by Brian Oliu
0.0 I have started running a new route.
0.1 My old route leaves my house, down the three gray steps from my front porch and spills me onto the sidewalk. I put my headphones on. I set my timer. This does not change when I run my new route. I am building a map in the least efficient way possible. Here be lions. Here be dragons. Here be a man whose body is fading before the first step is ever taken. Here is the unknown sea, salted by the sweating out of uncertainties.
0.2 The sidewalks on my street are uneven. There are concrete slabs that rise up from the flatness like a mouth full of crowded teeth: every bite a zigzag, a start and then a stop, a paper bag torn open. Broken glass litters the pavement; remnants of the last great party, a romp that grew sour when it came time to smash beer bottles on the ground. I do not belong on this street, in this city: I am too old for any of this–this is a town to be transient: to serve your time and leave, to enjoy the best years of your life before moving on. When people guess how long I have lived in Alabama, they guess wrong: every number less than the actual duration. This is not how running works: the distance from my house to the end of the street is 0.12 kilometers, though if you asked, I’d say it is at least twice that–think of how many houses I pass: think of the cross streets.
0.3 En aquell temps, ningú no corria llevat dels alumnes dels Instituts. At the time, no one except the students ran: teenagers at the high schools. My grandfather is credited for being one of the first people to run outside in the streets in Spain. The majority of running used to be done around a track–in places that were specifically made for running: loops and lanes, an even tilt. They would look at him like he was crazy: everyone moving at their leisure–sidewalks meant to get from point A to point B, walking as anything but a luxury; a necessity of life in order to get what one truly wants–a sandwich from the corner walk-up, a glass of wine with someone you are learning to love.
0.4 When I am running, everyone who is not running is the enemy. The trio walking slowly, sprawling over the width of the sidewalk. The father in sunglasses holding a to-go bag outside of the restaurant that serves chicken wings. The bicycles that hop the curb because the road got too narrow. The child looking up at her mother. They are all in my way and they hold secrets. My grandfather, in the early stages of his dementia, thought this too: that there were underhand meetings on long walks, there were plans being made about him yet without him. I see people I think I know while running: at times it is too blurry to make out faces, my eyes too red. I feel like I have caught them in a lie– they do not expect to see me here–they thought that they were safe in the privacy of the world.
0.5 At the end of my street, I turn left instead of right. I pass the animal hospital with its parking lot full of dogs and I am thankful that they are too sick to bark as I breathe by. I pass the third shift bar where I sang pop karaoke in a place that holds dear their old country standards. I make another right on a street named after a town in which I used to teach: the white kid from the university heading to the catfish capital to try to teach high schoolers how to write words with bigger meaning. No one came & we should’ve known: Mondays were for football practice, Wednesdays for bible study. I pass a pack of shirtless undergraduates: track team, certainly, their torsos and their Nike shorts identical. They run in formation and I duck off of the sidewalk into the grass, over some mulch chippings and it is, as Beth Ann Fennelly puts it, hard to recall just now/ that these are the torsos of my students, / or my past or future students, who every year / grow one year younger, get one year fewer, that they too, are a reminder that this is not the place for me.
0.6 I shouldn’t be the one translating my grandfather’s book. I do not know the language: I pause at every word, I miss every nuance and every inflection because I do not know enough. I have never run a marathon. I have never experienced anything like what he talks about: the runner’s high, the feeling of calmness that washes over a mind while the body pumps blood on a clear day. When I started translating, I started at the beginning–the table of contents, the prologue, the acknowledgments. I cannot move beyond this point–to dive into the actual structure is terra perillosa. There is nothing here that I can make sense of. My grandfather is too far ahead.
0.7 On the new route there are churches: denominations that vary across the gospel, every church a first: first Baptist, first Presbyterian, first Methodist. Outside of one of the churches is a continuous Bible reading–twenty-four hours of mispronouncing names of Lord’s witnesses, brief pauses as the word of one man melts into the word of another. I think about taking my headphones off for a moment: to be preached at, to see if whatever language comes out from a microphone under a magnolia tree at noon on a Wednesday somehow becomes truer than anything ever said–the God who has girded me with strength has opened wide my path / he made my feet like the feet of deer, and set me secure on the heights. But this is a language I do not speak either: there are no first Catholics on this block, and I was taught a long time ago that there are seas that are too rough to decode.
0.8 At my grandfather’s funeral, we had mass in a church that I had never been in: it was ornate and cold, as most Catholic churches are–it was the only one with vacancy that week, as if there is a convenient time to leave this earth, as if it could’ve been easier if he had left us a little less closer to Easter. My grandmother had one request: to play my grandfather’s favorite song at the funeral–Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. The organist was surprised, as the hymn is meant for celebrations, for weddings. Play it anyway, my grandmother said.
0.9 The new route meets with the old route: to get home, all paths at some point turn familiar. At the corner where it all turns back, there are wrought iron tables. There is a restaurant here: diners enjoying side salads for lunch, their eyes diverting from their cell phones and their dates to the man, tomato faced and striking roughly, one arm swinging as he drags the rest of his body down the sidewalk. His headphones are on so he cannot hear what they are saying. He knows they wouldn’t dare say anything: the couples are polite to a fault. Later, he will sit at the same tables with a woman he is still learning love from. She is the one that told him about the route: that this is a path she runs all the time. How did your run go? she asks. He tells her that it felt like the longest run he has ever run before–that it never felt like it was going to end. She tells him that it gets easier once you learn the route: that it doesn’t seem as endless. It will become familiar, she says. He wakes up the next morning and again makes a left at the end of his street, this time staying in the middle of the road to avoid the broken glass. He sees a man in a welding hat shield his eyes from the sun as he exits the bar. He sees a woman carry a dog too big for her arms from the parking lot to the veterinarian clinic. He passes a church, and another church, and another church. This is the best he can do, this striving still to truth unknown.
You’re trying to make a new connection at a bar when one of your pickup lines goes horribly wrong. The only way to salvage this conversation will be through a great follow up statement. Choose you want to say next: