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God's Gym is the first story collection in more than a decade from one of our most celebrated American authors. A two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and a finalist for the National Book Award, John Edgar Wideman is a master of the short story. He was awarded the prestigious Rea Award for accomplishment in the short story form, and these electric, mesmerizing stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including Harper's Magazine, GQ, Playboy, Esquire, Callalloo, and Fiction, as well as in The Best American Short Stories.
God's Gym features stories that explore issues of strength and faith, fate and belief. In the first story, Wideman writes, "My mother believes in a god whose goodness would not permit him to inflict more troubles than a person can handle. A god of mercy and salvation. A sweaty, bleeding god presiding over a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles. She should wear a T-shirt: God's Gym." Here are stories that chart the thorny relationships between genders, races, and friends, stories that break the rules and expose the turning points of life for what they really are.
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JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Philadelphia Fire, and most recently the story collection God's Gym. He is the recipient of two PEN/ Faulkner Awards and has been nominated for the National Book Award. He teaches at Brown University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My mother is a weightlifter. You know what I mean. She understands that the best-laid plans, the sweetest beginnings, have a way of turning to shit. Bad enough when life fattens you up just so it can turn around and gobble you down. Worse for the ones like my mother who life keeps skinny, munching on her daily, one cruel little needle-toothed bite at a time so the meal lasts and lasts. Mom understands life don’t play so spends beaucoup time and energy getting ready for the worst. She lifts weights to stay strong. Not barbells or dumbbells, though most of the folks she deals with, especially her sons, act just that way, like dumbbells. No. The weights she lifts are burdens her children’s, her neighbors, yours. Whatever awful calamities arrive on her doorstep or howl in the news, my mom squeezes her frail body beneath them. Grips, hoists, holds the weight. I swear sometimes I can hear her sinews squeaking and singing under a load of invisible tons.
I ought to know, since I’m one of the burdens bowing her shoulders. She loves heavy, hopeless me unconditionally. Before I was born, Mom loved me, forever and ever till death do us part. I’ll never be anyone else’s darling, darling boy, so it’s her fault, her doing, isn’t it, that neither of us can face the thought of losing the other. How could I resist reciprocating her love. Needing her. Draining her. Feeling her straining underneath me, the pop and crackle of her arthritic joints, her gray hair sizzling with static electricity, the hissing friction, tension, and pressure as she lifts more than she can bear. Bears more than she can possibly lift. You have to see it to believe it. Like the Flying Wallendas or Houdini’s spine-chilling escapes. One of the greatest shows on earth.
My mother believes in a god whose goodness would not permit him to inflict more troubles than a person can handle. A god of mercy and salvation. A sweaty, bleeding god presiding over a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles. She should wear a T-shirt: God’s Gym.
In spite of a son in prison for life, twin girls born dead, a mind- blown son who roams the streets with everything he owns in a shopping cart, a strung-out daughter with a crack baby, a good daughter who miscarried the only child her dry womb ever produced, in spite of me and the rest of my limpalong, near-to-normal siblings and their children my nephews doping and gangbanging, nieces unwed, underage, dropping babies as regularly as the seasons in spite of breast cancer, sugar diabetes, hypertension, failing kidneys, emphysema, gout, all resident in her body and epidemic in the community, knocking off one by one her girlhood friends, in spite of corrosive poverty and a neighborhood whose streets are no longer safe even for gray, crippled-up folks like her, my mom loves her god, thanks him for the blessings he bestows, keeps her faith he would not pile on more troubles than she could bear. Praises his name and prays for strength, prays for more weight so it won’t fall on those around her less able to bear up.
You’ve seen those iron-pumping, muscle-bound brothers fresh out the slam who show up at the playground to hoop and don’t get picked on a team cause they can’t play a lick, not before they did their bit, and sure not now, back on the set, stiff and stone-handed as Frankenstein, but finally some old head goes on and chooses one on his squad because the brother’s so huge and scary-looking sitting there with his jaw tight, lip poked out, you don’t want him freaking out and kicking everybody’s ass just because the poor baby’s feelings is hurt, you know what I mean, the kind so buff looks like his coiled-up insides about to bust through his skin or his skin’s stripped clean off his body so he’s a walking anatomy lesson. Well, that’s how my mom looks to me sometimes, her skin peeled away, no secrets, every taut nerve string on display.
I can identify the precise moment when I began to marvel at my mother’s prodigious strength, during a trip with her one afternoon to the supermarket on Walnut Street in Shadyside, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, white community with just a few families of us colored sprinkled at the bottom ends of a couple of streets. I was very young, young enough not to believe I’d grow old, just bigger. A cashier lady who seemed to be acquainted with my mother asked very loudly, Is this your son, and Mom smiled in reply to the cashier’s astonishment, saying calmly, Yes, he is, and the doughy white lady in her yellow Krogers smock with her name on the breast tried to match my mother’s smile but only managed a fake grin like she’d just discovered shit stinks but didn’t want anybody else to know she knew. Then she blurted, He’s a tall one, isn’t he.
Not a particularly unusual moment as we unloaded our shopping cart and waited for the bad news to ring up on the reeeeegister. The three of us understood, in spite of the cashier’s quick shuffle, what had seized her attention. In public situations the sight of my pale, Caucasian-featured mother and her variously colored kids disconcerted strangers. They gulped. Stared. Muttered insults. We were visible proof somebody was sneaking around after dark, breaking the apartheid rule, messy mulatto exceptions to the rule, trailing behind a woman who could be white.
Nothing special about the scene in Krogers. Just an ugly moment temporarily reprieved from turning uglier by the cashier’s remark, which attributed her surprise to a discrepancy in height, not color. But the exchange alerted me to a startling fact I was taller than my mother. The brown boy, me, could look down at the crown of his light-skinned mother’s head. Obsessed by size, like most adolescent boys, size in general and the size of each and every particular part of my body and how mine compared to others, I was always busily measuring and keeping score, but somehow I’d lost track of my mother’s size, and mine relative to hers. Maybe because she was beyond size. If someone had asked me my mother’s height or weight, I probably would have replied, Huh. Ubiquitous, I might say now. A tiny skin- and-bone woman way too huge for size to pin down.
The moment in Krogers is also when I began to marvel at my mother’s strength. Unaccountably, unbeknown to me, my body had grown larger than hers, yes, and the news was great in a way, but more striking and not so comforting was the fact that, never mind my advantage in size, I felt hopelessly weak standing there beside my mom in Krogers. A wimpy shadow next to her solid flesh and bones. I couldn’t support for one hot minute a fraction of the weight she bore on her shoulders twenty-four hours a day. The weight of the cashier’s big-mouthed disbelief. The weight of hating the pudgy white woman forever because she tried to steal my mother from me. The weight of cooking and cleaning and making do with no money, the weight of fighting and loving us iron-headed, ungrateful brats. Would I always feel puny and inadequate when I looked up at the giant fist hovering over our family, the fist of God or the Devil, ready to squash us like bugs if my mother wasn’t always on duty, spreading herself thin as an umbrella over our heads, her bones its steel ribs keeping the sky from falling.
Reaching down for the brass handle of this box I must lift to my shoulder, I need the gripping strength of my mother’s knobby-knuckled fingers, her superhero power to bear impossible weight.
Since I was reading her this story over the phone (I called it a story but Mom knew better), I stopped at the end of the paragraph above that you just completed, if you read that far, stopped because the call was long distance, daytime rates, and also because the rest had yet to be written. I could tell by her silence she was not pleased. Her negative reaction didn’t surprise me. Plenty in the piece I didn’t like either. Raw, stuttering stuff I intended to improve in subsequent drafts, but before revising and trying to complete it, I needed her blessing.
Mom’s always been my best critic. I depend on her honesty. She tells the truth yet never affects the holier-than-thou superiority of some people who believe they occupy the high ground and let you know in no uncertain terms that you nor nobody else like you ain’t hardly coming close. Huh-uh. My mother smiles as often as she groans or scolds when she hears gossip about somebody behaving badly. My, my, my, she’ll say, and nod and smile and gently broom you, the sinner, and herself into the same crowded heap, no one any better than they should be, could be, absolute equals in a mellow sputter of laughter she sometimes can’t suppress, hiding it, muffling it with her fist over her mouth, nodding, remembering how people’s badness can be too good to be true, My, my, my.
Well, my story didn’t tease out a hint of laugh, and forget the 550 miles separating us, I could tell she wasn’t smiling either. Why was she holding back the sunshine that could forgive the worst foolishness. Absolve my sins. Retrieve me from the dead-end corners into which I paint myself. Mama, please. Please, please, please, don’t you weep. And tell ole Martha not to moan. Don’t leave me drowning like Willie Boy in the deep blue sea. Smile, Mom. Laugh. Send that healing warmth through the wire and save poor me.
Was it the weightlifting joke, Mom. Maybe you didn’t think it was funny.
Sorry. Tell the truth, I didn’t see nothing humorous about any of it. God’s T-shirt. You know better. Ought to be ashamed of yourself. Taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Where do you get such ideas, boy. I think I know my children. God knows I should by now, shouldn’t I. How am I not supposed ...
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