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Stymie Magazine

Autumn & Winter ‘11

Stymie Magazine a journal of sport & literature :: volume 4, issue 2 :: autumn & winter ‘11

STAFF Erik Smetana, founding editor Kari Nguyen, nonfiction editor Julie Webb, fiction editor Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, poetry editor B.J. Jones, assistant poetry editor Matthew Ferrence, web editor Margaret LaFleur, social media editor

FICTION D. Morris’s “The Toad”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 D. Housley’s “Free Will”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8 C. Mesler’s “Sony”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 M. Florian’s “Where the Syrup Flows”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 J. Ponepinto’s “Hardcourt” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20 N. Ripatrazone’s “Barrett Stickle” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 N. Ripatrazone’s “Erickson Wyatt” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25 N. Ripatrazone’s “Parker Patterson” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 COVER ART T. Layton’s “Righteous Indignation” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 Jennifer Lewis: “Underwere-wolf” A. Hartnett’s “You’re Man O’War” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32 S. Pane’s “The Retcon” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34 NOTES L. Bledsoe’s “Basketball” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 All works – art, fiction, nonfiction and F. Zackel’s “That Fabulous Catch!” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57 poetry – contained herein are copyM. Duffus’s “The Helicopter” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60 right of the respective author and/or D. Browne’s “Call-Up” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67 M. Chin’s “Going Home” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73 creator. R. Scott’s “The Slapsmith” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

ETCETERA Stymie Magazine is published online, bi-annually. Archives, guidelines and other related information is available for review at www.stymiemag.com.

POETRY S. Iatashvili’s “Soccer”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 C. Gloor’s “Watching the Cubs: 2003” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 C. Gloor’s “Baskets” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33 C. Gloor’s “Stewart Lake” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 T. Kahl’s “Late Heart” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 E. Coletti’s “Basket Weaving” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 E. Coletti’s “Boxing with Poet David Madgalene” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 E. Coletti’s “Golf in Florida and Beyond” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56 J. Bradley’s “Sunday Drive” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59 NONFICTION C. Smith’s “Another Cold War” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 J. O’Brien’s “This is Fury, This is Love” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64 C. Wiewiora’s “The Gift of Nothing” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85

ISSN 2154-753X

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Stymie Magazine

Autumn & Winter ‘11

Another Cold War Curtis Smith

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y alarm rings. Five-thirty. The red digits float in the winter dark. As my coffee brews, I unzip my son’s hockey bag. Shin guards, elbow pads, leggings, gloves—I line them up, two-bytwo on the carpet. Still in the bag: his helmet with tethered mouthpiece, the skates protected by coverings as plush as the bedtime toys he once adored. I lay his black compression gear atop the radiator. Upstairs, my wife showers. The pipes hiss. I finish my coffee and go to my son’s room. He’s still asleep, and I curl beside him. Warm beneath his blankets. His mouth hangs in a slack oval, his breath a raspy lullaby. I rub his arm until he stirs. He raises his fists and arcs his spine into a stretch that milks every centimeter from his body. He blinks me into focus. “Morning, Daddy.” His bare feet slap into the bathroom. The bowl gurgles with his long morning pee. He shudders, his eyes still slits, one hand on his pulled-down pajamas, the other tugging his sleep -tufted hair. We chat on our way downstairs, him with his morning-craggy voice I love all the more for its reflexive kindness, for its thoughtless repetitions of please and thank you. Breakfast—cereal and milk. Then a splash of water for his face, his teeth brushed. I throw on a coat. The stab of single-digit cold greets me outside, last week’s snow crystalline and blue in the murky predawn. My breath freezes before me. The car starts with a hitch and a whine. The windshield ice proves stubborn, but I’m thankful for the exertion’s warmth. Inside, and hurry, hurry. The clock gnaws at our best intentions. My son pulls on his warmed compression gear. The material hugs his frame, a second skin, and I fight the urge to say, “Let’s stay home this cold day. Let’s snuggle on the couch and watch your favorite show and eat

pancakes with too much syrup. Let’s cherish the morning and not be in such a rush to make you a young man just yet.” Piece by piece, we strap on equipment. My boy transforms from wispy, black shadow to squared-off brute. I zip his bag. My wife drapes his coat over his padded shoulders, the collar alone buttoned. He holds his stick like a warrior’s spear. I open the door, and we hustle out into the cold. When I talk with other parents, the question inevitably comes up: “What does your child do?” Do—the verb choice surprises me (although I am just as guilty of its use). I’m taken back by its intonation, its begging for a response along the lines: “My son is an accountant” or “My little girl practices law.” But do in the vernacular of the modern parent generally refers to sports or some other practiced discipline. Our children play in soccer and basketball leagues. They dance. They play instruments. My boy is in second grade, but having already missed out on T-ball and Ponies, he is far behind the curve in acquiring baseball skills, this at an age when I was three years shy of trying out for my first little league team. When he was five, my son and wife took a learn-to-skate program. After the lessons, the rink owner handed out sticks and pucks, and my son, a boy who’d rather duck a thrown ball than catch it, was hooked. In the intervening years, I’ve sat on the chilled bleachers of various rinks and become privy to a forward-thinking mindset, a focus sometimes less on the moment’s game than on the season’s function as a stepping stone to greater things. Buzz words circulate— playing up, travel-team tryouts, off-season skills program, private lessons. My head spins. As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, I loved watching the Olympics. I was drawn by the singular gold and the winner’s place atop the medal

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Stymie Magazine

Autumn & Winter ‘11

stand, captivated by the four-year gap that threatened all notions of “next time.” The games’ inherent drama was escalated by Cold War politics and the villainous Iron Curtain judges, men and women whose scorecards were poisoned by ideology. I seethed when the Soviets stole the basketball gold in 1972. When the East Germans—with their factory-processed athletes, children whisked from their parents and subjected to year-round training regimes— triumphed, I reassured myself that their lives, despite the short-lived glory of their victories, were much less rich than my own. So what does my child do? He’s a second grader, a defenseman on the local hockey team and a green belt in karate. The Cold War is over! The East Germans have won!

often squandered by soccer’s crybabies and hockey’s goons. Yet athletic contests possess an inherent drama my books will never attain. The narrative of sports is written in real time; the game exists as we exist, all of us linked by shared moments of pulse of breath. Miracles can be found in this world—wonders often tiny, sometimes transcendent. We stirred at the sight of Willis Reed limping onto the Garden court. We leapt to our feet when Franco Harris scrambled through the stunned Oakland secondary. We shook our heads in amazement when Ali knocked out Foreman. A communal experience and the possibility of miracles—perhaps I’ve taken these gifts for granted. Perhaps I’ve forgotten the purity to be found on the rink and pitch. Perhaps I’ve alThe weekday’s bustle gone, the streets lowed the contests’ here-and-now splendor to be run quiet this morning. Spewed exhaust clouds undercut by the corrupt vertical integration that obscure the license plates of the other early trav- runs from dysfunctional superstars all the way elers. The streetlights shine, their illumination down to fathers fond of berating children’s socsnared in the trees’ bare branches. I talk for no cer referees. reason beyond the desire to populate the quiet Bedtime, and I peek into my boy’s room. with a welcoming noise. I praise my son’s recent He’s asleep. Beside him, an opened book, Superaccomplishments—the speed of his skating, the stars of the NHL. I lift a limp hand and retrieve ice-shaving hockey stops he’s almost mastered, the book. It’s opened to a page with which I’m the hustle he’s shown. I tenderly remind him to now familiar—Paul Coffey, Hall of Fame be aware of his positioning on a rink that must defenseman, dressed in the red and white of Desometimes feel chaotic and vast. I’m careful to troit, my son’s favorite team. I close the book say no more, wary of the weight of a father’s and rest it upon his nightstand. criticism, the words that can weigh heavy as stones in a child’s heart. We hustle though the lobby and into the With a twist, I frame him in the rearview. main concourse. Below us, a tier of empty seats How calm he is. I think of my racing days and circle the rink. A few players in white skate how my nerve-jangled stomach sent me on rearound the near goal, brown jerseys at the oppopeated bathroom trips. Could he, at this young site end. We’re lucky to play in such a grand palage, already be made of tougher stuff than me? ace, an arena seventy-five years old, seats for We park and, gear in hand, rejoin the over 7,000. Here, the local minor league hockey brutal cold. Above the arena’s curved roof, the team won eight titles. The team has moved to a first hint of morning light. new stadium, but their championship banners remain, faded glories that haunt the rafters. DecA confession: I’m not much of a sports ades of state champions in wrestling and basketfan. I won’t watch football until the fourth quar- ball have been crowned here, and in a fluke of ter. Baseball doesn’t interest me until September. scheduling and geography, this was also the site Hockey and soccer can draw me in, but the play of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. There’s has to be crisp, the “beautiful game” aesthetic always a haze inside, a combination of ice-mist, [3]


Stymie Magazine

Autumn & Winter ‘11

poor lighting, and the dulling of years. I tell my son the leaking roof and ancient bathrooms only add to the sense of history all around us. I’ve never skated, but the sport’s aesthetics, even at this ugly hour, are undeniable. There’s the chill that pulls my spine to a sharper attention. There are the sounds—the slash of metal on ice, the slap of wood—notes true in the way haiku is true, notes purified by the cold and allowed to rise and fade in this cavernous space. We duck down a narrow staircase and into the basement’s labyrinth of dressing rooms. Quieter here, the floor’s rubber matting protecting sharpened blades and dulling echoes. On a locker room’s long bench, our boy sits with a few teammates while my wife and I chat with other parents, all of us kneeling before our children as we lace their skates. When we’re done, my boy stands. I snap his helmet straps. “Good luck,” I say. “Play hard.” He shifts his plastic mouthpiece from one side to the other. “Thanks,” he mumbles. Balanced atop thin blades, he ambles down the short hallway that leads to the rink. Backed by the rink’s white expanse, he becomes a square-shouldered silhouette, a figure reborn into the light when he glides onto the ice.

heart lifted in hopes of a goal, but today, it’s not to be. A teammate whacks another rebound, and this one finds the back of the net. My boy raises his stick. His mouthpiece-garbled cry of “Yeah!” carries across the ice. Perhaps at a neighborhood gathering this summer, a parent will ask what my boy does. I will smile and say, “Hockey” and in my heart, I will hold a sympathetic flicker for the misguided East Germans. The NHL isn’t in my son’s future, nor is a college scholarship—but until the day comes when he no longer loves the sport, my boy will chase a rubber disc across the ice. I will drive him to rinks near and far, supply him with gear, talk to him about the importance of winning and losing with grace. I will bundle up and sit on back-numbing bleachers, and if he glances my way, I will offer a wave. Together, we will accept the best the experience has to offer.

