I’d just begun my shift at Auto Zone and was stocking the Mountain Pine air freshener display by the register when Terry called. He was short of breath, kept pfff–ing into the receiver. He was at the gym and needed a spotter, stat.
“You can’t, like, ask a staff member or something?”
“I can’t trust a staff member, Charles.”
Terry’s gym had recently made the local news, after a high school kid got his windpipe crushed because his spotter was busy watching a Scorpions video and failed to notice his buddy struggling under too much weight on the bench press. The bar dropped right on his throat, made the kid spit blood everywhere. He still sounds like Joan Rivers, even after four months of speech therapy.
After seeing the story Terry refused to allow any of the gym’s staff members to come within five feet of him, shot them dirty looks when they’d sidle up to ask if he needed assistance.
“You want me to end up like that twerp?”
When my Day Manager Luís came out of the stockroom, I told him I’d have to leave immediately, that I’d just learned that my stepfather had been seriously injured in a boating accident on Lake Geneva. He said he’d have to count this as one of my sick days and suggested that I not make this a habit.
I considered reminding him that this was a family emergency, that this couldn’t
possibly become a habit, but I didn’t. It was enough that Luís and I could participate
in this lie together.
There was a Visitor’s Pass waiting for me at the front desk. I grabbed it and started to walk toward the locker room when a staff member stopped me, told me I couldn’t go out onto the floor wearing muddy Timberlands and suggested that I either change or sift through the Abandoned Property box in search of some shoes in my size. I didn’t feel like going home so I grabbed a way-too-big pair of Crocs, slipped them on over my tube socks.
I found Terry waiting for me in the free weights section. He was wearing fingerless leather gloves and Miami Dolphins pajama pants and Reeboks so white they were like staring into the sun. He shook his head as he looked me up and down.
I was still in uniform, monogrammed Auto Zone polo and Dockers and all. I looked
like an asshole.
“There’s the pot calling the kettle-”
“Let’s get to work.”
Terry already had a machine set up, with two forty-five pound plates added to each side of the bar and a towel draped over the incline bench. He motioned for me to stand behind him.
“Don’t be daydreaming or-”
I helped Terry lift the bar up off the rack, kept my fingers underneath it as he slowly lowered it down to his sternum.
With a grunt, Terry pushed the bar up about six inches above his chest before all the blood rushed to his face and he started kicking his legs like an epileptic. Two staff members rushed over and grabbed each end of the bar, helped me guide it back onto the rack.
“Sir, I’d recommend you do more reps at a lighter weight before-”
“I can do this!”
Terry tried to shoo the staff members away but they didn’t leave. They each removed a plate from the end of the bar, lightening the load.
“There. This should be-”
“Get the fuck away from me!”
A group of old Korean ladies riding stationary bikes looked up from their soaps, stared blankly at the four of us.
“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave. We can’t let you risk injury to yourself.”
One of the staff members mumbled something into a walkie talkie, motioned to someone across the gym floor. Terry sat upright on the bench, grabbed his towel and threw it over his shoulder.
“I want this month’s dues pro rated.”
Without another word Terry made a beeline for the locker room, walked directly into the paths of oncoming joggers doing laps around the track.
“I’m sorry. He’s not usually like this.”
The staff members ignored my apology and walked off in the direction of the treadmills. They probably knew I’d just lied to them, that Terry’s always like this, can’t not be like this.
I rested my forearms on the machine and calculated how much money I’d just lost for the day, skipping out early for this. About eighty bucks, before taxes.
Terry was waiting for me in the parking lot, leaning back against the trunk of my Civic with an unlit Newport wedged between his lips. The legs of his Dolphins pants were billowing in the wind.
“Nice show in there.”
Terry turned his back to me to light up.
“Look, I’m sorry about that. I thought I could-”
“How much were you trying to lift, anyway?”
Terry exhaled a cloud of grey smoke.
We watched a Burger King bag scurry across the asphalt, lodge itself in a holly bush. “Candy threw me out again.”
Terry explained how his girlfriend found out about the cat, how she discovered all the empty Amstels at the bottom of the recycling bin and knew he’d just gotten drunk and forgot to close the door to the apartment when he left to do laundry. How she cried and cried and called every shelter in Cook County to see if they’d recently picked up a grey tabby. How she threw all his clothes in the dumpster behind their two-flat and dropped a bunch of bags of clumpy shit from the litter box on top.
“What’d you tell her about the cat in the first place?”
“Break-in. Even fucked up the lock, so it’d look real.”
I knew he was about to ask, so I just said it.
“You can’t stay with me.”
“We talked about this.”
“I don’t care who you have to call, but-”
Terry finished his smoke and flicked the butt through a sewer grate.
“Thanks for the spot.”
“Forget about it.”
I watched him cross the parking lot, followed his steps as he walked north on California Avenue toward Foster. I knew he’d keep right on walking up California, until he hit Lincoln. Then he’d walk another dozen blocks or so until he ran into the Patio Motel, where he’d get a room for a week, maybe two. Enough time to smooth things over with Candy for the umpteenth time.
I thought about stopping him but I didn’t. Spotting someone is one thing. Fixing him is another.
Thomas Mundt is the author of one short story collection, You Have Until Noon To Unlock The Secrets Of The Universe (Lady Lazarus Press, 2011), and the father of one human boy, Henry (2011). Teambuilding opportunities and risk management advice can be found at http://www.jonathantaylorthomasnathanmundtdds.com.