Between the breathe and the exhale, a thought enters his mind. “Breathe deep, the summit is upon us.” Greg knows not where the thought comes from. He is preoccupied with his lungs, opening and collapsing like an accordion chamber. Akin to a whisper in a crowded party, the thought barely registers. But Greg heeds the advice. He stops, straightens his back and follows the words his, yet not his own. Greg walks with purpose though the end is unclear. He follows the trail instinctively. Rather, the trail guides him.
The path began years ago, along alley ways with eighth-inch puddles, grey upon grey upon grey with an oil rainbow scattered across the surface. The alleys led toward concrete channels of greater, blinding gray – canvas’ for young men seeking to etch their name and neighborhood so the world will stop and take notice. The concrete banks led down into braided river bank bed long since dry. Follow that river bank through a canyon carved by glacial forces, time and a million like me: clueless to the cover of the Live Oak canopy, though grateful for the shade.
This morning he is not running those alleys. Nor is Greg climbing chain link that divides concrete. Greg is not ducking headlights while standing in the moss and toxic runoff of the eighth-inch deep river. This morning he is hiking, no, marching through the coastal scrub, then chaparral; unaware of the geography and its signs, save for the Yucca espina that reminds you to pay attention lest you neglect that which lay before.
Water springs forth from wells buried behind his eyes. With deep breath, Greg starts to choke. Not on the dust, but the memories.
Here, en route to Henniger Flats, he is by himself. But Greg is not alone. He cannot be alone with a clear mind and memories. And right now, this morning, Greg is crowded by their presence.
Their faces, voices, gestures and movements fade in and out, spasms of memory. Taking him away from the path, he is forced to see them clearly. Clean, he is no longer clouded by those things which make it easy to forget the news of Eduardo, dead in the day’s paper; the smile of Consuelo, who never awoke after the advice of a doctor; Oscar, shot down in broad daylight before he even had a chance to wait in line at the DMV.
Greg walks because, sometimes, there is nothing else to do. He cannot run any longer by sitting on a bench, a couch, a porch, a corner or in the alley. He cannot hide on the concrete channel or down in the dry river bank. Walking distances he wasn’t able before: Baldwin Park, Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, Pasadena, Altadena and now here, the Angeles crest.
During the hours from 9 to 5, it is safe. There is a job—a place to be. At that place there are things to do: preparation for the shift. Changing out of the jeans and high tops and into the uniform. Then the routine of work—square by square, yard by yard, sweep, mop, dry and repeat. Break for coffee and sandwich then back to the routine. Change out of the uniform, pant leg by pant leg, sleeve by sleeve and back into jeans and high tops. Then, on to class, meetings and self-work.
The 5:01 to 8:59 though, that’s… it’s not the 9 to 5. From his bus seat, he peers out the window. It’s not always places or streets, but choices that stare back. Why not, they tempt. Why not, Greg wonders to himself. He knows the real question: why?
So Greg walks. Starting from where he is, to today, the San Gabriels, high above Los Angeles.
Greg is choking. Can’t march and sob at once. He doubles over, hands on upper thighs, head near knees then looking out, lifting head, following the trail to the sky, back straight now, forward looking away and eventually back to self.
One by one, they are here, with Greg. Waiting. And alone, here, Greg cries. Here, he can cry, like he couldn’t on that thin cot with thin sheets behind thick walls.
Santa Anas come running the trail, causing Manzanita to tremble. Wind rustles leaves, which shimmer like fish scales beneath the surface: green hues with names he knows not —Forest, Kelly and Aqua. And down the summit to offer a greeting: Ehekatl.
The wind takes his tears. The wind does not wipe them. The wind does not dry them. The wind takes the tears back into the atmosphere where they will rain down elsewhere.
Then they are all gone. Greg is alone. Comforted and embraced by none but the breeze. Still alone. Not yet to the summit. Los Angeles spread out beneath. And behind, all he left.
Two more hours to the summit. Another three to down the hill. Two hours by the 71 and the Goldline. 17 hours to the next shift.
Until then, it’s just you and I: alone, Greg.