Stationary Bike
written by Stephen King and narrated by Ron McLarty

 

I. Metabolic Workmen

 

A week after the physical he had put off for a year (he’d actually been putting it off for three years, as his wife would have pointed out if she had still been alive), Richard Sifkitz was invited by Dr. Brady to view and discuss the results. Since the patient could detect nothing overtly ominous in his doctor’s voice, he went willingly enough.

The results were rendered as numeric values on a sheet of paper headed METROPOLITAN HOSPITAL, New York City. All the test names and numbers were in black except for one line. This one line was rendered in red, and Sifkitz was not very surprised to see that it was marked CHOLESTEROL. The number, which really stood out in that red ink (as was undoubtedly the intention), read 226.

Sifkitz started to enquire if that was a bad number, then asked himself if he wanted to start off this interview by asking something stupid. It would not have been printed in red, he reasoned, if it had been a good number. The rest of them were undoubtedly good numbers, or at least acceptable numbers, which was why they were printed in black. But he wasn’t here to discuss them. Doctors were busy men, disinclined to waste time in head-patting. So instead of something stupid, he asked how bad a number two-twenty-six was.

Dr. Brady leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together on his damnably skinny chest. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “it’s not a bad number at all.” He raised a finger. “Considering what you eat, that is.”

“I know I weigh too much,” Sifkitz said humbly. “I’ve been meaning to do something about it.” In fact, he had been meaning to do no such thing.

“To tell you more of the truth,” Dr. Brady went on, “your weight is not so bad, either. Again, considering what you eat. And now I want you to listen closely, because this is a conversation I only have with my patients once. My male patients, that is; when it comes to weight, my female patients would talk my ear off, if I let them. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” Sifkitz said, attempting to lace his fingers across his own chest and discovering he could not do it. What he discovered—or rediscovered, more properly put—was that he had a pretty good set of breasts. Not, so far as he was aware, part of the standard equipment for men in their late thirties. He gave up his attempt to lace and folded, instead. In his lap. The sooner the lecture was begun, the sooner it would be done.

“You’re six feet tall and thirty-eight years old,” Dr. Brady said. “Your weight should be about a hundred and ninety, and your cholesterol should be just about the same. Once upon a time, back in the seventies, you could get away with a cholesterol reading of two-forty, but of course back in the seventies, you could still smoke in the waiting rooms at hospitals.” He shook his head. “No, the correlation between high cholesterol and heart disease was simply too clear. The two-forty number consequently went by the boards.

“You are the sort of man who has been blessed with a good metabolism. Not a great one, mind you, but good? Yes. How many times do you eat at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, Richard? Twice a week?”

“Maybe once,” Sifkitz said. He thought the average week actually brought four to six fast-food meals with it. Not counting the occasional weekend trip to Arby’s.

Dr. Brady raised a hand as if to say Have it your way…which was, now that Sifkitz thought of it, the Burger King motto.

“Well, you’re certainly eating somewhere, as the scales tell us. You weighed in on the day of your physical at two-twenty-three…once again, and not coincidentally, very close to your cholesterol number.”

He smiled a little at Sifkitz’s wince, but at least it was not a smile devoid of sympathy.

“Here is what has happened so far in your adult life,” Brady said. “In it, you have continued to eat as you did when you were a teenager, and to this point your body—thanks to that good-if-not-extraordinary metabolism—has pretty much kept up with you. It helps at this point to think of the metabolic process as a work-crew. Men in chinos and Doc Martens.”

It may help you, Sifkitz thought, it doesn’t do a thing for me. Meanwhile, his eyes kept being drawn back to that red number, that 226.

“Their job is to grab the stuff you send down the chute and dispose of it. Some they send on to the various production departments. The rest they burn. If you send them more than they can deal with, you put on weight. Which you have been doing, but at a relatively slow pace. But soon, if you don’t make some changes, you’re going to see that pace speed up. There are two reasons. The first is that your body’s production facilities need less fuel than they used to. The second is that your metabolic crew—those fellows in the chinos with the tattoos on their arms—aren’t getting any younger. They’re not as efficient as they used to be. They’re slower when it comes to separating the stuff to be sent on and the stuff that needs to be burned. And sometimes they bitch.”

“Bitch?” Sifkitz asked.

