Harry Lutz, auto dealer, home in Minooka visiting his aged and ailing father, was shopping for soap-on-a-rope. The clerk at this, his third stop, seemed to mock his search. He would find no such item in the summertime. Soap-on-a-rope was a Christmastime gift.
Though it was none of the clerk’s business, Harry explained that the gift was for his father, who had been in a terrible accident. Early one morning, after his daily jog, Harry’s dad was standing at his mailbox checking the newspaper headlines when a hit-and-run driver plowed him down. He was badly broken and ruptured. Now, after six months, he was home from the hospital, and he could finally bathe himself. But, even with the shower seat, the soap gave him troubles. His father’s fine motor skills had deteriorated, and his shattered femur prevented him from bending to retrieve the bar soap when dropped. The slippery soap lay there by the drain and mocked him. His father cursed the goddamn soap, and someone, Harry or his mother, would have to go and pick it up. But his father couldn’t hold the soap. It just kept squirting from his hands.
The clerk said he was sorry to hear about the accident. Liquid soap, in many colorful varieties, could be found in aisle ten.
Perhaps soap-on-a-rope was a lame idea, but Harry, who hadn’t visited all throughout his father’s squalid convalescence, was eager now to make a familial contribution before heading back west to Denver. He had spent most of his week-long visit home to Minooka at the faltering freeway outlets, shopping, buying things he thought his parents could use. Soap-on-a-rope was a beautiful idea, his mother had said, praising Harry for his thoughtfulness.
When Harry stepped empty-handed from the drug store and into the sunlight, a new shopping opportunity presented itself. Next door to the drug store was a runner’s store, The Fast Foot. A big foot with an angelic wing sprouting from the heel was emblazoned on the glass door. Something about the winged foot made Harry feel as if he’d been here before. These look-alike outlet malls! He hadn’t even noticed The Fast Foot when he entered the drug store. Yet here it was, bigger than life. He went into the store now, to buy his dad new running shoes.
Here was a gift that might bolster his father’s spirits, or here was a gift that might depress him further: running shoes for a man who couldn’t walk. Harry’s father had always been a runner, who knows why. He spent hours upon hours running around the square country blocks outside Minooka, running away from home one direction, running back toward home from the other. Minooka was a very flat place, with no mountains to prop it up. Harry himself had no such patience for running or the Minooka countryside. He was his mother’s boy, and when he was a child, he and his mother often watched comfortably from the kitchen window while his father came galloping down the gravel road in all kinds of weather. Now, Harry thought nostalgically about his father’s running, and he hated to think that the old man couldn’t do it anymore.
Harry took the chance and bought some nice brand-name running shoes for his dad. He bought a nice shirt too, just to be safe. He thought maybe his father could put the shoes on and appreciate their cushion and traction and think once more about all the running he’d done in the old days. Such thoughts might make Harry’s dad happy, as they made Harry happy now.
Harry left The Fast Foot with a big white bag in his arms. Back out in the sun, he noticed the vastness of the parking lot, with just a few cars crowded into the close-in spots. Nothing unsettled Harry Lutz like an empty parking lot. The adjacent building had been a large department store, but it was all boarded up now. The parking lot, with its hundreds of empty spots, and the boarded-up building, reminded Harry of a cemetery. It would be all right, though. A new big-box department store was going in across the road, and soon all the cars could park there. This was a good place for a shoe store, anyway. The blacktop stretched out before Harry like an asphalt playground.
Something about buying shoes! Harry felt a childish excitement. Even though he was no runner, and even though these were a little big for him, he felt the urge to try on his dad’s new shoes and take them for a spin around the lot.
He walked toward the cars, easily picking out his folks’ boxy sedan. Just as he passed the handicapped stall, he heard a shriek. He turned to see a boy and his mother. They were attached at the wrist by a leash of some kind. Harry had never seen that before. Was it normal?
Then, Harry saw the problem, the reason for the shriek, which had been one of genuine terror or surprise. The boy was waving his free hand at a royal blue helium balloon, which must have escaped him. The balloon seemed to drift toward Harry out of a dream, and he reached out slowly to catch at the string, affixed to a small plastic fish, a weight to prevent just this sort of accident. As Harry reached casually for the string, a slight updraft caught the balloon, lifting the inadequate fish just beyond his outstretched hand.
Harry gestured to the boy and mother. It would be all right. The balloon would come down now, Harry would see to that. The boy, maybe he was five or six, was tugging at the leash. He was a fat little boy, and he reminded Harry of himself at that age. Harry took a few nonchalant steps toward the balloon and reached to grab it. This time a major updraft caught the balloon and sent it scudding across the empty parking lot, until it luffed again, some dozen yards away. Amused, Harry broke into a light, easy trot. He caught up with the balloon and reached for it, casually grabbing for the small blue fish. It seemed easily within his grasp, yet Harry miscalculated and the slippery fish squirted away. The wind was hard to judge, and Harry had tried to move quickly without appearing to expend effort. He wanted to impress the boy and his mother.
Now, intending to be certain, he began to run after the balloon. He was conscious of his own feet, encased in sloppy, untied loafers, slapping the asphalt, the big bag banging his thighs. Sure enough, he was gaining on the balloon.
