Big Nick was too dirty for his wife’s pristine dining room.
Black from his sweaty brow to the tips of his workboots, Nick found a couple of old towels and carefully draped them over two of the white chairs. Then he disappeared into the kitchen, where I heard him rattling around in cupboards, clinking glasses together; sliding refrigerator shelves; knocking something into a garbage can. He emerged with a heavy ashtray, two glasses and a bottle.
Nick had worked a full day in his auto-body shop. His green tshirt was nearly black from changing tires and draining oil tanks. Even the ever-present package of cigarettes in his pocket looked fatigued. But when I showed up in his driveway at dusk, he waved me inside his garage with a tired smile.
We unloaded a snow blower with a broken auger from the back of my broken truck.
“What’s the problem?” he asked. And for the next hour, he listened: first, about the machine; then about my business. He pretended to troubleshoot the machine while I vented. It was nearly seven when I finally got to the point:
“Nick, I don’t think I can keep this gym going anymore.”
“Huh.” he said. He pulled the cord twice; the machine coughed some blue smoke, and then started, revving for all it was worth. When he squeezed the handle to start the big auger turning, it didn’t move.
“Shut it down.” he said, turning to face his workbench. I cut the throttle to kill the ancient engine.
Nick’s big fingers raked through a plastic tray for a full minute, then finally emerged with a small 7/16ths bolt and a nut to match.
Bending to the machine, he pushed the bolt into a tiny hole. He pressed it all the way through the shaft of the auger. Then he finger-tightened the nut on the other end, and pressed his hands on his knees to stand again. Whistling quietly, he crossed back his workbench for his ratchet, and bent back under the machine. I heard a quick buzz from below, and he said, “Start er up again.” He started putting his tools away while I started the blower.
I squeezed the auger handle again. This time, the auger began to spin smoothly, then picked up speed.
“You just blew a shear pin. Motor was working too hard. Weakest point broke. Thirty-cent part. Let’s get some dinner.” And he led me inside, where we now sat, smelling of two-stroke exhaust and the day’s labor, amid his wife’s doilies and candles and ivory cushions.
He combed his hair out of his eyes. The fingers that had found a 3/16″ bolt among a hundred others were stained with nicotine, grease like black crescents under the nails. He lit another cigarette from his battered pack.
“You gotta charge more.” he said. It was the first time he’d addressed my comment about my business, though a half hour had passed since I’d finally admitted my real problem.
I knew he was right: no matter which way you stirred the math, I could fill the gym and still lose money. The gym was too small to take hundreds of clients. But I was paralyzed by fear.
“Nick, I get it, but these people aren’t just my clients. They’re my friends. I can’t charge my friends more.”
Years later, I’d recognize my own faulty projection: I was thirty, broke, and exhausted. I assumed that everyone had the same budget that I did. I thought my clients were just like me, and would resent a price hike; quit; and never speak to me again.
“You think your friends want you to go broke?” he asked.
The truth was so startling that I think I might have laughed. “Well, no, but…”
“If they want a deal, they’re not your friends.”
I started to object. He cut me off.
“Willlllllmaaa!” he bellowed. His huge lungs filled the room with tobacco.
Hearing no response, he called her again.
Finally, his wife came in the room, hanging up a portable phone as she did.
“What? You miss dinner, and now you need me right away?” She stopped when she saw me, her face softening. “Oh, heya Chris.” She reached for a cigarette from Nick’s crumped pack.
Nick pulled out a smoke and lit it for her. Before she could sit, he asked,
“Where’s my checkbook?”
She rolled her eyes to tell me that he knew damned well where his checkbook was, and he didn’t want to stand up and walk ten damn feet into the kitchen to get it, and if I wasn’t here, she’d have something else to say about it. Then she sighed, took two exaggerated steps into the kitchen, pulled the checkbook out of the drawer, and took two giant strides back. The book landed on the table in front of him with a plop.
I could see his dark fingerprints on the checkbook’s white cover.
He pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote out a check, then slid it over to me with one huge dirty finger.
“There, that’s my payment for next month.”
The amount on the check was triple the price of a membership to my gym. Literally triple.
“Nick, I can’t charge this much!” I let out a nervous laugh.
“You cash that tomorrow, Chris.” His deep baritone took on a serious edge. “That’s the price of a membership from now on. And if anybody pays you less, you’re not helping them–you’re screwing me.”
Nick and Wilma stared at me in silence. She grinned behind the smoke, justified in the toleration of her late-for-dinner husband and his friends.