The office was located in a three bedroom apartment, which was shared with two clients. Stepping inside he sighed with relief at how much better the apartment looked at night. The late evening darkness seemed to cloak the room, which turned the battered furnishings into little more than hulking black shapes. The frayed condition of the chairs in the living room, and the fine layer of dust which clung to the tabletops had now become invisible, mercifully erased by the gloom.
He walked down the hallway of the apartment towards the office, which was located at the end. As he passed the first bedroom door which sat about halfway open, he glanced quickly inside. The room belonged to Rachel, a diminutive old woman whose small stature belied a vivacious but often combative personality. Silvery blue light emanated from her switched-on television set, and danced across grey, depressed walls. The small space was dominated by Rachel’s bed which sat directly in the center of the room. He knew that this served a deliberate purpose because it prevented any staff member from getting a clear look at the room’s state, or discovering the heaps of garbage that often hugged the far wall.
The bed itself was an amazing spectacle, composed of two ancient mattresses, topped with a rolling sea of linens and clothing. Strands of Rachel’s thick hair could also be seen, jutting out from under the covers like flaccid, grey weeds.
Further down the hallway was Teresa’s bedroom, which was shut tightly as always. Short and obese, Teresa almost never left her bedroom, which she kept immaculate, almost like a mausoleum. He had only stepped across the threshold a few times, and had always felt as if he had entered a curated, museum-like atmosphere. The small room was filled to the brim with material possessions, with every available surface covered in memorabilia from what was now, by all accounts, a past life. There were scores of framed pictures from trips Teresa had taken with her mother – who had passed somewhat recently – in addition to souvenirs, arranged with strategic precision adjacent to their respective pictures.
The woman herself could always be found in the center of the room, rocking with ritualistic fervor in a chair while watching television on mute. Her wispy locks of brown hair were flecked with grey, and came down barely to her large ears, which supported a thick pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Despite being just over forty, her hazel colored eyes were accented by deeply embedded crows feet. When paired with her creamy white skin – which drooped off her jaw due to her extra bulk – these gave her the appearance of a much older woman.
Teresa was incredibly kind, and seemed to love working with the staff. She never would miss a beat when it came to social niceties, and could always be counted on to unleash a flurry of “thank yous” whenever someone did something for her.
But sometimes this felt disingenuous, as if she didn’t actually mean it. He had noticed this when she had invited him to watch a few moments of television with her, months ago. After standing for a moment near the doorway, he had begun to shiver instinctively due to the room’s frigid temperature. For whatever reason, and regardless of the season, Teresa could always be counted upon to have her air conditioner on full blast, and that time the room had been particularly glacial.
“Wow Teresa, you keep it cool in here,” he had said.
“Are you cold?”
“Just a little.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she murmured in response, while remaining anchored to her chair, as if she had grown roots.
He had sighed in minor frustration at this scripted response, noting with disbelief that she had actually leaned back further into her chair after registering his discomfort. He couldn’t really be mad however; it was just the way Teresa was. Before exiting, he had looked around the room once more, noticing that the Teresa’s mother’s eyes glared at him from the photos, and seemed to follow him wherever he went. It was a startling sight, the large television paired with the endless array of photos. This was enhanced by Teresa, who sat staring at a televised world in motion while her own life stood still.
Looking now at her locked door, he could hear the faint rustling of what he assumed were her slippered feet shuffling across the bedroom’s worn carpet. He was almost positive that Teresa barely slept, as he often heard sounds coming from her door during his night shifts. One evening she had surprised him when he had been coming back from checking on another client. Sitting in a chair in the living room – which branched off to the left of the apartment’s main doorway – Teresa had softly said “Hello” when he entered the room, causing him to noticeably jump and emit a small shriek in a pitch he had not hit since puberty.
“Jesus Teresa,” he had said, “You scared me.”
“Yep,” came the response, to which he raised an incredulous brow. Teresa, who had already begun having hearing problems, was notorious for never wearing her hearing aids. It had always been a point of contention, which was something he had never really understood considering her generally placid demeanor.
“Teresa, are you wearing your hearing aids?” he had asked, flicking on the living room light, which quickly shot across the room.
“Yep,” she said in response, turning away from the light and revealing an ear as bare as the day she was born.
He continued with the line of inquiry after that, attempting to get a straight answer about the fate of the hearing aids. It was to no avail however; as Teresa had an answer for everything. Eventually, he had given up, and after she had gone to work the next morning he had found the hearing aids in her trash, halfheartedly covered by a torn piece of tin foil.
Moving past her door he walked towards the office, anticipating the carnage he was about to see. The office was a tad on the dingy side, no question about it. The room would have been considered small even if it had been empty, but with the office’s furniture inside of it – which consisted of a large metallic desk, a small round table, file cabinets, and multiple chairs – it was almost comically cramped. Opening the door he stared glumly at the mostly barren walls of the space, which were covered by a coat of paint that looked like coffee with too much milk. While the room was confining, it was the condition that the other employees left it that made it an unholy place to be. The office’s desk usually was an oily finger-painting by the time he got there at night, with transparent streaks visibly encircling the keyboard like a slick moat.
Still, this paled in comparison to the condition of the office’s floor – which was like a sick pairing of Jackson Pollock and a college frat house. The crop of flat, cheap carpeting, which was found in every room of the unit, was branded with dark splotches of spilled food and drink. Underneath the round table, remnants of a bag of Cheetos covered the floor like confetti. This horror was nearly eclipsed however by the room’s smell, which evoked a scent memory of the one time he had badly burnt some fish.
No wonder Sarah shot out of here, he thought to himself, a conscious lie if there ever was one. He would have loved to join her, for a multitude of reasons. However, he knew that her pinched expression, and the way she turned so elegantly and yet so violently on her heel before leaving, hadn’t been because of the office; it had been about him.
There probably was no point in dwelling on the negative, although that was where he was most comfortable. He had twelve hours ahead of him; he might as well try to be productive. In the building directly across from the office there was a gym. Actually, to call it a gym would be a bit of misnomer. It was more of a collection of sad machines, which looked like they had been last detailed in the midst of Y2K.
Still, the gym represented something to do. He pulled out exercise shorts and tennis shoes before turning and walking out towards the apartment’s front door. Before he got to the exit however he remembered the phone, which caused him to double back and put it in his front pocket where it sat like a stone.
Outside the air was howling as strongly as ever, whipping across the complex’s grounds and lifting snow off the the towering drifts surrounding the parking lot. As he stepped out of the apartment, the cold seemed to immediately tear through his clothing and burrow into his marrow. The insides of his jacket and pants felt like they had become covered in ice, causing him to moan in discomfort every time they brushed against his skin. That, paired with how the cold seemed to siphon off his coordination, gave his gait an absurd appearance, almost as if he just recently discovered bipedalism.
There was only one pathway to the gym’s entrance, and, as expected, it was completely clogged with snow. After crossing the lot – which was somewhat packed down from moving car tires – he paused near the pathway, before tentatively stepping one foot onto the fresh powder. His foot immediately sank into the snow – which was much deeper than anticipated – and in an instant it was gobbled all the way up to the mid-point of his shin. Although he couldn’t see it, he could feel chunks of snow begin to slip over the lips of his boots and start to soak his socks.
“Oh god,” he howled into the night, which responded with an angry whistle of wind and a blast of snow. Cursing, he wrenched his foot free and began to dance over the snow as if it was a pile of hot coals. Diving underneath the overhang of the gym building’s roof, he gasped with relief, noting that the constant deluge of snow hadn’t managed to fully coat the doorway and that the wind was at least partially blocked. Fumbling with the door’s lock he could hear the the wind begin to scream even louder than before, seemingly enraged that he had somehow eluded its full force.
After a quarter minute of effort the lock gave way, and he stepped into the small hovel that contained the exercise machines. In one corner sat a treadmill, battered and chipped. Adjacent to this lay a couple of antiquated-looking barbells, their detachable, circular weights looking so old that they may as well have been discuses for the first Olympics. Hugging the far wall a blue exercise mat sat on the badly maintained carpet, its top covered in cuts and scratches, some so deep that they exposed the bone-white foam of the mat’s innards. Finally, rounding out the room was a massive apparatus, a fiendish-looking contraption that combined a multitude of different exercise machines, all of which appeared unsafe. Basically, it was a room that needed a great deal of care, either that or a condemned sign. Originally designed to offer easy access to fitness, the room now appeared to be sad, pale shadow of this former intention; a place where health and happiness went to die.
