If you didn’t know Ray, it’s because you don’t go to my gym. Or maybe, like me, you do go to my gym, but you still didn’t know Ray. All I know is that this morning, my gym taped up Xeroxed pictures of a man labeled “Ray” and including the location of a memorial service. The picture showed an older, hefty African-American man, with a suburban street in the background, smiling broadly and wearing a beret. It was almost too perfect, as if someone had said, “Ray, you’re going to die soon, so I want to get a picture of you showing your lust for life, and preferably wearing something on your head that rhymes with your name.”
I recognized Ray’s face. I think I saw him just about every time I went to the gym, lifting weights and looking tired, with a sweaty towel draped over his shoulder. I guess he was like part of the family there. I guess other people talked to him and got to know him. I guess they liked Ray. And looking at his picture made me a little sad. No, not for Ray, who, as I said, I didn’t know. But for me, because I know that when I die, they won’t put any pictures of me up at the gym.
I mean, even if I die at the gym, and even if they wanted to dig my membership card out of my corpse’s pocket, copy it and hang it by the elevator on a page that said, “R.I.P. Jerry… this is not an admission of liability”, they couldn’t, because my membership card doesn’t have a picture on it. The only mark I’d leave behind is if they had to cordon off the weight bench where I got crushed by a barbell, or if they drew a chalk outline on the belt of the treadmill where I slipped on my own sweat and broke my neck. People would avoid using that treadmill at first, out of respect, but in the peak post-work hours, someone would get tired of waiting and go “Screw it, I’m using the dead guy’s treadmill.” And then it would be fair game again, and everyone would use it, and the chalk would slowly fade as it was pounded by Nike after Nike.
If I die away from the gym, forget it. They’ll never notice. “How come it’s just slightly less difficult to find an available elliptical runner on Friday mornings?” someone might say one day, and whoever they’re talking to will respond with a disinterested shrug. That’s about the most I can hope for. I don’t know Ray, but it says something, I think, that he’s the kind of guy whose death makes an impact at his gym. I wondered if there were pictures of Ray at other businesses around Los Angeles, like the diner where he bought his piece of apple pie and cup of black coffee every morning and where he flirted with LuAnn, the sassy waitress, or the barber shop where he hung out with Eddie and Lou and Buddy McGee, swapping stories of the old days, and the 7-11 where he played the lottery every week. “Good ol’ Ray,” Sajid the cashier would say as he hung up a picture of Ray wearing a toupee. “7-9-26-31-48, bonus 12, those were his numbers.” Of course, maybe it’s just my imagination here, and maybe outside of 24 Hour Fitness, everyone in town thought Ray was a total prick, but I doubt it.
I know I’ll never be like Ray myself. When I die, there won’t be any pictures of me at any small businesses. I’m just not the kind of person to amass large numbers of casual relationships, to warm the hearts of relative strangers and find surrogate families everywhere I go. Small talk is one of my greatest fears. I go to the gym, I work out, I leave. In a lot of ways, I envy Ray, even as I fear becoming him. I cringe every time I order a Chinese chicken salad at the mall and they remember that I don’t want water chestnuts. Or when I catch a glimpse of recognition and hear someone say “Welcome back!” How do you remember me, Video Store Guy? What did I do wrong that made me stick out? Ray would’ve been friends with the Video Store Guy, and he would’ve rented “Reservoir Dogs” one day on the guy’s recommendation. “That’s one screwy movie ya made me watch there, Joey!” he’d say when he brought it back, and they’d talk and joke about it for a good twenty minutes.
I overheard a couple of guys talking about Ray in the locker room. “Have I talked to you since Ray died?” one guy said. “Nah, man. That was sad,” replied the other guy. They talked about Ray, the fact that he died and that it was sad, for a little while longer. Neither of them was going to the memorial, but they both agreed they were going to miss him.
I’ll miss Ray, too. I never talked to him or got to know him myself. But I’ll always remember him… as the guy everybody remembered.