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Autumn Seldom Lasts the Season
James Hanley

Brendan was raking the leaves that had fallen free from the trees rimming his property. The colors of the leaves varied from a fading orange to dried crimson, with vestiges of green from entrapped chlorophyll. Yellow stems stretched into desiccated veins. The thin dome of foliage gave pathways for the sun’s rays once blocked by verdant, stretched-out leaves. Lifting his corduroy jacket to pull a handkerchief from the pocket of his jeans, he wiped his brow, wet from the strenuousness of his yanking. He was anxious to finish in time for a Saturday afternoon football game on television. A bottle of water was on the steps, and looking upward, he poured a small amount on his face in an atavistic wash. The wind had picked up, shaking the trees, and a shower of leaves came down, resting on the cleared grass and racked mounds. Brendan cursed at the sudden increase in his task and gathered the late-arriving leaves into the existing piles. 

Brendan was forty-seven. His thinning hair, edged by creeping gray, was held in place by a viscous spray; a circle of flesh had formed around his midsection, and his pants slanted slightly down in the front. “In my family, we don’t age well,” as he would explain the waving furrows in his forehead and eyes that were diminished by the puffiness below the lower lashes.  That morning when he dressed, he looked at his reflection in the dim light of the closet where a mirror was glued to a wall recalling a time when he was barely twenty and involved with a striking girl in a short-lived relationship. He must have been considered good looking, he decided, then, if not so much now. 

As he finished in the front of the house clearing out the wind-scattered leaves from the trees on his property and nearby yards, he saw a young woman exit the home across the street. He stopped, cleaned leaves from the rake’s edge, and watched her as she nearly leaped down the front steps, her long, slender legs encased in tight denim; her dark hair flew back from her forward motion. She was pulling a jacket on, but not before revealing her well-shaped breasts bound in a tank top. When she looked up, she noticed his stare and smiled briefly before turning to head down the street. Brendan had no time to respond before she was in a near run and out of view. Gathering the mound of pale leaves along with twigs and other natural debris with the edge of the rake and his hands, he placed them in a black garbage bag.  

When Brendan went back into his house—a Tudor with yellow siding and moss-colored roof—his wife was standing at the picture window looking out. 

“I saw the Bianci’s daughter, Amanda. Haven’t seen her for a while.  They moved in a few years ago, as I remember. She sure has grown up,” Brendan said.

Laura, his wife, said “She’s on spring break from Loyola College, I hear. She seems to be a beautiful young woman, but you got a longer view of her than I did.”

Ignoring the latter comment, “Maybe we could have her babysit our kids, and we could go out somewhere.”

“She’s too old for that, so are our children.”

“I guess you’re right,” he said.

“I don’t know what you were thinking,” she answered as she moved away from the window.

The subject of the neighbor carried over to the dinner table. Their children were at friends’ houses. Laura placed the meatloaf and baked potatoes in the center of the table. Both reached for their portion, and in a momentary pause as they sought the same potato, held their forks in a mock dueling pose. 

Finishing the forkful of food, Brendan asked, “Were you jealous of the neighbor’s kid, because I noticed her because she’s pretty? You were as attractive at her age.”

“No, I was attractive enough, that’s all. And I wouldn’t be jealous unless there was the reason.”

Sunday morning began with clouds that hovered, unperturbed by the wind blowing east. Leaves spun in the movement of air, and the once cleared section of the front yard was coated with a newly-arriving tree droppings. Brendan looked out the picture window and saw Amanda Bianchi come out of the house. She paused, looking around as if expecting someone. A few moments later, a car pulled up; the tinted windows prevented Brendan from seeing the driver. As Brendan turned back toward Amanda, he saw that she was looking at him. Feeling caught, he backed away quickly.  

Late that afternoon, he went out to finish raking the front yard, grimacing at the leaves that had drifted to the close-cropped grass. Forming a mound that was unbothered by the now calmed wind, he filled a trash bag. A car came around the corner, the screech of wheels announcing proximity. The vehicle stopped abruptly, and Brendan saw his young neighbor step out, lean back into the open passenger side window and say something to the driver. Brendan wondered if the person behind the wheel—he still couldn’t see the face—was a boyfriend.  As the car moved away, she was looking in his direction, not toward him at first, but when her view was cleared of the high-roof car, Amanda noticed Brendan and walked across the street. She was a few feet from him when she extended her hand; at first surprised by the gesture, he offered his hand in return. As she gripped his hand with her long fingers, he could feel the salty sweat of his palm soil her soft skin. 

“I’m Amanda,” she said.

After saying his name, he added, “I remember you as a young teen. You’ve grown so beautifully. Haven’t seen you much lately.” 

