All winter you watch him. You watch him run. Dolgin to
the Spanish House, the Spanish House to the Student Center, the Student
Center to the Media Lab-–clean cut, probably just another farm boy far
from home. You first noticed him last spring. Then again, in the fall,
there he was, running with the same bulging backpack strapped to his
shoulders, a streak of motion crisscrossing the tree lined pathways
through the common carpeted with leaves, waiting for winter to set in. You
slowed then, dragging your feet, listening to the crunch, inhaling the
earthy smell before they and you were swept or merely blown away.
“Another day of double digit cold. Bundle up,” the TV
weatherman says, pointing at red arrows pulsating on a map of the Twin
Cities he can’t see.
You pull on a fleece mask, horizontal slits for the
eyes, the nose, the mouth. A giant voodoo doll, you lope down the street,
taking care in the cold. Everyone does. Everyone except the running man.
He’s hatless, gloveless, wearing chinos and a green plaid sweater, his
feet sneakered even in the snow. Day after day he’s always there, always
alone. As for you? You aren’t sure.
“What do you mean?” your girlfriend says tossing her
straight black hair across your bare chest. “Just look at you.”
She presses her shape into your arm. You reach over to
trace the angle of her hip with your index finger. It rises and falls like
a roller coaster ride. She laughs again.
“You can feel this,” she says wrapping her hand around
your upper arm.
How old were you? Nine, or was it ten, when you stuffed
a change of clothes into a grocery bag, stole a bag of chips and a piece
of fruit-–an apple or was it a pear-–from the china bowl on your mother’s
kitchen counter and hid in the garage behind the old Ford, the green Model
T. Your grandfather bought it because it reminded him of the one his
father drove when he was a boy. Sunday afternoons you bumped down country
roads. Your grandfather took you out in it. Your father never had the
time. It sat-–a dust collector, your mother called it-–under a canvas
It took them two days to find you.
“What kind of kid runs away to his own garage,” your
Your own garage? It wasn’t your garage any more than it
was your kitchen.
It was her kitchen, his garage.
“He did what?” your aunt asked.
“We were preoccupied,” your mother said, then inhaled
and exhaled one more time before stubbing out the butt she’d smoked down
to the filter.
Your grandfather had just put a bullet through his head.
The garage. Who would have thought to look in the
garage. If your father hadn’t moved the car, who knows how long you would
have stayed out there?
“Just a youthful prank,” your father said.
“For two whole days?”
Your aunt shook her head, rubbed your back with her
palm, the warmth of it, something tender, making slow circles on your
“Is that what he told you? It was only a couple of
hours. A couple of hours before I backed the car out. It’s lucky I saw
him, that I didn’t run him over.”
Your father chucked you on the shoulder, a little too
hard. You sat up straight in the front seat of the Model T all the way
from the church to the cemetery. You stared straight down into the hole.
Your mother made you wear your rubber boots.
“You don’t want to get dirt all over your good shoes,”
You wore those boots every day for the rest of the
summer, wouldn’t take them off, wore them until school started. Then you
pushed them into a corner of the closet. Never wore them again, not in the
rain, not in the cold.
The last time, one of your roommates said, “Relax man.
Years from now we’ll all be sitting around, and you’ll say, ‘Can you
believe it? What a fool I was. What could I have been thinking, and all
because of such a little thing, such a little inconsequential thing?’”
He’s right. That you know. You’d be stupid not to. It
was a little thing. It was a lot of little things; you remind yourself. A
lot of little things crawling around in your head, worming their way in.
When you tried the last time you didn’t get it right. You’ll have to be
smarter this time.
“Pay attention to the details,” your father says.
“Read the instructions more carefully,” your mother
“Those Bs should be As. What about your junior year
abroad? What about senior year? When are you going to start cramming for
the GREs? What about grad school?”
You step out the apartment door. There’s ice on the
stoop. Careful. You don’t want to slip. Maybe you’ll stop at Dunn Brothers
first. They roast their own beans there; Jamaican Mountain Blue, Colombian
Supremo, Kenyan AA. Mornings the smell warms the icy air. Nights
undergrads sit huddled over steaming cups; coffee, espresso, latté, spiced
teas. They let you sit over a single cup until closing at Dunn’s.
Yesterday you sucked down God-only-knows-how-many cups,
you and your girlfriend. You used to think she had the face of an angel.
Those blue eyes burning in that pale skin. As you sipped at your Mountain
Blue you could see the faint trace of a vein on one side of the bridge of
her nose. Her hair when you touched it was the same color as the dark
roasted beans. She kept brushing it away from her face. You kept pulling
it back again until she got angry and pushed your hand away.
“I’m trying to understand,” she said.
You knew what she really meant was, “I don’t
You know the statistics. The odds aren’t good.
You couldn’t see her face, not anymore. It melted down
to a blur, the colors ran, a watercolor ruined, sprayed with a hose,
frozen until the liquid solidified into a rippling lens, a distortion.
“I’m trying,” that blotch of a mouth said. “I really
You cross the street and turn onto Grand before you see
him sprinting, caught in the cottony glow of the streetlights, one after
the other, before he disappears. You hear his sneakers on the sidewalk
shoveled clear of yesterday’s two inches. A car rolls by, then another. A
couple, swathed in scarves, and hats, and hoods hustles past. She laughs.
The sound hangs. It quivers in the dark, just for an instant, before
The paper you wrote was pretty good. The political
history of the Caribbean, all the ups and downs, the family feuds, the
Tonton Macoute, the economic importance of king cane. You covered every
angle, competent expository prose, proofed and edited it down to the last
detail. The footnotes and appendices, the bibliography followed form.
McIntyre seemed to like it, then refused to spring for the A.
“What’s the minus for?”
You wanted to know. Your father won’t be pleased. Your
mother will be furious. Your girlfriend doesn’t care.
“Why let it bother you,” she said. “It’s time to get it
together. I’ve had about all I can take.”
You leaned in to kiss her, to suck the words out of her
mouth, to reconfigure them in your own.
“It’ll be okay,” you said. “Everything will be okay.”
You kissed her again, your tongue in her mouth just for
the sake of kissing something. You rubbed her back with the palm of your
hand, slow circles, something tender. You’ll do a better job next time.
Yes you will.
You were such a good boy. What other choice did you
have? Truth or consequences? A bullet to the head?
“They say it runs in families,” your father said the
last time. What did he expect?
Your mother wept. “He was such a good boy.”
Your father looked away and said, “Another martini,
He reached for the blue labeled bottle, the wrong one.
“Beefeaters, please. Hold the olive. Hold the vermouth.
Your mother never forgets her pleases and
thank yous. Never.
You didn’t realize it was so late. You knew when you
left the apartment but you weren’t thinking how late? You told the
other guys you were going out for a walk.
“I’ll be back in a while.”
Dunn’s is closing. A guy you know, a friend of your
girlfriend actually, is turning the key in the lock and rechecking the
door. You’ve already peeled your face mask away, expecting to step out of
the deep freeze. He breathes warm breath onto his fingertips before
pulling his gloves on.
He waves and says, “What’s up man? Where you headed?
Wanna go grab a beer?”
You thank him, and then politely blow him off.
You walk, block after longer block, out of the downtown,
past houses lined up one after the other, neat and orderly, square and
tall, two stories, sometimes three. Inside windows are still lit. Outside,
The Mississippi is frozen solid. In some places the ice
is fifteen feet thick. The bridge is stone. Most of the bridges are iron
or steel. This must be one of the older ones. Stalwart, all that stone.
Under the bridge a giant rotor agitates the river to keep it from
freezing, to prevent it from crushing the supports which hold the arched
It’s easier to climb than you thought it would be, not a
big deal at all. You find a toe-hold right away and then a hand-hold and
you’re up and standing. The water churns below. The tips of your nose and
fingers are numb. You feel good. In fact, the last couple of days you’ve
felt better than you have in a long time. You hope they see the notes. You
left your desk such a jumble, left them propped up against one of the half
empty coffee cups, the liquid filmed over with blue green mold; one note
for your roommates, one for your girlfriend.
You raise your hands over your head and howl into the
chattering cold, certain there’s no one to hear you. Then out of the
corner of your eye you see him in the glow of the street lamps running,
running towards you, his long shadow cast into the street, street lamp
after street lamp. He disappears in-between. As he approaches he slows
down, still running, he makes an arcing loop, and gives you a little two
fingered salute of a wave before he says, “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
It’s the first time you’ve heard his voice. It has a
pleasant, familiar, midwestern twang to it. Slowly you lower your hands.
His face, at first quizzical, turns cold as he runs in place, before he
propels himself into forward motion again, taking off as though you aren’t
even there, as if you never were. Staring straight ahead, he runs, his
backpack bulging, the fluorescent stripe stitched to the pocket reflecting
the street lamps.
“Hey,” you call out, but he doesn’t stop, doesn’t turn
around, doesn’t even glance back over his shoulder.
You pause to watch him. That’s when you know. Climb down
off the wall or swan dive into the dark, one way or the other, it’s up to
you. That’s what you know for sure. That’s all you know for sure as you
watch his bobbing backpack grow smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s
just a speck, just an inconsequential speck of light on the back of a
Joan Wilking lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her short
fiction has appeared previously in numerous publications including The
Harvard Summer Review, In Posse, The Barcelona Review, and The Altantic.