The game begins. We settle into seats of worn wood. I rarely cheer, mindful of my son’s padded helmet and the arena’s barn-like acoustics, mindful that my son’s praise-worthy plays come at the expense of another little boy. We smile for the inevitable tangles, clap for the players who struggle to their feet after a hard fall. My vision isn’t what it used to be, and I’m thankful for my boy’s red gloves, a small distinction that sets him apart. He is neither the smoothest skater nor the niftiest stick handler, but he is unafraid to enter the fray. He battles along the boards and in front of the net. He clears the crease with emphatic swipes, and he is one of the few who heed the coaches’ advice to pass to an up-ice teammate. Twice he abandons his blue line post to join the scrum in front of the opponent’s net. He slaps at rebounds, my [4]


Stymie Magazine

Autumn & Winter ‘11

The Toad D.N.A. Morris

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spent a good portion of my time at school studying the mechanics of the big classroom clocks. The bright orange second hand always seemed to twitch a little—teasing me—before finally proceeding to the next tick mark. Towards the end of class, I sat watching time trickle past, ignoring the departing words from the teacher, holding my breath in hopes that the oxygen deprivation would shorten my wait. . . . Once released from my daily eight-hour imprisonment inside a depressing middle school classroom, I needed to do anything that wasn’t academic. My preferred activity was going over to Court’s house, because Court had the best toy imaginable to a boy my age: a BB-gun. His mom didn’t know he had it—he kept it concealed under some old rubble behind their garage. My mom wouldn’t let me have a BB-gun either. When I asked, she went into hysterics and said I’d put my eye out just like that little boy in that movie. I could tell immediately that there would be no room for debate on the subject. Court convinced Billy Myers to trade him the BB-gun for a copy of Swank he’d stolen from his step-dad. Billy had never seen a naked woman before, and was all too eager to make the exchange. I think he got ripped—nudiemagazines got old really fast, but a BB-gun provided hours of duplicable fun. We’d sit out in the grassy alley near the ditch behind the back fence and shoot cola cans we lined up on a broken plank resting across two overturned trash bins. The BB-gun was pretty shitty—you could only pump it once—but it shot remarkably straight. We sharpened our aim while we talked about the girls in our class. Court went out of town for two weeks each summer to visit his grandparents, leaving me sitting around my house, bored as hell, watching old action movies or killing time wandering about the backyard until dinnertime. One

very hot afternoon, massive clouds swirled together out of nowhere, bringing a sudden downpour. I sat out on the old couch in the garage and watched the storm. I always found midafternoon showers to be the most beautiful; the tumultuous clouds obscured the sun, washing out the bright colors and leaving behind this distinct rusty-orange tint. Strong gusts of cool air sang as they whirled through the leafy tops of the trees. It was controlled chaos—and for some reason it made me feel normal. A huge bolt of lightning struck a few blocks away. The thunderclap sent Ron, our bulldog, grunting and snorting in little anxious circles. I quickly scooped him up on the couch, flipped him over, and tickled his belly. Within seconds, he was gurgling with delight, drooling everywhere. After about fifteen-minutes of solid rain, the storm ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun regained full dominance over the sky, already evaporating the newly-formed puddles. I pulled my bike out of the garage and headed out to go splashing, riding up my street to the intersection and turning left to follow the flow of the water. I carved through some big puddles, sending water spraying six-feet on either side, but the drains made fast work of the brief downpour, and my fun was short-lived. I had worked up a thirst, so I pedaled over to the 7-11 and bought a cherry Slurpee. I filled the cup to the lid, sucked down as much as my brain could handle, then refilled it. The clerk gave me a look when I paid with change. I had two quarters left, so I played a round of Street Fighter 2, making it to the sixth guy before E. Honda cornered and raped me. I slammed my hand on the control deck in protest and the clerk glared at me and told me to watch it. I left the store in a huff, kicked a piece of garbage, then hopped on my bike and started riding slowly, rolling up and down the skewed planes of the crooked side-

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Autumn & Winter ‘11

walk, pondering the tedium in my life. I still had two hours before dinner, so I went over to the high school to try some stunts. I pedaled around the parking lot behind the gym, riding up the handicap ramp then clunking down the stairs. When that got boring, I practiced accelerating the bike as fast as I could then pulling the brake and turning the handlebars slightly to skid to a sideways stop. After a couple successful stops, I turned too sharply, slipped, fell, and skinned my knee. I sat down on the wide white concrete base of the light post and picked out the black pieces of gravel embedded in my skin. After I cleaned the wound, I squeezed until syrupy purple blood oozed out. I didn’t bleed all that much. I carefully swirled it into a little patch that covered the damaged area and would form a crusty scab. Relocating to the front of the school, I stood up on my bike and rolled very slowly in a serpentine pattern down the gradually sloping sidewalk. While making these winding loops, I began thinking about Court. He was always a little better shot than I, and I knew it was because he practiced while I wasn’t there. I reached the bottom and put my foot down. But Court was out of town. And I knew where he kept the gun. I pedaled over to Court’s and let my bike collapse in the thick, untamed grass of his front yard. Walking around the side of the house, I unhinged the short chain-fence gate and went right on through like I lived there. It really didn’t feel like I was trespassing—Court’s neighbors were never around to notice anyhow. At the back of the garage, I lifted up the old, rotting pieces of beige wooden siding. But the gun wasn’t there. Could he have taken it with him? No. Impossible. He must have been worried that his step-dad would find it. I sighed and looked around; there were many suitable places in the backyard to hide a BB-gun. I searched everywhere: under the deck, behind the brick pile, in the azalea bushes at the side of the house, along the perimeter of the

fence, in the alley with the garbage bins, behind the birdbath, and even up in the back gutter of the garage which I probed with a rake. I found a lot of garbage and an old football, but the BBgun was gone. I sighed and sat down in the yard, wiping the sweat from my brow with the bottom of my shirt. That’s when I noticed a thick brown rope with a fat knot on the end hanging down just below the leaf-line of the big tree in the back-left corner of the yard. I had just looked behind that tree but had never noticed the rope before— Court never went over there. I walked to the base of the tree and looked up. The rope attached to the trunk a few feet above a weathered wooden box sitting on two thick limbs sticking out over the back fence. There was another sturdy-looking branch that extended over my head, allowing one a place to sit and access the box. I hopped and grabbed the rope, bracing as my body swung into the trunk, and struggled my way up until I could get a solid footing on the tree, then it was only a couple steps and I was up on the branch. I leaned over and looked in the box. There was a Playboy in a plastic zip-lock bag, an old metal baseball bat, a deflated soccer ball, a rusty and faded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox with the picture of them all puking, some rotted remains of baseball cards, and, much to my delight, there sat the BB-gun with its little half-pint carton of BBs. I swelled with excitement, grabbed the gun, and pocketed the carton. Then, with one hand fastened to the rope, I leaned down and let the gun fall softly in the grass. I repelled down the trunk a little ways before dropping, rolling over slightly to lessen the impact, then picked up my prize and went straight to the barrel we used to hop the back fence. I was almost giddy as I lined up a row of cans that were hidden near the trash bin, then went and knelt behind the white line Court had spray-painted onto the grass. I filled the gun’s reservoir with BB’s and played with the adjustable sight as if I knew what I was doing. I found a setting I liked and went six-for-six my first round. I stayed out there for about an hour

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Autumn & Winter ‘11

shooting the same six cans until they were littered with holes. I’d never shot better in my life. It was getting very close to dinner—the sun was starting to fall and the mosquitoes had begun to bite me incessantly. I plugged the last can, stood up, and walked over to gather and slip them behind the trash bin for tomorrow. As I hunched over to grab a can, a toad hopped away from me. It was pretty big, with oddly relaxed eyes and a pious grin—probably out hunting slugs attracted to the rain. I stood up. It hopped away from me again, landing on a little patch of concrete about three-feet away. It sat there like a little green target. I don’t know why, but I cocked a BB into place and pumped the handle. I raised the gun and sighted the toad. I hadn’t even thought about pulling the trigger; I was just going to sight it, but something odd came over me that I had never felt before. My finger shook. I held my breath then fired. We’d shot a squirrel with the gun before. Court hit it from across the yard. The gun was so weak that the BB just scared the hell out of the poor little bastard, which scampered up the power line pole and ran to a less-threatening yard. We were rather dissatisfied with the gun at that moment, no longer feeling like the dangerous men we thought we were. Then, as if to save face, Court boldly asked me to shoot him in the back from ten-feet away. I laughed. He said if he did it, I had to do it too, and I agreed, happy to feel tough again. I shot him, and he yelped, but the BB only left a tiny red bruise—it didn’t even break the skin. He shot me too, and it was certainly painful, but only about as much as a beesting. The BB-gun was far from deadly. We were disappointed, but it shot very straight for such a cheap gun, and it was the only one we had. I suppose I thought that was what the toad would do—get scared, maybe bruised, and hop away. But I was much closer than ten-feet. The BB seemed to go faster than normal, hitting the toad directly in the side. It flopped over on its back. I felt my stomach drop. I walked over and looked. Maybe it was faking. Then I saw a ball of crimson rise slowly from its olive green

skin. It didn’t bleed all that much, but it bled like we do. I felt sick—really sick, like I did when I knew something awful had happened. I felt like I had screwed up my entire life and there was no reversing it. I had no excuse—I’d known better the entire time and I still did it. This changed everything. I was no longer innocent, only a little more evil than before, and I wanted to cry. Everything was so dreadfully real. The BB-gun felt really hot in my hands. I dropped it and looked around to see if anyone was watching me—I hadn’t cared before. There was no one. I looked back at the toad. Its back leg had extended out and locked. The blood had thinned and streaked down its side. A lump formed in my throat. The toad was so delicate; its bottom jaw hung slightly agape, its mouth very pink. I felt horribly out of place. I wanted to be home. Home, where I was safe and still a child. I picked up the toad by its rigid back leg and took it over to a large fire ant hill next to a fence post. I dropped it on the mound and watched as a seething mass of luminous red engulfed the corpse. They would eat every part of the toad except the BB in a matter of hours. At least this way I could restore some slight meaning to the toad’s death. I hopped back over the fence and climbed the tree and returned the weapon to the basket exactly as I’d found it. I never wanted to see it again. I dropped down and ran to my bike and pedaled home. I rode slowly and directly, not stopping to go over any of the sidewalk jumps or meander around the cul-de-sac. The strange feeling of shame and hopelessness washed through me like bleach. Everything seemed bleaker now, like nothing would ever be fun again. I kept waiting for this feeling to disappear, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the toad—how unmistakably dead it looked. At dinner, I swirled the peas on my plate and didn’t say a single word.

