In the day, so early even
that the red rock
had not yet caught fire,
still tindered politely
in the jaws of the sun,
a man runs in the bike lane,
slow and measured like a pro.
I’ve seen him from behind
the last three days,
my underpowered car
doing thirty-five up the hill.
Here, even fit cyclists
struggle on the dams,
seven miles of steep foothills
along a gaunt reservoir
below the Rocky Mountains.
He wears an ugly woolen cap
and baggy pants.
I wonder what brings him
is it the smell of sage
in the morning wet?
The huge expanse of plains
mapped out below?
The greening of the grass?
The earth awake?
But he never moves his head
for the view.
His view is other things.
I’ve seen the same labored gaze
in the mule deer on the drive,
raising their great cupped ears
to the sound of the car,
and then back to graze.
It’s what they do.
At night the runners and the deer
have stepped away
and the car’s high beams scan the road.
I’ve had a little wine.
Not enough to blow over the limit
but enough to know,
on the edges of the rural road,
are all the hunted, hurt, and haunted
specters of the world.
Although I said to myself I wanted nothing more
than to break the tape,
to be the first one over the line
in the ninety-degree heat of Castroville,
Artichoke Capital of the World,
in fact, a runner doesn’t break the tape at all.
It wasn’t even a tape.
It may have been a length of string
the two who were given the job
at the last minute saying,
“I thought you had it!”
“You said you did.”
“The gun’s gone off…we better think of something.”
And so it was a chalk line someone had in a bag
not broken but pushed through,
pulled away from their hands, one end dropped,
the string gathered, balled up,
stuffed into a knapsack at the end of the day.
Although I said I wanted nothing more
than to come in first,
the light popping in John’s eyes,
my winner’s knock-kneed unmuscled stagger,
I did nothing more than hurt and retch,
stretched on the cold tile of the men’s room floor,
breathing unusual breaths,
my breath coming in short gasps
and no teammate
no concerned official knocking at the door
(there was another race I’m sure) —
alone in the men’s room
my hands gripping the sink,
puking over my knuckles:
the touch and temperature of victory.