Issue 7

Fiction

Applause From Ghosts

by Chris Ames

On a night this balmy, you can smell the sweat of high-school students clinging to the AstroTurf. Dr. Tomzynski says if I don’t run at least three times a week, my arteries are gonna close like a clenched fist. Is it my belief in him that proves he’s attractive? Once, while he was using a tongue depressor to check the back of my throat, I gave myself over to daydream: latex glove, scent of balsa, not even retching. I could have sucked the splinters out.

I tried running on concrete, like the packs of cross-country teenagers who glide by my apartment, their bodies so lean and underdeveloped they look like sexless mannequins, but the sidewalk sent shocks up my spine. Some kind of invisible string from heel to tailbone gets pulled taut and suddenly I’m folding in on myself. I need softer ground.

I run at night for obvious reasons. It’s slow, formless work, but it’s something. A movement toward dress size 6, or public-swimming-pool confidence, or Dr. Tomzynski’s long fingers in my mouth.

The Abraham Lincoln High School track is a polysynthetic blend of plastic and latex. It’s burnt orange, peppered with specks of gold. The field is plastic grass, with thousands of blue rubber pebbles for dirt. Some of the blades are even colored brown, to give the appearance of real decay. It has give and grip, and resembles nothing that exists in nature.

Night tames most things. At one AM, even high school is lovely. The fog hovers over the track, washing out the street lamps into balloons of light. My feet go left/right while my arms go right/left and my breasts swing up/down while my ponytail bounces to some unknown rhythm. I’m moving.

Tonight’s one of those humid, pressure-cooker nights, where the fog creates a tight lid on the sky and the earth just sweats in place. I want to give up, but then I think about sitting on the butcher paper of Dr. Tomzynski’s waiting room, like a slab of canner meat in some delicatessen’s window. No, not this one. It’s all marbling.

“So, how many times did we make it out to the track this week, Morgan?”

“Three times.”

“Hm, three?”

And then he just taps his pencil against his clipboard while my lie completely fills the room.

“Well, almost three,” and then I blurt out, “I’m so sorry.”

I can’t lie to him. He can smell it on me.

“You’re not cheating me, Morgan. You’re cheating yourself.”

He’s got those piercing shark eyes. I’ve got those dead internet eyes. I don’t stand a chance.

Sometimes, even that doesn’t work. I have this one trick. It starts with me imagining all of the high-school students who’ve been made to run this track: awkward, knobby-kneed, bow-limbed, cow-eyed, girls on their first period, mathletes, quarterbacks, prom queens, any of them, all of them, thousands of kids sweating into this same plastic field. A mad, suburban sweat. Running like the amount of water on earth is the same now as it’s ever been. Running with their tongues bouncing dry in their cotton mouths, tasting like—what? A rainless cloud? Not running in place, but running in place of having a say in the matter. It’s the mile; it’s required.

They might be grownups now, inner children dead and gone. Maybe they’re in the ground, from drunk driving or early-onset heart disease. Even scarier still, they might be parents of high-school kids. Wherever they might be, they’ve sweat into this polysynthetic track, and a night this torrid can evaporate their ghosts straight out of the ground. Ghost of sensitive AP English kid. Ghost of acne-ridden skater rat. Ghost of pampered child actor. Even the ghost of liver-spotted ex-pat PE coach. The night heat dredges them all out, enough to fill the entire stadium, both sides. Underneath the bleachers, the ghosts of pale goth kids smoke stolen clove cigarettes.

So: when I am exhausted, I imagine all the ghosts of high school cheering me on. They love me like a mascot. Like I’m spitting in the face of our rival school or streaking the homecoming halftime show. Cue the trumpet blasts from the ghosts of band geeks. Cue the ghostly cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms and bony asses as they chant our alma mater:

High on a hilltop, ‘mid sand and sea
Morgan Crenshaw, we honor thee!
Thy sons and daughters, along the trail,
We shall remember. Hail! Hail! Hail!

I don’t even taste the food I eat anymore. This track is my salt lick. I come here to taste the sweat in my eyes and churn up plastic cud. If Dr. Tomzynski only saw the way these letterman-jacket ghosts catcalled, he might forego the stethoscope and take my blood pressure with his hands. Is it immature that my favorite expression for making love is to jump someone’s bones? How nice it’d be to climb inside his lab coat and ride his white bones around the exam room like a banshee.

On the side of the humanities building, there is a portrait of Walt Whitman, and somehow I’m remembering a classroom poetry discussion from ten years ago. It’s hazy, but it involves Walt staring at the ground thinking about graveyards and decomposition and the whole deal. And Walt is sickened by the idea that fresh apples and lilacs could possibly grow out of all this sour meat rotting underground. And I’m thinking, Yes, yes, how can the earth hold so much without giving up? And then: I want someone to hold me like that.

Where does it all go? This teen heat on plastic. This wasted energy.

You’re always hearing about the wall, the runner’s wall, just wait till you hit the wall. A cousin of defeat, of being defeated. This is often paired with the runner’s high. You’ve gotta know this one. Running wild with the invincibility of youth. So you’ve got the wall and the high, the oil and water sloshing inside your stomach. How are you picturing it? Is it about scaling? Jumping over the hurdle of the wall, like a blind workhorse? This does nothing for me. For contrast: in a fit of psychotropic magic, I slip myself straight through the wall. No vaulting, no demolition. I don’t know what to call this. It’s about how I learned to stop worrying and love the immovable object.

The fantasy only goes so far. There are nights when the ghosts don’t show. The game gets called on account of bad weather. Or waking up with jelly bones, too soft to do anything but float around the apartment, half-cleaning. Dr. Tomzynski emailed me a template to record my fitness goals. It is color-coded in a friendly handwritten font, so you know it’s for women. I am supposed to write three “I will” statements. I have one:

1) I will run myself into thin air.

I’m moving and humming this phrase thin air, thin air, until it begins to sound like thinner. Until it begins to sound nothing like itself. I’m moving this body sour with sweat in circles. I’m waving at the ghosts of concession-stand salesmen, wondering if they want to see my impression of weightlessness. Can you hear it? The wet sound of applause like cars on damp pavement. The crowd goes wild. I drink it all in but can’t taste a thing.

Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. He lives and works in San Francisco.

Illustration by Chris Ames

Issue 7