Read an Excerpt
The Girl of His Dreams
By Harry Mazer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Harry Mazer
All rights reserved.
He ran. The night flowed past him. No thoughts, no words, no need for words. The air flowing through him. Fluid, like water. Like music. Exactly like music. Thoughts brushed aside. Only the wind in his ears, the light drag of his breath and the steady tap of his feet.
He ran because he loved to. Always alone. Never on a team. Never with other people. Never companionably, comfortably. Never running in a group, a gang.
He ran because he had to run. Running, he felt whole, complete, at peace. He ran and dreamed of fame and of a girl.
Someday he would see her. Someday he would be discovered. He was nobody now. Someday he would be somebody. He was invisible now. Someday he would be visible. Willis Pierce, the greatest miler.
The fans on their feet, shouting, Pierce! Pierce! Pierce!
And her, the girl of his dreams, waiting for him.CHAPTER 2
What Willis liked to do at night was lie on the mattress in his room and listen to Doris giving advice on the radio. Sometimes he heard the sigh of a passing bus or truck, or the voices of the other tenants coming dimly through the walls. On the radio, the callers waited patiently to talk to Doris. Male and female, young and old, sad voices and grateful voices. They filled the room around him. Even the cheerful callers had sad stories. "Hello, Doris, remember me? I'm the guy in the telephone booth in the Twin Cities."
"Oh, sure I do. You've got a great voice."
"I'm lonely. I'm shy. I don't go to bars. How do I get to meet a girl?"
And Willis—what would he say if he called Doris? The man in the phone booth could have been him, though he'd never admit he was shy for the whole world to hear. Not shy—a loner. He kept to himself; he steered clear of people. He liked it that way. He liked living alone, in his own apartment, doing things his own way, not having to answer to anyone. He liked running alone. In the shop, he even liked working alone.
He didn't think of himself as someone who didn't like people. He was just more comfortable being by himself. With other people, he was on guard. He didn't want to make a fool of himself. He'd been that way all his life.
"Are you crazy?" Doris was saying to a caller.
She got a lot of kooky calls. A man wanted to be a husband to two women. A woman said that her husband was upset because the dog got into bed with them every night.
"Keep that dog out of your bed," Doris said.
"You tell her, Doris," Willis agreed.
A man called in to ask if a move to Fort Lauderdale was a good way to meet women. Doris thought so. "If you're not happy with things where you are, go someplace else."
"What about me?" Willis said. "Should I move?"
Doris, there's a girl I can't stop thinking about. She's in my dreams.
That's wonderful. Tell me about her. What is she like? What does she look like?
She has wonderful hair. It's curly and full of light, and she has this great body and she has the sort of eyes you can look into forever and never get tired.
The girl of your dreams. That's wonderful. Remember, though, dreams are one thing. Reality is something else.
How do I meet her, Doris? Where do I go? I don't go to bars. I work and I run.
You run? How do you mean? I hope you're not running away from relationships?
I'm a runner. I train. I'm an athlete. I work out, I don't meet a lot of girls.
Don't you meet any girls running? Why don't you talk to them? If you want to meet her you will meet her.
I can't answer that. That's up to you. You can't get discouraged. That wonderful girl you're dreaming about is out there.
Where, Doris? I want her so much.
Walking on the street, or downtown or running in the park, he noticed every woman, every girl coming toward him. Was that her? Was that her? Was that her?
He was awake the moment he heard the click of the alarm. Sitting up. His hand flat on the top of the clock. He sat there for a moment, listening to the sounds of the house, cooling his feet on the bare floor, letting the cold touch his naked body, his bare skin. The room was still in shadows, the only light the gray from outside.
The room was austere, stripped down, bare. Mattress on the floor, radio and clock beside it. Runners' World magazines stacked in a corner next to the TV, posters of Aaron Hill on the wall.
Sunday morning. "Are you going to run today?" He talked to himself. Sure I'm going to run, don't I run every morning? Then go. Okay, don't push. I'm getting there.
He massaged his toes, then stood and stretched. He never stretched without feeling that he was growing taller. In junior high he had been one of the shortest boys in the class, but he'd made up for it in high school. He wasn't tall, but he wasn't short, either. Still, as he stretched, he had that old fantasy that if he stretched hard enough he could make himself grow taller.
In the bathroom he splashed cold water on himself, then peered at himself in the mirror as he slipped on his sweats. What would she see? Would she like him? He examined his forehead, the distance from his eyebrows to the hairline. Was his hair thinning? Was his mouth too soft? He thinned his lips, but the moment he relaxed them, the softness returned.
