Barnard never moved away from the small town where he grew up. It was a town steeped in traditional values famous for its pretzels and factory outlets. He was a rarity for this demographic as he longed to see the world yet he was terrified of what was out there. He semi-mindlessly worked as a supervisor for the A-Treat bottling company. The storied soda company made sickly sweet sugary soda. The soda company was an under the radar, Berks county fading institution. It wasn’t much of a job but he did his job well. If a machine broke down, he generally knew how to fix it.
Barnard was in his early forties never having done much with the degree he received from Kutztown University. It is a common American misperception. He thought back fondly to his days at that little university. It was there that he learned about art, great stories and being an artist. He spent much of his spare time drawing pictures wherever he could. He wish he had better guidance at picking a major.
He always liked to draw, yet somehow deep down there was an ulterior motive to his college hobby. He does still draw and occasionally he will paint. He finds it relaxing. It makes him reminisce. He makes excuses in his head on why he likes the arts. He makes excuses to his friends. One day he knew he would have to embrace his lobe of the arts. It wasn’t a Berks County thing to do.
He was an actuarial Major at Kutztown, State. Basically he figured out when people would die and how to make a profit from these calculations. It was a dry art form. He unexpectedly collided with a girl on campus that blindsided him out of nowhere. That does sound like a double redundancy as that is how a blindside works. They shared two elective classes together. They sat next to each other in a ‘Health Class” elective he assumed both of them had to take.
It was a very easy class that felt much like a repeat of a class he took at Governor Mifflin High School. That girl who sat next to him was like a vision. She was so different than any woman he had met before. Much to his chagrin, she sat in class and sketched on a drawing pad when lectures vered toward the mundane. She expertly drew whatever she pleased and other assorted silliness with exactness and creativity that made his heart skip a beat. He was in such awe somebody could create such art without working that hard. He has to work hard at being creative. Creativity flowed out her fingers.
Later in his college life, he stumbled upon a little exhibit this goddess had on display. The exhibit was in the front of the common area where students often ate their lunch. He recognized her art as he slowly walked by. This collection also had some statues and paintings that were almost beyond his level of comprehension. He sat and looked at he exhibits almost every single day. The art mesmerized him. He was too naive to recognize that she, to borrow a tired cliche, took his breath away.
The second class they took together was another elective of Literature. The class featured the Likes of Poe, John Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury, Once again they sat together. Why they sat together in the first place is still a mystery. The professor, when the class had finished reading a poem or a story, asked the class to discuss with their partner. The professor was lazy and let the class figure out the logistics. The professor was more into Edgar Allen-Poe than class logistics. The class sullenly broke into groups with little conviction.
This is where he got to know Astrid. He never knew it was spelled like that as he simply called her Assi .They discussed stories together per the assignment of the teacher. The professor was lazy and let the students discuss the stories more than was actually needed. This is where Barnard and Astrid became connected in half of their minds.They talked about the music they loved and backward ways of Berks County Pennsylvania, They even engaged socially outside of class. One day they watched an indie movie together at the local art house movie theatre. They did not kiss. The chemistry seemed to be there. How much art can come from a woman.
And you know what happened. It happened how you would expect it to happen. Barnard fell head over heels over this girl. Or possibly it was the memory of her or the ideal of her. It did not happen immediately as it can to young men at this age. But over the next 17 years it sunk in like a disease or an addiction. He always wondered how a person could make art this beautiful. He never seeked to reconnect with her but he walked away with an appreciation of how this girl affected his view of being an artist.
Right before graduation he saw her walking across campus, yes like a watercolor in a downpour. It was the first time he had seen her from afar and it took his breath away. It took his breath away for many years to come.
He was now many years removed from school and those college days were a distant memory. Barnard did not think of her often but when he did it sharply. He was now a supervisor at the pop bottle plant. His meager house in Millmont was well within his means. It was a simple blue house with a fireplace and carpets needing replacing. He never got around to replacing the green refrigerator. Visitors to his house viewed that green refrigerator as a rustic museum piece.
The one thing in his life, excluding finding an actual purpose, that frustrated him was that he desperately wanted to get back in shape . He felt so alive back in the years of his youth. It was also the right thing to do. Berks County life can take its toll. His Dad had died at the age of 62. He wanted to beat the law of location and genetics that hovered over him.What he really wanted to do was move far far away.
So Barnard took up running. He took it up for all the wrong reasons and it ended up as expected. Barnard struggled with it at first but soon liked the escape from the pop-bottling plant. Running took him closer to the person he wanted to be and farther away from the person he had become. He occasionally encountered bouts of inspiration mid-run. Endorphins made him feel good about himself. Getting in shape also had an unexpected side benefit. It truly opened up his social life without pretense. He occasionally joined the well established Wednesday night running group that met at Exeter High school. It was a big step for him. It was far outside his comfort zone. He was usually in the middle of the pack for their runs and enjoyed the flowing conversation. He looked forward to these runs as the group would go out for pizza afterwards. Real friends emerged from this group. It was a place nobody talked about work. And he liked it that way. He was not all that proud of being a manager at the soda pop factory. He knew he could do better. But for now he was doing much much better with harbingers of better things to come.
With this new found fitness came a new found confidence. He did not date much after college because he was basically timid and not always brimming with confidence. He had a few steady girlfriends but his insecurities always sabotaged his relationships. With fitness and health, he now his self esteem was on the rise. He could feel his self confidence growing by the day. He now felt he did not have to force things. If the right person came along he would be much better prepared. He was for once in his life happy with himself. So of course he took the next logical step. He got a dog.
