Jolley Prize 2017 (Winner): 'Pheidippides' by Eliza Robertson

At the first interview, I sat in a plastic canteen chair while Berkeley lay under a towel and a woman with spiked hair dug into the cords of his thigh. He rested his chin on his forearms so he could talk, his eyes boring into my notebook, as if he could read the questions upside-down from the massage table. His blonde eyebrows faded into his skin and made his forehead look overdeveloped.

He’d just finished sixteenth in the men’s marathon with a time of 2:20:37, the only North American in the top twenty. I’d pitched a profile to the Globe on the premise that he was born in Nanaimo. We could sort of claim him. I asked the reader-pleaser questions – did he consider himself Canadian?

No.

Not a bit? I tried. What NHL team did he support?

I don’t watch hockey.

My son Dustin would be disappointed. He’d come up with that question. I told Berkeley so.

What’s Dustin’s team? he asked.

The Canucks.

Tell him I like the Flames.

He leaned his weight onto one elbow and twisted around to see the masseuse, who pushed her thumbs down his hamstring.

Can I have some Blistex please?

The woman rinsed her hands at the metal sink. She dried her palms on the seat of her sweatpants and rooted in the pocket of Berkeley’s track jacket, which he’d slung over the other plastic chair. When she brought him the chapstick, he kept his forearms folded below his chin and opened his mouth. Without blinking, she removed the lid and smeared the balm on his peeling lips. He rubbed them together.

What else you got?

I reviewed my notes. At this point I’d have to rely more on race stats and biographical details – I don’t know why I expected more.

How was the run for you today, Berkeley?

The question made him twitch, his face clenched by a spasm that faded just as quickly. The masseuse manoeuvred herself around the table and reached for his calf. She kneaded the flesh with the butt of her palm.

I can do better, he said.

You mean for the next World Championship? What’s your goal time?

I didn’t know yet he wouldn’t complete in the next one. He’d join the Air Force – it was August 2001 when we met.

2:10.

The event record. He was being ironic or my question was a stupid one.

Well good luck to you, Berkeley.

I closed my notebook and slotted it in my messenger bag, dug the press pass from my jacket.

Backatcha, partner.

He sank his face into the hole at the top of the table. From the door, it looked like he was floating mouth-down in a bathtub.

Kids died every year at the lake. We lived within earshot of the highway, and every summer fire engines wailed by at least once or twice while we were in the garden. At the lake, you often saw them wheel the red rescue boat onto the ramp. The men wore black jumpsuits with neon armbands. They’d climb into the vessel and rip across the water to the cliffs. We’d talked to Dustin about jumping – the lake was too shallow right there at the edge, you couldn’t see the rocks beneath the surface.

Teens gathered on the cliffs away from the main beach, where toddlers and dogs peed in the shallows. Maybe a girl he liked had come with her friends. I knew how it worked. I passed kids on runs with the dog. They didn’t have iPhones then, but they played music from someone’s stereo, and they sat without shirts on – our son reddening across the shoulders – that’s what Carrie noticed when we identified the body. His sunburn. ‘Didn’t anyone tell him? He had sunscreen. I put it in his backpack.’ As if that could have saved him. The girls would rub oil on their stomachs and lie back on the rocks, breasts concealed by a system of strings and triangles, sun glinting off the metal in their bellybuttons. No doubt the guys hid cans of beer in their backpacks, and the girls shared peach ciders or coolers or breezers, and someone lit a joint. And the sun would beat down, and Dustin would feel it sear his shoulder, and the music would be full and life-giving, and the girls would tiptoe to the edge and squeal as his friends leapt in, and soon they’d step off the rocks too, their strings and hair lifting off their shoulders for a beat before their legs sliced into water, and of course he wouldn’t linger back – of course he wouldn’t. That was my first regret. I shouldn’t have said, ‘If I catch you up there, you’re grounded.’ I should have taken him snorkelling along each cliff face so he saw, for himself, the splintered rocks, and where he should have jumped from.

No one tells you about the adrenaline. It kept me going the first day: a shaky coursing through my veins that made me circle the house changing light bulbs while Carrie called friends and family. By mid-morning on the second day, she had a shortlist of three funeral homes – homes, I scoffed, homes – and I had taken down the Christmas lights, sandpapered Dustin’s door so it didn’t stick in the frame, and driven a box of old batteries to the CRD recycling facility. Carrie had seen me from her office window as I hefted the box onto my shoulder and walked down the driveway. She leaned over her laptop to open the window, which she never opened, and dust from a mud wasp nest dislodged from the frame. For one wincing second I thought of my mother’s ashes, how they weren’t smooth like I expected, but lumped with fragments of tooth and bone. That’s what Dustin would become: the slender weight of him reduced to coarse sand, grains of mud chipped from a window.

Where are you going? she asked.

Recycling.

Now?

And I told her household batteries were responsible for fifty to seventy per cent of all heavy metals found in the world’s landfills – a fact I’d learned moments earlier, when I searched for battery recycling facilities on the internet. Though modern batteries contain lower levels of toxic metals, they’re still dangerous to soils and groundwater, I said. Carrie levelled me with her stare and yanked the window shut with both hands. Another cloud of dust released into the air.

After that first week, the adrenaline drained and fear settled in. I woke one morning after Carrie had left for work. She’d been leaving early to go to the gym. I made coffee and sat at the table with my laptop, a leaden, groaning device, and I tried to start an article on the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo. I found myself pecking the keyboard with my index finger like I did before I learned to type. I wrote the following words, which I still remember:

Crazy Maisie went to town
Crazy Maisie bought a gown
She wore her gown and found the sea
where her love had lain to sleep.

I didn’t mean to write a ghostly rhyme, yet felt pleased with it. That afternoon I drove west, past Sooke, with Sid our border collie, and took her for a three-hour hike. I stood on the beach for a long time, chucking rocks that Sid swam after, even though they sank to the bottom. I thought about throwing a stick for her, but a cruel splinter of myself wanted to watch her paddle into the bay, where a stone still rippled, and circle her own tail.

By the time I returned home, Carrie had reheated vegetarian lasagne for herself and was drawing a bath. I washed her dishes and smoked a cigarette outside, from the first pack I’d purchased in fifteen years. I didn’t have the urge, but it felt purposeful, a punctuation mark. When I came in from outside, Carrie had gone to bed. I lingered in the doorway and thought about climbing onto the mattress beside her, kissing her neck, running my hand over her hip. Instead, I closed the door and returned to my laptop, where the rhyme was still open. I took the laptop to the sofa and tried to watch a porn video about a dentist and her patient. I fell asleep.

Again, I woke after Carrie had left for work. The day continued in silence. It bothered me that we could go days without talking. Even with her, there was nothing necessary about speech.

I ate refried beans for lunch, though there was still lasagne in the fridge. In the first months I acted out my grief as though he were watching. For him, I would not return to the comfort of reheated lasagne. I would forget breakfast and eat beans from a can.

They flew in a pair of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, one designated as the trail aircraft, one as a lead. Both carried two pilots, two gunners, three PJs and two .50 caliber machine guns. Berkeley had landed for pick up. As he hauled a wounded soldier from the hot zone, insurgents attacked the lead chopper. A bullet struck the tail rotor cable, and the pilots lost control. While they struggled to land the aircraft, the insurgents launched a rocket grenade, which killed two PJs and riddled shrapnel into Berkeley’s inner thigh. The battle lasted four hours, by which time the airmen had devised a bandaid fix for the rear rotor, and the two helicopters lifted back into the air. By the time they reached the military hospital at Bagram Airfield, they’d lost a pilot and two gunners in addition to the first two PJs.

The shrapnel had hit Berkeley’s thigh at such high speed that it exited the body without damaging his nerves or blood vessels. But it shattered the bone into three pieces. The shrapnel to his chest had collapsed a lung; he lost five pints of blood. A tiny fragment the size of a mosquito wing had to be removed from his left eye. In the end, that’s what discharged him.

He recovered. Fifteen months and three grafting operations later, he was running again. He ran the goddamn Boston Marathon. He finished 282nd and raised $12,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. The next year, before Kickstarter or GoFundMe even existed, he made a pledge on his website: I’m asking for donations to raise $100,000 in honour of my fallen comrades. If I meet my target, I promise to finish the Boston Marathon next year with a time that qualifies me for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The qualifying standards for Athens in 2004 had been 2:15:00, five minutes faster than Berkeley’s race in Edmonton – before his femur was pinned back together, before the collapsed lung, which could recur under strain, before the blindness in one eye. It wasn’t possible.

I followed his LiveJournal, where he published his run times and photos at the gym – squatting with dumbbells, or tying a resistance band around his ankles to pry his legs apart. I wondered if he found it demeaning. He was used to running in the desert in full military gear, swimming in cold quarries. Now he stretched on a mat with a foam roller like a model in Men’s Health.

I printed the photos he posted and taped them to Dustin’s wall. I’d begun to work in his bedroom. It had been three years. We left the room intact, except I replaced his Kids 8–12 IKEA desk with a larger IKEA desk, and we changed his bedspread from the one with realistic elephants to a pale blue he might have liked, and which wouldn’t disturb houseguests when they stayed, which wasn’t often, or me when I slept in his room, which was more often. But we kept the taxidermied bobcat his uncle got him, and his shell collection, and the glow-in-the-dark planet stickers, and the fuck he’d printed in felt pen behind his computer. And we still called it Dustin’s room – ‘I’ll be in Dustin’s room if you need me’; ‘I’m going to sleep in Dustin’s tonight’ – as if his presence were embedded in the wall plaster, and I’d meet him when I sat in my slightly larger desk and faced the same wall he had faced when he played Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds.

I watched Carrie observe the accumulation of printed photographs. Her eyes ran across the creased paper, the ink that ribboned Berkeley’s face with pixellated lines as he grinned over his dumbbell. Often her eyes landed on the red fuck I’d preserved. I never papered over it. Soon it was the only patch of bare wall that remained, and I looked to it for encouragement. To spur me on. A sort of mantra. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

At dinner, I asked Carrie about her legal cases, and she asked about Berkeley’s progress. I wasn’t working on anything else at the moment. Only once did she reach for me across the table and lay her cool palm on my wrist, lightly, without depositing any weight, and say, what are you trying to find?

He’d been running six-minute miles for weeks. The marathon was 26.21 miles, so if he ran the distance in six minute miles, he’d finish in 2:37:19 – ten minutes faster than his last race, but twenty-two minutes too slow. I was engrossed in the tragedy of it – in what would happen if he didn’t make his time. But that week he ran a mile in 5:40. Then 5:36. Which, if he could sustain it, would bring his time to 2:26:50.

I don’t believe it, I said when I told her.

She studied my expression, as if to gauge whether I considered this a triumph.

That’s remarkable, she said, adjusting her tone as I winced. Good for him?

No, I said. I don’t believe it.

You think he’s lying?

A lie won’t qualify you for the Olympics. They don’t take your word for it, Carrie.

Her skin had warmed over mine, and the cool air surprised me when she lifted her palm.

I’d forgotten it was there.

The next weekend I took the Coho to Port Angeles and drove to Tacoma, where he lived. He received me in his home gym, a converted garage with walls of corrugated metal. He had no carpet or floorboards, but he’d laid a black mat over the concrete. The place had an underground industrial look. Bad ass, Dustin might have said. A shelf along the wall held dumbbells, and a long rope hung from the ceiling. He had a rowing machine, a treadmill and an adductor press. He’d grown since I’d seen him last. The noodle-armed teenager with curtained hair was broader across the chest and quadriceps. Still, he retained the physique of a long distance runner. He must have lost some military bulk in hospital. He sat at the adductor machine, and his trainer stood with him, a towel over his shoulder. The trainer introduced himself as Matthew. He wore a nylon tracksuit with a matching blue toque, which his eyes reflected. His expression was alert and eager in the way born-again Christians appear alert and eager. I half-expected him to pass me a copy of Awake! His eyes tracked my movements around the gym as I took in the rope, the machines, the green exercise ball in the centre of the floor mat.

