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Fall 2013

Three Walks

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Andrea Cohen

If I had a job, I’d call in sick. It’s that kind of day: summer sneaking into spring. But if I had a job to call, the phones would ring and ring. The city’s been shuttered, or in the parlance of the day, locked down. Shelter in place, the radio says, the TVs and the laptops say, invoking an emergency procedure more commonly used in pandemics or chemical disasters.

I live in Watertown, Massachusetts, on a quiet, leafy street known for organic gardens, block parties with ukuleles, and unlocked doors. But today our doors are bolted, our blinds drawn. Robo-calling has told us not to leave our houses, to stay away from windows, to not let anyone but SWAT teams in. What is optional and what is the law is not clear. What we know is what everyone knows: Suspect #1 is dead, as is an MIT cop, and thousands of police, FBI, etc. are searching for Suspect #2, who fled after a shoot-out near Fordee’s Falafel and could be anywhere, but is most likely in our basement or backyard.

Most every morning I sit at the dining room table and write poems in a room composed mostly of windows. Today, I draw the blinds, halfway. I sit in a different chair, one that gives a view onto the street. I’m thinking of how movie mobsters position themselves with a plate of baked ziti, eye on the door through which a machine gun enters.

Today, no poetry. Instead, the radio keeps repeating: what we know and what we don’t know. From Hattiesburg and London and Des Moines, friends call. 8 a.m. 9 a.m. 10 a.m. I think: we’re pretty lucky, sheltering in a nice place with fresh oranges and electricity, with legs to get up and downstairs. 11 a.m.: my next-door neighbor Peter drives off in his green Subaru. This seems treasonous.

We let the dogs into the backyard, which is fenced in and small. This feels treasonous. The dogs come back inside. The older hound, Beckett, stands at the front door waiting for his walk. The younger one, Daisy, shivers. She senses something’s off.

I’m thinking about when I was a kid and was sick in summertime and had to stay inside. Now it’s reversed, as if the whole outdoors were sick and off-limits.

1 p.m.: I see Dolores, who lives on the other side of us, shaking a tablecloth out in her backyard. It’s a blue tablecloth with little white flowers. High treason. 2 p.m.: Carol, a Harvard librarian who lives around the corner, walks past with her shepherd, Omar, and another woman with a boy and a cocker spaniel. I get the leashes and head out with the dogs and my sweetheart, Francesca.

The day is heavy and warm, the sky darkening for a storm that may or may not come. The clouds only brighten the fuchsia, golds, and milky whites of crab-apples and tulips, of daffodils and forsythia in this immense crescendo of flowering. Driveways are thick with cars and the streets are empty, so I can stand in the steep center of Palfrey while Francesca snaps a picture with a backdrop of white blossoms. We are two middle-aged women with two middle-sized dogs. There are sirens coming from Main Street. Helicopters circling. She thinks we may get arrested for not sheltering. On the crest of Palfrey I find a plastic stencil of Saint George and the Dragon. I pick it up. We go home. Unlock the door, lock it.

Dominic, a Brit who lives one town over in Newton, emails to say that the first thing he did upon hearing of the lockdown was send his three girls out to play. He sends this verse:

What can I say?
I remember the IRA.
I never had a lockdown
In the UK.

Sarah, in Belmont, has got her three kids busy with cooking and claymation.

On TV, the anchors grasp for something new to say. One talks about the video of Suspect #2 in the 7-11 from the night before. “He’s drinking a Red Bull and he probably had a bag of chips. Wherever he is, he’s got to be hungry.” This is news: what snacks may have been eaten.

At 6:30 p.m., we are no longer officially sheltered in place. At 7 p.m., the TV suggests that Suspect #2 has been found nearby, at a house we sometimes walk past. Francesca isn’t sure it’s safe to venture out again, so I’m on my own with the dogs. We head toward Mt. Auburn, which is in the direction of the now famous Franklin Street. In front of a triple-decker, five people are studying smart phones as if consulting oracles. Is it over? I ask. A young woman smiles and nods. Gives me a thumbs up.

A crowd is gathered on Mt. Auburn, lots of police, marked and unmarked cars. It feels electric, like waiting for Bono or Justin Bieber or the Pope. I walk down a side street parallel to Franklin. There’s a reporter rapidly texting and a photographer not taking pictures and a helicopter hovering in place. It occurs to me that whatever has happened may still be happening.

Francesca calls. “Where are you?” she asks. She isn’t happy.

“Is it over?” I ask.

“No,” she says.

“I’m close,” I tell her.

Within the hour the TV stations are showing the boat where the kid was holed up. On TV I see my neighbors high-fiving, waving flags. At 9 p.m., another walk. This time everyone is out, smiling, wanting to connect. Even the guy cycling past makes eye contact. A woman tells a reporter: This will put us on the map. Property values should go up ten percent.

The next day my brother calls from Atlanta and asks: Does it feel surreal? By it, I think he means the manhunt, the sheltering, the media. No, I say. Our black and white and grey natures have not changed, and I’m thinking about the stencil of St. George, who slayed the dragon and converted 15,000 to Christianity. At least in one version of the story. In another version, St. George loses the battle with the dragon. He melts his armor into a box, in which he places his fears, his doubts, his lack of faith. Then he kills the dragon. There are so many versions, all with bloodletting, all ready-made for meaning.

Andrea Cohen's fourth poetry collection, Furs Not Mine, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. She directs the Writers House at Merrimack College and The Blacksmith House Poetry Series.

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