Right around the time that Martha’s marriage fell apart, her only child became a runner. A distance runner. A runner of distances so long and arduous that some nights Martha crept into her room to examine her daughter’s sleeping feet. How did they do it? Mile after mile, hill after hill? The slapping and pounding! In the light from the hallway the twin soles glowed slick as sea stones. Martha could remember when they were brand new, and fit into the palm of her hand.
Emma had always been a sedentary child, probably too solitary, certainly no joiner. When she decided to go out for the high school cross country team, Martha at first assumed she wanted to lose the baby fat that jiggled over the waistband of her jeans and swayed at the back of her arms, the very same places Martha jiggled and swayed.
“I should start running, too,” Martha said, when Emma came home after the first practice. Her hair was plastered to her brow. Her skin—not only her face, but her arms and legs and that heart-breaking scoop above her sweaty tank top—was the color of bruised rose petals, the terrible blue-pink Martha imagined skin would be during a heart attack. She’ll give this up before the week is out, Martha told herself, and the thought made both regret and satisfaction crowd up inside her. That’s how she was these days—conflicting emotions elbowing each other as if she were an elevator crowded with panicked passengers.
Emma looked up from unlacing her shoes. Her round face was hopeful.
“You really should,” she said.
“I should,” echoed Martha, though she’d already forgotten what she’d proposed.
Emma did not quit. Soon she was running twice a day, once on her own and once with the team. Jon, her father, Martha’s husband, was encouraging.
“I used to run in high school. Did I ever tell you that, Em?” He leaned his chair back on two legs.
Martha, sitting across the table grading spelling tests, set down her green pen (she never graded in red, she was not that kind of teacher). Jon had been teasing chairs that way as long as she’d known him, which by now was more than half her life, and only lately had the habit come to annoy the hell out of her.
“But I was a sprinter,” he went on. “Anything longer than the 200, I died.”
Martha snorted, and he gave her a wounded look. Emma took a quiet suck on her water bottle and drifted out of the room.
Martha had been a mere child when they married. What did she know? How to bake whole grain bread, how to get A’s on all her papers, how to rouse the handsome boy with the dark curls perpetually dozing over a volume of poetry in a back corner of the college library. Back then, Jon wanted to be a writer, and she had a misty vision of herself skimming up narrow, dark stairs to a narrow, dark apartment where a poor, stricken family waited for her. When she entered, they all lit up—the children ran to her, the parents managed dignified smiles. And Martha did work as a county caseworker for the first few years of their marriage. She’d taken children away from mothers, she’d left children with mothers who subsequently abandoned them. She’d threatened landlords, found her windshield smashed. Martha quit sleeping and started drinking lots of wine. Jon, who was in grad school by then, told her to quit. But Martha persisted, sure she could get it right. An older co-worker, a woman with dark purple dents beneath her eyes and a voice ragged from the cigarettes she could not, so help her Jesus, quit, stopped her in the office hallway one afternoon. “You’re breaking my frigging heart, honey,” she said, “just when I was sure it couldn’t break any worse.”
Jon convinced her to go back to school for a teaching degree. She could still help children, but she’d get to read them stories, take them to the zoo. What did she know? In the inner city school where she taught third grade, she was still a caseworker, only now she had to ruthlessly drill children to pass state tests, too. Every year at least one student begged Martha, Take me home. I want you for my Mommy. When had Martha stopped being moved by this? When had she come to realize it wasn’t her that the little girl in the dirty blouse, her chin bisected with the scar from a dog bite, yearned for? It was any old refuge, any hint of permanence and safety. When one of these children abruptly stopped coming to school, leaving behind a small sweatshirt limp on its hook, a desk crammed with broken pencils and failed spelling tests, a dewy-eyed caseworker would appear in the doorway of Martha’s classroom. She’d hesitate, her long hair lustrous, the earrings her boyfriend had given her for her birthday twinkling in her little ears. Martha strove mightily to be civil to these nymphs. These angel wannabes.
What did they know?
Jon was the one who should have become a teacher. It was more in his nature than hers. He loved pointing things out, leading people to his cheerful point of view. Instead he adhered to his original plan, more or less. He was an obit writer for the local paper, and free-lanced for Waste Age Digest and Refrigerated Transport. For awhile he’d been on the staff of Welding Distributor, but they’d recently down-sized. He submitted poems to electronic journals, where they appeared for a while then evaporated.
These days she’d still find him dozing on the couch, a volume of Yeats or Goethe spread across his chest like a large, drowned moth. But now only rarely did she wake him.
A month or so earlier, during the last days of the school year, the two of them had taken a walk by the lake. The day was hot and gusty, and downtown shimmered in a gritty haze. Bits of trash blew against their legs. Jon had just sold a piece on laser-powered food warmers, and, in a jubilant mood, pointed out the way the gulls all sat on the sand facing the same direction, and how the Terminal Tower remained superior to every other building in the skyline.
“Says you,” she replied, the wind snatching away the words. The need to contradict everything he said was exhausting, yet she couldn’t kick it.
He skimmed a rock out across the choppy water. His curls—the very curls that luxuriated on Emma’s sweet head—were still dark, but they were retreating, like the front line of a spent army.
“What a day!” he cried. “It gives you such boundless…”
Martha squinted out at the lake, waiting for him to finish the thought. The arthritis in her big toe ached. She’d overheard Emma crying on the phone, but couldn’t get her to talk about it afterwards. For the past week, her student Anthony had arrived later and later each day. He gobbled his breakfast, then lowered his head to his desk and fell into a sleep so sound even the other children respected it, hushing their voices.
“Boundless what?” she asked.
“Oh Christ, I don’t know. But boundless is the crucial word.” He shouted into the wind. “Immeasurable! Unbridled!”
When she didn’t reply, he took her hand. “Remember what we wrote into our vows? Our promise never to measure life in coffee spoons?” He grinned and swung her hand. His cheerfulness was unwarranted, simple as a child’s. Some of her students seemed older than he did.
“If you ask me,” she said, “there are boundaries. Cement walls. With barbed wire on top. Embedded glass.”
“You always get like this at the end of the school year.” The sand whirled, and he held up an arm to shield her. Martha could see where he’d be sunburned tonight: the bony pink swath that time had cut through his inky forest
“Hey,” he said, not resisting as she pulled away from him. “It’s almost over. The finish line’s in sight.”
Home from her first meet, Emma bounded up the stairs to her room. “I took thirty seconds off my PR!” she cried.
Martha felt a stab of anxiety. Time was not normally a concern of her bashful, pensive child, yet now Emma was referring to her time, as if she’d forged a private continuum. Was something really happening here?
“That’s terrific, sweetie. What’s a PR?”
“Coach says I have boundless potential.”
“Wow. I didn’t think coach-types used words over two syllables.”
Emma made a face, then tugged the slippery red singlet over her head. Martha glimpsed the little roll of tummy, the round slope of shoulder and breast. This was a view she was no longer allowed, and she attempted a rapid-fire inventory of latest developments before Emma covered back up.
But to her astonishment, Emma, in nothing but sports bra and panties, sat on her bed and leaned back on both hands.
“She’s a French teacher. She’s run the Boston marathon twice. And her mother helps us, too.” Emma looked so adorable when she blushed. “We call her Coach Mom.”
Anxiety and meanness crowded together inside the dark shaft that was Martha.
“Good name for a tacky TV show.”
“Make fun, I don’t care. She’s an Olympic athlete. She threw the discus in the1960 games, and she has a lot to teach us.”
Emma retrieved her uniform from the floor. As a baby, she’d plucked her father’s socks off the floor and toddled to the hamper with them. She’d wept when a crayon snapped in two.
“I need spikes,” she flung over her shoulder, disappearing into the bathroom.
The bathroom door clicked shut.
Jon was the one who’d stayed home during Emma’s babyhood. He’d coaxed her first step, written a sonnet on the day she spoke her first word, light. Fourteen years ago the arrangement had still felt daring, a slap upside convention’s head, and other women repeatedly assured Martha how lucky she was to have such a mellow, easy-going man. Driving home after school Martha’s arms would begin to ache so badly for her baby, sometimes she could barely hang onto the wheel. The place would look like a cartoon house: milk puddled on the table, a rubble of clothes and toys on the floor. By the time she made it to the living room Martha’s bereft arms would be loaded with damp onesies, board books and plastic blocks and gnawed, gummy zwiebacks. The two of them would be watching Oprah, which turned out to be Emma’s second word. Jon claimed he tried to put PBS on, but Emma cried Opa, Opa. She’d press the fat moon of her cheek against the screen, bubbles of affection glistening on her sweet, red lips. Martha, arms full, could only watch, too.
“What’s Coach Mom like?” Martha called through the shut bathroom door.
She raised her voice. “Em? What kind of things does she teach you?”
Water thundered, the first of many lengthy showers. Martha and Jon’s water bill doubled that fall, not that Jon, who left the bills to her, noticed.
The next week Emma magneted a list of vitamins and minerals and the foods that supplied them to the refrigerator door. Martha skimmed it daily, wondering, Maybe if I ate better. Maybe if I paid more attention to my body’s needs. The secretary at work took a dozen vitamins a day. She kept the jars lined up on her desk, and offered them to haggard teachers as they stumbled through the office.
“B-6, Martha,” she’d call, shaking the jar like a magic maraca. “Iron for your poor tired blood.”
Emma scorned supplements. Coach Bentayou advocated nutrition, a solid eight hours of sleep, and—above all—hydration. Emma carried a water bottle everywhere.
“Remember how much you loved your pacifier?” Martha asked her at dinner. “That water bottle makes me think of it.”
Emma was working her way through a plate of mustard greens (calcium) Jon had cooked for her. Her dessert banana (potassium) rested beside her plate.
She took a hearty pull on the water bottle and said, “We ran ten hills today.”
“You were four years old and refused to give it up. Finally I started hiding it.”
“What hills?” asked Jon, also forking up the slimy greens.
“The sledding hill in Forest Hills Park.”
Jon’s eyes went wide. Martha, however, could not get off the pacifier.
“You found it no matter where I put it. Once in my sewing basket, once in the bread drawer, once in your father’s backpack.” Martha paused, remembering. “You just wouldn’t quit.”
“That mother of a hill? Ten times?” Jon tilted back his chair. “That’s like, supernatural.”
Emma lowered her eyes in a failed attempt to hide her pleasure. “I finished first.”
Jon righted his chair and fist bumped her. The two of them went back to huge, enthusiastic mouthfuls of greens.
“I could have just thrown it away. The pacifier, I mean.” She paused, but neither of them asked the obvious question. “I wanted it to be your decision, Em.”
“I remember this.” Jon pushed his plate away. “It was torture.”
“I never wanted to be an enforcer,” Martha said. “That’s not how I ever saw myself.”
And yet just that morning she’d hustled her student Anthony to the office. He’d decked De’Andre, accidentally knocking out Eternity’s loose tooth in the process, blood and tears and snot raining over Morning Meeting. A few feet from the office door, Anthony tried to make a run for it, but Martha dug her fingers into the baby skin above his elbow. Anthony’s head jerked back and her own heart leaped, partners in twin astonishment.
“You’re hurting me!” yelped Anthony, a sullen, fat boy who surely, surely, had been hurt by adults before. Yet he’d trusted her, at least up till now. Who am I? she wondered. How did I get here?
Jon gazed at her, rubbing the side of his face in a way she’d once found comically sexy.
“But you kept hiding it from her. You didn’t really leave the choice up to her.”
Emma took her plate to the sink, rinsed it and set it in the dishwasher.
“It was ruining her bite, the doctor said.”
Jon’s cheeks were boyishly pink from his self-massage. He leaned forward, both hands on the table. “Every time she found it, you took it away again.” As usual he focused on the wrong detail. “Why didn’t you just…”
“Because! You think it was easy? Being the bad guy? Ha!”
She’d almost let go of Anthony’s arm. No child deserved to fall into her principal’s clutches. The woman dressed like a depraved evangelist, in flamboyant synthetic suits and false eyelashes, and Martha had witnessed her reduce fifth grade boys to tears within seconds, and leave kindergarteners curled in the fetal position, all for their own good. Yet Anthony kept erupting, frightening the other children, who were not easily frightened, and Martha drew the line at bloodshed. Through the office door they’d marched.
“Someone has to do these things!”
“I’m glad as hell that someone’s not me.” Jon stood up. “And it never will be. Me.”
Emma had slipped out of the kitchen. They could hear her, running the stairs to the second floor and back down. Her feet in their socks struck the carpeted stairs with a muffled yet definite thump, the house’s heartbeat suddenly made audible. Tears welled up in Martha’s eyes.
“Isn’t she overdoing it?”
“Can’t you say one positive thing?” He lowered his voice, condensing its anger. “Damn, Martha. Finally something she can star at.”
He left the room, pretending not to see Martha was crying, a crime he’d never committed in all their years together.
The pacifier. She’d never thrown it away. Just in case. It had broken Martha’s heart to stand by and watch Emma hunt for it! Hunt and hunt, for something she had to learn to do without, that was all there was to it. But flinging it away among the eggshells and coffee grounds—no, Martha couldn’t bear that. She kept it, she had it still, in the corner of her jewelry box, shriveled and brittle as something unborn.
Emma finished fourth in that weekend’s race. She came home wearing a bright yellow tee-shirt that said WINNER on the back. Martha worried that it was a fluke, that all the really good runners had been sick that afternoon, or missed their bus to the race. False hope was a thing she simply could not tolerate these days.
“Look at this,” said Jon. He held out the Sunday sports page, on which Emma’s name appeared in infinitesimally small type. “You’re in the news, babe. The paper of choice!”
It was their small city’s only paper, and shrinking by the day. Martha paged to the obituary section, but there were no write-ups, unusual on a Sunday.
“They’re cutting you back, aren’t they?” she asked Jon.
“Huh? What? Nah.”
“I’m just asking. No need to be defensive.”
“If there’s one sure thing, it’s obits.”
“Papers are shutting all over the country! It’s nothing personal.”
Emma had moved to the doorway, against which she braced her arms, head bent, as if determined to take the wall down.
“Hey,” said Jon, jumping up from the couch. “Okay if I try to keep up with you for a few hundred yards?”
I can be rich, Anthony wrote in his journal that week, officially designated by the principal I CAN Week. I can drive a Lexus. I can have a million games. I can buy my grandmother a house. I can have a million dollars.
At least that was what he told Martha he’d written. IKRIKLILG $$$10000000000000000 is what she saw on his paper.
She’d brought in the newspaper clipping, Emma’s name and time highlighted in cheerful yellow.
“That your daughter?” Anthony peered at it. His uniform shirt stretched tight across his belly. The free glasses he’d gotten that fall had disappeared, and he squinted like an old man.
“Yes, that’s her name right there.”
Martha plucked a bit of lint caught in his hair. “You know why I’m so proud of her, Anthony? Because she works really, really hard. She tries her best and she doesn’t give up.”
An absurd speech to give to someone so young and neglected. But what else did she have to offer? He eyed her, chewing his thumb.
“Last year she couldn’t even run at all.”
He’s listening, she thought.
“She has a coach who helps her. She tells Emma how to get better and stronger, so she can win.” Martha swallowed. “Guess what, Anthony? I’m your coach.”
“That blows.” His voice was low and private, the voice he used to talk to himself in the time-out corner.
“No, listen. You’re smart. You know you are! You shouldn’t be getting into so much trouble. Let’s try this. How about it? I’ll coach you.”
He slid the chewed-up thumb into his mouth, then curled the fingers of his other hand around his fist.
“We’ll both win,” she said.
He fixed her with a liquid gaze, and nodded.
In the dim staff room, where the clock on the wall had read 3:00 for years, Martha read the newspaper. Obit writing allowed little room for creativity, yet Jon always managed to inject a whimsical turn of phrase, and the quotes he chose from the deceased and family always came off as sincere, even the worst clichés. “He makes everybody’s life interesting,” Emma once wrote in a grade school essay, MY HERO. “Especially if they are dead.”
But again, today, his by-line was nowhere to be found. It was as if he, like one of his subjects, had ceased to exist. Crossed to the other side–passed, her students said, as if referring to yet another test. Why wouldn’t he confide in her that he was losing his job, about to be laid off? Why wouldn’t he admit it?
On the way home she stopped for a bottle of good wine, their favorite, a faintly sweet white they’d considered theirs for twenty years. Emma wouldn’t be back from practice yet. Martha would tell him all about Anthony, how he’d put her at the end of her rope, how she dreamed of running him over with her car, how she was making her last, desperate stand with him. Or maybe instead of talking, she’d just kiss Jon. His kissing was one thing that never, ever disappointed her. It had the power, at times, to transform her into a different, much more likeable person.
But he was dozing on their bed, unshaven, eyes crusted with sleep, The Complete Book of Running open on his chest. Martha banged hangers together in the closet, kicked her shoes into a corner, until he said, eyes still shut, “Listen to the message on the machine.”
“Bon jour, this is Claudie Bentayou, Emma’s cross country coach. It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Logan, at our last meet.” Pause. “I hope you, too, Mrs. Logan, will attend a meet at some point.” Longer pause. “What a delight it is to coach your daughter.”
“Of course it is!” retorted Martha. What a snotty, mellifluous voice the woman had.
“Quiet!” Jon commanded. “Listen to this part.”
“…her progress. Her work ethic is outstanding, but beyond that, she possesses enormous natural talent. After a decade of coaching, I know a winner when I see one. My mother, Coach Mom, would love to adopt her!” A small, artificial chuckle. “Again, I hope to see you both soon, and au revoir!”
Jon, sitting up by now, immediately tapped the machine again. Martha watched his lips move along with the words I know a winner when I see one.
“How many times have you listened to that, may I ask?”
She only meant to tease him, but her tone was sickeningly off, and he bolted up.
“What’s with you?” he shouted. He rubbed the side of his face as if he’d been attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. “You’re vinegar! You’re brine!”
“Kiss my ass. I just came home from a terrible day at work. That makes it about a thousand terrible days in a row, and….”
“Okay okay, the world sucks, we’re circling the drain, all the more reason! Your daughter’s a winner! Come to a meet! Be happy for a change!”
Happy! The flimsiness of that word! One day, and Martha somehow knew it would be the very day she came to watch, one day Emma was going to lose, she was going to race full speed ahead into crushing disappointment and cruel doubt, and Martha would have to comfort her, You gave it your all, you did your best and that’s what counts, that’s what matters. It was absolutely required of mothers to say these things, no matter how heavy their own hearts were, how many dreams they’d personally waved goodbye.
“It bothers me to see you taking such vicarious pleasure in her success,” Martha said.
“It feels pathetic.”
“More pathetic than you taking pleasure in belittling me?”
“I don’t! I…I don’t feel any pleasure at all in anything at all any more. At all.”
The late afternoon, autumn light fell across the side of his face, bathing the tortured, whiskery skin in soft radiance.
“It’s just a bad stretch,” he told her. “We’ve been through them before. We’ll come through it. Out the other side.”
But instead of kissing her, without so much as touching her, he turned away to close the blinds. Later, after she’d put the unopened wine away, she discovered its twin in the refrigerator. When had he bought it? She visualized him in the store choosing it, carrying it home, anticipating the toasts they’d make.
Anthony came to school in gleaming new LeBron James shoes. He told everyone they made him run faster and jump higher, but at recess, tiny De’Andre beat him in a race, and Anthony used his bright, beautiful shoes to kick his friend in the butt. A recess lady dragged him to the office, where Martha found him blubbering on a bench.
“You’re sorry,” she told him. “It feels so bad to hurt your friend.”
“Granny’s gonna beat me,” he sobbed, showing her how dirty he’d gotten the shoes.
While the rest of her class went to toot recorders, Martha scrubbed his shoes clean, and read him a story about a gentle bull who’d rather smell flowers than fight.
“My daughter always loved this book,” she told him.
Anthony took his thumb out of his mouth long enough to say, “She cool.”
A few days later, the principal stopped Martha in the hallway. She’d left off her false eyelashes today, revealing a face so unguarded Martha felt uneasy, as if she were the one stripped of disguise. The school had received bad news: their state test scores made them an official “academic emergency.” Unless things drastically improved, the principal was headed for the curb. The whole school, in fact, would be dissolved and “reconstituted,” like toxic sludge.
