SOMETHING ABOUT SAND
It was a quarter past nine and dark out and Gabriel hadn’t yet asked to see anything in his size.
“I’ve been walking with a cane since I was twenty,” he was saying. “Almost half a century. But even now, when I step into the road I know which foot I’ll plant on the next curb. I used to be a long jumper, a long time ago. I’m still a good judge of distance.”
“Are you?” The salesgirl was maybe sixteen, maybe not interested only because it was getting late and she’d probably been working since school let out. Maybe she wasn’t interested, Gabriel thought, because she’s got nine earrings and two colors of hair. But Gabriel went on:
“If it’s not going to be the foot at the end of my good leg, I’ll stutter-step once in the street, make sure it’ll come out right. That’s something you’re never supposed to do on the runway, stutter-step. You measure out your paces ahead of time, so you know you’ll hit the board with your stronger leg. And if you do lose a step or gain a step on your way to the pit, then you just go with it. You jump off your not-so-strong leg and pedal your feet in the air and you hope for the best….”
Ah. Gabriel had figured that this young salesgirl wasn’t alone in the small store at that hour. The proprietor came out from the back. He wasn’t even half a century old in all. “Karen,” the proprietor said, “you can go now. I’ll help this gentleman.”
“Okay,” Karen said. “Goodnight.” On her way out, she kissed the proprietor on the cheek.
“My sister’s kid,” he mentioned. “Are you looking for something specific? A dress shoe? A casual shoe? A hiker?”
Gabriel looked askance at the proprietor.
“I’m just kidding,” the proprietor confessed. “I heard what you were telling her. The cane since twenty. But a regular kangaroo back in the day.”
“Wasn’t no hurdler. I was a long jumper, and pretty good, too. Never looked like a jumper, always pretty wiry, but pretty good.” Gabriel began to trail off.
The proprietor brought Gabriel back. “What happened?”
“Boot camp. Tore my hamstring and it never healed properly. Calcified hematoma, they said. That’s a blood clot got hard. Was just a lump in my leg for a while, then it started to get in the way, by that I mean cut off circulation. It had to come out, but by the time I got rid of it, the damage was done. Been limping since even before the operation.”
“Could have been worse, though, don’t you suppose? Could have been polio, like that President.”
“Could have been,” Gabriel agreed.
“Or you could have lost it altogether overseas.”
From the parking lot behind the store came the sound of an engine turning over, then two quick raps on the horn. That must have been the niece. Older than sixteen, then, but not much. Must live close by. Don’t want these young kids driving alone too far at night.
“I get mostly kids in here,” the proprietor volunteered, pointing a thumb behind him. “I’m lucky she’s not too proud or too busy to help out. She tells me what to buy for them. And when to stop buying.”
If he never bought another pair to resell, it looked to Gabriel like the proprietor’d have enough to stay in business for years still to come. The man spent his working days surrounded by a mosaic of thousands of shoebox fronts. There were none of the fancier appointments in the shop—that was it: it was more a shop than a store. It was for sure no showroom or gallery or boutique. It was a room with nothing but shoes, six chairs where one could sit and try on shoes, and a counter where one could pay for shoes. Not a whole lot of different things to do in a place like this.
“What brought you in?”
“Tell you the truth, it’s the bar next door I come around for. But lately, I’ve been taking a look over here. It’s always been late enough that you’re closed. Tonight I came a little bit early, I guess because I wanted to see what you’ve got inside. I don’t see any sneakers in the window.”
“You mean athletic shoes.”
“I mean sneakers. What do you mean?”
“Everything’s a kind of shoe nowadays: tennis shoes, basketball shoes, soccer shoes—you know, what we used to call cleats. My own son’s on the track team at the University here. Tells me he’s got one pair of shoes for practice, one pair for sprints, another for the triple jump. For indoor races, he’s got something they call ‘waffles.’ I bet you did everything in the same pair of shoes, like me.”
“In the same pair of sneakers. Sure I did. And we didn’t have any ‘triple jump.”
But Gabriel knows what it is, the triple jump: it’s the field realization of the proverbial hop, skip, and jump we’re always saying it takes to get from here to there, from the house to the post office, from the suburbs to the city, from the cradle to the grave. It’s an awkward, ungainly progression, an unnecessary evolution of a simple feat, a perfect action, Gabe’s old favorite event.
“So, were you thinking of running again? I mean, did you come looking for sneakers for yourself.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel said. “I guess I did.”
“Well, I got all sorts of crap here. Maybe I have something for you. You want me to look?”
“I don’t know, it’s late. Maybe you shouldn’t bother.”
“It’s no bother. Want me to measure? It’s the more professional way.”
“Nine and a half and I won’t tell nobody.”
The proprietor knew where to look, evidently knew exactly what he had in stock and where he’d shelved every pair. With one hand opened wide, he braced the shoeboxes next to and above the one he wanted, which he extracted with his other. He took out the sneakers, left the box on the small counter where the cash register sat. He laced the pair as he walked back to Gabriel and squatted at Gabriel’s feet. He helped the customer off with his old shoes, on with the new. Then he helped Gabriel to stand.
“They fit,” Gabriel said. “And they’re comfortable enough. It’s just that I’ve probably been wasting your time. I can’t really afford to buy these, not if I’m not gonna start running again.” Gabriel was looking down. “And I don’t know that I am.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t. But look, I don’t want you to feel like you have to decide now. I’ll tell you what: you take them home with you, for the night. You borrow them. Walk around in them, maybe take a jog in the morning. See if you don’t really want them. If you don’t, you bring them back tomorrow night. You come back tomorrow night one way or the other. If you want to keep them, you pay for them tomorrow.”
“Can you do that?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, can you take ’em back? Can you sell shoes that somebody’s already worn?”
“First off, probably nobody else is going to come looking to buy them. That’s why I’ll also give you a good price. They’re not top-of-the-line anymore. Couple of years old. Second place,” the proprietor then started to say, and Gabriel winced. Gabriel had never liked to hear second place. “Don’t beat them up, and I’ll replace the insoles. I’ve got more of those. Company always sends extra.”
Gabriel was still looking down. He lifted his head. “You’ve talked me into giving them a try.”
“Good. You want to wear them out?”
Gabriel thought. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“Let me just get you a bag for your other ones, then.”
The proprietor stepped behind the counter. He bent down. When he came back up with a plastic bag, he asked, “Say, you want to go next door now for that drink?”
“No, not tonight,” Gabriel answered. “I’ve got to do one more thing before it gets too late and I get too tired.”
“Sure? Just one drink. On me,” the salesman offered.
Gabriel sighed. “Okay, son. One drink. Whiskey.” The bartender poured one for each in front of them, then withdrew.
“Who’s waiting for you at home, Gabriel?”
Gabriel swished his drink around his mouth. It was gritty and he didn’t mind.
“Gabriel? Are you married?”
“Was. She made me a widower in April. That’s when I started coming in here.”
“And we’re glad to have you, Gabe.” The bartender walked past them. “Only wish ’twere under better circumstances.” The bartender sidled away again.
“Grown. Saw them in April.”
The bartender caught the salesman’s eye, pursed his lips, raised a finger to them, telling the salesman to leave it be. The salesman stopped asking questions. The bartender slid back toward them, collected their empty glasses, wiped the bar. “What are you missing?” he asked the salesman.
“Could go for a beer. Gabriel?”
Gabriel looked at the salesman, then to the bartender, then back. “No, thank you. I really should get going.”
“Fair enough, Gabe. You okay to drive?”
“Hmm? Oh, sure. It’s my good leg that works the pedals.”
The bartender shook his head, drew the salesman’s beer. The salesman chuckled. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Kangaroo.”
“Right. See you tomorrow.”
Gabriel limped around the block to his car, opened the door, pitched his cane onto the passenger’s side of the front seat, climbed in. He started the motor and backed out of the lot, onto the street. He turned at the light and drove to the high school nearest the bar. Gabriel had lived in the area at least long enough to know where the sand was.
But the school grounds were fenced in and the fence gates were locked, of course. Don’t want vandals getting in and getting exercise. Gabriel smirked and then grimaced and thought, well, if you’ve got to have sand, you can always go to the beach. Gabriel got back in his car and headed east toward the water.
