Running by Sean Murphy

He runs.

He’s made the mistake of walking alone near the junkyard, after sunset, and come upon the dogs. Usually, a deftly thrown rock or self-assured shout will discourage them, but this time the lateness of the day lends desperation to their enterprise. Or perhaps, like the bigger boys who tormented him, these predators sense he’s weaker, and easier game. Two things, he knows, will save him: his speed and his awareness that they tend to tire—and lose interest—almost immediately. The solidarity of the pack was not sufficient; they were, he understands, at heart craven and without will.


(Always, he has been running. He ran with pleasure as a child, faster than the others, his speed compensating for the brawn he lacked. He ran with his bare feet through the sharp, sun-scorched grass and the dusty red dirt, always familiar and warm, pulsating and alive on his skin. 

Later, he ran to avoid pain. As he grew older, peligro presented itself in so many semblances it was impossible to confront head on. It was wiser, and safer, to learn quickly the necessity of running from things instead of toward them. Sometimes he ran from the other boys, who knew he had no older brother to protect him; other times he ran from his father, who, he knew, was simply transferring the aggression and frustrations that were siphoned onto him out in the coffee fields, where fists ended disputes and settled grievances.

He ran and would fancy himself running, over the hills of his countryside, away from the shacks and the unhappy adults tending their land—away from everything.)


He runs, but the dogs are able to keep pace, drawing close enough that he can feel the dampness of their muzzles. As he glances over his shoulder, the dogs seem to smile, their bared teeth dropping saliva on the sand. And for the first time, his fear is supplanted by a different, not unpleasant ambivalence. To stop running equals death, but does it not also mean freedom? Too late, he thinks as he’s dragged down among and between them.


He wakes from this familiar dream with pain: the sharp stabs in his feet, the sluggish pressure on his back, the cumbersome burden of his body. Sometimes, when he’s unable to sleep, he utilizes the bottle that waits beside his bed, like a well-read bible. This elixir induces a fitful slumber which he pays for the following morning. That’s his routine when, even after fourteen hours of standing in one spot, his body screams for oblivion but his mind won’t oblige, twisting around itself with thoughts and worries. He’s afraid of everyone because he’s unable to entirely trust anybody. He has always found it best to go his own way, and he’s content to trust silence as his strength. But sometimes this is not enough, not in los Estados Unidos.


The first fear, of course, involves the papers: an ID, a social security number. These things can be arranged, must be arranged. All taken care of  by other people whom you do not need to know. You do need to know someone who can help negotiate with these people, all of whom operate underground. No promises are given, only the knowledge that others have come before you, gotten what they needed. Then one day, a green card appears. To the untrained or unsuspecting eye, it all looks autentico, a license to work anywhere they’re willing to hire you. Many of these wizards make their living exclusively from this practice, resulting in a product that’s efficient and effective. And expensive. The amount a successful transaction costs is unimaginable, out of the realm of reasonable possibility. Nevertheless, you find a way to secure the resources, aware it means the difference between a decent job and picking strawberries in a sweltering field for $2.50 an hour, or whatever the hijo de puta can get away with paying. (Washing dishes, for instance, is a good job, particularly in light of the alternative options, such as the uncertainties involved with construction work, or moving furniture, or washing windows two hundred feet above ground, all outdoors, all day, in summer and winter).

With your papeles you have no voice and you are no one. Without them you are less than that.


Two jobs, the same job. The same work at two workplaces. A necessary and normal routine, because none of the employers are interested in paying overtime. The better jobs, in the better restaurants (where they provide you with plastic gloves, an apron, and a free meal each shift), do not come easily. Even if you’re fortunate enough to find one, or make the connections necessary to get considered for one, there’s always the fear of being replaced: you are easily expendable since the supply often outweighs the demand. So you work.

The day he became dizzy after sweating through two shirts and began coughing up the congealed phlegm in his chest (one was constantly battling head colds and flu-bugs, among the variety of ailments so easily exchanged in a restaurant, particularly when handling contaminated utensils and dishes, effectively becoming human fly-paper), he swallowed aspirin until he was able to convince himself the fever had subsided. And the time he cut his fingers while attempting to unclog the drain (an incident that might have resulted in legitimate compensation if he’d had the interest or inclination to pursue it, which he did not), he was obliged to wrap both hands, like a boxer, before putting on his industrial-strength gloves to ensure that the highly concentrated cleaning solutions didn’t seep into his sores.

He even washes dishes while he sleeps.

Of all the dreams, this one is most persistent: struggling to keep pace, he hears the clatter of plates being stacked, one pile atop another, and the harsh voices of the pendejo waiters, who relentlessly bring armful after armful, cursing him for moving too slowly. The faster he works, the more there is, impossibly, each time he turns around. Mas. Always, mas.

Or else he’s vexed by recurring memories of the random brutalities he’d grown too accustomed to witnessing in his country. Frequently it is the singular image of a face disappearing in an explosion of gunfire. Sometimes this face is his wife’s, or his son’s. Mostly it’s no one in particular. Just another face.


He runs.

This time it’s los negros. When the weather turns warm and the nights grow longer, there are usually clusters of them huddled under the streetlights of his apartment complex. But sometimes they lurk, under cover of the summer evening, and appear shouting scornful threats—words he may not know but always understands.

Give me some money motherfucker.

Usually, the older ones just laugh, and are content to insult him. He’s much warier—and afraid—of the young ones, the delinquentes, because like the wild dogs, they come at him in packs, brazen when they outnumber him. Then it becomes dangerous. So he runs.

Despite standing for so long all day, every day, he’s still quick. But with his sodden boots and greasy pants he seems to move at half speed. It’s nothing more than the genuine, familiar fear of being caught—just as when he was a boy—that saves him.


From his cramped corner in the sweltering kitchen, he grabs another steel pan—the same one might get scrubbed clean thirty times in a single evening—and gently places it in the sanitizing solution, always a numbing sensation after the steaming mess of filthy water. It doesn’t take long for the feeling to leave your hands if you leave them long enough in the cold water, as he discovered once while emptying a drain clogged with broken glass. He didn’t feel a thing until he pulled his shredded hands out into the warm air and saw the blood bubbling through the holes in his rubber gloves.

The waiters come and go, dropping off stacks of plates and then disappearing again, never showing a drop of sweat or a stain on their starched shirts. He catches himself gazing at their stylish black shoes then down at his own, which are soaked, as usual, from standing all evening in a puddle that collects overflowing water from the oil-slicked sink. He feels it coming and shuts his eyes, resisting the vision that rolls familiarly, inexorably into his mind:

Someday he’s a different man. He is jefe, not empleado, smoking an expensive cigar at the end of each evening. He no longer wears work boots, only soft leather shoes without laces. He communicates freely and easily, no longer an extranjero, a scared stranger forever on the outside: outside time, outside himself. He asks for nothing because, finally, for once, he needs no one.

Then, as quickly as it came, the reverie is over. He opens his eyes and watches it slip into the steam rising from the scalding sink.


He doesn’t understand, or exert any effort attempting to make sense of, the money removed from his paychecks every other week. Taxes, he knows, are neither fair nor unfair—they simply are. He is oblivious, or indifferent, to the fact that the waiters, who make more than three times his salary, manage to pay almost none of the taxes.

He does understand, and is grateful for, the air conditioning that comes without question, like a door or a toilet, with each workplace. This is one of the miracles of the new country that one needed to experience in order to appreciate. Of course, there’s little comfort in the oppressive air of the kitchen, but simply knowing this frigid relief exists makes it easy—and imperative—to remember a world without such wonders.

He doesn’t understand how the towering wooden poles, standing guard over every street, are capable of harnessing and generating such impossible energy. This invisible mystery—providing light and power able to transport peoples’ voices from one place to the next—represents a crucible of communication that’s impenetrable and, for him, inaccessible. He does not question this.

He understands that in America, for him, Monday equals Tuesday equals Wednesday equals Thursday equals Friday equals Saturday.

He understands—and it didn’t take long for him to realize—that here, appearance counts for so much. It’s everything. And like money and muscle, it’s power, serving to separate those that have it from those who do not. The waiters are a constant reminder of this: all thin, clean with perfect white teeth. If there’s occasion for interaction, none of them—even the usually affable ones—are able to completely conceal their mostly vague, sometimes palpable, discomfort. When they shake his hand, they do so lightly, rarely looking him in the eye. They never stand close to him, as they do amongst each other. The gringas especially, always smiling and talking loud and slow, the way one would speak with a small child. Also, the way they seem aware of their bodies and proceed cautiously around the kitchen staff, “the back of the house,” as they’re all called. At these times, he is conscious of himself and the knowledge that he’s not an attractive man. Ill-luck, circumstance, and the strains of life have conspired to make him appear older than he is. The choices he’s forced himself to make have given him the chance for a real life but in return have robbed him of his youth.

And, above all, he understands this: no tengo a nadie—I have no one.


