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Fiction #502
(published September 2, 2010)
Twilight of the Idols
by Roger Poppen
The sweat-tainted air of the gym crackled with anticipation. Guys hurried through their workout or skipped it altogether. People who never came in on Saturdays showed up. We made a sizeable crowd, milling around, talking, laughing, chest bumping and shoulder whacking, like a football team ready to take the field. We were awaiting the arrival of Andre 'Lefty' Lefkowiscz, who was going to attempt a 1000-pound bench press. Only a couple guys on the planet had ever done this and we were going to see it happen right here in our town.

We cheered when Lefty strode in, seeming to take up all the space in the double doorway. We were all pretty big boys, some taller and some weighing even more than Lefty, but he always struck us as monumental, a Humvee among a bunch of Chevy Suburbans. His chest protruded like the prow of a tugboat and his arms hung like sides of beef from his massive shoulders. Lefty was a bench pressing machine.

He flashed his gold tooth in a quick smile, but his eyes remained stone serious. Sweat already glistened atop his shaved skull. We commandeered a corner of the gym for warm-ups and shooed away the crowd so he could concentrate. I was one of the spotters, along with Mike, Stinky, and Paul. Chickie was his coach. We loaded the plates, got him water, held the towels to wipe his sweat, sort of like seconds between rounds at a boxing match.

When the bar reached 500 pounds, we let the spectators gather around. Folding chairs had been set up in a semi-circle, but a bench press is hard to see. Two of us spotters were on each side, and Chickie at his head to help with the lift-off and, if something went wrong, to signal the spotters. The chief referee sat at his feet to give the press signal, and two other judges at the sides. Most people stood and jostled each other for position to see.

Before attempting 700 pounds, we helped Lefty put on his bench shirt. A thick, tightly woven affair, it took more assistance to get into than a bridal dress. After several minutes of pulling, tugging, and stretching, we finally got him encased. Arms jutting forward like a zombie, he walked to the bench, assumed the supine position, and grasped the bar. He grunted and we spotters lifted the barbell for him to hold at arms length. Another grunt and we let go. He slowly lowered the bar and when it touched his chest, the referee yelled, 'Press!' The bar rose easily to full arm extension, the referee yelled 'rack' and we helped put it back. We followed the same routine with 850. Lefty's right arm slowed a little before lockout but he looked like he had a lot left.

We loaded a thousand pounds: four 100-pound plates resembling locomotive wheels, a 50, a 25, and a collar on each side. The bar bent like a tight-rope walker's pole. The crowd erupted in raucous cheers as Lefty approached the bench with a look of fury on his face and hands trembling with adrenaline. A hush fell when he sat down, lay back, and grasped the bar.

'Press!' The bar inched upward. Lefty used a thumbless grip and I could see the bar slipping off the heel of his right palm. It was up to the referee or Chickie to tell us when to take the bar, but so intent were they on the bar's progress they failed to see what was happening.

Too late, I yelled, "spot!" The bar fell on Lefty's throat before we could grab it, snapping his spine. Frantically, we lifted the barbell off. His face, barn red a moment before, arteries squirming at the temples, now was ashen, quiet. I noticed the tattoo on his once-mighty arm, now dangling like a marionette with severed strings: 'What does not kill me, makes me stronger.' Sadly, he'd never considered the converse.

Roger Poppen is a retired professor of behavior analysis. He finds making up stories about people more fun than dealing with real ones. He has published a novel, MISTER LUCKY, and several shorter works in ezines such as A Long Story Short, Ducts, Flashquake, Amarillo Bay, and others.

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