Gyroscope

For a couple of years I didn’t use the rope. It was one of those revenge presents. My relationship with Melinda, the dancer, was disintegrating. She was quite something. Serious about her dance too. Said she wanted to get into Juilliard just so she could turn them down. That’s the kind of person she was. She was a year younger than me. I went to see a play at the Arts Center and fell for the girl in the audience who had a great laugh. She laughed at different things from the rest of the audience. I followed her out and caught up to her in front of the theatre. We talked for a while standing in the rain. She gave me her number. I called her and we went to Govinda’s for the buffet. We both liked the funky Hare Krishna dudes that ran the place. For a while we had a good time. But we were both in our teens. It couldn’t last.

And it didn’t. Towards the end of our time together I reached my nineteenth birthday. Melinda bought me a present when she was angry at me. I pulled off the wrapping, held up the rope, and looked at her.

“Uh, what the fuck is this, Melinda?”

“A token of my affection,” she said with that laugh of hers. “A 99-cent K-Mart jump rope. I figured you could use it to work out. Since you’re so hooked on exercise. If you don’t like jump roping, you could always use it to hang yourself with! Ha! Ha ha! Hahaha!” She found this hilarious.

“Thanks a lot and fuck you too!”

“You’re welcome. Happy birthday!”

Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last much longer. We didn’t make it to Christmas, so I was spared what she would have given me as a second present. What would she have come up with next? A pencil I could stab myself through the heart with? A hammer I could use to bash out my brains? A concrete wall I could drive into?

I’ll never know. And like I said, the rope was just sort of in the background for a while. For some reason I never threw it away. Perhaps because it always reminded me of Melinda. Miss Hot Shit took off for New York to become a famous dancer and I never heard from her again. She’s probably there now. Producing some sort of fucked up ballet. Modern Dance. That was her thing. I just called it fucked up ballet. That really got her goat. So I said it all the time.

Anyway, the rope. Just after I turned twenty I got a steady job at a small foundry. The Tarn Iron Works in Coeur D’Alene. I settled down for a while in a cabin on Hayden Lake. It was mostly rich people around the lake. On account of the scenery. But some wealthy dude had built a few mini homes along one part of the shore so some poorer people could also enjoy the natural beauty. Rent was one twenty-five a month. Not bad for 1980. That got me my own tiny house. Hut would be a better word. The bedroom was eight by eight. The living room wasn’t much bigger. But it was mine. I didn’t have to have roommates. No shared wall, floor, or ceiling. My own little realm. My kingdom.

There wasn’t a track anywhere nearby, though, and I never did like running country roads. I’d lettered in cross-country at Couer D’Alene High but by the time I dropped out I’d had enough. For me, trails are too chaotic. Too irregular. Out at Hayden Lake, my place had a little front patio with a view of the lake. A patch of flagstones about twelve feet square. One day I picked up the jump rope Melinda gave me and took it outside onto that patio. It was some kind of an uglyass jump rope. Maybe the ugliest jump rope I ever saw. White plastic handles. Multicolored plastic beads about an inch long covering the whole rope. But it had two redeeming qualities. It was heavy. That made it fast. And it was hardy. That meant it could go the distance. From the start it really bugged me whenever I tripped. Slowly I got better. First I just focused on doing ten jumps without a trip. Double footed. The basic jumps. Then of course I had to get to twenty. The more clean jumps I did, the more it irritated me when I tripped. That first day the most I was able to do without tripping was thirty-eight.

Early the next morning I went out onto my patio and worked out with the rope. It wasn’t a bad workout. I found I liked the single step jumps a lot better than the double-footed skips. Single stepping was more like running. In fact, if you did it a certain way it was running. I wasn’t interested in tricks. Tricks are for Californians. Side swishes and all that bullshit. I couldn’t care less. The only variant I made was working in sets and shifting from one kind of single step to another. Occasionally I’d revert to double-footed jumps for variety. I was determined to get my first clean hundred that second day, and I got it, single stepping, after about an hour, just before I had to leave for work.

