Sunday, May 10, 2015

Work Out by Andrew Elsakr

When Andrew Elsakr's character is offered a job on the side by his boss at the gym, he is tempted by some easy money, but he will have to face the consequences.

It wasn't what you'd call a real job. Not something I'd worked for or earned or maybe even deserved. I was the assistant to the receptionist of the local gym and in my opinion, the only thing more pathetic would have been to have no job at all. My friend Juan, a personal trainer there I worked out with a lot, was the one who set me up with the gig after I'd told him about my problems, about how I couldn't keep away from the drinks and how that was the reason I was no longer in college. We'd talk between sets and usually when I got too caught up in self-pity he'd change the subject by correcting my form and telling me I was going to tear something if I wasn't more careful. Compared to him I was pretty out-of-shape but that didn't bother me as much as I think he believed it did. Don't get me wrong, we were tight. He just had this thing when it came to health. He never took girls on second dates if they ordered a soft drink the first one, and rumor had it he broke up with his girl of nine months because he'd caught her taking a Zumba class. Outside the gym he was a good guy though. He could drink anyone under the table (although he only drank Saturday nights and would do 50 push-ups after every shot) and he could grill a steak like no other. He'd invite me over for dinner from time to time to watch Grizz and Ravens games and every time, his steaks would have just the right amount of tenderness and just the right amount of seasoning. I'd forget all about the game and get lost in a world of flavor. "Juan," I told him one time. "Forget making fat people skinny. You could make a killing off making them fatter if you became a cook." And he said back, "If I was meant to cook, I would've been born without these bits of dangling meat between my legs." And I laughed and he laughed too. We weren't too similar those days, aside from our taste in sports teams, but back in high school we'd been best friends. Those had been our days of basketball, when he and I had been stars. Our junior season had been like a golden era, with me leading the county in assists and Juan leading the entire state of Tennessee in points. Everybody in school knew us and wanted to hang with us, and we felt like celebrities. Senior year didn't go so hot, though. Juan tore his ACL early in the season and without him I didn't play nearly as well. And that was that for our basketball careers - no college offers, no pro tryouts, nothing. Now all we did together was drink and work out.

My first day on the job hadn't been so bad. All I was supposed to do was swipe people's cards as they came in and make sure no girls were out of dress code, wearing something too short or too tight. I was also supposed to greet people as they came in. I would usually say something like, "Good morning. How are you?" Swipe. "Have a nice day." But Darius, our front door security guard, told me I was doing it all wrong. He'd tell me that I didn't smile enough, that I didn't talk with enough enthusiasm. Darius was a strange one. The first time I met him he asked me if I had ever been on a blimp, and when I said no, he looked down with confusion and muttered something about how I look like I've been on one.

"No, my boy, you gotta really mean it. You gotta welcome them into this place like they was the Queen of Sheba!" He told me a few days into the job. "Here, I'll show ya."

He came around behind the desk where I was while a plump black lady walked in the front door. "Hey there, sugar! You lookin' real peachy today!"

"Why, thank you," she said, putting her hand to her chest.

"Lemme swipe your card, deary. Gotta swipe these cards so you can get your workout in. Now that's technology, ain't it. Gotta swipe cards so we can get a computer's permission to use a treadmill."

"As long as I get my workout in," she said back to him. "I need to lose ten pounds in a month."

"How come?"

"My sister's wedding," the lady said, and she smiled a proud smile as if it were her wedding. "I've got this tight little dress I need to squeeze into."

"Ah! A wedding! I do love me a wedding."

He swiped her card and handed it back to her.

"You have a good workout now," he said. "Lose enough pounds and I might be able to squeeze in that dress with ya!"

She cracked up as she walked away. "You silly," she said. "You real silly."

When she was off around the corner Darius came out from behind the desk, gave me a wink, and said, "Just like that."



The real receptionist was a girl named Wendy. She was more like a secretary, really. She had to take calls and receive packages and shit like that. She used to be in charge of lending out the basketballs and ping-pong paddles until I took over that responsibility. You could call it a promotion - my wages didn't increase, but I did get myself a new name: gym host.

Wendy was pretty attractive. She had sandy blonde hair and blue eyes, and although her face wasn't too great, her body was banging. I'd been with better looking girls, but Wendy was the best looking girl I'd seen in weeks, so I thought why not.

She had just started her first year at community college, hoping to go to nursing school afterward.

"And you?" she asked.

"Me?" I scratched the back of my head. "Yeah, college wasn't going too good for me."

"So you've dropped out?"

"Well, I wouldn't call it that exactly. I'll probably go back eventually." I looked away then looked back at Wendy's face. "I'm just taking a break from it to, um, to get my shi- I mean my act together."

"You can swear around me," Wendy laughed. "I don't care."

"Sorry," I smiled. "I usually try to watch my mouth when I talk to pretty girls. Until I get to know them at least."

