Work Until Failure
by Tim Tomlinson

The morning of the photo shoot my father woke up late. 

“I told you to goddamn get me up,” he said in the kitchen, jabbing a foot into his sweatpants and hopping when he missed the hole.

Unruffled, Mom said,  “But you also said never to wake you up early on a Saturday. ‘Never-ever-ever’ – I believe are your exact words.”

From a pan on the stove she forked a slice of French toast and dropped it into my plate.  I sat at the kitchen counter where I often observed their weekend salutations.  “You want a piece?” she asked him.

He looked at the French toast, onto which I was smearing butter.

“Where are your goddamn brains?” he asked her.

“I’ve been asking myself that for the past twelve years,” she said.

“Funny,” he said, hopping back toward the bedroom.  “Very funny.”

“No,” she said. “Not funny. In fact it’s rather sad.”

“I’ll give you something to be sad about.”

She said, “Again?”

We could hear him rattling things around in their bedroom. “And where are my goddamn keys,” he shouted. 

“Wherever you left them,” she said.

To me, she mouthed the words, “Your father’s such an asshole.”

This was a big day for Dad.  All his adult life he’d been working outdoors with his shirt off, thinking one day he’d get discovered by some Hollywood producer who just happened to be driving by. Now, a former Marine who’d gone through Parris Island with Dad had become a big-name photographer. He’d offered to shoot a session of Dad’s bodybuilding routine and pitch it to some features editors he knew at the big fitness magazines coming out of California.

“This guy’s out of Venice Beach,” Dad said. “That’s as close to Hollywood as ticks on a dog. Your old man is about to be discovered.” He’d been trimming and chiseling and bulking and burning every day since he’d heard from his old friend. 

“Cliffy,” he shouted from the bedroom, “find the goddamn keys, please.”

I looked at Mom.

“He’s having his breakfast,” she said.

“He’s coming with me,” he shouted.

“Are you?” she asked me.

I pushed back from the counter.

“I’ll find them,” I said.

I hopped off the stool, ripped a chunk off the French toast and stuck it in my mouth. 

“Wipe your hands,” Mom said.  “On a napkin,” she said, “not your pants.”

I grabbed the bottle of Aunt Jemima and poured syrup directly onto the French toast in my mouth. 

My mother shook her head. “You’re getting to be just like your father,” she told me.


There was no traffic on the dirt roads. 

“Here,” Dad said, “sit between my legs.”

“What for?” I said.

“Come on come on come on,” he said, “don’t ask questions, just do it.”

I scooted over. We were in the cab of his Chevy pick-up. It had a gearshift on the column.

“Now take the wheel and follow the road like I taught you.”

“But dad,” I said, straining to see over the steering wheel.

“Do it. I got the brakes and gas, don’t worry.”

I had done it before, on the dirt roads and even right out on 25A. But I had never done it this fast. We were going 45, and the thick cloud of brown dust we threw up behind us reached higher than the scrub pines and scrap oak we rushed through – crap trees he called them. “Wouldn’t wipe my ass with their bark,” he said. Any original growth remaining on Long Island had been cut down long before we moved out from Brooklyn. The specimens that replaced the old forests were to trees what stick figures were to real people.  

He slid open the cab’s rear window and poked around in a trunk just outside the cab. The trunk held his weights – toners, he called them, for light work and definition, a traveling set in case he got caught in traffic or needed something to do on lunch. It had collars, dumbbells, a bar, and various size plates – from pairs of 25s down to 2-1/2’s – adding up to 245lbs not counting the collars. He felt around for the dumbbells, fixed at 65lbs per, and pulled them into the cab.

“Are you watching the road,” I asked him. 

“Don’t make me lose my concentration,” he said.

And he started his reps, counting off in a Marine Corps cadence.

“Four-and-one, two-and-three, four-and-one, two-and-three…” 

And the 65 pounders curled alongside my ears.

“I can’t see out the sides,” I told him.

“You don’t need to see out the sides,” he said.  “Just stay straight.”

He continued to curl, but he never reached a number, he just repeated the cadence and pulled out reps.

“Four-and-one, two-and-three…”

Then he pressed the dumbbells up into alternating militaries that hit the cab’s roof like bricks against a garbage can. His pecs and his abdominals tensed against my back. 

“Why didn’t you remind her to wake me up?” he said between reps.

“I thought you were up,” I said.

“How could you think I was up?”

“Well, you weren’t snoring.”

He said, “You’re full of crap.”

He would have said that no matter what I told him.

“And Mom said she woke you, she knew how important this shoot is.”

“The two of you,” he said. “You’re both full of crap.”

“She did.”

In a few minutes I could see traffic up ahead.

“Cars, dad,” I said.

He dropped his dumbbells back into the trunk.


“Yeah, yeah, I got it, I got it,” he said, clamping his hands over mine.  “Now come on, scoot over.”

I tried pulling my hands out from under his but they were stuck.  He never got tired of playing this game.

“I can’t,” I said.  “My hands are stuck under yours.”

“Come on, Cliffy” he said, “quit fooling around.”

“You won’t let go.”

We were just yards from the road now – it rushed up at us like a train in a 3-D movie.   

“Cliff let go!” 

He pretended to be frightened. He cut the wheel sharply. The truck tilted up onto two wheels. In the truck bed, the weights slid into the side of the trunk with a clang. 


We came down just at the shoulder of Jericho Turnpike. An oncoming car swerved to avoid us, its driver honking and shaking his arm. 

“Up your ass, your four-eyed bastid,” Dad shouted. “Am I right Cliffy?” he said, rapping me on the shoulder. “Right up that clown’s ass, huh?”

“One day you’re gonna cause an accident,” I told him, rubbing my fingers.

Cause an accident,” he mimicked, “cause an accident. What are you, some kind of sissy?”

I told him, “No.”

“I thought I had a son,” he said, checking his biceps in the rearview mirror. “I guess they made a mistake at the hospital. What do you think, Cliffy?”


“They make a mistake at the hospital? They give me a sissy boy instead of my son?”

I shrugged. We were rushing into Selden where the Jericho Turnpike was lined from one light to the next with gas stations, fast food restaurants, and strip malls.

“Maybe they gave me to the wrong parents,” I said. “Maybe I’m somebody else’s kid.”

“And you know what else maybe?” he said.


He said, “Maybe you’re full of crap.”   

“That’s what you always say.”

“Maybe you’re getting to be just like your mother.”

Vic Tanny’s was the only gym in Suffolk County. It opened in 1958. It was a storefront right on the highway with a gym floor lined with free weights along the walls and boxing gear in the back. It was like a big garage, with cinder block walls and a concrete floor covered in some spots with linoleum tile. Underneath the front windows, where sunlight streamed through, thick mats were laid for warm-ups and floor work. It had a transistor radio and a portable record player made by Zenith. The spindle could hold six albums, and that’s how many Barbara Streisand albums Dad kept behind the counter. If there was going to be music in the gym while he was there, it was going to be Barbara Streisand.

The gym manager, Gus, had been in the Marines with Dad. He was a New York City fireman now, with a mustache – maybe the only mustache on Long Island. Ordinarily Dad didn’t like mustachioed guys, but this one could bench 315 lbs and Dad trusted him when he needed a spot.

“Where’s Phil?” Dad said.

“Who’s Phil?” Gus said.

“Phil,” Dad said, “the photographer.”

“The photographer?” Gus said.

“Who’s gonna take the pictures,” Dad said.  “Come on.”

“The question is where was you.”

“Where was I?”

“Yeah.  Where was you?  ‘Cause he’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

“The guy.”

“What guy?”

“The photographer.”

“Phil’s gone?”

“Yeah he’s gone.”

Dad looked at me, I looked out the window.

“So where’d he go?” he asked Gus.

“Where photographers go,” Gus said. “Hell do I know.”

“But he knew I was coming.”

“He knew you was coming at nine. Now it’s ten.”

“Now it’s ten?”

Gus pointed to the clock over the counter. “Now it’s ten, so where the fff-” Gus looked at me. “Where the heck a you been?”

Dad surveyed the gym, then he turned and planted his fist into a body bag. The bag crumpled around his knuckles.

“What did I tell you?” he said to me. 

“What?” I said. “We thought you were awake.”

“What did I tell you, tell you, tell you,” he said, hitting the bag again, and again, and again, and the bag folded.

Gus looked at me and shook his head.

When Dad finished crippling the body bag, he went behind the counter and picked up the phone.

“Sure,” Gus said. “Go ahead, use the phone. Call California.”

Dad gave him a look.

“Call Mars,” Gus said. “Come on, Cliffy, let’s you and me warm up.”

“I thought he was awake,” I told Gus. I knew that if you told your lie to someone else who’d believe it, they’d repeat it and it would sound more true.

“Of course you did. What would his ass be doing in bed an important day like this?”

“That’s what I mean,” I said.

“And I hear you.”

On the phone, Dad said, “Who could it be? It’s me. That guy call?”


“What did everybody take stupid pills today?  Phil.  The guy.  The photographer.”


“Who’s gonna do the shoot.” 


“The shoot, my goddman pictures for the magazine.”


“He didn’t call?”


“Well when he calls you tell him where we are.”

