Here's something a little different. This post is an original work of fiction (copyright © 2007; all rights reserved, of course) which I have created, for better or worse, as part of Jack P's 2007 Hallowe'en party. You tell me if it's a trick or a treat.
Yeah, that's me in that photo. I was really something back then. I could outrun everybody. It's how I got the name "Blitz," which means "lightning" in German. Oh, you knew that, huh? Right. I guess a lot of people do.
But yeah, back then I won every track meet. I could do it all, sprint, relay, even long distance. I used to joke that I could outrun my own exhaustion, that it wouldn't catch me 'til long, long after the race, by which time I'd have caught my second wind.
So fast. You had to see me in action to believe it.
Lots of people did. I'm sure there's still stuff you can watch on the 'net. I broke so many records, even while still in high school. They gave me a full scholarship to Pemberton -- yeah, that Pemberton -- just because of my speed, though my grades weren't bad, either. I had the look, too, that clean-cut, Anglo, preppy look. I could outrun everybody, even the Africans, and they liked that. All the folks 'round here did.
I was headed to the Olympics. That photo is me winning one of my qualifying heats. And then it all changed.
It was so stupid. I still kick myself -- figuratively speaking, of course. I went out mountain biking with friends up on Devil's Ridge. Lots of shale and loose dirt up there, steep hills, sudden cliffs. Tons of fun; you never know where you'll end up, not really. And that's the game, control in the face of randomness, that little thrill of knowing you could end up ass over teakettle at the bottom of the mountain, or you could master it, every rock, every slide, up through your arms, all untethered but sure. And on a good day, you could pretend it wasn't luck at all but skill, pure skill.
I had skill, but I also had bad luck that day. Broke not just one but both my legs and an arm, completely shattered a couple of tibia, and lost my front teeth to boot. Brilliant.
I wasn't in the hospital too long, but I wore those casts awhile. The Olympics came and went. School started without me. When I got back on my feet, my real feet, something had changed.
The speed was gone.
Oh, sure, I could walk like I'd never been hurt, and I could run like a normal person, but that's just it. Suddenly I was only normal. And then Pemberton didn't want me anymore. They were real sorry, of course, but, you know. Terms of the scholarship and all.
That's when I started drinking. And then I became a bartender. Seemed like a natural progression from one interest to another, right? Most nights now, though, I stay out of the bottle myself. I've seen too much to go back down that road for anything more than a taste, not for comfort, not even for sweet oblivion. Because there is no comfort, and the only real oblivion is death. And even with everything that happened, I'm just not ready for that yet.
Yeah, it's a surprise to me, too.
So here I am in this place one night 'round about '47, I guess it was. Uh-huh, it had to be, 'cause the Olympics were in '48, and then again in '52, and this all started right before then.
Anyway, I'm tending bar, and it's a real quiet night. Hardly a soul in the joint, not even a single regular. So I'm polishing the glasses, checking my watch, dreaming of days gone by, wind in my hair, sun on my shoulders and the earth flying up to just kiss the bottoms of my feet as I rocketed over it, so lightly the touch of the ground never even registered in my memory, no sense of other people, just me and my strength and my pure, pure speed. Good times, the sweetest. I've never really felt like myself at any other time.
This guy comes in, and I've never seen him before. He has some kind of accent I can't place. Seems pleasant enough, maybe a little cold, but okay, nothing remarkable in any way. He's wearing a goreplex jacket against the autumn night and a fool's-wool hat, in ordinary colors, in ordinary sizes and styles. The only thing that betrays any sense of him, of who he is when he's not at work or going to work is this softer-than-a-cloud pair of cream-colored, polar-fleece-lined pleather gloves, which he takes off to reveal hands that have worked hard, like with tools, you know? Fire and files. Things that cut. Things that make lasting wounds. And these hands, they're rough, but they're immaculate, not a speck of dirt on them, and the nails have been cut with professional precision.
I serve him vodka tonic with a twist and two olives, though he asks me to take out the pimientos first. Then I get back to work.
