The Marathon
  Rob Ross

It was old friends that night—Sandy, Jon, Dave, and Jessica. Dirty martinis until the waiter gave us dirty looks. Eventually the guy put his hand on Jon’s shoulder and insisted we leave.

We didn’t expect Jon to push him away—Jon wasn’t usually like that—nor did we foresee the waiter’s wild swing. Jon ducked and tried to punch the guy’s throat, but the waiter cuffed his ear. Then they locked arms and stumbled. Our table flipped over. We could only back up to avoid the breaking glass. Dave stepped in front of Jessica, to shield her, but she grabbed an empty beer bottle and pushed him away, ready to attack; and then, with a crack on the nose, Jon crumpled to the floor. Blood poured from his nostrils, invisible on the red carpet.

Sandy got in the bartender’s face. “You better get out of here,” he yelled, inexplicably.

The bartender raised his fists. Dave and I moved in. The fists lowered.

With a handful of white cloth napkins, Jessica tried to staunch the bleeding. Still conscious, Jon tried to push her away. Sandy called a cab from his cell phone.

“I’m fine.” The sentence ended in a gargle. A few coughs and a black-red clot dried on the carpet.

“Don’t worry about it, buddy.” The napkins in Jessica’s hands were still white at the edges. I couldn’t accept what I was seeing. Nothing connected the good time we’d been having with this moment.

The ambulance came. When the paramedics had shipped Jon away, Sandy shook my shoulder. “You okay there?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.” Things spun in a slow waltz around my stomach, but it might have been the martinis.

We walked back to Dave’s place and poured more drinks.

“Is he back on coke?” I asked.

“Jon’s been confrontational on booze before,” Sandy said.

“Why didn’t the bartender back down?” Jessica asked.

We texted Jon but there was no reply.

“He probably broke his nose,” Dave said.

“Or got sent to the tank.”

“He lost a lot of blood.”

“He’ll be fine,” Sandy said. “I’ve seen worse.”

Hours passed. We had more drinks, trying to understand. Sandy and I went out for a smoke and got stuck on the porch. We kept going over the same details. “There’s only black and white,” he kept saying. “Grey only exists in the present. If you admit to something being grey, it means it’s unresolved. When it becomes resolved, it’s either black or white, right or wrong.”

I protested. “Things can be both right and wrong. Things can be contradictory. You can accept things as being contradictory.”

“No! Things are only contradictory in grey.”

We argued until the ice cubes melted in my gin and tonic and the sun started to rise.

I remembered being thirteen, sitting at the back of the bus on our way home from school, Sandy hunching his arms over Suzie Moscal’s seat, talking into her ear.

“You see, while you’re standing at your pew on Sunday morning,” he explained, “me, Sean, and God will be in my basement playing poker and drinking martinis.” Suzie clenched her bag tightly, trying to ignore him. Sandy went on. “The problem with God is that He always knows what hand I’ve got.”

“Yeah, Suzie,” I added, playing along. “But don’t worry. He still hears your prayers."

"He sure does," Sandy said. "He won’t tell us what they are, because He’s God and all, but He lets us know when you’re making them. He’s strange like that.”

That was Sandy, not this silhouette on Dave’s porch telling me the world lacked greys. How could he be so rigid? And where were Jessica and Dave? I wanted hash browns.

“I’m going to walk to Sherbrook, get breakfast at The Nook. You can come if you want, but I gotta go,” I said.

Sandy took off his Cubs hat and rubbed his shaved head. “All right, but let me see if Dave’ll let me borrow some pants.”

We went upstairs. Sandy knocked on the bedroom door and it creaked open. There was Dave, stark naked and lying on his stomach, his pale ass staring us down. The room smelled like sex. Jessica was sitting next to him, pantless, smiling but not focusing on anything.

“Wow. Sorry guys. Uh...”

Dave turned his head. “No worries, boys. What’s up?”

Sandy looked up at the ceiling. “I was just wondering... uh, if I could borrow some pants.”

“Sure thing.” Dave grabbed a pair of jeans that were lying next to him on the floor. “How ‘bout these ones?” He threw them across the room.

“Sure. See you later.”

“Take care.”

Sandy closed the door. In the hallway, he took off his beige Bay shorts, put on the pair of blue jeans, and then put his shorts on over top. It seemed a strange decision, but I didn’t mention it. We walked back downstairs and left.

“I forgot to ask where Jessica was before we went up,” I said.

“Well, you'd think they would’ve closed the door properly.”

“Would you have bothered?” I wanted to say something about the spontaneity of passion, the suddenness of love, but the memory was too close.

That Sunday in King’s Park had been cloudless. I was smoking a joint on one of the paths that led to the river. A woman in tight spandex shorts and a pale blue tank top approached on the trail through the forest. I covertly hid the joint in my hand. She'd nearly jogged by before I realized it was Chloe, Sandy’s younger sister.

“What are you up to?”

I had no intention of telling her the truth, but I found myself speaking before I could lie. “Smoking a joint. Want some?”

“Sure.”

Chloe was two years younger than me. She’d always been the kid who needed Sandy’s bathroom at inopportune times. She was someone best ignored. I hadn’t expected her to say yes.

“I didn’t know you smoked pot.”

“Sometimes. What else is there to do these days?” Back then, waking up on Sandy’s couch was a Saturday morning routine. Chloe would be on the La-Z-Boy watching television, eating Cheerios in her pyjamas. I would discreetly tuck my morning erection under my waistband, the blare of the TV masking my discomfort.

“It’s kinda weird to stop jogging to get high.”

“I was only jogging ’cause I was bored.”

We sat on a grassy knoll in the shade of a linden tree. Two minutes later the forest emitted a rustling sound. I hid the joint between my legs. Chipmunks, two of them. They were chasing each other.

I don’t know who made the first move. The afternoon plays over in my mind, but I can never get the roles of seduced and seducer straight. What I do remember is the fruity scent of her shampoo mixing with the river’s smell of mud and sand, and that I couldn’t have cared less who or what could have followed those chipmunks through the bushes.

I had seen Chloe every other day since then, but never told Sandy what happened. I didn’t know how he would take it. We weren’t staging fights with McDonald’s ketchup packets for the benefit of passing cars anymore, laughing as we ran down back alleys and yards after someone stopped. Today we were trying to get breakfast.

“About right and wrong—things can be complicated,” I said. “Things can be nuanced.”

“No. Violence is wrong. Everyone knows that. Violence isn’t condoned in any society unless it’s self-defence. And even then, it’s not considered desirable, but an absolute necessity. That may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not.”

“Everyone knows violence is wrong? You’re telling me that Jon and that bartender knew it was wrong but fought anyway? Come on.”

“Yes. Absolutely. They knew, but they treated it like a grey area. If they had seen it in terms of right and wrong, it wouldn’t have happened. Do unto others. They knew that. They knew it.”

I couldn’t believe Sandy would simplify so brutally. Did he really think everyone had some sort of universal moral compass? The world held so much evidence to the contrary.

We started down Wolseley. Sandy looked ridiculous with his beige shorts over Dave’s voluminous jeans. To be fair, my faded, navy-blue Dickies with frayed bottoms and sun-bleached, black canvas jacket fared only slightly better. We didn’t feel out of place until a white City of Winnipeg car slowed to give us the onceover. As always, we smiled and waved.

“Okay, but what about, say, at dinner. Does it really matter what hand you use your fork with, or how you hold your knife? Is there really a right and wrong way for stuff like that? Does that really have to be a black or white situation?”

“Well, no, but I’m not talking about stuff like that.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

“Oh, well then. Never mind.”

Silence. The argument had been pointless. Sandy looked relieved. “Okay, when we started this whole conversation, we were talking about Jon. It turned into some abstract discussion about life in general.”

“Yeah, sorry. I dropped the ball. Quelle surprise.”

“Here I was, talking to you, thinking, ‘Is this really Sean? Do I not know him at all? I gotta re-evaluate my opinion of this guy.’ And you’re looking at me like a stranger...”

Red-bricked houses with triangle roofs and big verandas glided by, old elm trees and kept gardens framing them in elegance and posterity. We could’ve been in Ontario.

“Hey. This is the marathon route, eh?” Sandy remarked.

“What?”

“I just saw a sign back there.”

