Blinding Speed

by James Nathan Post and George Mendoza

Here are a few chapters you might enjoy:

ONE

In the spring of 1976, the year of the great American Bi-Centennial, Bobby Lucero was the fastest track competitor who had ever run for the "Roadrunners" of Caballo High School. With the banner of his schoolís colors -- the blood red and sun gold of the New Mexico state flag -- waving bravely against the glaring turquoise of the desert sky, the tall and slender young man crouched in the blocks, toes dug in and calves twitching, dark curly hair falling onto his forehead, drops of sweat already running down his neck, and his clear dark eyes glaring with intense concentration down the cinder track ahead of him. The pistol fired, and the crowd cheered, and the runner leaped ahead, legs reaching forward to grab another few inches with each stride, toes gripping the track like catclaws in carpet, arms pumping up the momentum of his body until it felt like he was floating above the track, reaching down to grab it with his feet to speed him faster and faster forward. As he broke the finish tape moving at full speed on just the tips of his toes, he leaned back and looked up to catch the blinding glare of the summer sun full in his eyes, and for a moment he was dazed.

Around him he could see the silhouettes of people running toward him as he jogged along the track with his arms held high over his head. The roar of the cheers rang in his ears as though someone had put a huge deep-toned bell over him and the people were striking it again and again. His vision was glassy, the center obscured by the purple and green of retina fatigue from looking into the glare of the sun. The dust rose up like a golden haze where the fans stomped and cheered and ran toward him. The cheerleaders and his teammates rushed to grab him, to squeeze him, and to lift him up from the ground to their shoulders.

"It is incredible! What a race!" blared the voice of the track announcer, the tinny sound of the speakers echoing from the concrete bleachers of the old stadium. "Caballoís own Bobby Lucero has just broken the state record! Our unofficial time is only two tenths of a second from the national record. Youíre seeing history being made here today!"

Bobby submitted to them, laughing happily and gulping huge lungfuls of air, his head hanging back as they carried him from the track in triumph. He took a sponge from one of his teammates and squeezed water onto his face, hair, and shoulders.

Clutching his leg, the head cheerleader pressed herself against him, screaming ecstatically, "Oh, Bobby! Bobby! Youíre great! Youíre the greatest!"

The band thumped and bleated, tooted and boomed a rousing victory march. The many supporters of the champion Roadrunners cheered and hooted as Bobby stood on the highest level of the winnerís platform and was handed a tall trophy. He posed for pictures with several people, including his coach, the principal, and a State Senator who happened to be from Caballo. He endured a kiss from his mother, who bore a strong resemblance to Mamie Eisenhower, and he responded to a similar ceremonial kiss from head cheerleader Sharry Clark with a playful squeeze.

Applauding people lined the main street of the little Rio Grande valley town of Caballo. Bobby sat up on the back seat of a red convertible, waving to the crowd. Someone threw a bouquet at him, and he laughed and mugged when he almost fell from the car catching it. He was saved by Sharry and another cheerleader who sat up on the deck beside him wearing their skimpiest costumes and doing their best to let everyone know that what they were displaying was part of the victorís spoils. The blare of the band echoed from the old brick storefronts of the little town. Dogs ran to nip at the wheels of the crepe-festooned red Cadillac, barking with delight and excitement, and the little girls from the junior high schools squealed and swooned. "Bobby! Eeee!" Dressed like Bobby in red slacks and camel- gold blazer adorned with the red Zia symbol over the heart, teammate Mike Holmes rode in the front, waving his arm out to the side as though hoping to catch one of the red-and-gold-trimmed majorettes prancing by with the Stars and Stripes, and the state flag of New Mexico. There were other winners like him present that day, but the glory clearly belonged to Bobby Lucero alone.

In the living room of his mother Mabel Luceroís home, Bobby stood that evening watching a news program covering the event. On the screen, the parade was passing the reviewing stand in front of the County Court House. He laughed again to watch himself fall backwards trying to catch a bouquet, as the announcer reported, "In this afternoonís May Day track event at Caballo, New Mexico, senior sprinter Bobby Lucero set not one but two new high school state records, making him the fastest man on the track this state has ever produced. Commenting on Luceroís last race before he enters college this summer, coach Lenny Colson of the Caballo Roadrunners said Bobby has a good shot at the Olympic Games coming up in 1980."

"Did you hear that?" he called to his mother through the kitchen door.

"...and in baseball, it was the Bulldogs who..." continued the reporter as Mabel came into the comfortable little living room carrying a large glass of milk. Like the couch and chair, the braided rugs, and the fat pillows which furnished the room, she was rather large and soft looking, an effect enhanced by the frilly floral-print apron she wore.

