RUNNING SHAME chapter 7

It was one of those days in the Sunset District when the fog never completely lifted. Visibility was fair, details were hazy. Long stalks of kelp, wrenched from their moorings by an offshore storm, washed up on the sand, fouling the lines and confounding the surf perch fishermen standing wraith-like, knee-deep in the frothing breakers. Frizzle-haired German tourists in faded T-shirts and fraying shorts shivered on the beach while the locals kept to the bike path and wore stocking caps and heavy wool sweaters. Cars crawled by on the Great Highway, their headlamps dull cocoons of light hovering in the mist.  

Frank was at his table playing solitaire, trying to keep his ear tuned to the world beyond the sliding window screen while Judy and Roger were having a stemwinder in their apartment across the hall. The walls buffering their apartments may as well have been constructed of single-ply tissue paper for all the good they did once they really got to screaming.

“Cashing welfare checks is not a job!”

“You don’t seem to mind the first of the month!”

“I can’t live like this anymore!”

“Ahh just shut up you fucking cunt!”

The cards shook in Frank’s hands and he clamped his eyes shut. The pain that had before been intermittent had become a constant, tearing at his guts. He let go of the cards and doubled over. Meanwhile, over on Judy’s side of the hall, something, maybe a table, crashed to the floor, causing Frank to bounce in his chair. Judy screamed, and you could clearly hear the smack of flesh-on-flesh followed by another floor-shaking thud.

By force of will, Frank mastered the pain, stood and walked to the sink and took his dentures from out of their glass of green water.  After squeezing a generous horse shoe of polygrip on them, he positioned them on his gums just so, chomped down and sucked the air out of his mouth, creating a bond between gum and plastic.

Jaw clenched, he walked to his closet and put on his hat and coat as if preparing for a stroll. Then, making the scene less Rockwell and more Capone, he reached back in the closet and produced a wooden baseball bat, took a slow-motion practice swing and walked out the door.

Rapping on Judy’s door with the barrel of the bat and, lowering his voice an octave, Frank barked, “Police! Open up!”

“You called the cops?!”

“I didn’t! I didn’t!” exclaimed Judy.

Frank clenched his teeth against the pain clawing at his guts and choked up on the bat, repeating his command. “Open the goddamn door!”

“That fucking old bastard across the way must’ve called them.”

“Open up!” spat Frank, gripping the bat with maniacal fury. “Open the door, now!”

“Alright,” acquiesced Roger, twisting the door knob and opening the door. “Everything’s cool, off─.”

Before Roger could react to the deception, Frank thrust the barrel end of the bat hard into the part-time derelict’s sternum, knocking the wind out of him.    

“Jesus Christ Frank!” exclaimed Judy.

Roger crumbled to his knees and fell on his face into the hall.

“Frank!” shouted Judy, cradling her head in her hands. “Oh my God!”

Frank didn’t even acknowledge her as he studied Roger’s fetal position on the floor. His instinct told him to immobilize the prey first, so he raised the bat like an ax and brought it down hard as he could into the middle of Roger’s thigh. Roger cried out in anguish and writhed like a coiling and uncoiling snake after the wood hit home with a meaty crunch.

“Oh God, no!” cried Judy, grabbing for the bat. Frank pushed her back with his left forearm, giving himself the space and time he needed to swing again, this time connecting with Roger’s hip.

Roger cried out in agony, arched his back, then flopped back down and tried to roll away from the thing that was destroying him. Judy regained her balance and threw herself over Roger’s body, shielding it with her own, inadvertently making Roger’s head into a nice, still target.   Frank raised the bat for the kill shot, but fell to his knees and hugged his stomach, his ability to resist his own inner demolition at an end. The bat clattered to the floor and rolled down the length of the hall toward the stair well. 

Meanwhile, Roger was rolling around on the ground, whistling and wheezing like a boiling steam engine with a hole in its tank. Judy knelt by his side and tried to comfort him. Frank gritted his teeth and raged against the pain. Judy turned on Frank and slapped him as hard as she could. Frank’s hat and teeth flew across the hall, and he yawed to the side, but remained kneeling. He rubbed his mouth with one hand then spat blood onto the tile.  Judy shook her head and covered her sobs with both hands, then tentatively reached out to touch Frank’s shoulder as Roger’s wails amped down to pathetic whimpers.

“What’s the trouble, eh!” someone shouted down the third floor stairwell.

Frank shrugged Judy to the side and crawled toward the landing, using the distraction of their upstair’s neighbor to improve his position. Reaching the bat he’d just broken down Roger with, he used it like a crutch to help himself get back to his feet. He staggered around a while before partially regaining his wits. Judy had resumed her crouch over her wounded abuser as heavy footsteps sounded from above as their upstair neighbor intervened, a young Irishman making his way in America who had always been reserved but pleasant.

“Call an ambulance!” Judy called to him as he came down off the last step.

“Already called the coppers,” the young man replied. Then, looking down the hall at Frank, nodded. “Eh then, someone’s finally had enough, I see?”

Frank leaned on the bat like a dandy leaning on his cane and smiled his toothless smile, acknowledging the young man’s astute deduction.

“These may be yours, too, I’m presuming?” the Irishman said, kneeling down to gather up Frank’s hat and, despite a grimace giving away his ambivalence at retrieving them, he pulled his shirt’s long sleeve down over his hand to pick up Frank’s teeth.

