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Time Off: A Short Story

(This guest post — a short fictional story — is by our good friend Michael Joyner, who he does his share of fact based thinking and speculation about all things human performance.)

The writer had been busy. His short stories, novels, nonfiction long-reads, and scripts all seemed to turn into hits. The interviews that came with success were a combination of silly and exhausting as he was asked to render short takes on all sorts of things and connect them to some message or theme in something he had created. Mostly he had created nothing and just recycled ideas and story lines from Hitchcock about people caught in some sort of web of crime or intrigue – except he substituted a web of tech for crime or intrigue. The Drones, for example, “borrowed” a lot from The Birds. The maybe droid woman (or was she a clone?) in Dizzy was described in the book as the second coming of Kim Novak.

“Why wasn’t she called Kim Novak 2.0?” – the critics wondered. Or, maybe “The Novak model….”

“What difference does it make?” He wondered but never asked.

For his next project he was thinking of branching out and basically remaking Citizen Kane, but he was having a hard time blending the Tech moguls into a composite character that was very interesting. Rich, for sure, but just not that interesting. What is heroic or interesting about taking profits skimmed from whatever and redoing what NASA did in the 1960s as a sort of high end hobby? Wasn’t it just like putting replica holes in a resort golf course or a scaled down Eiffel Tower on the Las Vegas strip.

Whatever his next project, the price of his notoriety was 20 pounds around his midsection, a skin tone that was vaguely yellowish green from too much time under LED lights, too much box white wine while he was “working”, and not enough fruits and vegetables. Lack of sleep had dulled his mind and the sound bites he was expected to generate for every interview (or worse yet podcast) were repetitive and banal, but nevertheless they were accepted as some sort of received wisdom. The women who fawned over him would have maybe gotten farther if they had just told him he was full of shit.

He could once blast 100 push-ups off no problem. Could he even do 10 now? Now he got fatigued pulling the slot machine lever more than a few times on the retro models in the gaming district.

He needed Time Off, a break, time to recharge, refresh, recalibrate…..maybe he needed to escape, as opposed to an escape.

But, what is the escape route? His first big long read for Net Magazine 10 years ago covered Invisibile. A reality TV show that pitted regular people against trackers as they attempted, over 13 days, to escape from the internet, evade detection, and make a wager at any of the big hotel casinos on the Las Vegas strip. Only one person had ever made it into an actual casino – disguised as a high end hooker – but she got busted propositioning an undercover cop.

Proves there can be too much reality.

What to do? Drive to Mexico with his famous face and voice in a trackable car, with a trackable phone, trackable credit cards and belly up to the bar at some off the beaten path resort and wait for the paparazzi to arrive. Hell – write a story, a book or a screenplay about it, sell it, get more famous (and more rich), do more interviews – rinse and repeat. Maybe it could be a latter day version of The Fugitive! “Now” the writer thought, “I can be a TV star too. Have my own show, do commercials, the works!”

But he really wanted out, or at least some time off…so he thought about it, and then thought about some more. For a while he researched it on the internet using SirenSearch, but then he figured if he ever had the balls to actually try to disappear law enforcement, hackers, trackers, bounty hunters and others would have clues from his searches. Then one day when he was looking up weight loss and exercise routines a pop-up ad for Pump Magazine showed up and he skimmed the headlines and articles and saw Meet The Hardbody Who Banned Electronics From Her Facility…He hesitated but did not click and instead paid cash for a hard copy of the magazine at a news stand next time he was in the airport headed for an another appearance of some sort.

Her facility (gym) was in fact close by in a repurposed warehouse on the other side of the airport at the edge of what was left of the prairie.  It was open from 4am to 9am, no phones or cameras or electronics of any kind allowed, and there were no video screens or music. A 16 oz post workout protein slurry was given to everyone as they left. What constituted membership was unclear and cash or casino chips were the only ways to pay. It was almost all free weights and a few very old school Nautilus machines. The locker rooms had no amenities. There was no cardio equipment except jump ropes.

“If someone is really compelled to do cardio, they can always go outside and run.”

The by-line on the Pump Magazine profile was from someone he used to sports write with at the paper before it was acquired, stripped of assets, taken online, and filled with AI generated content. His former colleague now did freelance writing and worked at a driving range when he wasn’t trying to write screenplays.

He decided he needed to hit some balls and drove out to the range. It too was on the backside of the airport at the edge of what was left of the prairie.

His friend greeted  him warmly.

