At one end of the table, a friend of Robert’s was criticizing Claire being enrolled in a high achieving public school. “You know it’s terrible, right? From an equity basis? What are you teaching the kid?”
“I think I’m teaching her to succeed,” I said.
“Still,” the friend said. At the other end of the table, a couple was bragging about the beach home they’d recently purchased from an ailing aunt. “With the interest rates where they are,” the husband was saying, “everything is like free money.”
In all honesty, my heart was probably closer to free money than it was to equity, but either way, I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute to the conversation. My primary distraction was a rash on my right arm, not exactly something anyone wants to talk about in a restaurant.
Not even a rash, exactly. An itch. An itch that only materialized at night. An itch that interrupted sleep and prevented dreams.
All of them were telling their COVID dreams, everyone making up dreams of forgotten masks. “I had a dream,” I told them, and I think they were being polite, given that I was the father of their friend, not a friend myself. “I was listening to this guy thinking, ‘Boy. This guy is a real penis.’ And just as I was thinking this, the guy took off his penis and threw it at me. It was inflated liked a water balloon, but it hurt when it hit me.” I don’t think anyone said anything after that until someone asked someone else to pass the olive oil.
Robert’s friend Wayne, he went to the bathroom the same time as me. “I noticed you were limping. Are you limping?” he asked. He wasn’t the one concerned about equity and not the one concerned about free money, so I was glad to hear his voice. Still, the two of us were standing side by side at the urinal and it’s my policy not to engage in much small talk at the urinal. Not much big talk either. But once we were at the sinks, I was comfortable saying, “I don’t think I’m limping, but my ankles hurt. I’ve been running. A lot.”
“Oh,” he said. “Running.”
“Ten or twelve miles a week,” I said. “Nothing special. Just trying to keep the weight off. Plus, I like to scream. Running lets me scream.”
He liked this, Wayne did. “That’s good,” he said. “Hey, you ever done a half?”
“Half of what?” I thought for a moment that he was going to offer me acid. Robert did write music reviews for the local newspaper and some of his friends were, you know.
“Half marathon. Thirteen point one miles. I guess it’s the point where the marathon of myth should have turned around and gone back.”
I thought about this. “Then he would have just died at home?”
“Maybe,” Wayne said. “Anyway. I don’t think thirteen is enough to kill me, and I bet it’s not enough to kill you.”
We had stepped into a room called the Taylor Suite. A large table crowded us to the walls. It felt like an uncomfortable space to inhabit. On the wall hung a framed picture, the kind of thing Matthew Brady might have taken.
“There’s a half marathon in three weeks in Manchester. I just signed up. You should come up with me. I’ll make room in my car. Tell you all about my screenplay.”
At this, I couldn’t do much else but sigh. “My son’s the writer,” I said.
“A music critic,” Wayne said, as if it was the most distasteful thing. “Songs are funny vehicles. You’ve got three minutes and if you say it too clearly, who wants to listen to it twice? If you’re too opaque, who wants to listen to it once? And everything needs to rhyme.”
“Not everything,” I said, though it was unclear to me why I had become the sudden champion of minstrels.
“Everything,” Wayne challenged back.
I would have appreciated memory if it had provided me some useful counterexample, but I had “Something Stupid” stuck in my head, until I realized that I was just hearing the Sinatras on the restaurant’s sound system.
“It’s not like I’m so virtuous,” I said. “I just moved some money around. I built some houses.”
“Like hammer and nails building?”
“No,” I said, and I think I made a face. “Lord, no. I was a developer. The federal government sunk a lot of money into developing houses in rural areas. At one point, I had about 3,000 apartments around Florida.”
“Wow,” Wayne said. “You’re like the Monopoly guy. I should get you a monocle.”
“Maybe,” I said. “The reason my hair’s so gray? Hurricanes. My margins were so small and every year, some Hurricane Ted or Emanuel threatened to wipe the buildings down to the sticks. I was so happy when I got bought out.”
