I see him just about every morning during my jog. Jogging in the dawn through the neighborhood still asleep and then through a nearby trail inthe woods has become just about a daily routine for me for several decades now. I sleep in a different bedroom so as not to disturb my wife. I quietly get up before dawn, make a cup of tea with the help of faint light coming from a light under the kitchen cabinet, and create the least noise possible while my wife is still asleep. I have gotten used to the darkness and I know my way around tip-toeing with my bare feet in the house. A little hot tea and cereal give me the caffeine and energy for my morning ritual. They say you are not supposed to run on an empty or full stomach. Obviously, after about twelve hours of fasting, I suppose the stomach expects something too. I turn off the security alarm, gently open the front door and off I go.
Generally, I find no one in that wee hour of the morning. The dogwalkers and other walkers and joggers I see on my way back out of the woods and as I enter the neighborhood with manicured lawns. But I see him just about every morning sitting, smoking something and I can see that little cloud of smoke as he exhales. He is totally relaxed on a bench under a big shade near a neighborhood baseball park. The community association has built the park and the associated facilities with a water fountain, restrooms, parking lot and two trails – one long, one short – through the adjacent small wooded forest. Obviously, the residents of the neighborhood pay a hefty association fee. I suppose it is worth it for the amenities they enjoy. People can even reserve the shade with several benches and tables for any family event like celebrating birthdays for their children.
This place is my waterbreak point after jogging for about a mile and half and before taking the longer trail through the woods. So, I see him as I stop for a drink of water. Other than a casual Hi or Hello or Good Morning, I don’t know him; he doesn’t know me. He appears a lot younger than me. Obviously, he is unable to guess that I am in my 70s as I have a baseball cap hiding my grey hair on a practically bald head. I don’t have many wrinkles on my face yet. So, he probably thinks I am his age or only slightly older. Actually, I retired from work a few years ago. However, unlike him, I am not a White man. My running shorts show my barelegs that are not pale white like his, rather brown. But he is totally indifferent to my appearance. I assume he is used to people with different looks. Perhaps he has traveled abroad. Regardless, we are in our own world. Only thing I know is that like me he is an early riser, perhaps even earlier than me. He is a jogger too, as I see him occasionally while he is jogging. I suppose this place is his smoke breakpoint in between his jog. After I have my drink of water or quick restroom break, I am off again saying, “See you later” to him in a matter-of-fact way. He waves his hand while enjoying his smoke.
I love the trail through the woods. It is relaxing for me. As I jog through the canopy of tall trees following the winding trail, I hear all kinds of birds chirping. I don’t understand their language. It is an orchestra of their own. It is soothing and melodious. Perhaps someone is singing a love song for his or her beloved. As the sun rises, the golden and orange rays hit the top of the tall trees and create a kaleidoscope filling the void between the leaves. The light and shadows flutter playing hide and seek with me. It is a perfectly choreographed sound and light show. Through the trees I see at some distance a couple of deer grazing, I assume a mother and her baby. The mother raises her head and looks at me to gauge if there is any danger from me. I suppose I don’t pose any danger and she gets back to grazing. The baby comes running to be close to her mother. These are the only woods left where deer can still graze freely; I don’t know for how long. This whole area used to be piney woods. But developers cleared the woods to build houses for people like us. Human beings just occupy land and encroach on animal land as if the whole world belongs to only human beings. Well, for now they have saved this patch.
As I complete the long trail and get out of the woods, I stop again at my usual place for another water break before returning home. The man sitting on the bench is gone. I suppose he finished his smoke and headed back home jogging. Now I am heading back too. I am sure I will see him again tomorrow. My wife should be up by now. Once I get home, I see that the lights are on. Window blinds are drawn. I declare as a routine, “Hi honey I am back. Hope you slept well.” She says something indifferently. Unlike me, she is not a morning person. Words don’t quite flow freely. Everyone is different. I suppose I got this morning habit from my father who used to be an early-to-rise, early-to-bed person. I remember as a child that he used to go for a long walk in the dawn by the river that flowed past our house. I stretch for a few minutes, gulp down some juice. Then I take a shower. I am truly relaxed and my mind and body are energized for the hustle and bustle of the day. I hope to see the young man again tomorrow morning, I will hear the music from the birds, I will see the pair of golden deer, and the painting created by the morning sun. Mother Nature is amazingly beautiful when she is not in a rage.
The routine goes on. I see him just about every day – sitting quietly on the bench smoking and exhaling, a smell I do not recognize. Our usual exchange of words goes on without any formal introduction or handshake. One day as I am heading towards the trail in the woods just passing by him, he interrupts the silence.
“How long have you been jogging?”
I pause, “30 to 40 years, I guess. I started late like in my late 30s.”
“You don’t look that old.”
“Looks are deceiving” – I say. I suppose my jogging shorts, T-shirt, and baseball cap hide it very well
“Well, I have been jogging too. I was in the army. We had drills early in the morning; sometimes we used to run a long way. I was deployed in Iraq three times. I survived, but many of my friends did not. It was hell you know. We killed lots of people. Before Iraq, I had never killed anything, well other than catching fish in the bay.”
“Thank you for your service to the country.”
“You are welcome, but I am not sure what we were doing, killing innocent people or destroying someone’s country, making a bunch of people homeless. It was the same story in Vietnam, you know.”
“Are you still in the service?”
“No, I left. Actually, they let me go, honorably of course. They said I was having problems dealing with the war. So, I returned with a medical retirement. It’s not much. But with VA benefits I can get by. I got a VA loan and bought a small home in this neighborhood without having to make a down payment. While I was away in Iraq, my girlfriend married another man. My parents are in Virginia. But I did not want to be a burden on them at their age. So, I live here alone.”
“You look fine to me. Why a medical retirement?”
“Looks are deceiving, right? They say I have PTSD. But I feel fine. I jog every morning. I relax here quietly away from people by smoking this.” – showing what he was holding between two fingers on his left hand. “Have you ever smoked?”
“No, I never have. My father did not either. I suppose I got it from him.”
“Want to try a joint? It is very relaxing.”
“What is it? A cigarette?”
He grins. “No, it’s cannabis.”
“No, thank you. I better get going. It’s getting late. See you next time.” – as if I was trying to escape with an excuse.
So, I take off with a lot in my mind. Sun is shining already. As I make my round, I miss the deer at their usual spot. The golden hue of the morning sun has lost its color and it is getting warmer. My paradise has lost a little charm. I keep wandering about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I have only heard about it but have no clue. Apparently it happens to some soldiers after a traumatic experience. But I also know people take lots of stuff to avoid pain of some kind –physical or mental. I remember during my work life I used to see Linda, our department secretary carry lots of pills in her purse and gulp it down for every little ache or pain. I realize, constant suffering is not living and one needs help to minimize pain and suffering. However, I also believe in a simplistic way that if you have ahead, once in a while you will get a headache. Once you learn to bear with it temporarily, it may go away. Whereas, if you pop a pill for every little headache, it quits working after a while.Then you need two, then three, and so on. You get addicted. You can’t live without it. So, you get overdosed by drugs. You get addicted to alcohol, smoking, drugs, and soon. Cancerous cells take shelter in your lung, in your esophagus. People push those hard to make money to get you addicted and eventually the stuff that is supposed to reduce your pain kills you. The Opioid crisis, Cannabis as medical marijuana, the liquor store at every street corner, the cigarette, or e-cigarette are killing people legally. Someone is getting rich by selling these, prescribing these. They spend millions on commercials to lure you to take something for every little issue and get you hooked to kill you slowly. I feel like sometimes they even invent diseases and make you think that you have a physical or mental problem when you have none. The state governments think they are being creative to generate revenue without increasing your tax by legalizing all these. Then there is a crisis. The medical cost goes through the roof. Then you and your governments sue the companies formal practice or price gouging. I hope the young man I meet every morning is not getting addicted or getting overdosed. He probably needs real treatment for PTSD. He has no one to tell him or to take him to a doctor. He is probably not going to go on his own. He is relaxed. He feels peace smoking that joint. No one knows what’s ailing him inside. I get home brooding over these. This has not been a relaxing morning for me.
