|by Duncan Mitchell|
If our paths happen to cross at the intersection farther down the street, that means we're early. Running Man is totally focused, never looks right or left but down at the pavement. Only when he crosses the street he mutters something and sometimes shoos speeding cars away with his free hand. Then again, if he's already crossed Spruce Street and leveled off at the top of the hill, that means we're late.
My kids never notice him, even when I point him out, as if he's inconsequential or even invisible. They're groggy teenagers, still floating in the uneasy limbo between their warm, dreamy bedcovers and school. The truth is they notice very little during our morning drive.
It's a tree-lined street (Linden trees, of course), with well-tended Victorian houses on both sides. Nothing terribly unusual about it. This was the route I used to walk to school when I was a kid, in all kinds of weather, and it hasn't changed much in a generation. In my dreams, though, the hill is steeper and instead of leading to school, the road often takes me elsewhere—a hospital, a service station, maybe an apartment building, could be anywhere. The point is just that I'm often dream-walking on this particular leafy street, alone or not, and it provides me with a familiar backdrop for a thousand different moods or dramas, or may even lead nowhere.
Haruki Murakami writes often that dreams have no place in stories or novels, that it's nearly impossible to do it right. And then he goes ahead and writes dreamlike novels stuffed with the dreams of his fictional characters.
Haruki Murakami would let the children sleep in one morning, on a snow-day after a blizzard. Standing in the kitchen, deciding whether to feed the cats or go back to bed, the mother looks out the sunny window at the blank features of her own familiar street, but all the recognizable details have been erased by snow.
The mother tightens her bathrobe and tucks a strand of black hair behind her ear—a small, translucent ear, perfect as a seashell (though my ears are large and flat). It is during the execution of this habitual movement that the mother makes her decision. She will shovel the driveway and keep her daily appointment with Running Man. The side streets haven't been plowed yet and most everything in their little town will be closed, schools and businesses.
Surely he won't be running anywhere this morning in two feet of snow. But she has to know if he'll be there. The mother briefly imagines their different roles as the interlocking gears of a clockwork, necessary for the smooth functioning of time and orderly unfolding of events. It's only a small irritation, on a par with a single, ticklish strand of hair that falls loose across her face, felt but unseen. Only an irritation like that, she tells herself, will drive her mad if she doesn't take care of it.
The mother rinses the carafe, spoons coffee into the filter, and presses the button after pouring tap water into the coffee maker, the same way she always does on regular schooldays. It's a silly idea, this little outing, but it will harm no one, and by the time she comes back, her coffee will be ready.
Haruki Marukami would have something both extraordinary and mundane happen next. Maybe the mother decides she's being foolish and defies herself by passing Linden Lane and stopping at the old diner on the next block. She's surprised that it's open. It looks exactly as it did when she was growing up—she was almost sure they'd redecorated years ago. Even the waitress looks the same. Suddenly she's hungry, and wonders what she'll order from the menu. If it was summer in Kyoto, the mother would order barley tea, but it's New Jersey and everything has disappeared under two feet of glittering snow.
She's glad she didn't give in to herself, that she has been able to execute this small measure of self-control. Without looking at the menu, she orders coffee, orange juice, two eggs over easy, hash browns, and sausage links. This splurge will be her little reward for holding back.
She would be reminded of some bizarre childhood memory—the blinding light reflecting off the snow would bring something to mind, or maybe the little tubs of jam and butter that come on a thick plate with her triangles of wheat toast. Whatever it is, it will be illuminated later on in the story, but now it's interrupted by the conversation of the man and woman at a neighboring table. They speak to one another as if they were having an intimate conversation in total privacy. Since the young couple and the mother are the only customers at the diner, their voices sound amplified and the mother quietly derails from her own train of thought and hangs onto the couple's conversation while she pretends to look out the window.
Haruki Marukami might have the couple talk about their missing cat. The wife loves the cat as she would her own child, she says, not excessively—and he's jealous, that's what she thinks. She wants to keep looking for the cat but he insisted on stopping for breakfast. Why else would he let the cat out in a snowstorm, she says, except to lash out at her. You think any emotion you can trigger you can just rework it into love.
He doesn't deny it. He says very calmly that there's no reason at all why she can't love both him and the cat at the same time, but for some reason she won't. She's emotionally stuck, like a record that keeps skipping back to the same refrain over and over until you have to move the needle by hand. He looks like he has just rolled out of bed, heavy-lidded with messy hair, and he yawns abruptly before sipping his coffee. If you're asking me if I have hope for us, he says, I do. Look, already there's movement. The cat's been gone only a few hours and already you've forced us out of the house. It wouldn't surprise me if you found your way back to me today.
"I felt nothing before, but now I'm pretty sure I hate you. That's all," the wife says, looking bored.
"That's just the beginning," he smiles.
Haruki Marukami would have the mother pay for the meal and have an enigmatic exchange of words with the waitress. She would leave a tip before stepping out into the bright snow to make her way through the tunneled sidewalk. The mother would walk up to her parked car and notice that there is still time left in the meter. She looks at her watch; it's already 7:45. He must have walked the full length of Linden Lane by now and could be almost anywhere, or nowhere. Probably he never even left his house this morning. Why should he?
Running Man is both predictable and anachronistic. Why does an old man who clutches a briefcase look so furious and impatient every morning and why does he always run? I've noticed that whenever he stumbles, on uneven pavement or a fallen branch, he makes up for lost time by trotting the next few steps. She knows when he's actually running because he pumps his arms. And then he mutters as the briefcase bangs against his leg.
There was an article I came across recently describing a strange neurological phenomenon. People afflicted with Parkinsonism, an incurable wasting disease, first exhibit rhythmic tremors of the fingers, hands, mouth, and so on. Like the most devastating battles, Parkinson's takes place internally, a black hole at the center of our interior cosmos. As the substantia nigra, that vital lump of black matter at the deepest core of our brain, gradually self-destructs and the brain is increasingly unable to communicate with the nervous system, victims' faces appear frozen and mask-like, revealing nothing of the inner life. Usually, you can recognize the walk of someone with Parkinson's by their halting shuffle. Their shoulders stoop and they drag their feet.
My uncle fit this description perfectly, and also experienced a symptom called "freezing gait." Freezing gait is exactly what it sounds like. One is suddenly interrupted in the act of walking and those who experience it describe a sensation of being glued to the spot, frozen in time until, eventually, mysteriously, they resume walking.
The article I read, however, discussed a different phenomenon I hadn't heard of before called "festinating gait." With this symptom of the disease, people are compelled to rush. There is a physical and emotional urgency that is irresistible and infuriating. Instead of shuffling or freezing, they break out into a run—even if there's nowhere in particular to go—and once they're off, there's no stopping them. Individuals are as trapped in their movement as they are in paralysis.
Seemingly disparate themes assemble—movement and paralysis, dreaming and waking, control and surrender, love and indifference—and one begins to wonder about the relationship of these opposites and consider the the whole coin rather than its two sides. In other words, aren't opposites simply two random dots linked by the same line? And if so, what might happen when we focus on the line rather than the dots?
Haruki Murakami might insert a cliffhanger here, maybe let us free fall for a while. Should we continue? Murakami wouldn't have to ask.