Heritage

My Grandfather watched me from his wheelchair, his withered arm pulled beneath his blanket so that no one could see. Even then, ten years after the stroke that devastated his body, he held himself together with pride. Barely five feet tall in life, he was further shrunken into a shadow of his former self, laid low by the ravages and the pitiless passing of time.

I was his favorite grandson. I say that now with humility. I don’t know why he loved me so. Perhaps it was my bookishness as a child, my unwillingness to fight back, or defend myself from the bullies that ruled the nightmare that was school for me. I was small for my age, prone to inner ear infections and every passing flu or viral bacteria that spread like wildfire through our tiny isolated mountain mining towns. Only recently opened up to the outside world by the construction a major highway, we were, for the first time, susceptible to the disease and infectious spread of sickness that the rest of the world had to deal with. It wasn’t without consequence.

He held his blanket tight about him, and I could sense that he was about to cry. We were both emotional, another bond that we shared. Only a few days before, while watching a movie with my two baby sisters, I had cried over an animated lion cub’s father’s death. Embarrassing. I avoided eye contact and gave him as much respect as I could. I still saw the person in the chair, covered by blankets, with only one good eye. His tears came quickly as I laced my boots, his sobbing born not of despair or self-pity, but of pride for me, for the man he was watching me become.

My grandmother bustled about, her ample behind swishing along under her faded nightgown and housecoat. The smell of crisping pork fat and lard biscuits was heavy in the small kitchen, along with the sound of eggs sizzling in about an inch of rendered bacon fat in a cast iron skillet. Her coffee was legendary, baked more than brewed, as she pressed freshly ground beans into the percolator, layer upon layer, mixed with eggshells, until the resulting brew was nearly thick. Liberally sweetened with blackstrap molasses, it was enough in and of itself to fire the nervous system of a barely twentysomething man into orbit. As immune as even I was to the effects, more than one full cup of the stuff would give me nervous jitters for hours. Combined with the breakfast for which she was also famous for, and a chaw of Red Man tobacco, it was small wonder that I could work for sixteen hours straight, loading cinder blocks, splitting wood, slinging hay bales, beating ditches for water mains through the shallow topsoil into the shale and sandstone bedrock.

As my grandfather struggled to reign in his emotions, I finished my eggs, biscuits, pork renderings and coffee. My grandmother stared out at the early spring sun. “You got no business working underground like this.” It was an old conversation, one that we had started some twelve years earlier, when an ill-timed clot had lodged in my grandfather’s brain just long enough to cause irreversible paralysis. My grandmother thought me too intelligent, too gifted to enter the darkness of the mines as my family had, willingly, for generations.

I picked up my miner’s hat, self-consciously adjusting the band so that it sat on my head at a more rakish angle. Like all my family, I wore the low-vein hat, a testament to the shallow seams of coal that they crawled through in the drift, or punch-mouth mines that daylighted on the sides of the mountains, steaming their noxious fumes into the clean winter air. It was the first day that I would be descending into the shaft mines, great underground labyrinths, conceived of by greedy men pursuing personal wealth in the form of metallurgical grade coal, shiny and hard, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a carbon-rich prize capable of burning at temperatures high enough to smelt metal. As the reserves in Northern Pennsylvania slowly played out, mine operators followed the seams south, cutting deeper and deeper into the earth, until they found what they needed in Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia.

My family had been some of the first to step foot into those shaft mines, swinging from iron buckets, laden with tools, dynamiting out platforms into solid rock from which millions of cubic feet of coal would later pour, out of the earth and from the blood of my relatives into the coffers of the rich. They profited from the blood and lives spilled in those mines, growing ever more rich as the land they pillaged became devastatingly poor.

