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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 7

The last track meet of the season for freshmen was Friday afternoon on May 5th – the Frosh/Soph Mississippi Valley Championships at Kingston Stadium in Cedar Rapids. I warmed up by myself in the adjoining neighborhoods around the park, temperatures on the unusually hot day still hovering around eighty degrees as I did the ten minute run. There wouldn’t be any competition at this level but I treated it seriously, wondering if I might run faster than the winning varsity time tomorrow.

That evening I easily won the 2-mile, pulling away from the Washington HS runners with half the race remaining, winning the race by twenty seconds. The 9:54.2 was my first conference title and a new personal best. Even though it was the #2 mark on the conference list, I still had to wait for the varsity competition tomorrow to see if it would remain there. The hope gave me goosebumps.

In the last Frosh/Soph event of Friday evening, Steve and I ran the 3rd and 4th legs on the mile relay, Steve taking us from fifth to second, as I waited in the exchange zone beside the conference 440 champion, watching nervously as he got the baton fifteen yards in front of me and sped away. Initially, the gap opened to twenty-five yards, but I persisted and caught the J-Hawk ten feet before the line, my heart soaring as I grabbed the victory. Cool.

The ten points gave our Frosh/Soph team the first Mississippi Valley title at East High.

The bus was wild all the way home, twenty-four pre-pubescent voices making far too much noise as we passed the trophy from seat to seat and sang “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” I would have chosen a different song but was so happy, I really didn’t care.

It was dark when I woke. I couldn’t have guessed what time it was. Someone was tapping on my bedroom window with a knuckle. I looked at the clock. 11:52pm. Pulling the curtain aside the outline of her face was illuminated by a streetlight in the alley. It was Ashley. I hadn’t seen her since she had to leave grandma’s apartment.

“What are you doing? Why are you here?” She put an index finger to her lips. Her voice was hard to hear over the rotating fan.

“I need $10…I’m taking the bus to Des Moines.”


“It’s a long story, but I gotta go. I gotta leave town.” Tears ran down her cheeks. I checked my wallet. Only seven dollars. Shit. I held the three bills up.

“Please, I’m begging you. Please.”

I sighed. We both knew what she was asking. And I would be the one to suffer the consequences.

“Yeah, OK. Wait here.”

I crept down the hallway and into the living room, the snores loud and steady as I paused five feet away. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled as a car without a muffler sped down the quiet street. Dad shuffled on the couch and then the snores resumed. I took a deep breath and grabbed his painter pants off the floor, stepping back while I pulled out the wallet. Grabbing a ten dollar bill I stuck it in the waistband of my pajamas and began to put the billfold back but thought better and took the last $5 bill. Backing away I turned towards the kitchen and grabbed a hidden package of Pop-Tarts from a top cupboard shelf and an apple from the refrigerator drawer.

Alice was at my window when I returned, talking softly with Ashley. She could still fit through our secret door. I wanted to give Ashley a hug or a kiss on the head, but it was too awkward. I unlatched the hook and tipped the bottom of the screened window out, handing her the $22.

“Good luck. Call me when you get settled.” She nodded and kissed Alice on the cheek.

“See you.” We waved until she was out of site. It was sad to watch. I wondered if I would ever see her again. Alice slept beside me that night.

I mowed our yard after breakfast on Saturday and then did Mr. Johnson’s, glad to be through with the tiresome task. Alice was sitting at the kitchen table reading cartoons in the back of the newspaper.

“Remember, we can’t tell dad about last night. It’s our secret.” She nodded.

“Oh.” I had almost forgotten. I smiled. “I think someone has a birthday next Saturday, but I can’t remember who.”

ME! I’m going to be eleven.” Alice grinned.

“And what would an eleven-year-old want for her birthday?

I listened for the next ten minutes then headed out the backdoor towards Kresge’s, wearing the bulky East High sweatshirt. The $7 in my wallet that I had planned to spend on her presents was gone. Forty-five minutes later I walked down the alley and into the garage, putting the Silly Putty, Etch A Sketch, and Nerf ball in a paper bag, hiding it underneath the workbench.

The phone rang as I opened the back door. I expected it was Ashley calling from Des Moines.

“You won’t believe it.” Steve paused. “Coach Raffensperger just called and said he’s going to run both of us at the Cedar Rapids Sectional meet next week. That you have the third fastest 2-mile and I have fourth fastest mile.” I was shocked. “You must have been gone when he called.”

“No way.”

