On the Preacher Bench

I had decided to walk to the gym that day, and by the time I got there of course it was raining. Hard. I keep a beat-up old fold-away umbrella in my gym bag, but I never use it because, well, real men just don’t use umbrellas. But what the hell, it was a cold, cutting November rain and I was drowning here.

Anyway, when I got there my pant legs and sleeves were soaked through, and the back of my jacket and shirt felt clingy and cold. Don’t you hate that feeling? I mean, why don’t they make umbrellas longer in back or something?

Now, I usually just work out in my street clothes so I can make a quick exit after I finish – don’t much enjoy standing around and chatting while I change, so I get in and out of the place with no fuss. I’m not in the market for a good buddy, and this way I can keep the interaction to a minimum.

So there I was on the preacher bench doing curls when I saw Bernie walk in. Oh Gees, I hope he doesn’t see me. Don’t let him want to talk. But of course he did. Now Bernie isn’t one of those eager puppy types – not quite – but he’s close.

He headed straight toward me. It wasn’t crowded and the lat pull-down to my left was free so he sat down and fiddled with the plates for a bit. Then, as soon as the bar started moving so did his mouth. “So Max, how’s it going, dude?”

You should know one thing about Bernie. He’s always calling other guys dude, but it never sounds quite right, like it’s the first time he’s ever used the word.

“Just countin’ reps, Bernie.”

“Oh yeah, yeah, I see what you mean. Sorry.”

He was quiet for a whole two minutes before he cut in with, “Hey I got a new car, dude. A Lexus. Course it’s used, but it was a hey of a deal. Only twenty-two thousand miles on it. Eleven grand.” He paused to see what I thought. You know how some people, after they tell you something, they’ll tip their head forward slightly and watch you at a slight angle? It’s like they’re peering out from under something. Bernie did that.

And of course it was, as Bernie said, one hey of a deal. I couldn’t help it. I looked over at him and he had this sort of shy smile going. Now any guy who can smile like that while he’s doing pull-downs is special. And I mean that in a less than flattering way.

“Course, my brother-in-law went with me. He’s a hey of a negotiator, Phil is. A lawyer, you know.”

Well, that’s super, Bernie. I’m so happy for you.” I hoped he got the sarcasm.

I stood up, wet slacks still clinging to me, and moved over to do some leg abductor sets. Leg abductor. I’ve always wondered, were these machines designed by aliens? Maybe they don’t need to abduct the whole person anymore – maybe all they need now is the legs.

Anyway, whatever. I was working away and Bernie came over. Just standing there, watching.

“Yeah, Bernie?” I knew as soon as I said it I shoulda kept my mouth shut. My dumbest move of the day. So far.

He gave this mini-squirm, apparently uncertain how to start, then said, “Somebody told me you got married a while back.”

Now he had just hit the one warm spot in my whole otherwise monochrome life. Everything I do, every day I go to work, everything I buy for our home, it’s for Carol. She puts up with my moods, she doesn’t mind the long hours I work, she even gets my sarcastic jokes and laughs at them. Who else in the whole damn world?

I’m smiling and he asks, “So are you two trying to make a baby?”

Oh Jesus H Alverez. Give the guy an inch and he moves into your bedroom. This guy was asking for a good knockin’ back.

“Only tryin’ to make babies with your wife, Bernie, not mine.” That ought to shut him up.

And sure enough, Bernie was suddenly looking teary. His eyes brimmed, almost spilling over. Well, served him right. But I hoped he didn’t start yelling and making a scene. I hadn’t finished my routine yet.

“Are you really?” he asked quietly.

“Aw hey, listen Bernie, I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, it’s okay. I understand.”

Bernie was giving me that shy smile again. A smile? Something was off here.

“Millie’s been wanting a baby for so long, and we’ve tried and tried, but the doctor says I fire mostly blanks. If she could just have a baby it’d be so wonderful …” the rest of it caught in his throat.

In my entire life there have been maybe two or three times when words just weren’t there, when I didn’t have some kind of sarcastic come-back. This was one of those times.

“Look, Max,” he said, “I appreciate your telling me, but I swear I’ll never tell Millie I know. She can keep her surprise a secret. And if, someday, she ever wants to tell me, then that’ll be up to her.”

“Oh man, dude, I – I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean …”

Bernie was still smiling, but something about him had changed. He looked happier and more confident than I’d ever seen him. He turned and headed straight for the locker room.

“Where you goin’ man? You done?”

“Yeah. I gotta go buy Millie some flowers now.”

Gees, I felt rotten. Guy’s happy for his wife to have a baby, no matter how she gets it. And I’d lied to him and got his hopes up. Maybe I should dial back the sarcasm a notch or two in the future. If I could.

I felt sorry for Millie, too. There she was, putting her dreams of a baby in the hands of a eunuch. Then again, what had Bernie said? He only fired blanks most of the time, which must mean that sometimes he didn’t. Maybe he’d accidentally get the job done yet. Sometimes, when a couple couldn’t have a baby, then adopted, sometimes they ended up finally getting pregnant. Like taking the pressure off. Stuff like that happened, right? Sometimes?

Against my will I found myself wishing good things for him and Millie. Me, the original grouch. Who woulda thought it?

Maybe I should take some flowers home, too.

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