Jesus. 4:45 a.m. I’m sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark. Sucking down the first cigarette of the day. This whole thing started two days ago. But let’s start with the start.
“Marion, you’re too damn fat,” said Dr. Bower.
“I’m big boned.”
“Bullshit. How old are you? Thirty? Thirty-five?”
“Be thirty-four this year.”
“And I’ve been your doctor for every one of those years. You were a fat baby, a fat child, a fat teen, and now a fat man. You don’t take it off you’ll never see forty.”
“What ya got in mind?” I asked.
“Quit smoking, eat right, and exercise. I’m sending you to Phillip Frank. He’s a fitness trainer. He’ll help you out.”
My appointment at Phillip Frank’s Fitness Center was at noon which gave me time to grab a burger and beer at Walt’s French Bistro. The only thing Walt served that could remotely be considered French were the fries. Walt thought the name gave his ten stool lunch counter class.
“Hold the fries, Walt. Doc Bower’s got me on a diet. Said I’m too fat.”
“You ain’t fat, Marion. You’re just big boned,” Walt said as he slapped the patty on the grill.
“That’s what I tried to tell ‘em. He said nobody’s bones add up to 329 lbs.”
I ate the burger, drank the beer, light beer, and was at Phillip Frank’s Fitness Center by noon. Phillip personally met me at the reception desk. He stood about six-two and maybe weighed in at 130 lbs. including gym suit and running shoes. Phillip gave me a look of disgust and offered a limp handshake.
“You have workout clothes?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll give you a tour of our facility and you can pick up your gear this afternoon.
We’ll start tomorrow.”
“Gotta meet with my publisher.”
“You’re a writer?”
“More of a hack. Pays the bills.”
“Okay, day after. 5:30.”
“Boy, I don’t know. Afternoon traffic’s a bitch at that hour.”
“Mr.… ah…” Phillip consulted his clipboard.
“Marion,” I said.
“Yes. Here it is. Marion. Marion, I’m talking morning.”
“5:30 in the a.m.?” I said.
“Only time I can schedule you.” He pronounced schedule, ‘shed-jul’.
Phillip gave me the cook’s tour, pointing out various contraptions that would take the pounds off. One of the first things I noticed was everyone on, in, or by these machines were the Beautiful People. The men and the women were Phillip clones. They were pushing, pulling, and running on various devices. They strained, grunted, sucked breath in, blew breath out. Some with eyes closed, others with eyes bugged out. Another thing all had in common, they were drenched in sweat.
Phillip told me he’d have my fitness plan worked up along with a nutrition package when I reported back for training.
“You’ll need shorts, sweatshirt, gym shoes, socks, and… ah… you know.”
“No, I don’t ah know.”
“Athletic supporter. Jock strap, to use the vernacular. Surely you know what that is?”
“Of course.” This guy wasn’t going to get one over on me. “I told you I was a writer. I work with words.” Then recited the definition of vernacular.
Phil gave me his disgusted look again, told me I could get everything I needed at Crosstown Sports, and disappeared among his sweaty Beautiful People.
Crosstown Sports. The Sax Fifth Avenue of workout clothing. Designer everything. Again, nothing but Beautiful People beautifully shopping.
“Can I help you?” the Beautiful People sales girl asked.
“I need workout clothes.”
She gave me the same look Phillip offered and told me she’d have to special order for my size. That it would take a week. No returns, payment in advance.
“I gotta have this stuff day after tomorrow,” I told her.
“Sorry, can’t help you.”
“Could you tell me what it’s gonna cost?”
She went over my list glancing from list to me and back to the list.
“About three hundred dollars.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
I left Crosstown Sports and headed for the local Salvation Army store mumbling, “Three hundred dollars my ass.” They didn’t have shorts in my size but I found a pair of brown pin stripe suite pants that fit. Just needed the legs cut off. No gym shoes either. Picked up an almost new pair of white nurse shoes, the kind with thick crepe soles. Musta been one hell of a big nurse. Buried deep down in the sweatshirt pile was a green 4Xer with a lecherous looking Santa on the front asking if you’ve been naughty or nice. I had socks at home and didn’t inquire about a second-hand jock strap. Total bill, four dollars. Congratulating myself on the two hundred ninety-six dollar saving, I drove to a K-Mart store. Found the sporting goods aisle but not the athletic supporter section.
