by Pat Nolan
ON THE RUN
I ran. Not awkwardly puffing out big breaths like I used to, striding across the black sand beach of Sabbia Negru in ‘protective custody’ under the watchful eye of SAPHO. I breathed easily, free, my feet barely touching the asphalt. It was exhilarating. My peripheral vision expanded to take in the panorama of a tranquil dew drenched morning.
I passed my first mile mark, a rank of sentinel-like poplars turned from green to gold in just the last week. There were a half dozen of them guarding an abandoned property, and tall enough that I had to tilt my head back to see their tips pressed into the swirl of thick morning fog. Their leaves littered the late greening grasses at the shoulder of the road like a scattering of large yellow coins.
The road followed a dry creek bed lined with brambles and took me past a cluster of summer homes boarded up for the season, the back half of one of them in charred ruins from a suspicious fire.
In the distance a milky white mass undulated and shifted with the air currents. The top of a fir or redwood on the ridge across the river poked through like the silhouette of a man chest deep in snow. The whole of the landscape, in fact, was enveloped in fog and mist nearly every morning at this time of year. It crept up the Corkscrew River from the coast in late evening and by early morning blanketed everything for at least ten miles inland.
Wispy pale blue geysers spiraled up to join the low dripping ceiling, signaling the presence of wood stoves and fireplaces in the damp dark woods. The acrid spicy smoke added a pleasant bite to the moist chill air. Under a streetlamp giving off an eerie greenish glow, a covey of quail scattered for the underbrush and low branches of prolific maples. I heard barks and sounds of dogs quarreling in the distance. Elsewhere, the echo-like barks of other dogs took up the call.
It was not unusual for dogs to launch themselves off of porches or out from behind fences after me. It’s more annoying than dangerous. Still, it’s disturbing enough to put me on my guard. Most of the dogs on my run were used to me by now, satisfied with a few perfunctory barks to acknowledge my passing through their turf. Creasy’s German shepherd pup was my only real worry of late. He still thought of me as sport. I carried a length of leash in the pocket of my sweat jacket to whack him a good one across the snout and teach him a lesson if need be.
An explosion careened off the slopes of the surrounding hills, shattering as it died. I imagined the gun of some leftover vacationer flexing his citified fantasies, but likely only an engine backfiring.
After Grove Street joined Oak Lane, there was a straightaway where I liked to put on speed. And, as usual, there was old Manny’s banana yellow pick-up truck crawling along, right wheels off the pavement, churning the soft shoulder. I knew he was watching me in his sideview mirror as I overtook the truck. He did it practically every morning, the old letch. Understandable in summer because then I only wore shorts and a light tank top. But at this time of year, what was there to see? A match-my-eyes blue hooded sweat jacket covered practically my entire torso! I was being naïve. I knew only too well the answer to that question. Legs and no panty line.
Manny honked and waved. An older man with graying hair and brown leathery skin, his black button eyes peered at me over the steering wheel and a wide grin of uneven teeth set in purple gums hardly masked what he was thinking.
As my run brought me closer to Timberton, I was often forced to the shoulder by a car or truck roaring past. This was the stretch I liked least. The increased traffic crowded the air with exhaust fumes and I sucked them in by the lungful. It couldn’t be healthy.
The halfway point was a huge burnt-out stump, the grandmother of all redwoods. Even in its truncated and diminished state, it was monstrous, easily seventeen feet across, a network of brilliant red poison oak reaching up the side of the charred hulk like spreading fire. Beyond it, at the crest of a gentle rise, Oak ended at Highway 8, the two lane thoroughfare that ran through Timberton on its way to the coast.
I made a wide turn and headed for home. I’d been lucky so far, no dogs had tried to nip the wings at my heels. My medium length blonde hair was limp and matted with sweat, yet the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck bristled. A chill coursed through my overheated body.
The rumble of a blown muffler gave substance to my foreboding. I steered to the side of the road and threw a glance over my shoulder. A steel gray van with a raised rear-end and oversized chrome wheels had down-shifted to match my speed. A tinted bubble window in the shape of an Iron Cross adorned the right rear side. The van cruised by and the passenger gave me the long onceover. I watched his mouth drop open.
The front end bit the pavement as the van skidded to a stop. Gears complained, forced into reverse, rear tires smoking, propelling the gray box wildly backwards.
I maintained my pace, determined to remain calm. They weren’t really trying to run me over. It was just their way of getting acquainted. I’d been recognized. Nothing new, I assured myself.
The passenger rolled his window down. “Honey, you look good enough to eat!” It was a thin, reedy voice.
I kept running, wishing them away. Fat chance of that.
