Ray wheeled his yellow bucket from the locker room into the gym. He was about four and a half feet tall with a square head and closely cropped black hair. He couldn't bend his withered left leg, so when he walked he looked like he was on the verge of crashing to the ground, like a baby crossing a room for the first time. He couldn't have been less suited to vacuuming and mopping, but that's what he spent his days doing.
Marty watched from his lifecycle as Ray used the mop handle to steer his bucket along the tiled floor between the carpeted sections containing weights and exercise equipment.
Marty loved this gym for its dirt and imperfections and Ray was the biggest imperfection of all. He knew Ray had just turned thirty-eight because people in the gym had been teasing him about it all week.
"Ray Ray, you an old man!"
"When you getting married? Don't keep the girls waiting."
Then they'd extend their arms and Ray would let go of his mop to bump fists, always with the same stained-tooth grin.
A guy named Ike jumped down from the pull-up bar, screeching, "Ray Ray, my man!" in a falsetto voice. "You looking tired, you got to learn to tell the ladies no."
Ray grinned and bumped the outstretched fist.
He looked like he won the lottery every time one of the others stuck out a fist and shouted, "Ray Ray, my man," but whenever Marty called for a fist bump, Ray stopped moving and stared, those dead black eyes floating under thick strips of eyebrow.
He'd come over and bump fists eventually, but Marty never missed the hesitation. It gnawed at him. It made no sense. Marty prided himself in his easy ability to get people to like him. He won over high-powered executives on a daily basis, but Ray had the nerve to hesitate before he bumped fists?
Sure, comments about Ray keeping the girls waiting had a cruel element, but that was the nature of jokes at this gym. People ridiculed each other about everything. Just the other day, one of the shaved head muscle freaks said to Marty, "Who did pretty boy blow to get that Audi?"
And Marty didn't take offense. He laughed along. It was a crude attempt at humor, but Marty wouldn't judge these people for their tastelessness. They were as much a part of the charm of the place as Ray.
Marty could afford a membership at the gyms where they talked about online trading fees and the latest episode of Mad Men. How many of those people could fit in here? Come in with their breathable sweat pants and unscuffed shoes and they'd get punched in the mouth before they finished their pre-lift stretching routine.
"You still here, Ray Ray? I thought you was home doing the nasty!"
Ray bumped fists with a salesman-looking guy who was on his way out.
Marty felt like shaking Ray by the shoulders, "How can you not see, the point of the joke is you'll never be home doing the nasty. You still grin and bump fists with him? But whenever I say something ..."
He shook his head and laughed. He'd just wasted five good minutes agonizing over that half-wit when he could have been thinking about the night ahead with Jennifer. He couldn't help imagining Ray's misshapen body between Jennifer's soft legs. What a thought.
It was almost five. The gym was closing early today for the holiday. Marty was one of the last people still here. Two guys at one of the benches, someone doing pull-ups, Ike cooling down on a treadmill. That was it. The high school girl with "Pink" spelled across the butt of every pair of sweatpants she owned had left the front desk early. The owner, Laith, was out in the parking lot with a delivery truck driver.
Ray finished swabbing a patch of floor. He splashed the mop in the bucket and wobbled back toward the bathroom.
"Clean up, stall two," Marty shouted at Ike.
Ike pretended to adjust the speed. He didn't even acknowledge Marty. Well fuck him. The guy drove a beat-up old Honda and he had the nerve to act high and mighty?
Ray exchanged his bucket and mop for a vacuum cleaner. A big industrial-sized one almost as tall as Ray. The two guys at the bench press had left, so the entire free weight area was empty. Ray should have started vacuuming that section first, especially since it was right in front of the outlet he used. But instead he rattled the vacuum over the tiled floor to the row of lifecycles.
