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To Hunt in Fields

by Mark Rich

“Better to hunt in fields for health unbought

Than fee the doctor for a nauseous draught.”

—Dryden

Illustration by Janet Aulisio Dannheiser

“Snow,” Jim Malick said in wonder, shaking his head as he climbed in the cab.

The driver grinned at Jim via the mirror, white teeth bright against a face as dark as his own.

“What do you mean, ‘snow’?” the driver said, with a chuckle in his voice. “As if we haven’t seen snow two months going. Where you been?”

“Belize.”

“Belize. That’s down south a ways.”

“Long ways,” said Jim, feeling the miles in his muscles. His head ached after having subsisted on the closed, stuffy air of the airplane cabin. “Three-oh-four Woodbine Drive,” he said after checking the note from the Exchange.

“Three-oh-four. We’re on our way,” the driver said. “What you doing there, down in Belize? Not getting weather like this, I guess.”

“I was with C.A. Exchange. A little more than a year, I was down there,” Jim said, settling back against cold vinyl. “Helping build up an ag co-op, a farming kind of thing.”

“Yeah? Farming what?”

“Tree farms. Growing trees for bark. Medicine. For other things, too.”

“No kidding.” The car rode smoothly over snow which had accumulated to a depth of a few inches.

Though Jim’s tennis shoes had kept his feet dry enough, he could have wished for warmer clothing.

“I was guessing you were just back from somewhere,” said the driver, “just looking at your clothes.”

“Guess I wasn’t thinking what I was doing. A year away, and I forget what cold feels like.”

“Guess so. Don’t you get sick, now. Bundle up when you get home.”

At 304 Woodbine, Jim paid the driver, hefted his bag, and hurried into the lobby of the apartment complex. C.A. Exchange had arranged that his things be taken out of storage and a room be reserved. After a hot shower he dug into his boxes of clothing, pulling out jacket, scarf, gloves, hat, thick socks and boots. He felt a catch at the back of his throat—an odd feeling, after so long without suffering anything resembling the common cold. The worst problem he had encountered in Belize, besides a couple cases of worms, had involved a scrape with poison-wood. The welts on his skin had felt even worse than they looked.

Some chicken soup would be good, he thought. His thoughts went to Millay’s Diner, down on Fourth. He decided to touch base at the Painesville food co-op first, though. While he needed to get in touch with Dean Hegerman and others at the university, that could wait until tomorrow. Checking in at the co-op would help him feel like he was home. He had friends he wanted to see there, especially Vicki.

Vicki Corona had worked so hard at building the co-op out of its one-room beginnings that she qualified as the heartbeat, if not the heart-throb, of the little store. Tough mind and gentle heart, as King said. Without her the town would have been a lot poorer. For that matter, without her, Jim’s first year at the university in the newly created position of Professor of Ethnoagriculture would have passed much less eventfully, and much less pleasurably. They had become good friends in pinches of time squeezed out of two tight schedules.

Jim had felt insecure about his position at the university, and moreover had been preoccupied by the heavy load of committee work typical of freshman professors. He had paid his dues to the university, taken with a grain of salt the assurance of Dean Hegerman that he was firmly on tenure track, and accepted the position in C.A. Exchange with something of a breath of relief, for all that it meant it would take him all the longer to feel at home in Painesville.

Home. It felt like it, in some ways. He remembered the streets, the white pines that shook their long needles in the winter wind, and the bare arms of dormant maple and birch. He walked up the street and onto the next block, trying to decide if he loved the feeling of cold on his face and in his nostrils, or if it came as too much of a shock. Only the day before he had been comfortable in light clothing in Belmopan, sipping a beer, nibbling peppers, and thinking back on the work of more than a year, now at its end, with not a little sadness.

Had he accomplished much? How could he know?

As he walked, he saw odd markings in the wind-blown snow on the sidewalk, and thought at first they might be chickadee footprints. They followed no organized pattern, however—little gashes, smears and skidmarks in the drifting whiteness. In a few minutes, another gust would obliterate them.

