Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. Tune in every month for another installment.
I squeeze through a broken gate into the basketball court. It doesn’t look like it’s been played on since Reagan. The free-throw lines are faded, grass and weeds growing up between the cracks. I sit down on the asphalt under the warped backboard and lean back against the chain link fence…There is something uniquely haunting about abandoned playgrounds. There are ruined things all over, but in places where people once played, it’s much easier to see the ghosts and touch the life that has died.
I look back across the street at Target and can see Joe coming my way. He’s in his red shirt, thick neck popping out. “I only got 30 minutes for lunch,” he says as he gets to the fence. I’ve seen him a couple times since his day in court. His right-wing radio bullshit has gotten on my nerves. I wasn’t even going to call him, but I ran into the kid on the curb this morning and told him that I was meeting a couple friends later to play football and that we needed another guy. It was one of those weird hangover moments when you’re still drunk with emotion and feel all connected to the sufferings of the world, like when you’re watching nine hours of TV the next day and almost start to cry at the cheesy commercial where dad uses a credit card to fly home for his son’s baseball game. Catcher’s mitt: $50. Flight from Denver: $700. Being a hero to your boy so that he doesn’t grow up to be a tattooed, bleeding heart loser: Priceless. Cocaine is a hell off a drug.
“Thanks for coming, man. I appreciate it.” Burp.
“You leave me a message saying to come over and help you out, then I come over and help you out,” he says. “It’s the Jersey way.”
“You brought the football.”
“Yeah, I got the discount,” he says. “Needed one anyway.”
“You look like shit.”
“I partied last night,” I say.
“You do blow?”
“Yeah, how’d you know.”
“You’re all plugged up,” he says. “You sound like Kermit the Frog. Here, catch.”
He flips the football over to me. I make myself get up, then throw it to him around what used to be mid-court. He throws it back to me a little high and I snag it with one hand.
“Nice grab,” he says. “What position you play?”
“Running back,” I say. “Then safety on the other side. You?”
“Linebacker,” he says. “You play high school?”
“ No, two-a-days got me.”
“Two-a-days suck,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “And in August?”
“It’s the fucking worst.”
We throw the football around: making the moves, doing the usual imitations. Hey, check it: I’m Roger Staubach…Yo, I’m Lynn Swann. He throws one over my head that bounces and dribbles up against the chain link fence. “Urrrggghh…” Why is bending down so hard when you’re hungover?
“So who is this kid?” he asks.
I sit down against the fence, head pounding, stomach not feeling so hot. “He’s just some kid that lives in my apartment complex. I saw him sitting on the curb one night and he didn’t look like he wasn’t doing so good, so I said let’s go throw the football sometime…”
“What color is he?”
“Don’t give me any of your racist bullshit…”
“What? You’re white. He’s black,” he says. “They don’t like us. You’re just like some white guy to him.”
“Ah, whatever,” I say, flipping him the football.
“How old is he?”
“11 or 12.”
“11 or 12?” he says. “You asked an 11-year-old kid to come play football with you?”
“Yeah, I know, he probably thinks I’m a pedophile or something.”
“Look, what was I supposed to do…See some kid on the curb who looks like he’s in trouble and just keep on walking?”
“Yeah, like normal people.”
“Well, you know…”
“What time was he supposed to be over here?”
“I don’t know, a while ago,” I say. “I saw him this morning when I went to take the dog for a piss.”
“He’s not going to show up,” he says.
“Yeah, this has become clear.”
“So what are you doing now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need a hangover cure?”
“What time is it?”
He takes out his cell.
“That’s a fancy phone,” I say.
“Man’s got to look good,” he says. “It’s three.”
“Ah, no, I got to get back,” I say. “There’s something that I need to talk to Rachel about.”
“Fine by me,” he says. “I’m going over to Chipotle before I got to go back on.”
“Alright, man,” I say, flipping him the ball. “I’ll catch you over at the XBOX sometime.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
He takes off, leaving me alone on the basketball court. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. You try and do what you can, but it comes to nothing. You make your effort, but what’s the point? I don’t get it. I have no answers to anything in life. I’m an old guy with a hangover on a trashed-out basketball court. They don’t give prizes for this...This is not the sign of a man who’s got the tiger by the tail…This is not driving up to Vermont in my new BMW for a special fall romantic weekend. This is not the walk in Central Park on my way to meet Rachel at Bloomies. This is not designer scarves and foliage on our way to the National Gallery of Art. I get up and start walking back toward the strip mall. I am one inch away from permanently becoming one of those semi-tragic people who makes everybody feel better about their own lives. But it’s not even about other people: I can’t drop below a certain level of my own self-image. Not the fake stuff that you put out there, but the real stuff that you need to keep from getting bitter. And I promised myself that I would never be bitter. Pissed off, angry, dark and pessimistic, but never bitter. I step over the shrubs and get down to the dirt path. I can see Rachel throwing Zola the ball against the Target wall.
“Hey,” I yell out.
“Sober up yet?” she yells back.
“You don’t remember, do you?”
I totally forgot…Right before I went to bed last night I left this rambling message on her cell about not getting the job and the interview at Goldstein and Locke. It was so long and maudlin that the voicemail cut me off. “I’m sorry,” I say, coming up to her. “I should have waited to talk face-to-face.” I lean in and give her a kiss that isn’t exactly met with loving warmth. Zola, ever the peacemaker, drops the ball at my feet. I throw it against the wall. She chases it down the dirt path, brings it back to Rachel. Rachel throws it against the wall. She chases it down the dirt path, brings it back to me.
“Hey…” she says.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Are you okay?”
“Well, it’s been about 15 years since I got a 4 a.m. booty call from a drunk guy…But as long as you’re alright, I’m alright. Like I said, it doesn’t define who we are. Something else will come along.”
“I really wanted to get it for us, Rachel.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about, Neal.”
“Not even for leaving drunk messages at work?”
“We’ll give you a break on that one, lawyer boy.”
We come together in a hug, not a kiss. I can feel the long curve of her back, her shoulders sloping softly in my arms. I try and flex my muscles, wanting her to feel me being strong. I sometimes wish that the people who send the rejections could see the people on the other side. For them, it’s hitting a send button on a computer. For us, it’s nothing less than the shape of our lives.
“And it’s not all terrible,” she says, trying to smile.
“Now we don’t have to live in the same town as my brother.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “I forgot about that.”
She walks back over to where she was standing, taking a second to pick up the ball. “So…” and throws it against the wall. “Super-prestigious is what you said…”
“Did I really?”
“You said a SUPER-PRESTIGIOUS law firm in New York City wants to interview you and that we’re going to be RICH AS SHIT.”
“So does super-prestigious within the context of rich as shit mean everything I think it means?”
“Oh, yeah, and then some…”
“What’s the name of the firm again?” she asks. “You weren’t exactly clear on the message.”
“Goldstein and Locke.”
“And if I were to check their website I would find…”
“A parade of horribles,” I say.
“I’ll put it to you this way,” I say, throwing the ball against the wall. “Everything that we think is bad, they happily defend. Environmental polluters, securities fraud, corporate rip offs…The specifics aren’t even what matter, even though they’re horrible, I mean, they’ve actually got a guy who specializes in oil-spill defense strategy…It’s wild. But look, in general, what they’ve done is position themselves to benefit from other people’s suffering.”
“Didn’t you at least want to try and spin that a little bit, Neal?”
“Why, you’d just look it up?”
She throws the ball against the wall.
“It’s actually funny,” I say. “If you go to the attorney bios where they talk about their legal accomplishments, it’s like the bizarro world where everything is turned upside down. Mr. Stern was successful in getting a class action dismissed against Happy Times Corporation for forcing its employees to work overtime and below minimum wage…Kudos to Mr. Stern! Mr. Goldfarb succeeded in finding a regulatory loophole that enabled The Big Four to continue looting the U.S. economy…Another fantastic outcome for Goldfarb! It’s incredible, you really got to look it up, you won’t believe it.”
“It’s pretty funny,” she says. “But don’t start getting nihilistic about it.”
“I’m not getting nihilistic about it,” and throw the ball against the wall.
“Yeah, you are,” she says. “You’re disappointed. I’m disappointed. You’re tired of morons. I’m tired of morons. But we don’t get to joke our way into selling out.”
“Because it’s weak,” she says. “It’s self-indulgent. It’s just frustration, that’s all.”
“And how are you dealing with it?”
“Oh, I’m in denial,” she says, throwing the ball against he wall. “It’s a good practice interview, something to keep you sharp…But that’s not entirely true…I know you, Neal. And there’s a part of you that could do it. You would get a certain glee of being the bad guy, flushing the whole thing down, Nero fiddling as Rome burns, etcetera..”
“Well, thank you.”
“But there’s another part of you that actually likes people,” she says. “Not loves, that’s too abstract, but really actually likes people. In your own warped and twisted way, you’re like this huge fan of your fellow man. And that part of you would never let you do it to them. You may really piss people off…And I mean really piss them off…”
“But you would never fuck them over.”
“But aren’t you at least intrigued by it?”
“All that money?”
“I’m a 40-year old woman throwing a tennis ball against the back of a Target, Neal. Let’s just say that I’m trying to keep moving forward, put one foot in front of the other, do the best I can…Alright?”
There’s a silence between us that can be summed up as the following: don’t ask a question, if you don’t want the fucking answer…
“Boy, Zola is chasing the ball today,” I say.
She turns to me: “I’m going to say one thing because I have to, then I want you to tell me the Tiananmen story.”
“I can understand why you’d want to do this,” she says. “But this isn’t who we are. I think you could get this job, we could move back to New York and be happy, but then one day wake up and find out that the most important part of us is gone. And then all the things that seem so wonderful right now, like a fabulous apartment and going out to dinner in the East Village, won’t seem so wonderful anymore, because inside we’ll know that we turned our backs.”
She walks up to the Target wall with Zola and sits down. “Now tell me the story that keeps me from leaving you.”
“You’ve thought about leaving me?”
“No, Neal. Never even crossed my mind. You’re so easy to get along with.”
“I’ve never thought about leaving you.”
“That’s because I’m cooler than you are,” she says factually. “Now tell me that story.”
I walk up and sit down next her, our backs against the wall. Two people, dwarfed by a big box store, hanging out in a space that wasn’t even meant for human beings to hang out in. That’s weird, are we the only ones that do that? It’s hard to picture beavers making spaces that aren’t meant for beavers. Huh…“Okay, well, you know most of it…”
“No, you start at the beginning and tell it to me like the first time you ever told it to me,” she says. “I want you to charm me with it.”
I look over at her, black hair pulled back behind the ear, dangling earring with a dark red glass bead. The first time I told her this story was in Tompkins Square Park about a month after we met. We were lying in the grass together on a Saturday right in the middle of the park under that really cool old tree with those thick, heavy roots. It was so recent back then that I could almost see it happening, but now it seems like it happened to a different guy. “Alright, baby, I was 18-years old, working construction up in Santa Fe….Every night I would come home from work, turn on the TV, and see what was going on in Tiananmen Square. I loved those guys. It was like the coolest thing I had ever seen. The way the students lectured the soldiers about democracy and the Goddess of Liberty right there in the middle of it all. I don’t know, it was like, something really good was happening. But then one night I came home and their dead bodies were being piled on top of each other. They had been slaughtered and run over by tanks. I didn’t know what to do. I was pacing around my little apartment, freaking out, screaming at the TV, then I just sort of got it together, went to kitchen, and started making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…”
She laughs at this and lights a cigarette.
“You got one for me?”
“No, it’s the last one. I’ll share it.”
“Okay, and so then I put the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my backpack, filled up two water bottles, wrote TIANANMEN really big on this piece of cardboard, attached it to my backpack and ran out the door. I didn’t even know where I was going at first, but then after about a mile or so it became clear in some strange way that I was going to have to try and make it to Albuquerque…”
“How far is that?”
“Perfect,” she says.
“Why is that?”
“Anything under 50 and you’re not doing battle with the gods…Anything over 70 and you lose sympathy points for being a moron. It’s the perfect mileage to really do a number on yourself, but still remain relatable.”
“Well, thank you. I consulted with my publicist first…Made sure that it wasn’t too far out there for a mainstream audience. But still edgy enough to get into Sundance.”
“Yes, so the first four or five miles nothing much happened, but then I got to I-25, right across from the Santa Fe Downs and heard: SENOR. SENOR! I looked way out into the desert and could see a man running alongside me a few hundred yards away. Like in parallel universe. SENOR! SENOR!
Si? I yelled back to him.
I was running so couldn’t really get into a full explanation of the student uprising in China, so yelled out the first thing that came to my mind: estoy triste por la condicion humana…I’m sad for the human condition. Not all that subtle or poetic, but under the circumstances, it was the best I could do. And he yelled back: Yo tambien…Yo tambien, amigo. Me, too, my friend. Me, too…
And then he disappeared…My best guess is that he had crossed up from Mexico and was sleeping out in the desert…We shared this moment and that was it. And then it got dark. And when I say dark, I mean dark. Like really dark. Like I don’t think we really know what real darkness is anymore, because we’re all in and around electricity. You get out past the grid, it changes your sense of self. You can’t tell where you begin or end. And then the doubts kick in. I’m an idiot, what am I doing out here…This is stupid, it doesn’t even matter, no one cares…It’s all useless, I’m going to die…The coyotes are going to steal my sandwiches and eat my eyes out…”
“They might have stolen your sandwiches, Neal, but I don’t think they would have eaten your eyes out…”
“Oh, they would,” I say, bumming the smoke from her. “Coyotes are tricky business.”
“But you’re a coyote.”
“Half-mexican, half-white,” she says. “Don’t they call that a coyote?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” I say, handing it back.
“They were there to scare you, not to eat you.”
“But you don’t know that when you’re out there.”
“No, you don’t,” she says, taking drag. “But go ahead.”
“Okay, so a pair of headlights came up behind me and a car slowly rolled up. I was scared. I didn’t think about how vulnerable I was out there alone. I just kept moving, eyes forward, praying they’d drive off, but then I heard the car stereo: You see it all around you, good loving gone bad, but usually it’s too late when you, ree uh lize what you had…And then I knew that things were going to be alright. I mean, how bad can things be if they’re jamming 38 Special? I slowed down to a walk and they pulled alongside me on the shoulder in this totally Kickass GTO.”
“Oh, those are so cool.”
“You always say that right at the same spot.”
“Well, they are.”
“And so what did the guy in the GTO say?” I ask her.
She puts on her dumb man voice that I think is me: “What the fuck are you doing out here, dude?”
“Okay, so then what did I say?”
Dumb man voice: “Too much bullshit, brother. Gotta get free. Gotta get free.”
“Might as well finish her up,” I say
“Right on, dude…Right on…If you want to touch the sky, you must be prepared to die…Hey, dude…
Who are the Tianan Men?
Just some dudes, dude…Just some dudes.
“And that was the end of that,” I say. “They drove off and I kept running, until I couldn’t run anymore. My knees ached. My back burned. My head hurt. I had been working outside in construction all summer and exercising three or four times a week, so was in good shape, but the most I ever tried to run was like 10 miles. I was dying out there. And then the voices started coming back: You’re an idiot. This is meaningless…There’s no point...It’s not going to change anything…Why are you even trying…If people could see you right, they’d be laughing their asses off…It was terrible. An epic mistake. I literally found myself sitting in the darkness along the highway. Gone too far to turn back, nowhere near the end. Head hanging like the losing fighter at the end of a fight, except that I had done it all to myself. A broken-down fool who had to make a stand. And you know what was funny?”
“I was finally the other guy. The guy you pass by on the road and say wow, poor guy. Thank god I’m not him. Anyway, after about 30 minutes of just sitting in the pitch black, rubbing my legs out, trying to get my head together, I got up and started moving again. Limping, then running, then limping, then walking, then running, then limping until an 18-wheeler pulled up behind me with that big WHOOOOSH and yelled out:
Hey Buddy! You drunk or something?
Nah, I yelled back.
Then what’s going on?
It’s a long story.
Get on in and tell it to me.”
“I love him,” she says.
“Yeah, that old boy had a Lone Star flag on the dashboard, Dallas Cowboys helmet on the shifter, small picture of Jesus on the glove compartment next to a much bigger picture of Dale Earnhardt…It was a gift from heaven. The seats in those 18-wheelers are like sitting on a cloud. They have their own suspension, special padded upholstery. If I ever made any money, I would decorate my whole house with seats from those 18-wheelers.”
“Reason number 29 why you can never become a rich corporate lawyer,” she says.
“Good one,” I say. “Anyway, he asked me what I was doing out on the highway and I was too tired and beat up to tell him anything but the truth. And that’s when he looked over at me and said:
You’re one of them, ain’t you?
So, I was like here we go…Here comes the bullshit. Alright man, I asked him…What am I?
You’re an ain’t righter, as in that ain’t right.”
“That’s the whole shit, buddy, he said. The inside and out of it, is that it just ain’t right. Rich man walks, poor man gets kicked in the teeth. That’s the deal on that. There ain’t but three ways that an ain’t righter can go in this world: drop out, sell out, or keep on banging your head against the wall. And let me tell ya something, buddy, I got more dents in this ol’ head than a ’64 Ford in a demolition derby.”
“He was an ain’t righter, too,” she says.
“They always seem to show up when you need them most,” I say, and think of Nancy. “Anyway, about 10 miles later we got to the exit for the pueblo casino where he had to drop his load, and that included me…”
“Come on, Speedy Gonzales. Tell the truth.”
“Alright, and he gave me a couple hits of speed.”
“There you go…”
“Yeah, it doesn’t quite fit with the purity of the idealist’s journey, but it was like three in the morning and I still had a long, long way to go. He gave me three white crosses and I slugged them down with a Schlitz off the floor of his truck. I tell you, they put a pep in my step. The knee didn’t hurt so much anymore, hips felt better, headache went away, arms started moving, quarter miles became half miles, half miles became full and next thing you know I could see the dawn breaking across the desert.”
“Keep going, Nealy.”
“So I was cruising along when I heard the rev of a dirt bike and saw an old man coming toward me on a Kawasaki. He was from one of the Indian pueblos, they have like about five or ten of them between Santa Fe and Albuquerque,” I say. “For obvious historical reasons, Native Americans can be a little touchy about the white man coming on their land, so, out of respect I walked over to the fence, said hello and told him why I was out there and what I was doing…I’ll never forget how he sat there for a few minutes just looking at me, thinking about it, and then he finally said:
Sounds like a good caper…
And he kept going in that slow, soft, even-cadenced Native American voice:
Yeah, sounds like a real good caper…Ah, I always respected a good caper. I pulled a caper like that once myself. You know, they say that a man is defined by all these sorts of things, but really, a man is defined by his capers….Good for you. Good for you, young man, for pulling a caper.
“And then handed me his water and road off…And that was it. I was alone, no one else to talk to, cars whizzing by on the highway under the New Mexico sun. I was about as outside of everything as you can get, but for some reason, more than at any other time in my life, I felt like I was part of something. And although it was the dumbest thing that anyone could do and meaningless by most people’s standards—it started feeling meaningful to me. But more than only me. This is hard to explain, but you know how the voices in your head are usually in the first person? Like for me, I’ll always say that I have got to do this, or I have got to deal with that, or once I get this done, then I will be happy…Well, for the first time in my life, the thoughts in my head were all in WE. Like I was running along the highway, thinking, WE can do this. WE can get there. WE are gonna keep running, fighting and see this mother through…Now, I don’t know who this WE is, or what WE is, or why the voices in my head were all in WE, but for the first time in my 18-year old life, I felt connected to something that was bigger than myself. And whatever that bigger thing was or is, I felt like I owed it something, and that I was lucky to even be a part of it.”
“It was an epiphany,” she says.
“Well, that’s the thing about epiphanies,” I say. “They last as long as your feet don’t hurt. Allow me to give you a piece of advice…”
“If you’re going to try and run 60 miles, then think heavily about the shoes you’re going to wear. Invest yourself in the question, study it, read footwear magazines, consult with scientists, because about 15 miles outside of Albuquerque, my dogs gave out on me.”
“Your feet got flat tires.”
“You nailed it…Anyway, I limped along for another four or five hours of hell and then finally at 4:49 p.m.—I’ll never forget because there was a bank with a huge digital clock along side the highway—I made it to the city limits of Albuquerque. There was a traffic jam with all the cars stuck bumper-to-bumper…I made eye contact with this one guy in a Toyota pick up. About my age. He saw the TIANANMEN sign, honked his horn and then put his fist up through the open sun roof. It was pretty cool. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like. And then after he honked, some other people saw and started honking…There this one woman that I especially remember. She was in a VW van in the lane right next to me. When she saw me I could tell that it really meant something to her. She didn’t wave or anything, but just sat there, almost looking like she was going to cry.…And that was it. You know the rest. It’s not safe to walk on I-25 once it gets into Albuquerque so I got off the road and went to a Denny’s or something. It was weird. I walked in and there was a TV above the counter showing pictures of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. There were a man and a woman sitting behind me in a booth. Right as I ordered my huevos rancheros I heard him say: You know, somebody outta do something about that.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” I say. “I took the bus home that night, got back to my apartment and there was a message saying that I had been fired from my job.”
“Well, Nealy, when you’re old and grey you won’t even remember the work that you did that summer, but you’ll never forget the time you ran from Santa Fe to Albuquerque for your friends in Tiananmen Square.”
“It’ll make a good note in my obit,” I say.
“It’s funny,” she says. “If you read those things, there’s only two things that they’re ever really about: what a person meant to other people, and their little personal rebellions outside of work. The things they did for others, and the part of themselves that they never gave up.”
“Yeah, and the names of all the survivors.”
“Well, ya know,” she says, putting out her cigarette. “We the living always like to get our names in the paper.”
“Now, that’s true,” I say. “Hey, so do you want to come up with me to New York. Make a night of it. We can see my old buddy, Tom. You always liked him, then go out, hit some of the old spots.”
“No, Nealy,” she says, getting up. “I think this highway is one that you have to walk alone.”
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.