Stuart opened the door to the apartment and heard the muffled noises of Don talking to himself in another room. He was practising one of his ‘bits’, Stuart realised. He made his way to Don’s room – quietly – not wanting to disturb him.
‘What’s the deal without cashiers? Paying them for groceries is not good enough anymore? This guy with a ponytail – it’s always the guy with a ponytail – asked me last week: “Do you have the exact change, bro?” No, I don’t. Or I would have given it to you, you hippie. Is it so much to ask for you to open up your cash register and give me some change? Or is your grasp of mathematics the issue? Do you spend too much time cultivating your greasy ponytail and not enough time with Pythagoras and the boys? Let me tell you how this works. If someone happens to give you more than the value of the item they’ve just purchased, you give them the difference between the two amounts. Get it? Go on, get your calculator out and practice on me,’ Don said folding his arms as if he was happy to wait all day.
‘Not bad,’ said Stuart who was leaning against the doorframe.
‘Thanks, Stu. That’s my day done and dusted, I think,’ he said as the two made their way to the kitchen.
‘A productive day, then? What other material have you come up with?’ Stuart asked. Don opened a cupboard and pulled out a box of cereal. There seemed to be an endless supply of the stuff.
‘Oh, that’s it. I’ve been honing that bad boy all day,’ Don said as he stuffed his hand into the box.
Better than nothing, Stuart thought.
‘Guess what?’ Don said, remembering something important. His words were garbled as he spoke with half-eaten cereal in his mouth.
‘I’m into the next round for the postman job’
‘Well done,’ said Stuart. He was relieved. Don needed the money. He had resorted to buying things on credit. Free money, Don called it. Also, cereal had become his one and only food source. Stuart and Philip had offered him money and food but he refused. He needed the incentive, he insisted.
‘That reminds me,’ Don said, putting down the cereal box. He walked off and came back with a steel and rubber contraption. It was one of those chin-up bars that could be set up in a doorway. He clipped the device on and looked at it proudly.
‘Time to get to work on the old fitness,’ said Don. He had the habit of saying ‘old’ before nouns. Stuart wasn’t sure why this was the case.
Don gripped the bar and pulled on it firmly. It held. He hopped then pulled himself up. After an eternal struggle, he’d pulled himself to the top. He lowered himself down with his face red and his body trembling,
Not a good sign, Stuart thought.
‘How far away is the physical test?’ Stuart asked.
Don was shaking out his arms then he tensed them up like a bodybuilder. ‘Four weeks, Stu. Plenty of time.’
Stuart wasn’t so sure. Don had gone through fitness phases in the past. None had lasted close to four weeks. Don walked out and this time returned with an ab machine.
‘It all kicks off tomorrow, my friend,’ Don said as he set the contraption in front of the TV. ‘I knew this would come in handy,’ he said as he tried out the device. ‘Oh,’ he stopped mid repetition as if he had a light bulb moment. He lowered himself to the floor and left the room mumbling something to himself.
He came back with a mechanical contraption this time. ‘What in the world is that?’ Stuart asked with a perplexed look on his face.
‘The Fat Burner 2000, of course. It was all the rage five years ago. You haven’t heard of it?’ Don said with surprise in his voice.
Stuart laughed. ‘No, I haven’t heard of it. It looks like junk, though,’
‘Now I can get some serious work done. Burn fat and watch TV at the same time. What a combination,’ Don said as he admired the setup of the lounge area cum gym.
‘Oh boy,’ Stuart said and rolled his eyes.
He was up early the next morning. It was a Saturday. He put a banana, milk and protein powder (he’d found covered in dust at the back of the pantry) into a blender. Not bad, he thought as he drank the liquid. Then, he cursed himself. He had forgotten to add a few raw eggs.
After deciding against cracking raw eggs into his mouth, he sets off for a jog.
‘I’m genuinely surprised to see that he’s gone running,’ Philip said. He was sitting on the couch flicking through cartoons. He’d found out about the TV. It had been replaced before he got a chance to get angry.
‘Yeah, I know,’ Stuart said, replying from his bedroom as he got changed. ‘I thought it would be another phase that ends before it starts.’
Their Saturday morning ritual was breakfast at the local café. Philip would order the pancakes and Stuart would get the bacon and eggs. Don would get both.
And there he was, in their usual spot – with pancakes and bacon and eggs. Stuart and Philip looked at each other. Stuart closed his eyes and took a slow breath. He reminded Philip of a parent preparing to berate a child for not doing their homework.
‘Boys,’ Don said with a mouthful of pancakes. He gestured for them to sit with him.
‘Finished your run already?’ Philip asked as he called the waiter over.
‘Yeah. It didn’t go so well,’ Don said. He was more concerned with his breakfast than he was with Philip and Stuart.
Don was sweat-free. The café was only a block and a half from their apartment. He hadn’t made it far before pulling the pin.
‘But,’ Don said while wiping yolk from his face, ‘I learned a valuable lesson.’ He sat back cradling his belly. There was a look of deep satisfaction on his face as if he had accomplished something great. Mind you, eating both the pancakes and bacon and eggs was no mean feat.
‘What’s that?’ Stuart said. The frustration that was clear on his face moments ago had already melted away. It was hard to stay mad at Don.
‘I need to eat more before training,’ Don said matter-of-factly. ‘I ran out of juice, today. I’ll need more fuel next time’
This time it was Philip’s turn to let out a sigh. Although he fit the geek mould he had been an accomplished middle-distance runner in his younger years. He no longer competed but he kept up his fitness. Fuel wasn’t Don’s problem, Philip thought. He was in average shape and undisciplined.
‘I’m going to have to train you, aren’t I?’ Philip said.
‘You’d do that for me? I mean it’s not really necessary. I’m pretty confident I could pass the test in my current condition.’
Don certainly had confidence in spades. Or was it hubris? There was no way he was passing the test. Unless the test involved eating.
‘Yup, starting from tomorrow. We’ll do a practice run of the test to see what areas you need to focus on. Then each day, before and after work, we’ll train. I’ll leave you something to do during the day too,’ Philip said.
‘All right!’ Don said. Although he didn’t like to admit it, he had no idea how to plan an exercise program. He was more of a ‘watch TV and eat cereal’ kind of guy.
‘In that case,’ said Don, shifting his plate to one side, ‘I better get my energy levels up. Waiter!’
The test to become a postman, or woman, was fair, Stuart thought. He had looked over the document yesterday after returning from the café. There was a bodyweight part – push-ups and sit-ups – and a riding component. Philip was confident he could get Don up to standard – if he stuck to the plan.
Don had insisted on another big breakfast before the test run despite Philip urging him against the idea. He was better off eating a small meal now and a bigger meal after, Philip had said. But Don insisted.
Now they were at the front of the apartment block. Don, of course, didn’t have a conventional bike. It was a weird design with the wheels appearing too small for the frame.
‘Ok,’ Philip said with his head down, typing away on his phone. He clicked the phone into the front of Don’s bike. It would be his GPS. ‘All you have to do is follow the route. It will tell you when to turn,’ Philip said.
‘Got it,’ Don said while adjusting his helmet. It had lights on the back so people behind him knew which way he was turning. It looked stupid, Stuart thought.
‘Stuart’s going to time you and I’m going to follow behind so you don’t get lost – at a bakery or doughnut shop,’ Philip said with a smile.
‘Alright, alright,’ Don said nodding. He acknowledged the joke was on him. ‘That was a one-off,’ he said.
‘Are you ready to go? Remember to pace yourself,’ Philip said as he hopped onto his bike.
‘Got it,’ Don said and they set off.
Stuart set the time and took a seat on a park bench. Don had twenty minutes to do the circuit. A very old man appeared at the corner of the block. He was using a zimmer frame. Stuart couldn’t help but laugh inside as the pensioner walked past him – eventually.
He would put his frame too far ahead of him with his arms outstretched. Then he’d use gravity and stumble forward. It was a miracle he didn’t fall.
Ah, the joys, Stuart thought.
It was forty minutes before Stuart saw Don and Phil. That was not a good sign. Don’s face was red and flustered. He was pushing his bike. Phil too was walking. But it was probably out of empathy more than anything else.
‘What happened?’ Stuart said, showing them the time on his phone.
Philip shook his head. Had he bitten off more than he could chew?
Don’s face had almost returned to its normal complexion. ‘Hills, man; they suck,’ Don said.
‘When he says hills, he means a slight incline,’ Philip corrected. ‘Plus, our friend Don here doesn’t know how to use the gears on his bike,’ he added.
‘I was in the zone! With the adrenaline pumping, I was focused on riding,’ Don said while using his hands to signal he had tunnel vision. ‘And I got a cramp, too,’
‘I told you not to eat too much!’ Philip said with an animated expression on his face.
