The LED counter on the gym’s treadmill had climbed to 160 and he was only jogging. Years ago he’d have gone at twice his current speed, despite a two-pack a day cigarette habit.
His flagging speed was one way to measure the slow tick of years, but there were others like the growth of his child. A newborn spitting stains on his shirt, a toddler spellbound by a story, a pre-schooler splashing in the pool, a quiet reader sampling comics, a teen learning to flirt, a high school grad learning to drink, an angry young woman fighting her demons, an adult with a career job too busy to call.
When she was three they’d gone to the gym together, he to exercise, she to daycare. He ran at his old high school speed, whooshing by the middle aged office workers. The track ran around the gym about 30 feet above the floor. Runners could look below and ogle the girls playing volleyball or the strutting men lifting weights. Once he saw his daughter wandering with a herd of three-year-olds chivvied along by a teacher.
“Molly!” he called from the overhead track. She stopped and peered in every direction but his. “Oh Molly!” he sang out again. A teacher pointed up at him and she waved, not the least bit surprised to find him watching her. He was always watching her.
Now that girl was 30 and those middle aged runners were whooshing past him. The woman on the next treadmill was pounding away at a steady gait absorbed by the music in her headphones. He stole a look at her LED display. Over 8 mph. Much faster than he could go. Suddenly he was tired.
But he knew how to deal with it. He adjusted his headphones, picked up the conductor’s baton and called the orchestra to order. They played his latest composition, a concerto in D for violin and flute. The audience was rapt with attention. His co-workers sat in the front row, the lovely Charmaine among them. She was thrilled by his commanding presence as the musicians followed his every move and gesture. Borne aloft by his fantasy, he increased the speed of the treadmill to 5 mph. Soon the concerto was over.
“Let that be a lesson to you, Molly,” he said to his daughter. “Learning to distract yourself is a life skill.”
He had been a dedicated life skill instructor and Molly an eager pupil at least until she was ten. He had taught her how to hammer a nail, change a quarter into dimes and nickels and steer the car from the passenger seat while he opened a cup of coffee.
The lessons continued in virtual form after his marriage broke up and his wife and daughter moved to Toronto. In his mind he taught Molly how to paddle a canoe, land a Cessna 150, write a MySQL query, set up lighting for a product shot and write a newspaper lead.
He flew to Toronto every few months. They went skating and then to the library where she started her lifelong addiction to science fiction stories. They played snooker in a bar and shared a glass of wine. He told her she was pretty and obviously smart despite her poor marks in school. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t run as fast as her friends, he said. She had asthma. It was like carrying a 20-pound weight.
By the time Molly was 13 the Internet was cutting into his business as a print designer. There were fewer visits to Toronto. He bought her a cellphone. She would call late into the evening with specific questions: “How do you erase your history from the computer? What do you do for a bleeding tooth? Do I have to have high marks for art school? How do I block this old guy who keeps phoning me?
She was on the same phone plan 20 years later and he was still paying the bill. But the phone calls weren’t the same. She was bored with him. He was lonely.
He was driving away from the gym when his life changed forever. “Fuck you!” shrieked a girl out of nowhere. There she was in the rear view mirror, shaking her fist and picking up the books she had dropped leaping out of his way.
He didn’t stop. She wasn’t hurt. Nobody had seen him nearly run her down in a crosswalk. She had taught him another life skill: know when to quit.
He sold his car, emptied his bank account and flew to Toronto where he could live without a vehicle. Once he got situated he’d get acquainted with his daughter again.
The years had blessed him with a lanky frame and distinguished white hair. He got a job in a restaurant that catered to business conferences. The food was microwaved and the staff were badly paid. He was ideally suited for the job having no experience.
But he was good at it. He smiled at people. They listened to his menu advice. He felt important. He took on extra duties, organizing tables and getting meals ready on time. He hoped for a promotion.
He was changing coffee filters, back to the restaurant, when the group was ushered in. He grabbed his order pad and approached them. And then he stopped. Molly! Right there behind that blonde chick.
Without thinking he wheeled around and headed for the kitchen as if he’d forgotten something. “Derek, can you cover Table 5 for me? I’ll get that load of teenagers for you. They’ll never tip.”
“Nope. No can do.” Derek was a pimple faced moron but had two years’ experience and therefore outranked him.
“Come on,” he wheedled, “I can’t serve that table! I know one of those people– I don’t want her to know I work here. Please?”
Derek got busy with the coffee machine and ignored him.
He couldn’t just walk out, he’d never get a job without a reference. How about a heart attack? No, Derek already knew his secret.
It took him five minutes but he finally convinced himself to serve the table. Keep his held high and get through it. They’d be gone in an hour. He wouldn’t die.
At last he approached with his order pad, circling the table to stand behnd Molly. The others were impatient and gave their orders quickly. Only Molly was still dithering over the menu, like she had in the high chair 30 years earlier, unable to decided between carrots and peas.
Finally she looked up revealing a pair of blue-gray eyes with a tiny scar between them. He blanched and dropped his head to his order pad, hoping she’d take the hint and pretend not to recognize him. “I’ll have the steak, medium rare please with roast potatoes”. Her voice was entirely neutral. All those child acting lessons finally paying off.
Weak with relief he headed for the kitchen to post his orders. He returned with coffee and juice, working his way around the table. careful to serve Molly in the midde, standing behind her and reaching around her right side as he’d been taught.
Molly was absorbed in conversation with an older woman. Her voice was confident and the woman seemed to respect her. He eves dropeed. They hadn’t talked in months. He wasn’t sure what new job she had and what she was interested in these days.
He was quickened by the stress and over-acted the lively, entertaining waiter. He was good at it, full of anecdotes and little jokes, nodding and winking at his guests. All his guests but Molly.
At last the meal was over. He stood behind the cash register as they paid their bills, separately. Molly, thankfully, was last. He wanted to thank her but she just handed him her credit card. He ran it through the reader and handed the remote back. She keyed in her code and added a 20 per cent tip, then handed the machine back without comment.
“Thank you,” he said, without thinking. A decent tip, even if it was his own kid. She hitched her briefcase back on her shoulder. Last chance.
He steeled himself: “Molly, don’t you recognize me?”
“Molly! It’s me! Your—” he stopped himself just in time. “Sorry, thought you were somebody else.”
“No problem”. He watched her walk quickly towards the glass door to the sunlit street.
His beautiful girl had never had a scar between her eyes. And if she’d had a recent scar-producing accident, she’d have told him, wouldn’t she? Her mother would have said something, wouldn’t she?
“Thanks for coming,” he called out to her, “hope to see you again.”
The glass door opened and for a second she was silhouetted by a flash of sunlight. She waved back at him. He thought of that little girl on the gym floor.
Surely she’d come back, wouldn’t she?