The 1973 Mississippi Valley conference cross country meet was the third Saturday of October at Oak Knoll Park – my final frosh/soph race of the season. There was a chill in the air as we boarded the yellow school bus, low gray clouds threatening more rain as we headed north towards Cedar Rapids. Steve and I talked about costumes for trick-or-treating as corn fields raced by the windows, neither of us nervous about the competition.
As much as I wanted to focus on the meet, I had other concerns. Agee Paint Company paid dad every Saturday at noon after a half-day of work, my father racing to Donnelly’s to spend far too much of the $104.65 paycheck. Typically, mom stopped in around 1pm so there was money left for the groceries and such, but last night she asked if I could bike down there after the meet to get the weekly stipend. She looked especially worn down this morning at breakfast so I begrudgingly conceded to her request.
It was hard to think about the meet when the bus pulled into the parking lot at Oak Knoll, the afternoon task hanging over my head – and all the hassle and humiliation that it would entail. I needed this responsibility as much as I needed another asshole. Rain was falling steadily as I stepped off the bus, the team hustling over to assemble under an oak tree for cover, nervousness on every face as we dropped gym bags in a dry spot.
Coach Raffensperger called us together and then sent the freshmen off for the warmup.
Conversation was muffled, the miserable conditions and typical pre-race disquiet stifling tongues as we jogged the loop. Steve pointed out the good runner from Davenport when we passed their squad near the team camps, both of us wondering if he was the real deal. I guess wed find out soon enough. The Blue Devil was small and skinny like us.
While we stretched some guys went to take a leak in the bushes while the rest changed into spikes, all of us wishing the time would go faster. I leaned against the tree and double-knotted my worn out Keds, waiting for the rest of the team to rejoin us.
At the five minute whistle we tossed sweats into a pile under an evergreen and jogged over to the starting line by an empty public swimming pool, dreading thoughts of the pain we would go through in a few minutes. Hair was plastered to my head as our squad waited for all the teams to assemble in their boxes, wondering to myself if it was possible to feel any more miserable. This sucks.
Steve Skogstad looked at me and grinned at my pathetic expression.
“Man, you look like shit! Give me five brother.” I slapped his hand and inadvertently smiled. I hated racing in rain. Especially without spikes.
From the gun Steve and I ran side by side up front, leading the field on the first loop of the 1.5 mile course, forty-six thinclads trailing behind us in dribs and drabs, the course already in poor condition for the initial race of the day. Puddles grew in depth as we approached the halfway point, my curiosity about the Davenport competitor growing as we ran behind the chutes into the second loop.
Glancing behind I spotted the runner in blue trailing by about forty yards, three more runners about twenty yards further back. We'll see if he has anything. On the final corner before the finish I checked one more time. He was only fifteen yards behind, charging after us for all he was worth. Shit. Shit. Shit. Gotta move!
I didn’t see the patch of mud on the last turn, falling so quickly my chest and hands were covered in brown before I knew what had happened. I landed in a belly flop, struggling to get air into my lungs and up off my hands and knees so I could resume racing. Steve glanced back with pity in his eyes but the Davenport runner was closing on him so he couldn’t wait.
We both knew he had no choice.
I finally got to my feet but the Davenport Central runner had already passed, his gap on me increasing rapidly as I struggled to get air back into my lungs and my legs moving. Son of a bitch. I sprinted for all I was worth but it was too little, too late, crossing the finish line in third, castigating myself for the performance. Damnit! I bent over with hands on my knees, embarrassed by the result. It disgusted me to lose – no matter what the reason.
The words of my father echoed in my head. Excuses are for losers…you fucking loser.
Our frosh/soph team carried the first place trophy toward the bus in raucous celebration after the awards ceremony, enjoying the successful season like obnoxious teenagers are prone, thinking we were kings of the world. The varsity squad was fourth. I waited for everyone to board before I climbed the steps, flinging the third place medal as far into the bushes as I could, not bothering to look as the award landed on the ground.
The last thing I needed was dad to see the white ribbon and bronze medallion.
On the way home I nodded in response to Steve’s conversation but really didn’t listen. I wasn’t in the mood to pretend I was happy with the trophy. Thoughts of the upcoming encounter with dad at Donnelly’s ran through my head in a never-ending reel, worried he would ask me how I did today in front of his drunken friends.
I could only hope was that he was distracted when I asked for the weekly allowance, that he simply ignored me. Because dad used words like a knife when he was drunk, gladly butchering my ego with a sneer etched on his face, acting like it was the highlight of his day. I wasn’t in the mood for the shit, recalling past events.
The first time he hit me was the summer after fifth grade when I made an off-hand comment about him acting like a “real father,” the sudden slap stunning me, my cheek burning like it had landed on a hot griddle. After that incident I avoided being around him whenever possible, always cool to his presence when we were in the same room, trying not to be cowed by his threatening demeanor – even though I was scared shitless. He may have been bigger and stronger, but I was determined to prove to him that I was tougher.
Yet, after that scene his rage grew like a junkie’s habit, the abuse ratcheting up to a new level after I lost the quarter mile at the City Meet in sixth grade. All I mumbled was that I got second in the race when he asked how I did, my father immediately of his feet, advancing towards me with eyes full of fury.
“Why you little pussy. What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you a little girl?” The menace in his voice was so cutting it made my skin prickle. “Do you want me to put you in a dress?”
That day he grabbed me by my upper arm, his breath accosting my nose when he slapped my face, and then threw me backwards, my wrist snapping as I fell to the ground, the hand bent at an unnatural angle. I rolled into a fetal position on my side, rocking back and forth, wincing from the pain, the need to cry unstoppable.
He yelled at me in a menacing voice as I struggled to stand.
“Go to your room and cry like a little baby.”
I managed to stand and run out the back door with the red ribbon still in hand, clutching the broken wrist, my eyes blind to what was going on around me. Tears streaked down my face as I flew down one alley after another, not bothering to look left or right as I crossed streets, the cars honking doing nothing to alter my path. It was the first time I had to find my way to the hospital alone, somehow explaining to the doctor that I had fallen off my bike. I didn’t know if he believed me.
During my races, the shame of that moment drove me as savagely as a cattle prod, forcing me to block out all pain and every distraction. Challenged by any competitor, molten lava coursed through my veins, a reserve of fury always plentiful on a moment’s notice. That’s what made me such a natural for cross country. Any chance of failure only drove me to push harder, to endure more suffering, to stay in front of everyone, and never give up.
I must have been born with a gene for that toughness because I carried it everywhere. In grade school confrontations I charged headlong at any bully with little regard for their size or strength, swinging my arms like a machinegun, unwilling to quit punching even if bloodied and bruised. I repeatedly got to my feet, the fight only ending when the opponent was frustrated by my persistence and turned to walk away. No one ever fought me twice.
Unfortunately, I was the only one in the family who didn’t cave to dad’s abuse. The toughness which ran through my genes somehow avoided the others; mom always withdrawing and finding comfort in sleep when things got out of hand, Ashley seeking comfort in alcohol and marijuana with friends labeled as social outcasts. It was tragic that my oldest sister wasn’t born with the psyche to handle the abuse I took on, just as our mother didn’t have the trait.
Ashley had changed so much from the gangly sixth grade frame I fondly remembered when I was in seventh, her blossoming body attracting unwanted notice from pimply-faced boys the year she entered junior high. I couldn’t figure out if it was their snide remarks or some other factor that turned my fun-loving sister into someone I no longer recognized. Her transformation shocked me.
Ashley starting going on sleepovers without asking mom for permission, this past fall absences extended to greater lengths until it was as if she disappeared from our lives. Through the grapevine I heard she stayed at random places, drifting from one scene to the next like a vagabond, living her life as though she had no family.
Mom never mentioned Ashley when I was around, cutting the conversation short whenever her name was spoken. I couldn’t figure it out. Our father was an asshole, and mom didn’t seem to give a shit, but at least she had food and a roof over her head.
We hosted the Thanksgiving meal with dad’s brother Jack and my Aunt Jean coming down from Cedar Rapids, along with their six-year-old twins – Jill and Jane, my siblings dreading the event like the plague. Amazingly, Ashley showed up for the holiday meal, the first time our paths had crossed in weeks. I was so glad to see her.
We sat on my bed before the meal and talked about her situation, learning her current whereabouts, surprised to discover she was sleeping on the couch at Grandma Gaten’s apartment. I could tell there was something else she wanted to talk about, but she only sighed, saying she should help in the kitchen.
It was strange to see lamps on end tables and pictures on the walls in our normally spartan living room, mom in a dress and wearing lipstick, the little makeup she wore inadequately covering the dark shadows under her eyes. The dining room table looked out of place at the side of the room, brought up from the basement and assembled by me for this momentous holiday occasion. We all knew to be on our best behavior or there would be hell to pay.
While mom and my aunt completed the last minute preparations in the kitchen, I shuttled beers out to the brothers as they watched the football game from the living room couch, their voices growing louder with every can, the pair cheering for a Bears team that wasn’t going to beat the Lions today.
Finally, the food was ready and everyone sat, the feast prefaced by the brothers duet. “Over the lips and through the gums, look out stomach, here it comes.” They laughed and started eating, continuing to watch the game on the television across the room. Anyone who tried to say grace would have been belittled.
For the next ten minutes there was little conversation, only muffled requests of “pass me a roll” or “I need more gravy” breaking the silence. Mom shuttled back and forth to the kitchen to keep the brothers refreshed, more concerned about their supply of beer than of turkey or stuffing. The girls were quiet as they ate, afraid to say a word or be noticed. I could feel the discomfort around the table, all eyes staring at plates, any conversation in whispers. The feeding frenzy gradually slowed and dad turned to his brother, pointing at me after he took a big swig of beer.
