Tin Roofs

Fatigue steals over me, it’s cold fingers icing up my spine and into the back of my neck, clouding my vision temporarily. I concentrate on breathing for a moment, and lean into the moment. In through my nose, out through my mouth, just watching the colors inside my head project onto the canvas of the room for a moment. The crushing sound of women talking in an enclosed space is suddenly a roar and I am hyper aware of my own deafness in that moment as snaps of conversation, given voice inside my own imagination, burst over my consciousness. The endless chore of finding conversation through a combination of body language, mouth movements and pieces of sounds suddenly becomes too much. I see my wife in a corner, alone with three others, chatting, her spine and carriage the image of confidence. I feel rather than hear or see the sudden leaning in of the lonely wealth, the overly dressed, alienated seekers of attention of any kind and I beat a hasty retreat for the door.

The heat is sudden and welcoming. The closeness of the room was stifling, but the early glimpse of the summer to come is soft on the sidewalk. The climate of the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay has a tendency to narrow seasons, pull them closely in to one another as winter tumbles through spring and into summer with an audible clap. The bank clock tells me that it is 86 degrees in the sun and I turn my face towards it, cresting the western edge of the buildings for the last moments of the day. I spot a white haired man I recognize from earlier seated at a near table and he nods a half-hearted salutation.  I reluctantly wander my way in his direction. I can still feel the presence of eyes on my back, the attention-seeking eyes, evaluating, wondering, seeking something, anything.

I ask the well-dressed man if I may join him. He waves his left hand impatiently at the empty chair, suddenly brusque, the motion of a man accustomed to giving orders, but without the gumption to see them through. An empty gesture. A meaningless greeting. I feel my weariness once more, but welcome the diversion and the opportunity to feel the sunshine on my face before the rain moves in off the coast once more. I think of Mexico, and the mountains of my youth, of sitting on truck tailgates and simply waiting for another to speak, not acknowledging the passage of time, adhering to another standard of social conduct, one born of necessity, of hardship, or needing to know if the other could be trusted, and if so, how much and with what.

He speaks a greeting, and I follow suit. Our conversation is both guarded and open as we talk as men, ranging quickly through the mundane, the weather, avoiding politics, a quick diversion into the economy, both local and national, into travel. He speaks of planes and trains and villas and golf courses, of places where nature and native alike is forced to comply with the western white standard, of maids dressed in uniforms, of women passed over and semi-forgotten, like whiskey beading the curvature of a leaded tumbler. I think of sand and dirt and waves and places gone and remembered and sleeping under a vast canopy of stars, so many that it was an inverse carpet of winking worlds, places unreachable and unknowable and secure in their secrets from the scourge of humanity.

The conversation flows around me as I realize that he is content to just talk, to spill words from himself in my general direction, secure in their ability to impress the younger, less wealthy man. I am content to just not listen, nod my head in the right places and allow my thoughts to wander where they may. I am deep in the Baja of Mexico when his wife approaches, a thin, tight-lipped and unhappy former beauty, a woman who has aged and well, but is still bitter of the implications, of the loss of status in a world dominated by beauty and youth. I bring up an extra chair and she comments on my manner of dress, which is deliberately casual, a muse, if you will. Costumes amuse me, and I don them, as we all do, in response to variations in mood and deference to the requirements of the event.

Mexico comes round once more in our conversation, as does my boyhood home. I stiffen inwardly at the attempt to place my accent, which he does. There are some things that you choose not to shed, and my manner of speech is one of those things I have clung to. His accuracy in placing where I am from is uncannily accurate and I resent the intrusion. I realize that my mask, the outward self, the visible part of me, is slipping a bit and I pull it back into place.

I realize that she is now speaking of the poor indigent people of Kentucky, with whom she has some familiarity as her family once boarded horses at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Derby, which is coming around soon once again. I resent her stereotype, then allow it to slide over me, wondering what it must be like to be black in our society, where stereotypes are often the only common ground between race and socio-economic differences. She branches out, slightly more eloquent, describing the conditions in which people lived, in such squalor, what with their laundry hanging outside to dry, as they apparently could not afford dryers for their clothes in the trailer parks in which they lived. A general lack of education must also be ascribed to such individuals, as no one, of course, with any semblance of humanity would tarry long in such a place, regardless of their background.

My attention is now rapt on the skyline, where the sun has receded into the western sky. The roar of conversation has dulled behind me, and I await a break in conversation, for some queue from which to escape this madness. I think of my own past, nights lying sleepless beneath the tin roof of the tacked together trailer in which the early years of my childhood were passed, as we struggled to put together the monies required to build a more substantial home. Misinterpreting my silence for accession, she continues her diatribe on the poverty of other places, of Belize, where dogs are allowed to just wander in the streets and where children run unsupervised in play.

I remember my own great dog, a mongrel mix of some indeterminate breed, lying quietly in the dust of the dirt road on which we lived in the early morning sun while my brothers, cousins, and various neighboring children played our variations of games that had been around since the beginning of our race upon this earth. Tag, power struggles, small fistfights, and other amusements were enjoyed and participated in, with no parental oversight. We were gods of our own small kingdoms, secure in our aloneness, our only guardian the great brave canine who lay with ever watchful eyes upon his small, unappreciative wards. We were unaware of how some outsider, passing through, watching our world through the tinted glass of an overpriced automobile, might have considered us. Poor. Indigent. Pitiable.

I suddenly resent the two of them. Their derision and judgement, so callously delivered to one from the very tribe they berate, is palpable to me. I sit with them, yet apart. The separation between the child in the street and the billionaire in the car is so small, a knife edge could not slide between them, yet, the chasm can be a physical barrier, impossible to cross.

The door opens, and a group of women exit the gala, their voices trilling in my direction, slightly intoxicated by the free wine. I feel alone, isolated, a man on a tower, behind walls of gauze and stone. I am glad for my time in the dirt.


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.

Pain and Peaches

Ramblin Ron

My uncle watched me as I tried to ignore him. My boots were miles away, perched as they were at the end of my legs. All I needed to do was tie them and our strangely quiet conversation would be over. My mother watches quietly from her solitude over the kitchen sink, amidst the bubbles and effervescent warm water that would make clean what was once dirty. Three is a kerplunk of a pan, which held eggs and melted cheese, along with toast and grits, my favorite breakfast with black coffee, only a moment before as it plunged into the water. It was early in the morning. Very early. The night sky still rode across, as Orion ran upon Aries in the southern solstice to the west. A mist had fathered at the gurgling creek, laughing quietly as it prepared itself for a day of dappling about in the mix…

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The air smelled of wood smoke and leaf rot. I ran round the side of the mountain in what every small boy growing up in Appalachia knew was the fastest way to the top. It was futile to struggle straight up the side of those steeply pitched eroded plateaus. That was a sure way to recognize an outsider – as if it weren’t easy enough as it were. Within one sentence, spoken without our distinct accent that has been butchered by so many in Hollywood attempts to reconstruct our way of life for the amusement of the masses, an outsider was recognizable for what they were. Someone not from here. It was rare that the distinction need be determined by a single-minded determination to claw ones’ way straight up the side of a hill.

Going down, well, that was another matter. When we were kids, my brothers and I would dare one another to see how far we could jump down the side of a mountain. The terrain was so steep that you could be aloft for what seemed forever, skimming down, down the pitched earth, dry leaves rustling in your wake, your body only scant inches over the ground. It was exhilarating, maddening, frightening and bound to end up with one of us bruised and banged from landing in rocks. We would fling ourselves anyway, heedless of potential injury, yelling with glee as we defied gravity, sans parachute, with altitude our only hindrance.   

None of that was on my mind at that moment, although I would surely think of it again, after my race against the sun was over. I had just discovered a new cliff face, and like any mountain boy, it had to be climbed, again, and over again, until it was familiar territory, every nook, cranny and face explored and poked and excavated. I also had to see, simply must watch, the sun set off the top of my new fortress of solitude.