“Really?” I turned back to see if any runners were approaching, pictured Sandy and I stumbling down Wolseley with a stream of people passing by, a parade of soccer moms and our billowing clothes flapping in the wind. Maybe some sort of referee would come and escort us off. We continued to walk and I kept looking back, waiting.

The Nook was closed. 6:20 a.m. No word from Jon. We were at a loss, but it was too late to quit, the thought of hash browns, toast, bacon and eggs too powerful to ignore. On Sherbrook, a sign told the marathon to turn right. Something was bound to be open downtown.

West Broadway was suspiciously vacant.

“This is eerie.”

“Yeah, you’d think someone would be around. Cars, at least.”

We made to jaywalk across Balmoral, but a motorbike cop approached us from behind. We continued down Broadway instead, past the legislature. Canker worms hung from the trees in groups and floated in the wind, forcing us to dodge their invisible strings with awkward sidesteps and swooping bows. A young woman crossed to the other side of the street and crossed back when we had passed. The motorbike cop came back into view. Up Kennedy, toward Portage, two downtown Biz security patrols approached—black pants, red T-shirts, baseball hats and big belts with mace cans slung in holsters, the wannabe Mounties of the twenty-first century.

Sandy sneered. “Geez, what is this? Is it really so sketchy down here on a Sunday morning they need all these foot soldiers?”

“Yeah, they gotta keep all the riff-raff out of the marathon, so they overkill on security just in case.”

When the Biz patrol passed us on the other side of the street, Sandy called out to them. “Excuse me. We’re trying to get some breakfast. Do you guys know where we can find an open restaurant?”

The men scratched their heads and looked at each other. Finally, the younger one yelled, “The Alexis Grill should be open. It’s at the corner of Graham.”

“Thank you.” We walked to Graham and found the place. Closed.

“What time is it?”

“Eight to seven.”

“Let’s wait till seven.”

We sat on the curb in front of the Alexis Grill, our legs prickling from overuse. The new hydro building was blocking the sunrise, its dark glass creating a halo of piercing brightness for our sleepless eyes.

“Man, this is...” Sandy shook his head. “I mean, on Sundays, I like to do something.” He opened his hand, palm up, and gestured toward the view. “I mean, usually I go to church with my mom on Sunday, ‘cause I don’t get to see her that often. We just chill, talk, but this is...” He put his hand out again.

I knew what he was talking about. The Biz patrol was gone. We had the street to ourselves. The sun painted the buildings in a fierce orange light. I could see the side of an old wall covered in lush vines, a contrast to the glass and steel of the hydro building behind it. The juxtaposition of new and old architecture was oddly beautiful, as unexpected as the empty streets. Inhaling the comforting smell of brick dust and car exhaust, I began to daydream.

“Sandy, I’m in love with Chloe.”

“You’re what?”

“We hooked up in the park. It happened so suddenly.”

“You what?!”

Sandy would stand up, pace, start swinging. I would plead for reason and he would punch me in the nose.

Chloe would be at my side in the hospital, my face in white bandages covering my eyes. Tubes would be coming from my nose and mouth. I’d never see Sandy again.

I didn’t notice the kid on the sidewalk until he passed behind us, his arms pulled into a red hoodie. His cut-off shorts showed two scrawny teen legs, one limping. Someone started yelling in the distance. Sandy turned toward the sound and I stayed on the kid, making sure he kept on his way. After he went down Portage, I joined Sandy’s gaze. Nobody.

“Saw a guy walking down Graham with a couple of twofs under his arm.”

“Pretty early for full cases of beer.”

“Probably got them from a Booster.”

“A what?”

“You never heard of a Booster? It’s a guy who buys a ton of beer when the vendor closes and then sells it from his house, only he marks up the price.”

“What, like a ’20s speakeasy bootleg operation?”

“Yeah.”

I turned back to the glass towers and brick slumps. “Next thing you know jazz will be making a comeback.” My stomach contracted with hunger. I looked at my cell phone: nothing from Jon. 7:09. Next was Sals on Portage.

Sandy stared at the optometrist display in the window. “I swear to God there was a Sals here last month when I went to get my hair cut.”

The restaurant was gone. No one around. No runners on the marathon route. No such thing as an early breakfast anymore. Nothing made sense.

