The Strongest Man in the World

Oliver could pull a dump truck like no other man. He had yet to save anyone’s life, but as he waited for the race to begin, he thought about how in an emergency, he’d be the one to carry to safety all the people who couldn’t walk themselves. Strong enough in fifth grade to be a pallbearer at his grandfather’s funeral, he was still just a boy the first time he felt like a man. He couldn’t stop lifting heavy things. He was especially fond of things that shouldn’t be moved. In sixth grade, he was banned from the library for nearly injuring two fourth graders, after he tripped on a backpack and the wobbly column of Britannicas he’d been ferrying around the room went flying. Oliver had the good sense to yell out a warning, so maybe in a way, he did sort of save the fourth graders, who had the sense to cover their heads and would only develop a few bruises on their arms. In Oliver’s memory, neither of them cried, but he did later that day, when he was alone in the principal’s office being forced to write letters of apology.

Denied access to the encyclopedias, Oliver moved on to new feats of strength. Carrying girls around, two at a time over his shoulders, rearranging the desks before class. In high school, he dragged his friends’ cars across the lot where the students were allowed to park. Football, weight training, cross training, and finally, the Strongman circuit.

Over by the finish line, the heat was rising from the pavement in blurry waves. It was four in the afternoon, 88 degrees, and Oliver sweating buckets, eighteenth place in the 25-34. Beside him at the starting line, The Mack was stretching his quads. Tied for second in the division, six three, three fifty, sponsored by STRIDE. But the Truck Pull had become one of Oliver’s best events. He found that he could drag for miles, whereas he sucked at lifting, and the whole day, he’d been looking forward to his final event. Even with the sun shining directly into his eyes, even if Alison didn’t show up, Oliver still had his parents cheering for him from their folding chairs, and on the other side of the course, closer to the concession stands and tents overflowing with lifting gear and nutritional formulas, his players, the Nembly Prep JV, sweating in their navy blue and gray, dicking around on their cell phones, which Oliver couldn’t do anything about right now. And he couldn’t be upset, not really, not when they were all here, supporting him, on a Saturday in late August. He nodded in the direction of his team, his ninth and tenth graders, plus two of the scrawnier eleventh graders, the ones whose dads made them stick with it even though it was clear to everyone that they were miserable, because they couldn’t be quitters. Oliver thought of the guys who made it to Nationals or Worlds—they too were probably forced to stand around for hours. There’d be TV timeouts, and the crowd would just have to wait and be entertained by the brand ambassadors, mostly women in bikinis. The press at Northeast Regionals consisted of a single local news crew, and Barb from Marketing, who was doing a piece on Oliver and Coach for the Cougar Pushpage.

Oliver stifled a yawn. He’d woken up at sunrise with a backache from the dip in the couch. Alison had been showing him two different kinds of ribbon, he remembered, and he said he liked them both, until he saw the price—it was organza, she said, as though that explained it—and he questioned the point of even having ribbon on the centerpieces—how many people would notice?

He’d said the wrong thing. She closed her laptop like it was the bathroom door when she was angry. The organza ribbon apparently meant a great deal to her. He was about to apologize, but then she accused him of not caring about the wedding, when in fact, he couldn’t wait to get married. He was making sacrifices—he’d wear whatever she wanted him to wear. Even the light purple vest—he was still hoping she’d change her mind, but yes, he’d do it. He’d wear a lilac vest. An orchid vest. His groom’s men, they’d also wear the vests—he needed to have seven. Oliver threw up his arms, shook his head and turned away. In the living room where the carpet was best, he could open the window and take up the floor with his push-ups.

It would be months after the Strongman when Alison would finally settle on orchid. Oliver would still be looking for two more groom’s men, but he’d tell Alison that yes, he had enough. He’d keep saying it until three weeks before The Date, when suddenly it stopped being important. Canceling a wedding reminded Oliver of the letters of apology he had to write as a kid, when no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find the right words.


There was almost no chance he could beat The Mack. He could only do his best, which was what he said to his players when they were facing a team that was clearly better, pumping themselves up for a game they would surely lose.

Over by the concession stands, Barb from Marketing was interviewing Tom and Corey, the JV captains, guys she knew would say something positive, something about being part of a community. Oliver was lucky to have qualified, to be getting such exposure as a positive role model, along with the head coach, whom everyone called Coach, currently in third in the 55 plus division. The Cougar Pushpage would focus on Coach and the varsity players, for they were the ones everyone cared to read about, but a photograph of Oliver and the JV team would end up causing the most sensation and have to be taken down.

