During the third week of training, TJ Anderson asks Benjamin to bring him lunch from Subway, a turkey club with extra oil. Benjamin clutches the sandwich in both hands and imagines he is delivering a human heart wrapped in bread and white wax paper. When the lukewarm oil runs down the team lead’s chin, Benjamin pictures a collapsed ventricle and a burst of red fluid.
TJ Anderson wipes his mouth. “That fat fuck these guys have as a spokesman is a joke. They have him on TV 24-7, like he’s a national hero or something.”
“I didn’t notice,” says Benjamin.
“Motherfucker still eats Big Macs like we eat potato chips. By the bagful. Subway drops a fortune every year giving him lipo-suck and tummy tucks. I guess they don’t want to look like a bunch of assholes when he turns into a fat blimp again.”
The team lead gives him a long stare. “There’s something wrong with you,” he says. “Usually I can look at a guy and see right past all his walls, but I can’t do that with you. Either you don’t have shit back there or you got one hell of a fortress.”
He takes a bite, chews. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m off my game today,” he says. “But you seem like a real hard kind of guy. That’s how I was when I first came here, tougher than the rest of these pussies. But you need to understand: All that stuff won’t save you. They’re going to break you down. We’re going to break you down. And you’re going to fight and kick, but when the smoke clears, you’ll be better for it. And I can promise you one thing: You’ll make one hell of an employee.”
Benjamin is silent.
“Well, you can leave now, 7, it’s not like you don’t have work to do.”
The weather turns cold. In December, Benjamin runs on the treadmill next to his desk mate, Joey Velvet. Benjamin’s machine is maxed out in speed and inclination. Joey plods along at five and a half miles per hour on a flat belt. Stains of sweat split Benjamin’s chest, armpits, and spine, and the neck of Joey’s T-shirt shows the beginning of dampness. “You’re going too fast,” Joey says. “It’s a waste of resources to work out so hard.”
Benjamin turns up his favorite rap-core MP3. Next to him, Joey’s mouth opens and closes, and his eyes narrow under designer glasses—the frames barely visible because of their fineness. Joey stabs at the ground with his slender index finger and shakes his head. He wants Benjamin to slow down.
Benjamin hits pause and the treadmill hisses and rights itself. He marches, dizzy, toward the restroom and sits on the toilet, dripping perspiration onto the tangle of boxers and shorts between his feet. He waits until he is sure Joey has left, then comes out and turns his treadmill back on as fast as it will go.
There have been times in his life when things have gotten in his way. During his senior year of high school, he turned his ankle on a root three-hundred yards from the finish line at the conference cross-country meet. Eight runners passed him while he clawed and punched the dirt, in too much pain to snap back up. By the time he hobbled to the finish line, not even the coach would go near his fire-red face and brown and green knuckles.
He had vomited, once, in the summer on the south end of the Lake Harriet trails. Rollerblading girls in bikini tops had turned their noses away from him, on all fours between the bike and foot trail, retching and discharging clear slime as if he had funneled poison. He had felt naked and weak, prostrated in the no man’s land between casual bikers and power walkers—people who do not know what it feels like to sprint until the vomit has to come up, people who think they are in pretty damn good shape when they flop face-down after a thirty-minute 5K. These people, in their spandex and unbroken New Balances, had looked away and jogged around, checking their pedometers and heart rates, careful not to step in the fluids his half-dead body had painted on the ground.