Then, following in the footsteps of my father, who no longer swung over those caverns of space to earn a living for his family, and my cousin, who works in those mines still, I kissed my grandfather, who had gained control of his tears, grinned at my grandmother, and swung out the door into the dim light of an early morning. It was barely a five-mile drive, one that I could have done in my sleep, over the mountain to the mine entrance. The site itself was literally where the farmhouse my mother had grown up in had stood.  The mountain was where my Dad had once raced as a boy to gather the cow home for milking at the end of the day.

I myself had helped build the road over the mountain as a shortcut to the mine from the new four lane highway when I was a teenager. My family had owned the land around for generations. My uncle had helped sink the shaft into the earth, my father had designed, built and placed the methane removal equipment, now infamously known as fracking, so that mining operations could begin. The school that I was attending, Virginia Tech, had supplied the mining engineers who had designed the mining operations, so perhaps it was fate itself that led me out the door that day and into my future.

As most expected, I did not remain long in the depths of the earth. A few years later, with a Master’s Degree, I returned, briefly, if only to remind myself once more who I was. My Grandfather had passed on, along with my Grandmother. The family farm was sold, the land given up, along with the mineral rights and all that had been ours. A new shaft had been sunk, the old one relegated to age and disrepair. It was a brief stay, the mine now more deadly than ever as technology and system engineering replaced common sense and human judgement. The entire place had become a death trap.

The house I had left that morning so many years before had been sold, partially demolished and turned into an office for a mobile home park. The green gardens had been paved over, the old railroad tie bridge replaced and the smokehouse where hams had once cured was gone, pushed over into a heap of untidy rubbish.

It seems sometimes that my heritage passed with that place, that who I am, where I am from is some distant and fleeting memory, carried on only in the hazy remnants of my own recollection. I fear that my blue collar heritage is doomed to die with me, that all the muscle memory of a lifetime of working with my hands, of wresting life and pride from the earth is all for naught. I feel alone in these moments, the last of my kind, a relic of sorts, misunderstood and mocked slightly.

Then I see my son, his blonde hair mussed and curly, dirt on his mother’s gift of features, cunningly swinging a hammer, instinctively beating apart the rust on a chain so that it may lay straight against the concrete floor of our garage. I watch him carefully, amazed that he knows how to do this, just so.

I don’t feel quite so alone.

To Beat the Devil

I woke up for what must have been the eighth time, relieved to see it was finally 5:45. I could hear the wind picking up, but there was a glimmer of star shine visible through the window. A good omen, I hoped. My running clothes were where I had left them on the kitchen table. I slid as silently as I could through the house, trying not to wake my three-year-old son or his Mom. I ate a banana, checked my phone for the temperature, and pulled on my clothes. I’m superstitious about my socks. These things are ancient, the elastic barely there. I hand wash them now, knowing that they should be thrown out, what with my little toe, broken and healed so many times that it barely resembles a toe at all, hanging out of the once-white fabric. I lace up my shoes, broken in properly for once, wiggling my heel back into the shoe, a remnant movement, long since immortalized in my muscle memory from my brief track career as a walk on in college. I drink three pints of water, counting them. I pick up my keys, check to make sure my chip is laced into the shoes once more, like it could have gone anywhere, consciously kiss the stones on my necklace, and slide into the dark morning.

I don’t know where I am. My brain shrieks at me in fury, my heart slamming into my ribs. My thoughts jumble around one another, tangle into an undecipherable mess and then break, slumping into my brain like spaghetti into a bowl. My body is shrieking along with my brain now, my hands shaking uncontrollably. Cold sweat rolls down the side of my face and the bedclothes twisted around me are drenched. All I can think of is that I am dying. Without a doubt. I’m dying, and I have no idea where I am. It’s a hospitable of sorts, that much I can see. My eyelids do little to block out the residual light streaming in through the barred window from the streetlight outside. Shadows dance across the wall behind me and a crucifix, complete with mostly-naked Savior, fixes it’s unblinking, judgmental gaze on my pain.

The truck starts. I almost wish it wouldn’t for a moment. I’m nervous, my stomach is in knots and I feel the old familiar drum of increased blood pressure thrum against my forehead, where the skin feels suddenly tight and thin. I clear my head as best I can, and swing out onto the deserted road just as first light brightens the eastern sky. My mood elevates, and I suddenly grin at myself, the old familiar half-smile that always springs to my weathered face when I greet the sun in the morning. It’s a fine time, early morning. There’s always that feeling of things to do, places to go, adventures to be had. It all stretches out in front of you in the early morning. The anxiety over a half marathon suddenly slips away, replaced by a heightened sense of excitement about the day to come.

A sound from the other side of the room alerts me to the presence of another. A snort, sort of a muffled cough, then snoring. I realize I’m not alone and my howling brain, anxious for some diversion, fixates on identifying my sleeping roommate. I don’t know him. I feel relieved for some reason, knowing perhaps that I won’t be beholden to small talk when he wakes. I wish I could sleep again, and I trace the I.V. in my hand back to the bag by the bed. I try to read the contents held within the plastic, but my eyesight seems sorely unsuited for the task at hand. I try to lift one hand and discover my restraints. Canvas straps are secured around my torso and hands, which are trembling visibly. My legs are likewise bound to the bed, and by the looks of the remnants of my clothing, it appears I was not restrained willingly. I dizzily remember signing a waiver, my fingers willful and stubborn against my brains’ instruction to print legibly. I remember my name then, suddenly, where I am and why I am here. “Nolan” I whisper to myself. I have a son. His name is Nolan.

I sit with my back to the block YMCA building, watching, judging my competition. I know better than to think I will do anything but run this race, but a childhood spent in motocross, football, boxing, track and testing myself against others has molded me into the person I am today. In sobriety, I have rediscovered the relentless urge to push myself, to benchmark my performance. I notice that the runners are hard, lean, with restless eyes. There isn’t much conversation. Two women banter loudly and “Eye of the Tiger” beats mindlessly over the loudspeakers, too loud for this early hour. I fall back into myself, allowing my mind and body to just be still. I remember too little of the past decade. What memories I do carry are unpleasant at times, loud drumming of mistakes and fallacies.

The doctors have cautiously met with me. I realized by day two in this final stay in rehab that I was one of those for whom the caregivers had no hope. The meetings were perfunctory, quick. I could tell they were only going through the motions. They mistook my silence for sullenness, my lack of participation for resentment. I was trying with all my might to hold the center, to keep my core intact while the outer edges dissipated into the mist. It took all of me to hold that little bit of me, that tiny place that was still recognizable to me, intact. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not stop shaking. I could not manage more than a sip of water. I could not remember where I was, or my home phone number. My wife came to visit, without Nolan. She was white and furious, cold and distant. I tried to hold her hand and she ripped it away. I could not understand why she was so angry with me. I tried to remember what I had done to make her hate me so, and I could not. She left, and I returned to my room, free of the restraints, but a prisoner nonetheless. The iron grip of addiction was not relinquishing its hold on my body and brain. By the end of day two, I am firmly in the grips of Delirium Tremens.

The gun sounds, and we all start running. There are so few of us on this cold, windy, rainy morning that there is no particular order to our grouping. The fastest runners line up first, and rapidly draw away from the main body of the pack. This is my first half marathon, so I’m a bit unsure of myself. I’m amused for the first three miles by the press of bodies, passing people and listening to conversations around me. The runners, mostly silent pre-race, have bunched into conversational packs, talking amongst themselves, clearly having a good time despite the weather. I fall into a semi-comfortable pace somewhere around the middle, neither passing or being passed by anyone. The miles start to fall away. The wind and rain tears my eyes, and I find myself running at times with them closed, blinking away the water. I allow my mind to fall away once more, free to roam about, only nudging it in pleasant directions. Or at least I try to. Unbidden, a scene from one of those dark corners, unrehearsed and unwelcome, springs to the forefront.

