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Vol. 7, No. 2

The Second Strongest Man
by David Bezmozgis

Second Strongest Man

In the winter of 1984, as my mother was recovering from a nervous breakdown and my fatherís business hovered precipitously between failure and near-failure, the International Weightlifting Championships were held at the Toronto Convention Centre. One evening the phone rang and a man invited my father to serve on the panel of judges. The job paid next to nothing but my father took it for the sake of his dignity. If only for a few days, he would wear his old IWF blazer and be something other than a struggling massage therapist and schlepper of chocolate bars. In the bedroom my father retrieved a passport with his International Weightlifting Federation credentials. The passport contained a photo of him taken years before the trials of immigration. In the picture his face carries the detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary. I had seen the picture many times and occasionally, when my father wasnít home, I took it out and studied it. It was comforting to think that the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.
          Several days after the phone call we received an official package from the IWF. Inside the package were passes, schedules, and a list of the participating athletes and teams. I joined my parents at the kitchen table and scanned through the list of names. There, as part of the Soviet delegation, were the names Sergei Federenko and Gregory Ziskin. My mother asked my father what this meant. Did it mean we would get to see them? Did it mean they would see our apartment? It had been little more than a week since the last time the paramedics had come, wrapped my mother in an orange blanket, strapped her to a gurney, and taken her to Branson Hospital. For months she had been stricken with paralyzing anxiety and a lethargy that made it impossible for her to undertake even the most basic household tasks. These had been months of boiled eggs, Lipton chicken noodle soup, an accumulation of sticky patches on the kitchen floor and dust in the corners. My God, Sergei canít see the apartment like this, she said.
          I sprang up from the table unable to restrain my enthusiasm. I pranced around the apartment singing, Seryozha, Seryozha, Seryozha. Seryozha is coming!
          My father told me to be quiet already.
          —Seryozha, Seryozha, Seryozha.
          My mother got up and handed me the broom. If you canít sit still, start sweeping, she said.
          —Seryozha is coming, I sang to the broom.

~

Five years before we left Latvia my father operated a very successful side venture out of the gym at Riga Dynamo. At that time he was one of the head administrators at Dynamo and was responsible for paper shuffling and budget manipulation. Before his promotion to senior bureaucracy my father had been a very good varsity athlete and an accomplished coach of the VEF radio factoryís soccer team. For a Jew, he was well liked by his superiors and so they turned a blind eye when he and Gregory Ziskinóa fellow administrator and Jewóstarted their bodybuilding program in the evenings. At best, the directors hoped that the class would lead to the discovery of a new talent; at worst, it meant they would get a piece of the action.
          Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from six to nine my father and Gregory unlocked the back door of the Dynamo gym and admitted their eager bodybuilders. Most of these were Jewish university students and young professionals who wanted to look good on the beaches of Jurmala. They were hardly inspired athletes but they came regularly and were pleased with their results. My father and Gregory assigned routines and oversaw their exercises. For my father the class was a welcome break from the obligations of Soviet bureaucracyóthe endless documents, detailed reports, and formal presentations to the Dynamo directors and visiting dignitaries. Also, the money was good. After kickbacks to the Dynamo directors and a few rubles to the janitor, my father and Gregory each pocketed sixty extra rubles a monthómore than triple the rent on our three-room apartment.
          My father and Gregory ran the class for two years without incident. The class was always popular and the money was steady. The directors received their cut and kept quiet. As long as the Dynamo teams were placing well nobody was willing to mess with a good thing. Fortunately, during the 1970s, Riga Dynamo was clicking along. Victor Tikhonov worked magic with the hockey team before being promoted to Moscow and the Red Army. Ivanchenko became the first middleweight to lift a combined five hundred kilos. The basketball and volleyball teams were feared across Europe. So nobody paid much attention to my fatherís class.
          It was only in the mid 1970s that things started to turn. As Jews began to emigrate many of my fatherís bodybuilders requested visas to Israel. Dynamo represented the KGB and someone at the ministry started making connections. It was pointed out to one of my fatherís directors that there was a disturbing correlation between my fatherís bodybuilders and Jews asking for exit visas. My father and Gregory were invited into the directorís office and informed of the suspicions. These were the sorts of suspicions that could get them all into trouble. It wouldnít look good at all if the Riga Dynamo gym was sponsoring anti-Soviet activities. The director, an old friend, asked my father whether the bodybuilding class was a front for Zionist agitation. It was an unpleasant conversation, but everyone understood that this could only be the beginning of the unpleasantness. The class was now being closely monitored. The only way to keep from shutting it down would be to justify its existence in an official capacity. In other words, they had better discover some talent.
          After the meeting with the director, my father suggested to Gregory that the smart thing to do would be to end the class. Theyíd made their money and, since my parents had already resolved to leave the Soviet Union, this was exactly the sort of incident that could create serious problems. Gregory, who had no plans to emigrate, but who also had no interest in a trip to Siberia, agreed that ending the class was probably a good idea. They decided not to continue the class beyond the end of the month.
          The next day my father discovered Sergei Federenko.

