Fibularis longus. Flexor carpi radialis. Obliquus extemus abdominis. Roget let his eyes wander the muscle chart for a few seconds more as he filled his lungs. That was as long as he’d pause, though, just until he could catch his breath, and no longer. He’d learned that rule from Arnold Schwartzenegger in an article for Muscle and Fitness magazine, must be twenty years ago. Was that possible? Two whole decades of huffing and puffing? It was, he realized; he’d been at it since he was seventeen.
His gaze shifted to the figure in the mirror. It was a sight that still amazed him: alpha male, afire. Ripped and sleek and seething with vigor; muscles pumped to the max, beads of perspiration catching the light like gemstones before streaming down between glorious hillocks of sculpted flesh. It was a monster, a golem, a mythical being sprung to life that glowered back at him, the gray eyes wild and dangerous and preternaturally alert. But they were his eyes, and it was his flesh gleaming above the cut-off Levis. Not some twenty-something model from a Gold’s Gym ad, but him, Roget Carpenter (Rodger to his friends), a real-life husband and hardware store co-owner, with a modest home and modest prospects—and ulcers and hernias and arthritis of the spine.
But in spite of all that he could still get it done, still crank out his arduous, forced-march routine. And when he did work out with the heavy steel (forty-pound dumbbells, in the same range that Arnold used himself), he would still be rewarded with that mystical cocktail: adrenalin for energy and endorphins for pain, Nature’s speedball. It was the perfect antidote to every ill, to fear and sorrow and physical distress. And it was addictive. He wondered about that sometimes, about just how much of his drive to stay strong came from good moral character, and how much from the base cravings of a junkie—
“Rodger?” Deidre called up the stairs. “Are you almost done? We’ve got to be at Mike’s by three o’clock.”
“Ten more minutes.”
Next came lateral raises, the final movement in his thrice-a-week drill. Seven exercises, three sets each, fifteen reps per set for a total of twenty-five thousand pounds—or six times the weight of his Cherokee. He turned to the metal folding chairs, four of them, cheek by jowl, with figure-eight dumbbells ascending in mass from left to right. Squaring off before the largest, he bent his knees, took hold of their knurled grip-bars, straightened up again holding the load and—blasting the air from his lungs like a ninja—heaved those suckers into the void.
* * *
“I can’t fathom not having a barbecue,” said King. “We’d starve without ours in the summertime.” He forked a steak from the hot metal grid, gave it a balletic twist and slapped it down again—tattooing Roget’s polo shirt with droplets of reddish fat, like a rake of machine-gun fire. “Oh. Sorry about that, Rodg,” he chuckled, his own apron immaculate as always.
Roget had an urge to smash the beer bottle he held on the jolly man’s forehead. “That’s quite alright, Myron,” he said instead. King hated his given name, he knew, almost as much as he did his own, a burden he’d borne stoically for the first few years of life. Then, in the fifth grade, when a substitute teacher had providentially misread ‘Rodger’ from the class attendance sheet, he was exultant. Rodger it was from thereon in, and woe to those who bucked the change. Being kids, these were many, and Roget had dispensed countless noogies and purple hermans before himself being corrected by Quentin, the school bully, who had folded his nose flat with a roundhouse punch. Scar tissue had impeded a proper healing, and the tuberous end product did nothing to enhance an already wobbly self-image.
That assignment was left to future wife Deidre, a dark Irish stunner met at his high-school reunion. She had arrived on the arm of Lloyd Cardigan, erstwhile valedictorian and dick, and present-day investment banker and dick, who excelled at commodity pricing, but not in holding onto a date. Later, as their chatter grew animated over Löwenbräu at Franzl’s, Roget had learned of her passion for Béarnaise sauce and Woody Allen movies, already in deep for a guy with no intention of getting snagged. When it was his turn for disclosure, he’d blathered on about his four years of beer-pong (or rather, liberal arts education) at Oneonta, and the string of horizon-narrowing jobs he’d held since, from taxi driver and tree surgeon, to his then-current clerkdom at Kellogg’s Hardware Store. Eventually they’d come round to that most dreaded of all topics: the nose, which she had described as irresistible—his best feature even—and dubbed him her pug puppy. Little did he know that this astonishing, frog-to-prince conversion was only the first in a conga line of motivating factors which, over the coming weeks, would lead to a total reversal of strategy, from one of nonentanglement, to that of forming a bond so ironclad, bulletprood and fire retardant as to last a lifetime.
