Steve Shuman was my age but seemed years older, not only in how cowboy-tough he looked, but in his self-confident, near-cocky demeanor. He lived on a farm in seventh grade, even though his dad was a professor at the university and his mom was the news lady on Channel 5 TV. Steve was the smartest kid in our class – with the possible exception of Melinda Winston – and he played football and basketball better than anyone in the whole county. Even the kids at the public schools knew of Steve’s apotheosis. He was a kind of a local sports legend, if you can be a legend while still in grade school.
One time at the barbershop, I overheard a conversation between Deke, the barber, and two old men waiting for a cut. They were talking about how Doc Shuman’s son could outrun Billy Barcek, the star running back at Ames High, and how Coach Atkinson couldn’t wait until he could get his hands on him. Deke said, “Yep, Stevie is tough, too. Last week, he decked two big kids who were mouthing off to him and his little friend behind the church.” I didn’t say a word, but beamed inside. That little kid was me.
Steve chose to hang out with me after school because neither of us had to be anywhere, like the other kids in our class. We roamed the safe streets of Ames, stopped at the A&W for root beer floats, skipped flat stones across Lake LaVern and played splits with my little pocketknife until we headed back to school, where Steve’s dad always picked him up at half past five. I’d jog home feeling pretty good about myself because I had just hung out with my best friend and superstar, Steve Shuman.
After my eighth grade year, I moved to Chicago and quickly lost my connections with my old buddies, including Steve. I didn’t hear more until I moved back to Ames for graduate school and bartended at a popular college hangout called “Group Therapy” at nights. One evening, three attractive women sat at the bar, and one kept staring at me. “I know you. You’re Don Kuhl,” she said. It was Melinda Winston. She had gotten a scholarship to Duke and now was in law school in Iowa City.
Melinda was surprised I hadn’t heard about Steve, how he got kicked off the high school football team as a sophomore for drinking hard stuff right in the hallway, and how he quit going to classes and finally was sent off to Des Moines to some special place for troubled kids. Then a year later, he was shot in the head during a gang fight and died right on the sidewalk.
“And do you remember Amy Fenderston from the class behind us?” Melinda went on, “She’s a lead dancer in that musical in New York…now what’s it called?”
She kept talking, but I didn’t hear much after that.