Or possibly the dog got him. On the Wednesday night runs they usually passed through a park down by Carsonia avenue. The runs always started at 6:30 and they generally ran through the park twenty minutes later. It was an warm early spring evening , after the changing of the clocks. The warm night hinted at spring, yet a few patches of stubborn snow refused to give up the stranglehold of winter. Out of nowhere, a large black lab crossed his path. It looked much like the family dog of his childhood. The lab ran up to him with his big black paws, warm brown eyes and tail that was out of control. Barnard told the others to go ahead. He and the dog seemed to have an instant connection. He played with that dog for thirty minutes until his running friends doubled back through the park. His black running shirt was full of slobber and dog hair. His heart was happy. The owners of the dog did not seem to mind. He thought about this dog throughout the weekend and early into the next week. There was something about this dog. Those big brown eyes were etched in the back of his mind.
The following week thay passed through the park at nearly the same time. The angle of the sun had changed but there was this same black lab who repeated the same love fest from the previous week. Barnard once again let his running friends pass. He spotted the owner of the dog once again and they struck up a conversation. The owner told him how he was watching ‘Lou” as her owner (his mom) was bedridden and could no longer care for Lou. He and his wife lived in a small place up by the theatre and could not adequately care for Lou on a long term basis. This is how Barnard ended up owning the most friendly black lab on the planet. He learned that Lou had a bit of border collie in her. She would make a great running partner.
Barnard and Lou were now an item. Lou went on runs with him and even slept in the same bed. He did not have the heart to have her sleep on the floor. That is how love stories are supposed to happen.
Barnard was never one for social media. That is the conundrum of social media. Once you start making friends, you start using social media. He had all his new running friends and what a better platform to show pictures of him and Lou. This is how he somehow got reconnected to his artist friend back in college. He learned that she had moved to Poland to pursue her artistic endeavors. It was vague, he could not figure out why she moved there. It seemed like she settled down and got married. There was never a mention of a husband. What was clear, is she was still creating beautiful edgy art that had a political undertone. Her smile was still the same. He knew nothing about Poland or its politics.
In one post she indicated she was coming back to the states to visit friends and family for the holidays. He thought to himself, what a grand life that must be. “Did she speak Polish? Where the pierogies better than here in Berks county.?” He also remembered her parents lived pretty close to where he was living now. Reading is a small town and it is still shrinking.
Snowy nights in mid December where had a certain poetry to him.. The air was cold and heavy with the possibility of snow. Barnard caught a glimpse of sparkling tiny snowflakes in the early evening street lights. Lou with nose to the ground, worked hard at picking up a scent. He and Lou walked this loop often and Lou found his favorite place to poop and on script kicked at the frozen ground to cover up the mess. Barnard scooped up the mess using a plastic bag from Pathmark and loosely tied up the loose end.
“Hey buddy you are stinking up the place. I guess you want me carry this all the way home.”
Lou smiled as dogs usually do.
The wind picked up a bit as did the snow He loved nights like this, as did Lou. There was no hurry to get home. It was a perfect night for a longer walk. He even thought of breaking into a run but thought better of it. He needed to find a trash can can because the bag in the right hand still smelled something awful. Putting his hands in his pockets would also be nice.
The night was a perfect shade of quiet. The silence was emphatically calming. About three street lights down a figure slowly emerged backlit by the light and the reflection in the snow. As the figure grew slowly larger it appeared to be woman walking a small dog. Lou had still not mastered the art of being around other dogs so Barnard shortened the leash and moved to the other side of the street as to avoid a scene in the snow. The girl and the little dog, as off in their own little world, drifted to their side of the street. He must have imagined her having a dog as in her hand was a lighted cigarette. It almost smelled pleasant.
Lou was content sniffing in the snow and the presence of the girl did not phase him. The girl approached slowly and suddenly Barnard noticed that walk from many years ago.
“Do people actually ever move away from Reading Pa?” The gal emerging from from a sudden snow swirl, said in that voice he imagined in his head for years.
Damn, this is the moment he had auditioned for most of his adult life. Yet his confidence wavered as he slid the poop bag he was carrying into the side pocket of his warm winter jacket.
“Damn is that you Astrid, I knew you were in town but I really did not expect to run into you. You being here to see the family and all.” This was a bit of a lie as he walked a lot this week. He told himself that his achilles was sore and the break would do him good. In reality he went on long walks on the remote chance he would run into her.
“Yeah Barnard it is me. I was driving by here yesterday and saw you walking with your dog. So I decided to go for a walk hoping you were a creature of habit. Most people in in this town seem to be. I was hoping to run into you.” She extended her arms hinting at a hug or a warm embrace.
Barnard lost his bearings for a second a put his hand in his pockets as the snow swirled around them. The snowflakes darted and drifted between them and he realized he had put his hand directly into the poop bag that he nestled in his pocket seconds earlier.
He sidestepped her hug to discreetly scrub his hands in the newly fallen snow. And the grace that was Astrid did not miss a beat. She kneeled down and started to give some affection to Lou and Lou responded with more affection than the situation required. Lou covered her with kisses and eventually presented her with an ice covered stick.
“Lou give Assie a break. She didn’t travel across the world to be slobbered on by a bear like you.”
As they stood under the streetlight the snow started to accumulate on each others hair, eyebrows and even the tip of their respective noses. He watched a single snowflake slowly melt on her cheek and and fall tearlike toward her chin
“Oh those big brown eyes” She whispered.
“You Ain’t seen nothing yet” was his flippant response.
“Your dog is amazing. You are a very lucky man. Lou appears to loves you so much. Don’t we all wish we had that kind of love. ”
The snow had turned to chaos. A tree branch snapped in the background.
“I better get back to my folks home. Peter is making dinner. I am overdue.”
She silently walked back toward the barely visible streetlight where she emerged. That walk had not changed over the years.
Lou rubbed her nose on his thigh and once again picked up a stick. Somewhat jealous.