Dead Heat


by Bob Shar

The hot tomato riding shotgun in this cab should be poster gal for the Organization of Old Widows With Cohunes. It�s possible I�m biased, said tomato being my own widow, Daphne Rudolph. Picture her yourself, then. Arctic white hair sculpted into a roof-scraping beehive; pale skin alluringly punctuated with wrinkles and liver spots; gun-metal gray eyes focused forever on the business at hand; bulldog demeanor; voice like steel wool. . . A goddess to the eyes and ears of any sane dead man.

Daphne on a mission has always been as intractable as a snapping turtle.  Ask the undertaker she hectored into this morning�s exhumation  Ask the bug-eyed cabbie whom she just browbeat into stuffing yours truly, old carpet style, into this backseat. 

The love of my life  � all 4�5�, 98 lbs of her -- plays no games and gives no inch.

*

She was a bright-eyed 43-year-old saleswoman in the local Thom McCann Shoe Store when we first met: I was a gloomy, celibate 40-year-old CPA, shopping for comfortable, reasonably priced bedroom slippers.  Daphne wasn�t just beautiful to me  She was magnificent.  Understood the fine art of coercion better than most men I�d cowed to  Sold me more dress shoes in an hour than I could wear in a lifetime  We married three weeks later.   

Like the tone of my life, the spirit of the annual Family Reunion Relay Races changed dramatically when Daphne became a Rudolph.  When she began, 24 years ago, to root for Rudolphs, she just assumed Rudolphs would perform as bid. 

It�s not like we didn�t try.  Every year we tried; every year it got worse.

We Rudolphs are not naturally athletic.  We�re short, pudgy and bookish.  Our sisters and daughters tend to gravitate towards large, muscular cretins � a phenomenon we males lost little sleep over until the early 70s, when our annual family reunions were transformed into relay races.

Argue all you want about how such races impose structure on the rampant one-ups-man-ship characteristic of most family gatherings.  Pontificate till you�re blue in your New Aged face about the balance and harmony implicit in a race in which start and finish lines are one.  Our relays have always been genetic mismatches, with legal names � not blood � determining team assignments  It�s a rule of nature: Inlaws� never lose.

Her first year as a Rudolph, Daphne refused to acknowledge the inevitable  �You can do it,� she kept shouting.  �You�ve got to do it,� she called through her megaphone while my brothers and I stumbled through the wheelbarrow, egg walk, piggyback run, etc.  And, Christ, how we tried that first year with a cheerleader who truly seemed to believe in us.

Daphne refused to let up afterwards, though.  �If you�d just practice,� she insisted while we ate our post-relay melon, �you�d be able to win something.�  My brothers stood up sadly at various stages of this tirade, and left me with my love.

I let her have her way with me.  Every night behind locked doors and pulled shades, I submitted to Daphne�s demands.  Her hands like manacles around my ankles, I huffed and puffed through a lifetime of sit-ups.

And still we lost.

Gradually, Daphne shifted all blame to the rheumatic, long retired football coach who officiated the races.  Each year, the coach wound up red-faced and ragged, insisting he�d never work another reunion as long as he lived.

*

The cab stops momentarily.  I try conjuring up images of red lights and yield signs, but the images are muddled, insubstantial, impossible to place.  I think about this while Daphne slaps the dashboard and instructs the cabbie to get the lead out.

*

She stayed on me.  Pushups and sit-ups.  Sit-ups and pushups.  Ten to 15 years into it, I felt nearly fit.  Must have looked it, too.  �The Hunk,� my brothers called me.  Once, I caught a strange woman staring at me, possibly with lust!  My days as a babe magnet were numbered, though  By the time I turned 60, I was feeling less fit than ancient.  Began to tire quickly while training.

�It�s the ozone,� Daphne explained.  �Global warming affects us all.  The winner�s the one who pushes on beyond all limitations.�

So, I pushed on, but my body continued to rebel.  My once nearly firm stomach deflated like a pierced balloon.  Walking became difficult  My legs felt like dead fish the day I snuck off to see the doctor.  He examined me for 35 minutes, made me wait in his office another 40, then told me I had colon cancer and three months to live.

*

�Here!  Turn here!� Daphne shouts.  �Aren�t cabbies supposed to know their cities?�

*

�Cancer my ass,� she said.  �Doctors like to do two things: scare you and bill you.  No such thing as cancer.  Now, give me some sweat.�

She kept me puffing, stretching, panting and aching for 11 weeks.  Refused to listen to the pleas of my brothers that I be admitted to Grant Methodist. 

I died in mid sit-up.

*

Cab 3753 pulls off pavement and rolls over approximately 200 yards of grass.  I hear a whistle, some cursing � no doubt the old coach trying to keep the relays rolling.

Daphne lowers her window, hollers, �Let�s go Rudolphs!  Kick butt, boys!�

�God, it�s Daphne,� I hear my brothers murmur.

�Sweet Jesus.  What�s that smell?�

She steps out of the cab, opens the back door and begins tugging at my ankles.  �Bill,� she addresses my oldest brother William, �give me a hand here.�

William has never been a match for Daphne.  I hear gasps from Rudolphs and Inlaws alike as I am carried out of the cab and placed in line between Frank and Stuart. 

Just in time for the sack race.

William and Daphne wrap burlap around my tibiae and try unsuccessfully to plant me in line between my younger brothers.

The Inlaws break ranks and head for the woods.

Coach has no patience for weak stomachs.  �On your mark,� he shouts as the last Inlaw turns tail.  �Get set    .�

Frank is off at the tweet of the whistle, stumbling on almost every step, but beaming, I am certain, in the unprecedented glow of imminent victory.  The entire Rudolph team is giddy with expectation by the time Frank falls across the start/finish line.  He slaps my hand on the way down, and everyone falls silent.

If I can just get my balance    .

Then Daphne chimes in.  �Get up, Barry!  Get up!  Get up! Get up!  Fresh air and exercise.  Best thing in the world for you.  Can�t get anywhere if you don�t try!�

And I am trying, but going nowhere.

�Get up, get up, get up, get up.  We can win this if you try.  Get up, Barry!  If we lose, it�s on your head.�

Jesus, Daphne    .

Coach waits thirty seconds, blows the whistle, calls the race a draw, cancels all remaining activity and heads for the parking lot.  Daphne chases after him, her voice relentless as a wrecking ball.

*

My brothers stand over me now, trying to digest it all.  �A draw,� they take turns muttering.  �A god damned draw.�

Lightning flashes across a darkening sky.

Frank shrugs his shoulders.  �Tie�s better than a loss,� he says, as the first rain drop pelts his brow.

�Tie beats a loss,� William notes.

Stuart tries to whistle, Frank begins to hum, and William taps his toes.

Soon, my brothers are dancing around me, whooping like schoolboys, kicking up their heels and soaring -- almost athletically.

The rain drums rhythmically on us all.




BIO: Bob Shar is a former newspaper editor and retired librarian currently living in Winston-Salem, NC. His short stories have appeared in The South Carolina Review, The Greensboro Review, Cold Mountain Review, and other print publications   In 1983, he co-founded The Crescent Review, an independent literary magazine which he edited and ran out of his basement through 1988  This is his first online publication and he is psyched!