Chaos Theory
Shawn Stufflebeam

Runners

I smiled at the concierge as I stepped boldly out into the crisp, clear evening air, double doors swinging quickly shut behind me and locking instantly into place. At least I felt bold - a young suburbanite embarking on his first nighttime run alone through downtown and midtown Atlanta.

It was a truly beautiful September evening, the kind you can really only experience in the Deep South, and really only appreciate if you’ve lived several years out west in America’s dustbowl. The air is cool and clean, yet still fragrant with the musky smells of the long, moist, hot summer. Each breath relaxes you a little more as Mother Nature seems to say, "It’s okay, if you get tired, baby, you can just lie down and sleep out here tonight - I’ll look out for you." Maybe that’s why we have so many homeless in Atlanta. The air here is thick with aromatic life, and it just feels like the world is on your side, that everything is going to be okay.

Within five minutes I am past the stark downtown thoroughfares and safely moving through the more residential neighborhoods of midtown, which borders the park on three sides. The fourth side conjoins the botanical gardens, and you don’t want to go there at night. Midtown, on the other hand, possesses a quaint and friendly beauty, a hodge-podge of architectural styles from different eras living in a harmony that reflects the racial complexity of Atlanta itself. Never before have I lived in a place so ethnically diverse, a place segregated by income rather than race. Atlanta is a money town. This town judges you less by the color of your skin than by the make and model of your automobile.

I glide past two Range Rovers and a BMW 7-Series, keeping a steady pace on the hills, starting to sweat a little now, starting to feel the run. I feel good. As I race past the Cape Cods, the Arts and Crafts, the Victorians and the occasional Contemporary, I begin to feel like this neighborhood is mine. Only once in awhile do I pass someone else on the street; most people are inside with their kin, sheltering from the first autumn chill, unwinding from the day’s work. This sidewalk is mine, these old-growth Oak trees are mine, I own this street, I own this town, I own the night!

Suddenly two dogs appear on my left, moving swiftly along beside me, not hurrying, just pacing me. I calmly glance around. No one. As we pass through the cool arc of a streetlamp, their mottled fur punctuates their lack of dog tags.

They’re strays.

I’m suddenly not feeling so bold. I knew I should have brought my cell phone. I try to relax. I know they can smell fear. I concentrate on my breathing pattern, and on keeping a steady pace, remembering never to make eye contact. I pretend I don’t notice them as I make a right on Charles Allen, keeping to the left side of the road. They stay with me - behind for a few moments, but now they’re back on my flank, just running alongside, like we’re all old pals. Suddenly one of them cuts directly across my path, and my heart asks permission to explode, but I just keep moving, never breaking stride, following him only with my eyes, staying on task, pretending to be oblivious to them both. His friend follows, and a moment later they are charging around someone’s front lawn across the street, silently investigating some invisible prey, briefly wrestling each other, and then I am past them.

I don’t look back as I make a right onto Eighth, focusing on my pace. Eighth is a long, slow, steep grind, and I like to keep it steady. After a block I think I’ve lost them, and my mind relaxes a notch. But suddenly they are back, over to my left on the sidewalk, as I stick to the street. Now we blow past a man getting out of his Mercedes who glares at me in the dim light as if to say, "Get those dogs on a leash." I feel like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not wanting to involve this innocent bystander in what could get truly ugly. He has no idea that I am running with wild dogs. He just got out of his safe car, paused to glare at me condescendingly as if he knew that I drive a Honda, and has no idea how close he came to being mauled before he could make it inside of his safe, expensive house. I wonder how often all of us are in the presence of true evil, yet are completely unaware.

I’ve been watching way too much Buffy – we were not in the presence of true evil. Certainly these ruffians might be vicious, and quite possibly carrying rabies, but they weren’t hell hounds sent from beyond the grave by the Dark Master – such evil does not exist. I’ve always had a dramatic imagination, and I actually start smiling as I begin to really feel the hill in my thighs. These dogs aren’t going to hurt me – if that was the plan, I would be hurt already. We are just fellow runners, out exercising our legs on a beautiful September evening made for running.

And the night is ours!

My posse and I crest the hill and make a left on Myrtle, grateful for the gentle down slope (at least I am grateful) as I start to work my way back home. Somewhere around 1st Street the boys slip off into the night from whence they came. One minute we are together, running in perfect tandem, and the next I am alone.

Back in the building I get on the elevator, and one of my neighbors slips in behind me, giving me a start. He looks like he’s been working out, so I say, "Nice night for a run." I smile.

He looks back at me and says, "Yeah, something really weird happened to me out there."

"Really," I say, my ears perking up. "What was that?"

Two dogs appear on my left, moving swiftly along beside me…

"Well," he says, sweat running down his temples, "I was running along down toward the park, and I kind of bumped this real old guy."

"Bumped him?"

"Yeah," he continues, "He was a black guy. Old black guy, and I just knocked him over a little bit, by mistake."

… we have so many homeless in Atlanta…

"Knocked him over a little bit?" I ask, trying to remember the last time I ran into someone.

"Yeah," he pushes on, "The guy turns around and says, ‘Hey, white boy.’ So I just stop, turn around and yell Fuck you, you fuckin’ nigger!’"

…such evil does not exist…

I say nothing; I feel suddenly tired, and depressed.

"Yeah," he goes on, "Probably some homeless guy." He smiles wistfully, considering what he is saying, "I was thinking about getting my baseball bat and going back down there."

… in the presence of true evil …

I can’t seem to speak. I slink silently down the long, dingy hallway. I am full of shame.

Midtown, on the other hand, possesses a quaint and friendly beauty, a hodge-podge of architectural styles from different eras living in a harmony that reflects the racial complexity of Atlanta itself.

I lock the door behind me. I have to get up and check it twice before I finally slip into a cold, restless sleep.

Email Shawn at: Chaos@hybridmagazine.com 


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