Now that I’ve quit my job to pursue writing, I’m trying to develop a new routine. I know I can count on myself to go stir crazy in a matter of hours, so my aim is for that routine to incorporate a rotating set of work venues. Today was the park downtown. It was my first time going to that park in the middle of the work day. It was real weird.

After biking into the park, I’d secured a shaded bench at a table amidst other shaded tables with benches. This was the least grime-encrusted in the vicinity, though still more grime-encrusted than the desk I’d used at my office job. That was okay; this was supposed to be a grimier lifestyle.

After a slow start, I finally hit a decent writing pace as I settled into my surroundings. The park was alive with the activity of people who hang out in parks in the middle of the workday – retirees were engaged in some kind of outdoor lesson involving holding a short stick with both hands and moving it in a set pattern. Children screamed with glee on the playground at the far end of the park. One child screamed the same name–“Mina”–more than five times. A young Latin man with crunchy hair spikes approached a middle-aged Latin woman on a bench and began speaking in Spanish confidently, with purpose. He seemed to be selling something. I scribbled recollections in my little leather-bound notebook, and at some point while I was immersed, a group of at least four people had settled at the table to my four o’clock position. I was wearing my hood and focused on my writing, so I didn’t get a good look at the precise number of people, but I sensed at least two grown men, and possibly one or more women, and possibly a number of small children, though I heard no children’s voices. I wrote.

Shortly after their arrival, an undetermined number of them spread out a few feet in front of my table, in a small, grass clearing. As their activity gained momentum, I found myself actively trying to ignore the accompanying sounds and peripheral sights and stay focused on writing. I was trying to recount my first view of a Japanese landscape.

I could, however, see one man in front of me, in my peripheral vision, at about eleven o’clock. The rest of the party was outside my field of view entirely, which, mind you, was focused downward at my notebook. The man in my peripheral view wore a baseball cap, an oversized, unbuttoned button-down shirt, and a loose-fitting T-shirt underneath. I don’t remember his pants. But overall, at a second’s glance up, he gave the impression of a complacent dad–busy, thrifty, and all too glad to have a solid excuse to not be invested in his own physical presentation, which is not to say it was terrible. Actually, he kind of looked like the Japanese IT guy at the job I’d just quit.

He was throwing a frisbee. He was addressing someone out of view named Dylan and made sure to say “Dylan” before or after every sentence, as though Dylan were a robot which only responded to a set bank of word commands constructed in a specific way.

“Give me your best throw, Dylan.”

“Come on, Dylan! Dylan, is that the best you’ve got?”

“Dylan, catch, Dylan.”

“You can do better than that, Dylan.”

There were just enough utterances of “Dylan” and his inflection was just peculiar enough and his voice was just loud enough to rise up above the background noise of the park and tug at my focus. He sounded like he was reciting from cue cards, as though the concept of “play” were something he’d only read about in books.

“Give me your best shot, Dylan.”

On second thought, it sounded like some kind of English immersion lesson. Today’s lesson was phrases you can exclaim when playing catch with a frisbee. I glanced up with just my eyes and saw the frisbee plop feebly a few feet short of the man who looked like the IT guy. I wrote something about how Japanese landscapes looked like bento boxes, struggling to find words that precisely encapsulated how. It occurred to me that there still hadn’t been any sound of children, and the apparent woodenness and one-sidedness of this dialogue, the man’s insistence on stressing the name of his companion, made me begin to suspect he was perhaps caring for someone with a mental disability. I crossed out the word “clustered” and penned in the word “compartmentalized.” I glanced over to the right and saw there were two adult men standing opposite the man who looked like the IT guy. Both were dressed similarly unimpressively, but neither of remarkably odd appearance or countenance. I couldn’t tell which of the two was Dylan. Both seemed aware of the frisbee game, but in the brief instant that they occupied my vision, neither showed any indication that they understood the concept of play any better than the man who looked like the IT guy. One of the men in particular seemed to droop. His arms drooped at his sides, his face drooped.