~

On the night my father discovered Sergei Federenko the class ended later than usual. Gregory left early and my father remained with five students. It was almost ten when my father opened the back door of the gym and stepped out into the alley where three young soldiers were singing drunken songs. The smallest of the three was pissing against the wall. My father turned in the opposite direction, but one of his students decided to flex his new muscles. He accused the little soldier of uncivilized behavior, called him a dog, and said unflattering things about his mother.
          The little soldier continued pissing as if nothing had happened, but the two bigger soldiers got ready to crack skulls.
          —Would you listen to Chaim? A real tough Jew bastard.
          —You apologize, Chaim, before itís too late.
          My father envisioned a catastrophe. Even if by some miracle he and his students werenít killed, the police would get involved. The consequences of police involvement would be worse than any beating.
          Before his student could respond, my father played the conciliator. He apologized for the student. He explained that he was part of a bodybuilding class. His head was still full of adrenaline. He didnít know what he was saying. Doctors had proven that as muscles grow the brain shrinks. He didnít want any trouble. They should accept his apology and forget the whole thing.
          As my father spoke the little soldier finished pissing on the wall and buttoned up his trousers. Unlike his two friends, he was completely unperturbed. He reached into his pants pocket and retrieved a small bottle of vodka. One of the other soldiers pointed to a black Moskvich sedan parked in the alley.
          —Listen, faggot, if one of your boys can lift the Moskvich weíll forget the whole thing.
          They made a deal. The Moskvich had to be lifted from the back and held at least a meter off the ground. Even though the engine was at the front, the back of the car was sufficiently heavy. Taking into account the frame, wheels, tires, and whatever might be kept in the trunk, the total would be in the hundreds of pounds. Maybe three hundred? Maybe four? It was an impossible bet. None of his students would be able to do it. It would be an exercise in futility. They would certainly be humiliated but, from my fatherís perspective, humiliation was better than a beating and a police inquiry. So, out of respect for my father, his students shut up and endured the ridicule. One by one they squatted under the carís bumper.
          —Careful, Chaim, donít shit your pants.
          —Lift it for Mother Russia.
          —Lift it for Israel.
          As expected, none of them could so much as get it off the ground. When they were done, one of the soldiers turned to the student who had started the trouble.
          —Not so tough now, Chaim?
          —Itís impossible.
          —Impossible for Chaim.
          —Impossible even for a stupid cocksucker like you.
          Amazingly, instead of killing the student, the big soldier turned to the little soldier.
          —Sergei, show Chaim whatís impossible.
          The little soldier put his bottle back into his pocket and walked over to the Moskvich.
          —Chaim, you watch the stupid cocksucker.
          Sergei squatted under the bumper, took a deep breath, and lifted the car a meter off the ground.

