In small-town Maine, unhappily retired Howard Woods is shaken awake one morning by his wife, who confesses to a devastating affair. Unable to forgive his wife, Howard sets out on a journey in hope of finding life after tragedy.
Determined to follow in the footsteps of Hemmingway, Howard travels to Pamplona, Spain to join the running of the bulls. His life promptly descends into chaos. But how does a middle-aged homebody, who has never even done his own laundry, salvage his manhood and pride and learn how to rebuild his life on his own?
At once funny, insightful, and heartbreaking, Running the Bulls is perfect fans of Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout), The Language of Flowers (Vanessa Diffenbaugh), and The Good House (Ann Leary) who will be transfixed by this coming-of-age story of a late-middle-aged man.
Also from Cathie Pelletier, The Mattagash Series:
The Funeral Makers (Book 1): Welcome to Mattagash, Maine where everyone's personal lives are as entwined as their family trees.
A Wedding on the Banks (Book 2): Amy Joy Lawler just announced her engagement-to an outsider!
The Weight of Winter (Book 3): Surviving the winter will be hard; dealing with each other is another story.
The One-Way Bridge (Book 4): Return to Mattagash-the anything but tranquil town where a mysterious dead body has just been found in the woods.
"Running the Bulls is filled with humor, and frailty, and heroism, and is so very human."
"Cathie Pelletier has once again given us a gift from the heart to both tickle and break our hearts."What reviewers are saying about Running the Bulls
"Masterful work...subversive, humorous, and heartbreaking."— Publishers Weekly
"Nobody walks the knife-edge of hilarity and heartbreak more confidently than Cathie Pelletier. In Running the Bulls she's at her skillful, sure-footed best." Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire FallsWhat people are saying about Cathie Pelletier
"Cathie Pelletier generates the sort of excitement that only writers at the very top of their form can provide."-Stephen King
"It is Pelletier's gift to be able to coax the drama from stony ground without artifice or sentimentality."-Boston Globe
"An ambitious, fearless novelist."-The Washington Post
"Cathie does a wonderful job of capturing [her characters'] moods and loves and losses, and yearnings...Her writing is lovely and so descriptive"— Annie Philbrick, Bank Square Books, Mystic, CT
"Sharp stuff...Her sentences are powerful and unique as snowflakes."-New York Times
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When Howard Woods awoke on what would become the most fated day of his life, he squinted his eyes at the bedside clock. Still only three a.m. He had been dreaming again. He could feel the moist sweat on the sheet beneath his stomach, the damp of his own pajama top. He turned over onto his back, even though this meant he would snore off and on until morning, with Ellen poking at his ribs to quiet him. But if Ellen were deep into her own sleep, she wouldn't hear. Howard stretched an arm over to touch her, to assess the situation, but Ellen's side of the bed was empty.
This was nothing unusual since Ellen Woods had always admitted to being a night person. Many times over the years, Howard would wake to find her standing at the window, silver in moonlight, silent. Other times, he'd hear her prowling about in the rooms of the house, like some kind of midnight burglar. My night owl, Howard Woods called Ellen. Even when the two were still teaching at Bixley Community College-Ellen history and Howard literature-even then Ellen was often up at night, restless. "Come back to bed," Howard would say to her. And then, with sleep pulling him down, with the alarm clock waiting to maliciously uncoil, he would drift back to his own dreams, knowing he could snore freely if the urge should come upon him. Yet, at breakfast, while he ate his oatmeal and drank his coffee and read a swatch of the morning paper, Ellen was the one who had enough energy to ransack the house for Howard's quarterly tests, the ones he had finished correcting the night before. And Ellen was the one to gather up the dishes and leave them in the sink so that she could find them soaking after school, instead of clogged with egg yolk and jelly. Ellen was the one who said, "It's there, Howie, next to the chair in the study, that's where you left your briefcase." And when the children were still with them, Greta, Howard Jr., and John, she would putter about the house, finding their shoes, their socks, their sweaters, their books, and then seeing that all three ate a hearty breakfast. Ellen did this, even though Howard might have awakened the night before to find her standing at the window, head tilted, her eyes fixed on the garden. Or perhaps she was staring at a darkened tree, the house next door, some clouds. Who knew? Ellen was a night owl with energy to burn the next day, and Howard had grown to accept this.
