“My wife’s Vietnamese, but I love her anyway,” he said, so seriously that I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
The old guy had jogged up to my new house in gymshorts, Nikes and a tank top, skinny as a rail with a shock of white hair that flew anywhere but down. I’d seen him before.
“Let me be the first to welcome you to our neighborhood!” he bellowed, so loud that the movers stopped to watch. He said he was an ex-Navy officer–I think an admiral but (as my military relatives will confirm) I can’t distinguish admirals from airmen so who knows? He’d retired into a couple of successful businesses, and he and his wife had been two of the original settlers in the neighborhood.
He was friendly…but the Vietnamese crack bothered me, even when I saw the twinkle in his eye.
“Nice meeting you,” I said, “I’ve, uhm, gotta check on the movers but thanks for stopping by.” And I left him, grinning and waving, at the foot of the driveway.
I’d first encountered him 3 days earlier, nearly naked and jogging down the road in the dark. He’d appeared suddenly in my headlights, bobbing along with fierce determination, and so startled me that I nearly ran him down with my car.
The folks who sold me the house were lovely, lovely people who carpeted any horizontal surface in white–stairs, bathrooms, laundry room–and I like my floors BARE, thank you very much. That week I’d filled my poor car with foot-squares of ceramic tile from Home Depot–so much that the car nearly touched the ground–and was working round the clock to get it installed before the movers came.
Every night I’d finish tiling around 2AM and (literally) crawl to the car to drive back to the rental house, so exhausted I could barely fit keys to ignition. There’s not that much difference between dead-tired and dead-drunk, at least not for me, and I probably shouldn’t have been driving at all. That’s why the skeletal white figure jogging down the road, clad only in a billed cap, tennis shoes and skimpy, skimpy shorts, scared the bejasus out of me when he loomed out of the dark.
There’s not much space there, by the side of the road–a boy would be struck and killed by a hit and run driver in exactly the same spot a few years later. I slammed on the brakes and veered sharply to avoid him.
For all the attention he paid, I might not have been there at all. He kept up a steady pace as if my tires had never squealed past, moving slowly down the road. He had the knobbiest knees I’ve ever seen, the varicose veins standing proud across his calves and thighs, skin so white it nearly blended into his shorts. I watched him in the rear view mirror, and saw his face knotted into a horrible rictus of grief, or maybe pain, fists clenched. Every so often he shook a fist at the stars but he never took his eyes off the road.
I thought about stopping to ask if he needed help, but honestly, I was too tired. I got home, crawled into bed and dreamed I was being chased by skeletons and old, old men for the rest of the night.
After that we’d wave to each other, cheerily, as I drove past. I never took him up on numerous invitations to lunch or coffee or whatever; too busy, or maybe the memory of that ghostly, wife-dissing jogger made me a bit too uneasy.
It wasn’t until about a year later that my next-door-neighbors mentioned The Admiral (as he’d become in my mind). The Admiral had said something funny, and as they chuckled fondly about it I mentioned that he’d unnerved me with his late night jogging and Vietnamese cracks.
“Oh, you probably got them on a fight day,” said one, “He and his wife love each other dearly but they like to fight. She calls him Skinny Whitey when she’s mad at him, and he gets her right back. You probably just caught him on a fight day.”
A fight day. OK.
“And don’t worry about the jogging,” added another, “The Admiral came back from Vietnam an alcoholic, PTSD and all that. Took years to stop drinking and what finally did it was the jogging. He and his wife have a pact; whenever the craving gets bad he puts on his running clothes and just runs it out.”
“Some nights it takes him a couple hours but he won’t come home until he can handle it. They keep a bottle at the back door where he comes in, and for the last six years that bottle has been collecting dust. He says as long as we see him running, he’s beating that bottle.”
I’d encounter The Admiral every so often after that, jogging in rain, or ice, or heat, beating the bottle. He always looked overwhelmed with pain, clenching a fist at the sky. Sometimes you’d see the tears streaming down his face as you passed, but he’d wave cheerily and I’d never quite know what to say. I’d see him out front, instructing contractors and landscapers–he was always doing some kind of renovation on the house–and he never failed to smile and nod as I passed.
I think we exchanged maybe ten words as the years passed. I never did meet his wife.
A few months ago, the jogging stopped. A For Sale sign has appeared in front of the little house The Admiral tended and upgraded so carefully, which now sits vacant and pristine on the hill. I heard they just dropped the price, looking for a quick sale.
I don’t know if The Admiral lost the battle with the bottle, or with life. Or if they’re simply pulling up stakes and heading south. It’s a bit late for me to finally accept his overtures and ask.
I’m kind of ashamed of that.