An Indelible Impression


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When I first met Mark, he wasn’t particularly impressive. He didn’t make a strong or indelible impression on me. He was like a lot of white guys in their late thirties and early forties who I’d come across: prematurely aged and showing signs that years of all different kinds of abuse—physical, mental, drug—had taken their toll. All this was evident in little more than a glance.

A few bits of thatch clung to the edge of his skull, but the top of his head held a sheen that spoke to years of baldness. His skin was pockmarked where sores had once taken root, and his general complexion was sallow, with red splotches. The yellow hue staining his few remaining teeth made his smile an unpleasant sight. At five foot five, 225 pounds, with thick thighs and a flabby, floppy gut, he appeared to be the epitome of the term “squat.” It was easy to dismiss him after one look as just another guy, not worth my time or energy.

He first registered on my radar because I kept catching him looking at me as I worked out on the yard. It wasn’t so obvious as to be creepy, but enough that I quickly picked up on it. I’d staked out a spot in a corner where I wouldn’t be disturbed, and it was there I performed a series of calisthenics and cardio exercises that my guy Burke and I had culled from memory, P90X infomercials, and Men’s Fitness magazines. Burke had been moved to another house, but I kept at it by myself.

After a week of surreptitious stalking, Mark finally worked up the nerve to speak to me. He waited until the tail end of yard, after I had finished my regimen. Even though I could tell he’d wanted to talk, I was curious but fairly clueless as to what the topic or purpose of it would be. After an exchange of names and prison pleasantries, he got right down to it.

“Do you think I could start working out with you?” His speech was hesitant, and he kind of stammered his way through it. He seemed extremely nervous, but I couldn’t figure out why. I also couldn’t fathom why he’d want to work out with me. While it’s true that, compared to Mark, I was practically an Adonis, I didn’t consider my physique anything to write home about. Mark went on to explain that he would be going home in six months, so he wanted to lose weight and get in shape. He saw I was out there every gym and yard getting money, and said he was in need of direction and motivation. He hoped I would provide both.

This was a situation I’d seen countless times and was another symptom of short-timer’s disease: Guys willfully neglect their health and bodies for months or years; but once they’re short, they expect to cram all the hard work and hit the streets looking like they’d been carved from granite. I despised the entire concept. On top of that, I wasn’t looking for and didn’t want a new workout partner. Burke and I had been buddies and ended up working out together as a natural extension of our friendship. I told Mark that I’d be out there every time, doing my thing, and if he wanted to show up, I’d put him through the paces. He grinned, nodded vigorously, and thanked me before walking off. I didn’t believe he’d ever actually show up for a workout.

The next time we had yard, he was there in my little workout corner, ready to go. And I was true to my word. Since I’d been doing my routine for a while, it came a little easier to me, but I didn’t let up one bit. I pushed and pushed until Mark couldn’t take it anymore—he had to stumble away and cling to the fence for dear life as he puked his paltry prison breakfast onto the concrete. When a person isn’t used to heavy workouts, this isn’t unheard of. I once scarfed an egg salad sandwich and barfed it up after doing dozens of squats and deadlifts (and FYI, egg salad has got to be one of the worst possible foods to taste as it comes up for an encore performance). Once Mark was done with his regurgitation, he wandered off on unsteady legs. I admit to taking a small, sick, twisted satisfaction in knowing that I’d made him vomit and quit. I was sure I’d never see him again for another session.

So when Mark returned at the next yard with a determined look on his face, I was impressed. Having once weighed 315 pounds, I knew how tough losing weight could be and how huge a toll on one’s self-esteem that struggle can take. Mark was clearly serious. I took pity on him, and brought him under my wing. That second time I slowed down, gave him more rests between exercises, and dragged him along with me to the end of the routine. He looked like he was about to fall out, but I congratulated him on getting through the whole thing and encouraged him to come back. Between huge gasping gulps of air, Mark managed to assure me that he would, in fact, be back next time.

True to his word, he returned the next day. Again and again, for weeks, it was the two of us in the corner of the yard, getting it in. What was initially impossible for him became gradually easier until he was able to get through our hour-long workout with minimal rest. Then Mark recruited another overweight individual who wanted to change his sedentary habits. I instructed him on proper technique and encouraged them both while getting in my own workout.

Shortly after that, a couple of short-timers approached me and asked how much I was charging to run my workout. I thought they were joking, but they were serious. Apparently they thought I was doing it as some kind of hustle. I told them that I didn’t charge anything, and if they wanted to show up next time they were more than welcome. Within a month and a half of my first workout with Mark, I had five or six guys every single yard standing before me with expectant and excited expressions on their faces, eager for another workout, all looking to me for direction. Without setting out to, I had become some kind of prison Billy Blanks.

It was a daunting task, having all these people depending on me to keep them going. But before long it was they who motivated me. On days when I didn’t feel like doing anything, it was the knowledge that they were counting on my guidance that made me get up and go.

From start to finish, Mark worked out with me for almost four months. He hung in there to the end every time and seemed to gradually become less round. Most of the other guys came and went, showing up only when they felt like it, but Mark never missed a yard. He would usually track me down in the chow line to double check that I would definitely be working out on yard. Our final time together was unremarkable from the rest. We pushed through the pain and were utterly exhausted at the end.

Our post-workout ritual was simple and had developed naturally. We bumped fists, exchanged comments of “good job” and “good money” before I clapped him on the back in an appropriately macho fashion and told him he was doing well and to keep at it. Then Mark walked away.
The next time I saw him he was mostly blue.

It was two days later. A little after seven in the morning, the C/O came around for the scheduled morning count. Suddenly there was a flurry of noise and activity: radios beeped and crackled, C/Os and white shirts rushed in from the front of the wing, past my cell door and off to my right, where I couldn’t see them. I had lost my eyeball in a recent shakedown and hadn’t yet fashioned another, so all I could do was stand with my body against the door and my face pressed to the perforated steel plate that acted as my window. In that awkward position, I looked and listened.

Photo by Arvind Balaraman /
Photo by Arvind Balaraman /

Two lieutenants hustled Mark’s cellie out with his hands cuffed and his head hanging low. He looked bleary-eyed, but suitably baffled and forlorn. A handful of other C/Os and loos milled about aimlessly, looking shaken and saying little. Within ten minutes, another commotion arose as a doctor and four nurses rushed past with a wheeled stretcher clattering in their midst. Less than two minutes ticked slowly by while muffled voices and muted grunts of exertion were the only stimuli I could discern.

The stretcher blazed noisily back past me with the nurses providing locomotion and the doctor performing perfunctory chest compressions that were obviously pointless. My eyes were wide and unblinking as I strained to pull in every fragment of information I could. Mark’s eyes were wide, unblinking, lifeless. I glimpsed them along with his pale, blue-tinged skin and stiff features. He was 42 years old with 63 days left on his sentence. Heart attack.

There was an investigation, and Mark’s cellie was cleared of any wrongdoing and let out of Seg. Questions were raised about whether there had been any significant changes in Mark’s eating or exercise habits in the previous few months. I was never pulled in by Internal Affairs or asked anything directly. A couple of my guys did have to go to IA, but they were convicts, soldiers, and they revealed nothing. I couldn’t help but think that I was responsible, that maybe his over-the-hill heart had been too stressed by our workouts. It was certainly not murder, but it was something. I stopped exercising for a while after that. Even now, years later, I still can’t quite shake the image of his vacant eyes staring up at nothing.

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