Running Clean  |  Edmund Sandoval

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             After Nehemiah met Fran, he’d been sober for two, maybe three months and thought he was happy. In that time, he joined group, got a job at a used car dealership called Selling Paradise, and started going for early morning jogs. Fran and he took to the pine-studded hills when the sun was just elbowing over the Sierras, and came back glistening with sweat, their cheeks rosy with exertion. I’d be up by then, sipping coffee out of my plastic travel mug. They’d decline a cup, and in time, I’d learned to have a pitcher of ice water waiting.
             I liked Fran, even though Nehemiah wasn’t drinking anymore. She was short, had orange shoulder length hair and the lean, coltish legs of the cross-country runners from my high school days. She was a bank teller over in Pacific, Redwood Savings and Trust. I’d stop by there to cash a check and make small talk with her, told her I was hankering for those Dum Dums lollipops they gave to the kids. Evenings, when Nehemiah didn’t go over to Fran’s, he came home and sat at our kitchen table and drank warm tonic water with a splash of lemon juice concentrate stirred in. He’d be sitting there in his short-sleeved button-up, his striped tie and would try to talk to me about the benefits of sobriety, a healthy relationship with God.
             “You ever notice the beauty of things?” he’d ask, while looking out through the kitchen window at the winking lights of Paradise.
             “Sure,” I’d say, “why not?”
             Sometimes Fran would invite me over to her place, and the three of us would grill hot dogs and burgers and drink Coca-Cola. When we’d finished eating, we’d watch TV and eat huge bowls of sherbet or play Yahtzee or go for walks, and Fran or Nehemiah would say whether they’d run down this particular road or not, and if they hadn’t, they said they’d have to soon, as though the road were going to go somewhere, the trail.
             We’d sit on Fran’s small porch to watch the sunset, the gathering stars, and talk about our lives. I’d drink my limit of soda, regale them with a story or two about the goings-on at the pig factory that day, and head back to the double wide where I’d pour myself a drink and watch more TV.
             I was doing my best not to drink in front of Nehemiah—it was a request of Fran’s.
             “Don’t tempt him, Ben,” she said. “You’re his friend, okay?”
             So I didn’t. I’d steal off into my bedroom with a quart of whiskey, a few cans of ginger ale, and it was like I was back to being a teenager, sneaking belts from my parents’ liquor bottles while they dozed.
             Nehemiah started running when he got home from work, on top of his morning jogs with Fran.
             “Hey, buddy,” he’d say to me, “care to join?” and I would beg off, tell him I was too tired from work. “Suit yourself,” he’d say, and then, because he was in group and practicing patience, he’d add, “Maybe next time, hey?”
             Then he’d put on his little running shorts, lace up his shoes, and take to the road. He had the body for it—lank limbs and a torso the size of an old luggage trunk—and soon he was clocking five, six miles at a time.
             There were times when I wanted to join him. I had run at the junior college where we’d met, but it didn’t come natural to me. Each practice left me wasted and miserable, as though I’d been carrying a great load that I couldn’t see.
             Whenever he returned, an hour, an hour and half later, he’d turn onto the rutted stretch of asphalt that led up to our trailer park and pick up his pace. The last fifty yards or so, he’d start making these angry yipping sounds as his feet slapped over the pavement. He would be haggard looking, his clothes wet and cleaved to his body, and even the small, gold cross he’d taken to wearing glistened with a coat of sweat. There would be a pureness to him, as he sat on our cinder block stoop and gulped water from a plastic cup, and I resolved to join him on the road.
             But I never did. My job was mucking sow stalls over in Orland, and it was constant—the goddamned animals I tended never let up pissing and shitting. By the time I got home, glorious weather or not, the only thing I wanted was a shower, a beer, a frozen burrito from the icebox, the electric comfort of bodies moving on the TV.