She blushed at the compliment. 

“Your boyfriend should slow a bit around here; too many kids around,” he added quickly.

Not responding to his latter remark, she said, “We spent summers and warm holidays at a lake, and I was a camp counselor last year,” she offered as a reason, “so I wasn’t around much, and you were probably at work when I got home from school. I’m a junior in college now, home on a break.”

They talked for a while; he reminisced about his college life until she began to fidget. “I’d better get back to cleaning the front yard, but it was nice talking to you,” Brendan said.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “and I have to go.” She turned to leave and he watched her as she climbed the steps, her legs lifting with each concrete stair, tightening the jeans around her buttocks.  

Later, he told Laura that he’d conversed with the neighbor’s daughter. “I also think she has a boyfriend.”

She stared at him for a moment and shook her head.

On Monday, he dressed early for his job as a real estate agent, roaming about the house as he buttoned his shirt, stopping near the picture window, circling around the room and moving back toward the glass front like a trapped fly. When his wife came up behind him, he was momentarily startled. She looked past him and out the front window before turning her attention to Brendan.

“I’m leaving for work. The kids are on the bus.”

“I have a client meeting in an hour,” he offered. “We’ll be looking at houses near town.”

When she left, Brendan went back to the window and saw the neighbor’s daughter come out the front door dressed in loose shorts and a sweatshirt with lettering across the front. He watched as she jogged down the street in the direction of a park. Leaving shortly after, he drove in the direction of the park but nearing the entrance, turned to get back on the route to his meeting. 

The evening meal was typical in conversation, each asking about the other’s day and their plans for the next. Brendan’s wife was surprised when he mentioned jogging.

“I ran in college. I should be taking better care now,” he explained as he pinched his midsection, “I have the kind of schedule that I can run in the morning, or anytime. Morning is best.”

“I don’t know what’s brought all this on,” she said.

“Just getting older; that’s all.” 

After dinner, Brendan took the garbage out, walking through the entrance door and around the back of the house. As he returned to the front, he saw Amanda come out. He stopped and watched to see if she would look at him; her eyes shifted in his direction but she made no gesture indicating she saw him. As he stood there, leaves from a neighboring oak littered a section of his front lawn. 

In the morning, after his wife left, he sorted through clothes to find something to wear for running. All he could locate was a pair of khaki shorts and a t-shirt with Outer Banks lettering. Brendan looked out the picture window, starting, then abandoning, a high step jog on the living room rug as warm-up until he saw Amanda come out the front door and leap down the steps of her house.  Waiting for a period sufficient to avoid the appearance of following, he exited slowly, looking up and down the street.  He suspected that she would again head toward the park a few blocks away from where she could run without halting for traffic or circling pedestrians. He noticed that she was wearing brightly-colored, tight shorts and a tank top. At the park entrance, he saw Amanda stop and drink from a water bottle; after a few gulps, she restarted her run, moving at a pace that separated the distance further than he could reduce. Breathing deeply, he gave up trying to catch her and walked home. Showering quickly and leaving for work, he saw her as he got to his car. Amanda waved as she high-stepped to the front of her house and closed the thick, oak door behind her. He stared at the house until a neighbor’s honk in greeting startled him. The next morning—anticipating she would leave at the same time—he stood on the front lawn limbering when Amanda came out; she seemed surprised but waved as she’s done before and started off, but he took the gesture as an invitation and moved along aside her, drawing from limited energy. 

“Hi,” he said, the sole word coming out as an exhale.

“I’m going to the park,” she said.

“I know,” he responded, puckering as if to suck back the unconsidered words. “Me, too.”

In the latter months of the season, the weather shifted between the warmth of fading summer and the chill of early winter; that day the milder weather won, aided by the unblocked sun and weak wind. As they ran, she drew breath at an even, shallow rhythm while he sucked in air in desperate draws, but he kept pace. Other runners stared at them as if a family pair—father struggling to keep up with a daughter, out to prove.  At times, he lagged and stared at her back covered in the tank top, her bare legs thrusting forward, the shorts-covered buttocks tightening with each step. He felt no arousal from the focus on her form, no thoughts of touching the sinewy, exposed flesh, rather he was overcome by a sense of loss as if her lithe body was a metaphor of youthfulness out of reach, of trailing, encumbered by middle age, and softened by indolence. He wanted to signal his legs to pick up the pace, to shake off the poundage and time, but the only way he could catch up to her was when she slowed down to a half-step jog until he was near. She then increased her speed in an unintended taunt, and he attempting to move to her, lost ground, his lungs refusing the exertion. He stopped and leaned forward gripping his knees, pulling in oxygen. She turned and when she saw him, a look of concern wrinkled her brow. She came back toward him, and he, between deep intakes of air, told her to continue.

“I usually walk the last part,” she said.  They continued slowly until they came back to their street. 

When she came home from work, Laura found Brendan napping on the living room sofa. 

“Where are the kids?” she asked as she removed her sweater.

Awakened by the closing front door, he answered, “In their rooms.”

“How was your day?” she asked as she moved toward the kitchen.

Brendan trailed her. “Good. I started running this morning.”

She chuckled; “Is that why you fell asleep in the afternoon?”

“Could be, but I’ll get used to it.”

“Must be boring, running or jogging, whatever it is, all by yourself.”

“Actually, I met up with the girl across the street in the park and we ran together. I had a hard time keeping up. Maybe I’ll run with her again.”

“Is that wise?” Laura asked. “And she’s not a girl.”

The next morning, Brendan caught up with his young neighbor at the park’s edge. Shortly after they were inside, the path splintered, and Amanda said, “I know another way.” She led Brendan down a side trail which was lined with non-indigenous trees planted and marked with an explaining plastic-coated sign. He looked toward one: a sugar maple with its wide-spread branches. Orange and red leaves stuck to thicker limbs, but most carpeted around the trunk. Further along, thin birches reached upward; yellow leaves floated from the high branches, one crossing his vision as he jogged.

“I love autumn and I love this section of the park,” she said, “so many kinds of trees and the dry leaves are so colorful. Makes me sad in a way.”

“But they come back unchanged in the following year and after; not like people.”

She looked at him, her eyes squinting in confusion. 

At dinner, he told his wife about his morning run, not mentioning the neighbor.

“Are you okay; feeling a bit stiff?” she asked.

“A little, but it’s worth it. I also want us to eat better, be conscious of our weight.”

“Us, ours? When did I get drawn into this?”

“We’re both getting older and—” 

“Let’s see how long this last before we make changes,” she interrupted.  

That night, Brendan and his wife watched television, and before going to bed, she said, “Maybe you’re right. I should get exercise. I could go with you in the morning.”

“You can probably outrun me,” he said with a hesitant laugh. “Give me a week or two to get my lung strength up.”

Late at night, he was awakened by the pain of his calf muscle tightening in a knot. He sat up and kneaded his lower leg. Laura woke when the bed shook from his quick movement. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” He limped to the bathroom. 

In the morning, Laura was up early and searched the pantry for a box of cereal. When Brendan came down, she was pouring the flakes in a deep bowl alongside a milk container. 

“If you’re serious about getting in shape, a good breakfast is important,” she said as he frowned at the choice. 

“I am serious about this, and I’ll eat the stuff.” He dug deeply into the sugar bowl and poured the granules on the flakes.

“Brendan, men your age have a heart attack when they jump into strenuous exercise. You’re supposed to see a doctor before you start any vigorous program.” 

The next day, he waited prepared near the window and flew out the door as soon as Amanda stepped outside. They ran at equal pace past curious neighbors and into the park. Brendan was surprised at his own endurance as Amanda seemed to regulate her speed so as not to outdistance him, but her steps were brisk, and while his breathing was labored at times, he kept close. Midway, they stopped and sat on a bench on the side of the trail. Brendan lifted his foot and placed it on the wood seat and squeezed his calf.

“What’s the matter with your leg?” Amanda asked.

He answered, smiling. “My leg muscle is getting harder already. Stiffened up last night. Feel my calf.” He took her hand and placed it on his lower leg. 

Amanda flinched and quickly pulled her hand away. “We’d better get going.”

He touched her arm to stop her from standing. “I shouldn’t have done that. It’s just that you make me feel younger, comfortable like I’m almost a college kid again. Like we’re running buddies. You probably don’t understand. Anyway, I’m sorry. Don’t want to get your boyfriend to get the wrong idea.”

Amanda looked at him. “He’s not---.” She stopped.  Her grin turned mischievous. “How about a race to that garbage can over there?” she said, pointing to twenty yards away. 

That night, Brendan went upstairs at night to change and as he stripped off his underwear, his wife came in the room. 

“I think you are losing weight, which sounds odd since you barely started. Let’s see how your stamina improved,” she added with a sly smile. While she went into the bathroom, Brendan sat back against his pillow, his knees raised. When Laura came back in the bedroom, also nude, she moved close to him from the other side of the bed. Extending her hand to his lower leg, she squeezed his calf and Brendan’s mind drifted to another touch there, even as her hand moved upward. 

On Friday, Brendan explained to Amanda that he wouldn’t have time go running on the weekend but hoped they could continue the next week. Sunday, he went down to the basement and jogged in place.

Laura left early Monday morning and Brendan stood by the front window, dressed in running shorts and a sweatshirt he’d recently purchased. He stiffened when Amanda came out and looked around. He stepped outside and she smiled at him, joining him mid-street for their jog to the park. As they continued, he told her that he had to cut the run short for a client meeting. 

“Tomorrow I have the whole morning,” he said just before reversing course while she continued.  

When Laura awoke for a glass of water after midnight, she noticed that Brendan was no longer beside her. Going quietly toward the living room, she saw her husband on the couch looking through a photo album containing pictures of their time together before getting married and just after, preceding their children’s birth. Laura stepped toward him but halted; she saw Brendan rub his eyes as he turned the pages.     

As the day before, Brendan and Amanda meet outside of their homes; looking across, he saw the blinds lift in an upstairs window of the Bianci house. Amanda was leaping in place until he walked over, after which they moved forward in the familiar direction. Brendan found that he could continue at an improved pace and they jogged next to each other, occasionally touching swaying arms.  Toward the end of the exercising, she said, “Let’s go another way.”

He followed her as she stepped onto a narrow trail with tree limbs stretching over the path making it largely invisible to passing strollers and runners. As they jogged along the winding, unmaintained trail to segments resisting the intrusive overgrowth which flourished in other sections, he stayed directly behind her, unable to move alongside because of the thinness of the route, nearly tripping over snaking tree roots. The path ended at a park exit near the town.

“Why don’t we go for a coffee; there’s a diner over there,” he said pointing.

Amanda shrugged, and they headed toward the diner. 

“Want something besides a beverage.”

“Toast would be nice,” she answered, loud enough for the appearing waitress, “light butter and orange juice.”

When the diner worker looked at Brendan, he said, “The same for me.”

Amanda asked him about his job and he boasted of his recent award for most house sales. “I’m moving into commercial real estate someday. That’s where the big money is.”

As they were finishing, he asked, “When do you go back to college?”

“Next Tuesday,” she said.

“Who am I going to go running with?” he said.

Amanda raised her shoulders. A noise outside the diner caught her attention as she reached for the juice, nearly knocking over the glass. Brendan put his hand over hers to help steady the glass but he kept his hand there after the juice glass was upright.

 “We have a few days left and I hope we can start up once you’re back for holidays and summer,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Her voice was rising as she pulled her hand out from under his.

He stuttered, “Go running; that’s all.”

They went back to the park and wordlessly kept pace until reaching home.

Wednesday morning, he waited by the window, dressed in his jogging outfit but Amanda didn’t appear at the usual time. His wife came up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Exercising today?”

“I don’t think so.”

“One day away won’t do harm.”

“I made a mistake,” he said softly, barely audible.

“No, this was a good idea. I didn’t mean to be so negative when you first talked about running.”

The next day, Thursday, he waited on the front steps before going back inside and changing for work. The same the following day. Saturday afternoon, he went outside, piling up the few remaining leaves, periodically looking across the street. When his wife returned from the supermarket, he helped her carry the packages. Putting cold items in the refrigerator, she spoke to Brendan.

“I saw Mrs. Bianci from across the street at the supermarket. She mentioned that her daughter, Amanda, went back to school early. She said something was bothering her daughter, but the kid wouldn’t tell her what. It’s amazing how much near-strangers tell you about their personal life when you simply ask politely ‘how are you’.” Looking at him as she reached for more grocery to refrigerate, she said, “I thought you’d be interested.”

“I’m going to finish raking. Might rain.”

Fall was a season of dying, he thought as he poked at the few leaves left on the ground, to Amanda it was a semester, or part of a weather cycle without limit, each with its own rituals, fulfillments, and mistakes repeated into the unconsidered future, while his formed around predictability and commonplace. A decade forward, she would be building a career, perhaps starting a family, he considered, while he would be planning retirement, his kids likely having moved out. Amanda was a brief distraction, he thought, perhaps more than that—a pause in the routine and return to more youthful optimism, a jogging in place, but now the memory of their short time together accelerated notions of aging, of distance from the past, of offending rather than attracting. Brendan stood in his yard and stared at the trees stripped by overnight gusts of wind, except for the clinging, desperate leaves drained of chlorophyll. The pencil-thin branches protruded like quills, and the gray, uncovered bark was pitted and creased. “I hate the season,” he said to himself.    

I have had over 80 stories published in print and online magazines. I completed three novels published in 2014, 2015 and September 2016 through 5 Prince Publishing, a small independent press and am currently working on a mainstream novel. 

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