Fiction · 07/25/2012

Center of Population

In here, loss is different. I learned this on my first visit. After I signed in at the front desk, I passed by a waiting area, where I saw a pregnant woman sifting through hunting and car magazines. Next to her, an older woman inspected her fingernails on one hand and rested her other hand on her prosthetic leg. I had done taxes for some retired navy, for flight attendants and small business owners — I’d seen loss. In the autumn months, I also taught aerobics at Curves, and that’s why I was here at the VA hospital annex to do a favor for my cousin Mark, their resident exercise scientist.

I continued down the hallway, which is painted in loud yellows, reds, and whites. The day before, when Mark had asked me to take over his kickboxing therapy class, I said, “You want me to teach a bunch of GIs to dancercise?” “No,” he said. “Exercise.” It was the middle of tax season, but I agreed to fill in for him, because I hadn’t taught aerobics in months. I wanted to hear ankles crack and breath hitch and hips pop out of socket. I wanted to turn faces red.

When I reached the martial arts room, I took a deep breath and walked in. It was hot inside, with no windows and unmoving ceiling fans.

“Fan blades won’t spin,” one of the guys said. “Fuse blew.” He was looking where I was looking. I flipped the switch anyway. Clack. “Good luck,” he said. Clack clack clack. Nothing.

He squeezed a tennis ball as he introduced himself — Eric — and the others: Tony and Raphael. They looked how I expected young marines to look, but with longer hair and skin gray from the circulation condition I was there to cure. They stood up and when I told them my name was Delia, they called me ma’am. Although I kept my dangly earrings on that day, I wore baggy sweats, pulled my hair back tight, and skipped make-up. I wanted to be taken as seriously as a man, as seriously as they take Mark, but in the mirror, I looked like a twelve-year-old girl.

I watched them do towel stretches to aid circulation to their feet. Mark had told me that they had to finish these before I could start the class, and that they’d just spent a month with braces on their feet or splints under their hands. I watched them grit their teeth as they pushed against the resistance, and I noted a receding hairline on Raphael, a slouch in Tony’s posture. These guys looked older than their years, after guarding some snowy mountain in the Hindu Kush — an empty peak at the center of the world’s population — where they sat and waited for action until their toes turned white.

After an hour of action in here, I’d go home to an empty place too, a house so much darker since Nico and his daughter Maggie had moved out of it. Nico’s glasses wouldn’t slide down his nose as he cooked dinner, and Maggie’s curls wouldn’t bounce as she set the table, nodding through one two three forks, one two three knives.

The marines snuck looks at me while I set out my stepping blocks. I don’t have Mark’s muscle or his height. In their eyes, I didn’t measure up. Mark’s mind is always on his work, his mouth always spouting out jargon: interminable capillary damage, sustained recovery, surgical intervention. That day, I was supposed to take his kickboxing routine and mix it up with my step aerobics routine. “As long as the fingertips show some coloration during exercise,” he had said, “we won’t have to cut them off. Or anything else.”

When the marines were done stretching, I popped my aerobics remixes CD into the stereo. Music, Madonna sang, makes the people come together. I led the class into a march, and then I told them to plant their feet wide. “Bend at the waist,” I said, “reach right, left.” We straightened up one vertebra at a time. “Time to loosen shoulders and necks.” Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel… Our heads rolled.

Mark hadn’t included a warm-up in the plan he gave me. Did he begin like I began? Was his practice as good as his theory? I decided to stop doubting him. After all, he’s a king in this place, not just for fixing people using exercise, but also for helping the cognitive behavioral doctors figure out some new virtual reality therapy system for the combat veterans. He says it’s like a video game, where bombs explode before their eyes and special sounds and odors trigger their memories, as they drive imaginary Jeeps through the battle grounds, in order to get past them for good. It’s the most successful form of therapy yet, a godsend during this flood of new patients.

We finished the warm-up, and the marines shook out their hands and feet. I tried to imagine how they had felt, half-frozen on that mountain, and wondered if I had it in me to cure anyone, to help them retrieve what they’d lost.

I led them up and down and across the stepping blocks, and then into a spin move called “knees around the world.” The constant motion would bring more blood to the feet.

The young marines obeyed. Step two three, step two three. And when the music starts… Madonna sang. They breathed louder.

“The next step,” I said, “is called revolving door.”

I demonstrated the step and the sequence that followed. Eric and Raphael did just fine, but Tony shuffled through a few repetitions and then lied down in the center of the studio floor. He stared up into the still fan.

“I don’t know when to turn,” he said.

“Just think in eights,” I said. “The intervals are always eight beats long. Turn at the end.”

“I don’t think in eights.”

Madonna faded out, and the next track was a short instrumental version of “Disco Inferno.” I threw in some jumping jacks before the next stepping sequence. My earrings jingled.

The song’s cymbal sped up. Snic, snic, nic-a-nic.

For a while, Eric stepped over Tony instead of the blocks. Then he picked up a block and hurled it across the room. “Large muscle exercise, ma’am,” he said. “Mark said that’s important for controlling my temper.”

A chill shot through my middle. “Fine. Then we’ll box.”

I led them into rhythmic uppercuts. One and two and one and two. One two one two. Nic-a-nic. I was using Mark’s routine now, but I had reason to doubt his theory, and his practice. He had once invited Nico to join his Jiujitsu therapy class. I couldn’t believe it when Nico had changed out of his shined shoes and his pressed scrubs to study martial arts from my cousin, the violence doctor. Afterward, he came home cursing. He never cursed. The class was an hour of yelling and grunting and sharp movements, he said. “Mark used me to demonstrate a leg sweep. Almost broke my back. How does that heal people?”

Once the marines had practiced enough uppercuts and hooks, I added jabs and kicks. Instead of punching an arm straight up, the way I would in a Curves class, I punched straight out. I had to make my moves sharp for these guys, like video game moves, so I didn’t swing my hips either. I was all forward movement. Snic, snic.

“This song sucks,” Eric said.

“Yeah,” Raphael said, “and boxing just freezes up my hands all over again.”

Eric turned off the CD and switched the radio on. When he landed on a rap song that said run the jewels, run the jewels, Tony stood up. The three young marines postured in front of the mirror, leaning back with arms crossed, and then gripping an imaginary steering wheel. Can you feel it? They jerked their shoulders and hips around, but they didn’t punch. They followed the rapper’s command to wave their hands in the air like they just didn’t care.

Behind them, I checked my reflection: big frown, lines on my forehead, redness in my ears, cheeks, neck. In all the photos of Nico’s dead wife — even the hidden ones he thought I hadn’t found — she never frowned or blushed. Not even in laughter, before the sickness whitened her for good. She had a way of holding herself — hair pulled back in this photo, no make-up in this one — concealing a certain amount of her beauty in each picture so it didn’t blind you all at once.

Can you feel it? the rapper asked again. The class wasn’t slowing down. They were just fine without me. Eric led Tony and Raphael from jacks into down-ups. They huffed and cursed at him between reps.

I switched the CD back on, and cued it to the next sped-up pop song. I took the floor and stepped slow. Right, left, faster. Soon the marines formed one horizontal row, and the tips of their noses showed the slightest color.

It was time to raise the intensity, to force the blood to the edge. I kicked, and the marines kicked. They looked terrified, but they kept following me.

My feet were set in that rhythm, but my mind was still two months into the past, with Nico on our trip to Marseilles. One evening there, as we had danced under the voice of a lounge singer, Nico closed a necklace around my neck and said, “Maggie adores you. I adore you. Thank you for bringing me back to life.”

I didn’t want to talk over the music and the singer’s voice and the sounds of people around us having a good time on their night out. I could have said, “You’ve come so far,” or, “I’d do anything to help you get over your loss,” but that would have made Nico feel proud of himself, and pride would disrupt the grieving process, which had taken him the prescribed two and one quarter years to get as far as it had. I didn’t want to set him back, so I touched the necklace and said, “I adore her, too.”

The next morning, we boarded an empty bus at the terminal and sat near the back. The driver stepped out and walked into the depot, to warm up before his next departure. A woman entered the bus and chose a seat in the middle. She was the lounge singer we’d listened to the night before. Was she going where we were going, to the center of town?

I nudged Nico, and he squeezed my hand. Here was the woman who had provided our happy soundtrack, now looking too plain to coax anyone onto a dance floor.

Two teenage boys stepped onto the bus. One was puny and the other was huge for his age, with shoulders bulging under his leather jacket and a tattoo crawling up to his ear.

Out the window, no one was walking out of the depot. Where was the driver?

The larger boy covered the singer’s mouth and yanked her up. He dragged her toward the front of the bus, where he wrestled her into a stranglehold. The smaller boy grabbed her bag and ran out. The larger boy snapped her neck, dropped her, and left.

Nico and I ducked behind the seats in front of us. The boys moved so fast, they probably didn’t even notice us, but we still stayed down. A dozen people must have been milling around inside that depot. If the boy had shot the singer, they’d all be running out, following the sound, but this was a silent killing.

The bus felt so much colder then. Nico was still squeezing my hand, but I didn’t feel it.

As the only witnesses, Nico and I had to explain the crime to the police. His French was better than mine, but he made me do the talking. When I referred to the singer as “la femme,” Nico scowled. “Madame Bonet,” he said. “She had a name and it was Jenna Marie Bonet.”

The police said the boys were working toward gang initiation, and had probably been told to jump the first lady they saw. It could have been me.

I told the police that after the larger boy broke Madame Bonet’s spinal cord and ran out, Nico checked her vital signs. I didn’t have the French words to tell them how much prettier she had been in life than in death. She had worn dangly earrings the night before, and while she sang, they had sparkled up her long hair. But the next morning on the bus, her hair was pulled back tight, and nothing on her shined.

That day, Nico didn’t take me into town as planned. He didn’t take me up to the cathedral. The only time he said more than two words to me the rest of the trip was when the plane was about to land. He kept looking out the window, studying Oakland’s grid, while he asked me, “What are rents like on the other side of the High Street Bridge?”

