(I started with the idea of a moody noir story of a guy who runs at night, but I ended with this. So--well--apologies in advance, I guess.)
Steve’s grandpa used to say, on days like this, that the air hangs on you like a fart in a hot elevator. Steve laughs, hearing his grandpa’s voice in his head, but he couldn’t help but think of a fart, years ago, that sent him out on a run on a night like this. Steve stepped out of the front door, on this night, into the weighted air, 11 PM and it was still 80, and as he bent over and tightened the laces on his running shoes, his body still feeling the dead weight of the Mega-Burrito he brought home from Taco Delicioso, he thought maybe it would be a little cooler early in the morning. “I could get up at five,” he thought, “and go running.” Even as he let that thought pass through his head he knew better. At night, in the hour when most were going to sleep, he enjoyed running. His tightly-bound mind finally let loose from the tension of the day, and he would just plod along. His ex-wife, Cindy, used to say he was going to make her a widow, running in the dark. While she was wrong about the widowing, he still managed to make her an ex-wife. At the end of their last argument, he decided to go for a run to clear his head of the fight. As he headed for the door, Steve looked at Cindy and she stared anger-rays from her eyes at him while holding a lit cigarette, and Steve let loose a champion-level fart. He’d long since lost any inhibitions about passing gas in front of her, and he farted as an inaudible comment on their never-ending disputes, but when he got back home he found an empty house with a “I’m sick of you and your farts” note left on the kitchen table, and since then the only one to dissuade Steve from his late-night runs is the cat who barely looks up from his perch on the couch when Steve opens the door to run.
The sun set two hours ago, but it’s still hot. Steve knows the cool shower in his little air-conditioned house will feel so good after this run. So, he locks the door and plods down the street. Steve isn’t much of a runner, but he still tries. A couple college kids saw him running, and one said, “Look, teddy bears can run,” but Steve doesn’t care. He figures he’s trying, and that’s something. Cindy asked him to wear a safety vest, something with reflective material, but Steve figures he can jump to the side if a car doesn’t see him. He’s good at jumping, especially for a chubby guy; the potholes of Muncie make running a game of hop-scotch, a constant challenge of putting his feet in the right place. In the dim light of night Steve used to struggle with seeing them; now, in the dead of summer, long after the fresh blooming of potholes in early spring, he has every dangerous spot memorized, and he dodges them with ease.
Steve turns off Gilbert Street and heads up McKenzie. Every time he sees the street sign he thinks of Spuds Mackenzie, the old Bud Light mascot from the 80’s, and that makes him think of the beer waiting for him after his run. He usually has a beer or two after his shower; it puts him to sleep until the inevitable wake up a few hours later, when his restless mind decides sleep isn’t essential. He thinks about that beer, and knows he’ll sleep for a bit. As he runs up McKenzie, Steve smells cigarette smoke. He notices it here, over the last couple of weeks. He’s never seen anyone, but he can smell it, and he thinks of the two packs a day he used to smoke, the go-to habit he had for years before he threw his last cartoon on a summer fire ten years ago and never smoked another. He started smoking when he first knew Cindy, and he decided the habit should go out with her, too. It was a week after Cindy left, and when he realized she wasn’t coming back he piled the few clothes she left behind along with the almost-full cartoon of cigarettes in the Weber Kettle. He gave it all a heavy dose of lighter fluid and struck a match to it, and he sipped on a beer, his face lit by the flames, and thought, “That is that,” and never smoked another.
Tonight he smells that cigarette again. It’s a reminder he isn’t alone out here, someone else is awake and active in the night. The town is empty now, though. The college kids are gone for the summer, and the streets are quiet. Steve likes to imagine it’s after a zombie invasion or a nuclear war; the whole town emptied and the streets belong to him. Tonight he tries to think of everyone in a Rip Van Winkle sleep. All of Muncie is under a spell, but somehow he escapes it. He tries to think of this but what he can’t stop thinking about is his friend Ted told him he saw Cindy at Wal-Mart. He said he saw her buying cigarettes, but Steve thinks it’s probably wishful thinking. Ted used to stop by all the time when he was still married, but Ted always said a lot more to Cindy than he did to Steve. Ted sure seemed to get busy with other things after Cindy left the house and went to live with her Mom in Ohio.
Steve makes a right on University Avenue. He could stay on this street and make it to Ball State if he wanted to, but he knows he won’t last. He finished the Mega-Burrito at eight, but the Mega-Burrito is not finished with him. The last time he had one he thought he’d go lighter next time, something like the tofu tacos, but as Steve says, “The beer belly wants what the beer belly wants.” Now though, he thinks his belly is an idiot. He makes it at least to the big mansion, the one owned by Ball State; they use it for something but Steve doesn’t know what. He and Cindy used to go for walks when they were first together, and sometimes they’d get as far as the mansion. Cindy used to ask if one day they’d have a house like this, and Steve used to lie to her and say “Yes.” He also used to tell her he was going to take her on that trip to Mexico for the honeymoon they never really got, but the farthest they usually made it was his brother’s lake house he’d let them use on weekends if it was empty. Cindy would look up at the windows of the mansion and say, “This would be the baby’s bedroom, and that would be the guest suite, and this would be the room for the home theater.” Somewhere Cindy realized the most she was going to get from Steve was their crappy little two-bedroom house; the only home theater she was going to get from him was the tv she brought with her when they got married. When Cindy left she left that tv behind; she said Steve could keep it, along with the little house she never liked.
Steve bends over, trying to catch his breath while still looking up at the mansion, and he thinks, “I better turn around.” The Mega-Burrito feels like a nuclear submarine in his digestive tract, ready to send its torpedos. He shouldn’t eat so late; he knows this, but he still ends up eating out of a fast food bag at 8:30 each night while looking at Cindy’s old TV. Cindy used to tell him he never went to a fast-food place he couldn’t find a reason to love, and Taco Delicioso is no different. He likes the Macho Nachos, but the Mega-Burrito is usually his go-to. “Next time I’ll be better. Next time I’ll get a salad, maybe a light sandwich. Enough of these late-night binges with two beers to help me fall asleep. Next week I’ll start getting up early to run. Enough with these sleepless nights. Enough with all this.”
He starts back down Mackenzie, and there it is, the smoke smell again. He stops, leaning over, hands on his knees. “I can’t help it,” he thinks. The Mega-burrito won’t keep quiet tonight. Leaning over, he farts, but this is no little squeaker; Steve sounds a three-second full-winded tuba-blast fart into the quiet night. For a moment he feels better, but the moment soon passes when he looks up. Cindy stands at the curb next to a garbage can overflowing with collapsed moving boxes. He sees a cigarette in her hand, just as it was the last time he saw her, but a couple inches from the cigarette he sees a wedding ring but not the one he put on her finger.
One hand on the garbage can, the other holding the cigarette, Cindy says, “What the hell, Steve? All I ever hear you do is fart.”