To me, Gus whispered, “He ain’t gonna call.” 

“Here,” Dad shouted, “tell him we’re here.”


“At the goddamn gym!”

He hung up and joined us on the mats.

Where’s here, she asks me. Where’s here?” He picked up a twenty pound medicine ball and started swinging rotations. “We’re here every goddamn Saturday? Where’s here?”

Gus winked at me.

“The kid thought you were awake.”

“Yeah, he thought,” Dad said. “That was his mistake, he thought.”

“Kid’s a thinker.”

“What’s he think about this?” Dad said. He shot the medicine ball into my chest. It nearly the knocked me over, but the wall held me up. 

I said, “Why don’t you set your own alarm instead of blaming everybody?”

“Who-ho!” Gus said. “Way to go, kid. You hear that Bobby? He says set your own damn alarm you got an appointment. What do you think?”

Dad set the pulley cables on eighty and slammed the handles together in front of his chest.

“I think you’re both full of crap.

“Come on,” he said, dropping the cables.  “Give me a spot.”

He flopped down on the bench and started pressing. 

Gus situated himself directly behind.

“How many you gonna get Bob?” Gus asked, shooting me a wink.

Dad hated that question. 

“Tell him Cliff,” my father said between repetitions.

And I told Gus what Dad taught me. “You work until failure,” I recited.

“Until what?” my father said.


“I can’t hear you.”

Failure,” I shouted.

“And what’s that mean?”

“You don’t work to a number and stop,” I said. I had this stuff memorized, like the words were tattooed inside my eyeballs.  “You work until the muscle fails, until it couldn’t possibly push out another rep.”

“Work until what?” Gus said.

“Otherwise you plateau,” I told him. “Your muscles know how to work without working.”

“Imagine that,” Gus said. “Work without working…”

“Hey,” Dad said, “you want to knock off the nonsense and help me with this goddamn thing?”

The loaded weight bar descended slowly toward Dad’s face. Gus circled it with one hand and gave a gentle left.

“You failing down there, Bob?”

“One more,” Dad said.

“Don’t cheat now Bob,” Gus said. “Milk it. Milk that negative.”

The negative was the way down. 

Gus helped him squeeze out a last rep, then guided the bar back into the bench hooks.

“You’re good at that Bob,” Gus said, winking again.

“Good at what,” Dad said.


Dad said, “I try.”

“Would you say you’re an expert?  At failure, I mean?”

Dad looked at me and shook his head.

“He sounds like your mother, don’t he?” he said.  “Full of crap.”  

Gus said, “I mean, can we call you a full failure?”

“Not yet,” Dad said, “but give me a couple of years.”

He snapped his fingers for me to get on the bench. Gus broke down the weight. 

We each did five sets of benches, raising the weight each time until the last, when we broke it back down to the original weight. When you broke it back down to the original weight and pushed out more reps, you were “cleaning up,” as if all the heavier weights had left your muscles in a mess. Then we did dumbbell flies, cable flies, bent-over rowing motions, upright rowing motions, military presses. We did French curls, preacher curls, dumbbell curls, and peakers. We did squats, dead lifts, wide-grip pull-downs, close-grip pull downs, triceps extensions. We sat up, side twisted, alternate toe touched, ran in place, clap-hands pushed-up, shadow-boxed, hit the speed bag, hit the body bag, skipped rope, and sparred until Dad caught me with a left jab that bloodied my nose.

“You did that on purpose,” I said, holding back the blood with my gloves.

“I told you to keep up your guard,” he said.

“Keep up his guard?” Gus said. “Kid’s so tired he can hardly hold up his arms.”

“Never mind that,” he told Gus, peeling off his gloves. “Go wash the blood off your puss,” he told me. “Put cold water on a rag and hold your head back. And don’t come out here crying.”     

The bathroom mirror looked like it was made out of tin foil, and then scorched with a blowtorch. You couldn’t find your face with a flashlight. In here, I guess you wouldn’t want to.  

What he did to me—it didn’t hurt. Or it hurt just a little. But it stung. It made me want to kill him. It made me want to dent him the way he’d folded that body bag. But I knew I couldn’t. I’d punch him in the waist and my wrist would crumple, and he’d just wind up calling me a sissy in front of all his friends and in front of mine. Like he’d done a thousand times before. It was better just to wipe off the blood and keep my mouth shut, act like the humiliation hadn’t happened.

The sink had only cold water. I turned it on and started pressing some into my nose. The water swirled pink and red against the sink’s film of rust and filth.

Strains of Barbara Streisand filtered in from the gym front. That was his routine. Work until failure, load a record player’s spindle with Barbara Streisand records, then spread his towel on a mat. “People,” “Why Did I Choose You,” “The Kind of Man a Woman Needs.” He played those songs so many times they were welded into my muscles. 