Then he asks me about the photos. Just like you, right? Wants to know how I feel about it all, if I miss running, if I miss winning. And most of the time, except when it's slow like tonight, and slow like it was that night, people ask me these questions, and others, and I just shrug and smile and keep working.
I don't particularly feel like my story should be free entertainment included for the price of a drink, you know, though a fair number of new customers don't agree and have to be set straight by Ruby, the owner.
Ruby? Yeah, she's cool. She doesn't let people use me, you know? She makes sure people get that I'm a person, not a telebot.
Naw, I'm not sure where she is tonight; it's her night off.
But anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Jameson. That was his name.
Jameson, there's something about him and that night that makes me loosen up, that makes me want to tell him stuff. He listens while I tell him that I do miss it, that I feel like I've misplaced myself and don't know how I'm going to live out the rest of my life not being able to run, no, not being able to fly, just plodding along pounding the dust like every other average schmoe, occasionally watching a few others, the ones who are still special, streak ahead, prinking my face and shoulders with their sweat as they pass.
He listens, nods, stares down into his drink a long time, then looks at me with water-clear eyes and asks, "What would you say if I told I could give that back to you?"
"I'd say, what's the catch?" I laugh. "No, I take that back. I'd say you're insane. Or a quack. See, I've been to every physiatrist, every therapist, every radiologist, you name it, anybody with a rep in the business, and none of 'em can say what happened or why I'm not me anymore. The closest I've got to hearing something that makes sense is from this little geezer in the Rockies who told me the structure of my tibias has changed and now they're heavy with scar tissue. They're not so heavy I can't walk. They're not even so heavy I can't run, if you call what most people do running -- and I don't, not compared to what I used to be able to do.
"He said it's like what would happen if you took a bird and plugged some of his hollow little bones with resin, not all of them and not a lot, just a tiny little bit in one bone on each wing. If you did that, he couldn't fly. The scars in my bones mean I can't fly anymore, either.
"And there's no cure. You couldn't fix a bird you'd done that to without killing him, and you can't fix me. End of story. Now if you'll excuse me --"
Jameson nods to indicate that he understands. He looks at his hands, then off into space for awhile. I think our conversation is over, and it's late, so I start cleaning the tables and putting the chairs up. Jameson just nurses that vodka tonic down to a dribble in the glass.
I come back behind the bar. "Will there be anything else?" I ask, brusquely, even though he hasn't finished.
He focuses on my face like he's been away a long time and is just coming back into the room. "Blitz -- may I call you 'Blitz'?" I shrug. "Well, Blitz, have you ever heard of a man named Roland Copernicus?"
"Sure. Everybody in track and field knows his story. He was born without tibia at all, had his feet and lower legs amputated in early childhood, but learned to run on those funny looking prosthetic legs that are really just big springs. He was fast, really fast, almost as fast as me. But they wouldn't let him compete in the regular Olympics, because they actually thought his springs gave him an advantage over other runners. Never mind that tons of amputees were running on those very same springs for years and never beating regular runners. Never mind that he was the first to beat times only people with 'real' feet had hit. The Committee just wouldn't believe him when he said it was a handicap not an advantage, that he had to work three times as hard as other people just to run at all on them, even though he offered to let them test him however they wanted just to prove it."
"Yes, this is the man I'm thinking of. Sad story. They never let him run, and his prime as an athlete passed, and then someone else came along, a veteran of the oil wars who was just as brilliant but in one lifetime had run on both organic feet and the springs, unlike poor Roland. This was Col. Michael O'Brien, as you may remember, and he had film of himself and recorded times from both experiences, from his past life as a whole-bodied champion athlete and from later, after his unfortunate violent alteration. Also, because he'd gone from school to the military and had undergone extensive testing for various reasons, and then again during the rehab after the bomb took his feet, there was a significant body of evidence just about this man's journey alone which proved what Copernicus had been trying to get the Committee to hear years before. He proved incontrovertibly that he burned three times as many calories bouncing up and down on his springs as a 'normal' runner of his caliber did shooting forward without impediment on bone-and-flesh feet, but he beat their times anyway. In the face of this evidence, and with the growing political sense in the world of the early part of this century that we should be making opportunities to include more people in public sport, not building walls to segregate competitors out into their own discreet classes, the Committee had no choice but to change the rules. And Col. O'Brien went to the Olympics -- and lost to a young man from Kenya, as I recall."
