The man had trouble keeping up with his wife, grimacing as he hobbled behind her. The two boys ran far ahead of the both of them like unleashed puppies. The river flowed dark and cold to their right. It would be frozen soon and this realization made him as bleak in his thoughts as the fact that his body parts seemed to be failing one by one. His bellyful of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes made him wish he were home on the couch drinking, watching football and sleeping in a cycle of torpor. Finally, he complained about the pace.
“My foot really hurts today,” he said.
He had developed a nasty case of plantar fasciitis in his right heel-bone from playing too much basketball over the summer.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I forgot it was bothering you so much. We can turn back if you need to.”
“No, no. It would just have been good to rest it.”
“Well, you didn’t have to come, you know. You could have stayed home.”
“I wanted us to be together today,” he said.
They walked abreast of each other on the trail that was covered in brown, fallen leaves. He could tell she was happy, and he did not want to spoil that, even though a part of him wanted to berate her for dragging him outdoors needlessly on such a chilly day.
He knew he should go see a doctor about his foot but kept putting it off. He had been fighting off a bout of depression for about a month. Certainly, there was a lot to be sad about with so many people dying from the virus. He wore a mask all day delivering mail and he longed for the warmth bestowed by a human smile. Mostly though, his melancholia was attributable to the change of season and the long winter ahead. He missed the fishing already. He and the boy had done well late in the year with the smallmouth. That last pike he hooked on a bucktail with the sun setting on Lake Harriet had also been something to remember.
The children had returned to them carrying sticks that they jabbed at each other, breaking him out of his reverie.
“We’ll have to try fishing out here next year,” he said to his oldest son. “There are a lot of good spots.”
The boy was breathing too hard from running to answer. His brother took off again and he gave chase. The man was always astounded by their boundless energy, something he no longer shared. They had begun their hike under the Lake Street bridge and were headed north. Occasionally they crossed paths with a jogger or someone out walking their dog. The trees were bare and he could see things that would otherwise be obscured by the foliage. Like the green shack on the other side of the river that he had never noticed before. With his wife and children home every day, it seemed like a hermit’s paradise—just big enough, by the look of it, for a desk, a bunk and maybe a wood-burning stove. With so many people camping as they wished in the parks, why couldn’t he build himself a Thoreau-cabin tucked away in the woods somewhere nearby along the river? He had learned some basic carpentry, recently, constructing a train table for his son. The geometry of a cabin could not be that much different other than the roof, and the solution to that conundrum was only a Google search away.
He pointed the structure out to his wife who had also never seen it before, although she had taken the kids out along this stretch of river several times.
“It might be some kind of pump house,” she said.
There were many caves and mysteries along this gorge known only to an adventurous few. They continued their hike to a beach that was stained with soot from the many bonfires that had taken place on it. The boys barrel-rolled down the dunes as if they were snow and he chastised them, already envisioning the troublesome granules on his floor and in his furniture.
“Just let them be,” she said.
He turned his attention to an art piece nestled in the bark of a fallen tree. It was a face carved out of sandstone in an expression of pain. In a book was the number for a suicide hotline and the message; “It’s unknown how many people succumbed to the call of the riverbed. It is not time to join them.”
Well, it isn’t as bad as all that, he said to himself. It was food for thought, however. The river’s deceptive current, no doubt, took its share of victims. This was a subject of obsession for him, drownings and the call of water. He marveled at the artist’s handiwork–dreadlocks extended upward like flames from a mask of sorrow.
He was into the hike now, his creativity, at last, inspired.
A short ways ahead, his wife and children had distanced themselves from him. Up the hillside of the gorge, he could see bricks arranged like some ruin. He had a second thought but climbed the hill. It felt good to be away from them. The suffocation of the quarantines had been overwhelming. The bricks were nothing but an obstacle constructed in the mud by some mountain biker. He progressed ahead by himself toward the defunct Short Line Bridge in the distance. The scenery was stark and morbid. Trees along the steep embankment were denuded, having fallen victim to beaver, woodpecker and flood.
The iron trestle bridge itself was enlivened with graffiti, a sharp contrast to the ubiquitous monochrome landscape. He began taking photographs, feeling a deep affinity for the anonymous artists whose work would never grace an art studio or museum.
It had been three years since his first book had been named a finalist for a book prize by a university press. With a second completed and a third underway, he questioned his own patience in waiting to publish. He felt defeated both physically and creatively. Yet this defeat seemed inevitable, almost a testament to his own persistence. He had written some stories and there would be a small number of people who remembered them. It was the process of writing them, those handprints pressed to the wall of the cave, that mattered anyway. The rest was style and applause, which was but a cocaine shot in the arm of his ego. These were the Van Gogh’s of his age, consigned to the undersides of the city’s bridges.
His own family was somewhere unseen far below him and he took a guilty pleasure in their absence. After a while. he received a nagging text from his wife. Where are you? Are you all right? As if he were one of the children. Drained of whatever inspiration he had acquired, he texted her back. They met up again under the bridge and took sentimental pictures of the kids. He limped back to the car with her and drove them home.
That evening they streamed The Simpson’s Movie on Hulu, watching it together on the couch. After an environmental disaster, a dome was placed over Springfield by the government and Homer moved the family to Alaska. The man fell asleep but regained consciousness in time to see Homer save the town on a motorcycle, the whole dome cracking and falling like harmless confetti on the residents below. His boys seemed to love the film, especially the parts when Homer abused Bart on the roof of their house. He went up to bed early and began snoring almost immediately. His wife did not bother joining him.