Ahead, a leaf skittered past, leaving more evanescent marks in the snowy surface.

That’s life exactly, Jim thought. Life and effort. Marks that vanish in a second. Blowing leaves, leaving nothing: Nothing our restless, separated sleep: nothing is bitter and is very deep. Thus, Derek Walcott.

“Hey,” said a voice from the street.

Jim, absorbed, had failed to notice the police-car slow beside him. It had passed once a few minutes before, he remembered.

“Hi, officer,” Jim said.

“You’re out walking,” the man said.

“Sure.”

“You know you aren’t supposed to,” the policeman said. The man leaned toward the passenger door, the window of which he had lowered. He looked middle-aged, with the heavy features of a rich diet and a bristly face that hungered toward full beard and mustache. On another day he might have cast the cheeriest smile out the glistening-clean windows of the patrol car. He frowned today as if in imitation of that missing smile. “I could give you a ticket for that,” said his wrong-side-of-bed face. “Less you have your prescription with you.”

“Prescription? What are you talking about?”

“For walking. Don’t act dumb.”

“Dumb? Prescription? For walking?” He wondered to himself, Is this Painesville? Home? Where someone harasses him for walking?

“Sure,” the man said, his eyes widening. Redness mapped the whites as if they had seen a rough night. He leaned back toward his own side, opened his door, and rose to his feet. The effort seemed to take something out of him. His boots squeaked in the fresh snow. “Sure,” he said again as he walked around the car. He leaned against it when he stopped. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me you know nothing about it. I’ve been watching you. You’ve gone a couple blocks, and here you’re still walking.”

“Sure I’m still walking,” Jim said, beginning to feel exasperated. “What else would I be doing?”

“Well, well, you don’t catch the drift at all, do you, my man?” The policeman kicked a boot-toe that looked as new and polished as his expression looked overworked and tired. “You’re breaking a law. That’s what I’m talking about. Walking is a prescribed health activity, buddy. If you go unsupervised, without a prescription, and then you get yourself in trouble, who gets the rap? The city does. So you got to have that prescription. Did you know almost all auto damage involving auto-pedestrian accidents results from non-prescription walking?”

“Huh?” Jim said, disbelieving.

“I’m telling you for your own good,” the man said, pulling a pad from his rear pocket. He uncapped a pen with his teeth, “I haven’t given out one of these yet and I didn’t intend to here, but you’re acting so jack-stupid about this that it’s what I’m going to do.”

“You’re giving me a—”

“Here.”

“A ticket?”

“You just watch it now. Drive next time.”

“You’re crazy!”

“If you want to walk, then get yourself a scrip. And a better attitude, buddy.”

Me get an—”

He stopped himself, swallowing the words before they got out.

“So what do I do now? What if I get stopped again?”

“Then flash your ticket, man. They’ll see you got the message,” the policeman said, shrugging, smiling as if smiling came burdened with regulations and unhappiness. He slipped into his car. “Hang loose.”

“Right,” Jim said. He looked at the tag in his hand. Eighty dollars.

The official representative of Painesville had just met him, to welcome him home. Home, indeed.

The rep drove off, pursued by white ice-swirls in the road. Oddly it made him think of the musica del viento that would swirl behind the procession of a saint carried to chapel. Yo, Saints! he wanted to cry out. Where are you in this cold land?

Jim turned at the next intersection, opting for the diner instead of the coop. If he were to see Vicki again, he wanted to do so in a good mood. Any chances of that had slipped into that car and driven away.

Warm smells of simmering soup and cooking meat and potatoes greeted him at Millay’s. His bad experience already beginning to fade in memory, he gratefully took a stool at the counter beside a man in a checked flannel shirt.

Millie noticed him, her fifty-something crowsfeet deepening in recognition.

“Jim, is it?” she said. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

“Sure is. Good to see you again, Millie.”

“Long time no see, Jim. Long time. You went down a good ways away, didn’t you?”

“Helped set up some farms, that’s right. Way down in Central America.”

“Well, welcome back. What can I bring you?”

“I think I might be getting a cold, coming back into this ice and snow. S ...