For the next few days, I do not see him during my usual jog in the morning. Normally I see his silhouette from a distance in his sitting position looking straight ahead while smoking. No, the bench has been unoccupied. Every morning I hope to see him as I get out of the house. I begin to wonder if he is OK. He occupies my mind. I don’t know his name or address. I don’t even have his phone number. We never introduced each other. I can’t seem to enjoy the birds’ chirping, the morning sun, or the mother and the baby deer. I do get my physical exercises, but my mind is not relaxed anymore. I say nothing to my wife and quietly go to shower after my run.
Suddenly, the sky falls. As I stop at my usual spot for a drink of water, I see someone on the floor face down next to the bench where he usually sits. I get a little closer. It’s him. The joint of cannabis is laying on the ground. I almost try to turn him around and then suddenly stop. He is not breathing. His chest is not going up and down. I panic. I don’t touch him for fear of being accused as a killer as my fingerprints would be all over him if I touched him. I freeze. Somehow I manage to pull out my cell phone and fumble to dial 911.
I am almost crying, my voice is muffled, and the words don’t try to come out. “I found a man lying dead.”
I somehow manage to explain to them that I am a jogger, stopped for a drink of water at the Spring Creek Baseball Park, and found this dead body lying on the ground face down.
“Stay there until the police and ambulance arrive.”
Now I am trembling waiting for them to arrive. I cannot look at the dead body anymore. I hear a shrill siren getting louder as it gets closer. Red lights are flashing and rushing towards me. The silence of the morning has been robbed. A few nearby people begin to walk towards us slowly in their pajamas rubbing their eyes, perhaps annoyed and wondering what is going on.
The police officer asks me a few questions like if I knew the man, if I had his name, address, or phone number. All I could say is that I used to see him practically every day sitting here and smoking as I stop for a drink of water before taking the trail.
“What did he smoke, do you know?”
“How do you know?”
“He told me and offered it to me once to try it. But I refused, as I had never smoked anything in my life. He said that it was very relaxing for him.”
“What else did he tell you?”
“He told me that he was in the army, that he used to jog a lot too. He was deployed in Iraq three times. But he was discharged from the army for PTSD. He lives here somewhere, alone.”
They look at my driver’s license and note the details. They barricade the place around the dead body. They carefully search the pockets of his cargo shorts and find his driver’s license and military ID. Then they tell me that I could leave and if necessary they would contact me. I am still trembling.
“Could you give me a ride? I am losing my mind. I don’t think I can walk or jog back home.”
They are kind enough to give me a ride. I request them not to blow the siren as my wife may be sleeping and she will be extremely shocked if she sees me come out of a police car. They understand.
I barely manage to open the front door, don’t say my usual “honey, I am home”, somehow manage to walk to her at the breakfast table, lean over her, hold her and start crying like a boy.
I manage to explain and break down again. She does not say a thing. I leave to take a warm shower. I am still shivering. My body is cold and almost numb. The paradise I found in the woods has been lost forever.
I quit jogging. I get up late. I fail to shave. I look like a zombie I suppose. I find out that he died of an overdose, perhaps intentional suicide because of PTSD. News spread like wildfire in the neighborhood, an army veteran committed suicide in the baseball park. Apparently, his elderly parents come down and take his dead body to Virginia to be buried next to kinfolks. His house has been put on the market for sale. Finally, my wife says, “You could not have done anything. He was dead already. You got to let it go. You are not helping yourself or me. Get back to your jogging. Don’t take that route anymore.”
Could I have done something? Why didn’t I try to get to know him a little more? Why didn’t I see his problem even after he had mentioned PTSD to me? But I had no clue about PTSD. Perhaps he had seen something in me and was seeking help. I did not get the hint and I walked away from him.
After a while, I start jogging again. The mirror in the bathroom shows a few wrinkles on my face. I do not jog towards the baseball park anymore. But as I jog, his image floats in my eyes – a handsome young man on a bench. I now jog by an elementary school. I see little children running on the track inside a chain-link fence all around the school compound. Children’s noise, laughing, and giggling fill the air. They sound almost like the birds chirping in the woods. It’s not the same paradise though. Life goes on.