“Runner’s High,” a story by C.T. Lisa, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 60th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author
photo by Daniel Reche via pexels.com
by C.T. Lisa
…..She raked her hair behind her ears.
…..It was deep night but sleep had become a distant thing. What could she do? She was 32 and eager-limbed and every wayward moment mattered. She sat in a generous cobblers pose on a thin pillow, knees wide, gazing through her window. She would have installed a window seat but there was something about sitting atop the dresser that gave her a feeling of commanding space, cat-perched and crows-nested.
…..Her apartment building seemed to exist on the very edge of the living world. Below her lay the underworld of the I-95 underpass glowing wet with rain water, a soulful river of lights, ever flowing, the highway’s blaze of bidirectional red and white. The interstate curled around the narrow tuft of land on which her apartment sat and meandered toward the horizon line dodging tree limbs and billboards, river and restaurants. It seemed every few odd months that the woods became more of an afterthought to the highway. She’d come to see the road and its rambling sprawl as a kind of widening wound, a laceration of the land, spreading its death through her trees and her trails. Pretty soon the pine curtain shielding her running route from the highway would vanish altogether, and she would be left to face a world of concrete chrome and naked movement. This didn’t feel far off.
…..But how would that differ from the prevailing trends? Abbigayle’s life was partitioned by smoke. She couldn’t rightly say how it was she had gotten here but if there had ever stood a barrier between work and self such a separation lingered now only as vapor. Her friends were her coworkers; her apartment, an office.
…..It was a studio in the truest sense of the word, a glass-encased workspace—slate-walled, wedge-shaped, brutalist and bare. Each of the building’s apartments bore an identical triangular floor plan, radiating ring-like from the upright baton of an elevator shaft. Stepping in from the circular hallway, you’d enter the room at its narrowest point, so that the space gradually widened until you reached the far-end’s curtainless window wall, where Abbigayle’s ad hoc bedroom lay cast adrift amid the open sea of industrial flooring—a pillow-packed divan, a lowboy dresser, a small desk, a mirror. She lived inside a platonic idea of efficient living. The lights held no switches, her fridge was a drawer. Every surface hid some purpose.
…..She rose out of the body-solitude of her pose and looked around the dim room; she looked at the bare walls, the spare decoration, the glowing trio of computer monitors, the row of dirt-dimmed running shoes scattered beneath the kitchen counter. There were two doors and a sink, a chair with no cushions. Shadows bled across the floor. In the aerosol darkness of her light-polluted night, the apartment was at best an impression of a living space. It looked as if she hadn’t yet finished unpacking, though in truth she was set to renew her lease for the third time this May. Four years. Abbigayle hadn’t bothered to hang any art and the only photographs she could have mounted would have been a reminder of a bygone self lithely writhing amid the ghosts and the dreams of her previous life. There was nothing to celebrate. She’d stepped tepidly into this apartment with the assumption that it would all be temporary. Abbigayle saw herself as a being meant for transit. This was supposed to be just another waypoint. But time had slowly crystallized and all her momentum settled.
…..She returned to her stretching. Abbigayle pressed elbows to knees, pulled her heels in close. She rolled shoulders back and held her socked foot soles like she were reading a book. The groin tug tightened. The late-night stretching didn’t ease her condition or cool her mind to the sleeping frequencies, but it did help her think. She spent most of the daylight hours floating just outside the hollow of herself watching lines of code materialize from her tap-dancing fingers. Night was where she reclaimed what she’d been drained of. Abbigayle needed to feel her body in space. She’d been a dancer once, contemporary, mostly, but that was behind her now, a pursuit surrendered to the sinuous fury of perpetual exertion—auditions and residencies, rosters and rage, a youth-killing yearning; the collective effect of which had left her dragging her toned torso up the livid shoreline of her late-twenties with no savings and no tenable skills, into a world sponged of meaning in which every specialist was at the mercy of a master. Abbigayle had come to see dance as a mistake. Not that she didn’t recognize her own talent—she was good, possibly even very good. But at a certain point she’d begun to recognize the world of dance as a place plagued by narrowness. The whole enterprise seemed keen on shutting out the world instead of letting it pour in. She wasn’t a cultural historian, but she’d tied herself in knots wondering about the kind of person who would pay to watch a recital—or even the ballet—in this century. She’d entered a bygone medium. She leaned forward in her cobbler’s pose, tucked chin to chest, reached her crown out long, felt the easy pull in her lower back. No, dance was dead. What was the point? Who was her audience? She’d been dancing for other dancers, for the friends of dancers, living inside a tiny little island-civilization long calcified into a performers’ bureaucracy. They weren’t artists, they were career professionals. Most of her dancer-friends would be lucky if they could make a living teaching dance, let alone doing the Thing itself. She wasn’t cut for the administration, she would never open a studio, she didn’t have the mind-stamina for a PhD; to Abbigayle dance ended with dancing, and she’d rather sell out and move on. Move here.
…..Even if it kept her up at night.
…..And where was here? It was nowhere, a source-code editor. She worked remotely for a cloud-based software company in front-end development. They had a nominal headquarters in San Francisco and offices speckled across the map, overseas, in the deep tropics of neon night, glittering palaces of ballistic glass; they had data centers all the way from Texas to Tokyo poised like military bases wherein stood humming catacomb rows of chilling servers burning the electricity of small towns. By the latest count she had fifty-five thousand colleagues. And what the company actually did for work was equally vast, inexpressible to the point that describing their line of business was best untaken as an interpretation of salient buzzwords, jargon, advertising campaign trends. Most simply: her company helped other companies manage customer data. Not surveillance, per se, but certainly adjacent to it. But where would ethics have entered her mind? She was employed to write conditional statements that arranged the colors of a web page. Commands. Variables. Objects. Brackets within brackets within brackets within brackets.
…..Abbigayle eased out of the pose and folded her legs into an easy lotus. A slight back-cracking twist, left then right. She let her hands rest on her knees and sat in a ponder’s posture. But what did she know? She knew it would be a wet and gray morning soon. She knew she needed a run before work if she could manage it; she needed grit and mud, the parkside trail. She needed something earthy and real. She knew if she went to bed now she’d risk missing her alarm. She knew perpetual movement. She knew random fickle facts. She’d seen a documentary about sea life recently. When fish need sleep they don’t stop, they keep swimming and switch off their brain one hemisphere at a time to avoid suffocating. Front-end development was a half-brained career for Abbigayle—a necessary life-process to keep her afloat. She knew a routine. She knew how to burn herself down to the wick and regret it and then do it again and forget herself in the wash of days. She was a form lacking contours, a shadow, a shade. She wanted to channel her visage to wider patterns. What was the difference between isolation and solitude? Between her work and her labor? She needed something to bring her out, something to anchor her steps to the earth.
…..She looked with longing at the distant world, the woods and the street and the roving beads of lights. She pressed her fingertips to the rain-muted glass, just beginning to lighten. She felt as if she were tuning into radio signals floating in the static. Waves of information that would tell her who she was.
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 8:38 AM
Morning friend! ☕ hows your workload today? Thinking of throwing a webinar registration page your way if youve got time
copy/design aren’t quite finalized yet but the webinar is at the end of the month. need to push this live by EOD… ????
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 8:52 AM
hey hey morning to you too! ????
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 8:52 AM
^^^ lol ????
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 8:53 AM
I’ve got a few banner updates I need to make for that page Matthias is launching for his thought leadership campaign
Plus I got tapped by Erin for this one-off video lightbox thing
Otherwise I’m pretty open! ????
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 9:02 AM
Just talked with Erin and Matthias. Let’s have you drop the lightbox and banner assets and work on this. marketing is blowing me up so I’d love to get it out the door.
Sorry for the change up! ????I’m gonna pass your other projects along to Nate. But the reg page should be your priority.
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 9:21 AM
Is there an existing task for the reg page? Or should I look for a new one in my inbox?
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 9:35 AM
Task assigned! ✅ Just tagged you. The specs are in the details tab, but its the same as we’ve been doing. the newer template
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 9:39 AM
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 9:41 AM
I just put you and Creative in a thread together. Amanda says they just locked the design but are still waiting on approval for the copy. But you should be good to run with it. ????????
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 10:02 AM
Thanks! I’ll have this for you by EOD.
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 10:03 AM
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 10:02 AM
Lol rise and shine
…..Her plan for lunch was a breezy jog, a headlong hustle, high-stepping through the mist. It wasn’t exactly a sin to run during work hours but Abbigayle flung herself down the trail with true fugitive stealth. She moved through a cool rainforest of riotous birdsong and greenly dim canopy shimmer, going fast and breathing light, a tribal trot on dirt-dark paths.
…..She’d overslept and missed the morning window. She needed this run to ferry her through the doldrums. So she’d found time. There was always time for running. This was what had drawn her to it after she’d dropped dance. To run, you didn’t need a studio, or music, or a choreographer; you didn’t need any of the surrounding apparatuses she’d come to loath in the dimly limited pursuit she’d left. It was a Thing in itself, Action with a capital “A”—running was pure cunning, it was an exercise in craftiness, like a mid-day sex meetup in a rouge utility closet, something you stole away from a humorless cardboard world. She ran to the grocery store, she ran to friend’s houses. She cut through yards and parking lots; if she’d had a commute she would have run to work. But this trail—with its verdant hues and hills and temperamental creek and trees of crow-black bark reaching exposed root-nerves over the canted earth—this was where she’d fallen in love with running, discovered the art of wild wandering and loose-limbed pondering. Beyond the odd dog-walker or weed-wielding adolescent duo or trio, the trail was usually hers, a sanctum for the solitary self. Abbigayle held her running practice with the private intensity of someone who had passed beyond the competitive realm and found her adaptive self-deprivation of self-knowledge (the athletic curse counter-balancing the athletic blessings of body-aptitude and physical form) to be a spiritual deficiency. Running to her was a restorative venture, a secular prayer. Hence her disapproving scorn of organized races and urban marathons, which she viewed the way an earnest monk might regard an evangelist Megachurch, a crass corruption of the mind-widening mysteries she devoted herself to.
…..She breathed and she strode. She wore hiking socks, a sweater.
…..Her meandering miles were approximate distances. She wore no wrist-ticking time-tracker; the only common interval was her shoe-scraping gait. She kicked gravel as the path turned and she took an uphill charge, moving beneath the weave of trees. A sheepskin sky waivered above. Abbigayle ran at a metronome pace. A rogue twig skimmed her shoulder. She ducked and she leapt. Her ponytail fanned and swayed like a windshield wiper.
…..She had the wires of her earbuds tucked inside her sweater, she wore her phone in a fanny pack. The narrator of her audiobook had an elvish lilt to his voice. He spoke a haggard Irish incantation from her latest read, Finnegans Wake:
…the wrong shoulder higher than the right, all ears, an artificial tongue with a natural curl, not a foot to stand on, a handful of thumbs, a blind stomach, a deaf heart, a loose liver, two fifths of two buttocks, one gleetsteen avoirdupoider for him, a manroot of all evil, a salmonkelt’s thinskin…
…..Always audiobooks, never music. She liked dense experimental novels that took a forensics team to interpret, texts so far outside her understanding that their wisps and fragments loitered in the unoccupied alleys of her mind. She wasn’t interested in character or meaning. Reading, like running, was an animal need for her, a need she’d discovered only in its absence. It wasn’t self-improvement. She read for submersion. She wanted to siphon language right from the living pages. Sharp words, strange words. She wanted misshapen words like outdated surgical instruments for the shelves of her brainspace; her mind was never better primed than when she was moving. Abbigayle’s chief preoccupation in working as a developer was that her capacity for meaningful expression would atrophy like an unused limb. This was an anxiety that hummed along quietly most of the time, only to suddenly flare up and bind her for whole weeks. She drowned herself in words to refill the well.
…..Up ahead the trail converged with a wooden walkway spanning the creek. An opening. She decided to push the pace. She wanted it.
…he repeated in his botulism that no junglegrown pineapple ever smacked like the whoppers you shook out of Ananias’ cans, Findlater and Gladstone’s, Corner House, Englend. None of your inchthick blueblooded Balaclava fried-at-belief-stakes or juicejelly legs…
…..Her juicejelly legs. She drove her knees, she breathed like a piston. The wood was slick with rain and made a hollow sound as she laid her steps. She struck her strides, counted out the footfalls. She was moving fast along the water, the air was dense and dank. She leaned forward, she gritted and huffed. She wanted to stab herself through the fabric of things.
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 1:58 PM
Hi, abbi – hows that reg page going?
Lmk if you need any help ????
everything okay? Trying to get it live ASAP.
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 3:44 PM
Hey! Sorry, had my notifications off. The reg page should be good to go to the proofreading team.
Boomer (he/him) Ghantt 3:47 PM
Nearly gave me a heart attack.
Page looks good.???? Nice work!
Abbigayle (she/her) Amos 4:51 PM
TY! Have a good night. ????
…..Night. Abbigayle took a sip of pissy beer, glowing red in the neon blaze of the overhanging drink sign. It may have been her first time at the Grotto but she could tell that the bar was a throwback to another way of life. It could have rightly been called a tavern. Around her, professors and bookish-types shared cheerful quarrels over fries and pints, lounging in the booths. People were reading books. Some appeared to be writing them inside leatherbound notebooks, in thin script with engineer pens, sipping luminous cocktails colored like church windows. The clink of ice in a glass, the scrape of chairs scooting, the banter. Faces rustled in the steely lamplight. Pious poets shared tables with frat-types playing dress-up in daddy’s sweaters. This was the college town as pure nexus, a strung-together thing, the warm little blister of intellectual kinship. There was a fireplace beside the bar, inoperative, and an ancient chalkboard served as the menu, high up on the wall. There were no televisions. Bundles of coats and umbrellas hanging hook-wise near the patrons. Engraved in the center of each table was a pattern of stately curls that was either Irish or German. Possibly Welsh.
…..She stood and moved toward the back of the room—past a painting of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, through the alcove, down some stairs, beyond the restrooms and the jukebox into the huddled gloom. The Grotto’s grotto had the feel of a catacomb to it, with its stooped arches, its framework of Christmas lights. This was the sort of place you went to practice a persecuted religion. She’d come for the monthly poetry reading, something she’d been meaning to do for awhile. She’d heard about it in passing, online, a random insight, word of modem. All throughout the Grotto’s grotto, the mismatched decoration was eclectic to the point of evoking a sense of kleptomaniacal nostalgia—seascape paintings crowded the walls with old photographs, a bottled ship was suspended above the staircase doorway, estate-sale tables were corralled among the owled and genderless faces like ornate wooden cattle; and rogue prophetic lightbulbs hung tawny and dim; and a menacing mock-medieval candelabra stood on a side table with the audacity of a steel specter. There was a red-haired woman holding a hairless cat, seated in a decaying fauteuil.
…..Statues and busts stood sentry over the stage, which was set in front of a window pressed against the brick outer wall of the adjacent building. It gave partial framing to a faded logo of the long-dead refrigeration business that had once owned it. Commanding the microphone was a woman wearing combat boots, draped in indigo, cooing breathy consonants into the crackling amplifiers.
…..“Welcome back, poets, welcome back.”
…..Silence, nods. Abbigayle huddled into herself and took a seat beside a woman in a denim dress on a brown and sorry couch that looked like it had been lifted from a defunct funeral parlor.
…..“You know what it is,” the MC said. “The first Wednesday of the month. Now who wants to bring us the word?”
…..Abbigayle wandered into the warm night full of jittery wonder. In the three hours she’d been at the Grotto, she had had exactly two beers and hadn’t spoken a word. Without even realizing it, she was going through the hunched motions of unlocking her bike from the fence where she’d left it. She needed to flee, needed to think. A few of the poets had gathered on the patio with cigarettes and last-call drinks in the muggy moonlight. Katydids’ staccato, the night ring, overhanging tree limbs, the breezy ease of late-March summer.
…..The MC whistled to Abbigayle and called her over with a head motion. She was seated alone at a picnic table, sipping a gin cocktail from a mason jar. Abbigayle stepped through the gate to the patio, pocketing her key lanyard.
…..“Saw you in there. First time, right?” She took a sip.
…..“It’s that easy to tell?”
…..The MC eyed her, appraisingly. “You’re some kind of athlete. I can tell. It’s the shoulders.”
…..“More or less, yeah. I was.”
…..“I teach athletes. I could have picked you out.” She introduced herself as Jamiece and lit a cigarette, offering one to Abbigayle who denied it with a hand wave. She took a seat next to her at the picnic table.
…..“So,” Jamiece said, taking a long drag, “a poet-athlete. I’m not sure people like you are supposed to exist.”
…..“I haven’t written any poetry.”
…..“Yet. It’ll come. You came here. It’s all got to settle in your mind first, but the poems are there. Now you need to pick them apart.”
…..“What do you teach?”
…..Jamiece smiled. “I’m what they call a quote-unquote Humanities Core specialist.”
…..“So that’s, like—”
…..“Gen Ed bullshit. I have a PhD in one of those useless subjects they cram athletes and Neanderthals into. No offense. But ‘teaching’ is maybe a generous word. You know what I call it?”
…..Abbigayle crossed her legs. “Why do you say that?”
…..“Well, shit, you should know, Ms. Lolo.” Jamiece smiled. “It isn’t about education. The whole tutoring thing, it’s all compliance. It’s rules, policies. The NCAA.”
…..“Babysitting,” Abbigayle said. She watched a pair of mice scurry under an adjacent table. Jamiece reached a finger into her boot to satiate an itching ankle.
…..“Can I ask you something?”
…..“Yeah,” Abbigayle replied.
…..She paused. “You ever just, like, jump into something? Like you were a human torpedo?” Jamiece took a soft sip, setting the mason jar down on the dark ring where the sweating glass had wet the wood.
…..“Kind of an odd question.”
…..“No disrespect. I just get a vibe.”
…..“Hey, a vibe’s a vibe. It takes a lot of guts to show up at something like this.”
…..“Okay. Well, sure. I’ve jumped into things.
…..“I don’t know. I trained for a job I didn’t know I’d hate.”
…..“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Jamiece said, “but I think people who do things out of the blue like that can be dangerous. Are you dangerous?”
…..“I could be.”
…..“Don’t judge me. I know this from experience. I’m somebody who jumps like that, and I’m definitely dangerous.”
…..“You’ve done, like, what?”
…..“You start out innocently enough,” Jamiece said. “You’re a kid. You take dares on the playground. You climb to the top of the swing set and jump from it because somebody tells you to.”
…..“Then someone tells you to lick the underside of the slide, where the spiders are. All the kids laugh and laugh, but you gather yourself up and you do it, because that’s who you are, you do things when people tell you to. Some would say for attention, but that wasn’t the case with me, it was something else. Lick the playground on a dare at recess. There’s you,” she illustrated the story with an imaginary finger figure, walking it around the table. “You’re stalking around the neighborhood, going door-to-door, asking for suggestions. Because you’re broken, the worst kind of selfless, relying on other people for direction. ‘knock-knock, hullo, tell me what to do; I licked the playground and now I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ll lick you if you want, I suppose.’ Suddenly this isn’t an act anymore. Suddenly you’re a teenager, you’re an adult. You grow up looking for somebody to tell you what to do.”
…..“Is this a royal ‘you’ or are you talking about me specifically?”
…..“But in America these people become athletes. I see this every day. The worst kind of selfless, self-removal, an absence. They’re accustomed to suffering, they’re always outside of themselves. They don’t know how to be a human, how to feel their pain. They’ve abandoned themselves as people. I saw you come in tonight to the reading and all I could think about was when I jumped off the playground. I knew you were one of them. It’s just…it’s your whole vibe. I spent the whole night wondering if you jumped like I did. Digging woodchips out of your palms after jumping ten feet from the top of the swing set. ‘Did I just do that?’ you ask yourself ‘I did, didn’t I? I jumped.’ Your ankles ringing from the drop; your ankles do ring after dropping from that high, by the way, like ringing eardrums. And it’s not a question of capacity, these people feel the pain, it’s there, but they can’t apprehend it, it’s meaningless noise to them. Licking the slide, licking god knows what. Please don’t look at me like that. I’m only asking. Who tells you what to do, Abbigayle? Are you dangerous? Because now that’s what I’m trying to figure out. If I told you to go ride that bike of yours full-speed into a narrow tunnel with your eyes closed, would you? I think you might. But you might not. I might have. You probably wouldn’t know either way until it came to it. I can’t tell with you.”
