No sooner did my head hit the pillow and I felt myself slip off to sleep again, than it seemed like the alarm clock started to ring. I quickly reached out and slammed down the snooze bar with the palm of my right hand, immediately silencing that obnoxious racket.
I cast an anxious glance over my shoulder. The long, black lump, next to me, that was my wife, stirred sluggishly and moaned softly under her breath. But she soon settled back down into a deep, sound sleep.
I snuck out of the bedroom on the tips of my toes. My blue duffel bag still sat under the high archway, between the living room and the narrow hallway which led downstairs. My heart pounded and my body felt hot, as if I had a fever. I dug out my faded green shorts from high school, which still fit me like a glove, and white T-shirt, and a pair of high, white socks, and my sneakers, and put them all on.
On my way out, I stuck my head inside the baby's room. Little Timmy was sleeping peacefully. The sight of his fuzzy, little body coiled into a loose ball beneath his blue blanket made me smile with wonder and delight.
I made my way downstairs, attempting as always to avoid the creaky, squeaky spots.
The moment I grabbed the tarnished, brass knob, I heard not one, but two, newspapers slap against the outside of the door. Our paper guy, who was somewhere in his early thirties, had a really good throwing arm. I placed one of the papers on the bottom step, so that Kat would be sure to find it when she came down looking for it.
The second paper, I carried around the staircase and propped it against the closed door, at the end of the hall. That paper belonged to Mrs. Yarger, our land lady. Mrs. Yarger was sixty-nine years old. She'd spent a good portion of her life teaching biology at the high school, in nearby Lazarus. Kat and I had both been students of hers. Her husband had died over twenty years ago; they'd had no children. She seemed perfectly content to live all alone on the first floor of her home and rent the second floor ot us at a very reasonable rate.
I hopped off the porch and onto the sidewalk. There was a slight chill in the air. It felt good. I jogged in place for about ten seconds or so. Then I started off at a slow, easy trot up the street.
At this early hour, the old wood, brick, and stone houses, on both sides of Main Street, seemed to crowd together and rise up, like a pair of jagged, black cliffs, on either side of a wide, flowing river.
I didn't like getting up early in the morning, when the rest of the world was still asleep, to go running. And I didn't like spending hours training in a dirty, smelly, old gym, under the all-seeing eyes of my old man. But I understood the necessity and value of doing them both, and after the last seven years, they'd both become things I did without thinking much about them, like part of a rigid daily regimen, which in a way, I guessed they were. Right now, I liked being all alone in the big, dark, silent world. I could turn off my mind and not think about Kat or little Timmy, or the nasty, little argument Kat and I had had, just several hours ago. I could just let my body do what it needed to do, letting it surge irresistibly, inch by inch, foot by foot, up the street, my arms pumping like pistons at my sides. There was no sound, except the small sounds of my sneakered feet slapping softly against the gritty, grey cement of the sidewalk.
I passed the Four Paws Doggy Grooming Salon, on my right, dark and silent as a tomb, and next to it, Dave's Doughnut Shoppe.
A little further up the street, at the corner, I passed the two-storied, stone house, which had once belonged to Doctor Rivers and his wife. Doctor Rivers had practiced medicine on the first floor, back when I was a kid, and he and his wife had lived on the second floor. Doc and his wife Beulah had passed away ten years ago, Their only child, a son, who'd grown up to be an incurable drunk, had sold the building and his father's practice to three new doctors, all female.
At the next corner, I came to the Laundromat. Just around the corner, an ancient sycamore tree grew out of the broken sidewalk.
On the other side of the narrow, gravel alley, big and barn-like, stood Hennessey's Pub. A bloodless neon Miller's sign hung slightly askew in one of the black windows facing Main Street.
From there, I was a long, open, easy sprint to the next corner, where Pipeline Road intersected Main Street, and Montoning's one-and-only traffic light, which at this hour, seemed permanently stuck on yellow.
On the other side of Main Street, on the corner, stood Stanley's Food & Fuel. The little building had originally been part of a Texaco station. Stanley Hellerman still sold gas there, as the two lone pumps in the tiny parking lot attested. He also sold coffee and soda, and cigarettes and candy, and diapers, and a ton of other small stuff, as well.
The lights over the pumps were still turned off. But a golden, yellow light glowed brightly in one of the large windows, next to the glass doors.
Outside the store, a tall, willowy silhouette stooped and lifted a metal rack from the stack on the cement stoop. Brandi McCord was taking care of the little store's daily bread delivery. I grinned at the sight of her. Brandi was eighteen and a real hottie, with a luxurious mane of brownish-blonde hair and the shapeliest set of gams I'd ever seen on a woman---my wife included. It was a pity she hardly had any breasts to speak of. Like Colonel Sanders, I've always been a breast man.
Brandi was set to attend an all-girl's college, in Chambersburg, in the fall. I knew this, because I'd stopped in one morning when she first started working for Stanley and chatted her up. At the time, she'd seemed very friendly and awfully interested in me. I'd felt the same way about her. The fact that I was wearing a plain, gold band---one of the few times I'd forgotten to take the damn thing off and stuff it in my pocket---hadn't bothered her one bit.
For just one second, I could've sworn I saw Brandi lift her head and glance in my direction, as I jogged by on the other side of the silent street. But if she did, she gave me no word or sign.
Suddenly, I felt very lonely. And vulnerable...
