When they made me their quorum project again, I figured it wouldn’t do any good. It hadn’t worked before, and I could see no reason why it would work this time either. Of course, that was before I knew J. J.
At first they tried an old trick, but I saw them coming. I was no ordinary inactive member; I hadn’t been to church since I was baptized, and I’d seen all the activation tricks in the book. All of them.
See, I figured that sports and religion didn’t mix. How can you bang heads with animals on the football field and hang out with religious wimps at church? Besides, my coach said I had a shot at big-time football if I stayed focused. And focused I was—sharper than an electron microscope. You don’t bench press 325 pounds without focusing.
That Sunday was kind of comical, really. Eight or nine guys my age, priests, I think they call them, came up to the front door. It was the old “If he won’t come to priesthood class, we’ll take the class to him” trick. They figured they just had to show up and I’d swing open the door and say, “Gee whiz, guys, thanks for coming over. Is it too late for me to go to church with you?”
No way. With Mom at work, I cranked up the baseball game on TV and ignored the doorbell. The ringing soon stopped, and I heard a couple of taps on the door. Then it stopped. I waited a second and opened the front door a crack to watch them head back to church when I saw this skinny bald-headed kid.
“Hey, Wayne,” he grinned. “Guess you didn’t hear us knocking, huh?”
I had to say something, but this guy just freaked me out. I mean, the guy had no hair. Finally, I said, “Uh, guess not. I’m just looking for the, um, to see if the newspaper is out here.”
He smiled. “Didn’t see it. By the way, I’m Jonathan Johnson, but you can call me J. J.” He stuck out his hand.
I couldn’t slam the door, so I shook his hand and said, “I’m Wayne Salow.” He stood there waiting for me to say something more, so I said, “Uh, you want to come in or something?”
He followed me into the living room. After a moment of awkward silence, J. J. explained he was new in our ward and the bishop had just called him to be the priests quorum first assistant. I wondered how somebody so scrawny could assist anybody. That bishop must be desperate, I decided.
J. J. looked like grade-school bully bait. His body was pathetic. I mean, he made Ghandi look like a sumo wrestler. His round wire-rim glasses perched low on his nose like oversize goggles. But the head, man, that was the weirdest. J. J. didn’t have any hair. Zilch, zippo, nada. Not even eyebrows.
“Some of the guys in the quorum and I came over to say hello.” He looked me in the eye when he talked, and you know what? He had laser eyes. A trash body and a gaze that could slice granite.
“Well,” he said, “we just wanted to let you know we care about you, and we’d like you to come out to Mutual some night, you know, if you feel like it. We have some pretty exciting activities.”
I saw the Scouting tactic coming, so I cut it off quick. “Sorry, man, but I’m not into Scouting and hiking and that kind of junk.”
“No sweat. We do all kinds of things. Want me to come by Wednesday and pick you up?”
Slick, I thought. J. J., you ought to sell used cars. “Sorry, man, but I’ll be busy Wednesday night.” I looked at the TV to let him know our conversation was finished.
He shook my hand again. “Okay, I’ll let you get back to your game. But really, Wayne, if you ever feel like coming you let me know. Anytime.”
What a piece of work, I thought, as I closed the front door behind him.
I was in the garage Wednesday night working on my biceps when J. J. showed up. I had a pretty good pump on my arms as the veins were bulging something fierce and the sweat was glistening in the glare of the garage light. It made them look polished. I pulled a few extra repetitions when I saw him. My chest was bulging out of my black tank top as I dropped the weights at my feet.
J. J. jumped a little at the sound, smiled, and toed the barbell carefully with his foot. “You lift weights, huh?”
“I bench press 325. Squat 400.”
“Really?” He glanced around at my weight-lifting equipment. “I guess that’s pretty good. What’s a bench press?”
I pointed to the bench, and the next thing I knew he’s lying flat on it and I’m helping him do a few shaky repetitions with just the bar—no weights. He managed to lower the bar to his chest and push it back up five times before he racked it and sat up, sweat glistening on his bald scalp.
