87, 88 . . . and wonder when the hell I started counting. Then a voice catches me from behind, “Most of the worthwhile things don’t.”

I simply lean into the sentiment. After the curve, I pause in the shade from a small palm and check my pedometer—2034 steps. A glance at the next peak leaves me captured by the image of a wind-stripped flag on top. I am nothing but questions.

Most of them I am afraid to ask for fear of the answers, but after fifteen yards momentum takes over. Why in the world is she holding a thought of me in her cancer-addled mind? How is it that I couldn’t give her three more minutes of my time? Do any worthwhile things finish themselves? If so, which ones? I realize I am talking to myself; thank God no neighbors are out on the backside of the development.

I turn and face my house, a white two-bedroom on one floor with a two-car garage and at least thirty years’ worth of dreams. With six steps left to cross the driveway, I catch myself wondering if she ever finds herself counting down the days. Or is she adding, thankful the totality—the sum of all things—is just a little bit more?

I turn the knob on the door and head to the fridge for my first thermos of water. A magnet holds the doctor’s directions for the test I have been trying to get out of my mind—just 56 days.

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