by Stan Dryer
Harry Staunten had travelled far in Thatchford. He had run its broad streets in springtime, between the ample lawns bright with blooming shrubs. He had lapped the track at Langley Park on a summer evening with the Thatchford Symphonic Band in the distant bandstand, filling the warm twilight with Sousa marches. He had run on bright October days, kicking loose from heaps of fallen leaves sweet autumn recollections of his youth. On one midwinter night he had jogged down to the town center to circle the Common with the snow squeaking under his shoes, the star-pricked blackness above him, and the white steeple of the Congregational Church bright lit across the way.
All such expeditions were now only memories. Harry’s divorce had banished him from Thatchford, expelled him by simple economics. He and Janet had agreed she would keep the big ranch house on Pineview Road so Freddie and Barbara would not have to face a new and less accredited junior high. Harry moved into an apartment in Eastbury, the next town in towards the city, where the houses were set close together and the hardware stores did a brisk business in door chains and dead bolts. His new abode was bare and white and filled with the muted mumblings of the other tenants and their television sets.
Looking back, Harry wondered if he could have saved his marriage had he devoted more time to preventive maintenance. Despite warning rumblings, he had assumed that the clothes washer, the SUV and his relationship with Janet would all continue humming along forever. Then one fateful week in October the washer had, with an agonizing whine, seized up in the spin cycle, the transmission of his SUV had disintegrated with a painful grinding and Janet had calmly told him that she could not tolerate his inability to communicate and would no longer continue living with him. The washer and SUV were repaired at great expense. Despite six equally costly sessions with Marion Marloff, a highly recommended marriage counselor, Harry and Janet had been unable to repair their marriage.
Although he could no longer live in Thatchford, Harry had hoped to stay close to the people of his former home town. He was thus pleased when he received an e-mail from Reverend Hummet of St. Gregory’s Church requesting a pastoral conference. On the appointed evening, Harry sat in the soft familiarity of one of the leather armchairs in the rectory study and waited for his minister to appear and ask him how he was adjusting to his new life.
Hummet came in with a rush. “Too many committees,” he said “I should have gotten my degree in Business Admin.” He dropped into the chair opposite Harry, but his thin body did not relax. “Well, I know you’re a busy man, so I’ll come right to the point. Are you planning to continue your membership here at St. Gregory’s?”
“Certainly,” said Harry. “I’m not sure I’ll be at services as often, but I want to continue my support.”
The Reverend frowned. “I guess I’m not being too clear,” he said. “In the case of a divorce, we have found that trying to support both parties doesn’t always work out. There is too great a temptation for some members to take sides with resulting schisms in our flock.”
“You want me to resign?” asked Harry.
“With the children staying with their mother, that might be best. We wish to offer young folks all the spiritual support we can.”
A numbness had descended over Harry. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said.
“I’ll be happy to give you a letter of introduction to Fred Parkson at St. Anne’s in Eastbury. When I have preached there, I found the congregation most friendly.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Harry. He forced a smile, shook Hummet’s cold hand and did not permit himself any audible profanity until after he had driven out of the sanctity of the church parking lot.
A few days later Harry called his tennis partner, Marvin Harvester, about the winter tournament. On a weekend each February, the Thatchford Tennis Association rented the Indoor Tennis Center for a doubles tournament, more social than competitive.
“I thought you’d moved out of town,” said Marvin.
The tournament is open to previous residents,” said Harry.
There was a moment of emptiness on the line. Then Marvin said, “Gosh, I wish I’d known that. I mean I’ve committed to play with Pandat.” Pandat was an Indian gentleman of great startup wealth and tennis finesse who had moved into Thatchford the year before and immediately taken the Singles Crown.
“I don’t understand,” Harry said. “1 thought it was kind of understood we’d be playing together.”
Again silence. “Well to be honest”, Marvin finally said, “I see this tournament as warm-up for the team. And I thought you’d be playing for Eastbury now.”
“That’s okay,” said Harry and hung up.
From that time on, when Harry picked up his children on his weekends, he took them in to the city to a museum or the movies. He had no desire to bring them to local events to face even the disinterest of his former neighbors.
He never took Freddie and Barbara to his new apartment as shortly after he had rented it he had found Winnie. Or perhaps Winnie had found him.
His plan had been simple. He had rented a two bedroom apartment with the idea that by sharing costs with another bachelor he would more than make up for the added rent. He had then posted a request for a roommate on the bulletin board outside the Human Resources office at the Megalo Corporation where he worked as a Systems Analyst.