So how could he know, how could Howard Woods imagine that a year and six days into his retirement, Ellen would finally tell him what she'd been staring at those moonlit nights, or nights of snowflakes trembling their way over Patterson Street, nights of terrified rainfall, the gutters and downspouts full to bursting. But that's what happened. Howard opened his eyes to see his wife in her usual stance at the window. Then he had fallen back to sleep. It was another dream of the classroom, another lecture he was trying desperately to deliver, about how Macbeth, Shakespeare's shortest play, was really a study in fear. He was telling this to a dream class of college students who were not only unwilling to listen, they were incapable of hearing him, for in the dream none of them had ears! It was a dream of retirement, no doubt about it, a dream of emasculation, a dream of finding one's way in the world after almost thirty years of chalk and test papers and classroom talks. And it was a recurring dream, one that he'd started having just days after their retirement party at the Knights of Columbus Hall. But it was a dream he would not dream to the end, at least not on that night, for he felt Ellen's hand on his arm, and this catapulted him, if not wide-awake, then into some kind of waiting room to his conscious mind.
"What is it?" Howard muttered. He kicked a foot at the top sheet, as if struggling to unwrap himself from the madness of the dream. The lecture he'd been trying to deliver had involved the three witches that Macbeth and Banquo encounter on that deserted heath. The witches and their prophecy. Double, double, toil and trouble.
"Howie, wake up."
Howard fought to pry his eyes into a believable, wide-awake look, but too much of the dream was still in them. Poor Macbeth, compelled to cross that same barren heath every time someone picked up the play and read it anew, cursed forever by academics and indifferent students to meet up, perpetually, with those three nasty hags and watch the course of his life spiral downward. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
"Howie, it's important."
Howard's conscious mind was telling him that this was no longer about Macbeth and his witches, that something must be wrong, just as something had been wrong on all those nights, years ago, when Greta had come down with appendicitis, or Howard Jr. had been up sleepwalking again, or John had had another nonstop nosebleed.
"I need to tell you this," Ellen said, "before I lose my nerve."
Howard sat up against his pillow. The narrow slats of the window blind had been left open and now Ellen's face was ribboned with moonlight. Even her eyes were a shimmering silver, like those highlights in her red hair that had appeared slowly, over four decades of marriage. A sexy kind of silver that Howard had always liked.
"What's going on?" he asked. He could feel her fingers firmly on his arm and knew he was no longer dreaming. Ellen's fingers, sure and steady and cool to the touch, burning into the warmth of his skin. His wife's fingers, in the middle of the night. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about guilt, Howie," Ellen said, "and how it can eat at your soul. I think men know how to handle guilt. That's how they spread their seed. I think nature gives them a little something extra in their genes that fights guilt off, the way cells fight bacteria."
"Ellen," was all Howard said, and he knew then that he didn't like the feel of her fingers on his arm. They were roots, roots that had sprouted well during all those nights he'd seen her standing at the window, meditating, pondering, whatever the hell it was she did over there. Double, double, toil and trouble. He wished the fingers belonged to someone else. Greta maybe, who was now married and living in Miami, with three daughters of her own. Or Howard Jr., who was a lawyer in Philadelphia and also had two girls. Or John, the baby of the family, who had been the pilot of an F-15 fighter during Desert Storm but was living in the same town as his parents, an executive now with Sounder Aeronautics, living just fifteen miles from Patterson Street, with his wife, Patty, and their son, Eliot. Howie wished Ellen's fingers would melt, would fall away from his arm and into a pool of silvery moonlight. But they didn't. They squeezed harder. He felt his heart lurch. His mind was still reeling itself toward total consciousness. Guilt. What did guilt mean? Had she wrecked the car, bounced a check, ironed a hole in his favorite golf shirt? Guilt.
"I'm talking about me," Ellen said at last. "I'm talking about me, and Ben Collins, and guilt, and how the three of us have lived a lie, a little ménage à trois of a lie."
This information brought Howard wide-awake. Ben Collins. Ben Collins. He was trying to place him, for he knew most certainly that he was acquainted with Ben Collins. Ben Collins! He had taught ancient history at Bixley Community College, years ago, filling in for Samuel Frist, who was on sabbatical. When Frist returned from Greece the next year, with far too many slides of the Parthenon and a suspicious Hellenic accent, Ben had packed up his family and moved on, downstate somewhere. Yes, Howard had even played golf with Ben Collins, and remembered him as a not-too-shabby player. And then there had been all those school functions where they had run into each other, Ben with his wife, and Howie with Ellen. Sometimes, they went with other teachers and spouses for an after-the-game beer, bundled in heavy coats during basketball season and huddled around the fireplace at Red's Tavern. But then, Ellen had known Ben well. They were in the same department. Ellen had known Ben very well.
