Scrawny old Walt knows just enough about everybody in this supermarket-sized gym (indeed, it was once a Von’s) to make a busybody like myself utterly happy. Walt is the kind of geezer who is not afraid to engage a stranger, instead of muffling himself in headphones and ignoring everybody as he suffers in solitary drudgery—like the robots on the bank of stationary bikes up front under the bank of TVs, and two rows of Nordic Tracks behind them, and the treadmills in the back.
Walt and I are off to the side, up near the front desk, separated from this rabble by a few Nautilus machines. Walt and I have a choice view of all those on the aerobic machines and the other larger cluster of very busy Nautilus machines in front of them, leading to the weight room and the glassed-in wooden-floored workout room where mostly women participate in yoga, Zumba, Pilates and spirited combat involving a mixture of judo chops, kicks and jabs and hooks.
I first encountered Walt when he wandered over as I pumped away and worked on the LA Times Sunday crossword, and said, “I know a good barber. He’s good and pretty cheap.”
I was taken aback. “I don’t need a barber,” I rejoined. “I’ve had my own hair stylist for almost fifteen years.” Truth is, I hadn’t had a haircut in about 15 months.
Walt sports a carefully trimmed white goatee and has white hair shooting out from under a ball cap. He asked, “How much you pay for a haircut?”
“Well,” I said. “I pay a lot, because I only go in every six months or so, sometimes longer, like now.” My hair was so long and unruly at this point that I did nothing with it when I awakened mornings with strands caught in my teeth, and just swiped at it to form it into some semblance of shape. My woman had been frantically urging me to get it cut for months. Truth is, I was sick of it. Also, I shave every four or five days. Why should I shave every day? I’m retired and hate shaving.
“I pay thirteen dollars for my haircut,” Walt informed me. “And he does a good job. Do you want me to write down the address and phone number, so you can make an appointment?”
“No, I don’t. The lady I go to is the wife of my tennis partner, who is one of my two or three best friends. I’m a loyal person.”
Audrey, a pleasant retired grammar school teacher, married to Ron, a retired college football coach, who had just finished on a Nautilus machine, unplugged her ear buds and came over. She and I are friends, exchanging books.
“Ellie is my hair stylist, too, Walt,” she said. “She is very, very good.”
“Well, how much does she charge?” Walt wanted to know. Walt is hunched from scoliosis, and bird thin; and sort of skitters in short mincing steps. He had polio as a kid.
Audrey glanced at me, and I said, “Thirty five dollars.”
“Thirty five dollars!” Walt was appalled. “I can get three haircuts for that.”
“She’s pricey, but she’s good,” Audrey affirmed.
I said, “Since I only get my hair cut every six months, I don’t mind paying that much. I even give her a fifteen dollar tip to try and rearrange my person.”
“Fifteen bucks! Jesus! That’s outrageous.”
“Yeh, but if I pay a hundred bucks over a year, that’s less than you do paying thirteen every month or so.”
Anyway, that was the end of our conversation that time, but Walt and I became better acquainted when he began riding one of the less technologically advanced side-by side bikes at about the same time I did—around ten thirty in the morning, a time when most of the geriatrics like us are in the gym, getting the misery out of the way. Plus, having somebody to talk to while pedaling helps kill the excruciating boredom and pain of solitary exercise, which I usually try to ease by working the crossword puzzle.
Walt and I have begun to be almost confidants. Everybody knows him, comes up to his bike. Some of the middle-aged guys refer to him as “trouble.” “How’s trouble doing today?” they’ll ask, smirking at Walt’s nosy shenanigans. Most of these people have been and are still standoffish with me, uncomfortable kidding like cornballs, which I refuse to play into. Sometimes Walt will try and introduce me to somebody who has observed my strangeness over the years, but they are wary. Walt is a kind of celebrity in here, and I enjoy being his sidekick and admire his nerviness.
For instance, the other morning he observed a guy walking up and down the rows of aerobic machines, going around the Nordic Tracks and then in front of the treadmills and then behind the stationary bikes, seemingly either spying on oblivious panting workout nuts or observing the machines. Later, when he passed by us, Walt, having finished wiping down his bike, engaged the man, and asked, “What are you doing, pacing up and down along those machines—queer hunting?”
The man, middle-aged and togged out in designer workout attire, was literally speechless, could not muster an answer, and abruptly left, visibly shook up. We’ve never seen him since.
“Maybe he comes in here at an hour he’s sure you won’t be here,” I told Walt, who didn’t seem too remorseful at what he’d said.
“I was just kidding,” Walt confessed.
“But you didn’t know the guy, Walt. You can’t say shit like that to strangers.”
“Well, he should have known I was kidding,” Walt maintained. “Hell, I don’t give a damn if he’s a queer or not.”
“He didn’t know that. He probably thinks you’re a loony homophobe, affiliated with those assholes running for president, carrying on about the goddamn bible.”
“Well, if I ever see him again, I guess I’ll apologize and explain I was kidding.” §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his rescue dog, Wilbur. For more of his work, visit his website, dellfranklin.com, where this article first appeared.