23 July 2008

To Karen Eiffel

Douglas Mann woke up at six-fifteen in the morning.

Not really. He actually woke up at about eleven minutes past; but, as he did every morning except for Sunday, he spent those four minutes thinking about the day ahead. Things he had to do, what he'd have for lunch, whether the shirt he'd laid out the night before was the right one.

So, really, he got out of bed at six-fifteen. As he did every morning except for Sunday.

The shirt was the right one. And his shoes were shiny, too. And the tie, while we're at it, matched his eyes perfectly.

His suit, however, a dark blue (navy, actually) pinstriped number which would today, as on every other day Douglas decided to wear it, be just fine for the job he needed to do, but let out a horrible odour only whiffed by his subordinates. The common people, the blue-collared hoi polloi.

It reeked of haughtiness, left the smell of disdain for his perceived inferiors wafting behind him.

Not that it mattered. Douglas never noticed it, neither did his colleagues, and his lovely wife, Kath, picked it out for him. And she was the sophisticated one.

Anyway, the suit was fine; not great, but fine. And in any case, the tie, which matched his eyes, probably made up for it. And the shirt was the right one.

So Douglas got out of bed, and headed to the bathroom. The toilet. In front of which he spent just over two minutes and fifty-six seconds waiting for the urine to exit his urethra, finally watching it hit the porcelain bowl, and then shaking his penis several times before tucking it back in his briefs and giving his crotch a final scratch while on his way to the basin.

The face he saw in the mirror was, as he mused every morning, unfamiliar. A cacophony of wrinkles that stealthily crept onto his face during the night, rheum (eye potatoes, or sleep sugar, or sleepy-dust, or eye cheese, or eye crusties, or eye boogers), the corners of his mouth tinged with the remnants of drool, and other signs of humanity's immortal mortality.

The face unfamiliar, the unrecognisable man in his late thirties a day older.

Water and the foam of his fancy, expensive soap ran into the drain; while Douglas watched that face staring back at him, his hands rid the dead skin cells no doubt transferred from his penis to his fingers during those two minutes and fifty-six seconds.

The shirt is the right one, isn't it? Yes, it was.

Douglas wiped his hands with the small towel Kath, his dear wife of just over eight years and two months now, placed by the basin specifically for the drying of hands—and nothing more. Yes, that shirt is the right one. And the tie is perfect; it goes with his eyes.

Douglas sat on the bed. And left his mind to cogitate for a moment... he would have a simple BLT sandwich today. He hadn't had one of those in several weeks, months possibly (actually, it was June 2nd, an average Monday with the most interesting occurrence being the fact that, if this is indeed the correct day I'm recalling, Amy did well on a test or something). Maybe he'd have a glass of orange juice, no, something else, but Douglas didn't know yet.

He snapped out of his little preoccupied frown and realised the time. It was already twenty-two minutes past six.

He slid open the bottom drawer of his bedside table and took out a pair of black running shorts and a white vest. They were—the black running shorts and white vest—folded neatly and placed in the bottom drawer of the bedside table two days earlier, on the Monday he came home an hour early to perform the various tasks he neglected on Sunday evening.

One such task (designed to prevent Douglas from having to nudge Kath awake at six-fifteen—or six-twenty-two—in the morning asking for his black running shorts and white vest) was putting four pairs of black running shorts and white vests in the bottom drawer of his bedside table.

The logic was simple: every Sunday Esperança, their maid from Portugal (not Spain or Mexico, as the Manns' first and second guesses were), would wash four pairs, Douglas would pack three in that bottom drawer having already worn one on Monday, and on Wednesday Kath would take on the chore of washing three pairs and thus give Douglas four to wear from Thursday to Sunday, at which point Esperança (the maid from Portugal, not Spain or Mexico or Poland) would wash the four dirty pairs and restart the process.

Anyway. Today is Wednesday, and Douglas is on—and now in—his final pair. He dug his hand under his bed, took out his Saucony ProGrid Paramount running shoes (which were a silver and citron colour and only cost him £110), and got them on without delay.

Douglas told his wife, Kath, that he would be going now and she, with a slight crack between her eyelids and forced groan, acknowledged his words.

In the hallway, he stopped by a door with a clichéd but handy board indicating it was the bedroom belonging to someone called Amy. Amy was, of course, the little girl belonging (until she turns eighteen and can choose for herself just how much illegally-purchased alcohol is required to crash a Mercedes-Benz into the red brick wall of her future neighbours) to Douglas and Kath, born eleven months into their marriage.

And it was Amy that, like every morning at about this time except for Sunday, became the focus of his stare.

His expression would have been a familiar one to any man, regardless of his skin colour, creed, or planetary affiliation, had he been there to see it. It was the sight of a man that, like any other, loved his child very dearly; and then the sight of a man that, most probably like many other fathers, as much he wanted to stay here and spend time with his daughter, he had to go. He had something to do.

He had to go do his ever-important daily jog.

Douglas smiled warmly and closed the door. And headed downstairs.

Inside the kitchen, he opened the fridge door and took out a bottle of half-filled water. Downed it in one fell swoop, filled the bottle halfway up with tap water, and put it back in the fridge.

To Haruki Murakami

The sun poked its head just over the trees and rooftops adorning the nice, quiet neighbourhood's horizon. Douglas locked the front door, and turned to greet the sun with a satisfactory smile. It was, on the third day after Sunday with Douglas on his last pair of black running shorts and white vest, the perfect time of the year to be out jogging, and indeed, a great day to be alive.

He put the single key (attached to a small, wooden key fob of an elephant painted blue) into his pocket, and produced two small earphones.

They, of course, obviously, played music—

Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Not the most original of choices, but as that day happened to be a Wednesday, Beethoven, like every Wednesday before it (since the week after the 21st of May, which was his final Wednesday as a thirty-seven year old and when he listened to Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre and Cello Concerto in A Minor which, coincidentally, was composed when Saint-Saëns was 37), was what he'd be listening to.

Back to the point. Just as that symphony might suggest, for Douglas, listening to music while jogging enabled him to break away from life and listen to his favourite music. Which is why he chose the Fifth over the tree-hugging Sixth, this isn't about "getting back to nature" or anything similarly bathetic. And in any case, the fieriness of the Fifth helped to keep him going.

And he was staying fit, clawing back those years he lost smoking before his fiancée convinced him to quit. Earning extra time on Earth while listening to Beethoven, could it get any better that? Well, yes... but he wouldn't admit it to anyone except for his wife, jokingly. And she never quite liked listening to classical music during their moments of passion.

All the aforementioned, listening to his favourite music which also happened to help keep him fit, outweighed the risks music's ability to supersede situational awareness brought; such as the odd occasion where he wouldn't notice an overzealous dog running behind him or the statistical anomaly of getting mugged.

An anomaly which, mind you, could very well occur today (Wednesday, the 23rd of July), but Douglas had no way of knowing it. And therefore didn't bother thinking about it as he started out of the driveway to the sweet sound of the three quick G's and one long E-flat of the first movement's opening seconds.

Now, the route Douglas took everyday except for Sunday, when he decided to shake things up and take the opposite direction, was mostly composed of the material now beneath his feet: pavement. It involved a mundane left-right-long straight-right beat with the most spectacular sight being the various trees planted for shade or the horizon (since he ran south, the sun was for the most part to his left and thus made watching the sunrise quite impractical). After that final right, however, Douglas would hit upon a nice, secluded, tree-enveloped path. It ran through the isolated back of the local park, perfect for anyone wanting the tranquillity of its bosom marooned by civilization.

After the short bit of rustic serenity, Douglas would return to pavement, concrete, and asphalt. All the way, through a right and a very long straight and another right and one final right, until he reached his house.

Where he'd be done, and could get to putting on that shirt he's been fretting over so.

The minute hand on Douglas' watch pointed to the number seven. The analogue watch, I neglected to mention when no one saw him putting it on, was an IWC Pilot Spitfire Chronograph with a black crocodile strap.

And actually, the time was thirty-eight minutes past six, his watch was about forty seconds late. It didn't really matter, though; having already made the first left and now starting with that long straight, he was something like a minute and a few seconds ahead.

Crepuscular rays broke through the trees opposite the street. Douglas jogged at a steady pace. He breathed calmly and methodically to the beat of his footsteps, inhaling with the nose, exhaling with his mouth. The oboe played its cadenza, welcoming the recapitulation of the first movement.

The long stretch of pavement ahead of and behind him, which usually had the bustle of a child-abounding neighbourhood, was, except for the lone traveller passing through, abandoned by the lazy sleepers-in—

A sparkling graphite BMW 130i M Sport passed Douglas.

Their fate, perhaps obesity or coronary heart disease, wasn't of any concern to him. He probably never even noticed the BMW painted by the good people of Leipzig in a sparkling graphite colour that rode past, or the non-existent mugger that stole his purse.

Neither was he interred in some sort of sepulchre of deep philosophical thought, thus unable to hear the calls of the outside world. Truthfully, Douglas was most probably still half-asleep at this uninteresting part of his journey. So much so that, coupled with the awareness-destroying properties of music, he was bound not to very much notice a car or a mugger, let alone ponder over the self-destructive lifestyle of modern Homo sapiens.

Douglas kept the steady rhythm, though, despite being half-asleep. He'd been here so many times before, that the entire process was ingrained by now. It would likely be more difficult to change the rut than stick to its intricacies.

Inhale... left, right, left. Exhale... right, left, right, left. Inhale... right, left, right. Exhale... left, right, left, right. Inhale... Douglas returned to full consciousness as the first movement reached its emphatic conclusion.

The second movement, andante con moto, gave him a brief respite to remember exactly how far he was.

He knew he was already past the halfway mark of this long straight, since he couldn't see that house with half of its chimney stack painted green ahead of him. He checked his watch, and its face told him it was forty-one minutes past six. Just about right on schedule, just about the same as yesterday. And tomorrow.