Thus he was surprised when a young woman appeared at the door to his office the next day. She was short and slim with her dark brown hair close cut and wore a simple business suit.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Winnie, the new temp Receptionist. I’m sick of the commute from the City so I’ve come about your ad for a roommate.”
“Well I…,” Harry started to say.
“You were looking for a man, right?”
“I’m looking for my own bedroom, a place where I can cook dinner and I don’t mind sharing an apartment with a man as long as he doesn’t expect sex instead of rent.”
Harry spoke almost without thinking. “Okay. The rent is a hundred a week, that’s slightly less than half of what I pay for the apartment. We’ll split the kitchen cabinets and the fridge. There is only one bathroom but it has a big closet kind of thing with lots of room for linens and stuff. You park on the street, but you get a sticker as the street is reserved for residents only.” He stopped. Where the hell did all of that come from? he thought.
Winnie smiled. “I’ll need to see the place first. But it sound like it’s going to work out just fine.”
Which it had. Winnie moved in the next weekend. A couple of burley young men with a host of tattoos wrestled a bed and bureau and assorted boxes up the stairs and into the second bedroom. Finished, they banged a couple of high fives with Winnie and disappeared down the stairs shouting back phony warnings to Harry about Winnie’s rapacious nature.
Winnie smiled and shook her head and disappeared into her new room to emerge a couple of hours later with a bunch of flattened cartons which she took down to the trash bin in the basement. Harry glanced into the room to discover a neatly made bed, a couple of photos on a scarf on the bureau and no sign of any straggle of other possessions.
Their life became one of clockwork order. Winnie kept to herself, only appearing in the long room that served as kitchen, dining room and living room when she cooked and ate her meals, then instantly cleared and cleaned the dishes. Harry seldom cooked for himself, going out to bring home a ready cooked meal from the local deli or perhaps thawing a TV dinner from his supply in the refrigerator freezer. He did like salads which he created with care and many varied ingredients. That had been his one kitchen chore with Janet and the pleasant habit persisted.
Not that he wanted any more involvement with Winnie. He was too busy with his work at Megalo and with trying to insert himself back into the life of Thatchford. That Town, he felt, owed him a debt. He had invested fifteen years of his life there and he owned a piece of its heritage. There must be some way he could force them to pay up, although he did not know in what coinage. In his spare moments, he leafed through the pages of the Thatchford Weekly Gazette, stale copies that arrived in the mail a week after door-to-door delivery in Thatchford. There he found his answer, an advertisement announcing that on a Saturday in June the Annual Thatchford Classic, a ten kilometer road race, would be run.
That same day Harry sent in his application to Madge Whiteward, a fitness devotee with whom he had often played mixed doubles. He hoped for a nice personal note with his reply, but all he received two weeks later was an envelope containing his number tag and a copy of the race rules.
Meanwhile Harry had started to run. Every other morning he went forth into the late winter darkness to circle the cold empty streets of Eastbury. As he ran, he tried to tell himself that Eastbury was just as much of a town as Thatchford. The young checkout clerks at Superpick were no different than the high school students who worked at Wallington’s in Thatchford. The librarians in the Town Library seemed as pleasant and knowledgeable as their Thatchford counterparts. He had almost convinced himself of the parity of his new home town when one of his runs took him past O’Neil Recreational Park. Harry stopped and looked in at its four tennis courts. A single street light illuminated the rough asphalt, the hopelessly short backcourts and the nets made out of chain link fencing. Instantly his thoughts went back to Thatchford’s ample clay courts set in the greensward of Langley Park and the pleasure of warm summer evenings playing beneath the lights. But a blast of cold wind cut at Harry and he turned away from the courts to run on up the street between the grey shapes of the double decker houses that stood like the silent ranks of a defeated army.
Late that evening Harry drove over to Thatchford. He followed the streets the race would take, carefully noting the distances between turns and where the hills began and ended. He was going to run with a careful game plan and he wanted to know the course intimately.
Halfway through his survey, when he stopped at the end of Broadview Avenue to check the odometer, a flashing blue light exploded behind him. Some wakeful citizen had called the police to alert them of the passage of a suspicious older car. Harry quickly slipped his clipboard under the front seat.
A moment later a policeman came up beside his window and shone a flashlight in his face. It was Officer Schmidt, regarded by the residents of Thatchford as the friendly protector of their lives and property. “You looking for something?” he asked. His tone was not friendly.
“Well, yes,” Harry said, “I’ve been trying to find Main Street back to Eastbury, but I seem to just go in circles.” He knew Schmidt had already radioed in his plate number and must know his name and address.
“Just take the left here. Main Street is the first light. I’ll follow along to make sure you don’t get lost.”
