The roads in Mule Hollow are long and wide, unfrequented by cars, and in summer months, make for the perfect place to run. The sides of the road are flat, and a beaten path threading through wild flowers give safe asylum from the occasional logging truck. Beyond the path, cabins and deer-filled valleys spread out like knit blankets, and beyond that, the sharp-crested mountains hold on greedily to the last patches of winter snow. The mountains are big enough that no matter how fast or how far you run, the view never changes. Even when I run a twenty mile loop, circumnavigating Mule Hollow entirely, the mountains stare down on me, unimpressed and unmoved.
The town itself is small, about twenty thousand people, and the center of town, which I never run through, is only a few blocks of simple stores, a gas station and obligatory car wash, a grocery and pizza parlor. Most of the town works for the logging company, the ski resort, or during some hard winters, some commute fifty miles south to San Pieta for employment. On the west side of town, there is an alternative living community called Blessed Fields. The members have given up all personal possessions and any desire for personal gain, all for the sake of harmonious communal living. In order to survive, Blessed Fields became self-sufficient. They grow their own food, stitch their own clothing, and run an herbal remedy shop in town. It is common knowledge that Blessed Fields members support the medicinal use of marijuana, and that they sell it covertly under the counter at their shop. No one in town cares enough to put up a fight and quite a few locals buy more than Ginseng when they visit. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of any of our young inhabitants who didn’t take advantage of the Blessed System, aside from me, as weed makes me nauseated.
Katie told me that when her father died, she had taken all of the photo’s she could find of him and made a number of small collages. Then she had put each collage in a separate section of a wooden folding screen. This way, she said, she could look at her father in different lights, on different days, with different expressions, as if he were still around. Katie said that she had bought the screen with six places for photographs because that was as close as she could find to seven days a week, and thus, she could wake up and say hello to a new side of him every morning. When I asked about the seventh day, she said that on Sundays we slept late with hangovers, and she would rather not see him like that anyway.
I usually run in the late afternoons. I’m stiff and groggy with thick legs in the morning, and I’ve sworn off the noon-day sun, so when I finish work at 4:30 or 5:00, -as a sculptor, this varies daily- I lace up my Asics and stretch my legs across the long country roads of Mule Hollow. I try to run different routes day to day; from the sandy shouldered east side roads along the graveyard, to the pine and patchouli scented gravel west of town. Some days I run for six miles, some days ten, and some days twenty. I never know, or care, how far or how long I’m going to run. I don’t wear a watch and I don’t drive my route. Instead, I double knot my shoes, sunscreen my nose, and often carry music. But I do not enter races and I never keep track of time. Running is the only place where I am free from stress and pressure and from all the noise in my head.
Katie also tells me that while she misses her father badly, that there is a certain purity in the way things are now. She knows that he is not suffering, that he is free of need, and she knows that they will never fight again. She tells me that she talked with her father before he died and they had put all of their differences aside, which I guess means that they had put me aside, but I don’t say that. She also says that she wishes I could do the same with my father. Katie pulls her soft, mocha hair back and tells me she is ok with her father’s death. But I know Katie is a runner too. So when I see her coming up strong on the opposite side of the road with her brow crunched up and her hair black with sweat, and notice that she isn’t wearing a watch either, I know that exercise is the furthest thing from her mind.
I have epiphanies when I run. Seriously. Sometimes I have small, unimportant epiphanies, like when I realized that the expression for all intents and purposes, was not, in fact, for all intensive purposes as I had thought for most of my life. But there are times when I have the real thing. Life changing realizations that come to me in an anaerobic flash. Once during a fifteen miler, I stopped running entirely, put my hand to my head, and coughed and wheezed as I realized my father had cheated on my mother with my 3rd grade baby-sitter. It wasn’t that I had come across any new evidence; I had not spoken to anyone new or found anything, it was just that I had looked closely at a ten year old’s memory with a thirty year old mind. Then there was the time that I realized my then-girlfriend was bulimic. The odd amount of time spent in the bathroom, the constant talk of caloric intake, fat grams, and metabolic process… Running along the Blessed Fields vegetable garden, it hit me like an aneurysm.
And so I run Mule Hollow. In a clouded daze of memories and realizations. Like we all have –I suppose, but mine occur on the run. And it turns out, I run around Mule Hollow, keeping the town just inside my path, but tussling the mountains to the outer edge. And it may seem senseless, but I am most at peace when I am out of oxygen and circling our tiny mountain town in a forward lean. It is that hour or two that I sort through the logistics of sculptures I am working on, or invent new ones. And in that same time, I recommit myself to art. The art of art. And my movements to stay clear of any 9 – 5.
And that brings us to the real story I hope to tell you here. That of Mule Hollow, the town I call home, and that of Katie, who’s love I crave with a cocaine-like addiction. Katie teaches at the only elementary school in the Hollow, and that includes the gifted children. Once, Katie explained to me that smart kids are smart, but gifted kids have a way of thinking that is just plain different. Katie was a gifted child and her insights here amaze me.
As for my father, he died last summer. Katie begs me to make amends, even now. She says to write a letter, drive it to his grave, leave it with the birds. She says the mental act of writing followed by the physical trouble of the road-trip and the psychological symbolism of leaving it at his grave will do enough. So I have packed our hybrid and am ready. I’ve asked Katie to join me, and she has agreed on the condition that we not make it a vacation of any sort.
So we pack up, and are off. The drive to Montrose isn’t bad. Just a long straight shot. Ten hours long. And why we can’t fly is not clear, except that Katie says I have to endure a struggle. And struggle, I do. In mid-build of a sculpture that seems Calder-like, and almost whimsical, I force myself to freeze the genesis of it and strive to make Katie happy. Like I said, Katie’s love is my cocaine, and most all of my movements circumscribe to her happiness. I remind myself of this after 5 hours driving on the road in a hybrid car that only seems happy at 60 miles an hour. Now, entirely worth it for the MPG’s, but plain silly on the highway. Maybe I just got a lemon?
As the highway scrolls by, we discuss an incident at school.
“You know, I had a gifted child yesterday who has William’s syndrome , you know, I told you she is not able to distrust… Anyway, she told me that the clean-up man asked to see if she would lift up her shirt. So she did of course, but can you imagine? An eight year old with no breasts whatsoever, and this jerk does that? I can’t get over this and where it could have gone.”
“Holy smokes,” I say. “Really?”
“Really. I told our principal and she fired him. No discussion.”
“I hope this child learns.” Katie says as she leans back to stretch.
“Me too. It has to be the strangest way to grow up.” I drive on in sincere disbelief.
“The odd thing is, there is really nothing anyone can do.”
“So you and your father,” Katie begins. “I’m thinking you can let go after you leave him that letter.”
“I pray,” I say as I pat my chest pocket where the letter sits.
“Just be sure to acknowledge what you are doing as true communication with him.”
“I’ll try. But I’m not sure I know how to speak to the dead.”
“Just know that he knows. That is all.” Katie stretches and looks out her window as the Bay comes into sight.
“We must be close,” Katie yawns out.
“Yes, just ten more minutes.”
We do reach Montrose after a painfully long conversation about how my father still holds power over me, if I let him. Ten minutes never took so long. But we coast in and I show Katie the main drag, and where my Dad lived growing up. Then we stop at Wintzell’s Oyster House for a bite before going to the graveyard.
“Fried oysters, huh?” Katie seems confused.
“See the sign? ‘Fried, Stewed, or Nude…’” I point to a drawing my high school science teacher made on the wall.
“Ugh.” Katie hasn’t learned to love the south. “So so, Ben. This place gives me the creeps.”
“Creeps or not, the food is terrific!” I state with confidence. Although, I wish Katie had ordered seafood, not the spaghetti. I didn’t even know they had that here.
We finish, and as it turns out, the spaghetti was great. As always, my oysters were excellent, and I am very relieved that our start to the graveyard trip will begin right. With full bellies and tired eyes, we plod on to the graveyard. Now fully night.
“Can’t we wait until morning?” I ask.
“No, it will be better that you have struggled through the entire day. This makes it work better. You have to believe that you have earned this.”
“Hmmm. A ten hour drive, an odd conversation about a pervert, a great meal, and this is supposed to help?” I scratch my head conspicuously.
“None of those specifics matter. It is that you struggled to get here. And that you can leave your father in peace. You will sleep well tonight.”
“I hope you are right, my dear. But if those oysters give me gas, you won’t.” I smile wide.
“Oysters or none, you’ll sleep hard.” Katie squeezes my hand. “Come on, Ben.”
We make the graveyard in moonlight. I take the letter from my chest pocket. We walk in silence to my father’s grave. I open the letter, unfold the sheet of paper, and lie it on top of the tombstone. A gust of wind catches it, and the letter floats over to the next grave, Crawford Filbone.
“Crawford here might not like what I have to say.”
“Hmmm. Just lie it on the soil of your father’s, don’t balance it on top of the tombstone.”
“OK.” I unfold the paper again, and lay it on the soil. I use a stone to hold it in place. “How is this?”
“Perfect. Now say whatever is on your mind to him. I’ll be over by the car.” Katie walks slowly away.
“So Dad. Hiya there. Comfy? I don’t what in the hell I’m doing, but if it makes Katie there happy, I’ll do it.” I look to Katie now at car-side and smile. “You have to let go of me Dad. At least, I’m hoping that’s what you’ll do. It’s been a year now. I miss you Dad. I miss your laugh. I miss having those dinners.” I look over the grave searching for something to talk about. “This is horseshit, Dad. Absolute horseshit.” I cross my arms and hope for a breeze. “OK buddy. Hope that did the trick. Or at least convince Katie.”
I uncross my arms and walk to the car.
“How did it feel?” Katie asks.
I consider my answer and the night ahead, “Peaceful. It was very peaceful.”
“Oh good,” Katie says. “I’m so happy to hear you say that.”
“I felt closure.” I say. “ Closure.”
“Well, hmmm, I’m not sure it works like that. But if you feel good, I’m happy.”
“I thought closure is what we were after?” I ask.
“Well, closure would be something you felt in a few days or weeks, or months or years… Not right now. You are not fifty feet from his grave. You have to let this happen. You can’t force it.”
“Oh. Ok. Then I feel however a guy should feel fifty feet from his father’s grave.”
“You are not taking this seriously, Ben.” Katie folds her arms and sighs.
I raise my eyebrows, “What do you want to see?”
“I want you to FEEL this. No eyebrow raising allowed.” Katie replies.
“I’m full and tired and would like to find a hotel to lie down,” I say.
“I hope you’ve seen enough to heal, Ben.” Katie says.
“Point anywhere, and I will stare. I don’t know what I am supposed to do?”
“OK, to the hotel.” Katie raises her palms and turns to face the car.
We sleep fitfully and rise early, returning to the highway. We talk little. Mid-afternoon, and we are already crossing into Mule Hollow.
“Learn anything?” Katie asks as I pull into our driveway.
“I learned not to be honest when you try to mess with my head. I learned to be as vague as possible so that we can remain at peace. I learned a ten hour car ride is miserable in our hybrid.”
“Really? That’s all you can say?” Katie asks without waiting for an answer. She goes inside and shuts the door.
I unpack, stretch, and put on Asics. I’m out the door and running just as the sun dips beneath the mountains. Katie has done the same. We leave headed in opposite directions, which means we will cross paths in about six miles. As predicted, after six miles, I see Katie’s mocha ponytail and furrowed brow. Per her usual, she has no watch, and is so deep in this hypnotic ritual, barely realizes who I am.
“Katie, stop for a second. I’m sorry about how things went. I just wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or how to feel.”
“I know Ben, I guess I just hoped it might come to you. I’m not really sure what I expected either.” Katie bends down to stretch her hamstrings.
I chuckle and it hits me. “You know Katie… You know what I have realized? I have the same laugh as my father. And I miss his laugh, but I guess if I have his laugh, then I act as the second coming of him. Or something like that.”
“Woah, Ben.” Katie stands straight and smiles. “It has worked! You get it! My god am I happy to hear you say this!”
“Really? Because we have the same laugh?” I silently realize that the whimsy of my new sculpture will benefit from all of this, after all.
“No, not that. It is that you realize you miss the man who made you, and know where you come from! I’m VERY happy we went! At last!” Katie gives me a high five that I am not sure how to react to. But, in the end, Katie is happy, and that is all that matters. And as a bonus, I have sudden motivation to finish new work.
We turn and begin our jog home, but this time, we run side by side. I ask Katie if she expects the scene at school tomorrow to revolve around the incident. She says yes, and looks over to me.
“He was fired and that ends it,” Katie reties her ponytail. “But I know everyone will have gossip.”
“I’m just glad no one was hurt,” I say.
“The thing is, I saw the whole thing. I turned him in. If I had not of seen it, he would not be fired. And I know he hates me for it. I’m nervous he’ll come back for revenge.”
“Shit. I didn’t think of that. Maybe you should stay home for a few days. Let this all blow over?” I scratch my head.
“No,” Katie replies. “I need to go back and stand my ground. I know the principal will call in more security. There will always be people around.”
“Good. I don’t want you alone.”
“Me either. But I know I won’t be. And now that you are at peace, I can see you’ll be home sculpting in vigor.”
“Yes, thank you for giving this to me.” I lengthen my stride and Katie stays with me, chugging our route as the sunlight flits about the mountain line.
“No, you gave it to yourself. I just had to nudge you in the right direction.”
“Thank you just the same,” I say.
“Ok, catch me if you can.” With that Katie speeds up into a near sprint and leaves me wondering if I can, in fact, catch her. Running full speed, I stare at Katie and grin, letting my father’s laugh come right out.
“I got her Dad,” I say. “I got her.”
Murray Dunlap's work has appeared in about forty magazines and journals. His stories have been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well as to Best New American Voices, and his first book, Alabama, was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. He has just published a collection of stories called Bastard Blue. The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing.