There was a guy who brought his laptop to our apartment complex gym. He brought coffee and his newspaper. He answered his cell phone, too, and talked to his mother about her doctor’s appointment and how he was going to take her at eleven. He walked really slowly on the treadmill, and he sat on weight machines without using them. He just, you know, sat on them. I had never said two words to this guy, and yet, I wanted something bad to happen to him.
It took three weeks for me to really get sick of his behavior. I was in the community gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from about 7 to 8 AM, and I was usually alone. Then, this guy showed up, and it all went to hell. I couldn’t focus when someone was talking on a cell phone right next to me. The sound of typing belonged nowhere near a stationary bike. So what the hell was this dude doing in my freakin’ gym?
“I’m going with you tomorrow,” my roommate said the other day.
“You don’t work out,” I replied, emptying groceries onto our kitchen counter—bananas, yogurt, sliced smoked turkey breast.
“I wanna see this guy.”
“Why?” I said, brandishing an artichoke.
“I bet he’s cute. That’s why you can’t stop talking about him.”
“He’s not cute,” I said.
In fact, the offender was middle-aged with dark brown hair and a tall, shiny forehead, over dark eyes and bushy eyebrows. He had skinny chicken legs that were blindingly white beneath the fluorescent lights in the community gym, and the skin on his upper arms flapped like poultry fat. He was not “cute,” and I imagined he wore tiny, wire-rim glasses when he wasn’t spending his time annoying me.
The day after the conversation in the kitchen, my roommate did, in fact, accompany me to the gym. From what I knew of Nicole, she’d only seen the inside of a gym via her television. She was a trim girl, but it was because of her diet—not her effort. She ate like a bird. She drank diet soda and red wine. She did not jog around the block, and she’d only taken the garbage to the dumpster once.
I was surprised that the stranger had beaten us there, because it was only 6:55 AM, and he didn’t usually show up until the first commercial break of The Today Show. He was on the stationary bike, and he had that God-forsaken cell phone to his ear.
“I know, Mother,” he said, and Nicole froze in the gym entrance.
She glanced over at me, and I nodded. The moment felt serious—like we were some hot chicks in a James Bond flick. Nicole nodded back, and we climbed on adjacent treadmills.
“I know you like Audrey Hepburn,” he continued, and I barely noticed that Nicole didn’t know how to start the treadmill. She had to poke me in the shoulder before I turned to her machine and pressed Start. I listened to that man I hated, ten feet from me, and I heard every word. I realized his mother must have been hard of hearing, as he raised his voice. “Dad always liked Doris Day!”
Nicole looked at me. She reminded me of my five-year-old cousin the time I tried to explain football at Thanksgiving. Nicole didn’t know what he was talking about. She had once confused Jim Henson with Jimi Hendrix. For years, she assumed “Purple Haze” was just another Muppet.
“Mom, I have to go. I’m at the gymnasium.” He hung up, and for the first time since I’d seen the guy, he turned to me and said, “Sorry. It’s my mother. She’s very sick.”
“Oh. Sorry!” Nicole said. She lost her footing, and I had to hold onto her elbow to keep her from doing a face plant.
Which was when I felt guilty, because for three weeks, I’d wanted something bad to happen to the man with the skinny chicken legs.
We all have those homicidal moments, don’t we?
Picture it: you’re on your personal treadmill. The guy next to you is running, eight or nine miles per hour. You can smell his sweat on sticky skin. The doomp-doomp-doomp of his sneakers rattles your brain, and for a second, you think, What if I just pushed? You can see it in your brain, too—the guy falls backwards. Maybe his feet go out from under him, his face falls first, and that eight MPH treadmill grates the side of his face off.
I’d been wishing such a fate on the poor innocent guy with a sick mother!
I was a monster!
Nicole felt the same way that day, because that night, we didn’t talk much at home. She ate cheese and crackers, and I considered nice things I could do for chicken legs. Maybe I could bake cookies? Offer to bring dinner to his mother one night? Something.
When the cops showed up a couple days later, we were confused. We lived in a nice neighborhood in a nice community with a nice gymnasium. What were the cops doing there? It happened when I got home from work. Nicole was already standing outside, hovering over the yellow “Caution” tape, surrounded by a dozen of our neighbors.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She had her arms wrapped around herself, like she was cold, even though it was seventy degrees. She looked up at me, and I knew something was wrong. “You know that guy from the gym? They think he murdered his mother.”
“Yeah, like, a month ago. The neighbors called the cops because of the smell.”
“So that’s why he was hanging out in the gym…”
“Okay, but who was he talking to? On his phone all the time?”
I shrugged. “He did look kind of like Norman Bates.”
“Who?” Nicole asked. I didn’t feel guilty anymore.
(I wrote “Something Bad” for a flash fiction contest last week, in homage to my old Charleston, SC, gym, where this skinny fellow really does exist…although I can’t say I’m sure about the whole matricide thing. I am in Phoenix now, but I’m not ready to write about it yet. “Phoenix Rising” will begin soon enough. I gotta get used to these cactus things first. Be back soon.)