FIT ENOUGH TO DIE
Sam started jogging at about the time that Mabel decided it wasn’t worth looking at her wrinkles any more.
‘Jesus I look old,’ she said to herself when she caught the bathroom light emphasizing the bags under her eyes. She was looking in the mirror to do her makeup.
And it was true. She looked old because she was old. Well, everything’s relative, but she was certainly passed her prime, as the saying goes.
Wrinkles had merged into awkward and tenacious folds and creases that had beaten even the most expensive cosmetic concoctions, magic lotions, rejuvenating potions and other skin wonder creams. Mainly on her face it’s true, but on other parts of her body too. But we won’t go into that right now.
Mabel and Sam had been happily married for seventeen years, and the kids had finally flown the nest.
‘Free at last. After half a century of bringing up children,’ is how Sam liked to put it.
When this raised eyebrows, he explained. ‘Well, three kids. Multiply each one by the roughly eighteen or twenty years that they’re with you, and that makes fifty or sixty. So that’s more than half a century of wiping bums and noses and handing out pocket money in ever increasing amounts.’
‘Oh stop it darling,’ Mabel would say. ‘Everyone’s heard it before. And it’s not very funny anymore. If it ever was, that is.’
‘Well, it used to be both. Funny and true. But that was in the old days. When you used to laugh a lot more. When we used to enjoy ourselves. And you were fun to be with.
But, somehow, we seem to have lost all that.’
Then a dark day dawned. Mabel’s mother moved in.
Something was happening in her head, and no one knew what.
She’d always been good to them and the kids, and she’d never been any trouble.
But not long after Grandpa Jack died, things started to change. She had boyfriends. Or she thought she did. She went away on ocean liners. In her imagination.
But she did go out at night. And that was a fact. Late. And people, usually the police, had to take her home.
‘Just imagine their faces,’ Sam said in the Mitre.
‘This old dame walking down the road at midnight. In her underwear. And you should have seen the underwear. She’d bought it from one of those mail order companies that advertise in catalogues. I think they’re great. But Marge throws them out as soon as they arrive. She thinks they’re disgusting. And I start getting a stiffy whenever I read them. When I can get my hands on them first that is.’
Not long after the rather sobering mirror mirror on the wall experience, Sam and Mabel’s relationship seemed to deteriorate. That’s what the neighbors thought anyway.
‘Maybe it’s her mother’s fault,’ said some of them.
Others had noticed Sam’s fitness routine. Jogging around the block. Working up a sweat. Smart new tracksuit. Obviously intent on reducing weight. And keeping fit.
‘I wonder what that’s all about?’ they asked.
Sam and Mabel, and most of their neighbors, had moved into the area at roughly the same time. Years ago, when the suburb was newly developing.
Young couples with aspirations for themselves and their kids. Mostly yuppie ideas they more often than not didn’t have the wherewithal to fulfill.
As the years passed, some became firm friends, some remained friendly no matter what, some fell out, some made up, some moved away, and others moved in.
It was a microcosm of modern, urban middle class living.
And, as one would expect, some succumbed to their inner emotions, their secret drives and hidden vices. Inevitably, a few wound up contravening a stricture of the scriptures.
The seventh sin. The most difficult one to subscribe to, some think. And the one, it seems, that hardly anyone remembers anymore. Or, to put it slightly differently, the one we most readily choose to forget.
‘So, Sam’s joined a gym, they tell me. What’s happened to him?’
This was in the Mitre, a good place to be during daylight hours if you had a thirst, and a good place to be out of at closing time when the atmosphere was alive with tension.
A group of regulars was buying rounds.
‘The closest I get to exercise is thinking about it.’
‘Good idea. And when you get the urge, you should sit down until it passes.’
Someone said, ‘It makes you smell.’ Another added that, ‘You only get a set number of heartbeats in your life. So why waste them on running?’
‘I recon Sam must’ve found a Sheila, that’s what I think.’
Many a true spoken in jest.
Sam had found someone, and when Marge found out she was devastated.
