I’m on my knees, sweeping a hand across the floor when my wife says, “You should think a little harder about applying yourself at work.”

In front of me I’ve collected a little pile of hair and dirt, crumbs, pieces of chips. I’m not sure what the next step is here, but I know I’ve got to get it all off of the floor and into the wastebasket.

“If you volunteered to do a little more I bet you could work your way up to being manager. Are you listening to me?”

Carefully I pinch the contents off of the floor into the palm of my hand. “I don’t want to be a manager,” I say.

“Fine,” she says, “At least turn the light off.”

In the morning I walk down to the gym and let myself in by the employee entrance. Clint is already there, wiping down the machines. He’s set out the fresh towels and refilled the spray bottles. I get to work filling the beverage machine, doing inventory, making sure the number of protein shakes matches what we ordered minus what we’ve sold. Right as I’m finishing that task, Clint unlocks the front door and lets the first group of folks in. Morning people, early risers, type-A’s, whathaveyou. After warming up, they get right down to it: 10-mile runs, bench-presses, deadlifts, rowing machines. I stand behind the counter and watch it all unfold. Seven more hours, a thirty minute break, then it’s over.

It happens like this, every day. Clint is always the first one in, taking care of what needs to be done. By the time I arrive, there are only a few chores left to do, then the gym opens. I stand around and fold towels, open or close accounts, hand over protein shakes in exchange for cash or credit. Clint works the floor, taking prospective clients on tours, sets up workout routines or runs paying customers through them, keeping them honest, making them sweat. It’s what Clint’s good at. He looks like he’s good at. He’s got thighs like boulders.

At noon Sarah comes in and we talk while I close out my drawer. Clint tours the facility, examining the machines for defects. He puts plates and barbells back in their respective places, collects errant towels. Now and then he stops to correct someone on their form.

“What do you know about Clint?” Sarah says. She’s like the other women that work here: ropy, taught. She has a BMI lower than most third-world nations.

“Well,” I say, “I know that he drinks a gallon of water every day.”

“Ok, it’s weird that you know that, but think. What do you actually know? Where does he live? How many people are in his family? Does he have a girlfriend or whatever?”

I heft a bottle of post-workout shake. “I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.”

I put my receipts in the safe and pack up to go. As I’m heading out, Sarah asks if I’m going to try to get a workout in. I look wistfully out at the shining equipment, all sitting silent and unused under two dozen flat-screen TVs all playing the same variation of mid-day talk show. Clint is doing elevated sit-ups.

“No,” I say, “I don’t think so.”

On the way back home, I cut through the lot of the apartment building next to ours. It’s mostly students, so sometimes I can score something pretty sweet. This time there’s a bunch of nothing. It’s all bedframes and stained mattresses. Someone’s dumped a collection of already irrelevant business textbooks and self-help books in a pile next to the dumpster, which is full to the brim with even more of that kind of stuff. Sitting on top of all that junk, looking down on me is a cat. It’s wet and dirty, shaking even though it was the middle of the summer. Without thinking through the implications, I scoop it up and take it home.

My wife doesn’t get home until late so I put it in the tub and wash it off. The cat looks even worse wet. It’s a ratty, evil-looking thing, all sad eyes and stringy hair. Luckily, we have a hair dryer. A few minutes later it looks better. I feed it some tuna from a can and put out a little water. I’m surprised it isn’t hungrier. It was probably eating things out there in the dark.

The cat’s pretty calm for a stray. Which means, of course, that it probably isn’t. I take it into the living room and sit it down with me to watch TV. It actually sits down like a person, which is kind of amusing. My wife doesn’t think it’s so funny. When she comes home, she stops short in the doorway and looks at us.

“What is that?” she says.

I look at the cat. The cat looks at me. I look at my wife, “A cat.”

“Yes, but,” she pauses, “why.”

“I found it.”

“What, like, in the house?”

“No, what would a cat be doing in the house?”

“Which is what I’m asking you.”