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Stymie Magazine

Autumn & Winter ‘11

Free Will Dave Housley

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e were mulleted and we aspired to beards. Thick beards that trailed down our necks like former East Shickelimmy Fighting Miners power forward Kevin Yustat, or stubble like former point guard Ron Bongo, or even the straggly, mustache-heavy half-beard sported by former center Bill Caviston. Toss in the goatees of twin guards Bill and Bob Bomboy, and the entire Miners starting five had been rather spectacularly bearded. We, the new starting five, were as bare as the court on which we’d suffer our most public failures. Our coach was a ruddy-faced descendant of coal miners who talked about “mental toughness” the way old hippies referred to Woodstock. On the night that we became the starting five, he was bellied up to the bar at Stoney’s, deep into a fourth pitcher with Old Snyder, the girl’s tennis coach. It was Young Snyder, a cop no more than four years out of Shickelimmy High himself, who busted the party. He was new and looking to make a name and he only thought to call Coach after he had the starting five locked up in the Barney Fife little cell. We had been in the middle of our best season ever – 15 and 2, with a firm grip on the Anthracite League championship – and Young Snyder may have been stupid and brash and blinded by ambition, but even he eventually figured out that he had a situation on his hands. We were not called. Not summoned. We were not needed. We were poised on the edge of adulthood and were smart enough to tilt in the other direction, toward the green fields of boyhood and Kool Aid, of Wiffle Ball and Ultraman, Dungeons and Dragons and the easy hard rock philosophy of Canadian power trios. And so at twelve thirty on Saturday night, we were neither bellied up at Stoney’s nor drunk and blasting AC/DC in the middle of some farmer’s field (too close to route 32, as it

turned out). We were holed up in Reese’s basement with a treasure chest of Mr. Pibb and Funyons, Rush blaring on the stereo, engaged in an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons. And we were deep in the game. We were not us. We were knights. Henchmen. Wanderers and Sorcerers. We were named Murlynd, Robilar, Tenser, Tarik, Yrag, Bigby, Melf. We were ancient and adult, ruddy and muscled and bearded like Vikings. We were listening to Tom Sawyer, the first song on Rush’s new album, on a permanent loop. And so, at the very moment when we became the starting five, we were not even of this world. Time had gone missing. Until Mr. Reese came home from Stoney’s and burst into the basement on a riptide of smoke and Yuengling. “You guys aren’t gonna believe it!” he said. “Holy shit. Sorry. No, holy shit. You all little sonsabitches are the starting team now. The whole fucking lot of ‘em – Bomboys, Yustat, Caviston, Bongo, shit, even Cordas and Reitz – they’re all in jail.” We stood, chugged our Dr. Pibb in nervous gulps, our heads coming up through the fog of centuries, honing in on this strange and terrifying news. “You guys are gonna be the fucking starting team!” Mr. Reese said. He moved into the room and awkwardly hugged Rodney, his son. “Let me introduce you to the new starting power forward of the Shickelimmy Fighting Miners!” he said, and then he tried to make Rodney shake his hand, as if he was conferring a knighthood. “You’re drunk, Dad,” Rodney said. “And you boys better get ready,” he said. He looked at the battle lined up on the card table, our polyhedral dice and charms, Funyons and Mr. Pibb. “Clean up this shit and get some sleep. I think you’re gonna need it.” He let out a

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drunken whoop and clambered upstairs. We stared at each other, at the little pieces on the card table, which suddenly looked like nothing but what they were – child’s toys, something that belonged to a before that we had only just stumbled out of, gawky and premature. “What the heck?” said Bailey. He was the new center – six foot three and one hundred twenty five pounds. He seemed to be shrinking into himself, hunching even more than usual. “That can’t be right. Your Dad’s drunk, right?” He looked at Reese, who was sitting on the floor, trying to get used to the fact that although he had never played more than three minutes in a single game, and every one of them had come after the Fighting Miners were already thirty points ahead or behind, he was now the starting power forward. “Who do we play on Tuesday?” Benner asked. He was the new point guard, a pesky little defender who never lost his dribble and never, ever, took a shot, and the only one of us who had ever seen actual minutes in an actual game. He had a look in his eye like he had just won a pet lion – happy, proud, and scared to death. “Tuesday?” Kenner said. “We have to play on freakin’ Tuesday?” “Milton,” Hoak said. We sat in our chairs or the floor, fingering our charms. We picked our cuticles and wished we were tired, wished we hadn’t all told our parents that we were sleeping over at Reese’s house, wished we could slink up to our rooms, pull the covers over our heads, and bawl like the little boys we were. What we did was go over the offense. Benner was the first to come out of his funk. Reese got a basketball from the garage. We never let that ball touch the floor. Something was flowing through us then –mainly fear, but also something else, a sense that we had crossed some kind of line and whether we wanted it or not, were remotely ready or not, from here on out things were going to be different. “You’re gonna have to be mentally

tough,” Coach said. He was pacing, screaming, delirious at the prospect of watching his 15 and 2 season slip away to a bunch of untested boys with mullets and pimples and not a razor among us. We were lined up along the baseline, the five of us that had previously made up the junior varsity feeling dreamy and uncomfortable in our varsity blue practice jerseys, the ninth grade team beaming and nervous in their junior varsity reds. “I’m not…I’m not…” Coach said, and then he paused, looked at the basket, jumped up and touched the net, and continued, “I’m not giving this season up.” We nodded, tried to look convincing. If only we could get out of this scene, if we could play the role of Hardened Basketball Team Receiving Pep Talk, maybe this would all go away. Maybe it was a dream, or maybe it would work, or maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as we thought it might be. “Todd Benner, I can see you believe me, right?!” Coach said. “We’re ready, coach!” Benner said. Point guard until the end. “This is going to be okay,” he said. “We’re going to get those sonsabitches at Milton, aren’t we?” We bellowed, screamed, never had we yelled so loudly. Inside, we hoped that if we pleased him in this way, he would call practice early, let us go home to our beds and our Lord of the Rings books. We would ball into celebration, high five, wipe the imaginary sweat from our brow, take a well-earned shower, and go on home. But Coach had different ideas. “First team,” he said. “Halfcourt. Second team!” He nodded at the ninth graders. “Defense!” We were terrible. Distracted and nervous. Even the sure-handed Benner dribbled the ball off his feet, threw inbounds passes into empty bleachers. We were decimated by the ninth grade, fourteen to two in ten minutes of live scrimmage. One ninth grader in particular, a wild haired, big-forearmed kid named Ricky Nicholls, who wore his socks pulled up to his knees and his shorts baggy and long, had scored twelve points on his own. He sunk thirty footers

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and driving layups, twisting ten footers and offensive putbacks. Once he seemed dangerously close to dunking. He drove the lane and dished to less-than sure-handed ninth graders who let his passes bounce of their hands, necks, and faces. Coach whistled and stood silent, watching Ricky Nicholls take us apart like he was the unholy offspring of Dr. J and Rick Barry. By the end of the scrimmage, Nicholls was on our side, having replaced Kenner, and was bouncing passes off our hands, necks, and faces. We looked at each other and we didn’t need to talk. “Okay,” Coach said, calling us all in. He gave Ricky Nicholls a nod. “I think we might be allright.” “I don’t like him,” Hoak said. “He seems stuck up.” “Where did he come from?” Kenner said. We were listening to Rush again. Geddy Lee singing about free will. The tape clicked and Reese hit rewind. “Geez, Reese,” Hoak said. “Let’s at least listen to a different song.” “Where did he come from?” Reese said. “I never saw him before,” Benner said. He was the only of us who felt confident enough in his skills to play basketball with other people outside the season. “I heard he moved last year and broke his ankle during buck season, couldn’t play until a few months ago.” “You guys wanna play D and D?” Reese said. We did want to play D and D. We really did. Each and every one of us, save perhaps Benner. In the Old Greywolf Castle, we were not skinny and underweight power forwards, guards who could never remember to rotate down to cover the baseline when the ball swung to the corners, centers who couldn’t make so much as a simple layup with our left hand. We never dribbled the ball off our feet or let our defender muscle us into the corners or forgot to set the pick in the motion offense. We were knights, elves, kings. We were dangerous and

magical. There was nothing we would have liked better than a junk food buffet and a dungeon battle to the theoretical death. We looked at him like he was crazy. Tuesday came fast. Milton was last year’s Anthracite League champions. They were tall and lanky, with a six foot point guard, a six seven center, and everything in between. They were four seniors and a junior, not the most talented players, but they were grinders, the kind of kids who wait around, lift weights, get slowly bigger and stronger until that one thing – bigger and stronger – is good enough. They had stubble and hairy legs and a medieval giant’s plodding and impossible force, and they beat us eightyfour to thirty-two. Ricky Nicholls scored twentyfour points, with twelve rebounds and four assists. For the rest of us, dungeonmasters and magical elves and knights and princes, the math was all too easy: we had scored a total of eight points. “Jeepers cats!” Coach said afterwards, pacing the locker room. We sat on creaky benches, heads down. “Mental toughness! Ricky can’t…It’s...mental toughness! Mental…” he trailed off, lit a cigarette, sat down in a folding chair. We tried not to cry, watched him smoke that entire cigarette and then light another. We sat there until we were sticky and cold and then followed him out to the bus. We rode the entire hour home in clammy silence. No one, not even Benner, said a single word. Ricky Nicholls was not like us. He was driven, focused, single-minded. We had never seen him before because he was not to be found at the mall or the movies, the comic book shop or the Tastee Freeze or the roller rink or any of the other places where we pursued our boyish interests. He was rumored to spend nearly every waking hour playing pick-up basketball at the local college, stroking his sweet jump shot, pulling rebounds away from frat boys, driving the line and bouncing passes off the hands, necks, and faces of guys who were, some of them, old

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enough to drink, who (we guessed) regularly had sex, who had presumably left their dungeons and their dragons back home in Newark or Bethesda or Deer Park, Long Island. He lifted weights, ran even when he didn’t have to, and was rumored to be on some kind of macrobiotic diet. “That’s bullshit. I’ve seen him eat pizza,” Benner said. Benner, point guard to the end, was inclined to stick up for Ricky Nicholls, who by now was fully cemented into place as our best player and worst enemy. Not only was he starting at the two guard, leading the team in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and floor burns, but he had also been designated as “mentally tough” by Coach, an unofficial title that carried with it the official title of Team Captain. The Shikelimmy Daily Press had done a feature story with the headline “Fresh Man Among Boys.” The message was clear across the board. Ricky Nicholls was a basketball playing man. The rest of us were rosy-cheeked boys. That it was true didn’t help us a bit. Ricky Nicholls didn’t help, either. He ignored us in the hallways, begrudgingly accommodated our occasional requests for high or low fives, jabbing his talented digits for a quick slap and then retracting immediately, as if he didn’t trust us with this basic gesture any more than he trusted us to corral his no-look passes before they caromed off our hands, necks, and faces. “I’m telling you,” Hoak said. “He’s stuck up. Coach thinks he’s the man and he believes it.” We were sitting around a picnic table at the Tastee Freez. It was Saturday night and we hadn’t played D and D since Reese’s father had burst into the game and changed our world. “He’s like a Stormtrooper,” Reese said. “More like an orc,” said Bailey. “Kind of just like an orc,” Hoak said. “Like a basketball machine.” We sat pondering that situation. “So what are we gonna do?” Benner said. “I mean, this stinks. We have to do something. Get better. Practice more.” Reese turned up his boombox. He had

taken to playing the cassette tape with “Free Will” by Rush on an endless loop. “We have options,” he said. “What are you talking about?” Hoak said. Reese just pointed at the box. Geddy Lee’s elfin and commanding voice exploded: “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice,” he sang. “God, Reese,” Hoak said. “Give it a rest.” The starting five got out of jail but they never came back to school. We heard they had gotten jobs, that they were on probation, that Bongo’s college scholarship offers had been rescinded and that Yustat had nearly killed a full grown man in the county lockup. We didn’t know if any of it was true, until Yustat showed up at practice. Coach met him with a hug and we stopped in our tracks. Yustat looked older. Even older than before. He had grown out his beard and appeared to have gained weight. He was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans stained with cement dust or mulch or something from one of the other hourly wage jobs that were regularly held out by our parents as the kind of worst case scenario that awaited us if we failed to finish our geometry homework. “Boys!” Coach called. “Everybody gather round.” His voice was soft and sad, a tone we had never heard from him before. It was as if Geddy Lee opened his mouth and sounded like Barry White. It made no sense at all. Yustat tapped a dusty boot and fingered his keys. He nodded to Ricky Nicholls and examined the rest of us. “I’m real proud of you guys,” he said. “Real proud.” We flashed on snapped towels, purple nurples, wet willies, the indelible inside-the-locker view of a door slamming shut. “I mean it,” he said. “I know we had some fun with you guys, gave you a little hazing. Shit, we all went through that.” He smiled, his eyes scanned the row of district championship banners that hung along the top wall. He shook

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his head, looked at his boots on the gym floor. “Kevin,” Coach said. “Sorry,” he said. “The point is, I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you. You ain’t winning much but you’re young and trust me – this shit you’re going through, getting your butts kicked around, it’ll wind up being the best thing for you. In the long run.” He trailed off and Coach patted him on the back. “Thanks, Kevin,” he said. “That means a lot. To the guys.” They walked over to the stairs together, Coach’s arm around Yustat’s shoulder. We stole glances at each other and then quickly looked away. “Let’s go,” Benner said, and we all followed him down to the baseline and started our laps. The games rolled on and the losing continued. We were exhausted, beaten, our bodies covered in black and blue, our ankles and knees and elbows in tape. We lost weight or gained it. For the very first time in our lives, we went to bed early and had trouble getting to sleep. We drank coffee and soda and wondered what relief the starting five had found out in those cornfields with their Natural Light and dimebags. We counted the games and watched our record tip steadily toward five hundred. Shamokin would be the last game of the season. Our record was fifteen and twelve and we were on the brink of elimination from the playoffs. “A win and we’re in,” Coach said on the bus to Shamokin. “One win and it’s playoffs and anything can happen.” He had taken to Thinking Positive, to shouting “I’m gonna make men out of you yet!” and slapping our butts with grim enthusiasm, to singing along when Reese blared “Free Will” through the locker room. Something in him seemed to have gone wacky, like his body had been replaced by a positive thinking pod that had been programmed to get one win and then get in. Shamokin’s gym was large and terrifying, lit bright yellow, and reverberating with AC/DC and the grumbles of laid off coal miners, who peopled the stands in various strains of flannel

and denim. By this point the games didn’t frighten us the way they did in the beginning. We had become immune to the twice weekly beatings that had been administered throughout Central Pennsylvania’s class AA high schools. We evolved from numb surprise to numb resolve, and we approached this final game with a forward thinking determination usually reserved for root canal patients. On this night our warm-ups were robotic, dreamlike. Ricky Nicholls even seemed shaken and nervous. The Shamokin fans were rabid and angry, chanting and singing along with Bon Scott about a highway to hell. In the locker room before tipoff, Reese blared “Free Will” and Coach just sat there, staring at us, moving down the line, boy to boy to boy in a stare-off that we knew was intended to evoke our inner mental toughness. “That song,” he said. “Think about it. ‘You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. You can choose from…whatever, I don’t quite get that next part. But here’s the thing: ‘I will choose a path that’s clear. I will choose free will!” We sat there, stunned. He was listening to that all along? Paying attention to the lyrics? To Rush? “You can choose,” he said quietly. “You. Can. Choose.” He walked down the row, poked each one of us in the chest. “You.” Poke. “Can.” Poke. “Choose.” Poke. Then he turned and walked into the gym. We didn’t know what else to do, so we followed. The first half was the best sixteen minutes of our nascent basketball lives. We nailed jumpers, connected on wild halfcourt passes, managed to catch Ricky Nicholls’ missiles before they slapped into our hands, necks, and faces. Shamokin stayed with us. They were bigger, stronger, mentally tougher. They were a plodding, halfcourt team, moving the ball around the perimeter, searching for angles, exposing a crack here, a missed assignment there, banking fifteen footers or lining perfect bounce passes to wait-

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ing big men, who knocked in layups with lumbering efficiency. In response, we ran, got out on the break and converted three on twos, two on ones. Benner pulled up at the foul line and nailed his first jump shot of the year. Ricky Nicholls gave them fits on the perimeter, first hitting jumpers from the corners, then pump faking and taking it to the hoop. At halftime, we were tied thirty to thirty and the Shamokin faithful were roiling like fish in a bucket. They might as well have been calling for the sacrifice of a virgin. Or of five virgins. Coach bounded into the locker room. He pointed to Reese. Power chords. Drums. Geddy Lee’s strangely inspirational voice filled the room. Coach nodded and tapped his feet. We were confused, scared. Is this what we were capable of, had been all along? Could this possibly continue? Everything we knew about ourselves was in flux, changing, changed. Was this free will?

in his sleeve, a red knot on his forehead and blood dripping down into his beard. Yustat nodded back, gave the thumbs up. Coach smiled and then retreated back into our huddle. “I told you I was gonna make men out of you,” he said. “Now let’s go finish this.” We jogged back to the court, the crowd’s roar a thick white noise like a power chord. You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. Benner passed to Ricky Nicholls. He dribbled, letting the clock run. Shamokin’s point guard, a scrapper in tight shorts and a full mustache, forced him left. Ten seconds. Ricky dribbled behind his back and lost the point guard. He brought it to the foul line, juked, and headed for the lane. He went up and took Shamokin’s center and power forward with him, and then slung a perfect behind the back pass to Reese. Reese waited a beat. Pump faked. Pumped again. Then went up. He was fouled. Two shots. The din was incredible. It was like a plane warming up, like something that was alThey came out swinging in the third most certainly going to explode. The starting quarter, elbows and asses poking and jabbing at five remained standing, their arms crossed over our soft places. They dove at passes, scurried their letterman’s jackets. Their bearded faces into the stands, accrued courtburns like Pac-Men tightened into grim expressions and you could eating dots. We played in a daze, still running see it, what they were going to look like in ten, and gunning, knocking down ill-advised twenty fifteen, twenty years. There’s Kevin Yustat on a footers and double clutch reverse layups, tossing barstool, puffy and angry, still haunted by those blind over-the-shoulder passes to surprised championship banners strung along the high teammates streaking down the lane. Through it school gym. There’s Jerry Caviston, punching in all, that song echoed in our heads: I will choose a at the plant, talking Penn State football and path that’s clear. I will choose free will. Shikelimmy basketball on his lunch break. With one minute left in the fourth quar- There’s Ron Bongo in a Montgomery Ward suit, ter, we were down forty-nine to forty-eight and trading his high school quarterback status for a Coach called time-out. We walked to the bench job hustling used cars. There are the Bomboys, and sat in a daze, sweat dripping off our dewy working construction and living together, still faces. “Okay guys,” Coach said. And then he woman-less, in some grim apartment. There stopped. He stared at the stands and our eyes they all are, grunting and sweating, bouncing followed. beer belly to beer belly in some dusty rec league There they were. The starting five. gym, digging elbows into rib cages, lunging after Yustat. Caviston. Bongo. The Bomboys. There loose balls, struggling with everything in their was Cordas and Reitz. All of the seniors. They failing bodies to evoke some thin ghost of their were clad in their letterman’s jackets, standing, high school days. applauding. There was something in their faces – If you choose not to decide you still have made a they were not smiling, not happy. They were choice. proud. Coach nodded to Yustat, who had a rip Reese walked to the line. He looked to [ 13 ]


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the stands and then to each of us. He dribbled the ball twice and then paused, backed off the line. He drew a deep breath, then dribbled twice again. He pulled back and heaved the basketball off the left side of the backboard. Coach stood and walked to the scorer’s table. He seemed to be considering something, then he sat back down. Reese walked calmly to the line. He took the ball. He brought it between his legs and threw it as high into the air as he could. There was a gasp and then whistles blew, horns sounded, the crowd erupted. The Milton players looked at us with surprise, and then pity, and then they bunched into a circle and laughed and cried and shouted. In the stands, Yustat was still standing, alone. His eyes were closed and his head tilted back to the yellow lights. The blood from his nose trailed down into his beard. His arms dangled at his sides. He looked defeated, broken. We stole glances and walked off the court with our heads down, feeling naked and light and free.

hang your head. 3. Calmly put on a black shirt, take the whistle, put red and yellow cards in your pocket, enter the field, whistle and wave your hands, withstand the curses, and don’t hurry— they won’t replace you before your time. 4. Buy a ticket. Enter the stadium. Find your seat. Take it. Look how they run to change their fate for your pleasure or chagrin. Eat sunflower seeds. Don’t be worried by all their running— your life will never change.

