Several times a week I see the Mikes enter the YMCA together. They pull up in their nice cars, slap each other on the back, complain about how their old bodies hurt. The three of them don’t always show up at the same time, but if one is late the other two will chat out front so they can enter together.
Most days, I stand off to the side of the main entrance, smoking and watching the people who come in and out. The people who use the YMCA are from every age range. Grade-school kids taking swimming lessons, fit women with their bags and tight clothing, and old men like myself and the Mikes. And even though I see everyone who comes in and out, it’s the men in their late thirties, early forties that catch my attention. My son would have been thirty-nine this year. I try to guess what he would look like now, try to impose his features over the men sauntering in and out. I can look at them and imagine him, healthy and happy and full of life, and for that split second before my mind catches up with reality it’s as if he isn’t gone. It doesn’t matter if I stare; the people who frequent the YMCA—Mikes included—don’t notice me.
Today, I’m smoking free cigarettes and I don’t have to look for spent butts. A man covered in tattoos with a beard down to his chest gave me the rest of his pack when he saw me struggling to move my shopping cart across the street. The front right wheel caught in a divot I didn’t see, and the whole thing, and all my belongings with it, almost tipped over. When I righted it and made it across, he rolled down his window and tossed me a yellow pack.
So I smoke an American Spirit while I watch for the Mikes and men who could be my son. But, the sky is threatening rain and not many people are coming in and out. I don’t want to get soaked if I don’t have to, so I park my cart under a tree. I have a blue tarp draped over everything but the tree will help keep my things dry.
Inside a few people run or lift weights. It’s midmorning so there aren’t any school kids here yet. The whole place feels subdued. I’ve been using the facilities to clean myself up here for long enough—three and half years, give or take—I recognize the ebb and flow. I drink some water from the fountain and slowly make my way toward the steam room. On a cold day it’s a perfect place to let a day slip by.
A father and son pass me on the way to the basketball court. The father chastises his son, telling him he has to keep his elbow tight to his body, but stops when he sees me. A half-smile, the pitying kind, morphs the father’s features into something else and he shoves his son on ahead of him and nods once in my direction. The child squirms against the force. I think, don’t, don’t push that boy, but I don’t say anything. How can I? I once said similar things, used that same tone. If I could do it over, I would only say how grateful I am for the chance to watch him play, tell him none of it matters.
The racquetball courts are empty which is odd. Normally the Mikes would be here, trouncing younger folks while barely moving. Sometimes I’ll sit and watch for hours. It’s hypnotizing: the ball, the short steps, the angles. Once you know what you’re looking for, there’s a kind of elegance in their movements, in the ball’s arcing trajectory.
Beyond the courts is the locker room and the entrance to the steam room. But I hear laughter from around the corner. It’s all classrooms back there, for yoga, for tai chi, for cycling. I don’t spend time in the classrooms because I don’t participate in those activities and they are often vacant. I recognize the laughter though, its particular cadence, and the sound of amused shushing.
In the last classroom, right next to the emergency exit I find the Mikes. They are playing cards in an otherwise empty room. It’s large, open, with low ceilings and florescent lights; a normal if underused classroom at the YMCA.
They laugh and swear and bet with change, pushing small stacks of silver into the middle of the square, faux-wooden table. I have some change leftover: two quarters, several pennies, something that is likely a dime though it’s so covered in grime it could be something else entirely, and one shiny Sacajawea. A little girl dropped the dollar coin in my cup a couple of days ago at Wagner’s Supermarket over off of Main. There’s a few metal picnic tables outside by the Redbox machine and the owner, Fred Wagner, lets me play the ukulele at the far table as long as I don’t have a sign asking for money.
One time I overheard the Mikes get mixed up in an impromptu racquetball tournament. They were supposed to play each other but no one could tell who was due to play first. I guess the Mikes bonded over their shared name and funny story. Those kinds of incidents tend to bring people together, and I wonder why those types of experiences seem to miss me.
I’ve never joined them playing racquetball, and I’m not quite sure what compels me now. We’re all around the same age, if perhaps from different walks of life. Maybe I want to spend some time with people my own age. Maybe I want the chance to win some money. Maybe I just want to stay inside a little longer, to delay returning to the rain. Maybe I want a taste of comradery, someone to laugh when I complain about how the rain hurts my hip. Whatever the reason, I surprise myself and approach their table and pull out my meager change.
I look to the empty fourth chair, or what I thought an empty chair. Nestled so one would have to be at the table in order to see, sits a plastic bottle of Viaka vodka, a stack of Styrofoam cups, and a lemon sliced into thin wedges. The Mikes all look at me with conspiratorial smiles. They’re not afraid of being caught, at least not by me.
The Mike to my right, balding and so tan it can’t be healthy, slides the chair with the vodka toward him and gestures to the now empty spot. I grab a chair from where the stack leans against the wall. They ask me my name and I tell them. I can tell none of them recognize me.
They’re playing five-card draw and are mid-hand. The Mike across from me, still wearing his red and white sweatband and goggles, though he’s pushed them up on his forehead, takes two cards and then immediately throws them down. I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore, he says. We’re not even playing. Not for real. He nods to Too-Tan Mike who pours us all a shot. They glance behind me to the hallway. Nostrovia. Prost. Gan Bei. And we quickly shoot the vodka and chase with the lemon. I’m left feeling spit-shined.
It’s odd being here with them after watching for so long. It’s like I know them but that’s not quite right either. I know a version of them, a version presented to the world, and what I’ve stumbled upon here is something else entirely. I can admit, now that I’m here, that I’ve longed for their particular brand of comradery.
The Mike to my left, wearing a World’s #1 Grampa t-shirt and an ill-fitting Rocky Mountain National Park hat, collects the cups and they disappear beneath the table. Well. What do you suggest then, if not cards?
Have you ever played Bloody Knuckles? I ask. The words are out before can stop them. Probably the vodka. I don’t normally drink and I can feel the liquor flowing beneath my skin.
What is that?
Bloody Knuckles. Didn’t you ever play it as a teenager? It’s played with coins, I say. I see my son at twelve, the small cuts on his knuckles, the way his friends seemed to rally around the simple, violent game. We played once and I couldn’t hit him. He said I ruined the game.
The Mikes grumble. They’ve never heard of Bloody Knuckles. People rarely like being told their experience is not all encompassing, that their individual life is not somehow representative of everyone’s. But I explain it. Spin the coin. Rotate turns. Each person flicks the coin to keep it spinning.
Why would we do this? asks Too-Tan Mike. What is the purpose of this game?
Shut up, says Grampa Mike. You’re too old to pretend that purpose is real.
Too-Tan Mike looks abashed. He pours another round of drinks. Okay. But what of consequence? Everything has consequence.
Yes, says Sweatband Mike. What happens when you fail?
The Mikes look at me a bit too eagerly, and then at each other. Perhaps these Mikes are better acquainted with failure than I had guessed. Perhaps perceived failure is deeper connection than the coincidence of their shared name. Or perhaps watching someone else fail is enough to raise one’s own esteem.
If you hit the coin and it topples or if you knock it off or you can’t hit it when it’s your turn and the coin stops spinning, then the person who last touched it successfully gets to hit you with the coin.
What do you mean hit you with the coin?
Grampa Mike lights up. Oh! I know this. My youngest grandson is in seventh grade. I’ve seen him do this. He puts two fingers on the table in an upside-down peace sign and his thumb on a quarter. You push down and forward with your thumb and… The quarter shoots across the table spraying a stack of coins and startling the other Mikes. They all look at me. For the first time since I walked in, they seem excited.
If you stop the coin from spinning you put your fist on the table and take it in the knuckles, I say.
So, the only goal is to keep a coin spinning and if you mess it up you get hit? How do you win? Isn’t there a reward for doing well?
I shrug. Avoiding pain is a reward. You don’t get hit if it continues to spin.
Sweatband Mike stands up. I can do that without playing, thank you very much. Pass us that last drink, eh? I’m going to go.
Sit down, says Too-tan Mike. You know you don’t have anything else to do. And anyway pain is what makes it interesting. Without the possibility of blood it doesn’t matter. That’s why we drink here instead of at a bar or at home. We can get caught here. There’s risk involved. That’s why we spend time together, us Mikes, or one of the reasons at least. If one of us gets in trouble, the others are just as likely to go down as the offending party.
But you don’t look anything alike, I say.
True. But we’re all old. That means interchangeable. You. Me. That guy. Someone else named Mike. Who the fuck knows the difference?
No one speaks for a moment. Sweatband Mike sits. Too-Tan Mike hands out the drinks. A kind grim mood settles on the Mikes, probably from the truth spoken aloud that they likely had yet to consider.
One more of these, I say lifting my cup, and the game won’t even hurt. The Mikes do not laugh at my attempt at levity.
When I was younger, Sweatband Mike says, we used to play a similar game. Similar in its application if not its materials. A ball. A wall. Throw until someone bobbles it. Get to peg the person with sloppy hands. He drinks his shot without saying cheers. Everyone played these games growing up. And that’s why, he points to me, I know you were wrong before. The reward isn’t in avoiding the pain but rather the right, no imperative, to inflict it.
What happens to the one who doesn’t want to take the punishment?
Catcalled. Cajoled. Belittled until he stands there and takes it.
What about the one who would shirk his duty to inflict the pain? I ask.
Worse. Worst of all. That one has broken the rules of engagement. Shouldn’t be allowed to play.
I think about how I became after my son died. I was working all the time. Making a life for him. If I worked enough, I could pay off his student loans. If I worked enough, I could take us on a much-needed vacation. If I worked enough, I could help with a down payment. That’s what I told myself at the time, though now I’m not so sure. I was consumed with seemingly normal things, and in the wake of his death those things I pursued paled into nothingness. The world had changed and there was no going back. Everything lost its intensity, its pull on me. I walked away from it all, my job, my acquaintances, my home…
And what of the person who doesn’t play? The one who sees the game and leaves it behind? I ask.
Who cares? They don’t matter. They might as well not exist.
For all their sneaking, for all their bluster, I think the Mikes believe this last bit. Here, in this empty room, coins scattered, drinking cheap vodka, even here, the duty to inflict pain or have it inflicted upon you equals existence.
Are we done with this? This chatter? asks Grampa Mike, and turns his hat backward. He stands and so do the other Mikes.
Who starts? How does this begin?
I think it’s better to imagine that there is no beginning. That the coin has always been spinning, I say. But here.
I take out my Sacajawea and flick it so it spins and spins.
Whose turn is it? a Mike asks.
I don’t respond and stand.
The coin spins so perfectly that it no longer resembles a coin, it becomes something else entirely, a floating golden orb. As I leave, I glance at the Mikes. They are entranced.
Evan James Sheldon’s work has appeared recently in The Cincinnati Review, The Maine Review, and New World Writing, among other journals. He is the features editor for F(r)iction and the editorial director for Brink Literacy Project. You can find him online at evanjamessheldon.com.
Image: “Any Way the Wind Blows 01” by Bill Cawley