Martin walks into his apartment and throws the poles and gear onto the floor. It's a move that says, “I'll take care of this stuff later.” He moves into the living room and plops down in his lazyboy, exhausted. He picks up the remote and mindlessly clicks the power button. Nothing happens. Of course, the TV is still a shattered mess on the floor.
He looks into the kitchen. There is another bottle of jack on top of the fridge. On most other nights he would run to it, dive into it, get lost in it. It would help him find the morning. He would drink that calming hum into his head, that tingle in the fingertips, the weightlessness behind the eyes.
Instead, he walks into the kitchen, up to the fridge, but reaches up past the bottle to the cupboards beyond. He pulls out a dust pan and brush. Then he goes to a closet and brings out a vacuum cleaner. He gets a garbage bag. Tonight he won't drink himself to sleep. Tonight is about starting to put the pieces back together.
After twenty minutes of boxing up cracked plastic and glass, vacuuming slivers and shards and then cleaning the carpet, Martin pulls two garbage bags full of scraps and trash into his garage. He drops them into his garbage can. Done. Before he heads back in he looks around the small garage. Boxes, bags, weights, tools, the garage is a dusty spread of randomness, most of which has been here, unopened and untouched, since Martin moved in. There is a tall stack of boxes next to the garbage can. He opens the top box, and as the lid opens outward, golden light dances over Martin's arm and the wall beyond. The box has trophies in it, dozens of trophies and medals, most with wrestlers poised for action. This stack of boxes is sitting next to the garbage can for a reason. Martin was done with them.
He picks up the top two boxes and carries them to another pile against the far wall, toward some other boxes that seem more permanent, more important. This pile is safe from the garbage man. His trophies are safe, for now.
He starts sizing the rest of it up, starting with the weights. They've been laid out for craigslist photos. They have prices written on sticky notes attached to them. Not anymore. He pulls the notes. He heads back into the apartment and returns with a bucket and some rags.
He lays them out by sizes, a small grouping, medium grouping, and heavy grouping. They are old, dusty, rusty, forgotten and neglected. Not anymore. He begins to clean and scrub and dry. He breaks down the size allotments even more, all 5 lbs and smaller weights together, 10's and 15's together, 25's, 35's and 45's together. He cleans his barbells, his dumb bells, then he loads some weights onto his dumb bell handles. He takes them through a lifting series, a series he did countless times many years ago. The movements are tired and stiff, but there is a memory there. Curls, presses, lateral raises, these are movements his arms endured, even enjoyed, long ago.
The weights aren't the only things coated in rust.
Against one of the walls, lying on the floor, is a large punching bag. Martin walks to it and surveys the chains and hooks that hang it. He looks at the exposed two-by-fours in the ceiling. He wonders if they will hold the bag's weight?
He throws some chain over the beams and hooks up the bag. He gives it a light one-two. The ceiling creaks gently. He hits it harder, a solid jab-cross-hook. Louder creaks. He lets loose with a hard right hand. There is a crack somewhere in the wood, loud and ominous. Okay, now he knows.
“Reinforcement,” he whispers.
Back to the weights. He goes through the lifting series again, this time faster and with more reps. Harder, faster, then he drops the weights, breathing heavily. After a few breaths he grabs them again, goes again, drops them again, now breathing harder, sweating. Each set pulls more sweat from his forehead, sends his heart booming and deepens the growing burn in his lungs. Breathing heavily becomes gasping, the sweat on his brow spreads to his neck and back, down his chest, until he is soaked head to toe. His grip holds up, crushing the weights as his back pulls and his shoulders drive and his quads fire. Each set gets more violent, more vicious, until in the end he drops the weights and collapses onto his hands and knees. The humble prayer of the athlete, praying to the gods of strength. He looks blasted, destroyed, ready to pass out.
But there is something else, under the pain and nausea and discomfort, something he hasn't felt in awhile. He smiles. He laughs, the laugh from the roadside the other night, the laugh of a madman.
He stops laughing. He looks up.
The bathroom door blasts open, slamming into the towel rack behind it and ricocheting back against Martin's shoulder as he dives for the toilet. He drops to his knees and just manages to lift the toilet seat lid before he lets go. He throws up, hard. It had been a little while since he hit a hard workout. He'd worked hard on work sites. He pushed himself there for years. But that is a different pace. Tonight was a reminder. He pushed hard enough and fast enough to remember what he is capable of, what he has been missing out on all of these years. He pushed a little too hard too fast and he deserved it. He felt like he deserved to suffer.
He washes his mouth out and wets his face. In the mirror he notices his hand has opened up again and the bandage is soaked with blood. He hadn't considered that, hadn't really felt it during the workout. As he removes the bandage the gash looks awful, red and swollen, looking like it is getting infected. It is big enough that some ointment and a simple bandage isn't going to cut it.
He gets in the shower. When the water hits his hand he winces. He shuts his eyes and pulls it from the water. He opens his eyes. He places his hand back in the water. He needs to wash it out. He wants to feel it. He needs to be able to take it if he is headed where he thinks he is headed. Confronting Nate, using the weights, dealing with his hand, it is training. He is going to find more ways to test himself in the days and weeks to come. He knows he has to.
Once showered and dressed he goes to his phone.
“Hey, what are you up to?” a cheery voice asks.
“Oh you know, just calling my favorite sister.”
“Well you were always my favorite brother, so we're a perfect match. How are the girls? I feel like I haven't seen them in months.”
“They're great, way too old and way too smart. Last week, Hillary asked me what a blow job is. I'm very scared.”
Taryn laughs. Martin thinks about her veterinary clinic, about how she gets up before 5:00am to take care of her own dogs before opening the clinic at 6:00am to care of other people's dogs, and cats, and dozens of other animals. Now, nearing 11:00pm, she is still awake and as peppy as usual.
“It's a really good question,” she says, still laughing. “What is a blow job, really? I mean, at it's core. What is its nature?”
“Of course you would take a question like that and use it to explore the nature of reality.”
“People think some things are more reality than other things. It's all reality. Even blow jobs.”
“I'll be sure to send Hillary your way the next time she asks me about sexual acts.”
“I'm happy to help,” Taryn says.
Martin looks at where the TV used to be.
“I took them fishing today. We went to one of dad's old spots.”
Martin is surprised he said it that way. It doesn't matter where they went, it doesn't matter whether or not it was or wasn't one of dad's old spots, but he said it anyway. His father is on his mind, and he wonders if that isn't the actual reason he called his sister.
Taryn stops laughing.
“How are your girls doing?” he says, trying to pull out of the conversation that was about to happen. As Taryn looks behind her, three dogs look up from their positions on the floor. Their ears go up and they wag their tails at the attention.
“They're great. They know all about blow jobs, we had that talk years ago.”
“Why do you have to be so awesome?” Martin asks.
“I don't have to be. I just... am. I feel like if you're good at something, you have to do it, you know? So what else is up? Not that I don't like talking to you, but it seems like...” She pauses, looking at her phone for the time. “Sweet Jesus is it really 11:00?”
“It is,” Martin says.
“11:00 on a Saturday night seems like a weird time for a loving brother call.”
Martin looks down at his hand and squeezes it closed, slowly.
“You're good, you saw right through me. I could use a professional opinion about something.”
“Oh my God, I knew it. You're getting a dog, aren't you? Finally, oh yes finally, I knew it I knew it I knew it you are getting a dog. Are you getting a dog?” She begins singing and jumping around her living room. “Martin Bell is getting a dog! Martin Bell is getting a dog!”
Martin tries to stop her before she flies away with the idea but he can't. She is gone, twirling around her living room, spinning into the kitchen, smacking her dogs on their rumps and squealing about how they are going to have a cousin soon.
“Taryn? Taryn, hey, listen... I'm not getting a dog.”
“Martin Bell is getting a dog!”
“Yeah? Sorry, I just got excited, I'm sorry. Okay, I'm calm.”
“Are you calm?”
“I'm cool, I'm calm, I'm collected. Okay, deep breath, sorry.”
“I'm not getting a dog.”
Taryn is silent for a few seconds. Martin can hear her breathing.
“Say yet,” she says.
“Say yet, Martin. Say yet.”
“Sorry. I'm not getting a dog... yet.”
“You're damn right, yet. Okay, well, you ruined my night but go ahead, what sort of professional opinion from your sister do you absolutely need this late on a Saturday night?”
“Well, it's not your opinion so much as your skills.”
“I don't understand.”
“Well, I may have... cut my hand.”
“What? How? Did you work today? I thought you went fishing with the girls?”
“Yeah, I did. I cut my hand at work a few days ago.”
Another silence. This is the part Martin knew was coming. Disappointed silence. Flustered breathing.
“So first you tell me you're not getting a dog, and then you tell me you cut yourself, probably badly by the sound of it, and let it go for a few days before seeking help? Is that right?”
“I think you just about covered it, yeah,” he says.
“Martin,” she starts, breathing deeply in and deeply out again, “okay. You know what, okay. I'm not even going to lecture you about it. If you're coming to me for help days later then we probably have about an hour before your hand rots off or you die from sepsis. Meet me at my office in ten minutes.”
“No, it's not that bad...”
Martin squeezes his hand one more time. He watches the skin around the wound bleach white as the scabs break open and ooze fluids down to his wrist. A single trickle of blood runs across the knuckles.
“See you in ten,” he says.
“How the hell did you do this? Did your jack hammer break down so you just used your fist?”
Under the hot light over the exam table, the wound looks even worse. Martin's mind flashes to Nate's face, bouncing up and down under the onslaught of punches. Thinking about it again now, he did kind of use his fist like a jack hammer.
“Pretty much,” Martin says.
“I can't believe you didn't get this looked at. Well, I can believe it, I can totally believe it, but seriously?”
“Don't you have insurance?
“I do. Money is just a little tight right now.”
“For what, a forty dollar co-pay?”
Martin shrugs. He messed up his hand beating the shit out of a man for less than that. When Taryn realizes he is that broke, she can't believe it.
“Martin? Are you serious? What happened, what is going on?”
“Just a brief thin spell,” he says.
“A thin spell?”
“Construction is tough right now. I've been through it before, it'll turn around.”
“Screw that, why didn't you tell me? I'll pay your co-pay. I'll pay your deductible. I'll give you money, whatever you need.”
“Hey, just stitch up my hand. I don't need you trying to stitch up my life.”
“Of course not, I'm just your little sister. I'm just your family, why would you want help from me?”
“I don't need help, but thank you. If I did ever ask anyone for help, it would definitely be you.”
“Yeah, it better be. Can you feel this?”
She injected a local anesthetic and is poking the tissue surrounding the wounds.
“Nope,” he lies.
She digs the first suture needle into his skin. She is focused on his hand so doesn't see his face, doesn't see the muscles in his neck jerk to full tension, doesn't see him clench his jaw. He can obviously feel the needle. When she looks up he looks away, plays it off, but it hurts.
He wants it to hurt.
“So other than punching the ground, how is the rest of life?”
“That's pretty much taking up all my time these days.”
“I think about you whenever they air another story about all the housing stuff. The way they talk about it, you'd think all construction jobs are going to be gone by next year. Are you nervous about it all?”
Martin thinks about the meeting with management, about his remaining three weeks of employment.
“Nah. I'll be fine. Ups and downs have always been a part of the business. I am glad we are working commercial jobs right now. Those jobs haven't totally dried up just yet.”
Taryn pulls the needle through another patch of skin and Martin's teeth grind.
“Ups and downs are one thing. This doesn't seem to be a normal down.”
“Eh, you know how the news is. They like to blow things out of proportion. It sells more papers.