He wiggled out of his outerwear and pants and slid into his exercise shorts, which were barely passable in the gym. The room’s heater wrapped around the perimeter of the space, yet looked like it was barely functional. Even worse was that it acted like it, and the current temperature was crisp to say the least. This was something that would be a non-issue once he started moving, but for now it was uncomfortable. Slipping on his tennis shoes he quickly strode towards the treadmill, setting his bag down on the bench of the bench press machine. Clicking the “Quick Start” button, he began to walk on the slowly moving tread as the machine hummed sluggishly to life.
As he walked on top of the endless loop he couldn’t help but marvel at how pointless it all was. He knew enough about basic physiology to understand that his sporadic attempts to exercise were little more than exercises in futility. He just couldn’t devote enough time to the activity to make a real difference. It wasn’t like in Chicago where he had been on a bike everyday, pedaling up Halsted to his job, or coasting through the skyscrapers every night. He remembered the way that the average building had looked, how the orange hue of the street had illuminated the base but gradually dissipated as it climbed up the facade. He felt a pang of loss, although he was sure it was due just to simple nostalgia, and simple nostalgia that wouldn’t stick.
The machine sped up. Despite the fact that he had been the one to manipulate its setting, he wasn’t entirely expecting how quickly the treadmill would respond. Adapting to the increase, he broke into a slow lope, an unhurried, home run trot. This was a manageable pace. In fact, it was perhaps too easy; it wasn’t as if he was completely new to running, having taken up the activity when he first moved back to Minnesota in early Autumn.
At the time he had been back in his childhood home, which sat near an expansive swath of parkland. This offered opportunities for jogging unmolested by the flow of traffic, which he took advantage of whenever possible.
And for a while he had been successful. The park, which hugged the St. Croix river, was absolutely beautiful, filled with gently slopping hills, lush woodlands, and featuring a killer trout stream that had been overfished a long time ago. He had found something cathartic jogging on the pathways adjacent to the stream, breathing air alive with hints of smoke and earth, flanked by foliage that slowly exploded iridescently as Fall took hold.
He had set the machine to a setting where it automatically increased in speed at given intervals. As he increased his gait to a moderate jog he continued to think about his runs, back when the weather wasn’t insane. There was one place in the park that he had focused on, a hill near the park’s main drive-in entrance that seemed like the perfect spot to test his feeble mettle.
It had been his goal to take on the hill after a few months of jogging, to build up an endurance level that would allow him to keep moving after leaping over its crest. But as the seasons had slowly changed, and the world had begun to die he felt his resolve slipping. It hadn’t helped that he had begun working the night shift, which totally threw off his schedule, turning him into little more than warm cadaver during the day time. That, paired with the sun seeming to only be up for two or three hours, had ruined his routine, stymied his progress, and left him looking like the same doughy amateur he had always been.
He still remembered the last time he had attempted to climb it. His legs pumping furiously, inspirational music blaring over the iPhone headphones, he made that torturous assent, glaring through thick beads of sweat at cars roaring effortlessly past him. He had felt his heart begin to slowly punch away at his chest, just as it was now on the treadmill, and above that the familiar dull ache beginning to form on his clavicle.
The treadmill continued to speed up as he lost himself in these thoughts. Breaking into a somewhat arduous run, he began to rub his clavicle for good measure. That day on the hill had been his last outdoor run of the year, and had resulted in an abysmal failure. There was no celebratory Rocky dance at the top, nor were there any barks of jubilation. Instead, there was only pain, with his clavicle feeling like it had been split down the middle, and glued back together with molten lava. He had barely been able to stand when it was all over, and the sweat that covered his face had been mixed with an outpouring of hot tears.
His damn clavicle had been a problem for awhile now; that day on the hill hadn’t been the first time it had flared up. The accident that had broken it had happened in an instant. Even now he wasn’t sure what had gone wrong, although he always said that his bike had “hit a rogue pothole” when retelling the story.
