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The Height of My Apex

Someone shit in the men’s sauna again, and now the entirety of Apex Fitness—I’m talking the weight room, cardio center, pool area, basketball/volleyball court, both locker rooms, and even the supplement shop—smells like the aftermath of a ruptured septic tank. Outside, a mob of disgruntled members gathers at the main entrance, waiting for Mr. Luntz like wolves for a stray sheep. I haven’t seen Luntz since the early-AM when he left in a hurry to meet with his divorce attorney. His soon-to-be ex-wife wants full custody of their two young daughters. She’s building a case that Luntz has anger issues and a severe drinking problem.

I tried calling, but he didn't answer.

The gym is empty except for the smell. It settles like dew atop the carpets, counters, and exercise equipment. I am the only employee who stayed inside to open the doors and windows. I asked for help, but no one listened. The way they see it: “manager’s assistant” does not mean “manager.” I bury my nose deep into the fabric of my REACH YOUR APEX staff t-shirt. Then I stare out at the mob, trying to come up with a solution. They see me standing there, behind the check-in kiosk, doing what must appear to be absolutely nothing. A couple of the angrier members come knocking on glass all impatiently, like: “Hello??”

I get the urge to fight fire with fire. To flip them the bird, then quit. But there are other factors to consider. Julia is pregnant again, and this time she says it’s mine. She said that last time, too, but this time she’s serious. I think of diapers and doctors’ appointments and those little jars of baby food. There’s a part of me that wants to believe her. Like when I think about old friends graduating from college, getting engaged, and moving to different cities to pursue hard-earned careers. Meanwhile, I’m back at home with my mom again, struggling to stay clean. I think about how long it took to land this job: four months of shelling out résumés and dressing up for interviews, just to be denied after the background checks. Luntz was the only boss willing to give me a chance, and so I feel a certain loyalty—not to mention Daryl, my sponsor, who’s always preaching that prolonged employment marks a major milestone, bub.

So, I decide to eat my pride and face this thing head-on.

I grab a thick stack of discounted spa coupons and head out into the brisk September evening to distribute them. Tail between my legs, I apologize to our valued members. But my efforts go unappreciated. The general vibe is that I am the enemy. That I, personally, am to blame.

A plump middle-aged man steps forward and says that he’s not paying $200/month for his personal training sessions to be interrupted by some shit-happy asshat. The crowd loves it. They love his use of “asshat.” Then the plump man makes a big production of getting right up in my face, snagging the last of my coupons, and storming off to his beige sedan.

I want nothing more than to clock him in the back of the head, but I resist. I keep it simple. I focus on my breathing. I stand there with my hands folded prayerfully at my waist, memorizing every face in the crowd. There’s a feeling deep in my gut that the perpetrator is at arm’s length. Blending in, watching me. I can only imagine the thrill of such power. It sends a chill down my spine.

Luntz returns reeking of booze and cigarettes. It’d been ten years since he quit the latter, so I figure the meeting with the lawyer didn’t go so hot. He calls me into his office, where I find him leaning back in his ergonomic swivel chair, anxiously itching the bald spot at the crown of his head. It has expanded noticeably, the bald spot, as if his Rx-strength hair rejuvenation cream is having the opposite effect.

According to Luntz, these little incidents are beginning to cost us, big time. We’ve lost more members in the past two weeks than we’ve gained the entire quarter, and Greg Simmons, our regional supervisor, has taken notice. Simmons doesn’t like what he’s seeing, numbers-wise; and if there’s not a dramatic uptick in our membership retention rates by the end of the month, then he’ll be forced to consider some serious house cleaning.

“What about the surveillance footage?” Luntz leans forward, planting his elbows on the desk.

“It’s like we’re chasing a ghost,” I say, which is not at all what he wants to hear.

Initially, we thought that identifying the perpetrator would be easy—like spotting some acne-faced kid booking it to the exit, meanwhile everyone’s stopped mid-rep looking around like: “Who farted?” But the reality is that we’re dealing with a professional. I’ve spent countless mind-numbing hours poring over the past weeks’ security tapes, and the only discovery I’ve made is that every day at noon, Gabriela Vasquez takes a short break from the check-in kiosk and waits in the family bathroom. Then T.J. Smith, our head lifeguard, comes knocking on the door in a coded rhythm. The sessions are short—like ten minutes, max—so I figure there’s no real reason to tell Luntz, especially now.

