There’s not much Jeff remembers about two summers ago, other than he got burned in all the wrong places. Stinging blotches below his shoulder blades, tan lines crossing quads. Amorphous blobs, dashes, angry red stains. He’s not quite sure how to explain it, other than to say that his wife was just starting to leave him at the time, and he spent a lot of time running around in the sun, all twisted up about it. The worst was the back of his neck, fried from the hours he spent fishing the university pond with Hank, a retired carpenter whose wife left him a long time ago. As far as Jeff is concerned, Hank’s a good enough guy to be around – a guy who knows things. At least, the way his eyes never open all the way make him look like he’s seen it all before.
Hank always wears the same khaki hat and cargo fishing vest, even though he never uses any of the different lures sticking out of the pockets. The pond is just catch-and-release anyway; the biology club fills it with rock bass ever year, and campus police comes by once in the morning and once in the afternoon to check for fishing licenses – everyone but Hank. He’s a regular.
Jeff takes off for a run from his house every morning to clear his head, but he always ends up sitting at the pond with Hank, watching the ducks glide on the water and the college kids biking to class.
“It’s coming any day now, maybe even today,” he says, peeling skin from his thigh. “I can feel it. Even when she doesn’t say a word, I can feel her thinking it.”
Hank just nods. “That’s how it starts,” he says.
“I’ve tried everything. I take her new places, buy her new things. I try to talk to her. And the sex, Hank – the sex! Listen. I still love her. I’d do anything to stop it.”
Hank squints at him and then looks away, back toward his line. He’s got a dark, even tan, a dusky shade that makes his facial hair look even lighter than it is, a blonde bird’s nest dappled gray. Jeff is naturally pale, and the lotion he slaps on before his runs is often an afterthought, a hurried rub of obligation.
His whole life has been filled with obligations, mostly forgotten ones. It’s not that he’s careless, it’s just that he has a hard time keeping things straight and a harder time letting things go. His thoughts pinball around, knocking each other out of line like chips in a vending machine, and he’s spent thirty years pacing around his own chaos, stomping everything around him into crumbs.
Sometimes he makes lists for himself before he goes to bed and leaves them on the bathroom mirror to make things easier in the morning. Water in freezer. Let dogs out. Sunscreen, dummy. His wife once did this for him, years ago.
She’s got a memory like a slow watermill. Hold, turn, spill. She keeps everything she needs for as long as she needs it, and then she lets go. Anything she forgets, she scoops back up again.
Just for a moment, he wants to work like that. Just for a single moment not to be thinking about the job he lost, the lawn he hasn’t mowed in weeks and how his wife is about to leave him. He thinks maybe if he can focus on loving her and nothing else, just for one second, she might change her mind. It would at least be a start.
Hank sighs and reels in the line. Not even a nibble. He sets the rod down and pulls a beer from his cooler. “Hardest thing in the world,” he says, “trying to turn one thing into another.”
Jeff sits long enough to watch Hank finish his beer and then gets up to start running loops around the pond. He circles Hank once, twice, three times in the damp grass around the water until his breaths comes steady. When he passes Hank a fourth time, he speeds up and keeps running straight onto the walking path, passing students lugging backpacks and laptop bags, walking in pairs.
He runs through campus, doing figure eights around the math and science buildings, cutting through the courtyard and past the dormitories. It is harder and farther than he has run in weeks, but it feels easy. When he reaches the fountain at the center of the campus he stops to catch his breath, jogging in place and splashing warm water on his face. It trickles down to his lips and tastes like copper.
He heads back at an even faster clip, tossing Hank a wave on his way off campus and back into town. At home, Jeff’s wife is pulling weeds from the garden. She’s already trimmed the shrubs that border the stone porch and pruned the tree by the curb.
He isn’t sure why she tried straightening him out for as long as she did. All he knows is that she’s through with it, whether she’s ready to say so or not.
He smiles at her as he jogs up the walkway, his heart beating faster the way she bites her lip hard when she sees him. He bends over to catch his breath and sweats ponds on the concrete. The strain of his run hits him at once, now that he’s stopped.
“Oh good, you’re back,” she says. “Do you have time to talk?”
Jeff is burning hot all over, dizzy and reeling. He stands up and rubs the sweat from his forehead down to his cheeks, gripping his jaw. The sun hits his neck like whitecaps on breakwalls.
“Honey,” she starts again.
He’s a puddle in that moment. He picks a heaving breath and sucks it in, closes his eyes and holds it in his chest until his hands and feet start to tingle.
“Stop,” he says. “Don’t tell me. Wait.”
About the Author: Justin J. Brouckaert is a midwesterner heading south to join the University of South Carolina MFA program this fall. His flash and micro fiction have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Squalorly, The Molotov Cocktail and other publications. He tweets @JJBrouckaert and talks to his toes at jjbrouckaert.tumblr.com.