I’m up early. I’m usually awake before my alarm clock goes off, and the first thing I do is get down on the floor and stretch. I start with my legs, with the ankles and calves, then the upper hamstrings and quads. I work the muscles around the hips and the lower back. I work my neck and shoulders last. It’s slow and tedious, but there’s no way around that. I do the same bends and reaches in the same order for forty minutes every morning. This is my routine. This is how I wake up.
When I get outside it’s still dark. It can get pretty chilly. But I don’t bundle up. Shorts and shoes and a tank top—that’s all I need. I like the discomfort at the beginning of a run, when sometimes it’s so cold you can’t stop shaking, and every breath cuts into the back of your throat. Your knees and ankles crack and give, and the cramps stab hard. But then you find the rhythm of the run, or more accurately, you feel it find you, slipping into you like it was waiting for you along your route, and its heat spreads through you like a flame flaring up, and then the endorphins kick in and the pain is gone and everything is steady and true. It happens that quick. It happens every morning.
There’s no traffic at this hour. I run through the blinking yellow lights. I go along the boulevard under the freeway, then head into the neighborhoods above it, where the rich people live. A few of them are just getting up. I can hear their alarm clocks beep, see their lights flick on. I can see the steam rolling out of their bathroom windows. I can smell their coffee brewing. I keep going, up where the roads are unpaved and the houses are farther apart, deep in the trees. Except for the occasional yapping dog or the rumble of garbage trucks down below, it’s just me up here—my breathing, the pulse in my neck, and the slap of my feet on the ground.
When I get home, the sun is out and the rest of the city is awake. I have plenty of time to cool down, stretch again, then eat and get to work by seven-thirty.
I’ve been at the warehouse for ten years. I started out of high school. I work on the stock floor. We’re called Central Supply, and we assemble and ship orders for the county school district, everything from chalk and erasers to light bulbs and toilet paper and basketballs, on up to filing cabinets and desks. I used to be the newest guy until Ruben was hired. But they still call me the New Guy. Some kind of joke, I guess.
Ruben is about my age, and he’s in good shape, but I don’t like him. Every afternoon he disappears with one of the drivers to smoke a joint, out back, behind the Dumpsters. Ruben is Mexican, and when he first started here he corrected us when we called him Ruben, telling us that it should be pronounced Ruben. And from then on everybody made sure to call him Ruben, which is what he goes by now.
The rest of the guys have been at the warehouse forever. Dave has been here the longest. Our foreman Mack says Dave came with the building—he was seventeen when he started, and it’s been twenty-four years now. I never liked Dave, but in a way I owe my life to him. With the exception of Ruben, the men I work with are old and unhealthy. They’re all overweight and they smoke constantly, even while they eat. Dave is the worst of them. I’ve watched him get older and sicker—he had cancer surgery a while ago—and after a few years he started getting to me. I drank a lot then, nights after work, weekends in front of the TV. You could say I was another person back then, somebody I wouldn’t want to be around now. I lived with my folks rent-free. Nothing was expected of me. I thought I had it made. But I started worrying about things. I was afraid the warehouse would be my whole life, like it was for Dave. One day at work I just zeroed in on him. I counted the cigarettes he smoked, and the cups of coffee he drank. I counted the sugar cubes he ate. He grabbed them by the handful and snacked on them. “Sweets for the sweet,” he’d say. I watched him lick the mayonnaise off his fingers from the sandwiches his wife made him. I watched him hop down from the loading dock—a three-foot jump—and then stoop for a minute to catch his breath. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, and he got annoyed. “Am I making your heart go pitty-pat?” he said. In a way, he was. I started running that night. I went out after dark so nobody would see me. I didn’t even make it around the block before I ended up puking in somebody’s bushes. I thought I was going to die. My folks thought I was nuts. I kept at it, though, probably the only thing I’ve ever kept at. And I run every day now. I dropped forty-five pounds, and I don’t drink anymore. My heart rate at rest is just under fifty beats per minute. I fall asleep every night like that. I never need more than six hours. When I look in the mirror now, I see somebody who doesn’t disgust me. I see somebody who knows the difference between what he does for a paycheck and what really matters in this life. At work Mack is always telling me to slow down. “You get paid by the hour,” he says, “not by the order.” I don’t argue. So I slack off at work because my foreman tells me to. But I know who I am.
And I know this, too: that I owe nothing to Dave, that I owe nothing to anybody. You get where you are by yourself. There’s no regret in that. That’s just the way it is.
Rilke says, Rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you.
There was one person I liked. Her name was Dot, and she always referred to herself as “this old broad.” She never said “I” or “me.” She worked in Receiving, and I hated going in there. Receiving is full of middle-aged women, all married or widowed or divorced, and whenever I walked in they’d stop talking and look at me with these little smiles on their faces, like I’d caught them at something. I liked Dot because when I started running she was the first to notice the change in me, and not just losing the weight. Everybody noticed that at first. The guys said things like “You look lovely today.” And even the women in Receiving made a few cracks. But Dot said they didn’t know anything. The body was a temple, she said, and we could all benefit from sprucing up our temples. She said I seemed calmer, settled somehow, like I’d made a decision I was comfortable with. She wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know. But I liked that she told it to me. She wasn’t making fun of me. When she retired last summer, they had a little party for her, and she said if I ever wanted to pop a few beers with a tough old broad, to come on by. I would have. But a few months later she had a stroke, and had to move in with her son Phil, who works on the loading dock. Nobody has seen her since, and Phil never talks about her. If you ask him how Dot’s doing, he just glares at you. So we stopped asking. If she died, I’m sure he’d tell us.
Phil’s been stealing from the stock for the past year now. He hasn’t been very secretive about it, and I don’t know why he bothers, because it’s never anything big—a few rolls of film, or a box of ballpoint pens sticking out of his back pocket. Nobody says anything, and even Mack, who’s kind of a stickler, pretty much ignores it. I guess we’re all thinking the same thing: If they fired Phil, what would happen to Dot?
I suppose I was friends with Ruben once. When he first started working here and found out I ran, he told me that running was for pussies and that you had to lift weights. It was his way of inviting me to his gym. We went there one night after work, a twenty-four-hour place with a juice bar and music piped in through speakers and mirrors everywhere. Ruben introduced me around. He called me a buddy from work who was a pussy runner, and everybody laughed. I didn’t get mad. I recognized this as a kind of respect. Ruben joined a group of guys around a weight machine. I never liked lifting weights. Half the time you’re standing around with your hands on your hips waiting for somebody else to finish. And then there’s the mirrors, mirrors everywhere so you could watch yourself, so that everywhere you turned, there you were. One room even had mirrors on the ceiling. I got out of there, and worked on a treadmill until Ruben was done. After we got cleaned up, we went out to the parking lot and joined his buddies. They were drinking beers out of a cooler in somebody’s car trunk. They were talking about the women in the gym, about who was hot and all that. And I guess in all the talk I let something slip. It wasn’t the beer. I only had one bottle. So it wasn’t the beer. It’s just that when you’re talking and everybody’s having a good time, when people are talking to you and everything feels OK, you just let your guard down. I should have known what to expect from people. I should have known better.
Later that week, Eugene sat down next to me at lunch and handed me a doughnut and asked if I wanted a moment alone with it. I didn’t get it. Then Ruben slid the whole box over, a big pink box filled with doughnuts and little packs of condoms. They called it the virgin assortment, and they said I had to fuck every doughnut before attempting real pussy. Then Dave put his cigarette down and stood up. They cut one of his lungs out and he was still smoking. He stood up and pumped at the table with his hips, and said the best woman he ever had anyway was a butterscotch custard bar. Mack finally told them to knock it off, and they did, and he changed the subject. But nobody was listening to him. They were all sitting there, grinning down into their thermoses and ashtrays. They were having a great time.
That was it for me. I eat by myself now, out on the loading dock. Mack didn’t like that at first because he said it creates discord. “You have to eat chow with your shipmates,” he told me. But since I still take breaks with them, he lets me eat lunch alone. I’ve got a spot at the far end of the dock where they recharge the forklifts and pallet movers at night. I can catch the last of the noontime sun before it swings to the other side of the building. I like it out here, in the fresh air, in the sunlight, away from the smoke and the smell from the crap they heat up in the microwave. I love it out here.
It’s water under the bridge now, and I get along with all of them in my own way. Ruben even apologized. I don’t care. It’s nothing now. Back then, though, it was something, what he did. It was something to me.
I’ve lived in this house my whole life. My folks died here. They both got cancer, my mother first and then my father, and I took care of them both and now they’re gone. So the house is mine. I have a brother who wants nothing to do with it. He’s a lawyer for the EPA up in Alaska. We were never close. Lately he’s been calling me, once a month or so, out of the blue, to say hello. He doesn’t have to. I tell him that, but he still calls. He says he wants to come down for a visit sometime, to bring his family. He says he wants his kids to meet their uncle. I tell him: Fine, come down whenever.
I don’t need anybody feeling sorry for me. My life is my own, and I decide what matters in it. I’ve taken good care of this house. Whatever it’s needed, I’ve done. I sanded and planed and lacquered the floors a few years ago, and I did a pretty good job. I keep the lawn and the bushes trimmed and neat, and the neighbors appreciate that. They tell me so. These are things I care about. I don’t own a TV; I don’t watch that crap. I listen to the radio and I read the newspapers every day, so I know what’s going on in the world. And I don’t need anybody telling me how a life is supposed to be. I’m alone, but I’m not lonely; there’s loneliness and then there’s solitude, which is a positive thing. It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult. Rilke said that. I’ve read him. I read books. I know who I am.
The new girl’s name was April. She was hired to replace Dot, and on her first day Mack brought her out to meet us. The guys were very polite. They told her about the rooftop bowling alley, and tried to sell her tickets to the underground swimming pool. It was the same routine they did on my first day, and when Ruben was hired. But when she and Mack left, they started in on how fat she was. Phil said you’d have to roll her in flour first to fuck her, just to find the wet spot.
She started coming out onto the stock floor regularly, to chat and to hang out during breaks. This was a new thing for us. The women in Receiving rarely came out onto the floor, and then only to ask where Mack was and then go looking for him. None of them ever came out otherwise. There was no policy against it. It just didn’t happen. So this was new. The guys muttered to each other when they saw April heading our way. “Here comes our mascot,” they said. “Here comes the pooch.” They were nice to her when she came around. They told their jokes and their stories, and she laughed and told a few of her own, and they laughed. But when she was gone they leered and made fun of her. They were always talking about screwing her, but not in a good way. And they just wouldn’t let up on the fat jokes. I didn’t understand that, because she wasn’t that fat, no fatter than any of them. I thought at first if she dropped a few pounds maybe they would’ve let up on her. Maybe things would’ve been different. But they just find something else about you to make fun of. It’s what they do. They’re good at it. I guess you can just hate somebody no matter what.
April went out for lunch. She always went alone. If she got back early, she’d spend the rest of her hour with the guys on the stock floor. She didn’t socialize much with the women in Receiving. She was the youngest one in there.
A few weeks after she started, she came up on the dock on her way back from lunch. “So,” she said to me, “you’re the New Guy.” She lit a cigarette and asked me why I ate alone. I told her it was because of the cigarette smoke inside. She looked at the cigarette she’d just lit, and laughed. And she put it out. From then on, just about every day, she swung by and talked to me, fiddling with an unlit cigarette. I had nothing to say, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was a talker. She told me that. “So that makes you the listener,” she said. I liked that she didn’t judge my silence, that she just accepted it. So she talked, and I listened, sitting on the dock while she stood leaning against a stack of pallets. When I got tired of squinting up at her, I looked at my food. Sometimes I looked out over the lot, where you could see the heat wiggle up from the blacktop. It was hot that summer. April had just moved here, and I remember her saying how she was discovering the place, getting to know the bus system, finding the neighborhood pubs and the secondhand shops, doing all the tourist things. She rode the dinner train up to the capital once, and did the tour of the abandoned prison over in Old Town. She went to the zoo. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. We used to go a lot, so it was interesting to hear how much it had changed. They charged admission now. And they were getting rid of the cages. There was an Otter Island, and a Gorilla Haven. The cats were getting their own places, too, a savanna for the lions and grottoes with pools for the panthers and tigers. I was born here, and April already knew more about the city than I ever would. I liked hearing about it, though.
Sure enough, the guys started in on me. Eugene wanted to know if she was a moaner or a screamer. Dave asked if we had set a wedding date, and if we were registered at any of the doughnut shops. Ruben laughed with the rest of them. But whenever we were alone he said I should ask April out. He said that she wanted me, and that it would be a waste to not go for it. I told him I didn’t even like her. “Fuck like,” he said. “What’s like got to do with anything?” Ruben wouldn’t leave it alone. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d be working the floor and he’d be running up and down the aisles looking for me, whispering at me through the shelving that pussy was a gift from God, or cornering me with his cart to tell me that I had a duty as a man. We hadn’t said ten words to each other in years, and here he was getting all worked up about my duty as a man. I never liked him. Who was he to tell me about being a man? Who was he to tell me anything?