“What brings you out this way?”

“Been busy, needed to get some exercise and take some of my frustrations out on the little white ball.”

“I read everything you write, watch the movies and listen to the interviews and podcasts…great stuff but it must be exhausting”

“It is – look at me. Great piece in Pump on Gyn Jones Gym”

“You read Pump?” He sort of flexed as he said it and his one size too small polo hugged his biceps.

“Does it look like it? I was SirenSearching some diet and exercise stuff – you know get in shape, lose some weight – and it popped up after the low T and diet pill ads. Can you connect me with her?”

“The pictures in the Pump piece were nothing special, don’t tell me she somehow triggered your obsessive side?”

“Not at all, Look at me, forget the success I am in some sort of death spiral – plenty of technical merit, but low scores on artistic impression. I need a workout plan, eat better, drink less, you know, some discipline and all that stuff that everyone believes, but no one does.”

As the conversation progressed they moved to the range and began to hit balls and catch up on old times. After 100 or so drives his hands were blistered, his back was sore and his shoulders and quads hurt and the topic returned to Gyn Jones Gym.

“How do you join?”

“You just show up.”

“Can you introduce me?”

“It’s after closing time, she won’t answer.”

“Do you ever go?

“Not anymore, pull-ups and push-ups at home plus jump rope. When I see her around I’ll mention that you might be stopping by.”

“I would appreciate that.”

“Be careful what you wish for.”

“Good luck on the screenplay, when it’s ready I’ll see what I can do, happy to take a look whenever – my number hasn’t changed.”

The writer drove home. Or his car drove him home. About a week later there were two books on his doorstep. Sun and Steel along with Muscle. The note said – Read these a couple of times before you go, she is expecting you.

But he waited, packed a large bag full of gear and put it in the front seat of his high end, 4 wheel drive Ox SUV and stayed at home.

He read and reread the two books. Except for ordering food and essentials he stayed offline as much as he could. Until it started snowing. Thick wet snow, lots of it. With a forecast for more.

It was early when he got in the Ox and said, “To the Airport.” The car responded, “Ok to take the back way?”

“Sure, park in the long term lot.” He waved at the camera as he left the building.

“It’s snowing, I may need your help navigating.”

“No worries.”

The Ox parked itself, he got out, walked toward the road and headed towards Gyn Jones Gym which was maybe a mile away. The routine surveillance drones were all down due to the snow. The cameras saw nothing or at least very little, and it was five days until his agent missed him and seven before the snow melted off his car and they found it.

The post-it note he left on the steering wheel said, “Sorry, I just needed a break. I will be fine and please don’t come looking for me.” So of course everyone came looking for him and his agent offered a big reward for any information.

He entered the facility a little after eight and there were just a few people finishing up their morning training. With the wet snow it was not that cold, but his legs were exhausted from the trudging.

She walked over to him. “I wondered if you were ever going to show up. Help yourself to coffee or slurry if you are hungry. I’ll be done in a little less than an hour and then we can talk. If you are bored there is a lot of interesting stuff in this.” She handed him a thick book called Keys To The Inner Universe.  He sat on a bench outside a glassed-in area that must be her office.

Her manner was more friendly than he had expected, almost sweet it seemed, or at least welcoming.

He leafed through the book and waited. The coffee gave him more than the expected jolt and the slurry, which came out of a repurposed slushy machine with a rotating drum and lever, did not taste that bad. As he looked around he saw a big open space and an arched roof that was maybe 40 feet high. The space seemed at least 100 feet long and 50 feet wide – there were no windows. The floor was all black rubber mats and there were only a couple of lines of exercise machines at the other end. There were plenty of squat racks, benches, and an array of dumbbells, and barbells. An easy to see digital clock that reset every 100 minutes hung from the rafters between two huge fans that seemed like buzzards hovering over the gym floor waiting for someone to drop. The whole space was extremely clean, seemed organized, and the only sounds were muffled conversation from the 10 or so people still training, the clanging of the weights and some grunts and words of encouragement.

Except for the clock and a scrolling message board no electronics were visible. There was an unmanned front desk near the entrance and medium sized welded black box with a slot and white lettering that said COLLECTION BOX. The message scrolling today was: Fatigue Makes Cowards Of Us All. As the final lifters emptied out of the facility most of them slipped what looked like a casino chip into the collection box.

The writer was welcomed into the office and they sat facing each other on either side of a small round table. Her hair was pulled back, she wore baggy pants, high top basketball shoes, and a loose grey t-shirt that said I Suffer Therefore I Must Be Alive. It was short and you could see that her abs were rock hard. When she shook hands they were hard and calloused. Her grip was firm and her hands seemed big. He had no idea how old she was. More than 30 but less than 50 seemed like a good guess.

“So tell me, what brings you to the facility?”

“It’s a long story”

“I’ve got time and most long stories are shorter than you think.”

The writer started and recounted the last fifteen years of his accelerating success, the demands of fame, and mostly the sense that none of it was as he put it real.

“If I don’t know better it sounds like Mr. Successful Writer has imposter syndrome.”

“Or something like that.” He responded.

The riff went on with just a few interjections and questions.

“So you have come to the conclusion that the solution to all of this monkey mind stuff you have going on is to get in shape.”

“Yes and I want to disconnect completely and just disappear for a while.”

“What is in shape and what is a while?” She asked.

“I am asking you.” He said.

“Give it a couple of months. Follow a simple plan. You’ll start on machines with an every other day circuit. Three measures of slurry per day, and some fruits and veggies. Coffee is allowed in the morning. After that we will move to more free weights. Depending on your interest level you may be here for a while.”

“What do you mean, be here?”

“Two things. Be here, as in engaged fully. Be here, as in a room for you in the quarters. You probably have heard rumors that sometimes when a movie star needs to change their body for a role they send them to me and they live here. The rules are the same for you as them – no electronics and you feed on what is served. And, no one has ever been found out. Whatever you want to keep secret will stay secret here. Now what’s in the bag?”

He opened the bag and she rifled through it, generally commenting positively on what was in it. She grabbed his phone, tablet, and laptop and put them on the table. She did the same with all his toiletries except his toothbrush. She saw a smaller mesh bag of casino chips and then zipped his big bag up. She put his electronics in a satchel that she slung over her shoulder and said, “Follow me.”

They got to the far side of the gym and she grabbed a rope hanging from the rafters, tugged it and then quickly climbed into the ceiling. When she got into the rafters she put the satchel down and then climbed down the rope. “Your stuff is safe up there.”

The door at the far side led to five minimally furnished bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and library common area. It had the feel of a cross between an overnight camp, college dorm, youth hostel and minimum security prison. The writer was apparently the only “guest” at this time.

“Get some rest, come into the facility in the morning after a cup of coffee. Your slurry is in the fridge along with a salad and some fruit. There is plenty to read. There are hiking trails into the prairie, leave a note if you go.”

What he thought, have I gotten myself into. Time would tell.

The workouts started. At first it was a couple of trips around a 10 machine circuit switching machines every 90 seconds. He did this on alternate days, Then it became three times around the circuit. He was sore, but not that sore and while the slurry was satisfying he was always just a bit hungry. On his off days he went for walks in the prairie and a grey haired retired boxer with a flat nose named Archie taught him to jump rope and hit the speed bag. He also started to read the real books in the library and keep a hand written diary of sorts. How many times can you reread The Godfather?

Things got tougher when Gyn started to personally supervise his sessions. She made him go to failure on each exercise and added negative reps. If you did it right she said, “you may feel like puking after about set 20. The goal is to get right to the edge and hold it there. You want your muscles red hot but not combusted.”

On his off days he was now very sore, but kept walking, jumping rope, hitting the speed bag, and reading. Gyn or one of the regulars taught him to use free weights the right way starting with very light weights.

His diary was really not a diary but a day by day imaginary account of ditching his car at the airport in the snow storm. Making his way undetected to the river and riding a grain barge to New Orleans. Finding anonymous back breaking day work fixing levies destroyed in last year’s flood. When there was no more levy building he worked on yard crews at the homes of rich people. At least one barely middle aged woman/southern belle – Anita – seemed to recognize him as she headed into a house for a book club in the Garden District. She took pity on him and let him live in the rooms over her garage, telling her husband, ‘We need a full time handyman.’ Her husband seemed unconcerned but puzzled that the handyman was white. The husband was busy making real estate deals, playing golf and drinking with the boys. His secretary Monica handled any of his other needs on a weekly basis. More frequently when necessary.

Of course the writer and Anita began to discuss books, and art, and his fame and one thing led to another. This went on for a while until her only child came home unexpectedly from LSU and figured out what was up. She kept her mouth shut but started flirting with the writer (“We just finished one of your short stories in class.”) and one thing led to another in the imaginary diary. After a few close calls and jealousy episodes, he figured it was best to say goodbye to Anita and her daughter and spend time on a shrimp boat out in the gulf.

At the end of the 9th week, Gyn and a couple of the regulars presented him with a thick leather lifting belt and told him the Arnold sessions were ready to start. They let him weigh himself and while he knew most of the fat was gone he was surprised that he had actually gained a couple of pounds. His slurry rations were increased and unlimited amounts of grilled lean meat and eggs were slowly introduced into his diet.

Now he lifted heavy six days per week. Legs M-W-F, arms, chest, shoulders and back T-Th-Sat. On Sunday he had a day off. The sessions lasted for a couple of hours and were exhausting. He slept nine hours per night and napped every afternoon, his worries went away as he focused mostly on the next workout.

Early in the morning he noticed that a number of younger cartoonishly attractive women were regulars. Big hair, big boobs and leftover makeup. They came in twos or threes, and except for the baggy clothes looked like dancers. He asked Gyn about them.

“You guessed it, their work requires them to keep their bodies hard – they can’t afford to get fat. The money can be good, it is a hard life, and most of the men are assholes. A couple of them are well educated and one of the girls has asked me about you. Don’t worry they all know how to keep their mouths shut – what do you want me to do about it?”

“What should I do about it?”

“Be careful,” she said. “But my guess is she naps in the afternoon too.”

He wondered what Gyn’s background was – had she been a dancer? It was one of many questions he never asked. He also wondered about her and Archie.

And so it went day after day, week after week as his mind cleared up and he got stronger and stronger. As the summer came Gyn told him he might have some company in the rooms, an actor who had failed rehab many times and needed to harden up for a big role in an action film that was sure to be a blockbuster would be coming. He befriended the actor, showed them the ropes, and suggested books from the library to read.

And then it ended, a member of the paparazzi infiltrated the gym looking for the actor. The writer – who was now 230 pounds of muscle and hyper coordinated from jumping rope and hitting the speed bag saw him surreptitiously snapping photos of the actor training and intervened.

“You know the rule about electronics?”

“What electronics?”

“The camera.”

“Sorry.”

Give it to me.”

He moved toward the exit, the writer grabbed the camera and pinned the paparazzi against the wall by the neck with his left hand. He calmly instructed him to open the mini-cam, remove the memory card and give it to him. He then swallowed the memory card and told him to strip. By then Archie had arrived and he told Archie to search the clothes lying on the rubber matted floor. A couple of more memory cards were found and Archie walked over to where the slurry machine was and put them in the Vita-Mix on the counter, filled the blender with coffee and flipped it on high.

Gyn saw it all from the office and smiled. No one else saw anything – they were all too focused on their sets and reps. The paparazzi left and the actor’s secret was safe. The movie was a blockbuster and the critics and pundits marveled at the total transformation of the actor and speculated it had all been done digitally.

“It might be time for you to leave now.” She told him a few days later.

“Do I have to?”

“We will see you every morning. Don’t let the paparazzi find you out – how does it go? Get ahead of the story.”

Later that day he packed his stuff up and walked to the driving range.

“Where have you been?” The ex-sports writer asked.

“Around, can you give me a ride to my agent’s office?”

He pulled the imaginary diary out of his bag and handed it to his friend.

“This is the best thing I have ever done. If you are interested feel free to turn it into a screenplay.”

“Wow.”

When they met an hour later, the agent did all of the expected fawning and when she heard about the diary immediately came up with a “360 degree plan to future proof and monetize this exceptional property.”

A press conference was called for later in the week, deals were quickly consummated, and rights assigned. The ex-sports writer was engaged to do the screenplay only because the writer insisted.

The story of how the writer escaped down river from electronic captivity and transformed his body and mind via back breaking labor was his biggest hit and won all the prizes in every medium it was ever presented in. There was even talk of a Nobel Prize. Some compared it to One Day in the Life… A cottage industry of tours, college classes and graduate seminars took off. Unsuspecting women and their college aged daughters in New Orleans were never completely identified.

The writer went along with it. The dancer moved in with him, she quit her job, eventually got into medical school and they went to Gyn’s every morning. When he started to travel again and make appearances, free time in the morning and access to a real gym were written into all the deals.

Archie told him that he was almost ready to work with the heavy bag.

He could not wait.

The satchel with his electronics remained in the rafters.

(This guest post is by our good friend Michael Joyner, who he does his share of fact based thinking and speculation about all things human performance.)

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