Next day I was out there again. The rope was already taking the place of my morning push-ups and sit-ups. I concentrated on doing a variety of routines. A hundred double jumps. A hundred single steps. The main thing was not tripping. Doing a clean set of a hundred. I started to vary my single stepping routines. Knees up. Kicking out to left and right. Back kicking. High steps. Low steps. That kind of thing. I found I could work up quite a sweat by the end of my workout.

Once I got good at hundreds it was easy counting to a thousand. My second week with the rope I wouldn’t stop until I’d done a thousand. I never actually had to write it down during the routines. That I did afterwards in my workout diary. By the end of the third week I was doing ten crisp sets of a hundred each day. Five thousand jumps a week. I suppose I don’t need to say I like round numbers.

Week four I took a clock out there onto the patio. I’d do my thousand first. That wouldn’t take long. I’d take breaks in between the hundreds. I was barely tripping at all now. I’d just go out there and do a hundred double. Hundred front. Hundred side. Hundred back. Hundred double. Hundred single. Hundred high. Hundred low. And so on. Mixing it up. Then I got interested in timing myself. How fast could I do a hundred jumps? The first time I timed myself I did it at the rate I was used to. My time was one minute twenty-four seconds. Just a little over a second a jump. The second time I tried just a bit harder and got a hundred jumps in eighty seconds. By the end of the week I broke a minute for the first time.

In week five I timed all of my ten sets of a hundred. I found I slowed down slightly towards the final few sets. One thing that drove me nuts was that when I started trying to skip faster I started making more mistakes. Tripping. But I knew I’d get used to it after a while. By week five I was regularly doing my hundreds in less than a minute. Then at the end of the week I passed an important barrier. A hundred jumps in fifty seconds. Two a second.

I noticed when I got a bit faster that I liked the whooshing sound the rope made as it went around me. When I tripped it would infuriate me, partly because that beautiful whistling wind would stop. It was almost like the whooshing was the object of the exercise. Week six I just maintained and worked on continuity. By the end of week seven I barely ever tripped on the rope. Only some exterior distraction would make me trip. A dog barking. Somebody walking by and stopping to watch me from the gravel road between my patio and the lakeshore. Once I became a regular feature out there the nosy parkers started showing up with their friendly smiles. They often had little bits of shit advice. I should use a leather rope. Learn how to do the one trick that looked really cool. See if I could do five revolutions of the rope in one jump. But I didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that. All I cared about was my routines. My stats and records. My continuities and totalities.

Week eight was a good one. Since I never tripped on the rope any more I could basically work on speed and totals. I’d still do my ten sets of a hundred first. Then I’d do new stuff and try to break my old records. My time for a hundred jumps got better and better. It was in week eight that I first did a hundred jumps in thirty seconds. That took a while. I also started to extend my highest continuous total. Two hundred wasn’t hard to do without a trip. I’d hit three hundred twice by the end of the eighth week.

The ninth week I got out there and hit five hundred continuous jumps without a trip. Then I did it again and again. I was getting good at this. It did get a bit harder because there was a psychological factor. The more jumps I did without tripping the bigger the irritation was when I finally did trip. Sometimes I’d get to four hundred and eighty or so and then trip. That would drive me nuts. Still, all it took was a little concentration. From here I could see my way to the next target. A thousand jumps without a trip.

I hit that target in the twelfth week. By that time, I was also hitting over two hundred jumps a minute, a barrier I’d first broken in week ten. Two hundred jumps a minute was pretty quick with that shit rope. The ‘Melinda rope’ as I sometimes thought of it. Two hundred a minute proved to be a good cruising speed for my runs at the totals. It was also a pretty tough speed to maintain over a distance. Still, all my muscles were now attuned to the routines. I didn’t get the sore calves any more. I only had one physical problem. The tiny muscles in my hand between index finger and thumb had a bit of a tendency to cramp. I could keep jumping but the pain affected my concentration.

