I took my first walk in five days, after a long rain spell. The clouds still lingered, and the river was muddy and thick, and a north wind kept the mosquitoes at bay. On north windy days, you can hear the whistle of the Abraham Lincoln train pulling into Alton, six miles away.
On August 1, 1969, I was packing to move to Chicago, not a clue as to how my young life would be completely altered. In four years from that day, I would be playing Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and married to Barbara, and in fourteen years from that day my first play would open Off-Broadway in New York. None of that could I have imagined. Everything I have ever done, unpolished and imperfect, meant that I was born with gifts. I thought of that boy today, but I hardly recognized him.
I climbed Illini Trail Road, and at the top was a very old lady in a calf-length pink nightgown and old-fashioned hair curlers. She was bent at the waist and talking at someone very small, unseen and quiet, behind her hedges. As I came around the corner, I saw a calico cat sitting on her driveway, its tail swishing, the feline receiver of the conversation, and they were quite the couple.
I walked through the woods along the creek, and I was followed. By a monologist dressed as a mockingbird. Mockingbirds are performers, and they need an audience. This fellow trilled and squeaked and cawed and hooted and flew treetop to treetop by my side. The more I didn’t look up, the more the bird expelled its song stylings. I tried answering with some feeble whistles, but a mockingbird can out-caw a crow and out-tweet a finch any day, much less a pale whistler.
The forest is home to several pileated woodpeckers, which one rarely sees, but there is no mistaking the jackhammer sound and fury of a pileated. And there were catbirds mewing and, incongruously, chipmunks “tock-ing,” “tock-tock-tock,” their signature warning tongue click against sharp teeth, that tells the colony that a predator is nearby. They are highly successful, seventy million years old as a species, which means they walked among the dinosaurs.
Small is better.
I have to stop every half mile or so, to manipulate my right kneecap which keeps dislocating and which is headed for replacement. People see me pressing my knee inward to straighten it and count to forty, and they assume something is wrong. And something is indeed wrong—hands and back and right knee damaged from arthritis, and the only way out of pain is to receive robotic parts. At the halfway point, I stretch for ten minutes, back arched and hands on the ground and Achilles tendons pulled and calf muscles rubbed and neck manipulated and spine popped.
I regularly ask myself why I do all this. Dr. Brown, my heart guy, on our Zoom exam the other day: “Well, you do it because it is abating your heart disease.” Ah. I am abating. Abate, ablute, abstruse, absorb, abjure, abnegate—all in a day’s work.
Then I get home and ice the knee and tweak the quads and stretch the hams and tickle the floor with shaky fingertips and pet the cat who walks between my legs and thinks the whole routine is a game. If I didn’t do all that, you would be reading the Shut-in Chronicles, and how my journey to the toilet began with a single shuffle and ended with a trickling urine stream.
I suddenly understood today, why there are mockingbirds and mocking Republicans and mocking, maskless people: to keep one on one’s toes. It keeps you in the game. Mad is matter. I am reminded by Mr. Aristotle that inaction is an action, that “to be or not to be” is indeed the most profound of questions. And there are chipmunks, infinitely more successful than are we, who love murder.
Soon I will be a player in the cemetery of Grover’s Corners in “Our Town,” and so will you, commenting on the follies of youth. It would be a miracle if you read a missive I wrote from there, proof of an afterlife. Thinking of the old lady in the pink nightgown I saw today: there is always someone older than you.
Until there isn’t.