Most days I avoid the evening rush at the Checker Mart like it’s Mrs. Green in 4F, who eats baked beans out of the can and always needs her toilet plunged.
Today, I let the chimes jingle behind me. My sneakers stick to the linoleum, and I nod to the clerk as I squeak past. He doesn’t acknowledge me.
Today I broke my routine. I got my ass off the couch because I had to see her and I knew she stopped at the Checker Mart every day after class.
She’s in front of the refrigerator case with a shopping basket hanging from a muscular forearm. A vein on her massive bicep looks fit to burst as she chucks protein shakes and energy drinks into her basket.
As soon as my bony fingers touch damp spandex she jumps. Her head spins around, platinum-blond curls whip across my nose and the whole basket of proteins and carbs rains down on Aisle 3.
“Arnie Trundle,” she growls, “I have no time for this.” Her eyes pan down a few feet to meet mine. “Not here.” I kneel down and gather a few bottles — anything to avoid her stare.
“I need to tell you something,” I mumble to the linoleum tiles.
“I can’t hear you,” she grunts.
I rise and try to hand a can of Flex-o Energy to her. She doesn’t budge. “Sherry, we need to talk.” She grinds her molars and her jawline looks like it was carved from granite. “Just give me one minute.”
“One minute,” she says.
I can’t blame Sherry Shayne for wanting to roll me into the shape of a rugby ball and boot me as far as one of her ogre feet would allow. I’d brought her wrath upon me, and I did it for one reason: professional wrestling. My one true love. My addiction. I pride myself on my extensive collection of wrestling videos. I have everything from Gorgeous George and Jerry “the King” Lawler to Ric Flair and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. There’s even an old film reel of a match between Japanese legend Antonio Inoki and Muhammad Ali. Not too many people know about that one.
I watch them all the time — mostly because there’s not much to do when you’re a building super but wait for old ladies to complain about leaky faucets and occupied mousetraps. The only time I get out of that place is on my trips to the Checker Mart. That’s how I saw Sherry the first time.
Only I’d seen her before, under a different name: Queen Colossus — a towering, unhinged science experiment that tore opponents to shreds in a wide selection of my video library. She always wore a luchadores mask, but I could pick that body out of a lineup. The 250 pounds of human power. The canyon-like span from shoulder to shoulder. Arms like telephone poles. And those eyes: ice-blue and colder than a rocky mountaintop.
I didn’t say anything to her when I saw her in line that day. The words dried up when I realized I was standing in the shadow of my hero. So I inspected a few packs of gum beside the register and I followed her. Not literally. With my eyes. I watched her walk across the street and through the doors of The Muscle Zone, and then I knew. She was hiding her true identity behind the mask of a common fitness trainer. Brilliant.
The next day, I awoke at dawn and came out of an exercise retirement that started at birth. I threw on my sweatpants with the hyperextended waistband, and I squeezed into a wrinkled T-shirt I got when I opened a checking account. My objectives? Infiltrate Sherry Shayne’s fitness class, casually unmask her as the infamous Queen Colossus, and reap the benefits of a close relationship with wrestling royalty.
Sherry’s class met on a set of moldy mats in the recesses of the facility. All of her clients were square-jawed and pumped-up, like of a pack of mountain gorillas. I squeezed between a collection of flexing biceps and sweaty pit stains and found a sliver of mat where I could hide among the curl bars and the kettlebells. But, in a field planted heavily with beefcakes, the rotten tomato is easy to spot.
“We have a new member today,” my Queen said, beckoning me forward.
“Why does he get the front?” a disgruntled gorilla whispered as I staggered through the pack.
“Me?” I asked.
The tension lifted from her cheekbones. Something that resembled laughter bellowed up from within the gentle giant. “Anyone else look new here?” she asked. She gave me no chance to answer.
Instead, she screamed, “Squat thrusts!” Right in my face. My knees buckled. My ass hit the mat, and I had to force my bladder not to betray me. “On your feet, shrimp!” she shouted, and she grabbed my wrist and yanked me upright in a single motion. From there it was kettlebell, push-ups, jumping jacks, kettlebell again, a 20-second recess so I could pull up my sweatpants, and then more kettlebell. I didn’t complete a single repetition of a single exercise. Sherry would shout, “Up!” Then she’d watch my arms go noodley, grab me by the T-shirt, and hoist me up in one pump. She’d push me down, too. And she poked and prodded me through a battery of calisthenics I could never complete on my own.
When the whole ordeal was over, I vowed to re-retire to the world of the un-athletic and forget about my heroes. As I slithered off the mat in a sweaty glob of pity and sadness, Sherry Shayne — Queen Colossus herself — walked right over to me and said, “I like you.”
“Me?” I stammered. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You’re cute. Like an out-of-shape ferret.” Before I could defend myself she added, “How about we grab a drink sometime?”
“Yes … I mean, sure, okay.”
But now, as I stand here in the Checker Mart with the door chimes jingling and the steam puffing from Sherry’s nostrils, I’m not sure that had been the correct response.
“I … uhh … I —”
“Clock’s ticking,” she says. “You better spit it out, shrimp.” She takes another angry step that makes me wish I stayed home and snaked Mrs. Lumbeck’s drain instead. But I gather myself and stare certain death in the ice-blue eyes.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else,” I say.
“You’re not making any sense and —”
“I thought you were Queen Colossus!” I blurt, and the register stops beeping and the door chimes stop jingling.
“Queen. Freaking. Colossus?” Sherry’s eyebrows point in like darts. “You thought I was a wrestler?! Who wore a mask?!”
“The one with the bulging veins and the tree-trunk thighs?!”
I nod and take a step back. She has me cornered at the end of the aisle now. Pinned against a rack of sunflower seeds.
“That’s the one,” I say. Sherry leans forward and her burning eyes consume me. “And that’s why you did what you did?!” I’m frozen. Locked somewhere between life, death, and the pursuit of a hero. Whatever horrific form of mutilation Sherry inflicts on me, I deserve it. Because our little date? Yeah. It wasn’t the romantic masterpiece you may have expected.
Last Thursday, I’d met her at the gym during her break and we walked to the Detox Café. I’d never heard of the place even though it was close to my building. I found out why once we stepped inside. A juiced-up barista behind a stainless-steel counter churned bananas, strawberries, and exotic pea proteins through an industrial blender. Workout gorillas packed the place, and they all knew Sherry.
We ordered wheat grass smoothies, and I only hacked the first few sips on the table before tolerating the rest of the glass. I was proud of myself; I was able to navigate the various Chips and Clints that vultured around our table and wanted to know with alarming consistency, “Who’s the new guy and how can I help him maximize the mass of his delts?” And, after stumbling through a conversation that went somewhat thusly:
SHERRY: I dropped to five grams of glutamate and upped my caloric intake.
ME: I found a rogue corn chip in my couch this morning.
I decided to lean on a topic we held in common. “Are you into wrestling?” I asked, and I fought to hold back a grin that would reveal my knowledge of Queen Colossus.
“Who isn’t? Show me a wrestling hater and then call the coroner. Cause that dude’s dead.” I liked what I heard, and I liked that Sherry had an unhealthy infatuation with Jake “the Snake” Roberts, and that we had both battled severe bouts of Hulkamania in our youth. I liked that she could rattle off every contestant in an upcoming steel cage match. But I loved how we could sit there together — the hulking giant and the terrified shrimp — and let the chest-pounding fade away to nothingness. But moments like these don’t last. And this moment was no exception.
A perky couple in matching tracksuits appeared at our table. They jogged in place for fear their precious heart rates would drop below 9,000 beats per minute. The guy ended a Bluetooth conversation mid-sentence, “Sherry! Great to see you!” The lady plucked out her earbuds and asked, in the same high-pitched song, “Wow! Who’s the new man?” Big surprise. After a 10-minute dance routine that laid out every dietary adjustment they’d ever made since they began eating solid food, the guy pulled out his cell phone and started scrolling through the pictures.
“We were in the same workout class,” he said to me. “Sherry, too. I can’t believe how far she’s come in two years.” Then he showed me a picture of a gorgeous blonde with a 20-inch waist and piercing blue eyes. No rippling biceps. No rigid jawline. No boulders for shoulders. Just slender and smooth and fragile. Not wrestling material.
And suddenly I felt betrayed. I don’t know why. It wasn’t Sherry’s fault she wasn’t Queen Colossus. And I don’t know why I did it, or how I had the guts to do it in front of her beefy friends, but the words came anyway. “Sherry,” I said popping up from my chair, “You’re not who I thought you were.” And I walked out under a cloak of shock and silence.
So you can understand, as I clutch desperately at bags of Checker Mart sunflower seeds, why I deserve the slow death Sherry has in store for me. She’s so close I can feel her hot breath on my face, and it makes every molecule in my body quiver. And just when I think she’s about to end me, she says, “You really thought I was her? Colossus?”
My teeth chatter so hard all I can say is “Uh-huh.”
Then something peculiar happens. Sherry straightens up and stares past me. She flexes her pecs in an alternating pattern that reminds me of the lights at a railroad crossing. I look behind and see Sherry’s reflection in the store’s security mirror. When I turn back, her entire face is a smile.
“That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me!” she squeals. “Come here, you little shrimp.”
My sneakers leave the linoleum, and I’m twisted and twirled and spun around in midair like a human basketball. Sherry flips me up like a loaf of bread and catches me in the crook of her massive arms. She rocks me back and forth. Then her icy, blue eyes lock on mine and our lips touch, and I know instantly that Queen Colossus had never, in fact, been my hero.
Today I broke my routine. Today, Sherry Shayne carried me over the Checker Mart threshold and we drifted off toward the setting sunlamps of the local gymnasium.