Every decade seems to produce a novel that captures the public’s imagination with a story that sweeps readers up and takes them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride. Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running is this decade’s novel. By all accounts, especially his own, Smithson “Smithy” Ide is a loser. An overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk, Smithy’s life becomes completely unhinged when he loses his parents and long-lost sister within the span of one week. Rolling down the driveway of his parents’ house in Rhode Island on his old Raleigh bicycle to escape his grief, the emotionally bereft Smithy embarks on an epic, hilarious, luminous, and extraordinary journey of discovery and redemption.
“Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, your Yossarians.” —Stephen King
“Endearing . . . it’s a ride worth taking.” —USA Today
“In The Memory of Running, professional actor and long aspiring novelist Ron McLarty has invented a character so fully and elegantly defined that the book soars with originality and life.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Captivating . . . McLarty unspools passage after passage of devastating grace and melancholy, and his taciturn hero hooks himself to your heart.” —Entertainment Weekly
My parents’ Ford wagon hit a concrete divider on U.S. 95 outside Biddeford, Maine, in August 1990. They’d driven that stretch of highway for maybe thirty years, on the way to Long Lake. Some guy who used to play baseball with Pop had these cabins by the lake and had named them for his children. Jenny. Al. Tyler. Craig. Bugs. Alice and Sam. We always got Alice for two weeks in August, because it had the best waterfront, with a shallow, sandy beach, and Mom and Pop could watch us while they sat in the green Adirondack chairs.
We came up even after Bethany had gone, and after I had become a man with a job. I’d go up and be a son, and then we’d all go back to our places and be regular people.
Long Lake has bass and pickerel and really beautiful yellow perch. You can’t convince some people about yellow perch, because perch have a thick, hard lip and are coarse to touch, but they are pretty fish—I think the prettiest—and they taste like red snapper. There are shallow coves all over the lake, where huge turtles live, and at the swampy end, with its high reeds and grass, the bird population is extraordinary. There are two pairs of loons, and one pair always seems to have a baby paddling after it; ducks, too, and Canada geese, and a single heron that stands on one leg and lets people get very close to photograph it. The water is wonderful for swimming, especially in the mornings, when the lake is like a mirror. I used to take all my clothes off and jump in, but I don’t do that now.
In 1990 I weighed 279 pounds. My pop would say, “How’s that weight, son?” And I would say, “It’s holding steady, Pop.” I had a forty-six-inch waist, but I was sort of vain and I never bought a pair of pants over forty-two inches—so, of course, I had a terrific hang, with a real water-balloon push. Mom never mentioned my weight, because she liked to cook casseroles, since they were easily prepared ahead of time and were hearty. What she enjoyed asking about was my friends and my girlfriends. Only in 1990 I was a 279-pound forty-three-year-old supervisor at Goddard Toys who spent entire days checking to see that the arms on the action figure SEAL Sam were assembled palms in, and nights at the Tick-Tap Lounge drinking beers and watching sports. I didn’t have girlfriends. Or, I suppose, friends, really. I did have drinking friends. We drank hard in a kind of friendly way.
My mom had pictures set up on the piano in the home in East Providence, Rhode Island. Me and Bethany mostly, although Mom’s dad was in one, and one had Pop in his Air Corps uniform. Bethany was twenty-two in her big picture. She’d posed with her hands in prayer and looked up at one of her amazing curls. Her pale eyes seemed glossy. I stood in my frame like a stick. My army uniform seemed like a sack, and I couldn’t have had more than 125 pounds around the bones. I didn’t like to eat then. I didn’t like to eat in the army either, but later on, when I came home and Bethany was gone and I moved out to my apartment near Goddard, I didn’t have a whole lot to do at night, so I ate, and later I had the beer and the pickled eggs and, of course, the fat pretzels.
My parents pulled their wagon in front of cabin Alice, and I helped load up. They were going to drive home to East Providence on the last Friday of our two weeks, and I would leave on Saturday. That way they could avoid all the Saturday traffic coming up to New Hampshire and Maine. I could do the cleanup and return the rented fishing boat. It was one of those good plans that just make sense. Even Mom, who was worried about what I would eat, had to agree it was a good plan. I told her I would be sure to have a nice sandwich and maybe some soup. What I really was planning was two six-packs of beer and a bag of those crispy Bavarian pretzels. Maybe some different kinds of cheeses. And because I had been limiting my smoking to maybe a pack a day, I planned to fire up a chain-smoke, at least enough to keep the mosquitoes down, and think. Men of a certain weight and certain habits think for a while with a clarity intense and fleeting.
I was sitting in the Adirondack chair, drunk and talking to myself, when a state trooper parked his cruiser next to my old Buick and walked down to the waterfront. Black kid about twenty-six or -seven, wearing the grays like the troopers do, fitted and all, and I turned and stood when I heard him coming.
“Great, isn’t it?”
“What?” he asked, like a bass drum.
I had leaned against the chair for support, and it wobbled under my weight and his voice.
“The lake. The outside.”
“I’m looking for a Smithson Ide.”
“That would be me,” I said, a drunk fighting to appear straight.
“Why don’t you sit down a second, Mr. Ide.”
“I’m not drunk or anything, Officer ... Trooper.... I’m really fine ... not ...”
“Mr. Ide, there’s been an accident, and your parents are seriously injured. Outside of Portland. Mr. Ide was taken to the head-trauma unit at Portland General, and Mrs. Ide is at the Biddeford Hospital.”
“My mom? My pop?” I asked stupidly.
“Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll get you up there.”
“My car ...”
“You come with me, and we’ll get you back, too. You won’t have to worry about your car.”
“I won’t have to worry. Okay. Good.”
I changed into a clean pair of shorts and a T-shirt. The trooper tried very hard not to look at me. I was glad, because people tended to form quick opinions of me when I stood there fat and drunk and cigarette-stained in front of them. Even reasonable people go for an immediate response. Drunk. Fat. A smoky-burned aroma.
The trooper, whose name was Alvin Anderson, stopped for two coffees at the bake shop in Bridgton, then took Route 302 into Portland. We didn’t talk very much.
“I sure appreciate this.”
“Looks like rain.”
“I don’t know.”
Pop had already been admitted when Alvin let me out at Emergency.
“Take a cab over to Biddeford Hospital when you’re done here. I’ll be by later on.”
I watched him drive away. It was about five, and a rain began. A cold rain. My sandals flopped on the blue floor, and I caught my thick reflection stretched against the shorts and T-shirt. My face was purple with beer. The lady at Information directed me to Admitting, where an elderly volunteer directed me to the second-floor trauma unit.
“It’s named for L. L. Bean,” he said. “Bugger had it, and he gave it. That’s the story.”
A male nurse at the trauma reception asked me some questions to be sure that this Ide was my Ide.
“Oh, yeah ... about ten years ago, see.... It really made him mad because—”
“Okay. Take this pass and stand on the blue line. That’s where the nurse assigned to your father will take you in. There are thirty trauma cells, glass front, usually the curtains are drawn—but sometimes they’re not. We ask you, when your nurse comes to take you in, to promise not to look into any of the units other than yours.”
“I promise,” I said solemnly.
I stood on the blue line and waited. I was still drunk. I wished I had put on a baggy sweater and some sweatpants or something, because fat guys are just aware of the way things ride up the crotch, and they’ve got to always be pulling out the front part of the T-shirt so little breasts don’t show through.
The nurse was named Arleen, and she was as round as me. She had on baggy surgical green slacks and an enormous green smock with pockets everywhere. She led me to my pop’s cubicle. I didn’t look into any of the other ones. I could hear a man saying, “Oh, God. Oh, God,” over and over, and crying, but mostly there was a hushed tone, and when the nurses and doctors hurried about, they sounded like leaves on the ground in the fall with kids walking through them. I was very drunk.
Pop lay out on a tall, metal-framed bed. His head, chest, waist, and ankles had heavy straps over them. Except for a sheet, folded to reach from his belly button to his knees, he was naked. When the nurse closed the door, leaving me alone, I remember thinking that this was the quietest room I had ever been in.
I could hear my heart in my head. The bed had an engine that tilted it very slowly. So slowly, really, that even though it moved Pop from side to side, it didn’t seem as if he was moving at all, even though he was. I looked under the bed for the engine, but I couldn’t see it.
Pop had some bruises around his eyes and the bridge of his nose, and a Band-Aid over a small hole in his forehead that the nurse told me had been bored to relieve some kind of pressure. Pop used to brag about not knowing what a headache felt like, since he’d never had one, so I thought it was odd he needed that little hole.
I put my hand on top of my pop’s. It was a little silly, because Pop was not a hand-holder. Pop was a slapper of backs and a shaker of hands. But putting my hand on top of his seemed all right, and felt strange and good. Later on, after I had some time to think about it, I guessed that when these awful kinds of things happen to you, it helps to find a lot of things to feel good about. They don’t have to be big-deal things, but more like the hand business or combing Mom’s hair, those kinds of things. They add up.
I’d been alone with my pop for twenty minutes when a doctor came in. He was about my age, only trim and sober. He had thick red-gray hair, and for some reason I used my fingers to comb my own thin and shaggy head.
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“I’m Dr. Hoffman.”
We shook hands. Then he moved close to Pop’s head.
“I put this hole here to relieve the pressure.”
“Thank you so much,” I said sincerely.
I would have given my car to anyone, right there, if I could have been sober.
“He kept himself pretty good, didn’t he?” he said. His little flashlight moved from eye to eye.
“My pop walked and stuff.”
Pop swayed imperceptibly on his bed, to the left. The doctor was right. Pop had a great body, and he had a routine to keep it that way. Mom sometimes went up in weight and then got on some diet to lose it, but Pop was really proud of how he kept the old weight at 180, his playing weight.
“Do you know what blood thinners he took for the valve?” Dr. Hoffman asked.
