I stumbled out of the bar into the high desert winter. The freezing night air felt good as I weaved across the Plaza. Somewhere in my whiskey soaked mind, I remembered there was a cash machine along the perimeter. I started my way around in a clockwise flow and figured I’d find it eventually.
I stuck the card in and struggled to remember my PIN. The twenties spat out into the little drawer. I fanned them out in the glow of the fluorescent light. One of my buddies used to call a twenty a “fun ticket.” More fun for my liver, in this case. I followed my short-term memory bread crumbs back to the bar. I wasn’t familiar with Santa Fe.
As I found where to exit the Plaza, a car pulled up to the sidewalk. There was a hot brunette in the front passenger seat. The four-door slid to a stop right where I wobbled to the curb.
The girl rolled down the window and said, “Can you help me?”
“Sure.” I walked to the car and leaned on the roof. I tried to align my eyes so I could enjoy the view.
A hand appeared from the back seat. A blast of mist hit me in the face. All of the doors opened, except for the girl’s. Three dudes piled out of the car. I had no idea what they sprayed in my eyes, but I knew what they were going to do next. I’m no karate man, so I ran.
The good news? I was a runner. Cross country. The mile. 10k races. The bad news? I was no sprinter. If I didn’t outrun these guys--immediately--I was going to be short some money and, maybe, some blood.
I veered out into the empty street so I could avoid obstacles in the shadowy sidewalk. My eyes started to burn and my nose ran uncontrollably. I heard the footsteps right behind me. I saw the bursts of steam from my breath. I wondered how long I’d be able to see at all.
I could hear the flapping clothes of men at a full sprint behind me. And their breathing. I was terrified. Which would give out first? My legs? Or my vision?
One of the guys behind me gave up and I heard the big flopping footfalls like when a sprinter flails to a stop after the tape. Then, a second flurry of the sounds of a quitter.
But one more was right there. I figured it wasn’t about money anymore.
We were in that anaerobic, no-man’s land between 200 yards and the mile. Where your body is dipped in boiling oil. I had the added bonus of chemicals shutting my eyes. If I escaped, I could thank all the suffering my coaches put me through. All of those miles led to this moment where I would out-suffer my attacker.
Steve Prefontaine was an American distance-runner who died in his prime in the 70’s. Years after this sprint, I read something he said: “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more."
I resolved to sit in this pain cave with the guy chasing me. I was going to outlast him. I was going to win. Even drunk. Even after getting maced.
I counted off the streetlights. Welcome to my world, asshole.
His footsteps started to fade. He didn’t stomp to a halt like the others. His cadence remained the same. He just drifted back. He didn’t surrender easily.
I put it into cruise. I was in my homeland: Aerobia. I could run all night. I kept my wits and zig-zagged randomly at intersections. I was worried they’d go back and get their car and find me. I found my way into an alley and huddled next to a dumpster. All the fluid in my head flowed out of every hole in my face. I was snorting like a plow horse from my race. I expected someone to open a window, like in a movie, and yell at me to get lost. I waited a long time and started to get cold.
I destroyed the sleeves of my jacket wiping my face as I walked back to the center of town. I finally found the bar. Through my painful vision slits, I could see people stop their conversations and stare as I walked by. I found my way to the boys. I tapped Jocko on the shoulder. He spun around on his barstool.
“Jesus. What the hell happened to you? You’ve been gone for like an hour.”
“I got mugged.”
I told him what happened. Then I said, “I got kind of lost.”
“You look like shit.” He turned to the rest of the group and yelled, “Saddle up!”
“Take it easy, Jocko. I just want to sit here and drink.”
“No. You’re gonna come outside with me and we’re gonna find those guys.”
“We’ll never find those guys. They’re long gone.”
“Just come with me.”
I walked back out into the night. We stood on the curb where the car had pulled up next to me. Some of our other buddies were stationed on nearby corners, ready to swoop in. As each car drove by, he’d ask, “Is that it? Is that them?”
I kept answering no as the fading adrenaline left me achy and sleepy. I still had my cash. I wanted a drink.
Jocko said, “I haven’t been this fired up since the war.” His mustache was twitching as he paced back and forth. He flew in Desert Storm.
I looked at Jocko and laughed. I hadn’t been to war yet. I figured this was a glimpse of what your comrades did for you. So, I stood there feeling appreciated and kept looking into car windows.
Eric Chandler wrote two books this year: Outside Duluth and Down In It. He enjoys cross country ski racing and marathon running. He lives with his wife and two children in Duluth, Minnesota. Find links to his published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry at his blog: Shmotown.