The thump-thump sound of my running shoes hitting the pavement timed my breathing just right. I had synced up. My partner had not synced up, but she had those tall, lean legs that were made for running, so I let it go. We both hated running, but loved the discipline of it. We knew if we could consistently do something we hated like running, we could do other things we hated, and that would make doing things we only disliked a breeze. Running grew grit, and grit made life easier on a girl.
“Do we have to run the whole course again today?” Penny hurled the question at me over hard, shallow breaths.
I shot my running mate a reprimanding look, but smiled at the awareness of our disparate genetics. She stood nearly six inches above my smaller, athletically thicker frame. If anything hampered Penny’s running it could only either be her attitude or her abundant bosom. She was top-heavy, but she had that part of her tied down underneath a hardworking sports bra. I deduced it was her attitude that needed a tune-up. Thick early September heat increased the strain of running, as well as the crankiness of those doing the running. I reached up to tuck a few short, sweat-soaked strands of hair into my bandana do-rag and gave a quick tug at Penny’s honey and blonde-streaked ponytail knot.
“We need to try to shave a few more seconds off our time,” I answered.
“We can shave seconds off our time in the race in the morning.”
“And we will, but this test run will give us an idea of how many seconds we can shave off.”
“I hate you.”
“You love me.”
“I hate you.”
“Shut up and run, your breathing sucks right now. Use this hill to pick up speed.”
Hills are where endurance is grown. It takes strength to go up them and balance to go down them. The steeper the downward slope, the greater the chance that fumbling feet will stumble and send a runner tumbling down. As such, it’s natural to feel your body want to pull back on a steep hill. But I knew that hill would bank precious time, so I resisted the urge to pull myself back. Penny followed my lead. There were only seven houses besides mine for several miles and we’d already passed five of them. The other two houses were a good bit up the road. Penny and I skittered over patchwork pavement lined with too-still trees waiting for a sliver of breeze to lift their wilting leaves. Tall, reaching oaks, tulip poplars, sycamores and maples. The southern summer insect melody surrounded us but other than that, it was quiet, except for Penny’s breaths which were bordering on gasps at this point. We let the hill pull us down faster, building speed as we ran.
My Australian Shepherd ran in front of us. There was nothing wrong with her breathing. Chloe was big for a female of her breed, but the extra size didn’t slow her down any. She was a rescue from a popular local flea market which sits on fifty acres just south of Ripley, Mississippi and seventy-five miles southeast of Memphis. Held the weekend before the first Monday of each month, the flea market is named “First Monday.” If you were to ask the question, “Have you been to First Monday?” anyone within a 90-mile radius of Ripley would know what you’re talking about, and if they don’t, it’s because they don’t want to know. First Monday sells everything from porch swings to lawn mower blades, automatic weapons to Avon, air-brushed tee shirts, farm animals, funnel cakes and fresh-squeezed lemonade (sort of). Children kick up dust racing through dirt paths begging wagon-pulling parents for bunnies, dogs, puppies, kittens, baby chicks, and hermit crabs. You can find just about everything you want at the flea market, or want everything you find. The buying, bargaining, selling, and browsing lasts from Saturday to Monday, but the good vendors usually pull out on Sunday, so there’s really not much to see after that.
First Monday has a reputation as a place of animal mistreatment and neglect, as well as being known as a familiar spot where stolen pets occasionally show up for sale. It’s commonly believed that unscrupulous vendors steal animals from loving homes to make a quick buck without the hassle of breeding, proper animal care, feeding and/or training. Rumor has it the animals that are stolen and put up for sale at First Monday are just abandoned if they are not sold, or worse. This reputation is so well-known that First Monday has felt the need to advertise on their website that “No lost or stolen pet has ever been found at First Monday” in bold print just as you see it here. But all the locals will tell you that’s bullshit, and First Monday is the first place you know to look if your pet has turned up missing around the time the flea market is open for business each month. To be fair, there are many reputable breeders there with healthy animals for sale. But there are so many animals locked in tiny cages, sweltering in the summer heat, it makes you wonder why these good vendors choose First Monday as a place to conduct their business alongside people that demonstrate little regard for life that isn’t human.
When I stumbled across Chloe while browsing First Monday with a friend, I couldn’t really say with any certainty that she’d been stolen from a loving home to be sold. All I can say about Chloe is that she was a lone dog for sale at some good ole boys’ hardware booth, and he agreed to give her a shot at a new life for twenty bucks.
She was supposed to be a merle in coloring. Merle coats have patchworks of darker colorings or blotches mingled onto a lighter background. There was some haggling because she was solid white, not in character with the breed, but she was an honest-to-god, full-blooded Australian Shepherd, just without the papers, but yes ma’am, full-blooded, swear it on his mama’s grave.
“She’s only about eight weeks,” the vendor said. “She’ll grow into her coloring.”
And truly, Australian Shepherds’ coats are known to darken with age. It was no matter. Fifty bucks or twenty, she was getting a new home that day. I waited for her spots to come in over the next few months. They never did, except for one black spot on her left ear. Though the spots never came, the size did—a full fifty-five pounds max for a female plus some to grow on, ringing in the scale at the veterinarian’s at seventy pounds.
Chloe was in her prime, and chasing after her on runs had been advantageous. I was getting faster and stronger. She was wild though and not leash trained to accompany me on runs just yet. I had tried numerous times to train her, had trained several dogs for running, but Chloe was an unruly beast. There in the country portion of that small town at the Tennessee-Mississippi line, the leash law was replaced by the friendly neighbor law that says if your dog is not a menace, a leash isn’t all that necessary. Chloe was borderline menace, but I was a town favorite so I usually got a pass on her hyperactive shepherding games with cars, nipping at their bumpers, racing alongside them until they either gunned it to move past her, or stopped to keep from hitting her. Those were the times it was necessary to intervene, when she’d race cars down our shady country road, down to Burnt Bridge, called Burnt Bridge because some weed smoking teenagers in the seventies were careless, then we got a new bridge that wasn’t burned, but the name stuck, and that’s how we gave directions.
“You know where Burnt Bridge is?”
“Yea. Everybody knows where Burnt Bridge is.”
“Our place is just a mile past there to your right. Barn-style house, brown with a red roof.”
Chloe loved barreling down the hill that led to Burnt Bridge. I’m sure dogs don’t have that instinct to pull back while running down steep hills. She was flying that day. Penny and I were flying, too. We needed to trim at least seven seconds off our best time. If we didn’t, the long-legged college track runner, Deena Tilley, would take first again in my hometown 5K, a race honoring my high school friend who had died of Cystic Fibrosis—The Tonia Maxwell Hart Run. It was an annual thing. And two years running, I had taken second place to Deena’s first place, last year by only seven seconds. If long-legs took first again this year in my own hometown race, she’d be doing it beside me. I would at least tie her. Grit. She may have had track star legs and several inches on me just like Penny, but I had grit and sometimes grit can win a race. A lot of times, in fact. This was my year and I knew it. I had doubled my potential to keep Deena from taking first again in my race by training my own pair of long legs. So, I had a back-up plan should I have an off day tomorrow, but right then, my back-up plan was running next to me breathing like a Pony Express stallion that had just covered a hard twenty miles. Goddamn.
“You have got to get a handle on your breathing.”
It wasn’t just that this was my race in my town to benefit Cystic Fibrosis in honor of my friend; there was more to it than that. My reputation was at stake. I was the model of fitness in my hometown, having taught fitness classes my entire adult life. Each year when it was time to run the Tonia Maxwell Hart Race, I felt all eyes on me. I ran under different expectations than anyone else because this is what I do, it’s my job to be fit and teach others how to be fit, I should float easily through 5K’s like I’m running on a cloud.
I hate running. Hate it. I’m not built for it, can barely run ten minute miles, but in a small-town race like this one, most people are walking or lightly jogging so it’s an easy first place, unless a fucking track star shows up with power horse legs and iron lungs to embarrass me in front of all those small-town onlookers who like to rib me when I take my second place trophy—“Got you by seven seconds, did she?” “You’re getting older, Cheryl.” “Guess all that dancing you been doing is different than running, huh?”
All that dancing? And yes. Dancing is very different than running—hence the ten minute miles. Hence the embarrassment of poor performance in a local 5K by a small town’s one and only fitness queen.
In 1986, I graduated high school. No different than many other small-town girls, I had my mind set on marriage, so that’s what I did just two weeks after graduation. High school sweethearts and all that. It’s tough to earn a living in a small town though, most people commute into bigger cities for work. But I’d been itching to shake loose of that place my whole life. There would be no commute for us. We were Memphis bound, and I shed that town off me like a dried up slice of skin from a copperhead. Just as I hit Memphis, the fitness craze of the eighties swept in from the West Coast. It took a minute for it to get there. “Let’s get Physical” had been going wild out west for years. The rule in the South though is to watch the West Coast because anything that catches on over there will eventually make its way east and south, but it’ll take a good five years at least to get there. And so, it did. Memphis was on fire with fitness in the mid-eighties. And, I caught the fever fast.
I tried my first Jazzercise class the summer of ‘86. By 1988, at twenty, I was the youngest Jazzercise instructor ever to be certified in the Memphis area. Teaching Jazzercise back then was much different than leading aerobics classes in today’s world of fitness. It was a serious business to become certified to teach Jazzercise—way serious. We were the Dallas Cowgirls of the fitness scene. And we weren’t just heating up our studios, we were community-minded. We danced in local malls in fishnet stockings and high heels to advertise the luxury of the new “Sabree Softee” comfort pumps. We performed at local charities to raise money for good causes. We sweated and sizzled in demos all over Memphis to advertise the goods. We were fitness royalty.
The program was rigorous. It was mandatory to study under a certified Jazzercise instructor before even being allowed the opportunity to try out for certification. Yes, there were tryouts, real tryouts just like in cheerleading, with a team of judges traveling from region to region. Hopeful candidates performed Jazzercise routines on stage for the judges. Yes, there was a stage. The routines performed were Jazzercise official routines and nothing else, no flair or deviations whatsoever. The choreography of Jazzercise was copyrighted. Part of the appeal of the program was that participants in any Jazzercise class across the country could dance to popular hits they heard on the radio, and do the exact same dances in any Jazzercise class anywhere from Sacramento to Mobile, Alabama. Nationwide, we were all doing the same thing.
Once an instructor was graced with certification, she/he then bought into the franchise that is Jazzercise, and also paid Jazzercise, Incorporated a monthly percentage of our earnings. We built portable stages to dance on according to Jazzercise specs; we purchased all the Jazzercise music and choreography, learned it, performed it on our portable stages, and basked in the glory of the prestige that came with the title—“Jazzercise Instructor.” It was bliss. Well, most of it was bliss. The numerous times I chasséd or grapevined off the edge of that fucking stage were not bliss, the cookie-cutter routines with no room for individual expression were not bliss, and shelling out my hard-earned money to Jazzercise Founder, Judi Sheppard Missett every month was not bliss, but being a Jazzercise Instructor was everything I thought it would be. And more.
I swooned over that title. And it could be snatched away in a hot minute if you were monitored (yes, we were monitored, sometimes announced ahead of time, sometimes unannounced) and found to be noncompliant with Jazzercise Regulations. Official Jazzercise ‘monitors’ wrote up instructors for the smallest offenses: a half count off on that chassé, your stage is an inch lower than specs, you aren’t projecting, I couldn’t hear you from the back row behind sixty people, you didn’t smile enough, you took longer than six seconds to change your records out. Record changes. Now, there’s something.
Jazzercise instructors of the 80’s and early 90’s taught routines from 45 records played on Califone record players with attachable speakers. Those record players were practically indestructible. I still have mine and it plays records better than any stereo I’ve ever owned. One instructor backed over her Califone record player with her car, but it still worked fine.
Ideally, the heartrate should not drop during cardiovascular exercise. The time it takes for one’s heartrate to drop is roughly six seconds, depending on fitness level, so instructors had exactly six seconds to change out each 45 record of our set, usually a set of twelve to fifteen records per session, unless it was a “super session” which were classes designed to be ninety minutes instead of the customary sixty to sixty-five minutes.
So I was a Jazzercise Instructor, with my portable stage built to specs, my six second record changes (I could do it in four), my required CPR certification, my passed written exam that showed I knew the basics of Anatomy and Physiology, my two years of mentorship, my successful tryouts, my regular evaluations that said I was a good little Stepford fitness instructor, and my title among the Memphis Area Jazzercise Instructors as “The Baby.” And glory forever and ever. Amen.
Then, I got pregnant after teaching Jazzercise only two years. I continued to teach classes the first few months of pregnancy with no difficulties, but the maternal instinct I felt called me back home to the small town I could hardly wait to break away from only a few years before. Motherhood can be an all-consuming passion with a ferocious nature to protect. I wanted to shield my child from the sometimes harsh realities of city life. Back to my roots I went with my swollen belly, around three hundred and fifty 45 records with Jazzercise choreography (some good and some bad), and a promise to myself that I would teach again. My portable stage built to specs became firewood. I despised that stage. Jazzercise Instructors were glorified enough without being set upon a throne.
I gave birth to a son in December 1990, and eight months later—Yes, I was pregnant again, a daughter this time. When she was six months old, I began offering fitness classes in my hometown. I designed my own choreography and chose my own music, but Jazzercise was a heavy influence in both. I was a big hit in that small town, so much so, I began teaching classes in the neighboring town as well. I was countywide, my classes sometimes numbering up to ninety participants. I was infatuated with the attention. I followed the Jazzercise model. My girls (rarely ever any men) and I danced all over our county for charity and/or advertisement. We danced in the Municipal Center, in grocery store parking lots, at the Armory, the county fair, Wal-Mart—wherever. I felt comfortable enough with my success to quit my clerical day job and open my own business offering only fitness classes. It was as much a social outlet for me as it was a career. We were a close-knit group, our bond going beyond the gym. We went to parties together, to the movies, out to dinner, we participated in other local fitness events as a group, such as local or nearby 5K races, fun runs/walks, and health fairs. We were a family.
I had a good run out there in the country. I took fitness to the locals for over a decade. But as it’s been said before, nothing really good or really bad lasts really long. My numbers started dwindling. I kept my choreography and music current to stay fresh, incorporated hip hop aerobic routines to appeal to the younger crowd, focused on low impact to appeal to the older crowd, began weight training instruction to appeal to the hardcore crowd. But alas, I was not successful in keeping a hold on my clientele. No matter what I tried, I watched my numbers steadily diminish. From ninety to sixty-five to fifty to thirty, until I could barely keep fifteen on my roll. At the point that I was dipping into my husband’s paycheck to make rent at Smart Moves Aerobic Center, I announced that I would give it a couple more months but if business didn’t improve, I would be closing my gym. The best I could offer then would be the upstairs of my garage. I stressed to my clients that I had no desire to quit offering fitness classes, but I could no longer afford to keep my gym open as I had barely been breaking even for a long time and had recently begun to lose money. They understood. The few clients I had left put out the word to inactive clients that if business didn’t pick up, my doors would be closing. Two months later, they did close.
Aerobics classes in the upstairs of my garage went strong for several months. But it was a long drive for many, and it was clear the sting of closing my gym had affected me. I no longer taught with that “joyful drill sergeant” demeanor my clients described. My numbers fell again, fifteen to ten to five. But I could teach for five friends, as long as I kept that five. I mean, I was working out anyway. It was a bonus to have five friends to work out with, and it wasn’t costing me anything to hold classes there at my home. I needed to keep going. I even learned a few new routines, but it was clear, mostly to everyone else, that my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I wouldn’t give it up though.
Chloe’s long, wavy coat of white fur tousled in the wind as she bolted down the hill toward Burnt Bridge. Penny’s breathing was not in check, but she wasn’t pulling back with her strides. I was focused on my own breathing—in through my nose, out through my mouth. There was strong debate on mouth breathing versus nose breathing during running, enough debate that I had decided to incorporate both. I felt good. At 35-years-old, I’d peaked physically. I was strong and lean, about ten percent body fat. I’d spent my whole life exercising. Deena Tilley was going down. Down the hill we ran—me, my tall backup plan, and Chloe farther up ahead, closing in on the bridge.
A red Ford pick-up rounded the corner just below Burnt Bridge, and headed toward us. Chloe was excited to see the truck. She turned to run with him. Penny and I neared the bridge. The driver knew about Chloe; it was obvious because when he saw her, he instantly slowed his vehicle as many kind drivers often did. This was no good for Chloe though. She liked the chase. She slowed when the red truck slowed. She looked on quizzically as if to say, “Really? Is this the best you can do?” She trotted along patiently beside the red truck with the driver telling her to “go on now” out his open window. Chloe didn’t listen to the driver. She kept jogging alongside, smiling up at the man through his window, moving back toward Penny and me, about twenty feet from us. Chloe’s patience turned sour as she waited on the truck to speed up so she could race it and nip at its bumper. She began to bark. The driver, a nice older man I’d seen on our road several times, looked to me for help. Exasperated and needing those seven seconds off me, I told him, “Just floor it!”—thinking to myself, I have got to train this fucking dog.
The driver gunned it. Chloe lurched into action beside him, blind to anything except the chase. She never even saw what was ahead of her. It only took seconds. I never saw it coming either.
When Chloe’s skull smashed into the side of my leg, just below the knee, there was a loud cracking sound, and I was momentarily airborne with the force of the impact. She never saw me, not before she barreled through me, not during, and not after. I can’t say if the force of her crashing into me was what snapped my leg, or if it was how I landed roughly on the pavement. Looking something like a stray bowling pin that took the brunt of a speeding ball, I went flying into the air before landing hard, so hard there would be a few more landings, bouncing up and down and rolling, and then finally coming to a stop.
My instinct was to crawl, I can’t say why, but I needed to crawl for some reason. I crawled and then scooted, dragging my injured leg behind me. I glanced back at Chloe to see if she was hurt, not realizing at this point that she had never even noticed the impact, that she was joyfully chasing the red truck, snapping at the air just behind its bumper. The driver hadn’t noticed either.
“Oh God!” Penny screamed. “Are you okay?”
I wasn’t sure.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
“I think I heard your leg break.”
“I’m not sure. Give me a minute. Let me see if I can stand up. It may just be bruised.”
I waited for my breathing to slow. Chloe came to my side, wagging her tail, happy from her racing adventure with the red truck. Penny yelled expletives at her until I told her to be quiet and help me up. Once on my feet, it was clear I wouldn’t be walking anywhere for a few minutes. I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg without pain stabbing into it and moving upward.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Help me back down.”
“I’ll go for help,” Penny offered.
“No, no. I bet I’ll be able to walk on it in a few minutes. Listen. We were about a mile into this run. You remember the halfway mark, right? You need to finish out this run. You’ll be going a little more than a half mile and then coming back this way. I bet when you come back through here, I’ll be ready to walk. But, you need to finish out this run. Someone’s taking Deena Tilley down tomorrow morning. Now, go.”
Incredulous, Penny refused. “Do you seriously have a friend that would leave you here on the side of the road, probably with a broken leg, and run away from you, just to try and win a race tomorrow?”
“I sure hope so,” I replied.
Penny would not finish out her run. Instead, she ran to get help, back up the hill, back to the foundering Smart Moves Aerobic Center, back to the barn-style house, brown with a red roof. I sat beside Burnt Bridge with one leg outstretched, cradling my wounded leg by the knee, not touching it on the ground, wishing I had some weed to smoke, and wishing this bridge was still wood so I could burn it down again.
As Penny topped the hill and faded out of sight, my adrenaline and endorphins began to wear off. Chloe disappeared into the woods to chase something that moved as there were no cars in sight, nor any I could hear in the distance. I was alone there on the side of the road. I looked up the hill again at the place where Penny had just disappeared and whispered, “Okay then. Hurry. This is starting to hurt.” On the other side of Burnt Bridge, I could see the tops of wooden crosses planted beside the road to memorialize some kids killed in a car crash when the driver rounded the corner too fast. I could hear the ghosts of those kids trying their best to console me—It’s okay. You’ll be okay. We broke at that corner, too.
As the pain intensified, I felt a sudden and distinct shift in my world. Somewhere in my head, an audible voice announced, “You’re done for.” And I knew it wasn’t just for the race tomorrow but for everything that had been my life up to that point. I was done for. No more Dallas Cowgirl of the fitness world. No more “It” girl of those small towns I had put my stamp on. I was washed up and cracked open like a sand dollar dried up on a beach, lying in halves close to one another. One of those halves knew it was coming, accepted it. The other half said no. No, you’ll get it back, you’ll be teaching aerobics again in no time, and running, too. You’ll get Deena Tilley next year.
But, that wasn’t the way of it. Deena took first place again that year. It took three months for my leg to heal. I never taught fitness classes again of any sort, not hip hop aerobics or low impact, or weight training, or anything. I was done for. When there’s a shift in your world like that, it’s a formidable thing.
The orthopedic surgeon said my leg was stronger than ever, that I could run again whenever I felt ready. I ran with a limp for a long time after, way longer than was customary, pain shooting through that place in the bone where it had knit itself back together, pain radiating up past my knee into my thigh, into the very center of me.
I fully trained Chloe to run with me on a lead, and we ran here and there, nothing like before because neither one of us could run with the power we once had. Mine was diminished mentally and physically, and I held Chloe’s power at the end of a leash.
One day, I watched a thunderstorm roll in. Past Burnt Bridge, past that fated steep hill from years before, up to the porch of the brown barn-style house with the red roof. It was a ferocious storm, the loudest cracks of thunder I’d ever heard, the rowdiest storm I’d ever witnessed in those parts. Chloe feared storms.
I stood on the porch watching and listening until a remarkable explosion of thunder shook the windows of my home and vibrated the concrete underneath me. The crash snatched my hearing away for a moment and left nothing but ringing sounds running through my head. I went inside for shelter. Chloe was standing near the front door. As I closed the door behind me, she turned her body in a circle the way dogs do to get comfortable just before they lie down on their beds to rest. She fell into convulsions. Her breathing was labored. In less than a minute, she was gone. A massive heart attack.
My husband had been commuting into Memphis for work. He was working long hours that day when I called to tell him.
“The sooner you get her in the ground, the better.”
Having grown up on a farm, I understood this.
My son had somehow become a man. He helped me dig Chloe’s grave. Stormy rain had loosened the earth a good bit. I wrapped Chloe in a yellow blanket, her spotted ear peeking out at me, and laid her on the ground. Once the grave was dug, my man of a son helped me slide Chloe’s body down into the hole. We began alternating shovels full of dirt onto our dog’s body, the red dirt and clay a sharp contrast to the yellow blanket and Chloe’s white ear with the one black spot. I watched each scoop of earth cover my dog. I turned my head when my son gently shook a shovelful of dirt onto the place where Chloe’s ear peeked out. I couldn’t watch that spot disappear.
It was her only spot. She never grew her spots. She never grew them.