Don rubbed his tummy and gave a wry smile. ‘Speaking of eating, let’s go get a post-workout meal. Donuts, anyone?’
Philip let out a sigh. ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do,’ he said.
The effect of accountability was surprising. Although Philip put his hand up to help Don, he was sceptical he could make an impact. He was a child in a man’s body, Philip thought.
But he kept to the program – when Philip and Stuart were around, anyway. He did all the morning, afternoon and weekend sessions, that were supervised, with good effort and perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.
What he did during the day was another question. When his housemates got back from work they often found him watching TV while on the vibration machine. He insisted he had spent most of the day preparing and that the vibration machine was the ‘finisher’.
His fitness improved. Soon he could ride the length of the route without taking a break. To the general public’s dismay, he could fit into more of his old, gimmicky fitness clothes as the weeks past and he leaned down.
‘Do you really have to wear those tights?’ Stuart asked while grimacing.
‘Each second counts, Stuey. These bad boys will make me aerodynamic like a Concorde. Oh baby!’ he said while sprinting on the spot.
The sight made people have sore eyes.
Don was excited because today marked the final training today. Philip, with reluctance, gave Don the weekend off. The test was on Monday. He didn’t want fatigue to be a factor – or an excuse.
Philip got home from work minutes later and the three walked to the local park to start training.
‘Farts,’ Don said under his breath to no one in particular.
‘What?’ said Philip.
‘I said: farts,’ Don said looking up. There was a serious expression on his face. ‘They’re so weird.’ He spoke like he was describing a unique animal or plant.
Philip and Stuart shook their heads in unison. They did that a lot when around Don.
‘Serious question: do you guys like the smell of your own farts? Because there’s not been a fart of mine that I haven’t liked.’
Stuart knew Don wanted his genuine opinion on farts. The guy was an enigma. Before he got a chance to reply, Don went on like a fart philosopher.
‘Each fart is unique. The smell, the range and the linger factor,’ he said.
Philip broke out into a laugh. ‘The linger factor,’ he said. ‘You’re a weird man, Don. A weird, weird man.’
Don looked up. The laughing had broken his fart reverie. ‘Surely you worked that out by now Phil,’ he said giving Philip a nudge with his elbow.
‘Answer the question: do you like the smell of your own farts? Then – I promise – never to bring it up again. This week,’ Don said with a grin.
Stuart sighed and rubbed his temple. There was no escaping.
‘I admit, I like the smell of my own farts. But that’s not to say I’ll seek it out. I don’t fart then waft the fumes into the pathway of my nostrils. If it happens to reach my nose, I’ll take a whiff,’ Stuart said like a man in confession.
Don smiled and nodded his head. His suspicions were being confirmed. ‘And you Phil?’ he asked.
‘Me too, ‘ Philip said. It was a whisper, but he had said it. Philip’s shoulders slumped like a man found guilty of murder.
Don slapped both of their backs. ‘Good to hear, boys. Like three peas in a pod – as they say,’ Don said.
‘Let’s train,’ Philip said. He needed something that would wick away his fart guilt.
The session went well. Philip was confident that Don would pass the physical exam. If he didn’t get distracted, that is. Philip often caught him staring into shop windows, inspecting bugs or talking to strangers. Most of the time he was practising his half-baked jokes on them. The poor souls.
‘The only thing left now is to execute on Monday,’ Stuart said as they stretched. Don used the park fence for balance and still managed to stumble about.
Stuart and Philip made sure Don wouldn’t miss his exam. They woke him up and accompanied him to the venue.
‘But the test is two hours away,’ Don said. But his protests were ignored. Two hours early was better than two hours late.
‘Remember not to stop at shops. Don’t talk to people – even if they talk to you first,’ Philip said. He and Stuart had to leave for work. They were reluctant to leave him. It was like leaving a preschooler alone at the train station.
‘I’ve got this, boys,’ Don said and waved them away. ‘We’ll celebrate tonight!’ he called out as they walked away.
Philip left work early. He wanted to find out the outcome of Don’s training. Had he done enough?
He was slow to open the door, afraid that he might not like what was on the other side. Sure enough, Don was in his usual spot doing his usual thing. Eating cereal out of a box while watching The King of Queens. He looked relaxed and content.
‘Phil, come over take a seat. Did you know the old guy in this show is Ben Stiller’s dad?’
