Five fields and back: A Christmas story

By Matt Reese

John opened up his eyes to a splitting headache. After staying out late and driving home when he shouldn’t, he’d ended up sleeping in his truck in his driveway, forehead on the steering wheel. Again.

Harvest had wrapped up by late October and it had been a good crop. It seemed like cause for celebration. But the bad decisions of the previous night had been foreshadowed by countless bad decisions of so many nights before. The downward spiral over years had led to John, in his late 30s, losing everything but the truck he slept in, his diminishing share in the family farm and an empty tenant house on the farm where he lived. 

It was time for change. He started up the truck and pushed the button behind the steering wheel to reset his trip to 0. He started driving until he saw what he was looking for, right at a grass driveway splitting two fields on the farm. 

“Five fields,” John said aloud to himself and to God. “Five fields and back.”

He drove home and got out of the truck wearing the jeans, dirty t-shirt and work boots he’d worn the day before. He walked to the road on that bright, crisp autumn morning and started to slowly jog. His head pounded, everything hurt, but he kept going. The first field was the biggest of the five and by the time he’d reached the second field, he had stabbing pain in his side. The edges of his vision started to go dim. He put his hands on his knees and vomited in the ditch. Weeping, John staggered a few more jogging steps trying to continue before collapsing in the ditch and passing out. 

Five days later, a delivery man left two packages outside John’s aging front door. Moments later John hobbled out to pick them up on badly blistered, bare feet. He stopped at the calendar hanging crooked inside his front door and circled Dec. 25, just over 7 weeks away. “Five fields and back.”

He’d been sick — really sick — for the last few days spent silently working in the farm shop cleaning up equipment, thinking, praying, and running. He was so sore he could barely bend his legs to put on his newly arrived running socks and shoes. With incredible pain, John took off on his daily run. The water, aspirin and coffee finally kicked in and he started to feel better after the first field, sweating out the years of poison. 

He could feel the judgement before he could hear the sound of the approaching car from behind him. It was his grandmother who’d always been his biggest supporter and defender. But even she had given up on him. She put down the passenger side window of the car and glared at him. John kept running, looked into the window at her and forced a smile. 

“Five fields,” he said between ragged breaths. “Five fields and back.”

His grandmother’s face softened a bit as she put up her window and drove on. He made it four fields before he had to turn around and hobble home.

John knew he was being discussed, though no one talked to him at the farm anymore, unless they specifically had to for the purpose of work. He knew he deserved the treatment. 

John left home only to work at the farm, run and occasionally go to the grocery to restock his supply of lunch meat, bread and canned soups he subsisted upon. Nothing else. He made no other stops to those places where they knew him by name. 

Every afternoon, whether in the rain, cold, wind, snow, sunshine, or sleet, he’d run. Some days he’d make it farther than the previous. Some days he would not. Some days would get a bit better. Some days would get worse.

By late November he finally made it to the drive on the far side of the fifth field. It was frigid cold and a light snow drifted down from the sky. A cloud hung in the air with every breath. Sweat droplets had frozen in his shaggy beard. He noticed as he turned to run back there was an icy, handwritten cardboard sign by the road in the yard at his grandmother’s house: “Keep going John. Five fields and back.” 

He looked up to see his grandmother watching through the drawn blinds. As he continued to run, a few frozen tears gathered in his beard as well.    

In mid-December John stopped on the way to the grocery to get a haircut. It had been quite a while and his hair was long. It slowed him down. When he got home he shaved off his shaggy beard. It slowed him down, too. 

Dec. 25 arrived cold and clear. He could not ever remember being more nervous. He heard her pull into the drive, the one whose heart he’d broken more than any other. He looked out the window as she got out of her car wearing her running shoes. It was easy to see why, at 16, she’d already been getting full-ride offers to run in college. She was beautiful, tall, lithe, strong, and she loved running.

She crossed her arms and leaned against the car, warranted skepticism and hurt in her eyes. He’d once been her hero, but failed her so many times. He’d broken too many promises, missed too many meets. Today, though, he hoped for the chance to deliver on the request she’d asked of him at least 1,000 times before as a little girl in days almost forgotten. He prayed she’d ask just once more.   

He stepped out the door to greet her. 

“Merry Christmas,” he said nervously.

Through her hurt, she saw a man transformed. She had been determined not to ever ask him anything again, but when she saw him strong, cleaned up and wearing new (but battered) running shoes, she immediately started to sob uncontrollably. So did John. 

She was barely able to say the words, “Daddy, can we go for a run?”

All he could do was nod. Finally he stammered through sobs, “How about a 5K? It’s — it’s five fields and back.”

As they started to jog she said, grinning though her freezing tears, “You think you can keep up with me old man?”

“Nope,” John choked, considering where he’d been and the long road ahead. “But I’m sure going to try.”

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