I was out of breath when I reached the top. Small wonder. I had just sprinted over a thousand feet up in vertical elevation, the last eighty or so literally straight up a rock chimney. It was a feat that would no doubt leave my adult self exhausted and sore for weeks, provided I had the courage to perform it. I faced out, west, watching the sun fall behind the mountains that marked the divide between counties in my small part of the world, thinking that someday, soon, I would follow that sun, see where it went.

Most of my books, beloved and dog-eared, described great adventures to be had in the direction of the setting sun. West, they would have you believe, is where all red-blooded American boys wanted to go, to the great painted deserts, to the endless prairies and the mighty Mississippi, further, onward, to the great Pacific Ocean, where you could ride giant waves generated by thousands of miles of storm cells building across the fetch of the great water. North was also just as magical, if not more so, with the frozen tundra and great white bears and endless miles of ice and suffering and adventure and kayaks and schooners frozen into glaciers while the men aboard slowly starved and read books and ate raw seal and dreamed of warm feet.

My gaze, inexplicably, did not hold in either of those compass delineations. Instead, inevitably, my wandering eye, even then destined to roam, turned south. To me, in my childhood imagination, south was a land of even greater adventures, where one could simply get lost in the swamps of the Everglades, wander the dunes of the Carolinas, or run the high trails, as my ancestors did, of the mighty spine of the Appalachian Mountains all the way into Georgia, then south and east into the sandy beaches where beautiful women were whispered to be, tanned and golden from the sun, where money was had to be gained and lost.

South was Mexico, a land of spicy foods and fish and beaches and cliffs and pirates. South was the Caribbean, where pirates still plied their desperate trade. This was the direction of derelict wanderers and warriors alike, where schooners were not frozen in ice, their occupants reduced to mad scribblings upon the dried skins of seals, destined to wait, helplessly, for springs thaw. No, South was where a man could drive his own destiny, unencumbered by the desperate plight of winter, nor chained as a slave to the mad longings of some greedy mine owner to the depths of the earth, clawing at the veins of coal, scrabbling for a living, emerging from the darkness as barely lit broken things, steaming of the muck of extinct swamps and long dead creatures.

South was my sirens song, as I clung to the branches from my perch high above all I knew. I dreamt of Miami, of Costa Rica, of surfboards and senoritas, of cenotes and monkeys and perfect, peaking waves. That was where the Incans were, and the Mayans, and the old ones whispered of in the legends past, dim mists of time forgotten. There was no predicting what one would find buried beneath the jungles and beaches and lost, remote, high mountain plains, blown dry and desolate with longing for an age long since passed.

Now, every chance I get, I go south. Nowhere else will do. My eternal compass points in that direction, always. On silent, cold, dreary, mindless short days when sunshine and warmth seem distant and impossible, when not a fire can be lit, I dream of the waves, the sand, the beaches, the food.

This winter was no different. My wife and I, silent partners in our fascination for the warmth of the equatorial sun, set out for the Yucatan, where eons ago a celestial body of colossal dimensions slammed altering the face of our planet forever. We rode jungle trails, celebrated a wedding with a family we adore, basked in the sun, and avoided tourist hordes as if we feared some contagion, brought about by their sunscreen smeared blank stares. We ate, we lived, we saw, and we went home – to restlessly place our port sides to the setting sun, and stare into the Chesapeake, dreaming once again of adventure.



In January of 2015, for reasons that escape me now, I pulled on my old running shoes, walked to the end of our one-hundred-foot long drive, turned left, and jogged away. Like most memories that I have these days, this one is fuzzy. It was cold. I didn’t feel well. My liver disease was progressing rapidly, and I had ascites. Maybe ten to fifteen pounds of fluid retention, which the doctors repeatedly remind me isn’t very much. I don’t think the doctors have ever tried to run with ten pounds of fluid sloshing around in their abdominal cavity. I do think that the definition of “very much” would likely change if they did try it.