“No. Sorry. It pissed him— He was mad about the heart operation. He worked out, and one day the other doctor said, ‘You have to get a new valve in your heart.’ But it was because of something that, you know, happened when he was a kid.”
“That’s it. Is it bad? Did it break?”
Was I a huge alcoholic trying to be helpful?
“His heart is fine, and I think under normal circumstances your father probably wouldn’t be in bad shape right now, except the blood thinners he took to ensure clot-free flow through the heart chambers, and, of course, through the artificial valve, allowed the blood to hemorrhage violently inside his head when he hit the windshield.”
“I see.” I nodded again, stupidly.
“Blood is one of the most toxic entities known. When it gets out of the old veins, well ...”
“I didn’t realize that.”
“Do you have anyone else in the immediate family I need to talk to?”
“Bethany, but you can’t talk to ... well, no ... me, I guess.”
“He really looks good. Just those bruises. He does push-ups, too. Walks and stuff.”
“What let’s do is this. Why don’t we watch what happens tonight, and I’ll see you tomorrow, and we’ll see.”
“That’s great, Doctor. And thank you. Thank you so much.”
I said good-bye to Pop, went down to the main lobby of the hospital, and took a cab to Mom’s hospital in Biddeford. It was about fifteen minutes away. A four-cigarette ride. It was pretty cold by now. Usually I don’t mind cold nights, but I did this night, and for some reason my hair hurt.
The hospital in Biddeford was new. It was set in a little forest of fir trees and looked nice, not all big and really nervous-making like Portland General. You got a sense of something bad in Portland. The way it smelled. The way you sounded in the crowded corridors, and the way all those people whispered into the banks of phones. Biddeford Hospital was different. There were plants in the reception area, and the retired volunteers seemed happy to see you. You got this good feeling that everything was going to be all right.
Mom was in the third-floor trauma unit. It was small, and, again unlike Portland, the walls were painted in a hopeful blue-sky color. Portland was green. Old green. Reception had called that I was on my way up, and this pretty black girl met me outside the unit’s door. She wore standard green pants bunched around her ankles, and running shoes. Her blouse was white, with happy faces on it.
“Hi,” she called out.
“Hi,” I said.
“Are you Jan’s son?”
“Yes. I’m Smithy Ide.”
“I’m Toni, I’m one of her nurses. C’mon.”
She didn’t tell me about not looking into the rooms, but she didn’t have to.
“Jan’s in five. She’s on a waterbed that tilts.”
“My father is, too.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Well, he takes these blood thinners.”
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked as we walked.
“I wasn’t cold a little while ago.”
Mom was amazingly tiny on this big bed. She was tilted away from me, and I walked over so she could see me. Her eyes were half open.
“Hi, Mom,” I said very quietly. “I’m here now, Mom.”
“We don’t think Jan can hear you. She’s on a big morphine drip. But we’re not sure; maybe some things get through. You can keep talking if you want. Dr. Rosa is Jan’s attending physician, but I’m going to give you the rundown, and maybe you can link up with the doctor later.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
I pulled the T-shirt away from my sticky breasts and kicked my leg out to loosen my riding-up underwear. I needed a smoke, so I fingered my Winstons.
“There’s no smoking, of course,” the pretty nurse said.
“Oh, I know that. Sure. It’s important. I was just—”
“At first we were going to keep both of your parents together here, but Portland’s head unit is state-of-the-art, and, frankly, we were not comfortable moving Jan. Her lungs collapsed, which is why we are inflating them artificially. Later on we’ll wean her from the machine. Both hips are broken, multiple crushed ribs, bruised trachea, dislocated right shoulder. The good news is, no head injury.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“Dr. Rosa is Jan’s physician.”
“I’ll be at the desk if you need me.”
As soon as she left the room, I adjusted my shorts. I sat for about twenty minutes as Mom tilted, and then I got up.
“I’m going now, Mom. What I’m going to do is go back to the camp and pack up the stuff and drive up and get a room or something. I won’t be gone long. You rest.”
I waited in the lobby for Trooper Anderson, and after a while I figured he was busy—so I took a cab back to Bridgton. It cost seventy-four dollars. My old Buick was already packed with our summer stuff. The folding chairs, coolers, tackle boxes, et cetera. I cleaned the cabin quickly, then paid Pop’s friend who owned the cabins, asked him to return the rented boat for me, and drove back to Portland in the deepest Maine dark ever.
"Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, your Yossarians." —Stephen King
"Endearing . . . it’s a ride worth taking." —USA Today
"In The Memory of Running, professional actor and long aspiring novelist Ron McLarty has invented a character so fully and elegantly defined that the book soars with originality and life." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Captivating . . . McLarty unspools passage after passage of devastating grace and melancholy, and his taciturn hero hooks himself to your heart." —Entertainment Weekly
"Riders who hop onto the back of Smithy Ide's bike and ride America with him will cherish the journey. I loved this sad, funny, life-affirming novel." —Wally Lamb