He sees himself in the darkness, high above the ground, alone on a decaying ladder, looking unsteadily below at the splintered rungs which spiral away and out of sight. He is afraid to look up, but as time passes, his eyes grow accustomed to a feeble light that illuminates the commotion below: he can discern distant shapes climbing toward him—a cacophony of  voices. As he stares, the shapes slowly become solid figures, and he can eventually identify their shaded faces and mouths which open and shut in a synchronous signal. They quickly cut the distance, moving with vigor as they spot him—thousands upon thousands filling the space and creating a bulwark between him and the nothingness below. Unnerved, he scales the ladder, but in the shuffle, he slips as a hand reaches up and grabs his foot. He looks down at the face, a face he recognizes and a face he suddenly fears: he fears it will speak and knows what it will say. Impulsively, he secures his grip and brings his boot down forcefully, watching as the body drops away, disappearing into the darkness.


He’s never seen blood like that, not even the time the chef was chopping veal shanks and cut clean through the bone of his finger. It was all but inevitable—your environment consisting of water, soap, grease, wet food, and a soaked floor—that at some point an accident would occur. It didn’t have to be anything as dramatic as an errant knife, or a scalding pot touched with bare hands. It could be as random as what just happened to him: a broken beer bottle slicing through the trash bag being carried to the dumpster, following gravity and bad luck to a vein in the palm of your blistered hand. A chef, of course, can still work in a limited role while his bandaged finger heals. Or, if need be, he can take time off—with pay—until he’s able to resume control of his kitchen. This is a luxury not available to the dishwasher, who necessarily has his hands almost ceaselessly submerged in water. The dishwasher is expendable for all the reasons the chef is not. This is why he actually cried, not because of the pain but the dread that this mishap would result in the loss of his job, just as it had been another’s misfortune that expedited his current position. He insisted that if they wrapped a plastic bag around his wrist with electrical tape, he’d be able to continue. But even before arriving at the emergency room, he was lightheaded from the blood he’d lost. As the shock began to wear off, the real pain started to settle in, like heavy clouds following a flash of lightning.


He’s scared.

He opens his eyes and looks down at the same blood-stained clothes he left the hospital wearing. He’s remained motionless on the bed, drifting in and out of a torpid slumber, alternately sweating and shivering. It might only have been a few moments since he put his head down. Or it could have been hours, or days. He reaches over for his bottle and sees it’s empty, although he doesn’t recall touching it, and doesn’t feel the usual sluggish buzz. This is bad. The large white tablets, which are supposed to get him through the week, are already half gone. His body feels heavy and warm, detached from him. But the pain, temporarily subdued by the medicine, is hovering around his hand, waiting, like a thief on the other side of the door. Suddenly cold, he pulls the damp blanket around himself and remembers the first time he saw the snow.


It was nothing at all like he’d expected.

He’d heard how parts of los Estados Unidos got frigid enough to make the rain turn soft and white, so he greatly anticipated this minor miracle the day the clouds finally hovered heavy and close. He’d sat at his window for over an hour, enraptured by the trees and ground slowly becoming smaller, gradually disappearing. After a while, he ventured outside, half expecting the glistening powder to support his weight.

Almost immediately his feet were sodden and the snow swirled around his face in broken sheets of blankness. He ran blindly, eventually stopping beneath a utility line, its wires humming in the darkness above. Whether on account of the crowded air or the disorienting effects of the storm, this edifice, which had inspired such awe, seemed somehow less spectacular to him now. With its mighty metallic arms stretched to their limits on either side, it more than slightly resembled a resigned man, not the impervious instrument of his design. The power of this machine, with all its churning electricity, was something he feared; it was nothing he wanted any greater intimacy with. Neither the burden of its pain nor the profits of its oppression were his. Calmed by this cognizance, he retraced his steps back toward the shelter he’d never, until now, considered his home.


Once again running.

But this time there are no dogs, no strangers, nothing. There’s no one following him, somehow. As he runs, he begins to sense a certain strange weightlessness he’s never known. He realizes he’s wearing no boots: his feet are bare, like they always used to be, feeling the warm soil between his toes.

He runs, not afraid, not in danger; there is, for once, no peligro. Neither toward nor away from anything. He runs because he’s warm and weightless, and this moment won’t end as long as he doesn’t stop running. He doesn’t want to stop, so he continues on, weightless and warm.

He runs.

Sean Murphy has appeared on NPR’s ““All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A longtime columnist for PopMatters, his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, Blue Mountain Review, and others. His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, was published by Finishing Line Press in July, 2021. His second collection of poems, Rhapsodies in Blue, and This Kind of Man, his first collection of short fiction, are forthcoming in 2023. He has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize, twice for Best of Net, and his book Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone was the winner of Memoir Magazine’s 2022 Memoir Prize. He served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard, and is     founding director of 1455, a nonprofit that celebrates storytelling ( To learn more, and read his published short fiction, poetry, and criticism, please visit and @bullmurph.