             I was sitting at our crummy computer playing hearts, listening to Tom Petty, and drinking a beer, when Nehemiah clattered in. I turned around and he was moving things around in the icebox and muttering.
             “What’re you up to?” I asked.
             He stood up and came over to me. “Ah, nothing.” He wrung his hands, and his eyes looked a little wild. His hair was down, and it streaked over his back and shoulders in a blue-black cascade.
             “You sure? Looks like you’ve got a bee in your bonnet.”
             “A what?”
             “Nothing.” I picked up my beer and finished it. I didn’t know what to do with the can and started to put it in my pocket, but it wouldn’t fit. I stood there and rolled it in my hands.
             Nehemiah looked at it. He nodded at it.
             “Buddy,” he said. “I am going crazy for a drink.” He stood there with his hands in his pockets and said it again: “Crazy.”
             “Oh. Well. I guess you’ll have to think about that, huh? I mean, you’ve got Fran now. You don’t want to mess that up, do you?”
             “Yeah. I don’t know.” He ran his hands through his hair, went back to the open icebox, and came back with his tonic and lemon juice concentrate. He poured out a glass and drained it. He looked at the empty cup, put it down. “It’s the taste I miss, man. You got any more of that beer?”
             “I think that’d be a mistake. But I do. Sure.”
             He sat at the table for a while, and I sat across from him and picked at my nails.
             “That’s cool. Sure it is,” he said. He poured another glass of tonic. “Cool, man,” he said again and got up and started sweeping the kitchen floor with a hand broom. After he finished with the floor, he cleaned the dishes in our sink. I watched him, and soon enough, he stopped and told me he was going running.
             “Now? It’s dark.”
             “I’ve got white shoes,” he said.
             I was asleep when he came in. I could hear him sucking for breath and then, a thump when he sat down on the linoleum. I put a shirt on and went out to where he was sitting on the floor. He was taking these great, heaving breaths. He’d chucked his shirt into the sink, and it floated in the dishwater. The clock over our oven range said it was past midnight. He looked up at me.
             “Hey,” I said. “Doing better?”
             He shrugged and dropped his head back to rest against the pressboard cabinets. I saw that his skin was puckered with goose pimples, so I got a towel from the bathroom and tossed it to him. I helped him up, and he pulled the towel around his shoulders. He looked like a refugee, shrunken, defeated. He smiled as if to say, Thanks for the help.
             “No big deal,” I said.
             I went into my bedroom and checked my wristwatch for the time and saw I’d only have a few hours before I had to be getting up for work. I flopped over on my side, and it wasn’t five minutes that I was back to sleep.


             Neither one of them ran when they went to group. It was a day for rest, they said. For reflection. They got me to go with them once, and I did my best to say something personal, something meaningful, and so I told them about how when I was a kid, my dad used to take me fishing for crappie and bass in the shallows of Elephant Butte Lake. After everyone spoke or didn’t speak, and the leader said okay, they told me I was welcome to join for life practice study, but I just went home and called up some friends and went fishing.
             It was the tail end of summer, and the air was as crisp as fresh laundry. On the lake, I smoked a joint and drank a few beers, and we caught a good number of fish that we threw back in the water and caught again.
             I had one of my friends drop me off at Fran’s, but Nehemiah wasn’t there; he’d gone home to nap. She invited me in, and I weaved up her walkway and into her cool house. Some incense was burning, and I was worried that she’d been doing some kind of meditation, but she told me that I was more than welcome, that she was just relaxing. She turned on her stereo, and then, she got down a bottle of red wine and told me to come sit with her on her patio.
             I sat next to her and watched the sky for a while. A few clouds scrolled across the blue, and the sun was petering slowly to the horizon. Whatever music she’d put on filtered through the screen door. She sat down next to me and poured out some of her wine into an old jelly jar.
             “You want some?” she asked.
             “I didn’t think you drank.”
             “I do every now and then.”
             “What about Nehemiah?”
             She thought about that for a minute and studied the wooden slats of her porch.
             I shrugged and ran a finger around the lip of the wine bottle.
             We sat there and drank and talked for a while. She laughed a lot, and after she emptied her cup, she drank from the bottle like I was doing. I got the roach from out of my shirt pocket and smoked it, and Fran took a tiny hit and said that she hadn’t tried grass since she was in high school. Then she said she liked my shirt.
             “Thanks,” I said. “It was my dad’s.”
             “It’s nice.”
             “I guess so.” It was a threadbare white polo with one of those little alligators on it. I looked over to her and her face was kind of crinkly looking, like she was going to cry or ask me to sleep with her, so I got up and told her that I needed to get back home.
             “Okay,” she said.
             She stood up and draped her arms around my neck. She had to get on her tiptoes to do it, and I felt her body press into mine, and her breath was sour as she peered up at me. I hugged her back and let go. As I was crossing her small lawn, she called after me, and I stopped.
             “See you later,” she said.
             I put my hand up and waved. When she was inside and had the door closed, I turned and walked carefully down the side of the road.


             We got into Nehemiah’s Ford and drove over to Selling Paradise. On the way, we didn’t talk but to say how nice the weather had been. Fall had come, and we’d had a week straight of sludge-colored clouds, but that day had been a stunner.
             The cars were parked diagonally on a small lot. A few sun-wilted balloons, tied to antennae and side view mirrors, bobbed in the dim light. A misting rain had fallen on the way, and the prices, written on the windshields with white shoe polish, dribbled in streaks down to the wipers. The featured car, a blue Camaro, was stationed at the front of the lot. Nehemiah walked to it and ran his hand over the rain-slicked hood.
             “Fine car,” he said. “V6 engine, six-disc changer in the dash.”
             “Sure,” I said.
             “We’ve got Mazdas, Dodge Intrepids, or maybe an SUV’s more up your alley. Got an Isuzu with your name on it over there. Gray paint, leather interior, four-wheel drive.” He looked at me hungrily, as though I might turn into a steak platter at any moment. “What do you say, pal?”
             “You want me to buy a car from you?”
             “Just putting it out there. That Tercel you’ve been driving’s a liability.”
             “You’re serious?”
             “I don’t know. Mostly. Times are tough.” He tried a laugh, but it didn’t play.
             “Couldn’t afford it if I wanted to, man.” I wish I could’ve said different: while driving to work I can watch the yellow highway hash marks blinking by through the rust-cut holes in the floorboards.
             “That’s all right, Benji. That’s cool. Maybe next month, huh? I can cut you a deal.” He made a fist, gave the roof of the Camaro a couple thumps, and walked over to the office. He told me to come on, and I went to stand next to him as he produced a ring of keys and let us into the hushed selling room. “Over here’s my cube. Where I close the deals.” He sat down in a creaky desk chair and clicked on a lamp. “What do you think?”
             The top of the desk was neat. A couple folders were stacked in a corner; an accountant’s calculator sat next to a coffee mug full of pens and a telephone. There was a picture of Fran in one of her teller’s outfits. On the tack board hung a calendar.
             “Nice,” I said.
             “Check this out.” He swiveled to his file cabinet and pulled the drawer, stuck his hand in, and produced a bottle. There was a little card tied around its neck. “Boss gave it to me after my first sale. Go on and read it.”
             In a sloping hand was written: Keep up the good work! It’s why I hired you!
             “Guess he didn’t know you were on the wagon, huh?”
             “No. But I couldn’t turn it away. Felt like I was getting a trophy or something. It was for an Acura Integra.”
             “What was?”
             “My first sale. Ninety-seven Acura Integra. Two door. Sold it to this college kid for thirty-five hundred bucks. He said he wanted to put one of those big mufflers on it and a spoiler. Said he was going to paint it neon green with black racing stripes.”
             “Kids are still doing that?”
             “I guess so.” Nehemiah was twisting himself back and forth in his chair. He thumbed at the plastic cap, rolled the tip of his fingernail over the grooved notches in it. “Know the commission I made on that sale?”
             “Couple hundred bucks?”
             “You’ve got it. Three hundred fifteen dollars.”
             “Not too bad for a half-hour’s work.”
             He laughed. “Yeah. It wouldn’t be, except I’ve only sold two cars since then. A car and a minivan. Plymouth Voyager. I’m walking, man. Going to quit before he fires me.”
             “That mean you’re going off the wagon?”
             “I don’t know.”
             He hefted the bottle in his hand, and the liquor inside of it sloshed around. He put it on his desk, picked up his phone, and dialed. It was Fran he was calling. He gave her this line about how he was feeling sick. As he spoke, he kept his eyes trained on the bottle. I couldn’t hear what Fran was saying.
             Finally he said, “No, no, you don’t need to come over. I just want to go to sleep.” He hung up the phone and wiped his brow. “That takes care of that.”
             He stood up and got a chair for me to sit in, and then, he went over to the water cooler and plucked out a couple Dixie cups. He broke the seal on the bottle and poured us a couple fingers, and we tapped the cups together and drank.
             “Hoo, shit,” Nehemiah said.
             We went through most of the bottle sitting there in the dim light of Selling Paradise. When we had enough, I got behind the wheel of Nehemiah’s truck and drove us home, swerving the whole time. In the trailer park, I didn’t get my foot on the brake pedal quick enough and rammed into the rear of my Tercel. All that did was get a couple of dogs barking, and some old crone leaned her head out of her thin metal door to tell us to keep down the racket.
             As we were sitting in Nehemiah’s truck with the engine idling and smoke pooling from under the hood, he put his hand on my neck.
             “Fuck, man,” I said and cut the engine. Outside, I didn’t even bother looking at my car. It’d be there in the morning.
             Inside, Nehemiah got on the phone, and I stood there and watched as he slurred into the receiver. He let forth a rambling montage of regret while on the other end, undoubtedly, Fran lay in her bed, groggy-headed and confused, as her drunken boyfriend’s voice croaked over the line. He left the phone on the counter, and as he retched in our cramped bathroom, I put the phone back in its cradle.


