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The Gymnast by Jennifer Harvey

 

Originally from Glasgow, Jennifer Harvey now lives in Amsterdam with her six-year-old daughter, her partner and a senile old dog. She used to think that one day she would make it back home to Scotland, but after almost twenty years living below sea level she now realizes that this is unlikely. Her stories and other miscellaneous musings can be found online at http://www.jenharvey.net/

Editor's Choice (Matthew) - 2013 Raymond Carver Contest
Notable Story - Million Writers Award

 

It had never been done before. No one had dared even imagine it.

But in 1972 she did it. Tiny Olga Korbut, all pigtails and smiles, nailed a backward somersault on the balance beam.

I’ve watched it perhaps a thousand times. The swing of her arms as she generates the momentum. The snap backward, so tight and precise. The sureness of her feet as she lands dead on the beam. Then a forward salto and off. The audience cheering, no one quite believing what they have just seen.

I’ve practiced it perhaps a thousand times. Over and over.

The swing, the snap, the flip.

Only to find my feet twisting and my legs buckling as I collapse into a fall.

She must have practiced it just as many times. Her bruises must have been as tender.

Until one day, she licked it. Flipped backward and landed straight.

That’s how it happens.

So over and over again I go.

Mom says it’s good I have something to take my mind off things.

“Maybe I should take up back flipping myself. Whatdya think, Mae?”

Maybe she should.

Four days from now we have to leave this house and she still doesn’t know where we’re going.

As long as we stay more or less here.

There’s a railway line out back. Straight and long and very narrow. Which makes it more difficult. It’s the perfect beam.

“I don’t care where we go,” is what I told her.

And it annoyed her more than I expected.

“Is that so? You don’t care where we end up, eh?”

I thought of explaining it.

 “If I can catch that rail and keep it straight, I can do anything.”

I want to tell her this, but I don’t dare irritate her further. She has so many worries. I need to be the least of them.

“I just wish we could stay here, is all.”

She throws me a sideways glance, aware of the slight criticism in my voice.

But in the end, she doesn’t push for the truth. She’s too weary for anything more than platitudes.

All she does is curl her lip slightly as she replies. Letting me know that she doesn’t need any complaints from me.

“Well, I’ll try, Mae. Believe me, I’ll try.”

But the boxes are piled high around us, and not all of our stuff fits. We have to sift through it and discard the things we cannot carry. I’ve made a pile of things I love, which means I cannot keep the things I need.

She sighs when she sees it.

And over and over again we go.

.  .  .

It wasn’t always this way.

Most of the time we’ve been “getting by.” That’s how she always describes things. She’s optimistic, but not overly so.

Until recently it wasn’t so misplaced.

Three years we’ve been in this house. I guess that doesn’t sound like much. It’s how most folks live, after all. But it’s longer than I ever remember being in one place. We have always moved around.

These last three years though have been quiet and settled.

And I like it, this simple way of plodding along. It’s a place you can jump off from. Move forward from. It puts some solid ground beneath your feet. Which is all you need really.

I’ll take getting by over pretty much anything.

But a few months back the blow came. Just as we’d begun to believe it was never coming.

We’ve had blows in the past. Plenty of them. Enough that you come to expect them. You just know they’re coming.

This one, though, we didn’t see.

“The thing about a Penny Market, Mae, is that people always need it. We all gotta eat, eh?”

I’d nodded, because who can argue with that?

And for the past few years she’d been right. There were days when we only saw one another for a few minutes. All she seemed to do was work.

“Carries on like this and I’m gonna need to put a bed in there.” That was how she joked about it. Checking my reaction to be sure I was okay with it. The long hours spent apart. The lack of guidance and attention.

But she needn’t have worried. It was all okay with me.

I’d come home from school and head to the line. Rewinding that scene from 1972 in my mind. Trying to see what it was that I missed. How it was that she did it. That little wisp of a girl, so much stronger than she seemed. She made things look so easy.

Swing, snap, flip.

Fall.

That was how I spent the afternoons. Layering bruise upon bruise until the pain meant nothing.

Come evening, we would face one another across the table, ashen and grey with exhaustion. Too tired to say much.

“You have a good day, Mae?”

And I’d nod and tell her I’d been out back practicing backflips on the line.

“You really shouldn’t do that. What if a train comes?”

And I’d laugh.

“That line stretches straight to the horizon in both directions, you can see a train coming for miles.”

And at night I’d feel them rumbling past, shaking the floorboards and the shingles. The heavy thrum as the train passed by, rattling the house as if it were taking us with it. Dragging us on down the line and off into the night.

I’d think of the people on board and wonder about the distances they had traveled. How much ground they had put between themselves and the place they had just come from, the people they had just left.

Never wanting to join them. For me, that line was something fixed and immovable. Taking me nowhere but here.

And then the blow.

They’d built a store. A huge warehouse on the edge of town. Goods piled up high to the rafters and everything just a few cents less than you could get anywhere else.

“Oh and it don’t sound like much. A few cents here or there. But it all mounts up. Those cents become dollars in the end.”

That was what the Penny Market guy had told her when he came to close the place down.

“We can’t compete with that. And there’d be no profit in it if we tried.”

And she had nodded, too shocked to comprehend at first. The weight of this fierce logic knocking her sideways.

She’d come home early. Walked over to the line and watched me as I practiced.

I was upside down when I noticed her there, so her frown looked like a smile and fooled me at first.

“Maybe there’s work going at the new place?” I said when she broke the news to me.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Then she pulled out a cigarette from the pack. The last one.

“There’ll be no more of these for a while.”

And she drew on it and savoured it, just a few puffs, before she tossed it aside and crushed it underfoot.

“Oh what’s the point?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. Just got up and walked back to the house, slamming the door behind her.

I turned flips all the while and watched the little drama unfold upside down. Aware that it seemed appropriate somehow.

.  .  .

She won’t take me to the food co-operative.

“That way maybe you can pretend none of this is happening.”

But there’s no getting away from it.

So when she takes her coat and heads off down the street I run after her.

“What, no practicing today?”

“It can wait.”

And we walk arm in arm the three miles across town without saying another word.

Once there, the guy behind the counter greets us.

“So, this is Mae, eh? I hear you’re a bit of a gymnast.”

And he means well. Just being friendly.

But his overfamiliarity makes her flinch and there’s a quiver of emotion in her voice when she leads me through the stacks and points out what we need.

“Just tinned stuff, Mae. Or dried. Okay?”

And at first I don’t understand and scrunch my nose up in disgust.

“I’ve got a place sorted for us,” is all she says.

I’m holding a net of vegetables and she takes it from me and places it back on the shelf.

“There’s no stove. So we can’t cook any of this stuff.”

“Eh? What kinda house has no stove?”

“It’s just temporary is all.”

And that’s when I understand.

The Budget Yellow.

“A motel? You’re taking us to a motel?”

And she takes a stance then. Sets her feet firmly on the floor. Folds her arms across her belly and stares me down.

“If you have a better idea, then I’m all ears.”

I leave her there, standing firm like that between stacks of tinned peaches. She had started to cry, but I am too angry to comfort her. All I want to do is run.

.  .  .

The Budget Yellow is far across town. Stuck between the freeway and a parking lot and not much else.

It’s the only place that lets folks stay long term.

You get a room with a bed, a bathroom and nothing else. Bare necessities.

The guy behind the counter has seen it all before and asks no questions.

He looks like he could have been here once himself. He has that look of resignation about him, as if he gave up on sympathy a long time ago.

Still, he lets me hang out with him now and again. Weekends, for a couple of bucks, I help him take the dirty linen to the washroom. Then use the money to buy fresh fruit.

Mom doesn’t say anything, but I know she thinks the money could be used more wisely. It would kill her though, to take it from me. So every Saturday we feast on oranges, which I buy because they make the room smell nice.

Now and then we’ll catch a whiff of zest that makes us both smile.

And it’s in these moments that we sometimes take the time to talk.

“It’s been a while since I saw you try out one of your flips. You given up on all of that?”

She keeps her voice steady and neutral, making it hard to tell what she’s thinking. She could be disappointed that I have succumbed to defeat or relieved that I have given up on a pursuit that had such little purpose.

So I don’t tell her about the bike.

Instead, I just shrug it off.

“I can practice on the parking lot for now.”

“You do that?”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

“I guess it’s not the same though, huh?”

“It’ll do. For now.”

And she misinterprets this. Grabs me in a big bear hug.

“You’re right, Mae. We’ll be outta here soon. Bad luck can’t last forever.”

And I wonder about that. Because it seems to me that good luck isn’t on its way either.

.  .  .

It was Mike down at the co-operative that told me about it. Took me out back and showed me the bike.

A tired-looking old red thing, but working still. The gears, pedals and brakes all well oiled and ready to go.

“I thought maybe I could keep this back for you. See if we can get you on the road.”

And I had looked at him and frowned.

“Why would I need to be on the road?”

But we talk, Mike and me. Just one of those things. Some people just open you up that way, and you feel pretty much okay telling them things.

I talked to Mike about the trick.

“She flipped right back. Straight on the beam. Without even a wobble. I’ve never seen anything so perfect in all my life.”

He had smiled at that, and I could tell he remembered it. That tiny little girl, dazzling the world with her courage.

And he’d looked at me then and seemed, suddenly, to understand something.

“You know, I reckon a girl can do a trick like that, she can do pretty much anything.”

So when that bike came in, he’d hidden it away immediately and waited for me to come by.

“A trick like that takes practice.”

I nodded. Told him about the bruises I had gotten. The hours I had spent out back on the line throwing myself over and over, again and again.

“So, you’ll need a bike if you’re going to make it across town. Down to the line.”

Ten dollars was what I also needed. A buck a week.

We ate fewer oranges but Mom didn’t seem to mind.

After two weeks, Mike gave me the bike.

“I know you’re good for it, Mae. You go practice.”

.  .  .

The day I nailed it, I’d gone over six times. The gravel between the tracks scratching my legs, leaving long red scars.

In the distance I could see a train coming slowly down the line. A long freight train that would take its time passing through.

I had one more chance before I would need to stand aside and wait for it to roll by. Minutes in which my concentration would be broken. My momentum lost.

I stood on the line and wrapped my toes across the track. Gripping it and steadying myself. The train grew larger but was far enough away for me to hold my nerve.

I had learned that the trick was to breathe. Slowly and deeply, arms loose at my side.

This was what I had missed all those times before.

That calm she had had. The slowness of her movements. The concentration loosening the muscles rather than tightening them. So that she could feel every tiny movement there. Each pulse of nerve and sinew. Every flash across a synapse. She controlled it all.

This was the key.

I breathed. The push through my legs moving into my feet, then up. Straight and taut, but loose. Feet snapping onto the line in one short thrust.

I felt the rumble of the train as it reverberated through the metal and stepped aside to watch it pass.

.  .  .

Mom was outside on the gallery, hanging over the guardrail and watching me as I biked across the parking lot.

She had her hand across her forehead, shading her eyes from the sun. Squinting into it and watching me as if she couldn’t quite understand what it was she was seeing.

“Where’d you get the bike?” she asked.

I lock the bike to a lamppost then join her on the gallery.

“Mike got it for me.”

“Mike gave you a bike?”

“No. I bought it from him.”

She tries not to grind her teeth.

“Looks expensive.”

“Ten bucks.”

And she grips the guardrail then, knuckles whitening. The very mention of money inducing some sort of vertigo. Something she needs to steady herself against.

“Whatdya need it for?”

“Been practicing. I finally licked it today.”

And it’s hard for her to enjoy the moment, because I’ve kept so much from her now. The bike, the practice, the money.

She smiles. Just a little. Worries preventing her from patting me on the shoulder or offering any kind of congratulation. But I can see from the lines that crease the sides of her mouth that it bothers her she can’t simply react. Can’t simply enjoy the moment. That things just keep getting in the way.

She snaps to it though. Realizes she’s supposed to say something.

“Wow. Well that’s really something, Mae.”

“I still owe him eight bucks. He’s letting me pay it as I go along. But I can also bring it back. He said so.”

“What about the two dollars you already paid?”

“I dunno. I guess he’d give me them back. Mike’s a good guy, Mom.”

“I know he is. I just … Why didn’t you tell me about it? That you were practicing again. About the bike and all that.”

“Ten bucks is a lot of money.”

And we stand there like that a while. Both of us gripping the guardrail. Looking out over the parking lot. With nothing much left to say.

.  .  .

She thinks I am asleep and slips out of the bed. Stumbling in the orange glow of the streetlight that fills the room, she pulls on her jeans and sneaks out the door, a mumbled “shit” just audible as it creaks shut.

I lie there and listen out for her. But she is barefoot and makes no noise as she takes the metal staircase down to the lot.

I’d been thinking about the trick, about how it made me feel to have finally licked it.

That I had felt so little, next to nothing in fact, is bothering me.

For an hour afterward I’d cycled around town, flitting aimlessly through the streets.

The houses looked so pretty all lined up nice and neat. The yards small and tidy. A coloured flowerpot here and there. A swing seat on a porch. Sometimes a tree.

There was nothing spectacular about any of it. But it all seemed so homely and so welcoming. The way I wanted things to be for Mom and me.

I thought of the motel room. The heaviness of the air, always muggy and suffocating, no matter how long we keep the window open. The conversations that could be overheard no matter how softly people spoke. The sounds of televisions that mingled together in a low hum, day and night. The softness of the bed, which Mom hated so much. The strange tastelessness of food that was uncooked. How little pleasure it brought.

I wondered how it was that one single event could bring about so much. That all the comforts and certainties we had come to enjoy the past few years could suddenly dematerialise like that, with one decision taken miles away by some stranger in some anonymous office.

Thoughts I had pushed aside with a single-minded focus.

Only now that purpose was gone. So the thoughts could creep on in and scratch away at me.

“If I can catch that rail and keep it straight, I can do anything.”

That’s what I had believed.

But as I’d cycled by those rows of happy houses, nothing seemed further from the truth. All possibilities seemed distant and unachievable. Forever to remain just out of reach, from the moment my feet had landed fair and square on that rail.

Somewhere down below, the sound of a bell rings out from the lot and pulls me back.

I haul myself out of the bed and head out to the balcony.

Mom is out there in the empty lot swooping around on the bike. She loops in free-flowing circles, legs akimbo, freewheeling.

The orange glow of the streetlights lends a strange atmosphere to the whole scene. As if she is under the spotlight in some dingy cabaret theatre. Her freewheeling, a balletic performance she has been perfecting for years and now this is her moment to shine.

I watch her as she throws her head back and closes her eyes, a whoop rattling from the back of her throat, a strange guttural sound that is neither a laugh nor a scream.

Then she sits erect and allows the bike to roll to a gentle standstill before looking up at me and giving me a small wave.

“You coming down?”

“Mom, it’s two in the morning.”

But she just shrugs.

“You know, I’d forgotten how much fun it is to ride a bike.

She dismounts and waves at me again.

“Come down here and talk to me.”

I head downstairs and sit beside her trying to keep some distance between us, but she pulls me into the nook of her arm, the way she used to do when I was a tiny kid and needed comforting. I’m surprised at how good it feels, even now.

As we sit there, a scraggy-looking dog wanders onto the lot and stops dead in its tracks when it sees us. Not daring to move, caught as it is under the glare of the lights, in the wide expanse of the empty lot, it is momentarily paralyzed with surprise. We watch it as it carefully takes the measure of us. Then, assured we pose no threat, it begins to sniff around.

Mom laughs at it.

 “This really is a place for strays, eh?”

“Is that what we are then? A couple of strays?”

And she does something she only ever did when I was very small and in heaps of trouble. She turns me to her, grasping both my shoulders, and fixes her gaze upon me.

“I don’t ever want you thinking this is home, Mae. Promise me that.”

And I want to ask what it is she plans to do about it. How she figures she can find a way out of the mess, back to some semblance of normality, but she grips me so tightly, with so much desperation, that to point out her failures now would do neither of us any good.

“I promise.”

And she checks me for a moment. Makes sure I mean it. Before letting go.

“So, you finally licked it?”

“Yeah.”

“Must feel pretty good.”

And I think about how I had sat there by the line, watching the train roll past. Feeling hollowed out and underwhelmed. If there had been any satisfaction in that moment then it was too fleeting to be measured or acknowledged.

The train had trundled by and I had watched it go. Disappearing into the horizon while I remained fixed to the spot.

 “I was pretty pleased,” is all I say to her in the end. Anything else would require too much explanation, and I’m not sure that I have one.

Somewhere in the distance the siren call of a train rings out and lingers in the night air.

And I imagine us then, jumping aboard and stowing ourselves away deep inside the wagon. Pulling out into the night toward some other future. Allowing ourselves to be taken away. Far, far away.