The people who live around the lake punctuate my daily walks. They are my neighbors but I don’t really know most of them. There’s the man with two squat dogs that bark incessantly as I pass but never leave the edge of the property. The man waves at me and tells the dogs to shut up. There’s the grandmother who picks raspberries where I like to pick and we’re engaged in a mild competition. There’s Milly with the not-too-subtle anti-abortion stickers plastered across her bumper, like Abortion is Murder. Milly has been walking the dog of another neighbor, who I call the troglodyte. He used to only come out of his house early in the morning but now he’s ill and housebound. Milly has one of those baby blue Virgin Mary statues in her yard that seems to comment on the passerby’s as much as the owner does. I feel conflicted about Milly but I still say hello when I see her.
I say hello to everyone except three men who live on the opposite side of the lake. They are always parked outside their shabby house. They sit on folding chairs clustered around a small, cracked plastic table. The yard is mostly brown spots worn bare by their countless shoe rubbings under the table. One of the men wears a Korean silk bomber jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back even if its eighty degrees. So I started referring to them as “the veterans” just as a way of identifying them in conversation.
Initially I pretended to be talking on my phone when I passed by. Then I started to jog staring straight ahead. I thought if I could pass quickly, they wouldn’t notice me. But it felt like their six eyes were trailing me. My daughter found a new route that avoided their house altogether. I started complaining to my son.
“I tried getting up earlier but they’re even out at 6:00 AM smoking cigarettes and drinking tall boys.”
“What do they say to you?”
“Nothing? Maybe they’re lonely,” my son suggested.
These men weren’t belligerent or offensive but they made me uncomfortable. I felt like a bad person for ignoring their existence. What was stopping me? Fear? Korea? The Korean War ended five years before I was born and I’ve sort of overlooked it except when I watched M*A*S*H in high school. Unlike the Vietnam War or WWII, I never knew anyone who fought in it or died there. 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, which would make these men at least 78 years old. I don’t think they are that old but the truth is I don’t really know anything about them. I just know what I perceive to be true.
The next day I passed by Milly’s and the blue Virgin Mary smiled at me. I scowled back. I had drawn a line in the sand with myself and now I was determined to cross it. I had helped fuel the animosity my daughter was feeling.
As I approached their house I shortened my gait and turned towards the men.
“Good morning,” I said, waving casually.
The man with the dragon bomber jacket smiled. “Good morning,” he said, waving back.
The following day I said hello and I mentioned the oppressive heat.
“It is hot,” one of the men agreed.
“Damn hot,” another said.
“But better weather is on the way,” the third man said.
“That’s right,” I said, “it is.”