The van caught up with a burst of acceleration, sailed past, and braked to a stop, lifting the rear off the pavement and spinning it at an angle across the road. The passenger door swung open. A skinny creep, forelock of black oily hair limp across a sallow forehead, ragged goatee surrounding a thin-lipped mouth, grinned maliciously. “Hey, baby, come on, get in.” Chipped yellow teeth, pointed cheekbones, large protruding ears.
I smiled the smile I reserve for fools, skirting the door blocking my path, and kept on.
What he shouted after me showed what little respect he had for women. I can’t say that I hadn’t heard it before. What woman hasn’t? Any number of times. It used to shock me but now it only makes me angry.
The van sped past again and then stopped, blocking my path. Oil Can Willie stuck his head and shoulders out of the window. “Come on, sweet cheeks, there’s plenty of room in here! You can sit on my face!”
He made a grab for me and I lashed out with the length of leash I saved for pesky dogs. It missed but my intention was clear. I heard a repulsive laugh and guessed that it came from the driver.
I put on a burst in the hope of outrunning them. The Miller place was about a hundred yards further up. The van came up behind me and forced me off the road. As they pulled alongside, my hair was standing on end. A cockroach brown Doberman lunged at me from the open window, choke chain creasing its neck as it gargled menacing barks, fangs dripping with yellow saliva.
They got a big kick out of that. The skinny one had a high-pitched hysterical laugh. I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of the driver, but I heard a deep voice say something that sounded an awful lot like “tits”. They peeled out, leaving the stink of burned rubber behind.
The first thing I noticed was swastikas made of red reflector tape on each side of the rear bumper. I focused on the blue and gold license plate but it was a blur. I rarely wear my contacts when I run.
My heart pounded. What assholes! The surge of adrenaline made my knees wobbly. I felt lightheaded, gut in turmoil. I nearly puked, but steeled myself and continued, walking briskly at first and then building into my stride.
A whistle or a cat-call from a passing car, the wet, kissing sound of some street corner zero was not out of the ordinary. But this was extreme. Men’s eyes, and occasionally women’s, had undressed me since I’d reached puberty. I can’t say that I ever got used to it, but as a young beauty contestant and then as a fashion model, I accepted that it came with the territory. In my presence, most men become tongue-tied, their mouths gape open, eyes bulging, dumb and mesmerized as the blood rushes to their anterior parts instead of their pea brains.
Sure, if I wasn’t Lee Malone, former Teen America princess, internationally famous cover girl and runway celebrity, if my provocative good looks hadn’t advertised cigarettes − “I like them. Don’t you?” − or adorned automobile ads − “Why don’t you come along for the ride?” − I could not have so easily pressed my advantage. But I’m drop-dead gorgeous. It’s my superpower.
A succession of sharp explosions collapsed into nothing. I was positive they were gunshots this time. I was taking the back road home. I had to pass through a redwood grove situated at the base of a ridge where a number of cabins were built in among the trees on the incline. There were lights in a few of the cabins in what I took to be the kitchens. A stovepipe jutting like an arm crooked at the elbow spewed billows of yellow smoke. As I passed under a tear shaped streetlight, I sensed a hand pulling aside a curtain and eyes peering out.
The road brought me out into an open alluvial plain where the gray low ceiling seemed bright by comparison. Banks of brambles lined both sides of the road, and scattered throughout the thicket, the reds and yellows of poison oak pennants. A row of birches partially divided a weed-choked field alongside a driveway at the head of which stood a tiny cabin, roofed and sided with the same green tar-paper brick. An anemic thread of smoke rose from the rusted stovepipe on the roof. I saw old man Goldstein cutting across the field to the road ahead of me, elbows pumping like a tiny old-fashioned locomotive. He hailed me as I was about to run by. It sounded like Chinese at first.
“Hoy! Lee! Lee Malone!”
I circled back. He came up to the edge of the field, hesitated, and then jumped across the narrow ditch to the road. I never saw him without his tweed sports cap. Under it was a bulbous nose and a face like a washed out prune.
“You haven’t seen Hitler, have you, Lee?” A bright yellow, green and red Aloha shirt draped his wiry frame. Wrinkled, oil-stained tan permanent press slacks, red and blue argyle socks, and scuffed red leather slippers soaked by the heavy dew completed his outfit.
I shook my head, still not totally slowed down. I turned in a wide circle in front of him, decelerating and drawing my breaths carefully. His eyes, large brown yolks behind thick lenses, followed me, concerned. Hitler was his Airedale, a big brown and black dog, as old as Goldstein it seemed. He always chased me when I took this route, though all I had to do was put on a burst of speed to easily outrun him.
“I heard him barking earlier, he sounded upset,” he continued, “and then those shots. . . you’re going to be alright, aren’t you? Lee? Yes?”
I smiled and nodded. “Sure. I’m fine.” Inhaled deeply, and then, “I haven’t seen Hitler this morning, Mr. Goldstein.” Deep breath. Then I remembered. “Funny, Creasy’s pup wasn’t on the road this morning either. . . .”
Goldstein rubbed his skinny arms with bony mottled hands. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the large stump that marked where River Way let out onto Holly Court.
“You’re gonna catch cold in that outfit, Mr. Goldstein,” I said.
“Cold? Youcallthis cold? Letmetellyousomething, younglady, I’ve been where it’s cold! This? Thisisn’t cold! This is California!”
I can always count on an argument from Goldstein.
“But yes, I did feel a little chill.” He passed a hand across the back of his neck. “Odd what your imagination will do. . . .” He walked towards the corner. “That numbness at the back of my head, I haven’t felt such a totally unreasonable fear since ‘39 when the Nazis came for my aunt and uncle. We, my cousins and I were hidden. . .ah, already, you’ve heard that story too many times, haven’t you?” He sighed and shook his head. “Sometimes I think that’s all that’s left of my life, those memories of fear and horror.” He still spoke with a trace of an accent. “Did I ever tell you, Lee, how I got Hitler?”
I shook my head in a little white lie.
“After we escaped, and finally made our way to America! Thelandofthe free!” He struck a pose, arm upraised as if holding a torch. “We landed in upstate New York, of all places. The Goldglass Estate. Distant relations.” He dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
“They had an Irish woman caretaking the place. Count on the Jews to have the Irish do their dirty work for them.” He flashed me a little wrinkled smile. “She had a mutt who had just produced a litter of part Airedale puppies. One of them became mine because we were both recent arrivals to a new world. And the joy! Beyond words! In German. Or in American, of which I knew very little back then. I didn’t want to call him Hot Dog, which my cousin, whose idea it was to name him that thought was very clever. One day we were playing as we usually did. I’d push him away and he’d jump back on me, trying to nip me. Playfully, of course. But suddenly he wrapped his mouth around my wrist and wouldn’t let go. Even though he was just a little guy, it began to hurt and I got scared. So I yelled ‘Let go of me!’ and then, strangely, as if inadream, I said ‘Hitler! Letgoofme, Hitler!’ And he did, he let go of me because he knew that was his name, it fit him.”
In the differing versions of that story I’d heard before Goldstein never admitted that the original dog named Hitler would have died years ago and that the present Hitler was either a grandson or some descendant of the original dog. And he never admitted what I’d come to suspect, that he had named his Airedale Hitler because it was shocking for a Jew to have a dog with that name.
A retching sound came from his throat rising in pitch to a whimper of grief. “Mr. Goldstein. . . .” I was at the edge of the road with him. There, where the ground sloped down, in among the thorny tentacles of blackberry and the tangle of bright red yellow poison oak, was Hitler, scarlet foam flecking his jaw, quite dead.
Goldstein dragged the dog up to the road muttering and crying something in a language I didn’t know. It sounded pitiful though, and I was touched. He rolled the dog over, its limp limbs flopping against the pavement. There was a round red blot behind Hitler’s ear and I recognized it from seeing its facsimile on TV, a bullet hole. Goldstein saw it too.
“Some bastard shot my dog!” He sounded angry and scared. “Some putz shot my dog!” He looked at me, bewildered. “Who? Did you see. . . ? Lee? Who. . . ?”
The steel gray van immediately rolled into mind. “Some creeps in a van tried to harass me a while ago. . .I mean, I can’t say for sure that they had anything to do with this, but just from my impression of them, I’d say they’d be the type.”
“Who. . .who. . . ?” he hooted.
I shrugged, helpless. “I’ve never seen them before. I only got a good look at one of them. And their dog.” The thought of them made me shudder again.
“Some putzes in a van are going around shooting dogs? I didn’t think I’d live that long.” His face lengthened with heavy sadness.
I too was feeling knots in my throat. “It was one of those kind of vans, you know, with the raised rear end and big shiny chrome wheels. . .steel gray with green trim. . .one of those tinted bubble windows at the back shaped like a cross, an Iron Cross, you know. . . .”
Goldstein gaped at me like he was hearing the words but not understanding what I was saying.
“. . .and they had these red swastikas on the rear bumper. . . .” I felt stupid as soon as I said it.
Goldstein dropped to his knees and hugged his dog’s lifeless body. “Nazis!” he spit, breaking into sobs, “Nazis killed you, Hitler!”