"Here comes da creep," one of the stoop kids said.
Levy did his best to ignore them, standing at the top of the brownstone steps, making sure his sneaker laces were properly tight. These were his best shoes, the cream of the Adidas line, and they fit his feet as if divinely sculpted, never, not even on the first day, giving a hint of blister. Levy felt passionate about few items of wearing apparel, but these running shoes he cared about.
"Hey creepy creepy creepy," another of the stoop kids shouted, this one their leader, small, quick, with usually the brightest clothes. Now he made his voice very hoity-toity: "I just absolutely adore your chateau," and he indicated Levy's hat.
Without really meaning to, Levy adjusted his golf cap, and as he did the stoop kids, three brownstones down, hit him with the sound of their triumphant laughter. Levy was particularly sensitive about the whole cap business. He had been wearing his peakbill for years, and no one cared, but then, in the '72 Olympics, Wottle won the 800 meters for the U.S.A. and he wore a golf cap, Wottle did, so everyone assumed that Levy was merely an imitator.
Levy felt genuinely confident about few things in this world, but one of them was—did it sound conceited? then it was conceited—his mind. He had, for someone not yet out of his middle twenties, a relatively original mind, and he would never have copied anyone, let alone a fellow runner. Now he took a breath, trying to ready himself for the taunts of the stoop kids as he began jogging storklike down the brownstone steps. The stoop kids loved his awkwardness. They flapped their arms and made goosesounds.
Levy just hated it when they imitated him. Not because they were wrong, but because they were so aggravatingly accurate in their mimicking. He, T. B. Levy, did look like a goose, at least on occasion. He didn't much like it, but there it was.
The stoop kids—usually six in number, Spanish in origin—seemed to live on the brownstone steps of the house three doors closer to Central Park than Levy's own. At least, they had been perched there when he arrived in June, and here it was, September now, and they showed no signs of flying south. They were maybe fifteen or sixteen, small, thin, undoubtedly dangerous when provoked, and they ate on their stoop, played handball against the stoop steps or on the sidewalk in front, and often, late in the darkness, Levy would pass them necking and more with what he assumed were neighborhood girls. Morning till night, the stoop kids were there, sitting there, standing, playing, smoking, not caring to watch the world go by, because they were a world, tight-knit and constant, and sometimes, for that reason, Levy wondered if he didn't envy them. Not that he ever wanted them to offer him a seat. Certainly, he would have rejected such an offer. But then again, who knew how he'd behave, it was all academic, they'd never asked him.
Levy turned on the sidewalk toward Central Park, jogging his way, and as he passed them the one who adored his chateau said, "Why aren't you in school?" so suddenly that Levy had to laugh, because once, in June, when they had been particularly insulting to him, he had said that to them, "Why aren't you in school?" and not only had he not shut them up, for a month they'd never let him come close to forgetting it. But this was the first time in many days they'd used the line back on him, and therefore his laughter. Humor was the unexpected juxtaposition of incongruities, who had said that? Levy rooted around in his mind a moment before he decided on Hazlitt. No. Meredith maybe? G. B. Shaw? Think, he commanded, but the right name would not come. Levy stormed at himself, because you had to know that kind of thing if you were going to be really first-rate, his father would have known just-like-that, known the author's name and the work the quote resided in and the mental state of the creator at the moment of composition—were these good times for him, bad, what? Shamed, Levy jogged faster.
Levy lived on West 95th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus, not an appetizing neighborhood, certainly, but when you were a scholarship student you took what was available, and in June what was available was a single room with bath on the top floor of the brownstone at 148 West 95th Street. It wasn't all that bad, actually: a lovely jogging distance from Columbia, just across to Riverside Park and then up to 116th, a straight shoot along the river—you couldn't ask for more than that if you were a runner.
Levy crossed Columbus, picked up his pace a bit more as he closed in on Central Park, turned left at 95th, ran one block up and into the green area itself, straight to the tennis courts, and after that it was just a little half turn and then he was there.
At the reservoir.