“It was outside. I gave it bath if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Honestly, yes. That’s what I’m worried about. Also bugs, also diseases, bacteria whathaveyou.”

“They have pills, there are soaps.”

“It may already be too late.”

“Are you suggesting that this cat has already infected us? That it’s very presence has caused some irreparable damage?”

“They carry toxoplasmosis.”

“Are you saying that cats are diseased, intrinsically?”

“I’m saying, what with the living outside, that the vector for this cat to be a carrier is much wider.”

“Is that how vectors work?”

“That cat should sleep in the bathroom tonight.”

Dutifully, I lock it in the bathroom before I go to bed.

No one knew about Clint because he never revealed himself to us. When he spoke it was quietly, slowly, mostly to customers. Even then he preferred showing over telling, the width of his shoulders, the location of his feet. He invited the clients to watch him, to learn from his form, his steady, even reps, balanced sets that worked each muscle group. Clint was a specimen of physical human potential. We all had something to learn.

If none of us spoke to him it wasn’t out of animosity or disinterest, more that none of us could find anything to talk about. We went about our days washing, folding, restocking and he went about his lifting and pressing, cleaning and correcting. Clint was a necessary counter-balance to my own ineptitude.

“I want you to think about something you want,” my wife says.

I am holding the cat down in the tub, trying to apply a foaming gel that is supposed to kill ticks, fleas and other disease carrying parasites without harming my cat’s coat. I have my doubts, so does the cat.

My wife stands outside of the bathroom, still wearing her work clothes. “Why not do something with animals? You love animals.”

The cat lets out a ferocious stream of piss that washes down an arm hashed with claw marks. Each one an open wound, blood seeping out, piss seeping in.

“Shit,” I say. I turn the shower head on and let the water wash over both of us.

“Just put it back outside,” my wife says.

“I can’t,” I say, “it’s already inside.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” she says, storming into the other room. “Nothing with you makes any kind of sense.”

The next day it rains. Everyone stays home except for the dysmorphic and disordered. I look across the gym at Clint. He is spotting someone at the bench press. An unimaginable amount of weight has been loaded onto the bar. It seems like too much for the man on the bench, but Clint just nods sagely and the man brings the bar out of the catch and slowly lowers it towards his chest.

“I’m serious about the Cleveland thing,” my wife says.

I’m scrolling through an online store, not sure what exactly it is I am there to buy. The cat has settled in beside me. The television is on, turned to a home improvement channel. My wife is taking notes. She lets out little sounds of disapproval. Tonight, she mutters, “post-modern garbage.”

“You’re really into Cleveland now,” I say. There’s an auction ending in five hours. The bid is hovering under ten dollars. I put myself on the watchlist and scroll over to something else.

“It’s where this job is—are you listening to me?”

“Ohio era,” I say and scratch absently at my ankle.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

She looks at my ankle, “Is that a welt? Did something bite you?”

I look. She looks. The cat rumbles in self-satisfaction next to me. It looks like a welt. Could be anything. I say that. My wife says it couldn’t be just anything, that it’s likely a flea bite. I appeal to the promises printed on the bottle of foaming gel. The cat’s coat looks clear, clean, healthy. My wife goes into the bathroom and takes a long bath. It sounds like maybe she’s talking to someone in there. While she soaks, I pick up the cat and look closely, trying to find evidence of fleas, chiggers, scabies, rot. I wonder what it would look like, if I could even notice that it was there.

After work, I strip and take a shower. There’s a new welt on my stomach. It’s larger than the one on my ankle, but that’s growing too. I wash carefully and then apply a cold compress while I lay on the couch. I throw on a movie just for noise. I try to think about Cleveland and what my life would be like there. I imagine how flat it is, how wide it is, how excessively normal it is. In my mind it is all white, from horizon to horizon. Even the toast is bland there.

I must doze off because I wake to a barrage of texts, some from Sarah, some from my wife. I open my wife’s texts first. She’s gone to the doctor. Apparently, the welts are the sign of some kind of parasite that lives under your skin. It’s transmitted mostly by mice but also can be picked up by animals that eat mice. Ipso facto.

