Having never managed to keep a short story below 8,000 words before, I took it upon myself to enter this year’s NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I had no expectation of progressing but thought it’d be a good exercise. For Round One the participants were given eight days to write a story with no more than 2,500 words. In addition to the time and word limit, the genre, subject and character would be random along with the distribution of the writers across the forty-eight groups.
After weighing up the possible genres I decided comedy was the least preferable. The literary gods must have been listening because – you guessed it – I got comedy. Doing a competition just for fun is one thing, attempting a clean-cut comedy is another. After five days of ignoring it I sat down and bundled the following words together. I’m not particularly overjoyed with the results but in one of the biggest surprises of the century, it managed to finish fourth in my heat and progress.
Heat 28 – Genre: Comedy; Subject: Unemployment; Character: A Fitness Instructor.
Dale, a former fitness instructor, ponders why he was fired from his last job as he works out in his mother’s basement.
Dale couldn’t help wonder if he followed bad advice based on what seemed to fit at the time. What at first appeared to be breadcrumbs – offhanded remarks, disguised as advice – now dangled the proposition they were just innocent remarks. Working up the type of sweat he used to force upon his old clientele at the gym, life seemed grim. His pectorals heaved, metal clunked as it echoed around his mother’s basement, while thoughts kept persisting on what job he’d get next.
He’d been a fitness instructor. At the time it was a natural fit. During his high school years he was the typical introvert. When his peers laid on the wise cracks he tried to crawl for the shadows. What he couldn’t build up with banter he’d make up with brawn. The obsession with a better body allowed little time for much else. This included girls and grades.
His folks hinted he could follow family members into their respective fields. His father had repeatedly said: “It’s not what you know but who you know.” The usual follow up sentence his father often added was, “Think about what you’re good at and what those in the family can do.”
To Dale these tips were handy pointers from his father, Bob Tasker, a successful accountant. His old man obviously hadn’t wanted to feed the information on a plate but the hint was snatched upon. He could work in the fitness industry. His hobby was keeping in shape; it made sense to extend this to others. And his father, the cheeky scamp, had left the important subtle hint: think about what those in the family can do. Both Dale and his father were good with figures.
It was after starting work for Mr Nobbs at Fitness Forever he realised another important family trait would come in handy. Dale spent his days pushing people beyond their limits, shouting as they endured pain they wanted for psychological pleasure. Metaphorically cracking the whip during one hour sessions as their personal trainer/torturer. Dale’s ability to do this like a seasoned pro probably came from his mother’s genes. She worked as a dominatrix. The main difference was she literally cracked the whip.
Thankfully tucked away in her basement, like he was now, the sounds of her business remained just that – her business. His new role in life was to ensure the clients left on time and his mother was okay. His parents split years ago, Bob Tasker, being good with numbers, reduced the amount of digits that ended up going his wife’s way. Maggie Tasker had been getting her revenge on men ever since.
It was only her son that received the soft touch from her.
Bob never understood why his advice was ignored the first place. He specifically recalled – on numerous occasions – telling Dale to stick to what he’d be able to do, and to get a job through the family. Short of driving him to Uncle Chad’s store, dressing him in the uniform, demonstrating how to stack shelves, there wasn’t much more he could have done.
These thoughts would have devastated Dale, but he would never hear them, to do so would have meant breaking the Tasker family long held tradition of never speaking clearly or directly to one another. It was much safer and politer to live in a world of assumptions and silence.
Continuing his own fitness regime had kept his mind sharp. Well, as sharp as Dale’s would ever be, it was still more like a spoon than a knife. Still, he reasoned if he worked out why he had failed as a personal fitness instructor then he could avoid similar outcomes in the future. To date this in the most logical thought Dale has ever expressed.
It should have been his dream job. Once he started for Mr Nobbs it became apparent that a lad without an imagination struggled to see the pluses. His lack of drive meant Dale never became certified. This lack of qualification was a bonus for Mr Nobbs for the purposes of hiring – Dale could he palmed off with a lower wage – and an aid to firing.
Study was a reminder of the dark days. The high school days. Boys full of bravado, girls with condescending stares. Those same characters had frequented Forever Fitness.