“And what about Toby?” Luntz refers to the part-time towel boy, Toby Farmer, who we’ve been paying an extra $5.00/hour to pose as a washroom attendant while keeping a watchful eye on those entering and exiting the sauna.

Again, I say, “Nothing.”

Luntz rubs his temples in slow concentric circles. He’s about to say something else, but is interrupted by Chiam Song, our oldest and hardest-working janitor. Chiam apologizes for interrupting, and then stands awkwardly at the doorway, politely refusing Luntz’s request to come in and have a seat. Chiam cuts straight to the chase: says that unclogging toilets and mopping up vomit is one thing, but this whole quote sauna business is on a completely different level. He says that he’s accepted a custodial position at the local community college. In an unapologetic tone, he quits.

Luntz tries to convince him to stay, but it’s no use.

Chiam warns us that the entire staff is considering a mass walk-out, especially the personal trainers, who are losing clients left and right. With that, he closes the door and leaves Luntz and I to spitball worst-case scenarios, each one feeling inevitable in its own unique way. We do this for what feels like a tiny eternity—or however long it takes for the whole thing to start feeling utterly hopeless. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Luntz gains a second wind. He says he’s done pussy-footing around. He’s not losing his wife, his kids, and his job—all in the same year.

“It’s time,” he says, “to consider extremes.”

He gives me this meaningful look. He knows my history well. He asks if I might still know a guy who’d be willing to get his hands dirty.

I tell him that there’s a solid chance, then I go try to track the guy down.

I spend the remainder of my shift calling people I haven’t spoken with since I went cold turkey. They’re like: “Where the hell have you been?” and then ask if I heard about such and such, who’s now doing this or that, here or there. I ask if anyone knows where I could find Big Phil, and the general consensus is that his RV was raided last month, so now he’s cooling off in some rural state like Nebraska or Wyoming.

I ask if they know anyone else who’d be in the market for an odd job, and only one name surfaces: Isaac Kowalski—the eldest brother of a recently-deceased friend—who, when I call, is all: “It depends.”

I tell him to swing by Apex so we can talk details, and within an hour the three of us—Isaac, Luntz, and I—are seated in Luntz’s office. Isaac’s much taller and thinner than I remember. Granted, the last time I saw him was maybe five or six years ago. Not since the Marines discharged him for beating a superior half to death, which Isaac insisted was all just a big misunderstanding. Since then, Isaac says, he started his own bounty hunting business, so he has all this state-of-the-art surveillance equipment: an entire ecosystem of wireless nanny cams, all cleverly disguised as smoke alarms, fire sprinklers, AC panels, thermometers, you name it—which would save Luntz about $1,500 to rent, and about$5,000 to buy.

“My thing is,” Luntz says, “what if someone figures out we’re spying on them, and all hell breaks loose?” He looks at Isaac like: “Then what?”

“I won’t lie to you,” Isaac says, leaning forward in his seat. “Nothing’s risk-free. But not once have I had that type of an issue. Hand to God, I could have this whole thing wrapped up by tomorrow, provided that your mystery man strikes again.”

Luntz takes a long moment to process the situation. Eyes somewhat glazing, his head does that slow contemplative nod, like he’s trying to recognize a forgotten yet familiar face.

“How’s this,” Isaac asks, and stands. “I’ll use the restroom. You two talk it over. And when you’re ready, come find me in the hallway.”

As soon as the door closes, Luntz gives me a cagey look.

“How well do you know this guy?” he asks.

I tell him that I used to hang around Isaac’s younger brother, Adam, who OD’d earlier this year in the bathroom of a 7/11. So, it’s not like the dude’s a total stranger, but at the same time I can’t vouch for him.

“If we go through with this, we need to be certain,” Luntz says, then tells me that all he needs is for something like this to go awry and end up as a red dot on Family Watchdog.

The way he says the last part makes an uneasy feeling wash over me like an ice-cold river. I start thinking about how, by virtue of calling Isaac in the first place, I’ve already crossed a multitude of lines. I hear my sponsor’s voice again, this time quoting Proverbs: “He who walketh with wise men shall be wise.” I think about how the whole towel-boy plot was one thing, but to set up cameras in a private locker room—even if well-intentioned—is not the sort of thing that an iron-faced judge would take lightly.

“Any thoughts?” Luntz asks.

I try to conjure up a better option, but I can’t.

And although there’s this hollow ache in my gut, I go against it.

“I suppose,” I say, “it’s worth a shot.”

Immediately, I sense that I’ve taken a huge weight off Luntz’s conscience, almost as if he was holding out for me to say it so that he didn’t have to—which, in a way, makes it seem like I’ve got the bank teller at gunpoint while he’s smoking a cigarette in the getaway car.

That night, I find Julia and her 3-year-old daughter, Olive, reclined on the living room couch, watching TV, waiting for my mom to finish reheating a pot of chicken noodle soup. I enter through the back door, so no one hears me. The TV blares a loud and climactic scene of some new-age cat and mouse cartoon, where the roles are switched: the mouse is the cat’s predator. Julia has been doing this a lot lately. Dropping by unannounced. Staying for as long as she pleases. But my mom doesn’t seem to mind. Ever since last year, when my father died, she’s been struggling to stay busy. And I guess that I don’t mind either. Julia has a certain power over me. It’s like every time I’m almost out, she pulls me right back in.

My mom sees me at the door as I take off my shoes. She gives me this real sad look and returns her attention to the simmering pot. I don’t know what it means, the look, but then I glance over at Julia again. In the TV’s pale blue light, I see the side of her face and notice a deep dark blemish resting on her cheek bone.

“Are you hungry?” My mom says. “I made plenty.”

“Sure,” I say. “I could eat.”

My voice startles Julia. She turns her head to face me, giving a smile that’s not quite a smile. She taps Olive’s leg and tells her to say “hello.”

“Hello,” Olive says.

“Hello,” I say.

It turns out that Olive’s father, Eli, was released from prison this morning, and within an hour, Julia says, he was using again. She says that Eli showed up at her step-father’s house at around noon, drunk and high. He wanted to see Olive, and when Julia refused—just until he sobered up—he sucker-punched her in the face and drove off. She tells me the story shortly after tucking Olive in for bed, when it’s just the two of us in the living room.

“Do you think he’ll come looking?” I ask.

“Maybe,” she says. “It’s just the same cycle all over again. Eli gets high and does something stupid, and then he sobers up and turns into a pathetic little puppy, apologizing and crying and slobbering all over himself. I thought maybe, after two years, something would’ve changed.”

“A guy like Eli? You really thought he’d change?”

Julia doesn’t like that. She gives me this stern look.

“What?” I say.

“Just,” she says, “can you not?”

“I’m supposed to not have an opinion?”

“You can have an opinion, just—” Julia stops herself, takes a deep breath, and gently places her hands atop mine. “I like being here with you, okay? Seeing you do so well, it makes me happy. It gives me hope for our future, and I just want to focus on that. I don’t know what to do about Eli. I wish it was simple, but it isn’t.” She squeezes my hands, and a bright warmth radiates through her palms. It travels up my arms and spreads throughout my entire body, softening my insides. Then I feel the weight of a deep sadness. I start thinking about how, soon—nauseatingly soon—this moment will be over. Soon, Julia will let go of my hands, and everything all at once will come flooding back in.

I pull into Apex’s parking-lot at 4:00am sharp, a solid two hours before any morning shift employees are slated to arrive. I park my old Jeep beside the large fenced-in dumpster, finding Isaac already waiting at the loading dock. He dangles his legs off the receiving platform’s yellow-painted edge, smoking a cigarette in the pale moonlight. Two black oversized duffle bags lie on either side of him, which he uses as armrests.

“Luntz get cold feet?” Isaac asks, shorting his cigarette and reloading it into the pack.

“No,” I say, “he just had a late night. Told us to get started without him.”

I sling one of the duffle bags over my shoulder and lead Isaac to the unfinished bowels of the gym, passing through dimly-lit corridors that wreak of chlorine’s thick back-of-the-throat smell. We set up shop in a supply closet that houses extra treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines. Once everything’s unpacked and organized, we head upstairs to install the cameras. I steady the ladder as Isaac rigs the entire locker-room: stalls, showers, aisles, the sauna—everything. He says that, when it comes to surveillance, there’s no such thing as too thorough. He retrieves a tablet-sized monitor, hands it to me, and tells me to watch the live-feed as he wanders the locker room, keeping an eye out for any lags, hiccups, and/or blind-spots.

