How does a ghost story start? How about with an old man? The one I’m thinking about is unexceptional on the surface. Handsome, I guess. Quite fit for his age. A little shorter than he used to be, which was never exactly tall. He’s never been arrested, was never late with a bill, and he sits through five p.m. mass every Saturday like clockwork. Alive for more than seventy years, he’s spent the last thirty in a Midwestern suburb, in a four-story house overlooking a small sylvan lake. He’s retired now, finally, from one of those vague business-type jobs—management consultant in his case—that paid him enough money to support a wife, to shepherd four kids through graduate schools, to care for his mother, and to take vacations now and then. Italy one year. Baltimore, for some reason, the next.
This ghost is not dead. Anything but. A female friend, upon being introduced to him, reports that my dad “still has it going on.” He and I talk on the phone at least once a week. We talk about the Chicago Cubs and his golf game and whether he’s added any beer cans to his collection. We talk about Notre Dame football. We talk about the weather. Gingerly, we dance around what I call my career, and what he once called my permanent vacation. We never talk about the story rattling around my head, the story haunting me.
It goes like this: When my dad was my age, thirty-nine years old, he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. He drank a couple of beers every evening after work, and never exercised. He was overweight. When he was my age, my dad decided to take up jogging to drop some of those excess pounds. Nothing serious. Just a few laps around the cul-de-sac. It was the 1970s. The American Frank Shorter had won gold and silver medals in two successive Olympic marathons, igniting a running boom. My dad, who set out only to lose some weight, attacked jogging with the same focus with which he approached his work, the same focus that enabled him to rise—completely on his own, seemingly through sheer will—from a working-class assignment in Milwaukee to a station atop the upper middle class. He took up jogging with the same zeal that led him to acquire, by the time he was my age, a wife and four kids and a house on a golf course. And a Chrysler New Yorker that he was terribly proud of. And financial security. And genuine professional success. Within one year of his first step as a jogger, he qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon, finishing the greatest road race in the world in less than three hours.
I was eight years old when he pulled this off. The same year he ran Boston for the first time, the Boston Globe Sunday magazine published a huge feature on him. Six pages long, color photos, and the framework for the story that now lives in my head. The newspaper celebrated the way my dad—smoker, beer drinker, etc.—transformed from couch potato to Boston in only a year. He was painted as superhuman, basically, which is how I’ve come to view his achievement.
Not long after I turned thirty, around the time my life began to collapse, the story in my head started to grow, to metastasize. I can’t help but compare his standing then with my current station in life. I do not have four kids. I don’t have any kids. I don’t even have a wife anymore. I definitely don’t have a house, much less a house on a golf course. I’m in the prime of my working life, yet I’ve actually lost money each of the past eight years, a streak that began when I left my wife, which was also the last year I held a steady job. To get by, I’ve exhausted my life savings. I’ve spent the past fifteen months living in a converted chicken coop. That’s not a joke. In the state of Colorado, where I moved just over a year ago, I have been officially declared indigent.
I’d never been to Colorado before. I’d never even driven through the state. I moved west from Florida because I wanted to place a new story in my head. A story about applying myself and stripping away everything inessential and finally living up to the standard my father had set. In the new story I hoped to author, I am no longer the shiftless son or the floundering son or the son adrift. In the new narrative, I finally become a son without adjectives.
I spent a lot of time picturing how it would all turn out. I imagined molding myself into a person of substance, a guy people can count on, a doer. I saw my life landing back on track. If I got up every day and ran and focused and lived with discipline, I figured, it would follow that I’d also become an adult and find work and fit in with everyone else in America. Maybe I’d find a new wife, too. At no point did I envision a gray February morning in a tacky Southern tourist town. I never saw my head bowed, my eyes fixed on the soft asphalt under my swollen feet. I didn’t expect to look down long enough to notice, for the first time, that the black laces on my yellow racing flats have sparkly silver threads weaved into them. In this vision that I did not foresee, in a story I did not anticipate writing, I am staring at the ground. My dad stands maybe fifteen feet away, just over the finish line and behind an orange plastic traffic barricade. I am staring at the ground and he is staring at me. The ghost is staring straight at me.
March 1. Day one. Two hundred and fifteen pounds. Body fat 22.5 percent. Twenty frozen minutes.
I get up in the morning a bit after seven. I pull on new black thermal tights and a new Nike compression shirt I bought at the Boulder Running Company, telling the clerk I hadn’t seen winter in fifteen years and I didn’t know what to wear. I squeeze into a pair of ten-dollar running socks that are supposed to keep my feet from blistering, then tie my ninety-dollar running shoes purchased in Miami about a month ago, which was about a month before I left. Over my compression shirt I layer a cotton sweatshirt from the law school my brother attended and a new Mizuno windbreaker my older sister gave me. A heart-rate monitor hugs my chest just below the nipples. I walk down to Boulder Creek, to a seven-mile concrete path winding through the heart of my new town. Snow dusts the creek bed. Black water gurgles under sheets of cracked ice. I press a button to start my GPS satellite watch, purchased on the last day of December, the last day, according to a resolution, I would spend any more money. And I’m off. The first step. Or, at least, the first step in Colorado.