"Oh, Bobby," she said, handing him the glass of milk, "if only your father could have been there to see you. He would have been so proud of you, to know you were the fastest runner in the whole state...and making good grades too."

"Yeah, he should have stuck around," said Bobby...then catching the note of bitter tension in his voice, immediately added warmly, "but you can bet he was up there watching, Mom, sitting on one of those little clouds, maybe."

The doorbell rang, and Mabel hurried to answer it. While Bobby continued to watch the sports news, she let in a stocky, bald, and leathery man wearing slacks and a polo shirt.

"Oh, Coach Burke! Hey, how are you?" Bobby said eagerly, recognizing him. "Mom, this is Eddie Burke, the head coach at the University."

"Yes, thatís what he said," she told him. "He came to see you."

"Mrs. Lucero, thank you kindly," said the coach. "I canít tell you how impressed we are with what Bobby has done this year down at Caballo High. What heís done for our little town is just -- well, just outstanding, thatís all. Outstanding!"

"Why, thank you, Mr. Burke," Bobbyís mother replied, patting back her dark blonde curls. "Weíre awfully proud of him around here, too. I was just saying what a shame it is his father couldnít have seen him."

Coach Burke nodded solemnly. "Yes, Maíam, Iím sure heíd have been right proud. I remember Manny Lucero was quite an athlete himself -- best linebacker this school had when I first got here, oh, must have been about í58. Too goddamned bad about him getting caught in that hotel fire...oh, Ďscuse me, Maíam."

"Thatís all right, thatís very kind of you," Mabel assured him. "Could I get you a glass of milk? No? Well, how about a beer?"

"Oh, well, thanks," said the coach. "Actually, I, uh, just wanted to get Bobby off in a corner and bend his ear a little. Canít stay, but, ah..."

"So whatís on your mind, Coach?" Bobby asked.

The coach looked at him and his jaw fell open. "Whatís...? Aw, come on, now, donít just stand there grinning at me like that," Coach Burke said, giving him a playful swat on the shoulder. "You know damn well whatís on my mind...and every other coach in the country, too. You havenít signed yet, have you?"

"Nope," said Bobby, sipping at his milk and savoring the moment. "I sure havenít." He set the glass on the coffee table. "But I have decided where Iím going."

"So come on, spill!" said the coach. "I canít stand the suspense."

"Coach, Iím staying right here at Southern New Mexico," he announced.

"Whoop! All right! Attaboy!" the coach hooted, punching at the air with his fists. "Got dang, you had me worried there. Uh, Ďscuse me, Maíam," he said as Mabel came from the kitchen with his beer. "Thanks. Whoo, boy, thatís the greatest news Iíve heard all day. If you can keep going like you have been, youíre likely to really be going places!"

"Coach, I promise you, Iím going to put this town on the map," Bobby told him.

"Outstanding! Just outstanding. All right, now look here, Bobby, weíve got a big summer program planned, and I want you in on it from the start. We can begin getting you pre-registered right away." He sucked the top half from the glass of beer. "Mmm. Canít stay, really, Iíve got to go, but you get up to see me before the end of the week, all right? My office is in the main gymnasium building." He paused, smiled like a pleased papa, and finished the beer. "Boy, oh, boy, sure glad you made the right decision."

"Thanks, Coach, Iím sure I have, and Iím sure Iíll be a real asset to the Wranglers," said Bobby magnanimously. "Actually, Iíve got to get moving too...hot date tonight. I think the cheerleaders are going to raffle me off."

"Bobby!" protested his mother.

"Itís all right, Mom, Iím a runner...stamina, remember?" he said with a self-indulgent chuckle. "Donít look so surprised, Coach...football players donít get all the action." He punched the coach lightly on the shoulder, then took his hand and shook it. "Iíll get up to see you for sure," he promised.

While Mabel showed the coach to the door and they exchanged courtesies, Bobby raised his glass and slowly downed the last of his milk. Then stood there for a moment with his eyes closed. "On...The...Map!" he whispered to himself with confidence and pride.


TWO

A few weeks later, Coach Burke stood beside the track at Southern New Mexico University watching a group of runners, his stopwatch in his hand. His best runners sped toward him, feet churning the cinders as they gave it all they had. As they flashed past the finish line, the coach whooped to see Bobby Lucero leading the next runner by several feet. They jogged a few yards to warm-down, and the second runner trotted back to the coach, gasping for air. "Jesus," he said, "that kid is unbelievable."

Bobby strutted and jumped, accepting congratulatory slaps on the back from his admiring teammates. Sharry Clark, the new freshman on the cheerleading squad, stood nearby and gushed, waiting with broadly- expressed impatience for practice to end.

"All right, you wham-oís, thatís it," the coach called out. "Hit the showers!"

As Bobby trotted past Sharry headed for the gymnasium, he motioned for her to run alongside him. "Momís out for the afternoon," he told her. "Stick around a few minutes and we can go to my place and take a real shower."

A few minutes later, Bobby trotted out to the parking lot where Sharry was waiting beside his new car. Mike Holmes and another of his teammates capered and skipped alongside him as they went to admire the racy little red Fiat.

"Wow, Bobby, what a sweetheart," Mike said breathlessly, shaking back his long brown hair. "I bet sheís some joyride."

"Iíll say she is," said Bobby, winking at Sharry. "Hottest thing I ever threw a leg over."

"And the school bought you this?" Mike asked.

"Naw, not really -- they canít do that," Bobby assured him. "But they did put in a good word for me down at the bank, if you know what I mean." He held open the passenger door for Sharry, then stepped around the car and hopped over the side to slide behind the wheel. "Hey, Iíll see you guys later," he said with a wave. "Sharry and I have got some homework to catch up on."

Revving up his engine and squealing the rear tires, Bobby zipped flashily through the parking lot. He drove the few blocks to his home with studied wildness, accelerating and decellerating from corner to corner with tires chirping at each gear change, and brakes keening on the edge of a squeal. As they came into the living room of Bobbyís home, he tossed his books onto the couch and turned around to see Sharry peeling off her blouse. "Wow, I thought I was fast," he laughed. He took her in his arms and kissed her neck as she continued to pull off her clothes as fast as she could.

They sat a few desks apart in a literature class, and both were enjoying the fact that they couldnít keep their eyes off of each other, and everyone knew it. "...and as a playwright," the lecturer was droning, "his contribution to English literature was...Mr. Lucero, do you suppose you could try to keep your mind on George Bernard Shaw for just another twenty minutes? Then you may return to the more important things in your life." The class giggled, and Sharry blushed with delight. Bobby sat up contritely, brushing his dark curls back with his hands. "Thank you. Now, Shawís work began to receive critical acclaim when..."

At a minor meet, one of the first of the season, Bobby ran well ahead of all of his competition, not just content to win, but pushing the clock with all of his confidence and effort. As he once again took the finish tape across his chest, the crowd cheered, and he pranced back and forth before them, arms raised, head thrown back, drinking in their adulation.

When he had squeezed water across his neck, soaked and shaken out his hair, and tossed a towel casually across his shoulders, he took a seat on a bench and leaned against the concrete base of the bleachers. After a couple of minutes, Coach Burke strolled over and sat down beside him.

"Nice race, kid," he said. "We needed those points. If Teddy or Jeff can take a first in the hurdles, weíve got a damn good chance of sweeping the whole meet."

"Yeah," said Bobby with a wide grin of satisfaction. "Didnít I tell you Iíd put this place on the map?"

The coach nodded, kicked at the turf. "Right. Well, youíre sure as hell an asset to the team, no doubt about that." After a pause, he said, "I thought you looked a little off your form today, though. You feeling all right? Getting enough sack time? Or too much, maybe?"

Bobby laughed self-indulgently. "Come on, Coach, it builds endurance, right?"

"Some guys seem to think so," Burke conceded. "How about your classes?"

"What is this?" Bobby demanded, laughing again. "You after my motherís job? No booze, no dope, no pills -- Iím practically a Boy Scout. And Iím pulling good solid Bís." He leaned back, pulled the towel from around his neck, and popped it at the backside of a passing teammate. "Hey, donít worry about me, Coach. You just keep an eye on the finish line, and Iíll keep getting there first, OK?"

"OK, kid," the coach said, standing up and slapping Bobby avuncularly on the thigh, "but you start looking sloppy, and I start kicking ass. You got it?"


Laughing with delight, Bobby and Sharry rode in the little sports car, hurtling along a winding desert road. The car dropped down into a little arroyo, then swept up in a tight turn around one of the mesquite-covered rolling foothills of the Robledo mountains west of the valley. The high- powered little engine howled and the tires screeched as Bobby down-shifted and accelerated into the tight corners. Close behind them Mike Holmes was riding his motorcycle, trying his best to get around them. The curves came up frighteningly fast, and Bobby was driving with daring abandon, scattering gravel from the edges of the pavement and cutting back and forth across the road in front of the cycle. Sharry screamed and squealed with terror and delight, her eyes flashing with the thrill. The wind blew her skirt up, and Bobby laughed and stroked between her thighs, his hand snapping forward to shift gears.

The motorcycle quickly darted around the car to take the lead on a corner, and as it passed with engine snarling, its rear tire flung up a stone which struck the windshield and sent a jagged crack across it in front of Bobby. "Oh, yeah, you think you got it now, do you?" Bobby yelled. "Donít look back, sucker, but..." Suddenly the car was out of control. Sharry screamed and Bobby fought the wheel to recover, but it was impossible to tell what was happening. The lights flashed crazily at desert shrubs, flying dust and gravel, and a jagged outcropping of rock. There was a lurching crash, a shattering of glass, and the car flipped over abruptly. Bobby threw his arms up to protect his face as the windshield burst in front of him. Then he was in the air, and for a second he feared he would fall ahead of the car and it would roll over him. The ground rose up unexpectedly and slammed against his face.

It was peculiarly quiet except for the buzz of the motorcycle coming back. A way off the headlights of the car stabbed crazily through the settling dust. "Bobby!" yelled Mike, jumping from his bike and running to where Bobby lay in the gravel beside the road. "Jesus, man, are you all right?"

Bobby groaned, rolled over slowly, then let Mike help him sit up. "Oh, holy samoley," he gasped in pain. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Ow! I think Iíve broke a rib...or two."

"What happened?" Mike asked.

"I donít know," Bobby said, shaking his head. Then he suddenly looked anxiously around. "Where is Sharry? Oh, God!" He tried to get to his feet, stumbled, then staggered toward the car, which lay on its back crumpled against a culvert guard-rail pillar.


The next afternoon, Bobby sat in his motherís living room watching the news on TV, bare-chested and heavily taped, and showing bruises on most of his exposed skin. On screen, an attractive and efficient-looking newswoman was describing the accident, with a cartoon of a wreck on the panel above her shoulder. "...former Caballo High School cheerleader Sharon Clark, nineteen, was listed in critical condition after being injured in a high-speed accident last night. The driver of the car, apparently in a race with a motorcycle, was Southern New Mexico Universityís top freshman track star Bobby Lucero. Lucero received only minor lacerations and bruises, and according to the Wranglersí head coach, Eddie Burke, he will not miss any of the seasonís competitions. For Channel Nine News, Iím Barbara Gaylord."

The program cut away to a babbling commercial, and Bobby sat staring at it for a long time, seeing nothing. Slowly he put his hands over his eyes. "God, what a jerk," he said softly to himself. "What a dumb jerk."


THREE

Just before dawn, Bobby sat up in bed in response to the soft pinging sound of his digital alarm clock. He pushed the button on the top to silence it, slipped out of bed, put on a running suit and shoes, then quietly left the room. He paused long enough in the kitchen to fix himself a small cup of instant coffee, then stepped quietly out into the crisp pink and gold of the desert morning. He ran smoothly along the streets and sidewalks of the little town, then turned along a dirt road which led out into the mesquite and creosote covered hills east of the Rio Grande. Though he ran at a pace most urban joggers would have struggled to keep up, it was an effortless and thoughtless motion, and he was hardly aware of his surroundings as he ran staring at the ground in front of him, his face taut as though his mind were far away in a state of inner turmoil.

He followed a sandy arroyo toward the craggy granite peaks a few miles away, then took a path which wound up the side of one of the scrub-covered hills. As he reached the top, the blazing disc of the sun broke across the bald granite crest of St. Augustine Peak. He stared directly into it for a moment, then closed his eyes and sank to his knees. Tears welled to flow across his cheeks, and he began to sob softly. After a little while, he became aware of the warm light of the sun on his face, and he opened his eyes and looked around at the clean, sparse lines of the desert, and the frugal and tenacious life that clung to it. Though he had lived in Caballo all his life, he found himself marveling at the beauty of the landscape, and the grandeur of the sky. He rose to his feet, stood tall and straight, and let the sun warm him. Then he gave a great shuddering sigh, turned, and began to run back along the trail the way he had come.

In the days which followed, whenever he was working out on the track, Bobby made a special effort to push himself as hard as he could. Again and again, he drove his legs and lungs to -- and through -- the point of pain to get around the track just a little bit faster. The fatigue cut deep lines into his face by the end of each workout, but he drove himself harder, crossing the finish line clawing at the air with each stride, forcing the last effort from his body. When he was not on the track, he could be found in the weight room, driving stacks of iron plates up and down with his legs.

"You keep it up, Bobby," Coach Burke told him one afternoon. "Iím beginning to think maybe you really are Olympic material."

With a big hunk of pizza in one hand and a glass of milk in the other, Bobby sat at the kitchen table one evening about three weeks after the accident, immersed in a textbook. From time to time he put down the milk and used a marker pen to emphasize a line in the text. Mabel came in from the darkened living room, wearing a shapeless terrycloth robe. "Bobby, itís so late," she said. "Arenít you ever going to bed?"

"Yeah, pretty soon, Mom," he told her. "Iíve just got to make sure I know this stuff. Iíve been getting pretty puffed-up about my running, but I know Iíve only got so many years to run, then Iíll have to rely on what I know."

She stepped close to him and gave him a hug around his head. "Youíre absolutely right, Sweetheart, but you donít want to burn yourself out before you get the time to use it, now do you?"

"That doesnít matter, Mom," he said with a confident smile. "Iíve just got to be the best, thatís all. The best or nothing."

The first few races and intramural events of the season sped by. Bobby set another record, chest straining at the finish tape, crowd screaming. Bobby catapulted out of the starting blocks, legs stabbing at the ground like pistons as he took a quick lead, his face a study in fanatical determination. As Bobby drove through the finish tape again, a runner close behind him collapsed and sprawled tumbling to the track.

In the first of the long cross-country races, Bobby led the pack of runners across the rugged desert hills of Baylor Pass. He ran smoothly along the winding path which led through the yucca, cholla, and mesquite plants beneath the towering granite peak of the great Soledad mountain. He was pressing himself to keep up a pace he knew would tax him to his limit in the last mile of the race, but he ran with confidence and pleasure, enjoying the bright colors and bold shapes of the rocks and plants of the desert canyon.

Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, a pattern of shimmering blotches of light began to appear in the center of his vision. For an instant, they made the colors and shapes of his vision fade and blur, as though someone were splashing drops of shining water onto a water-color painting. Startled, the runner lost his stride and shook his head back and forth. The experience passed, and he continued running, but keeping a slower pace, and with his attention then turned inward to worriedly watch his body and its sensations for other such strange changes. As the finish line came into view half a mile ahead a few minutes later, he forgot about the incident and pressed for the mark, his body crying out in pain to him that he had won and he could back off his driving pace, and his will snarling like a Marine DI that he must ignore the pain, and drive his leaden feet and shuddering muscles to one final supreme effort. His vision was glassy with washed-out colors from the oxygen-starvation of his demand -- a sensation with which he was long familiar -- but when the strange bright patches again began to obscure the center of his vision, he felt a twinge of fear, as though receiving an evil premonition. Squeezing his eyes shut, he forced himself to sprint faster across the last few yards to the finish, and through the tape. Ignoring the cheering crowd of news collectors and track fans which had driven up from Caballo to wait at the finish line for him, he jogged another forty yards to lean against a boulder, rubbing at his temples and breathing in great gulps of air.

"Hey, are you OK?" asked Coach Burke, jogging up beside him.

"Yeah, yeah, Iím all right, Coach," the runner told him. "It must be the glare."

It was only a few days later, as Bobby sat studying late at night in his motherís kitchen, that the blotches of light again began to bubble forth in the center of his vision, not so bright that time, but more profound -- like holes melting through the film in a movie projector, and leaving a dull nothingness behind. He rubbed at his temples and blinked. He got up and splashed cold water on his eyes. With a sense of increasing dread, he tried to read his textbooks by following the words to the sides of the blotches in the center. It was clumsy at best, and he found his reading speed decreased to about the same as his typing speed. "Oh, God," he said softly, staring into the darkness in horror, "I donít need this."

The ophthalmologist he visited the next day put it to him mercifully straight. After dripping drops into his eyes, holding lenses before them, and setting an ocular pressure guage onto them, and running a series of other tests, he said, "Bobby, what weíve got here is rather unusual, but it is very well defined, and there is not much chance of my being wrong about it. I wish I could be wrong, because Iím afraid itís rather serious."

"How serious?" Bobby asked, wishing there were some way he could avoid having to know the answer.

"It is called macular distrophy," the doctor told him. "It means that certain parts of the eye...retinal tissue...just become defective. The tissue simply degenerates."

"But...you can treat it, canít you, Doctor?" he asked.

"Iím sorry," the doctor said simply. "Iím afraid the truth is that we really canít do much about it at all. It could take a few months, or a few years."

"And...and then what?"

"I am afraid that...itís very likely that you are going to lose your vision."

Bobby sat for a long moment dumfounded. "No, you...you canít," he said, perplexed. "You canít tell me that. There has to be something!"




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