Arnold ran. All his life people said “Slow down, Arnold. Walk, don’t run. What is your hurry? Stop Arnold. Walk!”
Running was perfection—the legs sprinting out, the arms pumping forward, the long torso leaning into the wind. Running filled his heart with joy. He had runner’s high before that phrase was thought of, back when high simply referred to altitude and getting high meant climbing on a ladder to clean the gutters.
But, oh, he had been high as a boy every time the front door opened and released him to the porch, the sidewalk, the street, the empty patch of woods four blocks down. He ran and ran and ran. Until they stopped him, made him come home, eat his breakfast, get his school bags, kiss his mother, and walk to school. Nobody ran to school. “Walk!” His mother’s last words echoed until he turned the corner and then he ran.
Which is the new plan. He’s been thinking about running all month. It’s the first thing that comes to mind in the morning: the feel of the air on his face and the pad of his feet striking the earth. When he closes his eyes, he sees himself at 9, running, and at 19 running.
Strange, he thinks, how I can both see myself—the boy—running and be inside him with the air filling my chest and my whole body moving like an arrow through space.
He started training two weeks ago, first mentally going through the motions, reimagining the slap of the ball of his foot on the ground, the lift of his legs, the thrust of his chest. Actually the preparation was easier than he imagined. The first hurdle was mental: recognizing his geezer shuffle, then stepping out of it, like stepping out of a pair of pants and kicking them aside. Without the old man shuffle, he now strides along, sternum raised, arms swinging.
By the end of the week, the care staff take notice. “Feeling good today, Arnold?”
Really good, he thinks and walks faster.
Saturday will be the first of May. Perfect. The doors are always open on Saturdays—the nice weather will bring in the guilty families. He dresses carefully for breakfast, pulls on a T-shirt under the sweatshirt he always wears, boxer shorts under his trousers, feet bare in his slippers.
Getting out the front door will be the first hurdle. He can step out of the slippers and get the sweatshirt off, but the pants. Oh, the hullaballoo shucking his pants would cause and him crashing out the door in his boxers. He laughs at the delicious thought, but decides to run in long pants. He doesn’t want to alert the staff before he hits the sidewalk.
Only one, “Hey there, Arnold” as he strides through the lobby with its plastic roses drooping in pink vases. He slows at the fish tank—the other captives—and waits until a family with children comes in. The Saturday receptionist doesn’t like children and her eye will be on them, not him.
A little boy slaps his hand on the side of the aquarium—Arnold’s starting gun. He’s off, speed walking across the lobby, out the door, pulling his sweatshirt over his head, throwing it on the porch rocking chair, kicking off his slippers, and striding down the wheelchair ramp.
The shock of his feet on the cold, rough sidewalk surprises him. “Toughen up!” he yells.
It’s two blocks to Central Park, to grass and trees and birds swooping alongside. He has to admit that he feels stiffer than expected. The legs don’t leap forward the way he remembers, but the pressure in his chest is gone and he can hold his head up and swallow air, gallons of air, down into his lungs and his thighs and his knees and his feet. He is running.
He hears them yell, “Stop Arnold!” just as his mother had, but that doesn’t stop him. Not this time.
He keeps running. As soon as he turns the corner, he’ll be free and nobody will see him or stop him. That’s how it always was. That’s how it is today.
Arnold is running.
© 2011 Kathleen Coskran