The cat finds me and I find its food. I boil two hot dogs and eat them wrapped in bread slices. My wife texts me that she’s going to stay at a hotel for the night. I go into the kitchen and get out a beer from the fridge. When I sit down on the couch the cat joins me. I say, “Bachelor era,” even though I don’t think either of us understands what that really means.

Clint knows there’s something wrong before I do. As soon as I come in he stops me and says, “Chores can wait.” He takes me through a basic warm up, one muscle group at a time. We run a half mile, we lift, do a couple of the circuit machines before the early birds start knocking at the door. He goes over and lets them in and we finish our workout. I stink of beer and processed meats. Clint’s not even sweating.

“Take a shower,” he says, “I can handle this.”

The shower is hot. It takes an eternity to finally stop sweating. I dry off with a musty towel. When I step out, there’s a pair of shorts and a t-shirt waiting for me. I put them on and return to the floor. Clint is explaining to a middle-aged woman the differences in our plan tiers, pointing calmly in the tri-fold with a pen, making little marks next to the things he thinks she’ll want to remember. When they’re done I thank him, ask where the clothes came from. He says he always keeps extras. For the rest of the shift we return to our usual habitats: me behind the desk, him in front. I stock and inventory, I open and close accounts, I answer the phone and sign for a delivery. At noon Clint goes into the locker room and comes out with my sweaty clothes in a plastic bag. As I take them he puts his hand on my shoulder, “Your wife is going to leave you,” he says. He’s solemn, serious. Then he turns and goes to the weight rack where a client is waiting for him.

At home I wash my clothes and feed the cat. I take another shower just to stand around in the hot water. The welt on my ankle still looks angry, red. Another has appeared under my arm. I text my wife asking if she’s going to come home but she just says she needs time to think. An hour later she emails me a link to a veterinary school in Ohio. In the email she says that she’s serious about this job in Cleveland, that she’s already written to accept the job, that she hopes I decide to come with her. I write back, “Ohio-pilled, lol,” and then fall asleep on the couch.

Sarah knows that there’s something wrong but she won’t just come out and ask about it. She circles around it, trying to find a way in, but I won’t budge, I won’t open a single inch. We parry and deflect like this until Clint comes over and says, “It’s time.” I go with him out onto the floor and we run through the routine he showed me. Same weights, same sets, same reps. “You’ll get stronger,” he says, “there’s no rush, trust your body. Make incremental gains. You need to be eating. Drink water or coffee. While you’re bulking beer and snacks are ok. We can go over cutting later.”

When I get back to the desk Sarah is staring at me, like I’ve walked on water, like I’ve come back from the dead.

“He spoke to you,” she says, “more than that he—trained you?”

I look across at Clint who’s showing a middle-aged woman how to use the treadmill.

Every night I come home and something else is missing: the toaster, the curtains, the duvet. I know it is my wife, sneaking in and taking things that are hers, that she wants. Soon enough it will just be me and the cat in an empty room. I feed the cat and into the wet food I crush a little pill that’s supposed to kill parasites in three days or my money back. I don’t know how I can tell it’s even working. The cat looks better than when I found it: fat, happy. Its coat is lush and brilliant. When I lay on the couch it sits next to me, thrumming deeply from that infinite space inside of itself. My ankle, however, only worsens. The bottle of pills warn that they are not for human consumption. I wonder. I leave them on the shelf.

Clint and I sink into a rhythm. He talks to me about diet and exercise, my sleep schedule. He never digs further down than the surface. I like to think that’s he’s sparing my feelings. He knows and I know, and that’s enough. Sarah doesn’t like it but she knows not to press too hard. She asks me how I’m doing, if I’ve seen anything on TV lately. Then when I finish closing my drawer, Clint comes over and we wade into the weight room together.