There was a whole world of Nico’s loss that I’d only glimpsed, when he would brush Maggie’s hair too hard, or when he woke up and walked out into a thunderstorm without a coat, or sat with his foot on the brake through a green traffic light. I said nothing at those times, because who was I to tell him to put his foot on the accelerator?

When we got home, we had time to sleep before Nico’s mother-in-law brought Maggie back to us. Nico didn’t get anywhere near our bed. He didn’t eat the lunch I cooked for him. He didn’t unpack his bags. Instead, he spent the whole day on the computer, and then in his car, making phone calls. He drove off right before Maggie was due back.

When Maggie and her grandmother arrived, I told them that Nico had gone to the store and would be home soon. Naturally, the grandmother wanted to know how I enjoyed the trip. She smiled, and barely a line showed on her face. She looked so young that I would often forget who I was talking to and say too much. This time I was careful. I described the hassle of getting to our destination, and the dreary French weather, but I assured her that the lovely food and lovely sights were well worth the trouble.

“So you had a nice time, and you came home in one piece.” Her smile flattened, and she touched my arm. “I didn’t want to say so before you left, but I’ve been worried sick about you two.”

Nico came home late and slept on the couch. I crawled into Maggie’s bed. She was still wearing her Pocahontas costume, the one she had insisted on wearing every day since Halloween, even to bed. We always gave in. I touched the fake suede headband and kissed her hair. She took my hand. I was off to work before she woke, and by the next evening her room was empty, all traces of the girl vanished.

+

In between songs, a breeze moved through Eric’s hair. The fan had started working. He doubled over. “Boxing is great large muscle exercise, ma’am. I’ll give you that.” He grabbed his water bottle and chugged it down.

“Ma’am?” Raphael said. “It makes you feel better, but not us.”

Before I could defend myself, Eric moved toward the stereo. Again, he turned my CD off and switched on the radio. A song by Miami Sound Machine blared out of the speakers. He whipped off his shirt and tied it around his head. Soon, he was leading Tony and Raphael in a conga line. All of them were smiling, and color showed on Tony’s ears.

I turned down the volume. “No, no,” I said. “One horizontal row.”

Eric ditched the others. He cranked up the volume and waltzed me away from the stereo. I tried to break free, but he had me in his grip, leading me into a salsa dance. The smell of his sweat was like nothing I’d ever smelled at Curves.

“Step two three,” he whispered. “Back two three. Back, back.”

The percussion sped up, brought us closer to the mirror. Laced between my fingertips, his fingertips glowed pink. He caught my eye in our reflection, our red faces.

Eric led, so I had to dance backwards most of the time. It was hard to keep up, and when he moved too fast, he knocked me down. I fell hard on my right arm. It throbbed, and I knew something had torn. I stayed on the ground, fighting back tears and watching the fan blades circle, until I didn’t feel or see or hear anything.

When I came to, I was lying across two stepping blocks. Get up and take some action, the song said. The marines were shouting and bustling around me. The fan squealed.

“We need a compress, splint, brace,” Tony said. “Looks like a dislocated shoulder.”

Fingers pressed on my throat. Eric was measuring my pulse. “No. It’s her elbow, or maybe the wrist. Might be a sprain. Let me handle it.”

“Because if the shoulder’s dislocated, we’ll have to stabilize the neck and — “

“Shut up, Tony! Rafa, get that first aid box in the corner.”

I knew it was my wrist, and I knew it would need weeks to heal. I wouldn’t be able to come back here to help these guys, wouldn’t be able to work at full throttle for the rest of tax season. And driving would be hard. I wouldn’t be able to cruise through the neighborhoods on the other side of the High Street Bridge, looking for Maggie’s curls in a lit-up window, or Nico’s silhouette in a chair, pointing his remote control at the source of light that carved his shape.

Soon Raphael was leaning over me, wrapping an Ace bandage around my arm while Tony hovered and watched.

“I want to get up,” I said. The dizzy feeling was worse when I tried to speak.

“Don’t move, ma’am,” Eric said. He compared the size of my right arm against my left, which had swelled up. “When you fell, a lot of blood rushed toward the injured area. That’s why you’re lightheaded, aren’t you?” I nodded. “Hold your arm up and don’t try to stand yet.”

Raphael and Tony rummaged through their gym bags and came back with an energy bar, water, and towels. Tony fed me while Eric bent and straightened my legs, and pushed my sweatpants up over my knees, to check for bruises.

“No damage here,” Eric said. “Good to go.”

Raphael wrapped a towel around me, picked me up, and carried me down the hall toward the waiting area, where I joined the injured women.

+++

Kristin FitzPatrick is the 2011 winner of the Gival Press Short Story Award and the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. Her short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and published in journals such as Colorado Review, The Southeast Review, and Epiphany. In 2009-2010, she was writer-in-residence at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati. She now teaches English in the San Francisco Bay Area and is at work on a novel. Her website is kristinfitzpatrick.com.