“Anything?” Isaac shouts from the sauna.

“It looks good,” I say.

I go to set the monitor back with the rest of the supplies, and that’s when I see a tall, well-dressed, and confused-looking man standing maybe ten feet behind me. It’s Greg Simmons, our regional supervisor. I’ve only met him once before, but, without a doubt, it’s him. He’s even wearing a corporate-issued REACH YOUR APEX necktie.

There are two questions that Simmons wants answered:

“Who the hell are you?” and “What the hell are you doing here?”

I fumble for the right words, but eventually get across that I’m the assistant manager. I tell him that Isaac—one of our janitors—and I came in early to do some routine maintenance, and noticed that there might be something wrong with the emergency sprinkler system.

“Turned out to be a false alarm, though,” I say.

“Routine maintenance?” He says, “I like that.” He starts toward the pile of surveillance supplies, including the tablet-sized monitor, which, moronically, I left on. I try to be inconspicuous as I block his view, but he knows. We both know. Still, I figure that until it’s in his hands, I can’t be certain.

“Luntz didn’t say that he was expecting a visit,” I say, and at this point, Simmons is an arm’s length in front of me. I have no idea where Isaac went. Maybe he’s hiding, or maybe he snuck out the back.

“That’s because he wasn’t,” Simmons says. “I suspect that you weren’t, either.”

He tells me that I’m in his way. But I don’t move. He steps forward and gives me this little nudge to the side. Again, I don’t budge. Simmons laughs, but his sardonic smile quickly fades.

“Enough,” he says, and shoves me into an adjacent locker. My shoulder puts a deep dent in the thin metal. “That will be deducted from your final paycheck,” he says, then squats in front of the bag of surveillance cameras like some sort of a true crime detective, all: “And what do we have here?” Simmons gives the monitor a good hard look.

I stand there rubbing my shoulder, fighting off the urge to retaliate. Again, I think of Daryl hitting me over the head with some Biblical quote on the perils of violence. But I also think of the plump man, who swiped my coupons; I think of the perpetrator, who caused this whole mess in the first place; I even think of Eli, who sucker-punched Julia, the mother of my unborn child.

So, I start walking toward him, Simmons. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to do something. He sees me coming, smiles, and raises his fists into a fighting stance. He looks at me like: “Bring it on.” But just as I go to throw a punch, there’s a bright disorienting flash, followed by a loud and painful ringing in my ears. When I get my bearings straight, I see Simmons down on the linoleum, writhing in pain. Blood soaks through his white button-down and oozes onto the floor like spoiled milk.

The whole time I just stand there, my fists frozen in a defensive stance, hovering above myself like an under-anesthetized patient who’s woken up half-way through surgery. Isaac walks over to Simmons and shoots him again point-blank. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, he tells me that we need towels—lots of towels—right fucking now. I hear the request loud and clear, but can’t bring myself to do anything except stare at Simmons, whose eyes gaze off fixedly as his fingers perform that jittery pre-death dance.

Isaac digs his keys from his pants pocket and tells me to pull his car around back to the loading dock, where we load Simmons’ body—along with a canvas laundry bag of bleach-stained towels—into Isaac’s trunk. The whole time I just try to piece together how I got here, but I can’t. It’s like I fell asleep on land and woke up on water, and now even the water has evaporated.

“I’ll handle the body,” Isaac says. “You handle the car.”

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Handle the car?”

“It means get rid of it,” he says. “Drive it into a river, light it on fire, leave it in an abandoned shed, whatever. Just take off the plates and file down the VIN.”

“With what?” I ask. “And how am I supposed to get back?”

“Jesus,” he says, “figure it out!” Then he runs back inside Apex to perform a final dummy check, just in case we missed anything.

The roasted smell of fresh coffee lingers in Simmons’ car. There’s a crumpled-up McDonald’s bag on the floor of the passenger’s seat, along with an empty cardboard drink tray. It makes me nauseous. Not McDonald’s, but the thought of Simmons being alive to eat it. I swallow the guilt as best I can. I tell myself it’s already in the past. Irreversible decisions have been made. And now, in a hole this deep, my only option is to keep on digging.

