Joshua Hebburn ~ A Mental Exercise

There’s a girl out walk­ing her dog. I’m out walk­ing myself. I live in the sub­urbs at the foot of the San Gabriels. I don’t rec­og­nize her. She’s not one of the usu­als. I don’t see many peo­ple when I walk. She’s on one side of the street, I’m on the oth­er; we’re tak­ing the street at the same pace. It’s ear­ly. I look at the moun­tains, at the way they look dif­fer­ent from yes­ter­day. Today there’s a haze; yes­ter­day it was clear; today there’s less green than yes­ter­day, and I think of how the moun­tains are dry­ing out in the dry air. There’s some dessi­cat­ed peel­ing skin on my fin­gers, around the cuti­cles. The air is still cool, prick­ly. I look at the girl. I try to be dis­crete; I’m a well-built man, old­er. She’s wear­ing head­phones, the over the ear kind. She’s wear­ing a check­ered shirt. It’s a man’s shirt, maybe a boyfriend shirt, made of good mate­r­i­al. It makes her seem small. It’s plaid. I like the col­ors, dark blue and green, orange and yel­low, and a few dark red stripes, more sharply defined, set into the pat­tern to bring out the col­ors more strong­ly. It’s prob­a­bly a Pendleton shirt. I have one and this shirt reminds me of that one. We’re get­ting to the end of the street. Her breath comes out in puffs. Her dog is ahead of her. It’s small, white, and clean. The dog looks like a puff of breath. We’re walk­ing along this street in the sub­urbs at the foot of the San Gabriel moun­tains in Los Angeles. We don’t have any­thing to do with one anoth­er oth­er than a par­al­lel line. We might nev­er see one anoth­er again, though peo­ple who walk here often know one anoth­er in the way of peo­ple who are often in pass­ing. We might rec­og­nize one anoth­er in the clumps of peo­ple smok­ing and talk­ing and hold­ing beers around the big glow­ing kid­ney shaped pool at a birth­day par­ty, or in line at a Starbucks, or on a crowd­ed bus when we both glance at a man being abnor­mal, and not know where the recog­ni­tion came from, not remem­ber­ing we once were on the same street, walk­ing. We might exchange opin­ions about where a but­ton ought to be on a man’s jack­et coat in a com­ment sec­tion on the inter­net, total­ly gen­der­less and anony­mous except for what we’ve cho­sen to be. Say you’re out get­ting some exer­cise. You look across the street and see a girl who’s also walk­ing in a way you might describe as along­side you.  You try to look at her but not to stare. You notice her shirt, which is plaid. It’s not a checker­board plaid, or a plaid that makes you think of a man doing an accent, quot­ing “Braveheart” or “The Highlander” : “Tasteful,” or some­thing like it, is what you might say. Say you feel the cold. Say you look at the moun­tains, which are nice. Say you notice her breath is vis­i­ble in the air. Say you look at her dog, which seems like a puff of breath in the air. There was a girl out walk­ing her dog. I was out walk­ing. I want­ed to be health­i­er and calmer. I lived at the foot of the San Gabriels. While I walked, I lis­tened to music, and looked at the moun­tains. I looked at the way they looked that day. I didn’t rec­og­nize the girl. She wasn’t one of the usu­al cou­ples, or retired peo­ple, or dog walk­ers. She was on one side of the street, and I was on the oth­er, and we walked in par­al­lel. I tried to be dis­creet in my look­ing at her. I was a well-built man, into my thir­ties. She was younger. Her twen­ties, maybe. She had that look that made me feel like she was a kid com­pared to me, but not real­ly a kid. She wore a plaid shirt. It was thick and boxy, I thought that’s a man’s shirt. It made her seem small. The pat­tern of the shirt was woven so that the over­lap was soft, more musi­cal or painter­ly, not geo­met­ri­cal, yel­lows and oranges and dark­er blues and greens. We were com­ing to the end of the street. She was blonde and her hair was up enor­mous­ly in a black scrunchie. She had head­phones on, over the ear head­phones, also black. I think of these as “fuck off” head­phones. Her breath came out in puffs. The dog was small and white. It trot­ted ahead of her. It was like a puff of breath vis­i­ble for an instant in the cold. I saw the coyote.


Joshua Hebburn is an assis­tant fic­tion edi­tor at X‑R-A‑Y. His fic­tion has appeared recent­ly in HAD and Back Patio and is forth­com­ing in Vlad Mag. He rec­om­mends Glen Porciau’s sto­ry “Mr. One” from the New World Writing archive.