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A Prisoner of Habit

by Charles C. Cole

I am a creature of routine; structure defines me. I am neither proud nor embarrassed, though I am aware of an underlying vulnerability in this overreliance on forces outside my influence. Still, there is an inner peace in knowing life’s dependable sequence of events. Trash collection is on Thursdays. Expired food is disposed of promptly. I push away from my desk at four every afternoon, rain or shine. If I shake a canned carbonated drink, opening it will cause a mild explosion.

Nearly every morning on my usually mundane drive to work, at a point a little over three miles from my modest bedroom community, I take a left turn off the busy two-lane country highway that runs the entire width of the state. I cruise down Brookside Drive, a shortcut of sorts, certainly a quieter surface road. I glance at the clock in the dashboard — always 7:45 — and decompress a little.

The neighborhood throughway has plenty of pot-holes, a sign that the street isn’t significant enough to be on the radar of anyone important and is still lightly trafficked and semi-secret to the uninitiated. I pass a well-established state-funded halfway house for adults not equipped to care for themselves, with a long and full parking lot.

The house lots here are large enough that boundary-minded citizens know not to feel crowded or intruded upon by society. And there is one steep driveway where a large plastic skeleton sits comfortably in a tall white lifeguard chair beside the entrance, promoting a quirky antique shop, It tells me that differences are tolerated here and that we aren’t far off the beaten track after all.

It is here that I pass the trim, behatted silver-haired man briskly walking his little black, pointy-eared dog, perhaps an Australian shepherd mix. The man is walking on my side of the road, towards me, his chin held high. He wears a loose, zippered red wind breaker and khaki ballcap. The dog’s tail is straight up, wagging like a bone detector. I always wave, briefly and politely, and the man always nods. Through circumstances of habit, we have become part of each other’s weekday morning agenda.

Therefore, one Monday when he is absent, something is “askew” inside me. Perhaps he’s overslept or is out of town or has taken ill. Is it me? Am I early or late? But, no, I’m right on schedule. Where is he?

At work, my twenty-something manager notes that I appear “on edge.” I absentmindedly put a blue marker pen into my shirt pocket, without the cap. The next day, again without my pedestrian sighting, I take a rushed lunch and turn too quickly into a grocery store parking lot, bending my wheelrim against an unforgiving curb, gaining a flat tire for my efforts. The absent stranger has unexpectedly rattled my otherwise calm existence. Whatever his reasons, he has not considered the dire repercussions.

The next day, in self-defense, I travel an alternate route; I take the state highway three more miles. Traffic is stop and go, often crawling, and we are delayed by an additional five traffic lights, I suppose, meant to manage the flow but only provoking more impatience and even honking. The people around me know they are not in control of their commute. Some make rash adjustments by running red lights. Some clearly consider the double-yellow line separating the opposing lane a mere suggestion. They are frustrated, gesticulating wildly behind the wheel, traveling in high dudgeon. I feel their pain. If this is empathy, I want none of it.

I consider options. I envy my fellow drivers hidden behind darkly tinted windows. I wonder, for the first time, what it’s like to telecommute, to work from home. Is there any sense to starting work earlier or leaving later to avoid rush-hour syndrome? Do I really have viable alternatives?

On Saturday morning, I get up when I would normally sleep in. I drive to this man’s neighborhood and I park on the side of the road. I don’t know which house is his. I will approach the first person I see. I will find answers. I am living the effect, so I must know the cause.

A woman steps out to retrieve a newspaper from her front porch. She is about his age, his complexion, his level of fitness, as if these things have relevance. I step out of my car and call to her. “Excuse me!”

She hesitates. “Yes? May I help you?”

“If only you can,” I begin. I explain.

“I know who you mean: Mr. Barrows. Three doors down, same side of the street. We weren’t close. Heart attack. Completely unexpected. I’m sorry. He was probably in better physical shape than most of us. I think his first attack was about ten years ago. The morning walk was part of his countermeasures. Not enough, I guess.”

“Who’s walking his dog?” I ask. “I haven’t seen it when I drive by.”

“I really don’t know. That’s a good question. Of course, some dogs give up at a time like this.”

“Can you find out and email me?” I give her my business card. “I never met him, but I did see him and his dog every morning. They seemed to be a team.” I add a thought to myself: They were inspirational.

“My husband probably knows,” she says. “Wait here.” She’s gone but a minute. When she returns, I can’t believe she’s had time enough for a conversation. “If he’s still alive, you might try the shelter. The widow isn’t a dog person.”

I get in my car and go to the shelter, right then. They are twenty minutes from opening when I get there. The dog’s name is “Brighty” and he’s six. He’s confused and distressed and more than willing to leave with me. At my home, I learn he’s never been trained to go upstairs, so I sleep in the spare bedroom on the ground floor and set the alarm for our morning walk.

Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole

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