Looking for a summer read? Then Matthew Brandt’s upcoming novel The Boy from the Forge might be the book for you—and we have chapter one!
Max and Del are truly inseparable. They bought the same bikes, dreamed of summer camping trips together, shared a paper route, had plans to fix up and share a car, and competed with one another as sixteen-year-old boys do. As their summer together looms on the horizon, and the school year nears its end, their friendship is tested when Max realizes their blue-collar upbringing in New Athens might lead to dead-end roads. His only escape from his hometown lies in his feelings for Annika, a girl Del is also openly pursuing. To prevent any wrong doing, Max forms a simple plan: To find any way possible to break free from his working class destiny for something greater than what’s in his small town.
The Boy from the Forge is available now!
“We’re going to a junior’s party?” Max said into the cold night air on Friday, pedaling close behind Del’s bike as it wound through the neighborhoods of New Athens.
“Yeah. Annika and Leti are going to be there,” Del called back.
“It’s the cast party for Streetcar Named Desire. Don’t worry, even a couple of freshmen are going.”
The two stood up, pumping on their pedals to ascend a hill, bare knuckles tight on their bikes’ handlebars, shoulder to shoulder, their front wheels alternating the lead position. “Annika and Blake broke up. She and I have been hanging out.”
“Hanging out, since when?” Max said between breaths.
“I mean at school. You know her?”
“I know who she is, but I never met her.”
“She played Stella in Streetcar.”
“She’s hot, isn’t she?”
“What’s she like?”
“That’s what I’m hoping to find out firsthand, if you know what I mean.”
The New Athens River careened alongside them, its tree-lined banks and solid-green cattails weaving across the shallow soggy marshes. Spring brought back with it glossy green-headed mallards and black ducks. Soon, the frogs and fireflies would join the ducks in their parkway home. Max inhaled the damp air as it whipped by his face. He wondered if this night was going to be one of those nights that ended with him and Del out of breath, hearts pounding, laughing so hard their stomachs hurt. They pedaled on farther across an arched stone bridge, its abutments, walls, and buttresses built with hand tool precision, crowned with a signature chiseled keystone. Below in the shadow of the trees, above the gurgling water, a feathered wildcat owl listened and watched the riverbank from its perch in the solitary elm among the maple, ash, and the willows.
New Athens was settled by wheat farmers and orchard growers. With an exodus of European immigrants in the mid- and late- 1800s, the nearby city of Milltown, with its bustling harbor on Lake Michigan, became a Midwestern industrial powerhouse. New Athens became a bedroom community for Milltown’s workers.
Del moved to New Athens when the two started sixth grade. Sitting in science class, Max had overheard a new voice with a rural Southern accent entertaining some kids in the row behind him. Max turned around to see Del on the edge of his chair, his left elbow on his leg, his right hand resting on the other knee. He smiled with confidence as he delivered the punch line of his joke, and the kids sitting around him laughed, slapping their legs. As Max watched Del, saw the others listening and laughing together, Del looked over at Max. They acknowledged the other with a short nod of the head. With this simple gesture, a wordless introduction between twelve-year-olds, the two became friends. Since that day, Del and Max did everything together, bought the same bikes, wore the same clothes, and competed with one another as best friends often do—helping each get better as they did.
While most kids waited for their hormones to get them into the game, Del was already telling stories about women and men and what they did in private. He didn’t have any actual experience with girls, and he wasn’t trying to convince anyone he did back then, but Del told plenty of adult-rated stories to satisfy the sixth-grade boys all trying to figure out the physical puzzle of how two bodies fit together. It seemed like he spoke a strange new language.
Del rode up on the sidewalk, cut a sharp left, and fishtailed his rear wheel over the gravel-covered alley leading to his house. “Lewis doesn’t know we are going to Sandy’s house, so if we see him, don’t let him know where we’re going. He thinks we’re gonna be at the Rec Center.”
“Is there going to be beer there?” Max asked, following Del’s spinning rear wheel as they sped down the alley.
“Yeah, give your money to Sandy. I’ll give her two more bucks and we should be good.”
Max thought about what his father, Eddy, had said earlier in the night. “That money just burns a hole right through your pocket, doesn’t it? You two ever think of saving any of it?” Over two dollars! “Well, tonight we need it, Mr. K,” Del had responded. He negotiated arguments with grown-ups better than they could with one another.
