The Plumber Takes a Son
– Fiction by B.L. Makiefsky –
Cooler by the lake was no longer heard on the evening news, and in the sunbaked hills that ringed town, the cherries—normally at market by now—clung to the trees like peas. Three months of drought and unprecedented heat had shallowed Grand Traverse Bay, leaving it bathtub warm, warmer in July than the locals could remember, and the fruit had suffered for it. Still, the celebration of the harvest would go on. As would the runner, Merrit Reef.
Townsfolk and tourists toting lawn chairs and coolers trickled downtown this Saturday morning, more to watch the festival parade than the half-marathon. “A good day to race,” said an older man in black knee socks. “A good day to die,” said another. “Forget personal bests,” bullhorned an official above the din. “Today you run to survive.”
Reef, age 30 and a strong runner, would take his chances. He moved towards the starting line and watched the high school marching bands warming up, strutting past floats that hummed or belched, fairylands and volcanoes, tree houses and dragons as young festival queens—apple, asparagus, trout and cherry, of course—stood fanning themselves in the beds of pickups or front seats of convertibles.
A distant trumpet played with Reef’s heart: slow, haunting notes that drifted like
embers in the hot air. Something that his father would sing? He wasn’t sure. His
father loved a good parade. He’d hum and clap and whistle at every float that
The sweet smells of cotton candy and buñuelos (elephant ears) hung in the air as well. Men on stilts juggled rosy bouquets and long steely knives as a young boy shouted from his father’s shoulders. Seagulls, whiter than the white sun, skimmed the blue-green surf at the marina. A long, tube-like balloon, dressed as a sausage in running shorts and Nikes, stirred in the slightest of breezes, kite-like, then settled down in the flatbed truck where it was moored.
“Hey, Reef!” shouted Mark Silver, his training partner. “Faster than last year?”
A year ago the cherries were on time and Reef, exhausted from working double shifts at the cannery, had overslept and missed the race. But today would be different. He had turned off his phone and gone to bed early. He dreamt—and it was the same dream most nights the past year—that he outkicked his nearest rival at the finish, took first place in his age bracket and got his picture in the Sunday paper. In this dream, Reef was kissed by the festival queen and he’d awake feeling the cool trophy in his sweaty palm.
Today, on the thirtieth running of the Cherry Festival Half-Marathon, an event that Runner’s World had called—as much for the heat as for the poorly marked trail—“a summer rite of passage,” Merrit Reef had something to prove. The parade was not going to pass him by.
“See you at the podium,” he said to Silver.
The runners, smelling of sunscreen and sweat, edged closer to the starting line. Reef took a deep breath. The hot heavy air did not yet singe his lungs.
“One minute,” bellowed the starter.
Reef eyed the competition left and right: All perched as one, a wild and frantic knot of anticipation strung together by nerves, will and hope; the same hands-on-watches lean, the slow and the fast, practiced and new, young and old; the same hunger to do well. The man in black knee socks wished him luck. Reef smiled, retied his laces and then turned to face the Jack-in-the-packs behind him, the jog trotters and expansive women in spandex he trained so desperately to stay ahead of.
The countdown started and the chorus of onlookers shouted words of encouragement over the staccato-like drills of the parade’s “Briefcase Brigade,” the Wall Street pretenders strutting down Main Street.
Waiting for the gun Reef again heard horns, a tuba even, and the same broken melody, slow and familiar. Time stood still, although he nevertheless heard it counted.
And—bang! A thread was pulled, the knot unraveled, the horses let loose from the barn. A flurry of arms and legs stampeded past Reef.
Easy now, he told himself. Only children, dogs and fools sprinted the first mile of a long race. They’d “come back”—or get lost in the woods, Reef chuckled to himself as the runners turned toward the shore like a centipede six blocks long.
Easy, now. His each foot strike, like some race day mantra, tapped the familiar words. Don’t go out too hard. Easy, now.
Relaxed and cheerful, he watched sailboats leave the harbor toward an endlessly blue horizon. “Six minutes ten seconds,” came the split at mile one. Too fast, thought Reef. Easy, now.
At three miles the lead pack, which Reef was a part of, climbed above downtown as the long string of runners trailed in pursuit. Overcome by heat, a few left the marked route, stepped over a guardrail and scampered down the embankment to plunge pell-mell into the bay. Quitters, thought Reef. As he followed the turn and crested the hill he saw the Ferris wheel and the sun’s glare on the painted capsules of other amusements that catapulted riders into space. Far past the Midway, a red construction crane was suspended above the hospital and beyond that the forest marked the horizon with a dark and uneven line. Reef knew it was there where the race would be won or lost.
