He opened the toolbox and pulled out a pile of rags. Spread one out on the floor. Then took a few more and strategically placed them under the first spin bike in places he knew would get messy once he took the cover off. The idea of getting out of the shop seemed great when the gym called, but kneeling next to the sweat-soaked spinners all day would bring its own form of discomfort. He pulled out a box of chains, kicking himself for not taking some profylactic Ibuprofin.
“So, you must have the coolest bikes.” Standing over him was Matt, the gym’s owner. Matt had thinning hair that he spiked up in all directions with gel that smelled like fennel. His shoulders bulged and stretched his skin-tight black shirt. He had a muscular build but no definition, the body of a gym rat that fluctuated with binges of working out and letting himself go. His tan lips stretched across his white teeth in a smile anxious for an answer.
“Well, I have a few, nothing special,” he replied. It was a cold statement, a let-me-do-this-without-you-standing-over-me statement. He pulled out a screwdriver and started loosening the screws of the first bike’s cover.
“Cool, well, let me know if you need anything,” Matt said, turning to leave.
“Thanks,” he mustered.
The cover wouldn’t break free at first, he had to tug on it and then pry the seam with a large flathead screwdriver. When it gave, it popped open and dropped to the floor when he wasn’t expecting it. A cloud of dark mystery dust, a brew of rust, dirt, ground metal and plastic hit him square in the face. It smelled, in the same used-up hopelessly artificial and polluted way, as the streets of New York City. The images of his last visit there, with his ex and her friend, flooded his mind…
He had walked with the girls from Penn Station to the show they were seeing. Her friend Ginny was especially and uncomfortably dressed up: high-heeled boots, skirt and scarf. His ex was still in her frumpy, oversized hoodie. She did wear red Con All-Stars for the occasion. After he dropped them off for a two o’clock show, he walked around Hell’s Kitchen with his hands in his pockets, letting his thoughts drift.
He thought about the contrasts of his life, scenes that change like backdrops. He was living out of a backpack in the desert of Arizona. An artist loft in Oakland. South Chicago. The ghosts rising in the mist as he cleaned horse stalls on a lonely Texas ranch. They almost all had a girl involved that had drawn him there, or chased him away. Dumb sap.
He wandered from bar to bar, sampling the stouts in each. In one he sat back and listened to the regulars talk about who they hadn’t seen in awhile, what they were doing. In another he chatted with an old Ohio ex-pat about the Browns and the Bengals. By the time the show was over and the girls emerged from the crowd in front of the theater, he was pretty well lit. He greeted the girls with a big boozy hug. “Figures,” his ex had said. He remembered walking behind them as they chatted their way to the restaurant they had looked up. This scene, he realized then, with the acrid smells and the backdrop of Midtown, and the condescending “figures,” would be the lasting image related to her and the version of the East Coast she lured him to…
“Should’ve gone to New Mexico,” he mumbled to himself.
“What’s that?” Matt was leaning over him again. His massive shoulders blocked the light.
“Nothing, just talking to myself,” he replied. “Bikes Three and Five needed new chains, and Six had a stripped out crank arm I managed to tap out, I think the pedal will hold.”
“Thanks man. You want something to drink? …you thirsty?”
He wanted to reply, but couldn’t find the words. He couldn’t even see Matt anymore, he was looking right through him at a girl on the opposite side of the gym bouncing away on a treadmill. He had to clench his teeth to prevent his jaw from falling off.
“I know…right? Pretty nice scenery in here, if you know what I mean,” Matt said after turning to match his gaze. “That girl’s pretty new around here, but we’ve been talking. She just signed up for a year.” He showed those teeth again in a suggestive grin.
“Oh, well…I just thought she was someone I know, but it’s not her,” he recovered. He knelt down and started packing up his tools.
Matt rambled on about doing an Ironman, he didn’t really listen after that, just carefully wiped down the tools as he put them away, glancing across the gym occasionally. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Gone were the baggy men’s jeans and hoodie. In their place, yoga pants and a tank top over a sports bra. Neon New Balance shoes had replaced the tattered Cons. And rather than dangling in her face, which was shining with small beads of sweat on her cheekbones like freckles, her hair was pulled back in a pert little pony tail that bounced back and forth with her strides.
He rushed through the invoice for Matt, probably forgot to charge for a chain or two, because he wanted to get out of there before she finished, before there was any chance they would run into each other. But outside as he carried the toolbox back to the shop van, with stiff hunched shoulders and filthy hands, he slowed while walking by the window her treadmill was facing, just enough for their eyes to connect and for him to slowly shake his head and lower his gaze. Just enough to let her know she’d been caught.
He looked at himself in the rearview mirror as he dialed Ted. He had grease smeared across his cheek where he must’ve itched his face.
“Hello?” He put Ted on speaker phone as he pulled out of the lot.
“Dude, why didn’t you tell me my Ex went from pot head to fit girl? And what happened to her fibromyalgia and all that? And how is she paying for a gym membership when I have been sleeping on a cardboard box in the back of the bike shop for three months because she supposedly can’t pay rent?”
“I might’ve told you,” Ted said, pausing for effect, “but someone kept telling me it was his policy not to talk about his Exes.”
“Ted, you suck! But I don’t care. Victory is now mine. Her gravy train is pulling out of the station.”
“Perhaps. But consider this. She dumped you, that’s right, I know it wasn’t the other way around, as you have been telling us all, AND she got free rent out of you, AND she is all fit and looking good, while you, on the other hand, are a drunk, homeless trainwreck. How is that YOUR victory?”
He looked at his dirty face in the rearview again. Thought about how it must have looked to her, perched up high on her treadmill, feeling fit and having guys like Matt hitting on her, then seeing him drag a toolbox by with his hunchback and his grease-stained scowl. Dumb sap. Made him burst out laughing at himself.
“I don’t care, because I am free! I could even leave New Jersey if I wanted to.”
“Great, oh emancipated one. Before you start packing, how about a night ride on the trail? You haven’t made fun of my carbon riser bars in awhile…
…Dylan? Dylan? You there?”
“Yes! I almost forgot! I have a name. Dylan! I am not just a bike mechanic! My name is Dylan, and I am free!”