Five nights a week he tends bar until 4 AM at Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food and Lucky Lounge in Larkspur. He drags himself out of bed at 1 PM the next day so tired he can hardly summon the energy to pull on his jeans and Nikes.
After the shower, the protein shake, the checking of NFL scores and the bathroom mirror review, he hops into his Porsche Roadster for the 10-minute drive to the club.
Straddling the treadmill’s worn-out belt, Michael sets the speed to 2.4 mph — barely faster than a walk. In fact, it is exactly a walk. He doesn’t walk, though. He trots, like a jogger (there’s something about that motion).
The machine faces a towering mirrored wall which gives him license to admire the sculpted muscles of his upper arms bulging from his sleeveless T and the coolness of his smartly shaved head. About once a week someone tells him he looks like a young Bruce Willis. He has to agree.
Starting to wake up, he punches up the speed to 3.5 — still a walk but a brisk one — and presses in his earbuds. From the corner of his eye he glimpses a young woman to his left sprinting full out, her ponytail twirling like a crazed propeller, her tightly bound breasts trying to push out of the the restrictive sports bra. The heavyset black man to Michael’s right sweats as he trudges up the steep incline.
Michael dials up Springsteen’s Radio Nowhere on his iPhone and sets the device in the cup holder. The sledgehammer beat pushes him to walk faster. Bolstered by the rush, he ups the speed to 5.0 and breaks into an easy jog.
At the five minute mark, Michael is gasping for air. Damn. He steps off and straddles the belt for a few seconds, until his chest slows its heaving. A minute later he clicks the speed all the way up to 7.5 and hops back on with practiced skill, catching the fast-moving tread just right.
He’s ready. Nothing can hold him back now. He begins his sprint.
At forty-two, having suffered multiple respiratory infections thanks to the asbestos that sprinkled out of the walls and ceiling of the Sante Fe house where he grew up, Michael will not be able to keep up this pace for long. But he won’t have to.
The phone cord bounces wildly with his pounding strides. He’s trying hard not to watch the TVs hanging down from the ceiling or the people around him. At the Larkspur club everyone is fit and attractive, an irresistible lure for the eye. He forces himself not to look, focusing instead on his body, adjusting his every movement to accommodate for the aches and pains asserting themselves in his calves, knees, ankles.
He smiles. It’s time.
To everyone else he’s just another dude expending a huge amount of energy without going anywhere. But in his mind, he’s something else. He’s flying. He’s Elliot pedaling across the bright sky after E.T.
But not randomly. His path is predetermined.
He punches up the pace to a serious 8.0 as his destination — which he admits may actually not be there — in fact, it can’t — flickers into view. But at the same time, he’s in the club, too.
When it’s the club, it’s a TV view of CNN showing footage of still bodies covered in blankets, the aftermath of a bombing in a country Michael will never see. When it’s the club, it’s video footage of a flooded out neighborhood in Pittsburgh and its suffering residents. When it’s the club, it’s Wolf Blitzer going on in that imploring way of his about something you must know.
But when it’s the other place, it’s something else entirely. It’s Michael, gently gliding low in the sky toward a gathering of people in a grassy clearing below. They are waving as if expecting him. He’s been here many times, so he doesn’t question how he can be flying downward to some impossible place and yet be in the club, too.
He knows them, these people. And yet they are strangers. They’re a memory, perhaps, that says “Come home, lost brother, we are your kin. You will fall into our arms and be comforted, as you should be.”
A tear swells in the corner of Michal’s eye. It teeters and falls, mingling with the sweat on his his cheeks. He swipes at the wet mess. He doesn’t care who’s watching. He’s not really in the club, anyway. And who would think of eyeballing a menacing-looking guy like Michael, whatever he may be going through?
Wolf Blitzer tries to worm his way back in. He’s good at that. Fuck you, Wolf.
Michael is drawn to him, and gives a quick glance.
Look over here, implores Wolf with his eyes. Yes, that’s right. Just a little closer. I have to tell you just this one thing. You’ll want to know…
Michael rips himself away and returns to the gliding, moving toward the people in the other place, even as he realizes he may be going nuts. He wonders if watching Wolf is a better idea. But the other place feels so good. His legs are pumping effortlessly. There’s no pain at all.
He’s close enough now to make out a few faces. A young man with a closely trimmed beard. A willowy girl, smiling. An old woman in a ruby-colored dress. They wave to him, imploring him to come, come, come. Come and join them.
How do they know him? Why does he want to be with them?
Michael is panting now, completely spent. Whoa. One can only run so long at 8.0. His lungs burn, his chest heaves. He is gasping for air, the fatigue is crushing. He must stop. No, no, no, no. He wishes he could keep going, wishes he could get a little closer to these people, so he could see them, really see them, these strangers who await his arrival, whom he yearns to join without knowing why.