As a kid, I was a hell-raiser. I don’t know why; I just was. My folks didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t have any friends. I flunked out of school. Girls wouldn’t come near me. The only thing I could do was run. It kept me alive and out of jail when I was living on the street. The gangs, the cops – no one could catch me.
Once when I was eighteen and needed cash, I entered a 5K for the purse. Why not? It was easy money. I beat a couple Kenyans and a preppy white kid with expensive shoes. Everyone was pissed because they had to write a check to a tattooed delinquent with a rap sheet. Made my day.
That was the start of my running career. The more I ran, the more I liked it. After a while, the money didn’t matter. I ran for the hell of it. I ran roads and trails. I ran the canal towpath, racing boats from lock to lock. I raced cars down Elmwood Avenue. I ran a hundred miles a week and still needed more.
I discovered marathons and upped my mileage. I ran across New York State in three days. I ran the Appalachian Trail in three weeks. I trained for two months on Pikes Peak and won the Boston Marathon without breaking a sweat. I ran ultras across Death Valley and over the Rockys.
My metabolism changed. I slept less, ate more, lost weight. I did Denali on a lark, in crampons and a Spandex body suit. I ran up Everest with a Sherpa on my back. My chest grew larger, my legs sinewy. My toenails fell off.
I needed space. I craved vistas. I hit the road and followed the sun. Somewhere in South Dakota, where the prairie meets the sky, I saw a cloud of dust on the horizon and ran it down. A herd of Pronghorn, running like hell for god knows where, like a single creature with a thousand legs, shredding the Indian Grass and throwing up clods of earth in their wake. I worked my way into the pack and matched their pace, deafened by their thunder, tasting their hot misted saliva. There were hundreds, thousands – more than I could count.
I’d forgotten how.
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It was not what people think of as a breakdown. No emotional display, no dramatics. One day at the office – a stressful day, but not especially so – he just stopped functioning.
His therapist advised him to take up a hobby. So he started building things. Little things at first, with toothpicks and glue. Miniature chairs and tables and cabinets two inches tall with doors that swung on rice paper hinges. It seemed to mute the chaos around him. If he happened to look up from a project, he might glimpse his youngest daughter in her high chair across the table, face red, eyes streaming, mouth wide. He’d know she was howling about something or other, but it wouldn’t bother him like before.
He switched from toothpicks to Popsicle sticks. He built houses the size of shoe boxes, with cellophane windows and aluminum foil shingles. Good, his therapist said, you’re making progress. When his wife came home from work to find him digging in the yard, she called the police. But a man can’t be arrested for digging in his yard. Or for buying lumber and nails, or for building a tiny house in the back corner of his lot when located within property line setbacks. Or even for working round the clock without eating or sleeping, unless he is a danger to himself or others.
The day he finished tar-papering the roof and she left with the kids, he stood in the center of his tiny house with his arms outstretched and was able to just barely brush the walls and ceiling with his fingertips, and it felt like home.
# # #
The first time I met my wife’s family, her Italian grandmother cornered me in the kitchen of her decaying Albany Victorian and jabbered at me in her native tongue for half an hour, wringing her hands and clutching her breast and moaning in tearful supplication. She was a small woman, with missing teeth, deep-set pale blue eyes, and a face like the dark, cracked leather of my father’s old briefcase.
After she released me, I asked my wife what she’d said.
“Her second son bit her while nursing and the wound sprouted a growth like a stalk of garlic and the doctor – this was back in the old country – wanted to cut it off, but she wouldn’t let him, and she healed herself with a poultice made of mud and herbs. She tells everyone that story.”
When it was time to go, the grandmother led us outside and into her tiny back yard. She bent down and plucked a weed from the ragged patch of lawn, wrapped it carefully in a white handkerchief and handed it to me, talking the whole time.
“What was that all about?” I asked as we drove off.
“You can make tea from it,” my wife said. “It’s good for your nerves. Calms your stomach. Soothes the soul.”
I laughed. “I have bourbon for that.”
We never made the tea. I don’t know what happened to the weed the old lady gave us. I don’t remember what it looked like, or what she called it. She’s long gone.
So’s my marriage.
I have my own place now, out in the country. A big house and a beautiful yard. A stretch of green like a golf course fairway. But lately, I’ve noticed weeds cropping up here and there.
I’ve picked some and made tea.
It tastes like shit.
# # #
My father used to work with isotopes created in an atomic pile located in a lead-lined bunker beneath building 27B in Kodak Park. This may or may not have had anything to do with the strange affliction he developed in his sixties, after he retired and moved upstate to the ranch house in Glens Falls.
The genetic switch that tells epithelial cells to form keratin went haywire; my father’s skin gradually morphed in to a material with the consistency of fingernail. At the beginning, he took pleasure in being impervious to mosquito bites. But as the disease progressed, he lost flexibility. If he moved too quickly, his skin would crack. Fortunately, the proliferation of keratinous bundles crowded out nerve endings; pain was not an issue. He’d simply patch the gaps with duct tape and carry on. Eventually, however, the cracks began to seal overnight, leaving him trapped in a rigid exo-skeleton every morning.
I left my job in Rochester and moved in with him. Every day at 7 a.m., I brought him breakfast in bed, which consisted of black coffee and a protein shake in two separate Camelbak hydration packs. He sipped on these while I scored his joints with an X-ACTO Knife. Once he was up and active, he stayed reasonably limber – as long as he kept moving. One afternoon he made the mistake of taking a call from my notoriously talkative sister. I found him an hour later, standing in the living room with the phone to his ear, stiff as stone. My sister was still yammering as I pried the phone from his hand. He never lost his sense of humor; as I pulled out the X-ACTO, he whispered “oil can” from behind unmoving lips, reprising one of our favorite scenes from the Wizard of Oz. “Oil can what?” I replied, scoring his jaw line so he could smile.
He enjoyed trips to the Crandall library and the Hyde Museum. Sometimes we ventured up to Lake George village and took in the view from the Million Dollar Beach. If the drive was longer than 10 minutes, we’d stop and walk around so that he could loosen up. We often dined at the nearby Friendly’s, where the wait staff knew him well and would kid around by tapping out old Sinatra tunes on the carapace covering his shoulders. He seemed to enjoy this – despite the disturbing wet resonance of the sound – and always guessed the right song. Or so he was led to believe.
Eventually the keratinization of his skin became so aggressive, I couldn’t keep up. I had to move him to the Glens Falls Hospital, where they were able to maintain a few key openings through hourly treatments with a diamond-tipped drill. The shell encasing him became pure and lustrous and nearly transparent. Toward the end I could see muscles and veins and the pulsing of his heart.
He’d always been an active man, and I knew he wasn’t happy with his situation. We watched movies and listened to music together. I read to him and tapped out tunes on his chest for old times’ sake. When he developed breathing problems, the doctors put him on a ventilator. I stayed up with him all that night and toward dawn asked for his advice. He couldn’t talk at that point; couldn’t whisper or even blink. But his eyes watched me through sealed, translucent lids, and told me what to do.
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