Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The big lights make everything as bright as day, although the sky is black. Lots and lots and lots of people sit in the stands, all looking down on the track, where he and the other boys are getting ready to run. His mommy ties his shoes for him. “How’s that, sweetheart?” she says and kisses his forehead. His daddy smiles and waves from the stands. He waves back. “Hi, Daddy!”
The man with the gun that looks real says, “Runners, take your marks.” He takes one last stretch before he comes to stand behind the starting line, marveling at how big his feet have grown. Ahead, a white ribbon stretches across to mark the finish. He thinks, Can I do this?
From the stands, his father shouts, “You can do this!”
He feels his face get hot. The other fathers are silent. The other fathers aren’t embarrassing their sons.
His mother calls out, “Come on, sugar!”
One of the other runners says, “Yeah, come on, sugar.”
Bang! He’s running! He’s surprised how long his legs are, how far he travels with each stride. He glances at the stands, where a girl sits watching him. She’s pretty. He’s glad that she’s watching. He wonders if such a pretty girl would ever marry him.
She does marry him! There she is, running at his side. She’s beautiful, if a little awkward, running while pregnant with their first child, and then carrying the baby in her arms. Now she’s pregnant again, but still keeping up. How does she do it?
Suddenly she’s not there anymore. He glances over his shoulder without breaking stride. Where did she go? Could she be back in the stands? There are so many faces, and he’s going by them so fast. He sees other women. Some look at him, but he doesn’t wonder about marrying any of them. What about his mother and father? Where are they? When was the last time he heard them shouting encouragement?
He’s fighting for air. His legs don’t have the same spring they did when he started. In another few strides, he’ll cross the finish line. His own children are in the stands. He wishes they would look at him. He’d like them to see him leaning forward to break the ribbon with his chest. Maybe his grandchildren are watching.
His legs carry him a few steps past the line, but his knees won’t stop shaking. He has to sit down. He has to lie down. No one cheers. He can’t hear anything except the pounding of his heart, his lungs gasping for air. Has everyone gone? Is he alone? He’s too tired to lift his face from the track to look. Will he ever catch his breath? Air whistles in his windpipe, but between breaths, silence.
The silence between breaths grows longer and longer. It’s getting dark. Someone must be turning out the banks of stadium lights, one after another. He knows he will never have the strength to stand up again, but the memory of how the track felt beneath his feet is still with him. That was some race.
Bruce Holland Rogers