Once Gus told me the reason for the Streisand songs. Where Dad lived, in Williamsburg, there were lots of Jewish families.

“Jewish families, Jewish girls, you follow me?”

I told Gus no.

“Don’t be a schnook. Your old man fell for one of them princesses, hook-nose and all, but what a pair on her. What a keister!”

“What’s a keister?” I asked him.      

“A kesiter?” Gus said. “You’re sitting on it, but don’t tell him I told you.”

“So this was before Mom?” I asked him.

“Not so long before,” Gus said, looking into the distance. “Tsaurah Feld … man, he was crazy about her.”

“Really?” I said.

“Can you imagine? What a name… Like a ointment or something.”

“So what happened?”

“Nothing happened. Nothing ever happened with the Jewish girls.”

“What do you mean?”

“With them, Cliffy, it was just for fun, never serious. But your old man, he got serious. This is when he still had a soft heart.”

“Before the Marines?” I asked him.

Gus said, “Oh yeah.”

Out front, he was already sleeping like a cat. Bright sunlight poured onto his face. His muscles were still pumped. His veins looked thick as garden hoses. 

“Look at the vascularity on that son of a bitch,” Gus said. He was behind the counter, throwing ingredients into blender. “You think you’ll ever get that chiseled?”

I shrugged. My whole body was sore. “Mom thinks it makes him too over-tired.”

“Of course he’s over-tired. He’s overworked,” Gus said. “Two goddamn jobs.”

“Maybe he should quit,” I said.

“He needs that money, Cliffy.”

“No,” I said, “I mean this.”

“This?” Gus said, incredulous. “You mean training? Do I have to remind you who your father is?” he said, pointing to the shelves behind him. 

The shelves held rows of my father’s trophies. “Mr. Quantico, 1951.” “Mr. Long Island, 1954.” “Mr. Suffolk County, 1956.” “Mr. Pecs.” “Mr. Lats.” “Mr. Abdominals.” Photographs of him curling weight plates the size of freight train wheels, lifting up the front end of a Buick by its bumper, holding two grown women in the palms of his hands. 

“You should be proud of him,” Gus said.  “Christ sake, he’s practically famous.”

“He keeps believing he’ll get discovered,” I told him.

Gus set a power drink in front of me. It had protein powders and crushed vitamins swirling around a mix of skim milk, water, and raw egg.

“Maybe ten years ago,” Gus said, “but now?” He ran water into the blender, swirled it a couple of times, dumped it, and set the blender back on its base. “Thirty-four years old and they treat him like fucking Methuselah?”

“Hey,” Dad shouted from the mats.

Gus ducked, as if from a blow. Dad didn’t like anyone cursing in front of me.

“Sorry Bob,” he said. “I thought you was sleeping.”

“That’s not the point,” my father said, springing up. He draped his towel over my shoulders. “Sleeping or awake. I don’t want him hearing talk like that.”

“My mistake,” Gus said. 

“Give me a taste,” Dad said, taking my power shake. He took the whole thing down in a long draught, slammed the canister down onto the counter, and belched.

“Let’s go,” he said, shoving me toward the door.  He flipped me the keys. “You’re driving. Next Saturday,” he told Gus.

“We’ll be here,” Gus said.

“We?” Dad said. “You and your shadow?”

“Me and Methuselah,” Gus said.

“Methuselah this,” Dad told him.


Back home, Dad held open the kitchen door. “Take off your shoes,” he told me, even though I was already doing it. “And make sure you leave them on the stoop.”

He scraped his shoes off on the kitchen carpet. 

“How come you don’t have to take off yours?” I asked him.

“Because I’m the father,” he said.

Mom was ironing in the dining room. She had the transistor radio tuned into a talk show.

“How’d it go?” she said.

“How’d it go?” He snapped his fingers right in front of her face. “It went. Gone. Goodbye. Game over.”

Mom stopped ironing.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked. “Or should I even ask?”

He shut off the radio.

“It means it was gone the minute you didn’t wake me up.”

He walked past the ironing board into the living room, then the hallway.

She looked at me, counting in a whisper, “One, two ….”

Bang! The bedroom door slammed shut.

“Three,” she said.

I poked my head into the refrigerator.

“We have anything for lunch?”

“Hold it,” she said.

She raised a finger and began a new count.

“One,” she said. “Two.”

And from his room, the Barbara Streisand records.

He touched me, he put his hand near mine and then, he touched me…

She resumed ironing. 


Meggie Trioli

Copyright © 2016, Otis Nebula Press. All rights reserved.