Fiction Workhorse Week Four 2450 Words

I was going to skip this week. When I sat at my notebook or turned the radio off in the car, nothing came. That isn’t true. I got stories. I met characters. But not for this space. Parameters can force a different creativity. I tell myself that. I mostly believe it. Here I have to come up with  pieces that play a few steps over the line, on the safe side, an editor watching my practice. I can live with that. This week was a challenge though.


The Fringe Presses In

Once a month, Dawn made a lasagna. Jack liked it and the kids ate it. Jack always remarked on that, the kids eating the lasagna. You should make it more often, he suggested. But if she made it more often, the kids would get tired of it. Also, it took a little time. It wasn’t a twenty-minute meal she could make after work. Instead, she made lasagna on a Saturday or Sunday, with fresh mozzarella from the morning’s trip to the grocery store. Today was Tuesday and she had shredded cheddar and Swiss. She’d called in sick and decided to make a lasagna to have something to do.

She sautéed a white onion and a few cloves of garlic. She opened a couple of cans of diced tomatoes and poured them in the pan. The inside of the cans smelled how her stomach felt. If she licked the lining of a can, Dawn knew she’d taste what she felt. For weeks a metallic tinge colored her bites and breaths.

This happened twice before. The first time the kids were just babies and she’d gotten a prescription for an antidepressant. The medication helped. She was terrified of being dependent on anything pharmaceutical so weaned herself after a year. By then, then Lauren and Caleb were sleeping through the night and she could too. She read about the brain. She exercised four times a week. When the metallic tinge returned, Dawn exercised five times a week, then six, then seven, giving her body over to a rotation of cardio and strength training. She lost twenty pounds. She sweated metal out.

That was four years ago. Her training remained fanatic. A gym friend suggested Dawn try a triathlon and she did. Then she bought the right gear. The garage was full of her stuff. One wall was tacked with pictures of trails cut into hillsides or winding through forests. She printed monthly training schedules. She entered lotteries for the more exclusive qualifying events, her aim to compete at Kona.

Look, she said to Jack when he’d yelled about the credit card bill. Look, it’s either sport or pills.

Pills are covered!

Well, this should be too. It’s keeping me happy.

And that’s what she told herself, that the fifteen mile rides, ten mile runs, hour long lap swims: they were keeping her alive. She believed it. So when the metallic tinge came back for a third time, Dawn broke her taper and ran. The marathon in May was only a kind of practice run for the Ironman in July. Skipping a taper would simulate complete exhaustion legs felt after a two point four mile swim and a one hundred twelve mile ride.

She knew she should stop when the tendons fanning over the top of her foot burned to the touch. Dawn pressed her thumb the length of each metatarsal. No pinpoint pain. She kept running.

When the kids were still small enough, she pushed them in the baby jogger. Lauren and Caleb babbled or talked or sang for the first mile or two and then lulled in toddler contemplation. Dawn pushed them in the baby jogger until they were four. They got heavy, the two of them together. She wanted them to hurry up and learn to ride a bike so she could take them to the track where they’d loop while she did intervals or sprints. By the time Dawn was getting into triathlons, the kids were in school and she was back to work full time. She woke while it was still dark, to train without abandoning Jack and the kids in the evenings.

Dawn licked the inside of the diced tomato can. It was close enough. The orange fringe she saw when she closed her eyes at night, like a mum. A mum that edged out everything else, all shades of orange. It wasn’t fire. It wasn’t hot. But it suffocated. She lay in bed tasting metal and pushing against the orange fringe, trying to paralyze herself with deep breathing and prayer. The fringe pressed itself closer closer. It was everything she didn’t want to think about on her miles past cow pastures and soy bean fields.

And for weeks now, this fringe had pressed in on her during the day. Just now, when she’d been slicing the white onion, Dawn had to stop for a minute, stare out the window at the still dead lawn. She’d had to put down the knife, let something else come into her mind. Not everything.

Her foot really hurt, just standing. Dawn decided to finish the lasagna and go for a run. She hurried through the layers and covered the dish with foil, made room in the fridge.

 

Dawn ran north, each step a sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. There was a corner she called hers. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up and seen that no one was around. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She’d hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or cut through the windbreak to stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. A gray knot in her stomach now and the orange fringe at her shoulder. She was five or so miles from home. She had limped most of the last mile here.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She run through pain before. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just under her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. Dawn hopped on the injured foot one more time, to be sure.

There was no service on her phone. She could make it back, she thought, if she went really really slow. Walking was as painful so she went for a limping jog up and down the ribbon of road, out to the wider highway where men driving pickups and large farm equipment raised their hands from the wheels. Dawn raised a hand in return. Her lips were a thin line.

Hold the stride. Keep pace. Land light. Land light. It didn’t matter. Dawn read about a woman competing in an Olympic marathon who broke her foot in the first third of the race, finished anyway. Keeping a pace at least twice as fast as Dawn was managing. She adopted the posture she’d seen other runners take in the last miles of a marathon, quit looking up, shuffling her steps. Two miles, she said aloud, when she only had that far to go. If she stopped, she’d lay down.

She was dizzy and thirsty. She got home an hour before Jack and the kids would come in the door. Faking it was impossible. In the shower she balanced on her good foot. She put on her bathrobe and made a sandwich in the kitchen. Now the pain was big enough to keep the fringe away. The pain was shaped like a spiral, rotating up her body from one tiny point, and continuing its twist over her head.