             As I was dressing, Nehemiah came to stand in my doorway. His eyes were red, and his entire face was puffy, as though he’d spent the last ten minutes slapping himself around. He leaned into the doorjamb and coughed a couple of times. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and when I looked up at him, he was rubbing the tomahawk tattoo that meandered down his right side.
             “And so it ends,” he said.
             “Sucks, man.”
             “What’re you going to do?”
             “I think I’m going to go for a run. Get some of this booze out of my system. Then, I’m going to give notice at work, and then, I’m going to get some beer and watch the game.”
             “Thrilling,” I said. “Sounds great.”
             “Yup. All right. I’ll see you.”
             I sat on my bed and pulled on my rubber work boots. A headache was cracking through my head. I got my keys and left for work.
             I’d forgotten about hitting my car with Nehemiah’s truck, and his fender was still jammed against my bumper. The two cars looked like they’d been having sex and had tired but were too lazy to separate. I got in my car and turned the ignition, and because I couldn’t get past the truck, drove over a couple of small evergreen trees and started for Orland.
             On the road that led out of Paradise, I came across Nehemiah. He was shuffling through the shoulder scree, a grimace on his face, and as I passed him, I leaned on the horn. Instead of waving, he just moved further into the bracken.
             Somewhere on Highway 5, my bumper came loose and skittered across the asphalt.


             When I got to her house, her car was not there, so I went to the liquor store and bought a couple tallboys of Miller and went to sit on her porch to wait for her to get back. I sat in a lawn chair and cracked open a can. I was still wearing my work clothes and smelled like the end of the world, but I didn’t think that would matter. The time ticked by, the dusk came down, and when I was halfway through the second can, Fran pulled into her driveway. She sat in her car for a minute. Probably, she was wondering what the hell I was doing sitting on her porch. I didn’t get up or anything, just kept drinking my warm beer and waited. She cut the lights, the engine and got out.
             “Hi,” I said.
             “You coming in?”
             I took my shit-caked boots off and left them at the threshold of her door. She tasted of sweat and air freshener and the stale air of the bank.
             She rolled over on her side and brought her knees up to her chest. I put my hand on her hip, and she just lay there, not moving.
             “Hey,” I said. I gave her a shake.
             “You smell,” she said.
             I took my hand off her hip. I felt like some kind of outcast. “I’m going to take a shower,” I said.
             I took my time in the shower. It was clean and smelled like laundry detergent and perfume. I used all the soaps and shampoos and conditioners that lined the windowsill, and when I came out, I toweled off with one of her fluffy towels. I stood there in the steamy room and thought about nothing. I put my clothes back on and left out of there without saying goodbye.


             At home, Nehemiah was drunk and, true to his word, was watching the game. The Raiders were on and had put up seven touchdowns on the 49ers. The trailer smelled like pizza. Beer cans were strewn on the table.
             “Any left for me,” I asked, and he rolled his head toward the kitchen. I grabbed one out of the icebox. In a box next to the wastebasket was a cardboard box full of his stuff from work. Fran’s picture was on top, and I bent down and folded it into my pocket.
             I sat next to him, and he hung his arm around me and told me that it was friends who helped each other through the hard times. I didn’t say anything to that and leaned into our saggy couch and closed my eyes.


             The next morning, Nehemiah woke me up.
             “Come on,” he said. He dropped a pair of his old running shoes in my lap. They were stained with asphalt tar and dirt and dried mud.
             “Your feet are too big,” I said.
             “Put on two pairs of socks.”
             I did and pulled the laces taut, and we went into the morning, the air still cool.
             “Let’s go,” he said, and he started walking fast through the trailer park.
             People were up, and through their windows, I could see them preparing for the day, like I did and Nehemiah used to. A car jumbled by, and the guy behind the wheel tooted the horn and Nehemiah waved.
             At the road, we started running. It felt good at first, and I thought it would stay as easy as it came. The smell of pine was on the air, and the moistness of night still clung to everything. I told Nehemiah how good it was to be running and kept pace with him as we ran through the roadside gravel and chokeweed and dandelion.
             Soon, though, I was sucking wind. My feet slapped hard on the ground, and my calves tightened into thick, heavy knots. I tried to say, Hey, I’ve gotta slow down. I’ve gotta stop, but you go on, go on. I’m okay, all right? and even though I said nothing, Nehemiah heard me and increased his pace. I slowed to a jog then stopped, my hands on my knees, and felt sick. I lifted my head and watched after Nehemiah. He kept running, his legs and arms lancing through the air, soundless as the endless vault of sky of deepest blue. He ran up the steep hills, his long hair flying out behind him.

♥ End ♥

Edmund Sandoval lives in Wisconsin and has had work in publications such as elimae, Fractured West, Sleet Magazine, Waccamaw Journal, Necessary Fiction, nat.brut, Hobart, and others. He has work forthcoming in The Minnesota Review and on Unmanned Press.

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