“Bench press,” he said a little breathlessly. “Interesting. And how much did you say you can do?”
I nodded and he whistled softly.
“And how much did I just do?”
He whistled again. “I guess I’m out of shape.” He walked over to a barbell and tried to pick it up. It didn’t move.
“You know, Wayne, I could probably benefit from a little weight training—not for football or anything like that, but just for physical fitness. How would you feel if I worked out with you for a while?”
I didn’t think he was serious, so I agreed. But first I spelled out my basic training rule. “No pain, no gain.”
“Huh?” he asked.
“In weight lifting, if you don’t push yourself, especially when you’re tired and feel like quitting, you’ll never gain strength. So the rule is no pain, no gain. Deal?”
I didn’t think he’d do it, but for two months, J. J. showed up every Tuesday and Thursday night to work out. The little dude was intense. He wasn’t pushing any serious weight, but he was making gains. When he lay on the bench with the bar in his hands, his eyes lit up. He never gave up, and he always strained for that extra rep, the one to grow on.
“No pain, no gain,” I yelled one night when he struggled for an extra repetition.
His arms quivered, the veins in his skull bulged, but he got that look and the bar went up.
“No pain,” he panted, “no gain.”
“You got it, my man,” I said, squeezing his upper arm. You’re definitely putting on some meat here.”
“You know,” said J. J., “I wonder if Lehi was talking about weight lifting when he said, ‘It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.’”
“A prophet in the Book of Mormon. You know, Nephi’s father.”
“He was into weights?”
“Probably not. He was talking more about life, you know, about how stuff that’s hard for us makes us stronger.”
“Sounds like he knew what he was talking about.”
“Yeah,” J. J. nodded seriously. “Yeah, kinda like no pain, no gain.”
I didn’t want him to ruin our workout by discussing the Book of Mormon, so I steered the conversation to something else. “You know, J. J., weight lifting will make a man of you, but I’m afraid it’s not going to do anything to sprout hair on your bald head.”
J. J. straightened up and patted his scalp. “Too bad. I’ve got plenty of room for growth up here. But it’ll grow back someday.”
“You mean it’s not a permanent, genetic thing?”
“Well, I was born bald,” he laughed, “but I had a pretty normal childhood—hair and everything. When I was nine I got really sick and the medicine they gave me made my hair fall out.”
“Bad stuff, huh?
He nodded slowly as his smile faded.
“Do me a favor, and keep your medicine away from me. I don’t want to turn out like that Samson dude.”
J. J. grinned and lay back on the bench for his final set.
J. J. showed up every Tuesday and Thursday for another month, but instead of gaining, he started losing strength. His arms shook more than ever, and his energy faded almost with the first repetition.
“No pain, no gain,” I shouted to help him finish a repetition. He strained for a moment, but gravity dragged the bar back down. I helped him rack the bar.
He sat at the end of the bench completely wiped out.
“Man, I’ve got plenty of pain, but it’s sure not helping me make any gains, at least not in weights.”
We ended our workout early that night, and I gave J. J. a ride home. I didn’t see J. J. for two weeks, so I called his house to see what was going on. His mom told me he had leukemia. It had been in remission for a couple of years, but recently it came back with a vengeance. He was at the local hospital getting chemotherapy, and he was pretty sick.
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I asked, “Can I see him?”
Lying in the hospital bed, J. J. looked skinnier and more pale than I had remembered. A couple of bottles hung next to his bed with plastic tubes running down into his arms. I rubbed my own arms and shivered.
“Hey, J. J. Hey, how you doing?”
He didn’t move right away, but then he saw me and smiled.
“Wayne. Hey, thanks for coming.” His voice sounded hoarse and papery.
“You’ve been missing workouts, my man.”
He smiled but said nothing.
“I got 330 on the bench last week. Too bad you missed it.”