“This little pussy got third at the conference cross country meet.” I could feel dad’s smirk without even looking up. “Can’t even beat a bunch of skinny turds.”
I buried my face in the potatoes while Jack laughed. The rest of the table was silent. He continued after he finished off the can of beer with a burp.
“You’re lucky you have two girls. It sucks to have a son so worthless at sports.”
Mom and Aunt Jean jumped up to serve pumpkin pie and then did the dishes while the girls played Chutes & Ladders on the floor in their bedroom. I laid on my bed and stared at the ceiling wondering how much more of this shit I could take. Why was I born into this loser family?
The bad karma the Wilson name possessed made it easy to rationalize my bad behavior – the shoplifting and general laziness in the classroom. They were a present to myself in compensation for the shitty life I was handed. I tried to take my mind off dad’s words, thinking of hot girls in my class, but my mind continually turned back on a life that sucked, one that was going nowhere…fast.
Restless from the oppressive worries I jumped up, skirting the brothers watching TV in the living room, ignoring mom and my aunt at the kitchen sink, heading down the basement stairs to change into running clothes.
Snow was drifting lazily from the sky as I stepped out the back door and jogged down the alleyway, heading over to Jefferson Street and towards the river, passing blocks of two-story homes and small bungalows, looking through front windows expecting to see the father slicing into a turkey, a mother dishing out slices of pumpkin pie, siblings holding the wishbone between thumbs, a grin on every face.
There was a mound of leaves covered in an inch of white at Swartz’s curb, the forlorn pile waiting for someone to put a match to them; against the side of Butler’s garage matching Sting-Ray bicycles, snow obscuring the banana seats and chrome fenders; up ahead a crow swooping down on a dead squirrel flattened in the middle of the street. It was quiet as I ran, most families still sitting around the table eating dessert or watching television, the homes looking so inviting.
I ran past the junior high school and then cut over to Market Street, my attention captured by an ambulance pulling into the emergency entrance at the hospital, men clad in white rushing to open the rear door as a gurney flew out from the building. Normally I loved to run alone, to let my mind wander, to think about life and escape reality, but today I couldn’t stop thinking about dad’s belittling words at the table.
Part of me thought he was right. I should have won the meet – despite the fall. I should have been so far ahead it wouldn’t have mattered. But I wasn’t working hard enough or training to my full capacity. Pushing myself as hard as I could. Or should. I had to invest more in this pursuit, more time into becoming a good runner. It was the only thing I was good at. Otherwise, my life was a waste.
Our freshmen group had the makings of a good team, far better than our varsity, and I had reason to believe we could be state contenders down the road if we all made the investment. Just with Steve and me there was enough talent – even with our lame varsity team. It was the only way I was going to get noticed, because there was no reason to think anything good would happen to me in this loser family.
I continued down the hill towards the Student Union, glancing at the greenish-black water as I crossed the river on the footbridge, snow and wind picking up as I stared at the flowing expanse. Streets were almost deserted on this holiday afternoon as I charged up another hill towards the City Park, turning left on Rocky Shore Drive into a blast of wet snow. This sucks. Tipping my head forward I continued past the large houses of bankers, lawyers, and professors, certain they were full of happy families.
Cars were more plentiful on the Coralville Strip as I trudged through the empty parking lots of Donutland, Hardees, and then Championship Trophies, a happy family of four coming out of the Heartland Inn as I dodged shallow puddles. I glanced at them enviously, wishing I was the fifth in their group. Looking awkwardly over my left shoulder, I waited for a break in traffic so I could run on the sidewalk of Mormon Trek Blvd and out of the slop. The holes in my Keds left my socks soaking wet, toes starting to throb from the cold.
I grinned. Tomorrow I had an interview at Howard Johnson’s restaurant for a bus boy position, my first venture into a real job. I desperately needed a new pair of running shoes and my own spending money. Steve Skogstad had been working there since last summer, bragging about all the items he was able to afford with the paycheck. That’s why he had spikes and I didn’t. I sighed.
Up the hill on Melrose Avenue which paralleled the golf course, I could hear the high-pitched squeals of kids in happy families flying down the hills on plastic disks, colorful winter jackets brightening the otherwise dull scene. Thoughts of dad’s words returned when I charged up the long hill, inspiring me to sprint up the slope. I ignored my fatigue, continuing at the torrid pace until my anger was displaced by heaving breathing.
Past the Hawkeye football stadium now cloaked in darkness, I gazed at the tennis courts looking so forlorn without the nets hanging from the posts. The scene reminded me of a bald man without his toupee. My wet feet were like two blocks of ice as I re-crossed the river and climbed up the long Burlington Street hill, thinking how cool it would be to own a pair of Adidas Olympiads. A real pair of shoes – just like the varsity runners wore. I turned left on Dodge Street only blocks from home, easing my tempo as I jogged down the alley. I glanced at the clock as I stepped into the warmth of the kitchen. Fifty-eight minutes.
Ashley was gone.