When Donald skates, he flies. He cuts arcs into the pavement and pushes past the parked cars in the lot in wide curving strides. He calls out to kids blocking his path.
“Right,” he says, and they step aside and let Donald glide past.
He crouches, pushes off with one leg, swings an arm on a pivot, keeps the other arm bent behind his back, and then pushes with the other leg. Each movement is so fluid, giving into the next, that his dance carries him from one end of the lot to the other in an easy range of motion, like swimming.
He is confident in his exercise. More confident, at least, than when he first brought home the inline skates and wobbled back and forth along the parking lot of River’s Edge Apartments for more than an hour. He enjoys the dusk, how the sun vanishes behind the tall office buildings that rise up beyond the lot, and then how the light flashes off of the black glass. At eight o’clock the pond lights light up the prisms and diamonds spraying from the fountain.
After that first day, his calves pulled tight. He iced them over bags of frozen peas and rubbed them down with warming oil. After the first week he learned to stretch properly. Soon his legs developed. His calves, once hairy sacks of flesh, hardened into taut slabs. He lost weight, too. The padding on his sides melted and gave way to cords of twitching muscle that had lain dormant for years. He’s already fifty.
Now he wears a helmet and all sorts of pads: kneepads and elbow pads and palm pads. He straps them on like armor and calls out to the kids playing soccer and four square, the ones on their phones, the ones just sitting on the asphalt.
“Right,” he yells and cuts through the four girls who pedal in lazy circles on their bikes with baskets and streamers trailing from the handlebars.
The kids learn to keep out of his way. Some move their games to the next lot over. Others stay where they always play, moving only when Donald comes through. Some of the kids call out to him.
“Make way for Super Slider,” they say. “Don’t fall, Papa Padding!”
“Left,” he says and keeps skating. He doesn’t mind the nicknames. In a way, he feels known. This is who he is, and he likes it for the first time.
When Donald skates, he builds the strength he needs. As he sheds fat, he sheds past lives, too. Loosens the humiliation that once clung to him. This is what he needs. This is a new life. This is flying high.
After skating one night, Donald goes back to his apartment and stretches in front of the full-length mirror he had mounted on the back wall of the living room. A small pouch of belly pushes out the waistband of his athletic shorts. This pouch is the one thing he hasn’t worked off since he started skating. He makes a mental note to start an abdominal strengthening regimen. The cords of his lats snake along the sides of his torso and disappear under the flat broadness of his chest. He raises his arms and makes them twitch. He turns around and cranes his neck to see them from behind. The cleft in his back, furrowing deeper now that his muscles develop in the taut plates that flank his spine, straight as an arrow.
Something flashes in the mirror. Something in the front window catches in the reflection.
A face presses against the window. It shifts, now a full face, a full grin. Donald makes out a moppy tangle of hair and below that, a pair of jellied eyes that bulge from a thin sickly face shining under buzzing lamps outside. The watcher holds the smile and backs away from the window.
Donald springs to the front door and yanks it open.
There, a peeping Tom, just beyond the lamppost on the front landing. The peeping Tom backs away. The wide grin pulls his face tight.
“Hey,” Donald says. “What do you want?”
The peeping Tom flicks out his tongue and turns and runs toward the parking lot. Donald stumbles over the skates he had set by the stoop. When he gets up and runs out to the lot, the peeping Tom is gone, lost in the dark corners where the lights don’t shine.
Donald calls management about the incident. It is late and no one is in the main office. He calls the non-emergency contact for the Chesterfield Police Department. Two police officers come to his apartment, and Donald gives what details he can.
“Six feet. At least. Six two, six three at the most.”
“What was he wearing, sir?”
“Jeans, I think. A dark sweatshirt. With a hood. He smiled at me. Flicked out his tongue. It was obscene.”
They take the information, assure him out of concern, tell him it’s probably some kid playing a prank. That they get these calls all the time. That they’ll notify management. Not to worry.
Donald paces his kitchen. He’s never filed a report before. He feels revved up, his body buzzes. He wants to tell someone else. He calls Jacob instead, another accountant at the firm. Sometimes they talk at work.
“Hello?” Jacob, chewing something.
“I catch you at a bad time?”
“Don? What is it, almost ten?”
“Are you having dinner?”
“Never mind, Don. What do you need?”
“I just had a peeping Tom.”
“A what?” Jacob asks.
“A peeping Tom. A prowler.”
“You should call the police.”
“I did. They’re taking care of it.”
More chewing. “I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”
“I had my shirt off,” Donald said. “He flicked out his tongue.”
“Maybe he was thirsty.”
“It was obscene.”
“Maybe you should call Penny,” Jacob says.
Donald moves to the mirror. The stretched out t-shirt hangs from his shoulders like drapes.
“No,” says. “That won’t do.”
“Look, Don, I got to go. See you in the morning.”
Donald hangs up and makes tea. Drinks it. Lukewarm and chalky.
The next day, Donald comes home from the office and finds a flyer rolled up and wedged between the knob and the doorframe. The notice, printed on River’s Edge Apartments letterhead, alerts residents of the prowler, that management and the police department are working together on the matter. That management cares about the safety of their residents.
Donald sticks the notice on the fridge with tape, steps back, takes it all in. He now had some clout. In the bedroom, he pumps out 50 crunches and 30 pushups before stretching. He laces up his inline skates and rolls out to the parking lot where the kids mill around, playing with sticks.
“I’ll bet it’s him,” one of them says. “I’ll bet it’s Papa Padding.”
“Left,” Donald says.
“Prowling Papa Padding.”
Donald spins around and skids to a stop in front of the group. His loose tank top flutters in the breeze. Wind on a nipple. The kids look sweaty, sticky. “What did you say?”
They laugh, avoid his gaze. One murmurs, “Nothing.”
“What a stupid idea.” He squares his shoulders. “Actually, he came to my window. I’m the one that reported him.”
But they march on, pounding their sticks against the pavement, as if he weren’t talking at all.
“You should thank me.” He is shouting at the backs of their dirty heads.
For the next three nights, Donald keeps vigil for the prowler. He leaves his shades up and walks around the apartment, lights on and shirt off. He considers it but decides against removing his shorts. He makes sure to stretch in front of the window, lifting his arms clear above his head to elongate a torso that slowly firms up and takes more definite shape with each workout. He finds this work arousing.
Donald imagines catching the prowler, leering and sniveling at the window. Crying from so much ecstasy. Donald would go after the prowler. He wouldn’t stop this time. He’d chase the prowler like a cheetah and tackle him and pull his arms behind his back until the prowler’s crying turns to shrieking, devoid of pleasure and desire and longing. Donald: a true executor of justice, ridding the complex of this lurking perversion and coming out a hero. Penny would read about it in the paper. The kids would feel ashamed for mocking him.
One evening Donald goes outside to dump the garbage. A sheet of paper, folded taped to his door, flaps in the breeze. A note, scrawled out in pencil:
DEAR MR PROWLER
PLEES DONT STRECH IN FRONT OF UR WINDOW. UR OLD AND GROSS.
Donald bolts out to the parking lot. Where are they hiding? The complex is still. Trees bend under the wind, the air hisses through the leaves. Squares of yellow light shine from some windows, but most are dark. Donald realizes that it’s almost 11:00 pm and the kids are either all asleep or else should be. He dumps his trash.
When he gets into bed, he imagines himself on the asphalt, moving like light through water and parting the groups of children like the sea. He is pushing through the air, right on the heels of something big. Some next big thing. He is flying again.
The next day Donald puts on his athletic shorts and a clean tank top. He straps on his pads, laces up his inline skates. They creak at the ankles when he leans forward, tight but enough room to move. He feels good. He leans to the side, cracks his back, his neck. Does a few standing body twists and squats and stretches his shoulders. Then he caps on his helmet, clicks the buckle under his chin, and ambles to the door.
Outside, the end of an arrow, chalked on the cement, points at Donald. The tail of the arrow extends further down the walkway and ends at the sidewalk where there is more chalk, something spelled out in neon green. Donald rolls along, following the arrow in reverse until he comes to the writing, scrawled out in gaudy block lettering, and running the entire length of the sidewalk. He makes out the childish graffiti: PREVERT, and the arrow extending from it, pointing to his very door.
He drops to his padded knees, tries to rub away the chalk but comes back with only the slightest smudge on his fingers. Hopes no one sees him in this state. He thinks of Penny. He thinks of his two beautiful daughters, states away, living lives. He thinks of his mother with dementia. He thinks of himself, rising above himself, watching himself, this middle-aged man in roller skates, panicked on his knees. Then he hears muffled laughter from behind.
“Hey!” he calls out.
There are four of them, all on bikes: a boy, probably the one closest to puberty, with spiked red hair; a girl, her sundress hiked up, legs straddling her bike’s frame; the youngest, shirtless and laughing the hardest; and another boy, tan and missing his two front teeth.
Donald leaps from his knees, lands solidly on the wheels of his skates. A perfect 10.0. “Think that’s funny you little bastards?”
Three of them disperse, but the tan toothless boy loses his footing and takes a spill. The others keep riding, laughing and chanting the rhythm: “Pervert! Prowler! Super-Slider! Pervert! Prowler! Super-Slider!”
Donald bee-lines for the boy who is left behind and who is now mounting the bike and wobbling for balance. Donald drags his back skate and t-stops in front of the boy. “You do this?”
“Nuh-uh.” The boy tries to push off. Donald pivots, blocks the way.
“You and your friends, huh?”
He tries to push off again. Donald stops the front tire with his heavy skate.
“Leave me alone.” The boy moves, then Donald moves. This dance, back and forth.
“You got chalk on your hands?”
“Let me go.”
“Let me see your hands.”
“Let me see them.” Donald grabs the boy’s wrist and twists it, palm up.
“No!” The boy snatches his arm back and gives Donald a shove, sending him backward, stumbling on his skates. The boy pushes on his bike and gets away.
Donald catches himself and shifts forward. The boy has a good twenty yards on him by the time Donald gets going again. He keeps his focus on the back of the bike, its frame going right then left, leaning back and forth between the boy’s furiously pedaling legs.
It occurs to Donald to let it go. To have maintenance clean the graffiti from the sidewalk, but he is into it now. He goes harder, swings his arm and lowers his center of gravity. He lunges forward, gaining on the boy, who, the whole time, is yelling, “Help! Help!”
Donald flies. He isn’t even winded. The regular workouts have paid off, and for all their laughing and name-calling, these kids will now see a man primed and fit and prepared for action, be it against ex-wives and past lives and absent kids or absent parents or peeping Toms or prepubescent little criminals whose hearts bend toward cruelty. Even as the gap closes – they now round out of the parking lot and onto the complex’s main drag – he doesn’t exactly know what he’s going to do. The important thing is to catch the boy first.
The boy pumps hard, his little legs going like a machine. Donald zeroes in on the seat of the bike, where the boy’s rear end moves with every pedaling rotation, and where now, something shifts, emerges from the hollow of the boy’s creased pocket. His pedaling pushes the thing farther up and out, like a baby moved along by contractions, until the thing crowns and then slips from the pocket.
Donald’s gaze follows the falling chunk as it bounces one, two, three times, leaving behind recognizable green markings along the asphalt. The chalk, as if locked on to Donald, rolls under his left skate. It crunches, stops up the wheels, and sends him reeling forward. His face hits first. Then a white-hot flash of angry, unjust pain. He skids along the asphalt, certain he’s leaving his cheek smeared along the road. He lies there, afraid that if he lifts his head, his flesh will detach and stick to the street.
When he finally rolls over, the side of his face is numb, and they are all four there, pensively rocking on their bikes. The boy he had chased, off to the side, leery.
The one with the spiked hair cringes. “Nasty,” he says. “Look at his face.”
“Looks like jelly,” the girl says.
“Yeah,” the youngest, flecks of dried mucus crusted under his nose. “Blood jelly.”
Donald turns away. Can’t tell how bad it really is.