“The Mission of Barney McPhee”–Julie Kelly

They called out to him from the dark closet behind the sliding oak doors—his Asics, still lovely to him in spite of their tattered laces and worn soles. Heeding their call, he crept to the closet and pulled them from the shelf, their pungent odor pleasing his nostrils, conjuring up images of starting lines, leaf-littered trails and deserted dirt roads. Smiling, he slipped on a rumpled T-shirt and a pair of nylon shorts before sliding his stocking-clad feet into the shoes. He laced them quickly and darted to the door, stepping into the darkness and gulping in the cool, crisp air. And then he began to run, flying through the shadows of the starlit lane, running…and running…

Wanda’s shrill, piercing voice jolted him awake. His heart still pounding, he leaped out of bed. Barney sighed. A dream. So real, but he knew without a doubt it was a dream.

Barney McPhee was assured of this fact as he caught a glimpse of his half-naked body in the full-length mirror. Gone were the defined arms, the lean torso, the muscular thighs. His muscles now drooped from his limbs like deflated balloons, and his belly had developed the roundness of the donuts he so loved to eat. Time had not been good to Barney McPhee.

Barney remembered his old body—thin and trim and svelte. His legs had been lean and he had been a runner then, spending his free time pounding the hot black asphalt in his red high-cut nylon running shorts. He had reveled in the sweat, the shortness of breath, the jealous stares of the passersby, who had had too many donuts to fit in running shorts like his, much less run in them.

But that had been years ago—thirteen and a half to be exact—before he had married Wanda, before she helped him decide that running was silly and unproductive and a waste of time. Wanda had helped him decide a lot of things, and that was what had attracted Barney to her in the first place. He had always been quiet and had never liked making decisions. With Wanda, he didn’t have to. Besides, she always had a logical explanation to validate her demands.

“Why run when you have a perfectly good Buick to get you where you want to go?” she had demanded. “Yes, dear,” Barney had agreed, not because he was a pushover, but because his wife was once again right.

Barney sighed as he slid on his sensible brown Oxfords. Just a dream, but so real. He sighed again and pushed the memory of the dream and his Asics out of his mind.

* * *

She was talking to him before he even entered the room. “…And Eileen told me Marsha’s not going because Bill lost his job and they can’t afford a trip, even though Marsha claims she’s having problems with her bunions again…quit your dilly-dallying, Barney…and so Eileen is driving now, even though Lord knows that Buick of hers is not fit to drive out of town…” Wanda flew around the kitchen, her body and mouth in constant motion.

After thirteen and a half years of marriage, Wanda still intimidated Barney. Everything about Wanda McPhee demanded attention. Her voice was an auctioneer’s—clear, loud and rambling. Even her appearance ordered, “Look at me!” Her hair was dyed fiery red—L’Oreal #57, “Nuclear Red,” to be exact. Her makeup was bold and garish, caked on each morning in front of the bathroom mirror as she “put on her face,” as she called it. Barney had learned—after thirteen and a half years of marriage—to not look at Wanda between 10:15 p.m. and 6:45 a.m. The sight of his eyebrowless, pock-faced wife had once ruined his appetite for three days—and Barney’s appetite was not something that was easily suppressed. Wanda was intimidating, but Barney was lucky to have her.

He was reminded of this good fortune as the scent of pancakes and sausage wafted in his nostrils. She plopped a plate in front of him, managing to pour a cup of coffee and flatten a wayward tuft of hair on Barney’s head at the same time. “You remember I’m leaving for Albuquerque this morning, right?”

How could he forget? Barney had been anticipating April 27 for months. Each day, he had counted down the days on the wall calendar until the box neatly labeled with “9:15 AM: Society of Women Gardeners Retreat” in red pen. For the first time in their thirteen-and-a-half-year marriage, Wanda would be out of town not just for the night, but for a week. He was not exactly sure why she was attending a gardening retreat. Wanda didn’t even have a garden. She planted a tiny patch of marigolds in the front yard each year, but Barney suspected the flower garden’s main function was to provide Wanda with a clearer view of the neighbors and better access to the town gossip. Barney didn’t care why. He suppressed a grin by choking down the tomato juice Wanda had poured for him. Albuquerque. Barney reveled at the thought. Seven days of peace and quiet.

Her sharp voice jolted him from his reverie. “I’ve got your meals for the week in here.” Wanda stacked neatly-labeled Tupperware containers in the refrigerator. “The cooking instructions are written on each one. And I’ve got a list of chores for you for each day on the calendar …”

Barney stopped listening. His ears had begun to filter out Wanda’s voice, and he had learned to nod and interject statements of “Yes, dear” at appropriate times. He did that now, paying little attention to her as she scuttled about the kitchen, sticking Post-It notes on everything in sight and wiping anything with a surface, including Barney’s head.

He quickly gulped the last of his juice and stood up. He pecked his wife on the cheek. “Have a good trip, dear.”

 * * *

Barney’s day at the office was unusually tedious. Not that days at Bingham, Benson and Roe Accounting were ever exciting. Barney sat in a cramped cubicle, surrounded by white mountains of paper mottled with numbers. Barney didn’t even like numbers. But, like Wanda had said, a job was a job, and it paid the bills.

Barney had always aspired to be a writer. He had dabbled with poetry in the past, scrawling stanzas on a yellow notepad that he had kept tucked in the back pocket of his Levi’s. But Wanda had told him poetry was silly.

“Who’s gonna pay you to write poems?” she’d demanded. “Quit that silliness and find a job that pays the bills. Do something productive.”

“Yes, dear,” Barney had said, even though he did not see his poetry as silly. Wanda regarded anything that was not work as “silly.” She frowned upon silliness. Everything—in Wanda’s pencil-lined eyes, at least—needed to be productive. She baked. She cleaned. She ironed. She sewed. Wanda was always busy, always moving. Barney yearned to ask his wife how gossiping could be considered “productive,” but kept quiet for fear of her glare and her tongue.

Wanda was right—his work as an accountant did pay the bills. But it also gave him a headache. Barney amused himself with the trinkets on his desk, fiddling with the shiny paperclips and delighting at the whir of the automatic pencil sharpener that never failed to fascinate him. The stack of account ledgers remained massive on his desk as it always did—while Barney counted down the hours until he could return to his empty house and be free.

* * *

Barney rushed to his Le Sabre after work, giddily sticking the key in the ignition. Freedom. He sped home, tunelessly whistling to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” on the radio. In his mind, he meticulously planned just how he would spend his glorious week.

Freedom was not what Barney had imagined, though. His microwaved pot roast meal had been terrible—mushy and undercooked, the middle still crystallized. He ate it, though, sure Wanda would find out and scold him for wasting good food if he threw it away.

By 8:10 that night, Barney was bored, out of ideas, and lonely. The silence was surprisingly louder even than Wanda’s nasally voice. With a sigh, Barney sank onto the flowered comforter, turning the television on as loudly as it would go to fill the disconcerting silence. Barney listlessly flipped through the channels before finally succumbing to sleep.

* * *

Sunlight flooded Barney’s room, searing through his closed eyelids and forcing him awake. He glanced at the clock. 7:49. Frantic, Barney leaped out of bed. He had overslept. Wanda had always woken him up at precisely 6:20, her bellowing voice jolting him from sleep.

Wanda. He was reminded again of her absence. The loneliness that had set in last night still hung around Barney like heavy clouds. Today, no chattering or clanging pans filtered up the stairs. In the silence, he stumbled around the bedroom, struggling to gather his clothes for work.

Barney yanked clothes from hangers and frantically threw them on, his fat fingers fumbling with buttons and zippers. There. Perfect, he thought, smoothing his pleated pants. Barney scrambled to his dresser, flailing through briefs and ribbed undershirts and white T-shirts. Rummaging through the drawer, Barney’s hand brushed against something smooth, silky. He stopped abruptly. There was something about it—the texture, the softness of the fabric—that triggered a feeling inside Barney. So familiar, that feeling…

Gingerly, Barney pulled the object from the darkness of the drawer. A brilliant flash of crimson, and there it was—his red, high-cut nylon running shorts.

Quit your dilly-dallying and get ready for work, a Wanda-ish voice commanded in Barney’s head. But there was something about the smoothness of the nylon, the light weave of the fabric that silenced that voice and entranced Barney. He stood silent, unaware of the time, his circumstances—only concerned with the garment in his hand. Silly…silly…the voice chanted, but Barney ignored it.

He wanted to run. Yes, it seemed silly. After all, it was a Thursday morning and he hadn’t run in years, but Barney didn’t care. It was his time. Finally, he would live the dream.

He pulled on the shorts, feeling a resistance he had never experienced before. A little tight, he thought as he tugged them up his pudgy thighs, the shorts clinging to his legs like Saran Wrap. Barney slipped on a faded T-shirt and a pair of holey cotton socks that had been stuffed in the back of the drawer behind neatly-lined pairs of brown and black stockings. Shoes.

He knew they were still there, tucked away safely in the corner of the musty attic. He had not seen them for thirteen and a half years, after he had rescued them from the trash and sneaked them upstairs. He was sure they were safe though, since Wanda never ventured to the attic—“allergies,” she claimed. And so he had exiled the shoes to the dark prison of the attic, a place where they were safe but unused, neglected. Now Barney climbed the attic stairs, the smell of mothballs and mildew meeting his nostrils. Boxes, ancient-looking furniture and unbaited mousetraps littered his path, but Barney continued, undaunted—he was on a mission. Finally, in the corner of the attic, Barney caught a glimpse of a long box encased in dust. As if in a trance, he approached it slowly, silently. He removed the cardboard lid and there they were—his beloved Asics.

Lovingly, he removed them from the box and held them in his hands. They were more tattered than he had remembered. The soles had begun to crack, and holes had begun to form in the fabric above his big toes. To Barney, though, these signs of wear represented miles and miles of joy and power and freedom. As he slipped them on his feet, a surge of energy shot through his body.

Barney thundered down the stairs and out of the house. However, the glaring sunlight jolted him, suddenly alerting him to the absurdity of his actions and his appearance. Usually hidden beneath polyester pants, his legs were the color of unbaked biscuits, and just as doughy. His high-cut red nylon shorts, which had accented perfectly tanned, toned legs in the past, seemed to punish Barney for his neglect, squeezing and pinching and clinging tightly to his legs. He prayed his neighbors would be too preoccupied with their Folgers to notice him.

The jogging was painful at first—if it could be considered jogging. Barney imagined it appeared more as a waddle, but it was moving, nonetheless. In a way, it was different than he remembered. Now, Barney’s breathing became labored after just one block, and the inside of his thighs rubbed together in the tight nylon shorts. His belly jiggled each time his foot struck the ground, reminding Barney of each donut, cinnamon roll and cupcake that had passed through his lips in the last thirteen and a half years.

However, the running was still strikingly similar. He loved the feel of the pavement under his feet, the sound of the gravel crunching with each step. He ignored the stiffness in his joints as the breeze flowed through his thinning hair. As he ran, he gradually felt the heaviness of his body dissipate and he was weightless, airborne.

Elated and dripping with perspiration, Barney returned home. Four blocks—a distance he would have scoffed at, considered a warm-up thirteen years ago, now seemed like an accomplishment. For the first time in the past decade, Barney felt powerful. He had done what he had wanted to do. Who cared if it was silly?

* * *

Barney’s tardiness seemed to go unnoticed as he rushed into the office nearly two hours late. Full of energy and ambition, the usually lethargic Barney was a madman, viciously punching keys and scrawling numbers in ledgers. With his newfound vigor, Barney completed the heap of papers—usually a full day’s work—in just two hours. Leaning back in his cushioned desk chair, Barney pondered what to do next. More freedom. Reveling in his independence and growing sense of power, a thought crept into Barney’s head. Impulsively, he snatched a pen and a pad of paper from his tidy desk and begin scrawling madly. Twenty minutes later, exhausted, he set his pen down and stared at the paper. His first poem in thirteen and a half years. Crude, but a poem, nonetheless.

At 5:00, Barney strutted out of the office, a stack of drafts and ideas for poems tucked under his arm. 5:00. He felt taller than his height of five-foot-five somehow, like he had magically sprouted over the last twelve hours. As Barney climbed into his Buick, his mind churned with ideas for poems and visions of his next run.

* * *

The next six days were a blur. His mornings began before sunrise, as they had in the past. These runs were much shorter and slower now, but even in six days Barney could feel changes in his body. Although his joints ached and his muscles screamed for the first few days, they once again began to grow accustomed to the pounding on the pavement. Maybe it was just his imagination, but his polyester pants did not seem to cling so tightly to his waist, and his belly did not seem to jut out as far in his button-up shirts. He walked a bit taller, talked a bit louder. He produced poem after poem, years of ideas spewing onto crisp, white pages.

But always, in the back of his mind, a little voice whispered, Wanda. Wanda. As the time grew nearer to her return, it became more and more difficult to ignore the whispers and the question they posed—what happens when she comes back?

* * *

The door flew open, and in she flew with bags and suitcases and noise. Wanda’s return was as Barney had expected—loud, sudden and jolting. The house was alive again, full of racket and activity.

It did not take her long to notice the running shoes occupying the braided rug near the front door. Wanda’s dark eyes darted accusingly to Barney.

“What are these old things doing out?” she demanded, her penciled-in eyebrows arching dangerously on her forehead.

“I don’t know,” Barney mumbled.

“Well, put them away.” Wanda thrust the shoes at her husband and turned to tidy the countertop, giving Barney an opportunity to escape.

“Yes, Wanda,” he said, taking his Asics and returning them to their prison in the attic.

Returning to the kitchen, Barney found his wife darting about, chopping vegetables and browning meat and boiling water, all the while jabbering to some unfortunate soul on the other end of the phone line.

“I’m sure it’s just a little phase.” Wanda attacked a stalk of celery with a machete-like knife. “And he’ll see how silly it is…his jogging…I’m sure it won’t last…” And then she returned to her usual gossip, telling Eileen or Gladys or Marsha the latest dish on the ladies of the neighborhood.

Barney’s body shook at the sound of that word—“silly.” He stalked up the stairs and tore off his perfectly-pressed shirt and slacks. Throwing on a T-shirt and his red nylon running shorts, he grabbed his Asics from the darkness of the attic and thrust his feet inside them. Barney laced them quickly and rushed down the stairs, hoping to avoid Wanda and her mouth and to escape to the serenity and the peacefulness of the open road.

But she seemed to hear his thoughts and met him at the door. “Barney,” she said, “stop this silliness. This jogging…it’s just not sensible. And it’s so unproductive.” She stared at him expectantly.

Thoughts swirled through Barney’s mind. He thought of his Asics, trapped in the attic collecting dust for another thirteen and a half years. Then he remembered the pounding of his heart, the sweat on his body and how he had soared above the concrete, above the dirt, above his mundane existence. He would not let her take this away from him. No, he would not allow her to control his body and his mind.

“No, Wanda,” he said.

Wanda’s head whipped around and she fixed her eyes on his face. “What?”

“I said, ‘No.’ It’s not silly. It is not silly and I’m going to keep doing it and I’ll be back in half an hour.” With that, Barney hiked up his red nylon running shorts and walked out the door.

As he passed the window, Barney caught a glimpse of Wanda’s face, her enormous mouth hanging open.

Barney smiled. He had silenced her at last—for half an hour, at least.

JULIE KELLY, raised in southwestern Minnesota, graduated with a teaching degree from Southwest Minnesota State University.  Now a middle school English teacher, Kelly lives and works in Jönköping, Sweden, with her husband, Jeff.  When not teaching, Kelly enjoys running, traveling, and reading.  This is her first short story.

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