Thursday, June 23, 2011

FICTION: Sisyphus by J. Falkner

He may have started with the frail sinews and slack muscles of a man near the end of his life, but he had been working at a pretty effective workout every day for over two thousand years. Just look at his legs now. Solid. And upper body? Forget about it! He could give even Heracles a run for his money. The skin may still be a bit pasty, there were a few wrinkles where it had not been stretched taut by muscle, a few liver spots, but what lay beneath was made of steel. Amazing what the constant application of pitting one man against one boulder for just a couple of millennia can do.

He had finally finished. Wrestled that boulder right to the top. Hell, he'd even given it a nudge, sending it tumbling down the other side. Hades had no choice but to let him return home, their agreement having been fulfilled. He knew all his friends were gone. Long dead. His wife, the lovely Merope, likewise. His children. Still, he wanted to give it another go. Plenty of life left in him yet, he told Persephone. She had been hanging around in his room while he packed his bags, managing to look both wistful and decorative. It was well-known that Persephone hated saying goodbye, even to someone she had known as slightly as himself. Trying to ignore the twinge in his lower back, he wished she would just leave him to it. He was impatient to get back.

There was a dizzying amount of choice in this world now. He loved the decadent luxury of selecting from what seemed like hundreds of possibilities what particular combination of food and drink would comprise his lunch. He felt the same delight when he went shopping for new clothes. The colours! More than he had ever seen collected in one place. Every conceivable fabric, not just linen or wool, his for the asking, it seemed. He did not miss the shapeless, nondescript grey tunic, washed faithfully once a week by Merope and hung out on the line. He did not think of his old life at all, if he could help it. He walked out of the department store clutching several bulging carrier bags and set about looking for a place to eat.

He knew he cut an unusual figure. His shirt, called Hawaiian by the store clerk, was brighter than he had seen any other man wear; his shorts, a print he found exciting and the same clerk called rainbow plaid, made him feel part-royalty and part-actor. He knew he studied the restaurant's menu with too much relish. What did he care? Life was too short to spend it aping the studied indifference he saw on the faces of the other patrons.

Deciding on a new name to use in this new world proved much easier than deciding on what career he would pursue in it. The restaurant he had chosen on his first day and for which forever after he felt a strong affection was called Sid's. So Sid he became. As for a career--

Back in Greece, the choice had been simple. Simple, in that it had been limited to one. He broke his back in fields and olive groves for half the year, as his father had done before him. The other half he would spend campaigning with his fellow countrymen, marching all over the country if there was a war on. If there wasn't, then he would find other pursuits that kept him away from home and his wife's nagging as much as possible. Like fighting. And drinking.

Here there were so many options. He tried his hand at quite a few; he worked in a shoe store, did odd jobs at a printer's, pumped gas. Even a stint doing secretarial work in an employment office, for which he was ribbed mercilessly for doing a woman's job. It all seemed too much like pushing a boulder up a hill to him. Backbreaking and tedious, with only the thin promise of reward at the end.

He had just left his stint a the printer's and was walking slowly around, aimlessly, hoping the October wind would blow off the heavy smell of ink that settled on his clothes and in his thin hair whenever he worked there. The neighbourhood in which the printer's was situated was one of warehouses and little else. Since the war, which Sid learned had rather improbably involved the whole world, many of them had been neglected, even abandoned. So once the ringing in his ears caused by the rolling and pounding of machinery finally left him, a familiar sound caught his attention and pulled him toward an open doorway. The solid thwack of a fist on a punching bag. The accompanying grunts. He couldn't help himself, he really couldn't.

Standing in the doorway, breathing in the familiar smell, a mixture of chalk dust and sweat, he surveyed the scene. This was a real gym, not one of these sleek places that sculpted its members into thinner, fitter versions of themselves. Sunlight attempted to enter the large, high-ceilinged room through the high, dirty windows, through the mists of chalk powder and cigarette smoke that hovered permanently near the rafters, but gave it up as a bad job. In the dim interior, equipment, none of it new, was scattered along the walls; dumbbells, barbells, punching bags and skipping ropes. The pride of place, the echoing centre was given to the boxing ring itself. Here boys and men of varying ages and backgrounds prepared their bodies for the ring, for the purest form of competition. Arnold's was a gym of the old school, older than any of them realized. More of a club, really. A meeting place. Without realizing he had even entered, he was standing before the empty ring in the middle of the large room. He had never seen an arena for fighting quite like this before, a raised square platform with bands of red ropes to contain its fighters, but instantly he recognized it. Not its form, but its purpose. He felt punctured right through with a homesickness like he had not felt.

It wasn't long before he was working there. It was called work, and he was paid for it (very little), but it felt more like belonging. Here, more than anywhere, his skills were valued. The rules of the game had changed a little; these he had had to learn. And the large red gloves, cartoonish things, he had trouble getting used to as he coached the boys through a series of punches. Jab, hook, uppercut, jab. But if he knew anything at all, it was how to build strength out of nothing, out of vulnerability. To battle decay and age, but never making the mistake of ignoring or trying to mask their effects. To find strength in improbable places.

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