5. Get to the couch, Shota Iatashvili Take the remote control, translated from the Georgian by Timothy Kercher____ switch on the TV— uickly put on your shirt, everything happens far away. quickly warm-up, Bombs are blasting far away. quickly enter the field and get the ball, They are singing and dancing far away. quickly kick the ball, They score or don’t score goals. quickly score a goal, They suffer far away. quickly celebrate, or they will show up at the field’s edge 6. with a foosball table in hand to replace you Always put on the shirt. with— Always put it on. the bench for reserves is long.

Soccer

Q

2. Look at Pele, cheap advertisement for coffee. Look at Maradona, a fat Buddha cartoon. Remember Escobar, killed by fans, and take off your shirt, leave the stadium,

7. They will replace you no matter where you are.

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Sony Corey Mesler

S

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he was all over delight. White and puckerless and soft as powder. She was love, psychotherapy, rock and roll. When we were alone and it was hot and the gloaming was afloat, and the world was kindly and quiet and welcoming, etc… Rock and roll helps a little now. Keeps the quiet away. The emotional chiggers. Eric Clapton and his slunky blues. Procol Harum. Bob Dylan. The Beatles, the middle period, especially. Lennon on LSD. I turn the stereo up loud because I can now, because I moved out of that shitty apartment and rent a house. John Lennon is dead, his superb whine perambulates my rooms, the TV is on but the sound is off. Televisions upchucks rainbows. Out of the electronic phantasmagoria Steve Grote’s earnest face peers, voiceless. For a moment it looks as if Steve Grote is saying, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Steve Grote used to play basketball, now he announces. He is handsome and wellspoken and no doubt as sad as the rest of us. No doubt this NCAA tournament, which appears to make him so amiable and excited, weighs on Steve Grote like a wasted marriage. I don’t know. Maybe not. America is where this is all happening. Birdsong has increased this year, up about 10%. The sky is blue and gray, like a Civil War battle, like Memphis State’s colors. Yesterday it rained Katzenjammer. Depressing on the weekend. Nothing to do but face that little friend within, the You Suck Guy. Wake up, he’s still there. Hello, little friend, little softball of anxiety. Think of her all day. Love is about as lasting as carbonation. It doesn’t stick around; it yellows like tape. It calls you at 2 a.m. from Atlanta, drunk, and laughs. It pees on your socks. I have a friend named Debra and she doesn’t know that I am available again or she would come over and we would have sex and

she would be very sweet to me. More than I deserve. Debra is a little in love with me but she never says so. She’s just always there with her lovely soft bottom and her oral sex. I could call her instead of staring at Steve Grote but I don’t. Fucking Steve Grote. It’s not his fault. Debra says that Sony is not good enough for me. Debra has a high opinion of me, God help us. She thinks Sony is insincere and selfish and immature. Yes, she is. But Sony, who is gone forever and will not call anymore, is beautiful like a movie. As shapely as Dr. Strangelove. Punchy like Vertigo, jumpy like Chaplin, gassy like Bergman, etc. Jimbo, my best friend, thinks we should have made it. He says, “You should have made it, man.” Jimbo punctuates his speech with many mans, mans of all sizes and emphasis, a mankind of mans, but he has a heart like Jesus, a refreshing sense of self-irony, a gentle soul. A good friend, Jimbo is. “If anybody, I mean,” Jimbo says. That’s ok. Now Georgetown is demolishing Dayton. They want that Final Four, they can taste it, I imagine Steve Grote saying, though his insightful play-by-play is missing from the room. Absent, like Sony. Instead replaced by the insinuating guitar work of Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan snarling, “I and I.” The sky too has changed. Long furrows of cloud from treetop to treetop. I’m working a crossword puzzle. Thirty-four down. Four letters, Japanese TV. The phone rings and my heart rate increases three-fold. Hello, little friend. It isn’t her, of course. I let it ring an insouciant four times anyway. A nervous voice in my ear, a voice uncomfortable with the telephone, almost untranslatable into electric impulses. “Have you heard from her yet?”

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“No. I don’t expect to.” “Man.” “Firm resolve is hers, Jimbo.” “I guess.” After we discuss the game—Jimbo calls during a Cruex commercial—we hang up. Did he sense the disappointment in my voice? Sensitive Jimbo. Sony used to say that she lived from day to day. I don’t know about you, but I hate people who live from day to day. I imagine her dayto-day now, brunches, shopping trips, tickets everywhere. And where am I in the circuitry of her mind? A cipher, a useless synapse. A car pulls up to the curb in front of my house. I can hear the cooling systems exhale as the engine is switched off. I peek out. Debra. When I open the door I know she knows. Her face is all concern, Mother Walton. She steps past the screen door and embraces me. “Jimbo called you,” I say. Debra nods. Soon we are all gum and sweat and saliva. Oatmeal flavored mouths full of dirty exhortations. She swirls me with added vigor, nursely vigor. Love, passion, medicine. After I have twitched into her cheeks and fallen back on the bed I feel a million different versions of sadness. Debra kisses my stomach, smoothes those curly hairs. I am speechless with terror and selfloathing. Oh, the belly of the beast. Is death kinder? Debra dresses quickly, puts on new records while I shuffle into my clothes. She sits next to me, hand on thigh. “Just say what happened,” she says. Kindly, she leaves soon. Back to the couch, the game has 4:13 to go, the music is Debra’s choice, Bob Seger. I pick up the crossword and it asks me, What’s in a Name? What’s in a name? Sony short for Sonya. Certain names bleed attraction. Some women I have loved: Nanette Divine, Brooxie Sharp, Anjanette Peel, Gogy Goodfriend. I am not kidding. A name can be a poem an open sesame, an incantation, a spell. Sonya Berryman. Magic. My

Sony. A real thumper, she set the bugs loose in me. But love was no go. Red bricks last longer. Hell, Raleigh Rexall, with its Klinke Brothers Ice Cream sign, its cherry cokes, its posterboards for school projects, its airplane models and yoyos, lasted longer. It’s been there my whole life. I threw rocks from its roof onto customers. Jimbo and I. Hours go by. There is 1:09 left in the game. The phone rings. I can’t answer it this time. It rings five times, 35 times. My hand is a drive-in theater during the day. My hand is an abandoned 65 Impala on Route 6. The phone rings 36 times. It stops ringing. Hello. I say, hello? Georgetown players are grinning and mugging for the camera and slapping each other. Patting fannies, poking, giggling. They’re going Final Four. There are only seconds left. Forty-one across. Brass container. Pentagon. Somewhere in America the final buzzer sounds, but I cannot hear it. I’ll never hear it. It is as lost as literature, as last as Virginia’s virginity, as my mother used to say. Instead Bob Seger intones: “You just turned and walked away. There was nothing left to say.” Fucking Bob Seger. The phone rings again once. A few preliminary drops the size of nipples pop on the window. The birds slow and stop. Suddenly the sky gathers itself into a fist. Bob Seger quivers and falls silent, usurped by machine hum. I take in air, quickly. God, the old anchorman, sighs, shudders, and lets loose a Taj Mahal of a storm. The rain sounds like music, briefly, I think. And then, music.

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Where the Syrup Flows Mike Florian

J

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ohnny Dixon was slowly fixing his skis to the roof rack of his fancy Japanese sedan. Heidi, the family dog, an inordinately large German shepherd with the disposition of a golden retriever, was beside herself, running and jumping and making a nuisance. The man was very careful to have everything just so. He decided to use his old wooden Trysil Knuts and the soft leather, ankle high boots that he kept supple over the years. He was tired of the plastic boots and the modern, carbon fibre skate skis that he used during his training runs at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians. In the early morning, well before dawn, he used his tiny, one burner stove to heat up some pine tar. With a wooden applicator he spread the black syrupy liquid to the bottom of his skis. He kept the garage door open during this cold March morning. The tar was pungent and he wiped off any excess from his skis with a rag he kept for that purpose. He loaded his box of colorful waxes, the klisters, the corks, his scrapers, the large Leatherman knife and the various but necessary small tools. He had fixed himself some lunch when he got up at four-thirty that morning. That was when he stood in the kitchen with the refrigerator door wide open, staring at the contents without knowing what to look for. When he finally took out the makings of a sandwich, he placed them on the kitchen counter, and there, with tears flowing freely down his face, and his shoulders shaking from the sobs, he made himself a couple of salmon sandwiches and put them into his backpack. It was a weekday and he decided to skip work. He loaded his car with all the right and safe things, invited Heidi to jump onto the passenger seat, and proceeded to drive towards the rolling hills north of Montreal. As he pulled out of the driveway he looked up to see if he could locate the Big Dipper. He did spot it and he forgot to close the garage door.

The drive out into the country was beautiful. It had not snowed for days and the highways were bare and dry. A couple of hours later, with a streak of red sun light glowing from the east, Johnny turned into the parking lot of a coffee shop in the village of St. Donat. Heidi knew the routine. She waited for him to get his breakfast and fill up the stainless steel thermos with coffee. She knew that he would always come back with some bacon and this morning was no exception. She also knew that he packed a ziplock bag full of her favourite kibbles. The man and his dog kept driving out of the small town and into the surrounding forest beside the lake. He stopped the car at the provincial park’s main trailhead. The man’s watch showed eight in the morning. Johnny kicked the snow on the trail and knew that he should apply a blue klister to his skis. He did so expertly and tried to glide a few steps in the parking lot. He moved easily. The wax held just so when he kicked and slid well on the icy surface. He took his day pack from the back seat, donned his thin jacket, locked the car with the remote, and started onto the rolling hills of the trail. Heidi ran alongside for a few minutes, then pulled up and trotted behind him. They had a sixteen mile run to the bend in the adjacent slow moving river. In the summer he fished there for brook trout and it would be a good spot to make a fire and have their lunch. The river, which was more of a large creek, was still frozen. Johnny followed the snowmobile track. The two figures, the man and dog, made a nice landscape picture, gliding through the forest with their steamy breaths reflected in the morning sun. Johnny kicked and poled his way along the trail. Despite the fact that they were travelling up into the hills, the skiing was easy. Each kick pushed him several feet. At this pace they would easily be at the bend by twelve. Heidi

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loved it. Occasionally she would let out a yelp of joy. As Johnny receded into a rhythm, his thoughts began to focus towards the night before. He sped up and tried to force them back. He couldn’t. He stopped, leaned forward on his poles, and began to sob. Heidi ran around picking up some icy snowballs and dropped them at the man’s feet. She was ready to play. They were less than a mile into the trip.

sunshine felt good. He undid his wire bindings and decided to apply a softer klister to his skis. The violet one would do well in the corn snow. Later, maybe in the early afternoon heat, he would use the softer red and try to make it back before the trail freezes up for the night. A few minutes later a park ranger pulled up with his Ski -doo. Heidi barked and Johnny hushed her. “Morning,” said the uniformed ranger, “by yourself?” “I met someone,” said Angela, his wife “Good morning,” said Johnny. “Yes, of twelve years. we’re just going up to the bend and then heading “What does that mean,” asked Johnny, back.” knowing full well what that meant. The shock “The trail is good from here. I softened went into his brain stem and stayed there. But- it up for you,” said the ranger. terflies began to churn in his stomach. He tried “I see that,” offered Johnny. to control his breathing. “A couple of miles up I came across a “I’m sorry,” she said. bear with some young. Be careful with your “Do I know him?” he asked, not wanting dog.” to know, trying to say something, trying to main“Thanks for that. I’ll watch out.” tain a conversation. “Well then, take it easy. There’s no one “No.” else out here today. I’m heading back to town.” “That’s it? Just a plain no?” he asked. The ranger roared off and in a few min“What do you want me to say?” asked utes the silence returned to the forest. Johnny Angela. began to ski once again. The bend was still a “Just say why. Is it serious?” he asked ways up ahead. He looked at the frozen river knowing that it was. beside him and then at the trail. It was almost “We’ve been seeing each other for six noon. He took off his back pack and offered months,” answered his wife. Heidi some kibble. He washed his hands in the snow and then ate one of his sandwiches. He Johnny kept leaning on his poles, his drank a full bottle of water. At forty-two years hands holding onto the ends. He vomited into of age Johnny was very fit. He thought he was the snow. His life was over, he thought. “No,” more fit than Heidi. He looked across the river he barked at Heidi as she made her way towards and he knew that he could cut off a couple of his feet. He started on the trail and the dog fol- miles. The snow was crusty and would easily lowed. This time he began to race. Heidi’s trot hold their weight. The snowmobile tracks were turned into a canter. The man kicked hard fully only a few inches deep. extending his legs. He furiously pushed his poles. Heidi was now running, her tongue hang“I met him at the Plaza”, said Angela last ing out in the mid-morning warmth. Johnny night. skied his way through glens of maples. The hard“I was in London at that time, for a wood forest was full of life. The sap was runmonth,” said Johnny, “working.” ning. Five miles later he stopped. They were “He’s just a boy,” said his wife. “I want both catching their breath when he heard the to go down to Florida to see him. I love him.” snowmobile coming from further up the hills. “How old is he?” he asked. He was He continued to ski at a slower pace. The five trembling. He tried to be stoic about it. He loved mile sprint dampened his clothes and the warm his wife. He didn’t understand. He almost de[ 18 ]


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tected a sneer, or maybe pride, when she answered. “Twenty-three,” she said.

He crawled back over to the side from which they started. Heidi made a wide loop and met him at the river’s edge. He began to shiver violently. Quickly he took off his clothes, wrung Johnny and Heidi skied to the edge of out the water and put them back on. They began the water. He stuck a pole into the ice and it felt walking back to the trailhead. With damp clothsolid. He pushed himself onto the flat surface. ing, Johnny was a long way from the comfort of Underneath the water was flowing at a leisurely the car. pace, almost standing still. The man felt comfortable. The crossing was only a few yards. “I don’t love you anymore,” Angela told Heidi was running sporadically, her nose close to Johnny in the middle of the night. the ice, happy. In the middle of the crossing, Johnny heard a crack and felt a shift in the ice. Johnny was seriously cold. He began to The dog ran up to him. She started to run circles jog. He had to raise his core temperature. The around Johnny and the noon sun warmed the sun was setting. He followed the snowmobile foot prints into pools of water. Another crack tracks which made the trail hard and compact, stopped Johnny in his tracks and he broke easy to walk on. The dog was ahead of him. through. The dog leaped off the ice and stood Johnny stopped running to catch his breath. He on the opposite shoreline. Johnny sank slowly continued to walk briskly. A few minutes later he into the icy water. He stopped sinking when his jogged once again. He continued into the late skis touched the bottom. The water slowly afternoon. He ate a soggy salmon sandwich and swirled around his chest. Heidi barked from the shared the last of the kibble with Heidi. His coffar shore. fee was still warm in the thermos and he drank all of it. A few more miles and he would make it. “I love him,” she said again. “I don’t Johnny followed the ranger’s tracks. love you anymore.” Johnny made it to the car at beginning of the night. He noticed that the ranger’s snowmoJohnny was at a crossroad. The shock of bile tracks were right up against the vehicle. He the water took his breath away. He didn’t have saw footsteps around the car. Johnny opened the much time. He was pinned by the moving water car and turned on the ignition. He turned on the and by his skis at the bottom of the river. He heater and waited for the car to warm up. Heidi started to feel comfortable. It would be so easy was acting funny. She didn’t want to get in. just to stay there, to just go to sleep to make it all “Come,” he said to her, but the dog rego away. Heidi kept barking. The sound was fused. The heater was working. It was warm. more distant than it was a few minutes ago. She “Come,” he said again but Heidi hesitated. made small ventures out on the ice towards him. Johnny got out of the damp seat and went to get He began to go numb. So easy, he thought. This the dog. He grabbed her by the collar and forced time Heidi made it out all the way and began her into the car. He shut the door and waited for licking his face. She barked right into him, inches the warmth. away. “Oh”, he said and shut off the engine. The man came back to the moment. He He stepped out and clicked the remote to open raised his leg and undid the binding. The ski the trunk. The lid came up. He looked to check drifted away under the ice. He lifted the other if Angela’s body was still there and it was. It’s leg, undid that binding, and shook off the ski. going to be a long drive home, he thought. He felt solid gravel under his boots. Hanging onto the poles and placing them across on the ice in front of him, Johnny pulled himself out. [ 19 ]


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Hardcourt Joe Ponepinto ________________________

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ike a child sneaking out before his homework is done he shuffles through the hotel lobby, lips pursed, eyes wide, hoping to remain inconspicuous. But dusty sneakers squeak against the marble floor, baggy sweats graze a businessman’s polished toe, and people begin to notice. They see he holds a ball against his body, and its pebbled orange shouts the incongruity between its youthful color and his silver hair. Outside, he hails a cab, gets in. “Looking for a game,” he says. “Athletic club down the block,” says the driver. “No. Pickup game.” The cabbie looks in the mirror at the gray head. “You kidding?” “Drive around, we’ll find one.” The driver weaves through the downtown crush, heads away from the mirrored hotels and office towers, and from the business conference that has held the man captive since morning, towards old row houses that hide behind the façade of a city’s renaissance. Buildings become smaller, potholes larger. Rusted sedans line the sidewalks like pictures of old traffic jams. Apartment eaves and sills wear a dusting of soot. Colors change, become muted, gray, shadowy. The sky turns threatening to match. “Might rain,” says the cabbie. “Not a problem.” They zigzag streets, bringing stares from teens hanging on front steps. Who is this? No one takes a taxi in this neighborhood. More turns and then a school, decaying, a ruin from the past. To the side an asphalt court caged in weathered, ten-foot cyclone. Two teams speed up and back. Shirts and skins. The clothing is dark, matching the sky, or maybe the mood. “Pull over here,” he says. He gets out. Two young men waiting their turns to play spy him. They fold their arms

and widen stances, like security for the playground. He leans into the passenger window. “Pick me up,” he says. “Two hours.” Throws an extra twenty on the seat. The driver roars off, yellow turning the corner, giving the street back to gray. He circles the fence, looks up at the school, which looms like a mausoleum. Graffiti is scrawled, painted over, written again. Some of the men in the game pause to check him out. The only people who look like him are cops, social workers, bill collectors. Inside the gate, he assesses the players. They are tall and sleek, but it’s clear to him they have little experience with each other. Most trips down the court one player bulls to the basket, leaving teammates frozen in witness. The rare pass is a showboat—behind the back or between the legs, as likely to go out of bounds as into a teammate’s hands. These players are raw and hard like the equipment. Glossy pine floors, nylon nets and glass backboards are for the suburbs. Here it is concrete; asphalt if they’re lucky. It is metal chains and sheets of steel, manufactured to last through the incessant pounding. An expression of the circumstances. It’s why it’s called hardcourt. He watches. They tear back and forth, but neither team scores. Finally a shot goes up, misses, and the tallest player on the skins grabs the rebound. He is close to seven feet, awkward but powerful. He shoulders a defender away and leaps, slamming the ball through with both hands. He hangs on the rim, roars, kicks his legs up and twists his body, releases into a violent dismount like a gymnast gone berserk. A teammate points and yells, “Nasty, Jones!” The backboard gyrates on several axes, as though drunk. It still wobbles on the skins’ next trip down the court. He’s seen enough for the moment, jogs over to a practice basket with a cockeyed, netless