Whoever invented the reservoir, Levy had decided months ago, must have done it with him alone in mind. It was without flaw, a perfect lake set in this most unexpected of locations, bounded by the millionaires on Fifth and their distant relations on Central Park South and their distant relations along Central Park West.
Levy easily passed other joggers as he began his initial circling of the water. It was half-past five—he always ran then, it was ideal for him. Some people liked a morning jaunt, but Levy wasn't one of them; his mind was at its best in the morning, so he always did his most complex reading before the noon hour; afternoons he took notes or read simple stuff. By five his brain was exhausted, but his body was desperate to move.
So at half-past five Levy ran. Clearly he was faster than anyone around, so if you were a casual observer it would have been logical to assume that this rather tallish, sort of slender fellow with the running style not unreminiscent of a goose covered ground really quite well.
But you had to consider his daydreams.
He was going to run the marathon. Like Nurmi. Like the already mythical Nurmi. Years from now, all across the world, track buffs would agonize over who was greatest, the mighty Finn or the fabled T. B. Levy. "Levy," some of them would argue, "no one would ever run the final five miles the way Levy ran them," and others would counter that by the time the last five miles came, Nurmi would be so far ahead, it wouldn't matter how fast Levy ran them, and so the debate would rage, expert against expert, down the decades.
For Levy was not going to be a marathon man; anyone could be that if you just devoted your life to it. No, he was going to be the marathon man. That, plus an intellect of staggering accomplishment coupled with an unequaled breadth of knowledge, the entire mixture bounded by a sense of modesty as deep as it was sincere.
Right now he only had the B.Litt. he'd won at Oxford, and could race but fifteen miles without fatigue. But give him a few more years and he would be both Ph.D. and Champion. And the crowds would sing out "Lee-vee, Lee-vee," sending him on to undreamed-of triumphs as now sports fans shouted "Dee-fense" as they urged on their heroes.
And they wouldn't care about how awkwardly he might run. It wouldn't matter to them that he was over six feet tall and under a hundred and fifty pounds, no matter how many milkshakes he downed per day in an effort to move up from skinny to slender.
It wouldn't bother them that he had a stupid cowlick and the face of an Indiana farmer, that even after spending three years in England he still had the expression of someone you just knew would buy the Brooklyn Bridge if you offered him the chance. He was beloved by few, known by none save, thank God for Doc, Doc. But that would change. Oh yes, oh yes.
"LEE-VEE . . . LEEEEEEE-VEE."
There he was now, up ahead and running with the firm knowledge that no one could ever conquer him, except possibly Mercury. Tireless, fabled, arrogant, unbeatable, the Flying Finn himself, Nurmi.
Levy picked up his pace.
The end of the race was still miles off, but now was the greatest test, the test of the heart.
Levy picked up his pace again.
Levy was gaining.
The half-million people lining the course could not believe it. They screamed, they surged almost out of control. It could not be happening but there it was—Levy was gaining on Nurmi!
Levy, the handsome American, was closing in. It was true. Levy, so confident that he even dared a smile while running at the fastest pace in marathon history, was definitely destroying Nurmi's lead. Nurmi was aware now—something terrible was going on behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, and the disbelief was plain for all to see. Nurmi tried to go faster, but he was already at maximum pace, and suddenly his stride began to betray him, the crucial rhythm getting erratic. Levy was coming. Levy was making his move. Levy was getting set to pass now. Levy was—
Thomas Babington Levy paused for a moment, leaning against the reservoir fence. It was hard to really concentrate on Nurmi today.
For he had a toothache, and as he ran, as his right foot hit the ground, it jarred the cavity on the right side of his upper jaw. For a moment Levy rubbed the offending tooth, wondering if he should see a dentist now or not. The thing had come on only lately, and maybe it would depart as it had come, because it hadn't gotten worse, and proved a nuisance only when he ran. Dentists raped you anyway, they charged a ton for maybe two minutes' work, and there were better things to spend your money on, like books, all the books ever printed; records, too. To hell with it, Levy decided.
In the end, it didn't really matter. Once they found his weakness, they almost killed him . . .