by Mark Williams
Marty Fletcher’s doorbell rarely rings, but when it does, the first few bars of “Take Me to the River” always take him there. Da-da da da. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.
As Marty’s cat, Golconda (Golly), jumps from Marty’s lap and Marty’s body rises from his chair, his mind travels to the banks of the Mississippi near the town of Pine Hills, Illinois. There, almost thirty years ago, more than a thousand runners are limbering up to the tune of “Take Me to the River.”
“Welcome to the fifth annual River-to-River Relay,” says a voice in Marty’s mind.
Marty’s eight-man team, The Quadriexceptionals, named for their over-forty age group with a salute to their well-developed quadriceps femores, are about to run across Illinois. As the most exceptional Quadriexceptional, Marty will run anchor. With each man running three hilly, five-kilometer legs, Marty will be the first Masters Division runner to reach the banks of the Ohio in Golconda, Illinois, securing a win for his team. This will be the high point of Marty’s life. It will all be downhill from there. Da-da da da. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.
“Coming,” says Marty, opening the door to his cottage, where an April afternoon and a black man greet him.
“Hello, sir,” says the man, holding out an ID that identifies himself as Police Detective Reginald Wood, Olney, Illinois Police Department. The detective looks to be about the same age Marty was when he ran across Illinois. Detective Wood looks like he could do just that—without teammates. He is wearing a Chicago Bears cap, a black T-shirt, and blue jeans. Undercover, thinks Marty. Woo ha.
As everyone knows, Olney is The Home of the White Squirrels. “Do you know how they got here?” asks Marty, pointing to a white squirrel pictured on the detective’s ID.
“Well, there are lots of theories. But in my opinion, it all started in 1902 when two farmers brought their albino squirrels, a male and a female, to an Olney saloon. The farmers drank while the squirrels did what squirrels do—if you catch my drift. I help out with the squirrel count every October—gray squirrels, white squirrels, and sometimes a fox squirrel. The numbers have been down. There are lots of theories on that too. But in my opinion—”
“Martin Fletcher?” asks Detective Wood.”
“Correcto,” says Marty, offering his hand. “What have I done now?”
Marty has always been impressed by a strong handshake. The detective is impressive.
“There’ve been some recent car break-ins in your neighborhood. Your corner evergreens would give good cover and allow us to watch in four directions. But we’d like your permission to be here. Tonight, if that’s all right with you.”
“Hemlocks,” says Marty.
“Beg your pardon.”
“My trees. They’re hemlocks. My father planted them sixty-two years ago. I helped. Most people think Socrates drank poison from one. He didn’t. It was poison from the hemlock plant that got him. He was my age when he died. Seventy.”
“Interesting. But do we have your permission?”
“His last words were, ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.’”
“You don’t say.”
“Socrates thought that the afterlife was either eternal sleep or a reward for a good life. That’s probably why he wanted to return Asclepius’s cock. He was hoping for an eternal reward. Can I watch with you?” asks Marty, knowing it would beat a night of online Scrabble.
Detective Wood removes his Bears cap, runs his hand across his shaved head, and says, “I’ll have to check with my captain. But if you could place something of value in your car and leave it parked outside, unlocked, and promise to keep quiet when I say so—”
“Where else would I park it?”
“Good point,” says the detective, turning to Marty’s driveway, where a silver Prius faces a small shed. “Officer Alejo and I will be back at nine o’clock tonight. As long as our captain says it’s okay, you can join us.”
“What should I wear?” asks Marty. But the detective has turned away. He’s walking toward an unmarked Focus.
With less than five hours to prepare, Marty begins rummaging through his closet. An hour later, he has decided on black jeans, a green sweatshirt, green sock cap, and black sneakers. If he keeps his legs together and his arms held out, he could pass for a small hemlock tree. He’ll dress later. On to refreshments.
After all, isn’t that what detectives do on stakeouts? Eat? That and discuss their love life? Marty hasn’t had a love life since Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, the month Mary Ann left him. He hopes the detectives will stick to the former. Would doughnuts be insulting? Possibly.
It takes Marty another hour to decide on French fries, lemonade, Cheese Nibbles, and coffee. He buys Cheese Nibbles by the case. No problem there. But nothing tastes better than homemade fries—the way his mother used to make them. Sometimes baked. Sometimes fried. “Baked or fried?” Marty asks Golly, a plump orange tabby. Golly fills a large steel pot on the unlit stove. The pot for parboiling potatoes. Russets.
“Fried it is,” says Marty, hoisting Golly from the pot.
Marty parboils six potatoes and slices them into quarter-inch-thick, two-and-a-half-inch-long pieces. Thinking he could be up all night, he decides to take a nap and fry later. Fries are best served hot.
With Golly purring at his side, Marty dreams of his ten-year-old self skiing behind his father’s motorboat, The Easy Money. His father’s friend, Dick Schornhorst, and Dick’s daughter, Sheila, are aboard.