It was only a stress fracture. She was pretty sure. She pressed her thumbs the length of each metatarsal. Her second, a small bump already formed, the healing process started. She pressed until her vision went white. Six weeks rest, minimum. Swimming, the elliptical. Dawn thought she should have done this years ago, lay on the couch and prop her feet up, watch her pain change colors. If she moved, she’d throw up.

Jack and the kids came home.

You really weren’t feeling well, he said when she opened her eyes. She smiled. She said she was okay. Caleb noticed her foot first, swollen. He poked it.

What happened? Lauren asked.

I broke it. It’s a little broken.

How do you know? Caleb asked.

I can’t walk on it. There’s a bump. Here. Dawn took Caleb’s hand and pressed his fingers on the bump. Feel that? He nodded. It’s already healing, she said. Wow, he said.

Jack didn’t think it was wow. He wanted to know if she needed to go to the clinic. Dawn felt like she’d had a glass of wine. She smiled. No, no clinic. It’s fine. I’ll call in tomorrow too. That and the weekend, I’ll be able to walk by Monday.

You’re kidding, Jack said.

No. Monday. It’s only a tiny stress fracture. A stress reaction. The bones break a little and heal stronger.

Jack shook his head. You need to take a break, he said.

I am.

No marathon.

No marathon.

I mean it, Jack said, even if you think you can gut it out. You can’t do it.

I know, she said.. The pain shimmered a little.

 

They ate the lasagna. Lauren and Caleb like the cheddar and Swiss. Dawn read a stack of bedtime books, in no rush to add a last core workout to the day. She walked on her heel back to the living room where Jack had the tv on mute, two beers on the coffee table, a pile of math tests. She sat close to Jack, put her feet on the coffee table. They drank half a beer each before Jack asked if she’d made sub plans for tomorrow. She would, in a minute.

You don’t have to keep doing this to yourself, he said. He touched gently.

I’m so tired, she said. She didn’t say she was afraid. The initial spiral of pain had melted to a gray fog. Dawn couldn’t see the orange fringe from where she was, but she guessed it was near. She guessed it was waiting for the fog to drift. Right now, on the couch with a beer sweating in her hand, with her sad swollen foot propped on a pile of math tests, with her husband tracing circles on her thigh, the gray fog was thick enough to protect her from what the orange fringe had been pressing her to see: that she was failing at nearly everything. And now, she’d also failed at strength. Dawn breathed in the gray fog, burrowed into Jack’s shoulder. She need him to tell her it was okay, even if it wasn’t. Even when the fog lifted and her second metatarsal healed and she began running again, to her corner, where she’d invite the fringe to fight, where she’d scream at the sky and windbreak, throw clods of dirt from the field in the air, stand in dirt rain.

Dawn sat up, pulled away from Jack.

Hey, he said, What’s wrong?

Nothing. Nothing. Dawn got up and walked on her heel to the kitchen, opened the door to the garage. The cement floor was cold. She didn’t need her corner for this. She lowered herself carefully, on a yoga mat surrounded by weights. She sat with her legs stretched in front of her, like she might row away. The fog was gone. She was clear. She waited for the fringe. She wasn’t pushing back with another mile. Dawn sat and waited. Jack came to see. Dawn was still, speaking quietly.

I am not, she said. I am not.

I am, she said. I am.

She hit the floor with flat hands. She said more loudly, I am I am I am.

Jack took a step toward Dawn. She opened her eyes and looked at him. She said, I am okay. I am. He nodded. She said, Just like this, right? He nodded again. She said, I can’t keep trying harder. I’ve been trying harder for –

Jack reached her and knelt. He touched her swollen foot. He kissed her forehead. He pulled her to him. They sat on the cold floor like that, Jack playing with Dawn’s hair. Neither spoke. The fringe hovered near. It wouldn’t go. It would make Dawn look over edges, into dark holes. It would press her against walls and paralyze her in the open. She’d been wrong to think anything – tiny pills taken once a day, long runs, training – could kill the fringe. She prayed, pulled scraps of peace. The fringe was too patient.

I’m going to go to it, Dawn whispered.

What? Jack leaned back a little.

I’m tired. I’m just going to go through it this time. I need to know I can make it.

Jack didn’t really understand. He never had. Early in their marriage he’d come into their bedroom to find Dawn whispering prayers. She’d looked up at him, startled. I’m sorry, she said, I like to pray. It helps. Jack hadn’t known what to say. She tried a joke. If we were in Salem, I’d be tried for witchcraft, praying like it hurts.

She’d tried to explain the fringe then but he hadn’t understood. After the babies were born, he understood a little. When Dawn started running every day, he imagined she was running from the battle she’d been waging early in their marriage, when he’d found her praying and she’d made that awful joke. He imagined she was winning, even as he watched her limp or wince at a stretch. Her body got lean and hard, like an adolescent boy.

I can’t run it away this time, Dawn said. She looked at Jack. I need you, she said, It’s going to hurt. Already Dawn could see the knives. Jack nodded like he got it. She could see. She would flay herself on fear and doubt, pray like it hurt. Jack couldn’t know that yet. She looked at him like she’d looked at the babies, tenderly, with more love than she’d had a minute earlier. He helped her up. She couldn’t run this time. A heavy peace landed.

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