"Ben Collins?" Howard said, and it seemed that by just speaking the name, something broke, something fragile as glass. Howard reached out now and snapped on the night-light. The silver disappeared, flew back to the moon, most likely. Ben Collins. He stared at Ellen's face, the straight bridge of her nose, the pretty cheekbones. He waited.
"It started just a few months after he was hired to teach at the college," Ellen said, distant, as if she were talking to someone else, her history class maybe, that old sea of faces that had risen before her eyes for almost thirty years. She might as well be staring out the window again, peering into the garden. But she wasn't. She was staring right at Howard Woods, her husband. "Ben and I were both trying to quit smoking, and we both had free periods at the same time. So, in the teacher's lounge, well, we became friends. And I want you to know that, Howie. I want you to understand that we were friends first, Ben and I. If we hadn't been, the affair never could have happened."
This threw Howard forward in the bed. He had been trying to listen to what she was saying: Guilt. Seed. Cells. Bacteria. He hadn't quite figured out the scenario since, in his half sleep, it sounded like a botany class. But he knew in his gut that it was worse than a middle-of-the-night nosebleed. Only when she said the word affair could his brain register the full impact. It was because he knew Ellen so well, maybe, that he was kept frozen in suspense, unwilling to understand until she spread it all before him, unwrapped the ugly blanket of her deceit. Ben Collins! Howard leapt from the bed and groped on the chair for his pants.
"The bastard!" he said, poking with his right foot at the waist opening in his pants while he balanced himself on the left.
"It was a long time ago, Howie," Ellen was pleading now. "And it was over quickly. I wish I could have told you then. For all these years I've felt terrible."
But Howard didn't care to hear Ellen's pity for herself.
"So, Lady Macbeth," he said. "Driven mad by your conscience, are you?"
"Lady Macbeth?" It was Ellen's turn to be confused. "For heaven's sake, Howie, listen to me."
"The dirty bastard!" Howard shouted. Since his right foot couldn't find a leg slot in the pants, Howard switched feet. "I'm gonna kill him, I'm gonna kill him!" He repeated this new phrase as though it were a poem, a mantra for the retired male. "He'll never lay his hands on my wife again because I'm gonna kill him!"
Then, trousers in hand, belt dangling, Howard sat down on the edge of the bed, winded. For Christ's sake, he was sixty-three years old and yet here he was, expending energy like some teenaged wolf. He would take his time, like the mature, retired adult that he was. He would put his pants on the proper way, one leg at a time, followed by his shoes. Then, he would get a butcher's knife from the kitchen-that big, shiny thing Ellen used on the Thanksgiving turkey-he would find his car keys, and he would drive to Ben Collins's house-wherever the hell that was-and he would stab the son of a bitch until the cows came home.
Howard slid his pale legs into his pants, the right one first, then the left. He pulled the pants up around his waist, zipped them, then tightened and buckled his belt. He looked over at Ellen.
"I'm gonna kill him," Howard said again. He was instantly pleased to hear the calm now in his voice. Even Macbeth, that henpecked thane of Cawdor, hadn't managed that in the face of adversity.
"You're too late, Howie," Ellen said. She was back at the window now, spying on the last of the spring daffodils, petals frosted with moonlight. Or maybe she was remembering the pretty spot where the kids had had their swing set, until it fell apart with age. "Ben's already dead."
Howard's little blue Ford turned left at the traffic light by the library and then cruised slowly toward John's street. Spring had come and gone in Bixley, Maine, and now summer was in the air-it being the first day of June-with lots of leafing and budding and flowering. Lilac bushes up and down the streets had little purple blooms on them, and lawns were turning green as indoor turf. A splash of dawn was hitting the eastern sky, down where the big drive-in screen used to loll, all those summer evenings when the kids were little, and he and Ellen had taken them with snacks and blankets and pillows to see whatever movie had caught their fancy that week.