On the other side of the course, Oliver’s parents waved at him with their sun visors. The only people in folding chairs. The only people wearing sweaters. His parents loved the Strongman.

Alison loved it too, although not like when they first met. Back in college, he could stop by her dorm room and tell her about his times and feats of strength, and she would smile as she listened, impressed and wanting to hear more about his times or how long he’d held his Crucifix, at the time, his favorite event. He could talk to her about muscle groups and dietary guidelines. He explained the events, taught her the rules. But that was years ago, when she had the time. Now, she didn’t feel like standing around in the sun all day. Sweating. Watching a bunch of guys flip tires—she said the words differently, like they had a new taste, the same way she said whole milk—they bought two kinds of milk: whole for Oliver and watery skim for Alison, and every time she saw him consume his type of milk, she looked at him like he was eating straight from the garbage. That’s how she sounded when he asked if she wanted to ride with his parents, or drive herself. Like he was inviting her to eat garbage. She couldn’t go at all. She had work to do. She had a dress fitting on Monday, which Oliver had clearly forgotten.

But where was the ref? Two women in Power Juice bikinis arrived on the course, carrying cardboard boxes overflowing with balled up T-shirts. The women did a routine of throwing T-shirts back and forth like footballs—they could throw farther than some of his freshmen, and much farther than the two eleventh graders. They turned towards the crowd, showing off with different techniques: overarm, underarm, like a Frisbee. They turned and tossed them over their shoulders the way he imagined Alison would do with her bouquet, without looking.

Teaching high school was something like competing in the Strongman circuit, and maybe something like planning a wedding. Success required preparation, a strategy. In class, he walked around the room or leaned against the edge of his desk, arms crossed. He sometimes took away the students’ phones, which sent them into deep depressions or hyperactive states of panic, which he then had to manage by standing right next to them until they pulled it together. With the phones safely inside the bottom drawer of the Teacher’s Desk, Oliver lectured in his authoritative voice, connecting Pavlov’s dogs to the dog he had as a kid, to their dogs, to TV, to football, getting the whole class pumped up. For a few minutes, they’d look up at him from their chairs like he was a god or a celebrity.

Now, harnessed to a truck and incapable of doing anything about their behavior, Oliver turned to one of the massive front tires and did a round of squats, keeping his breathing steady, blocking out the fans cheering for The Mack. The Mack attracted a lot of fans, but Tom and Corey got the team going with the Nembly Prep Fight Song, and their voices were louder. They tucked their phones into their armpits in order to clap at the end, and Oliver nodded to them in manly gratitude. No matter how strong an opponent, there was always a chance. Oliver’s dump truck shone in the sun, like someone had cleaned it up for him. There was zero bird shit anywhere, as far as he could see, whereas The Mack’s bumper looked a little dented. And there was definitely something like bird shit on the wheel well. Over by his crusty-looking truck, he was raging.

The tape across the finish seemed far away from where they stood. Oliver crouched in a three-point stance, touched the pavement with his gloved hand. It was so hot the tar felt soft, like he could shape it.


The day hadn’t been going well. At the Keg Toss, The Mack threw his barrel thirty yards. Oliver’s toss landed half as far. He stumbled through the Tire Flip, one of his best events, and then a sharp pain in his right shoulder caused him to break his Crucifix after only eight seconds. He dropped the weights to the ground and walked away with his head down.

After the Farmer’s Walk, he said hello to his parents and thanked them for coming. He’d almost dropped his logs a few feet from the finish line, but at least he’d made it through the race.

“You did great,” his mother said. She was working on another pair of winter socks for Oliver’s father, who was reading one his biographies of important American men—there was a man on a horse on the cover.

“How are you guys wearing sweaters right now?” Oliver watched his mother’s needles. She was talking about the wedding. She had another idea for the centerpieces. Roses floating in water, maybe in a fishbowl, maybe in another type of bowl. Did he think Alison would like it? The idea about the roses?

His father closed his book. One enormous hand rested on the cover, obscuring the title. Oliver could see that it was one of the Georges. “They call this a summer cardigan,” he said.

“What about the roses?” his mother wanted to know.