“I see,” Wayne said. The Taylor Suite two additional pictures. One was a black and white photograph of an old woman in a rocking chair. This is the one that Wayne stood in front of. “I see,” he said.
I stood in front of a black and white picture of an old man with older mutton chops. Outside, the rain and wind were pasting all available branches to the glass in the windows. I don’t know why people in Boston brag about the place so much. I think the weather stinks. “Well,” I said. “We should be getting back to the table.”
“Sure,” Wayne said. “Sure. But seriously, please think about the. It’s in a couple of weeks and I’d love a buddy.”
Back at the table, some of the couples had already gotten up to go. Robert was standing up too, staring at the check. I could tell from the shape of his spine that he was light. Robert was always light, which wasn’t a problem since in my later years, I was always flush. Not that this made things easy with Robert. He always resisted when I made a movement to pay. Pay for anything. But the thing was, he’d cheat himself along the way, refusing appetizers, drinking just a club soda. I could see his back stiffen whenever someone asked for another bottle of wine ‘for the table.’
“What can you tell me about your friend Wayne,” I asked Robert on the ride home. Out my window, we passed places that had gone out of business, and houses for sale. I don’t think gas had ever been so cheap. Not since we brought Robert home from the hospital.
“Nothing really.” Since he was sixteen, Robert insisted on music in the car when he drove. Never for me. It distracted me from the drive. “He’s not a friend of mine. He dates Chandra. You remember Chandra? Did you meet Chandra?”
“She’s the one who sells advertising space in the Sunday paper,” I said.
Robert shook his head. “You didn’t meet Chandra. Anyway, I don’t know if it’ll last.”
“A feeling,” Robert said. “Other people are allowed to have feelings, Dad.”
Back at the house, we found Claire asleep in front of the television. She had been watching one of the Alien movies. I’m not sure which one. The one where the alien kills a lot of people, I guess. Robert kissed her on the forehead and then turned for the stairs.
“You’re going to just leave her here?” I whispered.
“Dad, what do you expect me to do? Carry her to bed?”
“Dad, she’s sixteen. If you think that’s such a good idea, you carry her.”
After Robert left, I turned off the TV. I wondered if Wayne’s screenplay involved aliens. I hoped not. I looked at Claire. I moved into this house with her and her father back when she was only six, shortly after her mother died. Back then, she would have been light enough for me to carry up the stairs and my back would have been strong enough for the climb. I need to get in shape, I thought.
The last pair of running shoes I bought gave me blisters so after that, I went to a running store where I spoke to the manager. She watched me walk from one end of the store to the other, and she told me that she knew exactly what kind of shoe I’d need. What kind of shoes, what kind of shorts, what kind of hat, what kind of socks, what kind of anti-chafing cream, what kind of armband to hold my cell phone, what kind of app to track my miles, what kind of earbuds, what kind of music, what kind of shirt with long sleeves, what kind of shirt with short sleeves, what kind of goo to give me energy, what kind of belt to carry my goo and my drink bottles, what kind of drink bottles, and what kind of drink. By the day of the race in New Hampshire, I felt ready to go.
“I get a little keyed up,” Wayne explained, “so I hope you don’t mind going up early.” His was a new car, with a new car smell, and seats that crinkled when you shifted your weight. Like Robert, he insisted on playing music during the drive, but he went in for Christian rock bands like Jars of Clay and Caedmon’s Call, where Robert listened to bands that nobody had ever heard of like Ogre You Asshole, Dirty Pacifier, and Teenage Steve. The floor of Wayne’s car wasn’t covered with sandwiches or sandwich wrappers.
“Any good stories from your days as a developer?”
I had a few, picking those that I hoped would sound funny or sad or both. But when they came out of my mouth, they sounded contrived and phony. Something that someone might make up to impress someone during a long car ride. All the stories were about cheats and liars, and that made me sad. I worked in the business for thirty years and it didn’t say much that I couldn’t think of a story that didn’t better showcase kindness.
