Tuesday, March 9, 2010

POP07: "Ezra Meets Esther"


Esther looked at herself in her bathroom mirror. She only had her panties on. She looked at the way her mouth always seemed to have a bit of a frown to it, even if she smiled. She spread a base over her face to cover up the damage from her acne years. Then she put on her eye-shadow, sensing Ezra leaning in her doorway and watching her. She put on a light shade of brown over her whole eyelid and an ever-so-lightly darker eyeliner. Then, she picked up a tube of dark pink lipstick, looking at herself in the mirror as she did so. She puffed her squirrel cheeks out for a moment and put the lipstick away.

“What do you need to wear make-up for?” Ezra asked her, from his spot in the doorway.

“I feel more confident with it, that's all,” she said. She left the bathroom and pushed him aside to go into their bedroom where she stood in front of her closet. She pulled out an off-white bra and put it on. Then she picked one of her skirts. Green. Light green. Nearly to her ankles. Heavily pleated. Ezra sat on the bed, watching her.

The shirt she chose was off white and light, but long-sleeved. None of her shirts had any darting. They all had collars. She started to button it up, but Ezra said, “That one is too see-through.”

“Not really,” she said.

He stood up and selected another one of her shirts from her closet. It was heavier, thicker. He said, “Wear this one.”

“It's getting sort of hot for that shirt,” she said, as she tried to button the sleeves of the shirt she'd selected.

“It has the nice stitching on it,” he said, with that big confident smile of his. Esther changed.
Esther looked at herself covered in sweat. Her hair had matted to her head as if she were some sort of greasy cop in a 1970s crime flick. She smiled big.

Her cardio-kick boxing instructor shouted, “Now LEFT!” The whole class pivoted on their right feet before stepping forward with the left one and beginning to punch the air with their left fist. Every time Esther did a transition smoothly she got a little thrill, as if she had worked out a hard crossword puzzle question.

Her cell phone buzzed on the phone at her feet. She leaned over far enough to see the LED tell her who was calling. Ezra. She'd let it go to voice-mail. She went back to punching. She envisioned a bag in front of her. She concentrated on making a little snap to her punch just as she hit the imaginary bag, like her instructor had shown her a couple weeks before. Pull back as soon as she makes contact.

The phone buzzed that she had a voicemail.

She tried to bring her consciousness into the first two knuckles of her fist. She pictured them hitting just where she wanted them to, over and over and over. She tried to make the front knuckle lead just slightly as she made each strike. She puffed out some air with each extension.

Then her instructor added a cross and a hook to their sequence. Esther liked to lean in a little bit on the cross then retreat a bit with the hook. She felt herself rocking back and forth with her three punch sequence, moving in time to the music and in sync with everyone else in her class who knew what they were doing. She preferred it when her instructor let them stay on a sequence for a while. She could really get into the metronomic quality of executing a sequence again and again, just right.

Her phone buzzed again. She looked down. It was Ezra. Again. She bent over and picked it up and jogged out of the room.

“Keep moving!” her instructor yelled back at her. Esther looked over her shoulder and gave a little laugh as she opened the glass door. Her instructor was a youngish, black woman who'd logged a few years in the Army before becoming a personal trainer. Everything she said had a quality of command to it. Outside the room, she still felt as though she were partly in class. Their workout room was surrounded by huge windows on two sides and mirrors on the other two sides. She could stand outside and still bounce in time to the pace of the class.

“What's up?” she asked Esther as she opened up her phone, trying not to let sweat drip onto it.

“There's a carpet sale on up in Bethesda,” he said. “We should go.”

“Right now?” she asked.

“They close at 8.”

“We can't go this weekend?” she asked, giving sort of half-kicks while she talked to him, keeping her heart rate going.

He put that great big smile in his voice as he said, “I'm two minutes from the gym. Meet me out front.”

She looked back at the clock. Twenty minutes before her class would end. She didn't feel like she'd gotten started. “Can I shower?”

“I don't want to circle the block forever. Just come on down.”

So she met him out front. She waited for him for a while, standing in her tiny gym clothes and a long sleeved t-shirt pulled on over it. When he pulled up, she got in the car and said, “Two minutes, huh?” and kissed him on the cheek.

“What's with those shorts?” he said, pointing at her close, very tight gym shorts.

“They are the same ones my instructor wears.”

“Can you put something on over yourself before we get to the carpet store?”

She unsnapped her seatbelt and leaned back to start going through her gym bag for her skirt. First, though, she gave a little squeeze to his inner thigh.

U2's “New Year's Day” came on the radio and he turned it up.
Esther worked on the stairclimber, the one with the little escalator built into it that went down as you tried to climb up. She'd been setting aside a little bit of cash with each paycheck so she could buy a new gym outfit. At lunch she'd run over to the running store near her office and picked one out. She had it on now. It was light green, almost fluorescent. She wore little tiny, tighty shorts that just went down a little past her butt. The tank-top didn't quite reach her belly button, and it had white racing stripes running down both pieces.

An older black woman she knew from kick-boxing walked by the stairclimber, and Ezra gave her a wave with four fingers, saying, “Hey, girl!” The woman shot her with the finger pistol and Ezra smiled. When her machine's LED told her that she'd reached her goal, she put her fists in the air in a moment of triumph. Then, she hopped off the machine and set her mind to running up a flight of real stairs to the mats where she'd do a little ab work.

She started to semi-jog across the gym floor. When she turned the corner, she really would run up the stairs. When she rounded the corner for the stairs, though, she could see the front desk, and that's where she saw Ezra, filling out a membership form.

She stopped. She looked at him for a moment and then she put a smile on her face and walked over. When he saw her, he got that big smile on his face, too, and said, “Hey, hon, thought I'd follow your good example.”

She placed one hand on his forearm and one hand on his hip and kissed him on the cheek. “You're not going to get all skinny and make me feel bad, are you?”

“Just trying to keep up,” he said.

She asked him to find her upstairs and turned away.

When he finished, Ezra went upstairs and saw Esther doing snatch and grabs with a big medicine ball at the far end of the weight room floor. There were maybe a dozen people in the weight room at the time. He had a good view because he stood in the middle of the main walkway that ran from the stairway around to the men's dressing room.

Esther was bending over with her legs locked to set a medicine ball down at one foot, then reaching up with it till she was 100% stretched out and leaning to one side. When she bent back over, she stuck her butt way out. Ezra looked at every person in the room. Only three of them were women. He looked at each one in turn, and back at his girlfriend each time.

She hadn't seen him yet, but, once he crossed the gym floor to her, she stopped what she was doing and gave him a little play-punch in the stomach. Then, she stepped back and crossed her arms low and loose in front of her. She had one foot cocked on its edge, as if she were holding up the line at Wendy's because she couldn't decide which Biggie Value Meal to get. “Isn't this gym out of the way from your office?” she asked him.

“I thought it would be more fun to work out near you,” he said.

She set her foot down flat, “I just find that I make it more often when my gym is near my office.”

“Do you really have to dress like that?” he asked.

She looked down at herself. She could see a little innertube around her waist, made of the fat she just couldn't shake. Her thighs: she could see a lot of them, were white like an old undershirt and still pretty fleshy. Her outfit was really much more eye-catching than she was. “It's a gym outfit. I just bought it.”

“The other girls in here are just wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”

“I'm sorry,” she said.

He gave her half of that big smile of his and said, “I think I'll lift some weights.”

She smiled and nodded and went back to doing a thorough abs workout. It wasn't long before he came back to her and said that he didn't really feel like doing a full workout on his first day. Then he stood in front of her. He looked at her as if he could see every square inch of her at once. She crossed her arms in front of herself.

He was waiting. She glanced over at her jumping box and tapped her foot a couple times. “Can I shower?” she asked.

“Sure! I'll beat you. See you downstairs.”

She changed back into her day job clothes after her shower. She had a long grey skirt on and one of her full white blouses, buttoned one from the top. Her hair was back with a hair tie. He got up when he saw her and set down the copy of the Sports section he'd found. “That's better,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek.

When they got home, she made love to him in a way she only did ever three or four months, and he fell right to sleep. It was 9.
The first time Ezra showed up for one of Esther's Tae Bo classes, he showed up early, found his girlfriend and took a spot within arm's reach of her. Most of the class arrived shortly after him. They stood around the outer edges of the room. Regulars, like Esther, stretched a bit on the floor. Co-workers chatted with each other.

Just before the instructor got there this tall, early 30s guy with a look of enormous confidence about him showed up. He looked at Esther in the mirror and gave her the head cock hello. She waved back with a little wrist flip hello. He wore gym clothes that he might have had in the 80s.

He took a position that would have been a couple people behind Esther, which confused Ezra. He wanted to be seen standing next to her, but he also wanted to obstruct this guy's view. He ended up moving a little behind her and a little closer in.

Ezra looked on edge. He could tell that Esther was pretty popular in here. Most of the participants gave her little looks or smiles. Only a couple guys were doing the class, besides him and the 80s guy.

The instructor showed up next. She had a face that looked like it didn't have the muscles to smile with. She was very fit. You could believe she'd been in the Army Corps.

Class started. Esther stepped guardedly. She looked around all the time. She looked at the floor to her sides and behind her to see if she were going to set her feet down in Ezra's space and trip over him. She also looked at the other people in the class through the mirror at the front of the room. She watched their faces. Some of them were looking at the instructor. Some of them looked at Ezra. He was a lot closer to Esther than anybody else was to each other.

The instructor talked about everyone's heart rate through the whole class. In between each exercise she would tell them that it wasn't a break. In the middle of each exercise she'd tell people not to stop moving. If anyone did anything that wasn't on the agenda -- like checking a cell phone or tying a shoe or going outside and getting a drink -- she would shout at them not to stop moving.

Ezra really worked it hard through the first half of class. He punched and kicked with all the force he could muster. Then for the second half of the class he lost that ferocity. His kicks got lower and slower. The expression on his face in the first half was a fierce smirk.

Second half, his expression went dead.

When class ended, everyone applauded another high-energy jumping and stepping experience. Ezra hopped in close to Esther and gave her a swift kiss on the lips, as if her were a kissing assassin. She puckered her lips mid-smooch and did not pull away, but she left her eyes open and looked side to side, past Ezra's head.
Next week, Ezra showed up fifteen minutes after Esther's kickboxing class had started. The classes took place on the 3rd floor. They had two workout studios up there with a floor space between them that a lot of members used for abdominal or light weight training. It also had a punching bag, but not many people used it. Half the walls of each studio were glass, so other members could look in from the ab space and watch classes.

Or check in on girlfriends.

Once Ezra showed up, he stood there in his "Free Bratwurst Festival" t-shirt and red coach shorts and watched until Esther saw him. They made eye contact. She smiled first. Then he smiled and pantomined her pulling down her shorts a little bit She complied.

Then, Ezra started working out up there in the floor space. Doing a dozen or so curls with a ten pound weight. Then doing a few presses. Then some sit-ups. Every few minutes he would look in on Esther and smile.

By the time he walked Esther down to her locker room, he only had the lightest mist of sweat on his forehead.
The next week he did the same thing.
The next week.
The week after that, same.
The next week, he showed up again. Ezra did not look any more fit by now.
The next week, Esther showed up to class in Ezra's Bratwurst t-shirt and basketball shorts. Her two friends in the class, the ones she liked to stand next to, each said hi to her with a little tiny wave. The instructor came in as the clock hit 7 and looked Esther up and down. She came over and gave her a long hug. Then, she pulled back, her arms still around Esther's waist.

She looked Esther in the eyes, hard.

A little while after class started, Ezra showed up and did his thing.
The next week, Ezra showed up outside the class and saw Esther working through a sequence of jab, cross, kick, power punch without a stitch of clothing on. In fact, no one in the whole class had any clothes on. They were all doing Tae Bo naked. You could see them slipping about under their kicks as the sweat and hardwood made a frictionless mess of their effort to stand and fight and the invisible.

Ezra stood there staring at her without that great big smile. Then he hit the glass with the meaty bottom of his fist. They didn't hear it inside, though, and no one looked at him. Esther could see him in the mirror. He yelled her name. She couldn't hear it. They had the music up real loud. She concentrated on looking herself in the eyes in the big mirror in front of her.

Inside, his hysterics just sounded like hollow throbs. He hit the glass again, but he didn't turn. She set her face hard and bit her lower lip and if she hadn't been so sweaty already he might have been able to see her let drop one of two tears, but he didn't really try to look at her face, anyway.

He left. A minute or so after she watched him go, the instructor said, "You can all put your clothes back on if you want to, now, but don't stop moving."

- the end -

(Brady Russell grew up in Southeast Kansas, where he created monsters and superheroes. Now he's a community organizer in Philadelphia. Doesn't eat meat. Does drink coffee. His website is
http://www.thistoowillpass.com/ )

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Color It Up

The point about the most recent story here, "The Machine," is to show how rigidly controlled and unexciting literature is today. To me, "hipsters" embody cultural lethargy. The laptop set looks uptight. They'll soon be superceded. They'll have to be, or American culture will die from lack of energy.

Since 1960-- fifty years ago!-- no art has undergone less change than literature. The institutions erected to support literature have imprisoned it. Great big unreadable postmodern novels are still considered the apex of the art. New Yorker stories are still New Yorker stories. Bland academic poetry is still bland academic poetry.

The world rockets forward. Our nation's insular, elitist literature stands still.

Except here.