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rim, and starts shooting. The two bystanders follow. One grabs a made basket and passes the ball back to him—playground protocol, shoot ’til you miss. He makes three, four, six in a row from distance; hears the rebounder’s commentary: “All day!” His hands fit the ball perfectly, as if he were born with them that way. His release is still easy after tens of thousands of shots. He misses on purpose to get them involved. It’s a scene that repeats in every city he visits. He’s heard the warnings to fear such places, but this is where the best games are. Competition in its purest form, unfettered by rules and referees—an explosion of athleticism powered by endless, empty days, and dreams of the NBA. A brutal ballet of slam dunks and back picks. In every game he is on the road, the visitor, never allowed the advantage of home court, and each time he must prove himself just to get a chance to play. And he is short, white, and now, getting on in years. But he relishes the challenge more than ever. He won’t, can’t give it up. As long as he can remember he’s played: in a dusty backyard, practicing twenty footers and allowing for the wind; then indoors, on a high school team that never made it to the state tournament. He tried out for the university squad, but was too small, and was cut after the first tryouts. Five-ten required more quickness to compensate for the lack of height. He went back outside, to the world of pickup, where he could still play and belong—weeknights with boys from the college who, like him, weren’t big enough or good enough to make the team; weekends with a steady crew of friends. There were five who never missed a Sunday. Dumb nicknames for each other: Super, Dex, King, Rainbow and him, O. Just O. They never told him what they meant. They always showed, prompt at the junior high courts, never had to be reminded. He had been there to practice, alone. The four needed one more to make it even against another crew, and waved him over. A connection, like instinct—they were aware of each other’s positions on the court without talking, without planning. No-look passes. Fast-

breaks on made baskets. An advantage born of understanding the game’s margins—the places where savvy outperforms ability. They made themselves better than their more athletic foes. When the game was over, they reveled in the astonished faces of the bigger, faster losers, who pointed fingers at their teammates’ shortcomings, instead of what had won. He came back the next weekend and the four were waiting. After the games they took him to pizza and beer. In the dim, smoky light, across a table sticky with age and residue, they talked sports for twenty minutes, life for three hours. Winning was so clear then. Dark clouds coalesce, sprinkles of rain dapple the asphalt. It won’t stop play. He trades shots with the others, keeps an eye on the game—who can shoot, who can’t, who has court sense. The skins are the winners. The rest saunter over to choose a new team. Free throws decide. The shirts and the three extras form a conga line at the stripe: miss, miss, hit, hit, miss, hit, hit. They make him shoot last. He steps up calmly, bends his knees, flicks and swishes the shot. That’s five. “No way,” comes the protest. “Old man can’t play with us.” “Why not?” he asks. “I made the shot. That’s fair.” “But you old. How you run the court?” The complaint is not new. He knows he represents so much they disdain—experience, success, preference. But their rejection is welcome. An added obstacle to overcome. Another goal to achieve. Sometimes it only takes a show during practice to get a chance. Most players respect the touch. Not today. “Man can shoot,” one of his practice mates steps up for him. “True,” says the other. “Let him play.” “I ain’t sittin’ for him.” A scowl on sixfeet-five of sinew and bones. The young man snatches the game ball and sprints up the court for a dunk. He catches it before it hits the ground and turns to face the group, defiant. “Come on,” says Jones. His bass is as

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impressive as the rest of him. “He plays.” The disgruntled one parks himself on the sideline, toes over the line as though ready to trip a player if he gets too close. “Don’t sweat, Marcus. Game be over in two minutes,” another says. Then a muffled laugh and a whisper: “Old man have a heart attack in two minutes.” Skins get the ball first. One of the shirts calls to him, points at the youngest, smallest member of the skins. “You take Delmon.” The kid is two inches taller than he. Right off they test. Delmon takes the ball at midcourt and charges. At the top of the key the kid head fakes, crosses the dribble. It’s a move that would leave most defenders planted, embarrassed, but he saw it while he watched, expected it would be the opening gambit, and stays with the youngster. He is slower now than in college; his game is anticipation. Delmon’s drive is thwarted. O’s defense is still with him, pressuring, frustrating. Teammates grow impatient, and the kid is forced to launch a shot from twenty that nudges the rim, harmlessly. Shirts ball. They fan out down the court, converge again in a mass ten feet from the hoop—except for him. From experience he knows to seek open spaces. He stops at twice their distance, lets Delmon continue into the fray, waits to see if they will pass or freeze him out. A teammate holds the ball over his head, hesitating. Pretends not to hear when he calls, “I’m open,” and turns for a clumsy fade-away that bangs hard off the backboard. He hustles back on D, knows Delmon will come harder, won’t be shamed by a man more than twice his age. They collide like rutting elk, neither gaining advantage. Delmon turns, starts to back him down, to show his friends he won’t be stopped, can’t be stopped. Bumping shoulders and hips, bouncing against each other, Delmon makes progress towards the basket, gaining confidence. The others stand and watch youth demand the day. At the free throw line Delmon has options—turn and shoot or roll to the hoop. But a nudge at the shoulder, a dip, a

lunge. The ball is poked free, into the waiting hands of a teammate. O runs circles around the defense, slashes to open spots. He signals a teammate with his eyes. Cuts the corner and brushes close to the teammate, who steps out smartly to pick Delmon off. He’s open again. This time the ball comes. All the time in the world. A little jump and an easy basket from fifteen. He feels no pressure when he takes the shot. It is one of thousands, made from every angle, every distance on the court over the past forty years. Stress comes only from the effort it takes to remain sharp. There is his job, which expects him to change his priorities to meet its needs. So he sneaks food at his desk to free an hour on the hoop in the parking lot during lunch. He brings a towel to wipe down before an afternoon meeting. *** Cyd never understood the draw of competition—thought he would mellow. She was his fan at first, coming out to watch him, wanting to hang with the boys afterwards. But later, after they married, she changed. She suggested art shows and movies and walks on the beach. He knew he should want those things. In front of Van Gogh he was bored, thought about hitting the court. Knew his skills would slip if he didn’t. What would the guys think? Weekdays, he raced home to be there before her, get a few extra minutes on the backyard court. She called him to come inside, like a mother to a child entranced by play. Cyd took a day off from work, spent hours in the kitchen. A candlelight dinner, a negligee. He fidgeted at the table. She was so beautiful. But he was plagued by thoughts of jumpers and rebounds. Fought the urge to play. Took her upstairs. And then, the old call. The guilt of a missed practice. What if it affected his game? He sat up in bed to think about it. He wondered why Cyd was crying. Business trips were his escape. He volunteered to attend conferences, told Cyd he’d been drafted and had no choice. Away, his daily pattern was like the rhythm of a dribble: morning

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conference sessions, lunch and a speaker, but in the afternoon workshop he lost focus, recalled past games, analyzed his performances, corrected flaws. He sat in the back, pretended to take notes, lost himself on the court of the mind. While the other attendees were enthralled by graphs and platitudes, he skipped out to begin his playground search. Evening affairs— receptions, dinners, carousing with coworkers— he never attended. Back home he related stories of the time away to Cyd, inventing gatherings and places, but in time he lacked originality. The details of events were repeated. She knew. Sabotage, she called it, of the marriage, of himself. Worse than an affair. Begged him to get help—said she would go with him—to save them. He said he loved the game, said there was nothing wrong with doing what made him happy. “Don’t you know how ridiculous you are?” She bit her lip and turned from him. It took him hours to notice the day she was gone. He’s still working on missing her. The games fill the void. At least now he can practice without guilt. He still goes to conventions, since they offer opportunities to pursue the purest form of contest—unknown opponents in an unfamiliar venue—and he bristles with excitement at locating a game. As long as he has the precision necessary to compete with the young, he will do this. The sprints and leaps, the wrestling under the boards, the thrill of a twenty-three-footer touching nothing but net—it is a graceful maturity. There are aches that come with age, more strains and pulls, more mornings when the body screams for a respite, but nothing he can’t handle yet. But he is not fooling himself. That day will come, he knows, when he can’t go, can’t overcome the injuries, when he’s forced to watch from the sidelines like the pillowy men at his office. But it’s not worth obsessing about now. And he has something valuable to offer these young men, if they will listen. For all their physical gifts they lack the essence of the game, the understanding of the role of the individual within the team structure. He has it. Had he real-

ized this when he was their age, he would have been a pro. He will earn their respect. Delmon is first. The kid has begun to see that the old man cannot be out-thought, that experience can trump physicality. On the next trip down the court Delmon pulls up in deference to another embarrassment and passes the ball away. O continues to get open. He makes his shots and becomes the go-to guy—get him the ball while he is hot, if you want to win the game. Win the game and stay on the court. The hierarchy of the blacktop. He begins to direct his teammates; sets up plays and screens to confuse the defense. The rain increases. But no one stops for rain in hardcourt unless it is a deluge or the wind is so severe jumpshots bend like curveballs. This rain is a blessing, a coolant that lets him play longer. It showers the players, and in the waning of the afternoon light and heat, begins to steam off shaved heads and the naked torsos of the skins, changing the game into a series of images, sepia photos worthy of a gallery show. The weather has transformed this gathering from competition into art. O looks skyward in thanks. It’s what his mates from those early days, for all their claims of lust for the game, never understood. Just when he needed them most, when he was alone, they abandoned him. Of the five on Sundays, only he remains. Marriage, kids, career corroded the metal of their bond, pulled them apart. First Dex, then in quick succession, the others, like bolts from a rusted machine. Growth, changes, they explained—it’s part of life, inevitable. They are changes to be relished. He said no, it doesn’t have to be. He let them go, and practiced harder. Hasn’t seen any of them since. That was twenty years ago. Every run comes to an end. The game slogs on in a steady drizzle. Players wipe hands against their shorts. The giant Jones throws an outlet pass and the skins race upcourt on a break. O hangs back. As expected, the attack is uncoordinated. The shirts haul in the rebound. He raises his arm. The teammate sees and fires a long pass. He has the

