“In the spirit of [Walter Dean Myers’s] Monster meeting The Catcher in the Rye, Goodman’s masterful story will remain with the reader long after the last page, echoing the raw truth that perhaps a real man is one who is both brave and scared.” —Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray
In an environment where kindness equals weakness, how do those who care survive?
Shawn Goodman will capture your heart with this gritty, honest, and moving story about a boy struggling to learn about friendship, brotherhood, and manhood in a society where violence is the answer to every problem.
A Tayshas Reading List Pick
An ALA-YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Book
“Shawn Goodman takes us inside the gritty world of our juvenile justice system with the verve of a master storyteller.” —Jordan Sonnenblick, author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie
“A gripping story of a boy’s climb to manhood on his own terms.” —Paul Volponi, author of The Final Four
“The reader will be seized by [the boy’s] plight and his determination not only to survive, but to better himself.” —Todd Strasser, author of Give a Boy a Gun
“Kindness for Weakness is a daring, dazzling leap into the dark passage that is the journey to manhood.” —Paul Griffin, author of The Orange Houses
“Gripping action, gritty dialogue, vivid characters, and palpable tension permeate the brief chapters of James’s powerful, honest, compelling narrative.” —School Library Journal
An Excerpt fromKindness for Weakness
White-clad paramedics run alongside the gurney, guiding me through the electric gates of the facility and across the parking lot, where a helicopter waits. They are careful even though they’re in a hurry, and I want to thank them, maybe tell them not to go to so much trouble for me, because I feel fine despite what has just happened. Also, it’s been a long time since anyone has worried about me, and truth be told, it’s a little embarrassing. One of the men puts his hand on mine and says, “Hang in there, buddy. You’re going to make it. I swear you’re going to be okay.”
I want to say something to reassure him, but I can’t talk. My breathing is thin and shallow, and it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open and look at the helicopter blades hanging down at their tips, all wobbly and half-assed. I wonder how something so fragile-looking can fly, but then the rotor powers up and the blades become a cyclone beating down the air and flattening me to the gurney. The paramedics fold up the legs of the gurney and slide me into the helicopter.
“Just hold on, buddy,” the guy says again. I try to smile to let him know I’m okay, but my face muscles don’t work. I can move my eyes, though, and I look out the windows, which are all around. A tornado of dirt and leaves swirls outside, twigs and bugs and other dried-up things riding the currents of air.
And I’m excited, because for the first time I am flying.
In the beginning there is so much walking that I have holes in my shoes. Half the time I don’t even know where I’m going or why. One more block, my body says, and the legs just carry out their orders, striding over cracked sidewalks, patches of trampled spring grass, and the occasional globe of dandelion fluff. These I kick sharply, trying to send each seed on its way so that it might float and drift and, eventually, find a nice place to live. It doesn’t seem like such a stupid idea, until I see all the perfect lawns and realize I’m making a mess, adding ten or twenty more yellow flowers to be dug up and thrown away. So I quicken my pace and stop looking down.
Instead I watch the little kids playing outside the shingled two-story houses: boys and girls riding scooters and Big Wheels in the driveways, running around with dogs in fenced backyards. The kids shriek and laugh and chase each other with sticks. What would it be like to live that way, with a watchful German shepherd, a bicycle, and friends? To sprawl on an L-shaped couch in front of the bluish glow of a big-screen TV, a mother saying, “I’m going to the kitchen. How about some soda and a big bowl of popcorn?” Or maybe she would just touch the top of my head as a kind of gesture, a silent everyday way of saying, “Hey, kid, I love you.”
Of course, all this thinking is crazy, because I don’t live in one of those houses and never will. Even the little kids seem to understand this, because they stop playing and stand shoulder to shoulder, staring at me with serious little-kid faces, the kinds that show they recognize that something around them is wrong. Not dangerous, but different. Out of place. A friendless fifteen-year-old kid with nowhere to go. But as soon as I pass, they return to their games, shrieking and laughing and chasing each other around. They roll madly up and down the driveway on their Big Wheels, pebbles rattling inside cracked plastic mags, the unmistakable sound of things that are right and good. The sound of things that belong. I walk even faster and get the hell out of there.
It’s two o’clock on a Sunday, and I head over to Dirk’s Gym to see my big brother, Louis, who is nineteen and has his own apartment. Louis is only four years older than me, but he’s pretty much an adult. He left home over a year ago, when Ron, my mom’s boyfriend, moved in with us. “It’s him or me,” Louis said. My mother paced the edge of the living room, chewing her nails, smoking an unfiltered Camel; she did not say one word. That’s when Louis packed his clothes in a couple of garbage bags. He gave me one of those quick thumping tough-guy hugs and pushed through the broken screen door. He never came back.
Dirk’s is a really small place, but it’s the only gym in Dunkirk, which itself is nowhere, a small town in western New York that’s been quietly rusting on the shores of Lake Erie ever since the Allegheny-Ludlum and Roblin Steel plants closed. The front room of Dirk’s is filled with trophies and posters of locals who have placed in body-building competitions. Louis has won more titles than anyone else, but this fact doesn’t make me feel like any less of an imposter, especially since I don’t know how to lift weights and can’t afford a membership or even a day pass. As if on cue, the guy at the counter stops me with one of his bulging forearms.
“You can’t go in there,” he says. “Members only.”
“I need to talk to my brother, Louis.”
He looks me over, surprised that someone so skinny and frail could be related to Louis. “He’s training, dude. You shouldn’t bother him.”
“It’ll just take a minute,” I say. “It’s really important.”
But before he can shut me down, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen bounces up to the counter in a pink spandex tank top. She’s a mess of curves, blond hair, and shining teeth. Her perfection strikes me dumb; I stand, wide-eyed, unable to think or speak.
“Hi, Trevor,” she says to the guy at the counter.
“Hey, Sheila. What’s up?” He gives me a nod toward the weight room, my signal to get lost.
I follow the sound of screaming death metal to the chromed, mirrored free-weight room. It’s crowded, but Louis is easy to spot; he’s at the squat rack with his buddies, a couple of tattooed monsters I’ve never seen before. A barbell rests on the back of Louis’s neck. It’s loaded with so many steel plates that the bar is actually bending under the weight. His face is twisted with effort, and beads of sweat line his forehead.
“You got this!” one of the monsters says as Louis sinks down into a squat.
“Push it out!” says the other. “Push it!”
Louis’s quads bulge as he rises. I half expect his knees to explode, but they don’t. When he finishes his set, they all give each other high fives and shoulder bumps. One of his friends notices me and whispers something to Louis. I wave, but Louis doesn’t wave back; he grabs his duffel bag and walks over, scowling.
“What are you doing here, James?” he says.
“I don’t know. Nothing.”
“You’re supposed to meet me at five o’clock, not two.”
“I know, but I thought . . .”
“What did you think, James?”
“I thought that maybe we could hang out and you could show me how to lift. You know, like we talked about.”
“When did we talk about that? I don’t remember.”
“A little while ago. Before you moved out.”
“That was, like, a year ago.” He pulls a towel from his bag and wipes some of the sweat from his face and his shaved head. “Listen, James. I don’t mean to be an asshole or anything, but I don’t have time for this. I’ll meet you at Taco Bell at five, like we planned. Okay?”
“I could just hang out and watch. I don’t even have to work out or anything. I’ll be quiet.”
“I don’t think so, James. What’s up with your eye?”
“Nothing.” I touch it. My fingertips explore the swollen discolored edges.
“We’ll talk about that later.” He taps me lightly on my shoulder and walks back to his buddies. “Five o’clock,” he says. “Don’t be late.”
I walk with my head down past Trevor and Sheila. They’re still smiling and flirting, and why shouldn’t they be? They’re good-looking and cool; they belong here among the weights and mirrors and the other people who are good-looking and cool. They look so happy and perfect, like they’re in a movie or a music video. All that’s missing is the film crew and the sound track. Out of sheer loneliness, I wish I could be just like them. If I had enough money for a gym membership, I could get buff, too. And then I wouldn’t be a skinny, friendless loser anymore. Kids at school would respect me. Louis would want to hang out with me, and we’d be like real brothers again.
I honestly don’t know what I was thinking, showing up at Dirk’s in the middle of his workout. I should have known better. Ever since Louis moved out, he’s wanted nothing to do with me—until yesterday, when he asked if I wanted to come work for him. He said his roommate, Vern, freaked out and joined the marines, leaving Louis shorthanded for deliveries. I don’t believe this for a minute, because Vern can’t get out of bed before twelve o’clock, much less march and do a thousand push-ups. But it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we’ll be business partners, and maybe, in time, buddies.
A dirt trail at the back of the gym parking lot leads me to the train tracks, where I can walk the rails to kill time. I go heel to toe for a hundred feet or so, until I lose my balance and fall off. The trestle is raised about ten feet, which gives me a good view of all the backyards and parking lots I pass by. At the Dunkirk Ice Cream plant, a worker in a white smock and a hairnet leans against the factory’s corrugated yellow siding, smoking a cigarette. He gives me a nod, and then stubs out his butt before returning to work.
Ahead I see a bunch of kids throwing rocks at the old Brooks Locomotive Works, a low-slung brick building that stretches forever on a street that runs parallel to the tracks. The small square windowpanes are long gone; the kids chuck fist-sized trestle stones into the factory through the empty frames. They watch me carefully and, when I get too close, drop their rocks and disappear on bicycles.
I’m getting hungry and tired, so I decide to stop for a rest. I dig out my change: seven pennies, two nickels, and a quarter. It’s not enough to buy anything with, so I put the coins on top of one of the rails and sit down to wait for the next train. Louis and I used to do this, up until he started high school. Those were some of the good times in our lives, before our mother fell apart and started dating Ron. We used to spend hours lining up a hundred pennies at a time on each rail. They’d stretch out forever, an endless line of gleaming copper dots. Later, after they were flattened to the size of half-dollars, Louis would sell them at school for a quarter apiece. We’d go right after to the movie theater to buy tickets, and candy, and giant buckets of buttered popcorn.
Waiting, I look at a scrim of weeds separating the trestle from the road. It has trapped all kinds of garbage: pop cans, scratch tickets, and shredded bits of newspaper; pizza boxes, empty forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor, half of a Nerf football. I sit down with my back against the telephone pole and spot a whole new cache of debris: a pretzeled bicycle wheel, half a waterlogged porno magazine, and the colored plastic shards of what might have been a squirt gun. How many kids, I wonder, have come to this place to throw rocks, watch trains, and flatten coins on the steel rails? Probably a lot.
After the train thunders by, a double-engine Union Pacific with thirty coal cars, I pick through the rocks on the trestle and find only two pennies. They’re completely smooth and wafer thin, about the size of a quarter. I get back up on the rail and start walking, heel to toe, heel to toe, turning one of the big smooth pennies in my fingers. Maybe I’ll give it to Louis, and he’ll remember the old times when we had fun together.
After a few hours of walking, I meet Louis in the parking lot of Taco Bell on Bennett Road. He’s waiting in his blue and white Bronco, eating a bag of burritos. The Bronco is his pride and joy. He’s spent years restoring it, and it is absolutely perfect, with metallic paint, three-piece rims, and a lift kit. Not that I know anything about trucks, but Louis tells me, and I try to listen because he’s smart, and tough, and good-looking, a guy who is going places. Someday I am going to look in the mirror and see someone more like him than me. Someone with cool clothes and muscles instead of ratty sweatshirts and a bony fifteen-year-old frame. Someone with confidence, and that hard look in the eyes that commands respect, maybe even a little bit of fear.
“You’re late,” Louis says, stuffing his mouth with the last bite, which makes me sad, because I half hoped he had bought me something. He crumples the bag and turns over the small-block eight-cylinder engine. The sound is a deep rumble that runs through my body. It makes me feel tough and invincible, which is funny, since I think of myself as being mostly weak and breakable (because I’m no good at sports, I bruise at the slightest touch, and I can’t fight or stand up for myself ). But it’s good to drive around with my big brother, pretending to be different.
“It’s five o’clock,” I say, but Louis points to the digital display outside the bank, which says 5:32.
“My watch must have stopped,” I say.
Louis laughs and taps the side of his head. “You don’t have a watch, genius.”
Louis shakes his head, like he can already tell this isn’t going to work out, like he’s making a mistake in asking me to help him.
He points at the remains of my black eye.
“Did Ron do that?” He clenches his fists, no doubt considering a detour to give my mother’s boyfriend another ass kicking.
“I’m dealing with it.” Which is a total lie, but as much as I’d like Ron to get what’s coming to him, Louis’s probation officer said one more assault charge against Ron and Louis’ll get real prison time.
“Tell me,” Louis says, scratching his square stubbly jaw.
“I have a plan.”