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Friday, January 10, 2014

Breaking Away. By John von Daler

                           Wooden floors. Smooth from the touch of hands and feet. Solid, thick ropes. Sliding beams for exercising. Walls filled with rows of bars. Windows close to the ceiling, for light and air but not for seeing in or out. High above everything on the back wall an indoors balcony connected to an apartment on the next floor. The old lady used to come out quietly to watch the class exercising. She would give you a sly nod if you looked up and noticed her.

                She had started the school decades before, had run it for years in the spirit of forthright, honest common sense: life is movement, death is stagnation. Finally she had stopped teaching and passed her school on to a man who seemed the right one to carry it on in her spirit. Then she had withdrawn to her apartment to meet her old age head on. At almost one hundred years, she had gone quietly away.
                Her successor had gone on with her projects, one of which was to activate older men. In the beautiful old room professors, lawyers, doctors, musicians and other somber souls ran and hopped and pushed and pulled their way to longer lives. The young teacher would put on some music and steer the graying and bellied pillars of society through exercises and games for an hour every week. Without their noticing it these old men slowly found a new vibrancy through the exercises and left the room each week with steadier gaits and cheeks full of color.
                Today was one of the good days. Months of exercise had lifted the collective stamina and the old men were stomping around in the gym in great spirits. The teacher, who himself was very agile, had started the day with some Swedish jazz, but now he had gone on to an Austrian waltz in a gushing tempo. The steps in which he lead them were a kind of chassé in one large circle moving against the clock. Stiff, white bodies shuffled quickly through the paces around and around the room.
                If their teacher had told these men that they now were going to dance ballet, then they would have balked at his commands and told him to figure out something else to do. But what with the music and their physical well-being they seemed not to notice that they in fact were dancing in formation in the manner of, say, the corps de ballet from Swan Lake. If anyone could have adorned them with tutus, they would have danced on unknowlingly and fairly gracefully, considering their age.
                The participants, except for one, were so involved in getting the steps right that they failed to notice the deceased but still stately old woman appear on the old balcony. She looked pale but happy. You might even say expectant.
                As they flew around the room the old woman watched lovingly and lifting her right hand, its index finger pointed down at the middle of the floor, she rolled the hand gracefully clockwise and onto its back in a gesture of acceptance, as if to say, be my guest.
                At this moment the waltz by the elder Strauss reached a climax of elegance and delicacy. As if pulled by the strings of a group of puppeteers, all of the old men simultaneously left the floor, springing delicately with both feet for a few seconds. Abruptly the pounding of their feet on wood was silenced and replaced by a colossal sigh, as if from one person, but it was in fact one giant breath inhaled by the whole group. As the men hung there transfixed in the air one could see that not a few of them looked frightened around the eyes. When they seconds later fell back to the floor, the old lady disappeared from her balcony.
                Afterwards, changing back into their street clothes the old men said quite a few things, none of which interpreted what they had experienced identically nor in fact necessarily even admitted that it had happened. A bearded man with a slouch remarked that what with global warming, gravity was losing its grip. Another bald man with a pot belly loosened his sweatpants and as they fell to the floor remarked that it certainly had been frightfully warm in the gym. Another large, pudgy man wanted to talk about bird migration and a little, skinny fellow remarked that he was feeling as hollow as a balloon and that he was looking forward to a good meal of beef and potatoes.
                The one man who had seen the deceased woman on her balcony said nothing, but once outside, after climbing onto his bicycle, he stopped to look up at the lighted windows of the gym. He slapped the pockets on his jacket, trying to remember whether he had forgotten something that he should go back to retrieve. But then he thought, Never mind. 
              


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