Dr. Brady, hands still laced across his narrow chest (the chest of a consumptive, Sifkitz decided—certainly no breasts there), nodded his equally narrow head. Sifkitz thought it almost the head of a weasel, sleek and sharp-eyed. “Yes indeed. They say stuff like, ‘Isn’t he ever gonna slow down?’ and ‘Who does he think we are, the Marvel Comics superheroes?’ and ‘Cheezis, don’t he ever give it a rest?’ And one of them—the malingerer, every work-crew’s got one—probably says, ‘What the fuck does he care about us, anyway? He’s on top, ain’t he?’

“And sooner or later, they’ll do what any bunch of working joes will do if they’re forced to go on too long and do too much, without so much as a lousy weekend off, let alone a paid vacation: they’ll get sloppy. Start goofing off and lying down on the job. One day one of ’em won’t come in at all, and there’ll come another—if you live long enough—when one of ’em can’t come in, because he’ll be lying home dead of a stroke or a heart attack.”

“That’s pleasant. Maybe you could take it on the road. Hit the lecture circuit. Oprah, even.”

Dr. Brady unlaced his fingers and leaned forward across his desk. He looked at Richard Sifkitz, unsmiling. “You’ve got a choice to make and my job is to make you aware of it, that’s all. Either you change your habits or you’re going to find yourself in my office ten years from now with some serious problems—weight pushing three hundred pounds, maybe, Type Two diabetes, varicose veins, a stomach ulcer, and a cholesterol number to match your weight. At this point you can still turn around without crash-diets, tummy-tucks, or a heart attack to get your attention. Later on doing that’ll get harder. Once you’re past forty, it gets harder every year. After forty, Richard, the weight sticks to your ass like babyshit sticks to a bedroom wall.”

“Elegant,” Sifkitz said, and burst out laughing. He couldn’t help it.

Brady didn’t laugh, but he smiled, at least, and leaned back in his chair. “There’s nothing elegant about where you’re headed. Doctors don’t usually talk about it any more than State Troopers talk about the severed head they found in a ditch near the car accident, or the blackened child they found in the closet the day after the Christmas tree lights caught the house on fire, but we know lots about the wonderful world of obesity, from women who grow mold in flaps of fat that haven’t been washed all the way to the bottom in years to men who go everywhere in a cloud of stench because they haven’t been able to wipe themselves properly in a decade or more.”

Sifkitz winced and made a waving-away gesture.

“I don’t say you’re going there, Richard—most people don’t, they have a kind of built-in limiter, it seems—but there is some truth to that old saying about so-and-so digging his grave with a fork and spoon. Keep it in mind.”

“I will.”

“Good. That’s the speech. Or sermon. Or whatever it is. I won’t tell you to go your way and sin no more, I’ll just say ‘over to you.’”

Although he had filled in the OCCUPATION blank on his income tax return with the words FREELANCE ARTIST for the last twelve years, Sifkitz did not think of himself as a particularly imaginative man, and he hadn’t done a painting (or even a drawing, really) just for himself since the year he graduated from DePaul. He did book jackets, some movie posters, a lot of magazine illustrations, the occasional cover for a trade-show brochure. He’d done one CD cover (for Slobberbone, a group he particularly admired) but would never do another one, he said, because you couldn’t see the detail in the finished product without a magnifying glass. That was as close as he had ever come to what is called “artistic temperament.”

If asked to name his favorite piece of work, he likely would have looked blank. If pressed, he might have said it was the painting of the young blond woman running through the grass that he had done for Downy Fabric Softener, but even that would have been a lie, something told just to make the question go away. In truth, he wasn’t the kind of artist who had (or needed to have) favorites. It had been a long time since he’d picked up a brush to paint anything other than what someone commissioned him to paint, usually from a detailed ad agency memo or from a photograph (as had been the case with the woman running through the grass, evidently overjoyed that she had finally managed to beat static cling).

But, as surely as inspiration strikes the best of us—the Picassos, the Van Goghs, the Salvador Dalís—so it must eventually strike the rest of us, if only once or twice in a lifetime. Sifkitz took the crosstown bus home (he’d not owned a car since college), and as he sat looking out the window (the medical report with its one line of red type was folded into his back pocket), he found his eye again and again going to the various work-crews and construction gangs the bus rolled past: guys in hardhats tromping across a building site, some with buckets, some with boards balanced on their shoulders; Con Ed guys half-in and half-out of manholes surrounded by yellow tape stamped with the words WORK AREA; three guys erecting a scaffold in front of a department store display window while a fourth talked on his cell phone.

