MR. PARSONS put on first the white gym shirt embossed with the insignia of the athletic club, then the padded khaki shorts, and finally the white turtle-neck sweater that bulged in a ruff under his pink face.
In his street clothes he had appeared not quite undersized and only moderately fat, but with his gymnasium clothes he put on character. He looked like a middle-aged kewpie.
There was no one in sight as he slammed his locker door shut. He made a calisthenic gesture with his plump arms and jumped on his toes. The tendons behind his knees strained under the weight of his body, but the change from shoes to rubber-soled sneakers never failed to make him feel momentarily nimble.
He walked down the main aisle of the locker room with what he hoped were long, easy strides. He had been a member of the club for only a month, and he did n’t know any of the gymnasium crowd to speak to, but whenever he caught a fellow club member’s eye he nodded briskly. He received several nods in return, and one man who had a highball on a stool beside him said a little thickly, ‘Hello, there, big fella! Don’t get those nice pants dirty, now!‘
‘No, sir,’ Mr. Parsons said, and laughed. ‘No, sir!’ He told himself that in a way this was the kind of easy relationship he wanted to have with these men, and that he was making progress, but it bothered him that a month of use had left his outfit as clean and odorless as an unsmoked meerschaum.
He could have avoided the gymnasium and followed the corridor to the room where he always worked out. Instead, he entered the gymnasium unobtrusively and stood for a moment against the wall. He had never taken part in this boisterous activity, but it fascinated him. He watched with admiration the men who were making middle-aged attempts at boxing and wrestling. He realized that this was still beyond him physically, but he thought that by now he was up to the other games, like hand tennis and medicine ball.
Three men came in and hurried past him to the unoccupied hand-tennis court. Mr. Parsons’s objective was the open door beyond the court. He followed in their wake.
The men were slapping the ball back and forth as he crossed behind the court. He knew that they were only marking time until a partner for the third man should arrive, so he walked past them slowly. None of the men spoke to him.
He went into the room he had discovered on his first day. It was windowless, hardly larger than a squash court. There was a miscellany of dusty apparatus along three of the walls, and facing the fourth was a pair of antiquated bicycling machines.
For the first time Mr. Parsons looked at them with dissatisfaction. Behind him he could hear the light tapping of the tennis ball and the thud of feet, and he found himself wondering if the three men were expecting a fourth or merely waiting until someone offered himself. For a moment he stood there indecisively, then he turned and went back to the doorway. It was only a few feet from the side lines. While he watched the idle passage of the ball with an intentness worthy of a hard-fought game, he kept smiling in case any of the men should look his way.
They did n’t, until the ball struck a net post and bounced crazily toward him. All three men were looking at him now and one of them said, ‘ Thank you!’
Mr. Parsons’s heart thumped. Hestooped as swiftly as he could. The ball slithered through his fingers, but, to his intense relief, was stopped by his feet. He made a wild underhand throw to the man who had spoken. The ball went yards to the right.
Mr. Parsons was still smiling, but he felt his face get hot. ‘Sorry,’ he said, but the other two were watching the third man trotting after the ball.
Mr. Parsons retreated into his room. He made an automatic gesture to shut the door behind him, but it was hooked back to the wall. He went directly to his bicycle.
The door to the corridor opened and a thin stoop-shouldered man came in. At another time Mr. Parsons would have welcomed the violation of his sanctuary; now he bent over and pretended to be examining the pedal of his machine.
‘Hello,’the thin man said diffidently.
Mr. Parsons, without looking up, mumbled a greeting.
‘I hope I’m not intruding?’
‘No,’Mr. Parsons said. ‘Not at all.‘
‘This is my first day. I have n’t quite got the hang of things yet.’
Mr. Parsons straightened. He noted with quickening interest that the stranger’s clothes, even newer than his own, covered a body that was as thin as Mr. Parsons’s was stout. ‘Maybe I could show you the ropes,’he suggested.
‘I’d certainly appreciate it. My name’s Scott.’
‘Parsons,’Mr. Parsons said with increasing confidence. They shook hands. ‘I suppose I “m sort of an old-timer, compared to you.’ He laughed. There was a pause. Mr. Parsons became suddenly businesslike. ‘Well,’he said cheerfully, ‘I guess what you’re after is a good stiff workout!’
Scott said that he was. He was looking past Mr. Parsons. ‘That hand tennis is a lot of fun. I used to be pretty good at it. In the old days, that is,’he added apologetically.
