The day was still crumbling from the night before. From five hours earlier: at three-thirty in the morning, the white moths of exhaustion fluttering in their eyes, they had not been able to continue and so, despite the seven driven hours behind them, and the wedge of many months riven between them they had climbed into the same bed as they had for thirteen years. There was no place else to go in the small house, and the wedge was by then familiar, no longer a wedge of loathing but of heavy, dull exhaustion, fattening and making more endurable the sharp air between them. And as they had for thirteen years they lay beside each other for a few minutes before disappearing into one of Ali Baba's forty doors, though that night they didn't speculate in dark lazy whispers about which they might be visiting. Neither had reached out to take the other's hand before departure.
Now they were back. He was at the kitchen table, the night behind him, as was the pulled shut bedroom door; she, and the sink, and the unfiltered brightness of the morning were before. He lowered his forearms to the table.
Don't leave, Jo, he said. There was a long expanse of silence and then a cup touched the bottom of the worn porcelain sink. Don't start Fran, she said. He drew a breath down deep to his belly as though to help his next thought out, but the tight constriction of his throat stopped him:
Just don't start. She turned to face him, looking directly across the half room and down from her height to where he sat. He didn't look up. His eyes were lowered in defeat, to the edge of the sink, the half-swiped cleanliness, her unpressed morning dress, her rolled down socks, and day shoes.
You keep the house, the dog, and the furniture. You keep it all. I just want the truck, and my clothes.
Jo, I, he began. His eyes lowered further to the un-set far side of the table.
No, she said. I don't love you. It's not your fault. You're a good man. Maybe one of the best, I don't know. But I don't love you.
The table was brown, scarred along the right edge by forgotten cigarettes of a former owner. His coffee cup stood halfway across it, the water turning cold, the instant pebbles never spooned in. Nothing he had ever done had prepared him for this: the unimagined, the unprepared for, the ungraspable I don't love you. His arms seemed unmuscled and white, two thin, parallel rails, receding in perspective and distance towards each other's fingers, as if to touch out there, beyond his senses.
The sounds in the room, and those through the walls and windows, were no longer distinguishable or decipherable. They were distant, unconnected to meaning or interpretation, a clutter of random noise, like radio static, coming from all around him, not from one locatable source, or speaker, nothing he could reach out to and tune, or turn off.
He stared ahead. There was his body, thin and raw ribbed, an oblique, rotating vessel, stiff and straight, a loose straw floating through space, twisting and spinning on ether winds.
Perhaps those feet, far over there, the tiny legs, the immense shoes, were attached to a being. He couldn't be sure.
Jo. He heard a voice float out from him, and then the sound of hard rubber heels. The door opened, completely. It squealed, and closed.
He remembered a boy he had once known. A boy, soft and fearful. They had laughed at him during those weeks of summer when he had stayed white as they had all browned, when he had seemed to get softer as they had got leaner and harder from the woods, the water and the constant foot races to the lake, the games, and the meals.
He remembered the boy's limp and shuffle as they had hiked over night, and the soft squishiness of his paddle strokes as his canoe turned in aimless circles while the others cleared the finish line. And he, like the others, has laughed and turned away.
Then on the last day but one, they had all gone to the track to do the Final Mile. Everyone had to run a mile in less than ten minutes to get a certificate of completion. All but the last group had run, and this boy, the soft squidgey boy, was in that group, was with Fran. He still remembered the cool woodsy morning, the sun not yet lifted beyond the trees. The boy was standing beside him at the starting line. Sweating. His eyes were dark and large, as though the irises had entirely consumed the whites. His few dark freckles seemed to be lifted inches off the paste-white color of his cheeks.
The slap of the two hinged boards that had served all summer as the starter's gun had set them off. Fran had run like the wind, loving the feel of the cool breeze against his face. His life had always been like that, a feeling of flying effortlessly, barely aware of anyone near him. He had moved through the first lap, and then the second, and third. Only in the last straightaway did he feel any tension in his chest, did he sense anyone getting close. He hit the finish line, took a couple of deep breaths, and turned to watch the rest of his group. They were coming in, strung out in a long tail behind him. And then, far around the track, with nobody around him, he saw the boy.
That boy, that man, somehow now inexplicably remembered across a great distance, an interminable distance, of time, and noise; the truck was warming outside, pouring its noises meaninglessly into the air of birds and radio and the faint roar of the pilot light in the hot water heater. The boy was out there lumbering along with huge effort, with super human effort into the beginning of the third turn. Someone said, It's only the third lap, and they stopped pushing and snapping towels. They fell silent, staring at this boy they barely knew, running without them, without anyone, so far away they couldn't hear the crunch or kick of the shoes. It struck them as if in revelation: they always ran in groups, with others. Someone was always around at the finish to say to, yeah but I'll get you next time, or I got a bad start, or you cut me off back there. There was always a way to believe you might have been better. But the boy out there was alone, and he was the worst and there was no redemption from this knowledge. And he was still running.
Slowly and painfully he lifted his legs and his arms, and again, and again. His face was rigid and his eyes seemed to be focused three feet in front of him, as though that and that alone was the distance he had to complete, with the last ounce of his strength. Each lift and fall of his weighted ankles and knees pushed, with agonizing effort, that fixed gaze eighteen inches further ahead, into a future of unknown length, of pressure, and depth. The flesh on his legs flapped like loose white trousers in the wind.
As he rounded the fourth and final turn they gathered along the fence, not knowing how to treat this --as a victory, or a defeat. They knew he wasn't going to get in under the required time. They didn't know whether to cheer him on, or to leave, to go on about their last day's business, spare him the faces confirming his shame. Most just stood and watched, and as he neared and passed them, laboring towards the finish line they saw the brown liquid slowly begin to trickle down the back of his flailing heavy red and white thigh. He lifted his leg again and dropped it, and lifted the other, and dropped it. To their horror, and stunned eyes, as every muscle in his body lost its strength, he continued to propel himself stubbornly forward, until finally his sphincter muscled failed him completely and the trickle became a streak of unimaginable blackness, a horrible badge of shame and weakness, and the boy kept on running, never minding, not knowing, paralyzed to everything but the next step he had to take.
He thought of the boy now, trying to remember how it had ended, how he had finished; had anyone spoken to him, had he fallen, or walked away after he had finished, had anyone turned towards him, or offered him a towel, or an arm? He couldn't see it, and slowly the boy faded, and his own body sagged back to its position in the chair, his arms outstretched on either side of the coffee cup.
His eyes lifted to the window over the sink where she had so often and so recently stood. Now he saw the tree limbs on the other side; now he could hear the gravel under the tires as she backed down the driveway. There was a thin film of sweat under his eyes and in the creases of his neck; his breathing was already hard and sharp as she hit the main road, and it came one final time: the sound of a gun, the slap of the wooden gutter cover down into its frame as the wheels passed over. Then silence, and the next few seconds of the future he had to make it through.