I’m screaming, but the sound is distant, like the caterwauling of a lost and frenzied puma, calling out to its mate over the dregs or what was once it’s natural habitat, now destroyed by mountain top mining. The streams run red with acid mine drainage, the sandstone rocks rusty and brown in the murky water. I’m not even for sure it is me. The only thing I know for certain is that I must get out. I must escape from this terrible place, this iron prison of sand and death. My tortured brain no longer obeys my feeble attempts to place my sanity in the center, and once again the center begins to pull apart. I watch the whirlwind of dust descend behind my closed eyelids, and I swear on a thousand alien suns that I will not go into the darkness, that I will not leave my family, that I will not desert my son, still so tiny, so helpless, so dependent on his mother and so abandoned by me. An image of him, just born, still misshapen from the womb and so full of life, slides fleetingly by and I grab it and hold to it, firmly grasp it in my minds two hands, willing myself away from the abyss, where insanity and worse lurk, waiting for me, hungry with their need shame and failure and tortured souls like mine.

I snap back to reality, and I find myself crying as I run. Miles eight and nine have passed, and my legs are screaming with the pace I have subconsciously set. I am punishing myself now. I welcome the pain in my broken rib, the throbbing in my reconstructed ankle, the shock of my functionless liver dumping rapidly metabolizing adrenaline and damaged cells and metabolic waste straight into my brain stem. I fight through a moment of oblivion, when my brain re-routes memories and conscious thought into a new pattern, recognizable again in only a few seconds. Those seconds seem an eternity as I temporarily forget everything, and I grimly panic, then remember! My mother’s voice, distant on the phone a few weeks before: “I know why you run. I have seen it in my dreams. You run to beat the devil.” She is so right. Now, that is what I do. I am no longer running for me, or for enjoyment, or to beat anyone else. I am running for sorrow, for the pain my addiction has caused, for the family I let down, for the friends I disappointed, for the lost decade, ten entire years that I spent in the grips of alcoholism. More than anything, I am running for my son. I choke back tears, and channel the rage and fury and anger and pain and sorrow into the rest of me and I run like hell itself is after me.

I awake in a pool of water on the floor of my cell. My roommate is snoring, loudly enough to cause me some concern. I am still shaking, my shoulder throbbing from contact with the cold cement floor. I try to strip off the wet clothing, but I am too weak to attempt it. My hands shake uncontrollably, and my brain does not seem to function, but I know who I am. I climb back into bed and wait for morning. The doctors give me their prognosis: Certain death. Thirty to ninety days. If I stop drinking. I can tell from their tone of voice that they have no hope that I will do such a thing. From somewhere deep within, I find the strength to grin at them. “Don’t bet against me, doc.” He looks at me for a long moment. “Maybe so….I’ve seen stranger things.”

I see my son’s blonde head as I round the last turn into the grassy area by the YMCA. Another race is starting, so I know I’ve beaten my goal of a two-hour half marathon. I find out at the finish line that I did even better than I expected. My family is there, my wife grinning at me like I won the thing. I grab my son and pick him up, sweaty, cold and soaked to the bone. “I don’t even care,” I think, “if I won the thing or not. It’s enough to finish. To know that I ran every step.”

I think of my ancestors as I leave the rehabilitation center for the fight of my life. For my life. I think of the Native Americans, the Cherokee and Cree; and the Scottish Immigrants, all of whom had fought for their freedom and existence on this land. I wait for my wife to pull the car around. The cold rain falls and I realize with a jolt that it is nearly fall. I dare hope for a moment that it is not my last.

I’m winded and I enjoy the quiet of the house, the dark coffee, my son’s close company. It is nearly three years since that last fateful day in rehab and I am still alive. I attribute a great deal of that to running. It’s not just the physical act and mental benefits of the exercise. It’s the mentality that goes with it. I’m not just living. Not anymore.

I’m beating the devil.

Broken Bottles

My wetsuit clung clammily to me as I followed her out of the water. I hate the feel of the wet fabric, sticking, cold, unyielding. I pawed at my back, trying to find the zipper tab. It had been broken long before, making taking the suit off even more irritating than usual. The early morning mist blew in off the Pacific, fanning out over the wave pools caught in the basaltic flows of a point of land sticking far off the coast. She paused in the sunlight, carefully placing her surfboard on the ground beside her. She pawed her hair back out of her face, catching the wayward dripping strands in a tie magically rolled from her wrist. Without a glance at me, she peeled her suit from her body, and her skin was white. Trailing a leash and dripping polyurethane, she walked from stone to stone along the rough, barely-there path to the broken bit of sand above, where my old truck sat rusting, wishing for days without sand, nights without salty air.

The wind was cold. The tequila was not. The bottle winked in the sunlight as she held it aloft, inspecting the contents. The residue inside floated lazily around in the unyielding glare of the mid-morning sun. Our session in the surf had been cut short by a presence, real or imagined, skimming beneath us in the piercing blue water of the mighty western ocean. We had not commented on the likelihood of sharkiness this far South on the Baja, as most surfers did in those days immediately after the horror of 9/11. It was as if the mention of the Tiburon gave us something tangible, real to be afraid of.

The Old Man, Bonita, The Reaper – The Great White Shark was something in all of our minds, those of us who dared leave the U.S., once a homeland so safe, so excluded from the violence that plagued the rest of the world. For those who dipped their boards into the cold blue waters of the Pacific south of the world, our fear of the unknown, the terror that manifested itself real, was given life and realness in the cold terror of the shark.

We passed the bottle back and forth, and I wondered if her hair was blond or red. Streaks of both appeared as her ponytail dried in the sun. The bottle dangled from her fingertips when I passed it back to her. In a world inundated with tan, her skin was a mystery. Pale as a starlet, like the waning moon in early summer, she seemed untouched by the manifestation of brown. Everything was brown here. The sand, the dust, the rocks, the buildings, the people. Everything. My skin and hair had long since merged into one blanched dirt-colored uniform covering of bones and flesh. Years later, I would stare at myself in the mirror, marveling at the color and texture of skin sheltered from the elements, hidden from the sun by promotions and a corner office.

She was untouched by the world around us, as pristine as a newborn. Somehow plunked down in the middle of the finger of a peninsula of land surrounded on three sides by water, she appeared to have teleported there from somewhere safe, somewhere white. Buzzed from no food and the contents of the now empty bottle, I wondered where she was from. I dared not ask, for reasons I did not understand. She laughed at my attempts at humor, and I felt something stir, some loneliness for the mountains of green that I had left behind.

Nothing seemed real anymore, in this wasteland, this place where the dirt met ocean, where fear met peace and the waves washed every evening away into the future. A future no longer certain, or safe, or controllable. We walked the street of the tiny town, passing the day away. Her SUV was in the parking lot of the only café, a red beacon in an impoverished area, as out of place as a diamond ring in a bowl of clay. I wondered again at the strangeness of it all, then put it out of my mind. An easy thing, what with the tequila.

We shared Mexican Chocolate, walking the brick sidewalks, uneven and halting in the turmoil of the earth beneath. We ducked into a narrow alley, so close my fingertips brushed both sides. The wind blew hard and cold and I hated it and loved it at the same time. Her eyes were blue, flecked with green and sunshine and the sea. Her hair was blonde and red and brown. She was a natural brunette. Her hair was brown. Her skin was white. Her eyes were blue. The tequila was lukewarm the wind was bitter and I gagged a little, in those days before whiskey became a way out of the endless parade of sameness. Before my days merged into one ceaseless cascade of nothingness.

She was gone the next morning, along with her white surfboard and red SUV and black suit and blue eyes. The empty bottle of tequila was broken, with brightly colored shards of molten sand where a vessel has once been. I contemplated my doused campfire and stretched out sore muscles, still limber enough after sleeping in the back of an old truck for months on end.

I wish the bottle had not broken.