In the midst of the sound and fury, Frank received the gesture with a sense of deep gratitude, taking it as the young immigrant’s acknowledgement of his just action. As he watched the young man approach, it struck Frank then how strange that it had come to this. Once, not too long ago it seemed, he’d been a boy staring out at the peaks that enclosed his crystalline mountain home, wondering what was beyond them, all the hidden valleys and unseen roads. Now, nearing journey’s end─long after he’d ranged down from the mountains, uneasy in his banks, wasting all his energy fighting the inevitable pull of gravity and time─become slower, meandering, laborious and still wondering at the randomness of it all, standing there suddenly then as a weary, old man. Unused to the heavy stroke and pulse of sustained rage, he felt the pain and weariness of age again. He dropped the bat as if he’d been given an electric shock. He stared at his wrinkled hands and dropped them to his sides.

“I’ll vouchsafe it was a case of self defense,” whispered the young Irishman, handing him back the objects that conferred back to Frank a semblance of nobility and decorum.

 “Thank you,” said Frank, accepting the articles, putting his hat on his head and his teeth in his pocket. “I think I may have broken hith leg.”

“Well, if you’re asking me,” muttered the Irishman. “It was a long time comin.”

“Give my regards to the police,” said Frank handing the Irishman the baseball bat. “This could be a vital piece of evidence.”

The Irishman pulled his hand back, immediately realizing he did not want to get so intimately involved as that. Dropping between them, the bat struck the hard tiles and clattered onto the floor, rolling in an arc and coming to stop against the wall.

“I don’t blame you,” said Frank, tipping his hat and turning to leave, he grabbed the wooden rail to help himself down the stairs.

“Wait Frank!” Judy stood up, even as Roger tried to hold her down.

“Judy!” he cried, as she shrugged out of his grasp. “Goddammit, Judy, I cannot move!”

“Wait a second,” is all she could manage to spit out as she tried to catch up to Frank, who was already on the bottom floor landing.

“No time,” said Frank, rushing out the security door, disappearing into the foggy street.

“Judy!” Roger cried from above.

Judy looked back up the stairwell, just able to see the open doorway of the apartment where Roger lay broken and crying out in pain with the Irishman standing next to him with folded arms.

“I’ll wait for the police,” he reassured her. “Perhaps you should go after the old man.”

 “Judee-ee-ee!” wailed Roger.

Throwing her shoulder into the security door, she burst out into the street and went out into the fog in pursuit of her neighbor.    

Frank crested the levee and flung his hat in the air. A distant police car siren somewhere behind him on the Avenues gave him an added sense of exhilaration. He let gravity take him as he ran down the hill onto the beach and imagined this must be what it felt like to break out of jail: stolen freedom stolen back, if only for a few hours or a day or however long he could remain at-large in a world geared toward  his recapture. The beach seemed empty due to low visibility and the foul weather. He hadn’t moved so fast in years, decades really. With the giddiness of a child taking his first steps, Frank gave a whoop, and unbuttoned his coat and flung it aside.

Hanging like curtains before a stage, the fog blocked his view of the rolling surf. But the decline of the land and pull of gravity, and the sound of breakers were an irresistible Siren song. Frank staggered from dry land to the band of wet sand that marked the eternal overlap between the beach and sea.

 Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more…

Finally, he saw the ocean rolling in, crashing to foam over and over, flattening out to run back down the sloping shore again. Green water swirled around his black wingtips, then hissed back out under the rolling vortex of its surging brothers who constantly rolled in and out again.

Then sigh not so, but let them go…

Despite the pain, despite the cold, he was almost there. He raised his arms out to the sides and cried out unto the heavens. The cold wind tousled and upset the wreath of white hair that circled his head. The skin sagging off his arms bunched around the painful knots of his contracting muscles. The adrenaline that had sustained him until then receded with the last vestiges of his voice on the wind, and yet he was given the strength from somewhere to continue to hold his pose ever as long as he could stand. He heard his name behind him carrying on the wind, and thought nothing of it.

Be you blithe and bonny…

“Frank!” rang the distant call, echoing down all the intersecting pathways of his memory. “Come back!”

Converting all your sounds of woe…

The strident commands of his teacher, Mrs. Yager, called him off the playground back to class. The soft voice of his wife Helen cooing his name in delight, then exasperation and finally screaming it with trepidation and fear merged into the cascading cries, exhortations and murmurs of a few long-forgotten lovers, and, eclipsing them all, his mother calling him home as the semi-circle of the giant red sun slowly disappeared behind the hazy, distant peaks of summer.

His arms dropped to his sides and he shook with shivers. By complete cessation of muscular control, he fell to his knees and rolled onto his side, with barely strength enough to curl himself into a fetal ball. His body had not been asked to work so hard for decades, and now that he’d gotten where he was going, his strength was gone. The remnants of a wave racing up the shore ran over his prone body, soaking his slacks and the cotton wife-beater T-shirt that remained after racing down to the shoreline shedding clothes. He choked on the icy saltwater and spat it back out along with some sand. His toothless jaws quivered with cold.

The pain in his stomach tore at his insides and the icy chill of the wind and the water penetrated to his marrow. But then again, he was almost free.

Converting all your sounds of woe…

If he could just roll himself down the slope a bit farther, gravity and the rip tide would take care of the rest. He struggled to raise himself up on his elbows in the wet sand, then threw his weight sideways. Hands crossed over his chest like a corpse in a casket, the old bag of bones rolled farther into the surf and Frank felt the undertow grab him and begin to tug him out to sea. For a moment, he floated on his back, bobbing like a log.

Sunlight streamed through a break in the clouds above the ocean, and the day changed from grey to gold.

Into hey, nonny, nonny…

But the light brought no warmth. He would probably freeze to death before he drowned. The water swelled beneath him, pushing him closer to the sky. He hoped he’d past the point of no return beyond the breakers until he realized he was actually on the crest of a giant wave crashing back to shore. He span in the wave’s pipeline and landed with a thump back on the cold sand. A giant stalk of kelp fell out of the wave with him, knocking Frank in the head a split-second after he’d been body slammed back onto the beach.