The cook is getting fat. The baker too. The advantage to working in the Officers’ Mess, what makes it the most coveted work detail on the compound, is its offer of unlimited food. The cook, the baker, and I are allowed to eat whatever and however much we wish. It was an unfathomable proposition to swallow so to speak when reporting to work that first morning the cook set before me an egg and cheese sandwich. Just beyond the OM door, in the main mess hall, inmates were sitting down to a breakfast of runny grits and whole wheat bread. I looked at my sandwich. Its toasted bun shined with grease. I felt uneasy, undeserving even. The cook, laughing, pushed the plate closer, told me not to worry, told me I’d adjust. And adjust I did. After tiring of egg sandwiches I moved on to soft-boiled eggs with buttered toast. This followed by poached eggs followed by eggs over easy. Lately I’ve taken to six-egg omelets with tomato, spinach, and cheese.
One day our boss Mr. Salinas, in one of his cheery moods (a mood I trust even less than his typical dour mood), asked each of us how much weight we’d gained since coming to work in the OM. The cook admitted to thirty-five pounds. The baker, his eyes trained on a frosted sheet cake, replied, “Five to ten.” The cook and I looked at each other. Just last Friday the baker went to Laundry to exchange his pants, which he claimed were too short. Touchy about most things, from baking to politics, the cook and I ignore the baker’s excessive weight gain. We pretend not to notice he’s developed a waddle and that his ass often brushes us when traversing the narrow galley kitchen. We hold back laughter when the Mexicans in the dish room call him Cookie. If Salinas doubted the veracity of the baker’s five- to-ten-pound gain, he didn’t let on, and he turned instead his attention to me. He was about to ask how much weight I’d gained when he stopped himself, pursed his lips, and said, “Never mind. You don’t gain weight.”
Salinas is wrong however. In the past year I’ve gained some fifteen pounds of lean mass, this according to Reed, an inmate who runs the nutrition class and who regularly measures inmates’ body compositions. I arrive at his classroom door every month to strip down to my shorts and step on his scale. With steel calipers he pinches my body, first my arm, then above my nipple, then beside my belly button, and finally my thigh. He consults his chart, plugs numbers into a calculator, and tells me that I’ve gained just over a pound of muscle this month. My body fat holds steady at 6.3 percent, the lowest on the compound.
I record this month’s numbers in my fitness journal and plot my lean mass on a line graph using the straight edge of my inmate ID. For the past two years the line has steadily climbed, save for July of last year. Here the line plummets like a cliff crumbling into black sea. I was spending three hours a day in the gym then trying to keep my head above the brackish water and the other nine in my bunk idly fantasizing about hanging myself. (That month in suicide watch training we learned that a great height isn’t necessary for hanging; one only needs to tether his neck to any stationary object—say, a chair back—and lean serenely forward.)
I lost nine pounds that month. My body fat dropped to 5.3 percent. Reed became worried. “God forbid there’s a riot and we get locked down. I don’t think you’d survive on Johnny sacks.”
Lately my breakwater is holding strong. Tonight depression is only a dark line on the horizon, calm and faraway. Jack on the other hand is in a hateful mood. He slips quarters on the bar while muttering to himself, cursing the heat and wind, cursing the Mexicans for hogging the free weights, cursing himself even. For what? I ask.
“I’m fat,” he says.
“You’re not fat.”
He lifts his sweaty T-shirt and squeezes the sad white pucker of flab. “Am too.”
Jack and I have been lifting weights together for the past two years, and Jack’s been working out solo since shortly after he got locked up four years ago. As he settles onto the incline bench, myself poised to spot him from behind, I’m reminded of advice an art teacher gave me. She said a work of art that has become overly familiar, a portrait especially, can be studied afresh by looking at it upside down. In this way, I look down on Jack’s transposed features and see the lines, shapes, and colors resolve themselves anew. I see again his sharp Aryan nose and cheekbones, the smooth upturned plane of his lower lip, watery-blue eyes shrouded behind blonde lash. With every rep the tendons in his neck stand out like charcoal lines in a figure sketch.
You can learn a lot about a person by working out with him. I know for example in the way one side of the bar tends to drift toward the rack that Jack’s left side is stronger than his right. I know of his obsessive compulsiveness in his insistence that we rotate always counterclockwise around the bench and never clockwise. The familiarity of his workouts reveals a fear of failing at anything new. He is manic in the way he lifts, performing obscene numbers of sets with hardly any rest between, impatiently jerking the bar from its pegs rather than allowing me to help him unrack. I imagine he was as desperate in his drug use on the outside as he is now with his workouts. Exercise is his new addiction. And it’s paid off. Jack’s lost some seventy pounds since he’s been locked up, though his self-hatred doesn’t allow him to see this accomplishment. If only he could see himself upside down. I once asked Jack why when he came to prison he decided to get in shape. He said it was the only way he’d be able to convince people that he’d changed.
“Speaking of fat,” Jack says racking the bar, “I overheard someone in the chow hall today comment on how fat your coworkers have gotten.”
“It’s true,” I admit. “The baker’s blown up. And just today the cook went in for a new belt, and they told him they don’t stock his size. They said they’d have to make him a belt.” We move counterclockwise around the bench. I take a seat in the saddle, reach for the bar, run my hands over the knurls. Jack stands behind me ready to spot.
“Of course, you on the other hand are looking incredible,” Jack says. “No, seriously. Look at those veins.”
“You drug addicts and your obsession with veins.”
“Look around this weight pile and show me one man more ripped than you. Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?”
His question is somewhat rhetorical, as prison has no proper mirrors. In Mississippi each cell was fitted with a square of sheet metal polished to a warbly chrome finish, too small for anything but shaving and combing one’s hair. Here the mirrors are slightly larger but public. (It occurs to me how the free world by comparison is all but paved in mirrors, every surface glassy and gilded, the product of a society in love with its reflection.) Over the course of seven years I’d come to lose all awareness of my body for the lack of mirrors, until one day in the privacy of the OM bathroom I discovered I could view the entire length of my torso in the medicine cabinet by standing on the toilet. I was taken aback by how foreign my body had become and by how much it had changed. My shoulders had broadened. My chest had been redrawn in hard lines, and my stomach, once soft and shapeless, had been reworked and fired to hard ceramic. I unbuckled my pants. The sight of my penis made me feel inexplicably lonely. I came in the sink as Salinas was banging on the door, cursing in Spanish. He had to piss.
The outdoor pavilion that houses the weight pile is hot and crowded tonight. The orange water coolers sitting on the pile’s retaining wall have gone dry, and the Mexicans at the flat bench stand with their shirts raised fanning their bellies. Most of the dumbbells lie stacked around them like an iron fortress. They won’t use half of them but squat on them regardless so that the sex offenders can’t use them. This makes little difference to the SO’s who have setup a circuit at the squat rack. One man keeps time while another plows through a series of dead lifts, pull-ups, box jumps, and burpees. His grunts are drowned out by three black men at the curl bar beside Jack and me. The light-skinned man they call Yellow is boasting of the many women he’s slept with. He says when he gets out he’s going to snag himself a sugar momma. “I need me one of them es-phisticated bitches, one with a job and a 401 K.”
Jack, adding dimes and nickels to the bar, spits an epithet beneath his breath.
A white former cellmate, well-meaning and intending to educate me on the finer points of prison and life in general, explained to me once that not every black person is a nigger. Anyone, he said, can be a nigger. A nigger is defined not by race or color but by attitude and behavior. I was offended, of course; being new to prison I was offended by most everything. In years since, I’ve become numb to prejudice. It isn’t that prejudice is more prevalent in prison than in the free world, only more blatant. Jack once referred to the compound’s then newest queer—a flouncy Hispanic boy with plucked eyebrows—as a faggot. When he realized what he’d said he turned to me and apologized. “No offense. You know what I mean.” And strangely, I did. That I’ve come to understand this distinction—that as not every African American is a nigger, not every homosexual is faggot—makes me wonder if prison hasn’t turned me prejudice.
Jack bangs out three, six, eight reps. On his tenth rep I remind him to keep his ass in the seat before helping him rack the bar. Beside us Yellow drops the pair of dumbbells he’s been curling, and I feel the crash reverberate in the mat beneath our feet. “They’re going to break those weights,” Jack says, “if they keep throwing them around like that.”
The cook has commented before that Jack and I make for an unlikely friendship. Jack is high-strung, a former meth addict and self-proclaimed neo-Nazi. But I’ve seen Jack start to cry when speaking of his elderly mother. Perhaps I’m not so prejudice after all if I can see past his shortcomings. I’ve come to find his racist rants and anti-Semitic jokes amusing, to appreciate the unapologeticness of his bigotry. In the OM I overhear Officer Harwood say that the Obamas should stay in Chicago where they belong. Health Services Administrator Crnkovitch tells a table of colleagues she sees no reason she should go out of her way to give “some thug” his prescription pain medicine. In some ways I think Jack’s brand of naked prejudice is far less dangerous than its subtle, casual sibling.
Jack and I switch places. I straddle the bench, plant my feet in the mat, position my grip, inhale, exhale. I’d never lifted weights before coming to prison. I worked in the tech industry for eight years. On forms at the optometrist’s when asked how many hours a day I spend looking at a screen I checked the box marked “10+.” In high school I got picked dead last for team sports, which in itself isn’t extraordinary, until you consider one of my classmates was legally blind. As a shy kid I was turned off by the social aspects of athletics, so I wrote myself off as athletically incapable when really I’d never tried. It surprises me now, in my thirties, to find myself swinging dumbbells and bear crawling and skipping rope. What’s more surprising is that I enjoy these things. Yoga especially.
