“The Esterlink” by Robert Sachs

Painting by Anna Rac.

On a frosty March morning, Leon Esterlink left his Louisville home, running with a slow, steady pace. “It’s made for running,” he said to himself, moving up Eastern Parkway to Cherokee Park. There he found a gentle, dry breeze and made friends with it. “Perfect,” he said. He did the hills with ease, past the golf course, the pond, and then out of the park toward downtown. He knew he was sweating, but the dry air wicked it away. “Symbiosis,” he shouted. A man in a bright yellow parka walking his dog turned around to look. A trumpet voluntary marched through Leon’s head. The music paced him and he was lost in its melody. He barely noticed crossing the Second Street Bridge into Indiana. Leon’s goal was Indianapolis. If he could keep his normal pace, he’d be there before midnight. A film crew accompanied him: three guys in a flatbed truck and two more in a helicopter. He did his best to ignore them.

During his years of isolation after his hair fell out, Leon had survived on daily patterns that kept him from thinking about the injustice of his disease, about relationships never made, loves never found. He was alone. “Like a tree next to a stream,” he said once to the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. “I can see it, I take nourishment from it, but I can’t dip my toe in it. I can’t go swimming.”

She had laughed. “A tree swimming,” she said, wiping clean the electric cook top. “A swimming tree.” The thought tickled her.

Before he took up running, this was his pattern: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday he’d get up at seven, make breakfast, read the paper, listen to the morning news. He’d spend an hour on the treadmill and two hours on records for his insurance business and talking on the phone to the home office. In the afternoon, he’d call clients and prospects. Most of his business was transacted over the phone and through the Internet. E-mail had been a boon to Leon. He used a courier service to get papers signed and to deliver policies. Evenings were spent back on the treadmill and reading. His favorite book was The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940.

He’d sleep later on Wednesday, Friday, and the weekend. He tried not to work on those days. He’d read, play the guitar, cook. And jog on the treadmill, where he had a good view of the street from his living room window. He’d spend weeks, sometime months, this way, seeing only the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. Even for her, he’d wear a cap and draw in eyebrows. She understood that he was doing this for her. If he noticed that she wore lipstick and nylons on the days she cleaned for him, he never let on.

Some years earlier, when Dr. Fannin confirmed it really was alopecia universalis, he told Leon, “It needn’t be a death sentence.”

No, not death. Life in solitary confinement, thought Leon as he left the office. Six months earlier the first clump of hair had come off in his hand. Now he saw himself as a hairless freak.

“There are treatments,” Dr. Fannin said. Leon tried them without success. “There are wigs. Nowadays you can’t tell them from real.” Sure. And finally, “There are support groups.”

Support this, Doc, he wanted to say. Leon, toting his empty follicles, walked home from the doctor’s office three weeks before his thirty-seventh birthday planning for a life alone. His three-bedroom brick bungalow, with its sharp roof lines and wide oak flooring, provided sanctuary.

He was headed now north into the heart of Indiana, red with the glow of oxygenation, shadowed by the flatbed truck and the helicopter. The music was gone, the cadence called by his beating heart. It was mile fifty and his breathing was steady, his gait strong. He smiled thinking about how worried Dr. Fannin had been just a few years earlier. “I know your lifestyle, Leon. You’re a time bomb ready to explode,” he said. He tapped Leon’s belly. “Look at that paunch. Triglycerides above 500. HDL very low. You’ll need to shed some weight. And you’ll need to get more exercise.”

Leon bought the treadmill and like everything else he did, applied himself assiduously to the task of losing the paunch and getting into shape. He incorporated the treadmill into his daily patterns. He watched what he was eating. The woman shopped accordingly. She also changed her diet and began exercising.

He was on his treadmill late on an April day when a congregation of runners passed in front of his living room window. Hundreds. It could have been thousands. Serious athletes, poseurs, men, women, old, young. Running, jogging. Some walked. Some were in costume!

“They’re going somewhere,” he said out loud, “and I’m stuck here treading water.”

“Treading water on the treadmill. Treading water. Getting nowhere.” This mantra of the moment kept the tempo as he beat out the miles. “Treading water, getting nowhere.” The next day, after dark, he put on his blue running pants with the double white stripe down the sides, his Centre College sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and ventured outside for the first time in weeks. His first run. The windless air sat heavy on his Highlands neighborhood as he started out. One block. Two blocks. A mile. Three miles. Enough.

He walked back to his house, sweating heavily and humming show tunes. He passed a well-manicured hedge and ran his hand across the top leaves. It tickled. He leaned into a lamppost stretching his calf muscles, first one, then the other. He slept until ten the following morning.

The cleaning and shopping woman noticed something different. “Chipper today,” she said putting a carton of eggs in the refrigerator.

He couldn’t wait until nightfall.

Leon’s run to Indianapolis was, for the most part, along Route 31. Through Sellersburg, Memphis, Henryville, and Underwood. Past the deep cornfields of Vienna, Austin, Crothersville, and Uniontown. Up past Reddington, Azalia, and on to Columbus. Mile seventy. He had just completed a repetition of The Esterlink and felt confident. It was The Runner that gave it a name and made Leon wealthy. His technique, it was claimed, enabled a runner to get past the wall, to continue running much farther than would otherwise be possible. It looked bizarre even to Leon. “Who’s crazy enough to do this shit in public?” he thought. “You’d look like a fool.”

People lined the road approaching Columbus. First only a few, but the closer he got to the city the larger the crowd became. “Go Leon,” some shouted. “Esther-Link, Esther-Link,” groups of teens chanted. It made him nervous. He was expected to wave and smile.

It had taken a month or so of nighttime running before he got up the nerve to run in daylight around Louisville. There was little in the way of encouraging chants then. “Mexican Hairless,” young toughs would taunt. “Freak,” they’d shout. He took to running on country roads where he would be less likely to be harangued. And it was there, among the rolling hills, the farmhouses and the occasional horse that he discovered the secret of long-distance running. Loping along early one June morning and out of boredom, more than anything else, he started to skip. Feeling playful, he began goose-stepping, like the leader of a marching band. He noticed, quite by accident, that he felt refreshed. He ran farther that morning than ever before. And he could have run farther still were it not for the fact that he was due back home to take a call from the head office.

Leon sensed he was on to something, and he began methodically experimenting with various movements. It took a few months of trial and error, but he was able to eliminate the extraneous and whittle down the possibilities to the basic moves we know now as The Esterlink. With this technique, Leon felt he could run a hundred miles or more.

He was aware that the sight of a tall, thin (for by now he was thin), hairless man running, goose stepping, leaping and waddling would not go unnoticed. In his first marathon, his hairlessness garnered some attention, but he was not yet ready to use his newly discovered technique. He finished, but not without having to stop and walk several times.

He entered the Chicago Marathon, lost in the blur of thirty-seven thousand other runners. At the sixteenth mile, when he felt he could run no farther, he unveiled The Esterlink. Other runners dodged his goose stepping, avoided his leaping and, too oxygen starved to laugh, smiled at his waddling. At the twentieth mile, it was picked up by the television cameras. By the time he reached the finish line, a coven of reporters was waiting for him. He feigned exhaustion and refused to answer questions. “Thanks. Thanks,” was all he said.

He developed a following. In subsequent races, the people lining the streets were cheering for the skinny, hairless man with the strange moves. Newspaper reporters and television crews followed in his wake. A sports physician appeared on 60 Minutes explaining that the Esterlink technique couldn’t possibly work to eliminate fatigue. Another went on Oprah convinced that the Esterlink was the greatest advance in running since pavement. Leon made the cover of The Runner magazine. Weekend runners practiced the Esterlink and entered marathons. The notoriety was torture for Leon. He wanted to be left alone, but he recognized the improbability of that.

Wherever he ran, the press barked at his heels. Fartlek Shoes approached him with a seven million-dollar offer. A three-year deal. He’d be required to run in at least three marathons a year and make two television commercials and a video. The rest of the time he was free to run as he saw fit, as long as he wore the Fartlek insignia on his singlet and the Fartlek Esterlink running shoes. “I can’t do it,” he said to the woman as she sorted through his mail and straightened the papers on his desk. “I don’t think I could stand the spotlight.

“No, she said, “it would be too difficult for you. Such a shame. The money would make you independent, of course. You could retire after the three years and do whatever you pleased.”

“You think I’m crazy,” he said, “turning down that kind of money.”          

“No. Not for a tree,” she smiled. He stopped the treadmill and turned to say something, but she had moved on to the kitchen and was running the disposal. Later that day, he called his attorney and instructed him to accept.

Fartlek’s Esterlink model became a best seller, in the first year rivaling the sales of Nike’s Air Jordan models. The shoe was designed to his specifications and each week, along with a large check, he received a new pair in the mail.

Leon refused in-person interviews with reporters, but he agreed to a telephone interview with a newspaper reporter who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“How do you react when you hear that youngsters are shaving off all the hair on their bodies so they can look more like you?” the reporter began.

“I’m flattered, of course. I’m sure it’s a fad that will fade away soon enough. It’s ironic. Here I’ve spent years hiding my hairlessness, staying indoors, skulking around in long coats and sunglasses, and all of a sudden teenagers, even some adults, are using depilatories and shaving their body hair just to look more like me. The mind boggles.”      

The reporter scribbled “humble” in his notebook. He got Leon to explain the development of the Esterlink movements. “I have to admit, I watched the video and began to laugh when you started with those steps. You have to be aware of how strange you look,” he said.

“I understand in the last Bay to Breakers there was a group of seven runners who did it in unison throughout the entire course. Now that must have looked goofy. Sure, I was scared and felt stupid the first time I did it in a race. But there was no other way I could have gone the distance. It’s easier now.”

“What’s next for Esterlink, Inc?” the reporter asked.

“You make it sound like I’m an industry. I’m just a runner, and not a particularly fast one. I didn’t seek out the notoriety or the money. Maybe it’s just my fifteen minutes of fame.” He was trying to sound the way he thought a sports star should sound. It was painful for him. “Look, I really have to go,” he said by way of ending the interview.

The reporter thanked him. “Clueless schmuck,” he wrote.

Running had become an obstacle course for Leon. Well-wishers, autograph hounds, reporters. Jimmy Fallon wanted him on his show. Louisville renamed a street after him. There was a rumor he had donated a million dollars to endow the yearly Mini-Marathon on the condition that the city change the name of the race to the Esterlink Mini. The more he denied it, the more people assumed it was true. Fancy women called him at night suggesting things that turned his ears red. He yearned for the solitude hairlessness had imposed. He’d learned to tolerate the stares and the ridicule accompanying his early daylight runs. Adulation proved more difficult.

“My life’s no longer my own,” he moaned to the woman who cleaned and shopped. “My agent is suggesting bodyguards now. Goons in cars to shoo away anyone approaching me. How am I supposed to live like that?”

“Less than three years,” she said softly, putting orange juice and soy milk in the refrigerator. She suggested he see someone.

“I don’t need help. I need to be left alone,” he shouted and went upstairs to his bedroom.

The throng of people waiting for him in Indianapolis was clapping and hooting as he entered the downtown area and circled the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. A young woman with long auburn hair broke through the police line and tried to grab his shorts. It was after eleven by the time he hopped in the cab of the flatbed truck and headed home, the helicopter leading the way.

Two months later, on a sunny Monday, Leon awoke at seven. He made breakfast and read the paper. He flipped on the radio and listened to the news. On the treadmill he looked out onto the street. Nothing out of the ordinary. People going about their business, children waiting for the school bus. He thought about the nastiness surrounding his break with Fartlek. “I did the video; I ran in two marathons. They can continue to use my name on their shoes. I want out,” he had told his lawyer.

The contract had two more years to run, but Leon was through. He wanted to keep the two million Fartlek had paid him so far and walk away. Fartlek sued for the return of most of the money. His lawyer convinced him to counter sue for a share of the profits from shoe and video sales. The litigation, his lawyer assured him, would last for years.

In the two months after the filming and his decision to abandon his obligations to Fartlek, Leon hadn’t left his home. Every day he received dozens of letters from people he didn’t know, wishing him well and hoping he’d return to running. Many explained how he had inspired them with his courage. Some contained pictures of hairless children with notes about how he had given them self-esteem. These touched him.

There was a letter from the reporter. He was writing a screenplay about Leon’s life and he’d like Leon to work with him on it. “One of the movie studios had shown some interest,” he wrote. Leon was offered $25,000 to speak at the annual meeting of the National Sporting Goods Association in Las Vegas.

His popularity continued to grow. This, in turn, had a positive impact on his insurance business. He had planned to give it up, but found himself busier than ever and with mounting legal fees to pay, he was thankful for the business. He added Wednesday as a work day. The woman who cleaned and shopped agreed to help him handle the extra business. She moved into his guest bedroom so she’d be available to streamline his work flow.

A year passed. He was sitting in the living room watching Stephen Colbert talk to a man from Madison, Wisconsin, who opened beer bottles with his bellybutton. The cleaning and shopping woman sat down beside him. “Any regrets, Leon?” she whispered.

He thought for a moment about the fame and fortune, the adulation, his contribution to the sport of running, the positive role model he had been to alopecia sufferers. He laid his head on her bosom. “None,” he said.

Robert Sachs’ work has appeared most recently in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Delmarva Review. He earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University in 2009. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. Originally from Chicago, he currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com.

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