Malaise, A Short Story

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Jul 30, 2007 12:01 AM
Malaise, A Short Story

(With apologies to Walker Percy)

He no longer looked up when he walked out of the office building into the evening. He felt the sauna heat and went on, gazing straight ahead. He used to dawdle. Now he walked purposefully, as if he knew where he was going.

Once he had looked forward to this time of day, with the sunshine a last scrawled gash across the sky, or maybe diffused high above, the layered clouds lit from beneath. He remembered how sunsets had been - the sudden burst of light in the summer, the almost refreshing feel of the sultry, unfiltered air. The unconditional Southern air of deep summer that let you know where you were. You walked out the door and into dead air. Nothing stirred, and yet something did, inside.

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. The sun would have released its grip. But for now there was only the accumulated heat of the day pressing down like a blanket, like the suffocating 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. You'll pay. Better not to get involved.

A client took him to lunch the other day at one of those places atop a building. He chose a small table in the corner with a chair facing the wall. His host offered to swap places with him, so he could see out the picture windows and admire the wrap-around view. "You should see this sky," the other, younger guy said. "It looks like a huge painting." Exactly, he thought. It wasn't real any more. None of it. "Thanks," he said, "I've seen it before."

He was thankful there had been no design on the wallpaper. Blankness invited, comforted, released. Symbols meant trouble. In symbols begin responsibilities. Projects. Obsessions. Symbols demand allegiance. He didn't want to be bothered by all that any more. Not that he was embittered or disgruntled. He was just no longer interested.

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 everything. Why?

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

Imagine: They were still talking about the Confederate Battle Flag and whether it belonged on state flags or flying at state Capitols. Once he would have been outraged. He used to stand up when the band played Dixie. He'd been able to refight every battle in The War from Bull Run to Five Forks.

If only Longstreet hadn't dawdled! If only. But history never turned out any different. The whole business had grown tiresome.

Maybe they were right to forget the flag. What did the old boy who was with Stonewall Jackson's famous foot cavalry say when it was all over, the bloodletting and horror and stupidity of it all, the years of patriotic gore? The general had found the old soldier stumbling along in the rear, and asked if he was all right. All the straggler would say was, "Oh, I'm all right, Gen'l - but I'll be damned if I ever love another country!"

He thought he knew how the old boy must have felt. Not that he meant any disloyalty to the past, but it did hang around like a bum looking for a handout.

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 battle 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 little boys and girls, something to make some folks afraid and others swagger. And embitter everybody.

Why couldn't they just let things be? The War was over. Let it be over. Let all wars be over.

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, you know.

All he asked for 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. It would be blank. 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. No view, no picnic tables, no palm trees. No pink flamingos or painted starfish. Nothing distinctive.

The place he was looking for wouldn't have a name. It 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 features. Because you could never tell what you might get attached to.