Buff | Kevin Heath
(I) The first place I saw a naked man was the sauna of the Nautilus Fitness Center in Quincy, Illinois. Pineapple juice was sold there in small cans, very cold, and I had one in my hand as I glanced through the portal window at him, sitting, looking back at me. I was an inexperienced teenager and unable to draw a connection between that place and the deeper implications of human inadequacy it represented, the need to indulge oneself in suffering, for example. Men ran in rubber suits there. They grimaced like griffins under huge stacks of weights. They belted themselves into chain-and-sprocket machines, illusions of perpetual forward motion. They returned naked into a cedar box to sweat upon sweat, to clear the mind and calm the emotions, as the sign outside the sauna read.
At the Fitness Center bodybuilders stood in delicate poses before mirrors streaked with sweat, grinding the balls of their bare feet into the carpet and swiveling their hips just so. There were women whose pectoral muscles made a second cleavage, whose thighs were built to crack lovers' ribs like lobster shells—or so we fantasized. I never fell in love at the Center, but lusted. A temple of hormones. Here a woman in candy-striped shorts astride a squatting machine, deep squatting and squatting again. Here a man making advertisement for gay sex: pelvis on the floor, chin up, grasping his ankles from behind and pulling them toward his back.
The body, the body. I wanted more under my hood. I kept journals to track my lifting. I swallowed desiccated liver pills, big as lozenges. I drank protein shakes at night and went to bed with an aftertaste of milled bones in my mouth.
(II) My father was a former high school football coach with a master's degree in physical education, which, for me, meant doing isometric exercises in my fifth grade classroom. The exercises intimated riddles and bodily koans: straining to pull my own clasped hands apart, or on a ten-count, trying to lift my desk with myself in it. My exercise-themed Christmas in junior high—ankle weights, a barbell set from Sears, a pec master with jangly bands of steel coils that pinched the nipples, heavy tension handgrips, a weight halo to strap around the forehead to strengthen the neck. These I did of my own free will—sets of sit-ups during television commercials, hand-stand push-ups, my feet grazing the basement paneling. At eight I could bat right and left handed. At fourteen, I knew where my trapezium muscles lay.
During an earlier time in my life my dad and I wrestled in the living room. My sister rang a bell, my mother watched an egg timer. We came at each other like circus bears, he lurching along on his knees, and I, eyes narrowed and arms outstretched, testing his reactions. This was the way to execute the half-nelson. This was trying to break a headlock with my father's whiskers on my temple, the dry smell of his scalp in my nostrils. In high school, getting stronger from weight training, I could grab him from behind, lift him, and shake him until he pled with me to stop. Payback too for my older sister, who was born cruel, who gave vicious Indian burns and who could make me cry by seizing my hand and pushing my pinky back into its joint. Me at sixteen: zits on my back, a downy fu manchu moustache, and lean arms newly creased with muscle.
(III) These days, in the afternoon when the summer heat has built, I run four miles on the asphalt bike path that connects our small town with Columbus to the north and Cincinnati to the south. To harden the body. To endure. To equip myself to survive pathogens and self-doubts—out with the bad air. Who's afraid to hurl at the end of a ferocious run? Not I, though I've yet to run as ferociously as all that. The bike path cuts through a housing development. I pass dwelling of Winey, Mortensen, Biddinger, Sheridan: all men my age with walking partner wives, fanny packs and water bottles, alabaster calves. I leave the bike path for the park by the creek, leap deadwood like a scout, scatter hissing geese, run until the stray dog loses interest.
On my runs, I am prone to thoughts of irrationally deeper levels of strictness. Quotes from my outraged subconscious: No sweets, ever. Train in military boots when the snow comes. Scythe the lawn. Five hundred push-ups a day—five thousand, in sets of five hundred. Install chin-up bar in youngest child's bedroom doorway. Make family indomitable of will. Audacity, audacity.
“Don't die easy,” Walter Payton, who famously ran sand dunes, advised his son. Germanicus, the son of Tiberius Caesar, rode horses bareback to strengthen his underdeveloped legs, his one physical deficiency on an otherwise imperial physique. I keep running, thinking of Germanicus and Payton, my narrow ankles, inherited from my mother, of Schembechler and Lombardi: fatigue makes cowards of us all.
(IV) Recent feats of strength: I am carrying, one by one, six railroad ties across my yard. I am hoisting them into the bed of a dump truck. I am bringing an iron firebox out of the basement, step by step, staggering out of the cellar like Odysseus out of Hades.
And these observations, from my past: (a) I never saw my mother move furniture, though move it did. We returned to find the hide-a-bed transported to the attic, the pie safe willed from living room into den. How had it happened? I imagined peering in a window and witnessing her secret powers, lost niece of Kal-El, holding the dining table in one hand, dusting the underside of it in the absentminded way one might dry a dish. (b) I once watched my father fall on icy front porch steps, carrying a sewing cabinet with the sewing machine inside. He fell on his side, the cabinet on top of him. The impact must have broken a rib, ribs. We never knew. My father was the opposite of a hypochondriac. He sat up, spat hard, and lifted the cabinet again. Pain, he taught me, could come at any of life's moments. Let it come, back muscles seizing, hernias blowing like mortar rounds, pulling with a cable between its teeth 1,000 pounds of sewing cabinets, a cairn of iron fireboxes.
Suffering remains God's wage. This outward man decays. At 42, I ache like the devil most mornings. I limp down the stairs from the loft bedroom, holding heavily onto the railing, the top of my right foot fragile as a crust of pottery from my running. There's nothing to be done to forestall God's hand, but I die trying. For God's part, He chides me in my most frightening dreams: I am far away from my children. And I am frantic to save them. And I cannot get to them. And even gravity resists and the ground slips underfoot like a broken treadmill. And if only I were stronger.