(Departures . . .)
Dante was a big man, given to wearing bright, baggy workout pants and high-top basketball shoes. He had a gentle face that didn’t go with the thick, weight lifter’s body. I once tried to strike up a conversation with him at a party and had the impression that he was either very reticent, or the kind of person that you would reach on the phone and wish you’d gotten an answering machine. He always seemed out of his element and trying to figure out what was going on around him. Roberta’s parents characterized him as her furthest excursion into the land of the lowbrows.
I’m still not sure why I decided to do Roberta this favor. Maybe I wanted to reassure myself that, compared to some of her ex-lovers, I’d come off pretty good.
I called around and found out where and when he worked out: the Achilles Gym, at seven in the morning.
It was a storefront setup on the edge of the old industrial area. The monthly fee was cheap and the place had lots of free weights and all the right cable machines. A very serious gym. The dumbbell sets went right up to a hundred and fifty pounds. It was nothing like the well-lit health clubs with nautilus, saunas, and spas. No distractions. It was nearly empty at that hour but I knew what the clientele would be like. They would be people whose minds were centered on iron, the kinds of people who thought their jobs interfered with their workouts. They’d talk in bodybuilder’s jargon about “abs,” “pecs”, “lats,” “curls,” “cuts,” “supersets,” and “pre-exhaustion.”
I bought a single workout pass, pulled off my sweats, and went to work. I was into my third set of bench presses when Dante walked in carrying a silver workout bag. The third set was usually my best. My pectoral, triceps, and anterior deltoids were warmed and synchronized with my heartbeat and breath. It was the set where I liked to slide some real iron onto the bar, the point in the exercise where I felt the smooth, unbroken line that the bar makes, coming down to just above my sternum and then making the half-parabola back up to where my arms were nearly extended. I could feel the air racing through my lungs and the adrenaline colliding, in slow motion, with my bloodstream. I felt the burn in my chest and arms, telling me that the tearing down and rebuilding had started.
I sat up on the bench and watched Dante put on a leather training belt, which had the word “Rasta” embossed in Gothic letters on the back. He went over to the chalk box, chalked up, and walked over to me. It was the walk of stevedores working on the decks of container ships, of men who work around five ton steel hatch covers, and suspended, forty-foot cargo containers that can take a limb off without pausing, or nudge you over the edge of a seventy-foot deep, open cargo bay. Smooth and sure. At that moment, I realized I’d never seen him in motion.
“What’s going on? Didn’t know you were into iron, Basilio.”
“I do my best.” I said, smiling.
“When did you join?”
“Didn’t. Just trying it out.”
“Yeah?” He went over to the weight tree. “What do you want?”
He pulled a thirty-five pound plate off the tree, handed it to me and I slid it onto one end of the bar. He took another plate and slid it onto the other end. I settled back onto the black bench until my head was below the bar.
“Want a spot?” he asked.
“Yeah. Watch me on the eighth rep.”
“You got it.” He stepped behind my head and placed his chalked palms onto the scored section of the bar, just outside of where he knew my grip should be.
I reached up to where the barbell waited on the rack, gripped the chromed bar a quarter of an inch inside Dante’s hands, took a breath, pushed, and nodded. He didn’t need the nod. He connected with the rush of energy that went from my chest, through my arms into the metal. He pulled up with a smooth strength that made the bar float upward until it rested on the ends of my extended arms. I nodded again and his hands came away from the bar like a pair of owls taking flight. He did this so lightly that the two hundred pounds of chromed steel bar and black iron plates, three feet above my face, didn’t waver a millimeter.
I didn’t make the eighth repetition. On the seventh, I hit my dead spot, three inches above my chest. Dante saw it coming, reached out, and with the finger tips of both hands, gave me just the right amount of help. It felt as though a few ounces had melted off the plates, just enough for me to use the last reserves of strength to finish the rep.
We switched off until he’d gotten five sets, then moved on to inclined presses and declines. When we got to lats, I expected him to start with pull downs on the cable machine, but he went over to the chin-up bar instead. He jumped up to the bar with an effortless dancer’s leap. His hands caught and, for a second, his body hung absolutely still in the early morning quiet of the weight room. I heard him take half a breath and watched his back and bicep muscles swell as he rose smoothly toward the bar until his chin paused above it. I heard the air slide out of his lungs as he descended, coming to the bottom of the cycle. There wasn’t any cheat to his form, no shortcuts. Just pure, smooth chin-ups, from top to bottom. He went through ten reps, let go of the bar, and landed so lightly that I could barely hear his shoes hit the floor.
“Yours,” he murmured.
We finished the workout with sets of abdominal exercises on the inclined board and the leg raise apparatus.
After we showered, I took Dante down to the Outland for breakfast. Roberta had been right: he was hurting. It wasn’t hard to get him to talk. He was in that vulnerable stage of loss and his inhibitions were down.