Instead of performing wedgies on underwear, the boys – who hadn’t grown into men, they’d just become bigger boys – pulled their bodies up on frames instead. They dropped testosterone everywhere they walked, it dripped on the bench press, it acted as steam in the sauna after a workout. Dale’s safe haven had been invaded by those he’d tried to escape.
He wondered if the “geeks” from school had made the right call. No former football captain was ruining chess nights or giving scorn during online gaming sessions. They definitely would never enter a comic book convention or Lord of the Rings fancy dress re-enactment.
The nerds had fewer women in tight fitting spandex to look at, Dale thought. This should have been a glimmer of hope, a perk and a pick-me-up. It was not. Dale saw those same mean girls from school now. Except they, unlike their male counterparts, had grown up. They had become bitchy women. They pretend flirted, as if part of an elaborate act Dale couldn’t comprehend, whilst focusing on everything but the simple goals he’d lay out.
They cared little for running times and lifting weights. They seemed preoccupied with their stretch marks, then in a contradiction cooed over the ones Dale had gained across his shoulders and chest from getting ripped too fast. Bob Tasker laughed at how his son never had enough brains to go around and now it seemed he was short on skin too.
The women also found it more important to update social media. Getting fit would be an accidental side effect of what was in reality an exercise in public exposure. Instead of doing the four sets per station Dale gave them, it was four selfies. Rather than risk breaking a sweat, which would be a disaster for the carefully applied make up, it was more pressing to get a shot near the big machines. Later they could pretend they’d used them while acting drained over a coffee. And a cake.
It should have resulted in a fairly easy day. Only a handful of his clients wanted to lose weight or gain definition. The bored housewife majority could have been his brain off hours. Problem was, his brain off hours started when his eyes opened in the morning, only finishing at bedtime.
This lack of foresight gave a rise to Dale aggravating the paying public. Mr Nobbs cared little if the people with gym memberships used the establishment, he cared even less if the ones that paid extra for Dale actually tried in class. Their lack of motivation equalled more cash. If they never won the battle of the bulge then Mr Nobbs would continue to fund the arms race. Complaints that Dale was too strict, too rude, or too insensitive were a problem.
Most of these came about due to misunderstanding. Take Penny Pinnerman, she asked for a simple request, that from his perspective, Dale attempted to stay on top of. She wanted a “Better tone.” Penny Pinnerman thought it wasn’t too big of a task. She was naturally a thin woman, even the smallest lycra shorts had excess material in the bum region, it was as if she’d been stretched on a rack.
Instead she got Dale snapping at her every other sentence. “Watch how you answer me back in that voice,” he’d say. “Enough of whining in that pitch,” he had once snapped. She felt bad telling Mr Nobbs but it got too much.
Dale was dumbfounded when the complaint was read out during his informal warning. He had prided himself on going that extra mile for the customer. He liked to take a holistic view. That was an alien word to Dale, but so was the cause of this complaint.
Mr Nobbs received Dale’s best apology face. Dale left the office more certain than ever that all women were from the same type of high school clique.
Dale was used to the female clients having perverse views of their bodies. “My bum looks massive today,” was a popular one, when in reality their rears didn’t catch the eye quite as much as the flab bubbling over the waistband. Penny’s request was a new take though. She hated her voice, or more exactly, her tone. Well, that’s how Dale perceived her request. So during work outs he’d point out when her nagging got to that grating level that was most unattractive. Was it really his fault if that happened to be every few seconds? People shouldn’t ask for the truth unless they can take it.
Dale placed the dumbbells on the floor, as he did they kicked up some dust, no carpet had ever been laid down here. He flicked off the dance music he always used during workouts and turned the television on.
A daytime chat show host was shouting at a man for not paying his child maintenance money, then shouted at the woman for not knowing if this guy was even the father – DNA tests after the break. He was glad his father never asked for such a test, just in case. Not inheriting his brains was bad enough, zero cash would have been worse.
Dale sat on the exercise bike. A stationary device to reflect how his constant efforts and peddling would get him nowhere. He did this bit of cardio now to keep an eye on the time. The mystery guest in his mother’s bedroom didn’t have long left.