“Can I help you, sir?” the young Hispanic sales girl asked.
“Yeah. Need an athletic supporter.”
The sales girl looked at me quizzically and lapsed into Spanish, “¿Perdone?”
“El jock-o-strap-a-lone,” I said in my flawless Spanish.
“No comprendo, Señor.”
“Look, thanks anyway. I’ll just scout around a little more. Gracias.”
“De nada.” And she trotted off.
I couldn’t find anything. Instead, bought a pair of men’s medium jockey shorts, reasoning that, being about a hundred times too small, they should hold the old huevos in place.
So, this is why I’m grudgingly up at this ungodly hour. Forty-five minutes to the start of a new me. A life change, if you will. Actually I started last night. Picked up a pack of Camel Lights instead of Camel straights.
When I arrived at the Center, there were seven or eight Beautiful People waiting for the doors to open. All dressed in Beautiful People workout clothes. Each had a gigantic gym bag slung over a shoulder. I couldn’t imagine what they could have in those things. All my stuff fit in a Piggly Wiggly shopping bag. Piggly Wiggly has the best bags. The handles don’t rip out. The door opened and we filed into the reception area. When my turn came to check in, the reception lady said I had to wait for my group. Didn’t know I had a group.
Five minutes later a big boned woman and a big boned man came waddling in. Ah, my peers. My comrades of the gastric pleasures. My group. At least, I think three people with a combined weight nearing half a ton constitutes a group. Phil met our group and told us to go to the locker rooms and change. Then meet him in the gym.
“Name’s Marion,” I said to the man changing next to me.
“Dale,” said the big boned guy.
We’re the only ones in the locker room. Phil probably wants to keep us segregated so the others don’t catch our disease. I think the American Medical Association has determined obesity to be a disease.
“How long you in for, Dale?”
“What?” he said.
“I said, how long you in for? My doctor said I gotta loose a buncha fat. Figure I’ll have to do a year.”
Dale laughed. “I guess I’m about the same, unless I have a growth spurt. Right now I’m about the same weight as Shaquille O’Neal. He’s just taller.”
“Come on, people!” Phil yelled into the locker room.
Our group assembled in the gym. The far end of the gym. All the Beautiful People on their Stair Masters, rowing machines, stationary bikes, and other medieval torture devices, eyed us as we passed by. Some actually drew back, as the people drew back from the lepers in the Bible. Unclean! Unclean!
The woman in our group was dressed in a sweat suit. Dale had managed to find the appropriate uniform. I stood in my cut off suit pants, Santa Claus sweatshirt, white nurse shoes, and mid-calf black socks. I was having trouble with the jockey shorts. Maybe not that good of an idea after all. Phil gave me a critical appraisal but didn’t say anything.
“These,” he said, pointing, “are the electronic treadmills,” and demonstrated how one worked. “Push this button and it will start.” He pushed, it started. “This other button,” he continued, “is the speed button. Each time you push this button the mill speed increases.” Phil demonstrated until he was running, what I guessed to be, a sub four minute mile. He then pushed the stop button and dismounted. Dismounted like one of those eighty-five pound Russian girls dismount the balance beam in the Olympics. He stood a moment, as though waiting for us to applaud. We didn’t.
“Okay,” said Phil, “if you want to get on your treadmills…” We got on our treadmills.
“Now,” he said, “let’s start our machines.”
Just like the Indianapolis 500, ‘ladies and gentleman, start your engines.’ We did and the things started at a creep.
“Alright,” Phil instructed, “push the speed button six times. This will give you a brisk walk.”
“Why can’t we just walk around the gym?” the woman in our three person group asked. She was a rather pretty thing. About my age. Looked like Mama Cass. Well, Mama Cass then. Not Mama Cass now. ‘Dream a little dream of me.’
“Because,” Phil, who thought he knew the answer, said. “Look at yourselves. You people have no discipline. That’s why you’re in the shape you’re in. The treadmill won’t let you slack off. I’ll be back in thirty minutes,” and went to join his Chosen People at the other end of the gym.
“What a prick,” the Mama Cass woman said under her breath, as she sped up her treadmill.
My treadmill was sandwiched between her and Dale’s. “Pard’me?” I said, puffing a little.
“Prick! I said what a prick!”
“Name’s Jean. I’m a lawyer and we ought to class action that skinny S.O.B. for defamation.”
“Marion,” I said, now huffing with my puffing. “Nice to meet ya. What you here for?”
Jean punched her off button and stared at me like I was the dumbest thing she’d ever seen.
“Can’t get laid,” she said, punching her machine back on. “Haven’t had any in three years. Guys don’t want to screw fat chicks. So I’ve got to do something about it.”
“How much you gonna drop?” I asked.
“Don’t know. Just enough to get back in the game. How about you?”
“Outside of my doctor’s reason, no reason. But I think I like your reason.”
We were now both huffing and puffing along so the conversation trailed off.
CABLOOM! BLAM! What the… Dale had fallen off his treadmill. Was lying on the floor. Chin bouncing on the rotating track. I reached over and punched the off button on his machine.
“What happened, Dale? You all right?” I said.
“Not sure what happened. Must of got my feet tangled up. I can’t see them you know.”
I did know. Haven’t seen mine in years.
“I’m okay though. Give a hand up will you, Marion?” I helped him up as Jean came over.
“We should sue the manufacturer of this goddamn thing,” she said. “It should have an automatic cutoff or something.”
We all sat down on the edge of Dale’s treadmill and I introduced Jean to Dale. Phil came over, threading his way through the scattered exercise equipment.
“What are you people doing? You have another fifteen minutes,” he said.
“Dale fell,” said Jean.
“Is he alright?”
“Why don’t you ask him? Phil.”
“I’m fine,’ said Dale.
“Well, jump back on, people. Give me fifteen more minutes.” And Phil hurried back to the safety of his now sweaty Beautiful People. We punched our machines on and treadmilled a little slower for the remainder of our time.
“That guy’s a dork,” said Jean.
“Ah, he’s probably okay. Just doesn’t understand fat folks,” I said.
“Yeah, well I’m paying for a service and, fat or not, I’d like a little respect.”
When we finished our treadmilling (rat laps, Jean called them), Phil showed us how to use some of the other equipment. My favorite was the stationary bicycle. Like the treadmill, it teaches a lesson in life. Walk like hell, peddle like hell, and get nowhere.
When we were done with our workouts, Phil told us to grab showers and meet him in the reception area where he would give us our individual nutrition programs.
“I can’t live on this,” Jean said when she read the prescribed menus. “Everything is broccoli or skinless chicken breasts. Is this the best you can do?”
“Well,” said Phil, “as you can see, there’s also two power shakes a day. Quite good when you get used to them. Full of protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can also have all the coffee and tea you wish. See you day after. Same time. Ciao.” And Phil hustled back to the gym.
“Yeah. Ciao,” said Jean. “That’s what I want, chow. You guys wanna get a coffee? I don’t have to be in my office for another couple of hours.” We easily found a coffee shop and settled in.
“Ah, Jean,” said Dale. “I don’t think Phil meant a double latté with whipped cream.”
“You’re missing the point,” I said. “You’re the one who wants to get screwed.”
“And you?” said Jean.
"I just need to get rid of this fat.”
"Me too,” said Dale. “You know I’m only thirty-one and move around like I’m sixty-one. I sell cars for a living. Subarus. Can hardly get my fat ass in those little Jap bastards.”
“Maybe you should consider selling Cadillacs,” said Jean.
“Maybe we should all cut the crap and face it.” Dale said. “We’re unhealthy. You wanna pack it in after the first day, fine by me. I’m sticking. But, damn it; I could use your help. Not having to go it alone. You saw how all the skinny people hang together. Why can’t we?” Dale earnestly looked at us.
“Sorta like the 12 steps,” I said.
“If you wanna look at it that way. Juiceheads meet in church basements, we meet in gyms.”
Jean put down her half finished latté, signaled the waitress, and ordered a cup of black coffee. “Okay,” she said and held her coffee cup as a salute. We clinked cups. “To getting laid,” she said.
“To getting into Subarus,” said Dale.
“To getting back to smoking Camel straights,” I said. DSS
Matt LeShay, 71, of Culebra, Puerto Rico, is a writer whose work has been published in the San Juan Daily Star and Down in the Dirt magazine. He's also been a farmer.
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