I like walking down this road – even with my 100 lb beast of a dog. He’s a chocolate lab but a rather rotten one. He does not swim and he does not play catch. He acts like Cujo when walked on a leash. When he sees a dog, no matter the size, he lunges and he barks and looks suddenly hungry. But I pardon this behavior because he kisses my daughters fingers when she tugs on his ears.
Even so, when he pulls me down the steep road I promise myself that my next dog will be under 25 lbs. A nice, small, manageable number. A compact number. A pillow warming number. But I know this is untrue. Small dogs remind me of the wriggling worms I used to pierce on barbed fishhooks. Bait. Barking, moving, bait.
Ten feet away I see four people; they seem to be spread apart in such an absolutely precise way that I imagine a measuring tape was used. They create four perfect points – about 10 feet between each of them. Four point restraint. The perfection of their spacing takes up the entirety of the quiet road and I am unsure how to pass them. Will they move? Are they static like chess pieces? This is our world now. People are separated and unsure where and how to move.
I clear my throat and one of the corners looks at me. She is young, probably in her mid-twenties, and has a baby strapped on her chest in a carrier. Then a man, curiously wearing sandals despite impending rain, looks at me as well. The two of them then look at each other, acknowledging my intent to walk past them, and move a few feet forward, giving me just enough space to walk with my cumbersome dog.
The other two corners, an older man and woman, move a few feet back at the same time. It is a strange human ballet they play. I walk past, sticking to my declared side of the road and smile in a way that suggests goodwill, an apology even. Having passed them I stop and tell my dog to sit, you’re a very good boy I tell him, and give him a liver treat stashed in my pocket.
I notice the flowers that grow on the side of the road; they are like the pansies my mother plants annually – bright red. Weeping red. Blood red. Red like the picture of the Coronavirus I keep seeing all over the news and the internet. I cannot avoid it.
We walk quickly, away from the tainted flowers, we walk until I hear someone cough loudly. A deep cough that lives in the chest and wants to escape. A cough that cuts off your ability to breathe deeply. A dangerous cough. A cough that can kill you these days. I turn my head around and see the woman with the baby still strapped on her chest. Behind her is the man with the sandals; he is the one with the cough. He is bent over, one hand on his stomach, making that awful sound.
The woman stops walking, she calls out to him, her voice is entangled with tears. It is guttural. I understand now – this is her husband. Her husband is sick and she is not. Her child, safe on her chest, is not. Probably not. I want to walk toward her, I want to help her, but instead I walk quickly, faster then before.