…..“I jumped from the high-dive before I could swim,” Abbigayle said, more or less to herself.
…..“But you need to fight it. It’s a kind of discipline, being a person. Look at me. This is a necessity for you. Look. You’re Abbigayle. I’m Jamiece. Hullo, nice to meet you—we don’t get to be something else. Because if you let up, it’ll catch you, you’ll fade away from yourself. You have to think of it like an exercise, be a person, hold a posture of originality. Like you’re holding a wall sit or something. Am I scaring you? This wasn’t my intention when I called you over, I’m sorry. But I’m worried. I think you could be one of those broken people, Abbigayle, you’re like me, the kid who licks the playground because somebody else told them to.”
…..Jamiece looked at Abbigayle with something grave in her eyes.
…..“I just wish—”
…..“Please,” she reached into her purse. “Abbigayle, just smoke this goddamn cigarette with me, okay? Take it, here. Yes, it’s a little misshapen. Because I roll them myself. Here, this end goes in first, that’s where I put the filter. I have a pouch of tobacco back at my apartment like I’m some fucking jolly pirate, so what. Take it. I’m offering you a cigarette, not a suspicious limousine ride. When somebody offers you a cigarette, you smoke it. That’s how the world functions. Listen to me, the people who are telling you not to smoke aren’t concerned about your health, it’s productivity propaganda, they want you to have clean lungs so you can go out and shovel money for them. Tobacco brings people together, Abbigayle. Welcome to real life, this is what people do, they smoke fucking cigarettes behind bars. Smoke my cigarette, I’m not kidding.”
…..Abbigayle held out her hand for the brown and shriveled thing, pinched thin and the color of tree bark. It was a wicked gift. It was like insect larva, like something plucked from a diseased mind, but when she put the home-spun cigarette between her lips, it tasted earthy and wine-sweet. Jamiece pulled a butane lighter from her purse and scorched the tip with a hissing blue flame. A minor cloud of pagan smoke. She breathed. The heat of the cigarette seared the back of her throat; it ran down into the full pocket of herself and gathered into a rounded soulful shape for an instant before it blossomed and dispersed, seeping off into the dark passages. It flowed through her like warm water. Abbigayle exhaled. Slender fingers of silver smoke rose into the night, rose into their two pairs of grinning eyes, brown and brown, nearer now. Jamiece had a septum ring. It was pronged, pointed, a horseshoed U with twin triangle stoppers. Abbigayle hadn’t noticed this before and suddenly she wanted a septum ring, too. She wanted other things, she wanted ink up her arms, spells immortalized in the run of her shoulders. She felt the pull of the moon, the stare of her companion. Abbigayle took another drag and felt herself expand.
Jake Wallach, @jaking_photos
C.T. Lisa has been writing fiction at least since he finished his first short story, “Big ScAry Pumkin” (sic), in preschool. He considers everything he’s written since a loose sequel to it. His work has received numerous accolades, including the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio Student Prize and nomination for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. You can read him in Hypertext Review, Non-stalgia, and elsewhere; or hear him in the music duo, TRiO. He is the co-founder of MASKS Magazine and writes ads for a living in the verdant, tree-tangled city of Atlanta.
Click here to read “Thrush” by Owen Duffy, the winning story in the 60th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
Click here to read “His Second Instrument,” by Dave Wakely, the winning story in the 59th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
Click here to read “Sketch in ‘D’ Minor,” a short story by Estelle Phillips
Click here to read “The Hidden Garden,” a short story by Con Chapman
Click here to read “A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Summer, 2022 Edition”
Click here for information about the upcoming Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest