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by Diane Spodarek

Each day at noon I eat my lunch on a rotting wooden bench under a weeping willow with gnarly roots growing out of the ground near and around its massive trunk. It’s autumn and everything is changing; everything but the kudzu. It wraps around decayed logs and live trees alike, its razor-thin barbs penetrating and strangling everything in sight.

The freeway din fades as I walk deeper into the reserve park, and the cicadas buzz and shake, trying to mate, but they are too late. It’s deep in October and they’ve missed their chance. Summer’s gone, the temperature has dropped and the cold air cuts through my coat like a crisp gin and tonic. Had a few last night, with lime.

No one from work comes here. They’re content to speed eat their lunch from Tupperware containers in the company kitchen and return to their cubicles. Return to what they know.

After the attack in the parking lot, men now escort women to their cars. Those of us who take the bus are on our own. Going to the park is asking for it. They watch me leave for lunch with an expectant look. It will be my fault. But I prefer birdsong and wind to florescent lighting, trees and dead leaves instead of jammed printers, and turtles in the creek and the rustles of squirrels to inane office chatter.

My shoes sink into the dead layers of leaves, red and brown, yellow and black, spongy underfoot. Moisture from an overnight rain seeps through the seams in my thin-soled shoes sewn in a factory somewhere far away. All morning I processed applications for engineers who want to come to the United States to “live the American Dream.” Every day the emails pile up telling me to check with Rahul on the third floor. He has their degree. I have never met Rahul but on the seventh floor we know his Photoshop skills. Fraud is the F word no one speaks. The penalty to Homeland Security is five thousand dollars and five years in jail. Not for the aliens. Or the lawyers. Paralegals sign the government documents. And they don’t call them aliens anymore; now they are foreign nationals.

My supervisor checks my work with a fat red Sharpie. She is living the American Dream. She’s the boss. Every Friday she walks the floor and says good night to all the temporary paralegals. She says, “Have a nice weekend,” or “Today is your last day.” She looks great in a pencil skirt and her breasts jiggle like water balloons under tight V-neck sweaters, mostly red. She was quieter when she wore blouses with one button opened at the neck.

The wooden bench is cold; my backside warms it, and the heat releases a sour, musty smell. Across from me, a neglected labyrinth sits in disarray. A wire fence surrounds it, the kind you see from the freeway when passing grazing cattle with mournful eyes. The yellow crime tape is still there. I duck under it and open the latch on the gate. In the labyrinth, I meander back and forth on flat triangular-shaped stones. A low tree stump sits in the center. It’s the right height to sit on, the right width for a long handled ax.

A blanket of orange and black covers twin evergreens, as if decorated for Halloween. The blanket ripples, undulates, and breathes. I move closer. The blanket is monarchs, thousands resting in the branches. Their wings are translucent orange, the edges outlined in black like stained glass windows. White dots mark the edge of their wings, and their antenna and legs are thin as thread. Their fragile wings open and close, together, but separate, like an orchestra tuning up. One monarch lifts off, another follows, and all rise en masse. They hover against clouds heavy with snow and dull in color like recycled office paper. I jealously watch them fly away, away from me.

I kick the ground under an evergreen with the toe of my shoe. It catches on something. I pull my foot back and a dirty cloth, thin and wet, lies across my shoe. It’s the same color as the silk scarf I wore that day when she said yes. I kneel and pull the cloth. It gives. I gather it into my palm and shove it into my coat pocket.

I leave the labyrinth the way I came. I’m not superstitious, but that is how one walks a labyrinth. I close the gate, follow the narrow path. Silver Maples grow on each side, their long black limbs reaching out to catch the falling ones, to cradle the dead. Snow falls. Delicate flakes swirl around my head. The wind picks up and the snow is cold on my cheeks, my hands. My shoes make shallow prints in the snow-covered ground and are just as quickly covered with new snow. At the end of the path, I cross over the footbridge and leave the park behind me. I return to the glass and steel building where I work. Return to what I know. 

 

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