Days dragged into years, but they managed to adjust to Mabel’s mother’s intrusion. And Sam’s fitness regime was never mentioned.
The kids grew up and granny grew older. In a way it got easier as she added on the years, because she was asleep more often than not, heavily sedated to keep her where they wanted her.
Not wondering around the neighborhood at night in her underwear.
And luckily they could afford home-helpers.
‘They’ve saved our lives, those nurses or whatever they are,’ Sam told the guys at the club.
‘Couldn’t have done it without them. It’s one thing cleaning up kids when they’ve made a mess…’
‘OK, OK, Sam,’ someone interrupted. He didn’t want to hear the vivid, techincolour descriptions again. And, intent on changing the subject, ‘Hey, what about the cricket then? Their bowlers are amazing.’
One day Mabel’s mother passed away and it was all over.
Sometimes Mabel thought the old lady was dead long before she actually died. She was often in such a deep sleep Mabel assumed it was a coma.
But it was only part of her regime.
And when she asked the doctor about it he admitted that it was a routine procedure.
‘Well the tablets are partly to reduce the pain. And partly to keep you sane. Partly to ensure a good night's sleep and partly to keep her sedated and to stop her getting fractious or agitated.
So they’re prescribed to make your life easier too.
Quite safe really. But it's important she sticks to the dosage. Or you do, that is, because it's really strong stuff. Don't leave the tablets lying around where she can get her hands on them. And never give her more than six a day. That's the absolute maximum. Otherwise we’ll have ourselves a problem. A real problem, in fact.’
‘I find jogging relaxing,’ Sam would tell anyone prepared to listen.
One of his neighbors didn’t agree. ‘Jogging’s the pits. It should be banned.’
The bar was busy and they’d all been there a while.
‘It’s neither running nor walking. And it’s bloody boring to boot.’
‘Yea, I agree. It never got Jimmy Styxx anywhere either.’
‘What? Who? Who’s he?’
‘James Styxx. You know. The guy who invented jogging. Died of a heart attack. Early fifties, as I remember. In the sixties. Died in his fifties, is what I mean. And he made it popular in the sixties. So I rest my case. That should be warning enough for anyone. Because Stixx got himself fit enough to die. Through jogging. So whenever I feel like some exercise I have a vigorous sit down. And that’s about it.’
Sam kept out of the discussion on jogging after that.
The afternoon was settling into its usual boring pattern of well-worn jokes and anecdotes.
Then he left, pretending to go to the gents’, but not going back to the bar.
As soon as they realized he’d gone, someone said, ‘He'll soon be fit enough to see Barbara more regularly.’
‘You know, his next-door neighbor. The one who helps him out from time to time. With his books, I think. And other things I’m beginning to think as well. Well she doesn’t live next door exactly, but round the corner. I think he's always fancied her, I do. It’s obvious. You just have to see them at a party. Like magnets they are. And you can see it written all over Mabel's face. It burns her up it does. She doesn't like him chatting her up. Not her, I mean Barbara. Not at all.’
‘So do you think Mabel knows what’s going on?’
‘Must do, I’d say. Can’t have missed it. Blind Freddy wouldn’t.’
Sam was cutting things fine, and Marge appeared not to have noticed. Or so it seemed.
But she had noticed several changes. She’d noticed his special high fruit and high fruit diet. She saw that he’d even cut down on his alcohol. Which he'd always loved.
And there were other changes. His business got busier. Much busier. And then he was away a lot. On trips.
Mostly overnight. Or even a few nights. And then weeks away became routine.
When Mabel finally worked out what was going on, she was devastated.
Of course there were some, a few, but not many, days when the equilibrium was OK. When they weren’t at each others throats.
There were even days when they got on reasonably well. Not quite the good old days, but not far off.
One afternoon they shared a bottle of cold white wine. Mabel felt relaxed and Sam seemed to unwind to a certain extent too. They appeared to have re-established something that had been lost between them. They sat close together. They brushed against each other from time to time.
The wine started to take effect. Sam streached. It was body language that Mabel had seen so many times before. ‘I’m ready when you are,’ was the underlying message.
‘Are we expecting anyone?’ he asked.
‘Not that I know of.’
They went inside.
But the spell was soon broken. She saw him looking at his naked body in the mirror. ‘Jesus. That’s not bad. What jogging’s done for me, I mean.’
‘Has jogging done it for you or are you jogging for someone else’s sake?’
‘What on earth do you mean by that.’
‘Well, you must know what all the neighbours are saying?’
He stared at her. He knew what was coming. He put his hand on his erection. ‘OK, so what are they saying?’
‘They say you’re fucking Barbara Black at every opportunity, that’s what they’re saying.’
Mabel brooded on her alternatives for a while. They all seemed bad. Or worse than that. Then she suddenly made up her mind.
She went into the storeroom. It had once been a large bedroom, but had gradually filled with old bicycles, tennis racquets, boxes of papers, dusty books and all kinds of the cast off detritus of urban living.
She found a chair and climbed up it to see onto the top shelf of a built in cupboard. There was a pile of magazines in the far corner. Not exactly hidden, but well out of the way. She opened one and stared at the photos. ‘Well, well, Sam certainly has some hidden dimensions. Never would have guessed he was into this kind of stuff.’
Right at the back Mabel felt the gun. She took it down and looked at it.
It had been Sam’s father’s father’s.
She got off the stool and went outside.
It was in a beautiful canvas cover with leather seams. His father had given it to him, but he’d never used it.
She was expecting Sam to come home from a trip that night, but she was also half expected a phone call to say, ‘Don’t expect me.’
She remembered how he’d showed the shotgun to her one day. A long time ago.
It was a twelve-gauge with intricate designs on both the stock and the barrels.
‘This is how it breaks open. This is how you put the cartridges into the firing chamber. These are the hammers that release when you pull the trigger. They hit the firing pin, which strikes the primer that explodes and forces the shot down the bore. Which we call the barrel. Two barrels, as you can see, but you don’t pull both triggers at once. Great weapon.’
But he got bored quickly and never showed any further interest in his grandfather’s gun.
‘If I was interested in guns I’d have joined the army.’
So it went back into the on top of the cupboard and was soon forgotten.
Until Mabel climbed up on the stool to look for it that fateful day.
She broke open the mechanism and put two cartridges into the blue-black chambers.
If Sam was coming home, he’d be due any minute now.
She lifted the stock to her shoulder and looked down the barrels. She pointed it at the garage door. At the neighbor’s pantry window. Her car windscreen. Then at Juno, the old family dog who had stirred and was now walking slowly towards her, wagging its tail.
Mabel put down the gun. She patted the dog. ‘Don’t worry darling. I’d never do anything like that to you.’
Mabel put the gun back into its case and went into the house. Back it went on top of the cupboard in the storeroom that had once been a bedroom.
In the kitchen she poured milk into a cup and put on the kettle.
The radio in the lounge was on and the presenter had just announced a cello concerto that she loved.
Mabel put some instant coffee into the cup.
When it was ready she sat down on her favorite high-backed chair and listened to the music. She closed her eyes.
Then she got up and went into the bathroom. She looked at her wrinkles in the mirror.
‘Jesus, I’m getting old,’ she said as she took a plastic phial out of the mirror-fronted cupboard.
She went back to her chair and sat down with her milky coffee.
The cello concerto was slowing as it neared the end of the fourth movement, preparing for the tension of the finale.
Marge heard Juno barking in the back yard.
She read the label on the medicine bottle. It contained her mother’s sleeping pills.
WARNING. MAXIMUM DOSE 6 TABLETS IN ANY 24 HOUR PERIOD. DO NOT TAKE MORE THAN THE PRESCRIBED QUANTITY.
The dog was scratching at the back door.
The cello was rising towards the final chords.
Marge carefully counted the pile of tablets she’d emptied onto the table next to her cup.
The total was many more than the prescribed dosage.