Five nights a week he tends bar until 4 AM at Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food and Lucky Lounge in Larkspur, then 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. But he manages.
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 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.
He punches up the speed to 3.5 — still a walk but a brisk one — and he presses in the earbuds. Out of the corner of an eye he glimpses a young woman to his left sprinting full out, her auburn ponytail twirling like a propeller, her breasts rhythmically bouncing despite the restrictive sports bra. The heavyset black man to his right sweats as he trudges up a steep incline.
Michael dials up Springsteen’s Radio Nowhere on his iPhone and sets the device in the cup holder. The driving beat pushes him to walk faster. Invigorated, he ups the speed to 5.0 and breaks into an easy jog.
At the five minute mark, he’s 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.
Now he’s ready. Nothing can hold him back. He begins his sprint.
At forty-two, having suffered multiple respiratory infections thanks to the asbestos that sprinkled out from 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 loping 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, a powerful lure for the eye. He forces himself to look away, focusing instead on his body, adjusting his every movement to accommodate for the various aches and pains asserting themselves in his calves, knees, ankles.
He smiles. It’s time.
To everyone else he’s just another dude sprinting without going anywhere. But in his mind he’s flying. He’s Elliot pedaling across the bright blue sky after E.T.
But not randomly. The path is predetermined.
He punches up the pace to a serious 8.0 as his destination — which he will admit may not actually be there — in fact, it can’t — flickers into view. But at the same time, there’s the club, too.
When it’s the club, it’s a TV view of CNN showing footage of bodies covered in blankets, the aftermath of a bombing in a country Michael will never visit. When it’s the club, it’s video of a flooded out neighborhood in Pittsburgh and many people suffering. When it’s the club, it’s Wolf Blitzer going on and on in that annoyingly imploring way of his about something you simply must know.
But when it’s the other place, it’s something else entirely. It’s Michael, gently gliding toward a gathering of people in a grassy clearing down below. They are waving as if expecting him. He’s been here many times, so he doesn’t question how he can be sliding downward to some impossible place and yet be in the club at the same time.
He knows them, these people. He knows them and yet they are strangers. They are a memory, perhaps. A memory that says “Come home, lost brother, we are your kin. You will fall into our arms and be well, as you should be.”
A tear swells in the corner of an eye, grows, teeters and spills, mingling with the sweat until his cheeks are glistening. He swipes it all off. He doesn’t care who’s watching. He can barely feel the club anyway. And who would think of eyeballing a menacing-looking guy like him, whatever he’s going through?
Wolf tries to worm his way back in. He is good at that. Fuck you, Wolf.
But Wolf is insistent. Look over here. Yes, that’s right … just a little closer. I have to tell you just this one thing. You’ll want to know... Michael does his best to stay with the gliding, to keep moving toward the people in the other place, even as he realizes he may be going nuts. He wonders if watching Wolf might be 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 red dress. They wave at 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 crushing. He must stop. No, no, no, no. He wishes he could keep going, wishes he could get a little closer to these people, wishes he could see them, really see them, these strangers who await his arrival, whom he yearns to join without knowing why.