Del turned into his driveway from the alley. “Let’s ditch our bikes next to the garage and walk to Sandy’s. Lay it down on the grass, so it doesn’t make any noise, and let’s get outta here. I don’t wanna talk to Lewis.” As they left again on foot, turning the corner with Del’s house out of sight, they exhaled with relief.
Del’s father, Lewis, had been a child during the toughest years of the Great Depression, as had been Eddy. Both men started work young, and from there, their intense disciplinary attitudes grew, which later would shape the inner framework of Del and Max. Using what they had learned, right or wrong from their own parents, both men raised their families with an iron fist, bent on doing what it takes to survive tough times, prepared to soldier through any economic hardship dished out to them and working people. They lessoned their children on the risk of losing everything, if they didn’t work hard.
They would say danger was waiting for them right around the corner, if they weren’t careful. Lewis and Eddy had been schooled, with the help of their father’s leather belt, of the sacrifice their ancestors had made to leave their home country, how as immigrants they had risked everything, so the future generations might have a better quality of life. In that familial tradition, Lewis and Eddy hammered the same messages, the same patterns into Del and Max as their minds and bodies grew. This internal shared fabric, forged and shaped by the hands and words of Lewis and Eddy, bonded Del and Max together deep in their core. Best friends become allies, partners in solidarity, to these learned patterns of behavior, to these methods of raising children, passed down the generations. It never occurred to Lewis and Eddy to try and explain how much they loved their children any other way. Del led Max on a shortcut through the backyards. “Once we get our licenses, we gotta get a car. We should start checking the classifieds for junkers,” Del said. They were finishing driver’s education that semester.
“My brother Johnny found this fixer-upper in the paper one time. The thing didn’t even need that much work. I couldn’t believe he got it for only three hundred dollars!” Max said, zipping his jacket and making sure the dollar bills were still in the pocket. Del’s eyes lit up.
“Three hundred? I can do three hundred, no problem. It’s gonna be sweet. We can go wherever we wanna go. Man, we should go camping out at Governor Dodge this summer. Just you and me. We hang out on the beach. Check out the ladies. Maybe we meet a couple of ’em. They meet us at our campsite at night. You know what I’m saying?” Del said.
Both ran the fantasy through their minds. “Definitely,” Max said. “We bring a bunch of blankets. We get a nice fire going. Jesus, that would be cool.”
“Man, we gotta get a car soon.”
“Can you imagine?” Max said.
Their minds exploded as they ran the different, albeit untested, fooling-around-with-a-girl scenarios through their heads, starting with the basic stuff, and then working their way around the bases. They continued down the street to Sandy’s house, not talking, obsessed with the possibilities of what could happen on such a camping trip.
That night above New Athens, as Del and Max walked to the party, the Big Dipper hung aloft, pointing a bright shimmering path to the North Star. Clean, flat puddles of water covered the ground. The smell of wet grass having been cut for the first time filled their noses. The two friends walked together down the middle of the street. Their minds stretched out, filled the larger space of their near adult-size bodies. Music could be heard coming from Sandy’s backyard. Max sniffed.
“Are you wearing cologne or something?”
“It’s musk, baby,” Del said. He grinned.
“Man, that stuff’s strong,” Max said, waving his hand in front of his nose.
They followed the voices coming from around back.
“There they are, over there,” Del said. He pointed his finger with a bend of his elbow. They wound themselves through the groups of students gathered in the backyard.
Max noticed Annika right away. She stood out from the group with a radiant and natural posture. She held her shoulders straight while she talked to Leti next to a giant magnolia tree, its pink and white blossoms clinging to its branches. Her body wasn’t quite yet a woman’s body, but it was close enough. Max remembered how she led the audience not only with the lines of the script, but with physical presence and nuance as Stella.
“So, this is Max,” Leti said, holding out her open hands, as Del and Max walked up to Annika and Leti.
“Didn’t you go out with Shanna Oakes one time?” Annika said.
“That was when we came up with the direct approach method. How’d you know that, anyway?” Max said, looking at Annika. He noticed how Annika stood up straight, but she didn’t look uncomfortable.
“The direct approach method?” Annika said with a steady turn of the wrist, cigarette in hand.
“Take the bull by the horns, baby,” Del interjected, grabbing the imaginary horns with both hands, grinning.
“It’s about saying what’s on your mind. It’s about taking action instead of waiting for something to happen,” Max said.
