Ronny tenses his right leg, then starts a controlled, rhythmic jiggle. He’s trying not to distract his three partners at the table.The kid should be turning down Hogan Street toward Hemming Plaza in a few minutes. Ronny sent her out on a ten miler just before he met up with the guys.
They’re used to him and his ways after so many years. His groan-worthy puns. His not eating meat, even though he was the Cutter in one of Jax’s oldest and best rib joints for years. Today, no one even bothered to comment on his brightly hued blue and orange Gator shirt. After all, it’s what you’d expect of a contrarian who scouts for the U of North Florida Ospreys track and cross-country teams.
There’s something about this kid that has gotten to Ronny. She’s old fashioned. O sure, she fits in with her crowd, saw Lemonade three times the first week it dropped and is out there now running with her phone firmly fastened to her arm. But if he had to describe her, he’d use the word ‘plucky.’
She’s working at a coffee shop when she’s not at school or track practices; always willing to grab an extra shift. Not the most natural runner, she charts her workouts and follows the schedule he drafted for her. Runs all the drills. Her questions are smart, to the point. Not shy, but she doesn’t run her mouth just to hear herself. Calls him “sir.”
And he’s seen her out running. He goes out every morning, pre-dawn, for his own solitary miles. Most times over the past year, he’s seen her out there too. That’s how he found her. Admired the gumption he saw in her. Figuring she might run for one of the high school teams, he dropped by one of the fall regional cross country meets. Spotted her right off; runners all have styles and she has a determined, head up, efficient gait.
And damn if that isn’t her now, churning up the road, smiling and waving at him. He told her to take it easy, he just wanted to get a sense of her endurance. Looking back at his timer, he sees she’s coming in way under 1:20, considerably less than 8 minute miles.
“Hiya Mr. Ronnie!” She isn’t even breathing hard.
“Well Ms. Speedster, not bad. I bet myself you wouldn’t do so well. Guess I best pay up by treating you to lunch. Desert Rider Sandwich Shop ok with you?”
“Yes sir, that’s fine, but how about I treat you and you can tell me about Ax Handle Saturday?”
“Ex-excuse me?” Ronny stares at her and the fellows swivel their eyes at the pair.
“You were neighbors with Rodney L. Hurst back in 1960, weren’t you?”
“That I was,” Ronny nods. “I was 10 years old and he was about 15. Thought he hung the moon. Used to follow him all over town.”
“I just finished his book, It was Never about a Hot Dog and a Coke. That plaque behind you tells a little of the story, of how Mr. Hurst and some young people organized a peaceful lunch counter demonstration at a ‘whites only’ lunch counter in Woolworth’s to protest racial segregation on August 27, 1960.”
“I’m aware.” Ronny waited for her to continue.
“And then, white people started spitting on the protestors and yelling racial slurs at them. When the young people stayed, they were beaten with wooden ax handles. It ended up with over a hundred white people with baseball bats and ax handles chasing African Americans through Jacksonville.”
She took a breath.
“Sir, I heard that you were there and ran with Mr. Rodney. I’d like to know your story.”
“Well.” Ronny paused, thinking. “It’s not the kind of running I’d planned on discussing with you. I don’t talk much about that day.”
She kept her silence, just meeting his gaze.
Finally, he responded: “I guess you earned the right, though. Hungry?”
“That I am, Mr. Ronny. In more ways than one. Shall we, sir?”
He tipped his cap, and the pair sauntered across the street.
[Note: Mr. Rodney L Hurst, Sr. wrote the book mentioned about Ax Handle Saturday and the civil rights movement. Ronny and the runner are completely fictional, inspired by the work of Ms. K.E. Garland, featured above.]