Not earbuds but headphones so big the phones cut out any unwanted sound. That was the way Jeffrey wanted it. He wanted to stay in his inner world with his music and his basketball. He had no need to nod or say hello or anything to the vague inhabitants of the gym, people he saw everyday but didn’t see, didn’t want to see, particularly women who seemed to be drawn to him for some unknown reason. God knows he wasn’t particularly attractive, gray hair, kinda short but decent muscles from years at the gym. Maybe it was his indifference that attracted them. Ever since Covid he wore a mask even when he didn’t need to like when he was working out hard on the rowing machine, building a sweat. He liked the mask, extra protection against anyone who tried to enter his space.
He used to be friendly. “Hi,” he’d say to the guys shooting baskets. (When he was a kid, he dreamed of being a professional). “What’s up?”
They’d shake hands maybe or bump knuckles and tell stories about how many baskets they used to make or which team they were sure would win the championship. It was nice the way it used to be, warm, the sun blasting through the gym window on summer days, so you were grateful for air conditioning, you were happy to be alive.
Alive was what it was all about. And Olivia was hardly that anymore, her slow decline, the headaches, the weakness, the insomnia until they diagnosed Covid. Olivia protested, “I wore a mask, I washed my hands, avoided crowds…” She was certain she’d never be infected, that they’d never be infected, but she was.
“How’s your wife?” George asked the other day. George was a trainer but out of work since the pandemic hit and the gym closed for several months. Now he was hoping to get back at it like so many others.
“How’s your wife?” Carl asked yesterday climbing the stair stepper.
“How’s your wife?” Don inquired adjusting the weights on the arm extension.
“How’s your wife?” “Your wife?” “Your wife?”
Jeffrey wished he could answer. Wished he could say she was better, she was fine, they were leaving on vacation next week, flying to Paris, or Hawaii or Madrid…
Instead, he turned up the volume on his headphones and pressed them closer to his ears.
Elaine Barnard’s collection of stories, The Emperor of Nuts: Intersections Across Cultures was published by New Meridian Arts and noted as a unique book on the Snowflakes in a Blizzard website. She won first place in Strands international flash fiction competition and was featured on their webinar. Her work has been included in numerous literary journals. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction. She was a finalist for Best of the Net. She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and her BA from the University of Washington, Seattle.