My apartment is empty. My wife has left the television and the couch, a few scattered kitchen supplies. On the day before she disappears for good she leaves me a note. She writes that she’s not mad at me, that she isn’t looking for a divorce just yet. She writes that she wants me to think about what I’m doing with my life. She says that she loves me. She says that she wants me to be happy. I am happy, I think.

The bump on my ankle has begun to leak a white, sticky puss.

When I fail a squat, Clint takes me aside. He interrogates me about how I’ve been eating. He wants to know if I’ve been suffering from bouts of insomnia. I tell him that it’s nothing like that. I tell him about the sore on my ankle. We go into the locker room and he sits me down. Gently, he peels back my sock and then removes the bandage I’ve wrapped around my ankle. My ankle is swollen, purple. Clint frowns and then goes and gets the first aid kit. He takes something out of his locker. We sit together on one of the benches. He takes my foot and places it in his lap. From a place I can’t discern he produces a scalpel. Before I can argue, he lances the sore, pressing with his thumb and finger. Hot white puss flows out, then blood. Clint wipes the wound with a towel and squeezes again. More puss, more blood. Eventually it’s only blood. I am nearly delirious with pain. He asks if I’ve been around any wild animals lately. I tell him about the cat I found.

He frowns, then lifts my ankle to look at it more closely. He makes a noise and then presses his lips to the wound. A chill runs through me. I’m afraid someone is going to walk in and see us like this. Then he sucks, first gently and then with force. When he pulls away, he spits blood into the towel, then gingerly picks at something in the wound. Something like a little bit of string starts to come out, inch after inch until it finally leaves the wound with a little pop. It is the strangest sensation. Clint holds it up to the light. Whatever it is, is white to the point of being clear. The end is bulbous but nearly invisible to the naked eye. He puts it in the towel and douses my leg with antiseptic. I stifle a cry as he bandages the wound with fresh gauze.

“You need to go to the doctor,” he tells me. “You need to ask for an anti-parasitic. For now, take a few weeks off.

The encounter stays with me. I get a sandwich and go home, sit in front of the TV. I’m only half-watching, thinking about Clint, about his mouth against my ankle. I know that I should be thinking about anything else: my marriage, my wife, my career. I get up and go into the bathroom. The cat is sleeping in the sink. My wife has left me with the supplements she’s collected over the years. I take one of each, swallow them dry. Then I go into the kitchen and get the cat’s anti-parasitic and swallow one of the caps. I wash it down with tap water then go lay on the couch again. Soon enough, I feel woozy, nauseous. The cat joins me on the couch and I fall asleep to its insistent, gentle vibration against my side.

When I wake up again the cat is gone. I go into the bathroom, throw up for a few minutes. When I’m done I examine the extruded contents of my stomach. I am not sure but I think that I can see things down there, floating through the half-digested sandwich and bile. Little things, like pieces of string. I flush and rinse my mouth. I’ve made a mistake, I know that much. I don’t even know what time it is. I try to go back to sleep but the apartment is so quiet that I can feel it in my bones. I go from room to room, turning on the lights and looking at the empty space then turning them off, moving to the next room.

I do this three, four times and then I put on my shoes and I go out into the night, trying to shake off whatever it is that’s eating me. Everything’s closed so I go to the only place that I know is going to be open. I let myself in through the employee entrance and go into the locker room and sit and wonder what comes next. I wonder where the cat is. I wonder where all that sound is coming from.

In the weight room I find Clint. He’s putting up serious weight, sweating it a little but not as much as you’d expect. He’s wearing a Walkman. Something is playing at maximum volume. It sounds like someone talking, repeating the same phrase over and over again. He’s muttering along to himself, a zen koan, an affirmation. He’s making deliberate eye contact with himself in the mirror. It looks like he’s practicing for something. When he sees me, he puts down the weights and takes the headphones off.



About the Author

J. Thomas Murphy is a writer from Boston. He tried living somewhere else, he promises. His work has previously appeared in Sundog Lit, Heavy Feather Review, Malarkey, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


Photo by Joseph Buchanan: