The Penn Relays have been held annually at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field along the banks of the Schukyll River for 112 years running. It is both the oldest and the largest track and field relay meet in the world.
On April 24th, 2010, an estimated record crowd of 54,000 watched Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Usain Bolt anchor home the Jamaican 4×100 to a victory in the USA vs. the World event. He won by a lot and looked damn good doing it. Further details of the other events that week have been greatly obscured.
A vernal wind is rolling in off the darkened cesspolluted banks of the Schukyll, whisking city refuse about the twisted form that is hobbling along the streets. Chipbags, candy wrappers, soiled toiletpaper dance and kiss about him like lost cohorts, gusted favorably so as to shadow something kindred. He seems not so much to move as to be moved, as though by the strings of a lazy puppeteer, across the empty windblown night from some ungodly origin and brought now to the step of the cheesesteak stand shutting down in front of Franklin Field. You getting ready for Bolt tomorrow? he asks the vendor as he approaches.
Speedy peers out from his stand, a shiny red cap with a stitched P glimmering atop his head. The shape before him is still but rumor by the faint moonlight. Something short and ill balanced, emanating a stench of alcohol and subway-piss from the leeward breeze.
I’m gettin ready for everyone, Speedy says.
The shape hobbles a step closer and when the streetlamp steadies Speedy can trace the lines of the figure. Skin that is darker than his own deep chocolate hue. Broken aviators which perch crookedly on a puff of wild unwashed hair. A tattered Phillies jacket bearing the old maroon eighties logo hangs over a bony frame. The figure seems not of a piece but rather a collection of garbaged tangibles, relics sought out from a collective runoff that was better left to run its rotting course undisturbed.
But Bolt’s the biggun, says the drunk. And comin here too. I ain’t never think I’d a see the day.
I sell cheesesteaks to everyone, Speedy says. He turns on the little faucet and collects water in the rag and then turns off the faucet and wipes down the bleached surfaces.
I’m talkin for your business and shit, man. I’m talkin, like, Bolt, man. They say he’s the fastest man on the planet. And we earned him, mayun. This city earned him. Dat’s the troof. You think for one second Bolt woulda come here four years ago? Forget that shit, mayun.
Bolt did come here four years ago, Speedy says, and pauses midrub to see the figure creep even closer to the stand. And five years ago too. He was on a Jamaican schoolboy relay team.
If the drunk hears any of this he gives no indication of it aside from a sharp twisting of his dirtied brow. As though the mere idea of admitted mistake, a reconsidered principle, was a preposterous implication to his tortured psyche. He tells Speedy quite simply that the advent of Bolt’s apotheosis is not only just but that it has brought meaning back to athletics and glory back to Philadelphia.
I mean take this city as of recent years, the drunk goes on. It earned that shit. Changes is goin down. Changes has gone down. Two straight pennants for the Phils. A black man in the White House. This city won rights to Bolt.
Speedy starts to inquire as to what one of those might have to do with the other but he stops himself silent and busies himself locking up the freezer.
Now tell me somethin son, the drunk slurs, and looks Speedy up and down with a disapproving smugness that seems eased by an apparent goodwill. Where was you on the night of the twentyninth of October, 2008?
I was right here.
The hell you doing here?
I wasn’t doin nothin but sellin cheesesteaks.
You was sellin cheesesteaks? The drunk pschooshes him and sucks his teeth. Lifts his brows, turns his chin in what amounts to a grimace. His voice takes on a highpitched whine before demuring into a terse, wicked, whistling teapot of a cough. Christ man. Do you know what happened in this city on the thirtyninth of October? Of 2008?
Not off top of my head, sir, naw. I don’t know no specific dates too well really. I could venture you a guess.
You could venture me a guess. Jesus H. Christ. Then how’d you know what you was doin?
Speedy scratches beneath his cap and then along his beard. His own fur of a dubious caretaking. The faintest hint of what might be silver probing at the edges of his mustache.
Cause I don’t do but one thing, he says.
Christ man. That was the night everything changed. That was the night that brought Bolt here. The night the Phils won the series.
He places his greasy palms on the tin counter, fingers a bag of unclaimed Lays dangling by the side. Up closer his stench is refined. Both whiskey and malt liquor to be distilled from within a liberal radii of his person.
I was right here, Speedy says. I listened to the whole thing on the radio. Afterwards the people came through the streets.
Youse damn straight they did, comes the guttural response. And he leans forward again so that his metal orbs all crazed and crossed seem to peer out at random angles, as though sighting in those atmospheres events of an equal and terrible exigency. Things only reckonable on a certain wavelength to which he alone is privy. Everything changed that night, he says. After that night we got pride. We got respect.
He proceeds to tell Speedy a story. It is a story of a city not only spited by fate but teased by the promise of it. In the year 1980 all four major Philadelphia sports teams won championships. This was a misjudgement of the deus ex machina according to the drunk. An importunate random coincidence. He said that most of the universe existed on a scale of equality which constantly corrected itself and that most of the twenty-eight years following 1980 were of just such a correction. A measuring of karma. To lose was not enough. The losses must be tortured ones, salted by glimmers of hope and promise. This promise manifested in the form of men. Men like Greg Jefferies. Men like Scott Rolen. Men like Dale Murphy. Men like Bobby Abreu. Men like Pat Burrell. And yet in each case an agony of failure swept the Delaware Valley with an increasing severity.
Ain’t that a bit harsh? Speedy says. Jefferies, Rolen, they were MVP candidates. And Burrell was just overhyped. Ain’t his own fault. We just wanted him to make J.D. Drew look bad.
The drunk says that men such as these are best left forgotten. That it doesn’t matter what stats they had or how they did at the plate or what they did in the clubhouse. No one cares and no one remembers if they have ever known. The Phillies did not exist in those years nor did the city, not truly. The twentyninth of October in 2008 marked not just the end of that period of nonexistence but the beginning of a new age. The creation of a thing which many of these present fans are too young to have ever been graced by had they been graced by it at all. All the years of failures and all the agents of those failures swept away by an 0-2 Brad Lidge splitter to Eric Hinske.
The burner has been long clean and Speedy finally ceases to rub its spotless exterior. He excuses himself and pulls down the gate over the counter and latches the gate to the metal U inside and then steps outside the stand and begins to arrange the padlock on the door. He then asks the drunk if the accomplishments of those who had gone before might not even be respected the greater due to their insignificance. That to perservere against impossible odds and without hope of the reward of glory demonstrated a respect for the Phillies uniform. For the sport itself. For the very idea of athletics in broad. For the qualities inherent in a true man which no situation regardless how adverse can exorcise.
We brought them sons of bitches here to win ball games, the drunk says. And we didn’t. That’s what you call failure. End of story.
Speedy eases shut the padlock to his stand and looks the drunk in the eye. Naught to see there save perhaps the same thoughtless degeneration which cohabitates with him the sweating backalleys and dumpster-shelters and oily forsaken cantinas and birdshat parkbenches he calls his home. Somewhere off in that vast city gone a train grumbles through the night.
You didn’t bring no one nowhere, Speedy says quietly. And you can’t talk bout failure like that. Like it only mean a single thing. I mean it ain’t the winning that counts. It’s how you do the winning. I mean you can’t judge failure by somethin like statistics. By somethin likes wins and losses. Failure ain’t math. It means more ‘n that. It means you’ve lost on the outside and lost on the inside, too. It’s about faith, man. Trust me, I can take but one look at some men and see whether they still believe in their cause and if they do they hasn’t failed. Not in my eyes they hasn’t. Don’t much matter if they don’t stand a chance at gettin done what they’s tryin to get done. Like could you really say that a man who dies tryin and protect his family from a killer – and can’t stop the killer in the end – is really a failure? Not in my mind he ain’t.
The drunk heaves into another great teapot coughing fit and Speedy shifts awkwardly beside his stand and looks off into the night, from road to shopwindow, scumworn alley to the sides of the scarred trees. Nearby the only sound is of beer cans rolling manless and hollow, lapping mercurial against curbsides like docked vessels in the tide. The two men stand there, two ragged men of the night, spokespersons of ancient causes, at a standstill amidst these darkened springtime hallows. After a time of Speedy jerks his head to the side.
Gotta catch a train, he says, and starts to move off.
The drunk holds a hand up and bends over again to his knees in the throes of a renewed fit. Speedy halts and then goes again and looks back and halts once more. The figure before him seeming at last barren of any thin skein of humanity he may have held claim to in a sunnier hour. The scourge of his life seeking expression with each wicked ejaculation from the depths of diseased bowels. Each round of coughing bends him double and when he straightens again he seems blacker yet, as though made by nature to be chameleon with the cruder night.
Another man, says the drunk, heaving in again. Another man might find that cough a mine staged. Another man might keep on walkin to wherever it is he’s suppose a go.
I ain’t another man, Speedy says.
I know it, says the drunk. You ain’t any kind a man I ever knew at all.
I wish that was true, says Speedy. He looks at his hairy wrist upon which there is no watch, but only the lightened skin that still remembers its sunless years. He starts walking and the drunk comes along.
They come to the corner of Walnut Street and and Speedy turns right and the drunk stumbles a correction to his course so that he may follow. They pass the ice skating center and the bank and the business towers that line the roads penultimate to center city. To the left they pass small alleys with porchlights and garbage bins standing plump and sedate on the curbedges. Off to the south the sidewalk drops off into old trainyards and empty lots that loom filthy and dangerous in the night. The lamplight burns orange on the walk and the drunk peers steadily at his companion.
Hey man, the drunk says. Hey man, now. I rec-erg-nize you, now.
I doubt it.
Fer real man, he says. I ain’t playin. You go to Overbrook High?
Speedy looks away. Looks off to darker side of the street. The stray cats peering yelloweyed like homeless lions into the night. The lights of the cars zipping away on the highway distant. I don’t deal no more, he says.
The drunk shucks his teeth.
Homie. I mean, homie. Cool it man. I mean just cool it, man. I seen your face before is all, man. Like in the newspaper. Fer track. Back in the day. What’s yer name man?
Speedy looks at the drunk closer. Squints by moonlight to perhaps reread something kindred in his eyes, something overlooked or gone unseen upon first appraisal. They continue down Walnut and under the train bridge to the stoplight at 30th. Two cars zip past. A small liquor store spills a ghastly working class glow out into the night. Atop the door a rusted sign says LIQUOR-SHOP-SNACKS-GOOD EALS with a busted out D. A Coca-Cola display is the predominant feature of the corner. Speedy looks around for oncoming traffic and then into the store and up at the starless sky and everywhere but the face of the reeking form at his shoulder.
Some people used to call me Speedy, he finally says.
It’s chill, it’s chill dog, says the drunk, and casts his ragged arms out before him as if to surrender any illdeed to Speedy’s plain sight. Hey man, listen. You got seventy cent?
Speedy digs from his pocket eighty-seven cents in change and puts it in the dry pink cup of the drunk’s proferred palm. His nails are untrimmed and long like a witch’s and curve from his bent fingers across the length of his hand. Speedy can hear the coins crackle against the scraggly keratin.
You got fortyfive more cent? the drunk asks.
No, says Speedy.
It’s chill, it’s chill.
The light changes and the drunk comes with Speedy across the street and towards the bridge. With a bend in the street they can see the river and the skyscrapers of center city beyond it. Great rectangles with rows and rows of lights extending back into lines like metal dominos. Infinite caverns and hollows to be read in the spaces between. At their foot the Schukyll runs black and strong in its cleaving of the city. The lamps along its bankpaths make a shimmer of its surfaces. Its depths plain and frightful in the empty darkness, tamed now by neither traffic nor sunlight.
Hey man, the drunk says. What ever happened to you? What’d you stop runnin for? You was good right?
Wasn’t never my choice to stop, Speedy says.
They walk in silence to where Walnut crosses 76. The drunk halts there, stands stock-still, his feet teetering off the curbedge and his ankles bent. As if he’d reached some border visible and applicable to him only.
Speedy looks to him and then tightens his coat around his neck. He nods forward. I’m this way, he says. I’ll see you later.
He walks a few steps. The drunk does not acknowledge his farewell in any shape. Then he calls out.
You ain’t got too much Philly pride, he calls, his voice seeming to whisper up from the streets, as if made of sentiments coagulated from the urban distances and reprised to his ear.
Does you, he calls again.
Speedy ignores him and walks ahead with a quickened gate. At this harried shuffle a favoring of his right leg is plain to see. Near the center of the bridge he turns.
The drunk stands beneath the blinking yellow traffic light. Lit at intervals and at intervals invisible so as to protect half the world half the time from that paupered nightmare. His eyes wordlessly and shapelessly monitor Speedy’s progress. He stands as if he has not spoken at all but rather is audience to something else altogether. Of his calling. To which he is but symbol and soothsayer and no more.
No one wears a redder cap than me, Speedy calls to him. We just ain’t rootin for the same thing. We sure as hell ain’t rootin for the same thing.
The drunk gives no indication that he has heard nor that he has even noticed Speedy turn. Speedy continues on to the night and does not look back again.
Now he moves along the streets alone as is his custom. His fists balled in the sidepockets of his jacket and the vicarcollar pulled up around his nape. The burning calentured embers of a city night brushing his coattails and carrying him forth. Though his speed betrays his catch it exudes a vigor altogether unknown to this part of town and to this time of night. The streets become pliable, bend to his will. Cars speed up to pass by him in the road. Bikers do not stop at stop signs and continue on with their helmeted heads down to the spokes of their wheels as if safeguarding their eyes from some harmful visage in that focus. Women cross the road to avoid close contact. Other haggard men approach him with all the diplomacy of a foreign delegate, eyes eager to seek armistice already at ten paces afoot, holding up their hands as if to disavow themselves of illdoing, spitting thick wads of mouthpoison to splat on the sidewalk and haggling for crack and pixie dust and mescaline and worse yet. An elderly genderless hunchback stooping in the lee of a stoop makes for a narrow alleyway from which it tracks his passing across the alleymouth. Turning its neck a full ninety-degrees in examination of Speedy. Its eyes set deeply back in the skull and black and unreadable beneath folds of ribbed flesh and a torn fedora. Movements which betray a certain prejudice, an unspoken suspicion. A city which fears him because he does not fear it.
At Rittenhouse Square a policeman casts his light across the dewy grass and follows Speedy’s movements with the temerity of a searchlight prowling the seas it has been charged with keeping. The white sphere of hallogen covers his back like a target until he moves out of range across 18th. The parkbenches are empty and beneath the white lamplights in the park moths aspire heavenward. Relentless, colliding, seeking to become undisturbed. Speedy tucks his fists closer together from within his jacket and tightens his shoulders and limpstrides on.
The PATCO is off of 16th street. By the little firered bannister heading underground there are camped a denizen of homeless on a ratty afghan unrolled to accommodate their streetwise flanks. Their eyes dimly ruminate something mirthworthy and a few them emit toothless and worn out bursts of sounds that could be construed as chuckling. As if fulfilling an ageless tradition or ritual the one nearest the entry holds up sullenly and hopelessly a foam cup in which chatter a few sad nickels and pennies. Speedy finds a dollar bill in his wallet inside his coatpocket and craftily fingers it free of the fold, for the open air is a pathogen to displayed currency that you do not seek to give away. He drops the proffered dollar into the foam cup.
God bless you, the homeless manages, and a small impoverished chorus echoes, echoes his footfalls down the long dank stairway and into the hollow keepings of the subway. The hall at the foot of the stairs is long and well lit and tenanted by nothing save an overstuffed trash can that spills haphazard from its appointed nook into the hall. Onelegged pigeons and blind pigeons and tarstained pigeons and pigeons without toes forage therein. Some follow him partway down the hall to the next set of steps yet lose their ambition when he turns back to regard them. Expressionless, oiled, sweating. As if they too had come to see whatever it was the aboveground had seen in him, judging him accordingly better left companionless.
The PATCO train is huffing and hissing in wait and the platform stands dusty and cavernous smelling and absent of a single soul. On board there are a few drunk college girls huddled together in the back laughing about something and when Speedy comes aboard they cease their laughter. As if his presence had brought with it a gust of something to water all fires of mirth. He limps quickly to a seat near the front and lays his head back upon the plastic pukecolored headrest and lets out a deep sigh over his beard and shuts his eyes.
When he wakes again a young man is across the aisle from him wearing a Hamels jersey and eyeing him with a kind of drunken fraternal appreciation, as though they had each come through some kindred struggle though from a source disparate. Speedy touches the brim of his bright red hat as is his custom with all whom look his way without animosity.
Sup, the man says. Now that he speaks Speedy can tell that he is hardly more man than boy. Faint adolescent glimmers of a mustache peach the skin atop his upper lip. His youthful eyes are glazed over in a way that bespeaks the twilight of a long and satisfying inebriation. Yet even about this manboy there lingers that aura of refuse, excess – a crushed beercan and a halfeaten sub lie tossed on the floor before him.
Go Phils, yeah? the manboy says.
Mm-hm, Speedy nods. Go Phils.
Punchdrunk, whiskeydrunk, the girls had moved up to the foyer of the shuttering doors and stand now in the access way whiteknuckling the rails with both hands. Their eyes worn and languid and looking out the plastic window at the subtarranean unknowables flashing past. One of them smiles timidly at Speedy and he tips his cap to her in much the same manner.
You out at a party? the boy inquires.
Naw, says Speedy. I been workin.
Where dya work at?
I got myself a cheesesteak stand.
Oh yeah? You got good steaks?
Best in town.
Best in town? What about Pat’s and Geno’s?
Speedy chuckles. You don’t wanna ask me about no Pat’s and Geno’s, he says.
What, says the boy. Why?
Cause they’s made out of cardboard, Speedy says. Plastic cheese, cardboard bread, paper-frozen patties. You can go to a bowling alley outside Death Valley and find yourself better cheesesteaks than what they got there. People only go there cause they lights is bright. People only go lots of places cause the lights is bright. But let me ask you this, does bright lights feed yo soul? Not last I checked they doesn’t.
In diatribe beyond a few pairs of words the boy’s attention is lost. Lost, wandering to the exposed thighs of the girls standing with whiteknuckled grips on the poles in the doorway, back to the black square in his palm that is his phone and too much more, to the musty cellar depths of the ratridden underground zipping by the window.
So how is business? the boy eventually asks, thumbing his square, plugging the white umbilical of a headphone into his ear opposite Speedy. At this stand of yours?
It’s about okay, Speedy says. This is the best time of year for things.
When’s the worst?
New Years, he says. New Years is the worst time. Erryone looks at me like I done something wrong to ‘em. Like my just standing there flipping them steaks was some kind of an offense. It usually lasts about a week and then either the smell gets to bein too good or their fitness club memberships run out or some such and they come on the hell back. Like wild. Late January is wild. Everyone makin up for pretendin to be dedicated to somethin.
The boy grins. The train stops at 8th and Market and the girls trickle out and onto the platform and the train moves on. Soon out the window the long brackish seaplain of the Delaware River emerges into sight, and the train clatters onto the Ben Franklin Bridge. Aqueous spires spotted with tiny bright bulbs tease the starless skies above. To the north the lights of Philadelphia glimmer in dancing coins upon the black water. Ahead the eastern banks of New Jersey are lined with dark trees, offering dim adumbration to the world without end beyond.
Those were some pretty pretty girls, says the boy. And one of um was smiling your way too.
I don’t really understand women all too well, Speedy says quietly.
Ain’t nothing to understand, the boy says. They’re just like you and me. All you gotta do is make um laugh. You make a woman laugh and she’ll more’n likely forgive you the rest.
That what you think?
It ain’t much a matter of what I think, says the boy. Just happens to be the way it is. And it’s not even just me. Marilyn Monroe said that shit. He goes silent for a time. Why do you think there’s some women out there that fall in love with murderers?
Like who? I don’t know. Let’s say Bonnie, for instance. Nice old country girl like her. Why’d she fall in love with a murderer?
Cause the murderers ain’t so bad on the inside?
Nope, says the boy. That’s not it at all. It’s cause murderers or not, they happen to have a damn good sense of humor. Or at least they got whatever it is that can tickle a lady the right direction. And so does any old jackass.
The train slows as it plummets beneath the surface and approaches the City Hall-Camden stop. Speedy stands. Night, he says.
At the doorway he turns back. I don’t think that’s true, you know. About women and laughter and all that.
The boy nods. Yes you do.
And he slips through the doors before they shut with a snake’s hiss.
Again the night has featured him an empty platform. He stands there as the train recoups and lumbers away, the tempo of its shrill machinations gathering decibels with its speed. Distant amphoric echoes chartering its egression. For a time he listens to the rattle and the shake and takes deep breaths and thinks about his night. He has a sudden urge to see his image in a mirror, if only to put to rest the visage of the drunk gnawing a cavity in his core. The air is heavy with the taste of nickels. He watches the subway walls for a time, lost perhaps in some perverse reverence. Supplicant to the empty black. Soundless now save for the pitterpatter of vermin scurrying to safety. Of roaches invisible, inevitably lurking, clicking their arthropodic beat in the scarcer places. Here in America by urban midnight.
At the foot of the stairs a man lies on the cement, couchant and grinning and looking about with all the levity of a boy watching television. He smiles a mirthless smile through a grimesoaked and pale visage. Something distinctively dungeon-like in his cadaverous complexion. As though this had been the place he had been born and the place he had died and therefore the place to which his spectral soul was henceforth quarantined. He stands and pulls out a pistol and levels it at Speedy as he comes up the stairs.
Bang, he says, and pulls the trigger. Bang. Bang. Hollow clicks echo the empty staircase. Bang.
Speedy limpstrides up the steps quick out into the night and though the man turns with him he does not follow across the threshold out of doors.
Market Street Camden is ill-lit and peopled by denizens and drugdealers and other troubled figures with no right purpose to their late evening wanderings. People beaten by the earth, frowning at alleyways, shouting out to the night to no one at all. Men plopped on buckets with forties of Olde English between their knees call out to him as he passes and he does not turn, does not turn. A cloud of hooded figures struts near the intersection with 4th, animosity beading from their darkened forms, and Speedy keeps a steady gaze to the street before him.