I start the car and turn onto the main road, driving aimlessly while trying to come up with a plan. The entirety of Rockford, Ill. is surrounded by an endless expanse of farmland, so I figure it’d be best to drive out deep into the country, park the car in an abandoned barn, then burn the whole thing to the ground. Growing up, my grandparents lived in Winnebago, just outside Rockford; and when they’d watch me, I’d spend entire afternoons roaming the cornfields with neighbor kids from the cul-de-sac. There was no shortage of abandoned barns and grain silos and tractor sheds to explore. And it’s close enough that Isaac could just come pick me up, or I could walk to the gas station right off the highway and call a cab.

I pull a U-turn at the first stoplight and head toward the highway, US Route 20. I grip the steering-wheel so tightly that, after only a few minutes, my palms are tingling and my fingers are numb. I start thinking logistics. I need gas and matches and a metal filer for the VIN. But then I get paranoid, thinking it’d be suspicious to buy the supplies all in one place, so I map it out. I’ll buy the filer at a 24-hour Walmart and the plastic gas tank at a gas station.

It’s officially dawn now.

The sun rears its ugly head up over the horizon. Soon, the morning-shift employees will be clocking in and heading to the breakroom to start a pot of coffee. I envy them. I think about how nice it must be. I think of my typical workday: giving guided tours to potential members, filing paperwork, settling minor disputes between customers and employees…

I see Walmart’s big bright sign in the fogged distance, and just as I’m about to pull in, my cellphone rings. I assume that it’s Luntz or Isaac, but it’s neither. It’s Julia. She talks in a hushed and frantic tone. It’s difficult to understand her. In the background, I hear Olive’s muffled sobbing. I tell Julia to slow down. Speak clearly.

“It’s Eli,” she says. “He’s out there…”

“Out where?” I ask. “Where is he?”

“I’m really worried,” she says. “Please, come home.”

“Listen to me,” I say, “you need—”

“It’s okay, Olive,” she says. “Look at me, okay? Everything’s going to be okay.” To me, she says, “Hurry.”

I floor it the whole way home. I figure that when I get there, everyone will be too distracted to ask about why I’m driving a different car. And even if they do, I could easily make something up about a flat tire and a compassionate coworker. The Walmart is only a few minutes from my house, so I get there in no time. As I come around the bend, I see Eli out on my front porch, banging the door with his fists, demanding to see his daughter. The racket wakes the neighborhood dogs; they howl and bark as their owners stand groggily on their lawns, deciding whether or not they should call the police, or at the very least find out if they’ve already been called.

I park Simmons’ car right out front of my house. “Hey!” I say, cutting through the front yard toward Eli. “What the hell are you doing?” He turns to face my voice. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other—plus he’s obviously on something: coke, alcohol, maybe both—so it takes him an extra moment to recognize me. When he does, he breaks out into a drunk-sounding belly-laugh. It confuses me, his laughter. I give him this look like: “What’s so funny?”

“This is your house?” He turns toward Julia’s general direction and shouts, “You went back to him?” Eli starts toward me, unsteady on his feet. He holds the railing as he descends the porch steps. “I used to rip you off,” he says. “Did you know that? I put little pebbles in your weed, I cut your coke with laxatives and de-wormers, and you never said boo.”

“Don’t make this difficult,” I say, “just leave.”

Then, all at once, he bum-rushes me, pinning my back to the ground. I hear my front door open, and Julia and my mom rush out, screaming at us, telling us to stop. The neighbors run inside their homes to call the police. And by now, Eli’s holding me down, really giving it to me good. I don’t realize until the second or third punch that he’s wearing brass knuckles. Blood streams from my broken nose. I feel blow after blow land all over my face, which has gone completely numb.

“Stop!” Julia says, but Eli doesn’t let up.

In the corner of my eye, I see my mom standing on the porch, frozen with grief. She covers her mouth with her hand. Tears stream down her face. Julia tries to push Eli off, but he swats her away effortlessly, like a pesky fly. Then, in one endlessly distended moment, I see his fist wind way back, and I just know, deep in my gut, that it’s going to be the one that does it.

And the whole time, all I can think about is how close I was.

So close I could almost taste it.