He started directly behind Marty's lifecycle. The shiny vacuum head swooped forward and back in quick, precise strokes, perfectly synchronized with the rotation of the pedals. Marty had to pedal at a steady rate so his foot wouldn't collide with the vacuum. Ray looped around behind Marty to the other side of his lifecycle, tilting the one next to it with his right hand while vacuuming with his left. One, two, three, four strokes. Somebody needed to tell Ray this carpet wasn't in the honeymoon suite of a five star hotel. The head kept missing Marty's pedal by what seemed like fractions of an inch. Marty braced himself for a collision. He stared at the overhead TV monitor to avoid looking Ray in the eye.
Finally Ray finished. But fuck if that retard wasn't coming back for a second pass. Enough was enough. Marty would make a point of talking to Laith. Ray's got a high enough IQ to mop the bathroom stalls but it's a few points below the vacuuming threshold. Marty smiled as he imagined himself putting it that way and Laith nodding his appreciation. Marty's anger melted away.
Ray finished his second pass. He pushed his vacuum back over to the free weight area.
"Ray Ray, my man," Marty shouted across the gym. He held his arm out, fist clenched.
Ray stood still, wet black eyes working something out.
"Ray Ray, almost closing time. Who's the lucky lady tonight?"
Ray hobbled over and bumped Marty's fist, head bent down, eyes focused on the carpet stains.
Marty felt the urge to confide in him, explain the reason he waited until Ray crossed the room before calling out for a fist bump. "It's how excited you are to bump everyone else's fist, the way you leave me out," he'd say.
As if Ray would understand a word of complicated psychology like that. Lions won, Lions lost. That was the extent of Ray's conversational repertoire. But fine. Live and let live. Marty wouldn't judge.
Ike was on his way out.
"Have a good one," Marty said.
Ike walked out of the gym without looking at Marty.
Twenty minutes to five. Eight minutes left on his program. Marty was the only person still working out. He'd have just enough time to work in a set at the bench before the gym closed. He'd shower at home. Laith wouldn't mind keeping the gym open an extra couple minutes, but Marty would never inconvenience Laith like that, especially on a holiday.
He increased the resistance for the final minutes of the workout. He loved leaving with that feel of total muscle exhaustion. After he finished, he got the spray bottle and some paper towels and wiped down the lifecycle. That he would perform a common courtesy like this even though nobody was around to see it made him feel good about himself.
He went over to the free weight area and placed his towel on one of the benches. Put forty-five pound plates on either side of the bar and lay down. A hundred thirty-five. Not even close to his max, but this wasn't a serious lifting day.
He did ten quick reps. Then two more. May as well go for fifteen.
He couldn't get the last one up. He took a deep breath, tried again. It wasn't happening. He pushed hard as he could to keep the bar from pressing down on his chest. Ten seconds of rest and his muscles would recover enough.
On the other side of the gym, the vacuum stopped.
Marty pushed, his muscles felt like they were melting. Well this was stupid beyond belief. Marty had lectured plenty of people at work about the importance of having a spotter and now he was alone in the gym. Where the fuck was Laith? Hot blood swished through him.
Turning his head, he could see Ray perched beside his vacuum cleaner over by the universal weights.
"Ray, a little help here."
Ray didn't move. Marty panicked Ray would ignore him out of spite. But he neglected to consider the alternative. It took time for Ray's wounded animal brain to process simple instructions.
Ray hobbled his way over to the bench.
"When I push, pull the bar up," Marty hissed.
Ray turned to face the rack holding the plates. He picked up a twenty-five pound plate and turned back to Marty's bench.
Marty tried shaking the bar, but he didn't have any strength left. Ray had no problem slipping the plate on, clanking it against the forty-five pound plate.
Marty couldn't keep the bar from collapsing onto his collarbone and from there rolling onto his neck. He heard the sound of another twenty-five pound plate sliding onto the other side of the bar. Ray stepped in front of the bench.
Right before the world blackened, Marty saw Ray hold out his fist and grin.
Copyright © 2012 by David Moss