Nice place you’ve got here, I said.

Thanks, said Berkeley, following my gaze around the room, as if he were admiring the gym for the first time too.

He wasn’t sweating, I observed. No stains under his arms, his buzzcut dry. Had I come before the workout, or was this staged?

I can offer you water or Powerade, said Matthew.

He opened the door to a mini-fridge I hadn’t noticed until now and removed a bottle of water.

I’m okay thanks, I said. Do you mind if I record?

I rolled the fitness ball nearer to the adductor machine and sat down, held the recorder in my hand because there was no obvious place to rest it. Berkeley looked at Matthew, who gestured for me to go ahead. I asked my first question.

The LA Times called you superhuman in a recent feature. They made an allusion to Ares, god of war.

Berkeley nodded, his eyes focused on the floor.

Does that embarrass you at all? You didn’t leave the military to be flattered by journalists.

Matthew lifted his hand. Honourably discharged, he corrected.

Apologies.

I did cringe when I saw the article, said Berkeley as Matthew’s hand settled back in his lap.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful. Donations to my blog doubled that day. But I don’t want people to get the wrong impression.

That this is a publicity stunt?

He nodded. It’s not.

We both waited for the other to continue. I found myself trying to guess which was his prosthetic eye. Each time I concluded it was one, the other appeared too clear, the iris too blue, man-made. In the silence, Matthew twisted the lid off the bottle of water in his hand. He passed it to Berkeley.

We’ve met before, I said. Do you remember?

Why do you think I agreed to an interview?

I’m flattered.

Don’t be.

A chuckle rose in my throat like a hiccup. I coughed. The trainer gestured toward the mini-fridge where he was perched, his legs on either side of the door. This time I said yes. He tossed me a bottle of Powerade, though I’d wanted water. I broke the seal and drank from it, taking the time to swallow and wipe my mouth before I continued.

Your doctors must be impressed with your recovery.

They are. But unsurprised.

Oh?

I’ve always been strong. Even in high school, I never cross-trained. I got up in the morning and ran to school. I ran at lunch time, then back home. It’s programmed into me.

The PJ training must add to that.

Oh yeah. Especially with the mental stuff.

Tell me more about that.

Some call it ‘grit’. What you’re capable of in an endurance environment is more determined by your mental strength than anything else.

I’ve heard ultra-marathon runners describe it as the ‘pain cave’.

That’s right. You have to get comfortable in the pain cave.

Some athletes use PEDs to get comfortable in the pain cave. How big of a problem is that among élite runners?

It’s a problem. But not one I’ve seen myself.

No?

I’ve always tested clean.

Have you observed other athletes using them?

Sure. But I won’t go into details.

I read an interview with a former dealer. He’d created twenty different drugs in his lab, none detectable by today’s doping testers.

Exactly. So you can’t prove athletes are using.

Or not using.

Matthew arched his back to stretch. A joint popped in his sternum, and he lowered his chest back to neutral. He glanced distractedly at his watch in a way that implied the interview would end soon.

How’s Dustin? said Berkeley.

My son’s name in his voice jolted me. Later, when I played back the audio, I heard the tap of my shoe against the floor mat as my leg started to bounce. Without taking time to consider my answer, I said, he’s fine.

How old’s he now?

I hesitated, worried he knew more than he was letting on. I didn’t need to count the years in my head.

Sixteen.

What would Carrie say if she could see me? Or not say.

Is he too old for a signed shirt?

My tongue felt heavy in the base of my mouth. I shook my head.

Grab one of the Adidas shirts, he said to Matthew, who stood from the mini-fridge.

I promise it’s clean, said Berkeley with an upbeat laugh as Matthew hoisted up the roller shutter door.

Saliva leaked into my jaw from my cheek glands, like it does before you throw up. I washed it down with Powerade. After a few minutes, Matthew returned with a white mesh shirt and a Sharpie.

Berkeley scrawled his name in fat letters on the front. He asked for my digital camera, which hung over my shoulder, forgotten, and told Matthew to take a photo of us. He held up the T-shirt.

I finished the interview with a question about young athletes who wanted to join the military. Did he have any advice? I didn’t hear his answer as I folded the shirt into a tiny square and placed it at the bottom of my bag.

I stayed at a hotel in Seattle that night. A bland room that reminded me of Frasier because of the inoffensive carpet and unstained pine units. But when I tried to recall the Frasier apartment, I could only see my hotel room. Perhaps it was simply the city, the implied Space Needle, which I couldn’t see from my window, but which I knew was there, like you know the mountains are there, an imprint on the horizon.

I tried to call Carrie, but she didn’t pick up the landline, and her cellphone went straight to voicemail. I indulged a worst-case scenario fantasy – that she’d been attacked while walking Sid at the lake; she always went off-trail, you never knew who was out there on a weeknight after the regulars went home.

Or another man was over. That fantasy was no less stabbing, but I indulged it for longer. There were plenty of candidates. The litigator at work who never met my eye at the Christmas party. Her yoga instructor, whom she disparaged because of his velvet voice and truisms – when we love ourselves on the mat, we love ourselves off the mat, as if loving ourselves were not a thing we did enough of right now, in society. I wouldn’t mind if it were him. He’d be meaningless. A pick-me-up. Carrie deserved a pick-me-up.

Who else. The man who delivered our veg box? He was attractive, I could see that. He had permanent stubble around his chin and the rough/gentle combo women go nuts for – the brawn to rip potatoes from the earth, yet the care to cradle one under a stream of water as he loosened ridges of dirt from the skin. Carrie always timed deliveries for when she was home. But then I never answered the door while I wrote.

Again she didn’t pick up, so I put on shoes and ordered Thai food from the takeout restaurant downstairs. They said it would be thirty minutes. The woman at the till looked at me with irritation when I said I’d wait for it, on the only chair, which had a plastic cover over the seat. A clock hung on the wall without a frame. It was an hour late, though the time changed four months ago. It occurred to me they might be waiting for the hour to change back. The woman at the till wore a slippery red shirt. She punched buttons on her phone – cellphones still had buttons then. Neither of us engaged the other in conversation, which we were both grateful for, I think. When I left, she gave me extra chocolate mints.

Carrie didn’t pick up when I got back to my room, so I left a message. I ate my green curry with beer from the mini-fridge. I imagined Matthew perched over this one too, passing me the Heineken. They both had such bible blue eyes. I should have asked about faith. That might have been a good angle.

I turned on my digital camera and checked the photo we took. Berkeley held the signed shirt to my chest. I visibly leaned back from it. The words, ROCK ON DUSTIN. LOVE BERKELEY, filled the fabric. The photo was completely unusable, and I wondered if he did that on purpose.

It had been windy on the island. I came home to find Carrie dragging a bough of cracked fir across the grass to a pile at the edge of the yard. I’d rarely seen her like this, when she didn’t know I was watching. I stayed in the car. She moved without caution, jigging the branch in the air to gain a better grip, wrestling forward. She wasn’t wearing gloves. That’s when I noticed how vast the bough was. Longer than her. Flattening the grass under its weight. And she grappled with the spiked branches, heaving it across the lawn. After a few steps, she shifted the weight to one hand and shook the other in the air, kissing it to her mouth. She’d cut herself. I wanted to help, but she told me recently she found such offers patronising. She could open the jar herself, she said. Even if she had to smash it open. How do you think they figured out coconuts? I tried not to smile, but later I resented the comment. Couldn’t she let me have this? I didn’t rip potatoes from the earth. My car broke down once on the Malahat, and I had no clue how to fix it. I chopped wood clumsily, and only when she asked me to. Jars were all I had left. But it occurred to me, as I sat in the car, she might feel the same way. Maybe the jars, this tree, were all she had left. Maybe that was something we shared now. I tucked my hands in my coat pockets and imagined how cold and chapped hers must be. It wasn’t a warm day. She wore jean cut-offs, a yellow shirt tucked in, the mess of her hair tied in a scarf. I recognised the scarf. An old Forty Licks shirt, one of Dustin’s, torn in a wide strip. When she finally reached the end of the yard, she dropped the bough and stood over it with her hands on her hips like a hunter over a slain bear.

I opened the car door and slammed it to announce my presence. She glanced over her shoulder, then back at the bough. I opened the gate and walked partway to her down the path.

Windy night? I said.

She nodded, spearing her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. A curl had loosened from her scarf. She tossed her head back to knock it out of her eyes.

Did the power go out? I asked, hopeful, recalling my attempts to phone her.

No.

I could tell she was thinking about my calls too. The question hung between us.

You want stew? she asked. It’s leftover.

I followed her inside. The stew was in a Dutch oven on the stove. She lit the burner and turned, leaned against the counter.

So is he doping?

I let my bag slump off my shoulder to the floor, the camera clunking as it landed.

I think so.

Will you say that in your article?

If I do, you can expect a reaction. I get the sense war heroes are exempt from scepticism down there.

Well, she said.

The stew started to slop and spurt in the pot. She rotated back to stir it. I noticed a printout of something on the counter. I recognised the shape of it – the text suspended in white space. Without stepping nearer, I knew what she’d found.

Crazy Maisie went to town
Crazy Maisie bought a gown
She wore her gown and found the sea
where her love had lain to sleep.

When Carrie glanced from the stove, she followed my gaze, then looked away. She wouldn’t have printed out the rhyme and left it there if she didn’t want me to explain. Rereading the poem from a distance, it looked like a sick suicide note. Is that what she thought? Or that she, in turn, was Crazy Maisie? I didn’t ask these questions out loud. To do so would admit how far we had fallen.

I had to use photoshop on your computer, she said. I saw the file name and clicked on it.

It was just a stupid rhyme I wrote. When I had writer’s block.

She nodded. I touched her hip and she tilted her weight, just slightly, into my hand. I kissed the tangles under her scarf. She didn’t step away. I opened the cupboard above her head, slid two bowls from the shelf and set the table.

A few days later, Berkeley mentioned me in a blog post. He said a journalist drove all the way down from Canada to interview him. That he’d met me before – at the IAAF in 2001. That we talked about his journey to this day, the challenges he’d overcome. How difficult it could be to keep going sometimes, with the guilt that his brothers on the field never made it. The motto for Pararescuemen is That Others May Live, he said. It killed him they didn’t. As I read the post, I understood he was writing my article. He was writing my article so I didn’t have to write the one I’d intended to. And the truth is – I was thankful. I wanted him to dope. If five men could die beside him. If his lung collapsed, and his femur broke into three pieces. If he lost five pints of blood and vision in one eye, and he could still qualify for the fucking Olympics, my sorrow was not good enough.

I printed his post and taped it to the wall with the others. Dustin’s red fuck beamed reassuringly from the patchwork. I began my article with the myth of Pheidippides, who ran to Athens to announce victory over the Persian army. As he reached the Athenian agora, he shouted nikomen, we won, and collapsed dead in the intense summer heat.

Published in August 2017, no. 393
Eliza Robertson

Eliza Robertson

Eliza Robertson studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Scholarship. In 2013, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Journey Prize and CBC Short Story Prize. Her début story collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the East Anglia Book Award and selected as a New York Times editor’s choice. Her first novel, Demi-Gods, comes out with Penguin Canada and Bloomsbury in late 2017.