Oliver remembered the organza. He hoped his mother wouldn’t bring up the roses or the fish bowl, throw a wrench into Alison’s plans and cause her to rethink the centerpieces all over again. Would she need special fish bowls? Made of glass and wrapped in organza?

He was casting a shadow over his parents, drinking his water, feeling sort of mesmerized by his mother’s knitting. For years, her wrist was too weak, and now that it had healed, she seemed to be making up for lost time She never made any mistakes, not that Oliver could tell, even when she wasn’t watching what she was doing. Her graywhite hair stuck out in short curls—it had always been this way, for as long as he could remember. She’d had him when she was forty-six. He was a miracle baby.

Oliver grew up only a few miles from Nembly Prep. He knew that it cost money to go there, and he believed that all the students were probably very smart and that’s why they required such a fancy school. He thought that in order to compete in the world, he’d need to work even harder to succeed where he could. In spite of his height, he was a top scorer on the varsity basketball team, and in football, he set the school record for overall tackles in a season. He ended every game by locating his parents in the crowd and giving each of them a high five, until in eighth grade, after a football game a cold Friday night, when he broke his mother’s wrist in two places. She assured him that she was okay, even though that didn’t seem to be true.

He’d been coaching for a year when one of the new teachers in the History Department had a nervous breakdown. This was not uncommon, Coach had said. It’s a tough job, not for the weak. Coach offered to put in a good word. By January, Oliver had taken over two of her classes. Psychology. Hadn’t Oliver studied psych as a business major? Alison could help him to prepare. She’d taken excellent notes and had pages and pages on the brain, detailed lists of mental illnesses and famous psychiatrists. They rented One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Beautiful Mind. Movie Friday became a big hit with Oliver’s students. For homework, they completed sets of questions from The Human Mind: An Introduction.

After lunch, he liked taking the long way back around the quad. When he reached the top of the stone staircase of Dewey Hall, he turned around to face the fields and could see practically the whole school. His father, in his shaky voice, stressed the importance of hard work and advised him to burn the midnight oil, like other great men of history.

There were possibilities for Oliver. Maybe one day becoming a dean. Coach said he had dean written all over him. He was planning to get married, wasn’t he? To be a dean, he’d have to be the right kind of guy. A family man. And he’d have to be full-time, live in the dorm, be a part of the community. Watching videos of past Strongman competitions on his laptop, or doing squats near his desk, Oliver made a show of working late in the classroom. All that mattered was that his light was on. Alison would be with him all the way, until one morning, when suddenly, she wasn’t.


Oliver may have been able to pull a dump truck for miles, but he couldn’t lift for shit. That was his own opinion. Other guys told him he was doing okay for a guy his size, which meant small. Coach once carried a boulder back to the gym from the site of the new condos, almost two miles away.

“All my first stones,” Coach said. “I made myself.” He was benching his max, his face bright red. He shouldn’t have even been trying to speak, but Coach was no ordinary man. He edged his backyard with homemade stones, some of them replicas of stones with historical significance. A few of the older ones were beginning to crumble. One had a crack down the side and looked like it was only a matter of time before it broke apart.

“Those stones,” Coach said. “Made me. Who I am.” He dropped the bar and roared at the ceiling.

Oliver removed a disk of weight from each side and took his turn. Five reps, then rest.

Coach was suggesting a replica. He had a mold for the Inver Stone. “The real one is in Scotland, in some lady’s yard. She’ll watch you lift it if you ask. For posterity.” He held his hands open beneath the bar, waiting for Oliver to begin his second set.

“Alison would probably freak out.” He imagined a replica of the Inver Stone in the middle of the yard, getting in her way. He wouldn’t be able to move it for her. He closed his eyes. He had nothing left.

“Like I said, it’s historic,” Coach said, dropping his hands. “It used to be how a boy became a man.”


The Power Juice women waved to the crowd, retreating back to the Power Juice tent as retired Strongman hero T.J. Dawson strutted onto the course, the whistle around his neck resting on a gut the size of a manhood stone. Oliver was just a kid when he saw him on TV, pulling a jet plane chained to a dump truck for fifty feet. T.J. Dawson, only an inch taller than Oliver, one of the strongest men in the world.

Which was why Oliver couldn’t believe the size of his gut. It was the sort of gut that sent him into an epic determination to stay ripped, to keep getting ripped for the rest of his life. Dawson stretched his hamstrings like he too was preparing for the race. Alison was probably in bed on her laptop, looking for jobs or scrolling through ideas for how to make something more perfect. The last time they’d slept together in the bed, the night before the night of the fight about the ribbons, the springs of the mattress creaked even more loudly than usual as he climbed in beside her. Alison was turning pages of a magazine.

“There’s Asian style. That has panko.”

“Great,” he said, trying to be still. He could hear the pages rustling against the sheets. Was panko a food? Would Alison eat any of it? He imagined her spreading butter on a roll, enjoying the cake he would feed to her in the cake-cutting part of the ceremony. She’d be at his side until the very end.

He placed his hand on her hip, but she coiled herself more tightly and moved away from him. His nuts felt small and hard, like tiny fists.

It wouldn’t be until after the funeral that he mixed the cement in the wheelbarrow, adding water one cup at a time, raking it with a garden hoe. More water. Water everywhere. And still, there was such a thing as dehydration. Such a thing as a young woman’s heart attack, and a casket heavier than Oliver remembered a casket being, when he was just a boy standing beside the men.

The bag of cement weighed down the car, so Oliver carried it inside and set it down in the kitchen, out of the way. Alison was stirring what was probably her hundredth cup of tea. A pot of vegetable soup bubbled on the stove. Oliver turned the heat down, gave it a stir, scraping the bottom. The carrots were starting to come apart. How long had it been cooking?

“Coach lent me a mold,” he said.

She looked up but didn’t respond, so he kept going. “It’s a replica of the Inver Stone.”

She was looking at him like he was a blank screen. Her hair was wet, and so were her shoulders and the collar of her shirt, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“The real one is in Scotland.” He pointed to the bag in the corner. “I’m making a stone.”

She stirred her tea, like she wanted to make some noise. She turned her laptop so that he could see what she’d found. “What do you think?” She pointed to an explosion of purple flowers and bows. She clicked on a new page. With two fingers, she scrolled down a page of ribbon.

Months after the fight that followed, a dozen spools of purple organza arrived in the mail. Alison arranged them in a straight line on the edge of the kitchen table, ready to go. They remained there for months, until Oliver’s mother finally took them away.

Oliver would remember the way she sipped tea from the spoon, like it was the soup he wanted to keep from burning. He tried to work out in his mind how to offer her something to eat. How about a shake? But he couldn’t take her rolling her eyes or a comment about the milk, so instead, he looked away, took a breath, and lifted up the refrigerator.


It was close until the end. Mere feet from the finish line, Oliver located some hidden source of strength—he’d tell Alison to order the panko thing, for it must be somehow lucky if that’s what he was thinking about at the moment he pulled ahead of his opponent. In spite of the conditions, in spite of the sun being in his eyes the whole time and The Mack being so much bigger and sponsored by STRIDE, it was Oliver who crossed the finish line first. He could hardly speak. He felt like crying, like hugging T.J. Dawson, but he stepped back, took a few deep breaths, eyes on the pavement in front of his feet.

Over by his rusty truck, bent at the waist with his hands on his thighs, The Mack recovered from the epic loss. After a few deep breaths, he raised himself up, a worthy opponent—that was clear. He faced Oliver and pulled him into an embrace, right into his armpit. “Good race,” they said. “Good race.” Oliver freed himself as quickly as he could, just as two women in Power Juice bikinis arrived at his side for pictures. In their high heels, they towered above him, so he leaned their heads down against his chest as his players scrambled to fit the women into their selfies. Barb from Marketing elbowed her way through the crowd to get a good picture of the whole group. A few kids took a knee, forming a front row, and others closed in on either side.

“Can you boys look over here?” Barb yelled. “I want to see your faces.” Oliver adjusted his arms, clutching the Power Juice women firmly against his chest. His players made themselves look serious.

From the fringes of the crowd, his parents waved, not wanting to interrupt. His mother was pointing at her wrist, where her watch would be, where he’d broken her bone in two places. She smiled, shrugging, like she was sorry but couldn’t help it, because it was getting late. It was time for them to go. Time for her to start supper. Oliver looked at her in a way that said, You won’t miss anything important. Even though he’d beaten The Mack, he still wouldn’t have enough points to place in the top five. But there was always next year. Next year, he would remember thinking, he’d have everything under control. Next year, he’d be a married man.