The triple jump is track and field’s oddest offspring. A circus act. An intentional stumble done for distance. A Seussian hop, skip, and jump. But it requires strength and agility, and when done well, it’s a sight to behold. You might remember Al Joyner in 1984: those high-knees, long strides, the bicycling legs mid-air, the double fist-pump from the pit.
At 14 I couldn’t run all that fast and wasn’t much of a long jumper, but there weren’t many takers for the triple in Newton, Massachusetts in 1987, so I gave it a try.
My personal best was 38’ 3” (roughly twice a giraffe’s height, 18’ shy of a full Joyner), which qualified you for the state meet. Time to shop for running spikes. I found a pair of white 1988 Nike Zoom Lights–blue swoosh, red and yellow accents–that came with a little plastic wrench with which you screwed five tiny metal spikes into the sole of each shoe in the shape of a half-oval spanning from the ball of the foot to the tips of the toes.
Fully outfitted, I was feeling pleased with myself when in the league meet, leading up to State, I got beat by a first-time jumper from Brockton who’d twice fouled before (on his third leap, despite taking off from inches ahead of the board) he broke the meet record. A teenager in a man’s body, Curtis Bostic was a triple-jump blasphemer, a careless trespasser who’d go on to play Division I basketball, and who’d dared to laugh sidelong at our measuring tape spools and chalk-marks.
That evening I was shuffling around my worn red bedroom carpet thinking back on the meet when my mother knocked and said she had something to show me. From a shoebox under a pile of duffles on the floor of my closet, she pulled an ancient-looking pair of black leather running shoes with rusted, brutal-looking spikes. The shoes would have been early Adolf Dasslers, I later learned, running spikes from the late 1920s made by the man who would go on to found Adidas.
“They’re your grandfather’s,” my mother said. “He ran at Stanford in those. Though of course you can’t apply there,” she added, eyebrows raised, “because he owes them money.”
Tucking the curious comment away for the time being, I held the 60-year-old shoes, felt their leather, fingered the tarnished spikes. I imagined the tracks they’d run, the purchase they’d gained, the speeds they’d helped my grandfather reach.
Though I didn’t really know the man, had met him only a handful of times as a boy, and could barely picture his face, I felt different. Turning the shoes over again and again, I felt as if I was part of a legacy. There was collegiate speed in my family dating back half a century. I went to bed buoyant, imagining how my grandfather’s shoes on my feet might put me on a par with big-time jumpers like the one who’d cleaned my clock earlier that day.
The Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro put it this way: “Let your dreams outgrow the shoes of your expectations.”
But then, wearing not Ben’s spikes but my own brand-new Zoom Lights, I flopped at the state meet. Failed to reach even my personal best. And in fact, despite continuing with track and field through high school, I never again reached that freshman-year mark. I can live with that. When it comes to athletics, I’ve long since gotten used to the idea that I peaked too early.
The part of the story that disturbs me still is that the torch-passing scene–it never happened. Though I remember with some clarity squatting before the closet contemplating those antique shoes and the man who’d worn them, I must have made it all up. My mother has no memory of it, or of inheriting any sports equipment, and we can’t find the Dasslers.
It’s unlikely that the spiked shoes are sitting in a box in my mother’s attic, humming “Das Lied der Deutschen” through spiky teeth. My mother is the type to notice when a doily’s been moved an inch, and she’s prone to comprehensive spring cleanings (attic included), so it’s more likely that I invented both the shoes and the scene of their bequeathing. That at some point, having heard that my grandfather had been a runner, I’d bred that information with the image of my own Nike spikes bought at The Barn and imagined the worn-down Dasslers. Imagined them into my life because I’d so wanted them there, so wanted my mother’s father, the mysterious Ben Kagan, the legendary speedster and college dropout, to have gifted them to me.
“It’s like ‘The Little Match Girl,’” my therapist said a few years ago when I told him the story of the phantom spikes.
Jungians like him, mind you, come armed to the teeth with stories. Literary references. Lines of verse committed to memory. A narrative for every situation. My bespectacled, white-haired, lapsed-Catholic Jungian, in fact, was more facile with stories from around the world than the most cocksure Comp Lit grad student. I’d heard him quote verbatim from Rumi and refer excitedly to black and white films that I could locate only in fragments on YouTube, but Hans Christian Andersen–the creator, in 1845, of the little girl with the matchsticks–was his favorite.
In the comparison, I’m the girl. Which is unfortunate because the girl, out of doors in winter time, suffering from hypothermia, hallucinates what’s inside the house against which she leans–warm stove…holiday feast…happy family…Christmas tree…–and then freezes to death.
But still she has her vision. Her hope, and her dreams. Her match sticks.
She’d planned to sell the matches and appease her abusive stepfather with the earnings, but having failed to do so, she ends up lighting them, one by one, to provide herself a little warmth. And even though it’s horrible to imagine trying to warm up by the staggered heat of a fistful of five-second flamelets, there’s something noble about her efforts, something stirring about her final visions. She sees a shooting star (Someone’s on their way to heaven!) and then, in the flame of the next match, her grandmother. To keep the vision alive as long as possible, she lights, all at once, the remainder of the matches, and the next day she’s found frozen on the street by passersby who see only a small, ice-cold corpse. They don’t know about her beguiling visions.
I’d had my own, my therapist was suggesting. Lit my match. Though I hope not to keel over dead after seeing whatever I might next see, I suppose my writing this story is how I hope to strike my remaining matchsticks into a flourish of flame.
A student of mine here in Chicago, a 17-year-old named Jalia, saw such visions as distinctly American. In her final exam on a June morning in 2018, she put it like this: “Americans prefer, accept, and reward illusion…the privilege of America is that we can overcome the truth…protect the fantasy…it’s better than a busted reality…in this way the lie is moral.”
As for the Dasslers? Such was the mythic pull of my grandfather back then, the way he worked subliminally on teenage me, the way with just a hop, skip, and jump down the runway of my mind, I could transmute his absence into experience as real-seeming as any other. What I had was a vivid non-memory, nostalgia for an experience I’d never had, a dream. What I wanted was to have had a bona fide bestowing, a conferral like those you see in tapestries: wise and wizened prophet gifting winged shoes to young warrior.
In those days, though, instead of the sandals of Mercury, I’d inherited something mercurial. Ben was hermetic instead of Hermes. I’d have to keep lighting matches. Avoid freezing to death. Stay warm long enough for the fire to catch.
He’d been with me in a sense, or I was with him, the way a woman is with child.
But Ben was a ghost. How was I to welcome such freely fanciful visions while also seeking something like the truth? How to find not some two-dimensional rendering of a villain, or a conveniently reductive narrative of the source of evil in the family, or for that matter a whitewashed Genius, but a man, in all his complexity? I’d never really had him close, and now he was long gone.
Luckily my vague longing for the man I hadn’t seen for years and couldn’t really remember didn’t stop with phantom footwear or other fantasies from the closet. As I grew older and my grandfather’s absence more present, my mother’s house became a reliquary. Up on the walls in our ranch-style, middle-class home in a significantly upper-class town hung Art, an array of tangible objects, and they came from Ben, who’d been not just “a runner” but “a good photographer,” “a writer” (that much I vaguely knew since forever), and something of a collector. Hanging on the walls of the house and my mind were:
• a tall and narrow charcoal sketch of Pete Seeger, guitar in hand, done super-thin and extra gangly, as if by Giacometti, a print that Ben had bought for my mother when she was a teenager enraptured by the early ‘60s folk scene;
• a couple of Ben’s own stylish black and white photographs, portraits, one of my mother as a teen, looking back over her shoulder, and another of my elegant grandmother, Hannah, his first wife, captured in a similar backward glance;
• a photograph of an Italian street scene, complete with a brick wall on which is affixed, above a leaning dustbin and a primitive broom, a torn poster, ornamented with assorted camels and bottles, announcing, “caffe BOUR BON primo”;
• and two dark and magisterial portraits of Arturo Toscanini, taken by a professional, gifted to my grandfather, passed on to my mother, and eventually–and still today–featured above her living room desk.
Toscanini, solemn and athletically musical, loomed especially large in my teenage imagination. Together with Pete Seeger, the two portraits of Toscanini combined to form a pagan trinity. In one the maestro suddenly appears with arm aloft, baton in hand, in full, vigorous command of strings or horns or timpani, testing the give of a dark suit jacket dramatically accented by side-tufts of unkempt white hair. With the conductor’s dark suit on a pitch-black background and those conflagrations of white hair book-ending his resplendent face, each portrait looks as if a wispily mustachioed specter has given birth to himself all of a sudden out of the darkness. Like a struck match.
In the beginning was the maestro, spectral and self-begotten.
I know now that Toscanini was the conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra while my grandfather was a producer at NBC. At the time I knew only that he and my grandfather had sort of worked together. That was more than enough: Toscanini stood in my adolescent mind for high culture, dark passionate excellence, and old world elegance, and given that no pictures of my grandfather bedecked our mantle or walls, the maestro stood for my grandfather.
So I drew him in: throughout high school I kept a black, hard-cover, picture-heavy biography of Toscanini in the drawer of my little nutbrown bedside table and, when I wasn’t re-reading Larry Bird’s 1989 ghost-written autobiography (Drive: The Story of My Life) or steaming through my Piers Anthony fantasies or my brother’s racy Ian Fleming novels, I now and then flipped through the Toscanini book, studying the pictures. It had belonged to my grandfather, I was told, so it became my bedside bible.
It felt taboo: Ben wasn’t around, and he wasn’t to be spoken of, but this wild genius was right here. Plus he was called “maestro.” Maybe in some roundabout way I could grow up to be not just another suburban schmuck! And if like the maestro, then also like my grandfather, whom I couldn’t remember ever having met, but who beckoned me strangely just the same.
At the school in Chicago where I’ve taught for the last thirteen years, there’s a volume-cheerily-at-eleven security guard named Rosie who calls me maestro. “Good morning, maestro!” “Hu-uump day, maestro!” “Buenas noches, maestro!” She’s not being poetical: the word means “teacher” in her native Spanish. Still, it gives me an electric charge every time she says it, sends me whipping away to Toscanini, and to Ben, before bouncing back to where I stand in the school hallway, slightly taller.
When I visited Italy with my high school choir, I tried to reproduce my grandfather’s photograph of an Italian street scene, which hung on my bedroom wall. In my attempt: book-ended by umber and tan boxes and a wheelbarrow standing on its head, scarlet graffiti anoints a brick wall. Je t’aime, it reads.
I had the picture printed at the local Osco (so quaint!), framed it, and put it up in my room, my Italian street still-life next to his, my wheelbarrow mirroring his dustbin, my bricks his bricks, my “Je t’aime” his (undeniably less affectionate) “caffe BOUR BON primo.” It was the communion I could compose.
Je t’aime, my picture said to me now and then as I strode through my high school years. Je t’aime, it murmured more intimately as I lay still, burning with curiosity and affection for the man who’d run races and made photographs but above all, I was told, been an important writer in New York.
The poet Joy Harjo spoke to my students once. “Your grandparents, your ancestors are still in you…” she said. “Where do your words come from, after all? Why do you write the way you do?”
What had my grandfather’s sentences been like?, I wondered, as I worked to form my own in school. I could genuflect before his images, but I’d never read his words. Why not? What had he written? Long before I studied his many hundreds of scripts, or practically memorized five letters he’d written to my mother, or explicated his college columns, I had in mind, from what I’d heard and that he was “from New York,” “a writer” and not a poet, say, or a novelist, but a writer of real-life, true stories that packed a punch. A man of dashes and plain, powerful sentences. You could hear it in his plosive, pugnacious name: BEn KAgan.
And still I wondered, Where was he now, the man himself, and why not here, once in a while? And why had he quit us? Wherever he was, did he know I was here in this bedroom doing my writing, lacing my Nikes, watched over by Toscanini?
I never asked out loud. I knew the rules, remembered the rift. That he’d behaved badly. That one shouldn’t expect anything of him, shouldn’t outgrow the shoes of expectation. And yet–
Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime.