His wife died and he would have, too, but he had a son, and that made him hang on. But the man that he had been slipped away, and he did not know who was left. He drank, though that had never been him, and he found in it a numbing comfort. He smoked, and that had once been him, but so long ago that it made him a stranger now. Mostly he worked to feed the son he had had with his wife, but the boy had become a stranger, too, and the man never saw him, though he was always there. Then one day he saw the boy’s face staring at him. Part of the face looked like his wife, and part of it looked like him. In both parts he saw hate.
Drunk, he sought to undo the hate by reaching for his wallet. He handed the boy a twenty-dollar bill. The boy took it, but the hate stayed on his face as he left.
The man looked at his hand and saw the cigarette burning between his fingers, and he saw the brown stains that were becoming permanent on them, left there by an unceasing parade of burning tobacco. How long? Two years? He hefted a full beer can to his lips and saw the empty ones left standing on the table as he tipped it back. He remembered suddenly how beautiful the boy’s face had been before it knew hate.
He drained the beer quickly to quell the image, but it did not work, and he began to cry. The next time he saw the boy, the beer cans were gone, and the ashtrays were washed and put away. He tried very hard to smile at the boy, but all he did was grimace.
His insides had grown used to the tobacco and the beer, and they demanded it. He did not think he could refuse, but he remembered again the boy’s face before it knew hate, and that helped him be strong.
It became a fight, but as long as he fought, he could see the boy, so he kept trying. But then he knew he was going to lose, and it made him furious. So he went to his bedroom and put on his shorts and his old running shoes, which he found buried under more shoes and a pile of beer cans in his closet. He used to run, long ago, with his wife before she died. Running the long miles, they had shared everything together. When the boy was a baby, he and his wife took turns pushing him along in a running stroller. Their life was good. Then she died.
Dressed, he willed himself to walk out to the street, though he wanted to get in his car and drive for beer and cigarettes. He swore at the impulse and made it over the lawn and onto the road.
That’s what he told himself. A mile. I will run a mile, he said, and I won’t stop until I do.
He began, and his brain remembered with the first step running before. With the second step, the neurons shook off their sleep and focused on the job, trying to mold the third step into a familiar pattern. But the flesh was weak, and the body would not do what the brain told it to do, but the boy’s face urged him on, forcing the body past what it could endure, and soon the man was on his knees, and all his wrecked body could do was retch, and he was going to go home and get in his car and drive for beer and cigarettes as soon as the retching stopped.
Then he saw her. A woman wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt emerged from a side street. She turned and ran along the street he was on, away from him. He never saw her face, but even through the baggy sweats he could discern her womanly figure working beneath the cotton, graceful and hypnotic to watch, the muscular sway of her bottom rhythmically driving her legs forward. Impossibly, he was transfixed while retching, and he watched her run until she was gone.
A longing stirred, and he liked it, so he found more strength to resist his demons. Home, he lay his broken body down and resolved neither he nor it would be beaten.
His will became strong, but he was often sick despite it. Alternately, he would find himself seized by chills and sweats, and a fire had erupted in his bowels that would not rest. Misery made him wonder if a cancer had found a growing place within him, and chest pains made him wonder about his heart. But when his chest hurt, he would run. When he had chills, he would run. When he had sweats, he would run. The burning in his gut could dissuade him at times, but mostly it made him run, too.
His body was not strong. The running was seldom sustained, and it fell far short of the mile he told himself he would run. But as soon as his lungs found their limit, he would walk, coughing hard at the legacy cigarettes had left him, and he would keep walking, wracked with pain in his knees and his side and his shins and his chest, until he staggered to the end of the mile he had intended to run.
Once he decided his body would never change, and he stopped his run before his body told him to. He stood staring ahead at the distance he was supposed to traverse and knew he could not do it. It was too hard, and after a month of trying his body felt worse, not better.
Then he saw her for the second time. She wore the same baggy sweats and t-shirt, a grey and white apparition. A ponytail flew behind her, snapping to and fro as she ran. This time he tried to look away from her, but again he felt a stirring, and he became transfixed by the hints of her body breaking against the grey cotton pants.
She had turned and was moving up the street, in the direction he had intended to run. Without meaning to, he began to run, his eyes lighting upon the small blue shoes she wore. Each flew forward in a blur, then stopped as the other flew forward and stopped, tensing for the next step. Without his knowing it, their rhythm resonated in his brain, and his own steps found a like rhythm, striking the ground and springing from it as hers did.
She moved steadily away from him, her figure shrinking with every step, but his own steps followed until, impossibly, he saw that he had passed the telephone pole his car’s odometer had declared the one mile mark. Except for a moment’s doubt, he had run the whole mile.
His pace transformed into a walk, and he grinned an uncontrolled grin. Silently, he thanked the woman, and his heart was not sure whether it felt gratitude or lust.
The lungs switched their allegiance from smoke to air, and their protests diminished. His muscles and tendons and ligaments reforged themselves and became strong. His mile became two, and then three. His pace settled into ten-minute miles, but a battle had now begun between his desire to stop for comfort’s sake and his urge to keep what he had gained. This battle raged almost as fiercely as the battle to try running at all had.
Shallow comfort almost won.
I’m better now, he thought as his body warmed through the first mile, I don’t need to keep doing this.
And he saw her for the third time, again running away from him, ponytail swinging, blue shoes blurring, hips creating transient shapes of woman against their cotton covering.
He forgot about comfort and continued to run, hoping to get closer to her. But her blue blurs were faster than he could be, and she faded away as his lungs reasserted their limits.
He settled back into his pace for a minute, and then he increased it just enough to hurt.
The high school his son attended had a track, and he went to it once a week, running hard over its oval surface. He did quarter mile repeats one day, half mile the next. In a few weeks he ran single miles for speed.
One day his son was there, staring at him. The hate on his face had given way to a confusion, and the boy approached.
You’re embarrassing me, the boy told him. My friends can see you here.
Don’t tell them you know me, he replied, and he bounded off, away from the boy.
The boy was waiting.
Are you okay?
Getting that way. Are you?
The boy was much faster than he was, but a respect grew as they worked together on the track, running to run faster.
After a few weeks at the track, they hugged. The man cried but tried to hide his tears as the boy laughed and challenged him to race a mile. They boy won.
On the street he ran alone, moving much faster than before. One day, he was running long, moving though the neighborhood to the trail that had been created along the old railway line. He intended to run ten miles.
The trail was long and straight. On either side were houses, but a small buffer of nature insulated the asphalt from the homes, and the man mused that the trail felt like a whole world unto itself.
It ran off straight, too far to see its terminus, but that spot was farther than he could run anyway.
Alone with his running, his intellect and spirit were free to roam and think and decide. His world became manageable as he ran, and he knew the things he would do in it. Someday, he knew, he would like to love again.