Malaise, a short story

Paul Greenberg

5/7/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

He no longer looked up when he walked out of the office building into the spring evening. The city lights and leafy trees might as well not have been there. He went straight ahead, gazing neither to the left nor right. He used to dawdle, window-shop, daydream. Now he walked purposefully, as if he knew where he was going.

Once he had looked forward to day's end, the refreshing feel of the unfiltered Southern air. Now he scarcely noticed.

Soon the lights in the other office buildings would come on against the encroaching dim. For a moment there would be a feeling of escape into the night. But for now there was only the accumulated heat of the day, pressing down like the past.

Above all, literally above all, there was still the sky. The beauty and ordinariness of it had become too much to contemplate. He was tired of entering into all that, and then having to emerge from it.

Now he preferred to watch where he was going, rather than just meander. He had learned something: Anything that elevates, or recalls the past, or gives you feelings at the end of the day, will demand things of you eventually, just you wait. Things have their own agenda. Notice them and they will not let you be. Avoid eye contact and you'll be safe.

He experienced the weather now mainly over the radio, the way he did traffic jams-something to avoid. He wished he could go through just one day without news, the incessant news, and its unspoken demand that one have an opinion about it. Why?

No, he did not need a vacation. He needed vacancy.

Imagine: They were still talking about what to do about Confederate monuments. Should they be moved, hidden, destroyed, ignored?

Once he would have been outraged. He used to stand up when the band played Dixie. He had been able to refight every battle in The War from Bull Run to Five Forks. But they never turned out any different. It grew tiresome, this endless rehashing. He meant no disloyalty to the past, but it did hang around like a bum looking for a handout. He was tired of arguing about whether the Confederate Battle Flag should be displayed, pro or con.

Why have a flag at all? Symbols divide. Wasn't it time to let the past be the past at last? Forget? Hell, Yes!

They-the ubiquitous, always brutish They-had turned the flag into something else long ago, not an ode to the Confederate dead but something with which to taunt the innocent living. They'd made it a bogeyman to scare some folks with, make others swagger, and embitter everybody.

They could never leave the holy alone, could they? They always wanted to lay hands on on it, use it for their own purposes, make some kind of a political statement out of what should be beyond politics. But nothing is any more.

Just now he felt like the old soldier in Stonewall Jackson's famous foot cavalry. The general had found the old boy straggling along in the rear, and asked if he was all right. All the old soldier would say was, "Oh, I'm all right, Gen'l-but I'll be damned if I ever love another country!"

Emptiness would be a relief. He was already thinking of retirement. He'd gone driving along the Gulf Coast last summer, looking for the right spot. He knew just what he wanted: A perfectly empty beach. So there would be nothing to catch the eye, and then the emotions. That's how they trap you.

All he really wanted was some hurricane-ravaged stretch of beach you would hurry by in a car on the way to Mobile or Pensacola or Santa Rosa Island. A no-place with no name. It would have nothing that you would get attached to, or sacrifice for, or care about. He yearned for anonymity the way others do for fame or power or talent.

He could picture it now: Just the tide and the sand. The kind of sand you could shift with a garden rake and find nothing, nothing at all. No seaweed, no driftwood, not a seashell, not a clue to who he was. No view, no picnic tables, no palm trees. No pink flamingos or painted starfish. No identifying marks at all, just an emptiness nobody'd pay any mind to.

The place he was looking for would be just another bend in the road. You'd zoom past it at 75 mph and never see it. That was the sine qua non for a retirement spot, that no one would notice it. That it would have no distinguishing characteristics. Because you could never tell what you might get attached to.