MONDAY: The Shortcut

BY JILL McWHINNIE

Copyright is held by the author.

IT HAD been a heart attack but he’d been lucky, the doctor said. To prevent a more serous attack he would need to watch his diet and follow a program of cardiac rehabilitation. The doctor had suggested an exercise bike. He purchased one on the way home from the hospital and set it up in his basement.

He stood beside the bike in his cardiac rehabilitation outfit: silver and blue running shoes and black bicycle shorts. An extra large T-shirt concealed the rolls of flab that hung over the waistband of the shorts.

He slid onto the saddle and grasped the long handlebars. It had been 40 years since he’d ridden a bike. He set the dial to the lowest resistance and began to pedal. Within a few moments he was short of breath and his thighs ached. But he pushed the pedals doggedly. He had to finish 10 minutes — his first cardiac rehabilitation goal.

As he moved past the initial discomfort, the rhythm of pedalling seemed pleasant, almost nostalgic. He relaxed and dropped his arms to his sides. “Look Ma, no hands!” When was the last time he’d said that?

He remembered the two wheeler his Dad had bought him from the Canadian Tire store for his 11th birthday: the bright red paint, the sparkling wheels, the shiny bell on the handlebars and how the bike’s multicoloured streamers fluttered in the wind as he rode.

He couldn’t wait to show the bike to his best friend Tommy. He pictured Tommy in his mind’s eye: red hair, gold front tooth, the striped T-shirt he wore every day. He tried to imagine Tommy’s chubby, freckled face at 51 years old.

He looked at his watch. Almost ten minutes had gone by. He had ridden two miles and burned 80 calories. The ache in his legs had subsided. He felt tired but strangely content despite his fatigue.

He went upstairs and watched the late news. His wife had gone to bed but an apple and glass of skim milk had been left for him on the kitchen table.

The next evening he changed into his cardiac rehab outfit, went downstairs, climbed onto the bike and set the tension to a higher level. As he pedalled the welcome sense of the past returned. He remembered riding his bike to school that spring: proudly parking it for the first time in the bike stand, his schoolbooks and baseball glove in the wire basket carrier. The light in the basement seemed suddenly brighter and he felt a warm breeze, as though a window had opened to a sunny day outside.

He looked down at the digital display on the handlebars to check his speed. But what he saw were the handlebars of his two wheeler, and the bell near his left hand. He pulled the lever and heard a bell ring several times as though in the distance. Then he realized it was the telephone. His wife called downstairs to say one of his friends from work was on the line. The basement now seemed damp and cold. He shivered and went upstairs to answer the phone.

The next night he went downstairs immediately after supper. He climbed onto the bike and set the tension at the highest level, impatient to progress with his cardiac rehab program. He felt the pull on his muscles as he worked against the resistance level he’d set. It was like riding uphill. He stood up and pumped the pedals just as he had at 11 years old when he needed the extra push from standing on his strong young legs to propel the bike.

He looked up and saw leafy green branches overhead, dappled sunlight shining through them. He looked down and the rug beneath the bike was gone, replaced by a pitted dirt road. He rode faster, feeling his heart beating as the bike flew down the old road. He sensed someone riding behind him. It was Tommy.

“We have to get to the pool first!” Tommy called out. Tommy liked winning games and races and doing things on a dare. It was the last day of school and the kids were going to meet at the outdoor swimming pool to celebrate. Everybody wanted to be first to jump into the glassy water of the empty pool when the lifeguard blew the whistle to start swimming.

“Let’s take the shortcut!” said Tommy, pushing past on his bike. The shortcut was a stretch of highway that led more quickly to the pool but was traveled by gravel trucks building the new subdivisions in the area.

“My Dad says I can’t take the shortcut,” he said, embarrassed before Tommy’s insistent bravado.

“Chick-en!” Tommy said scornfully. He pedalled faster, heading for the shortcut.

As he watched Tommy go he imagined how smoothly his bike would ride on the new pavement of the highway. Maybe just this once it would be OK. It was only a short distance along the highway to the pool.

But now the pool seemed far away. He began to feel a tightness in his chest, and a shortness of breath, like when he’d run around the soccer field too many times in PT.

“Come on!” urged Tommy, turning and looking backwards at him. “We’re almost there.”

He pedalled faster. He was sweating now — the afternoon sun was harsh and hot on the open highway. He felt lightheaded, almost dizzy like the time when he tried to hold his breath too long under water, practicing for his Junior swimming badge.

The pain intensified, moving up into his jaw and down his arms. He watched Tommy turn around to wave at him and at the same time begin to ride across the two lane highway into the entrance of the pool. A big gravel truck hurtled down the highway toward Tommy. He heard the squeal of tires, and watched Tommy’s bike pitched like a toy into the ditch as the truck hit it. The big truck screeched to a stop. The driver opened the cab door, and jumped down onto the shoulder of the road.

He pedalled faster, trying to reach Tommy, although he was beginning to feel queasy, like the time he had eaten too much cake and ice cream at his sister’s birthday party. He rode across the highway and stopped his bike. There were sirens in the distance. The truck driver was walking through the deep ditch, pushing aside tall grass and yellow wildflowers. Where was Tommy?

Then he saw him, bikeless, running down the maple-lined driveway to the swimming pool. He fought back the feeling that he was going to throw up and rode after Tommy. He parked his bike on its kickstand in the gravel parking lot and walked over to the poolside to where Tommy waited. The pool was empty. There was no lifeguard on duty today. Tommy turned and smiled.

He tried to smile back although it felt like “Fatboy” Reynolds was sitting on his chest, like he had that day in wrestling. He felt “Fatboy” squashing his ribs just as he had that day until the teacher told him to stop.

“We won!” said Tommy triumphantly. “Let’s jump! When I say 3! 1 . . . 2 . . . 3!”

He didn’t feel like swimming. He wished his Dad would come in the car and take him home. He stood in the blasting heat of the afternoon sun, drenched with sweat. Maybe he’d feel better if he cooled off in the pool. Then he and Tommy would lie on the concrete deck around the pool and dry off in the sun.

When Tommy jumped, so did he. He felt the heat leave his body as he sank into the water. The water was cold, colder than it had ever been. He held his breath under water until he knew he couldn’t hold it any longer. He tried to come up into the air, but he couldn’t. Tommy was holding him under. He struggled, trying to get free. Why wouldn’t Tommy let go? His Dad had warned them both about horseplay in the pool.

Then he remembered what he’d learned in junior swimming class about drownproofing. He stopped struggling and began to relax in the water, just as he’d been taught. He felt Tommy’s grip loosening, then letting go. The sense of panic he’d felt the moment before left him. He felt buoyant and happy. He floated up to the surface, then stretched out, face down and motionless. He wanted to show Tommy how he could do the dead man’s float.

***

The doctor waited for his wife to be seated and opened the slim file folder on the table.

“He was doing so well,” said his wife. “What happened?”

“He tried to do too much too quickly,” said the doctor. “Unfortunately, in cardiac rehabilitation there are no shortcuts.”

11 comments

  1. Michael joll

    A cautionary tale but one which telegraphed the ending early on. Thus it was the journey rather than the anticlimactic ending that held my attention. I can only think that “He” must have been a rugby player in his youth. We are all alike: stubborn, unsubtle and are true believers in “no pain, no gain.” Would that we were smart enough to learn!

  2. JAZZ

    Michael, I think you should go back and read Jill’s excellent story again. And, yes, she did “telegraph” the ending and, yes, we all knew he was going to topple off the bike. But she also related, in finely tuned paragraphs, the journey from man to boy and their respective troubles. And, frankly, I didn’t quite understand your need to throw in the “rugby player” analogy.

  3. Mary Steer

    I thought the blending of memory and present worked nicely, but I did wonder why on earth he kept jacking up the tension each day instead of building himself up slowly — some brief narrative note to explain this would have made the story stronger. Perhaps he *was* a rugby player… 🙂

  4. JAZZ

    Mary,
    Again I say here, although I think it’s a cry in the wilderness, that it’s not the author’s job to explain everything . . . you either get it or you don’t.
    And think on if, as you suggest, he had built himself up slowly, there would have been no story!!

  5. Bev Bachmann

    This is a truly wonderful story that blends the past with the present in a creative way that I found touching as well as talented. The humanity of the protagonist in his impatience is all too familiar with those of us who set goals and are perfectionists to boot. I loved the suspense that never let up, even though I had a sneaking suspicion that this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending. As for the “rugby” thing — where did that come from? The man, like the title said, was after a short cut. How was he to know it was a short cut to death? How is anyone to know? Thank you Jill for a thought provoking story.

  6. Sheila Horne

    I thought it a well written story. It kept my attention, the importance of getting to the pool brought back memories. Great ending. Well Done.

  7. Mary Steer

    Jazz – Life is short and there’s lots to read. The only times I read stories more than once, usually, are 1. if the story was superlative and I enjoyed it greatly, or 2. if I’m critiquing it for my writing class, in which case the author is looking for ways to improve what he or she has presented. Otherwise, I expect to get everything out of a story the first time I read it. So — to ME (though clearly not to you, and that is fine. I hope we are all entitled to our own opinions here), this story was not all it could be. No, authors don’t have to explain everything — but if there’s something that snags at my attention when I’m reading, as was the case for me here, then I don’t enjoy the story fully.

  8. Random Writer

    Speaking of not needing to tell the reader everything, I’m going to pretend this story ended with the line, “He wanted to show Tommy how he could do the dead man’s float.” The rest was unnecessary and seemed to labour after a “punchline” to go with the title.

  9. JAZZ

    Random Writer,
    I’m not sure I quite understood your critique. But, hey, it’s the weekend…..I’ll lift up my glass….cheers..!!

  10. Bev Bachmann

    To Random Writer,
    The teacher part of me finds it all but irresistible not to make a point in any of my stories, and not to make sure that point is clear. The writer part of me says “to hell with it!” The reader gets it or he doesn’t. I fully understand your comment about a ‘better” way to end this story; on the other hand, I thought ending the story by referring back to the title was poetic. The teacher in me really liked it. And what’s wrong with a punch line? The performer part of me liked that too. And as for Jill McWhinnie: you go, girl!

  11. Mary Steer

    Joining the discussion (okay, again!), as invited by Nancy in the weekly email: There ain’t nuthin’ wrong with telegraphing – aka foreshadowing. As Michael says, then you pay more attention to the journey than the ending. I hope I’d never smack someone down for foreshadowing, but it certainly does happen here sometimes (though not, I think, in the comments on this story).
    Jazz, I did not suggest that the man increase the tension slowly – only that there might be a tad more to the story to help us understand why he would increase the tension each day. Otherwise, it’s a single character note of impatience, which doesn’t tell us much else about the protagonist. A single line might have helped – after this line, “The next evening he changed into his cardiac rehab outfit, went downstairs, climbed onto the bike and set the tension to a higher level” something added, like “Low tension was for wimps.” Without any kind of brief comment, it’s hard to tell if he was impatient, macho, or stupid. (Or all three. Or naive. Or…?) I wouldn’t call this “explaining everything”. I would call it “making the story stronger”. To each his own.
    On the subject of the ending, I like RW’s suggestion – though I can also see the temptation to loop back to the beginning and bring the doctor in again to deliver the title punchline.

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