Wednesday, 2 March 2016

How Many Roads

Adam called her the Albino Jogger and she ran by the house at 6:23 a.m. each day, give or take a minute. If it was a workday and if all was well, Adam would be on the concrete landing outside the front door sipping coffee and having his first smoke. Sometimes in a parka and Sorels and stretchy gloves he’d cut the fingers out of himself. Sometimes in hospital pants he somehow convinced his father to lift from Toronto Western and whatever T-shirt he’d worn to bed. Once, during a heat-wave, he stood out there in boxers that, he discovered later, were the boxers he had intended to turn into a rag, he had turned into a rag, a change in purpose he’d signified by ripping a hole in the crotch, a hole he’d failed to recognize maybe because of the hangover or the swelter or maybe just because one of his roommates had put the rag back with his underwear when they found his laundry in the dryer and did him the favour by folding it all, which was nice, but which meant when he woke up feeling all swollen and strange and unable to open his eyes, when he struggled even to find the drawer handle and could barely wriggle his bare ass into the boxers, he certainly wasn’t going to recognize that the bunched up feeling he had between his legs was because his junk was hanging out of this rag that was, currently, functioning as crotch-less boxers. It was a good thing the Albino Jogger never turned her head towards him. That morning anyway.
Except in the very coldest weather, the Albino Jogger wore white running shoes that looked to Adam like Asics, white skintight jogging Capris, what Adam had decided after careful scrutiny must be short white bike shorts in place of underwear, a white tank-top, a white sports bra and a white head band. Against the winter, which turned her bursts of breath into vapour, she wore a furry white headband and a white coat that had horizontal puffy bars that reminded Adam of the Michelin man or a cloud.
And if the Albino Jogger wasn’t albino, she had a surprisingly small amount of pigment.
On the occasion of their one-year anniversary, Adam raised his coffee cup to her and she spit, though presumably without seeing him.
After Adam started dating Linda, he gradually spent more and more nights at her much nicer apartment. Eventually, he would just go to work from there. Linda was a fortune-teller who would sometimes wrap a colourful scarf with a fringe of circular mirrors around her head sit on the street beside a small folding table and a deck of Tarot Cards. She told people she was a Gypsy because, “They wouldn’t even know what I meant if I said Roma, and besides no one really wants a Czech lady reading their cards.” Linda encouraged Adam to quit smoking. He was down to one a day, which he still liked to have with his coffee. He was out on Linda’s balcony in a pair of plaid pajama pants that Linda had bought him when the Albino Jogger ran down the alleyway beyond the back fence. Adam spilled his coffee as he ran, with burning cigarette into Linda’s bedroom to check the red numbers on her bedside clock. 6:32.
He exhaled, impressed. If he walked to Linda’s place, he liked to leave himself twenty or twenty-five minutes. Adam walked over to his bedside table, stuck his lit cigarette in his mouth and reached down to pick up his watch. 6:35. Still, he thought. With a great rustling of sheets Linda rolled over. Adam suddenly saw the smoke rising from his cigarette and backed out of the room waving his arms in an attempt to get the smoke to come with him. At breakfast that morning, Linda asked if he could smoke further from the sliding doors because the smoke was really starting to permeate the apartment.
Adam started having his coffee and cigarette at 6:25. He would sit out there enjoying the air until he heard the Albino Jogger coming up the lane. He smiled when she passed the neighbour’s pine tree and he could see her. Some mornings she would have to jog in place to wait for this or that car, whose driver would usually stop the vehicle so the Albino Jogger could pass in the narrow space between the side mirror and Linda’s wooden fence.
Even after Adam finally quit smoking he would drink his coffee out back for the fresh air and the sight of her.
When Adam and Linda broke up, Adam had a rough patch. He applied for a police foundations program. After being accepted, he moved to a spacious apartment in a grand old building out by the college. Near the end of August he started running on a path along the lake. He wanted to get a head start on training for fear that his terrible physical condition would ostracize him from his likely much younger and fitter classmates. Adam pushed himself so hard on the second Saturday morning that he vomited into a hedge separating a rusting children’s playground in the backyard of a building from the blue-black asphalt of the running path and the breakwater’s freshly quarried rocks.
He sat down on the nearest bench and rinsed his mouth with water from his bottle. His eyes teared ferociously. He saw a white figure come towards him in a familiar rhythm. He tried to blink back the tears, tried to wipe them away, but she had rounded a bend before he could be sure it was the Albino Jogger. He wasn’t wearing a watch.
When Adam got back home, he made himself a coffee and used Google maps to trace his route, trying to figure out how far the hedge was from his apartment. No matter how accurately he placed the route’s line, he couldn’t get that hedge further than 6.2 km from his front door.
Then he created a route from his old apartment to the hedge, wondering if the Albino Jogger could possibly be running such a serious route each day. The hedge was at least 15 km from his old apartment. He decided that, if it was her, this must be a special weekend route.
Each Saturday after that, Adam ran past that hedge and each Saturday it got easier. He tried leaving his house at different times and once, on a cold November morning, he even tried sitting on the bench and waiting for her, but the Albino Jogger never came back, or maybe had never been there at all.
Adam was considered one of the fittest members of his cohort and he consistently finished in the top three in their long distance runs. He would even, once he finished, run back along the route to encourage the stragglers.
When he joined the gun club, it was because he wanted to get a head start on his classmates and on all the other candidates for the few jobs on nearby police forces. He started going every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoon. After his Sunday practice, he’d have a beer in the restaurant of the hotel across the street. Diane was one of the servers there and by June of Adam’s first year of the police foundations program, they were dating. She would join him on his Saturday jogs. They would get caffeine-free Americanos and a croissant from a new café near by, then drink their coffees and split the croissant on the bench near the hedge where Adam had vomited last summer.
It was there, with Diane, that Adam saw the Albino Jogger again. Only this time she was jogging with a handsome Asian guy, an East Asian guy, probably Chinese. She was covered in colour, too. The Asics logos on her shoes were cool pink fading into neon green, the shoe’s body covered in grey green splatter; her Capris were light blue with a yellow stripe starting wide at her hip and tapering to nothing just above her knee; the tight tank top pressing against her breasts was orange with reflective silver tiger stripes; her headband was a purple that might have been loud as part of a different outfit. The colours offset her unbelievably light hair and skin in a surprising way. Adam felt like he was seeing an old friend and he was thrilled when her blue eyes landed on him and held him for a second before leaping to Diane. Her mouth twitched with some change of feeling, then her companion said something and she laughed. Adam looked into his coffee, which was cooling with the lid off.
“What’s wrong,” Diane asked.
“Stop asking me that,” Adam said.
Adam looked up. The Albino Jogger and her companion had disappeared around a bend.
“So what do you think?” Diane asked.
“About what?”
“Were you even listening?”
Adam took a deep breath. He’d been feeling angrier lately. He looked at the lake and imagined pitching his decaf Americano into the water. Another deep breath took some of the edge off his anger. “I’m sorry. I was distracted.”
“Obviously. Do you know those people who ran by?”
“Nah. The woman’s just someone I used to see a lot.”
“Does she have . . . what’s that condition?”
“Oh. Maybe. I was thinking about that thing Michael Jackson had.”
“Oh. Vitiligo.”
“Yeah yeah. You’re so good. How did you remember that?”
Adam laughed a bit.
“What?” Diane asked, leaning against his shoulder.
“I’ve got it on my balls.”
“Come on.”
“I’m surprised you never noticed.”
“Balls are gross. I try my best to ignore them.”
Diane asked Adam again about whether he would want to take a trip with her. Maybe fly down to Florida or Cuba or somewhere south during his reading week. “I’ll pay for it,” she said. Adam worked part-time still, but he was supported largely by his mother.
Adam wasn’t sure. “Um,” he started.
His search for what to say next was interrupted by a guy racing along the path in worn, loose sneakers, baggy jeans, ball cap and a T-shirt that still had some flecks of what was once an ornate network of gold ink covering most of the material. The guy jingled as he went by. One of the teenagers who worked at the coffee shop was chasing after him, too out of breath at this point to be shouting anything about, “Stop that man,” but his determination told Adam that he should stop that man. The guy was fast, but Adam was faster. They were on a stretch of the path where there were no grassy patches, so when Adam tackled the guy, they landed on interlocking bricks out front of a row of posh new condo townhouses whose façades were designed to make them look old.
“My fucking hands,” the guy said. One finger was dislocated. Adam turned away. The guy tried to kick Adam off him, but the exhaustion or the fall had rendered the guy’s legs extremely weak. “Okay. Fuck. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh my God, thank you. Thank you,” the teenager from the coffee shop said to Adam.
Nobody seemed to know what to say then. Adam, the guy and the teenager just breathed heavily while a crowd gathered. The guy was looking up at the sky and started moaning a little. His breath smelled like malt liquor, sleep and stale smoke. The teenager was hanging his head, exhausted. Diane was standing near by, holding the two cups of coffee and half-eaten croissant. Adam smiled at her, though he was disappointed not to see the Albino Jogger and her companion in the assembled crowd—just some tiny, fluffy dogs with old people in Tilley hats and children with their parents.
The guy coughed.
“Okay,” Adam said. “So what happened?”
“He’s got our money,” the teenager said. “Give me our money.”
It was from the tip jar, so it was just over twenty dollars of change. Adam had needed to dig in the guy’s pockets to fish it out because the guy’s hands were in really bad shape.
Adam took the guy in a cab to Emergency. The guy’s name was Max and he was 19, though he looked like he could be in his late 20s. His health card was in his wallet, but he’d left his wallet at home. “I always leave that shit at home. Nothing in it I can use. Not even a library card or some shit.” Adam smiled apologetically at the woman in a hijab holding her sick child within earshot.
“Is there anybody at home I can call?”
“Kwame’s there today.”
Kwame was a worker at Max’s group home. Adam left Max at the Hospital and went home to get his car. He explained the situation to Diane, who was getting dressed to go for her shift. Then Adam drove over to the group home. It was right near the gun club.
By the time Max had been seen and Adam had dropped him off, Adam had decided to volunteer with the kids at the home. That week her arranged with Linda, Kwame’s boss, to come and do a fitness program Wednesday night instead of going shooting and Sunday afternoons after he’d gone shooting.
Instead of going on a trip with Diane over his reading week, Adam did a series of full day activities with some of the kids from the group home, including a canoe trip. From the back of a canoe with Max, Adam watched the first snow fall on the city.
Adam and Diane had broken up by Easter.
Years passed. Adam started working for the City’s police force. Because of his work with youth, he became involved in a mural-painting program that supported illegal graffiti artists to find legal contracts and do legal work. When he turned 30, Adam bought a small bungalow for himself in a neighbouring municipality.
Adam’s dream had always been to work in homicide and when he was 33 he got his chance. It was fascinating and he trained his brain to hold on to and turn over details, which was a professional asset, but a personal liability. One victim, killed in a domestic dispute, was albino, but an albino of African descent. Still, in his dreams, as his mind sorted through the troubling details of that particular investigation, it inserted the Albino Jogger, dressed in all white as she had been back when he’d lived a less structured, less useful life. He lay in bed for a while, then sat up and grabbed a book. Eventually he fell back to sleep with the book on his chest and his bedside light burning.
When Max called Adam with the good news, Adam was jogging along a different stretch of lake, red and yellow leaves skittering across his path. He was out of breath, but happy to hear from Max. “Married! To who?” Allison had been another kid at the group home back when Max was there. Like too many girls her age, she’d hated her skin and buried her face in cover-up of a colour that under the group home’s lights matched her natural skin colour, but that took on too orange a hue when she went outside. Max had kept in touch with her and they’d both straightened out their lives and they’d fallen in love. “Great news. That’s great news.”
“I was, well, we are hoping you can come.”
“When is it?”
“In February. In Mexico.”
“Oh. Wow. That’s excellent.” He closed his eyes. He’d never been to Mexico. “Yeah. Yeah. Send me the invitation.”
He gave Max his email address.
When February came, Adam had just been involved in an investigation into the disappearance and likely murder of a nine-year-old girl from his old neighbourhood. He hadn’t had a full night of sleep in 29 days. He spoke to his supervisor about the possibility of staying home to keep working on the investigation. His supervisor told him he needed the break.
The airport was chaos, but Adam was in no way responsible for managing the chaos, so it had a calming effect on him. He went to the newsstand and was looking at sports magazines and exercise magazines when an image of an Albino child caught his eye. He bought the magazine even though it was about photography. He also bought a book for young adults because he liked the graphic on the cover.
He ran into Kwame at the gate. Kwame was married to his longtime boyfriend, Alex, and the two lived in a co-op in Cabbagetown. Kwame was working with the school board now, as a social worker. He had never been to Mexico, either. They checked their tickets and realized that they were sitting in different parts of the plane. Still, they would be seeing a lot of each other. They laughed. They talked about what a great kid Max had been.
On the plane, Adam tried to read his book, but realized that it was the third in a series and, though he’d been enjoying the book, he found this fact discouraging. He pulled out the photo magazine and looked through it as he sipped a complimentary coffee. He was so tired. He leaned back to sleep.
He dreamed of the Albino Jogger. She wasn’t dead. She was jogging past him on a street of red brick houses he didn’t recognize and wearing a sky blue outfit. She was running in her familiar rhythm, going as quickly as always, but somehow she was stuck in front of Adam. When he realized this, his sleeping mind made the sidewalk a treadmill and even put a person on it who whipped by in the opposite direction.
He woke when the pressure in his head told them they were on their descent.
He woke rested.
He smiled at the woman next to him, but he was smiling for himself.
Toronto, Feb.-March, 2016

Emoji Sequence: Chloë Lum of Chloë Lum & Yannick Desranleau (f.k.a Seripop), formerly of AIDS Wolf  
Story: Lee Sheppard

No comments:

Post a Comment