Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005. Bill has a non-fiction piece "Better Than Flowers" featured in the September 2014 issue of IVJ.
The Heart Of The City
Starting my daily get-away-from-it-all-and-get-back-to-the-basics outing, I stop on top of the 30-foot levee, notice the man in the shade under the Fifth Street Bridge, then simply forget that I'm not here alone because the main attraction, the Great Miami River, surprises me yet again. Though it's always the same, it's also constantly changing. Today its change is obvious, stressing its strength, rushing as if with a pulse, swollen after the night's heavy rain, gurgling as if it were trying to speak.
It also seems brighter than usual, reflecting the sun just behind me. A sun that throws my own small shadow ahead so it leads me, stepping down the steep concrete steps to the bottom. Here, close to the water, a rich earthy smell lets me know that, although crowded buildings and traffic surround me, I'm outside, I'm in the wilderness, I'm prey to the sky, wind, water, and weather.
I believe Nature is drawing me here, my own nature and the world's, the untamed wildness, not the pre-colonial wild of course, but the same complex, invisible system prevalent then, still strong enough to strangle or nurture us all.
As if to prove this idea, a shadow slides over the water so I look up behind me to witness a lone kestrel soaring. The bird is gliding above the short grass on the levee side, riding a wind that I barely feel. Such graceful movements, I think of Hopkins' "The Windhover." This one is searching for voles, searching for sustenance, being itself, basically doing what I might be doing myself, coming here.
I bend over and pick up a dandelion in full bloom, the most common of flowers, notice its complex, balanced bloom, then imagine how in the past I've held one up in a mirror to see its yellow reflection under my chin. Almost unconsciously, I carry it before me like a talisman, carefully between thumb and fingers so as not to crush its tubular stem, walking 40 feet north, crossing under the bridge to check the outlet from a four-foot storm sewer, watching closely ahead where I'll step to avoid patches of mud.
As expected, many large carp are there, schooling where the drainage from the city streets and the school that employs me creates a clear deep pool with a strong enough outflow to fend off the darker, brown silted river.
Then there's "Hey!"
The man I noticed and forgot has emerged from under the bridge and is approaching, following me. The way he's smiling, I wonder if it's because he's been watching me dawdle. Is he thinking how oddly romantic I am, a soft aberration of an urbanite who's whiling his noontime away, escaping some frantic office nearby? Though I self-consciously drop the flower, I point, intending to show him my fish, but something about his smiling stops me.
Instead I rehearse other comments. My impulse is to explain how being here always reminds me of Dayton's great flood, 1913, over a hundred years ago this week. He might like to imagine with me how thirty feet above where we stand was the river's surface then. How the currents back then tore past so madly right here, at least thirteen people drowned. How a fully loaded coal train parked on that very trestle just south of us saved the bridge, holding it fast through the flood.
I'm about to start saying all that when he speaks. "You got any money? I haven't eaten in days." Or something like that.
Within arm's reach now, his features are clear. How obtuse can I be? I misjudged him entirely. His smile's just the glow from a bottle. I can smell it on his breath. He wants money for liquor. I hadn't noticed his disheveled clothes and his manner before.
I feel disappointed and show him the empty pockets of my jacket and shorts. "Sorry, I don't carry money when I exercise. I have nothing to give you."
Then I start jogging, escaping, beginning my circular route north, moving slowly upstream, leaving the man behind.
But I feel guilty, having lied, having not given him any of the rolled-up five ones in the waterproof pouch attached to my short's elastic. Money in case an emergency occurs and I need cash to get back. This guilt deadens my feelings so what I notice is the debris on the high water's edge. Trash that will wash ashore and stay there, sort of like that man, sort of like me.
What should I have done? What comes to my mind and won't leave me is love. Jogging there on the bike trail alongside the river that cuts through the heart of the city, the sun warm on my bare legs, I think that love is the most mysterious and powerful force rushing through us, pulling us forward the way time does, but sometimes casting us off, leaving us alone on the bank.