Old Man Runner
by Barbara Donnelly Lane
She met him at one of those small town barbeques: neighbors milling around the grill amidst thick smells of burnt hamburger and bug spray. He was hunched in a plastic chair like an old bird perched in its nest, blending into the scenery as benignly as the lawn furniture. She was quietly munching on a potato chip, watching her son play a game of catch with a football, when he spoke. “Did you run in that race?”
She jumped at the sound of his gravelly voice. She’d forgotten he was sitting next to her; he was so much like a grey statue.
He pointed with his Coke bottle to the faded graphics on the front of her old Peachtree Road Race t-shirt. The 10K held each year on the Fourth of July is an Atlanta institution. The city sets up sprinklers for the thousands of runners who brave the heat and run through the streets, accepting Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Dixie cups of water and beer from spectators.
“Sure,” she smiled, finally comprehending what he was asking. “I run as much as I can. Mostly local.”
“I know,” he said. His eyes were a bleary blue and liver spots dotted his cheeks.
“You do?” She was surprised. She knew she had never met him before though she assumed he lived in the neighborhood.
“Oh, yes,” he said, a pink tongue flicking across his thin upper lip. “I watch you run by my house with that shaggy black dog almost every morning.”
“You do?” she asked again. He looked harmless enough with his white socks pulled up past his calves, his skinny thighs pale and exposed in tan shorts, but any man peeping at her from behind window blinds without her knowledge was nerve wracking. Even if the Peeping Tom was on Social Security.
“Your stride is all wrong,” he observed. “You keep your feet pointed too far out … like a duck.”
“I do?” She wasn’t quite sure how to react to his unsolicited assessment.
“You’ll never go fast that way. I used to coach track, you know. In my second career.”
“You did?” She was beginning to sound to herself like a skipping record only letting two words out at a time.
“Oh, yes. I was a runner before that at the Naval Academy.”
“That so?” She stared skeptically at his sagging body, his legs as thin as a chicken’s.
He nodded proudly, and something about his expression looked suddenly familiar to her. Age dropped away from his spirit, and she knew in that instant that he was thinking about great distances conquered, races run in the past as he fingered the buttons on his white shirt. She tried to imagine him, age gone, handsome and young in a Naval officer’s uniform.
“Do you still run?” she asked.
“Only in my mind.” He glanced disdainfully at a brown cane she had not noticed before lying like a petrified snake beside his feet in the grass. “Bad hip. Now I swim.”
“Swimming is fun,” she said, but he gave her a reproachful look that made them both smirk. She knew from experience how a runner got addicted to the slap of feet against concrete, the strain needed to push up a hard hill. She wondered if swimmers could even sweat, if there would be any satisfaction at all for her in the water, flopping around like a fish, this former sailor.
“Well, I’ll run for the both of us then,” she volunteered, lifting her Coke to toast him.
“Not unless you fix your form, you won’t,” he protested, and she laughed when he winked at her, the old man runner. Their thoughts and spirits were running comfortably close together now they’d found themselves standing still on common ground.
Barbara Donnelly Lane lives in Atlanta and has had her work appear in a variety of publications, including The Palo Alto Review, Sport Literate, Reader’s Break, Small Spiral Notebook, On the Line Magazine, Characters, SHINE Brightly, Beyond Centauri and The Amethyst Review. Two of her essays were finalists in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in 2009 and 2010 respectively. She’s run more than 10 half marathons and two marathons and says this story is about the connection runners and weekend athletes make when they meet, regardless of age or experience.