This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
Sean spies a green envelope on his keyboard, his third this month alone. The branch manager glides by with a smile and congratulations. She’s off to a meeting. Back at you, Sean winks, confidently. The computer boots up. He drums the new gift card on the desk. Five dollars won’t cover a latte, which is beside the point.
A senior loan officer sneaks up and flicks his wrist, casting an invisible rod into the great blue. “Keep reeling in the equity lines, Bro.”
Sean has talent. He reviews loan requests. He sends the good ones upstairs for approval and provides reassurance to those who fall short. He looks forward to the day when he, too, will sit upstairs.
Openings come and go, his superiors say, urging him to stay the course. Until then, gift cards must suffice.
After work, Sean heads to the gym. For two hours, he pushes himself. Fingers wrinkle from sweat. Quads quiver with fatigue. There are bites on his inner cheeks. His saliva tastes metallic.
In the locker room, he chooses a side-chest pose, body quarter
Two days, free weights for chest and upper arms.
One day, rest for reconstitution.
Zero day, for glory.
In a small cinder-block apartment in Marin City, Sean’s brother is slumped over the kitchen table. His mother is in the living room, watching TV, alternating puffs between cigarettes and a misting machine.
Sean hands over the gift card.
She lifts her breathing mask. “I’ll call the ladies for another coffee date.”
“You’re going to make them jealous, waving all those gift cards.”
“That’s not what makes them jealous.” She coughs, puffs a Marlboro.
The flat smells of cigarettes and fried meat.
Sean enters the kitchen to prepare egg whites, raw kale, and green tea with protein powder. His brother doesn’t stir but his ribs expand and retract.
Later that evening, Sean checks on his mother again. A soap opera drones on the screen.
“Is he staying here from now on?”
“He needs to stay off the streets. That’s what the probation officer says.”
“There are shelters.”
“Scrub your mouth. He’s your brother.”
Sean climbs into bed, skin taut, wrapped over coiled muscles. He lies awake in the dark, listening to the sounds of the housing project—the boom of hip-hop, a man and a woman arguing, screeching tires on the pavement.
He’s awake at three a.m. when his brother leaves the flat. In the living room, his mother sleeps while another soap opera plays on the TV.
The judges occupy the first row. Sean’s mother and the coffee-club fill the second row. Behind stage curtains, Sean rubs oil over his body. He stands apart from the other athletes, visualizing poses, awaiting the call for his division.
He steps on stage with nine glistening strangers.
Power surges through his frame and his muscles become rock hard, from his calves up to his face. He’s in the center position—a lucky draw. The judges order quarter turns. The process takes less than twenty minutes. Votes are tallied. Sean is ranked fifth—too low to advance.
In the parking lot outside the auditorium, the ladies compliment Sean. His mother gives him a bear hug.
Sean looks at the asphalt, wishing he could rise in life.
A heavily muscled man approaches and requests a private word. His hand is callused, his voice dry as chalk.
They walk to a far end.
“I’ll keep this simple,” he says. “I run a gym in the city. This is for you only.” He hands Sean a business card. “If you’re serious.”
On the bus, Marin City slips away. San Francisco opens up with noise and traffic. Sean finds his way to the address, a converted warehouse, south of Market.
The place rings with metal on metal. Lifters sport massive frames. There is hardly talk—just grunts and the occasional roar.
Sean picks up a dumbbell and works an arm.
The man who gave him the card appears. He leans over. “Who taught you to curl?” He demonstrates proper form. “Probably cried the other day, like a pussy. What did you place—last?”
Sean does not react. He’s used to the bravado of bodybuilders from his other gym.
The man points to Sean’s thighs. “Those are pathetic. Lesson one, my friend: no holidays. Lesson two: you start from scratch.”
“Why’d you pick me?”
“You smiled from way down, bottom of the shit pile, actually. That takes guts. Most bros—even the good ones—pose like they’re at a funeral. Not you. But I’m not making promises, either. You’re short and barrel-chested. Life’s not exactly fair.”
Preparing for the day, Sean stares into the bathroom mirror. He flexes a front lat and practices the smile, then buttons his shirt and fixes his tie, converting his frame into an animal locked in a cage.
His mother snores in the living room. His brother nods off in the kitchen, a black ankle bracelet now showing under the hem. Sean leaves them a note saying that he’ll be home late. He shuts the front door, one hand gripping a gym bag, the other a bus schedule. He’ll be traveling to the city again after his workday.
He arrives at the bank, eyes out for another gift card, complementary glances, any sign he’s moving upstairs. Life offers chances to break free, Sean believes, with every muscle he can flex.
But he can never predict when a little green card will appear on his desk.
He flicks on the computer and waits for the screen to welcome him back, stretching his smile as far as it can reach.