All the lights were still out at John's house, but Howard knew the house would be asleep. He had just glanced at his watch and saw that it was a quarter of five. John's station wagon was dozing in the drive, its ass pointed toward the street, its eyes shut tight, thanks to those automatic lids. Howard pulled up behind it and cut the Ford's engine. He wanted to go up to the door instantly and ring the bell. He was reminded of all those middle-of-the-night nosebleeds when the faucet between John's eyes had spewed red until the early hours of morning, while he, Howard, had stood holding a cloth to his son's face, holding the boy's tilted head, and muttering to himself, "Clot, dammit, clot, clot, clot." Surely, if he knocked on the door now, John the adult would understand. "It's payback time, buddy," Howard would tell him.
But Howard couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead, he sat staring at the bicycle that he and Ellen had dipped into their retirement money to buy for Eliot, their only grandson. It leaned against the front steps of the house, the paint turning from deep burgundy to apple red as the sun rose over Bixley and life began to stir, to rekindle itself inside bathrooms and kitchens up and down the street. Inside John's own house, Howard saw light finally burst forth, a tiny supernova in the bathroom. Then, one in the kitchen, as the window turned a warm yellow. Still, Howard waited.
Finally, just before seven o'clock, John opened the front door and stepped out. Howard heard him and looked up, away from that morning's USA Today. He had read all about how Alabama was returning its worse prisoners to chain gangs; how Massachusetts needed to clean up the pollution around Cape Cod; how Americans spend over $293 million a year trying to eradicate cockroaches; how some guy in Los Angeles was planning to run the bulls in Pamplona, carrying a huge banner as a statement against animal cruelty; and how the White House was still holding its own against the Whitewater allegations. Howard folded the paper back into its original creases. John obviously hadn't seen him there, parked behind the station wagon as if he were part of a sad wagon train headed for divorce instead of the Oregon Trail. Howard watched as John searched the front porch and then began scanning the walkway, looking for something.
Howard whirred his window down. "You looking for this?" he asked, and waved the morning paper at John, who glanced up, startled to hear a voice. When he realized it was Howard, he appeared even more startled.
"Dad?" he said. "What the hell's going on?" He was wearing only pajama bottoms, and as he came down the walk, Howard couldn't help but feel a fatherly pride at his son's physique, the well-muscled arms, the kind of washboard stomach that most men work out hours a day in the hopes of attaining. This was his son, John, the one who had flown that F-15 fighter, while back home all Howard and Ellen could do was sit on the edge of their sofa and watch the bombing on television. "It looks like Fourth of July fireworks," Ellen had said, as Bernie Shaw's voice transmitted news from a hotel room in Baghdad. Howie and Ellen had been pulled into a world they knew nothing about when John volunteered for Desert Storm, a world of precision-guided missiles, night vision, infrared navigation and target designation systems, laser and electro-optic guided bombs, target sensors, all devices that would allow for round-the-clock bombing. Back then, Howard had thought it the most terrible thing that could happen to him as a human being, having his son at war. And in his role as father, it still was.
Howard got out of the car and then leaned back against it, the paper tucked up under his right arm.
"It was delivered about five thirty," he said. He handed the paper to John, who took it. "I didn't think you'd mind."
"You been sitting out here since five thirty?" John asked. Then, a look swept over his face. "Something has happened to Mom!" Funny, but Howard recognized that look as the same one that had filtered across Ellen's face when Marlin Fitzwater broke the news to an astonished American public: the liberation of Kuwait has begun. In all their years of marriage, they had probably never been closer than at that moment-January 16, 1991, at six forty p.m. in Bixley, Maine-when one of their children was in grave jeopardy. He and Ellen had sat together on the sofa, her hand gripping his, watching as American planes zoomed in over Baghdad, F-117A Stealth Fighters, modernized B-52 bombers, F/A-18 Hornet fighters, Apache attack helicopters, SuperCobra helicopters, and, of course, those F-15 fighters, one of which was being piloted by the boy with the childhood nosebleeds. He and Ellen had sat with their strange new vocabulary floating between them, wondering each time, "Is that plane our son? Is that John Woods?" It was the look of losing someone you love dearly, someone you cannot imagine life without.
"Your mother is fine," said Howard. "Oh, she's just fine and dandy." He stared at his feet. He had forgotten to wear socks. He smiled as he pulled up his pants leg and showed John. "No socks," he announced.
"Have you been on some kind of bender, Dad?" John asked, looking down at the sockless feet. He then leaned forward to smell Howard's breath, but Howard waved him back.
"I haven't brushed my teeth," he said. "A bender would smell better right now."
"Then what?" asked John. "What the hell's going on?" Howard ran his finger down the blue paint of his car. A Ford Probe GT. A lemon, and even Bixley's Performance Ford admitted that it was. The transmission had gone twice in two years. Once, the muffler had dropped off in morning traffic. The windows shot up and down at random, as though ghosts were pushing the goddamn buttons. Howard was being kidded by the guys at Eddy's Service Station for having bought a lemon in the first place. He thought then of Ellen. He thought of the woman he had chosen to be his wife, for better or worse, a warranty for a lifetime.
"A goddamn lemon," said Howard.
"What?" asked John. He was looking back at the house, most likely wondering if Patty was awake and witnessing the scene out in their driveway.
"The Ford Probe's a lemon," said Howard. "Don't buy one, son."
"Dad, listen," John said. He leaned against the car and put his arm around Howard's shoulders. Big, sturdy arms. Like his grandfather, thought Howard. He felt like weeping in that instant at the sight of his son, tall, brave, honest. How had he pulled it off? How had he raised such a fine boy? And he had done it amidst the deceit of his wife, John's mother, Ellen. He hoped he wouldn't cry, not in front of John.
"I know you didn't come over here to talk to me about cars," John said. "What is it? What's going on? Mom said retirement hasn't been easy for you. It'll take time, Dad. Hell, I wish I could retire, spend more time with Patty and Eliot. Mom says you've been moping around the house, not getting any exercise at all."
"Ha!" said Howard, and made a fist. He held it up for John to see. "Ha!" he said again. Just the mention of her name, of her pretend concern for him. Oh, she wanted him out of the house all right, running his flabby ass off up and down Patterson Street just so that she could avail herself of another neighborhood stud. Carl Warner! Two houses down from theirs, who thought himself a ladies' man and drove a Mercedes. By God, she was probably doing old Carl, and Howard didn't even know it! And now, retired, well, no wonder he was cramping her style. No wonder she wanted him out exercising his calf muscles.
"Goddamn lemon," said Howard, and struck his balled fist against the Probe.
"Jesus, Dad," said John. "It's just a car."
Next door, a man came out for his own morning paper. He saw John and waved. John waved back and then turned to face Howard. "Come on in the house, Dad," John said. "Patty will get us some breakfast. And then maybe you'll tell me what the hell is going on." He motioned up the walk, then went on ahead, with Howard following as though he were on some kind of tether.
"Wait," said Howard. He went to the Probe and groped around in the backseat and came out with his suitcase.
"Holy cow," said John. "It's this serious?" Howard made a pointless gesture at the suitcase.
"Just a few things to tide me over," he explained. "But I forgot to pack socks."
Patty was in the kitchen and still in her robe. She looked up at Howard in surprise, then over at the clock.
"Dad!" she said. "Is everything okay? Is Mom okay?"
Howard nodded and said nothing, so Patty looked to John, who shrugged.
"From what I can make out," said John, "he's really pissed off that Ford sold him a lemon. And he's been waiting out in the yard since dawn to tell me about it."
John motioned for Howard to take off his jacket. Howard did so and handed it to his son. No one spoke. Howard could hear water boiling in a kettle and then the kettle's voice rising to a whine before Patty unplugged it. There was already a smell of muffins in the air, or some kind of bagel or cake, and it reminded him that he was quite hungry.
"It's Ellen," he said finally. He would tell them. He would explain, and then he would feed his famished soul. "She threw me out."
"Mom threw you out?" John asked. He gave Howard that stunned look, the one animals have as they plod toward their own slaughter.
"Well, actually," said Howard, "I told your mother to get out of our home, and she refused to leave. So, here I am." With his right arm he gestured pitifully at the length of himself. John and Patty exchanged a quick look, but Howard caught it. He had always caught John with those furtive looks. Like the time twelve-year-old John and his buddy Micky Pilcher played poker with Howard and a couple of fellow teachers, using their own marked deck until Howard, bankrupt and in debt to Micky for fifty dollars, saw something adrift in John's eyes. The boy, at thirty-three, still had a face like an open slate. Guileless. A man you'd follow into battle, or would want to follow you into battle.
"Why?" John was asking this cautiously now, frightful of the answer. "Why would you ask Mom to leave?"
"Why?" Howard asked. "Because she cheated on me. That's why."
John seemed to go pale at this declaration. He spun around and began rattling about in the cupboard for some plates. Patty, who'd been listening quietly, smiled at Howard. She gestured for him to take a chair at the table.
"How would you like your eggs, Dad?" she asked.
John came into the den where Howard was lounging on the sofa, having a second cup of coffee. He sat down in the chair facing Howard and stretched his legs out before him. Howard smiled. It reminded him of another time, this quiet determination he could see in his son's demeanor. It reminded him of the time John had been caught smoking pot in the boys' bathroom at Bixley High. He had been expelled, and he had come home to wait for his father in the den, sitting stiffly in a chair, determined to defend himself, his legs thrust out before him.
"Now, Dad," said John. "I've called my office. I told them I'll be in later. Don't you think it's time you let me know what's going on?" Howard cleared his throat. He had been staring at the picture of Ellen and him on the mantel, a photo taken three Christmases ago, when the entire nuclear family had gathered in the house on Patterson Street to celebrate with eggnog and brandy and deviled eggs, to rejoice their good fortune in health and family and career. In the picture, their faces were still alive with the endorphins that were pumping that day, bringing with them the joy of family, of togetherness, of continuity. The littlest grandchild, Howard Jr.'s two-month-old daughter, was blanketed in her mother's arms. Looking at the photo, Howard could now see Ben Collins nestled there in the gray coils of Ellen's cerebrum, that trunk where old memories are kept. Everything seemed like a lie to him now.
"Remember Ben Collins?" Howard asked, and as John filed through the Rolodex of names in his memory bank, Howard pulled up an image of Ben. He had been good-looking, manly in the way John was. Not that Howard wasn't manly; he just wasn't, well, rugged. Ben was handsome in that rugged way that women like, that Marlboro Man kind of way, at least before the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer. Ben was rugged, and he had a great golf swing, a real natural. Tears came to Howard's eyes and he fought them back.
"Oh yeah," John said finally. "Mr. Collins. He taught history."
"Bastard," Howard said. "Your mother had an affair with him."
"Jesus," said John, that stunned-animal look returning to his face. Then the animal look went away and another one replaced it. "Jesus," he said again, anger rising around the word. Howard held up a finger of caution.
"Don't waste your energy," he advised. "The bastard's already dead." John took this into consideration.
"Jesus," he said again. Howard nodded, appreciating the sympathy.
"Nice little mess to find myself in," he said. "Me dreaming about goddamn test papers all night long, grading and regrading, over and over again. Or giving lectures that have no endings. I tell you, I never worked that hard when I was actually teaching. And then she goes and deals me out this hand."
The two sat on sofa and chair, father and son, silence crusting itself between them as they considered this new event in their lives. Patty's head appeared in the doorway.
"I'm off to the theater," she said. "We're getting the makeup and costumes ready for the play next month." John stood to kiss her good-bye, and this gave Howard a particular pain. A husband kissing a wife good-bye. "What do you say I pick up Chinese on the way home tonight?" Patty asked. "Will you be joining us for dinner, Dad?" Howard's eyes had teared at the sight of the kiss, and now they were growing more cloudy. He put his head down, only to raise it again instantly. In doing so, he caught John lip-synching words to Patty, trying to tell her before she left what the scoop was.
"Ellen cheated on me," said Howard, "with a man named Ben Collins. Twenty some years ago. He taught history with her at the college. They gave up cigarettes together and, apparently, at least according to Ellen, this act bonds people, like soldiers going into battle together. It lasted about ten months. He just died-the bastard!-and I guess that was a signal to Ellen that it was safe to tell me. Who knows why she told me? Guilt. She said men have something in their genes that protects them from guilt so that they can spread their seed. Cells and bacteria. We don't have guilt, Ellen says, but women do, at least she certainly does, and she wants me to forgive her."
He was rambling and he knew it, yet he couldn't stop. It was a strange sensation, like being in one of those slow-motion car wrecks. Time was slowing itself down for him, and for a change. Because the truth was, it seemed like only yesterday that Howard Edward Woods had accepted his first teaching position at Bixley Community College. He and Ellen had planned long and hard as a couple. When they'd both graduated from college, back in 1957, Howard had dropped out to sell life insurance while Ellen went on to graduate school first. They had been married just a month then, and it was impossible for both of them to go to school at the same time. They needed finances in order to build stable ground beneath their dreams. A year later, just as Ellen finished her MA in history, she discovered she was pregnant with Greta. They had planned it that way through long talks that they shared late into the night, in that first little house they had managed to finance, Ellen's soft head resting on his arm, the two of them lying in the darkness as they laid out the course of their lives. It was Howard's way, to plan carefully and with great foresight. Then Ellen had stayed home with Greta, until Howard Jr. and John had made their own appearances into the world. Howard had supported the family all this time as he waited for his own chance to go back to school. That happened just after he turned thirty-two years old. When he finally got his own master's degree in English, he was still just thirty-four, and a job had opened up under his nose, at Bixley Community College. By this time, the two oldest kids were in grade school, and John was big enough to leave with a trusted babysitter. So it was Ellen's turn to walk into her own classroom when a job teaching history also became available at Bixley Community. Now she, too, could settle down to a lifetime of instruction. Well planned. Every damn bit of it.
Then, one day, Howard woke up-or one night, rather-his pajamas and sheets soaked with so much sweat they could have been dunked in that goddamn cauldron the witches had in Macbeth, he woke to find that he was a retired man of sixty-three years, gray hairs abounding where once a lively chestnut brown had lived, yellow growing over the pupils of his eyes, a paunch that would make a kangaroo proud, and a stiffness in his back whenever he swung a golf club. Time had sped the bejeezus out of his life, but now, in his greatest misery, time was slowing down again. Now, now that he found himself up to his knees in a puddle of angst he had not even imagined in his teens-when he could have handled it by just being young and stupid and filled to the gills with testosterone-now, here was Time, attaching a freeze-frame button to Howard Woods's misery.
"Bummer," said Patty, and Howard remembered that he had a son, and a daughter-in-law, and that he was in their home, fifteen miles away from his own home. Bummer, indeed.
"Yeah, well, what you gonna do?" asked Howard, and clapped his hands together. It was the line he had always said in response to why the Boston Red Sox seemed incapable of ever winning a World Series, cursed for eternity for trading Babe Ruth. It was the same hand clap he reserved for the poor Red Sox.
Patty came over and touched his shoulder. She squatted before him. Howard felt as though he had just been caught smoking pot in the boys' room at Bixley High. Patty looked at him kindly.
"It happened a long time ago," she said. "And it only lasted a little while. I'm sure it didn't mean anything. At least she told you. If she didn't love you, she would have kept it to herself. It's a time for forgiveness, Dad." She kissed his cheek, and he realized for the first time that he had a stubble of beard sprouting there, what he called his Dick Nixon Shadow. "I'll see the two of you tonight," Patty added. "You'll know me. I'll be the one with the bag of fortune cookies." Howard tried to smile but couldn't. "Forgiveness, Dad," Patty said again. Another kiss to John and she was gone.
Howard listened as the door slammed behind her. Forgiveness. He looked at John, who had been staring at him all this time, waiting.
"Do you suppose," Howard asked his son, "that nature gave women forgiveness in their genes? Because I don't feel it, son. I don't feel it one bit."
John looked over at the Christmas photo on the fireplace mantel. Minutes slid away between them, the grandfather clock keeping track with ticks and tocks, ticks and tocks. Finally, John stood, rocked on the balls of his feet, just as Howard did in times of stress.
"Still," said John, "I think you should forgive her."
"You're kidding," said Howard. John said nothing. Ticktock. Ticktock.
"No," he said. "I'm not kidding. You've got to think of this family, Dad. You've got to think of us." So Howard did that. He thought about his family. Ticktock.
"I'm not gonna do it," he said. "You're the baby of the family, for Christ's sake, and you're thirty-three years old. Yet you say I need to stay with a philandering woman for the sake of the family? I don't think so, son."
Howard went over to the fireplace where he could better see the photograph. He wiped a finger across the surface of the glass, leaving behind a pathway through a layer of dust. It reminded him of how a jet leaves its breath in the sky, a sign that it's been there, if only for a short time. He had truly believed his son would die in the skies over Iraq.
"She's hardly a philandering woman," John said now, still defending his mother. He went to the sofa and threw himself down on it. In his growing up years, John was always throwing himself on the sofa at Patterson Street whenever something wasn't going well with the world. A football game lost, a quarrel with a girlfriend, a summer job denied him.
"How long did you say this went on?" he asked.