Whatever the case, his body had crunched against the Chicago pavement in a way that still made him grimace when he thought about it. Despite the severity of his fall he sprang up almost immediately. Biking near the intersection of Division and Halsted – a busy yet blighted area – cars were moving all around the scene of his fall, but not one of them slowed down. Looming over him the last remaining high-rise of the infamous Cabrini Green stared out defiantly to the west. It’s battered and blackened facade screamed of decades of unchecked neglect.
As he struggled to his feet a wave of sharp fire ripped across his chest, spiraling away from his clavicle and dancing down his right arm. He let out an involuntary groan, gingerly touching the right section of his clavicle. Applying even the slightest pressure made his head spin, as it felt like a fragment of bone had broken loose and was now swimming freely in a sea of blood and viscera. He gasped as waves of agony coursed through him, augmented by cruel horn blasts from cars who didn’t understand why this “idiot asshole” was standing dazed in the middle of the street, next to a downed bike. This wasn’t exactly surprising. It wasn’t immediately apparent that this “asshole” was experiencing the worst pain in his life, or why it would take him another full minute before he could grit his teeth together and drag his bike off the weathered road.
The treadmill reached the highest setting that he ever experimented with, and he was forced to break into a near-sprint, and snap back into the present. Like clockwork he could feel dull aches begin to materialize in his body like tumorous growths. There was of course the expected discomfort on his collarbone, where the site of the fracture was still to this day lumpier than its opposite side. However, far below tremors of pain had begun to percolate near the base of his rib cage. Initially they had been barely noticeable, but with him now galloping like a deranged antelope they were becoming quite bothersome, moving from a manageable throb to something sharp and pernicious.
Wincing, he tried to maintain his stride, but deep down he knew that it was hopeless. The knife at the base of his ribs was desperately attempting to wedge itself in deeper, and he had always been a lightweight when it came to pain. Whatever, he thought to himself, lightheaded and breathless, I’m not stopping, not this time.
For a moment he imagined himself as unable to continue, his legs coming to a halt and the treadmill taking over by shooting him backwards onto the floor. There he would collapse in a heap, his pasty and exposed legs spreadeagled. His brow wrinkled in response, but he couldn’t help but chuckle a bit.
His smile quickly vanished as the treadmill sped up even faster. He was now running full out, his gait reaching a length that he didn’t know was possible. The knife had successfully worked underneath his lowest rib, where it then began a slow, upward ascent, feeling as though it was tearing through internal organs. Gritting his teeth he pushed aside the waterfall of sweat that was cascading over his forehead and gushing into his eyes, before focusing on his legs, which moved back in forth with a frenzied rhythm.
Underneath his legs the tread moved in a systematic and uncaring manner, cyclically revolving with neither plan nor purpose. His head was throbbing, but he was distracted by his stomach, which felt like it was being consumed by its own acids. This was it. The full weight of his different ailments began to bear down upon him. But underneath that was something even more unpleasant; it was a thought of where he was, what he was doing, and of how poorly he was doing it. He looked across to the gym’s window for a moment, which peered out onto a mixture of blackness and blizzard. The window was foggy, and his vision was obscured by the beads of sweat, but he could still faintly see his reflection huffing and puffing, killing himself but ultimately going nowhere.
Then his right foot came down especially hard, and his clavicle pain felt like it had been amplified ten-fold. The knife buried in his rib cage seemed to do a happy little jig, and his stomach began to feel as though it would eject everything he had ever put in it. With an audible gasp he realized that he was going down, and if there was a force on Earth that could stop him it was nowhere near this sad little gym in this sad little complex. Slipping to his right knee he cried out in shock, and he only had a second to register what was occurring before he was swept off the machine like a dust bunny by a broom. He sprawled out onto the floor immediately behind the treadmill, smarting in what felt like every inch of his right side. Utterly stunned, and surprisingly embarrassed despite being in an empty room, he sat motionless on the ground, panting with his mouth open like an overheated dog.
Rubbing his knee he pulled himself to his feet, and began dusting off his shorts and legs. He could hear the wind push against the beams of the building’s facade, causing them to creek and moan. But inside the room was relatively quiet. He could hear his ragged breathing, and the dull thump of his heart seizing spastically in his chest. Aside from that there was only the treadmill, which hummed quietly, and whose tread indifferently continued to spin, around and around, in a circle.