Janey is going to wrap my cut in white gauze, and I’m grateful. She doesn’t have any rubbing alcohol, so she spits in my wound and tells me it’ll do a similar thing; for this, I’m less grateful, but I don’t feel like I have the knowledge to question her. Through the screen at the top of her tent, I can see the night sky, cloudless and blue-gray. Her freckled hands rub a cotton round into the cut, and I suck air through my teeth, throw my head back and groan. Janey offers me a protein bar as a distraction. She tells me it has eleven hundred calories, about a third of what a man of my size needs in a day. It’s birthday cake flavored and tastes like bitter chalk. I tell her I’ve been living off peanut butter and vegetable oil for the past two days. She laughs and says she doesn’t think she’s ever met anyone so unprepared for the Appalachian trail.
It’s true that I didn’t do enough research. My white running shoes and under-stuffed bag signal to others that I’ll only be on the trail for a day or two. Through-hikers wear chunky mud- caked boots and carry extravagantly large backpacks with sleeping bags, tents, and tarps secured to the top of their bags with ropes. The packs often stretch from above their heads to the middle of their thighs, and their backs form c-shaped curves under the weight. I’ve been carrying my sleeping bag beneath my armpit, and I didn’t bring a tent since I thought it’d be too heavy. Janey tells me there are special light-weight tents designed for the trail with metal rods hollowed out like bird bones. I try to talk to every hiker I see because they share useful advice, like the thing Janey told me about tents. When I tell people I’m a through-hiker they ask many questions. I tell Janey I’m going to Maine while she’s tightening the gauze.
“How many days have you been out here?” she asks.
“I’m surprised you’ve even made it that long. Have a death wish?”
“I’m very depressed,” I tell her straightforward, like it’s a fact about my hometown.
“That’s fine, lots of us are, but we at least have tents.”
For the next two hours, Janey and I lie on the floor of her tent, close together like fish in a can because it’s only designed for one, and talk. With her blistered feet beside my head, she describes everything I should’ve known before I came and provides me with a hand-written list of materials I need to buy next time the trail runs close to a town. She advises me against swimming, both because of the water quality and because of the sharp rocks lining the bottom of creeks—the cut across the bottom of my leg came from slipping on one of those stones. She tells me it’ll leave a scar. I tell her how scared I was, watching blood that looked almost blue billow through the water like a cloud of smoke. She makes another joke about me having a death wish, then we talk about ourselves. Janey turned 60 in July and used to be a high school English teacher but retired in January. Her husband died three years ago from a brain aneurysm, a random death no one was prepared for, which made it hurt worse, she thinks. They didn’t have any kids, and ever since her husband died, all she wants is to be left alone. Janey says talking with me is fine though, that it doesn’t feel too different from being alone.
When I talk about myself, it comes out in disjointed stories, unlike the neat list of facts Janey condensed her life into. Maybe it’s because she’s almost twice my age and has had more time to organize herself. I tell her about three weeks ago when I dropped my phone from my sixth-floor apartment window and watched it shrink into the cement. I talk about outdoor shopping centers; how we become so familiar with the ones in our respective suburbs: the restaurants, gyms, grocery stores, and beauty supply shops beside one another, and how when I go to one from the town over, one I’m unfamiliar with, it makes me feel sick. How suddenly it comes into focus how ridiculous and small the lives we lead are; watching people I’ll never know bustle around the perimeter of a concrete rectangle, their automobiles parked in well-lined rows, their faces unrecognizable. I tell her that, at least right now, being on the trail is the opposite of the shopping center feeling. Janey is nice and says she doesn’t quite know the feeling but thinks others might relate. I talk about Simone in facts: we were together for nine years, we didn’t have any kids, we were never married.
Janey places a blanket over the screen at the top of the tent. It’s completely dark, and the world looks no different with my eyes open than with them closed. Slowly and wordlessly, she moves her body so that our faces are touching. We shift some more, and the swishing sound of the nylon tent encases us. I end up on top of her, my weight pressing into her, her legs spread open beneath me. She whispers that my arms, which are wrapped around the sides of her shoulders, remind her of the dead husband. I don’t know what to say, so I pull her pants down to her knees and do the same for myself. Our noses touch. She digs her nails into the back of my neck hard enough to draw blood. My leg is filled with a stinging, shooting pain. Once I finish, I collapse on top of her. She says I’m too heavy, so we switch places, and I fall asleep holding her small body on top of mine, both of our pants still around our knees. I hold my hands against her lower back beneath her shirt to warm them.
When I wake up, the world is still covered in thick darkness. Janey is holding me from the side. I try not to wake her as I pull my arm from her grip, but I hear her breathing quicken.
“Are you leaving?” she asks.
“I’ve got to go, yeah.”
“Okay. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”
I’m surprised, maybe hurt, that she doesn’t ask me to stay. Once outside the tent, I grab my backpack and sleeping bag. I realize the shopping list Janey made me is still inside her tent, but I don’t want to wake her again, so I leave without it. I can’t tell what time it is without the sun, but I hope it’s around four and will rise soon.
Each step I take on the hurt leg spurs a dull and throbbing pain that travels up my thigh. It feels skeletal. I start making a mental list of the worst physical pains I’ve experienced: the worst by far being the kidney stone I passed at 23 after a summer of drinking only Diet Coke. The second is the bone I fractured in my foot at 17 after leaping from a second-floor window, escaping the childhood bedroom of a girl I’d been sleeping with. I think the feeling rising from my leg now is a contender for third, tied with the first week of withdrawal when cold crept beneath my skin and refused to leave.
I section most things in life into lists. They make my interests, personality, and history duller, more distant, and easier to see from above. I’m reduced to lists of my favorite albums, the best books I’ve read, my favorite movies, the worst TV shows I’ve seen, cities I’ve been to. I write the menial ones in notebooks and store the private ones in myself: lists of sexual partners, kisses, bad days, times of grief. Losing Simone sits, undoubtedly, at the top of my grief list. This is worse than my dad dying, worse than my stepbrother dying, worse than my childhood dog dying, worse than my ex-girlfriend hitting my cat with her car, and Simone isn’t even dead yet.
Under the light of the cloud-covered moon, I see I’m coming to a clearing. Stepping into clearings always satisfies me: the dense forest rapidly dispersing, the wind getting stronger, the ability to see far away parts of the landscape from an unelevated point. I stand at the clearing’s edge and search for the sun. There are a few low-hanging dark pink clouds, signaling it’ll rise soon. I walk up an off-trail hill and lower myself into the dew-covered grass. A cold wet feeling spreads across my leg and soothes the aching pain in my calf. I imagine worst-case scenarios: sepsis, amputation, a prosthetic leg that needs to be regularly updated. I have a superstition that thinking of the worst-cases shields against them. I believe that I’ll cause a fatal accident every time I drive a car, and yet I’ve never caused one, meaning I have statistical reason to believe that the bad things I think will happen rarely, or never, do. Still, my leg burns in a strange way. I conjure a mental image of the prosthetic calf; I close my eyes and stare straight inside it.
I wonder when I’ll see Janey. From my position on the hill, I can see the flattened grass where hikers have walked, and I know Janey must eventually come down the same path. I only walked a mile or two from her tent in the darkness, and I’m sure she will start her hike early in the day. Yesterday, we met in a clearing during sunset. She noticed my limp and offered medical advice, then medical care, then for me to stay with her that night. After we had sex, I felt ashamed, but now I miss her and don’t know why I left so soon. I wonder if other people understand themselves better. I imagine Janey does, with her factual and condensed life, her grief transformed into a brief remembered obituary. I’m jealous of her. A sliver of orange April sun appears between the trunks of some far-away trees. I lie my head against the grass and fall asleep.
I wake up with Janey’s palm pressed to my sternum. She’s asking me a lot of questions, speaking with what seems like urgency, and for a moment I think I might be dying. But my slow-moving brain starts to comprehend her words, and I realize she’s asking me why I didn’t get very far, did I get a chance to eat breakfast, where am I from anyway? She didn’t get a chance to ask last night; had I been to Georgia before this? It’s like she had a list in her head of questions she wanted to ask, and now she’s trying to get it out quick, so she won’t forget any. I notice the sun in the sky and decide it’s around eight in the morning.
“My leg hurts. That’s why I didn’t get very far. Also, I’m tired. I think I left too soon last
“I wasn’t very surprised by your leaving,” she says, removing her hand from my chest and squatting in the grass beside me. “You spent half the time last night talking about another girl. You just want a warm body, one you can’t see, one you can pretend is her. It’s fine, though, I guess I’m the same way.”
I don’t say anything back because I’m turning the words over in my head. I think she might be right, and I am about to say so, but she starts talking again.
“You never told me what happened between the two of you. Why the breakup?”
“She’s very sick,” I say.
“What’s the disease?”
“It isn’t really a disease. She’s addicted to painkillers. I was too.”
“And you’re clean now?”
“For 66 days, and I can’t take being around her.”
“What does she think about this? You leaving and all?”
“I’m sure she wishes I’d die beside her.”
Janey and I don’t look each other in the eye. We stare into the distant sun as it inches higher.
“It’s going to be a hot one today,” she says. I welcome the change in subject.
“Yeah. To answer your question, I’ve never been to Georgia. I’m from New York.”
“City or state?”
“State. What about you?”
“I’m from Georgia. I don’t think I mentioned it last night, but I live close to the trailhead. I’ve done bits of the trail before, during my summer vacation months, but I never had the time to walk the whole thing. This was a part of Bill and I’s retirement plan. I have a little vial of his ashes in my pack, so it’s like he’s doing it with me.”
“That’s nice. Simone would never have wanted anything to do with this. She hated the outdoors. I guess I did, maybe do, too. It’s easier not to think about getting high out here, though.”
“You keep talking about her in the past tense like she’s dead. She’s alive,” Janey says those words like a hiss. It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice with any meanness. I can imagine her standing in front of a classroom of adolescents, using that same voice to tell them she’ll wait for them to be quiet.
“She’s almost dead; we were almost dead. I’d be dead if we were together.”
“But you miss her?”
“Yes. Jesus, I don’t think this is hard to understand. I miss the way things were before we were addicts. I can’t help her, and I don’t want to stay that way myself. Can we change the subject?”
“Whatever you want,” she says. The air between us hangs silent and still.
“Is it normal for my leg to burn this badly?” I ask.
“Probably not. Your cut really wasn’t all that deep. I’m sure you’ve had worse before. Have you ever felt a burning like this?”
“I guess not. Do you think it’s infected?”
“I can check,” and then Janey is kneeling by my calf, carefully unraveling the gauze that she had pulled together so tight the night before. She says we’ll need to move into the shade soon. The sun is getting higher, and she doesn’t have any sunscreen and knows I don’t either. She pulls up the part of the gauze that is sealed to my leg with dried brown blood, and it stings. My cut shines in the mid-morning light. Yellow puss leaks from it, and the red skin surrounding it is warm to the touch.
“It looks infected. I want to rinse it out again, this time with rubbing alcohol,” she says.
“Do you have any?”
“No. But maybe if we stay here, another hiker who walks by will have some in their first aid kit,” she says.
“So we should just sit here and wait?”
“Yeah, just sit here and wait. Maybe in the shade, though.”
We walk further up the hill and settle beneath a tree. We talk about inconsequential things: how she liked being a teacher, what I do for work, what we miss about being off the trail, what we like about being on it. It’s approaching noon, and Janey is pretty with the sun hanging above her face. The way she looks makes me want to tell her one long-winded story to pass the
time, and I do:
“When I was still working for the property management company, I fulfilled maintenance requests. I had no experience with home maintenance, but they hired me because no one who knew what they were doing would have accepted nine dollars an hour. But I did, and I dressed the part: overalls, toolkit, warehouse employee boots. Simone thought I looked great. She called me her blue-collared man. Most of the maintenance requests were about roaches, rats, washing machines, dishwashers, and air conditioners. I think you’re supposed to call an exterminator for those first two, but again, the property management company was very cheap, so I ended up doing it all.