~

From the time I was four until we left Riga two years later Sergei was a regular visitor to our apartment on Kasmonaftikas. As a rule, he would come and see us whenever he returned from an international competition. Two years after my father discovered him, Sergei was a member of the National Team, had attained the prestigious title of ďInternational Master of Sport,Ē and possessed all four world records in his weight class. My father called him the greatest natural lifter he had ever seen. He was blessed with an economy of movement and an intuition for the mechanics of lifting. He loved to lift the way other people love drugs or chocolate. Growing up on a kolkhoz, he had been doing a manís work since the age of twelve. Life had consisted of hauling manure, bailing hay, harvesting turnips, and lugging bulky farm equipment. When the army took him at eighteen he had never been more than thirty kilometers from the kolkhoz. Once he left he never intended to return. His father was an alcoholic and his mother had died in an accident when he was three. His gratitude to my father for rescuing him from the army and the kolkhoz was absolute. As he rose through the ranks, his loyalty remained filial and undiminished. And in 1979, when we left Riga, Sergei was as devoted to my father as ever. By then he could no longer walk down the street without being approached by strangers. In Latvia, he was as recognizable as any movie star. Newspapers in many countries called him, pound for pound, the strongest man in the world.
          Sergei left a deep impression on my four-, five-, and six-year-old mind. There wasnít much I remembered from Rigaóisolated episodes, little more than vignettes, mental artifactsóbut many of these recollections involved Sergei. My memories, largely indistinct from my parentsí stories, constituted my idea of Sergei. A spectrum inverted through a prism, stories and memories refracted to create the whole: Sergei as he appeared when he visited our apartment on Kasmonaftikas. Dressed in the newest imported fashions, he brought exotic gifts: pineapples, French perfume, Swiss chocolate, Italian sunglasses. He told us about strange lands where everything was differentódifferent trains, different houses, different toilets, different cars. Sometimes he arrived alone, other times he was accompanied by one of the many pretty girls he was dating. When Sergei visited I was spastic with a compulsion to please him. I shadowed him around the apartment, I swung from his biceps like a monkey, I did somersaults on the carpet. The only way I could be convinced to go to sleep was if Sergei followed my mother into my bedroom. We developed a routine. Once I was under the covers Sergei said good night by lifting me and my little bed off the floor. He lifted the bed as if it weighed no more than a newspaper or a sandwich. He raised me to his chest and wouldnít put me back down until I named the worldís strongest man.
          —Seryozha, Seryozha Federenko!

~

My father took me with him to the Sutton Place Hotel where the Soviet delegation had its rooms. A KGB agent always traveled with the team, but it turned out that my father knew him. My father had met him on the two or three occasions when he had toured with Dynamo through Eastern Europe. The agent was surprised to see my father.
          —Roman Abramovich, youíre here? I didnít see you on the plane.
          My father explained that he hadnít taken the plane. He lived here now. A sweep of my fatherís arm defined ďhereĒ broadly. The sweep included me. My jacket, sneakers, and Leviís were evidence. Roman Abramovich and his kid lived here. The KGB agent took an appreciative glance at me. He nodded his head.
          —Youíre living well?
          —I canít complain.
          —Itís a beautiful country. Clean cities. Big forests. Nice cars. I also hear you have good dentists.
          In the hotel lobby, the KGB agent opened his mouth and showed my father the horrific swelling around a molar. He had been in agony for weeks. In Moscow, a dentist had extracted a neighboring tooth and the wound had become infected. On the plane, with the cabin pressure, he had thought he would go insane. Eating was out of the question and sleep was impossible without five hundred grams of vodka, minimum. But he couldnít very well do his job if he were drunk all the time. Also, heíd been told that vodka was very expensive here. What he needed was a dentist. If my father could arrange for a Toronto dentist to help him he would owe him his life. The pain was already making him think dark thoughts. In his room on the twenty-eighth floor he had opened the window and barely restrained himself from jumping.
          Using the hotel phone, my father called Dusa, our dentist. A top professional in Moscow, she had not yet passed her Canadian exams. In the interim, she worked nights as a maid for a Canadian dentist with whom she had an informal arrangement that allowed her to use his office to see her own patients, for cash, under the table. The Canadian dentist got fifty percent with the understanding that, in the event of trouble, he would deny everything and it would be Dusaís ass on the line. Fortunately, after months and months of work, there had been no trouble. And, several times a week, after she finished cleaning the office, Dusa saw her motley assortment of patients. All of them Russian immigrants without dental insurance. My father explained this to the KGB officer and told him that if he wasnít averse to seeing a dentist at one in the morning he had himself an appointment.
          As a token of his gratitude, the KGB agent personally escorted us up to Sergeiís room. So long as Sergei appeared at the competition and was on the flight to Moscow with the rest of the team, everything else was of no consequence. We could see him as much as we liked. The KGB agent swore on his childrenís eyes that there would be no problems.
          At Sergeiís door, the agent knocked sharply.
          —Comrade Federenko, you have important visitors!

~

Dressed in official gray slacks and buttoning his shirt, Sergei opened the door. He hesitated to speak until the KGB agent slapped my fatherís back and confessed that he was always deeply moved to witness a reunion of old friends. Then, Dusaís address in his pocket, he turned and departed down the carpeted hall.
          In the hallway, Sergei embraced my father and kissed him in the Soviet style. Next to Sergei, my fatherófive foot six and one hundred seventy poundsólooked big. I hadnít expected the physical Sergei to be so smallóeven though I had memorized his records the way American kids memorized box scores and knew that he was in the lowest weight class at fifty-two kilos.
          —That bastard, he scared the hell out of me.
          —The KGB, they know how to knock on a door.
          —Especially that one. A true Soviet patriot. A thousand trips to Siberia have begun with his fist on a door.
          Sergei looked down the hall in the direction of the KGB agentís departure. My father looked. So did I. The man had gone. Sergei turned back, looked at my father, and grinned.
          —I was in the washroom, I almost pissed myself. I thought, if Iím lucky, itís only another drug test.
          —Since when are you afraid of drug tests?
          —Since never.
          —Do I need to remind you of our regard for drug tests?
          In his capacity as Dynamo administrator it had been my fatherís responsibility to ensure that all the weightlifters were taking their steroids. At the beginning of each week he handed out the pills along with the special food coupons. Everyone knew the drill: no pills, no food.
          —Absolutely not. Keeps the sport clean.
          —And, of course, youíre clean.
          —Iím clean. The team is clean. Everyone is clean.
          —Good to hear nothing has changed.
          —Nothing.
          Sergei clapped my father on the shoulder.
          —What a wonderful surprise.
          On our way to the hotel, I had been rabid with excitement to see Sergei, but seeing him in person I couldnít speak. I stood behind my father and waited to be acknowledged. It seemed like a very long time before Sergei turned his attention to me. When he finally did, he looked down and appeared not to know me.
          —And who is this?
          —You donít recognize him?
          —He looks familiar.
          —Think.
          —Itís hard to say.
          —Take a guess.
          —Well, if I had to guess, I would say he looks a little like Mark. But heís too small.
          —Too small?
          —Mark was much bigger. He could do fifteen, maybe even twenty push-ups. This one looks like he couldnít even do ten.
          —I can do twenty-five! I do them every morning.
          —I donít believe it.
          I dropped down onto the red and gold Sutton Place carpet and Sergei counted them from one to twenty-five. Panting, I got back up, and waited for Sergeiís reaction. He smiled and spread his arms.
          —Come on, boy, jump.
          The awkwardness gone, I leaped. Sergei carried me into the hotel room and I hung from his arm as my father called Gregoryís room. Sergeiís competition was two days away and it was decided that he would spend a little time with us the next day and then he and Gregory would come for dinner after his competition.

~

When my father and I returned from the hotel with the good news, my mother was scrubbing every available surface. Floors, oven, furniture, windows. She presented us with several bags of garbage which we dropped down the smelly chute in the hallway. My father told her that Sergei looked good. As though he hadnít changed at all in the last five years.
          —What did he say about the way you look?
          —He said I looked good. Canadian. Younger than the last time he saw me.
          —If you look young then I must be a schoolgirl.
          —You are a schoolgirl.
          —The ambulance comes once a week. Some schoolgirl.

~

The next morning my father stopped at the hotel on his way to judge events in the middleweight class. Sergei wasnít competing that day and I took the subway with my father so that I could guide Sergei back to our apartment where my mother was waiting to take him shopping. As we crossed the lobby toward the elevator I noticed the KGB agent making his way over to intercept us. I noticed before my father noticed. From a distance I had the vague impression that there was something not quite the same about the agent. As he drew closer I saw that his face was badly swollen. With every step he took the swelling became more prominent. It was as though the swelling preceded his face. From a distance he had been arms, legs, torso, haircut, but up close he was a swollen jaw. My father, distracted with his obligations to the competition and nervous about being late, didnít appear to recognize the man until he was standing directly in front of him. But then, on seeing the agentís face, my father stiffened and seized me by the shoulder. My God, he said, and simultaneously drew me back, putting himself between me and the KGB agent.
          The KGB agent clapped his hands and broke into what appeared to be a lopsided grin. His distended lips barely parted but parted enough to reveal white cotton gauze clamped between his teeth. When he spoke, it was through this gruesome leer, like a man with his jaw wired shut. My father tightened his grip on the back of my neck.
          —Roman Abramovich, looks like you really did me a favor.
          —Sheís the dentist for my family. I go to her. My wife. My son. I swear she always does good work.
          The agentís jaw muscles twitched as he clamped tighter into his grin.
          —Good work. Look at me. I couldnít ask for better. She put in three crowns and a bridge.
          —Sheís a very generous woman.
          —She knows how to treat a man. Anesthetic and a bottle of vodka. I left at four in the morning. A very generous woman. And beautiful. It was a wonderful night, you understand.
          —Iím glad to hear youíre happy.
          —Roman Abramovich, remember, you always have a friend in Moscow. Visit anytime.
          Laughing at his joke, the agent turned and we proceeded to the elevator and rode up to Sergeiís floor. In the elevator my father leaned against the wall and finally loosened his grip on my neck.
          —Donít ever forget. This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him.
          We knocked on Sergeiís door and, after some shuffling, Sergei answered. He was in the middle of his push-ups when he let us into his room. He was wearing an undershirt and his arms were a bold relief of muscles, tendons, and veins. In Italy, during our six-month purgatory between Russia and Canada, I had seen statues with such arms. I understood that the statues were meant to reflect the real arms of real men, but, except for Sergei, I had never met anyone with arms like that.
          As my father was in a hurry, he left me with Sergei and rushed back out to the Convention Centre. I waited while Sergei dressed.
          —So where are you taking me today?
          —Mama says weíll go to the supermarket. She thinks youíll like it.
          —The supermarket.
          —The good supermarket. They have every kind of food.
          —And you know how to get there?
          —Yes. First we take the subway and then the bus. By the subway and the bus I know how to go almost anywhere.
          —How about California?
          —The subway doesnít go to California.
          —Then maybe we should take a plane.
          The way he said it I didnít know if he was joking or serious until he laughed. I wanted to laugh too but I hadnít understood the joke. I sensed that I wasnít intended to understand it in the first place. I was hurt because I wanted very much to be Sergeiís equal, his friend, and I suspected that Sergei wasnít laughing at his joke but rather at me.
          Seeing that he had upset me, Sergei tried to make up for it by asking about the supermarket.
          —We sometimes go to another one that isnít as good. In the other one they donít have the things they show on the television. But at the good supermarket you can find everything.

To read the rest of this story and others from the Summer 2003 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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