“Yep. He wants us to train another week. I’m stoked. Let’s meet tomorrow for a run.” In the background I could hear dad’s Impala pulling onto the cement outside the garage. I leaned sideways and could see him hustling towards the house. Shit.

“OK, 9am.” I talked quickly. “Gotta go.”

He nearly pulled the screen door off the hinges, grabbing my sweatshirt in both hands and shoving me as hard as he could. I stumbled backwards, my head and shoulders slamming into a lower cabinet door snapping the thin veneer in two. The impact rattled my brain…though it still worked well enough to know what was next. I had seen what happened to mom when she was on the floor. He always attacked.

“You little prick. I know you stole my money. That bitch is too chicken. You’re going to pay for it.”

He lunged forward and started kicking me in the stomach and ribs, the power of each blow staggering, his boots slamming against me like a sledgehammer. I lost track after four. When he leaned over and rested hands on the countertop for leverage I knew that he was getting tired. The time between each blow was slower but more deliberate, saliva spraying from his mouth as he continued to scream words I didn’t hear. One last kick and his rage abated. I glared up at him one last time. After that all I heard was heavy breathing and mumbles which didn’t register.

The screen door slammed and it was quiet.

I must have passed out, Alice’s small hand on my forehead made me jerk as though I was jolted by electricity, pain screaming through my ribs as I tried to roll on my side. There was no question some were broken. Alice started crying.

“Don’t worry Alice.” I squeezed eyes closed and groaned. “Ohhh. It’s okay…I’ll be fine.” I felt like a turtle trapped on his back. Every attempt to get on my side was met with waves of pain, bile rising in my throat. I knew ribs were broken on my left side, each breath like someone was poking me with a hot potato masher.

“Can you help me get to my feet?” She nodded, tears creeping from her eyes. “Grab my hand and pull me on my good side.” I had to clench my teeth so I wouldn’t scream when she pulled. My breaths came out in short bursts, my forehead breaking out in sweat. I waited until the pain subsided and smiled through a grimace.

“Good. You did good.”

I foolishly took a deep breath, the cracked ribs so sore I nearly fainted. Panting like a tired dog I searched my brain for courage, cobbling together small bits so I could psyche myself for the next move.

“OK, this time I want you to grab my back belt loop and help me get to my hands and knees.” She started sobbing. “Alice, I need your help. You gotta do this.” My pleas encouraged her. She nodded, tears running down her cheeks. “One – two – three – PULL.” I held a shallow breath to steel my body but couldn’t stop the scream; pain from the back of my head and ribs exploding in synchronicity. I waited until it abated.

“Good. That was great. OK, once more. Help me get to my feet. Pull up on my belt loop again.” I could hear her sobbing. The next one was going to feel like stepping into a Fergie Jenkins fastball. “One – two – three – PULL.”

A guttural scream burst from my throat as I laid on the countertop, staying still for ten seconds until the nausea passed. Sweat rolled off my temples and puddled at the edge of the sink. The pain felt like the finale of the 4th of July fireworks – bursts of colors dancing across my vision, explosions in the ribs so intense I nearly collapsed.

“You did good Alice. Real good.” I forced a smile. “You did such a good job. Now, grab a chair so you can get the bag of peas and the trays of ice out of the freezer.” Steady trickles of sweat slid off my forehead like I was sitting in a sauna. She slid the chair over, reached in, and set them on the counter.

“OK, get the loaf of bread from the cupboard and take out each slice. I’m going to put the ice in there.” One by one she pulled out three slices. My ribs hurt so bad I wanted to scream. With my head over the sink, I turned on the water and slurped a mouthful from the faucet, then ran water over the tray to knock the cubes out. “Help me put them in the bread bag.”

She let me lean on her as we walked to my bedroom carrying the two frozen bags, taking off my shoes when I plopped on the bed amidst loud groans, relying on Alice to lift my legs when I grimaced trying to do it on my own. The pain was overwhelming, making me want to scream. Even the smallest movement produced waves of nausea each time, the bitter taste of bile rising in my throat like water in a clogged toilet. She wedged the bag of peas behind my head, the bread bag full of ice beneath my sweatshirt on my broken ribs. I winced at the cold.

Alice sat beside me on the chair, reading until I fell asleep.

When I woke to the afternoon shadows my nausea was finally gone, the rest doing wonders. But I couldn’t move without my ribs exploding in pain. Alice laid the book on my desk and smiled from the chair beside me. I had her pull me to a sitting position and slide my legs to the side so I could get up. Even the slightest movement sent a jolt of electricity through my body. She got me to my feet and helped me towards the bathroom to take a leak, the toilet bowl tinted with red when I flushed.

Sunday morning, I shuffled into the kitchen with a hand on Alice’s shoulder, moving like I was walking across broken glass. She must have been with me all night. The bump on the back of my head didn’t throb as much but it was the size of a golf ball, my ribs feeling like they were squeezed in a blood pressure cuff. At least I was hungry. That was probably a good sign.

Mom looked up with a gaze that was a cross between shock and shame as Alice helped me to sit on a kitchen chair. I seem to remember her saying she had gone to the bank yesterday. She probably wasn’t here when he kicked me but could guess what had happened. Grabbing a pan from the cupboard she scrambled eggs for us with bits of baloney and Velveeta as tears rolled from her eyes, the hand-dog look serving as an apology.

While we ate I told her about Ashley’s visit Friday night and the plan to go to Des Moines to stay with her friend Shelly. Mom’s head dropped and she stared at the table with hands cupped over her temples, her shoulders shaking in a steady rhythm as tears dropped in puddles on the oilcloth. Her face was blank as she pulled Alice into her lap and held her tight. I was too sore to comfort mom.

After we finished eating I asked Alice to dial Skogstad’s number. She looked at me quizzically but realized it hurt to raise my arms. I told Steve I was too sick to run, begging him to take my afternoon shift at Howard Johnson’s, with the promise I would take one for him down the road. It didn’t bother me to lie in front of mom and Alice. We were all adept at it.

Monday for lunch mom made soup and a sandwich, helping me sit up on the edge of the bed, setting the tray on my lap so I wouldn’t have to walk to the kitchen. She sighed sadly and forced a smile before returning to vacuum the living room. When she came in to pick up the dishes mom smiled, leaving me a package of Hostess Cupcakes and a glass of milk. My favorite treat. She did the same on Tuesday.

On Wednesday she sat on the chair at my desk and talked while I ate.

“We didn’t have sports for girls when I was in high school. Just cheerleading.” It was the first time I heard her talk about those years. “I’m glad you’re out for running. It’s good to be in sports. I’ve often wondered if I could have been an athlete.” It was weird to hear her talk so much. She paused and stared at the floor with a smile on her face. “I used to date a guy who played football at East High.”

She blushed, embarrassed by her admission, nervous that I would find a way to belittle her for speaking so openly. I nodded to encourage her as she glanced over to meet my eyes, a small smile on her face. She grabbed my hand and continued.

“I had a good time in high school and I hope you do too.” She smiled at me with her eyes so I jumped in to reciprocate the good will.

“I set the school record in the two-mile at the conference meet last weekend.” It was funny to feel so happy about carrying on a regular conversation with her. “And I’m only three seconds away in the mile.” Mom beamed. It made me proud so I talked about my dream. “I think I can be a good runner.”

“Wally, you’ve done a good job so far and there’s no reason to think you won’t continue.” I’d forgotten that was the nickname she used to call me. She took a deep breath and smiled into my eyes. “One day you will be State Champion.” She nodded, standing to grab the tray. “Now get some rest. I have to stop by the bank this afternoon and then drop by Ashley’s school, so you’re on your own.”

The rest of the week I stayed in bed recovering, listening to music, and cursing my misfortune, knowing there was no way I would be healthy enough to run in the Sectional meet. Each morning I looked in the mirror after my shower, turning sideways to watch the mottled bruises turn from purple to blue, and finally to yellow. At least there wasn’t blood in my urine anymore.

I ate supper each day before dad got home so I could avoid the encounter, sharing my Twinkie with Alice when she dropped by my room after doing dishes. It was fun to talk with her when I was so bored. And it helped me overcome the sadness of missing the sectional race in the two mile.

By Friday, the ribs felt better and I could sit up without much pain. Mom didn’t need to help me as much and I could almost walk normally, so we sat at the kitchen table for lunch. It was the highlight of my day, listening to her stories from years ago.

Saturday I took Steve’s afternoon shift at HoJo’s while he was the sectional meet, the left side of my body mostly useless whenever I tried to lift the tray of dishes. Even with three aspirin.

Mom and I celebrated Alice’s birthday the next day with a cake frosted in pink icing, an almost new blouse and plaid skirt wrapped in pink paper covered with Snow White and Cinderella. My Etch-A-Sketch, Silly Putty, and Nerf ball were inside a brown paper sack sealed with a Christmas bow.

It was the best I could do.

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