a story by Fatman and Brooks Kubik (not)
The bar shifted on my back, threatening to pitch me forward. For a moment I was helpless, stuck under the barbell at the bottom of a squat. A red haze descended; panic froze my brain, my hips, the quads that I’d been working so hard to aesthetically develop. This is how it ends, the thought rose unbidden. Alone in an empty gym on a Saturday night, crushed under a barbell one hundred and fifty pounds lighter than my one-rep max.
Stop leg pressing. The words came to me in a flash of lightning, in a burning bush, in the first fire lit by the first man-ape at the dawn of humanity. Through the veil of agony and approaching unconsciousness I saw them etched in the eternal ice of Mount Olympus. Use your ass instead.
I flexed hard, and drove with my hips. Darkness loomed at the back of my mind, whispering sweet promises, vowing to put an end to the pain. My knees screamed in agony. The bar began to rise — slowly — slowly. I humped my back and used my quadriceps to rise to a standing position. The barbell clattered into the hooks of the rack.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror: my face was purple and swollen, my neck bulging with veins. Several blood vessels had burst in my left eye. The overall visual effect was unflatteringly phallic. Blood thundered in my ears; I could imagine the surge in arterial pressure distending the walls of my blood vessels, wreaking havoc on my cardiovascular system, driving murderous clots into my brain. At least exercising is good for the health. At least.
“Another set, you pussy. And don’t bend over so much, it’s not the Phaggalympic Games.”
I have never had reason to consider myself anything but heterosexual, but the voice sent a long-forgotten tingle through my loins: mellifluous yet masculine, deep in timbre, it evoked images of campside nights on the beach beside a crackling fire, the firmament like a speckled shawl cast over the world. Breathing heavily with exertion and surprise, I turned around. There was no one there.
My gaze traveled lower and he came into view. His beard, glorious and black, glistened in the overbright lights of the gym; small hands — a woman’s, a child’s — had lovingly braided it into intricate patterns. A tiny Lego man peeked between the braids, clawed yellow hands clinging on for dear life. Powerful, brawny arms and shoulders stretched the well-worn black sweatshirt. Thick, solid quads flexed and relaxed beneath the faded fabric of the trousers. It was impossible to tell whether the pattern of the latter had been camouflage to begin with, or had turned into one through absence of washing.
“Hello, coach,” I said.
“You’d better pick your game up, son.” Electric blue eyes fixed me with a relentless stare. “That was set number two. Give me three more, and use the Manta Ray this time.”
“Three more sets?” Frantically I searched the database of familiar excuses. “My legs are fatigued from the paused squats, and I think my piriformis…”
“NOT ACCEPTABLE.” A sinister resonance crept into the voice. The Coach’s eyes began to glass over. “I’VE NEVER SEEN A CHILD AS DISGUSTING AND DIRTY AS YOU. YOU ARE OFFAL LEFT BEHIND IN THE BECOMING.”
He reached under the sweatshirt and brought out a tattered ledger bound in calfskin.
“DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT I AM?”
“Coach,” I said, but he’d already opened the scrapbook. Glued to dog-eared, yellowing paper I saw the scan of an ancient broadsheet, the grainy image of a small, round, bespectacled man surrounded by the Rough Riders. Teddy Roosevelt atop San Juan hill.
“DO YOU SEE?”
“Coach,” I tried again.
Swish. Another newspaper article: John Henry Davis on the podium in Helsinki, holding the gold medal aloft.
“DO YOU SEE?”
Swish. The printout of a webpage this time, an anonymous Russian lifter breaking the powerlifting record total in the raw drugtested 181 class. In the photograph the lifter’s eyes were scratched out and satanic symbols and messages scrawled into the margins with a black pen — the same pen Coach used for his training log.
“DO YOU SEE?”
“COACH!” I shrieked, seizing him by the cannonball shoulders. The glassiness fled his gaze. He wiped spittle from the corner of his lips and gave me a questioning look. “You were channeling Francis Dolarhyde. You promised never to do that again.”
The Coach does a convincing Red Dragon, and once he surprised us with Buffalo Bill. Bowdozer cried when we got the hose.
“Yes. Well.” He opened his mouth to admonish me some more, but an elderly woman doing partial lunges in the other rack caught his attention. He marched over and began to berate her in a low, menacing tone.
“Hey Fats.” Bowdozer sidled in next to me, looking more chipper than usual. “Nice squat set there.”
“Thanks.” I could see where he was coming from: it had been a high bar rep PR by five pounds. Of course it didn’t matter — nothing mattered, we were all salmon beating our brains out against the sadistic, merciless current of life and we were all going to die anyway — but I let it go. Bowdozer reached into his pocket. A small plastic vial appeared in his hand, full of bright pink pills.
“Got these from the Bolo Yeung wannabe at the bar.” His smile was the smile of a child who’s done something forbidden. “Three to five a day for four to six weeks. Hello Gainzville.” He did a most-muscular pose in front of the mirror.
“Doze.” I hated to piss on his parade, but someone had to say it. “Flush them down the toilet. Now.”