"Well I think you need to get your shit together and get to know me soon then," she said with a look in her ocean-blue eyes that dared me to take her out.

So I did.



A few months passed and I was finally starting to enjoy the way things were at the gym. I would get in early every morning to work out with Juan and then I'd spend the day talking and screwing around with Wendy until we got off work, and then I'd either take her out somewhere and then back to my apartment (or, preferably, her parents' house when they were out of town) or I'd do something with Juan if there was a game that night. It was nice and I was even starting to get some money saved up since I'd gotten a raise and wasn't spending money on anything but food, gas, and rent. I was thinking about saving for another six months and maybe taking Wendy on one of those romantic riverboat cruises.

Anyways, it was just a normal day and at closing time, Darius came up to me and told me he needed a favor, that someone had stolen his car and he needed a ride to go pick up some diapers. I tried to refuse, but he'd caught me off-guard and I'm not very good at saying no, so next thing I knew I was pulling up to a boarded-up house in a part of town you only see on the 3 a.m. news, and Darius was telling me he'd be right back. I watched him as he ran up to the house and disappeared around the back. A few minutes trudged past and I almost drove away several times, worried that someone was going to come up at any moment and tap on my window with a pistol. Nevertheless, he did come out from behind the house before too long, stuffing something into his pants. He got back in the car, pulled out a hundred dollar bill from his pocket, slapped it in my hand and said to me, "Diaper money, son."

That night I used the hundred dollar bill to pay for dinner for both me and Wendy, and when she said, "High roller, huh," to comment on the bill, I laughed and without thinking, said, "Diaper money."

"What?" She said back.

"Oh," I said, for the first time realizing the potential illegality of what Darius must've done to get that money. "It's nothing. Just a small piece of the wealth that comes with being a glorified gym host."



A week later Darius said he needed a ride again, to go on another diaper run. I said yes, thinking back to that smooth Benjamin Franklin, and this time he gave me five-hundred.

So it went on for about a month until Darius said he'd gotten a new car and didn't need me anymore.

"You're welcome to have a full-time job if you're looking for something in that department," he told me, but when I didn't look too up for it, he laughed. "Figured."

By the end of it all, though, I'd stored up about two grand and I decided it was time to take Wendy on that cruise, but when I told her about it she didn't look as happy as I thought she'd be.

"I mean, it's not that I don't like cruises. It's just that I don't want to look out my window and see some farm, you know? When I go on vacation I like to be far away from here. Like far, far away from here."

So I talked to Juan to see if he had any ideas, and all he told me was, "I don't see your problem, man. If you're bedding her on a consistent basis here, why spend any more on her than you have to?"

"It's not the sex, Juan. I actually want to make some good memories with her. Good memories about good places with a good girl."

"Shit, you're not thinking about hitching up with this chick, are you?"

"No," I said, then stopped. "Well. Maybe."



When I had no options left, I went to Darius for advice.

"Where should you take your sweet honey if she don't wanna go anywhere nearby?" He said. "Well how much cash you got?"

"Not enough," I said. "At least not enough to go somewhere far away and then have much money left to spend."

"Well get more money," he said.

"How?"

"You know how."



I didn't have to do much in all honestly. I just drove whatever Darius or his buddies would load in my trunk wherever they wanted it to go - Nashville, Little Rock, St. Louis. Nothing too far away. I never asked any questions about what exactly I was carrying, and I made sure to always drive below the speed limit. I'd drive on weekends, telling Wendy I had a sick aunt who wanted me to visit, and I didn't even have to do this more than ten times before I'd earned a significant amount of cash and told Darius I was done. He accepted my resignation without remark, and I shook his hand like a wealthy businessman, like somebody important, somebody worth something.

I used the cash to buy me and Wendy a one-week stay on one of those resorts in Miami, and I spent on Wendy the entire week like I was made of money because, at the time, I kind of was. But she'd always stop me before I paid for something and say, "Are you sure you can afford this?" And I'd tell her, "Of course," and she'd give me an annoyed look and then forget about it.

But it was when I tried to buy her a diamond necklace that she stopped me.

"No, there is no way you can afford this. I would know. I give you your paycheck every week."

"Don't worry about it, Wendy."

"No, I want to know. Now."

"We're in the middle of a fucking jewelry store."

"I don't give a damn."

"I've just been saving up. That's all."

"Bullshit."

"Fine, I, uh, invested in the stock market a bit."

"Do you want me on the first flight back to Memphis? Because that's where I will be if you don't tell me the truth right now."

So I told her. I took her outside of the jewelry store and I told her. She asked me if I was stupid, if I even knew what I was doing, if I was aware that there was a term they had for it: drug trafficking. And she got mad. And she told me she couldn't believe it. And I told her that it wasn't a big deal. And she told me she felt stupid for dating a college dropout. And I called her stupid for making such a big deal about it. And I told her I messed up and would never do it again. And she told me she was leaving, that we were done. And she did get on that first flight back to Memphis.

