Rune Rofke - Glenn Emery


August 1980
Athens, Ohio

I slept until almost nine o’clock, which for me was extremely late. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was from nearly a week of sleeping outside and wherever for a few hours at a time. Phil, however, had been up and about for hours, banging noisily outside my window in the yard. When I finally emerged, his face registered mild disapproval.

“Get enough rest?”

“I’m sorry. I haven’t had much sleep lately. You remember that storm a few nights ago? I was stuck in that all night, out by the river. This is the first time I’ve slept in a real bed in a very long time. I didn’t know how exhausted I was. I’m sorry.”

“I guess you do deserve a rest,” said Phil. “Well, let’s just try not to make a habit of it, okay?”

He returned to the matter at hand. All around the perimeter of the yard were old railroad ties, sunk flush to the ground. Someone long ago had put them in as a landscape border, and at the time they must have made a sharp, black outline between the grass and flowerbeds. Now, however, they were warped and bent and faded with age.

“I want you to dig up these old railroad ties. Tomorrow, the guy I lent my truck to is going to bring it by. His name is Pete. Then I want you to load the ties into the truck and take ’em to the dump. Think you can you handle that?”

I assured him that I could. Phil went inside his house to do whatever it was that he did, and I set to work on liberating the old ties from the earth. It was backbreaking work. The ties had become thoroughly fused with the dirt through the years, and it took a great deal of digging to free each one. By noon I was barely half done. I didn’t hear Desiree sneak up behind me.

“You look like you need a drink.”

The suddenness of her voice so close behind almost gave me a heart attack, but when I turned around I nearly dropped dead. If I thought she was pretty last night, today she was gorgeous. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore cutoff jeans and a Great America T-shirt. On her it looked like high fashion. A nearby cicada filled the air with approval.

I was embarrassed for her to see me so sweaty and dirty. But she didn’t seem to mind. She held a plastic jug with light brown liquid and a couple of plastic cups.

“Want some tea? I just made it this morning. I hope it’s not too sweet.”

“Good grief, you ’bout scared me half to death. Sneaking up on somebody when they’re working.”

“Aw, don’t be mad. I was just having a little fun.”

I smiled back at her. “I ain’t mad. Just startled me, that’s all. And yes, I would love something to drink.”

We sat down in a couple metal lawn chairs under a large elm tree and drank the tea. I think I consumed about half the jug before I came up for air.

“I must look a fright,” I said, wiping my forehead and neck with a small towel. I hadn’t shaved since I’d been in Athens, and now a light beard was forming along my jaw.

“I think you look handsome. Honest dirt is beautiful dirt, that’s what my mama always said.”

“I like your mama already.”

“I was hoping to see you today,” Desiree said.


“I kept thinking about you last night when I got home. I’ve never met anyone like you. You seem different from other guys. You don’t seem preoccupied with … you know. Plus you seem really interesting. You’ve had a lot of adventures. I want to hear more about you.”

“A few adventures, but nothing to write home about. I’m just trying to find my way in the world, same as everyone else, and hopefully leave it a little better if I can.”

“See, that’s what I mean. You’re modest on the outside but on the inside you’ve obviously got a lot going on. I’ve never been anywhere. I’ve lived in Athens my whole life and I’ve never had any adventures. I hope we can be friends because you seem like someone I should know.”

“We are friends, Desiree. We became friends the moment I met you.”

Her faced reddened like the subtle cherry in her yellow hair. It was as close a declaration of love as I could muster without stepping over some invisible line.

“Desiree! Don’t stop a man when he’s working! He might not get started again!”

It was Phil, calling from the back door of his house.

“Oh, Phil. You’re gonna work this poor man to death. Even the lord rested on the seventh day.” Desiree may have retreated quietly last night when Phil asked her to, but I could see now she wasn’t intimidated by him. “You are going to pay him, right?” Phil closed the back door without answering.

“Well, I’d better get going. Phil will get mad if I hang around with you the rest of the day, even though I’ve got nothing else to do.”

“You don’t work?”

“I’m a physical therapist. I work with handicapped children. I don’t have any sessions scheduled for today, so I guess you could say this is my day off.”

“Wow. That takes a special kind of person, somebody with a deep heart to work through all that difficulty and frustration.”

“I love it. Even one tiny little improvement makes it all worthwhile, especially when there’s not supposed to be any improvement at all.”

“Do you believe in miracles?”

“You mean like Jesus healing the cripple? No, I don’t think that’s realistic. I believe in tiny miracles. And every one of them takes hours and hours of hard work. But I do invest my faith in that effort, so when there is a positive change, I know God was behind it.”

“You have healing hands. That’s a great gift.”

Desiree blushed again.

“Desiree!” Phil yelled.

“Keep your shorts on, Phil. I’m just leaving.” She looked at me and rolled her eyes. “I’d better get going. But I want you to come to prayer circle with me on Friday night.”

“I’d love to.”

Desiree left and I returned to work. Her presence lingered in my mind and somehow made the digging easier. By mid afternoon I had all the ties out of the ground, ready to load in the truck whenever Pete brought it by.

I took a shower, changed clothes, and then walked over to the grocery store to spend the 20 dollars that Mooney gave me. I just bought a few basics: a few cans of soup, a box of Bisquick, a dozen eggs, a small tub of margarine, a small jar of instant coffee, a pint of milk, and a few other non-perishables. Nothing extravagant. Purely survival food.

Then I went over to Mark’s house. He was about to head out, but he told me to help myself to the vegetables in the garden. I carried home two sacks of tomatoes, peppers and squash. If I rationed carefully, I could probably survive on what I had for the rest of the month, if I absolutely had to. Somehow I didn’t think I’d have to, but I felt secure. I didn’t need to worry about eating.

After I put all the groceries away, I went up to Phil’s house to see if he had anything else he wanted me to do. I was also curious to see if he was going to pay me for the work I had done. I didn’t want to ask, but I was flat broke again and would like to have a little pocket money.

Phil was in his basement, puttering around in his woodworking shop. This was his passion, and he had outfitted his shop with a full array of serious, heavy-duty power tools: table saw, radial saw, band saw, tile saw, drill press, and his newest acquisition, a joiner / planer. Phil was marking a large pine board to make a bookshelf.

He enlisted me to help, although really my job was to listen to Phil tell me about himself. That was fine with me. As long as the conversation didn’t focus on me, I was content.

Like myself, Phil did not have a job. The associate pastor thing was purely ceremonial. Unlike myself, Phil had a lot of money from speculating in the commodities market, trading in futures, which struck me as very curious thing for a born again Christian to dabble in as a vocation, given the general bias against gambling.

I didn’t say this, of course, but Phil must have encountered this sort of disapproval before because he launched, without any prompting from me, into a lengthy explanation about why it wasn’t gambling, but simply studying the markets carefully and then making shrewd transactions, hopefully at the right time. I looked around at all the expensive toys Phil had accumulated in his workshop. The commodities market had been good to him.

I asked him what he did with the soybeans, because I couldn’t really fathom what trading in corn and soybeans and pork bellies was about. He just laughed.

“I just sell ’em before the contact expires,” he said, like this was the most logical and obvious thing in the world. “What am I going to do with a truckload of soybeans in my driveway?”

“But what if the price goes down?”

“Then I take the loss. I’m not taking delivery. That would be foolish.”

“So sometimes you lose money.”

“Yeah, I’ve lost money. But mostly I make money.”

Phil started talking about puts and calls and options and short-selling, but I didn’t get any of it. It all sounded way too complicated to me. All I knew was fundraising. Buy low, sell high. I guess what Phil was talking about was similar, but it would take a while for me to get the hang of it, and there didn’t seem much point right now in me spending much time doing that.

I listened carefully for Phil to say something about his faith, some clue that he was not satisfied or didn’t understand something. It would give me an opening to begin presenting some of the concepts I really wanted to talk about. But he never did. Phil was fulfilled.

It would have been stupid for me to bring it up myself, because it would just invite unwanted scrutiny. So, having nothing further to talk about, I helped Phil build the bookshelf. I briefly wondered if he was going to pay me for helping him, and when he made no mention of it, I went back to my little house and made my first dinner.

I chopped up a few vegetables, stirred them into some Bisquick batter, and cooked it in a small skillet with a bit of margarine. I couldn’t believe how something so simple could taste so good. I called my little concoction manna cakes, like manna from heaven. I felt blessed.

Later Phil invited me to come to Bible study in his house. He had just finished off the attic into a small apartment and he was eager to show it off. Phil and his wife, who was much younger than him, already had four other women renting rooms in the house. Plus there was the little house I was in, which could easily sleep five or six, and now the attic apartment. So I guess if the commodities market didn’t cooperate, Phil still had steady income collecting rent from about a dozen students during the school year.

Phil had installed a small wood burning stove in the attic to heat it in the winter. But it had a strange flue, one that made a complete loop before exiting out the side wall. Phil said it was the latest design, meant to improve heat transfer to the room, instead of all the heat escaping out the flue. I was suspicious but didn’t say anything. Perhaps he knew best. Personally, I’d be worried about carbon monoxide not being able to escape, never mind the heat. Thank God it was summer. I’d hate to be the first guinea pig who had to try it out.

Bible study was uneventful. The same tired ground Christians always cover, rediscovering the same lessons over and over. I found it very boring, but I wanted to be a polite and gracious guest, so I played my role. The best part was I got to meet the four women who lived in Phil’s house. If any of them were at the potluck dinner last night, I didn’t remember them.

After Bible study, one of the women, Cindy, asked me if I wanted to go with her downtown to the Hobbit House to hear some jazz. I really wanted to see Desiree, but I didn’t know where she lived, and even though I didn't like jazz especially, I thought it would be good to go someplace new and possibly meet some new people.

It was okay, but nothing special. I didn’t really meet anyone. I left after a while because I was kind of tired from digging all day and I wanted to go to bed. When I prayed, I had the same mental image of a group of people gathered in a circle. But this time there was something different. I could vaguely see a modest white house. It appeared to be on the corner of an intersection. The image didn’t really mean anything to me, but it was there.

The next morning Pete brought by Phil’s truck, a ’53 Dodge pickup. It was dull with age but in reasonably good shape. I worried, though, that it wouldn’t be able to haul the railroad ties, because they were so heavy. Pete assured me the old truck was up to it.

I liked Pete right away. He was calm and smart, laid-back but wise. I felt an instant rapport with him. I guessed him to be in his early 30s, which made him several years older than me, but I sensed someone who might be open to some of what I had to say. We chatted for a few minutes. He said he was an “independent contractor” -- a handyman -- who did odd jobs around town. “Jack of all trades, master of none.” He had borrowed Phil’s truck for the past week to put up some drywall in a rental house that Phil owned. Phil was turning out to be quite the landlord.

I had assumed Pete was going to help me with the ties, so when he said he had another job to get to I was a little disappointed. He gave me directions to the landfill and gave me the keys. It took me about an hour to get all the railroad ties into the truck. The springs on the old Dodge sagged almost down to the axel as I pulled out onto Mill Street and headed toward the highway. The directions took me north past Chauncey, but this time I wasn’t worried. I felt I had spiritual protection to leave Athens.

I found the landfill without any problem, unloaded the ties, and was heading back to Athens when the engine started making a funny noise. Before I could do anything it died. I was right at the exit for Chauncey. It was absolutely the last place I wanted to be.

Smoke was coming out from under the hood. I knew what had happened. It had run out of oil and seized up. This was going to be expensive, and for me, catastrophic. I knew Phil would blame me, even though it wasn’t really my fault. Still, I should have noticed the gauges. Phil was going to kick me out. Everything had finally fallen into place, and now this. I felt sick.

I walked into Chauncey to find a pay phone, praying I didn’t accidentally run into Betty Lou. I hated making this phone call even worse than the time I had to call Sawamukai back when I was in Kansas. I dialed Phil’s number. I told him the engine seized up. He did say much, but I could tell he was royally pissed. He said he’d be right there, but he didn’t show up for several hours, giving me a good long time to think about the wrath coming my way. It was like sitting on death row in the hours before the execution. I felt utterly helpless.

When Phil finally did arrive, he tried to appear calm, but he was still seething beneath the surface. Phil was a bear of a man who probably had been a magnet for trouble in his youth. I knew the first time I met him that he had a short fuse. I also knew he was going to blow up at me, but there was nothing I could do.

My attempt at an apology was all it took to light him off. He yelled at me for not seeing it was overheating, and he is absolutely right. I made a desperate offer to get it fixed somehow, but Phil shut me out. This old truck was his baby, and I had dropped it on its head. Phil may have had forgiveness in his heart someplace, but it would take a long time to dig it out. I resigned myself to being the Class A fuck-up he now believed me to be. There was no way I could make this right.

A tow truck arrived while we waited and hauled off the Dodge, to where I don’t know. Phil and I drove back to his house in silence. He pulled into the driveway, got out, and slammed the back door, leaving me standing in the driveway not sure what to do. I figured my time here was up. I took a shower while I was still able, then sat in the living room, waiting for Phil to come and throw me out.

When he didn’t, I decided to risk knocking on his door. I couldn’t stand the suspense. I was as repentant as I could be, but the situation was beyond my control.

“Phil, I feel terrible about the truck,” I said when he opened the door. “I take full responsibility. I’ll do whatever I can to get it fixed.” I meant it, even though I knew it would be impossible for me in the month or so I had left in town.

He was still angry, but he had mellowed a little. “You should have seen she was overheating. There’s no excuse for that. But you couldn’t know she was low on oil. That’s Pete’s fault. He borrowed her all week and didn’t check the oil.”

Pete must have found out what happened and convinced Phil it was his fault, not mine, that I couldn’t know all the idiosyncrasies of a vintage truck. I think, but I’m not absolutely certain, that Phil was going to throw me out but Pete talked him out of it. Pete said he would pay for a new engine, which Phil knew wasn’t possible because Pete had no money. I sensed Phil was beginning to accept it as just an unfortunate loss, like a bad trade on the commodities market.

So the upshot was I could stay. But I felt I must do something to take spiritual responsibility, since I, and I alone, knew that that was what this was really all about. I couldn't fix the engine, but I could try to restore some spiritual foundation for me to continue. I knew of only one thing that might possibly make it right: a seven-day fast.

I scrapped my plans to make another manna cake for dinner. All the fresh vegetables from Mark’s garden went into the fridge. I just hoped they'd keep for a week.

I was too depressed to eat anyway. And I didn't want to see anyone, especially not Desiree. There was nothing to do now but brace myself for a long and difficult week. 

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