The wet whisk of footfalls slapping lightly around the track resounded in the gray and empty stadium. It rung deep in the cavernous hollows of the grandstands and touched all the ears that were not there to be touched. At intervals water rushed over the lip of the upper deck and pinged against the aluminum bleachers, like applause but not quite like it.
Jim thought about the sound at the borders of his consciousness as he sprinted around the track. He thought: a palm slapping damp cheesecloth. Smacking lips of dozens of repeated kisses. Like the same perfect moment on replay or like ptchoo ptchoo ptchoo ptchoo.
He came around the long final bend into the homestretch. He thought of Leo Manzano burning by the rest of the country in the Distance Medley Relay in this same spot. Right there, that spot on the curve in the second lane. What was he thinking about then? Did he know about the Olympic silver medal in London six years later? Was that a decided thing? Or did he wait for it? Of course it was decided, Jim knew. For a runner destiny is built in the psychological inertia incurred by the momentum of his strides in training.
He came through the half-mile. One more lap and there would be one more lap to go.Don’t think like that, he said in his head. That is not the way to think. You run to the finish. You do not wait for the finish to come to you.
Interval work was a cruel attenuation of burn. Short one mile runs at 2 mile race pace. The first 200 or even 400 was run with a sort of mechanical detachment. You did not think. The next lap was about remaining calm. At 800 there was one lap to go until there was one lap to go and even when you did not want to think it you did. It was there that the true warfare began. Not between you and your body but between the good honest forces and the bad deceptive forces in your mind. There was the creeping weakness of civility which afflicted the overexposed like a toxin. It was this which slowed the runner down and nothing else. The deepest hidden parts of the runner want to be like the antelope. They want to take two quick furtive glances to the left and the right and then bolt, galloping irrespective of what predator lies before them or within them. This was true.
That morning in the chilly cavernous hallways of Penn Museum he had explained it all to Damon Harvey. The rain beaded down the floor to ceiling windows cool to the touch and a clay model of a Mayan King sat in the dark of the corner, watching. Harvey was a research assistant in western African anthropology and he knew and appreciated the sort of connections which Jim was bound to make. He had once told Jim that the art of living was in coming to realize we are all playing tic-tac-toe on a nuclear submarine, huge crowds with their backs to the warheads, watching and cheering our every X and every O. He spoke about everything like he was giving a TED talk. “It comes down to the fundamental affection we have for the imperfection of devotion,” he said that morning. “It is in fact the entire essence of being human.” He then told Jim about his own experience with it through a girl he knew once. It was what struck him when he met her on the street: harrowing, alluring defectiveness. Long days he would pass by thinking of her incidentals and little flaws. The longer he was with her the more he thought about how imperfection really was the definition of beauty and the whole universe seemed to make a sort of final sense when he thought in such terms. And it was not that he so much thought it or imagined it as he believed it and reflected upon that belief to the point where it became religion. Harvey decided it was not merely asymmetry itself which was beautiful. You could chip the cheeks of a lion statue at the same point on each side and it would still be symmetrical but also imperfect. The beauty came from the rugged quality. Anything that had suffered had a grace to it and there was nothing more beautiful than grace (“Simply put, the scientist must become savage before he can become one with god”). Some had more than others. She had much more. There is a reason, too, the old wolf with one eye is the leader of the pack, why the war-wounded elder is held in veneration in Native cultures, why injury is almost subconsciously associated with wisdom. One summer night Harvey and his girl hiked up to the top of the old landfill in the woods behind his house where the trees broke and the lights of Philadelphia glittered through the suburbs of smog. Only not Philadelphia, Jim knew because that would have been too distant and too perfect for Harvey’s own obscure romanticism: rather more likely it was the blue glow of the new Valley Forge Casino. She had lain with her back curled against Harvey and took his index finger and ran it down the length of an old gymnast scar from her inner knee to her ankle. Harvey’s eyes were glazed like the windows in the dank museum halls when he spoke about how the long raised strip was “mooncolored in the lunar light” (almost a blue glow, Jim imagined). “I wonder why I did it,” she had told him. “But I don’t.” Harvey believed she was a wonder because she was awake. She saw herself waning slowly and slowly from a vague past idyll whose details grew murkier with time. It was evoked not in her words but in her tone when he held her in her bed and looked at the old ribbons and medals pinned to her wall and spreading up to her ceiling, like an overgrowth of vegetation overspilling into a disused path. It was as if she had let her prizes linger untouched for too long and they had begun to sprout. This subtle awareness, this slow dawning of understanding untainted by the usual self-absorption, was what drew him like a magnet. She had a curiosity of it that fell just short of morbidity and that was too genuine to ever be mistaken for depression. It was the most basic and important type of curiosity a mammal could have, he said.
The empty grandstands were not empty. That Jim the antelope became surer of with each interval and perhaps even with each lap. Who watched him? It did not matter who watched him. Whoever watched him was nothing but a safeguard. Not even a cosigner or guarantor of his debt: a tertiary safeguard. Because any poison, any cynicism, any indolence would have to get by not only what he consciously wanted but also what he morally needed. They were separate things, these two lines of defense of every distance runner. Most who toed any line and cocked an ear to any starter’s pistol had the former. At least they had it to some degree or they would not be there. The latter most had too, but it was there that the true greatness was always figured out. Morality is the battlefield and breaking point of every runner.
He would never again run into the arms of a coach or the pen of a journalist. No laurel would drop on his head. Not on this stage, not again. There would be no crowd to roar him down the backstretch or bear him through the final turn or tinder the fires of his lactate threshold. And even if there had it would have been meaningless. For him and those such as him the war began and ended with morality and the rest was but a surface game. A game of tic-tac-toe on a nuclear submarine.
Long ago Jim had learned to seek out his weak spots. He could foretell far ahead the point where his pace would slow as his effort remained steady. He could see that weakness coming. He waited for it to come like a good marathoner waits for the wall. In a mile interval it would come with 700, 600 to go. No more sound or patter of rain weeping steadfast to aluminum like the somber harrowed cheers of spectators in some more sorrowful arena. His eyes would glaze with furrowed brow and sweat and rain but to him it seemed that the world itself was blurring. The world itself was shimmering as if he were running out of it, shuddering and heaving and ptchoo ptchooing his way into a clearer realm. Total darkness hovered on the edges of each heartbeat. In flashes between he saw the stadium lit by what it once was, what it would be. Wild collages of high schools and universities. The sticky scent of soda and beer and hot dogs and piss that was the hot breath of a Philadelphia sporting event wafting in from the esplanade. The collective heartbeats, the collective gasps, the little figures moving between flashes like visions beneath a flickering disco ball engaged in a cruelly distant pirouette of ignorance.
They blurred, their edges lessened now as he came into his final lap. He was seeing now the gray awnings of the upper deck reflected in the thin sprawling puddle on the track. One does not dance for the approval of the ballet that happens to be nearby. And now the gray day with the wet ptchoo ptchoo was back. Spike-splat he went around the turn and into the backstretch tromping on the watery visions in the puddles like omens to be consumed.
And now Jim thought again of what world awaited him outside that stadium: commuters asserting their aggressive domesticity with frowns, the language of platitudes that greased social world, the experts bestowing the fruits of their meandering minds in attitude of Scripture, the whispered nuptials of a marriage not merely to materialism (too vague, too general) but to dogged preconception and willing weakness. His gray world came back to him fully as he crossed the line. In the empty stands the dripping ping slowed to aptch…ptch…and then ceased.