He pushed his bare feet into sneakers, put on his Raleigh biking cap and walked around eating from a box of breakfast cereal. "Okay, Mom, I know. I'm not eating enough to fill a rat's hole."
Outside, he turned his cap around and zipped up his sweat jacket. The landlord's small aluminum trailer was parked in the driveway. He never saw it without thinking of his parents in the trailer park near Asheville. A year ago, the doctor had told his father that he had emphysema—that was the cigarettes—and that his liver was a mess from all the drinking he'd done. If he wanted to live, he had to stop smoking and drinking. Willis never thought his father would do it. He'd seen his father stop too many times before and then go back.
But just like that, his father stopped. One day he was smoking and drinking, and the next day it was over. It wasn't just the doctor's warning. His father, who had been a welder all his life, couldn't lift anymore, and the welding fumes made him cough uncontrollably. Plus he couldn't take the winters up north anymore. He took a disability retirement, and as soon as Willis graduated high school, they all moved down to Asheville.
His parents found work in a restaurant where his mother was a waitress and Dad was her busboy. The only work Willis could find was in fast-food joints.
The three of them lived in that little trailer. His parents in back and him in front on a pullout bed. He hated it, lying there at night listening to his father turn and groan and cough, and cough and spit. After six weeks Willis couldn't take it anymore. He wanted to go back home and he felt like a traitor saying it. His mother had always depended on him. What if his father started drinking? What if he collapsed and she needed Willis?
"Go," his mother said. "We're all right." Mother and son never talked much, but they understood each other. "Go home," she said. "If I need you, you won't be that far away."
He went, happy to go, guilty but glad. He headed home, straight for his old neighborhood, but he couldn't find a place he could afford. He found an apartment, finally, nearer downtown on Central Avenue. One room and a kitchen in a small building down below the university. His windows overlooked the big air vents behind McDonald's. His apartment always smelled like hamburger.
Transportation was good. He could catch a bus on the corner anytime to get him over to his job. His father had told him to go to Consolidated Conveyer on Spring Street, where he was hired as general labor.
For the first time in his life he was totally on his own. There was nothing he had to do. Nobody he had to answer to. He didn't have to worry if his mother needed him. Or if his father was sober. He was free of all that. He could do what he wanted, when he wanted.
He went to midnight movies, did his laundry at three in the morning, ate out a lot. He hung out in the mall, downstairs by the ice-cream stand, watching the girls. But what he mostly did was work and run. Work so he could eat. Eat so he could run. And run so he could feel good.
Now, he ran past the closed McDonald's. A bundle of newspapers had been thrown down by the door. The bagel shop was open. A man in baggy work clothes stood outside with a carton of coffee. The winter snow was gone, but the streets were still white with salt.
A black woman and a man dressed for church were on the corner. Nearby, a couple in identical green sweatshirts had their arms around each other. Willis's eyes were drawn to couples. He straightened up and touched his cap. Would it ever be him? Would he ever be the other half of a pair?
At the field house, he did a few laps around the track. He ran well, his body motionless except for his arms and legs rotating like the spokes of a wheel. He was heated up and loose and got into a happy fantasy, imagining himself running with Aaron Hill.
Aaron Hill had been his idol ever since high school. Even then people had come out to see him run. Willis had followed Aaron Hill's career at Villanova and then at the Olympic trials, and at every AAU meet. The sportswriters said Hill hadn't achieved his potential yet, hadn't peaked. They compared him to Jim Ryun. There were all kinds of stories about Hill. They said he was part Indian and that he trained barefoot.
Willis swung in behind another runner. The college boy kicked a little, and they were off, going hot after each other. They could have been part of the same squad: They wore the same sneakers, the same mismatched sweats. After a few laps, the college boy dropped out.
Willis passed a girl with a chestnut ponytail. The ponytail swung from shoulder to shoulder. He liked the way she ran—not pushing, not hard, just moving easily along. He sneaked a look at her and then he kicked a little, showed off, showed her his stuff. Talk, Doris had said. Next time around. Maybe.
He came up behind her again. What should he say? It should be something easy and natural. They were both runners. They had something in common. Been running long? Would that impress her? Maybe he should just get in stride with her and smile, no words, no awkward talk, just the two of them running together.
Then he was beside her. "Hi," he said, but he said it under his breath and so softly he wasn't sure he'd said it at all. And then he was past her, not daring to look back. What if she had talked to him? What would he have said? What would he have done?
What would Doris have said? You're not running away, are you? No, he was just running. Ponytail wouldn't have talked to him, anyway.
He left the track, ran past the double row of college fraternity houses, then down the crowded streets, past the dorms and down the hill and across Central Avenue and over to where he used to live on Villa Street.