Regardless of the temperature, or the sloshing, I jogged off into the early morning air, feeling the pavement beneath my feet, listening to the sounds around me, watching the sun track its way across the land adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay. I didn’t run far. The evening before, I had driven past our drive and measured out a half mile. That was my target. A half mile.

I didn’t make it. My stamina sucked, my will power was weak, and the pain was more than I had bargained for. I stood still for a little while just shy of the half mile mark, feeling my knees shake and my head spin. I walked slowly back home, hoping no one was watching, but hardly caring. I wasn’t exhilarated, or particularly proud of what I had just done. I was just tired.

The next day, I did it again. Then again the following day. I ran in the cold. I ran in Florida, where we went to vacation for a few weeks. Hepatic Encephalopathy kicked in one day while I was running on the beach and I forgot where I was. I ran all over the small island, panic stricken by the end, trying to remember where our campsite was, repeating my own name in my head as my bare feet bruised and bled when I abandoned the beach for the roads to try and find my way back. I did.

I ran in the early spring, sticking to the same half mile beginning, expanding it to three miles, running alongside my wife on occasion. My blood tests continued to be the same, no improvement. An MRI, CT scan, and other associated tests confirmed the same thing, my liver was not really functioning. I was once again given six months, maybe a year, to live.

During a rain storm in June, I discovered that I was no longer just slogging along. There was a spring in my step that I had not noticed, a joy rediscovered in moving along under my own power, in charge for once of my own body. I stood in the rain as it steamed on the pavement around me and cried with joy, with sadness for the years lost to addiction, and for the person I would never become. I wept for the could-have-been me image locked forever in my mind.

I drove to a local running store that afternoon and bought a new pair of shoes. The store employee watched me run on the treadmill and pointed out how badly my over pronation was. She asked if I had ever run before. I thought of the countless miles in my early twenties, when I was young and proud and healthy and arrogant and believed I would live forever. I thought of the drunken car crashes, bar brawls, broken bones not properly set and surgeries to attempt to remedy the damage done. I didn’t answer her question.

I took the shoes home and took a picture of them. The next day I ran five miles instead of three, marveling at how light they seemed and how easy they were to run in. I thought of how I had almost died from alcohol abuse as I ran, and it seemed so long ago, as if it had happened to another person.

A friend of mine urged me to sign up for a race, and I did. I ran a 10k in November and it seemed magical. In a moment of maniacal glee, I signed up for two half marathons the next day. The dates were over six months away, an eternity to me.

The year passed as miles poured out the soles of my feet. My mileage increased along with my stamina and overall sense of well-being. The more I ran, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more carefully I ate. The circular loop of health closed and became more defined. I added yoga, getting over my fear of looking stupid in front of a room of females. After a few weeks, I even enjoyed that, and ran more as my soreness subsided faster after stretching and I slept better.

For the first time in years, I was sleeping most of the night without aides. No booze, sleeping pills, or drugs. I started feeling better, so I ran more.

So it goes, into 2016. I may or may not get a transplant. I’m mostly ok with that. I try not to think of it, as I think I’m a pretty lucky guy. I got to see my son turn three last year. More importantly, I remember it. I no longer get lost running on the beach, although I may again soon. None of us have any promise of tomorrow, but I am blessed in that I get to realize this fact more than most.

Someday, I’d like to surf a big wave. One named Jaws, or Mavericks, or some unnamed monster lurking in the Pacific Ocean somewhere. I know better than to think I’d do anything but survive, but I’d like to grin a lopsided grin at someone special as I drug my board ashore.  I’d like to ride the TT on the Isle of Man. I know better than to think I’d win, but I’d like to pull my helmet off and wipe the sweat of my face, grinning an old man’s grin at the young man’s winner’s circle.  I’d like to be a kitchen Chef again someday. All that would be ok, I guess.

But I’m pretty stoked to go running tomorrow.