It gets more air time. You grew up with dad, you know how it goes. Some Christmases were great, some weren't so great, that's the way it is.”
Martin flinches. Taryn dug a little deep on that one and he wasn't prepared. She looks up at him when he jumps.
“That felt... weird.”
“You felt that? How did you feel that? Do I need to give you more lidocaine?”
“No, it's fine. Just keep going, it just felt weird for a second.”
“Well if you're feeling it at all right now then you're really going to feel it later.”
“It's fine, really.”
Taryn watches Martin's other fist slowly unclench. The color rushes back into the white knuckles and fingers. She knows he's been feeling the pain, and repeated suture needle plunges through inflamed and mildly infected wounds is a lot of pain. She slides back in her rolling chair and fishes another vial out of a drawer.
“It's not fine, more pain means more inflammation and more swelling and a longer recovery.”
“Just finish it up, you're almost done, right?”
“Martin, you really should...”
“Just finish it!”
Taryn stops, pulling her hands away as if from a biting dog. She pulls the vial in close to her chest. She looks at him. She waits for him to say something. Martin looks away. Angry outbursts aren't the norm for Martin, not with her. She has never seen his drunken outbursts in his apartment, never seen his rage-filled screaming or his TV destruction, nothing even really close. Not in many years. Martin is the guy you bring to a tense meeting. He is the level headed one, the one you can count on to keep his cool. He was the one getting in between mom and dad when they fought. He was the defuser when they were growing up.
She puts the stitching implements down on the gauze pad next to Martin.
“I'm sorry,” he says, shaking his head, “I'm just... I don't need... please keep going.”
Taryn stares back at him, into his eyes. He can't look back at her. He looks down to his hand and breathes out through his nose. Taryn resumes stitching, just more carefully. She realizes how ragged Martin is here, how close he is to some edge. She puts her head down, focusing on her work.
“My life is just... strange right now, and I know I don't get to take it out on you. It's not your fault. You're great, you're doing great, thank you.”
Taryn pays no attention to his words. They are meaningless now. She has decided to help her brother and then let him be on his way before he says something else insulting or abusive.
“I'm sorry. Hey, I'm sorry.”
Taryn makes a final knot, pulls, and cuts a loose strand before finally looking up from his arm.
She rises and starts to collect the instruments and items for cleanup. Martin realizes he crossed a line and there is no coming back tonight. He rises from the chair and stretches out his hand.
“You're going to need to keep that clean and dry. I'm going to give you something to put on it.”
“These will rip if you aren't careful, and if you rip them I'm not sewing them in again.”
“No YOU stop! If you're going to ask for my help and then treat me like shit then you can go find someone else to help you. I've had enough of that, thanks! I'm going to go home now, you should go home, too.”
Taryn walks out of the exam room. Martin grabs his coat and follows her. Once out in the hallway, he hears her rummaging through a drawer somewhere. The drawer slams and she makes her way to the front door. She blazes through setting the alarm system and locking the door. She doesn't look at Martin, but is holding the door open and waiting for him to leave. He walks past her without a word.
Once the door is closed and locked, he is ready with his one last attempt.
“Thank you... for doing this,” he says, holding up his hand. “It will really help me out.”
She walks toward him, quickly. Threateningly. He backs away slightly as she approaches. His hands go up slightly. When she gets to him, rather than hit him, she holds out her hand. He takes the contents: his antibacterial gel.
“Go see dad. I don't care whether you want to or not, whether you feel like it or not, just do it.”
She walks to her car. Martin has no response. It is a demand he will have to obey. He watches her back out of her parking space. He is waiting for her to stop torturing him, to get out of her car and apologize so he can apologize and they can apologize together and move on. They can talk about the stress of their lives, of the state their father is in, of broken marriages and broken homes and broken hearts.
But her car doesn't stop. Her tires crunch along the asphalt as she backs up, then slide slightly when she brakes. Once in drive, the car lurches forward and the tires squeak and he watches her roll through the lot and pull out onto the street. The car roars off into the night.