“Rock Creek: A Pastoral,” flash fiction by Jarrod Campbell

Living two miles from the epicenter of a useless and oppressive government but still well within what could potentially be ground zero can wear anybody down, but only if they let it happen. For fifteen years I’ve seen the power ebb and flow from weak blue tides to the present deadly red tide and miraculously I’ve only ever ruined a few good pairs of shoes and pants. Those of us who have lived here at least this long have our ways of sloughing off the grimy film from life in the District. The concert halls and theatres. Some of the best food is within a two-mile radius of Dupont Circle. The weekly protests. All the shopping from cheap knockoff bags to their designer originals and everything in between lines nearly every major street. In certain areas, plentiful trees and parks are available for respites with cleaner breathing and shade.

Walks down Connecticut Street to and from work five times a week is good for the body but terrible for the lungs since too many cars choke a city with limited streets but adequate public transportation. Only a few trees sparsely populate the southeast course to my office near Farragut Square and the northwest return home. I feel sorry for these prisoners and their life of constant mockery by the unnatural concrete that both towers and surrounds them. Church Street between 18th and 17th, where I live, offers more gracious shade from trees taller than my house. But even they long for more than an occasional wave from the trees to the west, those belonging to the urban forest of Rock Creek Park.

It is a brisk fifteen-minute walk from home; through the circle to continue onto P Street then I can be swallowed by a concentrated but limited canopy of leaves and branches. True, Rock Creek Parkway runs nearby and pollutes the air with more than its noise but marginally fresher air and immersion in nature is the true solace. The further northwest along the trail, the taller the trees have grown and the noise lessens. A few days a week I’ll jog several miles along that route to clear my head and focus on the cadence of my feet pounding along the path. Jogging days haven’t settled into anything resembling a habit. Only on Fridays, after a long week of bureaucratic bullshit and battered breathing, was a ritual refresh taken in the form of an hour walk around the park between P Street and M Street.

Dusk is perfect; late enough that the street traffic decreases in accord with the sunlight streaking the sky. Air quality is better and with this comes improved visibility to navigate the snaking path along the rocky creek. Deep intakes of noticeably cleaner air clear away the angry smoke of the daytime city. Profuse oxygen always intoxicates me at first, enough to slow my pace along the trail. Communing with nature is essential for me to recharge and I steady my equilibrium from the sounds, smells and feel of nature. The crunch of sand and loose gravel as it shifts under my feet fills my head, the scent of wet leaves opens my brain to extrasensory altitudes. My footsteps become louder and louder only to fall out of sync with each other.

When my heightened senses tumble back to earth, I remember the ritual. The out of sync and heavy footsteps close in slow and my heart races. Another nature lover, I expect. Another person like me taking physical refuge in momentary breaks from a city hellbent on glorifying its own hubris. But how alike is he? Is his return to nature a recreational form of protest like it is for me? How much so? Eye contact is the best way to determine intention and either way a polite smile does wonders. The courteous and furtive smile returned often mirrors mine as the other person approaches. A simultaneous, downward gesture is made to pronounce and display the excitement at meeting a similarly inclined fellow. Roles are assumed and a congress obscene only in its efficiency is formed then dismissed…miraculous evidence that common ground can make anybody come together. Breath mingles in goodbyes and we go along our separate ways, him to wherever and me back home.

People find consolation in nature; its promise to renew and nurture is alluring and proven. The way it calls out to me might be peculiar compared to someone else’s conversation—but it is the same call, on the same line, from the same operator. My instructions are no more unnatural than the next person’s, they just tend to infuriate the people who don’t listen to what their own spirit is trying to tell them. Like the men ruling from their big white houses and buildings down the street. And if it’s an affront to their stagnant sensibilities then I’m glad I’m doing it, out in the open, right in their own backyards.

 

 

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Jarrod Campbell lives with his boyfriend in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. His writing often addresses heteronormativity and the futility of modern life. He is currently working on his second novel.

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