Running Mule Hollow, fiction by Murray Dunlap

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.”

Good.”

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.”

Crazy.”

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.

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