In mid July, 1970. Kyle and MaryBeth too a stroll down Lucas Avenue. The heat of the day had broken with an afternoon thunderstorm and the winds of a mild cold front that would relax the sun’s grip on Louisville for a day, perhaps. A fresh north wind blew through MaryBeth’s long dark hair and carried the sound of metal clanging onto concrete with it. Kyle, knowing the sounds of garage weight training, looked past MaryBeth’s smile and brown eyes. There lay Lucas Court, a collection of modest brick ranch homes all well maintained. He saw where the sound came from and remembered that the Skolnick kid lived there. They were the same age, but Kyle had no notion that the Skolnick boy, Drew, as he recalled, was still there.
“Do you know Drew Skolnick?” Kyle asked Mary Beth.
“I remember the name but can’t really place him,” she said. As class president going into their Junior year, she had tried to learn as many kid’s names as she could. “I think he might be in the Advanced classes with Susie Powell. In fact, I remember her saying that he was the curve breaker in her Math Functions class last year.”
“Uh huh,” Kyle said, pulling her with him and turning his steps into the court. To Kyle, Drew was just the strange, heavy kid who kept to himself. He never played ball with the other boys, and Kyle remembered seeing the boy crying as he road an old bike away from the Camp Taylor swimming pool. Girls had been laughing, pointing, as he passed, and Drew’s face was a mottled red. Just then, Kyle saw a dark shape moving in an even darker garage behind one house at the far end of the court. Block shaped, wide at the top, solid all the way down was the shape he saw hoisting clanking iron from the floor.“Drew, if that is him back there,” Kyle mumbled, “grew.”
Within the two car garage, a radio tuned to WAKY played Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” A mason’s tools and kit occupied the right side; Drew and his weight occupied the left. He was in the middle of his high rep deadlift sets, which he interspersed with sets of pull ups from an old pipe chained to the rafters. Those sets made him sweat, always, but he did them through all times of the year. Today, he relished the cooler breezes of the evening that swept into the open door behind him, for they promised that autumn and winter, his favorite seasons, would come, at last.
The garage was where he spent much of his time, with his books and weights, fantasy and science fiction blended with heavy reality of his iron. And the books matched the diversity of the iron weights he’d cobbled together from everywhere. Some weight plates matched, as did the cover art of all the Tolkien and Robert Howard books that lay in piles on an old work bench, nearby. Most weights and books lay in piles on floor and workbench, like happy orphans, glad for the company. It was, perhaps, a lonely world, but it was all that a quiet, ugly boy like Drew needed as he did his best to navigate his teenage years with a father who drank too much. His doting mother, deaf from birth, did the best she could for the boy. She certainly fed him well.
Drew offloaded the plates from his bar as Kyle and Mary Beth walked down his driveway. Pulling out some home made weight stands, he placed the empty bar on them and dragged a rickety, incline bench between them. Loading a couple of fifties on either side, Drew began his incline presses. Kyle watched him and whispered to Mary Beth,
“That’s at least two and a quarter,” as Drew calmly pushed out twelve reps. Drew heard the whisper even through the clanking of the loose plates on the bar. He turned and saw these gods of his high school world staring and smiling at him. His face reddened, and it wasn’t from the weights. Cool and fresh, as though they’d both been brought by the welcome breeze, they stepped across his threshold, and he said,
“Uh, what?” Their smiles dazzled him, though he, like any kid who walked the halls of Durrett High School, knew them in an instant. His problem was that he had no idea what they were doing there. “I mean, what do you want?”
Blond, handsome Kyle, in his polo shirt, jeans, and Chucks, just smiled at him and said, “Do you need a spot?”
Mary Beth, her tanned legs contrasting with her white tennis shoes, gave him a bright smile. Her manners were better, and she recognized their intrusion and said, “Hi, Drew. We were just out walking and Kyle saw you and…” She didn’t know why they were there, but Kyle did.
“What do you weigh now, Drew?” Kyle asked, earning a light elbow nudge from Mary Beth, who would never put that question to anyone. Kyle bent down and picked up a twenty-five pound plate, gesturing with it as though it was nothing. Kyle had grown up, too. At six feet already, he played at around one ninety and had been elevated to the Varsity football squad at the end of his sophomore season. And, despite huge gaps in offensive line talent, had run for at least a hundred yards a game.
“Maybe two forty. Don’t know, really. It doesn’t come up much, the subject of what I weigh,”Drew replied. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in days, only his mother, and he did that with his hands. The words lay heavy in his mouth, and he didn’t think he wanted to try any more. “Why don’t you leave and go be cool somewhere else?” he said to himself.
“The weight you were deadlifting, what was that, three fifty or so?” Kyle asked.
“Four ten. All the weights I got,” Drew mumbled.
“And you did twelve reps, as I counted, then did twelve pull ups,” Kyle added.
Drew nodded but didn’t say anymore, and Kyle’s smile beamed brighter.
“From what I’ve just seen, you have—or can—break any lifter’s records in the county, maybe the state. That makes you about the strongest person I’ve ever seen. What I want is to know if you’ll come out for the team. With you leading me, I’ll break every rushing record Durrett has, easy.”
“It’s a crap team,” Drew said.
“Let’s make it different, you and me,” Kyle said and offered Drew his hand.
“I’ll…I’ll think about it. Maybe talk to my Mom,” he replied but didn’t take the hand that was offered.
“We’ll have a blast,”Kyle said, his voice rising like he was trying to entice Drew. Mary Beth looked on. Kyle kept his gaze away from her. She was too pretty, the dark hair and warm brown eyes, her shape—everything. He didn’t know what to make of her careful smile as she listened to Kyle make his offer. Drew had no trust of a girl’s smile. Kyle took back his hand and picked up one of the Tolkien books. “You know this man’s work and his background, right?”
Drew nodded, having read all he could about Professor Tolkien. Drew thought himself closer to the aging Oxford Don than to one of the gods of Durrett.
“Then you know the lines, ‘Mind must be the stronger, heart the bolder, courage must be the greater, as our strength grows less.’”
Kyle’s words lit the inside of Drew’s shadowed thoughts like the dawn. Kyle, the blonde jock, Mr. Popular, knew Tolkien, knew his treasured Anglo-Saxon lit, had read “The Battle of Maldon” well enough to know its most important line. The way Drew saw it, no one he knew would have known that material.
“I need a warrior on my side, and I have a good feeling that it might be you,”
Drew extended his hand, and Kyle took it. The hand clasp was hard, strong, though neither boy wanted to out-squeeze the other. The books, the call of warrior, Drew’s years of loneliness coming to an end, he said,
“I’ll give you the best I got.”
That memory played like an old song in Drew’s mind as the doctor examined him for signs of concussion. Drew allowed it, though he grumbled at Mary Beth and Emma’s insistence that he he seen to. Drew thought,”I should expect that much, passing out in a hospital.”
The intern who examined him told Drew that if he felt any headaches or problems with his vision, he should go see his doctor as soon as he could. Drew just stared at Kyle, confined to his bed, his limbs seeming to strain against his bonds.
“Kyle,” he whispered low, so that the girls wouldn’t hear him.
“What?” Kyle whispered back, though the body in the bed said nothing.
His hands gripped the chair arms so hard that he heard a crack from where they joined onto the frame. Drew rose and hurried from the room, shaking his heavy head. Mary Beth moved with him and followed him out the door. She caught him by his sweatshirt sleeve and tried to stop him, but he dragged her along as though he didn’t notice.
“Drew, stop…please, please.”
“What?” he demanded, turning on her in the middle of the hall. She hugged him hard and lay her head on his shoulder, pressing her fragrant hair to his neck.
“I…don’t know…what to do. What do we do?”
“N, nothing. I don’t know. I’ve gotta go,” he mumbled and took her arms from around her neck. “Go hug Kyle.” Drew turned and marched away, without looking back.
On the stairs that led down, where he hoped to get out, Drew pushed away the memories of his father’s words: “That boy’s nuts. All he does is read them stupid books about elves and warriors and shit. He’s a loony. Never talks to me, anymore.”
Drew’s mom had signed back, “Why would he? You don’t care anything about him. He’s smart and kind and sensitive, all things you are not.” As a scene that played out too often at home, Drew had run from it. The only time he hadn’t was when his father slapped his mother and knocked her down after saying it. Drew had grabbed his father by the arms and thrown him across the kitchen, where he shattered the table. When he righted himself, his father hadn’t come after him as he promised. He just said, “See? He’s a nut job. He stays in that damned garage all day with those weights and books, probably just jackin’off to ‘em!”
Drew found the lobby and spied the front door and the night outside. The thought of walking home from General Hospital didn’t deter him. He just needed to be away from the idea that hen was crazy. He was heading out when a voice called out,
The voice belonged to Marty “The Flood” Floyd. Floyd had cleaned up after the game, donned some decent clothes and his Southern letter jacket. On the field, Drew had not thought of Floyd as black, but in the contrast to the nurse at the desk and the orderly at his side giving him cautious looks, Floyd stood out. He left the nurse and orderly at the desk, whispering to each other and hurried across the lobby to Drew’s side.
“How’s your boy?” Floyd asked, “Jensen. They said that I couldn’t go see him.”
“Yeah. Just family. I can’t stay either,” Drew lied. The words tasted bad as he said them. Lies often do, and Drew wasn’t accustomed to them.
“Well, where are you going? I been here for a couple of hours, and I think I saw your coach and them leave just as I was getting here.”
“Home. Just gonna walk home,” Drew said. He looked at the floor. A security guard stared at them and started to walk toward them, frowning, like he thought there would be trouble.
“It’s Friday night, man. As big as you are, you’re likely to attract a bunch of trouble from folks who are looking for it. C’mon. I got my car. Let me take you.” He stuck out his hand for Drew to shake. Drew took it and they walked out together with the security guard watching them.
“Why did you come?” Drew asked as they got into Floyd’s ’62 Nova parked on a dark stretch of Preston Street.
“Why? Well, Jensen went down, man, and I’ve never seen anybody look like he did. What happened to him?” Floyd asked. He pulled away slow from the curb, checking his mirrors. The Flood drove better than Kyle ever did. Kyle was nearly as reckless on the road as he was on the field most times. Mary Beth always had to settle him down.
“I…I don’t know. They’re bringing in a specialist. He can’t talk and lost control of his arms and legs. They got him strapped down. He said things weren’t looking too good.”
“He said? Didn’t you just say he couldn’t talk?” Floyd asked as they poked along down Preston.
“He talked to me. Nobody else heard him.” Drew said recalling Kyle’s voice.
“What, like whispering?” Floyd asked. Drew shook his head, ‘no.’ Marty Floyd cast several looks away from the road. He expected an answer, but Drew, his frustration mounting blurted out
“No! He said it like he would say anything. I heard him as clear as I hear you. It’s just that he didn’t say it with his mouth, though I heard his voice when his sister and girlfriend couldn’t. I know. I know. I know. It sounds crazy. Maybe I am crazy! I don’t know, but I heard him. He talked to me.”
Marty Floyd drove on in silence for a long time. Drew directed him to turn left to get to his house, and Floyd said, “Skolnick, man, you need help.”
Drew shook his head as they found their way to Lucas Avenue. He did need help. His best and only friend lay twisted up in a hospital bed. Drew was the only one who could hear him. The lonely world of weights and books he had come from opened its doors to him, and he knew that he didn’t want to go back into it. Part of him said, “You knew this would happen. They’d leave you, all these beautiful people. They don’t like you. You are not like them Marty Floyd is just another of them. Maybe Dad is right. Maybe that’s all I can handle. Maybe I am nuts and it’ll be me strapped into a bed, too.”
Drew pointed to his driveway. The garage door was open, the darkness beckoning to him as Floyd nosed his car in to the driveway.
“Well, what about it?” Floyd asked him.
“What about what?” Drew asked, opening the door, making the light come on. Marty Floyd extended his hand to him.
“My help. You want it?”
Drew stared a minute at Marty Floyd’s face. He looked Drew in the eye. There was a cut on Marty’s nose, almost a match for the one on Drew’s. He asked,
“Your help? To do what?” but it wasn’t a refusal.
“To find out what’s going on,” Marty said, “‘cause man, you are in the middle of something big.”
“And you want to help?” Drew asked.
“I’ll give you the best I got,” Marty said. Drew shook his hand.
The overhead light in the garage popped on and Drew’s father loomed up in the headlights of the Nova. He pointed to Marty Floyd and yelled,
“Who the fuck is that!”
Stay tuned for Part 3.