What I Think About When I’m Walking

Murali Kamma

- Murali Kamma 

The oddest thoughts pop into my head when I step out for a walk, which, contrary to what I’ve heard, doesn’t stimulate my creativity. Rather than dwell on my fiction, I think about food, with my grocery shopping list and dinner taking precedence over a running dialogue—or plot and character development. Thought for food, you could say. 
I also wonder about other random stuff. Why, for instance, am I one of the few walkers here without a dog on a leash? Okay, now is the time to alienate folks with a confession: I’m not a fan of dogs. Still haunted by childhood memories of yapping canines chasing my bike in alleyways, I seldom go near even a harmless-looking dog, let alone stroke it. Sensing my wariness, dogs growl when they see me, especially when I cross the street to avoid them.  
My unusual behavior, which includes a tendency to keep my head down, makes some people in our neighborhood think I’m a little stuck-up, my wife tells me. Let them call me an odd duck, I want to say, finding the animal metaphor irresistible. But what I tell her instead is that I’m not being rude, at least intentionally, and my preoccupied demeanor is due to anxiety over the story I’m working on. I have a block when I walk. As for not being a dog-lover, I add how boyhood scars—psychological, not physical—can linger in adulthood.   
No need to say that, my wife says. May sound awkward. But smile when you see somebody and try not to look down so much.
I practice my smile in the bathroom mirror. Looks like a grimace, frankly.
On my next walk, when I see a familiar dog and the owner coming towards me, I don’t cross the street. Confused, the dog barks. The man, appearing embarrassed, pulls on the leash and gives me a friendly—or apologetic—wave. I smile . . . or is it a grimace? He’s one of the good pet owners, so I have nothing against him. Unlike a few sneaky walkers I’ve seen late in the evening, he carries a bag conspicuously and cleans up after his dog. 
I should put animals in my fiction—not as props but as characters with meaningful roles. An estrangement from the nonhuman world is deeply problematic in the era of climate change, and many authors—including one who calls it “the great derangement”—urge fiction writers to be less myopic. The obsessive focus on human relationships can seem like navel-gazing, I suppose, when there’s a planetary crisis. My daily walk, I’m well aware, is little more than navel-gazing. Will environmental fiction—or cli-fi, to use the abbreviation for climate fiction preferred by some—catch on widely as a genre? I hope it does.
Fiction featuring talking animals isn't my thing, to be honest, though I enjoyed the animal fables and stories I read as a child. I’m sure there are other meaningful ways to write about the nonhuman world. I could start by paying closer attention to nature and, like poets, use more imagery. Easier said than done. Using clichés—my default position, requiring less energy—is another problem. Rewriting is the solution. What about rewiring? Reading better prose is bound to be helpful, and I also have to make a greater effort with poetry, which I shamefully neglect. There are many things I want to do; unfortunately, I seem to find just as many excuses.   
My stomach clenches and I stop. Having reached the street behind our local high school, I see a sleeping baby in an unattended stroller on a driveway near the mailbox. There’s nobody around. Coming closer, I’m relieved to see that it’s a life-like doll, not a baby. It probably belongs to a little girl living in the house, and an adult will no doubt retrieve it sooner or later. A new story starts forming in my head. I’m contradicting myself, so let me be clear. Creative thoughts do come to me when I walk, but they’re disjointed and seem to be more about avoiding the story I’m trying to write before I leave for work every weekday morning. 
Anyway, as my new story opens, the narrator notices something strange. Young adults in his neighborhood are, increasingly, pushing strollers with dolls in them. What’s going on? If they’re parents, as they seem to be, where are their babies? Or is it possible that, since these adults can’t have children for reasons that I still need to figure out, they’re raising ghoulish dolls as their kids? Is childlessness a local problem or a wider phenomenon? Will these dolls become sentient, and what are the ramifications? The questions begin to overwhelm me. Plus, the school—where I’m able to use the outdoor track after students leave for the day—triggers a fantasy centering on my preoccupations. This is another hazard on my walks.
I start fantasizing that a teacher at the school, having read my stories, has invited me to talk to her class on the craft of short fiction. Remember the six P’s and six R’s, I say, pleased that I’ve found a succinct, easy-to-remember method for my lesson. Turning to the blackboard, I write: People, Plot, Place, Problem, Purpose, and POV. Gratified that some students are jotting it down, I add: The words characters, theme, setting, conflict, resolution, and point of view are another way of stating the six P’s. The six R’s are, I say before returning to the blackboard, Read, Record, Routine, and . . . dramatic pause . . . Revise, Rewrite, Revise! 
Who is it that said fiction is illusive, allusive, and elusive? A poet, most likely. Although I don’t say that I want to end my little talk by mentioning V, the hard-to-explain but crucial voice that helps to tie it all together and carry the reader along. 
My time is up, though, and the scene shifts abruptly. It’s as if a film is unspooling in my head. I’ve reached the top of a staircase, after crossing the parking lot, and the school’s outdoor track looms below me like a giant bowl. Or maybe it’s the sky above—now daubed in a bold mix of orange, yellow, and red—that’s a bowl. The six-lane track is ringed by trees that appear, given the fall colors, as if they’ve been casually painted. It feels like the set of a film by Ozu, who was known for his brilliant use of color. 
Does the imagery work? This is the kind of stuff I should be grappling with, I think, going down the stairs in the fading light to join the few walkers still on the track. Before entering a lane, I wave at the man behind me. I’m mortified when he ignores me, but then I notice that he’s fully absorbed in an audio recording. Did the dim light play a role? Not sure, but I wish my wife had come with me. See, I’d have said, I’m not the only one who’s trapped in my little world when walking. The difference is that instead of a podcast, an audio book, or a playlist, I’m listening to my own thoughts. 
I doubt she’d have been impressed by the explanation.
On one occasion while walking, I stopped a man I know casually to exchange pleasantries. Surprised at first, he looked at me uncomprehendingly. Only after he hit pause on his phone did he realize that I was speaking to him. No longer puzzled, he smiled. 

A few tall trees, with the sun sinking behind them, look as if they’re on fire. [A quick note to myself: Learn the names of trees and plants.] It’s late autumn—which, incidentally, is the title of an Ozu film. Other titles include the words spring and summer, but not winter. The silence is broken by the sound of crunching leaves. Darkness envelops me by the time I finish my second round. There’s nobody else on the track, and I decide to go home. Early Winter or Late Winter would be a good title for a short story, I think, surrendering again to this inexplicable desire to come up with a new story rather than focus on the present one. Thankfully, it happens only when I’m walking. 
At my desk, with just the computer screen or a writing pad in front of me, I’m able to concentrate—and I know why! It’s not because the door is closed, the blinds are down, and I have only the four walls to look at. This realization excites me. You see, while I don’t listen to music when I’m walking, I do play my CDs when I’m writing. Maybe that’s the key. Of course, streaming is more suitable for walks. My daughter—away at college—is baffled that I continue to add audio CDs to my overflowing racks in the basement. While vinyl records are trendy and have some cachet, CDs seem outdated. Speaking of streaming, it did change my viewing habits. For a long time, I didn’t even know that Ozu had made so many films. And then, magically, most of his post-silent-era films became accessible at the touch of a few buttons. 
Watching an Ozu film, one enters a bewitching world—and his sensibility and style (voice?) are so distinctive that it doesn’t take long to realize that rules are unimportant. So much for my six P’s and six R’s. But why did Ozu resist color until his studio forced him to change course? Habits are sticky, as we know. Why am I surprised? Can you use all three points of view at the same time? Sure. Breaking a rule could be just as important as following the rules.
On my way back, while the moon has disappeared behind clouds, the illuminated houses provide enough light to guide me. Earlier, the clouds looked like the torsos of sheep, to use a terrific simile I remember reading somewhere. Is it okay to filch such expressions from other writers? Why not, again, as long as it’s done responsibly and the context is different. Composers are not averse to quoting from other musical works. Is this any different?

Finally, I’m on my street. Before going on my walk, I made dinner—an exaggeration, perhaps, because what I mostly did was heat up stuff in the microwave. I have to work on my cooking skills—it’s not my forte, as my wife agrees. Regretfully (not regrettably), here are a few more things I’m not good at: playing an instrument, gardening, playing any sport.   
The closest I come to playing an instrument is when I type at my desk. Pretending that I’m a pianist, I hammer away at my keyboard as the music—an orchestral or jazz composition—blares from my stereo speakers. My fantasies don’t occur only when I’m walking. It's all a little silly because, invariably, I make mistakes in my draft. But it can also be diverting, allowing me to endure the tedium of typing a long passage that’s too familiar. 
I’ve long accepted that I’m not a fox who knows many things, but can’t I at least be a hedgehog who knows one thing well? Animals, again, though the reference here is really to a famous essay by . . . unfortunately, his name eludes me. But I do recall that his last name is also the name of a European capital. London? No. Could be Berlin . . . yes, I think it’s Berlin.
For his full name, I’ll turn to googling, which is what I often do at home when I can’t remember something. Lower case is better, I’ve heard, when Search Engine becomes searching. Google is God. Another cliché, but I recall how impressed I was when I first came across it. Now comes AI, which I hear will become the new god. AI is Almighty! I like this neologism and feel modestly proud (is that an oxymoron?) that I came up with it. 
Back to Ozu, who has become a bit addictive lately. It was by googling that I discovered he’d made only six color films, a few of them being remakes of his earlier black-and-white films. Maybe I’ll watch one tonight after my wife goes to bed, although what I should do is read more. I’m a night owl, unlike my wife, but the problem is that I can’t write in the late hours. Or even read enough, it seems. I’m still working on this nocturnal tug-of-war between reading and watching. Usually, after my wife goes to sleep, I head to the spare bedroom with my book. But after some time, inevitably, I reach for the remote control—or remote controls, because I need two of them to access the streaming channels. 
Then there’s my tablet, which is within reach for browsing and looking up things. And I haven’t said anything about my cellphone, which is also close by for exchanging texts with folks who live in other time zones. Goodness! Why do I even bother writing—or trying to write? I’m just as devoted to my gadgets as the people around me. I don’t think I’ll ever get to those dense classics on my whining (not groaning) bookshelves. The decline in reading continues even as book production increases. I’m comforted by that thought, oddly enough, because I don’t have to worry about a target audience. I write because I want to write. 
Or perhaps I feel comforted because I’ve reached home. The porch light comes on automatically, as if a security guard has noted my presence and is allowing me to enter. Is that a good way to put it? Who knows. I open the door. My wife is back, and it’s time for dinner. 

Bio: Murali Kamma is the author of Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World (Wising Up Press), which won an Independent Publisher Book Award. His fiction has appeared in HavikEvening Street ReviewRosebudMaryland Literary ReviewBigCityLitThe Wise Owl, The Apple Valley Review, and other journals. He's the managing editor of Atlanta-based Khabar magazine, and an occasional contributor to New York Journal of Books. His stories have also appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2020 and Wising Up Press anthologies. 

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