The look of pain and confusion on his face broke my heart. “If- if I c-cycle them, Bolo said it was safe. I mean, it’s not like I’m juicing or anything, just bringing up my test number to levels…”
“Doze.” I glanced over at Coach. The old lady was sitting on a step box and crying, wrinkled hands covering her eyes. The bearded figure crossed over to a bench on which a pair of high school football players were performing the two-man “it’s all you brah” press-row combo lift. He waited until the prone lifter ground to a sticking point, muscles straining and bar refusing to budge, then kicked him hard in the scrotum. The bar descended on the bottom lifter’s trachea, crushing cartilage and vertebrae and his football career. His companion struggled to hold the weight up in vain, the torque wrenching his spine. “You know how Coach feels about steroid use.”
“He’s not going to tell me what to do.” A flush of anger: I could see that the seal on the vial was broken. “If he starts getting on his soapbox…”
“Remember what happened to Prohormone Jimmy.”
That shut him up. Prohormone Jimmy had been a fixture around the gym, as much a part of the inventory as the squat racks and platforms. He was some sort of supplement peddler, an amusing guy who knew everyone and had a funny story and colon cleanse advice for every occasion. The rest of us suspected he was on TRT, but kept our peace.
The Coach hated Prohormone Jimmy, but, unlike his knees, he kept his wrath under wraps, contenting himself with insults muttered into his thick black beard. It all changed one night in the heart of winter, when the days, like Coach’s temper, were at their shortest. The Coach was in the rack, setting up for his twenty-third set of doubles in the squat from pin #10, when Jimmy walked by, waved at him and said “Hi”. A strangled groan was all he got in reply; the Coach wedged himself under the bar, but we could all see that his laser-like focus had been shot. He strained and grunted, but the bar refused to leave the pins.
I’d never seen Coach so incensed. There were dark mutterings about the “guy who just wouldn’t shut up” and how Jimmy had added an hour to his workout and something about switching from Swingline to Boston stapler that I didn’t quite understand. We all suspected something big was about to happen — and we were right.
A few days later I saw Coach sitting in front of the gym’s only computer, composing a post on some kind of gay suicide fetish website run by a mild-mannered Korean fellow with well-developed traps. A week or so after that I spied a peculiar character at the gym. He was small and slender, clad in oversized black sweats and a sleeveless T-shirt that revealed arms corded with sinew. He performed a strange exercise where he would load the Smith machine bar with an uneven number of plates (three on one side, four on the other) and proceed to shrug it up and down a few inches. The Swede and I cowered behind the leg press, waiting with bated breath for the Coach’s inevitable criticism and fury, but to our astonishment he passed by the Smith machine without noticing anything. Or so we thought. Swede even filmed the guy for posterity, Ingmar Bergman style.
The next day Prohormone Jimmy was gone, and so was the strange shrugging creature. We never saw either of them again.
The mere memory of Prohormone Jimmy was enough for Bowdozer. He went into the men’s room and came back with empty pockets, the sound of flushing in the background. Together we sat next to the HammerStrength shrug machine, watching Wo Bist Du practice his snatches on the splintered platform. A nice guy who had left his job and school to dedicate himself 100% to the practice of Olympic weightlifting, Wo was an undying flame of optimism and a pleasantly aesthetic young man to have around the gym. The Coach had high hopes for Wo: in a decade, maybe sooner, he would break Zhou Lulu’s record total from the London Olympics, and then the sky would be the limit.
I tended toward the more realistic view — he would continue to set PRs and qualify for the Nationals, only to be run over by a drunk trucker on his way to the meet; not killed but mangled enough to never lift again — but since none of it mattered, since life was just a trap, a vise that lured the soul between its jaws only to crush it without mercy, I kept my opinion to myself.
“Have you ever wondered,” Bowdozer said, “what exactly is the purpose of this all? What’s the point?”
Wutsthepoint raised his head from a dark corner of the gym, where he had been trying to hang himself with the TRX suspension system; the handles gave him trouble. He waved his smartphone at us.
“Can one of you guys film me? I want to send my final moments to my unrequited crush.”
“Get off that box,” Bowdozer said, working the noose off his neck. “If Coach sees you, you’ll be in trouble. He doesn’t believe in the use of the box for raw lifters. If you’re hanging yourself, it has to be full range, from the top of a muscle-up.”
As if to confirm his words, we saw the Coach do a Rambo crawl behind the weight tree and come up behind a skinny Crossfitter doing high box squats with 225 pounds. He waited for the bony rump to rise off the box, then simply snatched the support away. There was a crash of weights and a blood-curdling cry as the Crossfitter was stapled to the floor; then nothing.
From the parking lot came the roar of a broken engine and the screech of tearing metal; the death-rattle of a machine dying in excruciating agony. Wo dropped a near-max snatch and cursed. CelicaXX bounded in, executing a Choctaw turn to a Biellmann spin. His sleeves were black with motor oil. He offered us a bag of cherries.
“Hey guys, I grew these in a mattress I found outside the closed insane asylum. Have a few.”
“I guess the mattress came pre-fertilized,” Wo said, wrinkling his nose. We all declined the cherries, muttering something about cutting and low carb diets.
“How’s that car of yours?” Wutsthepoint asked. Bowdozer and Wo exchanged glances and snickered.
“Runs like a dream,” CelicaXX replied. A low explosion rattled the windows; the drag queen gym receptionist ducked behind her desk.
“Get back to lifting, maggots.” Coach knocked the cherries from CelicaXX’s hands. They rolled underfoot and were promptly trampled, just like our dreams and ambitions had once been. We shuffled back to the racks and barbells, slaves bound by unseen chains, locked in the Sisyphean struggle against our own insecurities.
Outside the world was going to shit.