The Contest

1. And you’re off.

Push-up tournament without any written out brackets. No money exchanging hands. Winner gets rep—no ifs ands or buts. It was a competition, so you wanted to win. The prison you transferred from had none of this.

You helped each other train. You had partners. You help me, I help you.

Blood vessels burst, eyes squeezed shut. “You got this,” the man spotting you would say, “All you,” and you’d push out one more rep on the bench.

During the sweat, the encouragement, it was almost like you weren’t going to soon be opponents. Nothing else killed time like learning to ignore the obvious.

In each corner of the yard, two armed officers, vigilant, disgusted, each one clutching the rapid-fire automatic rifle strapped around his shoulder. You avoid eye contact. All contact. You also never look down. Or up. Snipers sit up there. You only dare to look out at the expanse, all that stuff past the chain links, past every face, past the broad black field of cement that eventually transitions, behind greater fences and lookout towers, to a mini-mall parking lot. Home Depot. Target. Runner’s Gear. Seagulls take to the sky, all year round.

5. You hear them. You go fast. Faster than they fly. You have to go fast. Perfect form. Elbows in and eyes up. You don’t know what you’d do if they gave you a deduction or disqualification. You focus on you. Win and you make hell sweeter.

Everyone has an escape plan. Yours was good behavior. Until you learned some news a couple months back. You focused on training, on getting big, making real change, believing in yourself, tracking the change. Get strong again, get back to how you were before the incident. Before you hurt her. When you heard about the contest, you were down. Now, now you’re a quarter into the last match. You remember what discipline feels like. Goals.

A year ago you were just living your life, married, decent apartment, decent job. Saving up for a place on the upper peninsula. One day, at least. Living and surviving, okay with leaving okay enough alone.

It was a year ago when your wife Kacie started being the pen-pal of an old family friend, a man your age who she knew when she was a little girl, but who’d made some mistakes, gotten caught up with the wrong crowd and had got picked up on some narcotics and guns charges.

“‘Trafficking,’ she’d say, regarding Anatoly’s offense. “Can you believe it? That makes it sound so…”

“Isn’t that just what it is?” You’d say.

“You never get it.”

10. You never never never remember if elbows-in means good form for quantity or quality. The time for getting stronger is over. Nothing matters after this.

Anatoly’s mother knew Kacie’s mom and suggested it could help her poor son (only 29) get by if Kacie’d reach out, make contact. So they wrote each other letters. Hand-written notes. All of his came written on graph paper. You were aloof. It was a once a month thing. She kept the letters in a shoebox, all of them folded into tiny squares. She did her thing, you did yours. She went back to school and then loved the job she got. Paralegal. She went to professional conferences, seminars, she loved it so much. Space was good for a relationship. 

15. You look at your opponent. He’s got the buzz cut of a guy that never had one before but still it suits him. Severe. Like a Soviet dissident. His arms and chest are bigger than yours but you’re taller, he’s just more compact. That explains the size difference. He don’t got anything you don’t.

Once, you tried unfolding a letter, piece by piece and thumbs fumbling you had only one fold left to go, but Kacie caught you.

20. Your mouth’s dry as a coffin. You’ve lost two teeth in prison already. One was your fault. Your mouth doesn’t feel like your own anymore.

The second time you tried to get into the letters, she was in the room, too. You were half-assing the effort, you were really just trying to be annoying. You managed to get farther, though, crowding her out with your hips. Fumbling with the paper you accidentally ripped a page but she snatched it from you after a shocking jab to the balls. You felt it in your throat. The content of the letter looked boring, but you were sure you saw the word “caress.”

25 down and nothing hurts. Nothing can hurt you. Not worse than you’ve already felt. You know you’re sweating but you don’t really feel it yet. If you keep it moving, you’ll win in no time.

Five-hour drive, she took. She visited him one frigid weekend in the winter. 

“I told you last week I was going,” she said, grabbing her keys. You couldn’t remember, but you were never a great listener.

You were busy that weekend, you couldn’t go. When she was gone, you looked for the shoebox but she must’ve taken it with her. If there was nothing to hide, she wouldn’t hide it, you realized. When she returned Sunday night, it was basically over, but “basically over” lasted for a long week. Divorce is one slow, slow silence.

30. The guy here judging the contest, thank God, is an impartial guy, a fair guy, seemingly religious or at least with the crucifix tattooed on his throat, you could assume he’d have at least a bit of moral fortitude.

You regret what you did, of course. You weren’t even a big drinker. When you get out, you’ll have no taste for the stuff. You won’t touch it.

It was like the bad joke: being so awful a lover you turn your partner gay. But what was it with you? Was it the bad conversation on dates? Too few dates?

35. 110’s your personal best and you calculate, 1/3 there. You could always handle math, simple math. You could calculate tips 1, 2, 3—wasn’t that good for something?

Was it the way you kept the sink? Was it how fast you drove in the snow? You should have written more notes, little love letters like they do—(do they do that anywhere but in movies or dreams?)

50. They are rooting for the other guy, some people are. The Russian squad. They chant his name and say things only they understand.

How could she choose a criminal over you? You think, all too aware of the irony.

You want her, you come to think. Still. Sometimes you can’t help but think what you did to her—the whole reason you’re here now—was worse than what she did to you. You regret what you did. Before you ruined her life. It was like a dream, running from the ditch. Crash, and you abandon her car there and pass out numb. To just leave while awake and drunk in the woods. You didn’t even consider checking on the person in the other car. You didn’t even call 9-1-1. Manslaughter.

75. Your shoulders burn. You spread your feet out and your back sinks someone says, “Lift up lift up. You got this. All you. All you!”

You never would have thought the cops would go to Kacie’s job the next morning. When you drank your last beer and got in her car, you never imagined they’d storm into the law office, take out her of her office in handcuffs, through the partners and the clients, only to be sent back, later in the day, to be told to clear her desk and leave through the back door by 5pm.

You look for someone to blame. They say, All you, all you.

The way her mother would talk about Anatoly so nostalgic, so, Oh, if only, right in front of you, as if he was on Wall Street or running for president. He wasn’t even running for mayor. He was in fucking prison, the loser.

100. You look at your opponent. Sweating. He looks like he’s trying harder than you. Is he tired? Is he done? You fight your back’s collapse with every fiber in your body. You exhale and it’s hard to take any more in. Everybody’s rooting for you except the Russians. The Russians cheer for him to keep going, to break his personal record of 101, to kill you, and you imagine him with your wife, your ex-wife. You fall to your chest briefly at this image of the man at your side on top of her, making her do things she didn’t do at home. This is him. You’ve ignored this fact outwardly for months. You’ve ignored him, Anatoly, up to the crucial time.

101. Even though you cut your toenails yesterday, your toes bleed from the pressure.

102. No, this is really him. You found out two months ago. Anatoly. You did it!

You told no one and as far you know Anatoly has no idea. You trained with him. You were partners. He did pushups with you on his back and the next moment you were maxing out on the bench press, able to get that last rep out only by imagining a razor blade his throat or saving up to pay someone to rape him.

102. Both of you stuck on the same number, you’re each taking a break. You exhale big, make eye contact, nod, chew at your teeth. An exhausted smile that shows only in the eyes, your mouth doesn’t move.

Your elbows may never work again. Two of your fingers look crooked. Your wrists—stop looking. You twitch away a burning cramp in your throat. You lift up one more time. He doesn’t. 

103. They call it. You win. 103. Less than you thought you needed. This is why you’ve trained so hard. To win. Then X him out.

The crowd circles around us tight. From somewhere, the guards yell to break it up. You’re still on the ground, but you’re getting patted on the back. A shiv finds its way into your hand. You get up, walking off-balance on your heels, the crowd keeps you in the circle.

Anatoly’s forehead’s planted flat still, nose on the ground, he’s breathing heavily. You jump on him and work to bang his head into the cement but he gets to his knees and he falls back on top of you. The blade’s gone and the Russians are fighting your crew and the guards are pushing in. You look for the blade but a fist finds you first. A second blow gushes blood from your face, but you blink away the shock and get up standing behind Anatoly.

It’s too late to win anything, you think. Locked up, nothing means nothing.

But the circle around the two of you stays strong and so does your headlock around his neck.

Hate doesn’t lose, not in prison.

“I won!” you yell. “Give me a fucking pen! Give me a pen!”

DANIEL LARKINS is a writer and teacher from New Jersey. His work has appeared in the New Ohio ReviewThe Rumpus, Bombay Gin, New Politics, and other places. He is working on a novel about a sheriff during Reconstruction.
The Adirondack Review