"He got bronze. It's not gold, but it's not losing, either. He was something."
"Yes. He was. It is too bad about the cancer that killed him and so many other former military of that time, but at least he got to realize his dream."
"Yeah. That he did."
"And now, thanks to him, anyone who can run can realize his Olympic dream."
"Yeah. He really made a difference."
"So, my young friend. What are you going to do to realize your Olympic dream?"
I snort. "You kidding? Ancient history. That's all over for me."
"Not necessarily. Only if you really want it to be." And that's when he hands me his card. Ernest Jameson, and then a ton of abbreviations, and then the title Chief of Sports Habilitation Medicine, Pemberton Hospital, and a Pemberton College eLine address.
"Sports 'habilitation'? Shouldn't that be 'rehabilitation'?"
"No. What we do is very special. We do not typically restore abilities. We give people abilities for the very first time."
"Sounds cool. What's it got to do with me?"
"You, my friend, are a very unusual case. You have had extraordinary abilities in your lifetime. However, in a way, that lifetime is over. That body is gone. You have a new body, and it does not suit you. It looks almost exactly the same as your previous body, and it is made of most of the same things. However, it does not allow you to live your real life, your extraordinary life.
"Your case interests my department very much, but even more it interests some private acquaintances of mine. If you say yes, you would be my department's first habilitation subject who is also, in a way, a rehabilitation subject. And perhaps we will show people something new about what it is to be a human."
Something tingles in the back of my head. Is it a warning or excitement? I'll never know. If it's a warning, it doesn't do its job, though, 'cause next thing I know I'm asking, "Yes to what?"
"Ah. Before I tell you, may I trouble you for another drink? Same as the last one please."
"Sure." I mix it, picking out the pimientos with a toothpick same as last time. Limp, wet, and red, they remind me of something. A bloody nose. Teeth knocked out. I shudder and quickly flick them into the compostbot. "Go on," I say, sliding the fresh tumbler over to Jameson.
"We propose to rebuild you."
"'Better than before. Stronger. Faster." I sing a phrase of the Six Millon Dollar theme song and snort. "Yeah, right."
"You laugh, but that is exactly right."
"Oh, please, I've heard this before. Nobody can do it. You're a quack, just like I thought. Finish up and get out."
"Pardon me, a little more patience, please." He holds up a hand in the universal "cool it" sign. "Tell me, what has been proposed to you before, exactly?"
"Oh, the usual -- radioactive bone density therapy, transplants, wacky neuromuscular injections, plastic implants, even nanites. Lots of suckers go through this kind of stuff every year, give their money to criminals with slick stories, suffer pain, risk infection and even death, and most of 'em are lucky to walk afterward, let alone run. I don't know who you are buddy, but if this is the scam you're running, I doubt very much Pemberton has anything to do with it. In fact, why don't I just dial them a little eLine right now and see if they even know who you are?"
"Nothing would please me more," Jameson smiles. He taps his card, which I've left on the bar.
"That's okay. I'll look up the number myself." I pull out my ePad and punch in Information. The bot connects me with the main Pemberton hub, which then shoots me through to an answerline. A picture of Jameson, smiling diffidently above a tie and white coat, fills the screen, while a female bot-voice cheerily tells me, "You have reached the offices of the Sports Habilitation Department at Pemberton Hospital and the office of Dr. Ernest Jameson, Director of Sports Habilitation Medicine at Pemberton College Medical School. If you would like to make an appointment, please punch 1 on your ePad. If this is an emergency, punch --"
I hang up. "Okay, it's a real program, and you're a real guy."
"Indeed." He mock-bows at me over the bar and takes a sip of his second drink.
"So? What's your racket? How do you propose to 'rebuild' me?"
"With your consent, of course, we will remove the parts of your body that no longer serve you and replace them with parts that will. We will simply amputate --"
"Certainly. Amputate, but replace. We will amputate your legs above the bone scars and then fit you with several sets of replacement legs. You will have legs for everything! You will be able to wear sandals, even heels. And you will have legs for running. Springs. Like Copernicus wore, and O'Brien. And with patience and hard work, you will fly once more."
"You seem quite sure of that."
"Why not? You are young and healthy. You have not even reached the age of most people's athletic prime yet. You can do this. If it is something you really want, if you really want a chance to be yourself again before you die, the self who could outrun anyone, the self who could 'outrace exhaustion,' I have every confidence that we can help you do it."
"Yeah? And who's going to pay for this?"
"The funds have already been assured."
I raise an eyebrow at that, but something in me doesn't want to ask any more questions. Something in me flutters for the first time in a couple of years, awake again, a dream, a hope, a memory of a certain way of breathing.
But then something else comes crashing in. A voice, a thousand voices. Voices of my parents, who died fearing God and cautioned me my whole life against arrogance, and also against tempting nature. Voices of my friends who hate the whole personal surgery movement of the last few decades and are always ridiculing people who elect to alter themselves, to look younger, to try a different gender just for a giggle, even to try being crippled for awhile just to see if they are up to the challenges. Bored people. Self-involved people.
And I think about my body, and my feet. Okay, so my legs feel leaden now, but they are my legs, the set I've been given. It's not like they differ from the way natural legs are supposed to be, and it's not like I can grow another pair if this plan doesn't work out. And oh -- to not feel the ground again. Not ever. I can't remember loving it before, the touch of the earth, not when I used to be able to leave it behind at will and just come back when I was ready. But now it is so important to me, the anchoring reminder of each step, that reminder that I am alive whenever I am least sure.
I take away Jameson's empty glasses. "Closing time," I tell him.
"Very well," he replies, disappointment in his voice. He stands and pulls on those soft, pale gloves.
He's almost to the door when I stop him, calling "Can I...think about it?"
"Of course," he replies with a grateful smile. "I have left you my card. Just don't wait too long, yes? The Olympics will be here before you know it, and we have other potential subjects."
I look down at where his card lies on the bar and pick it up with numb fingers, reading it again without really taking it in. When I look up, he's gone.
Months. There are whole months after I said yes that I wish I could forget, just so I could pretend that I didn't choose this, that it just happened to me, but every moment is printed permanently in my mind. The only part I have no memory of is the surgery itself -- a success, they told me, when I woke up without my feet and lower legs.
"What did you do with them?" I asked through the painkillers the first time Dr. Jameson accompanied the surgeon in to change my bandages and check my wounds.
"They have been photographed, radiographed, and cremated."
"May I have the ashes?"
"May I see the photographs and the radiographs?"
"It is not recommended."
Waiting for the swelling to go down, I had a lot of time to think, and to grieve for my choice, my loss, but I have to tell you that mostly I was excited. It seems so wrong now, but I was. I'd gone through with it! There was no turning back! And I was going to run, to fly, again. I had to. There was no point otherwise.
I had no idea how hard it would be. The muscles in my hips, my thighs, my knees -- all had to learn new ways of moving to accommodate the new prosthetics. It was tedious. It was often painful. I thought I'd get my springs and then just rocket off, same as I used to, feel the wind and not feel the ground, but that's not how it went. I could both feel the ground and not feel the ground, impact on my remaining joints feeling through phantom sensations like impact on the ground but not accurately. I could feel the framework of my sockets at every move, chafing and pushing against the flesh of my shins. I sweat into hot synthetic socks in plastic liners, not sneakers or the air. My gait was wider. I couldn't shoot straight forward like an arrow off the blocks but had to bounce, up and down, up and down, forward, ever forward, but up and down, up and down. And my missing parts prickled all the time with pins and needles, not broken glass like Anderson's Little Mermaid who gave up who she was to be someone she couldn't, but a constant, uncomfortable reminder of what I had given up in order to be more myself.
Once I got the right fit, though, and once I got the hang of it, slowly replacing old muscle memories with new instincts, there was no stopping me. Hell yeah, I flew. It was different, and I was different, but the speed. The speed was there.
It was strange though. As hard as I'd worked to regain what I'd lost long ago when the casts came off, I worked even harder now to gain a new skillset with the same goal, to be fast. I was doing the same thing only going about it differently.
Sometimes I wondered how fast I'd have been if I'd ever worked this hard with the legs I'd given up, them with the heavy, scarred bones. Sometimes I wondered why I hadn't worked this hard, why I'd never met anyone who'd even suggested I should. I'd have to shake those thoughts off like water, though. It didn't pay to have regrets or wonder "what if." I was deep in the land of What Is Now, and there was no going back.
I got to the Olympics. You see that photo under the first one you pointed out? Yep, that's me, too. No, a lot of people don't realize at first glance. It's the spring feet, and also something about the way my muscles changed after I started using them, all through my body. I think I was more fit in that photo than I had ever been before. It was not an easy fitness, though. It came from labor, not genes or luck. It didn't rest as easy on me. I could fly again, but it was no longer effortless. I could outrun my exhaustion again, but our finishing times were a lot closer. It was right there at my heels, or where my heels would've been if I'd still had heels.
On the amateur circuit and in the qualifying heats, I beat everybody. I left the Africans in the dust once again. Pemberton didn't offer me my scholarship back, though. And people told me "Good for you!" in a different tone of voice. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was different. It was like they weren't quite the same kind of proud of me that they'd been before when all I'd run on was nature.
But, yeah, the Olympics. I got there. And I was proud. I'd really worked for it, you know?
And what I didn't know was just how much was riding on it all. I found out later, from the cops.
You know how Jameson had told me that "the funding" for my transformation had been "assured"? What he didn't tell me was who had funded it, or why.
People had been running in the Olympics on spring feet for decades now, but no one believed they could take gold. It was just too hard. But Jameson was a gambler, and one night over cards, he and Lermontov the Russian gangster, another doctor, and a guy known only as "the Swede" by anyone who knew him at all had been speculating aloud on whether it could ever happen.
"It would take a remarkable athlete," said Jameson.
"It is a pity we cannot know exactly how remarkable is an athlete before a race," laughed Lermontov. "We can guess, but..."
"I wonder if we could build one," said Jameson.
"What, a robot?" asked the other doctor. "Of course we can. But they are not allowed to compete in the Olympics."
"No, no, if we could build an athlete we knew could win. Someone like O'Brien, but even faster. Someone who started out faster than anyone else has ever been."
"The trick," interjected the Swede, "would be finding someone like that who's had their legs cut off. It doesn't happen every day, you know. Well, not around here."
Because I had gotten so close to the Olympics back when I had all my original parts, I had briefly gotten on the international radar, and most people had heard of me. So now some perverse trick of luck and vodka made Jameson think of me and my story, and my loss. "What if we could find someone who had been faster than anyone else but lost the ability -- through some tragic event or other -- without losing their legs? What if we could persuade them to have their legs off and to try running on springs?"
The Swede snorted. "They'd have to be very much faster than anyone else has ever been to win. They'd have to be a Blitz Goldstein or something."
Jameson smiled, and that's how the whole thing started. The Swede and Lermontov put up the money. Since no one believed that a runner on prosthetic springs could take gold, and no one believed that anyone who had two working legs would be crazy enough to have them cut off for any reason less than catastrophic injury -- which I maintain is a matter of perspective -- they planned to place a lot of bets which would more than recoup their expenditure.
If they lost, though, they'd be out more money than they could raise, and the people they bet against weren't your sherry-tippling Victorian whist players. Naw, their circle was a bunch of heavies and toughs on a world underworld scale, not nice people at all, not the kind of people you ever want to owe money to. If they lost, they'd probably lose their lives.
A lot of people think those guys, the people the Swede and Lermontov had bet against -- and Jameson, too, as was later revealed, or so the police think based on what happened to him -- got to me, put the screws to me, and made me throw the race. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The problem was me. All me. I may have changed legs, but I was still the same person. And that person liked to play games with speed and control, the kind of games that can get you hurt, even killed. Even with what it had cost me in the past, I still wasn't over that. And I was feeling good. I was feeling strong, elated, special almost like a superhero. I had worked for this moment in my life. I had sacrificed. I could do anything.
So the Olympics that year were in Monte Vista, and as everybody knows, Monte Vista has a velodrome. Anyone can join; you just pay your euros, hop on a bike with no brakes, and race around and around and around a track 'til a whistle blows and somebody wins. Day before the race, on a little bet of my own, that's where I was. I didn't win; that hadn't been the bet. The bet, which I'd made with another runner on my team, was whether or not I could do it at all with one of my sixteen pairs of fake feet. And I could, you bet I could. I just got banged up a little bit doing it.
And getting banged up meant bruises, and swelling. And that meant my running prosthetics didn't fit quite right the next day.
And everybody saw what happened as a result.
There was a pebble in the track, and I hit it. I'd trained for everything. It shouldn't have been a big deal. But some combination of factors, the placement of a particular bruise with the way my spring foot hit just that edge of just that rock, made me trip. And then I couldn't right myself.
Down I went. Ass over teakettle. Broke my damn knee doing it, too. And that was it for my racing career, for real this time.
Worst part about it, of course, was what happened to the runner who tripped over me. Out of the race, end of a dream, pure bad luck. Boy, do I know how that feels.
Things got real quiet in my life after that. No one knew what to say to me, or even about me, except those talking heads in the media, of course; they always know better than anyone else what should have happened and what could have happened, and they aren't afraid to say so. Lermontov and the Swede were never seen again, and Dr. Jameson disappeared mysteriously, too.
The cops contacted me some months later. They'd found a pair of hands tied together with rope at the wrists floating in the Pemberton river. They'd been fingerprinted, of course, but I knew whose they were from the forensics photos. The gloves were a mess, but I could see that they'd been a real nice pair once, the finest pleather, now dirty as hell but formerly pastel-colored and lined with polar fleece. And the hands themselves, well, I got to see those, too. There were photographs of them untied and undressed. All the scars, all the things that had happened to the skin from working with metal and carbon fiber, from fabricating things that would help other people live their dreams, had been softened gorily by a lot of time spent in water.
I lost my breakfast when I saw those hands. They didn't look like they'd come off easily, or cleanly.
The cops wanted to know if I knew anything about how they ended up in the Pemberton River. I had nothing to tell them. And I couldn't tell them anything about Lermontov or the Swede, either. Hell, I'd never met either one of them, and was only hearing about them and their betting, and Jameson's, for the first time from the cops themselves.
I'm not sure they ever found out the whole story. I never did, either, of course, but we all think we can imagine.
Huh. I haven't thought about all that in quite awhile. I mean I have, but I haven't. I don't like to dwell on stuff I'm ashamed of. I have a lot to be ashamed of, I guess; not sure if it's more or less than the average person, just more obvious, more public. But I have this job again; that's something.
Ruby's been real good to me. She's the only person who's always treated me the same, no matter what.
I guess I should close soon. Doesn't look like there'll be anybody else tonight. Don't want to waste the power bill. But I've got to ask. It's pretty damn raw outside. What on earth brought you in here to talk to me about all that on a night like this?
That's right; I want to know your story. I'll bet you've got one; everybody's got one. Like for starters, how'd you lose that eye?
I'll just pour myself a beer -- just this once, just so you don't feel rushed finishing that screwdriver -- and you can tell me all about it.
What'd you say your name was? Borgeson? That's Swedish, isn't it?