With my money.



I stayed a few more days, partied a bit, got laid, and came back on the flight I'd originally booked. When I came back to work, Wendy was gone. Darius told me she'd quit.

The next day they gave me her job.

I thought about going back to her apartment, telling her I was sorry and begging her to take me back. Then I pictured myself kneeling before her like some kind of slave, and I realized I was never seeing that bitch again.

That night I got beers with Juan and we sat out on his front porch in lawn chairs drinking, like the old men we used to make fun of.

"What happened?" He asked me.

"It's stupid," I said. "Women get pissed off by the dumbest shit."

"And you wanted to marry her."

"I never said that."

"You might as well have," he said. "I'm surprised you didn't buy her a ring to give her on the trip." And when I didn't respond, "You didn't, did you?"

"No, Juan, geez!"

"You need to get your priorities straight man. Broke guys can't afford to fall in love."

"And that's why you'll be single forever."

Juan looked at me with a grimace on his face. "Normally I'd hit someone for something like that, but I'll spare you because I actually have no desire to have a woman nagging me 24/7."

"That's not all they do, you know. There's this thing called conversations that you can have with them, but you're probably as bad at that as you are at fucking them, so good luck."

"Get the fuck off my lawn," he said, and he didn't have to say it twice.

As I got into my car I looked back at Juan, still standing and staring at me with a bottle in his hand, and I made a mental note to go return that little box that was still in my suitcase the next chance I got.



"The most important rule," Darius had told me back when I first started, "is that you never, under any circumstances, let someone in who doesn't have a card. No matter what. And if they try to come in anyway, gimme a shout and I'll take care of them."

I'd been pretty good about maintaining this rule. Usually the person would have forgotten the card in their car, and they just had to run back and get it. Other times, people without cards would just pay for a new one. And some would just leave after I'd caught them trying to sneak in without a card.

So this one time I was just manning the desk like always, and this kid, probably about eighteen or nineteen, tries to walk in casually, but I've seen this a thousand times and I catch him immediately.

"I'm sorry, you can't enter unless you swipe your card," I say to him.

"It's okay, I'm supposed to be here," he says back, as if I'm some kind of idiot.

"I don't care. Just swipe your card. If you don't have one I can't let you in."

"Listen man, I'm just gotta stop in here for a few seconds to say hi to someone, then I'm gone. I swear."

I looked around for Darius, but he was off watching women's yoga or pilates or whatever the younger ladies were up to that night. And seeing how I was never good at saying no, I said to the kid, "Fine. Just make it quick."

"I will, sir," he said. And he shook my hand. Like he owed me something.

It was while I was sorting through the mail, looking at a Sports Authority coupon, that I heard the gunshots. At first I thought it had come from someone playing racquetball, but then I saw that same kid running out with a gun in his hand, stopping to tell me, "You didn't see nothing," before running back to the white van I failed to notice earlier that was parked right in front of the entrance. A few seconds passed before the entire gym emptied, panicking people rushing out of every exit in their tank tops and swim suits and short shorts. I waited for a moment, still in a state of shock, before I ran over to where I thought I'd heard the shots come from. Sure enough, there was a crowd gathered at the end of the hallway with the vending machine at the end of it, the one that didn't work when you tried to get Cheez-Its.

I made my way towards the edge of the crowd and peered in to see what everyone was looking at.

It was Darius. He was lying on his back with three holes in his chest, his shirt soaked in blood. I pushed my way through the crowd and knelt before him. I asked if he was in pain and he looked up at me.

"Goddamn diaper money," he said. "Shit. Hey man, you been on a blimp yet? I think I'm goin' on one soon. We should go sometime. Be nice, right?" Then his eyes closed and he slipped away.

It was later that night when I was being interviewed on the news, telling the reporter that I didn't see nothing, that I decided I wanted to go back to college.

4 comments:

  1. Lessons hard learned, but hopefully he's moving to the right path. I found the (unreliable) narrator a bit tough to feel for, but I believe that is what the author intended, and as such, well done. Long but worthwhile read.

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  2. Life low down ...... a good evocation but it was hard to connect with the main protagonist. The cynical ending raises scepticism to a new level and yet it works as a piece. It would be good to see the story line developed to give voice to contrasting realities.
    Thankyou,
    Ceinwen

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  3. I'm gonna be honest, that long painful paragraph at the beginning deterred me from wanting to read this. You have to break up your paragraphs better, please. Especially when submitting to online publications. The dialogue made it better but in between it was just a mass of sentences. Not so bad as the first, but sentence structure is important in writing. Sorry, not to be too critical. Just want to help.

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  4. finds it difficult to say no, have to learn these things the hard way, and he did. as mentioned the narrator is not likeable or unlikeable, but i think this is deliberate and reflects his attitude to life. but i found it a good story.

    Mike McC

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