I didn’t know how to do anything. I stood in people’s houses and apartments turning screws left and then right and then left for two hours before leaving. I was always high. Sometimes there’d be a guy there who seemed to know what was broken, just didn’t have the tools to fix it, and he’d lean over my shoulder and watch me fiddling with screws, ask if I really knew what I was doing, and reach his lotioned hands into my underfilled toolbox. Those were the worst jobs, the ones I usually left while being yelled at.
This is all to tell you about one maintenance request I was sent to fulfill, the request that ended my home maintenance career. The first strange thing was that the property management company told me it was a maintenance request that the neighbors had filled out for the renter. Something about an infestation that was taking over her house and bleeding into theirs. I drive there imagining nightmare scenarios: giant rats, feral cats, wasps, etcetera. I’m unequipped to deal with basically any situation. I worked there for a year, and I don’t think I ever set up a successful mouse trap. I was totally incompetent.
When I arrived at the house, there was a man standing on the stoop with a gun. Can you believe that? At first, I’m scared it’s someone protecting the house: maybe the renter is emotionally attached to whatever is causing the infestation and I’m going to get shot if I dare enter. I should have just turned around then. But I stepped out of my truck, and the man walks down from the stoop, hands me the gun, and says: kill those damn birds. Just walk through her door, out to the back porch, and shoot them all dead. He tells me she’s not home right now. My hands are shaking and sweating, and I’m ridiculously stoned, but I grab the gun out of his hands anyway. I walked through the front door to the back porch. There must have been at least five hundred pigeons, all huddled around the back porch, some flying, some just staring at me. There was bird shit everywhere, on the neighboring porches and the backs of their houses. I’m still holding the gun, and I think: what the fuck? How would I ever be able to kill all these birds? Why me? I dropped the gun and ran back to my truck. The guy from outside was still standing there, yelling coward, coward, coward, I’m going to get you fired. They would never have fired me, but I quit that day anyway.”
I’ve been telling the story while staring down at the trail, monitoring for any rubbing- alcohol-carrying hikers. I turn to Janey after the last sentence, and she’s crying. It’s an ugly cry—snot drips into her mouth, her eyelashes cling together in black spikes, her mouth is downturned and open. She’s saying this world is so cruel, so cruel. People just want us to shoot things dead. And we’re all dying all the time. I’m scared you’re going to die. Your face is in a bad way. You’re pale and blue. And everything is so unfair. Are we even on the trail right now? It’s been hours. Surely someone would have walked by now.
Janey is scaring me. I think, for the first time, that she might not be all together there. Or, I think, it’s strange the way things suddenly become serious. Last night we were talking and laughing; just a second ago I’m telling her a funny story, and now we’re worried I’ll die. I think of Simone and what she’d think if I died out here after fucking a woman twice her age. I look down at my wound, and it only looks a bit worse than when she first unwrapped it. I’m starting to feel tired again. I haven’t had more than five hours of sleep. I rub Janey’s back and tell her it’s going to be alright, but maybe it was a mistake to spit in my wound. She starts crying harder at that, whispering: it’s my fault, my fault, my fault. I tell her that we both need sleep. We sit in silence for a while, still watching for hikers, and eventually Janey stakes the tent.
We crawl inside as the noon sun reaches its peak. I get an unfamiliar shopping mall feeling while I stare at the blanket covering the top of the tent’s screen. When we wake up, we will find another hiker. We will call one of those emergency helicopters to take me to a doctor. I will live; we will both live. I think about the pigeons again and decide that maybe it was sad, and maybe Janey was right to cry about it. I guess it can be scary: the demands we make of one another, how much of our lives we expect others to fulfill.