Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Real Life

This story was first published in --Woman Runners: An Anthology-- Breakaway Books. I wanted to take a character that is dissatisfied with her life for good reason and have her find a way out, in this case, by discovering a passion and taking control within defined limits.

JUDITH slips into the diner. "Sorry I'm late Tom."

"No problem," Tom says through the kitchen window. He is tapping names onto a plastic strip. When he finishes, he hands her a badge.

Judith pins the blood colored name tag to her uniform saying: "Hi. My name is Judy." She starts to say she prefers Judith, but changes her mind.

As she puts clean ashtrays on the tables, she thinks, what a life. Only after her mother is in bed can she find time for herself.

Then she watches Mash and CSI reruns mouthing words with the performers. She knows all Star Treks of any generation. When she watches TV, she imagines herself any place but Maine. She wonders how people find real lives. Hers is limited to working and caring for a woman sinking more into an unknown world each day.

As she tears open the first pre-measured coffee packet of the fifty or more she will make during her shift she says, "Tom, I hate my job."

He says, "When ya quit give me plenty of notice."

To quit she needs another job. To work in the insurance agency she'd have to type or use a computer. She can't do either. To clerk in Smith's Pharmacy or Jack's Grocery isn't that different from being a waitress at the Stop&Eat Diner. The only other job is fishing. She gets seasick even watching swells from the dock. Seasickness isn't a family trait. Her father was a fisherman for forty years before he drowned.

Freetown is a real Maine fishing village where the smell of dead fish and live lobsters drown out any odors of coffee. There isn't a boutique or an espresso bar within twenty miles. If tourists stop, they stay only long enough to decide there's nothing worth looking at.

When Judith feels more up she admits there are many things about her job she likes. Besides chatting up the fisherman she likes her non-fisherman customers like Fred. Once a week after he picks up live lobsters for Boston, he stops at the diner. They talk about her mother and his wife who is undergoing chemo.

Judith likes watching kids convince their mothers to order Coke instead of milk. She likes knowing the main dish is pork pie on Monday, meatloaf on Tuesday and lamb stew on Wednesday.

Looking out the window, Judith sees the first red leaves, although the green still outnumber the red. It's August 25th.

Midway through lunch Judith stares at the white milk on the counter, the sixth spill of the day. Automatically, she reaches for her rag.

It's okay, Pete," she says to the five-year old who upset his glass. Ketchup marks the corner of his mouth. He looks at his mother who'd slapped his hand. She's dabbing at the spill with the only two napkins available. Tom has told Judith to give one napkin with each meal. He thinks customers take too many when the dispenser is on the counter.

Judith throws the wet napkins in the trash then dips her milk-soaked rag in the water in the sink. There are only a few suds left, the rest have been driven out by a thin layer of grease.

"Time to pull the plug," she says to no one.

* * * * *

Judith gets home later than usual because Tom wanted the fryer washed after she also scrubbed the floor between the stools and counters with a brush instead of the mop.

Sandra, her sister-in-law, waits at the door, her jacket on. Judith senses her mentally tapping her foot. Sandra calls over her shoulder as she rushes to her van. "Mother Wilson ate scrambled eggs for lunch."

Her mother, more agitated than usual, wanders aimlessly from room to room, picking up knickknacks then putting them down. She breaks the Hummel of a girl with an umbrella, the one Judith's uncle in the army sent from Germany. Although her mother got the dust pan, she forgot what she'd been doing. Judith cleaned up the smithereens. By 8:00 p.m. she is exhausted.

After her mother falls asleep, Judith shoves a Orville Reddenbacher popcorn bag into the microwave her brothers gave her, she thinks to reduce their guilt for not helping more. She nukes it for 30 seconds extra because she likes it burned. She doesn't put it in a dish — one more thing to wash.

In the living room Judith sits with her legs over one arm of the chair just as she did in childhood. The flowered slip cover is faded. Her mother made it ten years ago, the third for that chair.

The movie is made-for-television during the 70s. Joanne Woodward, runs in the Boston Marathon. She finishes after nightfall, one of the last to stumble across the line.

Judith crumbles the empty popcorn bag into a ball. She wonders how it feels to run. She thinks about it all the next day, even when seven-year old David Andrews throws a hot dog at his six-year old brother Josh and hits Judith instead. She washes the mustard and ketchup off her uniform. The spot stays darker pink than the rest of her uniform.

* * * * *

After her mother falls asleep, Judith channel surfs. She can't forget Joanne Woodward's face as she fell across the finish line.

Rummaging through her closet she finds a pair of $5 Woolworth's sneakers. She puts them on and adds a heavy sweatshirt.

She runs around the block several times, peeking in her mother's window every couple of rounds. From the night light she can see her mother asleep.

When returns home, she slumps in the chair in front of the television and breathes heavily but she feels wonderful.

Her muscles don't hurt when she wakes the next morning. I must be in better shape than I thought, she thinks. She increases her laps by 10 that night.

The next day her muscles feel like someone snuck under the covers at night to twist each one. She hobbles around filling orders.

Fred is there. "Whatsa matter?" he asks.

"I don't want to talk about it," she says, feeling too stupid to tell him. Instead of going home right after work, she goes to the library in Manascotport, the next town. She prays her Chevy won't break down on Route 1. This is the first time she has entered the library since her senior year in high school. The room hasn't changed. The librarian is the same except her hair is all grey.

"May I help you?" the librarian asks. Judith shakes her head no, because she is embarrassed to admit she wants to run a marathon.

An old wooden card catalogue is across from the check-out desk. The smells of furniture polish and old paper remind her of her childhood. She finds five books about running. Three are out. She takes the two left.

* * * * *

Sandra says as Judith walks in late, "I'm going shopping." Her voice is icy like the time Judith forgot her birthday. She doesn't ask Judith if she needs anything. Judith sticks her tongue out as the van drives away.

She starts the wash. Her mother soils her bed nightly. The washing machine chugs in a tired way. "Don't you dare give up," Judith says to it.

After her mother's bath, the two women pick over beans. Judith's mother throws away the good ones and keeps the bad.

The second her mother is asleep Judith dives into her library books. She learns about warming up and pacing. She had tried to read earlier but her mother had wanted to look for Elsie, their St. Bernard who'd died ten years ago.

* * * * *

Over the weekend Judith drives her mother around the neighborhood to measure distances. Seven times around the block equals one mile. She wishes she could run in a straight line, but she must check her mother's window regularly. On her fifth lap she decides to run to and from work.

Fred passes her than stops his truck. "Wanta ride?"

"Nope, thanks. See ya later." She shifts her weight from foot to foot as they talk just as the library book suggested.

She is sweating when she arrives at the diner. Hurrying into the ladies room, she washes as best she can before changing into her uniform crammed into her backpack. She doesn't remember buying it. Maybe it belongs to one of her sisters. One is on scholarship at the University of Vermont and the other is married to an Air Force Captain and lives in Portsmouth, NH after being in Germany for four years.

Fred sits at the counter, waiting for the lobster boats. "What were you doing running down the road?"

Judith debates telling him, but she's afraid of being mocked. Then she remembers the first day he'd come in he'd asked her name. He'd asked her if she preferred Judy or Judith. He's never called her Judy, even though most of the customers do. "I want to run in the Boston Marathon." She speaks softly so no one else will hear.

"That's great." Fred's smile says he means it. "You know you have to qualify?"

"Yup." She wonders what she has to do.

* * * * *

Judith makes two phone calls to Boston. The first is interrupted by her mother taking things out of the closet.

"I'll call you back," she says. Her mother can't remember what she was looking for. Together they put everything back. Judith puts her mother in front of a Grey’s Anatomy rerun and redials Marathon headquarters.

"You must complete three marathons before entering," the professional voice says. The voice tells Judith the nearest race is in Portland next month. Another is in Portsmouth in March. She has read about a local marathon two towns away in the local paper next to the article about a pet seal living down the coast.

* * * * *

When Judith asks her older brother to watch their mother during the races he says, "I've got a lot to do. Better not count on me."

Then she telephones her younger brother. When he says he can't, she gets angry. "Judy, you don't understand. I don't have the time. I've a family."

"I'm beginning to think I don't," she says.

"Sis, someday, you'll get married," he says hanging up. She looks at the phone. She doesn't run that night and drives to work the next day where she starts the first pot of coffee and turns on the grill.

Fred comes in and throws his leg over the counter stool. "How's the running... coffee...hash browns...eggs...damn the cholesterol."

Judith shrugs. She puts Fred's order slip through the kitchen window. "I quit."

"You can't," he says.

"Yes I can." She tells him why.

"Don't let 'em use you...fight back," Fred says. "Don't take no for an answer...say no yourself," he says. Judith had never thought of saying no.

Judith calls her sisters. They're sympathetic, but the one in Portsmouth is nine months pregnant and the other has no money for bus fare from Vermont. They both offer to yell at their brothers.

Judith phones both brothers from the diner and tells them to come over that night. "Bring your wives," she says. Her hand shakes when she hangs up.

* * * * *

Sitting on the couch drinking tea from four unmatched mugs, Judith says to her brothers and Sandra, "I am going to run these four marathons. If one of you don't stay with mother, I'll walk out for good. Then she'll be your problem every day."

Sandra especially looks upset. She is the next candidate to take full responsibility. She sloshes tea onto her jeans.

"You wouldn't do that," Judith's older brother says. He wears the red flannel shirt Judith gave him last Christmas. He always wears flannel shirts even when he takes Sandra out to the Dance and Dine on Route 1.

Her younger brother wears his police uniform. He is on duty. The cruiser is in front of the house. His wife is home with their three children.

Judith opens the closet. She pulls out the suitcase she packed early. "Goodbye." She puts on her ski jacket.

"You wouldn't," her younger brother says.

"Here's a list of all the stuff you need to know about mother. She puts five pages written both sides in her tight handwriting on the coffee table. "I'm outta here." Her car is half down the driveway before her younger brother runs after her. She stops and rolls down the window.

"You win," he says.

Judith sees his breath in the fall air. When he stands up his gun belt fills the window. She backs up into the garage. She is glad he stopped her since she had no place to go.

* * * * *

Judith finishes tenth from last in Portland's marathon. She finishes in the middle of the local one.

"You're wasting your time and ours," her older brother says. "You aren't winning. You're not even in the top ten."

"I'm finishing. Thank you for your support," she says.

* * * * *

Winter presents training problems. The first nor'easter dumps freezing rain the second week in November. A mile inland a foot of snow falls.

Although Judith tries to run, she twists her ankle and loses a week both from work and training.

Her brothers and sisters-in-laws take care of both her and their mother. Judith ignores their complaints. None of them says, " running" without "your stupid" in front of the word.

Sitting with her bandaged ankle propped on a pillow Judith knows she can't stop training until spring. She sees an ad for a Nordic Track. Hobbling to the desk, she tries to figure out how to pay for it. There is no way, but the ad triggers an idea. When her ankle heals, she runs in place.

* * * * *

Judith mother breaks her hip February 1st and is totally bed ridden. Now Judith doesn't have to watch her as closely, but it means more work: keeping the bed fresh, massaging her limbs and rubbing her with oil to prevent bed sores.

As Judith runs in place each night she tries to remember how her mother used to be. The helpless woman is replaced by a younger woman making cookies and helping them put their tents up in the backyard. She hears her mother howl when she learned her husband would never come back from sea.

Judith once said to Sandra, "I didn't know we were poor until I was in high school." Sandra said it was a tribute to Mother Wilson.

Thus Judith prays with various degrees of guilt that the shell of her mother will die soon as she runs and thinks and thinks and runs.

* * * * *

Judith stays with her sister in Portsmouth for the March Marathon. Her new niece has huge blue eyes.

Her sister and her brother-in-law watch the marathon and cheer Judith on. Everyone is bundled in big cabled sweaters, including the baby. They wear hand-knitted peaked hats with pompoms. The baby nestles in a sling taking warmth from her father's body.

Judith wears old tights, shorts, a sweat shirt and a head band. Soon the head band is too hot so she pulls it down around her neck. Some of the runners have expensive running outfits. Judith doesn't care about her clothes. All she wants is to finish so she can run in Boston next month. Finishing a little ahead of middle place, she's happy her sister and brother-in-law think her running is "neat" not "stupid".

* * * * *

At the diner the Monday after the Portsmouth Marathon another man picks up the lobsters. The man has filled in for Fred before during vacations and emergencies. Judith had been looking forward to telling Fred she has qualified.

Tom hands Judith an order of waffles with sausages and another with two fried egg, toast and home fries. The plates are oval not round to hold more for big fisherman appetites.

The Fred substitute takes the waffles from Judith. He shakes his fingers after he puts the hot plate down. Then he drowns the waffles in Log Cabin syrup. He washes a mouthful of waffles down with the coffee.

"Where's Fred?" Tom asks.

"His wife died. He's taken the kids to Disneyworld."

"Strange." One fisherman says.

The substitute driver puts a whole sausage in his mouth. "His wife made him promise to do that. She was like that."

There is a moment of impromptu silence. Out of respect. Out of sympathy. Out of gratitude it's not them.
* * * * *

When Fred comes back in two weeks, Judith stammers out, "Sorry about the um, the um..."

"Thank you," Fred says. "Grilled cheese sandwich...sweet pickles on the side... How ya getting to the marathon?"

"Bus, I guess. My junk heap won't make it."

"If you can get someone to stay with your mother for the weekend, you could ride down with me Friday...stay with me and the kids...save on a hotel...I live in Hopkington?"


"Fantastic." Judith stops. "Isn't it too soon after...um, I don't want to be in the way."

"Don't worry...do the kids good."

* * * * *

Judith's younger brother is angry to discover he'll be needed at the house Friday through Tuesday. Judith doesn't care. When he arrives, she shows him in minute detail how to change their mother.

"I can't do that!" he says. Judith pulls down the flannel nightdress hiding her mother's legs. She twists the baby-powder cap and sets it on the bureau.

"Why not? She changed you enough." She grabs her backpack and leaves.

* * * * *

Fred lives in a housing development built after the Korean War. When new, all the ranch houses looked alike, but as people added rooms, garages and landscaping the homes took on different personalities. Fred's is green.

His kids, Allison and Nathan, greet them at the door. "It's fantismo you're running the marathon." Allison says using the slang she'd learned in seventh grade that day. Nathan, four years younger, says nothing.

Judith will sleep in Allison's room. "You want the top or bottom bunk?" Allison asks as she throws three sweaters, dirty underwear and jeans off a chair so Judith can sit. "I'm sorry my room is such a mess."

"My room was worse at your age, and it's not much better now."


"Really!" Judith says.

Nathan knocks at the door. "You guys want to eat at Burger King? Dad says we can if Judith says OK."

As Judith put the last French fry into her mouth, Fred gives her map of the race route.

"Tomorrow you can use my car to drive the route."

"Can I go with you?" Nathan asks.

"Of course," Judith says.

"Me, too. Daddy can finish digging." Allison says.

Fred had told Judith he'd put off most yard work for two years. "I doubt if I'll get it all done tomorrow, but at least I'll get the plants in before they die in the pots," he says. He turns to Judith. "Leave the kids if you want to go alone."

"Are you kidding, I need navigators. I don't do cities," she says.

* * * * *

Allison cooks dinner the night before the race. She forbids anyone entry into the kitchen. Fred explains how Allison took over the cooking when his wife was ill.

By the time the teenager calls them into the dining room, there's a white tablecloth on the table. A salad bowl sits next to a large casserole. Two cardboard cylinders on each end of the table are marked "Kraft Parmesan Cheese". They're bright green like the house.

Allison carries a plate from the kitchen piled high with spaghetti. "You need lots of carbohydrates," she says.

Judith smiles. "I heard you're a good cook."

"Mom taught me." A heaviness coats the room.

"It's tough taking care of a sick mother even when you're my age," Judith says. Fred explains that Judith's mother is very sick.

* * * * *

Marathon Day.

Judith wakes at 5. Getting out of bed she limbers up in the living room. Fred drives her to the starting line where she gets her number – 654.

Thousands of runners mill around. Wheel chairs are everywhere. The handicapped have a marathon starting immediately after the normal runners start.

A woman, who looks at least 55, runs in place. She says without stopping that this is her sixth marathon. "I started running when I was 54 – ten years ago."

About five minutes later a man with grey hairs sticking over his shirt says to Judith, "You know the woman you were talking to? She's a nun," he says.

Judith listens to bits of conversations.

"It's a good day. Not too hot," someone says.

"Remember the year it was 90°?"

"Yah, and the next year it snowed."

Everyone is in various stages of warming up. Finally they take their places.

The starting gun shoots. Judith finds a comfortable pace. This is the densest race she has run in, a contrast to her lonely night running. As Judith runs past the crowd hollering encouragement she thinks in amazement I'm really here.

I'm running the Boston Marathon. I'm like Joanne Woodward. Then she smiles. Only without Paul. She puts away images of the late Newmans to concentrate on breathing.

In Natick she sees Nathan, Allison and Fred. They wave. Nathan breaks into a run and gives her some water from a paper cup. "See you in Newton," he says.

In Newton the kids jump up and down as Judith runs by. "Atta girl," Fred calls.

Heartbreak Hill looms in front of her. She's next to the nun. A man ahead of her falls. He shakes his head and limps to the side. Judith runs on, ignoring the growing pain in her muscles.

Two men with video cameras train their lens on her. One is an amateur. The other camera has Channel 5 on it. A commentator talks into a microphone. Judith wonders if she'll be on television as she crosses the crest of Heartbreak Hill. Fred is recording the television coverage on his TV.

As she crosses the Boston city line she sees the Prudential Tower. The finish line is in front of the skyscraper. The crowds have become deeper. The nun is still beside her. "We'll make it," the nun gasps.

Every muscle in Judith's body aches. The sky has gotten darker and suddenly it pours. Steam rises off the runners' bodies. Most of the crowd runs for cover.

She remembers a story her mother read her about a little train that went up a very high hill to bring milk to the good little boys and girls in the city. It kept saying "I think I can, I think I can." Judith doesn't have to think she can. She knows she can.

Fred and the kids hold wet copies of The Boston Globe over their heads. There are very few people left in the stand, the rest having scattered from the torrential rain.

Judith sees them as she crosses the line. Fred holds her jacket as they make their way to her.
"Fantismo." Allison says as Fred wraps her jacket around her shoulders. "Your time was 6 minutes 48 seconds," Allison says.

"Totally awesome." Nathan says.

Judith pants too hard to speak. She wonders what she needs to do to beat her record in the next marathon.

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