The Approach by Michael Baptist

BOMB 152 Summer 2020
152 Cover
The Approach Mockup

At the appointed time, the team members left their rooms and followed Phillip’s directions. They walked down the hallway and up the stairs to a room at the end of the corridor.

“Here they are,” Phillip said. He counted them as they sat down. “We are waiting for one more now.”

A minute later, a young woman arrived. She sat beside the others in the semicircle of chairs.

Phillip smiled and looked at each of the young faces before him.

“Welcome,” he said. “Why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves. It looks like some of you have already met. I’m Phillip, as you know.”

He passed the ball to a young woman.

“I’m Erin,” she said, glancing around the circle, smiling.

“I’m Simon.”

“I’m Twin.”

“I’m Gretchen.”

“I’m X.”

“I’m Nick.”

“I’m Chanel.”

Here and there a wave.

The ball returned to Phillip.

A few of them were whispering and looking behind him at the case.

“I see that some of you are eager to get started,” Phillip said.

Simon grinned. “When do we get a shot at it?”

The group laughed, and Phillip smiled broadly. He calmed them by raising his hand. “Soon. In just a minute,” he said. “There may already be questions.”

X. and a few others nodded.

“I’ll answer questions, and then if anyone wants to volunteer, they can try it. We’ll go over the basics first. Why don’t you all come forward. Take a moment to study it.”

They stood up and walked around the case.

“It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” Chanel said, bending down and looking inside the case.

“I was thinking the same thing,” X. said.

“How big is it exactly?” Nick asked.

Phillip told them the dimensions and volume of the case, as well as specifics about the glass. There was a thin pad at the bottom of the case for comfort.

“Notice how clean the design is, overall,” Phillip said, pointing with a small baton. “Believe me, it didn’t always look like this. The pads, the hinges, the glass itself: it’s all come a long way. The hinges actually used to be inside the case.”

The group cringed.

As people moved away from the case, others came forward to examine it.

“It’s not that small,” Simon said. “I could fit in there.”

“It’s smaller than it looks,” Phillip said. “You’d be surprised. Keep in mind the lid has to come down all the way.”

Chanel touched the glass and then turned around to face Phillip.

“How many of us are really going to fit in there?” she asked.

“At once?” he replied.

The group laughed.

“Only one, unfortunately,” he said. “Would you like to give it a try?”

Chanel frowned and shook her head.

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” she said.

“That’s okay,” Phillip said.

Nick stepped forward eagerly.

“I’ll try it.”

Phillip said, “Very good, Nick.” He asked everyone else to take five steps back, in order to give Nick room. Nick stood beside him, examining the case.

“I recommend taking your shoes off,” Phillip said, winking at him.

Nick blushed and removed his shoes. He was wearing wool socks. He lifted his leg and lowered it, uncertain of how to proceed.

“Don’t worry,” Phillip said. “There are techniques that you’ll learn, later on. Don’t worry about technique at this point. Just approach it naturally.”

“Is there a dress code?” Simon asked.

“There are dress guidelines that we’ll review,” Phillip said, keeping an eye on Nick and the case. “You’ll find certain clothes make it easier.”

Nick placed one foot in the case and Phillip nodded. He walked around the case, studying Nick, talking to him.

“Straighten your back. Good.”

Nick squatted in the case and tried to make himself smaller. Everyone watched.

“Watch those knees, now. Get lower,” Phillip said.

“He’s doing it wrong,” Simon whispered.

Phillip encouraged Nick, instructing him and pointing with his baton. When Nick tried to tuck his feet beneath his thighs, he twisted his ankle.

“Damn,” he said, grabbing his ankle in pain. “It’s too small.”

He stood up and out of the case, hobbling on one leg.

“Good try,” Phillip said. “That’s okay. This is just practice. Practice is paramount,” he added, speaking to the rest of them. Nick agreed and sat on the carpet, putting on his shoes.

“It seems impossible,” Twin said. “Just looking at it. It’s so small. It doesn’t look like anyone could fit in there.”

Phillip assured him, smiling. “It’s possible,” he said. Then he asked if anyone else wanted to attempt it before they moved on. A number of them volunteered, raising their hands. Phillip chose Erin, who was standing before him. She knelt down and untied her shoes.

“There will be plenty of time for everyone else to try it later,” Phillip said to the rest of the team. “Nobody fits on the first try.”

“Not even Mr. Gorman?” Simon asked.

Phillip shook his head, saying, “No, not even Mr. Gorman.”

“Who’s Mr. Gorman?” Gretchen asked.

Simon laughed at her and looked to Phillip.

“He’s one of the higher-ups,” Phillip answered, patiently.

Erin, who was smaller than Nick, stepped into the case and crouched into a ball, hugging her knees. She was able to fit more of herself in the case than Nick had.

“Where are you going to put your head now?” Phillip asked, circling the case, coaching her, simultaneously giving winks and nods to the other team members.

Erin looked around herself for space. Her legs were pressed and flattened against the glass.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Try here,” Phillip suggested, tapping the case.

She lowered her head into an uncomfortable position. Everyone watched.

“Help,” she cried.

“Are you stuck?”

She said that she was.

“I can’t move,” she said.

Phillip hoisted her out of the case and set her back on her feet. A few of her teammates clapped and complimented her approach.

“Remember,” Phillip said. “Once you get in, you have to get yourself out. Don’t get stuck like that when no one is around to help you. Be careful.”

Erin nodded and smoothed her skirt.

“Have you fit in there?” she asked.

Phillip laughed. “Of course I have,” he said. “What kind of instructor would I be if I hadn’t?”

They looked at him in awe. He was an enormous man, a head taller and much older than them.

“So has everyone upstairs,” Phillip said. He distributed a sheet of names and faces. “Familiarize yourself with those people. Jeffrey Gorman. Tina Kim. Marcus Allan. Memorize their faces. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Say ‘Hi, Mr. Gorman.’ Be polite.” Then he called on Gretchen to demonstrate a headfirst approach. She looked a little embarrassed.

“I’m scared to try it,” she said.

A few of her teammates laughed.

“That’s why we have practice mats,” Phillip said. He indicated one of the mats on the floor a few feet from the case. “Come on, now. Give it a try.”

Gretchen resigned herself to the floor. She sat on the mat, looking up at Phillip.

“If you’re tall, you’re going to favor this approach,” Phillip explained to the group. “That’s why I’ve asked Gretchen to demonstrate. It calls for your upper body to enter the case first, rather than your legs.” He drew a diagram on a small whiteboard for them to see. “Compared to the standard approach, which can be difficult if you have long legs.”

“Like I do,” Gretchen said.

Phillip nodded, facing the group.

“Show us how it’s done, Gretchen.”

Gretchen positioned herself on the mat. Then she attempted a headstand.

“It’s hard without the case,” she said, falling down to her knees.

“That’s okay. Use the markings on the mat to guide you.”

She attempted a headstand again. Then she rolled awkwardly into a somersault.

“Good,” Phillip said.

“Let me try again,” Gretchen said.

She performed a headstand and slowly rolled into a somersault on the mat.

“Get your legs up. That’s it. Now bring them down. That’s it. You see?”

The rest of the team was watching, taking notes. Erin dropped her pen and knelt down to retrieve it. X. bent down at the same time and handed it to her.

“Thanks,” she whispered, smiling at him. “This is hard.”

X. agreed.

“The other approach is easier,” he whispered.

Erin nodded.

“… as opposed to a standard approach,” Phillip said, “where your head is the last part to enter. Now, are you ready to try it in the case?”

Gretchen demurred, laughing.

“Don’t be scared.”

“Okay, I’ll try,” Gretchen said.

The others encouraged her, forming a circle around the case in excitement.

“You’ve got this, Gretchen,” Chanel said.

Phillip asked them to take a few steps back. “Give her room,” he said. Gretchen knelt in front of the open case and placed her hands on the upper edges of the glass walls. Kicking herself up into the air, she tried twice, unsuccessfully, to mount the approach, her feet falling back down to the floor both times.

“I can’t,” she said.

Phillip assisted her. He took hold of her ankles, one in each hand, and lifted her like a wheelbarrow until she was vertical in the air, her hair falling over her face, her arms locked and quivering above the edges of the case.

“There are two ways to handle this approach,” Phillip said, addressing the group, while holding her. “This being the more difficult of the two, but if you have the upper body strength and balance to get yourself up and over the case like this, by all means, use it. You want to slide yourself in slowly. Lowering yourself with your arms … like an inverted push-up … controlling your descent … sliding yourself inside … like this … leading with the head, bending the neck, curving your spine DOWN along the floor of the case, and then UP to the front wall, like water pouring into the case, down one side and UP the other, a wave, filling the case … ”

Holding Gretchen by the ankles, Phillip lowered her into the case. She guided herself inside awkwardly, with stops and starts, bumping her head against the glass, lying uncomfortably on her neck, faltering over the pad, trying to halt her progress. She kicked her legs and Phillip lost his grip for a moment and she fell awkwardly onto the edge of the case and then down to the floor. Chanel gasped and Phillip immediately picked Gretchen up.

The rest of the group looked on, disconcerted.

“Are you okay?” Chanel asked.

Gretchen was holding her neck, grimacing with pain.

“Let’s take a break,” Phillip said to the group as he knelt over Gretchen. “She’ll be okay. Go on.”

They slowly left the room.

“I’m fine,” Gretchen was heard saying. Phillip helped her into a supine position on the floor, supporting her head and neck.

Outside in the hallway, the group stood in silence.

“This is crazy,” Twin said.

No one responded.

“Am I the only one who thinks it’s clearly too small? I feel like we’re insane for trying to do this. There’s no way we’re going to fit in a case that small.”

“People have done it,” Simon said.

“Phillip’s done it,” Nick said.

“You think so?” Twin replied, incredulously, turning around to face him.

“When he was younger.”

“Then why hasn’t he demonstrated it? If he can actually fit in there, I think he would have shown us by now.”

The group was stirring uneasily. Everyone looked at Twin.

“Not everyone is going to fit in there,” Simon said, “but some of us are. It’s not for everyone.”

“We’ve just started,” Chanel said.

“We haven’t even finished training yet,” Nick said.

“And Phillip said it takes a lot of time.”

“Phillip says a lot of things,” Twin said. “Gretchen wasn’t even halfway in there and look what happened to her.”

“Look at the people upstairs,” Simon said. “Don’t they fit?”

Twin shrugged. The rest of the group remained silent. Phillip entered the hallway and asked them to return to the room. “Everything is okay,” he said. “Come on in.”

The group entered and saw Gretchen sitting in a chair against the wall. Phillip clapped his hands, drawing their attention away from her.

“Who wants to show us the backward approach?” Phillip asked. He eyed the group. “X.?”

X. demurred, shaking his head.

Simon seized the opportunity, volunteering.

“Good,” Phillip said. “Let’s see it, Simon.”

“I’ve practiced this one,” Simon said, taking off his shoes. He performed a few jumping jacks on the carpet. Then he turned around and sat on the forward edge of the open case, facing the group, and relaxed himself backwards, like a diver rolling off a boat.

The group was silent, watching him. Even Phillip watched intently.

“Excellent,” he said.

There was a murmur of agreement from the team.

“Wow,” Erin said. “He’s very flexible.”

After a minute of concentrated effort, Simon struggled and became stuck. The better half of his body was inside of the case. His head was positioned awkwardly in between his legs, his thighs were pressed to his chest, and his feet were in the air. He raised his free hand and signaled for assistance.

“This is comfortable,” he said, indistinctly, his voice muffled by the glass.

Phillip lifted him out of the case and returned him to his feet. The group applauded and surrounded him.

“Amazing, Simon.”

“Great job.”

“That was awesome.”

“It looked like you were halfway in there to me,” Phillip said.

“That’s it?” Simon said, bent over, breathing heavily. “It felt like more.”

“Halfway at this stage,” Phillip said, patting him on the shoulder. “That’s superb.”

“What should I do differently next time?”

“Make yourself smaller,” Phillip said. “Remember, it’s not only physical. It’s mental too. You have to picture yourself in the case. Concentrate on that picture, maybe just for an hour at first, but every day. Every day, you spend an hour in the case, in your mind. Then you do it for two hours a day. Then you do it for an entire day. Then you do it all day, every day. Maintaining the thought, the mental approach, is the first step. You have to be in the case, mentally. Then: voilà, you’re in the case.”

Michael Baptist is an author based in New York City. He was the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2013 Fiction Contest.

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Originally published in

BOMB 152, Summer 2020

Our summer issue includes interviews with Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, Brenda Goodman, Odili Donald Odita, Jenny Offill, Craig Taborn, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Jibz Cameron; poetry by Safia Elhillo and Nathaniel Mackey; prose by Lydia Davis, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Saidiya Hartman; and more.

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