That I should have discovered this quiet and reflective practice in prison is ironic. I came to yoga when one morning I saw a small black man standing on his head in the middle of the gym surrounded by five students. They looked like Stonehenge. I approached the yogi after class. “Of course you can join us, Youngster! Be here tomorrow morning, eight o’clock.”
G, as he’s known on the yard, is in his sixties, has graying cornrows, and greets each of his students at the beginning of class with a handshake and hug. On the street he was a fitness instructor and two-time bank robber. At the beginning of each class he gives newcomers the same advice. “Gentlemen,” he says, “remember to go where your body allows you. Don’t be afraid to use those foam rollers if you need them. Your center is your belly button. Do not be afraid to pass gas.”
His students sway and stumble and collapse to their mats in huffs of exhaustion. Through the calamity G maintains his usual calm, standing on his head, his legs scissoring serenely in the air with nary a hitch in his voice. “Breathe, gentlemen. I want you relaxed from your nose to your toes. Feel those lines of energy.” Only once have I witnessed G’s cool demeanor wrinkle. Some Mexicans playing basketball nearby kept losing their ball in the middle of our circle. G, not breaking from his plank, shot them a look that made the hairs of my upward facing dog stand on end. The cook, who happens to know G from time they served together in Hurlong, warned me that G is not a man to be reckoned with. “He’s the nicest guy in the world until you fuck with him.” This he told me in G’s presence, with G grinning and nodding beside him. “It’s true,” G said. “I’m only nice because I choose to be nice.” He then described in chillingly methodical terms how he cuts his opponents, naming and pointing out major arteries on his body as a forecaster points out fronts on a weather map. “I’m not just going to cut you; I’m going to tell you where I’m going to cut you first.”
For all his robustness, G’s sciatica has been worsening lately, a problem the medical staff has largely ignored (—Why concern themselves with helping “some thug”?) One morning the pain must have been especially bad. After our usual embrace, he pointed me to his mat in the center of the circle. From that morning on I’ve played the class model, bending and twisting as G calls out the poses and walks around nudging and massaging students into position. “Gentleman, I want you to watch Youngster demonstrate a triangle. Go on, Youngster, show us a triangle.” Obediently I bend sideways at the hip to place one hand flat on the mat while extending the other up over my head. I imagine a string tied to my index finger, gently tugging my arm higher. I follow the silken thread with my mind’s eye, up over the gym, over the fence line, into the atmosphere.
I look up now at the bar pressing into my hands, try to clear my mind and ignore the banter beside me. “I know you didn’t do no three sets, nigga!” Yellow barks. “Sit yo ass down and finish yo set.” Above me, beyond the bar, pigeons roost in the pavilion’s rafters. I once told Jack that we’ll open a chain of outdoor gyms when we get out called The Weight Pile: it’ll be strewn with bird shit, offer rusted weights, and close at 8:30.
“Nigga, I know you ain’t using no weak-ass thirty-fives. Shit, nigga. Grab you these forties here.”
I press the bar, exhaling, and in the corner of my eye I see Yellow grab the forty-pound dumbbells at my feet.
“You’re going to ask to borrow those, aren’t you?”
Yellow’s lip curls. “Whatchoo talking ’bout?”
“Those forties. We’re using them.”
“No you ain’t. These our forties. You don’t use forties.”
“We are using them.”
“Bullshit. We always use the forties. You took them from us.”
Jack, who’d been standing over my shoulder counting reps, pipes in.
“Man, I saw him grab those from the rack. We didn’t take your weights.”
Yellow lets the dumbbells drop and takes a step toward Jack. The Mexicans go quiet. The SO’s go quiet. It occurs to me that in my hand is a bar; the bar weighs forty-five pounds; its tether is broken; it’s the only bar on the weight pile not secured to its bench. That these facts should have aligned themselves in my head surprises and scares me. Jack edges closer to Yellow. He’s in Yellow’s face. High-yellow, as they say. Gums bubblegum pink. Teeth ivory. I didn’t know color until I came to prison.
“What the fuck, man,” Jack says.
“You gonna do something?” says Yellow.
The two men are inches from each other’s faces. I continue pressing the bar, because I’m afraid of what will happen if I have to stop, because I’ve never fought anyone before, only ever play wrestled with my brother when we were kids. He used to pin me to the ground, pinch my nipples, and tell me to whistle.
I press the bar. My chest burns. “Let it go, Jack.”
Neither man moves.
I inhale through my nose, exhale through my teeth. I dig my feet deeper into the mat and push.
“Jack,” I say again. “Let it go.”
Yellow sneers. “You heard your partner. Let it go.”
And so he does. I rack the bar as Jack takes a step back. My shoulders and hands tremble. We spend the last few minutes of our workout doing flyes, Jack maniacally, explosively so. Walking back to the dorm, seething, tearing at his gloves, Jack promises to me all the things he would have said and done had there not been two of us and three of them. He promises to someday move to Maine or to Iceland or to some remote wood in Canada, someplace where the niggers don’t live, he says.
I remind Jack that Canada doesn’t take ex-felons.