I’m a time traveler. No, I don’t have a machine. I don’t need one. Sometimes it’s a smell, sometimes a scrap of music, perhaps the way a shadow falls across the sidewalk. That’s all it takes to whirl me back into the past to relive a long-forgotten moment in time.
Today it was the sign in the window of a rent-all shop. It said something about pumping iron for a sleeker you. Underneath was an iron bar and a pile of big heavy metal disks.
The moment I glanced at that window I was a 13-year-old girl again, talking to my little brother Jamie. And I don’t say little just because he was three years younger than I was. The poor kid was skinny.
Anyway, I was a 13-year-old again, and Jamie was forlornly bending his right elbow and probing hopefully with his left hand. He pinched all around the spot where his right bicep should have been. “Why don’t I have a muscle?” he sighed, giving up at last. “I eat plenty of food and ride my bike a lot. Some nights I’m even in bed early. I know kids who don’t even keep the Word of Wisdom and still have muscles. Is it fair?”
Using Job as my text, I began to counsel him on the virtues of longsuffering, but Jamie was not in a biblical mood that day. He just walked away, still flexing his arm grimly, as if giving justice a chance to make things right.
A few days later he burst into the house with a huge smile on his face. “I’m going to have muscles!” he shouted. “Big ones!”
I asked how this miracle was to be accomplished.
“Barbells!” he said.
“Look,” he said, “Braithwaite’s Rental Center has barbells in the window. I’m going to rent a set and work with them until I look just like Charles Atlas.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
He smiled in what he must have thought was a winning way. “Of course I don’t have enough money to rent a set all by myself.” He eyed me hopefully.
“Too bad, little brother. Remember, I’m saving my allowance for a membership in the Y swimming classes. You’ll have to earn the extra money yourself.”
His face fell, and he glanced at his spaghetti-noodle arms as if he could see gigantic muscles dwindling away before his eyes. The smile came back fast, though, and the muscles with it from the look on his face.
“I’ll earn the money doing errands,” he said. “There must be lots of folks in town who have jobs they don’t want to do themselves. I’ll start raking in the dough tomorrow.”
The next day was Saturday, and Jamie set out early in the morning to earn his muscle money. It was afternoon and I was washing my hair, when he dragged back into the kitchen and plopped down on a chair.
“Well?” I asked between rinses.
“Well, the first house I tried was closed up. I guess Mrs. Roberts is away again at her sister’s. Then I offered to baby-sit Alex at the Johnsons’, but Mr. Johnson is home on vacation, so he’s helping with the baby.”
House by house Jamie recounted his failures. Then he settled into a gloomy silence.
As I toweled my head dry, a thought darted into it. “Did you try the cottage with peeling paint at the end of the street? The yard is a real mess. I’m sure they could use some help, whoever they are.”
Jamie shook his head. “Who they are is old Tom Winters. He’s the meanest old flinthead in town. If your baseball accidentally lands in his yard, he comes shuffling out on the porch and waves his cane at you. He acts like you’d committed a crime or something.”
He fell silent again for a while, and I thought I could see greed struggling with fear.
“On the other hand,” he said at last, “his yard really is a mess. Since he’s so picky even about stray baseballs, maybe he would pay to have it cleaned up.”
He was hooked on the idea, but I could see that he was scared of it too. It was time for a little psychology. “I don’t blame you for being afraid,” I said. “A guy like that, anybody might be afraid of him.”
“Afraid?” he said, squaring his skinny shoulders. “Afraid of old Flinthead? I’m going to ask him for work right now!” and he marched out the kitchen door.
Just before the door slammed shut I couldn’t resist one last word of advice. “Remember—dead men build no muscles!”
When Jamie returned, he didn’t seek me out to report results. I discovered him down in Dad’s basement workshop rummaging around.
“How did it go?”
“Oh, Mr. Winters told me there was plenty to do around his place,” he said offhandedly, peering over, under, and around the large workbench.
“So how much is he going to pay you?”
He mumbled an answer.
“He can’t pay me anything.” He went on to explain that old Tom had been expecting his son to come home on a visit and set things straight, but his son had taken ill. “He told me I was a brave one to even knock on his door.” Jamie managed a grin and then took up his search again, peering into this cupboard and onto that shelf.
“What are you looking for?” I asked. “I’ll help you find it.”
“An old saw Dad gave me. I need it.”
I reached out and ruffled Jamie’s blond hair. “Come on, tell me,” I coaxed.
He backed off, looking sheepish. “I need it because I’m working for Mr. Winters.”
My mouth dropped open. “But you said he couldn’t pay you!”
Jamie blushed. “He can’t.”
“You mean you’re doing it for free?”
Jamie gulped. “Well, he’s got bad hands and a bad back. That’s why he’s so cranky and why his yard is such a mess.”
“So how are you going to pay for your rented weights?”
Jamie didn’t seem to hear me. “It’d be hard for him to pick something up off the ground. His fingers are all twisted up with arthritis, and he’s all bent over double. I just told him I’d gather up some tree branches. It’s no big deal.”
“Softie!” I scoffed, but I was lost in admiration. To think that Jamie, my little brother, was actually sacrificing his muscles just to help the town flinthead.
For the next few weeks, Jamie was away from home a lot—almost all day every Saturday, and an hour or two on weekdays too. He didn’t say much about it, but I knew where he was. I had been touched by his gesture, but I hadn’t really expected him to stick with it like this.
Several times my curiosity became too much for me, and I actually sneaked over to old Tom’s place to see what was going on. Every time Jamie was hard at work—mending, clearing, painting, stacking. But mostly he was sawing and chopping the many dead limbs that littered the yard.
He worked steadily, his breath coming in short white puffs in the cold air. At first he had to pause every few seconds to rest, but as the weeks passed he began sawing in long steady strokes for many minutes at a time. Meanwhile, old Tom’s yard was looking better and better, and the woodpile against the shed at the bottom of the garden was growing gigantic.
Jamie always came home at night exhausted. But there was something about him—something in his face, something in his voice—that made it harder and harder to think of him as little Jamie.
One night he didn’t go.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Have you gotten tired of working for the flinthead?”
“His name’s Mr. Winters,” Jamie said, “and I’ve finished all the work over there.”
“Okay, I’ll admit it,” I said. “I’m impressed. You really did all that work for nothing.”
Jamie shook his head. “I think you know better than that,” he said. “I got paid all right.”
I put on a look of mock distaste. “You mean all that syrupy stuff like the rewards of love and service?”
He nodded. “That and something else.” His grin reached right up to his eyes. He slowly bent an elbow. With wonder I saw beneath his shirt the unmistakable swelling of a hard-earned, well-deserved muscle.