The brass and timpani gave their brief foretaste of what was to come in the triumphant final movement (which also happened to be his favourite movement). And Douglas enjoyed it. Beethoven's Fifth. The mighty Fifth. One of the greatest pieces of music in Earth's history, possibly the universe's, too.

A brilliant red 2009 Audi A3 prevented him from crossing the street, coming to a halt by the stop sign. Douglas used that moment to listen to the final minute of the second movement more attentively, and get a quick breather. And maybe have a little glance at his dashing-but-aging thirty-eight year old face in the Audi's window.

The car started moving again; Douglas started moving, too. Crossing the street, heading a few steps down the pavement, and taking a right detour through the narrow opening of the old, stone wall. Right into the shadow of the trees.

To Brett Favre

The atmosphere was inescapable; it wasn't the greatest bit of woodland in the history of woodlands, but beyond the wall running along his right, the car that Douglas used to stimulate his vanity could seem a million miles away. And since the greenery to his left managed to sufficiently obscure everything beyond it, even Douglas, whose main aim was the simple and admirable act of staying healthy, could succumb to his inner recluse.

Douglas let his breathing catch up with his feet; the inhale and exhale concurred with the graceful stamps on the dirt.

A Blue Tit let out its alarm call, although he couldn't hear it, as it was the Beethovenian noise that dominated his ears; and dominated more so, as it was only now that Douglas realised the Fifth was already into the third movement.

Somehow, he'd missed the ending of the second, which he always quite enjoyed. The calmness of it, finished off with Beethoven's characteristic muscularity.

But, no matter, he thought. The double basses had already started their flowing arpeggios, he didn't want to miss—

And then it happened. As the horns hammered out their simplified version of the first movement's motto, Douglas felt a sudden, sharp pain on the left side of his neck. It wasn't as bad a pain as he may have initially thought, the surprise is what got him most, but it was bad enough to make him break his rhythm and stop.

Douglas pressed his hand against his neck; nothing felt odd. He let his lungs calm down, and still, he felt nothing unusual. So he continued jogging again.

The horn theme faded away, replaced by the opening arpeggios... Douglas felt his chest tighten. He struggled to keep his breathing as steady. Pain radiated up his neck.

Once more, Douglas stopped. He wiped the omnipresent sweat from his forehead, and wondered what was going on.

Roughly eight months and ten days ago, when it was a cold that impeded him, Douglas had trouble breathing. And it was then that he last felt his chest clamber, under the weight of the common cold.

He hadn't the slightest hint of a cold coming on. As he remembered, when he awoke his first thoughts revolved around his day ahead, not the dismay that usually accompanied a runny nose or sore throat.

Perhaps the infection was arriving late, perhaps it was nothing at all. Douglas decided to go on, the trio had already begun, putting him behind schedule, and if this was anything more than the occasional misstep a jogger had to suffer, he'd sort it out when he got home.

The third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony flowed, built, and declined. Unlike the muscles of his heart, which felt the pervasive squeeze of God's hand.

And his mind was beginning to forget that he was listening to Beethoven. He tried to forget about it, but that tightness, the tension slowly shifting up his neck and down his shoulder, it was impossible to ignore. And soon, his lungs started giving in, too. As though he'd been jogging up in the mountains all along!

Douglas stopped.

He threw the earphones to the dirt; the movement was in the middle of the trio. His feet stumbled as his fingers tried to get a grip on the closest tree. Douglas leaned against it, heaved to get some oxygen into his lungs, and fell to his knees.

He looked up at a Blue Tit—possibly the very one he was too busy to hear earlier—while his chest heaved some more. The scherzo had probably already started—

Douglas started coughing. He spat out some blood, but before he could react in horror, more came... some of the chicken and potatoes he enjoyed the night before, and most of the water he drank before setting out on this jog. The vomit stained the soil, and prompted Douglas to make an attempt at getting up and to a doctor.

His weakened body struggled to do it, but he managed to get to his feet and stagger forward. One step... another... one more...

Douglas couldn't go on; he collapsed from where he stood, his body unable to cope with whatever load life had thrown on its back.

It was a beautiful day, that day. Not too many clouds in the sky, warm, the birds were out singing. And maybe, he thought, maybe it was a cold. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was something. Maybe this was the day he would die.

While the music built slowly towards the explosion that would bring in the final movement, his favourite, he would lie there on the ground, on this quiet, secluded path, and suffer his final breaths.

And it suddenly dawned on him: what was he going to have for lunch? What shirt would he wear? Was the shirt he picked out the night before the right one? What was he supposed to do today? And what about Kathleen? He'd forgotten all about her until now. What would happen to her? And his daughter? The beautiful and smart little girl, Amy, his—

The final movement began. The triumphant, glorious final movement that would close out the great Fifth Symphony. Beethoven's mighty Fifth Symphony. Douglas never got to hear it, though, he took out the earphones during the middle of the third movement.

Copyright Joaquim Baeta, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.