Mighty Mouse, by Candance Booth | Tales from the Gym

Picture the girl with pipe-cleaner arms, trying to do one chin-up on the empty jungle gym. After hanging motionless for 30 seconds, she drops down and walks away.

Picture the girl standing in the grocery line. Someone takes cuts, but she says nothing. A new cashier opens up, but she lets those behind her move ahead. Her stomach churns.

Picture the thin girl, standing before the water cooler bottle that sits on the floor. This bottle is too heavy for her to hoist onto the stand. Instead she leans it over and pours some into a bowl.

Picture the woman afraid to ask for a raise, and whose wrist collapses when she tries to raise a pot of water from the stove.

The Highway 620 gym isn’t a franchise. It’s entrance is just below a restaurant that looks out over the hill country. Many of the gym members are middle-aged women with kids, guys with strong arms and legs but a bit of a paunch. The aerobics room is booked most mornings for Jazzercize class and booked twice a week for a group studying martial arts. Kick boxing was cancelled due to lack of attendance. It’s a good gym in which to be anonymous. It’s easy not to compete. Not that there aren’t any hard bodies. The personal trainers are buff, and a few of the people they train are lean machines.

Two Marines train together in the evenings, when they are on leave. They spot for one another—intent, counting the reps, urging each other on. They bench press 250 and move to the next apparatus.

Picture the weak girl, working her shoulders with 5-pound free weights. In some directions, 5 pounds is too much.

The Marines are oblivious to the mirror-lined walls as they move from one machine to the next. Not so the woman who arrives at 9 a.m. in full makeup, long hair made bigger and fluffier with back combing and blow drying. She and a friend discuss what they got for Christmas while doing leg lifts and adjusting their sport bras:

“What did he get you?”

“I don’t know. It was stolen before I got it.”

“What happened?”

“He bought it at Neiman Marcus. He was on business at a hotel in Houston. They broke the window of the car and stole his briefcase and presents.”

“But you don’t know what it was?”

“He wouldn’t tell me. He’s buying me another one. But he also got me makeup. The Gold Collection. Everything’s gold—the large compact, the small compact, the lipstick, the 12 eye shadows.”

The two women work the mirrors more than the weights, which spares them from any heavy breathing or the kind of perspiration that would streak the Gold Collection. They are not in the gym at night, when the weak girl lies on the floor and does sit-ups. Instead, a wife and husband and new baby arrive. Although the baby is only 2 or 3 months old, the mother could be a stand-in for a TV fitness show host. She has no apparent body fat, no breasts to cage up in a sport bra. She can leg press 250. “I love to work out,” she says to one of the trainers. She gives the baby a bottle when it cries and adjusts a blanket so that the overhead fans don’t blow on its head. Mostly the baby sleeps. Its tiny little hands cannot do one chin-up.

This baby is probably the only human in the gym weaker than the weak girl, who is now doing toe raises to build up her calves. You can never go easy on calves. You have to beat consciousness down into the dormant muscle cells, which makes the calves complain bitterly and build up in self-defense. It works best of you can make them say “uncle,” but this is hard to hear, as the martial arts class is bellowing what sounds like “Key-ah! Kiai, kiai, kiai!” You hardly expect to see a kid come out, dressed in his black practice clothes. He walks s-l-o-w-l-y to the drinking fountain, s-l-o-w-l-y to the bathroom, s-l-o-w-l-y back to the classroom. He does this every night they practice. He has a white belt and a crew cut but a wandering spirit.

The gym is to be avoided during the midday, when it’s the most crowded. At night you can use any piece of equipment without waiting, change the TV or music channels, spend a long time stretching out on the floor mats. The weak girl finishes forearm curls around 8:15 p.m. and admires the faint curve forming above the wrist.

Six months pass.

Picture the girl effortlessly refilling the water cooler at work, stumping old bushes in the yard, carrying the overstuffed chair up a flight of 27 stairs. Picture her standing in the movie theater ticket line. The people stretch straight back and into the street because no one is smart enough to wrap the line down the sidewalk. The girl says “Let’s not stand in the street. Let’s wrap the line back on the sidewalk.” Everyone obliges. When a man walks up a few minutes later and takes cuts, the girl says cheerfully, “Sir, the line wraps around here.” The man moves to the end of the line.

The girl’s stomach does  churn. Picture the girl at the end of her contract at work. As usual, it’s just before Christmas. Her manager asks if she can extend three months. She pauses. Maybe she feels her forearm as it rests on her desktop. Maybe she is aware of hamstrings against the chair seat or the mid-line definition of a stomach that is not churning. Maybe not. All we know for sure is that she says, “I’ll need a raise.”

It’s hard to imagine that a quadricep with good separation has much at all to do with writing columns or the computer industry or how much money you make or whether someone lets you drive their Porche 911 Carrera. But imagination isn’t everything. At the end of the millennium, the not-so-weak-as-before girl gets a raise. With a little more muscle mass, who knows what may happen in 2000.

I admired Mighty Mouse.
When I lay sick in bed,
I played with my faded plastic replica—
Mighty Mouse in his spaceship,
cruising the quilted peaks.

Later I envied trapeze artists,
for whom a chin-up was nothing,
even at forty feet.

Now it’s my cats I fawn over.
Their motto:
no harm asking
Their body a race car:
delivers at any speed.        

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