He looked up at her now on the deck, the emerald-eyed beauty who had wrought this sea change, where she sat beside King’s wife Jane, and found her to be tendering him a tender smile. Or no, it wasn’t tendered to him, exactly, but rather to Myron—master chef and self-proclaimed King of Real Estate (as the billboards blared)—who’d given her her first real job at the age of thirty-one, as well as an oak-veneered desk fronting his own. Myron glanced at him then and noted his expression, and the grin on the royal kisser vanished like a shooting star. That made Roget smile in turn.
* * *
“Are you sure you won’t have more, Rodger?” Jane was the complete antithesis of her husband: short and stout to his towering gauntness; gracious and mannered to his obnoxious bluster; warm and sincere against his self-serving guile. She wore her blonde hair in a pageboy, and was cute in a teddy-bearish sort of way.
“No, thanks. A great meal, though, especially your potato salad.” He could have eaten five times as much steak, but he refused to give King the satisfaction. Not that he would have noticed. Sitting opposite them at the glass-topped table, he was clearly more interested in Deidre’s bust. Roget could hardly blame the buzzard; for a woman as well-endowed as she was, that stretchy fabric was way too revealing…
“We understand you’ve become a partner at Kellogg’s,” said Jane.
“That’s right. Bought in with Mack last April. Figured I spend all my time there anyway; might as well get a piece of the action.”
Deidre was twirling the hair on his forearm. “Mr. Kellogg says that when he retires next year, he’ll sell Rodger his end of the business too.”
“That’ll make you the Hardware King of Briarwood,” quipped Myron, baring his fangs.
“If you don’t count Sears.”
“I don’t, believe me. Oh, I’ll stop in there for odds and ends, but for anything substantial, it’s Kellogg’s every time.”
“And we appreciate that, Mike.”
A cell phone chimed in. “Sorry,” said Deidre, heading away to her pocketbook on the chaise lounge. “I hate it when people’s phones ring during meals.”
“It’s nothing,” Jane told her. “Everyone’s finished anyhow.”
Their host propped elbows on the glass. “You know, Rodg, your wife’s quite the saleswoman.”
Roget zeroed in on the A.1.Sauce in preference to King’s face. A fly on the cap was grooming itself with a hind leg, like a cat. “She sure can talk me into anything.”
“No, I mean it. She’s a natural. I’m surprised she didn’t come into the game sooner.”
“We’ve done pretty well on my salary, Mike. To be honest with you, I’m not big on her working full time. I’m kind of old-fashioned that way.”
“I get it, Rodg. But that’s what’s neat about the real estate racket. It’s got sort of a part-time sense to it. You’re not stuck in the office all that much. And really, with the devices we have these days, you don’t have to be there at all. You can work out of your garage if you want to.”
“Or out of the desk across from yours.” He looked up at King, who began to fidget.
“Well, she has to learn the ropes first, of course.”
“Of course. Getting there is half the fun.”
Deidre skipped across the planks to her chair. “They’ve accepted,” she reported excitedly.
“Which?” asked Myron.
“The Henleys. They took that last offer.”
“That’s great!” exclaimed the boss, leaping to his feet. He came around the table to give her a big hug. Roget looked to Jane questioningly.
“I guess she’s made a sale.”
“A sale?” said King. “Henley Farm’s a dozen acres. It’s the golden egg! Let’s see now…” He straightened up for calculations, leaving a hand reposed on her shoulder. “That’ll be four points, split with the buyer’s agent, minus the office percentage, should leave you about, oh…nine and a half for commission.”
Roget was flabbergasted. “You get nine hundred and fifty dollars for making one sale?”
Myron snorted. “She gets nine thousand, five hundred dollars for making one sale, kiddo.” Now they were hugging again, and Roget wondered, ridiculously, if he might pry his way in there somehow.
* * *
Deidre sprayed Pledge on the dolphin figurine, wiped it with a dustcloth and set it down again. “Well you don’t seem very happy about it. It’s only the most important thing I’ve ever accomplished.”
Across the living room, Roget’s forearm burned like he’d sloshed acid over it. He swapped the spring-loaded grip strengthener to his other hand. “And all this time I thought it was our marriage.”
“That’s not what I meant, Rodger, and you know it.” She tossed some magazines onto the couch, and attacked the coffee table with long, arcing swipes. “It’s like you feel threatened or something. That I’m making money.”
Retreating to the kitchen, her husband glared out at the bird feeder, where a pair of cardinals perched side-by-side like a dinner date. “Threatened?” he cackled with a stage laugh. “Why on earth would I feel threatened?” Darn right he felt threatened. Ten thousand dollars! That was as much as he made in two months! Soon her income would exceed his own, and what would his role be then? Deputy breadwinner?
His reflection weighed in from the microwave: Don’t be a fool, Rodger. This is Deidre you’re talking about. What difference does it make who earns more money? You respect each other, and that’s all that matters. And worrying about Myron King, man, even dumber. He has all the appeal of a used-car salesman. Besides, she would never cheat on you in a million years, you know that. Give her some credit, why don’t you?
Properly chastised, he slunk back to the living room. Deidre was pulling books from the bookcase and scrubbing in the gaps like there was a pox loose in the house.
“Congratulations, babe. I’m proud of you. Honest. Sorry I was such a mope before. Can you forgive me?” She glanced at him, dusted, glanced again. Then she was in his arms, the smell of lemon like an exotic perfume.
“Oh, Rodger, I can’t stand it when we fight. The thing is—” (pause, sniffle) “—if I can
make a little money now, you know, with you a partner in the store and all, maybe we can get another place. With a bigger yard. In case we need one.”
“Sure we can, angel.” But even as he spoke, he felt himself deflating. It was a baby she was hinting at, little Jessie or Ralph.
Like so many couples before them, they had waited for the time to be ‘right’ for a child, but a year had become three when Deidre put her foot down. “I’m getting pregnant,” she’d announced one morning, leading him away to begin the quest. Eight months had elapsed since then without results. The experts claimed there was nothing wrong with either of them, but with Jules, his older brother, a single artist in Chicago, and both of her sisters having two nippers each, the vane of implication seemed to drift his way.
* * *
Roget lay in bed ruminating, wishing he wouldn’t but unable to pull the plug. Negative verities arrived in sequence like cards in a draw poker hand that grew only worse. He was a dud, a failure, a hardware store second-banana who would never amount to a pouch-full of pop rivets. And he was over the hump; it was too late to turn back, to take that other fork in the road. He had ulcers that bloomed like popcorn, hernias he extruded like a hen laid eggs (he’d thought that a man could only get two hernias until a third had developed, and the surgeon explained that there was really no limit if you were so disposed). Then an x-ray had turned his backache into sacroiliitis—arthritis of the sacrum—who the heck got that? Another booby prize for the unbelievable effort he’d made to stay strong, in spite of everything: his age, the pain, and all his conditions, including the one that he kept from his wife…
She came out of the bathroom now, powdered and fragrant and slinking his way. Oh, no, he thought, not tonight, not in the mood he was in. But he couldn’t reject her advances after what had gone down this afternoon. So he went through the motions as best he could, but it was no good. And in the end, when they’d separated with twin sighs of frustration, he settled in for a long and bitter review of those cards.
* * *
“You’re sure you don’t mind, Mack?”
The old man was hanging barrel bolts on a peg hook. “You don’t need my O.K. to take a long lunch, Rodg. You’re an owner now, remember? Just like me.” He narrowed his eyes teasingly behind the Coke-bottle lenses. “But I might ask for the favor returned one day.” Then they bumped fists, a habit which Kellog had copied from the teenagers who gathered in front of the store. The sight would have sent their cashier into hysterics, except that Amber was out there with the rest of them, smoking cigarettes.
