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Copyright © 2010

Chris Wiewiora

Teeth of the Cogs


I hear the pitter patter steps of a runner behind me. I speed up. A few mailboxes blur by like telephone poles out the car window on my drive to work while I listen to talk radio in the mornings. The beat of the runner’s shoes quicken behind me. My ankle hair sweats through my socks. The wet bristles trail.

I run on the asphalt faster than my usual constant pace of a jog. Most evenings as the sun turns orange, I loop my neighborhood once. When I return to my block, the hood on my sedan still feels warm—the same heat as the stale and bitter coffee in my mug that quips Can I go now? left on the desk in my cubicle. Every 5 o’clock weekday, I drive through rush hour back to my mortgaged house in the suburbs.

The runner is next to me. I drag in air with gulps of my mouth. The runner stays a half step behind me, letting me lead. I move my hand to my side. The runner shakes my hand and says, “Paul.”

Up ahead of us is a high school kid. On his cross country jersey, the wings of Hermes sprout from his shoulders. Paul runs to the right and I go by on the left. As we pass the kid, he nods and matches our pace. We all run on together.

I thought we’d do a total of two laps around the subdivision. Each time we go by my house, I don’t want to stop. The community center empties our fourth time around. They wave at us as a cornucopia of floral printed one-pieces, Hawaiian board shorts, and traffic cone orange water wings. On the sixth lap, they are drip-dried, their towels slung over their backs. A couple joins us. The wife’s ponytail sways back and forth. Even a power walker hoofs it at the back of the line.

Everyone seems to be okay with running into the night. Our neighborhood is safe with streetlamps at every other house. The coolness wicks away the heat from the final blast of the sun’s radiation.

Neighbors set up chairs on their driveways and front lawns. Tables line sidewalks next to the road. The families who grill put out extra meat for us to grab. The ketchup and mustard sit as decoration. We are lucky not to mismatch a hamburger with a hotdog bun.

Each hand that shoves into a shiny plastic bag of potato chips comes out with mouthful after mouthful of grease. We demand, “More carbs.” Loaves of bread hot-potato from one person to another. Everyone wants the whole grain heels. Our fingers glue together with the aftermath of peanut butter scraped out of jars. The jam smacks with our tongues’ licks. We drink cans of every sort of soda, leaving a carbonated grape to lemon-lime aftertaste burped out.

Children jump out of jogging strollers and huff along with their parents. The potential chunks of bone spurs develop from all the gallons of milk they chug; cookies break apart with each of their flatfooted slaps. Grandparents run after the little ones. Osteoporosis and arthritis be damned. The endorphins drip down their spines into their nerves through each vein’s demand for a pump of more blood. The floodgates rush their relief through their inflamed muscles. Steam bellows out of their nostrils with the rest of us bulls.

By the morning, people’s pants soak in sweat and urine. Some shit as they keep going. The rancid smell bakes through Saturday afternoon’s fiesta. No yard sale signs litter the street corners. Leaf blowers remain silent in the backyard sheds. Mail goes unread, like the wilted newspapers on the front doorsteps. There is no Sabbath. It is not a day of rest.

On Sunday, minivans sit in their garages. Families aren’t going to church. There is no need to praise or pray. We run as a congregation, swaying in Pentecostal action. Our huffs and puffs are our tongues speaking the universal language of the holy.

On Monday, some of the women want to take their kids to school. They can’t miss education. But we say, the best way to teach is to do. And the kids don’t need to fill out more multiplication timetables, complete another fill-in-the-blank worksheet, or write down an extra bonus word for their spelling and vocabulary tests. They don’t need to rebel and be individuals either. They need to listen to us, their new teachers. Each lesson will focus on survival—the primal skills of running.

But the mothers steer their young to the side. The children need physical fitness, but “not this much.” We call them weak. Still some of the women run with us men. And they start to complain. They want a break, to rub salve on the reopened scabs chaffing their thighs. They want to put balm on their cracked lips. They want to apply sunscreen to their red skin with blood vessels rising to their boiling surface. Even the strongest women tell us to slow down, “just a little.” The group fractures.

We men ignore them. We push them to their showers and back to their beauty. We run faster, our legs float above the ground, away from them. The women are left to jog behind us. They call us Barabbas and ask for us to rejoin society. We like that name and want to be called it along with Brutus and Bruno, too. We aren’t Chads or Tims, anymore.

We lap the final stragglers of the last of the womenfolk, and they yell after us as we leave the neighborhood, “We don’t even need you anymore. We can clone our children. You are obsolete.” We won’t pollinate their civilization anymore. Over our shoulder, through breaths gasped in and out of our mouths, we say, “You can have it.” We don’t want no-fault divorces and weekend custody.

As soon as we hit the road, we have police escorts. The whoop-whoop sounds with a flicker of lights swirling. They ask about the black men with us, “What are they running from?” We say the question should be, “What are they running for?”

Their bald heads blossom into natty Afros like lightning bolts electrocuted them. Many have twisted their hair into tight dreads with their earwax. The static aftershock fizzles. Their slowing is a fissure.

“What are we running for?” the black men ask. Jesse Owens has already beaten the Nazis. Is there anything else to prove?

The reversal of affirmative action pigeonholed us white men into the category of blame. Our stories spread about not getting scholarships in college for being middle class males. Why did we have to pay for the sins of not even our father’s fathers, but our grandfather’s grandfathers?

Nonetheless, we say, “Come on, brothers, run with us.”

But the mix of color is already bleached.

“Go on, white boys,” the black men say. “Run. Run away from us.”

And we do. The two hundred year divide isn’t a big enough gap to erase racial unrest. They have nothing more to run for, unlike us. We had nothing to run for from the beginning. We have everything to run away from, guilty of being white.

Then the philosophy begins. Since our running is 90% mental, the cogs of our runners’ brains turn overtime. We don’t work for the machine. We are a machine, whittling away the running Tao’s uncarved block. The old one-third of the day to sleep is now available to think.

“What is running?” the thinkers ask

“As fast as you can go and faster,” we say.

They want to include everyone again. “Why not the joggers and powerwalkers?” they ask.

“That didn’t work before. Why do we have to define and redefine what we are a part of?” we ask.

I realize no inclusive community can work. Who am I in the midst of all this anyway? We track thousands of miles on the one-way streets that split into two lane roads and multiply to four lane highways. All along, I lead like the foremost bird in a migrating flock. Wherever I go, they follow. No one else has his own direction.

I run, therefore I am.

The fluid school of fish swims along, tethered to my wake. I decide to take the mass north. We run from the marshlands of the South, up through the Appalachian Mountains. Big rigs blast their horns as we pass. The nation heard rumors from the weak that returned and news reports confirm from helicopters sweeping above us. We are wild.

What started out as a weekend marathon continues as a million-man march. Our numbers dwindle as the mileage increases. I challenge the leftovers with a finish line: the Yukon with tribal totem poles made to rot. I repeat over and over again, “To Alaska.” They echo.

I hurdle the Midwest’s barbed wire fences out on the open plains. Sometimes our path goes past the turbines harvesting corn and barley. The air fills with straw. Clay dirt cakes our feet when we cut through fields next to red barns with aluminum silos like rockets pointing up. The men have abandoned the launch codes.

The million have dropped to thousands over the hills and mountains. When the hundreds see the never-ending perspective disappear off into dark storms with tornadoes touching down, they turn around.

I reach Anchorage with only one other man. I look back. It is Paul. We are conjoined. He nods his head.

“We’re here,” I say.

“Now what?” he asks.

In my mind, he stumbles.

“We run,” I say.

I think he whispers, “Still?”

Paul has never done his best. He is Cain. He sacrifices less than all. I do a cutback.

Paul jerks to my swift change of direction. Again, I take an opposite zigzag. He follows. I am Abel. Paul is jealous and tries to pass me. He doesn’t understand our purpose.

I sprint. My hands slice the air and cup backward in each stroke. I longjump forward. My body is negative body fat and my muscles shovel themselves into my inner furnace. I look sideways at Paul.

Paul’s knees pop. I see the rest of his body spontaneously combust. His thighs tear apart. The bags of skin holding the stones of his calves burst and spill out. His Achilles ruptures. The tension of his tendons let out. Paul collapses. His entire body convulses in a seizure.

I am naked in Eden. My shoes deteriorate into rubber stripes melted to the soles of my feet. My feet callus after each blister pops and reseals. My toes fuse together into their own clogs. My t-shirt rips. The torn shreds cling to my shoulders. I use the sleeves for a headband to keep my grown-out hair out of my eyes. My beard thickens into a scarf around my neck. My skin grows over my mesh shorts’ elastic around my waist and seals the band as a permanent belt.

I am Adam. But I am without Eve. I am without friends, without family, without brothers, without men, without women, without anybody else. I am alone.

The above sea-level air is light in my lungs. I run into the vast emptiness. The tundra’s clumps of sod flip up like flapjacks with each of my footsteps.