“Activate those glutes,” I told the nineteen-year-old star of his college baseball team.
“Dude, if I activate them any harder, they’ll turn to stone,” Eric complained, hefting the bar off the floor.
“Looks like he’s doing just fine from where I’m standing,” Mrs. Morganson observed from her vantage point directly behind him.
It was deadlift day.
Once a week, I turned the weight room at Bootleg Springs High School into an open gym for all ages and abilities. The room was crammed full of equipment and smelled like sweaty, unshowered youth. The short windows just beneath the drop ceiling were stingy with the sunlight they let in.
But we made it work.
It should have been a disaster. I was coaching kids on their summer break from college, middle-aged newbies just starting their fitness journey, a few long-time lifters, and a couple of senior citizens. Some were actually here to work out. Others were in attendance primarily for the eye candy.
But somehow, no matter who showed up, we all had a damn good time.
“Nice job,” I said, slapping Eric on the back when he dropped the weight bar with a resounding clang. The kid was a hell of a lot stronger than his long, lanky frame let on.
“Woowee!” Mrs. Morganson cheered.
Minnie Faye, owner and operator of Minnie’s Meow Meow House, elbowed her friend. “Don’t get us booted out of here like you did the football team’s car wash,” she cautioned.
Both ladies bent to pick up their significantly lighter bars. I winked at them as they made an energetic show of practicing the lift.
“How you doing, D?” Doris to her family and D to her gym friends was glaring at her barbell.
“I wanted a PR today.” Frustrated, she swiped the sweat off her forehead with the hem of her t-shirt. Doris was fifty-six and three years on this side of a heart transplant. She’d tracked me down about a whole day after I decided to bring my personal training business to Bootleg last year.
In a town this size with residents this close, news traveled fast.
She’d told me since someone had to die for her to be here, she didn’t want to let them down. We had our first workout together that day. A walk through the lakefront park.
We started small and slow, but her commitment never wavered. She’d already quit smoking before the transplant. After, she’d taken up walking. Soon I had her jogging and hanging around my pop-up boot camps. Then she’d discovered a deep love of heavy lifting. Somewhere along the way, she’d dragged her husband, Josh, into it. Josh had lost twenty-five pounds and started rowing. Doris added ten pounds of lean muscle and was currently glaring at the weight plates on her bar that stood between her and her new personal record.
“How much you got on there?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Two hundred. Can’t get the dang thing off the ground.” She kicked at the bar with the toe of her sneaker.
“Tell you what. Go grab a quick drink. I’m gonna take some of the weight off, and we’ll check out your form at eighty or ninety percent of your max. Okay?”
She sighed, shrugged. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Not every day is a PR,” I reminded her.
“She went to bed early last night so she’d be rested for lifting,” Josh told me when Doris walked away. “Gonna be pissed if she can’t beat her last.”
“Don’t I know it,” I said, pulling a plate off each side of the bar. I swapped a couple out and reassembled the rig.
“That looks like more than—”
“Zip it,” I warned him as Doris came back. Josh busied himself with his own bar and played it cool.
“Ready?” I asked her.
“Yeah. I don’t know what my problem is. Just feeling weak, I guess. Maybe it’s allergies?”
“Maybe,” I said, gesturing for her to step behind the bar.
“How much is this?” she asked, adjusting the headband that tamed her wild, curly bob.
“Don’t worry about the number. I just wanna check your form. We’ll get you to where you want to be when you’re meant to be there,” I promised her.
“I know. I know. It might not be today, but we will get there.” She recited one of my many pep talks with a sigh. “I just really wanted it to be today. Today’s the day, you know?”
“Three years ago, I was on death’s door and woke up with a new ticker.” She thumped a fist to her chest. “Kinda wanted to be able to email the donor’s family and tell them I hit a big PR today. Let them know that part of him is still living on.”
I put a hand on her shoulder, squeezed. “Hey, I know that’s the ideal, but let’s work with the reality first. Okay? Maybe it’s something simple.” It was relatively simple. The anniversary, the wanting to report to the family of the man whose heart she’d received.
Doris had psyched herself out.
We were four weeks out from our last deadlift day, and I knew that she could hit 200. She just wasn’t sure.
She nodded, still disappointed. “Yeah, yeah. Okay. Let’s see if you can wave your magic trainer’s wand.”
She hinged from the hips and reached for the bar.
“Use the over-under grip,” I instructed. “It’ll keep you from feeling like the bar’s going to roll out of your hands.”
She nodded again, adjusted.
“This is gonna be a little easier because it’s not your max. So focus on the form. Count of three. One, two, three!”
The class, sensing something big was happening, stopped what they were doing and ranged themselves behind Doris. Watching, holding their breath.
She pulled. Face tight, the cords of her neck straining. The bar raised. Slowly, slowly it inched higher.
“Go! Go! Go! Pull!” I shouted.
“Pull!” The rest of the class echoed in varying pitches.
Doris straightened, fully extended and red-faced, the bar clenched in her hands. The class cheered behind her. She dropped it and bent at the waist.
“Why the hell are you guys making all that racket?” She blew out a breath, swiped her arm across her forehead. “Holy crap. I must be getting sick. That felt like a thousand freakin’ pounds.”
“That’s because it was 215,” I told her.
“Two what?” She blinked.
“Two hundred and fifteen pounds.”
“215? I lifted 215?”
I nodded, grinning.
“215,” she said again, a whisper to herself.
Josh grabbed her from behind in a tight hug. “215,” he repeated.
She squeezed his hands and calculated the weights in front of her. “Oh my god. That is 215! I lifted two hundred and fifteen friggin’ pounds!” She escaped Josh’s hold, turned, and threw herself at him. “I did it! Holy shit!”
“You did it!” He squeezed his eyes shut tight as he held his wife who’d not only survived but was living. I felt the arrow to my own heart and distracted myself by digging out my phone to commemorate the moment.
The celebration was Super Bowl-winning touchdown worthy.
The class passed her from lifter to lifter for a round of back-cracking hugs and celebratory high fives. All celebrating like it was their own personal victory while music thumped in the background.
“You lied to me,” Doris said, returning to me, hands on hips. Her face was flushed with happiness.
“Just a little,” I told her.
“You knew I was psyching myself out, and you mind-tricked me into making it happen,” she insisted. Her eyes were getting misty.
I shook my head. “You made it happen. Now, go stand with your bar so I can take your PR picture. You can send it to your heart’s family.”
Her lower lip trembled.
There were more than a few pairs of glistening eyes surrounding us.
“Don’t do it,” I said, pointing at her. “If you go, we’ll all go, and then it’ll be all over Bootleg that I make my classes cry. You’ll ruin my business if you cry.”
A tear slipped out of the corner of her eye as she came in for a tight hug.
“Thanks, Jonah,” she whispered.
“I’m really fucking proud of you, D,” I whispered back.
It was a good way to kick off the weekend. D’s personal record cheered me enough to temporarily forget about my own personal life for a moment.
The body that investigators had found and the questions it represented. Was my DNA tainted? Had my father murdered a teen girl? And what did that mean for those that came after? Me. My brothers and sister. What kind of legacy had he left us?
This was the good in the world. The Dorises and the Erics and the Mrs. Morgansons. They were the good. I’d spend some time enjoying instead of worrying about the things I couldn’t fix.
“You know, Jonah,” Mrs. Morganson said, sidling up to me as I wiped down the bars. “You really ought to think about opening a gym space. Set up shop, plant some roots.”
“I bet that June Tucker would be more than happy for another local investment,” Minnie Faye added, looking innocent.
“Is that so?” I said easily.
The thought had occurred to me.
But the bottom line was, I hadn’t decided if I was staying in Bootleg Springs or not. I’d been here a year. I had family here, a fledgling business with classes and personal training. But that didn’t mean that this West Virginia town was home. Once the Callie Kendall case was resolved, then I would decide.
Stay or go.
“Think about it,” Mrs. Morganson advised. “Your own space to set up any way you want. A set schedule. I bet a gym would do real well in Bootleg so folks could work off all that moonshine.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” I promised. “Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I’m gonna go celebrate D’s victory with an egg white omelet before my next class.”