Roget entered the little rear office. As he grabbed the telephone and pressed buttons, he was feeling better and better about his plan. Taking Deidre to the Wheelhouse for lunch was an inspiration. Not only would she be surprised (the most expensive restaurant in town being normally off limits), but it offered a nice, romantic setting, and maybe after a glass or two of wine, they could—
“King Realty. Caitlyn speaking. How may I help you?”
“Deidre Carpenter, please.”
“Certainly. One moment.”
Roget would have said, ‘thanks,’ but he was already listening to Barry Manilow. He surveyed the room impatiently, lighting on the photo of his bikini-clad wife. As always, the sight evoked a slew of memories—
“I’m sorry. Ms. Carpenter’s gone for the day. May I take a message?”
There was a pause. “For the day?”
“Yes, that’s right. May I take a message?”
“Uh, no, thank you.” He hung up the receiver, picked it up again and dialed the house. Maybe she was sick…but there was no answer. He thought of her cell then, but the number was in his own phone—currently at home on the charger. He could call Caitlyn back and get it, but he wasn’t going to do that. She was probably showing a house or something; he didn’t want to be a nag. They’d just go out to dinner instead. Sure, that was even better. He’d make the reservations now, then whisk her away in a secretive rush the moment she came in the door. And flowers, of course. A dozen roses…
He was threading his way through a knot of highschoolers when Amber stopped him. “Don’t say hello, Rodger.” Their cashier was eighteen and striking, with long straight hair the color of her name, and a figure that turned every man’s head except for Mack Kellogg, who was beyond the age of caring, or perhaps even more nearsighted than the glasses would suggest. That she found her younger boss attractive was no secret: Amber was a girl who liked muscle. And while Roget was five-foot eight and surely no Adonis, he was constructed like a brick outhouse. You might have to look twice to notice, however—he wore his clothes loose and did nothing whatsoever to show off the brawn. Amber was a girl who looked twice.
Nodding toward her cigarette, he asked, “Can I have a drag of that?”
“You want a drag of my cigarette?” She glanced at her anorexic girlfriend and the gangling boy with the triple-pierced eyebrow. Then she took a slow, sexy draw before removing the thng from her lips, reversing the business end and proffering it to the boss. Roget took it from her carefully, dropped it to the sidewalk, and ground it out beneath a boot.
“You shouldn’t be smoking, you know. A healthy girl like you.”
That earned him a grin. “That’s the closest you’ve ever come to paying me a
compliment, Rodger Carpenter. So. You think I’m…healthy, huh?”
Roget simply smiled. Now the boy at her side, not smiling, produced a pack of smokes, shook one loose and offered it to her, a defiant glare on the intruder. Roget couldn’t resist. He made a feint with his hand, and the kid recoiled like he’d touched a live wire. Everybody laughed.
“Aw, he won’t hurt you, Kurt,” said Amber. “Rodger’s a pussycat.” Roget had started away. “So when are you gonna show me, huh, Boss?” (He had admitted in a weak moment to once having split a shirtsleeve with a biceps flex, and she’d been after him to do it for her ever since.)
“Get Kurt to show you,” he said over his shoulder.
* * *
Roget paid for the hot dogs, and carried his lunch to the hood of the Jeep. It was a fine spring day, clear and blue, with just enough froth overhead to be pictaresque. Cottonwood seeds drifted by lazily, like bits of the cloud that had fallen to earth. To the west, he looked over the development rising in the valley. There had to be thirty houses down there in various states of completion. That meant trade, and lots of it. New homeowners needed everything: tools, paint, garden supplies—all to be had with a smile and a handshake from Kellogg’s Hardware, The End of the Rainbow in Home Improvement. He thought of the old man in his L.L. Bean flannel, appearing in those cable ads they’d purchased. You couldn’t have cast a better spokesman.
It was definitely the right decision to buy in when he did. Sure, cash would be tight for a while, but with the extra money that Deidre was making, they’d be fine. It was lucky she had the job, he could see that now. Funny how things worked out sometimes…
* * *
“It’s such a pleasure to finally get you here. I’d almost given up trying.”
“Well, I wanted to talk to you anyway, Mike, about—”
“Not business,” said King, flashing a palm. “Today, shop-talk is verboten.”
Deidre returned his smile weakly, letting her eyes wander the dining room. In that interval of inattention, King reached out to cover her hand with his own.
* * *
Roget was daydreaming when the light changed, and the horn behind him came as a jolt. Everybody’s in a hurry, he fumed, looking daggers at the rearview as he gunned his way through the intersection. A sign flew by that seemed relevant, but it wasn’t until a block later that he remembered why. Making a quick U-turn through the Mobil station, he doubled back to The Wheelhouse.
Seven o’clock, he was thinking as he cut the engine. That should give them plenty of time to—wait. Wasn’t that Deidre’s Hyundai over there? And the Lexus. That was King’s car. He didn’t know they ate here; she certainly never mentioned it. He slid out of the Cherokee, closing the door distractedly so that only the first latch clicked into place. A voice was playing in his head: I’m sorry. Ms. Carpenter’s gone for the day.
To a fancy lunch with Myron King. And afterward…
Whoa, there, champ, stay on the rails. So, what if she is dining with the boss? What does that prove? They have to eat somewhere, right? The thing to do now is go back to work, and see her at home later like you were never here, like nothing’s happened. Because nothing has happened, he reminded himself—and then he saw the windows. Portholes, actually, studding the wall of the restaurant, six feet up. From that one there behind the hemlock, he’d be able to see the whole—
Yeah, that’s right, spy on your wife. The stuff that lasting relationships are made of. He turned away slowly, feeling small and shameful, only to find himself ogling the pair of vehicles side by side…
* * *
They weren’t in there, he concluded, peering furtively through the glass. Maybe they’d only come here to meet someone, a buyer, or another agent. Sure, that made sense. The restaurant was a landmark; people met here all the time. He was smirking at his own silliness when he discovered the crescent curve of table directly below his vantage point. When he inched higher on the hemlock branch that held him for a better view, Myron King leapt into frame like an ogre lurching from the shadows: his hair slicked back, an evil grin on his puss, one suit-coated arm splayed across the tablecloth, its hand embracing…
Roget fell to the pachysandra, sprang back up like a Jack-in-the-box and stumbled over the edging along the walk. A couple leaving the restaurant viewed him warily, like a drunk encountered in the street.
“My wife,” he blurted with a cryptic gesture.
“Excuse me?” said the woman, but he was already jogging away.
* * *
Nobody honked this time at the light, because he never slowed down. A chorus of screeching tires went unheeded. His thoughts were the shards of a nightmare: scenes of his wife and that—that dirtbag, alone and intimate—how many times? Then, in defense of itself, his mind would zoom the other way: No, man, you’re wrong. It’s not what it seems. She wouldn’t betray you— But she would, she did, he’d seen it with his own two eyes, for Pete’s sake! And what does he do now? Go home for the baseball bat? For the shotgun? Hey, come on, that’s looney tunes. Got to think clearly, got to stay calm. His hands opened and closed on the steering wheel, gripping it unconsciously ever tighter, pushing and pulling the ring of plastic-coated steel until his forearms were swollen and taut as a drum, and then his biceps and triceps and delts and traps, until the wheel itself was bending ever so slightly as it yielded to the tremendous torque he was applying to it. He kept on toward the hardware store, because he had to tell Mack he was leaving—for the day. Mr. Carpenter’s gone for the day. He had to go home, had to—work out. Yeah, that’s what he needed, a good, hard, heavy lift to clear this ugly crap from his mind…
* * *
The door flew open with a tinkle of sleigh bells. At the register, Amber watched her boss advance along the center aisle, appearing and disappearing behind the stacks of merchandise. He seemed different somehow, his step longer and his shoulders set and the clack of his boots sharper than normal. It wasn’t until the customer in front of her had cleared his throat that she remembered he was even there.