Little by little he realized a picture was forming in his mind, one which demanded its place in the world. When he was back to the SoHo loft that served as both his home and his studio, he crossed to the littered nest beneath the skylight without even bothering to pick the mail up off the floor. He dropped his jacket on top of it, as a matter of fact.

He paused only long enough to look at a number of blank canvases leaning in the corner, and dismiss them. He took a piece of plain white pressboard instead, and set to work with a charcoal pencil. The phone rang twice over the course of the next hour. He let the answering machine pick up both times.

He worked at this picture off and on—but rather more on than off, especially as time passed and he came to realize how good it was—over the next ten days, moving from the pressboard to a piece of canvas that was four feet long and three feet high when it seemed natural to do so. It was the biggest surface he’d worked on in over a decade.

The picture showed four men—workmen in jeans, poplin jackets, and big old workboots—standing at the side of a country road which had just emerged from a deep stand of forest (this he rendered in shades of dark green and streaks of gray, working in a splashy, speedy, exuberant style). Two of the men had shovels; one had a bucket in each hand; the fourth was in the process of pushing his cap back from his forehead in a gesture that perfectly caught his end-of-the-day weariness and his growing realization that the job would never be done; that there was, in fact, more of the job needing to be done at the end of each day than there had been at the beginning. This fourth guy, wearing a battered old gimme-cap with the word LIPID printed above the bill, was the foreman. He was talking to his wife on his cell phone. Coming home, honey, nah, don’t want to go out, not tonight, too tired, want to get an early start in the morning. The guys bitched about that but I brought ’em around. Sifkitz didn’t know how he knew all this, but he did. Just as he knew that the man with the buckets was Freddy, and he owned the truck in which the men had come. It was parked just outside the picture on the right; you could see the top of its shadow. One of the shovel guys, Carlos, had a bad back and was seeing a chiropractor.

There was no sign of what job the men had been doing in the picture, that was a little beyond the left side, but you could see how exhausted they were. Sifkitz had always been a detail-man (that green-gray blur of forest was very unlike him), and you could read how weary these men were in every feature of their faces. It was even in the sweat-stains on the collars of their shirts.

Above them, the sky was a queer organic red.

Of course he knew what the picture represented and understood that queer sky perfectly. This was the work-crew of which his doctor had spoken, at the end of their day. In the real world beyond that organic red sky, Richard Sifkitz, their employer, had just eaten his bed-time snack (a left-over piece of cake, maybe, or a carefully hoarded Krispy Kreme) and laid his head down on his pillow. Which meant they were finally free to go home for the day. And would they eat? Yes, but not as much as he did. They would be too tired to eat much, it was on their faces. Instead of eating a big meal they’d put their feet up, these guys who worked for The Lipid Company, and watch TV for a little while. Maybe fall asleep in front of it and then wake up a couple of hours later, with the regular shows gone and Ron Popeil on, showing his latest invention to an adoring studio audience. And they’d turn it off with the remote and shuffle away to bed, shedding clothes as they went without so much as a backward look.

All of this was in the picture, although none of it was in the picture. Sifkitz was not obsessed with it, it did not become his life, but he understood it was something new in his life, something good. He had no idea what he could do with such a thing once it was finished, and didn’t really care. For the time being he just liked getting up in the morning and looking at it with one eye open as he picked the cloth of his Big Dog boxers out of the crack of his ass. He supposed when it was done, he would have to name it. So far he had considered and rejected “Quittin’ Time,” “The Boys Call It a Day,” and “Berkowitz Calls It a Day.” Berkowitz being the boss, the foreman, the one with the Motorola cell phone, the guy in the LIPID cap. None of those names were quite right, and that was okay. He’d know the right name for the picture when it finally occurred to him. It would make a cling! sound in his head. In the meantime there was no hurry. He wasn’t even sure the picture was the point. While painting it, he had lost fifteen pounds. Maybe that was the point.

Or maybe it wasn’t.

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