Jimmy was two minutes into his run when he felt winded. It’d been, what, a week since his last run outside? That’s his habit. He runs every day for a week. Feels great. Gives himself a break and then the running stops. He feels too good to determine that he needs to keep going, and then he has to find a way to bring himself back up once he collapses into a rut of reading and cleaning. His apartment is too clean, germ-free but sterile. Antiseptic, as a girl once told him. No paintings on the walls, no stray cups in the sink. The bathtub so spotless he can almost see his reflection in the porcelain.
Distraction, though, was the name of the game. Anything to take his mind off of what he was missing. And that’s why he came to run again after a week of cleaning and restlessness. He needed to wander outside with fresh air and reminders. Sometimes, Jimmy felt that it was good to miss things, to try and recapture a moment or a feeling or a vision. He liked to miss things, to want them and to feel good about them, too.
And now here he was, two minutes into running and already out of breath and he has to struggle to figure out just why that is. He felt the sharp burn in his ankles with each step that subsided when feet hit the sidewalk. Maybe it was the slopes and the hills that caused him to be winded. The first block up Montrose Avenue was uphill, and took him past house after house, some old, some new, some buried in bushes and dirt and decades of settling, a run of beat-up and lived-in houses interrupted by speckles of newer homes. “Tall-and-skinnies,” is what the locals called them. Two story condos that appeared too tiny to house a family, but then you looked at them from the side and saw that they dipped way back, a couple hundred feet, so you realized that they could probably house two or three families. Some of them likely did.
Jimmy was always pleased when the sidewalk popped up after 9th Street. Running on the road was manageable, but wavering and full of potholes. Your feet would fall on a cracked piece of concrete and your ankle would roll, or the gravel from some nuisance driveway that had trickled into the street created a stony obstacle course that required specific maneuvering of your feet and ankles.
The sidewalk was smooth. Familiar. A path that was constructed just for you and recognizable. Memory need not apply, because the sidewalk was built for this purpose.
A few bees swiped past Jimmy’s face. He swatted at them but didn’t break his stride. He felt a burst of pride at his energy, his momentum. The last time he could run this well was a… year ago? A few months? He tried to think of the last time he ran, but just as he was about to recall that stretch of running he passed the pickle-green house with the maroon door. Perhaps the house was once mint-colored and the door once bright red, with big windows in which children would watch outside and smile and wave. Perhaps once the porch was crowded with chairs and family members painting toenails, listening to a ball game, and holding cool bottles of cola to ice their necks. But that’s not right. This house was never mint green and the door – what made Jimmy think of that? Like he’d lived that moment on the porch before, surrounded by family and friends. But that never happened. He’s lived in an apartment at the bottom of Montrose Avenue since he arrived in town, 27 years ago. That was when he was just out of college. A young kid then, he’d been bright-eyed about living so close to a city. His first job out of college was mowing lawns. It wasn’t work that made him proud to have spent all of his money on his schooling, on the other hand it allowed him a chance to meet so many neighbors, eventual friends, and, down the road, clients for his realty business. Unlike when he was a kid and mowing lawns was just a way to collect enough coin to buy an ice cream cone. That ice cream, whether consumed in summer or winter, was the highlight of the day for young Jimmy. Of course, this was before he knew the benefits of a good diet and daily exercise, and running, and working for a living to buy much more than an ice cream cone. And he’d worked hard after college and after all of the lawn-mowing. Selling homes was his future, now his past, and he wouldn’t trade anything for it.
But he’d never sold a home as pretty as the spearmint green house with the red door and the children resting on the stoop.
But that wasn’t the same as this house, this ugly, rusted pickle-green single-story home with vines at the corners, maroon door with chipped paint crusting the corners and edges. Who would live in this home? Other than the man who waved from the porch of course. Claude, his name was. Jimmy had learned it years before. Or months before. It didn’t matter, the man’s name was Claude and Jimmy was happy to know him, had known him for a while, in fact.
Catching his breath, Jimmy stopped his run and walked the grass-and-stone path to the porch, continuing to wave at Claude. “Been some time, hasn’t it?”
Claude just grinned a moment, sipped his cola, and nodded. Then he said, “Long time for you, maybe. Longer for me. I’m Claude.”
Jimmy hesitated at the hand now stretching before him. Of course he’s Claude, Jimmy thought. How could he think I’ve forgotten. “Jimmy, yeah. I know you, Claude.”
“Well, now ya do!”
“No, I mean we’ve met before.”
“We did! Known each other for, oh, a while now.”
“Well that’s news to me, but I’ll take it. What’d you say your name was?”
“Jimmy. Unser. Yeah we met and I shook your hand and we shared a cola. Almost every day back when I used to do a lot more running. Was cold and fresh and refreshing. You wouldn’t happen to have another one of those, would ya?”
“Matter of fact…” Claude reached to the small cooler by his feet, pulled out a bottle of cola. Jimmy saw that it was the last one and tried to hand it back.
“Oh, I can’t take your last one.”
“Nonsense, I always come up with a way to find more. Besides, it’s in there to share, not for me to guzzle. Doctor says I can only have one a day, so that one, that must be yours.”
“Doctors, what do they know?”
“Ain’t nothing to like about ’em. This one, he’s just a mean old man. Or woman. Honest to goodness, I can’t remember which doctor told me to limit my pop intake, but this one made it a point to tell my daughter, too, so at least one of us would listen!” You know, I used to be a doctor, too. Maybe that’s how I met this guy. ‘Course, I wasn’t the brightest in the class. Stopped treating people, oh, about ten, twelve years ago. Just when my daughter started her own training. She’s a pip, that one.”
“Well, I much appreciate the refreshment.” Jimmy sat on the top step of the porch, connected his bottle to Claude’s. Together they looked out on the street and the pink sky. Evening was coming sooner and sooner already. Jimmy enjoyed this more than his run, that much was clear. Maybe it was the sugar or the coolness of the bottle. Maybe it was time with Claude, his new friend. For today, the run to the pickle house was enough.
Tomorrow, though, tomorrow he would run all the way to 12th Street. Maybe further.
Sure thing, the next day Jimmy got up the nerve to run at 7 pm. This was later than he thought he should be running, but time was an insistent bastard on his muscles and he couldn’t hold back. There was a tension on his knees, the backs of his legs, and running would be the only thing to break that tension.
The sky was a dark pink, the sun almost fully set and wind blowing the leaves wildly. A storm was coming, but Jimmy felt this was the best time to run. The wind would keep him cool, and if a little rain hit him on the way home, he’d feel the coolness and be refreshed. The last time he ran in the rain was, well, was probably years ago, as a kid, running track and competing against better, faster runners, but always ready to kick up his heels and finish last if it meant he could just be a part of the team.
Jimmy set out and ran up Montrose Avenue towards the dark pink sky and the setting sun. He loved this part of the run. The hills, the uphill battle. He liked running on the street, too. It was a challenge. Oh, sure, when he was younger he would try to stay right on the sidewalks. Safer for your feet, his mother used to tell him. Sure, it was, but life ain’t about “safer on your feet,” life’s about challenges, and challenges are what drives Jimmy to run every day.
He create the hill and decided to change his path to the sidewalk. Safer, more boring, either way, this street was becoming dangerous. Last time he’d run, he almost rolled his ankle in a pothole. Of course, that pothole was still there. City hadn’t done anything about it. Poor city, being mistreated. A lot like these houses Jimmy was running past. Old and beat up. He much preferred the new modern look of the recently constructed homes.
“Tall and skinnies” is what the locals called them. Jimmy was fond of that moniker. He liked things that looked simple on the outside, from one point of view, but which became more complex the more you moved around them. He thought much the same way about his childhood home, a one-story two-room cabin near the edge of town, back when the edge of town meant something. Now, everything was connected by a coffee shop, or a short road, or a college or a river or a stadium. It was all becoming one big glob of a mess of a city.
Jimmy ran harder, past the beat-up old houses that he wished would die away. As his knees began to burn again, he came to his least favorite house, the pickle-green abomination that housed a dark maroon door. Paint peeled at its edges, the door propped open with a book on the floor of the porch. That poor book, Jimmy whispered in his mind. Written to be read, and now it’s a doorstop.
On the porch was a man. Claude. Jimmy had known Claude when they were younger, but when he caught his wife with Claude on their porch, Jimmy swore never to talk to the man again. There he was, sitting on his porch, bleeding out a cold beer and staring as Jimmy ran past. Claude’s belly was bulbous and his nose was red and pock-marked. Jimmy felt bad for the man, but also thirsty for himself. What he wouldn’t give for a cold brew, or even a soda. A pop, as some might say. An ice cold cola on a day like today would be refreshing. Maybe he would have to splurge on his return home. Or he could buy a six pack and set them in a cooler on his balcony for the next night, should he decide to run again.
The next day, Jimmy’s legs were sore and when he opened his fridge, he just stared at the six-pack of cola inside. He thought of running, but decided against it. He tried to recall his last run and decided it was too long ago to start up while his legs were this sore. Maybe something in the way he was sleeping. Instead, he thought it might be best to share a cola with a friend. Up the street there was a man, Cl… Clevin? Clarence?
Something like that. That man had a lot of stories to tell, and Jimmy could use a good story. His mind was beginning to wander, and the darkness was settling in again. There was a face, that of a woman, and Jimmy was sure he loved this woman but why had it been so long since he’d seen her face? And why did her eyes look sad, and his heart felt angry?
He sat on his scooter, cradling the cola in his lap, and rode up the road towards the pickle-green house with the maroon door. Took his time, anxiously watching for cars passing too close or too fast. The ice cold cola would be refreshing and take his mind off the woman’s face.
As Jimmy rode onto the sidewalk he looked for the man on his porch, the one who liked to drink cola. He passed a yellow house with a green door, two of the more modern buildings that were just too tall and yet also too tiny. He passed a sky blue hut-looking home and a green house with a rusty door that had been broken into months ago, it appeared, and a dirty white home with black shutters dangling on the hinges. And there was a book on the sidewalk blocking his path, so Jimmy picked it up and held it, unable to read the title without his glasses.
He rode on, searching for the stranger on his porch, the one who might want to share a cola.