Bastrop Barbell


picture :: Al Billings

It’s not often that fire envelopes me, but not too long ago, in Austin, wild fire wrecked things and, sometimes, the lives associated with those things.

Things and lives. Yet another sad and unpredictable Black Swan event.

Thousands of burning houses, even more burning pines, and a barbell.

After something like 80 days of triple-digit temperatures in Central Texas, after more than casual drought warnings, the odds are against the firefighters.

And Bastrop burns up into the sky. I keep having to remind myself that everything I am seeing around me is destruction, not life, not irregular clouds, but a return to ash.

After the fire is extinguished, Al Billings takes his camera into burnt Bastrop and comes away with a set of pictures that, for me, speaks about the present and the past, and, though I hate to say it, the future.


Someone lifted that barbell once upon a time. After school, this person took off his shirt, stripped down to his wife-beater, turned on the radio, and sat on the edge of the bench. This person had the luxury of having a little gym on his patio, to stay cut up, to keep lean, his parents got it for him two Christmases ago, that and a pull-up bar.

This person was a horse in his previous iteration.

This person stared out at the pine trees lining his backyard and listened to beats on the radio. An owl soared through the thin forest, swooped down onto a branch. This person locked eyes with the owl and fell back onto the bench and took a deep breath. This person had a callus at the base of each finger. He felt the calluses as he gripped the barbell. He took three quick deep breaths and breathed out of him as he pushed the barbell up away from the bench, away from his body, his heart. His cheeks blew outward.

This person thought about getting strong. This person wanted to be looked at and reckoned with. He guided the barbell down to the base of his chest, felt gravity teach him tiny things about the universe.

A breeze brushed over his torso. A bird called. Some guy screamed at someone in his 4 bedroom 3 bath cookie cutter house. A dish broke.

This person breathed out with all his might and pushed that barbell high up over his body. Down it came again, negative and positive resistance, the fight with himself, an inner struggle that strengthened his body and, in turn, his character.

3 sets of 10: This person. This barbell. Everything in between.

2 sets done, 1 more to go.

And 1 rep, 2 rep, 3 rep, 4 rep.

And 5 rep, 6 rep, 7 rep.

And 8 rep. And 9 rep. And 10 rep.

This person slammed the barbell into its place, sat up on the bench. Blood rushed back into his cheeks. This person looked at the droplets of sweat stippling his sinewy arms. He stood up and bobbed his head to radio beat. He knew the cinematic sounds of DJ Shadow well. And the owl showed off its wingspan and hooted. The sky looked like it wanted to open up and talk about how the sun was a giant asshole. This person jutted his chin up and sniffed the sudden breeze. Burnt. There was no reason.

October 17, 2011 4:33 pm

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