“You can’t do that!” Mabel screeched. “You have arthritis and a heart arrhythmia! Not to mention you haven’t so much as walked around the block in years.”
Merle slumped over his plate of dry scrambled eggs and mumbled to his wife, “But I’ve heard it’s a beautiful hike.”
“It very well may be,” Mabel said over the dishes she was crashing into the sink of running water. “But you can see all those nature things on the Discovery Channel. And you won’t have to risk your neck. Just because some kid told you he had a good time hiking this trail doesn’t mean you would too. He was a kid and you’re….not.” Mabel shook her head. “You should stay home today. There’s stuff to be done around here, like fixing that the leaky faucet in the bathroom.”
Merle pushed the eggs around on his plate. “I think he lives in the neighborhood. Seemed familiar.” Merle said, thinking about the boy he met at the park. He just sat down on the bench where Merle usually sat alone, watching shiny people, some about his age, most much younger, jogging or walking the track, walking hand-in-hand with their sweetheart, or throwing the ball for their dog. Merle always wanted a dog, but Mabel was allergic and she had no interest in walking, holding his hand or not.
So he spent his time sitting on the bench throwing nuts to the squirrels he came to know. Each had its own personality and markings. They had a social structure and language Merle learned by studying them over the years. He knew what their different calls meant, when their mating chase began, and who stole from who.
When he was in high school, he wanted to go to college and become a zoologist. He wanted to study animals and their behavior, maybe become a wildlife veterinarian. But the grades he got in math were the giant boulder he could never surmount to take that path. If only he had paid better attention in school, tried a little harder, he could have had a career of working with animals instead of just throwing nuts at them on Saturdays. But he was too distracted as a teenager. Usually by the pretty girls in his class, especially the one with the blonde curls with the name that remained with him: Mabel.
He tried community college first, but after flunking out of Intro to Chemistry, Merle quit school and got a job in the local grocery store. They put him behind the butcher counter and the irony was not lost on him. He had wanted to work with animals and so he was. They were just dead, much like his dreams.
Eventually, he worked his way out from behind the counter to cashier, then promoted to become store manager and when he got that raise, he bought a ring and asked Mabel to marry him. “Yes!” She squealed at the sight of it. “Put it on my finger!” She commanded.
Today her instructions were, “Don’t go hiking into some woods. You don’t even know where you’re going!”
Merle’s thoughts returned to that kid on the bench, he couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve years old, but it was like talking with one of his poker buddies. For ten years, six old farts sat around the table in George’s basement every Thursday night, tossing in their chips, complaining about their work and their wives, told dirty jokes or hijinks from their youth. But lately there had only been five of them. Eddie wasn’t there anymore.
They began to worry about Eddie when he kept trying to use his Rolex to bargain with, upping the ante to way more than their long-standing rule of a fifty-buck limit. They began to worry even more when Eddie insisted it was just an old broken watch he found on the sidewalk, but they all knew it was given to him by his brother right before he died. Eddie cherished that watch. When they expressed their concerns to his wife, she confirmed their suspicions. Eddie had been diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Then one day, he just disappeared. Eddie vanished and had remained missing for two months. With the police and everyone still looking, posting signs all over town, putting his picture on the local news channel, they were beginning to lose hope for his return.
Poker nights had lost their jovial nature of laughing at their lives and themselves. Eddie’s sudden decline and disappearance made them realize they were all just around the corner from slipping away, breaking a hip, discovering that cancer growing with stealth inside their bodies. Life was short. And it was getting shorter by the minute.
“I tell you what you need to do, mister,” the kid on the bench said to him. “You need to hike Spring Knob Trail.”
“You and your family had a nice hike, did you?” Merle asked him and the kid answered with a wide smile and lit up eyes. “Well, I’m afraid it’s been a long time since I’ve done any hiking. Not sure I would get very far.”
“Oh, you could do it,” said the boy with the confidence of children who find swinging upside down from the monkey bars part of their daily routine. “It’s really not that hard and believe me, it’s worth it once you get to the end.”
“Pretty view?” Merle asked.
“The best view of your life.”
“Well say I were to go on this hike,” Merle said. “Where is it?”
“Take 62 South out past the city limit and through Hardinville, once you get into a wooded area and the road begins to get curvy, look for Park Ridge Road on your right. It’s about a 20-minute drive, but you’ll have to look closely for the sign. It falls down a lot, so not everyone finds it. But I bet you will.”