“Do you believe it?” said Mark Silver, now at Reef’s side. He pointed to what looked like a wayward missile darting across the bay.
Reef tried to make sense of it. “The balloon-like sausage tied to the truck?”
“Not any more.”
Eager to explore new markets, farmers were promoting a cherry flavored sausage in the parade.
“Fast food for sure,” said Reef. “Let’s hope for a happy landing.”
“An argument to run under control,” said Silver as he surged ahead, his mop of dark hair flapping with each foot strike.
“You know I’m going to medal,” Reef said, shaking off early fatigue to match the reedlike Silver stride for stride. “Maybe even take yours.”
The two friends often bantered like that on their runs, emitting small talk, like sonar, to gauge the other’s strength. Now Silver, older by some ten years, laughed. “At what price? Running your 100-mile weeks?” Silver grabbed a water in stride at the five-mile aid station. “I know you,” he said to Reef. “I know that you run to work. And work to run.” He drained the cup and discarded it. “And that you probably run in your dreams, too.” He found Reef’s hand and briefly squeezed it before letting go. “I know that when you, Merritt Reef, imagine what you can least live without—sweat is the last to go.”
“What are you saying?”
“Life is more than a personal best.”
“Maybe so,” said Reef. He thought of their last run together, a Friday in June when his shift ended, their footsteps almost imperceptible on the soft dirt trail as they looped back to Silver’s farm. Moonlight had settled over the pasture like chalk dust and the song of whip-poor-wills rose from all corners. The evening filled Reef with joy and purpose.
Silver, a reporter for the Bear County Standard, made Reef feel less self-conscious about working at the cannery where his world followed a seasonal axis of asparagus, strawberries, cherries, peas (which they processed for Gerber’s), squash and apples. Whatever crop came down the line, and whatever money he could raise himself for the three R’s: rent, running shoes and race fees. “Merrit the Carrot,” others teased him at work. The elements had weathered him as surely as if he had gone to sea: a bone deep tan, sun bleached hair (sometimes white) and, as if deep-fried, eyebrows the color of orange peels. The older Hispanic women rolled their eyes when at shift’s end he hit the ground running, and the younger ones smiled as he darted past. They laughed at him in two languages and went home to large families in small trailers that dotted the orchards.
Though Reef lived alone, the hour (or three) he ran daily felt, and bewilderingly so, like the only one that was his. Running gave him that: time, paradoxically, to stop and think. Time to celebrate the flesh, a body so finely tuned it would endure great hardship and call it pleasure; time enough—and the longer the distance, the clearer the view—to see also what he had left behind: his accounting degree. And his father, who had paid for it.
Now as Reef tucked in behind Silver at the eight-mile mark of the race he thought—the way random thoughts come on the move, though they are hardly random—that a long run wasn’t unlike his relationship with his father. An uneasy comfort. Each pushed him places he was reluctant to go. His father wasn’t doing well and Reef had put off seeing him. Maybe he’d go after the race, he told himself. He’d go after cherries, that was it. It would be a short crop, maybe last a week or so. They could settle their differences then. A bushel full of hurt.
The two were as different as a father and son could be. Merritt Sr., a plumber from Grand Rapids, humming and whistling his way through life. And Reef, running from his own shadow. Nothing about his father even fit, thought Reef. Broad shoulders and bandy legs. The oversized head, as round and bald as a cue ball. That small, tight mouth able to swallow whole giving praise before it escaped his lips. Delicate hands. The absurd nickname: Ritty
Reef was taller than his father, too, and it had always seemed so. At school classmates called him Jack or Beanstalk so he turned inward, away from the jitter of nervous adulation and freakish slurs. There was one voice, however, that he couldn’t turn away, and it rang clear as a bell. Run far, it said. Run often.He followed that call. There would be sightings of Reef all over the city. He ran to school and to his father’s shop, to the library or dentist and on errands for his mother. Sweat became his life’s blood; a day without running was a day consigned to shadows. At night in bed he continued the dance and his legs twitched, urging him on.
The markers Reef passed, however, were never as clear or better or more pure as the ones just ahead. Still, the motion and repetition of running allowed him to sort the music from the dissonance. That was his song: a road, and the will to follow it.
“Seventy-one minutes!” shouted the timekeeper at the ten-mile mark. Reef grimaced.
Fall, the previous year. Reef watched Ritty’s pickup pull into his driveway. Festive shouts from the orchard across the road had pierced the damp and cool air as workers picked the last of the early apples. The truck’s window was open and Reef heard his father whistling an old tune that Ritty had once made up his own lyrics to. Reef had forgotten the words, but at the time he and his sister laughed plenty. Now Ritty brought with him a new hot water tank. He turned off the truck engine and without any other words but “Hello, son,” sliced open the carton in the back of the truck with a razor-sharp pocketknife, it’s black casing worn smooth as a pebble. His father bore most of the tank’s weight as the two men came up the porch stairs and into the kitchen. Ritty squared his shoulders at the door to the basement to align the load. He was still strong, then.
Ritty hummed while he worked as his son handed the tools over. Reef thought of the other jobs he had helped his father on, and how he had once sawed a hole in the wrong spot in the subfloor of a new house, halfway across the room. Not even close to where he was told to cut it. His father wasn’t angry.“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Ritty had laughed. “Make it right, and it’s the same stinking shit.” He fixed the hole like magic, hands working deftly to smooth things over. A part of Reef never forgot that moment, never forgot the desire to be by his father’s side still. To come back to the shop together, wrapped in that familiar smell of cigar smoke and machine oil. The smell of acceptance. Confidence. Love.
In the dank air of Reef’s basement his father’s torch flickered. Ritty bent over to cough and dropped a wrench. It clanked off a pipe and Reef shuddered.
When they finished his father said, “You probably want to go for a run.”
“No,” Reef said. “I ran this morning.”
“Give it another ten minutes and you can shower,” said Ritty, scrubbing his hands at the kitchen sink in cold, sudsy water. “It’s a good model. I picked it up at the warehouse yesterday.” Reef tried to pay his father. “Don’t bother with that,” said Ritty. Turning to go, he added, “You can’t find anything better than canning peas?”
“If richer meant faster,” Reef said, “I’d be all for it.”
“I did whatever I could for you to be something,” said his father, a hand on the door.
Reef stood his ground. “I’m a runner.”
“What does that even mean? A runner.”
Reef’s heart pounded in his chest and his thoughts raced to
the trails above Lake
Michigan. To abandoned farms and
hidden streams, to the scent of apple blossoms in May and the marsh at dusk
where the trill of spring peepers had made him want to cry out over the
mellifluous din that crowded his every heartbeat. To solitary winter mornings
when he was the first to blaze a trail in the fresh snow that had blanketed his
quiet village overnight. Out the door is
an open sea, he wanted to scream at his father. And every day I fish my limit.
“I’m not good enough,” he said. “Is that it?”
A gentle rain fell outside and the kitchen windows had fogged up. Ritty stood in his ragged blue parka. His hand, as smooth and bright as porcelain, rested on the doorknob. Fine red lines, trellis-like, strained to hold back a sadness and discontent in his flecked brown eyes; a weariness that begged to be redeemed.
“What would you have me say?”
Reef wanted to hear him say that he missed, and loved his boy.
“I don’t care,” said Reef. “Forget it.”
Reef picked up the pace and reeled Silver in as the trail corkscrewed up the side of a hill and into the shade. “Hey! Don’t go getting lost,” Silver said. “You’ll miss the awards.”
“I don’t mind the woods,” said Reef. “It cools you some.”
“Maybe too much,” said Silver.
They each grabbed a water from the aid stand at a clearing but Reef’s mostly spilled. “Come on!” shouted Silver. “Let’s go!” Pass someone uphill, Reef knew, and you never had to look back. The edge was mental toughness. Not to let anyone as good as you prove they were better. Silver took off, Reef in tow. No one followed. But then Silver found yet another gear and pulled away. Or Reef had slowed. He wasn’t sure. He struggled to maintain pace on the soft terrain. He had counted the miles but failed to consider the toll that his fast early splits would later exact. He regretted the water stops he skipped. He regretted a lot of things.
His thighs felt made of glass. Each painful landing, however soft, seemed to shatter something more. He jogged on the best he could and thought he saw Silver’s bright racing singlet ahead—or was it a whitetail deer that flagged across the trail? The older man in black knee socks passed Reef as if he were a mere ghost, marching in place. The trail markers were fewer now.
Reef sat down on the felled trunk of a large beech tree, and the cool bark felt good against his throbbing hamstrings. This was new ground; he had never once stopped or walked in a race before, much less sat. Not knowing what else to do, however, he got back on his feet but couldn’t find the trail.
Where he last saw Silver he encountered a thicket of sumac, the red berries pale and drooping. He listened for other runners, but the woods were still as if the heat had choked the life from them. Not even a fly buzzed. The small clearing and the stand of water cups had vanished, too. The forest closed around him. Once on pace to a personal best and age group medal, Reef now shuffled about aimlessly, dehydrated and lost. The air burned yet the forest darkened as he searched for a way out, pawing his way through it.
For a deep, lost moment he saw himself shopping in a forgotten city afterhours. The reflection of an ordinary man in the cold and empty storefront windows at first reassured him: he was not a ghost. He lived. He went to try a door. It was locked tight, not even a rattle. He tried another, and on it hung a sign, “Everything Must Go.” And not until this door, too, failed to open did Reef let go of the tree branch that he was clinging to and remember that he was in the woods above the bay and thirsty as hell.
He then stumbled onto a tunnel-like path thick with pine needles where the old growth had merged around and above him. Far away a light flickered. Daylight he thought, and he pushed himself towards it, over roots, through the tangle and deadfall. And though the light, a beacon to him, didn’t appear closer, without reason Reef filled with the vague and feverish sense that he was richer for the chase. Finally, through an opening in the dense cover he saw more fully the shaft of light, a reflection off the crane that towered above the hospital below. He moved in that direction, through the dry high grass and thistle and down a narrow deer path etched into the hillside above a small parking lot. He placed one drunken foot in front of the other. In its essence, running was just a controlled fall, didn’t George Sheehan say that? The trick now, he told himself, was to fall forward.
Pavement felt good after the uncertainty of the woods. Reef watched, mesmerized, as wisps of steam curled and rose from his racing flats. Inexplicably something grazed his head. He swatted at it as if to ward off a mosquito, then looked up to see the parade balloon with the oversized Nikes dangling above him. The sausage plummeted and Reef tripped over its spindly legs. It now lay on top of him, heavier than he had imagined, brushing his lips, sticking to his wet skin like a lover.
“You fucking clown!” Reef screamed at the sausage. “Get off!”
A car door shut. From the pavement where he lie beneath the balloon Reef watched a young woman huffing two small children past him toward the hospital.
“Don’t look!” the woman barked at the boy and girl. “In the parking lot!” she sneered at Reef. “Take your friend here and crawl back into to the woods or I’ll call the police.” She raised her cell phone above her head as if to strike him with it.
Reef thought that crawling might be a good thing, and wished he had thought of it sooner. Instead he got to his feet, grabbed the inflatable by the neck, and in one furious blow of almost all that was left of his strength he struck the balloon squarely in the gut. He watched it sail away, kicking its legs to what looked like a Mexican hat dance.
Reef tried to establish a rhythm. Easy now, he repeated again and again, but his feet just didn’t get it. They more or less slapped the ground, like fish out of water. He found a side door to the hospital open. The drinking fountain was past the emergency room entrance where, displaced by the new construction, a few beds lined the wall. Reef leaned hard with both hands on the cool steel as he bent over to drink.
“Son, is that you?”
Reef waited, head down, drinking deeply, for someone to answer. When no one did he glanced over to see his father clear as day sitting up in a hospital bed. In disbelief Reef stepped closer and strained to see the name fastened to the patient’s wrist. The older man folded his thick arms.
“Merrit, you look like hell. What happened?”
The two stared at each other. “A long run, dad,” Reef finally said. “And you? What are you doing here? Did your doctor—”
“Doesn’t matter much,” he laughed. “Same stinking shit.”
“Is anyone with you?”
“I’m good. Got a nice view of the bay here.”
Reef looked around. The bed was crammed into a dim corridor and there were no windows in sight.
“You in the parade, son?”
“Not this one,” said Reef.
“Too bad,” said the old man. “You know I like a good parade.”
“Can we talk after the race?” Reef said. “I’d better go. I have some catching up to do.”
“We both do,” said his father. “We both do.” He coughed, and put his hand in the air as if for Reef to wait. “Son?” he said after a minute.
“Did you fish your limit out there today?” His hand, still overhead, turned into a fist and shook with a genuine enthusiasm. The inside of the hospital was a good twenty degrees cooler than the street, and Reef started to shake. “Merrit?”
“Yes?” Reef was halfway to the exit.
“Go easy now, son.”
You never know, thought Reef as he reentered the half-marathon not far from the hospital’s main entrance. You hear one thing, then another. Maybe his doctor’s here now. I’ll talk to them both after the race. He grabbed a water at the 12-mile mark to soak his throbbing head.
He saw Mark Silver ahead. With an adrenaline-fueled surge of joy, he reached out to him. And yet—with his hand on his fellow runner’s shoulder—instead anger erupted. “It isn’t sweat that you can least live without,” Reef screamed. “It’s love! It’s love!”
Several runners turned around, puzzled.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Reef. “I thought you were my friend.”
Reef tailed the last of the runners towards the finish as they dodged festivalgoers darting here and there to watch the parade. Latecomers tugged on their children’s hands as vendors hawked cups brimming with cherries from Washington. Reef found himself in the midst of the “Briefcase Brigade,” the dozen or so men dressed alike in dark suits who parodied corporate life. They marched in tight circles as fast as he could run and up close he saw that their suits were threadbare, their breast pocket handkerchiefs stained, expensive leather shoes old and worn. He felt beaten down and wanted to cry.
Music exploded from all sides now as marching bands converged on Main Street. Reef separated himself from the brigade and the briefcases clicked endlessly behind him, like the shutters of a thousand cameras. He caught up to a large woman, her racing bib reduced to postage stamp size by her massive frame. He had no strength left to pass her. Two young boys in the crowd along the curb jumped up and down on fresh legs, and shouted to the woman. “Mom! You’re ahead of Merrit the Carrot! Mom! Merrit the Carrot!”
The woman turned to see what the fuss was about and Reef recognized Trudy from the cannery. “Hello, love,” she said warmly. “You can do it.”
Trudy’s heart was as big as she was wide. She called everyone “love,” and said she was raised in England but someone at work told Reef that Trudy had never once left Bear County. She wore black Capri tights with lime green stripes and a large sweatshirt to cover her girth. Still, she appeared much less fatigued than Merrit Reef. Even her long dark hair remained perfectly braided.
“I know you hurt, love,” she said to him. “But you can do it.”
Her boys cheered, “Go, Mom, go!” They jumped up and down, buzz cuts pogoing above the sea of faces curbside.
Reef saw Mark Silver past the finish line clutching his medal in one hand and cell phone in the other. Reef moved, or was moved, surrounded yet lost—a speck of dust in a pool of molasses—and suddenly he was at ease, out of his body, soaring above the masses and music. Town was spread out like a set of toys beneath him. He saw the band shell, and empty park benches. Lifeguards. He saw friends and family. Strangers with love in their hearts. Balloons.
He couldn’t tell whether he was floating towards the finish or merely higher, and he wasn’t sure it mattered anymore. His thoughts spiraled into a yin and yang. The sky and bay. Life and death. War and peace. Time, immeasurable. The ticking of a clock from somewhere deep. His journey seemed endless and he felt remarkably whole, as if he had witnessed a glorious sunset to a perfect day.
The ground slammed into him hard. His ears popped like cap guns. Bang. Bang.
Trudy looked at him, smiling, moving as steadily as a tank.
Now Reef heard horns playing the familiar melody, the one that had haunted him at the start of the race. Yes, his father would sing it when he went with him mornings to the wholesaler to pick up supplies. Yes, that was it. That god damn stupid song. The Farmer in the Dell! Only Ritty had changed the words. The Plumber in the Well, he would sing. The plumber takes a son/The son takes a run/Hi-ho, the derry-o/The plumber takes a son. Reef’s legs would not much move, but his heart soared.
“Come on now, love,” Trudy said at Reef’s side. “We’re almost there.” Reef stumbled but she caught him by the hand and raised it triumphantly as the two crossed under the finish banner. He held on tight.
“Merrit, I’m…sorry,” said Mark Silver, helping the spent Reef to his feet.
“For what? I got disoriented. I hit the wall back there and flipped out.” He grabbed a cup of sweet cherries from the refreshments offered runners. “And then Trudy—Trudy!”
“No, no…Your sister left a message,” said Silver, his voice cracking. “I’m so sorry.” He waved his phone, and tears rolled down his sweat-caked face. “Your father…”
Silver could not finish the sentence. A white Cutlass convertible turned the corner inches from them, and in the back seat alongside the festival queen from Kalkaska perched a trout ten feet tall with rainbow scales that looked impossibly wet.
“Your sister couldn’t reach you,” Silver said. “She tried.”
Reef started to walk away.
“Merrit. Where are you going?”
“The hospital. I saw him there.”
“No, you don’t understand,” said Silver, catching up to Reef and blocking his path. “Your sister is home. Your father died there. In Grand Rapids. Earlier this morning.”
Silver nodded and handed him the phone. “They took him to emergency. She couldn’t reach you.”
Reef turned to look at the sailboats across the bay. The music started to fade and the hot air pushed down on him so that he was unable to breathe or talk. But still—his heart went on, crazily—and then slowly, in that void between the beats was a gap wide enough for the parade to start and the parade to end. Grand Rapids? But I saw him. Things don’t matter much, he said. Reef was scared and frozen, his wet singlet sticking to him like paste.
Silver put an arm around Reef and steered him toward the car. Easy now, he told himself.
About the Author – B.L. Makiefsky
B.L. Makiefsky writes and lives in Traverse City, Michigan. His articles and fiction have appeared in several magazines. His short story collection was the winner of the 2012 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook contest.
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