But now Curt, far too early, was pulling away. Did the tissue paper in his hand mean what it seemed to, that he was about to make a toilet stop and was speeding up to compensate for the time he was about to lose? Or could it be a ruse?
Al's competitive lust had cost him before. Once, when he was six and his father's bike moved ahead of his, he'd pedaled so furiously that he'd pitched over the handlebars and broken his arm. At camp six years later he broke his arm again, astonishing counselors who had never seen a boy dive with such fury in a friendly game of Capture the Flag. Too many times he'd been disqualified from races because he couldn't restrain his urge to go faster, faster, couldn't keep both feet on the ground.
Curt's lead increased. The race walkers all let him go, mindful of that toilet paper. Except for one.
No, Al, No....
Those who knew race walking muttered those three words as he went after Curt. They all wanted to protect Al. They all knew the story of Al and the monsoon in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. They all knew how he'd had one of the three Olympic berths in the bag that day, leaning into the 30 mph winds and frigid downpour to share the lead with Curt and Andrew Hermann, opening up a seemingly insurmountable 2½-minute advantage over Philip Dunn after 37 kilometers when Philip pulled a hamstring and stopped dead. How Al had slowed a little then, had lost the protection of the other two walkers and begun to shiver, then shake and finally shut down with hypothermia, watching in a daze as Philip bit back the pain and stormed past him to become the third Olympian. How Al had swooned into a race official's arms before the finish, been cocooned in blankets for an hour before comprehending the catastrophe and weeping. Then lapsed into a deeper fog, finally departing from the Olympic Training Center by mutual consent because no man that depressed could remain there.
If only Al had done what the other walkers had done before the race: put on a T-shirt beneath his singlet. But then, people were always saying, "Al, what were you thinking?" The first oven he ever owned caught fire because Al thought that he was supposed to keep oven mitts in the oven. One night his roommate at Chula Vista, triple jumper Von Ware, returned from a three-day road trip during a rainstorm and found all his shoes on their balcony because Al had decided to rearrange their dorm room. The balcony had no overhang. Ware's shoes were soaked, and one sneaker contained a swallow's nest with four eggs. Ware wanted to wring Jiggy's neck as the swallow dove and pecked and shrieked at them, but how could he? Al was his, and everyone else's, little brother.
Al's six-month depression after the 2000 trials frightened all of them. For half the day Al would lie in bed or on a couch, staring at floors, at ceilings, at SportsCenter repeats. "No, Al, no," they pleaded when he told them he was joining the U.S. Army that August.
But everyone was wrong. Boot camp jolted Al out of his depression, the Army accepted him into its World Class Athlete Program, and—bingo!—that December, Specialist Albert Heppner was back. Back in race walking, back in the ARCO Olympic Training Center, back in his old dorm room, back in the family. His old buoyant self again, leaping out of his car to dance the Electric Slide with a pretty pole vaulter on the side of the road at 2 a.m., another of those women whose relationships with Al didn't quite pan out. And now, back in the U.S. Olympic Trials, chasing his redemption, closing in on Curt in kilometer 10.
It wasn't a ruse. Curt peeled off the course and ducked into the portable toilet. Al, the man who needed people all around him, looked back. He was way out front, all alone.