The night the police found him the Sixers had just dropped game five to the Lakers in the 2001 Finals. Shattered beer bottles betokened Rittenhouse Square, blood from failure-fueled brawls sprinkled the walk. He was lying facedown in the icysheathed grass without a blanket, whispering incoherables to the lunar soil. Almost laughing, manic-crazed in his depravity. Sir, the police had said. Sir. You are going to have to come with us, sir.
And Speedy had leapt up, full for a moment of zane and power. Oh holy lordy holy, he’d said, seeing the two navyblue officers. Praise be to Saint Judas. And then he took off at an impossible limp-run across the park. A dash towards what no one could guess. In moments he was down again, a knee in the small of his back, cold silver cuffs tight on his wristveins. Praise be to Saint Judas, he’d said again and again. Praise be to that fucking bastard.
He heads down Fifth and past the Tabernacle of Faith and makes a right on Lawrence. There he finds the sleeping cranny between the window well and the dumpster left undisturbed. He peels back the ragged little curtain and slides into the ruffled spread of dried leaves and newpapers and then slowly pulls the curtain back across the opening.
Once inside and settled he is warm. From the depths of his jacket he takes a wrapped cheesesteak and a halfempty gallon of water and sets them both in his lap. He unfolds the cheesesteak and takes a ketchup packet from his pocket and squirts the contents evenly across the steak. The steak has gone cold and the water when he slurps it is near tepid. Still it is a good meal. I know how to appreciate a good meal, Speedy grumbles to himself, thinking All this night spent lookin for a mirror. As he sits there chomping he watches through the interstices of the ragcloth the lights of the bridge flickering against the black framework of the night. He listens to the foghorn of the freighter sounding off as it passes beneath the trestles of the Ben Franklin. In the distance voices and shouts, sirens wailing. Darker places go sleepless.
The next morning instead of going straight to his stand Speedy walks on down to see the schoolbuses arrive near Chestnut. The disembarkment of a hundred leanjawed youths into a mist of CO2 and sunshine. Eyes steely and straightfacing, some with headphones bobbing subtle and serious to a wartime tune. Teams come in clumps of matching colors, a spectral arc of colliding armies marching to a battlefield commons. He sits there for a long time, thinking and still. Cruder thoughts pass him by unreckoned.
Her name is Jill and he has seen her before. Speedy remembers everything that has ever happened at his stand. But they happen in his mind not in a chronological line but in a swirling globe, from which what has gone past is to be plucked for purview without bias as to its when. A day ago or a year ago, says Speedy’s vendor memory. That is specificity. She comes to the stand the same as she did that time past. Tangerine and white warmups, blazing round eyes of amber. Smooth windswept features. The peeled back forehead, the slick nearperfect brown ponytail which leaves but a single hair left to dangle in the wind by her nape. Possessing a sort of narrow angularity which suggests constant forward movement, conditioned by days to pass the earth by in a slipstream: a runner.
Hi, she says, and smiles. I’ll take a chayeese steak with some onions, and some…some greens.
He slaps the steak on the burner, dashes oil upon it to let it sizzle, digs out a horde of vegetables from the freezer. I seen you, he says to her.
Her smile broadens, travels up her face to dimple her cheeks and light her eyes and prick her ears as she does so. I know you have, she says. Behind her the crowds have gridlocked the walkway, people swing wide to rush past the stand on their way to the stadium. The line strings back across the walk and up to the grass. The crowds carry with them the smell of Philadelphia springtime, oil and pollen and antiseptic with a hint of cityreek, all of it tempered by the chill of the latemorning air.
You done already run, Speedy says.
Thursday night. I won the 5k.
And you come back to watch Bolt.
My team’s in the sprint med final. You know. The Championship of America. But yeah. Her words seem to savor their slow exit from her lips, a sweet tea southern drawl. Behind her the line has continued to grow. He can see them endless, he can see them standing about and fidgeting and suspiring like panting canines, staring past the girl at Speedy’s now slow hands with something approaching fury. All of them come to see the fastest man alive run one quarter of one lap and no more.
You ain’t none too old, Speedy says. Is you.
I’m a sophomore.
Yeah, Speedy says. He slices the finished steak in two and puts it on a paper plate and hands it to her. And you ain’t never lost a race, has you.
Not since middle school. No.
I could just tell. Goddamnit to hell. I could just tell.
How much I owe you?
Goddamnit to hell. You don’t owe me nothin.
Well how’s that?
I mean that you don’t owe me nothin. Shit.
She blushes, for a moment it appears as though her face has widened, full and healthy now from its streamlined structure, from its hollow and caved singlepurposed form. She dumps a crumpled ten dollar bill from her fist into his tip jar.
Hey, she says. Are you going to watch the meet?
Speedy tilts his cap back slightly on his skull, his face lit and his eyes scrunched by a mirthless grin. Naw, he says. Goddamnit to hell.
She picks a broccilli from the steak and pops it in her mouth, her lips a perfect oval. She is backing away now, backing away into the wall of the crowd. Before him a man in a suit is ordering but Speedy does not hear him. You should come, she says, melting limb by limb back to the rest of them. Come sit with me in the top row.
A breath later the morning takes her.
A wiz wit? demands the suit before him. Speedy only stares. Behind him the line has grown, the men sending quick anxious glances to the girl with her food and back to the stand again with a quck snap of the neck, as if it should dissapear if not kept under proper surveillance. Well?
Speedy does not look up and begins absently collecting materials for the steak. He places the bread on the burners and lays out the meat on the paper like it were the sandwich. He almost gets to the point where the onions would have been added. That is how far he gets. Then he drops the contraption altogether on the burner and walks out of the stand, barks and growls of the expectant chasing his footsteps till they know not how to distinguish him from the rest.
Never before has he entered this stadium as a fan and a fan only. In those years gone by since he last set foot within he has seen much: the long and slow despair of age, the perpetual repeopling of his youthly hallows, the fading of his dreams like objects in a nighttime wind, gusting away and passing into the ever-dark. His life has become a game of waiting and watching and clutching, clutching to that which the wind did not blow away entire, that which stuck upon the sides of buildings or caught in the gaps of the trees or came to rest gentle and forever against the curbside cobblestones. Glimmers that to him were and are signs. He read of it in papers, of how a girl collapses from heat stroke and crawls on her hands and knees a hundred yards to finish a race, of how the most mediocre of mediocre backup junior college shortstops swings a pinch hit double long after the game has been decided, of the long and constant fury burning alive still in saintly young people who have been fated (ever since whatever level of play made them obsolete) to be hidden in plain sight. It is for this that he would enter the stadium, as a fan and a fan only, because where else if not on the track does that noble and enduring silent fight of martyrs live on? Where else do men and women, boys and girls, compete so absolutely and without any thought whatever as to the glory accorded their superiors? Yet here the pain is too acute, here when the cold swells of the drunk’s manic-mob philosophy and séance gather citywide, from Kensington to Tinicum and Chinatown to Olde City, to crash over the stately brick barracks of Franklin Field, Speedy simply cannot watch. And so for seventeen years he has not. Never for seventeen years has he entered as fan and as fan only.
When the guards see him they move aside, and with an almost deferential air wave him on to the concourse. Inside the air is heavy. Waves of sodasyrup and piss, and the ancient peppermint oils used to stay bleacherfated hamstrings, and now this new reek, this new collective reek of 50,000 new fans of track and field, flowing by in all shapes and sizes in a mad disrhythm. It moves as a thing disjointed, in constant offbeat, bound by random chance to collide upon itself like a curling snake stuffed in a tiny box. Limpstriding, his eyes on the ankles before him, Speedy enters this flow. Here immediately to be consumed: the concrete sticky and musty, slipping along the rough spongy wet brick of the halls, deafened by the raucous, incoherable chants rising above the general clamor. Hot dogs and saltfries and funnel cakes and sports drinks passed and consumed and clutched amongst and within the moving mass. Sun speckles the mass from high windows and other narrow portals but the corridor is dim, illuminated faintly by wall lamps and night lights. Tunneled breezes blow the trash into dustdevils which swirl above, unreachable and appearing and fading within the same instant. The crowd moves as an entity, obscuring all else without, the sounds of the city, of horns blaring and traffic rolling and the heady din of a metropolis made mute beneath its gathering genesis. Blocks of humanity clot vital organs of the structure, clustering about the concessions and the restrooms and the part of the concourse which leads to the paddock area where the athletes gather before they race. There is no way to see stadium or the world outside the stadium but only the passageway between. Fans stopper the exits to the seats. And it is only with his earthy-dumpster aroma clearing away those who idle too near that Speedy finds himself finally back in the sunlight and at the rail, and the lithe young bodies gliding by in lanes on the track below, arms pumping and striding fluidlike with earnest sharp breaths and toes touching down upon the tracksurface like antelope.
Jill is in the top row above the high jump pit, well under the rafters and sitting a few rows displaced from the tangerine and white conglomeration of her school below. She does not act surprised at the sight of him nor does she greet him. There he is, she says when Speedy sits down beside her, pointing towards the endzone of the infield below. He just did a strider. He just waved to the crowd.
Not a patch of seats has been left vacant in the entire stadium. It is a throbbing mob, its heartbeat sufficient to quake the very earth, to make dizzy the old stately clocktower ruminating against the blue sky those events to which it plays unwitting host. Speedy follows Jill’s finger to where Bolt is crouching now, stretching, gesturing with his relaymates. About him bustle the others. Those to which Speedy can recognize just as he recognized Jill: Walter Dix, Shawn Crawford, Nesta Carter, Richard Thompson and more. They stand and stretch and stride like Bolt, unnamed hulks of power and runningback-like flesh who but lurk in the shadow of the tall and wiry Jamaican.
They are finishing the last of the 4×200’s and Speedy puts his hand on Jill’s shoulder and tells her: he sees beauty made obsolete by flashy shadows, shallowness, the haunting stride of something unearthly and the thousands which will mimic it in turn, mimicked without thought or consideration of themselves. He asks her if any great art has ever come of an artist who created art for the sole purpose of becoming another artist.
Then why did you come here today, she asks. Why didn’t you just tell me no? Why didn’t you stay in your stand? Have you come here for Bolt?
I can’t say I know, Speedy says. I think I maybe just wanted you to know. Just in case one day you lose a race. That there’s more. And also I wanted to be here to see it all die, once and fer all.
See what die?
Now the entire stadium stands and so do Jill and Speedy, as if pulled up by the sheer inertia of the crowd. The announcer is calling out the names of the relay teams for the USA vs. the World 4×100. He lists each runner’s accomplishments, his voice merely seeming to propel the decibel of the crowd as if up a ladder, proceeding inevitably to the crescendo of Bolt. Speedy looks at the track. There stands Dix, there stands Bailey, there stands Mario Forsythe. All of them getting themselves crouched in their stagger, flattening their sunglasses, kicking out their legs high to the sky. Two American teams, two Jamaican, and one from Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Germany. The first time the official calls set he waves off the start and the announcer comes on the loudspeaker againLadies and gentlemen in order for the race to begin fairly we must ask for your silence and then they are lined up again and called to set and an unnatural soundlessness comes over the earth. Arms long and rippling with gleaming muscles set firm into the track. Backs arched, eyes to their fingers set along the start line, sweat trickling to make tiny dots on the earth, the sun now finally brilliant and full in the midday sky. There comes the chomping of distant jowls working on popcorn, the slurp of soda, a pair of shoes scuttling on the concrete and a dull sneeze. There are shouts from the concourse within the bowels of the stadium, meaningless echoes. The gun sounds
Do you understand me, he is asking her, his eyes shielded from the sun and the reflection of the sun from track. He screams to hear himself above the roar. Glory ain’t the only thing that an athlete becomes and he don’t just go from bein nonglory to glory. Just like a boy don’t just go straight from bein a boy to bein a man. They’s steps. You ain’t white one second and black the next and it ain’t just gray that’s in between. They’s glory, yeah. That’s part a it. But then there’s the next step.
Flawlessly and seamlessly the planet’s fastest men exchange the batons, but two strides between the leader and last place as the staggered start is made up. Going into the final turn the American Crawford and the Jamaican Anderson are near even. Bolt is handed the baton a half step off the lead.
From his vantage diagonally across the track Speedy can only just make out the details of the handoff, the yellowgreen singlet immediately ahead, immediately drawn a step to the lead. The others dash at his heels and rearrange their places yet they are in a different race. Bolt does not just run, with that manic whitetoothed focus, rather he is pulled, pulled by the string of an attentive and infinitely powerful puppeteer, one who has decided finally and absolutely to be the arbiter of the relay. And as Bolt approaches the finish Speedy sees in him all the godlike smoothness of his gait. The transfusion of energy from muscle to muscle as he touches earth for an unseeable instant before departing again: the ripple in his calves going up to his hamstrings, to his biceps and to his jaw, settling finally in his eyes a raw power, a joy unknown. He flies untouched, but phantom to history. Unofficially the split for his 100 meter leg is 8.79 seconds. They announce this sometime later, when he is jogging about, when flowers rain from the crowd upon his shining skull, when reporters dash from their trackside holdings trailing wires and stray notes, when the Jamaicans and Americans alike in the crowd have united to this sight entirely inexplicable, this sight unseen. And during all of this Speedy remains standing, rooted and wordless beside the undefeated girl in tangerine and white, staring at the spot in the middle of the final straightaway with something like a dreamlike smile.