Mister Courtman Heads Home
By Jack A. Urquhart
He runs in circles, a miles-long loop through town, up into the foothills, back to where he started. As always, the last two hundred meters he takes at an arse-kicking pace —panting, arms pumping, a flat-out sprint — running for his life.
Because he is.
His wife has seen to that.
“We can’t go on this way. I’ll give you a week to decide, Mister ‘C’,” she’d said.
He’d flinched, been taken off guard by Linda’s unruffled tone, by her appearance in the kitchen at an early hour.
“After fifteen years, I think that’s long enough.”
Clearly she’d been standing there a while, watching him lace up his shoes, waiting to be noticed.
“Enough time to get your priorities—‘straight’?”
Impossible to ignore the humiliating pause or the emphasis she’d imposed on the word, much less her stoical smile — as if it were all so sadly funny.
Straight, indeed! So like Linda to condense even disaster to a single syllable.
It had taken all his will power to resist bolting past her down the hall. Out onto the street.
“Seven days,” she’d reiterated, heading over to the counter, rummaging in the dishwasher for her favorite mug.
So ordinary her behavior — like out of a movie; the scene where the long-suffering spouse calmly declares, “it’s over,” and then proceeds with an everyday act: pouring coffee, stirring in creamer.
“It’s simple,” she’d said, pausing for a sip. “You’ve got to decide, Mister ‘C’: where is home? Where do you want to sleep? Here or with him?”
Again the smile — surely not accidental.
No mischance either, the way Linda refuses to name names anymore — the way she reduces even the third party in their little triangle to a generic pronoun.
“And if ‘home’ isn’t here,” she’d thought to add, “you’ll need to hit the road.”
And so he has—six days running now.
Setting off before sunrise, he pushes himself faster, farther each time. At forty-two, the effort requires fantastical incentives:
If I break under an 8:40 mile, I’ll stay with Linda, he tells himself. If my last split makes 8:50, it’ll be —Him.
Disaster may be postponed, he had almost convinced himself.
Until this morning.
“What about Uncle Paul? How come he’s stopped coming ‘round?” she’d asked—his daughter, slumped at the kitchen table, watching as he stooped to double knot his running shoes. “How come Mom never mentions him anymore?”
The sound of Annie’s voice, splintered at the edges, had shattered the vision of the run already unfolding in his head.
“Sometimes I think being dead would be better,” she’d said. “Better than waiting to see how things’ll turn out.”
The sudden chilblains, like a burst of dread stippling up his legs, made his calves cramp. Bolting upright, he’d tried shaking out the knots, certain he’d not forgotten to stretch, that his daughter’s emphasis on the honorary ‘uncle’ was unintentional. Then again, how to downplay anything so fundamental as Annie near tears?
“No, you’re wrong,” he’d said at first, still clinging to the notion that she was just a child, barely twelve, still chewing at the frayed ends of her hair, still too self-absorbed to notice anything that didn’t register on her cellphone screen. Yet there it was — adult-sized despair on Annie’s pinched face. Too much knowing for a little girl.
“It will turn out okay. I promise,” he’d said.
Such a hypocrite. Such a fraud of a father, a shambles of a man heading nowhere at a steadily improving pace.
For a moment he’d thought to say so, thought to confess how lying alone in his study night after night, he’d been thinking the same as she, wondering if oblivion might be better than the shame of being ashamed, than the terrible fear of longing to be somewhere else — longing to be with P__.
He’d almost spoken to unburden himself before thinking how unfair that would be.
Instead, he’d gone running. And now, in a full sprint, he wonders—to what end?
If I break under 9:15, Annie will be okay, he tells himself, setting more reasonable odds; 9:30 or better, and she’ll be fine.
It is the last thing he thinks before it is upon him — a calamity only three strides removed.
The cyclist, the local paperboy, swerves in front of him from behind a parked car so suddenly that veering toward the curb can’t be avoided. Neither his stumbling somersaults across the median, nor his arse-slamming, leg splaying sidewalk landing.
It is over in a heartbeat.
For a moment, he sits on cold concrete, strangely clear-headed — thinking it would be just as appropriate to laugh as to cry.
But now someone else is making a fuss.
“Jesus! Are you okay?”
The McFarland boy is yelling at him, scrambling up from his bike, tripping over the handlebars, spilling newspapers everywhere.
“Oh Shit! I’m so sorry! Is that you, Mister Courtman?”
Yes, that’s me, he thinks, standing slowly, laughing, brushing the dirt from his knees and elbows, wondering where all the new aches and pains will bloom.
“Christ, Annie’ll kill me if you’re hurt! Should I go for help?”
“I’m fine,” he answers, testing his footing to be sure. “Still alive,” he says.
“Can I help you make it home, then?”
A good kid, the McFarland boy. All gangling, legs and arms.
“No. I’ll get there on my own,” he decides, thinking for the first time that he can, that he knows where that is.
“But first, let’s deal with this mess,” he says, indicating the boy’s papers. “Get you back in business,” he thinks to add, wondering if that’s really all there is to it?
© 2011 By Jack A. Urquhart
Jack Andrew Urquhart is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories. He also wrote Irises, Purple Irises, a novella. Urquhart holds a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared at Clapboard House literary journal, Crazyhorse literary journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies Online. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Urquhart was, until recently, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in central Florida.