Not that it mattered. Not that I thought that Wayne was listening all that attentively. “How did you and Sandra meet?” I asked him.
He looked at me and then looked into the rearview mirror so he could change lanes. “You mean Chandra?”
“Chandra, sure. Forgive me. I’m terrible with names.”
“She’s something,” Wayne said. “Don’t know how well Bobby knows her. We met in church, but she’s only a churchgoer part-time, if you know what I mean. I doubt very much that Bobby knows her at all.”
“Sure,” I said, before turning to look out the window. The city we entered once had a proud industrial base. The river fed the plants and whatever the people produced, if it was textiles, it kept the whole country warm. The place looked empty now, like someone had stolen whatever there was of value.
He was going to ask me something else after that. ‘Do you think Bobby will ever get married again?’ That’s what everyone asked me once they had me cornered. My answer, ‘He’ll take whatever time he needs,’ had become so stock, I didn’t hear the words when they left my mouth. ‘I’m in no rush’ would be my second stock reply, using that usually to fill the awkward air generated by someone suddenly realizing that there was no genteel way to wade into asking about an old man’s widower son. My rehearsed lines got no exercise however. A gentle rain began to tap on our windshield and before long, it was gentle no more and Wayne turned down his music so he could concentrate on the road.
The two of us had rooms at the DoubleTree, and went out for a nice bowl of pasta to prepare for the race. I offered to pay and Wayne didn’t argue.
During dinner, he talked a lot, a lot, about his screenplay, which was about an aide to an aging senator who ends up killing a woman that he thinks is trying to blackmail his boss. It turns out that she was trying to blackmail the other senator from his state. (Wayne decided to put these senators from the fictional ‘West Dakota,’ as if insulating himself from some impending liable suit.) By the time the aide realizes his mistake, it’s too late. There’s a murder investigation underway. The homicide detective knew the aide back in high school, and even though she’s a lesbian, they fall in the love, and end up framing the aide’s boss for the murder. At the end of the movie, the aide gets successfully elected to the Senate.
“The last shot,” Wayne told me as dessert was served, “is the aide, who is now a Senator, interviewing candidates to be his aide. Out in the hallway, waiting for his interview, is this kid, and we do CGI so that it’s basically the same actor who plays the aide, playing this kid, obviously just much, much younger.”
Wayne used the words ‘aide’ and ‘Senator’ so much in his description that they mixed up in my mind, but I think I got the gist. “And that’s it? He gets away with it?”
Wayne had ordered himself a chocolate chip brownie sundae. Some of the chocolate sauce had dribbled onto his chin. “No, not really. That’s the point of the kid in the hall. He’s going to whack the new senator just like the aide whacked the senator before him. You get what’s coming to you, but for a little while anyway, you can avoid the consequences. You get to enjoy what you take.”
“Huh.” I took a spoonful of my scoop of sherbet. “I know the movies are fake, but they’re fantasies too. Don’t you think people are looking for a more uplifting theme?”
A couple more mouthfuls of brownie and Wayne offered, “Don’t forget to watch your back? Does that count as more uplifting?”
He downed a beer with his dinner and another while he polished off his massive dessert. I watched him while I drank my glass of ice water. “Say, Wayne. Isn’t all that sugar going haunt you tomorrow during the run?”
“Don’t you worry about me,” he said.
When I was working, I made a point to call Abigail at 9:45. It was the latest I could be sure to catch her before she konked out on the couch. I liked the idea that the last voice she’d hear every night would be mine.
After she was gone, Ruby would be my last call, and the good news/bad news here was that Ruby was even more of a night owl then I was. She wanted to be the last voice that I would hear before I went to sleep. Which I honored. I never lied to Abigail. I never lied to Ruby. I never lied to myself. I always told the truth, even when I lied.