Merle nodded at the kid’s sense of and ability to give directions. “How long is the hike?” He asked.
“Just long enough,” the kid answered and Merle thought that for all his sense of direction, the kid lacked in perception of distance.
“Is it a loop trail?”
The kid thought for a moment and said, “Yeah, sort of. But it only goes one way.”
“Hmmm,” Merle nodded. “Well thanks for the tip, kiddo.”
“My advice,” the boy said laying a hand on Merle’s shoulder. “Take it.” Then he stood up, slapped Merle on the back, jumped on his dirt bike and sped away.
Now looking into his empty plate, Merle saw his reflection, flecked with bits of eggs and crumbs of toast. The ceramic exaggerated the droop in his eyes and the hard lines around his mouth, curving down with disappointment. “I’m going,” he said as he stood up from the table.
“You’re not serious?” Mabel said over her shoulder. “No,” she shook her head. “It’s too dangerous. Going out in the middle of nowhere by yourself in your condition? Besides, why should you get to go frolicking in the woods when there are things that need to be done around here?”
Merle kissed his wife on the forehead and said, “Those things aren’t going anywhere.”
“They sure aren’t!” Mabel said to his back as he walked out the door.
The oldies station Merle listened to as he started out on route 62, soon became static as the road narrowed into a two-lane, with impatient drivers riding his tail until they risked their lives crossing the double yellow lines to pass him. He was glad when they did. Having the massive grill of a truck filling his rear-view mirror made it hard to watch for a road that may or may not have a sign. He flipped the mirror up with a grunt in an attempt to ignore what was behind him. That was when he found it.
The grassy side of the road held a three-foot post that looked like a sawed-off tree branch. A cracked slab of wood clung to it by one nail, hanging sideways. Carved into the wood was the name Park Ridge Road. Merle turned in between some overhanging trees and found the road to be little more than a gravel trail itself. Beginning to think that this was the trail and he was driving on it, he parked on the side of it where it was flat and mossy.
He pulled his rearview mirror back down and saw himself looking back. The sun slanted in from the east accentuating every pit and wrinkle on his face, the skin loosening on his neck, but most of all, his permanent frown lines. His mother was right. When he used to jut out his lower jaw, show his teeth, and bring his eyebrows down to a fearsome scowl just to scare his little brother, their mama would say, “You keep making that face and it will get stuck that way!”
And so it had. After many years holding an expression of frustration and regret, it had stuck. Merle sighed and flipped the mirror back up. He didn’t want to look anymore.
He stared out the windshield. The early morning sunlight danced on the floor of the forest in time with the leaves in the breeze. The view was a kaleidoscope of green and brown that started to make Merle feel a bit dizzy. He closed his eyes with second thoughts about walking out into the woods alone. But when he opened them, he noticed the little sign nailed to a tree, further up to his left. It said Spring Knob Trail.
“Well,” he sighed. “I guess I can always turn around if I start to get too tired. Might not make it to the end, but at least it’s something.” Merle got out of the car and worried that if he was going in a loop and decided to turn back, he might be close to the end without knowing it. Didn’t that kid say it was a loop? Or that it went just one way? Merle shook his head wondering why he didn’t try to find a trail map of this place before he came out.
Regardless, he followed the sign and took his time looking at the rocks and mosses along the trail. Sometimes he stopped to look deep into the woods hoping he would see a deer or a rabbit. He also stopped to catch his breath and question his ability to go much further. Until he heard footsteps crunching up behind him.
He turned to see a man, about his age, coming at him in a red windbreaker that stretched across the paunch of his belly. The rest of it billowed around his body in the wind he made going at a fast pace, a pace faster than Merle could go anyway.
“Good morning!” The man called to him as he got closer.
“Morning,” Merle said back. “Pretty day for a hike.”
“Yes, it is!” The man said as he started to pass by.
“Nice trail too, huh?” Merle said, relieved to know there was another person out there who might find him before nightfall if he collapsed.
“I sure hope so,” the guy said as he passed on by with a wave. “Enjoy!”
And just like that, he was alone again. Encouraged by a fellow of his age, forging down the trail without any fear, Merle picked up his pace too.
