Not For Show

After swimming laps at the Y, taking a shower and going to the locker room to get dressed, I discovered that the key to my locker padlock was not in my gym bag, where I always put it, where I was sure I put it, having done so for years. Routines are good, you can mostly trust them but they can weaken and tear through from overuse and a moment of distraction. Ask an insurance underwriter; most car accidents happen within a mile of home, first because that’s where people are mostly like to be, and second because the too familiar like the unfamiliar can be dangerous. You don’t have to be seventy-five years old either, though it helps. Becoming good at living at this age involves an awareness of the pitfalls inherent in your habits, and the ability to laugh at yourself. Long experience teaches who and how you are which can make up for declining abilities in some cases.

I searched the bag thoroughly again, disbelieving the key was not there. It made no sense and makes no sense to this day. Anyway, I put my swimming trunks back on and went to the pool to look for the key on the bench where I put the bag for the time I was swimming. Maybe it had fallen out. No luck. Walking the length of the pool on the deck, eyed by the bored lifeguard, I checked the water in the lane where I swam. Maybe I had mistakenly put the key in the pocket of my trunks and it had fallen out. Right. I just didn’t want this thing to be true.

Back in the locker room, I dumped the contents of the bag out on the bathroom counter with three sinks under a big, bright mirror where you see too much: goggles, extra goggles, hair brush, shampoo, skin lotion, razor, shaving cream, loofah, one white sock and a granola bar wrapper. I looked at myself, chagrined at being old though I had witnessed the process step by step, hair by hair and tooth by tooth. I shook my head and pressed my lips together.

The locker room was empty so there was no one else to take account of my behavior and I wished someone was, a person to whom I could display my competence in the narrative I created about my incompetence. Despite appearances, I could still be part of the functioning, storytelling human race, bonding with other males over our befuddled natures.

A sweaty teenager walked by with a basketball on his hip, under a casual wrist the way I used to do when I was a gym rat. With my possessions strewn on the counter, the kid and I nodded to each other in the mirror which was more intimate than if we had been face to face, looking and being caught looking. I tried to imagine what the nod meant to him, if anything, while to me it meant a lot in the incremental recovery of my dignity. Somehow I wanted this kid to know that not only did I not usually lose keys or take up a counter meant for three people, but once upon a time I played lots of ball, was a decent shooter and defender. I said nothing about any of it, aware that it would not be cool, would be completely uncool and, though I have been good over my lifetime at talking my way out of trouble, I have also been good at talking my way into trouble, as the manner of this report shows. There have been many times when I walked away from an encounter kicking myself over a remark that I realized too late made no possible sense to the other person. Woe to those whose self-consciousness battles their cool every step of the way. Sometimes they dance, sometimes they trip, you never know, with the eyes of the world upon them. At least they’re still in the arena trying. Basketball also requires an assertion of will, shown in the way you carry yourself on the court, in your intense defensive crouch or in your non-chalance before a sudden explosion, for example. I wished the kid gone. I did not like him. It felt personal, that he showed up like that. He took a leak and left.

What I had to do next was clear to me. Barefoot and cold with a towel around my shoulders, I took the elevator to the front desk to have someone paged to come with lock cutters and snap the lock. I had witnessed this very thing once. But when you are old and aware that others might begin to question how with it you are, you have to be ready to make a joke out of it, which I did, shivering slightly in the breeze from the front entrance, to the always smiling sixty five or so year old woman who said hello to everyone as they entered the building to scan their membership cards and receive a welcoming beep. I knew she would probably be the one I’d have to talk to and had brushed my remaining hair. This woman has a nice smile, makes deep eye contact and wears two industrial looking wristbands as she works at a keyboard. At least, I had merely lost my key and was not wandering around in a daze, half-naked.

“I’m sure I’m not the first person and I won’t be the last…etc etc etc.” A charming, articulate, self-deprecating, regular man who doesn’t like people looking at his feet. I sucked in my belly.

The smiling woman, in whose league I fancied myself, turned in her swivel chair because at that moment a security guard was behind her punching the time clock to begin his shift.

“I’ll meet you down there with the lock cutters, sir,” said the tall, moustached black man who didn’t fill out his guard uniform. “Five minutes.”

Now this was better. I was out a little time and dignity and a good padlock. My Y is a great Y.

Five minutes later, the security guard was at my locker with lock cutters. I wondered: Could this skinny man actually snap the lock? No, he could not, it was clear after some mighty straining.

“Master Lock,” he said, and climbed onto the bench for better leverage. “The best.”

He groaned and trembled and laughed with effort but it was not to be. This guy was also used to a certain kind of frailty, the way he laughed at himself. We were brothers. I couldn’t see even a dent in the shank. The jaws of the lockcutter looked like a toothless old man or turtle. I didn’t ask if I could give it a try because that would have been slightly absurd, and too much if I had succeeded. Much as it would have built me up, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it because of the frail guard. In that, I kept my cool. We sat on benches opposite from each other, looking down at the floor, shaking our heads, at a shared, common, disturbing truth.

“The weight room,” he said and stood. “I’ll be right back.”

Not a humble scarecrow in a uniform, not just at the Y for show, providing safety and security, smart, and true to his word, the guard returned with a young, ripped and gentle-looking guy in a muscle shirt, six foot two, two hundred twenty pounds, I’d say, who after realizing it would take more than a casual effort, made short work of my lock, snapping each side of the shank in its turn.

“Thanks so much.”

“Not a problem,” he said, cool as could be, taking the extraordinary for granted, his amazing muscles not just for show, or just for exercise either. After he left, the guard and I bumped fists deeply.

A few nights later I had a dream. Same circumstance but this time it was a combination lock I couldn’t open after swimming because I had locked my brain in the locker, and so could no longer remember the combination. How I had carried on brainless up until then was not addressed by the dream, paradoxes being of no account in a land of metaphors. Just as before, down came the same nice, security guard, who after studying the problem, didn’t opt for the weight room this time but said he would fetch a five-year-old child to retrieve my brain for me.


Steven Schutzman: has published their work in such places as The Pushcart Prize and Defenestration and everywhere in between. Steven is also a seven-time recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Grant Award.