“What do you mean?” Leti said.
“Back in junior high, at the Rec Center one time, we were talking about how we knew everyone there wanted to make out with somebody, but nobody had the guts to do anything about it. What if people said what they were thinking?” Max said.
“I don’t know,” Leti said, scrunching up her nose.
“Well, they dared me to try it on Shanna, because I liked her.”
“He did it, all right,” Del said, on his way to the keg.
“What happened?” Annika said.
“As it turned out, it’s the only time I ever used the direct approach, and it worked. I walked right up to Shanna, told her I liked her, and asked if she wanted to make out behind the trees after dark.”
“What’d she say?” Leti said.
“What do you think?” Max said, lifting an open hand.
“I would have done the same thing,” Annika said.
“So, what,” Leti said, “we’re supposed to say out loud everything to everybody, good and bad?”
“Obviously there are exceptions,” Max said, “but, if someone is your friend, then you should be able to talk about anything.”
“I think it’s only human nature after you get knocked down a couple of times you’re going to protect yourself. You’ve got to learn to take your lumps, but you can’t live under a shell, either,” Annika said. She spoke with authority.
“Some people are not nice. You can’t trust everyone you meet,” Leti said.
“You can trust me, baby,” Del said, handing Max a cup of foamy beer and sipping his own. He winked at Leti.
“Guys, check it out,” announced a senior coming out of the house. “Louis and Gina are fooling around in a fricking closet!”
“Why would they go in a closet?” Leti said.
“Sandy said no one can use the bedrooms,” Annika said.
“Hey, Gina! Have you seen my shoehorn!” Del yelled toward the house. A group of sophomores, and a couple of juniors standing on the back porch laughed.
“I guess anyplace in a house is better than outside, if you don’t have a car,” Annika said.
“Definitely. The ground is still soaked everywhere,” Max said.
“But don’t you think there are lots of shoes in there?” Leti said. Annika smiled at Leti.
“You want me to see if we can get a reservation in the laundry room later?” Del said. He looked at Annika.
“Yeah, right. Very funny.” She rolled her eyes.
Jared Jameson walked up, looking straight at Annika, ignoring everybody else in the group.
“Great performance on Streetcar, Annika. You nailed Stella’s character.”
“Hi, Jared,” Leti said.
“Hi, Leti,” Jared said. He gave a quick nod at Del and Max.
“Annika, you want a beer?” Jared asked, pointing toward the house.
“I have one,” she answered, holding up her cup.
“Sorry to hear about you and Blake breaking up, Annika,” Jared said. “You need a ride home later?” Max watched Del watching Jared.
“No thanks, Leti and I drove.”
“Wait awhile … take it easy … have an Old Forty-Eight,” Del interjected, drawling out the words, singing them like an advertising slogan, lifting his hands, pointing his cup of Old Forty-Eight beer skyward.
“Yeah … wait awhile … have an Old Forty-Eight,” Leti repeated, with the same slow delivery, imitating Del.
“As a matter of fact, I think I will,” Del said. He took a drink from his cup, and the group laughed a little. They repeated the phrase.
“Wait awhile … take it easy … have an Old Forty-Eight.” They laughed again. Jared feigned a smiled, nodded goodbye, and walked away.
“You should join the theater group,” Leti said to Max.
“I’m not much into acting.”
“I’m not, either. I mean the production crew. It’s a lot of fun,” Leti said.
“You should, man,” Del said, pointing his beer at Max.
When the party wound down, the four made their way through the house. Hundreds of muddy footprints ran back and forth over the carpet. Plastic cups covered the countertops; a few rolled around on the floor. A couple twisted back and forth into the corner of the hallway as they kissed. They made their way out the front door on the way to Leti’s car.
In the front yard, Tommy Keefer sat on the ground, his back against the wide base of a tree, swishing and swaying left and right, mumbling an incomprehensible monologue to himself.
“Mop the deck, matey! Mop the fricking deck!” Tommy yelled, swinging his cup in his hand, the beer splashing out.
Max stopped for a moment, saying, “Hey, Tommy, how’s it going?”
Tommy swung his head upward, his eyes glassy, trying to focus on Max.
“Schkinny! Schkinny!” Tommy yelled. The four looked at one another and smiled.
“Mop the deck!” Tommy wailed as they continued on toward Leti’s car.