“Wait ’til she sees this,” thinks Dream-Marty, angling toward the wake at break-neck speed. But instead of breaking his neck, he falls face-first and deviates his septum. If that were not enough, he clings to the ski bar far too long.
Stripped of his swimsuit, he climbs into The Easy Money with one hand on his nose and one hand on his penis, all the while suffering Sheila Schornhorst’s laughter. Sheila is twelve. She has breasts. As always, her laughter wakes him up.
With two hours to go, Marty showers and dons his disguise. Next, he juices ten lemons, fries one hundred and eight fries, and brews a pot of coffee. This time when his doorbell rings, his mind starts to go to the river but goes to the door instead. It’s Detective Wood and a young Hispanic woman.
“The Captain says you can watch, but you have to do what we say,” says Detective Wood. “Officer Alejo, Martin Fletcher.”
“Hola,” says Marty, accepting Officer Alejo’s hand. “Impresionante.”
“What is?” asks Officer Alejo.
“We’ll be in your trees,” says Detective Wood. “Your hemlocks.”
Marty places thirty-six fries into each of three Ziploc bags and carries them along with two bags of Cheese Nibbles, thermoses of lemonade and coffee, six Styrofoam cups, and a bottle of ketchup to his hemlocks in two trips. Between two trees, lit by quarter-moon light and a corner streetlamp, Detective Wood and Officer Alejo sit on camp stools. Why didn’t I think of that? thinks Marty. But then I wouldn’t look like a hemlock tree, would I? Sitting. More like a hemlock plant. Maybe I’ve overthought the whole disguise thing. Too late now.
With very little space between the hemlocks, Marty tucks the food and beverages beneath some low-slung branches nearest Detective Wood. “What’s all this?” asks the detective.
“Refreshments,” says Marty. “The fries are still hot. Eat up. And here’s the ketchup. I’ve got another bottle inside.”
Detective Wood asks Marty if he remembered to place a valuable in his car. He hadn’t. “Where anyone can see it,” says the detective. “A cell phone on the dash, maybe. And leave your car unlocked.”
What should I put in? thinks Marty, walking toward his house. The thief could get away. I’d hate to lose my phone. How would I play Scrabble at the park—on days the squirrels don’t show?
After considering a trophy he won in a Louisville marathon, a framed calligraphic rendition of William Butler Yates’s poem, “Running to Paradise,” and a Baccarat crystal elephant figurine that had belonged to his mother, Marty decides on a bag of old golf clubs. His great-uncle Henry had been a golfer. With no kids of his own, Uncle Henry had left the clubs to Marty. No thief carrying this could outrun anyone, thinks Marty, who hopes to take up golf one day.
Marty opens the front passenger-side door of his Prius, places the bag in the car, and puts the crystal elephant on the dash for good measure. Elephant trunk, front-facing.
“All set,” says Marty, returning to the lookout.
“Golf clubs?” says Detective Wood.
“Vintage,” says Marty. “Dig in everybody. I’m starved.” Aside from a few Cheese Nibbles, Marty hasn’t eaten since lunch.
“Maybe something later,” says Officer Alejo. “What’s in the thermos?”
“Fresh-squeezed lemonade in one. Hot coffee in the other. But the fries will get cold soon. Try some. They’re homemade.”
“Well, maybe a couple,” says the officer. “Hand me some fries and the ketchup, Reg.”
Reginald Wood, thinks Marty. Hmm. “Reginald: King from the Latin Reginaldus. Wood: someone who works in a wood or forest from the Middle English wode. King Who Works in a Wood, that’s you.”
Looking up from his stool at Marty, Detective Wood says, “Reggie will do.”
“These fries are super good!” says Officer Alejo. “Thank you.”
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness. Seneca said that two thousand years ago,” says Marty. “Some things never change.”
“That’s sweet. And you can call me Sophia.”
“Sophia: wisdom from the Greek sophia. Alejo: defender of men from the Greek Alexandros. Wise Defender of Men. Fitting. Both of your names are.”
“Wow,” says Sophia. “So, how does King Who Works in the Wood fit Reggie?”
“Look where we are,” says Marty, pointing at his trees on either side.
“Quiet,” says Reggie as beams from headlights sweep his face.
With his back to the street and his left branch in his fry bag, Marty says, “It sounds like the Kershaw’s Explorer. It’s needed a new muffler for weeks. The left brake light is out too. Am I right?” he asks without turning.
“Jeez, you’re the one who should have been a detective,” says Sophia. “What does your name mean?”
“Martin: dedicated to Mars from the Roman god of war. Fletcher: arrow-maker from the Old English name, Fulcher.”
“Like you should be on Mars making arrows?” says Sophia, helping herself to a Nibble.
“Might as well be.”
“What do you mean?”
As Marty takes a deep breath, Reggie shakes his head as if to say, oh, no.
With brief interruptions when the Hargrove’s son, Mitchell, returns on his moped from night-clerking at Huck’s (Marty knows the routines of every neighbor) and Florence Stoutenborough drives by on her way to the ER late shift, Marty tells of how his father made enough money selling crop insurance to build the big house behind the cottage (“the place with all the lights on, there,” says Marty) and send his only child to the University of Illinois. “Study anything you want, son,” his father had told Marty. “Then come home and help your old man talk flood, drought, and bean leaf beetles to farmers.”
With healthy doses of etymology, psychology, Roman and Greek philosophy, Renaissance Lit, and Romance Languages, Marty graduated with honors, fully informed to drive around southern Illinois with his father and put a pen in farmers’ hands. But then, in 1972, Frank Shorter crossed the finish line in Munich, and Marty took up running. Soon, he was running ninety miles a week, fueled by pizza and beer.
“Like Forest Gump only smarter,” says Sophia. “And without chocolate.”
Between Cheese Nibbles and lemonade sips, Marty explains that while his friends were finding spouses and making babies, he ran. As Argentina invaded the Falklands, he ran. As his friends suffered through their kids’ adolescences, got divorced, remarried, and made more kids, he ran. “My picture was on the front page of the Jackson, Tennessee, Sun. My team won the River-to-River Relay. You might have noticed my doorbell.”
“So, what you’re saying is, you had the wind at your back,” says Reggie.
“Everyone did. Prevailing westerlies. From the Mississippi to the Ohio.”
“What I mean is, you’ve had the wind at your back in life, too,” says Reggie.
It was true. Marty hadn’t worked a day since his parents’ minicab driver lost control and drove off a cliff in Barbados. All Marty had to do was split the lot, sell the house, and move into the guest cottage.
He had had the wind at his back. But what good had it done? Mary Ann, who he met at running camp, had tired of running, Marty, and cottage life. She left him for a State Farm agent in Springfield. Eventually, even Marty’s knees had abandoned him.
The color of Reggie’s skin had been a headwind, no doubt, thinks Marty. And Sophia is a woman. A Hispanic woman to boot. “Para bota,” unconsciously, says Marty. And look what they’d accomplished. Far more than he ever had. Or will.
“For boot?” says Sophia.
“Quiet,” says Reggie. “Someone’s coming. Oh, man, not this guy again. He’ll do big time for this.”
Limping down the moonlit-lamplit street, the would-be thief tries car doors. With a limp like that, it has to be Curt Caplan, thinks Marty. As in Sheila Schornhorst’s son, Curt Caplan. Word was that Curt’s father, Carl, was hard on young Curt. Forced him to throw curveballs in Little League. By age twelve, his elbow was shot. And one day—twenty-five, thirty years ago—Marty ran into Sheila in the pain-killer isle at Walmart. (Marty had suffered runner’s knee for years, and his septum ached in dry weather.) In tears, Sheila told him that Carl had forced teenage Curt to go skydiving the day before. Curt had shattered his left ankle. In more ways than one, Curt had limped through life itself. In his own sad way, Curt was as well known in Olney as its squirrels.
“Wait until he finds an unlocked car and takes something out. When I say so, we move in,” says Reggie in a whisper to Sophia.
A few weeks ago, Marty saw Curt feeding raw peanuts to the squirrels in City Park. Rising from his bench, Marty was quick to instruct Curt that hazelnuts, butternuts, and hickory nuts were best. Peanut butter was okay, but never raw peanuts. “They carry toxic mold,” he’d told Curt. Marty had even offered some of his hazelnuts to Curt. Yamhills. Thirteen dollars a pound.
“Fuck you,” Curt had said, holding out his peanuts to a chattering gray.
By now, Curt is at the Hancock’s house. He’s trying the door to their Civic. Locked.
With a father like Carl, at best, Curt had grown up in a crosswind. Poor kid. Marty remembers a ten-mile race commemorating George Rogers Clark’s capture of Fort Vincennes. A crosswind was so strong, no one could run straight. They must have run an extra two miles. Curt’s what, forty, forty-five? It must seem to him like he’s fifty.
Curt is limping up the drive toward Marty’s Prius.
Could this be why I dreamt of Sheila today? thinks Marty. Had my dream foretold Curt’s presence? Hadn’t Carl Jung seen dreams as the psyche’s way of offering instructions? What should I do now?
Curt is opening the passenger-side door. He’s examining the Ben Hogans.
Like Marty, Socrates had had a reoccurring dream for most of his life—a dream that instructed him to practice the arts. And since philosophy was the highest art, he had spent a lifetime practicing that. But before he died, he had second thoughts. What if philosophy wasn’t the highest art? As a consequence, late in life, Socrates wrote poetry.
Marty was for shit at poetry.
For all of Marty’s life, he thought his dream had been informing him that Sheila found him ridiculous. In truth, he didn’t need a dream to tell him that. But maybe he had misinterpreted his dream. Maybe it was reminding him of how, after treading water outside The Easy Money for what seemed hours, he’d finally had the courage to step up into the boat and face the music—or in his case, Sheila’s laughter. Could the dream be telling him to step up again? How? To what?
After slinging the golf bag over his left shoulder, Curt is reaching for the crystal elephant with his right hand when emerging from the hemlocks, Reggie shouts, “Hold it right there! Three of us and one of you. Hands out where we can see them.”
Three of us? thinks Marty. Hot damn.
If Marty had ever seen a sadder sight, he did not know when. There Curt was, held within the beam of Reggie’s flashlight, holding a bag of old golf clubs and leaning precipitously left (because of his bum ankle, the weight of Uncle Henry’s clubs, or both?). Could this be an opportunity for a kindness? wonders Marty. What would Socrates do?
“Hey, Curt, I’m sorry I didn’t return your clubs earlier. Nice of you to come and get them,” says Marty.
“Wait, you know this guy?” asks Reggie.
“Sure, I do. He’s Sheila Caplan’s son. Sheila and I go way back. We used to go boating together. I borrowed Curt’s clubs and forgot to return them, didn’t I, Curt? Shot a 92, by the way. I called Curt tonight, just before you and Sophia came. I told him the clubs would be in my car. If he was your man, he would have taken my elephant. But look. There she sits. How’s your mother, Curt?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“Well, you tell her Marty Fletcher says hi. And let me give you a ride home with your clubs.”
By the look on Detective Wood’s face, Marty can tell he isn’t buying. But what can the detective do? By the look on Officer Alejo’s face, she’s enjoying every minute. By the look on Curt’s face, he doesn’t have a clue. But he doesn’t want a ride either. “Uh, no thanks. I don’t live far from here.”
“And you might want to check the grip on your five-iron,” says Marty. “Gave me some trouble on the twelfth.”
“Will do,” says Curt, limping away with the clubs. “See you at the park. No peanuts, next time.”
“Good man,” says Marty.
Before returning to their Focus, parked a block away, Reggie tells Marty that he knows what just happened, and he’d seen lives turned around for less. “But next time, let us do our job.”
Next time! thinks Marty.
“See you around, Mars Arrow-Maker,” says Sophia. “And thanks for the Nibbles and fries.”
That night, after cleaning his kitchen and beating Wordsmythe in New Zealand at Scrabble, Marty goes to bed thinking about what he’d done for Curt and the effect it might have. Maybe Curt will pay it forward. And hadn’t Curt said, No peanuts, next time? Maybe I’ve accomplished something after all, thinks Marty.
Most people think stray cats are to blame for the decline in not only Olney’s white squirrel population but its gray and fox squirrel populations as well. (Marty had once found a feral orange tabby chewing on a gray squirrel’s head. He buried the squirrel, brought the cat home, and named her Golconda.) But Marty thinks raw peanut mold has played a large part, too. Maybe Curt will tell others. Who knows how many squirrels we’ll count next year. “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world. Shakespeare,” Marty informs Golly.
The next morning, after eating a light breakfast and straightening “Running to Paradise” on his living room wall, Marty leaves the cabin for his Prius, intending to drive to the park and feed squirrels. He wouldn’t be surprised to find Curt there. They’ll have a lot to talk about, for sure.
Marty is halfway to City Park, listening to a podcast on Democritus’s notion that nothing is actually something when he notices his elephant is missing. Curt came back, thinks Marty. He’ll probably pawn Mother’s elephant. So much for my little candle’s beam. It wouldn’t even light my little bedroom. I should have let Reggie and Sophia do their job. “So doth the greater glory dim the less,” he says to his empty dashboard.
Marty is about to turn the car around and head home—maybe call the pawn shops in Olney, Lawrenceville, and Vincennes, or just open a bag of Cheese Nibbles and sulk—when he glances at the Ziploc full of Yamhills on the car seat. “But what if everyone snuffed their candle?” Marty asks the nuts. “Wouldn’t the weary world grow wearier? Wouldn’t the wearier world grow even wearier?” Then, despite the Yamhills’ silence, Marty signals left, pulls away from the curb, and drives to City Park undeterred.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Williams's poems have appeared in "The Southern Review," "Rattle," "New Ohio Review," and "The American Journal of Poetry." His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in "Indiana Review," "Drunk Monkeys," "The Nonconformist," "Peauxdunque Review," and the anthologies, "American Fiction" (New Rivers Press), "The Boom Project" (Butler Books), and "Running Wild Novella Anthology, Volume 4" (Running Wild Press). He lives in Evansville, Indiana.
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