There is an old woman who lives near us. She wears a wide-brimmed sun hat with a mesh crown and pushes an aluminum walker ahead of her. We see her on the River Trail, sometimes on very hot days. She says nice things to our dogs. She has one of those voices, reedy and raspy at once, that confounds my understanding, but I somehow know what she is saying. She is cheerful and patient.
I have worked out that she often takes the bus to the grocery store in Levy. It seems that whenever I ride my bicycle in a certain direction at a certain time I will see her, but I only ride my bicycle that way sometimes, so my evidence is anecdotal and non-scientific.
A short digression: A neighbor graciously gave me a bicycle to replace the one that was stolen, so I was able to return the bike I'd borrowed indefinitely from a friend. I'm afraid at first I ungraciously protested that it was too generous a gift, but we have worked it out now. I should have just said "thank you."
Some of you also offered me bicycles. Thank you. My doctor says he thought about calling me to offer one of his. I told him I was full up on bicycles now. He shrugged and said most cyclists had more than one bike, and were eager to enroll new members in the society. I don't know about that, but I do know people can be kind.
(By the way, the lease is up on my car in March.)
Anyway, I see this woman and she makes me smile, in part because I attribute to her certain qualities. People do this, we make up stories to try to force sense into a random-seeming world. So I see her as brave and optimistic, a person who has survived a long life and acquired something like wisdom. I attribute to her qualities I don't know that she possesses, I've imbued her with a fictive personality. I imagine she once had a husband, that her children live far away and don't call as often as they should but she forgives them.
She is a vague source of comfort; I look forward to seeing her. And if a month passes and I don't see her, I will worry until I see her again, or else forget her until some shrapnel detail--a glint of metal in my peripheral gaze--slams into me and I wonder whatever became of the old woman who cooed in her strange but calming language at our dogs?
And I will presume I know what happened to her and will mourn a little, more for myself and the inevitable than for someone I didn't and, given my limitations, maybe couldn't know.
I have never made friends easily, and am OK with that.
I have friends enough, and people I care for, and more people of whom I am fond. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I imagine I am very good at hiding my disapproval, for I was brought up with manners, in a time when polite hypocrisy was considered preferable to aggressive honesty.
I used to believe I was shy, but some people draw a distinction between shyness and introversion. It's not that dealing with other people causes some kind of psychological pain, it's just that I can spend hours lost in a book or in my own head, noodling with a guitar or playing with software.
Obviously, my introversion has not been debilitating; but I understand how fortunate I have been to find my way through to a place of relative peace and comfort. I don't particularly like crowds, but manage them.
But I cannot be smug about that; we all have seen how quickly norms can collapse. Everything is fragile, every relationship, every institution, even our planet. Every statue will be overturned in time.
You live in a place long enough and everything becomes haunted; the ghosts of the replaced shimmer behind the new silhouettes. There used to be a ballpark where the parking lot stands, there used to be a movie theater somewhere around here, remember the White-Haired Bum and Dirty Walking Man and Big Wheel Jesus rebel-yelling down that Capitol View hill?
Remember the couple that used to walk their dogs down Kavanaugh? Where did they go?
Five months in and what I worry about more than anyhing else is the lonely people, the divorced, the widowed, the never-matched, the ones who live far from where they grew up and the people who reared them. I worry about those who were isolated before this plague settled in, who might even have taken the social distancing mandates as a relief. I worry about those whose strongest relationships are parasocial, who connect through screens with profiles and avatars.
I worry about those who were already living mostly in their own heads. As though we aren't all trapped there, as insulated and isolated as an astronaut in a spacesuit.
All of us perceive the world through filters; it is probably true that no living creature can stand reality undiluted. There is likely no species that doesn't dream, that doesn't in some way delude itself that its existence is not futile or that, in some wordless way, does not have faith in its own immortality.
Our worlds are smaller now; trips have been canceled--they don't want us in Europe or Canada.
The next class I teach will be via Zoom; I have to prop an iPad up next to my laptop to try to keep up with messages from colleagues (I still miss 80 percent of them). Yet things still get done, newspapers still publish, the world grinds on, propelled by forces beyond our ken. One day we might look back on this disruption--this slow-motion car crash--and marvel at how we lived through it, if we live through it.
Or we might find it hard to remember how it was before we became so aware of what lingers in our air; back when people didn't know enough to keep their distance, when strangers might brush against each other thoughtlessly and humanity might pack together to observe civic rituals in stadiums and arenas.
It has been a couple of days since I've seen our lady of the sun hat; I need to see her again. I need her to bless our dogs. I need to know her name.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.