Schmidt trailed him to the Eastbury line. The message was clear. Harry made no further midnight expeditions to Thatchford.
The next day Harry laid out a ten kilometer route through the streets of Eastbury that approximated the terrain of the Thatchford course. Now as he ran each morning, he mapped the streets of Eastbury into the broad avenues of his old town. His legs became hard muscle and his wind grew strong. As day by day the trees leafed out, he cut shorter his time for the course.
His life with Winnie began to change as well. Initially by chance and then by some unstated design they began to eat their dinners together, sitting at either end of the kitchen table and finding much to talk about. At first it was gossip about work, then bits and pieces of personal matters. Winnie had a degree in Industrial Design and was temping only until the right job appeared. Harry talked about his kids, their weekend adventures, the school disasters.
Then one evening Winnie suddenly changed the subject. “Why do you eat that crap?” She pointed at the piece of limp pizza cooling on his plate.
“All that frozen stuff, pizza, garbage food. The only thing that keeps you from dying of a vitamin deficiency is the salads you make. And that nice salad dressing.”
“What do you mean, nice salad dressing. Have you tasted it?”
“Just one lettuce leaf when your back was turned.”
“Well,” said Harry, “my dressing isn’t near as good as that sauce you put on the chicken thing you make.”
“So who else has been doing tasting?”
“Just a spoonful from the edge of the plate. You never missed it.”
Then they both laughed and Winnie said, “Okay, I’ll cook the entrées and you do the salads.”
So Harry moved into a new kind of domestic tranquility, side by side most evenings with Winnie in the tiny kitchen. Their conversation now edged into more personal matters. He found himself talking about his running and his feelings about Thatchford. Winnie did not pry, but listened intently, with a new seriousness in her eyes.
Yet there was still, he felt, a wall between them. It was thin and transparent in places, but still a curtain that shielded each from the other.
To break through that curtain, Harry took a chance. They had just finished dinner and were doing the dishes. There was no dishwasher so Winnie washed and Harry dried. “Winnie,” he said, “I’ve been talking your ear off about my life. Let’s hear something about yours. Like big romantic relationships in your past?”
Winnie glanced up at him, her brows slightly knitted, as if she was trying to decide just how much of her past she wanted to reveal. “I’m not going to bore you with the details,” she finally said. “Let’s just say that I had something going that I thought was pretty good, but I discovered that I wasn’t top on his priority list.”
Winnie frowned with a sudden sadness, as if Harry was poking at a half-healed wound. “I mean I wasn’t second or third on the list, more like tenth. And let’s leave it at that.”
Harry did not pursue the matter further, but he felt that at least a corner of the curtain had been torn away.
However, when Winnie finally got her dream job, there was no reticence to her delight. They had taken to driving to work together and, as was her habit, she was checking the mail on her smart phone. “Oh my God!” she suddenly exclaimed.
“What? Is something wrong?” Harry could not tell if it was good or bad news.
“Oh, no, definitely good. I got the job, Harry, dammit, I got the fucking job!” She reached over and punched him on the arm.
Harry took his right hand off the wheel and punched her lightly back. “That is so wonderful!” he said. But he did not feel the wonderful. The job she had applied for was in the City. That meant, at the very least, no more rides to work together and probably no more companionable dinners and perhaps no more Winnie.
He said nothing for a couple of days, just basked in her happiness, in a new Winnie bursting with enthusiasm, on the phone, day and night, telling relatives and friends the news. Finally, when he felt she had at least one foot on the ground, he broke the question at dinner. “So what’s your plan? You thinking of moving back to the City?”
Winnie tilted her head slightly and smiled. “Oh not for a while. I’m definitely not going to leave until I find out what happens at that race of yours.”
# # #
The day of the race was bright and cool. Harry had no desire to get to the start early, to then be ignored by his former neighbors. He planned to walk unseen into the crowd just before the starting gun. Thatchford would notice him soon enough when he broke into the lead.
He drove up Main Street under its green canopy of maples. As he approached the town center, the traffic began to thicken and then stalled a hundred yards from the starting line. Suddenly people were parking their cars and hurrying ahead on foot. Harry swung into the last open parking space. He quickly got out and jogged down the street towards the starting line, pushing past couples with children and dodging around boys on bicycles.
A sea of heads filled the intersection of Main and Church. He entered the crowd and tried to worm his way forward into the mass of chattering people in shorts and running shoes. He found a bit of an open space and started to do his warm up exercises but before he had a chance to stretch the tendons in even one leg, the starting gun went off.
Harry had planned to break out of the front of the pack and stay just behind the leaders, then pass them eight kilometers into the race where the course took a turn up Hillview Road. But by the time he was free of the mass of overweight matrons and grade school kids, the leaders were a good two hundred feet ahead. He would simply have to make his move now. He put his legs in high gear and started passing runners.
He came abreast of Marion Morloff in her cute little running outfit. The marriage counselor’s face was already red from exertion and her breath came in gasps. “Hang in there,” Harry called as he went by. “Best therapy in the world.”
Ahead he saw the gaunt form of Reverend Hummet, moving at a pace just beyond a walk. He slowed alongside the minister long enough to call out, “Be as a bridegroom who rejoiceth as a strong man to run the race.” As he passed the minister, Harry glanced back at him. His face, tight lipped with pain, did not indicate any rejoicing.
Only the serious runners were now before him. He fought his way forward, passing the bare muscular backs of a dozen young men. There was only one person ahead. Thirty feet in front, ran Marvin Harvester in his tennis T-shirt and white shorts. Harry kept constant the distance between himself and his old partner, knowing Hillview Road was just ahead. Taking Marvin was going to be very sweet.
As they went into the straight, steep slope, Marvin slowed perceptibly. Harry did not. His lungs aching, he watched the distance to Marvin melt away. As he passed, he summoned enough breath to call out, “Double fault, Marvin, double fault!” The top of the hill came just in time and he coasted down the far side.
He was now all alone in front. He took the turn into Church Street where it curved back towards the center of town and a straight shot to the finish line where he could see the crowd, some waving and pointing with the faint sound of cheering.
Then the dog appeared. Harry had no idea where it had come from, but suddenly a large golden retriever was running ahead of him. It held a huge stick in its mouth and it loped along perhaps thirty feet in front. Harry stepped up the pace. No canine was going to take this race away from him. The dog must have sensed his closeness for it ran sideways for a moment and looked back at Harry. Then it turned, straightened its stride, and with frightening ease increased its lead by another twenty feet.
The finish line crowd was now close enough so he could see individual faces. They were laughing and cheering and shouting out what sounded like “Come on Goldie! Go for it big doggie!”
Harry realized the crowd was simply cheering a winner. They applauded whomever or whatever was in front whether or not you personally knew the man, woman or dog. If he had crossed the finish line first, they would have been simply cheering a winner, not Harry Staunten. So what was he proving? Hadn’t he already passed everyone he wanted to pass.
Then he saw the bottom-of-the-gold-pan truth. Not only had he passed them all, he had also left them all behind.
His pace slowed and then he stopped. He looked down towards the finish line as the stick in the dog’s mouth tore through the finish line tape and the animal was smothered in affectionate congratulations, only a happy wagging tail still in view. But those people were all strangers. It was not just a few runners he had left behind, it was the whole of Thatchford.
He took one last look at the thirty feet to the finish line then turned and ducked under the tape that kept the spectators on the sidewalk. He pushed his way through the crowd of watchers, ignoring the curious eyes that following him as he walked the hundred yards back to his car. He stood by the car door for a moment and looked around, seeing the Town for the first time as just another place among thousands of places where people lived in the foolish belief that their little piece of the earth was somehow better than any other. He got in the car, started the engine and made a U-turn back towards Eastbury.
# # #
When Harry walked into the apartment, he found Winnie sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. She looked up at him with serious eyes. “Well, how did it go? Did you win?”
“Actually a dog won. Guess I could have been a close second. But second place was not for me. I decided not to finish.”
Winnie smiled just slightly as if she was trying to solve a difficult mental puzzle. “So what do you mean, you decided not to? And don’t give me that crap about second place to a dog.”
“I walked away. Thirty feet from the finish line. ”
“You walked away. Why did you walk away?” Winnie’s eyes were again very serious.
“I guess I saw that Thatchford was not the final destination, it’s just another place I passed through on the way to somewhere else.” He paused and then he said it. “So, the question is, where are we going from here?”
Winnie laughed. Harry had never heard her laugh that way before. It was a sound of encompassing delight that swallowed him in its incandescence.
She stood up, came over to him slowly, as if she wished that moment to be etched deep in their remembrance. She put her arms around his neck. For the first time he felt her warmth, the faint perfumed soap smell of her body, the reality of her closeness. She raised herself on tiptoes and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she pulled back just a fraction. “Welcome home,” she said.
About the Author:
Stan Dryer is the pen name for an author who lives in southern New Hampshire. He has been writing fiction for over 60 years. Prior to 1990 he published 17 short stories in magazines that included Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He has now returned to fiction writing after a gap of 30 years. and has recently had five stories published (or accepted for publication) in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Adelaide Magazine and a Rogue Blades anthology. He has just completed a humorous mainstream mystery novel.