The Woods

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 4:58 AM

Blaine Stevens wanted to go running. He’d spent most of the last hour staring at family photos from times better than now. He and Connie have been fighting for months. Blaine half-wondered what two 28-year-olds with no children could fight about. They found things, and it wasn’t much fun.

Mr. Stevens could easily spend all night brooding about their problems, but at the first hint of unbridled emotion, he shook himself. “Enough,” he snorted, “I’m going running.”

He bounded out of the den, found his running shoes tucked to the side of the dryer in the laundry room. The laundry room was past the kitchen in their expansive house, and as he hurried by on the way out, he grudgingly realized that leaving a note for Connie concerning his whereabouts would be the right thing to do. He scribbled, “Went running, be back later” on the notepad by the phone, and made haste.

Blaine the schoolteacher had married Connie the mutual-fund manager, and she wasn’t due to get off for another 45 minutes, plus the commute from Cincinnati to the middle of Ohio would be nearly 2 hours. Blaine was happy; plenty of time by himself.

About two blocks stood between him and the vast Happy Cove Park, named after their little town. Before he made the one left to get off his street to head toward the park, “Old Man Klein” stopped him, a funny man in his 60’s who always had something to say. Blaine always found Klein hilarious, so he stopped gladly. He informed Klein that he intended to go running in the heavily wooded park, after which Klein replied, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees!”

That statement might otherwise be a bland re-hashing of an aphorism old people spout at odd times, but not with Klein. It was a way of saying, “I hope you’re not so stupid as to miss the huge forest.” In time, Stevens would wonder about his intelligence.

The first thing one sees when one enters the park is McKinley Oak, a tree dedicated to the former president and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, who hailed from Ohio. This is the center of the park; it’s a comforting sight late at night, as there are lights around the tree (and descriptive paragraphs about the former president).

Around the rim of the park, there are nine informative displays like this one, recounting some aspect of Ohio history, from politics, to sports, to music. A diagonal path runs from each display back to McKinley Oak. The whole rim is about 4 miles around, a good workout for anyone. Blaine figured he’d run the whole thing twice and go home.

Past the Pete Rose display, Allan Freed, the ‘bellwether’ display, et cetera., Blaine got back to McKinley Oak and decided to go in reverse this time. Pete Rose would be last before the oak then. Blaine loved Pete Rose. He remembered vaguely his later playing days, and as the Reds’ manager. And of course, the betting scandal was inescapable. Blaine thought it was a grave sin, but not unforgivable.

Because Pete Rose had been Charlie Hustle, the epitome of playing baseball the right way, the all-time hit king, and generally larger than life, it stood to reason that time would heal the scars. “There’s nobody who plays like that today,” he mused, “except Scott Rolen.”

Blaine shook himself though, because he should have seen 5 other exhibits before he arrived at his current spot—the oak. “What the heck?” Stevens blurted. Oh well, he thought. Maybe he got turned and on to one of the diagonal paths while daydreaming about baseball. He took off in the same direction, essentially a left, even though it was a big circle. Once again, he arrived at the oak far too quickly.

This time, he went to the right. And in thirty seconds, he was back at McKinley Oak. Blaine was frightened now. He thought the joking banter with Klein turned out to be more true than he would have wanted. “How do I get out of here?” he shouted. But no one was in the park. And if he couldn’t find the entrance, he couldn’t call for help.

“Damn,” Blaine cursed, “I left my cell phone at the house.” Though he was far from certain that his phone could help him. Something very odd was going on. This running in circles lasted another hour, with Blaine dashing frantically in all directions. Then everything changed.

A booming voice said, “I see you, Blaine Stevens! You will not be leaving unless I say so!” Blaine turned to look, but it was pointless; there was no one here but him. And yet, the voice told him otherwise. Blaine laughed to himself. All his friends and family who resisted his numerous gospel invitations over the years for lack of evidence would get it right here. It must be the Lord, he thought, though the rational side of him still wondered.

Jesus had said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign…” so Blaine knew God wasn’t obligated to answer people’s demand for evidence, but here it was. And yet, he thought it a bit of a waste in terms of miracles, since he believed without one. He also noted with disappointment that his friends or family were unlikely to believe his story, presuming he got out of this. Then he was chilled with the thought that he wouldn’t get out of this, and he wondered if he’d get the chance to repent of any sins on his conscience before the end.

He would have continued his musing for quite some time had the Voice not interrupted.

“Come close to the oak, and touch the knot at the center,” it boomed.

Stevens complied. Right at the place where he put his finger, the wood disappeared, or at least that’s how it felt. And before he knew it, he was staring at a gnome-like creature who had taken up residence in his right palm.

Blaine also didn’t remember stretching out his right palm, and it bothered him that it had been moved involuntarily on behalf of this gnome. It looked like a billiken; actually, that’s what it was, Blaine thought, having seen the SLU Billiken statue when he and Connie visited St. Louis.

The gnome spoke, saying, “Hi there, how’s it going?” in a normal tone. Blaine remembered that quote from the TV show he watched last night, thinking that the gnome spoke with an “inappropriate joviality, belying the seriousness of his station.”

“Call me Zak,” he said, and Blaine figured he watched the same show. “I’ll bet you’re wondering what you’re doing here,” he said, still with an air of amusement that Blaine found off-putting. Before Blaine could mention this, he cleared his throat, assumed a formal tone, and said: “I am a messenger from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I greet you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

“I knew it,” Blaine thought. But he had no idea what God wanted to tell him. “What does the Lord want of me?’ he asked.

Zak replied, “We’ll get to that. But first, you and I need to have a conversation.”

“OK,” Blaine added, wondering what it could be. “I’ve been assigned to you for eight months now. My predecessor in that task has told me that you and your wife have fought bitterly for some months before that. What’s going on?”

Blaine surely felt accused. He answered, “I don’t know…we fight. Maybe we made a mistake getting married.”

“Maybe you did,” said Zak, with a certain gravity, “but you can’t undo what you’ve done; it would be a grave sin.”

“Hey,” Blaine interjected, “I haven’t said or thought anything about divorce” and presuming a little, he added, “and neither has Connie.”

“But that’s right where you’re headed,” Zak retorted, “even if you don’t intend it now.” I suppose he knows better than we do, Blaine thought.

“Why do you fight so much?” queried Zak, prompting Blaine to wonder if he was simply asking out of politeness. Blaine wondered the same thing. It seemed like the fights spiraled out of control from little arguments. He thought a moment before he spoke.

“I think she just expects me to be more emotional than I am.”

“Really?” the angel was feeling frisky all of a sudden. “You have no feelings your wife might want and need to know? You care only for work and the Reds score, is that it?”

“Of course not!” Blaine yelled, “but I really don’t understand her constant need for emotional reassurance.”

“I beg to differ,” said the angel, “she senses that you have deep fears and hurts that you keep from her. No wonder she is upset.”

Blaine noted the silliness of getting a marital lecture from a gnome. He was a little mad. “Are our problems so bad that God had to send you to trap me in a park?”

“Yes,” he stated, “you have no idea how important you both are.”

Blaine was thinking he was going to get a sappy lecture about God’s love next. And sure, he felt bad about his part in the problems, but Connie wasn’t a ray of sunshine all the time, either. Again, he could have gotten lost in his thoughts for quite a time when Zak spoke once more: “I might as well tell you. You both are going to be parents to a son. And what you do next will have a great impact on God’s plan. You have a choice…well, you don’t…but you do…anyway, you need to draw near to her. The Lord has big plans for your son, and you know how the Lord hates starting over.”
“What do I do? We can’t just make the problems go away, no matter what you’ve told me,” Blaine pleaded.

Zak said, “I don’t know your precise steps, but I do know that you must open your heart to your wife, no matter how much it hurts. Your son will not be who the Lord requires if you go through the motions. He must be conceived and raised in love. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Blaine replied. He knew what was holding him back, why he kept his wife at arm’s length, pretending things were good. He missed her. But he knew the change they needed would be a lot to ask of her, and it would mean a big change for them. Zak shook him out of his reverie once more. “If you’re prepared to ask her what is on your heart to ask, I can send you back.”

“Fine, I am ready,” said the man resolutely. “Oh, no! Connie got home an hour ago!”

Zak laughed. “You don’t think the Lord can let me do such a neat trick without also stopping time, do you? You won’t miss a thing.”

All of a sudden, Blaine Stevens found himself jogging toward the entrance and exit of Happy Cove Park. He couldn’t wait to see his wife, to tell her the truth. Would he tell her the story? No. Better left unsaid. Let it happen naturally. He had two blocks to think it over. On the way though, he ran into Old Man Klein again.

“Did you miss the forest for the trees?” the old man quipped.

“Yeah. You have no idea.” Klein was oddly perplexed, shrugged and said, “Well, I gotta get home before Mrs. Klein grounds me for the whole summer!” They exchanged goodbyes, and Blaine went on his way.

When he came in the front door, Connie was waiting for him in the kitchen, holding mail she’d opened. “Good run?” she asked innocently.

“Yep. Listen, I need to talk to you.” He grabbed her hand, leading her to the living-room couch where they both sat down. It wasn’t long; it’s just to the right of the kitchen.

“I’ve been retreating into sports and small-talk these past months,” he began, “because I’ve been upset about something I didn’t even realize until this evening.” Connie waited, wondering what her husband would say. Blaine continued, “We have a ton of money because you’ve worked so hard, and we’ve been wise. And I know you love your job, and if it’s a dream you don’t want to give up, then we’ll find another way.”

She could tell there was more coming. “But I really miss you, a lot, and it hurts me that I don’t see you until late in the evening. When you do come home, all we talk about is the house and the bills. I turn on the game as a way of saying I’d rather talk to you than about those things. Either that, or I’d rather just be alone. Is there any way…you could quit your job and stay home?”

“Uh, Blaine, I don’t know…” Connie offered sheepishly.

“Or I could quit mine,” Blaine added quickly. “We could get a loft in Cincinnati…we could do anything,” Blaine paused, sensing the moment, “just don’t tell me the way we’ve been is the way it will be. I don’t want to ever think about you the way I started to today. I want you with me, no matter what.” The tears poured down his face, but he was unaware that he was crying.
Connie was though, and she was surprised to find that she was crying as well. All this time, she thought he loved the big house and the bank accounts, and that he felt nothing was wrong. Connie had begun to wonder if Blaine was the loving, sensitive man she married four years before.

Now, she understood that he was, and that he was reaching out. Blaine had sensed the distance, the pain of it, and had dared to question the sense of it. They weren’t argumentative people; they had simply let little hurts and fears grow. They were stuck, and started simply reacting to the negative feelings from the other. In truth, Connie resented how hard she had to work, thinking that Blaine wanted it. When she returned every night to find him absorbed in something else, she became angry and withdrew.

From Blaine’s point of view, he had a perpetually unhappy wife, which only served to deepen his loneliness. But now, they had an opportunity.

“Take a week of vacation, so we can talk this out. We’ll then figure out which one of us will stop working. But I want to know you again. You are not my enemy. You were once my best friend. I want that again.” Blaine spoke with a passion Connie had seldom heard. She could hardly spurn him, no matter the doubts and quibbles that remained. Connie didn’t know what happened to Blaine on that run, and she stopped herself from quipping, “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?”

One thing was certain: she felt drawn to him, like on their first night together. As they looked into each other’s eyes, Blaine knew that God had quickly begun his work in them, and marveled indeed at how naturally it had begun to unfold. Little did he know that this first night would be the dawn of the rest of their lives.

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