R.J. Becomes a Piston by Tom Weller

R.J. Becomes a Piston

The greatest recorded number of consecutive sit-ups on a hard surface without feet pinned or knees bent is 25,222 in 11 hours and 14 minutes by R____ J____ K____, age 8, at the Idaho Falls High School Gymnasium on December 23, 1972 – Guinness Book of World Records 1978


Before he becomes a piston, R.J. is a heavy bag.

“Hey, Spaz.”

“Nice glasses, Spaz.”

“Why do you walk like a girl, Spaz?”

“Heard you’re going to get jumped today, Spaz.”

The blows come all day long. Each one lands with a pop, a sting like a gloved fist meeting flesh. Each one sends shockwaves rippling through R.J.


Before he becomes a piston, R.J. is a carnival barker’s megaphone.

The thought never formed in R.J.’s head, just came booming out of his mouth when the gym teacher threatened sit-ups for the whole class: “I’m not scared of sit-ups. I can do more sit-ups than you.” The voice doesn’t feel like his own. It rattles R.J.’s back teeth as he speaks. Two sentences born as a bluff grasping toward hope.


Before he becomes a piston, R.J. is a Rorschach test.

Look at him laying straight and stiff on the slick gym floor. What do you see? Is it a dead man? Is it Sleeping Beauty?

See how he’s interlaced his fingers behind his head, bending his arms into triangles? Do you see a boy with wings? Do you see a boy restrained?


Before he becomes a piston, R.J. is a spring.

Sit-up, sit-up, sit-up. Just an elongated nod, really. Raise the head, curl the neck, and keep going. A little grunt to get started and then a wave of momentum, a release of tension, a changing of form. Coil and stretch, coil and stretch. Natural as a heartbeat.


Before he becomes a piston, R.J. is a nursey-school music box.

I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle. Here is my spout. When I get all steamed up hear me shout. Tip me over and pour me out. The song, bouncy and silly and stupid and fun, fills R.J.’s whole head. It drowns out the voices of the children swirling around him, suffocates the ghosts of those voices, too.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Tea. Pot. Short. And. Stout. Nursery song becomes work song. R.J. moves in time with the lyrics.


R.J. becomes a piston. It happens in the middle of his five hundredth sit-up. Clarity arrives like a thunderclap.

Thousands and thousands and thousands of parts. The Happiness Machine has more parts than there are birds in the sky. But RJ is the most important part, the one part driving the whole beautiful business. R.J. is the piston. Up. Down. Up. Down. Pumping away. R.J. makes the Happiness Machine go.

And R.J. is the biggest part. All the other Happiness Machine parts are tiny, nearly microscopic, weightless. They float through the air, inconspicuous as dust motes and dandruff, but when RJ starts pumping, when R.J. keeps himself going, all those tiny, tiny parts spring to life, spinning and turning and whirring together, precise as watch works.

The spinning parts of the Happiness Machine pull in all the darkness around them, even the dark thoughts swirling in R.J.’s head, even the ghosts of those dark thoughts. The Happiness Machine grabs it all and grinds it down to something finer than ash, and the Happiness Machine blows those fine dark remains sky-high, blows them out above the clouds, out into the cold silent corners of outer space.

Sit-up, sit-up, sit-up. R.J. feels the light freed by the Happiness Machine rippling around him, feels it moving through him like electricity. The air around him smells bakery sweet. Sit-up, sit-up, sit-up. He parts his teeth and opens wide, tastes that sweetness coating his tongue like cotton candy melting in a greedy mouth. But he has to keep going. Sit-up, sit-up, sit-up. From bluff to hope, he keeps going.


RJ Becomes a Piston


Tom Weller is a former factory worker, Peace Corps volunteer, Planned Parenthood sexuality educator, and college writing instructor who recently relocated to Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including Litro, Epiphany, Phantom Drift, Paper Darts, Silk Road, Booth, and One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo: Fifty Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories.


(Next: Falling at Fallingwater by Michael Backus)

(Previous: What He Has Learned to Do by Steve Edwards)

Feel like submitting? Check out our submission guidelines


Image (modified): here CC0