When Pete and I went to Ricky’s the next day—Christmas—to get some training in we found him in rough shape.
“I look like Frankenstein!” he cried, as he shuffled into the garage with a notably wooden and stiff gait. He sat down gingerly and lamented the injury with some humor.
“You believe this?” he said. “Gonna be at least a week or so before I can train.”
“You been goin’ balls out for months, Puj,” said Pete. “Hell yes I can believe this.”
Ricky threw up a hand to dismiss this. “All the shit I’m on? I should be healthy as a horse. Oh well. It’s all part of the game.”
We both agreed, and for the rest of the workout we traded stories of times past when we’d been stricken with injury. Pete and I had been fortunate enough to avoid surgeries but we’d had our fill of overuse and overtraining injuries. Shoulder problems, wrist problems, knee pain of varies types and severity, pulled groins, inflammation, IT band tightness, elbow soreness, and on and on—a list that covered nearly the entire body. We traded these stories perhaps in an effort to reaffirm our abilities to overcome such setbacks, and perhaps in part to take Ricky’s mind off his own.
After training we sat in his little kitchen and presented him with a Christmas gift: a Dunkin Donuts gift card. He took it and laughed and thanked us profusely, to a degree far exceeding the gift card’s value.
As evening deepened we talked about training and about who had done what weights recently. Ricky told Pete the story of Libby’s 90-kilo snatch in such detail you would have thought he’d seen in firsthand. His cat wandered in as he spoke, gingerly stepping across the cracking linoleum floor and looking up at us with that feline mixture of curiosity and contempt. Ricky stroked her along her neck and back and rubbed the top of her head, never missing a beat in his story of Libby’s PR. The movements were surprisingly gentle for the big man’s hands.
When he finished talking of the 90-kilo snatch he stood, easing himself up with great care, and put some food in the cat’s bowl and then turned to the refrigerator. “You guys hungry? You want something? I got some leftovers in here from my sister’s.”
We both declined, as we planned on heading to a diner for some holiday pancakes that evening.
“You sure? Got some goat milk too. Makes you strong.”
“What’s it taste like?” asked Pete.
“What’s it taste like?” Ricky shrugged, as though the question were beyond comprehension. “Tastes like milk! Just, you know, from a goat.”
Pete—whose culinary vocabulary was as deep and diverse as Ricky’s lifting knowledge—stared at him.
“I dunno,” said Ricky, realizing his answer was unsatisfactory. “Here. Try it.”
Pete took the glass bottle and drank. “Ain’t bad,” he said, passing it to me. “Ain’t too bad at all.”
The goat milk was good—cold, slightly sour, rich. “You too cool for regular milk?” I asked, handing the bottle back.
“I drink regular milk. Just switch it up every so often. Met a Swedish thrower at a meet in Hungary back in the day, strong as an ox, who told me he drank a gallon of the stuff a day. Or a few liters. Whatever they use. I figured can’t hurt to try, right?” Ricky said, grabbing the bottle. He took a handful of pills from a tray on the counter and washed them down with a swig of goat milk. Little rivers of it ran down one side of his beard.
“Those all d-bols?” Pete asked.
He smiled and wiped at his mouth with the back of one huge hand. “I wish. Only about two of those were d-bol. Gotta stay strong while I recover. The rest is all different stuff. At my age you need all the pills you can get. C’mon,” he said, putting the goat milk back in the fridge. “You guys wanna see some footage from the ’92 Olympics? I got the tapes down in the basement. This is rare footage. Tons of shit that didn’t make it to TV. I’m not even supposed to be showing this to anybody.”
So down we went, into that basement time capsule, each step a few more years back into the history of one life, itself connected to other lives and other times. As on previous visits I stopped to look at the medals and pictures, images from a bygone era of bygone men.
In one frame there was a picture of Ricky as a teenager, skinny and beardless. It was strange to think of him as anything other than the huge beast of a man that I knew. He held a trophy, smiling for the camera, at what must have been a local meet somewhere in the area. His hands and joints were big, the only physical link I could see between this boy and the figure behind me, rummaging through a box of VHS tapes.
“Skinny, huh?” he said when he noticed me looking at the picture. “That was 1967. My first competition. I think I did 180, 180, and 245. Pounds, obviously.”
“Thanks for that clarification,” said Pete.
“What class?” I asked.
“Middleweight, 165 pounds. I don’t know if I even weighed that much soaking wet with shoes on. I was a string bean. Could press my snatch since both were so weak. It’s too bad they got rid of the press. I loved it. Made you a different lifter. You never saw guys so big as when you had the press. Just monsters. Those guys all said it changed the sport for the worse when they took it out. Coupla them said it’s what led to the sport dying out here in this country.”
He paused and looked over some of the other pictures and medals. “Lotta good times. Good guys.” He pointed to one of the pictures, in which his younger self was standing with another, smaller lifter. “Joe Minetti, old buddy of mine,” he said, indicating this other person. “Guy I used to train with all the time. Four, five times a week for years. Pretty good lifter, too. Not quite world level but almost, and always good on the national scene.”
“Still train?” asked Pete.
Ricky shook his head and looked away. “At some point he moved away to take a job somewhere in upstate New York. Worked as a prison guard. We kept in touch after he moved, talked every so often. I’m not a phone guy but he had family in Jersey, so he’d come down here, or a couple times I went up to visit him. And you know, we’d shoot the shit, catch up. How’s training, work, that kinda shit.”
He paused and rubbed at his beard. “So we kept in touch. And this one time, after he’d been outta the area for a coupla two, three years, I called him up. Just to catch up, see how he was doing.
“So we talk for a bit, usual bullshit, and then I ask how his training’s going.” He stopped and his eyes widened, as though he were hearing the response just then for the first time. “And, I couldn’t believe it, he says something about how he hasn’t really been training, and how his job’s been keeping him busy, and this that and the other thing, and that was it.
“I was in shock. I mean, this was a guy who trained through it all with me. And for years, as long as I could remember, we had talked about training. That was the one constant, the one thing you could always count on. No matter what else, you trained.
“I almost didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. Never imagined it. And you can’t blame the guy; he’s got a wife, a house. I think he had just had a kid. Ain’t like training’s gonna cover that. We certainly weren’t making any money off the sport, that’s for sure. Shit it cost us money.” He paused, as if trying to convince himself of the logic of those statements. “But still.”
Something passed before his eyes but was gone a moment later. “Anyway. Getting sidetracked here. Old pictures. C’mon. Wait’ll you see Kakhiashvili pull out this monster clean and jerk.”
Of course we’d seen this—many times—but there was no harm in another viewing…
We sat on the basement couch, watching highlights from the lifting at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Naim Suleymanoglu handily winning the 60-kilo class with 142.5 and 177.5, giving him his second Olympic gold of an eventual three and a 15-kilo lead over silver medalist Nikolay Peshalov. Greece’s legendary Pyrros Dimas winning his first gold medal, also of an eventual three, with lifts of 167.5 and 202.5 in the 82.5 class. Kakhi Kakhiashvili—ethnically Georgian and Greek but lifting for the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union—going against the orders of coach Vasily Alexeev, who allegedly wanted the Russian Serguei Syrtsov to win gold, and taking a massive ten kilo jump in the clean and jerk for the win in the 90-kilo class.
“Jesus!” Ricky shouted when we got to Kakhiashvili’s gold-medal lift. “You see that? We gotta watch that again.”
He stood and rewound the tape. We watched once more as the great Kakhi lifted an incredible 235 kilos from the platform and then shot himself under the barbell, like a loaded spring releasing all its potential energy in one fantastic, fluid burst.
“Christ! How’s a guy move that fast?”
“Maybe it’s goat milk,” Pete suggested.
“What? Heh! Goat milk,” said Ricky, laughing. “If that’s the case I must be drinking the wrong kind. Or maybe over there they’re feeding something different to the goats.”
It was late when we finally emerged from the basement. Outside we stood in the cold and made small talk as we put off leaving. Against the blue of the snow and the darker blue of the sky the street was dotted by the lights of Christmas decorations and the inner glow of homes’ holiday festivities. When we ultimately turned to the car Ricky thanked us again for the gift card and wished us a good evening.
“You kids have a good night. Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks, Puj. You too. Merry Christmas.”
“Let me know when you wanna come train again,” he added. “I’ll be here.”
He waved us out as we pulled away and we waved back and drove off.
Some part of me could picture him, after we’d left. As if we were operating on some common wavelength, seeing what the other saw and even feeling what the other felt. Or maybe it’s just the distance of years, and knowing what I know now.
I could see him as he watches us driving away and waves once more even though he can no longer see us in my old Volvo. In the dark stillness of the December night the car’s engine is very clear, and he can hear it for what seems like a long, long time, long after the car itself has disappeared. When the sound is gone he realizes he is listening to the silence, and he closes the front door, shuts off the hall light, and walks back down to the basement, taking the steps with great care and feeling each one in his back.
He pulls the tape we had been watching from the VCR and puts it back in its sleeve and returns it to the box. In the box and on the shelves are other tapes, dozens of them, nearly all hand-labeled. By the light cast from the TV set’s silent snowy static he reads these labels: Moscow 1980. Montreal 1976. Empire State Games. 95 Nationals. Training. School of Champions. World Championships.
He takes a tape out and pulls it from its cardboard sleeve and puts it in the VCR. The snow on the screen falters and then is replaced by a solid black. In the upper-right corner a camcorder’s date and time stamp ticks the seconds by. When the screen comes to life there is a platform and a barbell. A line of distortion moves up and down the image and he taps the VCR gently and the line disappears. He turns the volume up and hears the sounds of plates and bars in the background. The barbell is loaded onscreen and the competition opens. He watches, remembering the lifters and the judges and even some of the loaders.
An announcer calls out a weight and a second later he is there, in the frame, walking to the platform in an old-style singlet. He remembers being there, and recalls the days and hours leading up to the competition and the hours afterward, as well. There is an entire world beyond the frame of the screen that he has stored within him. Watching brings some of it to light, parts that he thinks of often and parts that he thought long gone. He remembers training days and lifts and warmups and where they ate after the competition. He remembers men of iron forged in ancient gyms where the dropping of weights rung out like blows from some smithy’s hammer.
In watching his opening snatch he thinks he can feel the weight, and without realizing it his arms are moving, slightly. He pictures the snatch in his head, seeing its shape and trajectory and sensing its velocity and weight. It is overlaid with other snatches, snatches he has watched of other lifters and snatches he has done recently and the snatches he wishes he could do now, were it not for the distance between what he is watching and what he’s become.
Where did the space between the moments recorded on the tape and the watching of that tape go, he wonders. Where went the days, the months, the hours? So many hours in one day, so many minutes. To count them all out, to make some ledger or reckoning of them, would take more than a lifetime, it seems to him. So how is it they passed in such fashion, without his noticing all along? Will he, at sixty or eighty, find himself suddenly awake and aware again, as he does on this Christmas night in December, wondering the same things? Where will the hours have gone then?
Some part of him wants to scream out to his onscreen doppelgänger, although to say what and to what effect he doesn’t know. But there is some urgency to it, to his desire to shout to this person, this earlier self. There is some sense that he must warn him of something, or convey a message that will alter a later trajectory. Listen! He wants to say, like some ghost of Christmas future calling back to his former self. Yet…
The tape plays out and he watches the whole thing. When it is over the screen goes black and then the VCR clicks off and the screen comes alive once more with snow. It is very late and he is very tired. He stands, feeling stiff and not at all like the figure he just saw on the screen. He shuts the TV off, leaving the tape in the VCR to deal with later, and ascends the stairs to go to bed. When he dreams it is of lifting, and he is snatching and cleaning and moving the way he once did and he can hardly believe it, and he dreams this and silences that inner part of him that knows it is a dream and nothing more.