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A Night at the Y
FINISHED WITH HIS DAY JOB, Ralph stops back at his apartment just long enough to change clothes and kiss his wife and baby goodbye before rushing off to his night shift at the Y. He stands behind the front desk, with his left hand picking up phones and with his right dispensing towels and locker keys. With a harried grin, caffeine-inspired energy, and the sinking realization that there is baby spit-up on his blue sweater, he greets the incoming members who are frantic to run, swim, lift, jiggle, jazz, and whirlpool away the jangled nerves of a long day in this fast-paced city just east of the Rocky Mountains. As the members burst through the front doors, stomp snow from their boots, and charge the desk with lowered heads and hunched shoulders, they remind him of truculent bulls, and he is transported by a memory of a day in a mountain town in Mexico twenty years before.
The bulls are poised in the cattle truck, ready for the run. Ralph, twenty-one years old then, full of wild hope and amoebic parasites, dagger-thin and crazed from dysentery and ingestions of medicinal tequila, has taken refuge on the steps of El Patio Café.
Nine bulls come down the rampmotley, scraggly, apathetic bulls to be sure. No monsters of Pamplona in this September fiesta. They clomp into the roped-off square and the crowd lets out a collective half-gasp, half-giggle as it huddles against the barriers and gathers on the steps of the café. Young men prance in the cobblestone streets, whistling and jeering. The bulls come to astandstill, snort, wheeze, roll anxious eyes about. Perhaps in the backs of their dim brains flickers the uneasy suspicion that this bacchanal can only finish with them on the wrong end of a public barbecue.
These humble, pastoral beasts see no cause for confrontation. They show no inclination to trample, hook with their horns or spew foam. They'd like to laugh this off; couldn't it all be resolved peacefully? They stomp on the cobblestones, leaning their heads together, discussing their strategy as their breath rises in white puffs on this crisp, blue Sunday afternoon in late September. They try to back up the ramp into the truck, but four exasperated rancheros swing cowboy hats at their rumps; disconsolately, the bulls come forward into the sunny but bracing afternoon, and the crowd releases another excited cry.
In his memory, Ralph sees himself backing up as high as he can on the café steps, wending his way behind children and serape-wrapped women. But the other young men, so boldly challenging the bulls, seem to beckon to him: Come down! Run with the bulls! And briefly he yearns to encounter his fate, to die on those dusty cobblestone streets with a horn in his chest, blood in his boots, a wine flask tipped to his lips, while his fingers rise and twitch gracefully, keeping time with the mariachi music as he fades ... on brave marvelous soul!
The rank odor of sweat and soggy towels and leather basketballs wafts over the desk, and from the gym comes the reverberation of bouncing balls and the trill of a referee's whistle. Ralph's memory of the fiesta momentarily slips away and he finds himself back at the Y desk, in the present, though he wonders, given the vast and inexplicable discoveries of modern physics, just exactly what is the present. His uncertainty about the nature of time makes him suddenly aware that he will never be able to explain modern physics to his son, or even cogently describe the inner workings of a telephone. Thinking of his inadequacies as a father makes his heart flutter as he continues handing out towels and keys.
His rush-hour helper, Maggie Vivigino, the twenty-two-year-old, green-eyed olive-skinned weight room trainer, joins him behind the counter. Her taut body ripples beneath her purple leotard, and Ralph imagines she would have made a wonderful companion for his former self when he was cringing on the steps of El Patio Café. But Maggie, he suspects, considers him a loser, working at the Y at his age, though she kindly tries to conceal the feeling.
The evening rush speeds up. The Y members, punchy and frayed from another hectic workday, will brook no delay, resent showing their membership cards.
"Don't you know who I am by now?"
"I want a good locker tonight! Last time you stuck me in a drafty corner."
"When are you people going to get your act together?"
Meanwhile the phone lines are ringing urgently, the red buttons pulsating; the callers are desperate with weighty questions. Ralph stabs at buttons, puts people on hold, accidentally disconnects a few.
"Where is my son's soccer game tomorrow?" a caller inquires. "He lost his schedule and I don't have the coach's number."
"How do I sign up for the karate class?"
"Where is the director? I want to speak to the director."
"Have you seen a woman in a green bikini?"
"The Y? I wanted Pete's Pool Hall. How long have you had this number?"
"Who's in charge there? I want to speak to the director!"
"If you see a woman in a green bikini, tell her I want to meet her."
"Are you sure this is the Y?"
"If I sign up for the karate class, do I need to know how to kick beforehand?"
"Listen, this is serious. I've got to find out about my kid's soccer game...."
Unfortunately, Ralph has little information to dispense. His job is to answer calls and forward them to the appropriate offices. But it is Friday evening and the director and administrators have fled the building.
"Would you mind if I put you on hold?" Ralph says for the hundredth time.
"Yes, I would mind. I've been on hold twice already. Can't you just tell me where my son's damn soccer game is tomorrow?" By this time, the soccer man's voice has turned thick, hoarse and boozy.
"I'm sorry. I don't have the schedule here. I just answer the phones and forward them to the program desk."
"Then let me have the program desk."
"I'm afraid they're closed. They don't open again until nine in the morning."
"But the game is at eight! You people are screwed up, you hear me? Screwed up!"
"Ralph! Help!" Maggie screams from her station behind the desk. Ralph turns from the phone to see a fresh wave of incoming customers.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to put you on hold, sir. I'll find out what I can."
"Don't you put me"
He joins the fray and confronts a woman who snarls, "This is the longest I've ever had to wait. Can't you make your calls on your own time?"
A man flings his key back onto the desk. "This is a boy's locker," he hisses in righteous rage.
A tall, bearded man takes a towel from Ralph's trembling hand and inquires cheerfully, "Are we having fun yet?"
Right in front of the customers, Maggie puts her hands to her face and screams, as she screams nearly every day at this time, "I'm quitting! I'm quitting!"
The members meet this pronouncement with a stony indifference, and she continues snatching cards from their hands and hurling their locker keys and towels at them.
Then suddenly the wave dissipates; the customers disappear into the locker rooms and quiet settles over the front desk as another rush hour at the Y comes to a close. Maggie looks at Ralph with a bright mist in her eyes. "This is what I get for not finishing college. I'll always work at crappy jobs."
He takes her aside, draws her back to the tall metal equipment lockers, thinks of holding her steely biceps, but doesn't. He assures her she can still go back and finish college, though inside a subversive voice whispers: Of course you can finish college like I did and still work at crappy jobs.
As night deepens, only a few people straggle in from the snow. The calls, too, have slackened, though the soccer man keeps phoning, sounding drunker and more abusive each time he calls. Maggie has returned to the weight room to Stairmaster away her blues; her sinewy legs provide inspiration to all the panting after-hours jocks.
Ralph calls his wife and she groans with fatigue. Their six-month-old boy has been crying for hours.
"What did the doctor say?"
"It's probably just teething."
"How long do you think it will last?"
"About ten more years." She sniffles, "I think I'm losing it."
"Courage, love," he whispers, "courage."
He slips away from the quiet desk to take the dirty towels to the laundry room, and his heart twists as the sweet strains of Joni Mitchell drift from the overhead speakers:
I was a free man in Paris I felt unfettered and alive....
Alive and unfettered indeed, Ralph, on that day twenty years ago, huddles on the café steps as the bulls make rings around the square and feign charges at the young men. The bold ones rush among the bulls, slap rumps and pull horns, and when the bulls are inspired enough to give chase, the young men dive for cover at the last moment.
Ralph remains on his perch, cautiously watching the action. He detects about him, in subtle glances and stiffened shoulders, the faint signs of disgust: Oh, cowardly American, go down with the other young men and do battle with these ferocious bulls!
Out of nowhere, a boy of about four has wandered into the middle of the street in front of the café. Too late, the crowd on the café steps spots him. In the same moment a bull, ten yards away, lowers its horns and charges.
The crowd is paralyzed, deathly still, as if by holding its breath it can make the bull turn aside. Then its silence gives way to a panicked roar. Ralph is not certain, but later he thinks that he felt a push on his backa palpable, yet unearthly touch. Barely conscious of what he is doing he rushes through the crowda fish gliding past boulders that give way to himand leaps off the steps. Too late to sweep the boy aside, he runs directly in front of the bull. He feels a bone-jarring impact in his side; his shoes seem stuck to the pavement while the rest of his body flies upwards. He is totally breathless, yet at the same time trying to puke. He's vaguely aware of sailing beneath a blue sky before he loses consciousness.
As he awakens, a wooden ceiling fan is twirling slowly overhead. His eyes flicker open and shut, open and shut. The examining table is hard, and the scent of alcohol is familiar and comforting. The doctor and his nurse are marvelously efficient and reassuring as they smile down on him and tape his ribs. The young doctor is dashing in his street clothes; called away from the fiesta, he smells of beer and his eyes glitter. The nurse wears a low-cut flowery dress, and she leans over him and caresses his brow with a moist palm.
"How are you feeling now, my hero friend?" the doctor says, with only a slightly Spanish accent.
Ralph blinks. "Is the boy okay?"
The doctor and his nurse grin at one another, and their eyes shine. "The boy is fantastic," the doctor says. "And you will be okay. It's the bull we are worried about now."
The doctor and his nurse fall against each other in a paroxysm of laughter and then topple lightly onto Ralph, who puts his arms around their quaking backs.
"Kay wise guy, where's the soccer game? Tell me where my son's soccer game is. I'm not dropping this."
"Look, I've done everything I can. I even tried to call the program director at home, but there was no answer. I don't know what else I can do."
"That won't do, my friend. That won't do. I only see my kid every fourth weekend. You're not screwing this up for him. Somebody knows. Somebody there knows." His voice rises, takes on a chanting quality: "Somebody knows, somebody there knows, somebody knows...."
"Look, I'm really sorry. But I've got to get off now."
"Don't you cut me off, you son of a bitch. Don't you"
Ralph stares at the phone, but it doesn't ring again. He almost regrets it because there is a sadness at the Y now as the hour grows late. Most of the members and all the other attendants have come and gone, and there are no distractions from his worries. He wonders if his family will make it in this new part of the country they have moved to. Will he find a better job? Will his son be happy growing up here, in this town hard-pressed against the Rockies? Will his wife's health, already fragile, hold through the fitful nights as they get up again and again to comfort the baby?
Out of the dark comes a family, a father, a mother, and a boy of about four. As they come through the front doors they pause, half inside and half out. Behind them, the night pours snow; a gust of frigid air rushes all the way to Ralph at the front desk. They hesitate in the doorway. Then the man gives the boy a gentle nudge, and they all come forward anxiously toward the desk.
The man, about Ralph's age, is short, thick, bearded, with a burly chest and wide hunched shoulders; he looks as if he has seen a lot of rough weather, done a lot of hard labor, yet there is something weak about him. His smile is tremulous. The woman is Hispanic, with dark somber eyes. When they reach the desk, the man keeps his family huddled close, one hand resting on the boy's black hair, the other holding his wife's elbow through her old flannel coat. In a quavering Texas accent, his voice coming out high at first before it finds its range, he says, "Hi. Think you can rent us a room?" He shrugs apologetically. "We can't pay motel prices."
The one word Ralph doesn't want to say to the worn-out looking family is no, but this is what he must tell them.
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we don't rent overnight rooms here. We're mainly a gym. The Y in Denver rents some rooms."
The man's shoulders slump another notch. The woman's eyes explore Ralph's face, searching for lies. "Damn. We came through there an hour ago," the man says mournfully. "We're headed for Seattle ... from Houston," he adds, as if that explains their plight. He shakes his head and mutters, almost as if repeating a mantra, "Got good jobs in Seattle. Houston ain't nothing but a bust." The woman nods grimly, agreeing with him about Houston. Ralph wonders if she believes in the good jobs ahead.
Ralph sees that they are all dead tired. The man and woman glance sidelong at one another, calculating the time back to Denver, this late at night, in the bad weather, the lost time on their journey; the decision is coming down against it.
He is tempted to offer them lodging in his cramped little apartment for the night. But what would his wife say? Too dangerous to bring strangers in. Even though she is kind-hearted, her fears for their son would make her say no. He knows he is only using her as an excuse, though. Even if he lived alone he wouldn't offer, wouldn't want to be drawn into their troubles. But the dark, round, staring eyes of the little boy remind him of what his own family might come to under different circumstances, adrift in a strange city, no money for a motel.
"There is a hostel by the campus," he says slowly.
The man blinks. "A hostel?"
"It's kind of like a dorm, but you don't have to be students. It's only a few dollars to stay there."
The man glances at his wife, still clutching her elbow. She looks at him, and then down at her son. She puts her hand on the boy's head and draws him tighter against her leg. She angles her thin face away from the man and her jaw stiffens, a shift which seems to freeze the man. There is something about the word hostel, Ralph sees, which has stopped her, become a stumbling block.
The man sighs and turns back to Ralph. "We'll go on and look for a motel, I guess. You know anything cheap? It don't have to be nothing fancy."
"I haven't lived here too long myself, but we can look through the Yellow Pages. Most things are kind of expensive in this town, though."
As he reaches under the desk for a phone book, a sheet of pink, lined paper flutters out; he glances idly at it for a moment, and then stares in amazement at the columns of writing. He slips the sheet of paper under his sweater into the top pocket of his shirt and pats it to secure its position, as if the paper is some treasure of great worth.
The man stands at the front desk, thumbing through the Yellow Pages and making his calls from the desk phone. He stumbles over his questions, his brow furrowing as if he can't quite figure out what people are telling him. With each call, his voice quavers more; sweat springs out on his forehead and his blunt stubby finger makes mistakes dialing. Ralph eases the phone away from him and makes a few calls himself, but it is a football weekend and the motels are either full or too expensive.
Because he can't bring himself to offer his apartment, he says instead, knowing the inadequacy of the offer, "May I buy you all a cup of coffee? And a hot chocolate for your son?"
The man, who has gone back to calling himself, holds the phone to his chest, momentarily stunned by the offer. The boy's eyes brighten as he looks over at the coffee machine against the wall. The woman moves away from the man's side. As if it's a way of saying yes, she wraps her arms around herself, gives an exaggerated, friendly sort of shiver, and says, "It's cold here."
Ralph makes change in the register and goes around the desk into the lobby. The boy follows him to the machine. He takes hold of Ralph's pant leg and stares silently as the cup drops down and fills. The woman wanders over to the green vinyl chairs, set in a circle around a worn coffee table, and sits down. She lifts a magazine and crosses one slim leg over the other, frowning at the no smoking sign on the wall. Ralph distributes the coffees and hot chocolate. As the few remaining members drift out from the locker rooms, the woman, unlit cigarette in mouth, stares at them with narrowed eyes. The boy follows Ralph as he makes a quick tour of the offices in back, making sure doors and windows are locked. The boy slips his hand into Ralph's and as he holds the tiny, cool little hand, he wishes he could do some finer thing.
With his ribs taped tightly, Ralph rises stiffly from the examining table. The doctor and nurse help him back into his shirt, and the nurse kisses him on the cheek and ushers him into the waiting room where a small entourage rises and cheers him as he wobbles forward. They offer to see him home, but what he really wants is tequila, he tells them. His request is greeted with a chorus of approval and he is taken up by his new friends and escorted to a cantina near the square, where he drinks icy Tecate beer and shots of José Cuervo, and his newfound best friends embrace him again and again.
Later, he will dimly recall making fervid offers to take his friends to a ranch in Montana where they would live off the land and practice medieval chivalry. "You will need English lessons, Juan," he recalls himself saying to one particularly affectionate but incoherent man who kept putting him in headlocks and lowering his nose to the bar.
A bloody sunset glows over the ancient mountain town as he stumbles out the swinging cantina doors; he is on the march again with his entourage, this time slipping through the barricades back into the square where the bulls, at last thoroughly pissed off, have gone into higher gear and are managing to hook a few overconfident young campesinos in the seats of their jeans.
For what seems like hours then, but what must have been, in reality, only a few glorious minutes, he experiences what feels like saintliness. The bulls cannot hurt him. They charge at him and he stands motionless; at the last moment, he gives a sweep of his hands and sends them veering away. When he sees anyone in trouble, a bull moving in, he glides over and with a light touch on the rump turns the bull aside. The townsfolk scream his glory, a great roar rising from behind the barricades. They scream the only name they know for him: "Gringo! El Gringo!" Sombreros fly his way, coins, roses; a beer can bounces off the side of his head.
But back at the Y, saintliness is in short supply. The man is running out of motels to call and it is nearing midnight. The Y will close in ten minutes. Only a diehard weightlifter or two remain somewhere in the dank bowels of the building.
It is time for the nightly closing announcement, which Ralph amends from night to night. Over the intercom system, his voice echoes back at him, "Another night at the Y is fast drawing to a close. Prepare to go forth, repaired of body, mind, and spirit...."
The man pauses with his finger on the Yellow Pages and gives him a pained smile. Turning, the man signals to his wife, who rises wearily from her chair and joins him. The boy, who has been staring mesmerized through the plate glass doors at the silent blue swimming pool, comes over and leans his sleepy head against his mother's legs. The man closes the phone book and says to his family, "Looks like we'll rest up in the truck tonight." His voice is a dry whisper, "We can run the engine enough to keep warm."
The woman nods, her lips forming a tight line, and Ralph notes that she is not blaming the man, or trying to make him feel worse, which somehow makes him feel sorrier for them. He thinks again of inviting them to his home for the night, but is silent. The boy presses himself tighter against his mother's legs. The man shuts his eyes for a long moment, rubbing the back of his neck and swinging his head like a tired old bull. When he opens his eyes and stares across the front desk at Ralph, he looks amazed to discover himself here, at this moment in time. Slowly, he sticks his hand out across the counter and Ralph grasps it. The man's hand is dry and rough. He shakes without force. "Thank you, sir. You were real helpful. We thank you."
"I wish I could help, but"
"We'll be okay." The woman's blunt tone silences him. She kneels, pulls her son's hood up and ties the drawstring. Though he is old enough to walk alone, she cradles him and hoists him to her chest.
Ralph comes around the desk and follows them toward the front door. They are halfway through the lobby when a tall shape appears on the other side of the glass doors; a man, clutching his jacket to guard his neck from the cold, lurches in from the snowy night, followed by a stream of frigid air. He shivers, stamps snow from his shoes, and glares wild-eyed at Ralph and the little family. He charges forward.
Ralph moves in front of the family. "May I help you?"
"You work here? You're the one I've been talking to?" His head bobs on a long neck. He glowers. His face is flushed, and his breath reeks of whiskey.
The family shrinks back behind Ralph as the stranger points his car keys at Ralph's chest. "I drove all the way through the fucking snow and ice, pal, to personally chew out your ass, and I'd better get some straight answers this time. Where is my son's soccer game? Where, dammit?"
Ralph stares at the man. Then he reaches under his sweater and whips out a pink sheet of paper. "Which team?"
"What's that?" The man blinks. "The ... Rockets. Yeah, the Rockets." He squints at the schedule Ralph is holding.
"El Centro Elementary. Folsom Street. Eight A.M."
The man rocks back on his heels as if someone had struck him, then tips forward, pressing the points of his keys to Ralph's chest. The astonishment in his face turns to rage, "Why did you make me go through hell to"
"Easy," Ralph says. "Easy," and he takes the man by the arms. Gently and gracefully Ralph walks, almost waltzes him the few steps to the coffee table. He pushes the man down in a chair, and takes his car keys. "I'll call you a cab."
The man tries to rise, but Ralph puts a hand on his chest. The calmness of his own voice startles him. "It's that or I can call the police."
The man stares up at him drunkenly. He stiffens as if to fight, and then collapses. He sinks back in the chair and with a defeated expression he looks about the lobby for someone to make his case to; finally, his eyes light on the wall photos of the Y board members, and to their smiling, broad faces he protests, "What a fucked up place this is." But he stays put, shivering, letting out disgruntled sighs and groans as a puddle of melted snow forms around his shoes.
Meanwhile, Ralph sees that the family has slipped away. He rushes into the night and sees them trudging across the parking lot in the snow, the boy over his mother's shoulder. "Hey!" he calls, running after them. "Wait!" They glance back, but hurry on for their truck.
Catching up with them, lightly touching the man's elbow, he talks quickly, getting the offer out before he can stop himself. "You can spend the night with us if you like. It's not much. We'll have to put out sleeping bags on the floor. And we have a baby who's been crying a lot. But it's warm. You can stretch out. Have a shower in the morning. Breakfast...."
The man's eyes widen and he looks in consternation from Ralph to his wife. She holds her boy tighter to her breasts and Ralph speaks to her now. "It's all right. Really. It's no problem. I want you to stay with us."
Her face hardens, and for a scary moment he thinks she is going to tell him to shove his offer; then, in an instant, her face softens and he sees something more frightening: he believes she is going to cry. She gives his hand a light squeeze, and nods faintly.
"Okay," Ralph says. "Okay. Great."
His shoulders relax and drop, his chest expands; an adrenalin-like thrill rushes through him. Turning, he lifts his face to the wet white shower of snow and starts back for the Y. The family follows close behind him, as if they are afraid to lose him.
And twenty years in the past (though, given the vast and inexplicable discoveries of modern physics, who can say just what the past is) he is seized by two policemen. One of them screams in his face, "Out of the street, cabrón! You want to get killed?"
They give him the bum's rush out of the square. Then he is weaving home through the cobblestone streets, followed by his loyal entourage and a ragged mariachi band ... weaving his way home through the last bloody rays of the sunset, weaving below the flowered balconies, a beautiful woman waving from a window ... the bugles serenading a young man home as he takes a glorious walk toward the future, toward a long wintry night at the Y.