There was another factor that became important once I started doing a thousand jumps at a time. Counting. It was a piece of cake at the lower speeds, but it was a real challenge to keep counting at two hundred a minute—give it a try if you don’t believe me. In the end—with a little help from my boss at the foundry, Mike Tarn—I came up with a system. Mike Tarn pointed out that it was easier to count to ten over and over again than it was to count up to a hundred. The single syllable numbers were easier to say or think fast. So I started counting in sets of ten. I guess you could call it my decimal system. To keep the sets straight I’d make this little mental picture in the front of my head. Coke bottles. Each time I hit ten jumps I’d put a coke bottle on the left of a movie screen in my head. Then another and another until I had five in a row. Then I’d start a second row. When I had ten coke bottles I had my hundred. Then I’d make a space before I started with the next band of bottles. I’d make five double bars in a column for five hundred. Two columns of five double bars for my thousand. It looked nice.

I must give Mike Tarn credit for helping me come up with my counting system. He told me about Scipio. A famous Roman general who would make mental maps of his legion deployments. For Scipio, ten soldiers were represented by a little picture of one soldier. That was his unit of measurement. That way he could mentally picture large troop deployments. Plus, Mike Tarn told me, Scipio was reputed to have a photographic memory. So my lines of coke bottles looked like the red soldier units Scipio would use to map out his Roman armies. My Coke bottles too, were organized a bit like a Roman army. All thanks to Mike Tarn. Each double band of a hundred bottles was like a century. Each five hundred was like a cohort. Each group of five thousand was like a legion. It might sound complicated but it worked for me. The Coke bottles were like a mental diagram of my jumping selves. Or, as Mike Tarn joked one day, my name was Legion.

Mike Tarn was one of the most interesting guys I ever met. Always talking about the Romans. Their armies and battles. He could also write in Latin. I mean he could write entire letters in Latin with no effort. One time he left a long phone message entirely in Latin for one of his customers that was a smartass. Some lawyer. Tarn wanted to show the guy he wasn’t the only clever person around. Lawyers can be like that. Especially with foundry workers. But Mike Tarn was unique. He’d trained himself to think and speak in Latin. He could spout it out of his mouth any time he wanted for as long as you liked. Sometimes, on Mondays, he would tell me about his entire weekend, all in Latin. Not that I could understand much of what he was saying. Still, sometimes the Latin would be close enough to English that I could get the gist. I’d nearly bust a gut laughing at the sheer novelty of it.

But I see I’ve wandered off topic a bit. Let me get back to jump roping. In addition to my counting system, I varied the routines in a way that made counting easier. I’d switch the type of jumps I was doing every time I hit a hundred. Between this and the Coke bottle cohorts I was able to keep a close eye on my totals and where I was in my routine. By week fourteen I was doing two thousand jumps each day. First I’d do my continuous thousand. Then I’d take a break and work on speed hundreds or five-hundreds. Ten thousand jumps a week. A regular little army of jumps. After every workout I’d enter my numbers in my workout diary, take a shower, hop into my beaten up Nova, and head down to Coeur D’Alene for work. What with working at the foundry I was starting to get ripped.

In week sixteen I hit a new target for continuity. Fifteen hundred jumps without a trip. Also in week sixteen, I hit a new and important mark for speed endurance. A thousand jumps in five minutes. It took some doing. Two hundred jumps a minute for five straight minutes without a trip. I had the Coke bottles and the clock to anchor me in stats. The whooshing of the rope was becoming addictive. I also found—thanks to the concentration necessary for counting—I was in some sort of unusual headspace while on my longer routines. A trance I guess you could call it. I found it was impossible to think of anything else except the rope and the numbers. In that respect the jump roping was different from any other physical exercise I’d ever done. It filled my mind completely while I was doing it. There was also a visual component. The world itself looked a bit different while I was whirling away like a dervish in the middle of the sphere the rope made as it flew around me. When I told Mike Tarn about this, he said I’d forged myself a cage of rope.

If that was true, I liked my imprisonment. By the twentieth week I had hit a new target. Two thousand continuous jumps without a trip. Two hundred perfect little Coke bottles. Four columns. Each column with five double rows of five. A beautiful symmetrical pattern on the screen in my mind. A graph of my crazily active self. It took me a solid six weeks of effort before I was finally able to get my time for two thousand jumps down to ten minutes. Ten perfect sets of two hundred a minute for ten perfect minutes. It was quite something when I finally accomplished that. I never could push that K-Mart rope up to four jumps a second and get two hundred and forty in one minute. I maxed out—or it did—around two twenty. Two hundred jumps a minute was the perfect cruising speed. But athletically it was hard to maintain, especially after the first thousand. At that point fatigue and respiration started to play a role. That’s why it took so long to get that target of two thousand jumps in ten minutes.

Once I’d hit that, of course, a whole new goal revealed itself, one that I decided would be my last. I guess you could say my new hobby was getting old. Melinda’s little rope was winding around me like a tangle of strong cords. I’d done over a hundred and fifty thousand jumps by this time. Boredom and monotony set in. And so my jump rope phase entered its final stage. The rope was getting worn but the hard plastic beads were holding up well. The final goal I set myself seemed reasonable enough. Three thousand jumps in fifteen minutes. Fifteen perfect sets of two hundred. Six beautiful Coke-bottle cohorts. A legion of jumping selves. I started chipping away at the new objective. But progress was slow. By the thirtieth week the highest I’d been able to get was 2300 jumps in fifteen minutes. The drop off after two thousand was steep. Fatigue started to play a role and lead to trips. Sweat would run down my arms and make the rope handles slippery. But in week thirty-three I finally hit 2500 jumps in fifteen minutes. It was five days before I was able to do it again. Before long I was hitting 2500 every day.

But I was getting close to my limit. It took me two more weeks to hit 2600. By that time, I was like some barely human figure at the center of the little rope world I’d created for myself. I can’t say it was relaxing because the counting and concentration, along with the physical effort, took a heavy toll. It just about killed me getting to 2700 but I finally hit it in the forty-second week. 2750 was an important mark. Eleven twelfths of my goal. God knows what percent it was. Over ninety I guess. I started to inch my way towards it. One day I hit a new record. 2743.

But a strange thing happened at that point. I started to lose interest in reaching my ultimate goal. It was like some sort of ideal I was reaching for. I knew with time I could do it. Would do it. Must do it. But I also realized there would be another goal behind that one. And another. There was no end to it. The records you could set. The goals you could keep setting for yourself. Or the obstacles. All joy had gone out of my routines. The sheer effort of trying, along with the devastating frustration of getting close and then tripping, was getting me down. In a way, I realized, I had finally learned to hang myself with Melinda’s rope after all. I could almost hear her laughing.

The result of all this was that—right when I was within striking distance of my most ambitious goal—I started to fall away from even wanting to reach it. Before long I didn’t care anymore. Finally, I stopped jump roping altogether. The phase was over. I started playing racquetball. Moving up the elimination tree at the Coeur D’Alene Sports Center. It was much more fun than jumping rope. By the time I’d won my first game against the Coeur D’Alene champion, I had all but forgotten my jump-roping phase. I even got a game with the Spokane champ. I kept Melinda’s rope around for a while. Then one day I threw it out. I never did return to jump roping.

But here’s the thing. As I was throwing that rope into the dumpster, I remembered something someone had said to me once. It was one of those occasions when someone tells you something about yourself that you realize is true even though you had never figured it out yourself. I had a buddy at Coeur D’Alene High. Pete Bibbs. We were never particularly good friends but we liked the same kind of music and we were both into athletics. My last day at CDA High—when I was dropping out due to my lackluster academic performance—a lot of people came up to me to wish me well and say goodbye. I wouldn’t be graduating with everyone else. I wouldn’t be going to university. Some of the girls were worried about what would happen to me later in life without a high school diploma. But Pete Bibbs smiled good naturedly and said he knew I’d be fine. That I’d find my way. That’s when he said the strange thing. He said he’d noticed that I was one of those people that do things and then don’t do them. He said I’d go all the way into things with incredible energy for long periods of time. And then, he noticed, I’d just stop. Then I’d start something else and do that thing, also with incredible energy. Then I’d change and do another thing. I don’t suppose it was a genius observation or anything, but I was surprised to find that he’d described the entire course of my young life to that point pretty well. I often remembered Bibbs’s words when I was at major junctures in my life. And they came back to me when I was throwing the Melinda rope away. It was like I was fulfilling a prophecy.

But there was another side to this trait of mine. Some people saw it as a sign that I would never succeed at anything. Melinda ended up being one of those people. I wasn’t ambitious enough for her. But she wasn’t the only one. For a while I worked as a lot boy for Baker Ford in Dalton Mills. I was a good lot boy. Dirk Baker himself always treated me with a lot of respect, even though he was the owner. But his lot supervisor Emil took a different view of me. He’d curse me like you wouldn’t believe over the smallest thing. Leaving keys in car doors. Missing a bit of mud in a wheel guard during a wash. Little stuff. With Emil it was hate at first sight. He just didn’t like me. And the feeling was mutual. The day I quit that job Emil and me had a huge fight in the parking lot. I’d decided that if he laid into me on my last day I’d fight back. Why did I have to take shit from him anymore? We ended up screaming at each other for fifteen minutes. We used just about every curse in the language. But in the chaos of our argument Emil said something I always remembered, perhaps because he started it with a question, one of those questions you aren’t supposed to answer. “You know what your fuckin problem is? You can’t ever finish a goddam job!” In a foaming rage he said I’d always get distracted from what I was doing and start something else before I finished. That’s why, whatever the hell I was doing, I always did a halfass job. That’s why I was such a fuckup. There must have been some truth in Emil’s insult, because his words stuck with me. I carried them around like a prisoner’s chains. Emil’s words of wisdom. They weighed me down even further when I reached all the low points of my life. So, I don’t want to write it here, but that was also in the back of my mind when I gave up jump roping and threw the Melinda rope into the dumpster. The discarded rope was a sign, a reminder, that I was the kind of person who couldn’t finish a job. A failure. A loser. Someone who never reached his goals. That was my character.  My fate.

One day at the foundry I told Mike Tarn about the incident with Emil. Mike listened carefully as I told him the story. When I was finished, he nodded. Emil, he said, had really been talking about himself. He had projected his frustration and sense of failure onto me because I was young and had my life ahead of me. Mike said I would meet many people in life like Emil. He told me always to ignore them. The real losers, he said, were forever discovering that other people were losers. That was their big theme. They never saw themselves that way. They maintained their blindness about themselves by manufacturing a distorted view of others.

And maybe he was right. That was a long time ago. But now that I’m older and unable to move that well, I occasionally remember myself during those crazy jumping days. Sometimes I perform a meditation exercise. I lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and try to see myself on that patio in front of the little hut I lived in forty years ago. When I view myself this way it’s always a bit odd. My now-self peers at my then-self, not very comfortable with what it sees. A barely human figure driven by forces it doesn’t understand. A gyroscope. A crazy robotic machine. Arms vibrating. Legs pumping. Numbers spinning wildly in the portals of its eyes.

Mark Crimmins was nominated for Pushcart Fiction Prizes in 2015 and 2019. His short stories have been published in Confrontation, Prick of  the Spindle, Eclectica, Cha, Cortland Review, Tampa Review, Columbia Journal, Queen’s Quarterly among others. His flash fiction has been published in Eunoia Review, White Rabbit, Flash and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine among others.