He stood outside the fitness center and watched the women work out in gym suits and leotards that reminded him of sitcoms from the Seventies. There were many fitness centers in the city where he sometimes worked, but this was the one he stopped at. He watched the men, too. Most of them tried not to watch the women. Some watched the women directly, though. There was a message painted on the far wall across from where he preferred to stand while he watched the men and the women. “This is a no judgement zone.” That suited him, even if no one had thought to check the spelling. The glass was always very clean, despite being at ground level, where sandwich wrappers and coffee cups whipped around and sometimes bounced off the glass. The wind could be overpowering. The workout center and the tall building across the way made a wind tunnel. Men stood on beams and went up and down the side of the tall building with ropes and pulleys, cleaning the glass. They did not look down at the fitness center. He tried to be respectful of people and their boundaries, so he bought some chalk and drew a line five feet in front of the glass so he had a spot where he could stand courteously and watch the men and women and read the sign on the far wall. One time he thought he had seen a man meet a woman for the first time and that they would not be apart again. That made him feel warm when it was very cold out and the wind blew through the tunnel and he couldn’t see his chalk line beneath the snow.
Once, he stood in the easement beside his house and watched men load a truck they had parked in the woods. The woods provided good cover. He admired preparation. There was a dirt road that led to a paved road. A long time ago it had been used to walk cows, two-by-two, down to a pasture that had been paved over. There were basketball courts atop the pasture now. Sometimes he watched the boys who used to play there and he kept score in his head. He would also officiate, in a whisper. “That was a travel.” “That was a double dribble. “That was a three second violation.” He believed he knew the boys well enough to be able to tell when one or the other would try to get away with something. Naturally, he did not want to encroach upon their game, but he didn’t need any chalk to stop him from that. There were rock walls fifteen yards away from the court, on the north and south side, and he would stand behind one of them. They marked property lines long before he had been there. Long before there were basketballs. One boy would dance when he made a basket from behind the giant semicircle that extended far from the basket. The younger boy did not care for the dance, but sometimes he would see him start to smile. “This would be a good place for a sign like the one at my fitness center,” he thought whenever he passed and the boys were not there. But signs could not be written on the air. He did not know how to hang one either. Maybe he could erect some poles and get some twine and a canvas. He wasn’t sure which spelling to use either: whether it was more important to be grammatically precise, or if that was not in the spirit of the original piece. He reached in his pocket for another piece of chalk, and found himself squeezing a pebble as he thought of the older boy and the dance he liked to make behind the giant semicircle.
He stood and watched the items leave the house. A cardinal on a low maple bough watched with him. He hoped that the cardinal would not blow his cover. He’d read about situations like these. There was no sense in trying to be a hero. The cardinal was very quiet, at least. He remembered that the cardinal was a star, of sorts, among his fellows. He was the state bird for seven states. That was the record. He decided to call this one Seven. He was an especially attentive cardinal. They both watched the two men carry out the items that were now theirs. Decorative plates with gold inlay and borders; a computer; several televisions; a set of knives; an exercise machine that he had grown tired of; a collection of old baseball statues from when he was a boy; a video game console; more exercise machines. His wife would not be pleased to learn about that. The men never ran. They walked briskly. He wondered what they would do if it were raining and if that would make a difference. He couldn’t remember if it was better to walk or run when it began to rain. Someone once told him that running would only make you get wetter. He wasn’t so sure about that. One day, he determined, he would conduct some experiments. The cardinal remained on his bough, unblinking. He didn’t know whether cardinals could blink anyway, or whether it’d be best to walk or fly in the rain, if he were a bird. It would probably depend on whether or not he really needed to be some place, and how quickly, he decided. He thought about maybe conducting some avian-based experiments in the future, as well, but that probably would have been much trickier.
He stood and listened to everyone tell him how wonderful his work was. “It is so lifelike. How do you do it?” “This is art of the highest order. And in the least likely of mediums.” People were often complimenting themselves, he thought, when they tried to compliment others in a fancy way. Sometimes, while they talked, he worried that he would not make it to the gym in time to watch the men and women, and maybe see a scene like that time he watched one man meet one woman whom it seemed he would then know forever. There would be other days, at least. “You, sir, have true artistic moxie. Could you do something for my son’s bar mitzvah? Of course, you’d have to clear the subject material with my wife. Or maybe you could provide a horse for Sophie’s Sweet Sixteen party? You know how she loves her dressage.” He did not. The cardinal had begun to shrink. The basketball was becoming rectangular. The life-size running woman was losing her hair. It drained into her neck. That was always the way. He wasn’t sure if it had been wise to arrange the two boys such that they were holding hands. Maybe they weren’t far enough away in age for that kind of thing. Society changes so rapidly, he thought. But that was not a problem now. The younger boy’s hand was a puddle on the ground. It was time for the disco ball. The parents of the children of whatever youth sports association had hired him were about to dance. He looked at his watch, and then at his work. There was still a long way to go. He would not be able to make it to the fitness center before it closed, and it would, of course, be too dark where the pasture had once been. The dancers began to crowd closer. He reached into his pocket for his chalk and got down on his knees to make a semicircle around his work. He stepped inside the semicircle like the younger boy did at the basketball court. A drunken woman danced up to him. “Hey, Ice Man! What are you doing just standing there! Why don’t you come and have a dance? Why else are you hanging around here?” He looked at his chalk line, and then his watch, and then his work. “I need to see them melt.” The eyes of the cardinal streamed down his beak. He thought about trying to drink some of him, and got on his knees to do so. The janitor’s mop hit him on his right thigh. “Job’s hard enough, man.” He hugged the janitor and raced off to the fitness center. He knew it would be closed, but he could freshen up his chalk line for tomorrow, in the moonlight.
- I Want to Dance Where the Children Play - January 3, 2013