By Sean Dietrich
I am walking my dogs. They are dragging me along the road. My shoes make skid marks on the pavement.
Walking my dogs is like trying to walk a herd of caffeinated water buffalo. My dogs exert so much pulling force that my shoulders pop from their sockets. When this happens, I generally say bad words. Neighbors who happen to be nearby glare with disapproving faces. But I am used to these kinds of scowls because I was raised Southern Baptist.
Right now, I’m taking the dogs to the bay. There’s a spot near the water where everyone from nearby neighborhoods visits. It’s beautiful. There is something enchanting about our bay.
If you visit this secluded spot at sunset, you will see lots of people who had the same idea you had. Husbands and wives. Kids on bicycles. A happy young couple. A teenager with a fuschia mohawk and multiple facial piercings.
It wasn’t always crowded. Long ago, my wife and I would visit this spot and we’d be alone. Then word got out. Today, everybody and their brother knows about it, so at sunset it’s a Gaither Homecoming.
But tonight it’s empty. There is nobody here except me and some lady. We’ve met before, but nothing more than a few neighborly greetings. I don’t know her name.
She is late sixties maybe early seventies. She sits on a log, overlooking the big water. Our bay is 127 square miles of brackish blue and, like I said earlier, there is something enchanting about it.
The woman’s head is bowed, she doesn’t look like she wants to be bothered. I keep quiet.
Then again, I have enough of my mother inside me that I have to ask questions. I am nosy. There is nothing I can do about this. I don’t even try to fight it anymore.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” I ask.
She opens her eyes. And I feel bad that I have interrupted her.
“I’m praying,” she tells me.
Well. I’m no fool. It would be rude to ask someone what they are praying about, especially a stranger who looks sad. At this juncture, asking more probing questions would be an unforgivable breach of social etiquette.
“What are you praying about?” I ask.
She gives me a weird look. But I am emitting my invisible “tell-me” rays to her. She is powerless against them. She says, “I’m just having a hard time.”
She’s been in her house for sixteen days during the coronavirus quarantine. She hasn’t left except to drop something off at the post office once. She has talked to her kids on video calls, and she’s done emails with her grandkids. That’s all.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard,” she says. “I used to go to the store and that was my socialization. Or I’d go to yoga class, and I have friends there. But I guess we weren’t real friends, you know? Guess it was just yoga.”
I wouldn’t know a thing about yoga. So I just nod.
She goes on, “You never know how disconnected and alone you are until something like this. And now I don’t ever see anyone, I don’t get touched by anyone, I don’t even have an animal to hold.”
Currently, I am restraining two clydesdales on leashes who have dislocated crucial joints in my body.
She looks at them. “I wish I had a dog. We used to have a dog when my husband was alive, but they’re both gone now.”
I ask if she would like to be assaulted by my dogs.
She says, “I would love to pet them. But I’d better not.”
My dogs saunter near her, she reaches out a hand to let my bloodhound and alleged Labrador sniff her. She starts to get a little weepy. Not a full-on cry, but a few tears that never actually fall.
“It’s so hard,” she says.
Now I am crying a little too. I told you that I have my mother in me. I can’t just watch someone cry without driving the lead car in the parade.
“I’m lonely, too,” I tell her. And it’s true. I’ve been inside for seventeen days now. I miss people.
But she and I behave as responsible world citizens. We keep a ten-foot distance between us. She doesn’t actually touch my dogs. But at this moment, it seems like I need to ask something.
“Ma’am,” I say. “I know this is a probably not a good idea, but would you like a hug?”
Immediately, I feel bad that I have asked. I start to think about the news headlines and all the infection rates. I wouldn’t want to cause another person to get sick. Shoot, I don’t want to get sick. But I figured I’d at least ask.
“Oh, I want a hug,” she says. “But I don’t think I’d better.”
She is silent for a moment. I feel stupid for having asked.
She says, “What if we shake hands? I can always wash my hand afterward.”
So we shake. We don’t pump hands, we just hold them. She squeezes. So do I. We stay like that for a few seconds. She even closes her eyes for a moment.
“Thank you,” she says. “You’re the first person who has touched me in half a month.”
“It’s an honor,” I say. I am sort of making a joke, but I really do mean it.
She lets go first. Then walks away. I am left holding two leashes and looking at the water.
Yes. There truly is something enchanting about our bay.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South.