When Robert was a kid, and when we stayed together in a hotel, he took such religious joy in making his own waffles in the make-your-own waffle contraption. And that was fun for me too. Before I moved in with him and Claire, after Claire’s mother died, I never liked to cook. But I always liked to make my own waffles. Then Robert grew up and all I’d hear from him was fresh fruit and whole grains and organic and vegan and local sources. I don’t mean to sound reactionary. It’s his body and I respect his unstated goal to outlive me. He’s already outlived just about everyone else. That doesn’t mean that I’ve given up enjoying a self-made waffle every once and again.
But not, perhaps, an hour before running a half marathon. That’s thirteen point one miles, expending each mile ideally at a pace of ten minutes or less, with all that sugar ping ponging your insides.
A surprise then to see Wayne that morning, chowing down on not one but two self-made waffles. Not only that, he didn’t quit at one of those packets of syrup. He split three between his two waffles.
“There he is,” he said, his mouth stuffed. “There’s the world-beater, the record setter. What do you say, Champion? You ready to break some records today?”
Instead of answering, I asked him if there was any fresh fruit, which I ate with a bowl of whole grain cereal.
Early November, which should have been chilling in New Hampshire. Thank global warming, the sun visited early and with the rain from the previous day rapidly evaporating, the air cloaked in the aromas of Florida, where I had left Ruby waiting for me ten years ago. “Robert needs me,” I told her at the time. “I won’t be gone long.” She waited longer than I deserved. The smell was so strong, I could close my eyes and forget myself, the autumn became summer and New England faded for Florida. Ten years come and gone. If I’d known I’d have ten years plus in the tank, I might have invested it differently. This wouldn’t have been my first half marathon, but my fifth. My fifteenth.
We got our bibs. We fixed our numbers. “I’ll run with you, don’t worry,” Wayne assured me. “I didn’t haul you up all this way just to leave you at the starting line.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, not sure how much I wanted to be insulted. The older I got, the less I wanted that thickened blood in my veins. I looked around me. Other people came to run in pairs. Some in teams, some alone. Some made eye contact with me and smiled, some looked away. A man with a bugle horn climbed a ladder and we all looked forward to hear what he had to say.
His message was full of enthusiasm, appreciation, encouragement, and hope, almost all of it lost in the swiftly drying air, choked away by his garbled tool. Not that it mattered. A horn blared and we were all off. For the first quarter mile, my heart took residence in my throat. I hadn’t trained much, but I had trained. Still, the jolt from idle to spring alarmed my body, suddenly uncertain if it was going to activate in such a way that would carry me for thirteen point one miles. I picked up a little tingle in my bladder. I thought I had cleared the decks before I left my hotel room, but I was now doubting myself.
Looked very much to me that Wayne was feeling the same. When we crossed the first mile marker, and the crowd had begun to thin out, he zipped off the course, first behind a dumpster, and then down a narrow alley. He gestured for me to follow behind him.
“You need to take a leak too?” I asked.
When he looked back at me, his eyes narrowed to slits. I don’t know why this caught my attention but I could suddenly see that he’d applied the same amount of hair gel as he had the evening before. I hadn’t lost much coverage in my seventies, but it was thinner than it used to be and I felt a moment of envy for Wayne’s thick topper. “Oh,” he said, “a leak. Sure. Do that. But then come back to the hotel with me. I forgot something.”
“You don’t want,” I started to say, as I could see other racers zipping by on the course. “We’re not going to finish the race?”
“We are, we are,” Wayne promised. “Like I said, I’ve got feelings and there’s something I need back at the hotel.”
“Okay.” I was whispering. Something I never used to do, even when Robert was in his crib. “You go and good luck. But I want to get back on pace.”
“No, buddy. No.” Wayne reached out and put his hand on my arm. Robert’s nails were bitten down. He was always chewing a sliver free and we’d both pretend not to notice him spitting it clean. Wayne’s fingernails were lovingly manicured, in better shape than mine. “Listen. Buddy, I need you.”
