Comrades

It wasn’t the softly shuddering rain that woke me but the scraping of steel legs on concrete. A leak, cold and black in the dark, had sprung over someone’s bed. Throughout the dorm men pushed their bunks clear of the drips, stripped their mattresses, and set mop buckets in aisles and atop lockers. As we settled back into our dry beds, bars of mute lighting flickered over the room.

As predicted, renovations on the dorms have stalled. For the past month the neighboring unit has sat vacant with ductwork stacked on the floor. It seems the only progress made has been to pull the bunks away from the walls to allow for painting. Not everyone is thrilled with the new color scheme. One man said that the pale blue stripes remind him of a day-care center or nursery. Another man countered that both are apt metaphors for a men’s prison. Elsewhere on the compound, signs of abandonment and neglect catch the eye. Torrential rains have washed out the road to the library. A cracked window pane in the chow hall, struck by an errant pigeon, remains boarded. A trench dug for the purpose of erecting a fence between the upper and lower yards lies enshrined in yellow caution tape, and the road cones have toppled in the wind.

Perhaps it was this raggedness, in collusion with the cooling seasons and shorter days, that made me decide I needed a change of routine. Routine is the bedrock of every inmate’s bid, the pendulum that drives the clock, and lately mine had seemed to have grown stale. A flier in the rec center advertised a fitness class that promised to whip me into the best shape of my life. Jay’s been going since March and suggested I join.

Class meets three nights a week in the gym, a faceless brick box only slightly larger than the basketball court it accommodates. Evening regimens were well underway when I arrived. The sidelines were thick with synthetically-clad men squatting and lunging, pushing and sitting up. All ellipticals were occupied and cranked to maximum tension, and judging by the Rorschach sweatblots on the fronts of their shirts, some of the men were already into their second wind.

Meanwhile on one end of the court a crew of mostly Hispanics warmed up by shooting baskets. Those not playing did push-ups or handstands, and some did push-ups and handstands at the same time. I asked Jay who these titans of Olympia were.

“That’s the other fitness class,” he said. “They’re mostly West Texans and Tango Blasters. We share the same timeslot.”

Across the gym the Hispanics had taken up medicine balls and were hurling them at the floor. The thundering impact made my scrotum tighten. I turned my attention to our side of the court where Jay and I sat stretching alongside eighteen or so other men. Of our own crew, three were over the age of fifty, five were overweight, at least one morbidly so, and four, not including myself, were clearly homosexuals.

“Jay, if those other men are West Texans, who are we?”

Jay lowered his water bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He smiled. “Why, we’re the sex offenders, of course.”

Of course I knew Jay was a sex offender. After a career in the army, where he served as a sniper, Jay entered law enforcement and eventually computer forensics. He was working as an investigator for an online child pornography taskforce when he got busted for hoarding the very contraband he was responsible for policing. When I told Jay that his circumstances were ironic, he laughed. He said that having access to the “goods” aroused an interest, and that even cops can be perverts. I was referring however to the other irony: as an assassin, killing once made Jay a hero; porn turned him into a criminal.

Incidentally our fitness instructor Gabe was a sniper in the marines. He arrived to class donning a shapely King Tut beard and yellowing tank that suggested an unassumingly yet undoubtedly fit body. Gabe too is a sex offender.

“Time to warm up, dickheads!”

“He means comrades,” Jay said.

Across the gym the West Texans were already in the throes of their workout, performing mountain climbers in tidy military formation, legs synchronized and kicking like angry pistons. Their instructor was a compact Mexican with tortoiseshell abs and a hard, menacing ass like a Brahman bull’s. Gabe had us gather around him and start with jumping jacks.

Earlier I had jokingly asked Jay who the weakest link in the class was, so that I might stand beside the poor slob to make myself look better. But after a modest five-minute warm up of jumping jacks, leg kicks, and hammer throws, I realized that poor slob was me. Light-headed and nauseous, I wondered if anyone would notice if I were to grapple along the wall toward the door and slip from the building. My indolence was shameful.

“Line up, assholes!” Gabe cried. “Get ready for bear crawls!”

I say I was the weakest link in the class, but this isn’t entirely true. As the workout progressed, I saw that in a group of geriatrics, overweights, and queers, I was only the fourth least fit. The oldest man trembled on emaciated arms with each push-up. The morbidly obese man they called Gene looked one squat away from death. And young, scrawny gay Allen was clearly doing only half the reps. Gabe left the senior alone and concentrated on terrorizing the others. “Allen, get your dick out of the dirt!” “Move it, Gene, you fat fuck!” Being the new student, Gabe spared me his heckling. Instead he encouraged me, which was far worst. I would rather have had expletives hurled at me and been called a lazy sonofabitch and worthless sack of shit than be cheered for my pathetic efforts. Dragging my limp body across the gym floor, slipping in puddles of sweat and blood blood! my god! who’s bleeding? I could see in my burning peripheral Gabe’s tennis shoes tracking my progress, could hear him shouting at the others: “This is what I want to see! This is the kind of effort I expect from you pussies!” At the halfcourt I collapsed onto my side. Across the gym the West Texans were swooping into dive bombers, bay doors gaping, engines gunning. I mopped the sweat from my eyes and looked up to see Gene standing above me, one hand outstretched, the other pulling his shorts out of his ass. I shooed him away.

“I’ll fine,” I said.

Bear crawls were preceded by gators, followed by dirty dogs, frog hops, scorpions, and inchworms. Then, having exhausted the animal kingdom, Gabe wheeled out a cart of medicine balls and instructed us dickheads to shoot them up against the gym wall. I had a bad experience with a medicine ball once. In Mississippi I got socked in the face with one during an abdominals class. It was my first ever bloodied lip. It was also the first and only time physical harm has ever come to me in prison, and, strangely, it came not at the hands of a yard brute as I had long expected and feared but from six pounds of airborne sand.

Sand, it turns out, is quite heavy. Moreover it is a dead and unsympathetic weight, one as old and unyielding as the earth itself. Through numerous reps we shouldered this ancient burden, heaving it against the wall and catching it in a squat, running in place with it pressed to our chests and raised above our heads, with Gabe all the while hollering insults, demanding we gallop faster, lift our arms higher “Higher, assholes!” I fixed my gaze on the flaming orb suspended above me. The gym’s fluorescents had turned my medicine ball into a solar eclipse, a most perfect black void ringed in fire. Its twilight cooled my face and stilled my breathing. The pain in my arms and in my thighs ebbed momentarily under the influence of its gravity. For a few hushed seconds all raggedness the moldering roads, broken panes, toppled cones, leaky roof everything broken and unloved diminished to a speck no brighter than a terrestrial satellite. It’s no wonder so many men spend their bids in the gym.

The last few minutes of class were reserved for abdominals. What pleasure, after all that flailing, to lie across the grit and filth of the hardwood floor. But leisurely situps and crunches wouldn’t suffice for Gabe. He preferred instead bicycles and sprints and jacks, moves that are challenging enough in a vertical position and made nearly impossible when lying flat. He saved planks for last.

“I swear to God,” Gabe said, “if I see any one of you fuckers touch his knees to the ground, you’ll all be doing push-ups.”

The West Texans meanwhile had wrapped up their workout and were beginning to file out of the gym, stepping over our rigid bodies with looks on their faces that, had I looked up, might surely have registered disgust.

“Allen, get your ass out of the air!”

Allen stiffened beside me. His arms quivered and the cords in his neck bulged.

“Ten seconds! Don’t you quit!”

Across from me Jay stared straight down, jaw clenched, nose inches from the ground. Gene’s belly barely cleared the floor.

“Five seconds!”

Allen crumpled. Gabe, spitting and snarling, leapt to his feet. We would pay, he cried, the whole sorry lot of us would pay, with push-ups, one for each position of every letter in Allen’s name. Allen was too exhausted to show remorse or shame, and we his comrades, his fellow dickheads, sympathized too much to begrudge him. Without complaint we assumed position and paid our penance. And when Allen was the last man left struggling on the floor, we returned to the court, dropped beside him, and finished the last of his forty-four push-ups together.

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