This was his city. He knew where the ballpark was and where you could get the best hot dog and the freshest bread. It was good to go down the familiar streets, to pass his old school and think of the kids he used to know and wonder where they'd gone. The neighborhood hadn't changed that much. The same buildings, the same stores, the same billboards on the roofs. And everywhere he looked, he saw her, the girl of his dreams, smiling down at him from the billboards and the walls, smiling at him from posters and from twenty different magazines plastered around the newsstand.
She was soft, her eyes round and highlighted with good makeup, her lips full and moist and slightly parted, her hair framing her face. Someday he was going to see her. He'd be turning a corner or coming out of a building and she would be there.
He would see her and she would see him. He would know and she would know. The longing would be in his eyes and in her eyes. They wouldn't speak. Maybe they would smile a little. There would be a stillness between them. They would speak to one another through their stillness. Her eyes on him and his eyes on her. Only their eyes speaking, dark and full of longing and recognition.CHAPTER 3
On a dirt road, a fawn-colored dog, a boxer, was following a sturdy, wide-shouldered girl carrying a heavy suitcase. Her hair whipped across her face. A round face, eyes half closed against the wind, cheeks burning. Red cheeks, her brother often said, like a tomato. An insult? Or a farmer's compliment?
This morning, her brother had said, "Wait up, Sophie. I'll drive you. It's just going to take a minute to throw on a load of posts." His eyes were narrow and guilty, the same look he'd had when he was a kid and had done something mean to her. "Now don't move, Soph," he said. "A minute, okay?"
But of course she had moved. When had she waited for Floyd?
She shifted the suitcase from one hand to the other. It was an old-fashioned, square yellow case that she'd taken down from the attic. It was heavy now with the little china animals she collected. She was leaving, taking everything she valued with her. She wore her good jeans and a pretty blouse. She would have been smart to wear a warm sweater but she hadn't wanted to hide her blouse. Floyd had offered her his nylon school jacket. "Keep it," he said, but she refused. She didn't want anything from him or Pat, either.
When she told them she was leaving, they acted so surprised. Why? There was plenty of room for all of them here. Had they done anything? Oh, stay, they said.
But she knew. She was sensitive to the way people really felt. They wanted her out. Not that they said anything, but she felt the change in them. Little things—averted glances, a silence falling between them when she entered the room.
It all came clear that day in the kitchen when Floyd, with that guilty smile, said, "Pat's pregnant again." And Pat sitting there, shelling peas, not saying a word. Letting Floyd do all the talking. "That makes number three." What was he telling Sophie for? She could count. And then he was talking about converting the upstairs room—her room—into a nursery. "We'll fix a room over the garage for you, Soph."
Sophie would always remember the sound of peas rattling into the pan. Pat had been so eager to get the upstairs room that the next day she'd emptied Sophie's room, taken everything from the bureau and the closet, taken her china animals, her drawings and watercolors off the wall and stuffed everything into a plastic bag, then let the bag fall down the stairs.
Sophie used to love her brother. He was still her brother, but she didn't know how she felt about him. For years it had been the two of them, their mother dead and their father making life so miserable for Floyd, he ran away from home when he was fourteen. The day before he ran away, she hugged him, then bit his ear. "Don't forget me."
"What're you talking about?" He held his ear. The next day he was gone. He went to live with a fanner on the other side of Pierrepont. When he came back home at the end of the school year, he and their father started fighting again. Floyd left again.
When her father died suddenly—it was his heart—Sophie was alone for weeks, running the farm herself. It would be a while before Floyd came home. She stopped going to school. The school bus came and went before she'd finished the morning chores.
She was milking the cows every day. She had to get the milk ready for the co-op milk truck. She cleaned the cows' udders, connected the milking machine to their teats, grained the cows and cleaned out the stalls and mucked out the barn. Every day it was the same.
She was lonely. She was alone. Working too hard.
One day, loading the wheelbarrow, she found herself dreaming about flying. Her boots in muck, a shovel in her hand, and she was dreaming about flying. In an airplane! It was an old dream, a private dream that she had never shared with anyone. Big, solid Sophie flying? They would have laughed at her. "With you in it," she could hear her brother saying, "the plane wouldn't even get off the ground." She kept her dreams to herself. Sometimes she dreamed about flying over the house and the trees, sometimes she dreamed about flying an airplane.
Her father had left her a little money. That day, after she finished her chores, she drove the truck to the flying field just below Watertown, took the trial lesson, then signed up for the whole course.
Excerpted from The Girl of His Dreams by Harry Mazer. Copyright © 1987 Harry Mazer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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