J. J. closed his eyes and his body flinched in pain. For a moment his breath stopped as his whole body tensed. I just about called a nurse, but he gradually relaxed and breathed again. When he opened his eyes, tears rimmed the bottom of his eyelids.
“You okay? Can I get something? Call a nurse?”
He shook his head. “No pain,” he whispered, “no gain. I’m kind of used to this. I guess chemotherapy is better than the alternative.”
I started visiting J. J. pretty regularly after that. He still looked like a wimp, but that laser gleam was back in his eyes. He’d tease the nurses, arm wrestle me, and talk nonstop. “Just wait until I get out of here, Wayne Muscle Brain. I’m gonna hit your weights like a maniac, and in a couple months …” He paused when he saw my doubtful grin. “Okay, in six months, maybe seven, I’ll be stronger pound for pound than you.”
One Saturday, it was J. J. and me quietly watching a baseball game on TV. It had been his roughest week yet. I’d say something once in a while, and he’d nod or blink to let me know he heard. Talking made him tired.
Then he spoke. “Wayne?”
He took a shaky and shallow breath. “I want you to come to church.”
“Me? Yeah, sure. The roof will collapse if I walk in there.”
“Please. My parents are taking me tomorrow. Please come.”
I started to tell him no, but his look. Those eyes. He was so determined. I reached over and patted his shoulder. “Okay, man. Okay.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. Soon he was asleep.
I met J. J. and his parents in front of their church the next day and helped load J. J. into a wheelchair. His whole body shook when I lifted him out of the car. “Hey, man, you okay?”
“I’m okay,” he said, taking a deep breath. “No pain, no gain.”
We sat in the back of the chapel. After the sacrament had been passed, people started standing up and talking. When someone stood, a boy walked over and handed them a microphone. They talked about their lives and their families, and about the church. Some of them cried. I noticed J. J. crying too.
Near the end of the meeting, J. J. leaned onto my arm and tried to stand. He struggled a moment but couldn’t make it and fell back into his chair with a crash and a sob. The kid with the microphone noticed and walked over, handing it to J. J.
For a few seconds he just sat there with the mike in his lap. His mouth was moving, but only whispers were coming out. So I picked up the mike and held it close to his lips.
Everybody had turned to watch J. J. as the chapel became silent. Finally his voice came over the speaker. “I’m thankful to … to be alive.” He tried to say more, but nothing came. He just sat there with tears running down his face. Everybody, including me, was crying. Something got into me then; it was J. J., I guess. With the microphone still in my hand, I stood up and started talking.
“Uh, I’m Wayne Salow, a friend of J. J.’s. You know, before I met him, I had no interest in church. Football was everything. Then J. J. started coming over, not to preach or act like a missionary, but to work out, to be my friend. And we started talking, started being friends. And I got to where I really liked him.
“When I first met J. J., I figured I had it made because I was big and strong and he was so skinny and weak. But as I got to know him, I started to see that he had lots more than I did: a strong family, a strong will, and more courage than I’ll ever know.”
My voice started to shake, so I hurried to finish. “Anyway, I love him for being my friend, and I love what makes him the kind of person he is, and whatever it is, I want it. I want to be like him. Uh, that’s it … Amen, I guess.”
Not exactly a typical testimony, but for a guy who hadn’t been to church forever, it was okay.
J. J. didn’t live much longer. As he got sicker, I could only see him on his rare good days. The last time I saw Jonathan Johnson was four days before he died. By then, his body had had about all it could take. We didn’t even talk; I’m not even sure if he was awake all the time I was there. I just stood at his side and held his hand. I told him I thought that with all the pain he’d been through, he’d gained an awful lot. More than most people gain in a lifetime.
“And, J. J.,” I said, “I wanna gain it too. I’m working on it—going to church and everything. The bishop said that if I keep it up, he can’t see any reason why I can’t go on a mission the year after I graduate. A mission. Man, can you believe it?”
I think I felt him squeeze my hand right then. Or maybe I imagined it. But I like to think that he heard and understood. And that he was glad.