A Long Walk Behind My Friend

PHIL THOMPSON

ISSUE NO. 2 • Are we there yet?

Is wanderlust a longing for travel – or a longing just to leave?

I saw your back, rounding the corner, up the stairs, out into the light. We were both headed in the same direction. After some blinking I could make out your matted hair, your old backpack, the edges of your beard peeking back at me from under your ears. The crowd parted before your measured walk, and your shoelaces were still untied.

I almost called out to you, but I saw you were listening to music and I remained silent. I quickened my pace, but the world doesn’t open for me like it does for you, and my bumping and weaving could not make any ground on your cruise-liner waft. So I decided to walk behind you and wait for a red light.

All the lights were green. After half a mile I synchronized my footsteps with yours, and decided I’d follow you wherever you were going, so I could tap your shoulder and make a joke. We like each other’s jokes. That’s why we never fight.

Another half a mile and you took your headphones off, but still I did not call. I liked being unseen. I wondered if you’d hear an echo in your footsteps, or feel my eyes on your back, or catch my reflection in a window. No. I thought you were going home but then you took a turn, a street I’d never been down. We walked down a hill together. I hoped you weren’t going to an AA meeting or a black mass. I would have to stretch my joke pretty far.

You didn’t stop. The foot traffic thinned out. Soon we were alone – or, you were alone, and I was with you. That’s all I’ve ever needed. One can live off memories. All we’ve ever done and all we can ever do are in the folds of brain-matter somewhere, tagged and marked in a dusty index. You walked past a fire hydrant and a toppled street sign. You ducked under some branches that hung from above. I mirrored you.

We walked for three miles before the road ended and we came to a fence. You squeezed through a hole in the wire, and I tarried, to give you some distance so you wouldn’t hear my body against the metal. I thought about catching up and throwing my arm around your neck. You have a soft neck, and I’ve spilled many beers on it.

I started to miss you. Your name came up from my stomach but I caught it. We had to get somewhere first. We walked together and alone through dead grass up to the waist. The weather warmed and I could hear cicadas in the sunburnt trees propping up the sky. You stopped to tie your shoe on a lonely tire, and drank from a water bottle you pulled from your backpack. I did the same.

I had a dream about you, the other night. My mom died and you said the funeral mass. You did not take off your backpack. You left before the reception because you were a professional. I woke up exhausted because the dream took place in my hometown, and whenever I dream in my hometown I have to move back, all over again, before I can get out of bed. I sent you a text that day since you were on my mind. You sent back a picture of a pair of novelty ties you bought for us at a flea market. We did not talk again for a while. We are like gorged pythons with each other – a feast, and then a long fast.

The sun started to beat down after a while. We were both out of water. We came to a large clearing of dead grass with a liquor store in it. Just beyond the heat shimmers I could make out a range of blue mountains. You entered the store and I followed.

At this point we were conjoined by invisible bronze rods. I could not walk slower or faster than you, and I could not leave your path. Fortunately, the liquor store was configured in a perfect rectangular grid, and I could maintain a safe following distance while blocked from sight by the head-height shelves. You bought a small bottle of bourbon, and I picked the same one off the shelf behind you. The cashier put it in a brown paper bag, and mine the same, and she watched me sidelong as I walked out after you.

The sun was setting and a red dusk overwhelmed the Serengeti, bringing with it a pleasant breeze. Zebras grazed to the right of us, gazelles nosed brown water to the left. You were fixed to my horizon, like a landmark or a compass point. I thought to look up at the stars to see which direction we were headed, but I didn’t dare take my eyes off you. I forgot your face. You started to drink the liquor, and I matched you slug for slug. We were both drunk then, but we stumbled in the same direction, the world wheeled in the same swinging arcs around us, the bile rose in our throats like faucets and we both pushed it back down. We finished as one and both began to sweat out the alcohol.

Night fell, night was over the land, and in the thick night I could not see you, or feel myself. Only the brushing of grass gave sign to our balanced movement. Noises rose up from the night all around us, humming percussion organs and electric guitar, the calling of an old voice choked with vinyl dust. Lights glowed, but how far away I could not tell. The lights of a carnival. I could hear the clicking roller coasters and all the laughing people. Once we drew close I saw your faint orange outline stop, and you looked at the carnival for a long time. I could see a shudder pass through you. Then we kept walking, and morning broke, and we were at the foothills of the blue mountains.

The grass gave way to veiny stone, the marula trees to vibrant firs, bursting with scent, not only their own but of the cooling earth, the hardening soil, the pinecones and the sap. Our path began to slope upwards, and I could see marks on the crags. Cave paintings, done in dark berry, depicting magic squares and the icons of secret societies, planetary motions and heavily redacted government documents. In the circular clearing you sat on a rock and took your shoes off and sang. You sang a song by Kurt Weill. Lying flat in the fallen pine needles, I sang nothing.

When the sun was in the middle of the sky, you walked again, and we’ve been walking ever since. We have had visitors: proto-horses canting, and pale men in suits, mothers with guns and casseroles, tribes of green-skinned hunters brandishing spears, a royal navy moored in a grey ocean, a seller of ermine cloaks, floating tetrahedrons possessed of alien consciousnesses and throbbing with inner neon light. You walk ahead, and I in your footsteps, we’re not going anywhere, someday you’ll drop dead and I guess I will too, and still your name is tucked under my tongue, sour and bright, waiting to be freed.