“What are we gonna do?”

Eventually I’d get out of the hospital, my nose all bandaged up. Chloe would take me out to get some air, sit me down on a park bench. It would be sunny.

“I’m sorry, Sean. You’re great, but my brother is more important.”

I’d lose them both.

After lighting cigarettes and thinking a few minutes, I remembered one more place on St. Mary that might be open, but couldn’t remember the name. I told Sandy about it and he didn’t believe me. I couldn’t blame him. We walked down Donald toward Place Louis Riel to catch a bus. The restaurant sign proved me right. Pastel’s—one of those middle-of-the-road diners like Perkins or Denny’s.

Big band music played on the PA. From the kitchen came the glorious smell of coffee and grease. An elderly woman with an Eastern European accent sent us to a booth with floral-patterned cushions, poured me a coffee and brought both of us orange juice while we looked over the menus. We were the only customers in the place.

The waitress had the grim constitution of a devout Mennonite—not directed at anyone in particular, just her general approach to life. Sandy ordered first. “I’ll have the eggs, hard boiled, with hash browns, toast, and bacon. And can I also get an extra egg and an order of sausage, please?”

The waitress scribbled in her notepad and scowled at me.

“I’ll have the same but without the extras, and the eggs over-easy.”

She finished writing and walked away. “Thank you,” I called out.

She looked up, her lips forming a small, bemused smile. “You’re welcome.”

Sandy and I pored over the little dessert card on the table, marvelling in half-disgust at the picture of a marble Cadillac cheesecake, and then the triple-fudge, three-chocolate brownie. I sipped my coffee with glee. The sugar and caffeine mixed with my exhaustion and hot-wired my thoughts into nonsense. I wished I could have a glass of water, but with the orange juice and coffee already in front of me, it seemed excessive.

The food came out fast and we ate in silence, unable to lift our heads from our plates until they were scraped clean. 7:53 a.m.

“This is great,” Sandy said. “I can sleep from nine to five and still be up for Father’s Day dinner.”

“Oh yeah. Going out?”

“Just staying home, probably. My sister and I will see what the old man’s up for. We’ll probably just cook something for him. Last night was my mom’s birthday and we made bacon-wrapped scallops. They were fucking amazing.”

“Nice. I was at Tavern in the Park yesterday for lunch.”

“Oh yeah? Who with?”

“The grandparents, mom, uh...” Chloe was there too—her first time meeting them. Words began to spew out of my mouth. “Yeah, had a portabella mushroom stuffed with shrimp and crab. Came in a caper cream sauce, with a mushroom rice pilaf, and a red pepper reduction.”

“Mmmm. That sounds good. What’s a pilaf?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I’ve had several rice pilafs and they’re never the same. Something to do with chicken broth, I think.”

“Hmm. I can’t eat chicken.”

With our bellies full and the sun shining outside, it seemed like a good time to bring up Chloe. “Yeah, at the restaurant...” I began, but Sandy interrupted.

“What are you doing for Father’s Day?”

“My dad doesn’t celebrate it. He thinks holidays are too consumerist and refuses to participate.”

“Really? Even Christmas?”

“Sort of. The only thing he does for Christmas is take the whole family out for dinner. I usually get him a book.”

“Does your mom like Christmas?”

“Oh, yeah. She loves Christmas hardcore. Decorations and lights everywhere, little Santa statues, pine-scented candles in wreaths.”

Sandy looked puzzled. “Do your parents clash over the holidays?”

I took a sip of my orange juice. “Well, they’re separated, so...”

“Oh, shit, really? I didn’t know that. When did that happen?”

“When we were sixteen, grade ten.”

“How did I not know that?”

“You didn’t really hang out with us back then.”

Sandy looked up and to the left, opening a file in his brain. “That’s right. I kinda dropped off the planet there, when I was dating that girl from Charleswood.”

The waitress brought our bills and we both threw down twenties, leaving a nine-dollar tip. Splitting the change would have been too complicated.

At the bus stop, bloated with breakfast, we sat low on the bench, legs outstretched across the sidewalk. Still no message from Jon, 8:12 a.m.