Kellogg looked up from the ledger book as Roget entered the office. “You’re back early. We didn’t expect—”
“Going home, Mack. Got a problem I have to take care of.”
The old man swiveled in his chair. “O.K., Rodg. Whatever you need. Something to do with the flowers?”
His partner regarded the cluster he held like he’d never seen it before. “Yeah, could be,” he said, and dropped it in the trash. Then he was gone.
Amber glanced up from the mailbox letters she was counting. “Don’t say hello, Rodger.” He wheeled on her so abruptly that she, Kurt (skulking behind the key machine), and even the people on line all flinched together. He stood there staring at her, and she realized that she’d lost count of the letters and tried to start again, but it was no use. Then he came forward to loom behind the man she was helping, and a smile formed—friendly, but weird—and next he had hold of the man’s shoulders (a much bigger man than he was) and was shunting him aside like a toddler. “Pardon me, sir,” he said. “Amber, grab me a Pinky from the box there, would you please?” Blushing nervously, she handed him one of the pink rubber balls.
He began to squeeze it. Slowly at first, then faster and faster. His breath became audible in little puffs as the effort he was making ramped upward. A minute passed, then another, and still he bore down mercilessly, as if he were trying to hurt the thing, make it cry out for mercy. Nobody else had moved an inch. From the corner of her eye, Amber saw Mr. Kellogg appear like an apparition in the office doorway, observing in silence like the rest of them.
Suddenly, Rodger whipped the ball sidearm to Kurt. He banged his elbow down on the countertop as if challenging her to an arm wrestle. Her eyes fell to a movement beneath his shirtsleeve as he flexed the pumped-up biceps of his right arm. A sound like a low growl escaped him then, and the cloth began to tear above a rising mound of naked flesh. Somebody gasped. Amber looked up in time to see the light go out in his eyes like a fire quenched with ice water. Then he spun on his heels and headed for the street.
* * *
“Listen, Dee, I thought we had an understanding here.”
Deidre disinterred her hand. “No, Mike, you had an understanding. Let’s not confuse the issue. I never had the slightest intention of—anything beyond work.”
“No? You could have fooled me.” He gave her a smirk, then took up his wine glass and glug-glugged the contents.
“I’m sorry if you think I misled you. You’ve been so good to me these last few months, all the time you’ve spent, all the training. But, as for us, I mean, you and me—” She lifted a fork, prodded swordfish, put it down again. “I’m sorry. What am I saying? I’m not sorry. Why should I be sorry? I love my husband. It’s as simple as that.”
The king’s radiance had faded to moonglow. “Well,” he said, forcing a grin, “no harm in a man trying. At least I’ll still have the pleasure of your company at the office.”
“I’m afraid you won’t. I’ve decided to quit selling real estate. At least for the time being.”
“Things have changed. I gave myself a test this morning—”
“That’s right. And I’ve decided we don’t need a bigger yard. Not yet, anyway.”
“A bigger yard.”
She looked away from him. “And I want Rodger to be happy right now. That’s very important to me.” Resolve had settled in the pretty green eyes.
Mustering a bit of his own resolve, Myron raised a finger. “Waiter!”
* * *
Latissimus dorsi. Adductor magnus. Vastus lateralis. Clanging the forties’ onto the chair, Roget swung to his reflection. He was crimson and heaving and drenched with sweat, the eyes glowering and feral like a cornered rat. Reaching for the dumbbells, he checked himself. Catch your breath, brother; never start in again until you’ve got your wind. He was pushing too hard. He filled his lungs to capacity from bottom to top, and held the air: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, then exhaled with the same, two-step process. The power was starting to come at last, his metabolism notching up, flooding the brain with glucose and adrenalin for that high-octane kick that made every little thing alright again.
Except now. Now was different. Now the enemy was horrendous, invincible, too much to overcome. The instant he released the weights the picture was back in his head: the two of them holding hands, and then the rest of it, ghastly, on an endless loop that grew hotter and hotter until it seared him all over like a steak on the grill.
* * *
“Mack?” called Amber. “A man needs help with the…router blades.”
“Be right with you.” Old man Kellogg arose creakily (but gratefully) from the office desk. Balancing the ledger was not his favorite activity, and any excuse to abandon it was welcome. Young Carpenter, on the other hand, seemed to relish the task; what an asset he’d been in these last few years. Good with the books, patient with the customers, and rugged as all of their stockboys put together. Quite a show he’d put on earlier; good gracious, never seen anything quite like that before.
His eyes found the snapshot of Rodger and his wife on the corkboard. From their honeymoon in Nassau: matching bathing suits, sugary-white sand, the ocean that shade of turquoise you see only in postcards—
“I’m coming,” he said, a tad crossly for him, just as the phone rang. He snatched up the receiver. It was none other than the girl in the photograph, and he softened his voice. “Rodger? Why, no, dear. He’s gone for the day.”
“For the day? Are you sure, Mack?” Deidre stood in a recess off the lobby. As she spoke, Myron King stumbled past her and continued out the door.
“Oh, yes. Said that he had—” He noticed the roses then, and thought to be circumspect; there could be trouble in paradise. “You should catch him at home if you try there now,” he suggested. Surely that was harmless enough.
“I’ll do that, Mack. Thanks.” She broke the connection and pressed speed-dial, then changed her mind and snapped the phone shut. The house was only a few minutes away. Why not just surprise him?
* * *
Roget didn’t use a bench. He performed every movement on his feet, finding the
balance, forcing involvement from his back and legs. Seven exercises, three sets each, fifteen reps per set. Deliberate, calculated, always the same.
Except this time. This time, the inconceivable had happened: he’d lost count. He knew he’d blown by his regular workout, and fast. Fast wasn’t good; you had to give the body time to acclimate, to infuse itself with fuel and oxygen. But he didn’t care. He was desperate. For the solace, for the endorphins, for the peace of mind. Lifting would make this storm recede, would make things right and sane again, as it always did.
Until now. Now when it mattered the most. Now when things were bad, truly bad, worse even than the afternoon he’d picked up his brother’s wimpy ten-pounders after piling up Dad’s Mustang; worse than the time he was busted with hash at the Rec Center, or cut from the varsity football squad, when the EKG had scribbled its seismic bombshell, and the doctor had told him about his heart, that there was a problem with one of the chambers, that a heavy sport like football was out of the question, was as good as a death sentence for Roget Carpenter. This was worse than any of that stuff, and yet now, today, when he needed it most of all, more than ever before in his whole rotten life, it just wasn’t happening.
He couldn’t lose Deidre; Deidre was hope and joy and sanity; Deidre was everything. He looked again at the image in the glass, and saw not a fearsome creature awash in strength, but a middle aged cuckold with a knot for a nose and a trembling lip. Portrait of a loser, if ever there was one…
A primal scream tore from his lungs, so loud that he didn’t hear the car in the driveway; so fierce that his throat came alive with pain. He seized the dumbbells from the chair recklessly, his shoulders popping in their sockets and jabs of fire exploding in his back. He yanked one block of steel to his breast, and then the other—
* * *
She hadn’t gone ten feet when she heard it: a resonant couplet from inside the house. Boom-boom. Heavy objects hitting the floor.
A trail formed behind her as she ran: compact, checkbook, lipstick, phone. The keys were in her hand, thank goodness, though when she reached the front door, it was ajar. “Rodger!” she shouted, but there was no reply, and suddenly climbing the stairs seemed an enormous undertaking, like scaling a mountainside. But her legs pistoned beneath her and the steps fell away, and then she was on the landing, scrabbling at the knob and flinging the door wide to reveal her husband: down on his knees and purple with agony, his hands clenched to his chest—
“Rodger!” She gasped as she crossed the room. “Rodger, what is it? What’s happened? Should I call an ambulance?”
An enternity passed before the words came. “Hit myself…with the weight…think I broke some ribs…”
“What? You what?” But then the emotion overtook her, and she was sobbing.
Or no—she was laughing! Laughing for joy! “You silly daddy,” she managed, and then she was gone again, uncontrollable. Because ribs were nothing. Ribs would heal.
And the look on his face was priceless.