He wasn’t sure why he felt his best days were behind him. He had driven to Gettysburg for the day to visit the town and see his two sisters and decided at the spur of the moment, as the late afternoon waned into evening, to go for a run on the battlefield. Now his idea seemed crazy: maybe he was too out of shape, or his leg had not recovered from his fall earlier in the spring, or he just wasn’t into it like he had been a year ago. The easy route he envisioned was becoming more of an effort than it deserved, a test of stamina when he had no stamina to provide and no desire to be tested here and now on a hot Saturday afternoon in the middle of August. Rather than finding inner peace in the act itself – the pace, the movement of his legs, the regular, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest – or even enjoying the serenity of the battlefield where he almost never had the opportunity to run – the nicely paved roads with monuments and cannons lining the route, the large elms and oaks providing cool shade in juxtaposition to the hot and hazy sun lowering against the distant, purple-cast Catoctin Mountains, or the roll of the steaming deep-green farm land in southern Pennsylvania, undulating and welcoming – his run, he realized much to his chagrin, was turning into self-inflicted travesty.
From the beginning when he left his sisters’ house on Chambersburg Street near the town square, running down Racehorse Alley toward Buford Avenue and Route 30, he could feel the reluctance of his legs, the creak and moan of joints and muscles not wanting to go through this again, the overall weariness in pushing through the heavy humidity of the late afternoon. He forced his mind to focus on his left thigh still recovering from his fall back on Mother’s Day – back on a trail in the Duke Forest, back when he tore his upper hamstring tendon tripping over a root, or a rock, or his own feet – and reassured himself, testing his leg, stretching the muscle, it would be all right – even if he didn’t actually believe it and even if it still was awfully sore that day. Much better though, he decided, to concentrate on this than dwell on the agony of driving home later that night, six hours back to Durham.
He had come up to Gettysburg that morning from a business trip to D.C. and was sore from two days of driving in his old car with no shocks and little cushioning. The meeting in Arlington at the U.S. National Science Foundation on Friday afternoon had been a disaster: the two staff members – a middle-aged, African-American woman and an older white guy with gray hair and wrinkled shirt – had agreed to meet him at the very end of the day, but sitting in a messy seventh floor conference room that smelled of old sweat and burned coffee, it was clear to him they weren’t buying into his idea and, frankly, wanted to go home. Twenty-three after five and they were arguing between themselves whether or not he should bother submitting his proposal at all. He sat there, looking beyond the two of them and stared at the large windows closed with cheap tan curtains, but glowing from the hot afternoon sun. The room was stifling, on fire, and he was too old to cool things down. He just wanted to close his eyes to the radiating dust streaming off the windows down to the worn carpeting; he longed to tune out the discussion and lay with his forehead on his hands flat on the hard conference table.
The proposal deadline was Wednesday, and he had no energy or desire to change the write-up now. Besides, was it the idea itself or the way he presented it that had caused the two NSF staffers to have such a negative reaction? He had spent weeks with his program staff drafting the write up, even practicing what he should say, he had driven up from North Carolina, fighting traffic on I-85 and 95 the entire way just for this opportunity, but after his presentation, their response was so disappointing, he didn’t know where to begin. He and his team had not practiced for that, what to say when the pronouncement was dead on arrival. Sitting there he knew how things would go: they would end the meeting making him feel better by agreeing he should submit and let the panel review it; if the committee liked it, maybe it could get funded. But he knew, if they didn’t like it, regardless of what the reviewers said, it was a lost cause. He could envision the Chair of his department on Monday evaluating him, as she always did when she heard such bad news: searching his eyes, his body language, seeking an understanding behind Friday’s crushing blow. Would she have made a difference? Was he a mistake? Could she get him to salvage the proposal? How much effort would it take? Was he even up for pulling this off?
He decided to change his plans Saturday after waking up late in the Hampton near Reagan National Airport. The trip to Gettysburg was far enough to unwind in the car and gain time to think – and the visit would be a nice respite free of the persistent inquiries of his staff and his wife’s endless questions about what he was going to say on Monday. He grew up in Gettysburg after his family had moved from their Western Pennsylvania farm back when he was kid. Though he left the area more than thirty years ago, his sisters still lived in the town. His sisters were together now, long after failed marriages and children who had grown up and gone off to raise families of their own. They were three and six years older than him, owned a business near the town square, and shared an old, civil war house next door on Chambersburg Street. Unfortunately, as the younger brother, he realized, he was their work-in-progress: they watched him from afar and didn’t hesitate to comment when, as today, they thought he was fumbling along, flailing away, or even falling apart. The run, in fact, was undertaken precisely to end all further discussion on that topic and show them that, by the very act itself, he was still of sound mind, even if he did seem a little depressed and scattered and non-communicative, and his health was fine too, even if he appeared to be overweight, overly tired, and just a little jittery.
Avoidance was a stupid reason to go for a run, he decided, working his way across North Washington Street, a stupid reason to come to Gettysburg at all. He should have headed home this morning, explained to his wife the bad news, and taken Sunday to prepare for the battle ahead; besides it was way too hot to be running outside; he should have waited another hour or two; maybe gone for a walk instead, maybe down to his family’s old house on Carlisle Street, the house his mother had sold long ago. Then, again, if he had, his sisters would have wanted to accompany him, and, then, the conversation would have returned, once again, to him, his family, his work situation; then, the question of when he would free himself from all of the stress he was facing (for no reason, they would say, given his age) would inevitably come up for discussion. By running, he could be alone and focus his thoughts, or rather, not think at all and simply concentrate on landing his feet free from the broken concrete, bits of glass, and chunks of macadam littering the alleyway.
He knew Racehorse Alley well; even with it being many years since he had ridden his bike or walked down the length of it. His mother had moved them to a house next to Gettysburg College, and when she sold their home back when he was in high school and remarried, he spent an equal number of years sub-renting apartments near the alley from college kids every summer. Later, after college, with three friends from work, he rented a decrepit Civil War-era house farther down Chambersburg Street with a weedy, rarely mowed lawn that also backed up to the alley. Now, running past the house, he remembered the girls from Gettysburg College and the local bars that he brought there. It was here too, in his mid-twenties, while smoking pot with friends early one night he learned his mother and stepfather had been killed in a small plane crash. His stepfather owned his own plane; they had been trying to land in dismal weather, but never made it across the last range of mountains near Hagerstown. They flew headlong into the side of a forested ridge and died instantly. That night his oldest sister’s husband walked down Racehorse Alley from his mother’s restaurant on the square, took his turn on the joint being passed around, and broke the news. His brother-in-law’s relationship with his sister never withstood the crash. Even his mother’s restaurant, the one he had worked in as a kid, burned to the ground several years later.
He picked his way around a car backing out of a garage and hurried forward when he realized a truck was waiting for him to cross a narrow bridge over Tiber Creek. The bridge, a solid cement structure built over a whisper of a winding creek, was similar to the one on Carlisle Street under which he sat as a kid those first few years hating everything about this town, hating his mother for bringing them here when she separated from his father, using the endless time at his disposal (with no one asking where he was) to drink bottles of Schaefer beer stolen from their refrigerator and smoke cigarettes. Tareytons. His father died of cancer somewhere back then, back in Pittsburgh.
Now, at the end of the alley, crossing Buford Avenue and Route 30 proved to be more difficult than he envisioned with all the trucks and locals on the main thoroughfare coming into and out of the town, but with a small opening in the traffic, he sprinted across the street to an abrasive honk of an oncoming car. Clearly, sprinting in his sixties was not the same as when he was a kid, or a college dropout, or in his twenties working in his mother’s restaurant, but he still could dash when he had to, even if, with his age and the injury he sustained earlier in the year, it seemed a bit doddering.
Heading up Stevens Street, he left the noise of Buford Avenue and Route 30 behind, but slowed as he reached his old girl friend’s house on the corner. He and his friends spent many nights sitting outside on her porch back in high school. His best friend was dating her back then. In fact, he thought, running on, didn’t her mother commit suicide in that house and didn’t Betsy (or was it her sister?) find her in her parents’ bedroom? After her father subsequently remarried and sold the house, didn’t a dentist moved onto the property and set up his practice there? Now it looked like he too was gone, and the house was, once again, someone’s home with a flickering TV in the windows and a Honda SUV parked on the driveway. Had it been that many years, he thought, as he reached the end of the street and started up the long, sloping lawn of the Lutheran Seminary. Betsy, back then, after their own traumatic relationship that extended throughout most of their college years, met a girl in art school, he recalled, and moved to LA to be an illustrator. Like him, she rarely returned.
This, according to his sisters, when he asked about Betsy, after his sisters told him earlier this afternoon of a close friend of theirs, another friend from back then who had died of a lingering and complicated illness back in the spring. Betsy and Kathy had been best friends. Back then, Kathy had wanted to be a musician and played in several rock bands in high school. When he was at Penn State, after scavenging a future for himself at a community college in Pittsburgh, he watched her perform at a Marriott Hotel cocktail lounge in State College. She was by herself singing soft-pop songs with an amplified acoustic guitar and an electronic drum machine behind her. He had gone to talk about his problems with Betsy, but Kathy looked so lost in the silvery spotlight drinking manhattans and laughing at her own jokes, with just a couple of customers in the dark bar, he decided not to bother: by then, they were already worlds away from their lives back in high school and miles removed from Gettysburg. Running through the seminary, he was sorry to hear she had died, sorry he had lost touch with both of them after college, and, as he passed the large Lutheran church with the beautiful white copula, he was sorry too that neither he nor Betsy had come back for Kathy’s funeral. He would have liked to talk to Betsy about those days back when they were all together, so young and screwed-up.
Crossing the intersection with Fairfield Road, he left the town behind and entered the battlefield, slowly working his way down Confederate Avenue. Within a mile he passed a large group of boy scouts walking to an encampment where they would spend the night. It reminded him of when he and his friends walked this same route. One of his friends had an assortment of firecrackers and they were looking for a safe place to light the rockets. Fireworks were illegal and it wasn’t the Fourth of July, but still, they wanted to see how high the rockets would shoot. He remembered watching the cars driving past, touring the battlefield, eyes in the car focusing on the left side of the road where the Army of Northern Virginia had taken up encampment in the woods. He and his friends went into the fields sloping down toward the farms on the right side and found a spot where they could set off the rockets after the park closed. It was a spectacular show of force and display, with the booming sound and colorful, tingling lights sparkling high across the night sky. Back then, they had such a total disregard for the town police, the county sheriff, or the rangers patrolling the park. Perhaps, it was the excitement of stolen freedom that he and his friends enjoyed. He wondered, as he ran past the troop, if scouting provided that. He had never been a scout. More like riff-raff. The kind Boy Scouts avoid.
In fact, he had walked Confederate Avenue a thousand times, he reminded himself as he ran past Robert E. Lee’s Monument, working his way through the traffic of cars and people. It was here, with his left leg starting to throb, he felt the first urge to stop, to go back to Gettysburg and his sisters’ house, to nurse his injury over their pestering questions. Surely, he could run farther than this before turning around, especially with the Boy Scout troop behind him, or the people in the cars wondering why he didn’t keep going. He had walked farther than this with Betsy back in high school, looking for a spot to lie in the grass. He couldn’t turn back now. All one summer in his late twenties, he and Karen, the woman he later married, walked past Lee’s Monument on numerous occasions and talked about what their lives could be like together; they agreed he would have to finish college and both would need to go to graduate school before they could get the jobs they wanted and live a life free of the stress of money and crappy apartments. He had met Karen after his mother’s death working in his mother’s restaurant; she was a Gettysburg girl, a Gettysburg College graduate, and living with her family farther down on Buford Avenue. Karen left the area after that summer to begin graduate school at Duke; he subsequently moved to DC and, ultimately, followed her to North Carolina and the life they said they wanted. It was a good life; he had tried to be a good husband, father, and colleague, but he wasn’t so sure he was up for it any more. When can one opt out? Start again? Kiss it all good-bye?
So much of what he remembered was gone, he realized as he ran toward Emmitsburg Road. The houses and structures that had dotted the battlefield along Confederate Avenue, even the refreshment stand near the small tower, had been purchased by the Park Service and torn down. The fields across Emmitsburg Road were cleared of trees that had grown up over the years and, in fact, he was told, had changed the look of what the fields had been like for thousands of soldiers fighting here a hundred and fifty or so years ago; the trees that had made the park such a beautiful testimonial to the dead, these too had been removed.
Yes, much more austere than he remembered, he thought: symbolic, perhaps, of the need to cut the crap that had begun to overwhelm him in his life; on the other hand, maybe he was just too old. As he ran by tourists getting in and out of their cars, he couldn’t help but notice how out of shape most of them were, fat men and women struggling to walk across the road to take a picture of the field, a monument, or each other. So many men with long grizzly beards and white hair sprouting under funky hats – is this really who comes to the battlefield anymore? The Rip Van Winkles of the world? The only people left in America who thought the battle interesting? Wasn’t he, in fact, one of them, having turned sixty-one less than a month earlier, carrying twenty pounds of dead weight around his gut that he loathed, but could not force himself to do something about; why didn’t he have the discipline, or the desire any more? He needed a drink. Last night he had drank way too much in the hotel and felt horrible this morning. He adjusted his running cap over his eyes to deflect the light, like the pillow over his eyes earlier in the hotel when he thought the sun streaming through the curtains would blind him. Soon he crossed Emmitsburg Road, breathing hard, harder than he should have been breathing at this point in the run, knowing that he needed to get a handle on this if he was going to make it up both Big Round Top and Little Round Top on the other side. With his leg throbbing he was leaving the Confederacy behind and heading for Union lines.
He knew what the problem was, and it had nothing to do with the Civil War, or the historic three-day battle, or his leg. He had known it for a while: it was so stupid, but he had forgotten to bring water on his run. He was a proven runner with several years of experience, and yet he left his sisters’ house in such a hurry, he had forgotten his water bottle and running glasses. He didn’t need the sunglasses in the shade of Confederate Avenue, but that would change, especially in the bright sun of the open fields after he climbed the two Round Tops and headed down to the majestic Pennsylvania Monument built like a temple near the High Water Mark of Pickett’s Charge, back in the early 1900s when Gettysburg was a top-tourist destination. Right now, though, with his aching leg, climbing up Big Round Top would require all of his focus and dehydration was definitely an issue.
He could hear his wife: “You forgot your water?” she would shriek, as if saying it with a calm voice would not be dramatic enough. “You’re kidding me!” She would be furious, like somehow his forgetting to carry water had impacted her in some strange way, like she would turn instantaneously into a stone statue on the spot, a horrid monument to the exasperated next to marble depictions of the dying and triumphant – that is, if she didn’t release pent up years of frustration accumulated from his misdeeds. “So typical,” she would say, as if he only got it right when she was there to check up on him. “Do you have your sunglasses, your keys, your water, your hat?” “Yes, dear,” he would respond every time, but thinking each time: “Quit it! It’s my run. Let me alone.”
Why couldn’t he have said ‘let me be’ to his sisters earlier in the afternoon when he became so angry, rather than be stuck out here on the battlefield, or, better yet, say “go fuck yourself” on Monday in his early morning meeting with his Departmental Chair, a woman ten years younger and on the rise for greater glory. But did he really want to drop out of her inner circle, no longer be counted on as the moneyman on her team, did he really want to stop riding her coattails? When in his life did he become such a suck-ass? Did he really believe she would keep him on when she reached the pinnacle of her success? He was carnage, didn’t everyone see that, and why did he care, anyway? He remembered his half-empty glass of ice tea sitting on his sisters’ kitchen counter next to his sunglasses and keys; his water bottle empty in the car. Mistakes happen, goddamn it. Leave me alone. Still, how could he have forgotten water? It was so stupid, and as much as he denied it along Confederate Avenue when he told himself he often ran four or five miles without water, now, as he slowed in his climb up Big Round Top, he was struggling.
A man stood by a red Honda Civic in the parking area at the turn-in for Big Round Top. His passenger door was wide open and he was leaning against the top of his car, not looking up the forested path to the top of the heavily contested hill, but rather watching him slowly run by; he realized suddenly, the man was drinking from a gallon thermos in his right hand. Could this be for real? Maybe he was a mirage, a figment of his dehydrated imagination. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he thought as he struggled past the car, feeling the man’s eyes on him as he swallowed and lowered his head and followed the road onward to Little Round Top – wouldn’t it be wonderful if the man stepped forward and offered him a sip. “Here, brother, quench your parched throat. Wipe your furrowed brow on my sleeve.” No one could help him now, he thought. His eyes flashed ahead to a pool of light on the road. What was that? Sunlight streamed through a spot in the thick, green canopy overhead, creating an incandescent orb of glittering filament dancing on the road. What was that? A sound to his left – he looked over to one of the wooden porta-johns near the rear of the small parking area. A door was opening and a boy was stepping out still adjusting his shorts. As the boy came forward, now staring at him, his mother, watching for her son, whispered, “Hurry, dear,” pointing to their car. Let the wild man go by.
Maybe, rather, he should lie down on the road and just give himself time to recover.