Mort Slavin rushed through the kitchen when he saw someone stumble outside his house. In his haste, he ran full force into the dining room table, doubled over trying to catch his breath, and by the time he got to the front door a crooked man had shuffled a few houses down. He rubbed his stomach watching the defective soul grapple along poking a black walking stick into the ground like he was testing the earth for soft spots. The house sat on a quiet street in Flowertown around the corner from the entrance to Wissahickon Park. He knew most people who walked by as neighbors, the ones he didn’t recognize he viewed suspiciously, but the sudden appearance of this man wobbling past unsettled him.
Mort kept a probing eye on the front window the next day while he stood grinding coffee beans at the kitchen counter. The unsteady soul stumbled past again, and again the following day. A few days later he noted that he went by every morning around the same time. He mailed a letter one afternoon and saw the man limping on the other side of the avenue, another time hobbling by the library, the high school, community center, the café, the theater on the far side of town. Everywhere Mort went, there he was. He started waking earlier, keeping his eyes glued on the front window longer, and became so obsessed with the stranger that he named him Wobbly Man.
Mort threw off his covers and jumped out of bed soaked in perspiration. “Wait!” he screamed, watching a hunched figure fade from his dark, quiet bedroom. As the broken body dissipated into a sea of mist, he re-emerged into consciousness spooked by the image of two eyes peeking in his window. Unable to get back to sleep, he sat on the side of the bed thinking to make coffee, but it was too early because his morning ritual revolved around Wobbly Man’s schedule.
Mort suffered from social anxiety, a condition he blamed on his estranged parents who named him Mortimer, which led to a childhood of bullying. His therapist recommended exercise to relieve stress and he became an endurance athlete, four hour-runs the perfect remedy for a loner. He met Margaret at mile twenty-three of the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon when she tripped in a rut and he fell over her on Kelly Drive. He was fifty-one when they married and lost her a year later when she was among the victims caught in the crossfire of a convenience store robbery.
Running became laborsome. He visited an orthopedic surgeon who warned him to slow down or he’d risk having his knees replaced. As memories of his seventeen marathons faded, he became increasingly reclusive.
Along came Wobbly Man fumbling past his house, then vanishing from sight the way a body would collapse from a bullet to the brain. As the weeks and months eked by, Mort became impressed by his determination. That determination turned to inspiration, but he was embarrassed about the times he’d ridiculed speed walkers as second-class athletes. He looked at himself in the mirror, swallowed his pride, and decided he’d one day join Wobbly Man for a walk.
The morning Mort fished his old running shoes from the back of the closet the temperature on the gauge outside the kitchen climbed toward ninety degrees. At exactly nine-twenty Wobbly Man passed his house. He hurried to the front door, waited for him to round the corner, then darted down the steps. By the time he rounded the bend, Wobbly Man had disappeared into the park. Mort quickened his pace figuring he’d catch him the way he’d overtaken runners during his marathon days, but was surprised he wasn’t able to gain any ground.
On a level plane, he saw Wobbly Man differently than he ever had before. Each hitched step was perfectly placed, synchronized with the flicks of the walking stick that didn’t poke the ground as much as accentuate his motion, like a conductor gesticulating to an orchestra. The longer he trailed him the more he conformed to the Wobbly Man’s metronomic stride. Lost in the flow of the rhythmic pace, Margaret appeared alongside him, jogging effortless, their feet no longer touching the ground.
He came to a clearing on the crest of a hill, the blazing sun directly overhead, a stream bordering the trail, and for the first time he was within earshot of Wobbly Man.
“Hello!” shouted Mort.
Wobbly Man glanced behind and slowed. Mort straddled alongside him watching sweat funnel through the troughs in his forehead and down the sides of his contorted face. “’elp hou?”
Jolted by words that sounded like grunts and the corner of a mouth twisting toward the ground, Mort stuttered, “You move with,” he paused, searching for an appropriate word, “grace.”
The other corner of Wobbly Man’s mouth lifted. “…’ank hou,” he said. He slid the walking stick from the grasp of three fingers that folded into his palm like angle iron, and offered his hand.
Mort winced as if every bone in his hand had been crushed in a vice. This powerful, courageous man, he realized, exerted more energy and strength traversing the region than he himself had in all of his marathons combined. “I watch you in the mornings,” said Mort.
“I know,” said Wobbly Man.
Mort’s eyelids collapsed. “You know?”
“’hou hive in house where woman killed in con… convenience shore.”
Mort fought to keep his legs from buckling as he flashed back to that horrible day, remembering the bullet that had passed through his Margaret struck a bystander in the temple. He wanted to visit him in the hospital but didn’t know what to say to a man on life support, then stopped following the story because it was too painful. He looked into Wobbly Man’s welling eyes, tears bulging at the corners, and a warmness filled him that he hadn’t felt since he lost his Margaret.
Jim Brennan is a former shipbuilder and industry analyst who writes fiction and poetry when he’s not chasing around his grandchildren. Jim’s short stories and poetry have appeared in literary magazines including Prime Number Magazine, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Every Day Fiction and The American Journal of Poetry. He is the author of the memoir Twenty-four Years to Boston.