I crossed Pipeline Road and continued my slow, steady ascent of Main Street. I passed the old elementary school, which was now a recreational center, and the old Baptist church, which some enterprizing entrepeneur had transormed into an apartment building, with a little dentist office tacked to the rear of the building.
Glancing to my left, I saw a door open and a woman in curlers and a bathrobe lean out of a bright square of light and bend to grab her morning paper. The door closed and the woman and the light disappeared, again.
Somewhere, a dog barked. A lone car streamed down the hill.
Finally, I reached the Baptist cemetery, at the top of the hill. The little patch of ground looked barren and desolate in the thin, grey light of dawn. The stars had disappeared and the moon looked pale and flat as an old paper plate in the sky.
I stood there, with my hands on my hips and the sweat pouring off me in buckets, huffing and puffing through my open mouth, while I waited for my heart to stop pounding and my chest to stop heaving. I felt hot and flushed and the inside of my mouth was dry and parched as the Sahara at midday. At that moment, I wanted a cold drink of water more than anything else in the world.
My ham strings quivered like a pair of taut violin strings. I did a few stretches to try and ease the tension there.
Then I saw Mike Sobinski jogging toward me at a slow, steady pace, and I almost had a heart attack. My eyes bulged in their sockets and my jaw fell all the way down like a sprung trap, as I stood there and stared at him in shock and disbelief.
He smiled as he drew near, displaying of mouthful of dazzling, white teeth. "Hey, there, ya little punk," he sneered at me. I felt a cold shiver of fear slither like a slimey snake down my sweaty spine, and that made me mad.
Mike stopped jogging and started bouncing up and down on the toes of his Reboks, his arms pumping like pistons at his sides. "You must think you're pretty good," he said, "after beating me the way you did last night. But we'll see what happens the next time I get you in the ring. I'm turning pro today!"
He went huffing and puffing on up the hill. It took me another second or two, before I continued my ascent. I slowed to a walk when I reached the sidewalk in front of Stanley's Food & Fuel.
Brandi McCord lounged behind the counter, with her arms crossed and her narrow back resting the hard edge of the cash register. She turned her head the moment I came through the door. Her blue eyes lit up and her lush lips stretched wide in a dazzling, provocative smile. She looked happy to see me.
"Hi!" she said, in a soft, sweet, sultry, caressing whisper.
"Hey." I grinned back at her, as I sauntered up to the counter. "Listen. Would it be possible to get a drink of water? I don't have any money on me right now. But I'll gladly stop by later today and pay you for it."
She disappeared behind the microwave over and the circular sunglasses display at the other end of the counter and came back with a small syrofoam cup filled with ice water.
"Oh, bless you," I said. I took a small, slow sip from the cup.
She leaned over the counter with a paper towel in her hand and gently dabbed at my forehead and cheeks, and the long line of my jaw, working her way down to my neck. She had an intense and serious look on her face. It felt nice to have a beautiful woman minister to my needs like that.
"You really worked up a sweat," she said, in a concerned tone of voice. "How far did you run?"
"Up to the old cemetery at the top of the hill."
"That's quite a run."
"It's a little over two miles both ways."
"I see you won again last night," she said.
Suddenly, I was excited. "Were you there?"
"No, I had to work. I read about it in the paper. It's too bad the other guy cheated like that. The paper said you were on the verge of knocking him out. I wish I could've been there to see it."
"Well, if you ever decide you want to come and see me fight, let me know. I'll make sure there's a ringside ticket for you at the door."
"Why, thank you. That would be nice. I'd like that a lot."
"So would I."
I smiled to myself, as I walked out the door. Brandi was a nice kid, a good looking woman, and I enjoyed flirting with her. But not too much. When we first got married, Kat told me, "I don't care if you look at other women, but don't touch." We'd had a good marriage, so far, and I didn't want to do anything that might ruin it. Still, it was fun to think about Brandi and me hooking up sometime, when Kat wasn't looking.
I felt hot and sweaty, and tired, but happy, as I came up the stairs. Timmy was still asleep, which was a very good thing. I wanted some alone time with his mother.
Kat was eating breakfast in the kitchen.
"Hey, babe," I said and smiled, as I bent down to kiss the warm flesh under her right ear. She sat there, still and straight as a statue, and concentrated on eating her morning meal.
I poured myself a tall, cold glass of orange juice. I grabbed the still-warm platter of eggs over easy and home fries, which Kat had made for me, from the stove, and sat down at the tiny table, across from my wife. The sports section from that morning's paper lay on the table between us.
"Nice picture," Kat said, in a stiff, sarcastic voice.
Startled, I looked where her finger pointed. On the front page of the sports section was a large color photo of me lying face down in the middle of the ring, with my trunks down around my knees and my rear end sticking out for everyone to see. I was out like a light.
The caption above the picture, in bold, black letters, read: "THE WINNER!?"
I grimaced. I felt myself squirm in my chair like a worm on a hook.
Kat glared at me with hard, narrowed eyes. "I thought you said you were never going to get hurt," she said, in a sharp, accusing voice. "You lied to me."
"I didn't lie. I just didn't tell you about it."
"It's the same thing. You know I can't stand people who lie. You get in the ring one more time, and I will take our son and leave you. I'm telling you this now, so you'll know," she said.
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, "Go ahead, take the kid and leave. See what I care." I bit the words back. I may be a little slow at times, but I'm not a complete fool. Like the man once said, my mother didn't raise any dummies; she drowned 'em all. And that was the day I learned how to swim.
Looking at her stern, unyeilding face, I knew I would be spending a few more nights on the sofa.