It took me three separate glances over the course of about two minutes to absorb this level of detail, and by then they seemed to have moved on from the frisbee game. They seemed to stand around for awhile chattering, and eventually migrated to my rear to join the yet unquantified rest of their party. I wrote something about how Japanese rice paddies were like textiles in a giant quilt, then crossed out the word “like,” then wrote it back in again.

“Get that motorcycle off the table, Dylan,” I overheard. I stopped writing. “Get that motorcycle off the table.”

“Yeah,” came another voice. “Get that lawnmower off the table, Dylan. I’m gonna mow you.” 

What game was this? It was the type of nonsense dialogue you sometimes hear in dreams, where irrelevant words go unquestioned, standing in for concepts with which they share only an arbitrary relation. I pictured a little toy motorcycle, like a Micro Machine. Then some kind of toy lawnmower. I wondered why grown men might have brought such a thing to the park. And why, if they had, they would want it off the table.

I thought about the exotic scenery to which I’d borne witness on my first shuttle ride from Centrair International Airport into the heart of Nagoya, how all had seemed alien. The shingles on houses had stood out, in particular.

Louder in my ear than before, I heard the man who looked like the IT guy say, “I gave him something to think about. Guy tried to beat me at the bowling alley, so I gave him something to think about.” I was pretty sure this declaration had been unprompted, not preceded by any kind of context.

“Yah. Yah,” someone said sharply, but not as if in response to the puzzling bowling anecdote. The timing was off. The audio balance was off.

Chatter from the group was starting to build, as though it were closing in around me, and by now I was paying more attention to the chatter than my notebook. I couldn’t detect any thread of chronology to the discussion. The invisible line that forms between people engaged in social interaction, people sharing a mental space by way of communication, was missing. Suddenly it felt as though I were in the center of an encroaching horde of animated shells. Maybe this was just a devious, non-confrontational way of getting me to vacate the table. Conveniently, it was lunchtime besides.

I hurriedly began stuffing my notebook into my pack and securing my bike helmet properly on my head, moving briskly but calmly, so as not to draw attention. I considered that at least one member of the group might be a silent chaperone, and that maybe staying silent was some kind of therapy technique for whatever condition the apparent majority of this group had. Maybe they were on recess from a nearby mental hospital and this was a much-needed bit of structurelessness in an otherwise institutionalized existence. Maybe they weren’t on recess with a chaperone, but had all escaped, like in that one movie. Maybe they weren’t mental patients at all, but members of a People with Depression meet-up, and pranking locals was one way that they’d discussed treating their depression. Maybe they were all on the same drug and experiencing a shared hallucination.

Given any of the above cases, I felt it wise to remove myself from the setting, though there was definite guilt in the decision, considering I might have simply been shunning the mentally challenged. Finally, I reasoned that, challenged or not, they were making a distracting amount of noise and beginning to encroach on my personal space, and it was lunchtime besides.

Walking my bike, whose front tire had gone flat while I was writing due to a previously unidentified puncture, I cut a few yards across the grass back to the sanity of the asphalt path. At a safe enough distance to flee anything that wasn’t actively hunting me, I glanced back one last time. There were maybe five of them gathered around their table, none standing out in particular. In fact, in that split instant I didn’t even identify the individuals I’d seen previously, though they must have been there. The crowd had become as a single entity with no faces. There was nothing on the table resembling a motorcycle or a lawnmower. There was nothing on the table.

As I turned to take my leave unnoticed, I overheard one of them–the bowling one, I think–just barely still in earshot, shout at one of his group mates, “Oh, you’re trying to eat my brains?!”

Zombies. Of course. I scurried away with newfound confidence in the decision.

It had been two days since I quit my job, and already I’d managed to insert myself into a sort of surreal, structure-demolishing nonsenseland. The park I’d visited countless times on weekends and evenings after work was, during the day, a bubble which enveloped a dimension of chaos I felt I’d not visited in many years. Maybe it would prove a valuable discovery.

Just short of the exit to the park, a lone man in a business suit standing beside the path executed a Tai Chi pose at me, gazing at me, his limbs and torso shifting in slow, deliberate motion of unknown meaning; a final proclamation of intent from the park.

I’ll probably go back.

4 thoughts on “Compartmentalized

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