The Northfield High weightlifting team needed bodies. Of the original ten-man team, six had been cut, busted with fake IDs up at the Pleasureland strip club off the highway. One guy dropped out after knocking up a sophomore, and another guy quit after getting pinned to the drop floor accordion-style under a ninety-kilo snatch without a spotter around to pull it off his neck. Connor decided to try out for the team, because it’d keep him out of the house when his stepfather got home. He was running out of basement sheetrock—five fresh holes punched last Thursday alone when they wouldn’t keep it down. Suddenly everything down there was rough-hewn studs and frayed insulation.
The new team captain was Justin Ungs, a junior like Connor, tall and flat across the chest, sweaty blonde hair plastered to his smooth neck. The only other returning member of the weightlifting team leaned against the squat rack a few feet away, a rumbler of an Asian girl named Samantha, though everyone called her Chins. No one else was there for the tryout, but Justin told Connor he’d still have to earn it.
Connor lay down on the bench, and Justin slid a large plate onto each side of the barbell. Justin’s face hovered upside down above him. “This is one thirty-five. Barely a warm-up.”
“I’ve never lifted weights before,” Connor said.
“Then you’d better figure it out fast, Connie.”
“Isn’t there a coach?”
“State rules don’t let him attend training in the off-season.”
Connor grabbed the cold steel bar, felt the burs of the grips in his sweaty palms. He suddenly didn’t know what he was doing here, but he felt he had to do it, because this blonde kid was standing over him, smirking. He pushed. He lifted the bar up and lowered it to his chest, then pressed it back up.
“Keep going, Connie.”
“Don’t call me that,” Connor said. His stepfather called him Connie. Like when he said, “Come on, Connie,” after Connor failed to break the seal on a new pickle jar, or, “Happy birthday, Connie,” and tossed him the keys to a shitty green Ford Taurus and told him to go for a long drive. Or when he surveyed the holes in the sheetrock like he owned the house and said, “You’re nothing but a baby, Connie.” He lowered the bar and pressed it up again and again and again, building speed, gaining a rhythm.
“Keep it moving, Connie,” Justin said. “Get those man tits pumping.”
His arms burned and his breathing shortened, and he pressed the bar up a final time and let it clang back onto the supports. Then he stood up and faced Justin.
“Fourteen. Not bad, man tits.”
“You’re a dick,” Connor said.
Samantha stepped in front of him and clapped him on the shoulder. “Relax,” she said. “You made the team, all right?”
Samantha showed him the competition lifts. She wore a wide weightlifting belt and performed the snatch and the clean and jerk. At the low point of her squat, she compacted into a perfect sphere, then silently exploded upward. She let the weights bounce off the drop floor like she’d lost interest once she’d proven she could hold them overhead. Connor walked up to the barbell to try it himself, but she stopped him and pulled half the weights off the bar. When he asked her what she was doing, she said, “Keeping you out of a wheelchair.”
He did light sets of the snatch, but even that left him gasping and fuzzy. She walked him through deadlifts and squats and lunges, and when he couldn’t stand anymore, she sat next to him on the nearest bench.
“My legs feel like boneless wings.”
“Wait until you wake up tomorrow.”
“I have to do this again tomorrow?”
“You’ll be sore, but there’s no training. You can just go home after school.”
Connor rubbed the tops of his quads. “I don’t get why you do this.”
“Because I’m good at it,” she said. “I snatched eighty-four kilos at state.”
“How much is that?”
She got up from the bench and rebuckled her weight belt. “More than you can do.”
When Connor got home, his mom was in the middle of baking another batch of brownies. She asked him where he’d been, and he told her he’d made the weightlifting team. His stepfather walked into the kitchen and caught the end of it.
“You’re going to stick it out,” he said.
“I just started.” Connor pulled a damp mound of tater tots out of the microwave.
“Yeah, but I know you.”
Connor rubbed the scabs on his knuckles, still speckled white with drywall residue.
His mom turned around from the counter and held up a pan of the brownies. “I’ll send your coach a plate of these. That’ll help your standing on the team.” She made a batch a week, each square laced with enough pot to send her into a warm-weather haze. She said they made her feel exotic and tropical.
“There is no coach,” Connor said.
Connor limped through school the next day, and when the final bell rang, he changed in the locker room and shuffled to the weight room. He thought he would find it empty, but Justin was there, kicking out leg lifts in the roman chair. He shined with sweat. On the floor beneath him was a gallon milk carton of water and a towel curled around the base of it. He saw Connor and stopped with his legs up in a ninety-degree angle.
“No training today,” he said.
“Then why’re you here?”
“Same reason you are.”
Justin resumed his leg lifts. “You don’t know why I’m here.”
Connor didn’t say anything more to him. He went to the squat rack and tried to squat the empty bar, but his sore legs erupted in pain and he re-racked the bar after two reps.
“You’re an idiot to try that today,” Justin said, walking toward him, toweling off his face and lugging the gallon water jug in his left hand. “Chins put you through it yesterday.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Connor said. He knew what would be waiting for him if he went home—his mom high on the couch watching Jeopardy! and botching every answer, his stepfather coming home either early or late, both options leading to grunting sex and Connor microwaving another frozen brick for dinner and punching the basement wall.
“It’s abs for me today,” Justin said. “You’re welcome to join in the fun.”
Connor tailed Justin around the weight room, mirroring his sit-ups, planks, medicine ball twists, dead bug poses, and leg lifts. Justin talked him through the fundamentals of form and breathing. He didn’t call him ‘Connie’ or ‘man tits.’ After an hour, they doubled over with sweaty grins and groaned about their inflamed guts. Somewhere far away they heard echoing voices.
“Finally,” Justin said.
“What is that?”
“The reason I’m here.”
They left the weight room, and Justin led Connor through the empty locker-lined hallways to the gymnasium. As they approached the closed double doors, Connor heard shouts and claps and unison footfalls inside.
Justin opened the door and held it wide for both of them to see. The dance team was rehearsing. Twenty girls in tight black shorts and multicolored sports bras kicked and spun in unison, ponytails whipping out behind them, mouths open, white teeth gleaming, backs arching and twisting, every bare inch of them alive and maddening. When the dance ended, they locked their hands on top of their heads and panted.
“Who needs Pleasureland?” Justin said.
“This is way better than watching Jeopardy!,” Connor said. The ache in his guts pulsed lower, and he thought maybe he should drop to a knee. The girl closest to him was a redhead with a thick ponytail and tight dimples in her lower back. He couldn’t stop staring at her.
Justin cracked his knuckles. “You know that guy, Jerome Kings? Knocked up the sophomore and left the team? Sometimes I think he achieved the ultimate success in our sport.”
Then Justin laughed, and Connor laughed with him.