The Self-Improvement Plan

I found this perfect song. It’s a sort of jazz-gospel thing I lifted from one of my dad’s playlists, totally not what I’m normally into, but I like the groove. There’s a little organ intro that I use for warm-up stretches, then it slips into this steady beat for ten crazy-long minutes that builds perfectly while I’m on my speed rope. Three skips to a beat, perfect for getting this girl’s heart rate to a steady one-twenty at 7:30 in the morning.

My best friend Serena and I made this pact to get in shape this summer, to get into a healthy routine and enter senior year ready to crush it. It was Serena’s idea. Speed skipping, something I think she read about in a magazine. Ten minutes skipping with a rope, then an isometric upper body routine, then a short jog over to the pool for a swim. We went online and calculated how many calories we’d burn and what we needed to eat afterward. We made a list of forbidden foods and restaurants to avoid. Our self-improvement plan also included reading one work of classic literature a week followed by a weekly discussion. The problem was that Serena’s idea of classic was Little House on the Prairie when I was thinking along the lines of The Stranger, so we dropped that part of the plan.

In the end it didn’t matter because Serena bailed on me in the first week. On the second day she complained of cramps but kept me company and encouraged me during the workout. On the third day she overslept her alarm and told me she’d meet me at the park but then never showed up. Given that she barely ever made it to school on time I don’t know why I thought she’d get up before noon during the summer if she didn’t have to. After that third day she just didn’t even bother to make excuses and we never mentioned it.

I can’t say I was surprised. In middle school Serena decided to run for Student Council, which meant collecting student signatures to get on the ballot. She seemed like a perfect candidatelikable, wanting to please everyonebut when we went to turn in her candidate papers she…well, she said she lost them, but I saw them crammed in the back of her locker once. In sixth grade we were part of a science project on electricity and Serena volunteered to make the oral presentations, which was awesome because no one wanted to do it. But Serena was absent every day we were scheduled (and rescheduled) to present. In the end Ms. Macque knocked us down a grade because our project was incomplete. Even when we were ten years old we spent two days getting everything together for a lemonade stand, buying lemons and making signs, Serena made it sound like we were going to be millionaires. When it was time to set up the stand she said her mom wouldn’t let her. In those early days when she said her mom wouldn’t let her do things I just accepted it; you’ll overlook your best friend’s faults for a long time before you even realize you’re doing it.

The first couple weeks of the workout were hard. I remembered my 8th grade science teacher Mr. Whitaker saying that it takes three weeks for the brain to create and replace new habits with old ones. At the time he was trying to convince us to give up sugar until after school and had us keep a journal of our progress. None of us made it to the three-week mark, but Mr. Whitaker was philosophical about it. “You have to really want it to make it happen. And maybe you can use this experiment to understand how hard it is for some people to change certain habits and addictions.” We rolled our eyes at the time because we knew he was secretly trying to scare us away from smoking. He was right, of course, but his insights were wasted on our immature 8th grade brains.

By seven in the morning the pretentiously-named Oxford Gardensa pocket park that used to be the backyard of a razed mansion from the 1820swas already alive with people divided into two groups. Parents and nannies congregated at the north end with the playground equipment, turning it into a crawling infestation of tiny terrors reveling in their ability to run without falling and the discovery that “outside voices” could be louder than emergency vehicle sirens. At the south end the dog owners huddled around the picnic tables talking, throwing balls, and casually picking up dog crap. Off to one side near the playground but enclosed on three sides by bushes there’s a square of concrete that used to be a public water fountain. When I was a tiny terror myself the town would have these fountains in the parks running all summer, but that ended one day when this one little guy got pushed back by the force of a fountain and cracked his head open. Totally a freak accident but the Neighborhood Overprotective Parent Association forced the city to shut down all the fountains. That was also when they insisted on a name change to “distance the park from bad memories” which was how Ames Street Park became Oxford Gardens.

Fine by me, they left that perfect little square of concrete so I could speed-skip while Serena slept her summer away.

Three weeks in now and I’ve got this rhythm down. I start facing the playground, hit the music, and do my stretches. When the drum kicks in I start skipping, three skips to the beat, and every three beats I rotate an inch or two counter-clockwise. I’m like one of those Rain Bird sprinklers, letting the rhythm and momentum carry me along.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip.

There’s the mom with triplets who clearly got more than she bargained for when she said she wanted a big family. She talks to the Hispanic nanny with the two shy kids and punctuates her sentences with the word honey in a way that sounds both sweet and accusatory. “I love those earrings! You buy those yourself, honey?”

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip

Some days I get so lost in the rhythm that the song will end and totally catch me by surprise.

Myra’s here with her little brother, Joey. I used to babysit for Myra when she was Joey’s age but now she’s inherited the job. From the way she snarls when she sees me I suspect she resents it. She’s probably making less in weekly allowance than I used to charge an hour for sitting them. Myra’s not as careful about watching Joey as I used to be. The result is that he’s always covered in bruises and Band-Aids. It’s because she’s usually buried too deep in a trashy teen book to notice when Joey’s got his head stuck between the bars of the playground equipment or his foot caught on a tree branch. The adults nearby are usually there to bail her out but you can tell they disapprove of Myra by the looks they give each other behind her back.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip

I’ve gotten to where I know the names of the dogs but not their owners. It’s funny how the owners calling their dogs sounds the same as the adults at the other end of the park calling after their kids.

Sammy, get back here!

Portia, get that out of your mouth!

Lynette, stop that!

Sammy, you get down from there!

Trixie, you be good and share!

Sammy, no!

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip

At this point I can close my eyes while I’m skipping; my balance is impeccable. I’m able to make full rotations without drifting from the drain in the center of the cement. Some days I get so lost in the rhythm that the song will end and totally catch me by surprise. It’s like I’ve found this place that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, what I imagine time travel feels like, a little disorienting and dream-like. I mentioned this once to my dad, the self-proclaimed “lapsed Buddhist,” and he thinks I’ve probably touched the edges of Satori. He says it sounds like I’ve skipped into my “inner essence.” He’s always making ordinary things try to sound deep. I told him that I’m just getting healthier, that I was probably hitting some sort of endorphin rush, and that my self-improvement plan didn’t include achieving a Zen state. All he did was smile, which pissed me off for some reason. Not very Zen of me, I know.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip– 

*     *     *

I had my eyes closed when I heard the scream and the thump of a car hitting something. Or maybe they both happened at the same time. I was so deep in the rhythm that I almost wasn’t sure where I was when I pulled the earbuds off. Loose dogs were called in and put on leashes, all present and accounted for to everyone’s relief. Kids were gathered to the far end of the playground while a few adults ventured the opposite direction toward the fence not far from where I stood. I had to step out of the enclosed fountain area to see what they were looking at out on the street. I dropped my rope and wrapped my earbuds on autopilot as I walked to join the adults studying a Prius idling in the middle of the street. Someone was crouched down in front of the car, pleading.

“No, no, no! Please, no! Please, Rocky, please get up!”

Rocky.

I knew Rocky. He was a rambunctious wire-haired terrier owned by the Sandersons. He didn’t normally come to this park; he lived closer to my old elementary school…

Across the street from Serena.

That was when I realized who was talking to Rocky.

The mothers got to the edge of the park fence first, moving with fake smiles that betrayed their casual urgency, eyes always glancing back at their own children. Myra and Joey quickly joined them, to the visible disapproval of the other adults.

“You probably should take your brother back to the playground, honey.”

The dog owners had gathered at park entrance, near enough to catch a glimpse of what was happening but not close enough for their dogs to understand one of their own was involved. I made it to the edge of the fence not really sure I wanted to see whatever had happened. People who lived in the houses surrounding the park came out to see Serena hovering over the motionless body of a dog with the driver of the silver Prius stood over her on her cell phone.

“Please, Rocky…”

“…Fine, send Animal Control or whoever,” the driver said, her voice wavered with a combination of anger and fear. “Just…this dog needs help.”

Satisfied that a child wasn’t hurt the parents and nannies turned to calmly usher the kids home. The dog owners also began to drift away, unwilling to expose themselves to the heart-sickening feeling that it could have been any of them.

“He’s gonna be alright, right?” Serena said to the driver.

“He’s still wagging his tail,” the driver said.

Serena looked back to Rocky. “I knew this was a bad idea…” Her voice had the brittle tone of a little kid trying to grasp the concept of being trouble, while hoping there was no punishment involved. Maybe she expected Rocky to reassure her, or at the very least forgive her.

Myra turned to me with a confused face and I fixed her with a glare, the look I used when babysitting that meant It’s-time-to-go-and-I’m-serious. She took Joey’s hand and led him away without looking back.

Serena found herself surrounded by curious neighbors in the middle of the street. There wasn’t really anything I could do, but I thought she could use a friendly face. As I made my way out of the park everything looked slightly smaller than before, like I’d grown and the world receded proportionally, all in a matter of minutes.

A police car pulled up just as I got to the Prius. As the crowd parted to make way for the cruiser I saw Serena crouched in a tiny ball with her head as close to Rocky as possible, quietly whispering to him.

“I’m so sorry,” Serena looked up at the driver. “He pulled the leash right out of my hands.”

The police officer got out of his car and the Prius driver headed toward him.

“He darted out from between these two parked cars…” The driver pointed. Closer now I could see the driver was maybe in her late 20s, easily post-college and with a good enough job to afford a new hybrid. Smart, composed, very together. She looked like the kind of person I imagined myself becoming in a few years.

“These cars,” the officer said, “Some of them are so damn quiet you can’t even hear them until they’re right up on top of you.”

“This isn’t my fault,” the driver said defensively.

“It isn’t anyone’s fault,” the officer said. “They’re called accidents because no one does them on purpose.” He crouched down on the other side of Rocky, facing Serena. “What’s this fella’s name?”

“Rocky?” Serena’s eyes were red and puffy. She looked over the officer’s shoulder and saw me standing just behind. I gave her a weak smile and a little wave, probably the worst reaction in the world, given the circumstance.

“Hey, Rocky. How you doing?”

Rocky lifted his head a little and gave his tail a couple of weak thumps against the pavement. The officer carefully placed one hand on various parts of Rocky’s body, applying only the briefest amount of pressure. Then he carefully took one of Rocky’s limp paws and gave it a light squeeze. Rocky didn’t even flinch.

“He’s going to be alright, isn’t he?” Serena said.

“I’m not a vet, but you just keep talking to him until someone gets here.”

No, no, no, I thought. You don’t say that. You tell her he’ll be okay.

Serena got it. I saw it in her face. She got told the trutha solid dose of wake-up call realityand it didn’t instantly kill her. Now she had to deal with it.

The officer pulled the driver away to the sidewalk to get a statement. A woman from one of the houses who said she witnessed what happened joined them. I moved around and crouched next to Serena.

“Rocky?” I said. “How’s it going there?” Rocky tried to lift his head again to look at me and when he did I slid my hand under his head. His tail began thumping against the pavement and didn’t stop.

“What are you doing?” Serena said. “Don’t move him, you might hurt him more.”

“He’s scared,” I said. “He doesn’t understand what’s going on. He probably thinks he’s being punished. Stupid dog.”

“I just wanted you to see I wasn’t a total loser,” Serena mumbled. I pretended I didn’t hear her while I reached under Rocky’s neck with my fingertips, unclasped his collar, and handed it to her.

“Here, call the Sandersons and let them know what’s going on.”

“They’re in Tahiti. It’s, like, the middle of the night there.”

That didn’t make sense; it couldn’t have been the middle of the night. I looked at Serena’s face and it was as if a ten-year fog had lifted. Serena lived in fear, constantlya walking raw nerve doing everything it could to avoid bumping into the rest of the world. Instead of making me feel sorry for her my blood began pumping with rage.

Rocky’s tongue flicked in and out of his mouth. “Get my water bottle. It’s over at the fountain.”

Rocky kept his eyes trained on my face, that dog look of total trust that can melt your heart just as surely as it can betray you. I knew this look; it was seared into my memory when I was seven years old, a look accompanied by the endless echoes of my parents’ voices.

He’s your responsibility, Gwen.

He’s a living creature, Gwen, don’t you forget that.

He isn’t our pet. We’re his caretakers.

Don’t let him eat that sticker grass.

Foxtails. Those annoying burrs that get caught in your socks when you walk through an overgrown field. Technically, a diaspore grass. I learned that in science.

You need to brush those out of his fur, Gwen.

That sticker grass can make him really sick.

Some dogs can’t resist eating foxtails. But the tips are sharp as needles and can get lodged in the soft spot at the back of the throat.

Come help me get him into the car, quickly!

The animal doctors will know what to do.

The infection from the foxtail tips can spread, sometime to the eyes, sometimes to the brain.

I know it hurts, sweetie.

Sometimes you have to close your heart and say goodbye.

And right up to the end they give you those big puppy eyes. Stupid dogs.

“Yes, you are! You are a stupid doggie, aren’t you?”

“Here’s your water,” Serena said. “And stop calling him stupid.”

“He doesn’t understand the words, just the tone. Get your hand down here and make a cup, pour some water in it.”

Serena put her hand on the ground warily like she thought Rocky might bite her but his tongue flicked at the water. On instinct she tipped her hand so some of the water poured into Rocky’s mouth. When it was gone she poured a second handful of water and Rocky licked his chops, tail pounding the ground harder than before.

I took her free hand and swapped it for my hand supporting Rocky’s head. Rocky’s eyes darted between Serena and me as we made the switch.

“It’s okay, Rocky,” I said. “She’s right here. She won’t leave you.” I glared at Serena so she understood what I was saying.

“Where are you going?” Serena said.

“Keep talking to him, Ser. Just stay with him…”

“Gwen?”

I couldn’t look at Serena; her eyes would be as bad as Rocky’s, and that would only piss me off even more. She had to do this; she had to finish something for once.

I got to the entrance of the park where only a handful of dog walkers had stayed to watch, their dogs blissfully wagging their tails and straining against leashes.

“How bad?” one woman asked me.

“No blood or anything, but he won’t get up,” I said.

Portia’s owner reeled back on her heels. Sammy and Trixie’s owners turned away.

“That’s why I’m never hiring a teen as a sitter,” Trixie’s owner said. “They mean well, but that’s just not good enough.”

I wanted to scream. We aren’t all irresponsible, I wanted to yell. I wanted to tell them about how Serena was once Student Council President, how she got us the highest score on our group science project, how she had the most successful lemonade stand in our neighborhood when we were kids. I wanted them to know how wrong they were. But I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

Saving Serena wasn’t part of my self-improvement plan.

An animal control truck pulled up and the crowd parted to let the officers inspect Rocky. From my workout spot I could see Serena slowly stand, her face slack. I put my earbuds back in and reset my workout music to the part where the drums kicked in. I thought I heard a sound, like a yelp, and I saw the police officer usher Serena away when I went to pick up my rope. I counted backward from five and when I hit zero slipped into skipping with the rhythm, eyes closed.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT

davidelzey_headshot_optDavid Elzey is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. He’s had poetry published in the Found Poetry Review and is currently at work on a novel entitled Petting Zoo. This is his first published short story.