ROB MARIANI After working for over 35 years as a creative director, copywriter, and ad agency partner, Rob has shifted gears and is now focusing on his writing and making Art. He is the founder and president of the Creative Communications Club of Providence (now in its 18th year). Rob has also written sketches for The National Lampoon Radio Show, and essays for “Eric In the Evening,” and WPRI’s “This I Believe” program. His travel articles have appeared in The New Yorker and Travel & Leisure. After several years writing a humor column,The Pajama Monologs, for Eastside Monthly, Rob is now doing restaurant reports for The Bay magazine. He lives at North Farm in Bristol with his wife Jan. HELEN WALKER originally published in Quix magazine.
It was over seven miles along the farm road that eventually joined up with the thruway, and the first time, Helen walked less than half a mile of the distance. That was the night Walt had gotten her so upset that she stormed out of the house without even grabbing her jacket.
A fine April mist was falling and the air was still chilly and raw, winter not wanting to give up its grasp. Helen walked very fast and angrily along the edge of the farm road keeping her eyes on the white line painted there so the snowplow drivers could get their bearings on foggy nights. There were no streetlights.
This time Walt had come in from his job as maintenance superintendent at the high school and abruptly switched the TV channel Helen had been watching to one of his baseball games.
“Those dumb cooking shows are on all the time,” he said as he fiddled with the antenna to get the picture sharper. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be making supper instead of watching somebody else make it? I’m gonna eat in here and watch the game.”
Helen could tell that “THE GAME” was spelled with capital letters in Walt’s mind and that trying to get him to focus on anything else, such as their weekly expenses, was futile.
She watched him as he settled into his lounger like an airline passenger getting ready for take-off, arranging his pillow, pulling his shirt out and opening the button on his pants to let his beer belly flop over. For a 39-year-old man, Walt was in sad shape. Forty pounds overweight, a two-pack-a-day smoker, a six-pack-a-day drinker. Not that she was much better, Helen realized. Over the past few years she’d become soft and flaccid. She felt her skin loosening around her bones and muscles and there was a layer of fat pushing against her clothing all the time. She’d stopped looking at herself naked in the full-length mirror several summers ago. What she’d seen there made her mad because she had always thought of herself as a naturally trim person.
“Helen, get me another beer while you’re up.”
The words had barely left his mouth when Walt heard the front door slam hard and felt the impact of the disturbed air reverberate throughout the atmosphere of the house.
Helen walked out onto the road and turned right without thinking where she might be going. Her head was down and she was simply putting one foot in front of the other, feeling her anger pound into her heels with each step. Headlights appeared ahead of her, coming towards her. The driver switched to his low beams but the light was still directly in Helen’s eyes. She put her hand over her eyebrows and tried to look away, cursing the driver as he passed her going too fast. She kept walking along the edge of the farm road, hearing her own soft footfalls and the sound of scattering sand against the dry grass off to the side.
Although she wasn’t really thinking about it, gradually the walking began to feel good. She realized she had done virtually nothing physical all winter, sitting instead in a daze in front of the TV and watching the seemingly endless progression of snowstorms move across the front yard day after day, week after week. Even by New England's standards, this winter had been a hard one.
As she walked now Helen could feel her hips engaging in their sockets and the small of her back beginning to uncoil. She began to swing her arms as she walked like a marching soldier and her stride lengthened. She took the damp, chilly night air in through her nose and into her lungs and blew it out again, feeling the exhilarating sharpness of it purging her nostrils. She thought she could smell new grass and leaves coming to life in the woods on either side of the road, but all the colors were still winter grays and browns. Suddenly she noticed it had become completely dark and she realized that walking along the road like this was dangerous. Helen turned and headed back toward the house. Another car coming from the opposite direction grazed by her. The driver did not see her until the last moment and then swerved only slightly to avoid hitting her.
The windows of the house were dark except for the two in the den. She could see the bouncing colors of the TV set dominating the room. She went in, put Walt’s supper in the microwave and then on a tray and brought it in to him without a word. Walt’s gaze never left the TV screen as he sat up and slid his chair back into a more upright position. Whether he’d noticed it or not, he acted as if she’d never even gone out.
Helen left the room with the din of a car commercial she’d heard a hundred times before blasting in her ears and went up to bed, closing the bedroom door and lying at the very edge of the bed so as to avoid any contact with Walt when he came up. If he came up.
April gave itself up grudgingly to warmer weather, but by the end of May Helen could walk most nights wearing just a lightweight sweatshirt. She was walking faithfully every night now after dinner. She’d leave the dishes in the sink and hurry out the door, while the light outside was just starting to diminish and before the arguments with Walt could get started. She was up to almost 3 miles-- she’d checked the distance on the car’s odometer one day -- and her pace now was brisk.
Moving along the edge of the road in the half dark, Helen learned to hold her ground when a speeding vehicle came up from behind. Sometimes they’d slow down when they saw her. Occasionally it was someone who knew her and they’d beep their horn and look at her in their rearview mirror to see if perhaps she needed a ride. Their brake lights would brighten for a second as they touched the pedal and then they’d move on.
Other times, cars full of raucous teenagers barreled by her, the kids yelling obscenities and jibes out the windows above the noise of the car radio. Helen tuned them out and kept her eyes on the white line in front of her, her gaze focused about 30 yards down the road. Whenever she’d look down she’d see the endless array of roadside debris-- the beer bottles, flattened tin cans, plastic shopping bags, and even used condoms
people discarded. The world was full of things that couldn’t be gotten rid of, she thought. She remembered hearing about a proposal by some environmental group that wanted to send all the Earth’s un-recyclable refuse into outer space to orbit perpetually around the moon. Looking up at it, she became aware that since they had landed men on the moon, she had come to think of it as an actual place. A destination, like a country or a train station, and not simply some ephemeral light in the sky that people wrote love songs about.
Helen kicked a dented Budweiser can and sent it arcing into the woods where little explosions of fireflies were occurring against the dark curtain of the trees, and she walked on.
By August Helen found herself planning her life around her walks. She would turn down invitations to dinner, rearrange visits to friends or shopping trips if they conflicted with her after-dinner walk. And even on nights when there was thunder in the woods alongside the road where she walked and rain pelting down on the shiny blacktop, Helen was out there.
She was up to six miles and when she’d get to the top of the gentle rise that crested at Grover’s Feed Store, she had to make a conscious effort to turn around and head back to the house. There was a new stamina in her that kept urging her to go further, push harder. Helen never trudged, even on nights when the summer heat and humidity hung on her shoulders and weighted down her clothes and made her sneakers stick to the pavement. Always she marched with springs in her heels, as if on a mission, as if there were a specific destination she had to reach.
Coming back into the house and smelling Walt’s stale cigarette smoke and hearing the TV, Helen would go directly upstairs, take her shower and go to sleep. She slept with the bedroom door shut and Walt would fall asleep in his recliner chair in the living room. He’d wake up in the morning with the TV picture dancing and flickering in front of him.
At meals they spoke only the practical phrases it took to get through the brief times together. When Walt would confront her or try to pick a fight, Helen would simply leave the room; or if that was not physically possible, she would leave mentally, placing her thoughts back out on the road where she walked, the sound of her own footsteps bringing her into a kind of distanced trance, drowning out the sound of Walt’s complaints.
The dullness and seeming pointlessness of Walt’s job as a maintenance man at the high school made him angry all the time, and at night he would bring that anger home with him. He had learned early on the skill of non-working-- of wandering around the halls carrying a tool so that he looked like he was on his way to fix something. Then he would retreat to the boiler room and read the paper, smoke and doze until it was time to leave.
Helen also worked at the high school, doling out gobs of gelatinous food in the cafeteria, barely hearing the thoughtless remarks and sarcastic comments made by the teenagers as they passed by her at the steam table.
It occurred to her that she and Walt had never worked anywhere else but at this high school where they themselves had gone as kids. Walt had been offered a job in the maintenance department right after graduation, and the cafeteria job had become available for Helen soon after.
The first semester, when the kids came back to school, was kind of fun -- having the seniors whom they’d known as juniors see them in their “adult jobs.” But the novelty soon wore off and the drudgery of the jobs set in. Now Walt and Helen Walker were part of the school background, the nearly invisible, middle-aged couple nobody really knew or noticed.
When, a few years into their marriage, Helen asked the doctor why she wasn’t getting pregnant, he told her that her womb was oddly tilted and that the possibilities were almost nil. Helen felt a certain sense of relief knowing now that there was no real chance of her producing another junior version of Walt. As for Walt, he greeted the news with an indifferent grunt, which seemed to say his suspicions that Helen really wasn’t much good for anything were confirmed.
By the end of the summer, walking had become an obsession with Helen. She would put Walt’s supper in the oven to keep warm and leave the house, usually before he got home.
The excess pounds dropped off her and Helen became as lean as a greyhound. She ate only salads and cereals and her naturally thin figure reappeared in the mirror. She grew thinner than she had ever been in her life, painfully thin some people said; and she could see her cheekbones and her hipbones outlined under her skin. People at work commented on how she was looking too thin, gaunt even. Words Helen took as compliments.
“It’s this new diet,” she explained without going into detail. She had more trouble explaining the bruises that sometimes showed through her makeup. And she attributed the three stitches in her bottom lip, where Walt’s ring had caught her once, to a “house-cleaning accident.”
For that entire summer and into the fall, she never missed an evening’s walking. She added Saturday and Sunday morning walks to her regimen, too. She developed a special gait that allowed her to walk almost as fast as the average person could run. She knew it probably looked strange, but Helen began to feel that she was perfecting a new kind of walking technique that could actually overcome the forces of gravity and inertia. She felt that she was approaching some kind of weightless, friction-less state and way of moving that was actually going to take her somewhere-- where, she didn’t really know. But with every day, every walk, she became more convinced that she was on to something.
By late October the slim, wraith-like figure of Helen Walker walking had become a local fixture on the farm road every night after supper and every Saturday and Sunday morning. People could set their watches by her. And of course they all made the joke about Helen Walker being “quite a walker.”
She bought a pair of high-tech walking shoes and began subscribing to Walking Magazine.
“What the hell is there to write articles about on ‘walking?’ “ Walt scoffed. “They act like it’s some kind of sport or something. It’s just walking, for chrissake. What do they write about? How not to step in dog shit?”
The Friday night after Thanksgiving, the sky was cold and clear with a full moon rising. Just back from her walk, Helen lay on her bed feeling her pulse as it settled back down and her breathing slowly returning to normal. She licked her lower lip and felt the scab from the cut she’d gotten when Walt had thrown the TV remote at her the other night.
She watched the beautiful moon drift slowly across the window frame and was just starting to fall asleep when she heard the sound of Walt’s heavy footsteps on the stairs. It had been weeks since she and Walt had shared the same bed. She knew the reason he was coming upstairs now and her heart and pulse immediately began to speed up again.
Walt’s stench of beer and cigarettes filled the room. As he pulled off his clothes, his broad torso blocked out the moonlight from the window. In the darkness, Helen curled into the fetal position. Trembling, she pulled the pillow over her face. She felt Walt’s weight tip the mattress and she squeezed her eyes shut hard as she deliberately placed herself back out onto the road where she’d been walking earlier.
She was just starting the small, gently rising hill by Grover’s Feed Store. After a few determined steps, Helen felt as if the slight incline was actually adding more lift to her heels, and then gradually the road seemed to give way, as though she’d broken through some kind of invisible membrane into thin air. Her next step found what felt like an invisible ladder rung. She lifted herself up on it , first with one foot and then the other.
With every step now there was a new phantom rung, and Helen felt as if she were climbing upwards above the ground, and the higher she went, the less resistance she felt. When she finally looked down, she saw that she’d gone above Grover’s Feed Store and appeared to be at the top of the tree line now. Breathing deeply with excitement, her momentum took her through a misty cloud. She could feel the rain on her face change its angle and as she moved up still higher, the slanting raindrops became slivers of ice that pecked at her skin. She felt a slight trickle of new blood from her wounded lip, wiped it away with her wet fingers and continued to climb. Helen could see the gleaming rooftops below her now and the flickering, moonlit fields, and in just a few more moments, she was above the clouds walking faster than she had ever walked. The air was cool but dry. Helen looked up, and all she saw, looming as large and solid as the side of a barn, was the huge yellow, luminescent full moon.