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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: DREAMSCAPES FICTION

J. Malcolm Garcia

It begins raining while the boy runs. His arms pump back and forth and his legs stretch in long strides as he bounces lightly off his feet. He wears a yellow headband, a white tank top and a red pair of Emerson Junior High School sweat pants. He has on a new pair of Adidas his mother bought for him this morning.

The boy prances in a circle on the wet pavement of the street looking for a tree to duck under. He keeps running, past squat, one-story brick houses on either side of the street separated by narrow cement driveways. Plastic trash bags and blue recycling bins line the street. A mailman waves to him.

Thunder rolls over the tops of trees and lightning flashes. The boy jogs in place and thinks of his bedroom where he would be warm and dry had he not decided to run. But he has to run to stay in shape. His lightly tanned skin turns a darker brown from the rain. He imagines Jane and Anne looking at him as the rain falls harder.
A man waves to him from the edge of his open garage. Water pours from an aluminum gutter above him. He wears a sailor’s cap and an old gray sweat shirt too small to cover his protruding stomach. He has on a pair of torn sneakers and corduroy pants rolled up around his ankles.
"Get in here son!"
The boy hesitates, then runs toward him.
"Figured you were looking to get out of this rain," the man says.
"Thanks," the boys says. He takes off his headband and shakes his head, combing his hair back from his forehead. "It wasn’t raining when I started."
The man picks a towel off the floor and hands it to him.
"It’s a little dirty but you can use it."
The boy pats his face and arms with the towel. The garage is dark and damp. A weak light casts flickering shadows against the wall. The boy clutches the towel under his chin and shivers.
"Lousy way to spend a weekend," the man says. "Work all week, watch it rain on your days off. Didn’t look like rain this morning, did it? Was going to cut my grass and watch the game. But no watching the game for you, huh? You run."
The man reaches for a broom and sweeps water out of the garage.
"My wife tells me you people’ll run in anything," the man says. "Snow. Rain. Anything."
"No," the boys says handing back the towel.
"That’s not what she says. She’d know. My wife tells me everything about you joggers."
"I don’t jog," the boy says. "I’m on the football team."
"Every night for the past couple of months I come home from work and she’s on the phone with her girl friends talking about these joggers she sees. She goes, ‘There’re all these boys jogging. All these young people getting in shape.’ She goes, ‘Maybe we should join a gym.’ You know who paid for that gym don’t you?"
He pauses letting the question hang between them.
"You got girls watching you?" the man asks.
"I don't know," the boy says.
"You don't know? You'd know. You don't get watched?"

The boy doesn’t want to talk about girls. He feels his face turn red and turns away from the man. Grownups always did this to him. When his parents had dinner parties, his father after a few drinks would ask him in front of everybody if he was seeing any girls. Everyone would look at him and smile. They’d start laughing and wink. He would force a smile and put up with their teasing laughter. When they were done, he would excuse himself and go to his room and close the door.

The boy was on the third string of the football team. He rarely played and when he did the quarterback ignored him. Sometimes he wished he had never tried out for football, but he liked to wear his uniform around school on the day of a game with other members of the team. Jane and Ann would look at him then. They would wear their tight cheer leading uniforms and hang out with him and the other players in the cafeteria. They never said anything to him unless there was a game and he was in his uniform.

"You don’t have to tell me," the man says, "I understand. You’re no hot shot but you’re trying. I can see that by you running in the rain. It’s not fun working up to something. Look at me. Got this house. Took a lot of work and money saved to get it, but I did it. That’s something even if she doesn’t think so."
The man looks out the garage door, squinting as though he sees someone. Abruptly, he turns and points to the photographs on the wall.
"Here’s something not everybody can say they’ve done. These are pictures of me when I was running rivers."
The boy could only think of river boats and Mark Twain stories.
"You were on the Mississippi?"
"No, no, Further west. Much further. Me and a bunch of other men were hired on by this outfit called Idaho Adventures to run rivers in northern Idaho. Took tourists down white water rapids in rubber rafts. My wife was a tourist. That’s how we met. She thought I was something."

The photographs show the man rafting, preparing camp fires, rock climbing and swimming. His hair is dark and thick, his face hints of a beard. Mountains rise up behind him into cloudy skies. The boy reaches up and touches the yellowed edges of the photographs.
"Look at them," the man said behind him. "Now you tell me if you’re not impressed. I’m looking all over trying to dig these pictures up and I go to my wife, I go, ‘Remember Idaho?’ But she’s out the door jogging."

The man unzips one of the backpacks and removes a package of envelopes bound together by fat rubber bands. He walks to the edge of the garage, snaps open a folded lawn chair and sits down. The rain has slowed to a drizzle. Puddles form on the driveway and filmy slices of blue sky appear between scudding clouds. Steam rises from the street. The man unwraps the envelopes and shakes dozens of photographs onto his lap. A few fall on the floor and the boy picks them up.
"Where were all these taken?" the boy asks picking them up.
The man looks over the first few pictures in his hands.
"Let’s see. The ones of me skiing were in Utah. That one of me there by the train tracks was after I hopped a freight train."
"You hopped freights?"
"Had to. Running rivers is seasonal work. Come fall, why there’re too low to raft. What we’d do after our last run of the season was go down to the division point in Idaho Falls. A division point is a major freight yard. Like a big bus terminal where you can catch a freighter to practically any part of the country.
"I’d walk into the yard and ask a brakeman which train was bound for say Jackson Hole or maybe Denver. Then I’d sit in one of the box cars and wait for it to get going. Like riding a bus. Easy. I’d shoot over to wherever I’d decided to go. Usually taught skiing in the winter. Whatever. It didn’t matter. Anything would do until spring when the rivers’d be high and I could start running them again."
The boy can’t believe jumping a train is as simple as the man says. He imagines himself running, hands stretched out to grab hold of an open boxcar on a speeding train. His clutches at the metal door. He’s almost sucked under the wheels. He heaves himself off the ground and rolls inside the boxcar covered in grass and dirt, his hands torn and bleeding.

He wants to do that for real. Every summer he goes on Boy Scout camping trips in the forest preserve near school. He and the other boys sit around a camp fire eating hamburgers and hot dogs. He always stares into the fire until he can’t see anything around him forgetting the other boys. He pretends he is a cowboy and lifts his head at the slightest sound as if he understands its meaning. Then he hears the sound of traffic and realizes how close the preserve is to the expressway and his home and he stops pretending.
"A lot different running a river than running around in the rain, isn't it?" the man says.
The boy nods flipping through the photographs.
"You ever fall out?"
"No," the man says. "Every raft has a motor. If things really get hinky, if the water’s too rough, all you have to is raise your oars, start your motor and get out of there."
"I wouldn’t use the motor," the boy says.
"You would if you needed to," the man says. "Got myself an outfitter’s store. Fifteen years next month. Camping gear, sleeping bags, tents, backpacks. Got a sale on Bass hiking boots. I never would have imagined I’d be stuck behind a counter, but comes a time, comes a time. It's what's right for me."

He takes the photographs from the boys stacks them on his knees and stuffs them back into the envelopes. He wraps the rubber bands around the envelopes and tosses them in a corner. He settles back in his chair and looks past the driveway. It has stopped raining. Water drips from trees. Cicadas hum. The air was cool but heavy and the man could see the sun and knows it will get hot and humid soon. He turns to the boy.
"So what do you say?" the man says suddenly looking at the boy. "You want to try it?"
"Run a river. I’ll show you. Right now."
"You’ll see."
The man presses his hands against his knees and stands with a slight groan. He stretches and presses a hand against the small of his back. He pushes the lawnmower out of the garage and across the driveway onto his front yard. He paces off a large circle, stamping the wet grass down with his feet. The boy watches him.
"C’mon out here," the man shouts to him.
The boy walks over to him.
"Lets say this is the perimeter of a rapid," the man says walking around the flattened grass. "All the rocks and rough water are in the center. The job of a boatman is to protect his passengers, so you want to steer where I’m standing now, the rim of the rapid, away from all that bad stuff in the middle. Okay? Let's try it."

The man takes the boy by an arm and pulls him behind the lawnmower. He reaches around him and gives a sharp yank on the cord and the lawnmower jumps, gas fumes rising amid the loud roar of the motor. The man stands behind the boy and pushes the lawnmower along the edge of the circle.

The boy stumbles but hangs onto the handle-bars. The front of the lawnmower cuts into the diagram of the rapid. Grass flies back damp and clinging. the man keeps the lawnmower on the rim of the circle. The boy wants to see how rough the center of the rapid is and leans toward the middle of the circle. The man follows his lead.

The boy imagines he has just returned from Jackson Hole to the fresh winter run off of the new rafting season. He struggles with the oars. His arms and back ache. Water covers his legs. The raft bucks against the pull of the rapid. The boy feels himself dragged toward boulders jutting out of the foaming river. He knows he will be crushed. Jane and Ann scream.

The man flicks a switch and the lawnmower stops suddenly. He nudges the boy aside and pushes the lawnmower to the driveway. The boy closes his eyes, breathes deeply and relaxes. His ears ring. He becomes aware again that he is standing in the middle of a stranger's yard.

"Last week my wife bought herself a jogging outfit," the man says. "A bright red tight job. Started out she'd be gone an hour or so with her trainer. Then two, three, four hours. It’s practically been a whole frickin’ day today. And it’s raining."
"Do you think she stayed dry in someone’s garage like you?" the man shouts into the boy’s face. "Do you think she gives a good God damn about Idaho? Who will you be waiting for some day? Ask yourself that. When you’re too old to run. Who?"

The boy shoves the man away and runs out of the yard and onto the street. He breathes steadily, the wet air filling his lungs and expanding his chest in rhythm with his feet striking the pavement. The boy imagines the man behind him. His bedroom is a fort, and once he gets home, he will fight the man if he must. He stomps in puddles and leaps over fallen tree branches downed by the storm. He runs faster and faster, away from the man as Jane and Ann cheer.

© Malcolm Garcia APRIL 2009

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