Tim Peeler: The Great Race

–oh yes we did. we found Tim Peeler’s short story in our backups. Enjoy — Val

The radio trumpets a synthesizer and vocal-over-vocal piece called “Dream Weaver.” It is about astral projection–something I believe, in a relaxed kind of conservative Protestant way. Winston clicks the tuner off by mashing the tape monitor button, then plugs in his demo tape. The music that trickles out from the Bose 301’s is all tinkling keyboard and Winston’s pinched voice singing over and over, “You won’t remember me, but you will remember my name.”

My two housemates and I heave a collective sigh and tell him how great it is, how he is a sure thing to make it in New York City. Actually, Winston has been in New York for nearly two months, utilizing his boyish good looks and imperious sense of style to procure a waiter’s job at STUDIO 54.

“I’m telling you, man, John Lennon is an asshole. He refuses to do autographs and raises hell when someone is seated at a table next to his. I didn’t even ask him when the Beatles were getting back together, and he wadded up the napkin I’d given him to autograph, wiped his sweaty, crook-nosed face and tossed it in the floor.”

“His face or the napkin?” asks Bill, always wary of Winston’s stories.

“What are you, a fucking English teacher?” he glares with blue-green eyes that soften; he has another story.

“Last week I danced with Cheryl Tieggs.”

“Bullshit,” this time it was Denny.

“I’m serious. She came up to me and asked me. You see, what you’ve got to understand is that all the guys in there are gay, and nobody even paid any attention to her. She kissed me, too.”

“You look gay,” interjected Bill.

“Come on, man, what did you guys really think of my song?” Winston asks, sliding his long fingers across his slicked back hair, like Travolta.

Winston, Denny, and Bill had attended the same small town high school 50 miles south of Raleigh. Though Winston was a year behind them, they had hung out together. Winston had money, looks, and his house was good for an occasional medicine cabinet raid. His dad was a reputable surgeon who kept boxes of pharmaceutical samples around, a trove of such immensity that a bottle here and a bottle there would never be missed. This fact alone was reason enough to put up with him.

A visit from Winston or for that matter anyone from high school days always gets Denny started with reminiscences of the “glory days.” At the time we didn’t know it, but this particular visit would become the seed that would sprout the idea for the Great Race.

Three beers into a six pack Denny begins his rhetoric, “Well, it happened like this, boys. You almost had to be there to believe it.”

“I was there,” Bill pipes in.

Denny ignores him and proceeds with a detailed description of a torturous cross country race where despite his lack of height and cigarette habit he overcame the county rival to win, over the boy, he notes, now runs for State.

“You’re a fucking liar!” Bill exclaims. “I don’t remember you ever winning a race.”

“Did I say I won, pussface?”

“Who you calling a puss, you ragass turtlefucker!”

Before the argument comes to clumsy, drunken, adrenalilzed blows, we decide to have The Great Race, so named because we were all 22 years old and still “great” athletes. Barring death, common sense, or accidental castration, we would, the following Saturday afternoon, traverse the three-mile squarish loop that I normally jog, around the main university campus and the western residential area of Greenville.

I’m not quite sure how I came to be entangled in this design. Call it fate; further define it as foolish proximity, a nearness to dawdling blockheads. As we had no cross-country team at my redneck western NC high school, I had trouble understanding the concept of their argument, the discussion of a strange scoring process and running of all places, through the woods. My high school started a wrestling team the year after I left, and the guys that showed up wanted to know where the ring was and whether they would get to wear masks. So to honor this legacy of genius, I thought it only appropriate that I run The Great Race as the Masked Bolo, perennial bad guy of my professional wrestling boyhood days. That night I began to cut up a pillowcase, fashioning it to fit my long thin head.

On Tuesday afternoon Denny and I go running together. First he explains at length why his Tyger running shoes, now over four years old, are the best ones ever designed by a mortal being.
“You see the cushion under the toe.” He’s pointing to a flat shiny place inside the front of the shoe. He has folded the worn tongue down.

“This is what allows me to gain speed while running up hill. And God help you guys when we come over the crest.”

“How far do you want to go, Denny?”

“Let me smoke a cigarette right quick and think about it.”

Denny probably has the most to lose in The Great Race, but he seems the most self-assured. According to the bet, the losers split the next month’s rent, while the winner has a free month. Denny’s only source of income is the Social Security checks he gets each month. He was orphaned at fourteen, and after spending his high school years with an uncle, has since been on his own.

“Let’s just do the course, and I might go a second lap. You know I’m used to doing six miles.”

Denny raises his eyebrows to emphasize the importance of this distance, in case I missed it. Then he stabs his half-smoked cigarette in the filthy glass ashtray and carefully lays his glasses on the canary yellow kitchen table. His movements are ritualistic and smooth as if he is preparing himself for the rhythm of the run. Removing his glasses is also a symbolic act. Without them, he bears a feint resemblance to Henry Winkler. Over the years he has become convinced that his dark pleasant face is a dead ringer for the TV star’s. Nearly blind, his embattled confidence level soars; sans glasses he becomes a Superman of women chasers, an aristocratic “sport,” the sure-footed leader of men.

Bill’s training remains secretive. As far as we can tell, he buttons his square-jawed, razor-nicked face in the books. He has pressure at home, we presume, to zip through his MBA program. His dad had been a science magazine editor in New York before they moved south. Now he designs TV’s. There are two mysterious sisters waiting in the wings to start their own college careers.

. . .

Thursday night, the Atlanta Braves are on the cable. Across the hallway you can see the fluorescent light under Bill’s closed door.

“He’s really not that good,” says Denny.

“He was second in the state in the 880. How the hell did you talk me into this crazyass race?”

“Look, I-don’t-think-he’s-run-a-lick,” Denny’s words fit the slots between quick nervous puffs on a Pall Mall. Bluish smoke boils out through his raw nostrils.

“He’ll never run three miles, man. He never could. Besides, you saw how I ran the other day. I can run six minute miles from here to fucking Raleigh.”

“Denny, we were running nine minute miles, and you had to stop four times.” The crowd interrupts us with a roar on the TV. The Braves new rookie catcher, a kid named Dale Murphy, has just hit the ball over 400 feet. The announcer is completely bonkers.

“He sounds like a used car salesman on acid, says Denny. Lately, he compares everybody to something on acid.

. . .

The heat in Greenville, NC, is oppressive, is straight out of Tennessee Williams. It holds the population in its sweaty throes well into September. When Saturday afternoon arrives, it is no exception. By three o’clock the temperature is 90 and the humidity is near 100 per cent. Bill asks us if we would like to wait till evening, but Denny and I are hyped and eager to compete. Despite the heat, I opt to wear my mask. Bill wears a hat with nerf horns on it. He says he is the buffalo from a movie he recently saw about the renegade journalist, Hunter Thompson.

The start is an auspicious one. Our little neighborhood, known as Ripple City is banked on the fetid Tar River. The first 200 yards are an uphill jaunt out of the horseshoe shaped street to 1st Street. Denny bolts out ahead by a house length before we hear his shout:

“Holy Shit!”

Ripple City is famous for its dogs, and three of them are after Denny. A German Shepherd named Ozark gets to him first and with a subtle turn of his ferocious head sends the other two scampering away from his prey.

“Ozark, Goddamnit!” He’s got a pretty good hold on the back of Denny’s shorts, the only thing he’s wearing besides his Tyger running shoes. As Bill and I catch up, there is an audible ripping sound, and Ozark turns back down the hill satisfied with his shiny blue swatch of running shorts.

“Jesus Christ! I can’t compete like this,” Denny whines checking the ragged hole.

“Come on you wussy,” Bill and I taunt in concert.

“You guys will pay for this indignity. I am racing under protest.”

“Now you really are a ragass turtlefucker,” says Bill as he takes the lead out the flat sidewalk of 1st Street. The City Park by the river is to the right. It is all dried brown grass and stunted trees. Tobacco, of course, would grow there, but it isn’t the choice for most parks. At the far north end of the park a steel framed bridge hovers above the stagnant Tar. Two years ago, a depressed mental patient jumped from there to his broken necked death.

As we head left, west on Evans Street into the heart of the afternoon sun, my face begins to perspire profusely under the Bolo mask. The rubber bands that hold it tightly about my throat are suffocating. But my main problem is the pace; my lazy nine-minute mile jogs failed to prepare me for this seven-minute drill. I begin to suspect that Denny was sandbagging Tuesday, and Bill is obviously toying with us. I trail them by ten yards as we pass the hideous line of popular bars on Cotanche Street: the jungle green Treehouse, the faded red Sunset, and the pukey purple Attic, where last night we witnessed the wretched performance of Black Oak Arkansas, Jim Dandy to the rescue.

As we cross over to the north side of campus, I snap one of the rubber bands. It pops Denny on the leg.

“Son of a bitch, man!”

The multi-storied institutional brick coed dorms, known as “the erections” loom in the haze to our left. We pound the last cement squares of uphill sidewalk and hook left like foul balls on the uneven sidewalk that lips the long flat tongue of 5th Street. The pace quickens even more. My throat is burning sandpaper, a dangerous feeling I haven’t experienced since high school track. Bill leads us, so we are on the torture rack of his experience. He’s not even breathing hard. His horned cap bounces slightly on his calm head as he asserts his loping giraffe strides, like a thoroughbred among nags.

“Come on guys. The faster you run, the sooner you finish.”

Denny, breathing like a coal train, spits out a surly “fuck you” and zooms around Bill.

As we putter by one of the campus athletic fields, two slender blondes in shorts and tanks suddenly overtake us. They scamper by me in a blur of lean beauty. Denny struggles to match them for a couple hundred yards, then staggers in a coughing fit as we angle left, east back toward the river on Elm Street. Another hill.

“Get on your toes, boys,” Bill sings as he ballets twenty yards ahead of us.

Finally, we top the hill, and just ahead on the right three black guys I recognize as football players lounge on the front porch of their brick colonial frat house. Immediately in horror, I realize my mistake. After removing the first rubber band, the top of my Bolo mask has risen to a point that flops back and forth across the top of my head, making me look just like—

“a Klan mother fucker. Look man, it’s a Klan mother fucker,” the first one to see me hollers.

Then the others join in, “let’s get that mother fucker.” And I’m off down a side street, faster than I thought I could run, tugging franticly at my Bolo mask, with three huge pissed off guys after me, faster than my fast. I make another quick right and power dive through a hedgerow of prickly bushes. Somehow, it works. The black frats zip on by like in a cartoon. I wait for what seems like an hour, but is only a few minutes. Denny and Bill round the corner tentatively, and jog by. The now unmasked Bolo plunges back through the shrubbery and falls in behind them.

“Are you okay?” Bill asks. My legs are rubbery. There are scratches all over my bare torso. My stomach and chest are numb with pain.

“I’m fine.”

“Let’s finish. I’m pretty sure those crazy fuckers are gone, says Denny. Denny looks like a torn up spring, an unraveled towel.

Back on the East End of Elm Street, beyond sight of the frat house, we descend towards 1st Street. Our sweeping left turn there marks the final half-mile. Bill immediately makes his break. He commands a hundred-yard lead with four hundred to go. Slightly rejuvenated from my quietude in the bushes, I work hard, but to little avail. Looking behind me, I notice that Denny has strangely disappeared. Ahead I watch disgustedly as Bill navigates the last turn back into Ripple City. My body, as if in a high school flashback, suddenly remembers how to run. In just a few seconds I am legging it into the right horseshoe side of Ripple City.

At the same time I perceive the frightened blur of Bill, sprinting back up the left side. Ozark pursues full-tilt in that odd kind of sideways gait that shepherds tend to have. At the mouth of the street, Ozark retreats, apparently having reached the invisible limit of his territory. Bill loops back down, following me into the right side of the parabola. With a burst of sheer ungodly speed, I hold him off till I mount the curb in front of our frame rental house. Denny waits in the front yard where he heaves an impressive volley of vomit from a kneeling position.

“What the hell happened to you?” Bill blurts.
“Oh, I took the dirt road by the river and came in from the side,” Denny gurgles, pointing south to the sandy ribbon that weaves out of sight beyond an apartment building and two small white bungalows.

“But that’s a longer clip,” says Bill, dumbfounded.

Denny has rolled over to his back now where he smiles his best Fonzie smile up at the sky.

“You got to know your animals, Bill. You had your German Shepherd; I had my Tygers.” Denny begins to work the sand out of the worn grooves of his shoes, wondering where he left his cigarettes.