Back at the hotel, we didn’t go in through the lobby. Because he had just missed breakfast, it was empty and quiet. There were other doors. We could have used the door next to the fitness center. There was a rear door that took us through the kitchen. This was the entrance Wayne brought us to.
“How did you get a key for the kitchen?” I asked.
Wayne picked up a banana and a to-go container of Froot Loops as we passed through. “Twenty at the front desk and you get whatever you want, Owen. You know that.”
I did know that, but in my experience, that got you a room with a better view, not a master key. I puzzled over this as we took the elevator up, to the tenth floor. “I thought your room was on six,” I said.
Wayne didn’t answer.
There was no housekeeping underway on the tenth floor. No doors operated. Nobody walked the hallway. Even still, “Keep a lookout,” Wayne said to me as he entered Room 1001. I wasn’t sure what that could mean. Left alone in the hall, I rehearsed a series of throat clearings. Wayne stuck his head out, a crooked glare on his face. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’m–,” What was I doing out there? “I’m working on a signal.”
“Well, don’t. I need to concentrate. If there’s trouble, knock, but don’t make an ass of yourself.” Back in he went, and when he was done, he emerged with a pillowcase. Then he went into another room, and another. After seven more, he was done and the pillowcase was stuffed. “Let’s just swing back to my room,” he said.
In the elevator, I didn’t say anything, until I had to say something. “What were you doing?” I asked. “Were you robbing those rooms?”
“You got plenty,” Wayne said, under his breath, and then he didn’t say anything at all.
When he emerged from his room, I asked him again. “Seriously. What was that about?”
“Listen,” Wayne said, “the less you know, right? Less on your conscience.” Wayne didn’t take me back to the spot where we diverged from the race. Instead, he took us to just short of the midpoint. Just before he ducked out and back onto the course, he said to me, “There’s sometimes cameras in the hall. You were with me. You stood in the corridor. If you say anything about me, you say something about you.” Then he turned and was gone.
I didn’t rejoin the race, not right away. I took that leak first. Then, I ran the last six miles the way that I would have run the first six miles. The course had more than its share of hills, and the sun did nobody any favors by climbing especially high in the sky. At every water stop, I took the opportunity to hydrate. So much so that as I passed the finish line, I fully expected to explode. Each of the one of the ten thousand porta johns had about one million people queued up. Not the world’s biggest disappointment, as public bathrooms have never been my thing, and the hotel was only seven blocks away.
The longest seven blocks of my life, clenching my buttocks the whole way, tightening my bladder with every step. When the hotel was finally visible, I swear I saw Wayne out front, loading his bag into the trunk of his car, and driving away.
In position to give chase, I thought about being a Graduate-era Dustin Hoffman, running down a car. Instead, I lumbered upstairs. The sweet release of the bathroom, the sweet relief of a hot shower. The six miles, not even a quarter marathon, but I ran them hard. The accusation I’d always laid on Robert, afraid to break a sweat, it didn’t apply to me. My knees, my heart, everything worked. I didn’t know, and I don’t know, what was my time for those six miles, but I could feel them, and I survived.
Down in the lobby, I was too late for breakfast, too early for lunch. No more opportunities to make my own waffles. And, of course, Wayne had checked out. And, of course, he told the front desk that I would cover his bill.
Getting home was easy. Or, at least, getting home wasn’t hard. Renting a car, that’s all. That’s pretty much what we do with everything. Renting.
Matt Chapuran is the Executive Director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Boston’s most intimate and oldest professional theater company. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston, where he continues to teach arts management. His short plays have been produced as part of the Boston Theater Marathon and The T Plays. He co-authored two horror musicals for ImprovBoston. His articles about green technology frequently appear in Official Magazine and his short story “My Left Tongue” was published by Bridge Eight. “This Is Not a Waiting Room” will soon appear in The Bookends Review.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021