The trail climbed up and tumbled down. Beneath a blanket of fallen leaves, there were tree roots and rocks hiding. After a while, his legs became too weary to lift his feet up far enough to clear any obstacles and he flew forward, landing hard on the heel of his hand. A sharp pain ran up his arm and the heel of his right hand turned red and started throbbing.
That was it. Mabel was right. He was in no condition to do this. He could get seriously hurt and then what? He would have to take time off work for a broken arm or leg. He had already used up his paid sick days to take Mabel on an extended stay on the Gulf Shores of Alabama. They spent a lot on that trip and there wasn’t much in their savings at the moment to cover any unpaid time off.
Merle sat on the trail and shook his head. Why was he such a fool, thinking he could do this? But why wouldn’t he be? All his life he’d been a fool: Thinking he could be a zoologist when he could barely get through algebra, taking a job that he hated because he needed the money, and stayed so he could marry the first girl who paid him any interest. All this foolishness set him up for a thirty-year sentence of regret and resentment.
He pulled himself up and brushed the forest debris from his knees and hands, knowing it was all futile. The only sensible thing to do was to turn around and head back. And so he did, until he heard something running up behind him. He looked back in the direction he had been heading, just moments before he fell, to see a kid, about ten or twelve years old, running, skipping down the trail. His blonde head of hair bobbed about his face but not as much as the oversized red windbreaker that hung down to his knees and sleeves that flapped freely without arms to hold them in place.
“Hey!” The kid yelled. “Don’t turn around! You’re almost there!”
Merle shook his head at the boy and said, “Well, I’m afraid I’m tired and better quit before I hurt myself again.” He held up his red, throbbing hand with little cuts. To Merle’s surprise, the kid grabbed his wrist and pulled it closer to his face, inspecting the damage.
Then he turned his eyes up to gaze into Merle’s and said, “You have to finish,” with the same maturity and certainty as that boy who sat down with him on the bench. “You have to.”
“Okay,” Merle nodded. “I will.”
The boy smiled and then leaped off through the forest like a deer.
So he was taking commands from children now. He was used to doing what he was told, but this felt like something different. Both these boys had a certain depth to their eyes that children just didn’t have. It felt like he were the child listening to elders as they gave you all that good advice and terrible warnings when you were young, that you didn’t listen to because you didn’t believe them until you were grown and realized they were right all along.
So Merle walked on. The trail climbed up and up and just as his legs and lungs were about to give out, the trail ended in the arch of two pines that framed the sky. This must be the nice view at the end, an overlook. Merle shuffled forward, knowing he was high up on a cliff and got just close enough to see that below him was a valley with a tiny blue ribbon of river, cutting through the valley.
What stopped him from going over the edge was a large rock, a boulder too big to climb and in it was a bowl-shaped indention that held a plate-size puddle of water, smooth as a sheet of glass. Merle looked into it. His tired old expression looked back at him again, but even worse from this angle that accentuated his double chin.
But something glimmered beneath the surface caught his eye. It was a watch. And it looked just like Eddie’s Rolex! The cherished item of his missing poker buddy was lying at the bottom of this shallow pool!
Merle plunged his hand into the water, forgetting his injury and obscuring his reflection with ripples. He felt around, but couldn’t find the watch. He pulled his hand back out and waited for the water to settle so he could see exactly where the watch was. But as the ripples subsided and the water stilled, it became reflective again. Only this time as Merle looked down at himself, things were missing. Eddie’s watch wasn’t there, but neither was his double chin, his permanent frown. What stared back was himself as a boy, a face full of expectant hope for life ahead, but with eyes lit from a lifetime of experience.
Merle raised his hands, but they were covered by the flaccid sleeves of his flannel shirt that hung from his body and reached to his knees. He wriggled his arm out to see the hand he had landed on, that no longer throbbed. It was smooth and untouched by injury or labor.
Merle looked back at the pool of water. There was no watch. There was only him as a boy. He thought back to the man in the red windbreaker who passed him coming up the trail and the kid that came back wearing the same jacket, only too big on him. He thought back to the kid on the bench and knew why he seemed familiar. “Eddie,” Merle laughed. “So that’s where you disappeared to!”
Then Merle thought about what Mabel said to him that morning, You don’t need to go frolicking in the woods. There’s things to be done around here!
He told her the things around the house would still be there after he went hiking. And he was right. They were. But he was not going to be doing them.