Bob picked up the pace as he passed the coffee shop on his early morning run. You could set your watch by his daily routine as he dashed down the sidewalk. At the small outdoor cafe’ patrons would smile and wish him a good morning as he passed. It was all he could do to grin and nod politely while huffing and puffing with the speed and intensity of an old coal fired steam engine. His running ability at fifty-seven years old was surely not what it used to be after a past plagued with surgeries, financial woes and the loss of his wife Eileen so many years ago. Time had not been kind to Bob, but he kept running. It was the only part of his life within his control. It was all he had left.
Slowing to a brisk walk before reaching his apartment, in one of the busier parts of town, he could see Melissa sitting on the bottom step clutching her red and blue beach ball in hopes of finding someone to play with. She was a lonely little girl with blonde pigtails and a smile so innocent that even the angels would be jealous. Her mother lived across the hall, but never had much to say to Bob unless she was in need of a favor. As Bob approached, Melissa smiled wide knowing that he would always spend a few minutes, that he really couldn’t spare, playing catch before he went to work at the office.
“How’s my favorite neighbor today?” Bob gasped while still catching his breath.
“Better now, Mr. Gladden.” she replied and quickly threw him the ball.
The two played catch on the sidewalk amid passerby’s when Melissa blurted out, “Why do you run Mr. Gladden?”
“It makes me feel good, like I did something that most people can’t do.”
Melissa laughed, “You don’t look like you feel good.”
“It really does, let me show you. How about when I say go, you race me all the way down to that fire hydrant over there okay?”
“Okay.” she responded and walked over to Bob.
The pair stood next to each other and Melissa’s face suddenly became very serious as she anticipated the sound of Bob’s voice. “GO!” shouted Bob, and Melissa took off as fast as she could in her flip flop sandals with her arms and legs flying in all directions in an effort to beat him to the finish. Bob ran along side her to make it look as if he was struggling to keep up with the undisciplined six year old. He could see Melissa’s expression turn from determined to full blown anger as she approached the hydrant. “What happened to that sweet little girl I was just playing catch with?” Bob chuckled to himself. With just steps to go he slowed and let Melissa pass the fire hydrant just before him.
“I beat you ! I beat you Mr Gladden!” she shouted.
“Yes you did Melissa, ya’ got me. You could be a great runner someday if you keep practicing. Now let’s head back.”
They walked slowly down the increasingly busy sidewalk until they reached the stone steps that led to the apartment buildings front door. “Can we do that again tomorrow Mr. Gladden?” asked Melissa.
Jokingly Bob replied, “I don’t know Melissa. You might beat me again.”
“I promise I won’t Mr. Gladden, pleeeeeeease.”
Bob laughed, “Well alright, but since you beat me, you can call me Bob from now on.”
“It’s a deal.” she said, picked up her beach ball and climbed the steps to the lobby door.
Months went by and everyday Melissa would be waiting for Bob with that beach ball she seemed to cherish so much. And everyday she would leave it on the first step to race to the fire hydrant with Bob.
One day during their race, the strap on one of Melissa’s badly worn sandals gave out and stopped her in her tracks. She stood in the middle of the sidewalk crying. Bob stopped quickly and tried to console her.
“It’s okay, your mommy will buy you a new pair, won’t she?”
“NO!” Melissa yelled through the tears, “She doesn’t have any money.”
Bob looked down at his nylon belt that carried his apartment key and pulled out a safety pin left over from some race he couldn’t seem to remember. Then he knelt down and pinned the broken strap back into place. “It still doesn’t feel right. I can’t run like that!” she cried. Bob thought for a moment and said, “Just be waiting for me tomorrow and I promise you will run faster than ever, okay?”
“Okay.” Melissa whimpered.
The next day Melissa waited on the step with her ball. Suddenly, from behind her was a familiar voice. “There’s my little marathoner.” It was Bob descending from the lobby door with three boxes in his arms.
“Now take those sandals off and maybe I have something here that can help.”
Melissa did as he said and Bob knelt once again before the little girl and opened the first box. Inside were the cutest pair of little pink running shoes he could find. “Now let’s try these on.” Bob said happily.
Melissa’s eyes opened wider than he had ever seen and she could barely contain her excitement. “Are those for me?” Bob just smiled and proceeded to slip them on her feet. “How do they feel?” Bob asked. Melissa’a face turned to a look of distress and sadness. “They hurt.” she muttered. “It’s a good thing I have two more sizes with me then, isn’t it?” Bob asked. Melissa just smiled.
After finding the pair that fit, Bob finally asked, “So what’s with the beach ball?”
“Daddy gave it to me and said he would take me to the beach someday. I’ve never been to the beach.”
Puzzled because he had never seen a man come around before, Bob asked, “Does your daddy live around here?”
“No, he’s with Jesus, but I hope he let’s daddy come home to take me to the beach one day.” Bob was stunned and didn’t say a word as he placed Melissa’s old flip flops in the empty shoe box. When he was finished he paused sadly for a moment and then told her to wait there while he put the three shoe boxes away. Bob returned and Melissa was already standing at their invisible starting line looking happier than he had ever seen. It was sad to think that this perfect little angel had to go through her childhood without her father or even sufficient financial care. Bob’s eyes welled with tears as she stood there. “Take it easy on me this time kid, will ya’?”exclaimed Bob and took his place next to Melissa.
“On your mark, get set, GO!”
Like a shot she darted in front of Bob and seemed to have better form this time. He ran along side of her and his breathing was a little more labored. She was running faster than she had before and it all was due to Bob’s kindness. It was not the shoes themselves that made her quicker, it was happiness that drove her this time. There was no look of anger in her face as she drew closer to the bright red fire hydrant. She was happy that she had someone to look up to. Someone like daddy.
Time passed quickly for Bob who’s life remained unchanged the past few years. The only exception was the necessities he carried in his black, stretchy running belt. It was a bit more intrusive these days and got in the way on occasion. But Melissa was changing. She was growing taller, running faster and traded in her pigtails for a ponytail. Three years had made a world of difference.
Melissa’s 9th birthday fell on a cool and breezy, cloudy Tuesday morning and Bob was replacing her old running shoes with a new pair along with some nice shoes for going to school. He came out of the door behind her once more and there she was, as she was everyday. Sitting on the first step in her battered shoes and hanging on to that old beach ball. “Happy Birthday!” Bob yelled and Melissa jumped up startled. “You scared me Bob!”
“I got a little something for you, open them up.” he said and Melissa smiled wide once more. It didn’t take long for her to unwrap both boxes and put the new pair of running shoes on her feet. “Thank you Bob! You’re the best! Can I run with you today on your long run?” Bob snickered and explained that she was not ready to go six miles yet but since it was her birthday he’d be willing to run a half mile with her and see how it goes. The two started off down the sidewalk saying nothing and eventually passing that shiny red fire hydrant. It occurred to Bob that this was no longer a race, it was a practice run with the daughter he felt he had been deprived of in life. “If Eileen were here she would feel the same way.” he thought. Glancing down at his watch, he decided it was time to turn back. She was doing great! Her pace and form were surprisingly controlled for a nine year old. She could be an excellent runner one day if she continued. They were approaching the stairs to the apartment building and Bob was so proud of her all he could think of was the day she first raced him to the hydrant. Then without warning, the breeze kicked up again, only this time grabbing the red and blue beach ball and hurdling it into the busy street. “NOOOO!” Melissa cried as she chased the ball into the traffic. It was her only connection to her father and she would do anything to keep it. Seconds seemed like hours to Bob as he bolted after her. There was no time to scream her name and no time to consider other options. Into the street, he ran after her as a green SUV came barreling through the intersection right in Melissa’s path. Bob neared Melissa and with every ounce of strength he had left in his prematurely worn body he dove with arms outstretched to shove her safely out of the way. The next thing Bob felt was a sensation like nothing he had experienced before. As if an entire building came tumbling down directly upon him and then darkness. Painful, solitary darkness.
Slowly Bob opened his eyes and a crowd of onlookers were gathered around him. Melissa was lying on his chest sobbing but he could not feel her. “Are you okay Melissa?” Bob managed to garble. “Yes Bob, don’t leave me!!!” she shouted. “I think I have to this time.” Bob replied. “Be a good girl for your mommy and make me proud of you. I’ll be waiting on the beach someday with your daddy.” With that, Melissa collapsed on his chest again and wept.
The next morning Melissa did not carry her beach ball out to the first step. Instead she peered out the window at the spot she last saw her friend and noticed Bob’s black running belt laying up against the curb. Carefully she left the apartment and crossed the street to retrieve it. She had always wondered what he carried with him and brought it inside. As she opened it something familiar appeared, it was an old flip flop with a safety pin. Melissa began to cry again holding the belt tightly.
Twelve years have passed since Bob died and Melissa is in college. Most of her day is taken up with her studies but she always finds time to go for a six mile run. You will know her when she runs past. She’s the blonde young lady with a very old running belt held together with a familiar safety pin, and someone Bob is very proud of.
2012 Dave Schlagman
© Copyright 2012 The Hornet, All rights Reserved. Written For: Adventures In Running