Oxcart to Nowhere

Photograph of a silo in a snowy Illinois field

by Sarah Eckstine


Oxcart to Nowhere

Mark Hall


The new gym on the campus where I teach is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Five floors of gleaming equipment of every description, cycling and yoga studios, two swimming pools, group fitness classes, even a demonstration kitchen where university students are taught how to cook. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gym was locked down. Two years later, with the easing of restrictions on campus, I talked myself into giving it a try.

On my first visit, I stopped by the locker room to change clothes. I was struck by how neat and tidy everything was. I’d bought a new drawstring backpack, filled with my gear, and a new combination lock. First, I stowed my things in a locker then continued to look around a bit. Rows of handsome teak benches, stacks of fluffy towels piled high, private shower stalls, all sparkling clean. Down to the last detail, this was an impressive facility. The tampon dispenser, however, took me by surprise. How progressive, I thought, for the university to provide tampons in the men’s locker room. I puzzled over this for another minute. Then it hit me: I was in the wrong locker room. Surely not, I told myself, but with a rising sense of dread, I dashed back to the entrance to check. There I saw the floor-to-ceiling sign: “WOMEN.” How had I missed it? I had been so awed by the shining facilities that I’d not paid attention to where I was going.

In a white-hot panic, I rushed to get out of there, but I was so nervous that I fumbled with the new lock. In the midst of several failed attempts, I registered the sound of running water in a nearby shower. Any minute, a woman would step out, naked. It would probably be one of my students, or maybe a colleague. I’m not sure which would be more mortifying. I’d be fired, go to jail. The headline in the campus newspaper would scream my guilt: “Male Professor and Chair of Writing Fired for Prowling Women’s Locker Room.”

This was not a promising start to my long overdue return to the gym. I’d put it off for months, struggling to get there in the first place. “What do you do besides work?” my new therapist had asked.

“Not much,” I confessed.

He’d been arguing for better work-life balance. “Do you exercise regularly? Go to the gym?”

“Does walking the dog count?” I asked. “I can’t go to the gym. When would I have time?” I countered. “What if there’s another shooting on campus?” There had been a shooting before I was hired. The building where it had taken place was still shuttered. The lawn in front remained fenced off. Every day I walked past, observing the progress, as ancient shade trees were pulled down to make way for a memorial.

“I can’t just leave the office in the middle of the workday. What if something happens to my staff? A department chair is like a ship’s captain. If something bad happens, I need to be there–to go down with the ship.”

My therapist lowered his eyes and shook his head. “We have a lot of work to do.”

It took some doing to convince myself to walk through the doors of the gym. The guilt and responsibility were paralyzing. First, to justify my absence, I hung a sign on my office door, “In a Meeting,” it lied. Then, to get there, I sneaked around the rear of the building, so that my colleagues would not observe me ditching work. I knew I was being ridiculous, but I couldn’t help it. To calm my anxiety, I reminded myself that, during my interview, I’d been taken on a campus tour, including the new workout facilities. “Oh, look,” my guide had pointed out, “there’s the Chancellor.” He was lifting free-weights at 3:00 in the afternoon. If the Chancellor could take a little time off for his own good health and well-being, then surely so could I.

“You might even find that regular exercise helps you do a better job as chair,” my therapist pointed out. I knew he was right. Still, to avoid bumping into a colleague, I took the long way to the gym, a seldom-used wooded path, instead of the crowded sidewalk.

Now, having screwed up my courage, I found myself scrambling to escape unnoticed from the women’s locker room. I took a deep breath, stilled my trembling fingers, then tried the new combination lock again. Finally, it clicked open. Grabbing my bag, I shot out the door. Just as I rounded the corner, another woman entered the locker room. Fortunately, this episode occurred between terms, a slow time at the gym. Only this fact saved me. Once out of the locker room, however, I became aware of all the video cameras. Every corner of the gym, it seemed, was under surveillance. All caught on tape, just my luck.

My impulse was to flee, never to return. But I put my head down and forced myself onto the nearest rowing machine. No staff had yet accosted me, questioning what I’d been doing in the wrong locker room. I’d made it this far. Having escaped notice, I was determined to stick it out, to get in even a short workout.

Among its many contraptions unfamiliar to me, this gym includes a device that looks like an oxcart. From my rowing machine on the mezzanine above, I observed as a powerful young woman stacked a huge pile of weights onto the cart, then strapped on a harness attached to it. She strained to drag the device across a long expanse of synthetic turf. Her heavily muscled thighs told the story of this regular routine. Her fixed determination was mesmerizing. Back and forth she trudged, planting one foot in front of the other, again and again, Sisyphus, dragging her oxcart to nowhere.

Her task and manner put me in mind of my role leading a newly-created department of writing at the university. While interviewing for the position, just days before the initial pandemic lockdown, I could not have imagined the challenges I would face. In the midst of our negotiations, when I nearly backed out, the Dean offered that I might wait out the coronavirus, and put off my start date to begin later in the year. “No,” I insisted, “if a crisis is coming, then let me start right away. I’m good in a crisis. If students and faculty need support, I’ll be the right leader for difficult times.” Back then, I felt confident of my abilities.

Now, after two years of intermittent quarantine, troubled faculty, staff, and students, a widening mental-health crisis, my confidence was shaken. Bent with the weight of responsibility, I looked upon the job of department chair as the endless dragging of the impossibly heavy oxcart to nowhere. Throughout the pandemic, I’d made my way to the office every day. In the early days, often, I was the only person in the building. Later, with the return to in-person teaching, I redoubled my commitment to be present, available to everyone, no matter the hour. A plastic sign hanging outside my door proclaimed, “OPEN COME IN.” So that anyone who needed me could sign up at their convenience, in-person or on Zoom, I shared my digital calendar widely. But most of my colleagues never darkened my doorstep. In spite of my best efforts, in their annual evaluation, faculty reported that I’d failed to be there for them.

Not only was I a terrible administrator, apparently, but my teaching, too, suffered during the pandemic. Spring semester ended with the worst student evaluations in years. In fact, as department chair, because I read everyone’s evaluations, I knew exactly where I stood. In my department there were two distinct categories of evaluations. There were the mostly-positive ones. That was everyone else. Then there were the entirely negative ones. Those were mine. One student wrote, “I was very depressed while taking this course. I used to love writing very deeply but now I absolutely despise it because of this class and this professor.” Another explained that she’d had to see her therapist multiple times on account of how awful I was. Me too, I thought, as I read the laundry list of students’ complaints. It had been a bruising time in every regard. Thoroughly demoralized, I knew that my therapist was right: I needed to learn to make time for exercise, if only to relieve the stress and anxiety of the job. But along with the overwhelming guilt about skipping out on work, it’s been so long since I’ve worked out that I don’t even know how to go to the gym any more.

Working out, we are told, produces a high, as endorphins interact with receptors in the brain that reduce the perception of pain, triggering a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. While I’ve often heard this claim and even witnessed evidence of it in others, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced it myself. Working out just makes me sweaty and tired. But after just one visit back to the gym, I immediately felt better. Reorienting myself to machines I hadn’t touched in years, I felt a pleasant soreness in muscles I’d forgotten I had. On the elliptical, gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the bright, sunny campus beyond, I was reminded that mindless exercise is the one activity that can shake me from my constant depressive rumination. At the end of my first workout, my shoulders felt lighter. My initial thought, as I exited the building, was how soon could I return. I’d block off a regular time on my calendar, maybe even multiple times each week, I resolved, once I got back to my office. Then, instead of the secret path, I took the crowded sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, skateboarders, and bicycles. Our campus is not back to normal by any means. The challenges of COVID remain very much with us, and will for a long time. But for the first time since I arrived here, the bustling campus appeared normal. This was the most traffic I’d seen since the lockdown lifted. It felt good to bump into other humans.

Later, when I told my friend Rebecca about wandering into the women’s locker room, she laughed and then lowered her voice. “We don’t usually tell this story,” she confided. Then she went on. Once, her husband, David, had taken their three young sons for a swim at the gym. He was so preoccupied with getting them all into their swimsuits that he absentmindedly walked right out into the mixed-gender pool area stark naked. Mothers screamed as they shielded their children’s eyes. “It could have been worse,” she assured me. Fortunately, on my way out of the gym, I noticed another innovation I’d not seen before. Along with locker rooms designated for women and men, this modern facility also includes private “All Gender” changing rooms. I think I’ll try one of those next time.




Mark Hall is professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Lunch Ticket, Passengers Journal, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Hippocampus, The Fourth River, and others.


Sarah Eckstine is a photographer from Western Maryland who received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Illinois State University. Her work has been exhibited in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts annual photography exhibition where she received the 2nd Place Juror’s Award in 2021, New York Center for Photographic Arts, Midwest Center for Photography, as well as many shows on MICA’s campus, including a two-person collaborative show “Knock Me Down,” MICA’s Juried Undergraduate Show 2017 and 2018, and a solo show “Crosses Across America” in 2020. She has been published in Shots Magazine, Bullshit Lit, Able Zine, fifth wheel press, and Soft Lightning Studio.