Philip walked over with trepidation. He ignored Don’s question. ‘Well? How did you go today? Did you pass?’ Philip said.
Don laughed as if just remembering the significance of the day. ‘Oh yeah, the physical was easy. I only got distracted once,’ he said.
‘So you’re a postie, then?’ Philip asked. He sat across from Don and put down his bag. Stuart walked through the door as he did.
‘He passed!’ Philip said.
‘So you’re a postie?’ Stuart said.
‘Well, not quite,’ Don said. He was looking through the hole in the Fruit Loop like a periscope.
‘But you’re into the next round?’ Philip said.
‘Not exactly,’ said Don. Now he had a stack of different coloured Fruit Loops. He fished around the cereal box, presumably looking for the colour he was missing.
‘I didn’t do so good in the written section,’ he said.
‘There was a written section. Do you mean the part where you write down your name and contact details?’ Stuart said. Philip had already slumped back into the couch, defeated.
‘Essentially. There were a few other questions too. ‘Why do you want to be a postie?’ for example,’ Don said. He stuffed the now-complete stack of Fruit Loops in his mouth.
‘And what did you say?’ Phil asked, staring at the ceiling.
He stood up suddenly and turned his head sharply towards Philip and Stuart. ‘I told them,’ he said in a dramatic voice, ‘that this job is a stepping-stone. Because my ultimate goal is to become the greatest stand-up comedian of all time.’
Stuart went to speak but Don gestured with his finger. He wasn’t finished just yet.
‘And I won’t stop until my name is in lights!’ he said.
He started making mock cheering noises. Hushed at first, but building. Then he put on an announcer’s voice: ‘Introducing the don of comedy, Don Barlow!’
Now his imitation of the crowd exploded into raucous applause. Stuart and Phil couldn’t help but smile. Stuart played the role of an overwhelmed female in the crowd, ‘Oh my!’ he said and brought his hand to his forehead before fainting onto the couch.
‘Donny, Donny, Donny!’ Phil began a chant, as he hands became a megaphone.
Don had put down the cereal at this point. He was busy accepting the applause and pointing at people in the crowd, thanking them individually. He took in the applause and began to do mock bodybuilder poses. That brought about some hoots from the crowd.
Finally, he gestured for everyone to settle. ‘Thank you,’ he said in a booming voice. A coffee mug had become his microphone.
‘Thank you,’ he repeated. By the now, the crowd had quietened to a spattering of applause. Don was gathering his thoughts.
He laughed to himself as if remembering a funny joke. ‘You know what I’ve always found odd about comedian’s introductions? When the comic tells the crowd where they are,’ he said then cleared his voice in mock imitation:
‘”Thank you, Perth, Australia.”’
‘The crowd responds: ‘wait, we’re from Perth!’ As if it’s news to them. ‘That means he’s talking about us!”
Phil nudged Stuart, ‘That’s so true.’ The two were doing a great job as the crowd.
‘Then, of course, there’s the follow-up: the comparison to another city or town,’ Don said then jumped back into the fake comedian role.
‘”You know, I was in Adelaide last week. It’s a nice place,’ he said while scratching his chin, then went on, ‘if you’re 94-years-old, blind and don’t mind sitting in a rocker all day talking about churches’”.
‘The crowd, by this point, is thinking: mhmm, Adelaide sure is boring. It ain’t nothing compared to Perth,’ he said, snapping his fingers.
‘I can see what they’re trying to do, ‘ Don said.
‘They’re getting the crowd on their side. Then, if it’s a shit show, the crowd will at least say, “Well, he wasn’t that funny but he sure was right about Adelaide. That place stinks!”’ Don said.
This went on for a while. Stuart and Philip had a go as the comedian too. The three mocked up different comedians each doing their best impression. Stuart’s whining Jerry Seinfeld voice was a favourite.
Eventually, they were sitting around the TV passing around the cereal box
‘So, what’s the plan?’ Phil asked.
Don snorted. ‘You know me, Phil. There is no plan; that’s why I’m in this bind. But I’m not worried.’
‘We have faith in you, Don,’ Stuart said with a mouthful of cereal in his mouth.
‘I’d say it’s time for dinner,’ Phil said as he shook the now-empty cereal box.
Don jumped up and held the door open for the others. ‘Curry?’ he asked excitedly. ‘It’ll give me a chance to try some of my curry-related material.’
‘Curry it is,’ Stuart said.