Never liked the beach, Gabriel was thinking. Always loved the sand, but never liked the beach. Must be the ocean I never cared for, or the other people.
Gabriel’s awareness faded to memory—years before boot camp, he’d spent three weeks one summer at a camp for sports-minded kids. For three weeks that seemed like much longer, he and a bunch of other boys learned how to stretch and warm up properly and even how to cool down after a workout or a race. That was something new. Three weeks and not a single cramp, not a charley horse, not a stitch in his side. Last day of the program, the morning their parents were coming to pick up the kids, Gabriel breaks his pinky in a pillow fight. A pillow fight. But it was a bad break, all the same. Nearly passed out, or did pass out, Gabriel can’t quite recall, from——
Gabriel saw a jogger to his left as he cleared an intersection.
“Fucking watch where you’re going,” the jogger was shouting, waving his arm, pointing at something behind Gabriel. “Stop sign…!”
Gabriel noticed that he wore those new reflective strips on his shirt. Fat lot of good they do, Gabriel thought and continued on without interruption even as he drove over the toll bridge.
Gabriel parked the car and turned off the motor, but left the headlamps burning and got out. He left his cane behind, limped diagonally across the lot toward the bottom of the wooden ramp leading to the boardwalk, raised some fifteen feet above sea level. It took him maybe only a minute to get there. It didn’t take him any longer without his cane. He knew it.
He stood at the base of the ramp and looked up to the boardwalk and at the moon beyond and Gabriel was certain of one thing at that moment: that he should count out his strides first. For damned sure he should walk the ramp and the width of the boardwalk to the fence that ran above the beach and from there he should measure his paces back and down again, but Gabriel just didn’t have the energy. If he did all that, that’d be all he’d do tonight. So he’d have to make his run cold. His consolation was that it was already dark and chances were slim that there’d be a plane flying overhead when he started.
Gabriel remembered that one meet: He hadn’t noticed the planes when he was in the hole. He didn’t notice them flying low when he was on deck. He didn’t realize even as he stepped onto the runway that this rival school was right under the landing approach for the goddamned airport. Gabriel started his run toward the pit and as he hit the board, or meant to, everything went black. An aeroplane had passed right over him, between him and the sun, and cast a shadow on the board just when Gabriel had got there. Gabriel in fact missed the board and tumbled into the sand. Foul, the judged ruled. Scratch one jump.
But no planes tonight, Gabriel thought. No sun, even, just the moonlight, just enough light. Enough that he didn’t have to make out the ocean. It blended with the sky. It’s the ocean he must have never liked, and the other people. Didn’t want to stumble tonight, tumble into the ocean. But there are no planes, he reminded himself.
A jumper has ninety seconds from when his name is called to start his run. If he makes the mistake of stepping onto the runway before his name is called, he will be disqualified. Gabriel heard someone calling his name. “Coming,” Gabriel heard himself say aloud, as the official does when a jumper begins his run, to alert the onlookers and the measuring officials down at the pit…. Then Gabriel realized that he had begun running. Gabriel was running up the incline, the wide wooden ramp, toward the boardwalk, toward the fence, toward the sand. It didn’t hurt. It was the numbness that pained him, Gabriel understood, the not quite feeling. But I’ll feel the sand. I’ll make it to the sand and I’ll feel that. I’ll make it to the boardwalk over the fence to the sand—— Gabriel was running but who was still calling his name?
“Oh, God! What happened?”
“Freaking guy came out of nowhere. Running across the boardwalk. I didn’t see him. Ran right fucking into him…. Shit.”
“Man,” somebody said.
“Fucking… dumbass… old man,” the bicyclist mumbled, dazed.
They were looking at the wreckage, a crumpled man not breathing and a bicycle. They helped the bicyclist up and he picked up his bicycle, which had gotten a little scratched, and its headlight had come unattached.
“Idiot,” the bicyclist muttered, shaking his head, looking away. “Goddamn… run along the boardwalk, not across it.”
Two other men had come running up the ramp after the first, yelling for him to stop the whole time. A shoe salesman and a bartender, they looked just like.
“Something About Sand” appeared in Plain Spoke, Late 2010.