Chasing Linda

Lynn E. Palermo

Is that really Linda? Linda Leckie? Here in Seattle?

I pause on the hot sidewalk at the top of the hill, stunned by the August sun after a long waitress shift in a coffee shop with no windows. A woman's figure a block away has leaped to my eye as the only familiar shape in the retreating crowd. She's taller than the people around her, and hefty, with straight brown hair in a short shag haircut. Her head moves from side-to-side in rhythm with her stride, which is what caught my eye. Having walked behind her for so many miles, I'd recognize that motion anywhere.

I met Linda Leckie, a police officer from New Zealand, three years ago in a French youth hostel. Her nationality drew me to her first because I had visited New Zealand with my parents while in high school. But ultimately, it was our similar names and common sense of unrootedness that cemented a bond between us.

Linda had quit her job, shed car and apartment, and hitched a pack on her back for a six-month wander through Europe. As for me, having finished my semester abroad in Strasbourg, I was improvising an itinerary through "la France profonde" to test my brother's old Boy Scout pack and my sense of independence. My route zigzagged from one region to the next on the recommendations of fellow train passengers and park bench dwellers in the towns I visited.

On a shared whim, Linda and I switched directions and headed southwest to Carcassonne, where we spent the night in the cobblestoned fortress city dating back to the Middle Ages. We ate our dinner on a stone bench, using a pocketknife to cut into hard-crusted bread and Roquefort cheese, and talked as day slid into night. The next morning, despite my never-rise-early rule, I let Linda lead me outside, creeping past slumbering hostellers to see dawn infuse the stone ramparts with a pink glow. From our vantage near a sentry tower, we gazed out across the plain at clutches of terra cotta rooftops circling stout church towers. The Pyrenees cast a purple shadow in the distance. Linda and I imagined the final, desperate days of the city's siege by Charlemagne's army in the ninth century—and breathed deeply these moments of quiet before the invasion of modern tourists.

A few days later, we stepped off the train in Burgundy to explore the green hills ribbed with vineyards. The bright air brought the clarity of high-definition photography to the crumbling sandstone walls dividing fields and the green foliage pushing up through them. Charolais cattle, almost the same color as the stone, raised their heads to watch us crunch past single file in our sturdy shoes and frame packs. Portly clouds set against the azure sky reflected the cows' complacency. At the end of the day, we shook out our sleeping bags in a field next to a lone farmhouse shuttered tight for the summer. Under a drapery of stars, Linda told me stories of "hunting expeditions" on slow patrol nights in rural New Zealand.

"We'd take turns riding on top of the squad car, our legs wrapped 'round the siren. Then we turned the searchlight beam on the fields and took potshots at rabbits—hoping never to hit one, of course. Even if they are a scourge in New Zealand. They eat everything. You wouldn't believe the damage they cause."

I wondered if she'd added the part about missing the rabbits for my benefit. I'd fired holes in tin cans, but couldn't imagine aiming a gun at a living being.

The next morning, we awoke shivering in our sleeping bags, our faces damp with dew. Linda's eyelid was swollen shut and purple as a bruise. Because she spoke no French, I played interpreter with the pharmacist in the next village. Neither his language schooling nor mine had covered insect vocabulary, so we drew little pictures of bugs on a prescription pad to identify the probable culprit. Linda just laughed off the thought of a field spider chewing her eyelid as she slept.

Linda and I stuck together for little more than a week. Our shared passion for adventure guided by chance now threatened our friendship, as we chafed at our constant togetherness with its stream of tiny negotiations over eating, sleeping, and pausing for rest. Each of us quietly drew up an itinerary highlighting divergent interests, which we presented to the other with apologies and secret relief. We parted with hugs, later exchanged a few postcards, and eventually lost touch.

So maybe it's not all that surprising to run into her on the streets of Seattle, after all. Pacific Ocean aside, New Zealand and Washington are neighbors. If she had dumped her life for a European tour, why not do the same for adventures in America?

That's how I ended up in Seattle. A week after college graduation in Pennsylvania, I headed west in a Greyhound bus, eager to launch some kind of exotic international career. But with the economy stalled in this Carter-Reagan recession, the best I could find was a waitressing job in a coffee shop favored by Air France flight crews. To get even that, I had to play up my high school varsity letters to prove my stamina. Still, I was hoping to practice my French, maybe even wangle a job with the airline, at some point. But by now I see that the flight crews aren't interested in me. They spend long days tending to passengers' whims in suffocating, airborne tubes, so during layovers, they strip off the professional veneer of gracious diplomacy and expect to be pampered. They have nothing left to give.

I shade my eyes for a clearer view of Linda's head bobbing down the steep hill in the rush hour crowd, like a pebble tumbling down a creek. Why am I just standing here? She's already two blocks away.

"Linda!" I shout. "Linda Leckie! Wait up!"

I break into an uneven trot. My gum-soled shoes squeak with the impact of each step. After an eight-hour shift, the blood has pooled in my ankles, and my feet feel thick and far from my body. But the hill gets me started, and before long I've forgotten my fatigue and shapeless uniform. My feet begin to remember the rhythm they honed during those years on the high school hockey field. I used to dream about where those feet would take me. As a teenager enthralled by the summer Olympic Games on television, I imagined churning up divots as I sped around the hockey field in my kilt, deftly tackling world-famous center forwards and smacking the ball up to my American front line.

I pick up speed. My canvas bag containing bus pass, Thomas Hardy novel, and snack of broken fortune cookies (purchased by the pound at my favorite Chinese grocery) bangs my side in counterpoint to my steps. Anxious heads swivel as I pound past – probably afraid that I am running for help or fleeing the scene of a crime. Their eyes soften when they see my flushed grin and they part to clear my path. My mind leaps ahead of my feet.

Where is Linda staying, I wonder? She can stay with us. My roommate won't mind. She met her boyfriend on the train-to-ferry-to-train to visit me in France the same year I met Linda. Of all people, she'll be excited about this encounter. The three of us can eat dinner at our favorite Greek restaurant near the Fremont Bridge, the one where the staff has known us by name since the night we ordered three entrées between us because we couldn't make up our minds. We'll have to visit the Pike Place Market first, of course.

But then, Linda's probably already been there. It's top on the list for tourists. How about Pioneer Square? It's a little rundown but that shouldn't faze a police officer. The architecture probably dates from the same era as New Zealand. In fact, yes, that must be why Pioneer Square has haunted me since I moved to Seattle – it reminds me of Christchurch! We arrived there in June, during the first snowstorm of the ski season. The baroque, gray stone of the small city set at the foot of those dizzying mountains grabbed my heart. I wanted to drop my suitcase right there and put down roots.

I'm closing in on Linda. My breath is coming too hard to yell ahead, but that doesn't matter because I've just decided to surprise her, anyway. I shove aside worries that she won't recognize me. Of course she will. I picked her out from the rear in the middle of a crowd, didn't I? My feet no longer hurt—in fact, they barely seem to skim the pavement. It's been a long time since I ran so far, so fast. I'd forgotten the sense of release that running gave me in those tense high school years, with the relentless pressure to get good grades and fit in, fit in, fit in. The familiar surge of liberation propels me forward.

As I approach Linda from behind, I'm back on the hockey field, reaching for the ball. I can hear my coach saying, pull ahead of your opponent. Tiny steps, tiny steps to maintain balance as you turn to face her for the tackle. An imaginary field hockey stick in my left hand guides me.

In a final burst of speed, I lunge two paces ahead and pivot to face my long-lost traveling companion, my eyes lit with anticipation. As I swivel my body directly into Linda's path, the heel of my gum sole catches on the sidewalk. The world stops and I feel my body trace an arc in the silent air until I crash to the pavement. Patches of sky, human legs, and slanted storefronts kaleidoscope by as I somersault backwards down the hill. Rolling to a stop, I flop spread-eagle as if crucified to the concrete, my polyester uniform bunched at the top of my thighs. One food-encrusted shoe has flown off, baring a hole in the toe of my pantyhose. I've lost my canvas bag.

I struggle to remember where I am. I want it to be New Zealand. Or France.

I see a face staring down at me, forehead creased with concern.

"Are you okay?" it asks, in a standard American accent.

It is the woman who has Linda Leckie's backside.

I raise my head to focus on her question, squinting with concentration. I wonder why this woman is not Linda Leckie, but think I should invite her for a cup of coffee just to be sure. Or ask her if she knows Linda Leckie, since New Zealand is such a small country. Or if she's related, because to see her from behind...

My mind clears and New Zealand sweeps away behind the horizon. Our surprise reunion sinks into the sea. I lower my head to the pavement.

"I'm fine."

The woman who is not Linda Leckie helps me to my feet. She hands me my shoe and canvas bag. "Are you sure? Where are you parked?"

"I don't have a car. I ride the bus."

"You don't look like you're in any shape to travel," she says. "By bus, I mean. Can I call you a taxi?"

The cab fare would cost most of the tips from my shift.

"No thanks. I'm okay. I'm fine, it's just that… I mean... I mean… I mean, I'm fine. Thank you for your help."

As I watch the woman walk away, I'm no longer sure if she really resembles Linda Leckie. In fact, I'm no longer even sure if I remember what Linda Leckie looks like. And really, with almost seven billion people in the world, what were the chances of running into her on the streets of Seattle, Washington?

My right knee is throbbing. I bend down to examine it and see that the hot, flushed skin is stretched tight with swelling. An angry scrape filled with grains of city dirt is oozing. I tug my pantyhose away from the scab to prevent the nylon from sticking—and send a fat run up the front of my thigh. I lean on my right foot, take a step forward, and wince at the dull pain. Easing my limp into a careful stride, I train my mind on mapping a route to the bus stop by way of a dime store and a new pair of pantyhose. I hope I'll be able to work my eight-hour shift tomorrow with this knee.

At the corner, I turn east and begin crossing the street with the crowd. As I glance up at the stoplight, I'm seized by a glimpse of Mount Rainier—framed by skyscrapers—floating above the city in the warm, late-afternoon light. It reminds me of that shadowy image of the Pyrenees from the walls of Carcassonne. Forgetting where I am, I pause to admire the sight. A car turning right taps his horn to nudge me out of his path. Reluctantly, I continue limping to the other side of the street, craning my neck to keep the mountain in sight for as long as possible. I wish I could share this moment with Linda Leckie. That view of Mount Rainier is worth a trip from New Zealand. Or a cross-country bus ride.


About the Author

Lynn E. Palermo is a professor of French at Susquehanna University (Selinsgrove, PA), where she teaches language at all levels, as well as courses on civilization and literature. Her research focuses on cultural and aesthetic issues of the interwar period. She is also at work on several literary translations.