Gavin heard the gang upon opening the glass door to the mall. "Say yes?" "Yes!" "Say yes?" "Yes!" Gavin double-checked his watch. Ten past seven. Later than he thought!
He skidded round the corner and his new sneakers gave a squeal on the clean tile. He saw the group way up ahead; they had gathered near Payless Shoes, in a semi-circle around the mall's central high-gushing fountain. Gavin walked briskly toward the group, approaching from behind the instructor. A skylight overhead shed early morning light on the instructor's back. The young pony-tailed girl was leading the class again today.
"Watch me!" the girl shouted. Her voice wafted back, making Gavin hurry. He kept his eye on her. Now she stepped up on the fountain's rim. Gavin hated when she did that. With raised arms she was demonstrating a side-to-side sway. How easy it was to imagine her slipping, off the edge, into that cascade of white water.
He moved ahead and stood just to the side of the fountain, facing her, in case she fell. The girl bounced up and down and Gavin couldn't help but notice that her breasts barely jiggled. Whatever happened to those other kind of breasts? Girls didn't seem to have such soft ones anymore. But how could Gavin really tell, when he was only looking?
Embarrassed, Gavin dropped back, joining a middle row. He watched the way the people ahead palely followed the girl's lead. Now they mimed a steep climb, up a ladder. Mostly old ladies in shirt-sleeves. Their upper arms wagged. Those arms reminded Gavin of chicken fat. He pictured the way he now cut that fat off his own chicken. Tossing it onto the counter-top, the fat always wagged in the air, then shook, for the briefest second, upon landing.
The ladies dropped their arms, and a couple of the old men bent over, coughed, or wheezed. A young mother rolled a stroller back and forth, smiling. An old-old black man jogged in place. Gavin averted his eyes. Nothing worse than a show-off.
Sometimes Gavin's own doctor led the crowd. He was a young straight-backed man, he looked formal and upright, even in his neon-striped jogging suit. It had not been a pleasure to meet the man. Not so very far back Gavin went to hospital, got himself there, driving willy-nilly because he thought he was having a heart attack.
The attack had happened in his computer room at M.I.T. He had been at his new post for only a month. When the pain first struck, he tried to will it away. Gavin, he said to himself, you've never been good with adjustments. He told himself to proceed with his work, to ignore the force that held his chest in a strangle-hold.
When asked to describe the pain later, Gavin said: "It felt orange." It was a feeling rather than a color of course, but that was the only translation Gavin could think of, the only way to paint the picture.
For few thoughts accompanied the pain. He had remained in his swivel chair, staring hard at his VAX terminal, waiting for the knot, or whatever it was, to work itself out, to wear away. Sat there for nearly two hours, he in the glass-walled room, simply concentrating. And although a few other professors and acquaintances walked by, or peered in, that day they did not stop to say, "How are you?" They did not say hello. Gavin thought for certain-sure that he might die there. And wouldn't it be ironic for it to happen with people smiling by him, with him inside a glass case?
But the pain went away. Good riddance, he thought, and he took some credit for keeping calm enough to will away the unwelcome interloper. At least, until the next day when, while scribbling some notes in his fine new office, he was struck by a full-fledged attack, or My God, that's what he had thought, and he dropped his pencil, shut his eyes, and inside his head saw only a pin prick of light, which of course, in his panic he mistook for that tunnel of light people who have come back from the dead often talk about. Overreacting of course, how silly of him, just one pin-prick, one iota of light, though of course he expected the light to open wide enough for him to walk on it, that it would bear his weight, and he, Gavin, would disappear into himself, into that light, and he saw finally what death was, how it would feel and come to pass. But thinking it all over later, he knew he was wrong, and he recognized that the light, well, that light was really only a metaphor for pain, and the pain, the doctor later explained to him, was not nearly as great as it would have been had he really and truly been suffering from a heart attack instead of angina, but come now, how was Gavin to know that it wasn't his time, that the light was not enough light, not enough to bear his weight, not wide enough for him to disappear into himself? Anyone could make such a mistake, what with the pain, and the way the light had appeared to him, as hope does, in utter despair, a bit at a time, a way out, an end or beginning—who was Gavin to question?
"Only angina," the young doctor eventually said, and Gavin bristled. So his problem was an "only"? A not-thing, not-much, no pain, just a misconception, Gavin supposed, that happened to wear away at his sixty-two year old heart the way a rabid squirrel might ravage a nut? Only that? Only?
"I'll be off, then," Gavin had said. This was a strike against him, worse in fact, indeed yes, worse than the pain itself. Why, he wanted to say, do you know that at the age of ten a big boy at the public school held me upside down in a toilet bowl? Pretended I was a scrub brush, knocked my head up and down so that even now I have a dent there? Knocked me so hard that I found out that when people say they saw stars they are not kidding, there really are such stars, except they are yellowish and fuzzy shaped, and do you know I found that interesting, most interesting, even through all that water, and porcelain and pain, I was able to find something of interest. And not only that. I kept my mouth so well-shut I swallowed not one drop of piss-water, and neither, I'll have you know, did I tattle, and neither did I cry.
"Professor Turner," the doctor had said. He pulled Gavin back to the examining table, and his hand was warm. But Gavin was so mad, why, he had almost walked back out to the waiting room, bare-chested. Bare barrel-chested, and the grey curly hairs on that chest screwing tighter with his anger.
"These are warning signals," the doctor said and, to Gavin's relief, he said the words with appropriate seriousness.
"Are they?" Gavin said. "What's to do about it, then?" And the doctor told him. Gavin had taken a note pad out of his trouser pocket. "A problem, yes," he said, shaking his head. Problem solving was his business. "Give me those, what did you call them, nutrition pamphlets? And mall-walking? What's that, eh?"
Gavin could not fathom the age of that pony-tailed girl. Of course, to him there was no difference between twenty and thirty, having long passed both.
"Stretch, and stretch again. Other side!"
Gavin fell right in. He liked it best when this girl said, "Work that body." It sounded so industrious, so altogether useful.
But if Evalyn could see him stretching and groaning, tapping his feet to the left, and then to the right, in just the way they did the hokey-pokey years ago, at weddings and parties, what would she say? Here he was, not dancing after all, but following along, exercising, even sweating. Wouldn't she avert her eyes? Or say, Oh, GAV-in, like that, with just a blush of disgust? Isn't that what she would do? She would. She would do that. Evalyn had approved of some athletic activities, like hiking . . . but jogging? Good God. Never. Gavin remembered how much she had hated America, and Americans too, really. Their fascination with going faster, growing richer, getting slimmer. "Always action verbs," she said, with such disdain. That was just like Evalyn too, just like the Evalyn who had received firsts, in English, at University, to smother life with language.
Certainly, then, divorce was a solution. Four years separated now; two years divorced (still a surprise to me, she'd write, when she, the horrid thing, had been the one to ask for it). And still, she came to him in dreams. Strange for her to travel so far to see him. How she hated transatlantic crossings. This small fact had prompted him to accept the guest-post in America. The offer had appeared in his mailbox at Leicester University one day, an offer to switch positions, to switch lives, really, for two years. With very little thought he had taken the offer up; he made all the arrangements within weeks and he felt confident, on his way to Heathrow, that even memories of Evalyn would not trouble to follow.
Wishful thinking of course. In those dreams she was pale enough to be porous, but still, when she reached out, his arm felt her touch as something hard, poking, and she left him with great bruises, wounds. Once, upon waking, Gavin scanned his body for proof of her touch.
Oh he knew rejection, and what it had done to him. Made him grow hard-candy brittle, made him mad for no reason, even now, two years later, made him dislike pale people, thin people, sharp voiced people, or anyone who spoke to him with eyelids lowered. God, he hated that most of all! Eyelids closing down, shutting him out, blinking him out of existence! Just the way that she, Evalyn had done, one day, out of the blue. She had closed her eyes, crossed her arms and said, "Divorce." She said a lot of other words, too, said them all in a voice small and quiet, all the while with her eyes closed tight, but Gavin heard only that one word, over and over, as if she were screaming. He had shut his own eyes and screamed right back. And only then did she say, Fine then! Only then did she explain: her friends, why her friends were widows, divorcees, and yes, they seemed to enjoy life more, to travel, to gad about, and so he, Gavin, was holding her back. Had always done so! Could he not see it?
My God, he had said, I finally understand! You're mad that I'm not your convenient old corpse!
Did he have to think about that now? Now, with that silly hair wagging like a friendly dog's tail? Just like his old dog. Harry. What a friend. In fact, before being shipped off to school, out of Yorkshire, at the age of eight, he knew no other.
"Cool it down, cool it down, walk it out."
Gavin joined the others by shaking his arms and tapping his feet lightly on the ground.
"Power pulse! Thirty seconds! Here we go!" The pony-tailed girl raised two fingers to her neck. "Get set! Go!"
With two fingers pressed to his neck, Gavin counted thirty seconds on his wrist watch. Those fingers fluttered up and down with the pressure from his pulse.
"Yell yours out!" said the pony-tailed girl. "Let's hear em!"
Gavin tapped his finger against his neck, nervous.
Suddenly a raspy voice called out: "50?"
Gavin looked round to see who had said that. He couldn't locate her, but just her voice gave him enough courage to open his own mouth. "55?" he said.
The pony-tailed girl brought her delicate hand to her cheek. "That's way high! Too wicked high! The two of you, drop back!" Then the girl paused and tapped her tummy with both hands, like a drumbeat. "Maybe you're not counting right." Even from a middle row, and above the girl's voice, Gavin could hear the tight tapping sounds. But soon the girl moved her hands to her hips. "When we do laps around the mall," she said, "just take it slow. Slow and easy. Okay?" But before Gavin could nod, the girl had looked away. "Yell em out," she continued. "Let's hear some more!"
Gavin found himself stepping to the back of the group, he stood with a hung-head beside a woman ten years his senior. The woman tapped her three-legged cane against the polished rock floor. "Welcome to the slow lane, old man," she said, and she winked.
"Yes," Gavin said, and he tried to smile back. The woman wore walking shorts, and her stick thin legs dropped below them like two badly drawn lines. And Gavin couldn't help but notice her very round stomach. A keg on stilts, that's what she looked like.
"Is this where the slow-pokes go?" another woman asked.
Probably another keg on stilts, Gavin thought, we'll walk round this mall like a traveling pub, but he raised his head anyway, to say, "Em, yes."
This woman was his junior, between fifty-five and sixty, he guessed. Her new white sweat suit was creased in the front: from the packaging? She was a bit fuzzy looking in all that white, Gavin thought, like a great big stack of cotton batting, or maybe, like one of those fuzzy-edged stars he saw that time, after the ambush in the W.C.
"Well, we've gotta start somewhere," this woman said. She had one of those Boston accents that, a word at a time, sometimes sounded like an English one.
The keg-woman tapped her cane. "I've been in this walking group for months now," she said, indignant. "I'm not just starting."
"Oh. Oh, I didn't mean that it's bad to move slow. Really. I've got problems too, you know," the woman in white said.
And Gavin found himself turning to her and smiling. "That so," he said. "What's your name, then?"
Way up ahead, the old-old black man had taken the lead. His arms cut the air like metal straight-edges. Gavin watched him turn the corner and march past K-Mart. Six big stores still separated K-Mart and Gavin.
But why bother with comparisons. Gavin's pace was slow, comfortable enough to keep up conversation. He turned to the woman in white. He had taken care to match her stride.
"This, Lorraine, is my favorite shop," he said. "Do you ever shop here?" They were passing The Gap at a slow but steady rate.
"Christmas-time," Lorraine said. "I buy sweaters here, for my sons. Pretty colors."
Gavin touched her arm. Her arm, beneath the sweat suit, felt soft, padded. Gavin was reminded of a trip to a conference in Honolulu. He remembered walking along the beach, with Evalyn, he in a sport shirt and long bathing trunks, she in one of those flounced swimming suits. Evalyn had turned to him and said, "Gavin. Tell me now, do you find either of those girls attractive?" She pointed a finger.
He had looked. Two tanned beauties, barely clad, were running past. Surely all signs of fat had been shaken or sucked from their bodies. They ran, shoulders edging forward, and back, breasts rising and falling but not jouncing, really, legs with muscles that rippled straight up to a firm hook of a derriere. Gavin imagined going up to one of those girls, touching an arm, to ask for the time, say, and he imagined a bicep rising right up, rebuffing him.
"They're not quite women, anymore, are they?" Gavin had said. "Haven't they turned themselves into something altogether different?" At the time, Evalyn seemed pleased with that.
Just now, Lorraine stopped. "Yes?" she said. She looked up at him with peaked eyebrows, finely plucked. Her expression reminded him of a bewildered grad student.
"So sorry," he said. "Lost myself in history for a second." He touched her shoulder lightly. "I just wanted to show you that jumper, there. Sweaters, you call them. The bright green one. Now where, might I ask, where else would you find such a color? Back in England, you know, all the shops sell muted things. Or they might as well just sell muted things, that's all the people buy. Life back there is muted enough, I say it's about time we liven things up, to hell with our slow slide to death, liven things up, I say, the way it's done over here!"
"You certainly seem to feel strongly about it," Lorraine said. She started walking again, and Gavin couldn't help but notice that she picked up her pace, edging closer to the rest of the group.
Yes, he supposed he got overly excited sometimes. And yes, he could see it was happening more and more, since Evalyn pooffed-away, since moving here, since the beam of light, but so what? What was this life about, anyway? Was one supposed to trudge through it, droopy-eyed, civilized, how-do-you-doing all along the way? Gavin thought about this. When he looked up he could not help but notice that just ahead this Lorraine woman was starting to puff a bit; it was their third and final lap around the mall. Some of the speed walkers had already finished the route. Up in the distance, near Payless Shoes and the fountain (that from this distance looked like a strange and solid sculpture of ice), Gavin could see them doing lunges, stretches; some walkers were already seated on the fountain edge, unlacing their high-tech sneakers.
Lorraine fell back. Gavin turned round to check on her, noticed her cheeks growing sunburn-red, and moist looking too. He slowed down, discreetly, he thought, so not to embarrass her. He watched her arms pump harder, and soon she moved ahead of him again. Gavin watched her back, which was broad, not overly so, just nice and there, really there, not spiney, bird-cage ribbed, but real, and rounded. When she pumped her arms her sweatshirt stretched across her shoulder blades, outlining her bra strap and the small bulges of flesh surrounding it. And Gavin imagined unsnapping that strap in a long ago remembered move, but he foresaw the way she would turn around, red-faced, surprised, outraged, and he thought about answering her questions, facing her indignation, answering them all with a kiss that would rush blood, red and explosive, into his own cheeks, making the shade of his cheeks match her own, and wouldn't she be able to see: for both of them there wasn't much time left, and what good does anger, indignation or formality do, when there is a life to be lived, colors to be seen, sweaters to be worn, and cheeks to be kissed?
Was she moving backward? Or was he rushing forward? Either way, he looked into her face and found it now strangely pale. Some problem?
"Let's slow down," she said.
Gavin pulled her aside, away from the one or two stragglers behind. He guided her to the nearby mirrored wall. She leaned against it. "I'll check your pulse," he said. He lifted her fine wrist, held it firmly. "There's a rapid beat, all right," he said. Gavin's heart suffered a peculiar little jump. The pulse in her wrist was fine, strong, but the one beside, in his own thumb, beat just as strongly.