by Malka Davis
Finalist : 2011 Fiction Contest
“I’m not in trouble—am I?” The sweat on Penelope’s body had long since evaporated, leaving a sticky residue on her skin that gave her the feeling of having run headlong into an enormous spider web. Detectives Holowinko and Mansfield exchanged blank expressions that she interpreted as the self-evident nature of her innocence. If not innocence, then blamelessness. At 46 she was still naïve enough to believe that only a guilty person needed a lawyer. So she waived her right to an attorney and told the detectives she would “gladly” talk to them without one present. But almost as soon as she read the delight on Mansfield’s face she began to regret her decision.
“Trouble?” Holowinko said. He regarded Penelope’s thick chestnut hair, clipped close to her scalp, and thought how much more attractive she would be with it grown to her shoulders. He didn’t like himself when he had those thoughts about women, knee-jerk first impressions that he blamed for his bachelor status at the age of 56. It was obvious that this Schneider woman was in shock and perhaps not fully aware of what she had done. It was probably obvious to Mansfield, too. To the exact degree that Mansfield was hoping to exploit the woman’s mental state Holowinko wanted to protect her from it.
“That depends,” Mansfield replied quickly. He gnashed a piece of chewing gum that had long lost its flavor.
“On what?” Penelope asked. She already didn’t like Mansfield, who seemed more adept at playing cop than performing as one. What was more, his comically small ears made her think of Curious George, which would logically make Holowinko—whom she instinctively trusted—the Man in the Yellow Hat. Like the picture book character, he was tall and slender with a sharp heroic nose.
Mansfield crossed his arms and thrust out his hips. “On how much you cooperate.”
Holowinko flinched. He was trying to break this new guy of his TV cop clichés, but so far nothing had worked.
Penelope heard it, too. She laughed—without restraint or the slightest pretense that she was laughing at anything but him. Mansfield appeared visibly injured by this and looked to Holowinko for some acknowledgment of the infraction. When he didn’t get it, he shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers and nervously fingered his last stick of chewing gum.
The muscles in Penelope’s legs began to prickle. She looked squarely at Mansfield and said, “Excuse me, detective, but isn’t that what I’m doing? Let’s face it, I wouldn’t even be here if I hadn’t walked right up to a cop and told him what I had done. I’d be at home right now reading the morning newspaper and sipping my coffee.”
“What Detective Mansfield is trying to say, Ms. Schneider,” Holowinko said, hoping to recover even the minutest loss of trust, “Or is it Mrs. Schneider?”
Penelope smiled. “Ms. will do just fine.”
“Okay. What Detective Mansfield is saying is that we don’t think you’re a criminal. You’re obviously not a criminal.” He decided he liked the muscular shape of her legs, too, but thought that if she cut back a little on the running and gained a few pounds it would give her some softness around her hips and shoulders. “But we have to get to the bottom of what happened this morning at the park. It’s our job, okay? So, we’re just asking for your account—that’s all.” He tried to make it sound as if the whole interrogation process was simply a bureaucratic formality, and was heartened to see the woman’s look of skepticism transmute into something closer to blind resignation.
“Of course,” Penelope said. “I’m rather thirsty, though. May I have a glass of water first?” Holowinko left the room so abruptly Penelope wasn’t sure he hadn’t left for other, more urgent business.
Mansfield peered out the door after him. When it looked like Holowinko’s return was in no way imminent, Mansfield turned away from the door and spat the wad of gum he had been chewing into a small trash receptacle; it was quickly replaced with a fresh stick. Penelope guessed that Mansfield’s chewing gum habit was one of many small irritations for Holowinko. Without his partner, though, he seemed to have lost all sense of purpose and direction. He walked aimlessly about the room, his head bent as if from the sheer weight of his thoughts.
Penelope took her surroundings for a standard interrogation room, harshly lit, and furnished with little attention to style or comfort. On the wall opposite her hung the large reflective glass she had seen in any number of crime dramas. She tried to meet the eyes of whoever might be scrutinizing her from the other side. Perhaps hidden somewhere (underneath her chair?) was a microphone. But when she could find no clock she looked down at her watch. It was still set on “chrono” mode, the digital display flashing 23:12:48. That’s when she must have found them, she thought—the man and woman several feet from the trail, partially clothed, partly obscured by spring foliage. She must have stopped the watch at that point. Only she couldn’t remember stopping it. And not remembering made her uneasy.
Holowinko at last returned with a glass of tap water, which Penelope consumed in large, eager gulps. By the time she finished and handed the glass back to him, her uneasiness over not remembering was accompanied by an odd sense of comfort gained from the recognition that Kenley, however absent, was playing a part in all of this. That he might be—if she dared to believe such a thing—watching over her this very minute. With her thumbnail she chipped away the specks of dried mud on the face of her watch. Kenley’s watch, really. It would always be his, no matter how many miles she logged or how many bands she had to replace. “Ms. Schneider,” she heard one of the detectives say (it could have been either one). She looked up and smiled.
Holowinko hesitated, then returned the smile, feeling, for the first time since he set eyes on her, that he could never in a million years understand a woman like her, so full of incongruities and contradictions. But when he determined, with the flawless timing of a jazz musician, that the moment was right, he said, “We can start whenever you’re ready.”
It wasn’t until that morning in early May that Penelope realized with solemn alarm that Brandon was back in her life in a very fixed and defined way. She was headed out for her run when she caught sight of the miniature city of nutritional supplements on her kitchen counter. She stared at the bottles for a long time, as if by examining their arrangement she could determine exactly how they managed to cross her threshold without detection. Was it in stages, increments of one or two—or in one massive assault? The past three weeks—during which Brandon had made his way back into her bed—were mostly a blur. She would wake up just before sunrise to the sound of his cartoonish snoring and creep out of bed to prepare for her run through Eagle Creek Park. By the time she finished, the previous night’s lovemaking would be jolted out of her body. Upon her return, she would find Brandon stretched across the sofa, a cup of green tea in one hand, in the other a tightly folded newspaper that nearly touched his nose because he was too lazy to fetch his glasses from the nightstand. He would look up and ask how her run went, and while unlacing her shoes, Penelope would reply that it was good and make a bee-line for the bathroom. She didn’t like the way people were looking at her these days, as if there was something both repugnant and admirable in her newfound musculature. Her vague, delicate figure and moon-pie face had hardened into sinew and angular planes, her breasts reverting to prepubescent nubs. For weeks, comments had been made openly, at times blindly, about this dramatic transformation. But it was when she cut off her long chestnut hair that those voices fell deathly silent, as if she had mutilated herself as part of some cultic ritual and was now too far-gone to be saved. The verbal comments may have subsided, but the expressions of mild shock and discomfort would not seem to go away. Brandon’s was especially annoying.
She noticed that he was taking more than before. Not just the vitamin-mineral complex and ginkgo. In the year since their break-up he had added vitamin D, fish oil, wheat grass—and something called yohimbe, which sounded more like an African tribal dance than a vitamin. She bit her lip and returned the bottle to its companions. Brandon would have gently scolded her for misapplying “vitamin” to something that was clearly an herb. Kenley would have, too—only not as gently or patiently. Barely four weeks after she and Brandon began seeing each other, Kenley confessed that Brandon was like the older brother he never had. Penelope dropped the serving spoon full of lasagna and said, “Much older!” She had hoped Brandon would be like the father he never had. Their brotherly bond felt more like an alliance against her. And sure enough, their relationship seemed to thrive mostly on getting her off of white flour, practicing meditation, and taking fistfuls of vitamins throughout the day. She finally grew weary of Brandon’s constant efforts to reconstruct her. “You’re obviously looking for a very specific woman,” she told him. “Why don’t you go find her.” But after watching Kenley brood for two weeks over their breakup, Penelope wondered if he wouldn’t have preferred losing her instead.
Sex was just the most recent development in their relationship. Brandon had been circling her already-circumscribed existence since Kenley’s death the previous fall. She sensed him hovering, giving her “space” to grieve her only son. When he thought the time was right he would swoop down with gestures of support and tenderness—home-cooked vegetarian meals meant to counteract the sudden weight loss everyone assumed was due to depression, and New Age books about the mysteries of the universe that were intended to startle her into a Kubler-Ross brand of acceptance. If she had been less focused, less driven by her training, she might have told Brandon to please fuck off. She didn’t need his seitan stir-fry or Dalai Lama dictums. She was doing pretty okay under the circumstances. His persistent comforting only strengthened her resolve to meet the one-year anniversary of Kenley’s death by crossing the finish line of her first marathon.
It was early still; the sun had yet to clear the tops of the trees, but Penelope could smell the earth’s warm breath as she stretched under the branches of a sycamore. At this hour on a Sunday, Eagle Creek Park was populated by only the most devout athletes and outdoor enthusiasts. Yet, even within the confines of its 3,000 acres there existed a social hierarchy that Penelope felt forced to accept. At the top were the elite, helmet-clad cyclists, spandexed in the bold colors of foreign national flags, whose carbon fiber rocketry allowed them to whistle past the less evolved of their species with as little acknowledgment as possible. Next came the water sports enthusiasts, whom she could easily avoid except in the parking lot where they interrupted the flow of traffic while backing up their SUVs into the marina. As in most other aspects of her life, Penelope’s position in the social hierarchy of the park was securely in the middle. She was a runner, and in an easily recognizable way, a serious runner. Unlike the thirty-something housewives who always jogged in pairs and reeked of gardenia, Penelope’s attire was sensible, her appearance subordinate to the demands of her training. She was not planning to run far; she had put in her long miles the day before. With three months left before the marathon she didn’t want to injure herself or peak too early in her training. Today was supposed to be an easy run, of low intensity—four miles at the most. What she knew about running she gleaned from having a son in cross-country throughout high school, listening to him explain the difference between a fartlek and a tempo run, watching him sulk through a bad case of Achilles tendinitis because of over-training. Brandon, of course, had encouraged her to sign up for a training program, but she shrugged it off, just as she had shrugged off his offer to “analyze her mechanics” and give her advice on how to improve her efficiency. Although it seemed to escape everyone else’s notice Penelope thought she was managing quite well on her own. Her pace had improved from an achingly slow eleven-and-a-half minute mile to nearly eight—just shy of the official dividing point between jogging and running. She called herself a runner anyway, the same way she called herself an accountant, even though she had never earned a degree in accounting and was really just a bookkeeper. A hysterectomy five years after Kenley’s birth put her on the margins of womanhood. Now that her only child was dead, could she rightly consider herself a mother? Hadn’t that been snatched from her with a simple phone call?
Eighteen years had passed since she last heard Menashe’s voice, but she recognized it the second he spoke her name, his Israeli accent giving it a distinctive loopiness. There was a pause before his voice came back, this time splintered and fragile with the words, “There’s been an attack.” Penelope grabbed her hair by the roots and didn’t let go until the call ended. Menashe could have stopped there. It was all that needed to be said. The Palestinian uprising had erupted a few weeks before, it was all over the news, and she knew Kenley’s voluntary service in the IDF put him on the forefront of danger. But Menashe added a few incidentals to make the call more faceted, things like “a checkpoint in Ramallah,” and “a young woman Kenley’s age strapped with explosives.” Penelope had not heard the voice of her son’s father in 18 years; now it was telling her, across time as much as distance, that the only good thing to come out of their brief marriage was gone. He asked if she wanted his remains flown back to the States. Or didn’t she think their son (now he was their son) would want to be buried in Israel, his Jewish homeland, the country he sacrificed his life for. Menashe had a way of asking questions that were never meant to be answered. He started to offer to pay for her flight, but she hung up before he could finish.
Her legs felt heavy from the 15 miles she had run the day before, but she wasn’t fatigued. Within a mile, she knew the lactic acid in her muscles would be released and the heaviness would dissipate. Sheets of cool air hung from invisible lines between the trees on either side of the road, and as she ran into them it felt like breaking a thin layer of ice. In the nine months she had been running, Penelope managed to forge an attachment to the park that bordered on the territorial. It was expressed mainly as contempt for anyone who visited only on warm sunny weekends and holidays. Depending on their number, she regarded them as either boorish tourists or foreign invaders. She occasionally caught herself sneering at a particularly rowdy family reunion, or scoffing at an idling motorist who had stopped in all innocence to admire the deer grazing in the meadow. But it wasn’t until a park ranger pulled alongside her one afternoon and inquired about a woman runner who was yelling invectives at passing motorists that Penelope realized the true extent of her attachment—and then only after she had returned home, showered, ate a small meal, and related the incident to her sister Liz over the phone, which she later regretted. Liz was wholly unaffected by Penelope’s inclusion of the park ranger’s garishly out-dated reflective sunglasses or the patent injustice of him questioning her—a devoted park patron—for doing what was ostensibly his job. No, what Liz said in response to Penelope’s first brush with the law was, “You’ve been yelling at drivers to ‘slow the fuck down’? Ha! This whole time I thought I was the crazy one!” Unperturbed, Penelope went on to explain that there was, in fact, a sign at the entrance clearly stating that the twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit was enforced. “However, it doesn’t specify by whom.” After the conversation ended, though, and Penelope began to replay it in her mind, she was given over to the unsettling notion that she was, perhaps, becoming urbanely psychotic. She decided she would have to start keeping herself in check.
Without granting him formal permission, Penelope let Menashe bury their son without her. She knew enough about Jewish law to know that his body had to be buried as quickly as possible. What could be collected of his shattered remains would be wrapped in a burial shawl and lowered into the ground in a plain wooden casket so his body could return to the soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Everything had been arranged without her, and besides, she had lost Kenley long before a terrorist had decided to make a political statement out of him. Still, friends and family had urged her to go, warning that his death would never be real to her if she didn’t. Never be real? Only her friend Sandy knew what she was going through. “You never lose a child,” she explained after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. “You lose all the children that child ever was. The fetus wriggling inside you, the baby in your arms, the toddler taking her first steps across the kitchen floor . . . all the way to the adult version of that child. If they make it that far.” She said it as if they lived in the slums of Calcutta instead of the suburbs of Indianapolis. But Penelope understood how true it was when she lost all of those Kenleys in the space of a moment. Every one of them wrenched so violently from her she even felt her phantom uterus cramp for days afterward. How much more real could his death be?
As she approached the next mile marker she glanced at her watch. The first mile had been too fast for an easy run. She had to slow down, relax a bit, try not to think too much about the injustice that invariably occupied her thoughts when she hit her stride on the asphalt. Everyone assumed she ran in the park to heal herself; that’s what nature and exercise were supposed to do. But they didn’t know about the anger that accumulated in the fibers of her muscles and made her legs restless and prickly. Running offered some relief. With every mile, the anger was squeezed out of her muscles, released as sweat through her pores. But always, after a couple of days of rest, the prickliness returned—sometimes worse than before. Over the winter she had come down with the flu, and on doctor’s orders went an entire week without running. She tried to soothe her increasing edginess by going to a movie. It was a Friday night, and the theatre packed with smiling, well-dressed couples. Two rows in front of her, a man broadcast his opinion of every frame of the movie with missionary zeal. No amount of shushing from the audience could silence him. When the movie ended and the lights came up, instead of lingering with the credits, Penelope looked for the obnoxious man. She thought he would be easy to identify and sure enough she took note of his pretentious tweed jacket with the patches on the elbows. Late that night she would admit to herself that, for some reason, it was the man’s jacket that had pushed her over the edge, so far that she was more or less driven to follow the couple out to their car and tell the woman she should make sure to bring a roll of duct tape the next time they went out to a movie. The woman smiled uncertainly, appeared confused, and perhaps wondered if this stranger was making a reference to the movie. On the drive home Penelope’s mind convulsed with anger over the man’s arrogance and lack of consideration for the other viewers. That his running commentary matched her own opinion of the film’s flaws was beside the point. It was his complete lack of self-control, his apparent belief that his views should be made public that raged her. She entertained thoughts of following him home, tracking his every move, and going about the task of taunting him with phone calls, cryptic notes, acts of petty vandalism. When she was still reveling in such deranged thoughts at four in the morning she knew it was time to regain control. Though still weak from the flu, she went out for a three-mile run in a mixture of sleet and snow.
Her anger, she knew, was not the easy kind, like she might have toward a Palestinian woman strapped with plastic explosives. Easy because of its nice straight path, its simplicity, a generic brand of anger. Oh, how she would have preferred that! Instead, she was angry at an amorphous, intangible . . . something. Like being angry at the wind. It was the thing that had taken Kenley from a comfortable home in Midwestern suburbia to an inhospitable checkpoint in the Middle East. In Penelope’s reckoning of events it wasn’t a terrorist but rather a Zionist bomb that had finally detonated—and before that a Jewish one. It was already ticking the day he told her he wanted to study Torah in Israel, where he felt his “Jewish soul would find its fullest expression.” Whatever that meant! He had started talking like that the year before he left. And a year before that he started wearing a knit yarmulke and attending shul (not temple) and singing Shlomo Carlebach songs about the Biblical prophets. Then came what Penelope had been dreading the most—questions about his Israeli father, who, she was surprised to discover, could trump 16 years of single-motherhood with the Judaism card. So the time bomb must have been set even further back, all the way to her coupling with Menashe. There must have been something in his seed that lay dormant all those years she was raising the boy on her own. She never imagined Kenley would take his interest in Judaism as far as he did, and so she never discouraged him, never stood in his way. Only on hindsight could she see how foolish she had been, and she wondered in a constant, nagging way if it was all as inevitable as it seemed. Was there a point at which she might have deterred him, blocked his path to an Orthodox conversion, or to his leaving the country? Might he have stayed had she not broken up with Brandon, “the older brother he never had”? She had turned these questions over in her head so many times she thought she could hear them knock around like tumblers in a large, complex lock. If she could just get them to fall the right way, maybe she could release the anger for good and not have the restlessness and prickly sensation in her legs.
She glanced at her watch again. She had been out for 22 minutes. Up ahead she saw a water fountain at the opening to a trail. The woods beckoned her in a way she later decided went beyond human understanding. Yes, the trails would be cooler, but she was hardly suffering from what little heat the day had afforded. It was also true that she had recently come to appreciate the advantages of trail running, how it forced her to concentrate on the landscape—the large tree roots, fallen branches, rocks, wooden staircases, and bridges. Unlike the monotony of the road, these hazards had to be negotiated with every landing of her foot. It allowed her to forget—for a while—the injustice done to her. But the trail would also extend her route by at least a mile on a day she had intended to keep her workout under five. All the same, she looked behind her, waited for a group of cyclists to pass, and then crossed the road to the trailhead.
Sunlight penetrated the branches of the trees and cast pearlescent rays along her path. “They were guiding me,” she would insist later, mostly to Brandon. “I could have turned down another part of the trail,” she said. “Taken that prettier route down by the stone house. But I didn’t. I wanted to see where those beams of light were leading me.” And Brandon, like most people, responded by looking away or changing the subject. Apparently it was okay for Kenley to talk about the spirit world—but not her, oh no. Not simple-minded Penelope Schneider. She wasn’t allowed to see the hand of God in her life! She approached a small group of elderly hikers on a birdwatching expedition. A few of them carried field guides. The large binoculars that hung around their necks accentuated their stooped figures. As she skirted around them, she heard one of the men say, “Goodness gracious, if I was 20 years younger!” He got a few chuckles and an “amen to that.”
The air inside the woods was cooler than Penelope anticipated; it raised the short blonde hairs on her arms. She had reached a good cruising altitude, her breath shallow and unlabored. Her body seemed to advance itself independent of her will. At times like this she thought she could run forever—and if not for a loose shoelace she might have. She propped her foot atop the fallen trunk of a tree and began to tie her shoe when she heard what sounded, at first, like the burrowing of an animal several feet from the trail. Penelope looked in the direction of the noise and immediately recognized a member of her own species partially hidden underneath a swath of broad-leafed foliage. From that recognition sprouted the realization that such movement and noise would not be made by a single human being, but from a pair. Lovers, she thought—disdainfully, too. She almost resumed her run. It wasn’t like her to stop and stare; she had a hard enough time with couples whose public kisses lingered longer than the average handshake. But the muscles in her thighs went strangely numb, and she stood on the path listening to the muffled urgency of sex with little more than the labor of her own breath to accompany it. Within half a minute that quieted, and she was left with the uneasy feeling that their coupling was not as consensual as she originally reckoned. She advanced toward them more quickly than she thought possible for someone so acutely aware of the danger. Her steps light and delicate, like walking across a sheet of ice.
He was on top of the woman, their bodies perpendicular to the trail, their heads farther away than their feet. The man would have to turn around to see who was approaching. His blue jeans were lowered just enough to reveal the cleft of his buttocks. The woman’s softly tanned legs were bare, her pink running shorts dangling helplessly around one ankle. They still had their shoes on. Penelope was within three feet of them when something on the ground caught her attention. It was dark red like a piece of torn flesh. In a blinding flash, the violence of Kenley’s death overtook her. Good grief, she thought, a small piece of his body had been catapulted halfway across the world and somehow landed in this remote area of Eagle Creek Park. How many times had she run through here without knowing it? And how fortunate she was to have discovered it! Now she would have a part of Kenley all to herself to bury, in whatever way she saw fit. Perhaps she would even call Menashe at some ungodly hour. “You didn’t get all of him!” she would gloat. She crouched down to pick up the small piece of her son and finally realized what she was looking at—a blood-soaked tampon. She stared at it, as she had earlier Brandon’s miniature city of nutritional supplements, as if trying to understand how such a thing had found its way here. Once again, the man’s deep, steady grunts reached Penelope’s ears. She stood abruptly, her leg muscles warm and prickly. No more than a foot from where she stood lay her Excaliber—a solid-looking tree limb with a large knot at one end. She measured its weight in her small hands. As she drew closer to the couple, Penelope heard from underneath the man’s grunts the young woman’s desperate whimpers. Within seconds, both of them were drowned out by the throbbing rush of blood in her ears. When she had the back of the man’s head in sight, the perspiration along her hairline broke free and trickled down her forehead. She squinted hard to relieve the burning, wiped her eyes against the shoulders of her shirt—it only made them sting worse. Half-blinded now, she cocked the branch over her head, and when her instinct told her the moment was right brought it down with as much force as she could summon, knowing full well the first blow might merely stun him. She felt the impact ricochet through her arms, leaving them weak and rubbery. She heard the man cry out in pain and curse, heard the sound of a scuffle underneath her. The muscles in her arms seized up. The weight of the tree limb had doubled, but she managed to raise it over her head once more and, in another blinding swing, connect it with the back of the man’s head before he had a chance to climb to his feet. Somewhere in the distance she thought she heard people shouting.
“How many times would you say you beat the guy over the head?” Mansfield asked.
“I don’t know,” Penelope said. “Twice. A few times maybe. Until I was sure he was knocked out and not able to hurt anyone.”
“And you didn’t hear the woman scream for you to stop?” he asked.
“What?” She didn’t like the way Mansfield was looking at her. It was accusatory and full of contempt. “No, of course not. I don’t remember any screaming.” She wondered how she was going to explain all this to Brandon when she finally got home. “I heard shouting.” Okay, shouting is close to screaming, she said to herself. “One of the birdwatchers, I think.”
“And then you went on with your run,” Mansfield said.
“Of course,” she replied. Penelope understood this did not paint a very sympathetic picture of her and did little to support her claim that she thought she had interrupted a rape in progress. What kind of person bludgeons a rapist and then trots off to finish a workout? She was fairly certain she hadn’t killed the man but didn’t think it prudent to ask about his condition, either. She turned to Holowinko in desperation and said, “I’m training for my first marathon, you see.”
“Is that right?” Holowinko said. “Chicago?”
Penelope brightened and answered yes. “You see, too, the birdwatchers were already there. One of them had a cell phone and was making a call to 9-1-1, so I figured my job was done.”
“Your job?” Mansfield said. “Do you have any—”
“Pete!” Holowinko jerked his head toward the door, and Mansfield seemed to understand he had done something wrong. “Ms. Schneider,” he said, lightly touching her shoulder, “I’ll be right back.”
“I hope so,” she said. “Someone’s probably worried about me by now.”
Holowinko looked surprised. “You have a… a… significant other wondering about you?”
“Just a friend,” she said.
Holowinko nodded and assured her they would only be a minute.
Alone now, Penelope tried to regain a sense of the woman she used to be in the hours and weeks and years before she picked up a tree limb and brought on one of the worst cases of coitus interruptus in the history of sexual intercourse. She pictured herself as a single woman making a decent living as a bookkeeper in a decent suburb of Indianapolis. She caught only snapshot images—looking shyly into the camera at her high school graduation, looking shyly into the camera at her wedding, and again from a hospital bed with a newborn in her uncertain arms. These quickly dissolved and she was left with herself sitting alone in a police precinct with a salty residue of dried sweat on her skin, taut muscles underneath, hair matted against her scalp. She could still feel the heavy tree limb in her hands. At no other time in her life had she felt so acutely the intersection of right thought with right action and the physical and mental strength to carry it out. She immediately saw a faceless Palestinian woman strapped with explosives, and for the first time since Kenley’s death Penelope was overcome by a desire to know who this young woman was and what she had looked like. “Boy, you do one wrong thing,” she said to herself.
As if a gust of wind had turned an invisible page in her mind, she thought about the day Kenley left for Israel. It was a day like this in early spring, and she was driving him to the airport. As she started to make a right turn on a red light, Kenley shouted at her to stop. It made her jump and curse. “You almost hit that runner,” he said, thumbing at a woman in a pony tail and pink shorts. Then he did something strange; he laughed.
“What the hell is so funny?” Penelope asked.
“If you were a runner you’d understand.”
“What is there to understand about nearly getting yourself killed?”
“Mom, you wouldn’t have killed her, okay? At most you would have broken her arm or her leg.” After he said this, he sighed, the same way his father had sighed during their brief marriage, as though her ignorance had the uncanny ability to collapse a lung. She struggled to recall the exact course of their conversation. Since Kenley’s death she had reconstructed most of them by jotting down the fragments on scraps of paper, the flesh and bone of her memory, and then assembling them at the kitchen table. All she knew was that this particular exchange arrived at a point where he first brought up the concept of the “hardcore runner.” She asked what the hell that meant, and he had told her to “just forget it.”
“I don’t want to forget it, damn it! Tell me.” It was a silly thing for her to push him about, she thought later. She could only chalk it up to the frustration and helplessness of losing him and not having anyone to blame for it but herself.
“Fine!” he said. “Okay, it’s like this.” His large hands grasped an invisible basketball, some kind of Jewish gesture, she figured, because she recalled his father doing the same thing whenever he had to explain something to her. “You’ve got your average Joe runner, right? The guy that only goes out on weekends or in the afternoon when it’s already too hot and he nearly dies of heatstroke or dehydration.” He shifted the invisible basketball. “And then you’ve got your hardcore runners, who are serious but smart—a little crazy, too, but in a different way.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, even though she didn’t really understand.
“Now, when you stop your watch in the split second before a car is about to hit you,” he went on, “that’s when you know you’re hardcore.”
“Okay, but why would you stop your watch—”
Penelope renewed her grip on the steering wheel. It wasn’t unusual for Kenley to lose patience with her, but he had never raised his voice before. Although she heard him say he was sorry, she chose to ignore it. And instead of continuing their conversation, Penelope chose to sulk. She sulked all the way to the airport. It wasn’t until after they said their goodbyes and she returned to the car that Penelope saw he had left his running watch on the front seat. For a second or two she considered running back into the airport to return it to him. Then she thought perhaps he meant to leave it behind, as some token of reconciliation. But she never asked him about it, and he never mentioned missing it.
When Holowinko returned, Mansfield had been replaced by a tall, massively built woman in her thirties who smelled of fabric softener. The woman extended her hand and introduced herself, but Penelope would later refer to her only as Elena Something-Something because she found hyphenated names impossible to remember. Holowinko told her Elena was an excellent lawyer and personal acquaintance who could help her a lot better than he could.
“But I thought I didn’t need a lawyer,” Penelope said. Holowinko and Elena exchanged blank expressions that Penelope could no longer interpret as the self-evident nature of her innocence. All along she had assumed that Kenley was laughing at her, at her ignorance. Now she realized it was the woman runner he had laughed at. He must have seen her do it, hit her stopwatch in the split second before Penelope was about to hit her. Because that’s what a hardcore runner does. In the split second before she’s about to get struck—to keep from losing her pace time—she stops her watch.
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