Wind rapped against the bedroom window. Ivan Korske stared beyond his reflection, into the shadowy woods that surrounded the family's farmhouse. November, and its chilly prelude to winter, had long arrived. Ivan stretched a thermal shirt over his back, then pulled long johns up his thighs. A plastic rubber-suit top that crinkled when he slipped it over his head came next. Sweatpants and a sweatshirt followed.
Downstairs, a grandfather clock chimed eleven. Ivan vaguely noticed, grabbing a pair of weathered running shoes on the floor of his closet. While most Lennings High School seniors spent Sunday night on the phone, piecing together memories of the weekend's parties, Ivan prepared for his evening run.
Every night, regardless of how tired or hungry he was, Ivan ran. When his running shoes were soaked from rain, he ran. When his fingers were numb from the cold, he ran. The night his mother died last April, he ran.
The final judgment of his high school wrestling career hinged on whether he stood victorious in Jadwin Gymnasium, site of the New Jersey State Championships, the second Saturday of March. Each run, Ivan was certain, brought him that much closer to the dream of being a state champ and a chance to get away-far away-from Lennings.
Anything less would be failure.
Ivan sat at the end of his bed in the sparsely furnished room, dog tired from an afternoon of splitting logs behind the shed out back. There was a dresser and bookshelf, a wooden chair to his left, and the red and white of a small Polish flag coloring one of four otherwise bare walls. Ivan leaned over to tie the laces of his running shoes, then looked up at the photograph of his mother as a teenager in the old country-a sturdy young woman with soft, rounded cheeks and bright hazel eyes. Ivan was proud to have the same. The silver frame glinted from his meticulous care, even under the dim light of the bedroom lamp.
Ivan imagined his mother sitting beside him, as she often had the last months she was alive. "Too many chores for you," she would say. "Your father forgets you are only seventeen. I will speak with him. I know you have other interests..." She would smile and give a knowing nod toward the house across the street. "Even besides this wrestling sport."
Alone, in the chill of his bedroom, Ivan closed his eyes. He could hear her words, soothing and familiar, and see her face, robust and healthy, as they once were. He remained that way for some time.
"Ivan." His father's voice bellowed from the first floor. "Are you running now?"
Ivan held back the sadness and hardened his face with unflinching resolve, the same glare he gave opponents before a match. "I'm going."
"Yeah, Papa, now."
He grabbed his jacket from the chair, walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs, its floorboards creaking and the radiator clanking from the rush of hot water through the metal piping. The scent of chimney embers lingered. At the bottom of the staircase, Ivan zipped his jacket and stepped out the front door.
It was a clear night. A crescent moon hung just above the tree line. Ivan looked across the street at the Petersons' house. In a second-floor corner window, he saw Shelley's silhouette, head propped on an elbow, at her desk. Finishing her homework, he knew. Ivan breathed in deeply. Cold wind pressed against his body and slipped beneath his clothing. He felt alive, intensely aware of every inch of his skin, nostrils, and the full expansion of his lungs.
This is gonna be a good run.
With a shiver, Ivan started down Farmingdale Road. His running shoes bounced off the pavement edged by fields of withered grass, beyond which miles of woodlands passed in darkness. Ivan traveled back in time, as he did during every evening run.
...Lennings' first freshman varsity starter-108-pound weight class. Going against the captain from Westfield-fourth in the state the year before. Everyone talking about me. Lots of articles. Always spelling my name wrong...Scared to death in the locker room before the match...
Forgetting what to do for the fifty-four seconds it took the guy to toss me all over the mat. Struggling to get off my back, while he squeezed the half. So tight my lungs couldn't expand. Can't breathe! Can't breathe! Panic scrambling my head until, finally, giving in. Letting my shoulder blades touch the mat. The referee calling the pin, ending the nightmare...
I gave up...
To Ivan's right, Sycamore Creek snaked its way through the woods before emptying into a pond, a stone's throw wide, where he and the Scott brothers, Josh and Timmy, played ice hockey as kids. Six years ago, the township's new irrigation system began siphoning off water for a nearby corn farm, leaving the pond a bed of damp silt. Not that it mattered to Ivan. Shortly after, the Scotts moved away. He never heard from them again. No letters or postcards, no phone calls. They were just gone. To somewhere in Minnesota was all he knew.
A car came up behind him-illuminating the road ahead, stretching his shadow-then passed by, leaving the crimson of its taillights and the hum of its engine fading into the night.
And his wrestling memories, still raw years later, continued.
...first sophomore region champ at Lennings. Dreams of going farther. Riding a nine-match winning streak-all by pins...Quarterfinals of the states-122 pounds. Whipped by some guy from Newton. Hit a switch, and hit it hard. But the guy steps across and catches me. On my back. Fighting to get out. Then finally do. I score a reversal, later a takedown, but nothing else.
Time runs out. The humiliation of getting beat 11-4. Walking off the mat, the crowd staring at me like I'm some loser. No escape. Freezing-cold nights running. Drilling moves for hours and hours and hours. Thousands of push-ups. Thousands of sit-ups.
But I lost...
Losing tastes like crap...
Passing Wellington Farms, Ivan counted 564 steps along the length of the wooden fence. The night before it had been 573. He had logged so many miles on this road, he could run, eyes closed, and avoid all the potholes and broken pavement. Sweat coated his body, while heat trapped within the layers of his clothing insulated him from the cold. Ahead, a row of street lamps shone on Main Street.
The center of town was desolate. Ivan passed Mr. Johnston's Florist Shop, a fixture in town for decades; Burley's Automotive; and the Starlite Deli. In the deli's front window a poster read: IVAN-BRING HOME THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP! A little farther, Ivan passed Hometown Hardware, then, at the corner, a neon sign blinked above Evergreen Tavern. The gravel parking lot was nearly full. Drinking away the last hours before another dreary week of life began, Ivan figured. He crossed the intersection, and soon, the center of Lennings was behind him. All Ivan could hear was the beat of his running shoes on the pavement and his steady, comfortable breathing.
...junior year, undefeated after twenty-four matches-fifteen by pins. Named one of the top 129-pounders by the Star-Ledger...Gonna be Lennings' first state champ. Everyone says so.
Too many newspaper articles. Too many interviews. Too many people wanting me. Too many distractions. Semifinals of the states, against last year's champ, from Highland Regional. So damn close...
Got caught in the first period, but came back in the third. Time running out. Needing a two-point reversal. Sat out, then hit the switch. Leaning back hard against the guy. He's gonna collapse. Ten seconds left...nine...
Four- The buzzer goes off as the guy collapses.
No, there's three seconds left! How'd the buzzer go off too soon? They said the timekeeper made a mistake. That's it. End of discussion.
The timekeeper screwed up.
Lost in the state semifinals.
Copyright © 2005 by Alfred C. Martino
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