Greg Davis is sixty-five years old. He is retired from a major aluminum company in Spokane Valley Washington after forty-four years as a grunt on the factory floor. He has been married forty-four years to the love of his life and biggest writing cheerleader, Laurie. He has maintained a passion for endurance athletics and is a life long runner.
He thinks he can live without booze. He knows he cannot live without running. Ten miles into a planned twenty mile run, the excesses of the night before are hard upon him. Saturday night Wild Turkey and Sunday long runs offer up a Pandora's box of ugly. Headache. Bad stomach. Bad attitude. None of the well rested feel-good that should be there. In his lean, taught frame, alcohol and near world-class running are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they symbiots in a turf war for his body and soul.
The long, hard running has a purpose. In two weeks, in a small, late Fall local marathon, he will make his stab at meeting or beating the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of two hours and eighteen minutes. It's doable. His training says so. Despite the drinking, three plus years of 100 mile weeks has filed him down to a razor blade. A freak of nature. A running machine burning alcohol as a major fuel source.
He has a master's degree in exercise physiology. Also a shit job. Night janitor at a hospital. Nothing has come of the degree. The custodial gig is a last effort at self-sufficiency. Pay the bills. Put food on the table. Keep running.
He works on the oncology floor. The motions of work require little of a frame slim, yet robust. While finishing the mopping he hears a groan, soft, yet rending, coming from one of the emaciated forms lying in the ward. The groans never fail to punch through his loner crust.
He wants to be unnoticed going through the motions of work. Yet the unfortunates on this floor, the desperately ill, offer him some of the more human moments of his day. Devon, a young woman with end-stage leukemia, always has a smile and thumbs-up for him. Tonight she looks even more gaunt and wasted. Tells him that she has been fighting cancer for five years. Tells him the fight is feeling like a losing one. His response of "stay strong" seems pitifully lame.
From the hospital to home is a thirty minute walk through a descending scale of social disorder and criminality. His "neighbors", the junkies and homeless, who inhabit the alley behind his digs, do not see him as a potential touch for panhandling. There is a low-key, easy approach in how he treats these creatures. The lowest and most vulnerable of humanities children. All his judgments are turned inward. He walks safe through one of the most crime- ridden areas in Chicago.
Midnight. The day's work done. Let the party begin. Another gray day in a gray existence. At least the morning's run went well. An eighteen miler with the second half three minutes faster than the first. A classic negative split. That deserves a tall one. No water. No ice. Just to take the edge off. The edge off of what? His mind sidles up to the truth. Tries to nestle against it. Then, catching a whiff of the truth, recoils for the umpteenth time. Loses the battle. He will start the next morning's run with a hangover.
DNF. Did Not Finish. The official results of the last Olympic Trials marathon designated him as DNF. One of a dozen runners who, whatever their reasons, failed in their attempt to grab at something special. Once every four years special. Make the Olympic team and it's the red carpet all the way to the Games. Prize money. Gear. Access to the best medical care and training facilities. The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Just three, the strongest and the smartest. On a specific day, in a one-off race, three runners will do whatever it takes to gain the largesse offered by the U.S. Olympic committee. Fourth place? Nice try. See you in four years. DNF? Don't call us. We'll call you.
One month after the Trials, his lucrative contract with Nike was cut off. Something about performance expectations buried deep in the fine print. One hundred grand a year. Gone. A non-finisher does not last long in the ultra-competitive grabbing of what money is available to professional runners. CEOs do not care about DNFs.
Why running? After an implosion worthy of a black hole, why nail your hopes of something better to this, the ultimate in delayed gratification? The answer is at once simple and complex. As simple as breathing and movement. Of carrying the endorphins well into the rest of your day. Of being good at it. Better than a tiny fraction of the earth's population. Some people do yoga. Some play the tuba. He runs. It's the biggest bullet in his arsenal.
The complexities are about wanting to be consumed by the workout. The pain of oxygen debt, something the body recoils from, must be embraced. At eighty minutes of a two hour run, the cumulative effort demands your complete attention. This is where the stresses, bad thoughts, and disappointments bleed away. Nothing matters but what is going on here, right in this moment. The ultimate paradox. By drawing yourself inward, your world expands. Effort, diamond-hard effort, plus focus equals oblivion.
Sunshine and a monster headache greet him the next day. At sixty minutes of a ninety minute workout, the morning's repast of a banana and Gatorade are a foul sludge in his stomach. Feet and lower back aching. For all the gripes and groans he is flicking along at a pace of just over five minutes per mile. With a stride so light and quick as to be barely audible. Binge drinking has not touched his running yet. Has it ruined relationships? Absolutely. Made him a loner? Definitely. Turned a life of huge potential into a swirling toilet bowl of a mess? Oh yeah.
On shift that night, while cleaning up the vomit of an end-stage leukemia patient, he notices that his feet are still aching from the morning's run. His shoes, with little tread left and no arch support, are worn out. The three pairs he rotates through are all in the same state of disintegration. Money must be found to replace them. Either forego his whisky or work overtime. He laughs a bitter, self-aware laugh. Of course he will work the overtime.
For all the miles he is a nobody in the panorama of big time marathoning. If he qualifies for the Trials he will still be a nobody. Just one of a hundred or so runners who bang out their mileage and exist on the economic fringes. Earning just enough scratch to keep them in food and shoes.
Two kinds of runners inhabit this gray area. Those on their way up and those on their way down. At age twenty-nine there is not much left of his so called career. He's all in. Pushed all his chips into the pot. Make the Trials and maybe start living again. Whip the drinking. Get a better job. Walk the earth with a small portion of self-respect. Add something to a life of black and blue toenails and little else.
Ten days out from race day. He looks at his running journal. Does the math. Sixteen thousand miles over three plus years. Very few easy runs during this odyssey. The workouts have an edge to them. A hard point where the easy, warm-up phase ends and the tough running starts. A starting gun goes off in his head. The stride accelerates. He draws inward. Seeking that place where pain can be ignored and a cheerless life is put on the back burner for awhile.
The hard running is done. Tomorrow, until two days before race day, when he will do no running at all, the workouts will get shorter and slower. Tapering down. Letting the body heal the muscular micro-tears that are a fact of long, hard running. Not only the body tapers. The mind must be forced out of its long-worn groove of preparation, effort and recovery. Only recovery matters now.
The next morning's run gets easier. Physically easier. After thirty-eight months of bashing out miles at or near his cardiovascular redline, an easy day is an abomination. Wasted time. However, a well-executed taper phase is critical. A screwed-up one could trash everything. Ten miles at a pace of six minutes and thirty seconds per mile does not raise his heart rate above ninety. He will do the taper. The alternative does not bear thinking about.
That evening at work, an end-stage cancer victim dies. These passings never fail to affect him. Another quiet battle lost. A life snuffed-out because of a genetic defect. No choice. Suddenly scared, he hurries down the hall to check on Devon. Near silent, he peeks in her room and finds her asleep. The aura of fear dials down. In a moment, anxiety, he pinches himself. Among the dying he is still alive. Guilt, never far below the surface, takes over.
The next day's taper workout begins after vomiting six shots of bourbon consumed last night. Another ten-miler, even slower than yesterday's. The thought of bypassing this phase and doing nothing is strong. Forget this jogging shit. Despite the no-progress feel, the ease of these runs is vital. To gather strength and hemoglobin. To make the mind and body ready.
His musings at work that night take a worn path. Eleven years ago good grades and better running had bought a four year ride to the University of Wisconsin. A chance to shed a steel town background. Athletic and academic success opened doors and eyes. He lost the hard- sounding Pennsylvania twang of home. Disconnection from old friends and family followed. A wry, patronizing attitude toward a life of shift work developed. One thing he could not get rid of. A hard-wired tendency to alcoholism.
Three generations of his family had punched the time clock and self-medicated in the low-rent dives near the plant. Factory workers did not reach high. Graduate high school. Maybe. Get a steady, soul-grinding job with good pay and a union card. And, if you were lucky enough to live that long, a pension and a gold watch.
His folks knew he would be different. Would break the familial cycle of birth, mill work and death. Would not succumb to a life of cholesterol-laden breakfasts, baloney sandwiches and thermos after thermos of black, muddy coffee.
After work, with mason jar half-full of bourbon to aid his conjecture, this bad train of thought persists. Ruminate and grab the bottle. A rotation that has settled deep in his bones. University life and four years as a professional athlete had merely painted a thin veneer over his roots. Nothing thick enough to withstand life's more bitter moments. Nothing to prevent a backward march to the stag-heap of his origins.
Four days out. The taper is going well. His body, long used to the steel-hard grind of
I 00 plus mile weeks, is reveling in the forced ease of the workouts. His mind is another matter. Denied the pressure-valve relief of hard running a mean, hyper-sensitive edginess is settling in. The six mile trot at seven minutes per mile does nothing except to provide a forum for the musings of the day.
As the slow plod of the workout continues, his mind turns back the calendar to the day, thirty-eight months ago, when the mirror showed him all he needed to know about just how far the fall had advanced.
A passion, no matter now deep in the marrow it resides, can die of neglect. It is not puffed out like breath extinguishing a candle flame. The resemblance is more akin to the slow, tortuous march of some cancers. In the end, nothing is left but a carapace. As hollow and empty as forever.
After a thirteen month stretch in which running had gone from an annoyance, to an imposition and finally to impossible, he had acquired two new friends.
Lethargy and denial were now his drinking buddies. Always showing up once the level in the bottle had gone down a few inches. Offering warmth and numbness. Great reasons to sink farther down into the arm-chair. Try to disappear into it like a turtle into its shell. Armor against the world outside his door and inside his head. What does it take, once self-pity becomes as natural as drawing breath, to start some kind of rescue mission? When is it time to throw yourself a life preserver?
The bathroom looking glass supplied all the flint-hard evidence needed. In the time between one eye-blink and another, a cerebral snapshot was taken. What started as a bi-weekly shave ended, halfway through, with the razor in the sink and a near catatonic examination of what stared back.
The appraisal started small. First the face. Though twenty-nine years old, a diet of fast food and booze caused an acne breakout worthy of an adolescent. A sallow hue made him think of the beginnings of cirrhosis. Youth has deserted this countenance. Lines etched deeper. Wrinkles starting to appear in the corner of his eyes. Hard life. Hard face.
A long look at his midsection showed a twenty pound gut hanging over the waistband of his boxers. No longer unique, he has morphed into what, in his conceit, he once thought of as the masses. A doughy, overweight farce of what he once was.
The drinking that night was more thoughtful. Instead of the suck-it-down, self- medicating rapidity that brings on the sweet insensitivity, a scrap of reflection crept in and took cautious root. Five shots of Wild Turkey would not wash away what had been laid before him in the mirror. The image was lodged tight in that part of the brain that deals with survival, its whisper low and demanding. "What are you going to do about this?"
The road back began with nothing. The first workout, decided on the night before during the quiet thinking time just before dawn, would be a three-mile run at seven minutes per mile. Despite a sixteen month hiatus his vanity, still mired in what once was, sneered at this tiny dot of a run. Hardly worth the effort.
The next day started with the familiar feel of a hangover. Two cups of bad coffee and a banana do nothing to damp down a bad temper. At noon, garbed in gear with the rank smell of clothes long unlaundered, he took the first steps of this brief but critical first run.
At one mile, he was on pace and in oxygen debt. Hi stride, once the bouncy step of the superbly fit, was now a low, heel and toe shuffle. No fluidity. No power. Sweat came soon and by the bucket. By mile two, with a heart rate hovering around 180 beats per minutes, the stop lights of this urban run provided small sips of air desperately needed. Twenty-one minutes and forty-five seconds after starting the ordeal is over. The last mile a death march of slow, grind it out running. But running nonetheless.
There would be no workout the next day. Or the day after. Quads and calves, long accustomed to disuse, screamed their protest. Spending money that would have gone towards booze, he bought enough cubed ice to have an ice bath. That choice, ice over alcohol, was lost on him as he sat in the frigid water. Trying to ease the soreness out of muscles that once would have taken no notice of twenty-one minutes and forty-five seconds of running.
Three runs would be done that week. After the first effort the other two workouts were slower. A grudging nod to his lack of fitness. The week's total of nine miles was light-years distance from the !50 that had once been the norm. But it's solid. A bit of soil from which more, just maybe, could grow.
Now, three plus years later, he allows himself the smallest vestige of self-satisfaction. Whatever else has happened to him, the hard fact remains that he can still train at a high level over a long period of time. This thought brings out a small, but sincere smile.
Three days out. The last workout, a five miler at seven minutes and thirty seconds per mile, is not enough work to raise his heart rate above seventy beats per minute. His body, super- charged by days of enforced leisure, is begging to run hard and fast. The taper has been done perfectly. He has hated every minute of it.
Two a.m. Twenty-nine hours to go. A drink in an unsteady hand. A hyper-tense state of mind is taking over. Bourbon does little to ease it. Abruptly, he lunges out of his chair and bolts for the door. Leaving his drink half empty.
The junkies that are his neighbors greet him with bleary eyes, sunken veins and friendship. They never seem to sleep, these creatures of the night. Their circadian rhythms trashed by needs far deeper than the simple exigency of rest.
Movement. If you can't run, walk. Try to move away, albeit at a slower pace, from the chaos that has taken root in his mind. The pace quickens, very close to a jog. Clenching his fists in a rictus of muscular contraction, he slows down. Forces ease into a body spring loaded to the breaking point.
His destination is a stretch of trail a couple miles from the urban blight of home. A peaceful place of trees and greenery. He rarely runs hard workouts here. Saving this spot for easier, more contemplative trots.
Three a.m. This hour provides the silence needed to quell the static of a brain stuck between channels. Finding a tree to sit under, he rests his arms on his drawn up knees. Lowering his head to his arms, the tuner knob in his mind finds a station called "My isolation. Oh Lordy, how far it has come."
Up until the D.N.F., friends and relationships were part of his social landscape. Running buddies, both male and female were constants. Women were drawn to him. Being a good listener, plus not the usual slab of jock-meat, made casual bed-partners easy to acquire. After the no-finish, these connections began their slow trickle away. As he built the walls around him that did not allow visitors.
There was one acquaintance who tried to stick it out. More than a consort but less than a fiancé', she alone had the guts to knock on his door. Hard and loud. To arrange a date. To "air him out a little", as she jokingly but not maliciously said. To keep trying.
Four months passed. Running became a resentment. Despite her patient persistence, her doggedly upbeat demeanor, he could not find any kind of grip to arrest the slide. Their outings became desultory affairs. The bed divided into "his" and "hers". No meeting in the middle.
For her, months of this was enough. The end came on a day depressingly familiar in its structure. Their date that night spoke volumes. Three hours at a bar. Forced conversation interspersed with double shots of bourbon. At two a.m., each went their separate ways. The next morning, while nursing a hangover with bad coffee, a note is slipped under his door. Its content brief and direct. "It's over. Do not try to contact me." She had grown weary of cleaning up his emotional messes.
Three plus years had passed since she walked away. No effort to reach her was successful. No grapevine rumors of where she had landed. No light down this tunnel. Strange thoughts on this night turning to dawn.
A whisper of daylight. Cold and stiff, he raises his head. Emerges from the chrysalis made of arms and legs. Having spent the last three hours sweeping his messes into a neat pile, fatigue and a unfamiliar sense of relief have taken hold. A small ort of personal growth flames to life. On the walk back, he breathes on this ember with shallow, gentle breaths. It is seven a.m. Twenty-four hours to go.
Back home, sleep is the issue. There will be no work this evening. Playing every ace he has to hit race day fit and refreshed. Undressing, he spies the half-finished drink. In the fine, generations old tradition of family self-medicating, he slams the booze down in one long gulp. Three ounces of straight spirits. Bed time.