"Ten months," said Howard. There was another long, excruciating pause.
"Even so," John said. "You've got to think of the family."
"Why do I have to think of a family that doesn't even live with me anymore?" Howard wanted to know.
"Because," said John. "She's my mother." He threw a sofa pillow across the room. It struck the varnished wood beyond the rug and slid into a huge ceramic vase that seemed to be sprouting peacock feathers.
"Throw all the pillows you want," said Howard. "I'm not forgiving her." John sat up and put his head in his hands. Then he sighed a heavy, tired sigh. A stranger peering in the window, seeing them both sitting there with such defiance nested between them, might think John the father, Howard the son.
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm filing for divorce," said Howard, and that's when he realized the course his retirement years would take-just as Macbeth's life had taken its own pitiful course after meeting up with the witches on that frozen heath-right there, right in the midst of that blurb of time in his son's den. That was it, then. He was getting a divorce, at the age of sixty-three, when most men get gallstones.
John pulled at a piece of thread on his shirtsleeve-ticktock-but Howard held fast. Finally, John looked at him.
"Then what?" he said.
"What do you mean, then what?" asked Howard.
"I mean, what are you going to do once you're divorced?" Time was moving fast again. Time was speeding up, asking for answers to questions that Howard hadn't yet confronted. Then, remembering something he'd read in that morning's paper, he knew what he was going to do. What he had almost done in his youth, in those green days before he fell in love with Ellen O'Malley and gave it all up. It had been a sublime dream of his, a great, great passion-well, he had at least considered it, briefly, just after he read his first Hemingway novel.
"I'm going to run the bulls," Howard said. Christ, it had a ring to it!
"I'm going to run the bulls." He wondered if he would meet up with the animal rights man from Los Angeles, maybe touch elbows with him during the run, compliment him on his streaming banner. Later, they could have dinner at some restaurant called Mi Casa, Su Casa, or something cleverly Spanish, two sweaty but victorious expatriates, enjoying some Yank chitchat over a bottle of sangria: How 'bout them Red Sox-how 'bout them Dodgers?
John cleared his throat.
"The bulls in Pamplona."
John stared, that animal-to-slaughter look returning. Howard wondered what the look had been on his son's face during all those air sorties, when John was floating like a silent hawk in the skies over Iraq. Now John stood, began rocking on the balls of his feet.
"You aren't by any chance talking about Pamplona, Spain, are you, Dad?"
"I'm gonna run the bulls!" he said. He felt instantly rugged. He was being tested, finally, the way his own father had been tested in World War II, in North Africa. The way his son, John, had been tested in Iraq. Howard would be tested in Spain.
Ticktock. Ticktock. Ticktock.
"Jesus," said John.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cathie Pelletier's new novel, Running the Bulls, is wonderful. I found it far more poignant than her Mattagash novels, but the lack of thigh-slapping humor on every other page should not deter fans from reading this book. It's still unmistakably Pelletier--witty, sad, smart, and beautifully written. And, like all her books, filled with characters you'll love forever.
In 1998 Maine, retired Bixley Community College literature professor Howard Woods is stunned when his spouse, former history professor Ellen, informs him that twenty years ago she had a short affair with ancient history teacher Ben Collins. Shocked Howard accuses her of being Lady Macbeth unable to cope with her guilt and vows to kill the man who cuckolded him even though Ben is already dead. --- Frightening his family, the grandfather announces that he is going to Spain to run with the bulls in Pamplona as his hero Hemingway did in the 1950s. Still he is miserable and lonely sleeping in a motel and badly missing the orderly life that he shared with Ellen his beloved ¿night owl¿ though he emulates his 1950s heroes and has an affair with the desk clerk. Ellen refuses to help him out of the chaos he is making of his life. Howard is sixty-three years old and having the time of his life yet he wonders why he is miserable. He now needs Ellen since their grandson dies in a car accident while riding the bike they gave him. --- RUNNING THE BULLS is an intriguing coming of age character study in which an obviously intelligent grandfather learns about life as he emulates his childhood heroes especially Hemingway. The story line mostly focuses on Howard as he reacts to guilt laden Ellen¿s confession by RUNNING THE BULLS of his 1950s mind, but brought back to 1998 reality with his grandson¿s death. This bittersweet portrait is family drama at its realistic best as Cathie Pelletier provides a potent and poignant portrayal of the frailty of relationships. --- Harriet Klausner