His mind drifted to the formal warning he received. This time Katie Renton, whom everyone cruelly called Cakie Ten-ton. Her request was simple, a reduction in size. Dale thought Cakie, sorry, Katie, need to lose more than just one dress size. She needed to get to a size where dresses were just that – dresses – and not recycled tents and bedspreads.
After one session she lay slumped on the exercise mat after performing three of the most trying and all-consuming sit-ups ever witnessed by mankind. Had she been the first person to attempt them under study conditions sit-ups would have been outlawed on grounds of danger. People would have placed them above anthrax and napalm on a list of things to avoid.
“I’m struggling because of the weight today,” she wheezed.
This irked Dale, “Maybe avoid the snack shop before the session then.” He was perfect when it came to punctuality; the wait today was her rolling in ten minutes late with a ring of cream around her lips. The audacity of some people never failed to surprise.
Mr Nobbs reminded Dale that while it was perfectly acceptable to offer basic dietary advice, pointing out missteps in a derogatory fashion was something that couldn’t go unpunished.
Dale made the situation worse when he said, “That snack bar should be shut. I know it makes money but too many are in there eating.” To Dale it was like having free beer on tap during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
The end of show music made the old TV vibrate and hum; this brought Dale back from his daydream. Maggie should have text by now.
He stopped peddling.
Dale had never been one for dramatics – they took up to much energy, imagination, thought – but this was worrying. His mother stuck rigidly to a system once it was in place. Especially when it was for safety purposes. She couldn’t be killing people in her line of work by accidents and oversights.
He walked slowly to the blaring screen and removed its power. The house was perfectly silent. The niggling voice of doubt pointed out it would be in the basement so he took purposeful steps toward the upstairs entry. The stairs creaked as they absorbed his weight; the door to the main corridor gave a warning groan.
On the other side there was still nothing but silence. Had the client left, his mother would be running hot water for a shower or bath. Had the paying pervert stayed the crack of leather or a howl of pain would be filling the walls. He took the staircase to the upper floor.
At the door of the main bathroom, facing the top of the stairs, Dale saw his mother’s dressing gown. He bounced over the last steps and pushed his way into the room. She was sat on the toilet, lid down, using it as a chair. The gown covered up her work clothes, only her black boots were evident.
“What’s up?” Dale asked.
“I pushed myself too hard today, love,” she said. Her face looked drained as she spoke. In his dressing gown her tired face and messy hair made her look more like an inhabitant of a care home than a mistress.
“Why didn’t you call for me?”
“The client is still her,” she said. “I was only taking a break before getting back to him. Then my chest – don’t worry, it’s passed – but my chest was aching a little.”
“Well you definitely should have called me,” he said with a pained expression. He wondered if he needed to give CPR. He’d seen it performed on a first aid video. It didn’t look like she needed help breathing so they could skip that – thank God, only he knew where that mouth had been today – but a few chest compressions could help.
Or the Heimlich manoeuvre, he’d seen that get people going again, but that was after they’d been gagging and his mother wasn’t. Well, she had been, but he hadn’t seen that, it was minutes before she took a turn for the worst.
“He’s still here,” she said. “The client. You’ll have to untie him.”
“Wow! No way,” he replied.
“Please, love,” she said. “He’s blindfolded, so just unclip one hand and leave the room. He’ll see himself out. I’m not up to anything else today.”
The look on her weathered face pulled on all his compassion. “Okay, you go and get a cup of tea and relax,” he said.
The walk to his mother’s “Workroom” was more nerve wracking than the one he’d taken from the basement. He swung the door open, expecting the seediness to suffocate him. Instead his eyes relayed information that replaced fear with shock, confusion with anger.
Spread star-shaped on the four poster bed, tied at his wrists and ankles, a blindfold covering his eyes with a gag in his mouth, was Mr Nobbs. Dale walked over and unfastened the gag.
Mr Nobbs coughed, spittle landed over his face, and he said: “You had me going. But it was good. A tease is good. Now finish me off.”
As always Dale understood you had to adhere to the wishes of the paying customer. And true to form, his understanding of the context was some way off.