The sweatpants basically still fit, only pulling a little over the burn scar, the silhouette of an iron stretched over the tumorous growth of a love handle. The same point where the embroidered emblem of the Covington High Cranes ended, the head of the bird threatening to snake up over the waistband. Poocher looked in the mirror. Fingers through the hair. Spit on the eyebrows. Nice five o’clock. Going on six, but all good for right then. Damn good. He smiled for a moment.
He crept down the hallway, careful not to wake Maggie, went through the living room with the old woman on her mattress and the machine that kept her alive with its cadenced sucks and clicks and into the kitchen where he grabbed one of the sixers from the fridge and stepped outside into the morning haze to train for the Beer Mile.
Maggie watched him go, hidden behind the windowsill, eyes flitting behind the blinds like a pair of warring blue birds. If he caught her, he wouldn’t think he was the first one to wake up, something he had seemed to need since being let go. She’d held the bright birds closed tight as Poocher peeled himself from bed and fought his sweats on. For the past two weeks the sharp thwack of that elastic band had pulled her awake like a warm hug every morning. Knowing he was going out. Doing something. Way he used to. It tickled Maggie all up her spine. Say what you want about Poocher, she would say. He’s fun. Right now he just needed something extra to get him back to that, what he was before. Fun. That grin crossing the Covington finish line. That golden voice on karaoke night.
Yes, he needed something in his life, something to put his mind to. Once it had to stop being his work, once they’d let all the machinists go at the key factory, he hadn’t had anything. No focus. But with the training it was back again. Maggie felt all flushed, waking up to that sweet thwack.
She listened for the old woman in the other room. A small chirping came to her. The beep of the machine, letting her know something was up with the thing. Not an emergency. Emergencies issued a high whine that had woken them up once before. This sound would tell them only that something had gone a little hinky with the old woman or that something had improved in some minute, meaningless way.
Could be good, could be bad, she thought, sliding on slippers. Like most things, that sound.
The track hadn’t changed much since high school. Same width, length, color, everything. Painted white marks in the same place they’d always been. While Poocher couldn’t see a reason or even a way of changing it, he was still shocked they hadn’t found a way to fuck it up. Every goddamn thing else was changing for no apparent reason and never for the better, so why not change the way a man ran a mile? Every morning that Poocher arrived back at his old track over the last couple of weeks he expected it to be different. Steeper, shorter, thinner, gone. Every time he ran it, he ran like it was the last time.
Tenderly, he laid five beers in the grass by the paint lines, having drunk one on the way to take the edge off and get his blood flowing, and started stretching. One leg pulled up behind him, he surveyed the track. His morning eyes had grown right with the sun, and his head was clearing well. Courtney French would be getting his ass beat all up and down this track that was Poocher’s. Courtney French hadn’t even gone to school here. Lots of sweat here. Lots of trim on this track. Lots of gold medals. Now he was back to take it, own it, completely obliterate everything that was Courtney French for stepping onto his dirt. Poocher took a deep breath, spit in the dirt, and jostled himself around in the crotch. Everything felt bigger in the Covington sweats.
While stretching he liked to practice his speech for when he humiliated Courtney French.
“The Beer Mile is simple, but a challenge,” he imagined himself saying, bending from the waist and popping a kink from his back. “There is an art to it. You know, details, what not. For example, every lap you finish you have to drink a beer, four in all, but if you don’t belch out the carbonation in the first five seconds after completion, you’re gonna hurl… Pretty much it, far as rules go. The rest, well, the rest is running.”
The ceremony started. He pulled the cans out one by one and stood four of them up beside the track in a perfect line. An aluminum firing squad. The fifth he nestled down into the grass.
A car horn cut through the peace. Scoot waved at him from his new pickup, the one Maggie said they couldn’t afford, parked half over the edge of the pavement, idling.
“Hey dude!” he hollered.
Poocher gave a wave back. Scoot waved again.
A feckless retard is what Poocher thought when he saw Scoot. His brother. Like one, anyway. The kind you make when you drink enough with a guy that eventually everything comes out and there’s not really any other way to think about him. And anyway, Scoot kept his time, and it made Poocher feel good to be seen.
Scoot pointed at his watch. Poocher nodded, came out of his stretch, grabbed a beer, and immediately set down the track, his mind sliding back to the lights of the reporter’s cameras.
When Poocher ran, he was no longer Poocher. Same way when he was a boy. But larger this time. More necessary. He had no job, no Maggie, no house, no name. The old woman was finally gone. He traveled the globe and saw things that no one had ever seen before. Things that didn’t even exist.
He liked to think about the desert. He figured that with all that dirt out there, there had to be a spot where no other human being had ever stood. Just one square foot where nobody had stood. Good as the moon. He felt right, considering the desert.
The fourth beer went down even easier than the first.
Poocher climbed in beside Scoot. “Only got one left and it’s for me.”
“Nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds, brother.” Scoot gunned the engine and they pulled away toward the bar.
“Gotta get that shit low. Courtney French is comin’ for my ass.”
“Two ways to that,” Scoot said, and the guys smiled out the windshield.
They drove for a moment in silence. Poocher hoped they could make the whole trip to Sugar’s that way, but it was a hair over a mile, and he knew Scoot couldn’t hack it.
“How’s your mom?” he asked quietly.