ART BY GEOFF SEBESTA
It was during the summer before middle school when I decided I no longer wanted to be fat. It was really Ronny Mankner's fault. Ronny had spent most of that summer with his dad, an Alaskan Park Ranger. He and I were good friends, city boys, but when he came back from Alaska, even the newly grown splotches of fuzz on his lip were tan, and his muscles were defined due to scaling mountains and stalking caribou. I didn't realize the extent of his transformation until a day before the start of 6th grade, when the two of us went swimming at the public pool.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw, or how jealous I would be afterward. He took off his shirt and his abdominal muscles stared at me like six unblinking eyes. I wanted to stare back but felt insignificant, like having abs was an exclusive club, and I was on the outside getting pummeled by the bouncer. I was not prepared for his sculpted stomach. I looked down at my own belly, soft like jelly, and then back to his, chiseled and distinct like an ancient Greek statue.
"Yo Ronny," I eventually said, pointing but not looking at his stomach, "when did that happen?"
"My dad, man," Ronny replied, grinning stupidly, "He said that if I was going to survive hunting in Alaska I needed to improve my core. Apparently your core muscles are the most important. I'm talking improved balance, stamina, strength. If you define your core, everything else will follow."
"Apparently," I mumbled.
"Yeah, he had me doing this ridiculous two-hour regimen every morning. After like a month I had this cheese-grater stomach, been working on it ever since."
"Compelling stuff," I replied sarcastically, and then hurried to the pool, hoping the water would hide my abdominal insufficiency.
The rippling waves and surface water distorted my image. I felt normal again. The only thing Ronny had on me in the water was his bronze skin. We tossed a miniature football around for a while until one of my throws sailed over Ronny's head and landed on the pool deck. He swam over to the ledge and used his chiseled arms to hoist himself onto the moist concrete. Partially because I wanted to avoid looking at him, and partially because I was just a weird kid, I ducked under the water and stuck my hands above the surface, hoping that Ronny would toss the ball and I would use sheer instinct to reel it in.
Seconds passed and my breath became harder to hold. Eventually I had to come up for air.
"Marcus," Ronnie yelled, "Welcome to the world!" As I rubbed the chlorine from my eyes I heard two new voices laughing at Ronny's joke. As my vision cleared, I saw two gorgeous girls standing on either side of Ronny. From the looks of them they were older.
"This is Stacy and Carlyn."
"Like the comedian?" I asked.
Carlyn smacked her gum a few times, looked at Ronny, then at me. "What?" she replied.
Carlyn was beautiful. Her hair was strawberry blonde and she had a perfect pear-shaped figure. Her freckled face led to a just-developing chest that flowed into a slim torso and blossoming hips. The purple bikini she wore molded to her shape and left little covered.
Carlyn's counterpart was just as attractive. Stacy was a girl with a lip ring, every 6th grade boy's dream. Ronny with his muscles and Stacy with her lip ring were way ahead of the curve. Her jewelry made me wonder what else might be pierced. Stacy's hair poured from her scalp like melted chocolate and the sun illuminated her pale, trim body. She stared at me when I surfaced, but smiled only when she looked at Ronny.
I swam over to the poolside ladder and pulled myself out. For the next half hour or so Ronny talked to the girls, and I stood there, wrapped in a towel, listening to their conversation. I was easily able to cover my pudgy stomach and chest, but it was much more difficult to cover my envy.
When I got home I rushed to our family computer and frantically began searching the Internet for: "abs", "how to get abs", and "making abs."
After half an hour of searching I came across a link that appeared promising. It was a news story about a New Mexican man in the 70s who went by the name Antonio Ironstomach. According to the article, Antonio had such control of his stomach muscles that he could eat loamy sand, drink some water, and then, several hours later, he could regurgitate a tiny adobe brick. During the hours before vomiting he would flex, clench, and roll his abs to shape the brick.
The Brick-makers Union of the South contested that this was impossible, that bricks needed heat to form. To appease the Union, Antonio began to eat hot tamales with his loamy sand. The brick-makers weren't amused. Nonetheless, Antonio won enough fame in his day to get his own show on the Vegas Strip.
After reading the article, I revised my search parameters: "Antonio Ironstomach + abs". 24,398 hits. I found more literature on Antonio than books in your average library. The pictures I found were just as interesting as his story. In almost all his pictures Antonio stood in front of a crowd, shirtless. His hair was long for a man -- shoulder length -- and his face looked cracked, beat-up, and concave, like he had been in one too many bar-fights. His stomach, however, ought to have been framed and hung in a museum. Antonio's abs were as distinct as squares on a checkerboard. Shadows created by his muscles looked like fault lines leading to his hairless chest.
That's what I wanted. Abs better than Ronny Mankner's. Brick-making abs.
Attached to Antonio's biography and photos was a list of his exercises, compiled by his daughter after his death in 1997, and donated to the now defunct Vegas Strip Museum of History.
Complementing the exercises were illustrations identifying the appropriate clenches and rolls, as well as instructions for how to mold the sand once it was in your stomach.
I intended to follow every step until my abs looked just like Antonio's. Until Stacies and Carlyns flocked to my side to play tic-tac-toe between my stomach lines.
I started my workout routine the next day. I woke up early before school and worked on my abs for an hour and a half. Throughout the morning bus ride, I wore my sore stomach like a badge of honor.
When I got home from school, I copied my morning routine: rolling my stomach, clenching the different regions, and adding sit-ups in between the strenuous sessions.
When I was nearing the end of my exercises for the day, I heard my dad clear his throat. He was standing in the doorframe of my room, staring at me as I lay on the ground, mid sit-up.
"Marky Mark," my dad said, "what you up to there?"
"Oh, nothing really," I replied, catching my breath. "I just heard that a solid core is a good way to improve overall fitness."
"It sure is boy-o. You know back when I used to play at Miami, we spent whole workouts just working our abdominals and obliques. This gut I got now, back in college, it was quite the chick magnet."
"Good to know, dad."
"Yeah, football was damn good at getting me in shape. I started playing about your age too, sixth grade. You know, if you're really serious about getting in shape, you should go out for the team. Try-outs are in what, a month?"
"How do you know that?"
"Oh, I bumped into Ronny's mom at the post office. She mentioned Ronny was going to try-out for wide receiver."
"Oh yeah?" I said, wondering if I'd be ready to make bricks in a month, "I'll have to think about it."
"Hey, buddy, just let me know. I'm still pretty damn good. I don't know if I've ever told you this but if I hadn't tore my ACL I would've gone pro andů "
"We'd have a bowling alley in our living room and a chocolate fountain in the kitchen," I finished my dad's sentence. I couldn't remember the last conversation we had where he didn't mention his college football days.
"That's right, boy-o. What could have been, huh? Well, you keep working hard, maybe tomorrow you can run some routes for me in the backyard."
My dad left and I finished my exercises. When I took a shower later that night, my stomach already looked smaller. The droplets of falling water no longer curved around my bowl-like gut: they eased their way down in a slightly straighter path.
It had only been one day but I was noticing changes I figured would have taken weeks. If I could keep this up, in a month's time I'd be making bricks and out-running Ronny Mankner for a starting spot on the football team.
I kept my workouts on track for the next few weeks until my abdominals morphed into steel. At the same time, my arms and legs also began to strengthen. I was soon able to take stairs two at a time, an accomplishment that I had once only dreamed about.
I also began participating in regular football workouts with my dad.
"You know, Marky," he said to me one Saturday, "I was worried about you for a while there."
"How do you figure?" I responded.
"I don't know. Don't take this the wrong way, but you just seemed off. I'm glad you're going out for football, though. It'll put hair on your chest and, if you're anything like your old man, you'll be damn good at it."
"No need to thank me, son. You're doing all the work; I'm just guiding you. Now, run a 25-yard buttonhook. Remember to come back to the ball."
I used a withering oak in our yard as a marker. Sprinting past the tree I curled around the trunk, my shoulder brushing the flaking bark. As I curled, my dad launched a perfect spiral at my chest. I corralled the pass, took a jab-step to the right, and then broke to the left, stiff-arming the tree for good measure.
"Not bad," my dad said.
Finally, the day before football tryouts arrived.
However, I knew there was something I had to do first. I had to make a brick.
After a month of intense work, I felt that my stomach was ready. My torso looked like ocean waves when my abs rolled, and I could clench my muscles to the beat of any song. I thought of inviting Ronny Mankner to the spectacle but then I figured this would be a bad idea. What if I couldn't pull it off?
I didn't have loamy sand. But, digging through a creek bank near my house, I tapped into some clay, which I figured would work just fine. I raced back to my house and went to the bathroom. After wandering into the backyard with my supplies, I quickly downed the cup of clay.
Next came five minutes of clenching, rolling, and tightening my abdominal muscles, followed by a series of stomach jabs designed to position the clay properly. As I poked and prodded at my stomach, I could feel the shape of a brick beginning to form. The brick was mushy, like baby food, but it was there.
After downing half of a bottle of water I decided, as a tribute to Antonio, to eat a couple of tamales.
Then the intensification began. For the next hour, with a few rest intervals, I clenched, rolled, and tightened my stomach in accordance with Antonio's instructions.
Next, I took an hour break, using the time to stretch my stomach in preparation for round two. My stomach was sore, a flashback to my first days of working out, but not sore enough to make me give up.
The second hour of clenching was more grueling than the first, but I was hoping that I would soon hit the brick-making high that Antonio frequently wrote about. At this point, he wrote, the brick has been completed mentally. You can feel it inside you, and you know that you are less than an hour away from glory. This last half hour must be the most intense, although it will not feel that way because of adrenaline and endorphins. The brick-making high will cancel pain.
But I never got to the brick-making high.
Instead, an intense pain shot through my gut. I screamed -- a horrific, guttural noise -- and fell to the grass in agony. I clenched my abs as hard as I could but the pain only increased. Antonio had never mentioned such excruciating agony. As the pain reached unbearable levels, I passed out, hunched over on the lawn.
I woke up in the broken comfort of a hospital bed. My parents were by my side, and a doctor stood over me.
"Son," the doctor said, "you had an intestinal obstruction, caused by an abnormal amount of clay in your large intestine." I wondered if there was ever a normal amount of clay in your large intestine.
The doctor continued, "We had to operate."
Instinctively, I ripped off the cotton hospital blanket and lifted my shirt, exposing a six inch incision along my stomach held together with surgical staples.
"Everything's all right," the doctor said, "The surgeon was able to remove the damaged section and reconnect your intestines. Now, it is very common for scar tissue to form on your stomach so be prepared for that. Also, a common side effect of this type of surgery is breathing issues. You'll have to use an inhaler for several months and during that time I suggest you don't attempt any strenuous physical activity. We're going to keep you until tomorrow to make sure the wound sets properly. If you need anything, there's a nurse right outside your door."
And then he stepped out of the room, leaving me with my parents.
"I just wanted to make a brick," I told them apologetically.
"It's okay, sweetie," my mom comforted, "You're going to be alright." And she kissed my forehead. My dad just stood there, towering over me. His arms were crossed and he squinted at me, as if trying to bore a hole through my skull with his mind. I knew what he was thinking. I wouldn't be playing football this year.
During the months of stagnant recovery I reverted back to my former, pudgy self. My scar punctuated my stomach like a wine stain on white carpet.
My dad didn't talk to me until a week after I came home from the hospital, and even then our conversations were mundane: what to get mom for her birthday, whether to rake or mulch the autumn leaves, what to eat for dinner. There would be no new glory days.
Towards the end of the year, I watched Ronny strike up a conversation with the always-beautiful Rory, a student our age who was rumored to have modeled in a GAP ad. She brushed his bicep with the backside of her hand and I cringed.
As I sat there feeling sorry for myself, a dainty hand reached toward my own stomach.
"What's that?" a tender voice asked from my left.
I looked at the girl sitting next to me – Felicia was her name – and I saw that she was pointing at my scar, which she could see through the fabric of my shirt.
"Oh, nothing but a stupid scar," I replied.
"Come on, Marcus, there must more to it than that. What's the story? How'd you get it?"
"Making a brick," I said softly. "Improving my core."
Seth Harrington recently graduated with a BA in history from the University of Minnesota, Morris. This fall, he will begin a graduate program in creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. In his spare time he compiles list of fiscally irresponsible degrees and then decides which to pursue next. He also enjoys ketchup but not tomatoes. This is his first published piece.