“Good news, Mrs. Logan.” The principal’s eyes were streaked with red. Even her ears looked tired. “I finally got the go-ahead on moving our little Anthony into SBH.”
Martha slumped against the wall, rumpling a WE CAN BE DRUG FREE poster. Relief and guilt clashed thug-like inside her. If Anthony went to the Severe Behavioral Handicap dungeon, relative peace would reign, but she’d never see him again, or at least not for ten years, when he’d try to carjack her.
“I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve been working with him. I’ve got some new ideas, I just need some time.”
The principal gave Martha a disgusted look.
“I moved mountains to get that move through.”
Martha straightened her shoulders. “Can’t I change my mind?”
“FYI, Mrs. Logan, I don’t have time to take a crap, let alone second-guess decisions.” She narrowed her naked, lash-less eyes. “He’ll be moved next week.”
Jon moved out on an afternoon when the trees had turned overnight, without warning, having heard some starter pistol audible only to green leaves. The sky was brilliantly, boundlessly blue. When he told Martha it would be better all around, she could only gape at his optimism, this pure, bone-chilling spring that fed at a source fathoms deep. If he got out of the way for a while, he said, things might sort out. She and Emma could have some time together, for the first time. And the last, before she left home for college.
“That’s years away!” Martha accused. “It’s just an excuse for you to walk away instead of face your own problems! You coward! You shirker!” Her throat closed up. “You chicken shit,” she managed to croak.
She watched from the window as he trudged away, bent beneath the weight of his pack, the autumn sun a spotlight on his bald, bony ridge. Did he know he was getting old? If not, who could blame him? Oh, she’d understood the years would pass, of course, but who’d guessed they’d pile on this way, moldy blankets heaped one atop the other? She’d imagined time wafting by, like a fragrant breeze ruffling her hair, a chuckling stream massaging her toes.
She pressed her forehead to the window glass. She was still there when a van drove up and Emma jumped out, her lean legs a mile long. Look at those cheekbones, jutting out like little shelves. The muscles played across her arms as she grabbed the backpack another member of the team held out to her. Bits of her had melted away when Martha wasn’t looking. How much less of her there was to grasp!
“I already know,” Emma said, the minute she came in the door.
His new apartment was only a mile away, and since they couldn’t afford a second computer, he came over during the day, when no one was home, to work. Martha found herself hunting traces of him—a chewed pen cap, a bitten fingernail. Once he left behind some post-its, the top one dark with moisture.
Martha touched it, then put her finger to her lips, tasting for salt.
Mysteriously, his obits began to reappear, and it seemed to her they took on a new, almost manic zest. Everyone from oncologist to homemaker to the night-shift security guard crippled by gunshot wounds had lived a full life.
He’s miserable, she told herself. He’s consoling himself by inventing happy endings.
The alternative, that he was free to sing his own song for the first time in decades, couldn’t be true. If that was true, they’d ruined one another’s lives, and how was it possible to believe that and keep on going?
People did, she knew. People kept on going in the most appalling circumstances.
She visited Anthony down in the basement whenever she could, despite the disapproval of the SBH teacher, who considered Martha a disruptive force.
“He almost always goes on red after you leave, even if he’s been on green all day.”
“Screw you,” Martha said under her breath.
“This weekend’s the league meet,” she told Anthony. Just when the sore on his cheek had at last started to heal, he’d picked off the scab. Beneath his uniform shirt he wore the WINNER tee-shirt she’d given him—Emma owned so many by now. “Know how far they run, Tony? Over three miles.”
These days, Emma sitting still was unnatural, like a gazelle in a zoo. Since Jon had moved out, she was either running or sleeping. Laying down the miles, she explained to Martha, before tapering for the last, really big meets. Piling up her kilometers, hoarding her strength.
“Don’t go.” Anthony grabbed her sleeve.
“I have to go get my…my other kids.”
“I wanna come back upstairs.” He kicked his desk, and the teacher loomed over them.
“Orange,” she threatened.
Martha stood up. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she promised.
Things had deteriorated in his home setting, the teacher told her. There was a better than fifty-fifty chance he’d be back in foster care soon. As the teacher unlocked the door to let Martha out, Anthony jabbed the point of his pencil against his WINNER tee-shirt again and again.
A photographer for the paper caught Emma flying down the home stretch of the league meet. She was so far out in front that, looking at the photo, you’d think she’d run the race solo. Martha’s little girl was a goddess—her arms tucked to her sides, neatly folded like wings, and neither foot touching the ground. Her face was composed, serene, as focused as if she were in prayer.
FRESHMAN PHENOM read the caption, and when Martha went to school on Monday, the secretary had posted the picture on the office bulletin board. What vitamins did that child take, she demanded?
Coach Mom had the photo enlarged and laminated. Emma left it lying on the kitchen table, and the next afternoon, it was gone.
“I told Daddy he could have it. I didn’t think you’d mind.” She was rummaging in the refrigerator, moving around half-empty bottles of fish sauce and capers.
“One thing I wonder, Em. On the course. When you’re passing all those other kids. When you’re leaving them in your dust.”
Emma kept her head inside the refrigerator.
“Do you ever feel sorry for them?”
Emma turned around, a crusty ancient jar in either hand. “Sure I do.” She marched to the trash and dropped them in. “For half a second.”
Martha watched her methodically clear the refrigerator, then pull out the shelves and wash them one by one in the sink.
“Not everyone’s made for distance,” Emma said. “Though Coach Mom says it’s 99% mental power.” Without turning around, she paused for a suck on her water bottle. “Coach Mom says marriage is like a marathon.”
“Coach Mom sure has a lot of…”
“She says you’ve got to run it in sections. One stretch at a time.”
“I thought she threw the whatever-you-throw. What does she know about running?”
“She knows!” Emma spun around, brandishing a shining shelf like a shield. “She knows a lot, about all kinds of things! She’s a real grown-up!”
“Emma. Oh honey. I’m so sorry you had to talk to her about this.”
Martha took the shelf from Emma’s hands and linked her arms around tight strung bones and coiled sinew, skin hot with fury.
“I thought he’d come back by now,” Martha said. She tried to hold her daughter, though there was not a single familiar element in this jack-knife of a body.
“He can’t!” Emma’s breath came short and fast in her ear. “He can’t make any decisions! He’s too depressed.”
Emma pulled free.
“You both are, I hope you know!”
“At least I go on! I face things, I work, I support you. Did you forget that little detail?”
“I don’t want to talk any more.” Emma was shoving her feet into her running shoes.
“I thought that’s what you did want! You talk to her!”
Emma put her foot up on the table, yanked at her shoelaces.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Martha cried. “It’s dark out!”
She was so fast, there was no telling where she’d disappeared by the time Martha found her keys and backed out the car. She could be blocks away. Six minute miles—she could be nearly to Jon’s by now. Choosing him over Martha, who would blame her?
Searching for your child in the dark—here was the waking version of every bad dream Martha had had since she was born, since she first broke free of the safety of the womb. Martha once dreamed that Emma was no bigger than her finger and had vanished into a sea of tall, waving grass. Another time that she’d left the baby in a strange cradle that, on second look, was lined with teeth and bones.
That Emma would turn her back and run away as fast as she could had never been one of the nightmares.
Martha gripped the wheel, the car driving her, and when she saw the silver fireflies winking on the black road, impossible for October, the sweat rolled down her back. Her daughter’s feet, her leathery, award-winning, reflective feet, running past her father’s street, running, just running running running, so unflagging and determined that who would ever catch her? Who would dare to pass her? Relief left Martha too weak to even consider rolling down her window and trying to persuade Emma to get in. Instead the car nosed along in the winking silver wake, as if Emma were towing it.
Martha lay awake half the night, and when she slept it was Anthony she dreamed of. Anthony in a dilapidated lifeboat, adrift among snapping serpents. Lost in the alleys of a city made of dirty glass. Anthony forced to run, his basketball shoes on fire.
Anthony needed her. That alone made him unique in the world.
When she woke her skin itched, and her eyes were as hot and swollen as if she’d cried for hours. She knew this feeling. The membrane separating her from the world was beaten so thin every sorrow, every ugliness and cruelty rushed in and possessed her as if it were her own. She didn’t dare look at the newspaper or turn on the TV. Her heart was lumpy inside her, like something that had melted and hardened into the wrong shape.
A notion had crouched at the back of her shadowy mind for weeks. Now, defenseless, she watched it burrow to the front. Day by day, the light was draining from Anthony’s eyes. His tough little shell was growing thicker, hardening from the outside in, so who knew what was left inside him, what sliver of space remained for the curious, big-eyed boy he’d been. Anthony was growing less loveable. Soon, no one would want him. If the child-protective system swallowed him up, that could be the end of him
The system she was part of! You worked and worked and in the end, were never sure if anything you did made a difference, if you’d even put a drop in the bottom of the filthy leaky bucket. But with one child, one specific child, you could know. Martha drank her extra-strong coffee and walked through her house, past the computer where Jon wrote his happy endings, up the stairs and to the foot of Emma’s bed, neatly made, a pile of tee-shirts folded on top of the quilt. The world could still be brought to order, she thought, good things could still be made to happen.
Martha dressed, hurrying. The idea of taking Anthony in beat its wings inside her, stronger and stronger. She was not naïve, no longer an idealist, but she could help. She knew how to make some things better. Driving to school she berated herself for hesitating so long. Giddiness jittered up inside her, the way it had when she was young, as if she were on her way to meet a new boyfriend, or fling herself off a cliff. This was who she used to be.
She led her class through Morning Meeting, where she taught the state-mandated lesson on empathy, then, tossing aside the lesson on fractions, passed out the precious markers and let them draw whatever they wanted.
Outside the window, narrow yellow leaves streamed by like a school of fish. She brought the class to gym a little early but the teacher, a darling young man the kids loved, didn’t mind. Martha dashed to the office and unpinned the photo of Emma levitating, then ran down the stairs to SBH.
The teacher was surprised to see her. Hadn’t Martha watched the news this morning? Her voice was lightly triumphant, for she’d been proven right after all. Martha gripped the back of Anthony’s empty chair as the teacher related how the grandmother’s boyfriend had finally gone too far, beating her unconscious as the children watched, and how all of them were in county custody. All except the fourteen year old brother, who was being held for shooting the boyfriend in the leg.
Here the teacher, who was not, after all, a monster, gave a soft groan.
It wasn’t Martha who’d made the boyfriend go berserk. Martha’s stingy pessimism hadn’t put the gun in the brother’s hand, her being too late hadn’t pulled the trigger. This was just the kind of thing that happened these days. These days when the world itself was worn out, liver-spotted, incapable of miracles.
“I was going to show him this picture.” She offered it to the teacher, who glanced at it but had to dart away to stop a girl who’d begun pulling her own hair.
“You tried,” said the teacher over her shoulder. “We all did.”
It was no one’s fault. And yet if Martha wasn’t responsible, what was she doing here? Could someone please tell her that?
“Madame Bentayou and Coach Mom will drive us down.”
Emma had come in first in districts, first in regionals. Martha had read all the stats in the paper, viewed the photos a teammate’s mother had put on-line. Emma and that teammate had qualified for the state meet, being run a hundred miles south. The whole team was going, to cheer them on. They’d leave early the day before, spend that night in a hotel, and run the race the next morning.
“It starts and finishes in a big stadium,” Emma said, rolling white socks and putting them in her suitcase. Four days ahead, she was packing. “Like thousands of people come. Coach Mom says when they shoot the starter gun, the roar is deafening.”
Martha’s own pulse roared in her ears. Emma tugged at the suitcase zipper, long black curls curtaining her face.
“Dad’s driving down Saturday morning. He can’t afford a motel, since the newspaper finally gave him the pink slip.”
“It did?” Martha leaned against the doorframe. “Poor Dad,” she whispered.
Emma strung her spikes with new laces.
Martha had tried to track down Anthony. He and his siblings, except for the oldest, had gone to live with an aunt in another city. It was good the siblings got to stay together, people agreed. No one could tell her much more.
Two new students arrived in Martha’s class, one a small Chinese boy who couldn’t speak English and the other a girl nearly as tall as she was, a third grader who already got her period.
The Friday before the state meet, Martha called in sick. When the coaches arrived to pick Emma up, Martha met them for the first time. Madame was at least six feet tall, with dreds spilling halfway down her willowy spine. She took the hand that Martha held out, then leaned in and air-kissed her on both cheeks.
“Quel plaisir de te recontrer!” Stepping back, she scanned Martha’s face with the practiced, assessing look of a coach.
Coach Mom was short and stocky, with a weathered face and grizzled, cinnamon-colored hair. Her blue windbreaker had an American flag sewn to the back, and her red spandex pants showed off her muscled thighs. The orange and green running shoes, those she must have gotten on discount.
“You can trust us.” She squeezed Martha’s hand with a discus-thrower’s might. “We’ll take good care of your baby.”
“Is that your Olympic jacket?”
“Why yes. It is.” Coach Mom’s smile was broad and kind. “I only take it out for special occasions.”
Martha squeezed her hand back. “You’ve made all the difference for her.”
“Well now, I don’t know about that.” Coach Mom allowed Martha to grip her hand far longer than was normal before she gently withdrew her fingers. “Emma’s a very determined child.”
Coach Bentayou handed Martha a packet of information about the race, including all the numbers where they could be reached.
“And here,” she said, tapping the paper with a long, square-tipped finger, “here are the driving directions.” She looked up. “It’s only about two hours.”
Emma came rushing down the stairs.
As the three of them walked toward the van, Martha called, “Bon chance!”
“Oof!” Madame shook a finger. “Chance has nothing to do with it!” With that, they whisked Emma into the car and away.
Martha was still awake at 5 AM when someone knocked on her door. She tried to convince herself she was having an anxiety dream, but the knock was persistent, and there was no denying her eyes were wide open. She could see the clock, and beside it Emma’s school photo, her smile as pained as in every picture she’d ever posed for.
When the knocking stopped and a key turned in the lock, Martha picked up the photo and carried it with her, like an Egyptian preparing for the after-life.
Jon gazed at her from the bottom of the stairs. He was thinner. He wore new running shoes, which made his feet look like something he had yet to grow into.
“I’m on my way to Emma’s meet.” He pointed at the photo she held, as if Martha might need a visual aid to understand.
“She told me.” Martha descended the rest of the steps to stand on the last one, eye level with him. “Thanks for going.”
His eyebrows shot up. Thin as he’d grown, with those puppy feet, he was close to the boy she’d gone hunting in the college library. Back then, as she tiptoed up to him, his eyes would fly open, and she was sure it was her heart, thumping so loudly, that waked him.
“Why thank me?” he demanded. “As if anything could keep me away!”
The window in their front door framed darkness.
“Did Emma forget something? Why’d you stop here?”
“I’m not letting you miss this, Martha.” He crossed the hallway and yanked open the door of the closet. “You’re coming.”
“Oh no.” She clutched the neck of the tee-shirt she’d slept in. “I can’t.”
He was rifling through the jackets. “You don’t even know what you’re missing. Do you realize that? You’ve never seen her race!” He held out her winter coat. “Come on.”
“What…what if I jinx her?”
He tried to fit her arm into the coat, but she shook him off. She tried to turn and go back up the stairs, but his fingers dug into her.
“I’m not letting you do this to yourself.”
“Let go! You’re hurting me!”
“And I’m not letting you do it to her.”
