Sommer Schafer

Allowing for the wind, I figured I was on a roll, which is what being solidly in your forties allows for. A sincere acquiescence to absolute mediocrity. Hands relaxed, weight in heels, one foot in front of the other, and repeat, down the wrinkled sidewalk that runs between the freeway and the bay.

I’m going out for a “runwalk,” I tell my family after dinner, but it’s only ever a jog. A persistent pounding down a path that is in the process of remaining exactly as it seems. Not the intriguing narrow entry point to a future horizon that appears hopeful, magical even, farther on past the marsh and the pockets of salty ponds. Jogging out, the sulfur-salt smell of the shallow bay pushes against my right cheek and seeps into that side of my body. If the tide is out, the mudflats resonate and stink. The great white egrets somehow take to it at those times, up to their ankles in mud, poking through it as if they, it, all of it were nirvana.

The bay subsumes everything around it. Upon me even as I leave it, even as it appears resolute there in silver over the mudflats.

Yes, I was on a roll, though I was jogging slowly. Still, my body was fighting the wind, and the setting sun was in my eyes, and if I were some kind of extraordinary, it might have been then.

The Canada geese that are always there upon the grassy, fat peninsula that languidly rounds into the bay were there again, and with them their young ones still gray and ridiculously fluffy, acting as if life were nothing but a great big present. In two more weeks, I would not find them — would have to assume they were now among the fully-grown pack that courses through the bay, breast-by-breast, tail-to-head. Every time I pass, I want to send my heart out to them. I want to love them for being alive. And to the little white egrets stalking in the grimy, trash-strewn trench between the freeway and the path, who do this thing with their feet where they vibrate the ground, make the muddy water ripple, bringing forth whatever they hunt. And to the occasional great blue heron perching on the docks or the farthest corners of a houseboat. Entire colonies of houseboats (those last vestiges of the crazy hippie days) are hunkered down in the bay, with their colorful paintjobs and flying flags and metal art and cracked flowerpots full of dying-on-the-way-to-recovery succulents lining swaybacked docks being sucked into the sea.

After all, the hippies just wanted to find the truth of the value of love. Could love eliminate nuclear weapons? And could love fight the devil? And would love save humans from hate and violence and greed and insanity? It was all noble and just, pure and god-like. And yet. Without contour.

I jogged past, forward, into the wind, the setting sun.

But did I marry the right person, was the question, and knowing that it had taken me this long to realize I had not had a great upbringing and should have chosen the career before the children, and my mother was constantly, constantly, assuming the center, and my siblings would only want me in my place, and I should have pleased others less and myself more instead of nodding, nodding as I had been taught. Well, would there be any recompense? And would one learn to outlive such rumblings, such whirling accumulations? And surely there was a lesson in it all, buried at the heart.

Yesterday, I listened to my son work on his Bach and play Tcherepnin’s Bagatelle as if it were nothing, of which it is not. It is the most something anything could be. My daughter is frustrated that she lost her kip in gymnastics, but she will work at it until she gets it, and then she will stretch out on her bed and read until the sun goes down. She will fill her sketchpads with drawings of dragons and mice in armor and boy is she something.

The best part about my route is just past the overpass (under which the path falls into salty darkness, occasional piles of seaweed as if pulled up, dragged and deposited there by some rebellious marsh monster), where the freeway veers up and away, and what is left is sky and path and marsh wrought with crisp-edged grasses and sea. This is where the sounds of the freeway vanish, where there is only marsh and water and sky, Mt. Tam straight ahead, the path leading to distant bridges that I reach and cross and reach and cross again.

The latest shooting in our low-income neighborhood came a couple nights ago. Duh-duh-duh-duh. We heard the shots, just in bed, 10:30 pm. Semi-automatic. A man on the ground. “I’m so tired of these motherfuckers,” the man down the block tells me. His uncle was shot and killed on that corner several decades ago. “Right there,” he points, his arm rigid, finger trembling. “My daughter left as soon as she could.” People in our neighborhood scurry, if they’re out at all. No one lingers, really, unless. “Oh, it’s completely safe,” the rich woman tells our peers with a snort. She tutors in the neighborhood, gets behind all the right petitions, voted for Obama, fundraises exquisitely. When her tutoring session is over (it’s some struggling middle school boy whom she “just adores,” who has “incredible potential”), she hops into her Tesla and drives to her ocean-view home in the hills.

I persisted, perhaps picking up the pace. The bay, raucous, on one side, and on the other, wide tufted mudflats pocked by ponds and veined through by creeks upon which harlequin ducks, wigeons, teals, and goldeneyes threw up their bottoms to search for food under the surface. When I crossed the first bridge, the river of the estuary rushed like a fist against the incoming tide. It was obvious, spitting itself right back out against the salty current and one against the other and the river was winning, though still that wavering section where both seemed to hug the other and, momentarily, let be.

This inner ear problem wakes me up at night, and the vertigo has, at times, been debilitating. Too severe. Too too too. I used to sleep through the night all the time, like a fish in water, and can you even imagine that.

I ran. The wind had shifted to my left. I raised my feet, relaxed my fingers. The bad hip, the achy knee, the herniated discs, simply familiar. They would shorten only me, not my life. And whether my heart would give out this time or the next or the next after like so many relatives’ and my father’s at fifty-five, well, whether, is all. I could have gone forever, I suppose, that unimpressive pace. I passed red-legged stilts and another family of geese. A killdeer came veering loudly to my right. A swallow descended, lifted, looped and returned over the grassy flats. Had I ever seen a swallow this close to the bay before? Didn’t they prefer hot fields and dry hills, forests deep in summer, abandoned railroad overpasses.

Far ahead, two people holding hands stopped in the middle. And for a moment I hoped they wouldn’t get hit by a speeding bicycle, for they seem to come out of nowhere around here, commanded by spandex-clad people so very serious, ruthless, in their intent. They must realize, I thought about the couple, that they must move to the side! And yet, and still with many, many feet between us, and no bicyclists in sight, they did just the opposite. At once separate against the darkening sky, and then together. As if one body.

When I approached, but with plenty of time still, they held each other arms wrapped all the way around, standing on the yellow line in the middle. They absolutely clung to each other, wholly, entirely. There was no time.

And then they separated, hands connected, and walked to the dirt along the side where they drew closer to the mudflats and ponds and the bay water filling, winding around and through the grasses where avocets and stilts still stood, hunting in the silvering light.

I passed. I thought of their embrace, how all-consuming it was.

I too have been there, wanting to climb inside the warm chest of my husband and hold on. Other times, to burrow into my bed like a hot, digging mammal. To stay there until the seasons pass.

I turned to the bay for a moment, smelled salt and decay. The wind rushed up my nose, filled my eyes. I ran against it, but with a tenderness for it because, wow, there it was.

What a great gyre of plastic winds and wavers dumbly in the oceans. Whirling. Filling whales’ stomachs; entrapping turtles and dolphins and cormorants and species we will never discover before they’re gone; clinching off body parts and organs like cut butter. Spilling guts through skin and feathers grown soft from decay. Infection. The water warm and sour. And the sonar, all the other sounds that the military employ off the coasts to practice to be ready for more war. It must be like insanity, under the waves. And the forests and the air and the soil, the caves and the deserts and the rivers and the lakes and most everything else to which we are laying ruin.

I came to my turnaround, which is that spot where some group has erected wooden poles to show how much of the area will be under water in twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years. Which is all of it by many increasing feet. And I am always grateful for those poles. Not because it is where I turn, but for showing the truth.

I checked for crazy bicyclists. I turned.

The wind, Mt. Tam slathered with darkening forest, the gone sun, all fell to my back. The path ahead in dimness, leading only ahead. The ponds and mudflats, the grasses washed through with cold salty water, empty and darkening. The couple walked my way, as if not in the process of leaving.

Sommer Schafer’s latest stories are in Rivet, Cold Mountain Review, Monday Night, Boulevard, Hobart, North American Review (a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2019), Catapult, The Carolina Quarterly and Fiction. She is senior editor of The Forge Literary Magazine. Visit her at