Mr. Parsons shrugged. ‘It’s all right. But what I want is to work up a good sweat.’ He patted his paunch with the detachment of a masseur. ‘Now this is what I’ve got to get rid of.’
‘Well, you’re the trainer,’Scott said. He was still looking out the door.
‘That’s the spirit!’ Mr, Parsons swung himself on to his bicycle. ‘Up with you!’ he commanded, pointing to the machine next him. Scott turned reluctantly from the door and mounted the other bicycle.
‘ We ’ll take it easy first, to warm up,’Mr. Parsons said. ‘ This is what gets the old leg muscles.’ He watched his pupil critically as they pedaled. ‘You’re getting the idea, but you want to relax — the way I do. That’s the ticket!’ After a while he explained about the indicators that traveled around the dial before them. The red one — now in the lead — was his own. The black one was Scott’s. Later they could try a little sprint, perhaps, if Scott felt up to it.
‘I’ll feel up to it,’ Scott assured him. ‘There is n’t very much to this.’
Mr. Parsons was feeling too expansive to be annoyed. He laughed tolerantly. ‘We’ll see,’he said slowly. Then, very suddenly, he exclaimed, ‘Sprint!’
He took Scott by surprise and, pedaling furiously, managed to keep his lead. When Scott began to overtake him, he called a halt.
‘There!’ he said, puffing. ‘That’s something like! Sweating ? ’
Scott shook his head. His breathing was unhurried. ‘Is this all we do?’
Mr. Parsons pulled his chin back in surprise. ‘Lord, no! This is just for your legs. Later we’ll try a little medicine ball, if you ’re not too tired. That ’ll get an entirely different set of muscles, you see. And tomorrow —’ He stopped, appalled by what he had been about to suggest. ‘ What I was going to say — do you box or wrestle at all?’
‘No,’ Scott said. ’Do you?’
Mr. Parsons did n’t answer directly. ‘We’ll be pretty evenly matched at boxing,’he went on glibly. ‘I’d have too much weight on you for wrestling, but in boxing you’d make up for it with that reach of yours.’
Scott looked curiously at his arms. ‘I have got a pretty good reach, have n’t I!’
‘Not bad,’ Mr. Parsons conceded; then added a little sharply, ‘We’re losing our sweat this way! Let’s race a mile, now — that’s four times around the dial — and see if you can catch me this time. Ready?’ His foot was poised tensely at the highest arc of the pedal.
A tennis ball bounced into the room and ran between the two machines. ‘All right!’ Mr. Parsons said quickly. ‘Start!’
He started alone. Scott had jumped from his bicycle and retrieved the ball. One of the players came to the doorway. ‘Here you are,’ Scott said, and flipped the ball accurately to him.
‘Thanks.’ The man looked at Mr. Parsons, then back to Scott. ‘We’re playing hand tennis. You would n’t want to make a fourth?’
Scott’s face lighted. ‘Sure thing! ’ he said.
‘ That is — ’ He turned to Mr. Parsons. ‘You would n’t mind, would you?’
Mr. Parsons shook his head.
Scott hesitated. ‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘come out and watch us for a while, why don’t you?’
The two men were looking up at him. Mr. Parsons had an unpleasant picture of himself perched on the high machine. He got down as quickly as he could. ‘I’ll watch you for just a minute,’ he said as Scott took his arm; ‘but I don’t want to get cooled off.’ They had reached the door. He took his arm from Scott’s grasp. ‘I"ll stand here.‘
‘Oh, come on!’ Scott said with perfunctory enthusiasm. Mr. Parsons did n’t answer him.
They chose sides, and the game was started. Scott had his hack to Mr. Parsons, but at the first opportunity he turned and smiled. Mr. Parsons tried to smile back, but the smile felt stiff on his face.
Scott did n’t turn around again after that, and Mr. Parsons knew that he was n’t going to. Mr. Parsons unhooked the door and closed it behind him. He mounted his bicycle and started to pedal; after a while he became aware of the indicator circling slowly before him.
He tried to arouse an interest in the progress he was making. He pedaled a little faster. For the last week he had been riding two miles a day, but now, he decided, he would increase it to three. He would do the first two miles slowly, warming up. The last mile would be a series of very fast sprints. Not only would that get the old paunch, he assured himself, but it would make a kind of game of it. He started pedaling as fast as he could.