But when Harry dropped the bag to lighten his load, the wind came up and the balloon skated even faster along the parking lot. He looked back at the mother and son. They were hurrying toward him, or, rather, the mother was dragging the boy by the leash. He looked to be crying. Harry wanted to tell them not to worry; he was doing his best. He would catch the balloon. Harry had run about a hundred yards now. He was out of breath. The parking lot was like a huge landing strip. Jesus, the cars you could fit in a lot this size! He thought for the first time that he might not catch the balloon, that it might elude him.
Harry realized his early loafing was a tragic mistake, and now he must make up for it. But he was not fast enough to make up for it. He was not fast, period. He had never been fast. When Harry was in grade school he had convinced his mother to buy him new shoes for Track & Field Day. The shoes were called Zips, and the TV commercial showed a boy wearing Zips easily vaulting a healthy green hedge row. When the boy began to run, the Zips left only a blurry after-image of a red “Z” across the TV screen—he was that fast. Harry’s mother bought him the Zips, but the Zips did Harry no good. During the race, when he saw that he would finish nowhere near the leader, he eased up, pretending to jog toward the finish in mock boredom. Harry finished seventh in the 50-yard dash. Two girls had beaten him.
Harry’s father was in the bleachers that day. He had taken the day off work to see his boy run. The little grandstand was full of parents waving and shaking their fists to urge their children on. Not Harry’s dad. Harry’s dad sat quietly in the grandstand.
Harry had forgotten all this. He had forgotten he was so slow, such a faker. In races, as a boy, Harry would watch the fast boys closely to catch the secret of their swiftness. One of the fast boys kept his fingers together and his hands flat and straight, cutting the wind as he ran. Harry tried this aerodynamic technique but it didn’t work for him. Another of the fast boys knotted his hands into fists and pumped them like pistons, but Harry’s pumping fists did not propel him toward the finish line any faster. It wasn’t fair. Oh, how Harry suffered his slowness all those childhood years.
Luckily for Harry, the trait that was all-important in his youth had little consequence in adulthood. Back home in Denver, Harry drove a big Chrysler with eight cylinders. He had learned to conceal his lack of talent and natural ability in a shroud of pomp and palaver. He was a slow boy, sure, but he was a quick student, and he had become a reasonably successful adult. Until now. Now he realized that because he was a slow boy, he felt the need to fake nonchalance as a man, and it cost him. After all these years, seventh place still hurt him. And it hurt his dad, Harry’s need to act as if he didn’t care, as if he weren’t trying.
Forget the brat and his mother. Harry wanted that fish, hung by a string beneath the fat balloon. He wanted it for himself, and for his dad. It was the blue ribbon he failed to deliver before. Harry ran panicked, sprinting with all his pitiful ability. He felt his dad’s car keys jangling in his pocket, and he felt the wind, generated by his own speed, whipping his hair, and Harry heard the cars on the freeway rush by in a rush of cheers. One of Harry’s sloppy loafers flopped off his foot and spun along the asphalt behind him like a loose wheel. Harry was cooking now, boy, if only his dad could see him run!
But he was too late. The balloon lifted up several stories dangling its fish mockingly as it became small in the sky. It drifted toward a stand of trees at the border of the buzzing freeway. Harry had missed his chance. No amount of effort would rescue him now. He slowed down, and the balloon gained ground. He continued to jog, but without hope. He ran only because there was space to run, the landing strip reaching out yet in front of him.
At the limit of the landing strip, the stand of trees waved in the wind. The trees were a buffer against the freeway. Looking closer, Harry saw they were aspen trees. A gust of wind turned the bright green aspen leaves backward to their pale sides: a thousand pale fists shook at him.
Harry stopped running, the balloon was gone into the sky. He had run a long way, but for no use. He hadn’t done anyone any good. He turned and headed back toward The Fast Foot, where everything had started. His shoe lay on the asphalt like a dropped baton. He saw the boy and his mother. They were small across the vast lot. Harry squinted into the sun. The mother was dragging the boy yet, but this time away, back toward the cluster of cars. In her other hand she carried a big white shopping bag.
Hey! Harry yelled. Stop! He wanted to tell the mother and son that he had done his best. He could explain everything: his tragic loafing, his innate lack of swiftness.
There was something else he wanted to account for now. Harry wanted to tell the boy and his mother that his father was a good man. No matter what happened. He went about his own business, nurturing his own small talent faithfully and without claptrap even into his autumn years. No one really knew Seymour Lutz, least of all Harry or his mother, but there wasn’t a soul who would say a bad word against him. No sir. Seymour Lutz had never swindled, nor borne false witness. He was neither selfish nor conceited.
How about you, lady? Harry wanted to ask. Because next to his father, Harry Lutz was no kind of man.
Stop! he yelled again. But no one could hear, and he was too tired to run. The mother and son climbed into their getaway car, a foreign model Harry couldn’t ID, and raced breakneck across the empty parking spots toward the exit. What was Minooka coming to where such a thing would happen in broad daylight? The dirty crooks. They had gotten away with his father’s gift.