Martha clutched the banister. “Don’t be so righteous,” she said. Only the very last syllable didn’t make it out of her mouth.
He threw the coat over her shoulders.
“I had a dream where she fell on the course and everyone ran right past. No one even noticed,” Martha wailed. “What if she goes out too fast, and can’t finish? What if she gets cramps?”
“Winning doesn’t even matter at this point.”
“Don’t lie! You know that’s not true!”
“She’s in this for the long haul. If she falls she’ll get back up, trust me.” He shook his head, as if this were something a blind person could see, then touched her face. “Christ. She’s your daughter, Mart.”
It was like an encampment of hundreds of armies, with tents and banners and uniformed combatants warming up everywhere you looked. The stadium was cupped by rolling land, fringed with woods stark and bare in the November light. It was all gorgeous, like so many battlefields before the bloodshed began. As Jon went to buy Emma a souvenir shirt, Martha searched the beautiful, lithe bodies for the one that belonged to her.
Instead she saw Anthony, already taller than the last time she’d seen him, with a new, slick haircut. He stood in the distance, on the edge of a group of older boys in warm-up suits, one of whom she watched play-wrestle him to the ground and not let him back up. She cringed, expecting Anthony to spit or bite or kick the boy in the balls. Instead he rolled up like a bug till another boy, grinning, gave him a hand back up. Anthony bounced on his toes. He crouched and danced, rocking his pelvis, jabbing the air with his splayed fingers, little tough guy in the sunshine. Martha had never seen him outside the dingy walls of the school. She’d never witnessed this joy that lived in him, this exuberant, heedless geyser bottled up side by side with his anger.
“What are you looking at?” asked Jon, coming up beside her.
“One of my students.”
“Are you sure?” He followed her gaze. “Down here? That’s a pretty big coincidence.”
It was Anthony, wasn’t it? She should call to him, go speak to him—night after night she’d lain awake, thinking of all the things she wished she’d said to him.
“You see your kids wherever you go, don’t you,” Jon said. “You can’t ever leave work behind you.” He rubbed the side of his face. “I always counted on that tenacity. I figured it’d make you stick with me, no matter what.”
Anthony and his boisterous, athletic crew drifted farther away.
“Opposites attract,” Jon went on. “Lately I’ve been thinking that’s a real understatement, when it comes to a long marriage. Opposites are a necessity.”
She was letting Anthony, this happier, more hopeful Anthony, disappear, borne away on the buoyant crowds of runners and spectators. What if the sight of her, the embodiment of his past, poisoned his joy? Or even worse, what if it turned out not to be Anthony? What if this hopeful vision of him resurrected and resilient was only a figment of her own moronic, dogged will to right the world? Her conviction that she had the power to make Anthony happy or sad, make him succeed or fail–it was hubris, that’s what it was, because in the end it was all up to Anthony whether he made it or not. That was the hard truth, that was the bullet you had to bite. What this boy latched onto, what he let pull him under or over, was all up to him. The burden and the glory of every child. Every human. Martha closed her eyes, delivered to a terrifying place.
“Hey!” cried Jon. “Hey look!”
Martha looked. As long as it had been since she saw her child run toward instead away from her, she became even more disoriented.
“Don’t run!” she commanded Emma. “Save your energy!”
That made Emma laugh. “You came.”
“Just do your best,” Martha whispered, folding her close, and Emma laughed again, because it was far too late for advice like that, for any advice, from her mother. Or maybe not.
“I’m so glad you came,” Emma whispered back.
At the sound of the pistol the stands roared, and the runners surged across the field toward the stadium’s opening. In a heartbeat they were out of sight. Jon, who’d studied the course, knew where to be to watch them just before they entered the woods. He took Martha’s arm and they ran, too, Martha stumbling in her clogs, struggling to keep up.
And here the girls came, rounding a curve, thundering down an incline. Martha’s heart banged so furiously, she leaned on Jon for support. The runners had thinned out into an endless string, and at the front was a small pack, four or five girls, which did not include Emma. Martha clutched her chest. Then she saw her, ten yards back, eating up the ground, narrowing the gap stride by stride.
“Emma!” they both bellowed. “Emma!”
The lead pack was tight and impenetrable, and Emma had to go wide of them, close enough now Martha could see the dark pearls of sweat at her hairline. Her concentration was so fierce, Martha didn’t dare call to her again. Their girl sailed past, eyes on the ground, and then, just beyond where they stood, she took the lead.
Martha had never seen anything like it.
The stampeding pack disappeared into the woods.
“Over there, by those cones—that’s where they’ll come out.”
They pressed forward along with all the other families and friends, the stadium in the distance now. Martha caught a glimpse of Coach Bentayou loping across the grass, clutching the stopwatch around her neck like a crown jewel. Coach Mom scurried behind, her face wild.
All of them, all the spectators, knotted by the edge of the woods, waiting.
Emma had looked so strong, unbeatable. But it was a torturous race, and way too early to predict. Anything could happen. A hush came over them as they squinted toward the trees, at the dark tunnel where the runners would emerge. The cold sun beat on Martha’s head and shoulders. Her blood pounded in her ears. She was dizzy with fear and hope, woozy and tipsy, practically air-borne.
Winner, 2009 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Andre Dubus III