She asked me about my running. I said I didn’t like talking about it, and she just nodded. So I told her. I kept it simple, sticking to my regimen, telling her what I do and not getting near why I do it. She was playing with her unlit cigarette while I talked, flipping and catching it in her hand. But she was listening. So I told her she could do it too, if she wanted. She was about my age, maybe younger, so it wouldn’t take long to get a routine going, and to see results. But she just smiled and shook her head. Then she put the cigarette she was playing with in her mouth and lit it. “I lack discipline,” she said. “Which is something you’ve got a lot of.” She blew a thin stream of smoke above her head, and swatted at it to keep it away from me. She was right. It was something I had a lot of.
Another time she brought it up again. She asked about my regimen, and it turned into this interrogation. She wanted to know what time I got up every morning and how long I stretched for. She wanted to know how long I spent on my calves, on my thighs, on my neck. She asked what direction I headed in when I ran and what streets I turned on and whether I took the same streets back. She stood above me with the sun at her back and fired her questions at me. I answered every one of them. It was kind of a game, like a lawyer and a witness, and I let myself get caught up in it because I thought she really wanted to know about what I did, that the details of my regimen, and my absolute knowledge of them, were bringing her around somehow. I was wrong. She bent down all of a sudden, real quick, and leaned in close. I could smell her hair. I could’ve looked down her blouse, if I wanted to. And she said, “Well, maybe discipline is something a person can have too much of. Don’t you think?” And the way she was looking at me, I realized she wasn’t interested in running at all. I didn’t say anything. She straightened up and checked her watch and walked back inside. Lunch was over.
She was looking at me like she knew something about me, as if you could know a person just by looking in his face. She thinks she knows me. She doesn’t know anything about me. I’ve looked at my face. You can’t see anything in it.
Here’s something about me. I was running around the lake one afternoon when this woman fell into step alongside me. She ran well, with her legs in full extension. She clipped along in smooth even strides, her shoulders slack and her arms relaxed, swinging in little arcs along her rib cage. There wasn’t a single wasted motion about her. She ran with me. We didn’t say a word. After four laps around she tapped me on the shoulder. She smiled and said thanks. I watched her pull off and head down a path toward the streets. I went to the lake regularly for a few months after that. I never saw her again.
There’s something pure about running. When you run, you aspire to an economy of motion that has only one goal: to optimize the intake of oxygen so that you can keep running. Anything that impedes this one goal must fall away.
I don’t remember the woman’s face anymore. All I remember is the way she moved, the way everything about her was contained and effortless and perfect. Sometimes I imagine her alongside me when I run, and I try to match my every movement to hers. Our shoulders jostled each other when we rounded the turns that day. Her hair was in a single braid, a thick rope of hair that swayed across her back. You could hear it swish against her windbreaker. The rhythm of it paced us both.
When I told Dot about this woman, I remember her sighing and shaking her head, telling me to just let it go. If more people did that, she said, if they just left each other alone, there’d be less disappointment in this world. I’ve realized that everything Dot ever told me, all of her advice for me, came out of a life that I didn’t know much about. I knew her husband was dead, and that she had other kids besides Phil. They came up in passing when we talked. She never said anything bad about them, but she never said anything good about them, either. I didn’t know if she had any grandkids. I didn’t know what she did outside of work. I didn’t even know where she lived. Dot never smiled. “Bad teeth,” she told me once. But I remember her smiling when she told me this—the only time I’d seen her do that—and her teeth were fine. She didn’t sleep well, so she was always tired, and she moved around the office carefully, hanging on to the edges of desks and cabinets. She was a small woman, but she moved with this weight in her, like her gravity was different from everybody else’s, like it took everything she had just to get across the room, or to get through the day.
When I told Dot about the woman at the lake, she said as long as I was happy why chance it with anybody else? Why risk what you’ve got for something you may never have? I realize now that maybe Dot didn’t give the best advice. But I like to think that giving me advice helped her in some way, that talking to me would help somebody. I wish I had talked to her more.
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