STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 19    April 2007


26 Miles


by Julia LaSalle



I'm not ready to go back home—not at all ready to face Keith again—and I'm not sure what I'll do pass a little more time away from the house. There are not a lot of places to go when I'm such a sweaty mess.

So I run some more.

It's easy to overdo it on these runs around the lake. It's hard for me to stop when my body gets to feeling strong and my legs are pumping and the blood is going, moving out all the gak, and shining up those ovaries. It's hell on your knees though and at this point in my training, I don't want an injury. For once, I don't want my plans to get botched up. I force myself to slow down, take the final turn around the lake and start walking back to the car, start catching my breath.

A man walks toward me on the path, headed to the lake, carrying two fishing poles. He's got a blue and white baseball cap sitting on his head and he takes slow, slow very slow steps—like the brontosaurus in a children's cartoon, all peaceful and giant-like with long, long legs. There's a small boy, trotting along next to him, wearing an identical hat. The little one's holding a tackle box in front of him with both hands and he has a plush Steelers football tucked under his arm. The little boy's legs are working hard to keep up, even though Bruno is going as slow as he can.

Bruno. That's what I named the man. Bruno the Brontosaurus.

And, of course, the little one, Baby.

It's one of the games I like to play—giving strangers friendly nicknames; some day I'll play it with my own kids, when my eggs are finally able to do their work, but for now I do it mostly to keep myself company on these long runs. Helps to pass the time inside my head.

Keith used to like to play that game with me sometimes, back when we were still in high school—back before we met Staff Sergeant Connable, and things got all twisted up between us. Before Keith joined the Marines. Just about six years ago now.

That's how long we been married. Six years. It's true what they say about time, how it flies; though having a good time has got nothing to do with it.

When I reach the car, I take a deep breath, open the door and drop my butt inside.

It's hot in the car, but nice to sit down. I keep the door open and twist around to the passenger side, pat in the under-the-seat fuzz until I find my cell phone and a bottle of water.

1:28pm. No missed calls.

There's one of my longer, long-dead hairs wrapped around the bottle's mouth. I pull it off along with some fuzz and it makes me cringe to think of what Keith would say. He hates things that look a mess, can be a real jerk about it sometimes; been that way since he first came home from boot camp.

I twist the lid off the water as Bruno and Baby walk by. The boy notices me sitting sideways in the car and nods at me in an old-fashioned kind of way that's adorable. I smile back at him in that dopey way I always smile at little kids—all goo and cheese. Then, when the grownup also looks over, I see where Baby Bruno learned the gesture from. The grownup's teeth are Colgate Brite when he smiles and when our eyes meet it holds—until I realize I still have the goo smile and look away.

Keith's been home from his last tour eight months now. I love him but we're on each other's nerves. The first day he was home, he said I'd gotten fat, that I'd let the apartment fall to shit. I know he's just working through something in his brain, and I know that sometimes I can do a little better job. But stuff like that—hearing it makes it hard.

There's a clump of dead daisies near the front of the car. It's July and the poor things are just about done. One tiny, white petal still clings to a crunchy, brown head and it strikes me so sad, the way the daisies hold up their white flag, burnt out from the sun.

I undo my ponytail, shake out my hair, and then lean my weight into the car seat.

The sweat and dead skin under my sports bra melt together into paste. It's gross now but I know it will feel good later when I'm clean. After Keith has left for the bar and I can be by myself with no guilt, in the shower.

But right now, it's only 1:28pm. Still way too early to go back home.

I take another sip from the bottle and put the cap back on, re-make my ponytail, lock up the hot car, and head back up the hill to where I can see the lake.

Baby and Bruno are setting out their lines and I walk toward them until I find a good spot, then lay on my back in the grass, listening to the cardinals banter until, after a bit, it's Keith's voice instead.

"Why don't you go on your run now?" he had said to me this morning. "Go on so I can get some things around here done."

He pushed past me then with a bottle of Drano in his hand, and I followed him into the bathroom. I always follow him when we fight.

He slid open the shower door and leaned on the tub wall. I stood there with my sneakers on, already ready to go.

"But I don't want to leave if there's work here to do," I said to his back. And that was the honest to goodness truth. I'm sure he didn't believe me though because the sound of water crashing into the tub then filled the room, and I had to almost scream, "I'm not trying to leave you to do all the work."

He didn't answer.

We both stood there for a moment as water filled the tub. Him looking at the drain. Me looking at him. Then he leaned forward and turned off the water. A new sound of dripping and then the gurgle of a slow drain.

"No," he said, over his shoulder "Just go. You've already done enough around here."

"Yeah?" I said. The drain burped.

"Not really, Theresa. No. I mean, your hair is everywhere." He turned his head round to face me, his voice tight like a sinker weight hung on the line of his words.

"I mean, if you really wanted to do your part around here," he said, "what you would do is shave your head."

I looked at my shoes on the floor, blue shoelaces on cracked tile.

"Look, Theresa," he said and I heard him splashing some water around, pouring some stuff into the drain. "I'm sorry, but do you see how it's frustrating for me? I know you want to have kids," he said, "but how are we going to do that when the two of us can barely even keep enough of your hair out of the drain to keep the shower running?"

I brought my eyes up and saw the steam still rising from the water behind his head. "Keith, I'm sorry about the drain. It'll be ok, though, we'll fix it."

"You mean, I'll fix it," he said and he looked hard at me. "You're the one holding us back here. I want for you to grow up a bit yourself before we start having kids."

And I wonder what I did to make him hate me like this.


                                        ~ ~ ~


When I wake up there are ants crawling on my arms. Bruno and Baby are playing catch somewhere nearby.

"Nice spiral," Bruno says, and then a moment later, "Hey, that almost hit me in the head," from the child.

I sit up and watch the football being tossed. They are so similar, those two. Both have taken off their shirts, and both have the same whitish brownish tan. It's like the boy is a magic sponge and if you dropped him in water he'd grow three times his size, and suddenly be the man; they look so much the same. Bruno sees my head pointed in his direction and he dips the bill of his hat down once to nod.

I smile.

I look toward the lake at Bruno's and Baby's neglected fishing poles and have to squint before I see two orange bobbers. One about 25 feet out, the other just a bit farther.

I take a deep breath, stretch my neck, and close my eyes.


                                        ~ ~ ~


We were high-school sweethearts, me and Keith. The girls were always jealous because Keith and I were always whispering together. Holding hands. When he'd think of something funny, he'd squeeze my hand once, that was the signal, and we'd lean our heads together. "Look, there's a Menthol Marlo," he'd say, if we passed a lady pulling out a pack of Kools. Or, "There's Chester Molester," if we passed a creepy looking man next to a van. We'd say nice one's too, like "There's a Nice-dressed Nancy," or "All Smiles Sam." I made up one, "Crafty Connable" when that recruiter suggested we go ahead and get married before Keith signed up, to qualify for the increased 'married' pay. We were foolish to listen to all that advice. But we were young.


                                        ~ ~ ~


When I finish stretching and open my eyes, only one bobber remains.

"You got one," I say, real quiet, to no one but myself.

The bobber re-appears then sinks and I stand up.

"Hey," I say louder, waving my arm, keeping my eyes on the lake, "You got one!" knowing it's partly the strength of my gaze holding that fish there.

The little one runs past me and up to the rod. He picks it up and spins the reel fast. Too fast.

"Pull back," I say. He doesn't seem to hear. I start to walk toward him, but it seems my legs either want to just lay still or run, and I stumble.

"Justin, pull back hard," Bruno says coming up next to me, putting a steady hand on my arm. I stop moving the instant I feel his hand. He walks ahead a few steps more then stops. "Pull back quick and hard."

Justin pulls back but there's too much slack on the line and you can see there's no fight. He needs help, but his dad isn't looking at him right now. Bruno the Brontosaurus has his brown eyes turned toward me. "Comin?" he says.

"Yeah," and I jog a few steps toward him, but my legs are jelly from the long run. He offers his hand and I take it. He squeezes once and holds it to help me take the next few steps over the gravel. When we reach Justin, Bruno lets go.

"You got to get him to take the hook," Bruno tells the boy, "and make sure he's caught. Try and pull back, hard."

But Justin just turns his head toward him confused.

"Here we'll do it together," Bruno says and he leans over Justin, puts both his hands on the pole. Bruno's capped head rests above Justin's for just a moment, two fishing licenses flap in a breeze. They both jerk the rod back hard.

The line snaps up out of the water, makes a tiny sound with the water spray. This time the snap sticks. The fish is hooked.


                                        ~ ~ ~


The last time I heard Keith still sounding like Keith was shortly after Boot Camp. He wrote a letter to me and it said, "I never expected to be chanting 'Kill, Kill, Kill.' Is this who I am? I feel like Mr. McGuire's history class is forever ago and I don't know what I'm doing anymore..." I didn't know what to say to a thing like that and he never spoke that way again. I hoped he just worked it out in his own heart, but actually I think it was that thinking that broke it.

There's lots of times on these long runs I get to wondering if we'll be strong enough to fix Keith's heart again, and mine. If we keep working at it, is it something we can work through—can we get back to that old gentleness and the days of holding hands, playing the name game? But that's the kind of wondering that will make you insane.

That's why I play the games myself these days—to stop that stinking thinking—resort to counting my steps when there's no one around to name.


                                        ~ ~ ~


Now there's a fight on the line and together they both begin to bring her in. Bruno glances over at me and smiles "Nice eye," he says, his wrist twisting the reel.

"No problem."

He glances over again. His brown eyes take me in. I brush some hair away from my forehead; wait for him to look away. But he doesn't look away. Instead he lets Justin spin the reel all by himself, takes his hands off the pole and keeps his eyes on me.

"Well thanks, just the same," he says and I smile.

From somewhere behind me, a cardinal sings out a call that sounds like, 'wet shoe,' then from somewhere on the other side of the lake his partner answers: 'that's right, 'Wet shoe.' The dinosaur and I look at each other, listening to the gossip about the cardinal's galoshes.

The tip of Justin's rod starts to waver and Bruno instantly grabs onto the pole. Bruno looks down the line of the pole to the water, puts his hand over Justin's and—calm as can be—they both work the reel. "You fish?" he says, eyes straight ahead, "or just run?"

"Oh, I run. I just come here to run."

The reel starts making a clicking noise because the fish is fighting harder but Bruno and Justin keep, slow and steady, reeling her in.

I let out my hair, start re-making my ponytail.

"You got a husband that runs with you?" he says as I gather my hair up on top of my head.

"No," I say, a little too fast and have to glance down. I pull my hair through the band and tell myself it's not a lie, Keith's never run with me at the lake; not once. "You got a wife that fishes with you?"

"No," the bill of his hat shakes over Justin's head, "not in years." The reel clicks. "I've been divorced three years now," Bruno says, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He takes a breath that lifts the bones in his chest, "Maybe you'd like to cast a line with us for a bit," he says.

"Yeah," I say. "Ok." I can see his exhale.

Bruno leans over his boy, their eyes and their hats parallel as they stare down the same line. The button on the top of Justin's cap touches his father's breastbone. It looks as if Bruno has a reel in his own heart, and as if at the end of that fishing line was the button on Justin's hat. It looks as if, should Justin start to swim away, all Bruno would have to do is reel him back in.

When the fish comes to shore she's long and narrow and green. A trout. Real pretty. When the fish gets close enough Bruno reaches out and grabs her from the line, carefully smoothes down the pointy fins and kneels down on the ground.

"You like running alone?" he says holding the fish with one hand and pulling at the line with the other.

"Yeah," I say. "I have to."

"Why's that?" Bruno says, and then "Justin, you mind getting me the pliers?"

Justin runs over to a tackle box near my feet. He pokes around in there while the fish flaps his tail under Bruno's hand.

"I'm gettin ready for a marathon," I say, risking the brag.

"A marathon?" Bruno says, looking down the fish's mouth. "How far is that again?"

I reach up for my ponytail. "Bout 26 miles."

"26 miles?" he says raising his eyes to mine. His face looks like I just cracked a joke with a punchline he didn't understand. "Now why would you want to run that?"

I halve my hair, pull the band tight, start feeling embarrassed and getting mad.

"Just seems too far to go," he says, "with no reason."

Justin is still rooting around for pliers and I get to thinking about that word reason, I get to thinking about what Keith might say, the answer he'd give. "Hard work is its own reason," I say and Bruno smiles.

"I guess some people say that," he says and his eyes are laughing but not mean. "In my experience though the worthwhile things actually come real easy."

A breeze blows some stray hairs across my face, but I don't move a muscle. I look at Bruno; look at the fish in his hands, and wish all of a sudden that I could be that fish in his hands, all muscle and sinew and full of eggs. I wish that I could be held tight and something pulls hard at my chest.

The shiny fish gulps her mouth hard and Bruno holds her in the shallow water—lets her have a quick breath before she starts to fight and he pulls her out.

"In my experience," he says, looking at me, "It's doing the wrong things that makes a lot of work."

It's as if Justin somehow put the button from his cap on my heart, I feel so pulled.

"The right things—the best things—they fall right in line."

"I found the pliers," Justin says.

"Well bring em over," Bruno says, turning his head toward Justin. Then, real quick, he turns his head back to me. He's looking at me again, but not my face. He's looking at my waist, or something around my waist. He's looking at my hands and suddenly, I realize, he's looking at my wedding band.


                                        ~ ~ ~


It's not fair the way that Crafty Crazy Connable made it seem. Like the Marines would be all free tuition and free housing, nice pay and adventure, never saying a word about what it would do to us, or how it wasn't all like an X-box game. There's no free tuition with deployments all the time, and our housing at Ft. Hood, well—we left there now—but there was a reason it was free. The only adventure I've seen is the gradual tearing away of Keith's soul though he doesn't see it that way now. If you ask him now Keith says he loves the Corps, that he couldn't be more proud. When I hear him talking about feeling so proud of the Corps and then and remember his talk about 'Kill Kill Kill,' and listen to what he never says—how he never says, he's proud of me—I feel sure our days of holding hands are forever gone, no matter how hard we press, or how far we run.


                                        ~ ~ ~


Bruno blinks at my waist twice, then takes the pliers from Justin's hand and gets started on the work of getting out the hook. I just stand there watching the two of em, knowing I didn't handle the situation right, but not knowing for sure what exactly I done wrong. When Bruno finally twists out the hook, "Justin," he says, "She's beautiful. What do you think we should do with her?"

The little boy pushes back his cap and scratches behind his ear.

"Put her back and catch her again when she gets done growing a little more," Bruno says, "or take her home now and have a little meal."

"Take her home," Justin says.

Bruno looks at him strong. The fish's shiny tail flips slower and slower under his palm.

"I mean, put her back," Justin says and it's more like a question.

"Yeah," he says, "I think that's best. You take her like this, and you do it yourself. You caught her. She's yours to set her free."

Bruno shows Justin how to smooth down the fins and Justin holds her real careful like she's a bomb, then Justin walks over to me.

Justin holds the trout in front of me and I take a good look. "Beautiful," I say.

The little boy kneels at the edge and puts his fish in the water. At first the fish doesn't move at all, and then, all of a sudden, she does.

Justin looks at the lake for a moment, at the spot where his fish was, and then he bends over and picks up a handful of stones. He starts plopping them one by one into the lake.

There's a quiet moment between us then as Bruno comes and stands next to me, arms folded facing the lake. "Guess you'll want to be getting back soon," he says.

"Yeah," I say, thinking of the drain, "Better that I get on back."

"Maybe we'll see you again at the lake."

"Yeah," I say, "Ok." I turn back toward the gravel and hot hot car. "Bye, Justin."

"Bye, lady," Baby calls, then adds, "good luck with your race."

The sound of Justin's tiny splashes resumes, and I smile a little, adding to it the melody of my own steps over gravel.


Copyright©2007 Julia LaSalle