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Joan Wilking

Running Man

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 shroud.

It took them two days to find you.

“What kind of kid runs away to his own garage,” your father said.

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 back.

“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,” she said.

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 says.

“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 understand.”

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. Another one.

“I’m trying,” that blotch of a mouth said. “I really am.”


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 they’re gone.


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, dear?”

He reached for the blue labeled bottle, the wrong one.

“Beefeaters, please. Hold the olive. Hold the vermouth. Thank you.”

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, relentless cold.

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 span up.

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 running man.

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.


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