Tuesday, June 28, 2016

#206: "Stroller" by Nancy Geyer




~ This essay was first published in Alaska Quarterly Review (2007).



            She’s standing on the bridge that spans Six Mile Creek, where the flats on the city’s south side begin. I see her from a block’s distance, milling about the steel guardrail, hands free of the baby stroller a few feet away. The stroller looks skeletal from behind, thinly padded and with few embellishments or conveniences. Its thin canopy is stretched forward against an absent sun.
You probably can’t buy those new anymore, I think to myself, to the extent I’m thinking about it at all.
It’s well into November, and after having coffee in town I’m walking home along Cayuga Street—past Sam’s Wine & Spirits, past the public library and the APlus, where you can refuel with gas or candy, past the Holiday Inn and its faint piped-out music. The Inn faces the new municipal parking garage where once, from the sidewalk, I mistook a security camera pointed down the glass-enclosed stairwell for a telescope aimed at the hills. For this is where my mind begins to loosen up, where purpose yields to possibility now that the errands are done and my civic persona has receded a bit—sensing, without being conscious of it, that I’m no longer likely to run into anyone I know, if there's anyone to run into.
            “It certainly is cold this morning!” the woman says, turning toward me when I reach the bridge. She’s wearing a white quilted ski jacket that makes her seem bold.
            “It certainly is,” I respond, passing briskly by because of it. I dip my head toward the carriage, though, the corners of my mouth beginning to pull up.
            Nothing, not even a doll.
            “Where’s the baby,” I almost blurt before I catch myself. The question is almost pure reflex, but I’m afraid it will come out sounding meddlesome—or, worse, accusatory. And so I continue silently on, barely breaking my stride.
 
          Still, I can’t help but look back. I look back when I get to the end of the bridge and twice again before I round the corner at Spencer. The woman is watching me, and in my final view of her she is smiling.
            Should I have stopped? I wonder. Nothing about this feels quite right. On what pretext, though? She is restless, on a bridge—and there is that empty carriage. But so what? Maybe I’m just overstimulated by the shock of foiled expectation.
            Why not go back, just to be sure? I feel myself slow, but I’m still moving away. I can’t think of any way to return gracefully, tactfully. If she has done the unthinkable, the baby certainly would have died upon impact, meaning there was nothing I could do now beyond escort the mother to the nearby police headquarters. She looks willing to go, is perhaps waiting for someone to take charge.
            I decide she’s just a little “off,” like the man who pushes a shopping cart by my house every day, causing such a ruckus over the fractured pavement that the first couple of times I feared everything was collapsing around me.
            There are no stores in the direction the man is headed, and there is never anything in his cart. If he sees bags in there perhaps she imagines a baby in the stroller? She lost a child through miscarriage or a birth gone terribly wrong; haven’t I heard of cases like this? Good thing, then, that I didn’t let on that I couldn’t see it.
            But wouldn’t she be attending the child more closely?
            I continue along Spencer, past a line of old wooden houses with multiple electric meters and mailboxes—student lodging in disrepair. The other side of the road is sheer rock face glistening with groundwater. Here and there tiny waterfalls have formed, trickling down into the drainage ditch. There are industrial chemicals in that water, dumped decades ago into a fire reservoir by a hilltop factory that used them to degrease chains.
            Everywhere I look I see abandoned responsibility. Just ahead, a cop has pulled over a car speeding on the down slope and is entering its license plate number into a laptop computer. Beyond the cop is the traffic circle where I will turn onto my one-block street. Once, awakened at 2:00 a.m., I counted five revolutions of a motorcycle before it spun off the circle as if gleefully disengaging from an embrace.
            I walk by the flashing lights still thinking about the woman, her smile. The smile is incredulous: Just what the fuck do you think you’re thinking, it asks. It doesn’t feel the need to ease my mind. And that man with the shopping cart, it might add as a further rebuke: Can’t you tell he’s using it as a walker?
            Or, the smile is embarrassed. It feels guilty even though it knows it’s innocent. It says: I know it looks funny, but I can explain.
            And so I listen. She was heading into town with her boyfriend. As soon as the front door closed behind them, the baby started to cry. When they reached the bridge, they stopped. She needed to be changed was all; they should have checked one last time before they left. I picture the boyfriend lifting the baby up and out of the stroller and whisking her home. He doesn’t like to push a stroller, the woman tells me. And he never likes to be the one left waiting.
            While she waits, I pass by. We intersect so briefly. I myself often stop at that bridge, might have stopped this time if she were not there. I’m always curious about what’s been tossed into the mix since the last time I looked. For months there was a mattress tucked under the bridge’s arch but now it’s downstream and so leaden with water it will take a crane to hoist it out. The upholstered armchair is still anchored in the creek bed, upended like an animal in rigor mortis.
            Up and down the creek, there are island clumps of weeds yet to be beaten down by harsher weather. One of them is where the heron stands, pretending to be a reed while coolly scanning for fish. Its perch is vacant now, abandoned for the winter. For a long time I continued to look for the heron out of habit, but I’m finally accustomed to its absence, so much so that when spring comes it will, one day, surprise me.

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY

I'm a terribly slow writer for whom putting down words can be a torturous process, but "Stroller" was an exception. I essentially walked my way to—and through—this essay, without an end product in mind, and then quickly put it to paper as soon as I got home. So, the actual writing was almost like transcription, the walk dictating not just the thoughts that occurred along the way but also the essay's linear movement and narrative form. Geography was crucial too. Not until I moved away from Ithaca, NY, where "Stroller" takes place, did I fully realize how much inspiration I got from that particular landscape, with its wild creeks often on the verge of spilling over, its glistening rivulets of groundwater coursing down sheer rockface, and its hilltop factories whose defunct smokestacks helped orient me from afar.
*****
ABOUT NANCY GEYER

Nancy Geyer's writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, and the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W.W. Norton) and Poets Guide to the Birds (Anhinga Press), among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, Iron Horse Literary Review's Discovered Voices Award in Nonfiction, awards in nonfiction from The Iowa Review and Terrain.org, and a flash writing prize from Chautauqua. She lives in Washington, D.C.




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