Five nights a week he tends bar until 4 AM at Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food and Lucky Lounge in Larkspur, dragging himself out of bed at 1 PM the next day so tired he can hardly summon the energy to pull on his jeans and tennis shoes. But he manages. He knows what’s in store if he can just start the workout.
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 down 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 that bulge from his sleeveless T and the coolness of his smartly shaved head. About once a week someone tells him he looks like Bruce Willis. He has to agree.
He punches up the speed to 3.5 — still a walk but a brisk one — and presses in his earbuds. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpses the 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 heavily 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 five minutes. he’s already 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. 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. 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 that assert themselves. Doesn’t matter now.
He smiles. It’s happening.
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 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 be — 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 some distant country. When it’s the club, it’s video of a flooded out neighborhood in Pittsburgh and lots of 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 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. The people 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.”
Michael’s eyes mist up. He knows these people, he misses them. A tear swells in the corner of one eye, grows larger, teeters and falls, mingling with the sweat on his face until his cheeks are glistening. He swipes it off. He doesn’t care who might see this. He can barely feel the club anyway. And who would think of eyeballing a menacing-looking guy like him, whatever might be going on?
Wolf tries to worm his way back in. He is good at that. Fuck you, Wolf.
Wolf is insistent. Look over here. Yes, that’s right … come 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 trimmed beard. A tall girl smiling. An old woman in a ruby red dress. They wave at him, imploring him to come, come, come. Come join them.
How do they know him? Why does he want to be with them?
Michael is panting now, winded. Whoa. One can only go so long at 8.0. His lungs burn, his chest heaves. He is gasping, 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, with whom he yearns to be without knowing why.