The bus was alarmingly full, a multicultural potpourri of harried business men, small, sullen cleaning ladies, and drooping exchange students. A man out of a movie, wearing an immaculate white suit and small sunglasses, fanned his glistening face with a matching fedora. Near the front, a conglomeration of elderly ladies with doily-trimmed wool chemises sat clutching plump canvas bags with looks of mild alarm on their faces, as though they were expecting to be robbed. Why were they all on the Sunday morning bus? Were they getting off work or going to it?

“Sandy, why did you wear Dave’s pants under your shorts?”

“What?” Sandy lifted his legs. “Oh. I thought they would be way smaller, and that this would be more comfortable. I didn’t think Dave wore such big pants.”

When we passed Broadway, I looked to see if there were any runners, but there weren’t. Sandy rested his head against the window. I imagined him with a bloody nose. “You ever see Midnight Cowboy?” I asked.

“No. Good flick?”

“It’s a classic.”

Sandy turned to look at the passing streets and buildings. I wanted to put my arm around his shoulders, but he wouldn’t have understood.

“That food did me in,” he said at Osborne Village, his eyelids swollen from a lack of sleep. “I can feel my body shutting down, and my mind is too weak to fight it.”

“I’ll wake you up when we get to our stop. I’m still jiggered from all the coffee.”

The bus turned onto Pembina and started its descent into the South End, into rows of buildings and trees so familiar they barely registered. The sun shone strongly, bathing everything in a white sheen. One of those days where low-lying, cottony clouds float on the sky, and it’s like being on the bottom of an ocean. About to say something, I saw that Sandy had closed his eyes. I had seen him asleep only once before, years ago.

One May long weekend, after splitting a bottle of gin, Dave and Jon had decided to get a beer keg. Everyone was out of town except me and Sandy, so the four of us had the keg to ourselves. I awoke the next day in a field next to a day care, my mouth dry and my face covered in mosquito bites. This strange, high-pitched honking noise kept breaking in at regular intervals. When I could lift my head, I saw Sandy passed out on a pile of tires, his head lolling back as he snored. The day care was around the corner from Jon and Dave’s. We’d passed out a block from their place.

From my seat on the bus, I noticed police cars closing off a lane on the other side of the highway. The traffic heading downtown was at a standstill for blocks. The empty lane suddenly became crowded with old guys clad in hats and sunglasses, elderly women in twos and threes, middle-aged couples with matching running shoes and black spandex, young women with ponytails and brightly coloured tank tops, high school boys in oversized grey T-shirts and long baggy track pants, all of them with numbers pinned to their backs. They pushed and brushed past each other and spat and puffed their cheeks. Some looked serious, others more jovial, running, jogging, walking. Two got on the bus. It was an artery of bodies, spanning the city.

We had started at the finish line and done the marathon backwards. Me and Sandy on the bus, while the rest of the city ran the other way. It felt like it would always be like this, but it wouldn’t. I had to say something.

The bus turned into our neighbourhood and I shook Sandy awake. “Stop’s next.”

He pulled the string. I took a deep breath.

“You should know, I kinda started seeing your sister.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your sister and I...” I trailed off, my head nodding to force out the rest. “We started dating.”

“You what?” Sandy’s nostrils flared. This was bad.

“I’m in love with Chloe!” I shut my eyes, braced my shoulders, and waited—for a finger in the eye, a fist to the belly. Nothing happened. I opened them to see Sandy smiling, laughing silently to himself.

“Yeah, I know.”

It took a couple of seconds to grasp what he meant.

“Since when?”

“She told me a couple days ago. I was just waiting for you to say something.” He stood up to leave.

“So it’s cool?”

Sandy took a deep breath, took off his cap and scratched his head. “Just don’t tell me the details.”

I couldn’t find a way to respond as he groggily hobbled to the door. So Chloe had broached the subject already. The whole night Sandy had known, had seen me as his sister’s new boyfriend. Had they fought about it? What furious act of retaliation had she diverted and morphed into conditional acceptance?

When I the pulled the cord I stood up too fast. Things darkened and brightened again as I grabbed a rail.

Outside, the grass and leaves seemed unusually green. A beep came from my pocket, a text from Jon:

“Busted nose, but ok. Talk later.”

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