Running to the Edge of the World

by Duke Miller

The state capital of Guanajuato is where I married Estrella, my dog. It was a relatively long ceremony. She had to have an abortion, sterilization, and a ton of shots, but once the vet signed the certificates, we were man and dog. We’ve been together ever since.

Guanajuato is a tough place, full of hills and winding callejones that never seem to end. Yet it is spectacularly beautiful. Being a street dog, every day Estrella demanded walks by pushing me with her nose and rough paws. I’d take her into the hills and let her run. We’d often pass this particular, bright green house where the barred windows opened directly upon the street. Sometimes I’d hear a couple inside arguing in English from the shadows. The man mostly employed silence as a tactic, which seemed to infuriate the woman: "Answer me, damn it. Answer me!"

Over time, our walks and lingering moments allowed me to piece together their disillusion. Hurtful things would float outward into the street: the man refused to socialize, the woman spent too much money, an old lover had sent a letter, and somebody was drinking too much: typical things that might have started with a bad investment, an illness, a change of heart. Everyone comes to Mexico with different expectations. As the days pass, those promises and hopes are either met or fall short. With this couple, the dream had turned into the sound of a tapir being killed by a jaguar, which, if you don’t know, is a very bad sound.

One day I saw the man leave and slam the door of the house. I was down the street with Estrella. Her ears perked up when the woman yelled out the window, "Get back in here!" That was a phrase I often used with Estrella. The man continued to walk. He was in his late forties and with his limp used a cane. He passed on the other side of the street and then turned a corner.

I never saw the man again until the night of the birthday party and the story of Francine.

*****

At that birthday party rich people moved around the house like an ice flow, glittering, white, and smooth. I had not really been invited, but had tagged along with the friend of a friend, so my eating at the buffet and ordering from the open bar was tenuous. The host, the birthday boy was from New York and had made millions by firing people and selling assets that somebody had taken a lifetime to build. His wife was a former model from the Ukraine whose face reminded me of Miami Beach in the winter.

I was sitting outside in the multi-level garden. The light from the windows lay like thin slices of butter upon the grass. The house was far enough away to give me a sense of privacy, but the man’s voice spoke just to my right. He had been sitting in a wicker chair with his back to me. In little jerks he moved the chair around to face me. I saw he had a bottle in one of his hands. As he moved the chair, his cane fell to the stone patio.

"Don’t bother," he said. "Let it lay." He offered the bottle up to me and I poured a stiff one into my glass.
"I snuck it from the bar. It was too much trouble to go back and forth." It was a bottle of Redbreast 12. "Where he got this, I don’t know," he mused.
"Costco maybe," I said. "Funny how that store is."

The music died from inside the house and there was only the sound of insects and low voices across the garden. We sat staring at each other. I’m a good starer, particularly in the dark, so I didn’t mind. He sighed and turned his eyes upward and said something about the apathetic stars and then trailed off into a mumble. Another silent minute passed as we drank. Neither of us offered our name or social nicety. I surprised myself by not asking about the cane.

"You don’t seem very happy right now," I said.
"Birthday parties... I’ve never liked them. I’m only here because my wife made me come."
"Why don’t you like birthday parties?"
"No reason... " And then he decided maybe there was a reason.
"When I was a teenager, a girl invited me to her birthday party.  Her name was Francine.  She wasn’t very popular.  No friends to speak of.  You know the type I’m sure.  She was tall and boyish, gangling with thin arms and big feet." He paused for a moment as if to recall the feet.

"I befriended her because she liked to run and so did I. I’m different now... can hardly walk.  She wasn’t fast or anything, she just liked to run in the countryside, across the fields and up the dirt trails above our little town.  We would take our dogs and run in the evening as the sun slowly disappeared in the trees.  We always said we were running to the edge of the world. After an hour or so we would stop and look into the forest, because there was nothing to do except catch our breath, and then return to what we knew.  Anyway, she had invited me to her birthday party, along with several other students, who I figured wouldn’t go, because, like I say, no one particularly liked her, and high school is a torture chamber if you’re unpopular.  She taped these little notes on lockers and you could see the girls and boys smirking when they read them.  On the day of the party I was a little late.  I brought a box of licorice, since she had mentioned once that she liked it.  I think it was her 16th birthday.  Well, there was no one there except Francine and her mother... yes, and Red, her bloodhound. There was no father.  He had left the family a few years earlier.  It was a small town and we all knew how he got drunk and beat the mother.  I guess that was why Francine liked to run.  The party was in the kitchen and there was a cake and little cups of lemonade and I remember there was ribbon stretched across the ceiling with balloons hanging down.  It was a proper party and we stood around waiting, but no one came. So the mother lit the candles and we sang happy birthday and I gave Francine the box of licorice. The whole time I was dying inside and only wanted to leave.  The mother was smiling at both of us and her teeth were brown with cigarette stains.  Finally, I told them I had to go and I hugged Francine and there were tears in her eyes."

We each poured more liquor from the bottle into our glasses.

The music started again and people were laughing too loudly inside the house.  Everyone was drunk, including me. I understood that the man in the shadows was the sort of person who would die lonely. There was the warm feeling of an old book about him and the fading away of something dear.

"What happened to Francine?"
"Francine... yes, oh, you know, life goes on. Many years later, after I left home and went overseas, I got a letter from my mother about her.  I hadn’t kept up with anything about my old town.  It was a dreary, small-minded place and I was happy to be gone.  Well, Francine had married a man who I did not know and they had struggled in the marriage, according to my mother, and then one day the man left for another woman.  Francine moved back in with her own mother, who by then was very old.  She returned to the same house where we had celebrated her birthday.  Towards the end of the letter there were the words that Francine had committed suicide.  It was like a plane crash in my memory.  She had cut her wrists in a hot bath. Messy I suppose."
"Too bad," I said.
"Yes, quite... too bad... no doubt. You know, they found her without any hair on her body. She had cut off her long hair, shaved everything, even her eyebrows. Imagine that."
"Did she leave a note?"
"Oh yes," he nodded, "she left a note."
I waited for an eternity and I could hear his breathing. We had given up on our glasses and were now drinking directly from the bottle: an act of bonding sometimes found between strangers.

"She wrote about me... about me. My mother knew because the sheriff had come over.  He wanted to know where I was and had I been in town recently.  I hadn’t.  I might as well have been on another planet or at the bottom of the sea.  Francine had mentioned me because of that birthday party all those years ago.  She had written about how I had come and given her a box of licorice and then something about how we had run across the fields with our dogs.  She said I had been her best friend. Of course, I never knew any of it.  I had avoided being a real friend to her.  I had not made the necessary gestures that one would expect from a real friend.  I was embarrassed around her, but, I guess, I hid it well.  No, I didn’t want people to think I was friends with the plain, unpopular girl. When they asked why we ran together, I told them it was because of her dog, that he could track rabbits better than mine. I denied her."
"So, you don’t like birthdays because of that?"
"Yes, they remind me of running to the edge of the world and how easy it is... to fall off."

The all too familiar song of Happy Birthday began in the house and without another word he drained the last measure of our Redbreast 12, picked up his cane, and limped into the darkness. I heard him cuss when he collided with a chair and then came the sound of a gate opening and closing. A month or so later his house went up for sale and not too long afterward on a walk with Estrella I saw a Mexican family moving in.

Sometimes when I’m lying in bed with Estrella and we can’t sleep, I ponder his story. My guess is he never told his wife about Francine. He only told me because of the circumstances. He was unhappy in a foreign country, forced to a birthday party, drinking with a stranger: the perfect slow-motion collision.

Succumbing to peer pressure is common among adolescents. Yet, the episode had made him feel a coward. Feelings of cowardice are common enough among men. (I never think of women as cowards. Maybe that’s sexist.) He carried his regret of Francine as best he could. After all, he was young and dumb when he betrayed her. Had he felt no regret, he would not have been human. We all have secrets that define us. Francine was one of his. There was nobility in protecting her there, inside his heart. Perhaps he is a better man because of Francine. I’d like to think so. Perhaps, their friendship will endure until the man can go no further.

(This is a considerably revised edition of a story that appears in Writing for the Absent Reader, 2017)

**************

Duke Miller is currently writing in San Miguel de Allende. Author of three books about refugees, war, various disasters, and women. He is trying to hang on to a few dreams, but his ears have gone south, so it is difficult. He is a recluse, who is totally sober, and happy in his own way.

Tin Hats Blog
Writing for the Absent Reader
Living and Dying with Dogs

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