Two p.m. Awake after six hours of troubled sleep. A quick look out the window shows the weather is continuing to be clear and cool. The edginess is riding him hard. Like an addict going off the junk, nine days without a hard run has left him unable to sit still or hold a thought in his head. Time for the day before race ritual of checking out the gear to be used.
Starting with the shoes, he notices again that the insole of his left shoe is broken down. Taking a phone book and opening it to the middle, he cuts out an outline of his foot a quarter of an inch thick. Wraps it in two layers of duct tape. A crude but adequate cushion is the best that can be done. Looking at it, a bitter laugh escapes him. Like the boozing, the cushion is a bad patch to a worse problem.
After a late afternoon carbo-load of lightly sauced pasta and three glasses of Gatorade, he lies down and tries to tame a body in a fever-pitch of readiness. Breathing deep and slow, a bit of tension is released. Working from the shoulders down, he wills relaxation into the large muscles of arms, back and legs, Calm for the first time today, he nods to sleep.
Eight p.m. Lying atop a bed that hasn't been made in a week, he does a quick physical exam. Quads okay. Calves okay. Shoulders stiff but not a problem. Now for one more snack and a short walk. Try to damp down the pre-race jitters.
There will be no brave "I won't drink tonight" moment. Back from his amble, his hand grips the jar hard enough to make wrist tendons ache. The bourbon, dark amber, has already started to melt the ice cubes. The taste of it is at once repulsive and craved. Letting the booze slide down his throat, he again commits the act so loathed for its lack of self-discipline. Along with a slight rising nausea, the burning and numbing so sought and needed start. Happy hour had begun.
Midnight. Four hours of cogitation has left him tired and with a headache. On this night, some quiet thoughts of crawling back to this point of superb fitness would have been in order. Instead the ogre that lives down inside him begins its whispering. Telling him that he is a screw- up. A whiner who hasn't the guts to pull himself np.
I need some help he thinks. Something, during the race, to remind me of why I'm doing this. Taking out his pen knife, he scratches DNF into his forearm. As the radio plays the Creed song, "My Own Prison", blood seeps onto the floor. Minutes pass. He takes his cleanest dirty towel and dabs the blood away. Reminding him of a cheap jailhouse tattoo, it will ride with him today.
Four forty five a.m. Awake and nervy. Heading out the door, he is greeted by junkie Ray, the oldest and therefore the strongest of these miscreants. Reaching into his pocket, Ray pulls out a crumpled dollar bill. Blowing a bit of meth off it, he offers it up. Saying "After yo race get yo self a cold soda. You be real thirsty then."
When available cash consists of assorted change and a dollar bill in need of detox, and you need to get to the start area of your race, you take the bus. With no decent warm-up gear, you throw on board shorts and a hoodie. The garb fits well, sitting amongst addicts and other early riding malcontents. They stare at you with sunken eyes, their addictions singing in their veins.
Your quads and calves give you away. Strong, well-formed muscles. The kind that can withstand years of hard running. As out of place on this five a.m. ride as a screen door in a submarine. The kind, if you can keep your mind right, that could pull you to the finish line faster than the Trials qualifying time.
Aloof and alone. One hour before start time. Jogging easy up a side street a block away from the marshaling area, his mind starts to drift. "Bad discipline" he thinks. Now is the time for drawing inward. For the melding of mental focus and physical energies. To ask the most crucial questions. How are your guts today? Are you ready to run the redline? That place where the pain of oxygen debt makes a mockery of rational thought. Where a body wallows in extreme glycogen depletion. He centers his thoughts. Answers the question. On this day, which so much is riding, of course he will run the redline.
This is a small, local race. Maybe 500 runners. One starting line. One gun. One big happy family ambling off down the road seeking their goals. Nobody notices the thin, intense guy decked out in frayed dry-lite shirt and shorts. For him today is a one-off shot at improving a life of too much drinking, Top Ramen and an armpit of an apartment.
There will be victory. He will cross the finish line first. His practiced eye tells him no one else running today has the chops to challenge the Trials qualifying standard. Winning without beating the standard would be a big, fat nothing-burger. Buck-naked last with the standard would be everything.
With no other runners in his league, today it will be a long, way out in front time trial. Discipline will be crucial. Also keen focus and the shutting out of everything extraneous. Glance at your Timex and dole out your energy reserves like a miser with his pennies. Your world will be the width of your body.
Not much to do in the twenty minutes left till the gun goes off. Keep moving. Go to the start line with a pulse rate of 120 beats per minute. Optimal for a strong first couple of miles. Out on the bare periphery of his awareness the fitness fair is hawking the latest shirt, shorts and shoes combos. Well-meaning but naive athletes will wear these brand new items today. Looking great while their quads and feet get pounded into jelly.
Ten minutes left. First call to move to the start line. The worst time. Shut down the doubts and retie your shoes for the tenth time. Try to keep the dial on your nervous energy down low. Some folks already staking out their territory just behind the line. He shoulders his way to the front. Past moms with jogging strollers, teenage cross country runners and old guys in sleeveless, salty shirts.
Three minutes. Pull off the warm-ups. The cool autumn air puts the final charge in his system. Make sure your watch is in stopwatch mode. Check the pace goals scribbled on your arm. Try not to doubt what is written down. Don't' lose your nerve. Don't recalculate. Remember the countless miles. The killer workouts. The bleak, early days of the road back. When a five-mile run was a victory.
One minute. Everyone around him is getting pumped up and vocaL He can see the starter approaching. Lean forward, one foot just behind the line. Settle in and wait for the release of the gun.
Five minutes and fifteen seconds per mile. Run one, repeat twenty-five times. These numbers are burned into his being. Far more than a goal, they are a gateway to something better. Something earned. The ability to run at this pace is paid for through a stark, unyielding learning curve. The curve allows for no pretenders of wannabes. This gateway will only stay open through nerve and grit.
Three of what could have been his best years of training and competition have been washed away by alcohol. Today's effort could bring him close to what he once was. And close, like in horse-shoes and hand grenades, is good enough.
Those who saw him as he streaked past initially thought "Here is an imposter. Some bozo race jumper looking for fifteen minutes of fame." Only when the aid station attendants started calling back and forth did they realize the same race number kept appearing. Somebody, with a quick, powerful stride was running at a speed these small marathons rarely see. His awareness so turned inward the effort was discernible only in a distant corner of his being.
He ran past mile markers, check points and aid stations. Past years of disappointment and self-loathing. Past the drinking, the denials and the day labor. All this acquired baggage he left by the side of the road. Like so many gasping, defunct runners.
There was a vague perception of crossing the finish line. His eyes, glancing upward at the auto-timer, took in a time over two minutes faster than he needed. From a long ignored, rational fragment of his brain comes the thought that now the exertion bill must be paid in full. Oxygen debt, ignored and shoved aside, screamed its existence. With his vision graying at the edges, on legs just able to support him, he wobbles away from the line. Up ahead was a table with water and Gatorade. Up ahead are the Trials.
Finish plus twenty minutes. High fives and people he doesn't know congratulating him. Thirty ounces of liquid replenishment have gone down and stayed down. The shock of the effort is still deep in his musculature. Everyone wants to know who is this dude? And why has he graced this small marathon with a monster run.
A race official appears and glad-hands him in a most vigorous and intrusive manner. Says he has qualified for the Trials. Says he is the first runner from this small race to do so. Says blah, blah, blah. Like there isn't a profound, visceral realization of what just went down. While this mucky-muck continues to beat his gums, the exhausted athlete puts on his best thousand-yard stare. Gives a terse thank you and wanders off to get a banana.
Finding a corner removed from the finish line noise, he sits cross-legged with fruit and water at his side. Time to lean the head back, close eyes and breathe deep and slow. Tune out the vocal hum. Slow down the pulse rate and let the body begin healing. After a few minutes, this calm reverie is shattered by a bull-horned announcement about the awards ceremony. Sipping his water, he notices a trio of teenage girls, all with slim Barbie bodies, giving him the eye.
He ducks the awards ceremony with an excuse about having to catch a bus. The prizes being slipped to him, with another intrusive handshake, by the race director. While leaving, a reporter from the local fitness rag accosts him. Hands over a business card and says he would like to do a "then and now" piece. Immediate alarm. This guy has recognized him.
The bus ride home eases some of his anxiety. The swag for winning, a glass sculpture of a runner in high bouncy mid-stride and a two hundred dollar gift card from a fitness retailer, rests on the seat beside him. His glance falls on this bounty. A smile, barely a lifting of the lips, emerges. Albeit at a very low level, he is once again a professional athlete.
He arrives at the stop near home. A block away is a Seven-Eleven. Remembering the gift from junkie Ray, he treats himself to a cold soda. The thought comes hard and sweet. A hard core addict cares more about me than most of the populace of an indifferent world.
Home. After a shower and snack, he fixes a weird cocktail of Gatorade and bourbon. A symbolic melding of what is good and not so good in his existence. Eases a drained musculature into an armchair. Allows himself to absorb what happened today. A three-plus year odyssey is over. Promise made. Promise kept.
The thought comes that too many doors are in front of him. Which to open? Which to remain closed? Tired of this existence? Yeah, mostly. But this grounding in near poverty has worked some steel into him. Hard lessons learned. Keep training at this high, intense level? Not for a while. Take the obligatory downtime. Cut the mileage back and let the body heal. Satisfied with these conclusions, he eases out of the chair to fix a fresh drink. His quads bark in pain like a hard kicked dog. He smiles. They will determine when it is time to work hard again.
What happens tomorrow? The easy part of his lodestar is done,. You do feel better about you? Somewhat. Wake up in the same place. Go to the same job. Come home to the same bottle. There is work still to be done. This makeover is far from complete.
Tomorrow comes gray and frigid. The November Witch, a weather system of icy winds and lake-effect snow, has arrived. Outside his place, the junkies are hitting the thrift shops and charities for enough clothing to withstand the cold. A bitter, late fall wind, straight off Lake Michigan, rips down the alley. Making a mockery of their cardboard shelters. The long winter survival has begun.
He opens his eyes to a day of possibilities. To decisions to be made. To a musculature wallowing in lactic acid. Quads and glutes sensitive to the slightest touch. It will be a day of careful movements. Both physical and emotional.
A breakfast of yogurt and coffee help a mind already trying to sift through what needs to be done. Don't bother with the reporter who wants to do a story on him. Deal with that later. Trying to remember if the phone bill was paid this month, he pulls out that most august of tomes, a phone book. Sifts through the yellow pages to the "substance abuse" section. There is a clinic not four blocks away. Finding the phone in working order, he dials the numbers. Listens to the ring and abruptly hangs up. Not yet.
A late afternoon walk, to help the soreness and provide a forum for some think time, is in order. Being one of the favored few who wear shorts year-round, he pulls on a hoodie and heads out the door. Out in the alley, the cardboard-box community have a burning barrel going. The barrel will be kept going till spring softens the air. Ray greets him with an eight-tooth grin and a hand slap.
"How you doing?", Ray asks. "You look a little bent." He smiles at this description. It's not uncommon to walk like you have a serious case of arthritis the day after a marathon. "Doin okay", he says. "Just a little stiff." Taking a few steps, he remembers. Turning back, he says, "Thanks for the soda. It went down real easy." Ray's gap-toothed smile lights up the darkening afternoon.
His urban hike, with no destination in mind, heads uptown. Hoodie tied tight and hands deep in pockets, he bends against the gale blowing straight off the Great Lakes. His body states with finality there is no use trying to start this cold motor today. Twenty minutes later, home nursing a toddy, he tries again to sort through the fresh complexities threatening to leak under the front door.
Yesterday I said tomorrow. Jesus, he muses. Sounds like bad country music. Trite but true. Too many tomorrows have come and gone. The yellow-page ad for the clinic said, "Walk- ins welcome." Great, he thinks. Maybe I'll even jog in. A connection, spun-glass fragile, is conceived. A union between something he can do and something desperately needing done.
The next day starts with good intentions and a thirty-minute jog. There will be soreness and zero-spring in his gait. Thirty minutes done with a low, back on the heels shuffle. No matter. All first efforts after a marathon are more shamble than run.
Trot completed, he is now standing and staring at the entrance to the clinic. Fifty-feet away are double doors. Slowly, mindful of his sore legs, he walks back and forth. Eyeing the doors like a wary animal, sizing up an unknown and therefore dangerous adversary. The thought comes clear and strong. This is not the way I want to do this. I will not spill my guts toa stranger. The connection is shattered. Blown apart by misgivings and ego.
Hours later, after another three p.m. to 11 p.m. shift of mopping, cleaning and disinfecting, the march of empty bottles continues.
It had been tough at work that evening. Two deaths on the floor. Devon, the leukemia completely taking over her gaunt frame, loses her battle. Another rat gnawing on his conscience. Chewing vigorously on a sense of guilt that implores him to do something, anything to take control.
Slouching further down in the chair, he eases his head back. Relaxed for the first time in a long day, his defenses stand down. An infinitesimal bit of prescience is allowed in this state between dreaming and waking.
His mind's eye sees a single empty bottle. The bottle splits, forming two. These two split, Two squared, three squared, four squared. Bottles upon bottles. The macabre mitosis continues. Soon they are crowding in on him. The divisions go on and on.
No room to move or breathe. A feeling of being absorbed into this heap of glass starts. His molecules breaking down. Worse, his self, that which makes him unique, is eagerly committing to this dissemination. Giving up, tired of upholding the facade of him.
His screams come out silent. The insidious decomposition grinds on. The bottles, utterly indifferent to his pleas, take every last atom. Adding one more victim's impurities to their silica.
I am afraid to open my eyes he thinks, is there anything left? Anything of the mass of blood and bone that is me? With eyes closed, he runs a hand over legs stiff with inactivity. Pathetically grateful for solidity of flesh, a tear escapes from under his eyelids. An angry hand slaps it away. A wee smile appears. "Christ Almighty" he says, addressing the dark muse responsible for the apparition. "You didn't have to hit me over the head". The muse answers. "Yes, you needed it."
A new day with one less decision to be made. A single empty bottle, its contents having been poured down the sink, sits on the table next to him. Taking a felt pen, he writes on the vessel. "Dear bourbon. You are gone. I am still here."
Outside the November Witch makes her reluctant departure, grumbling thunder as she leaves. The junkies emerge from their cardboard Hiltons and gather around the burning barrel. They smile their dental nightmare smiles. They have survived. To score more junk. To continue lives most people would sneer at.
Throwing on his warmest hoodie he makes for the door. The wind, though blustery, has lost its knife-edged feel. Forget the sore legs. Do a run long enough for a bit of internal cleansing. This workout, akin to the confessions of the Catholic faith, will offer absolution. A forum to acknowledge his mistakes and forgive himself.
The run is strong for being so close to the finish of a marathon. Eight miles at six minutes per mile pace. Enough for a good sweat. Enough to make him realize that he needs this. Today, tomorrow, forever. Workouts lined up and stretching over the horizon. Instead of empty bottles he would surround himself with miles of running.
One thing is certain. There will be no "peaceful accord" with booze. No detente. It will be a battle royal. A kick in the gonads, gouge the eyes street fight. And once you have the bastard on the ground, put the boots to him for good measure. Remember, bourbon would love to do the same to you.
He awakens the next morning to twenty-four hours of sobriety. It arrives after a fidgety night and a bad case of two a.m. munchies. Not much to shout about. But enough to hang his hat on. Enough to say "this is impossible". Now for coffee, a banana and a run.
I'll probably screw this up. This thought shows up just as the run moves from easy to more serious effort. However, the twenty-four hours of temperance has found fertile ground in the essence that makes him what he is. In a reversal of his glass-bottle delirium, substance will be added to his being.
The day's mail brings his time confirmation from the marathon. Also in the envelope is an RSVP for the Olympic Trials. He stares at it. Minutes pass. Yes or no? Taking pen in hand, he marks the "yes" box. A good goal to help keep him clean and sober. A good path. It will not be a solo traverse of this path. A single empty bottle, with a crudely lettered dictum on it, will ride with him.