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ball, one-on-one against Jones, who is looming, larger than the morbid school. The rest stop to watch. This will be good. As always, he has a plan, formed in the split second after catching the pass and identifying the defender. Like a sensei, he uses the big man’s aggression against him. He races to the foul line and stops, but maintains his dribble. A step backwards as though preparing to shoot. He hesitates, enticing Jones to come out after him. Drives right, around the Goliath who now must pivot and lunge to get back. He glides past the rim, using it as cover. A reverse layup, just beyond the reach of the defender’s fingers. Teammates run up and offer hand slaps. One of them pats his butt. The giant nods in appreciation. Shirts lead, ten to nine. One more basket wins. Next trip he finds the open spot again. Another easy shot, the game winner, from twelve. So simple he can let his thoughts wander, and he sees Super, King and the others on the sidelines, watching. He sees Cyd smiling, cheering him on. And he misses. Why did he think of that? In his contemplation he forgets to cover his man. Delmon finds a lane and scores. A shirts teammate airballs from twenty. Jones drives, hits a bank shot at the other end to give the skins the lead. No matter. He calls for the rock. He’ll get it back for them. Starts a slow dribble upcourt, turns and begins to back Delmon into the paint. Twisting, pushing—keep the kid to the off shoulder. One more step and he’ll turn for the jumper. But the ball vanishes from his hand, flicked away as if by a strong wind, and by the time he locates it, Delmon is going in for the layup. Game. They break to the sidelines, suck water from sports bottles, offer him a drink. So they lost. It happens. The best part is the satisfaction of the game just completed, knowing that individuals have come together as a team. The camaraderie of the sport transcends economics and class. These glistening warriors are his friends

now. The feeling is comforting, easing disappointments, assuaging the past. Then the rain becomes a downpour. Players gather their gear and begin to leave through the gate at the end of the court. “Nice game,” one of them says to O. “Where are you going? It’s still light,” he says, holding his ball against a hip. “We can play again. Get one more game up.” “You crazy, man? Don’t you see the rain?” “Oh, come on. Jones, make them play.” Jones turns and glares, as though his name had been used in vain. “Go on home, fool.” O watches them go around the corner of the school. He walks back to the court. Each dribble kicks up a splash. There is time to practice, to make it right for the next game. He shoots and misses, chases it down, misses again. The court seems vast without the others. He tries a free throw. The ball rattles off. It must be the rain. He puts the ball on the wet ground and sits on it, rocking back and forth, looking off at the old school. Raindrops spatter off rims and puddle in the depressions in the asphalt. The taxi will be coming back soon enough.

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Barret Stickle

S

Nick Ripatrazone

Erickson Wyatt

L

____ Nick Ripatrazone

witched after a year from pitcher to coach. Scouted; sometimes three games a day. People asked if he dreamt about baseball but he said no; he dreamt about sleeping. Found three long-leggers from Duluth, rode the train with them back to Chicago. The three were not much for talking, though he tried his best. Always thought he was meant to teach the game rather than play. Explained most things in analogies to sex. Kept those explanations clean because he was Lutheran. Somehow he managed. Realized that vagueness kept him safe in life. Worked primarily with southpaws. Felt they could best see the part of the field that mattered most. Had tried to pitch lefty himself and became embarrassed after the first throw. Vowed to never again try such a thing in public. Yet remained tied to his love of all things left in secret. Kissed his wife on that cheek. Held that hand. Wrote, ate, shaved left. Felt that life was worth nothing if you could not grow into such a decision. Thought it unfair that we are assigned a role in this existence, least of all those of body. Tried to raise his son a lefty. At first only when his wife wasn’t looking, but then all of the time. The boy did gravitate toward that hand but his wife said it was either because Barrett had tricked him into the choice or that the boy’s movements were natural and Barrett’s efforts were a waste. He ignored her and brought the boy to Navin Field. They watched Dutch Leonard but never spoke a word about hands.

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ong arms, stood far from the plate. Heel of his hand against the knob. Clean swing: smooth crack from shoulder to shoulder. Practiced over a chair, a trash can. Thought about sitting his brother on a stool and swinging above his hair but there was no need for such risk in sport, business, or love. Liked to be set in things, content. Married his first girlfriend. They had met in grammar school. Asked later if “meet” was something that could happen so young; he said her eyes hadn’t changed, so yes. They rented a two-room on the south side though they could have done better. He had three good seasons in a row--at bat and on the field. Played lacrosse before he picked up a glove so he had a fine sense of length. Could eye a foot, a yard, even a quarter mile. Did everything by sight. No need for a ruler. Learned that if he was correct once or twice then accuracy would be assumed. Had a bad season--bobbled grounders, swung too early --and was more surprised than he should have been. So he sat out the next season. Wife had to leave the children with him at home. He had no idea what to do. He hadn’t watched her, hadn’t learned. Thought he’d never have the need. They ran the house while he sat at the sink, ice cubes pushed against his cheeks with his tongue. It was the only way he could cool down. Wife taught at the grammar school. Knew that her soft voice was a blessing in the classroom: it meant that students had to listen closely to hear her words. She told them that these early years were the most important of their lives; commitments and promises made now would remain with them until their final days.

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Autumn & Winter ‘11

Parker Patterson

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Nick Ripatrazone

Watching the Cubs: 2003 ____ Carol L. Gloor

layed in that first college football match between Rutgers and Princeton. Played for the latter team though he dropped out of the college afterward. During the match he was knocked with a side hit and scratched his cornea. Thought it a bruise and left it untreated. Many told him it was worse than he thought but he liked to trust himself. He thought it was necessary to do that. He brought the match into conversation whenever possible and pointed to his eye. It looked like a normal eye except for a streak across the white that could have been bloodshot but never faded. Explained that the injury had nothing to do with how he could pitch. Promised his sight was straight and sure, and he did move with tight form, could make strike after strike. Though he did need to throw every day to keep his arm loose, his aim right. Others said they did the same but Parker assured them: everyday. So often we avoid the truth in declarations of time. But Parker meant what he said: pale-spotted with measles, he pitched. Or stomach soured after bad tilapia. Or when his father he died; he attended the funeral, held the mourning at his house, excused himself to the bathroom, climbed out the window, and pitched into the back of his shed, plywood leaned against the planks. Back inside mud pasted along the sides of his dress shoes but he assured them it was nothing. Even after he stopped playing--after he could barely reach home plate without the catcher having to shift--he continued to throw. There was no reason to stop. Curveballs into the trunks of willows; fastballs rising wide and shattering the glass of a barn. Pitches lost in the air forever; pitches that rolled to a rest somewhere in wheat fields. He would follow most of them and find the majority. But others remained under rain and snow.

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Even though they haven’t won a pennant since the year of my birth, and they will lose again this year, I’m watching again: because I love to scream in bars with other people; because in this Wrigley green field, pastoral on weekdays, a diamond island at night, bad things really do happen when you break the rules; because baseball’s a still life breaking into ballet, the spotlight on the shortstop before he even knows; because they’re gleaming muscled guys with names like Sosa, Martinez and Prior; because they get to spit on TV; because I can forget about the deficit, Medicare and Iraq for three hours; because even though they can’t hit, their pitchers unwind fastballs leaving the batter dazed; because once I, a girl and a lefty, wasn’t half bad; because my left arm jumps a little, aches with hope at the crack of Sosa’s bat, connecting, slamming a hurtling white ball into clamoring Waveland Avenue.

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Righteous Indignation Tim Layton ________________________

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an, I’ve never sat this close. I could spit on the field from here.” This was Dougie’s first utterance as he emerged from the darkness of the concourse’s tunnel into the blistering sunlight of the stadium. He fell back from Chris and Worm as he saw the golden grass in the late afternoon sunlight. The entire stadium smelled of warm salt and the rock music thumping through the loudspeakers was the soundtrack for both Dougie’s bobbing head and the ad for the electronics superstore on the scoreboard. For the two or three games he was able to attend each year he always sat in the bleachers or the upper deck where he was always jammed between the families with eight screaming kids and subject to the beer vendors who only show up every few innings. Down here, important looking people networked and the children all sat politely in their seats. “Well, do you think you could resist the urge to spit tonight, Dougie?” Chris asked. “Getting one promotion doesn’t mean I’m high enough on the corporate ladder that I can be seen with someone hocking loogies at Jim Edmonds.” Chris shoved Dougie towards the seats and figured this was what he got for trying to avoid the quarterly angst-ridden phone call from Dougie about how come he never calls anymore and why can’t he get invited to some of these parties and does Rebecca have any cute friends and so on. Many of the regulars to the seats let their stares linger on the three friends as they shoved their way up the aisle. Chris’s tan chinos, blue oxford and carefully bent ballcap allowed him to blend in, but Dougie’s cut off shorts and Worm’s penchant for holding his crotch drew more stares. Dougie noticed the woman behind him scoot her feet back a little as the three of them settled in. “Don’t worry, Chrissy,” Worm piped in,

“I’ll keep an eye on him. He ain’t class like you and me.” “We?” Dougie said. “Prick, you’re from the same unaccredited high school as us. I don’t think you took a lot of refinement courses at Franklin Tech. And besides, why would I target Edmonds? It’s Bonds who’s gonna hear it from me” Worm shrugged. “Refinement courses? You mean like finishing school? How you know I can’t curtsy? And at least I got a skill, bitch. That’s better than being the clean-up guy on a construction crew.” Dougie took a long drink from his golden cup and said, “That’s all right. At least they don’t drug test.” Chris looked up from the phone that he’d been tapping away at since they sat down. “Hey. Dougie? Thanks for that. Thanks for telling everyone around us you’re a pothead. My boss will appreciate that anecdote when he hears it repeated back to him by the blue hairs all around us.” “All right, man. Don’t worry about us. You just get the first round.” “Yeah. I figured.” Chris caught the attention of the beerman and shook a twenty at him. “Hey man, I offered to pay for parking. Is it my fault they don’t take large bills?” Worm licked his thumb and began wiping away the sole smudge on his gleaming hightops. “You say that as if you had a wad of them. Taking one fifty to the ballgame isn’t exactly walking around with ‘large bills,’” Worm said, including the air quotes when necessary. Dougie had stopped listening to his friends. He couldn’t believe he could see individual blades of grass and the clean line between the grass and the dirt. Everything was so neatly separated. There were no interruptions of grass amidst the powdery dirt. There were no gaps in

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the soft carpet of grass. Everything about Dougie blended. His threadbare t-shirt seemed kin to the cut off shorts that that he was always mechanically pulling up. His dark sweaty curls were nearly one with the dark ring that circled the bottom of the tattered Cardinals hat he’d been wearing since junior year. Just beyond the rail, ten seats in front of Dougie, a few of the players were headed down to the bullpen. Dougie moved his lips a little as he read the names of the players he watched on most summer nights in his parents’ basement. “Awesome,” he whispered. A plastic beer case thudded to the ground and snapped Dougie back. The vendor’s shirt was already soaked with sweat and his dark bald head was dripping. “How many?” “Three.” “19.50.” Chris handed him the twenty without looking up and before he left earshot Worm was offering the idea that being a beerguy would be wicked because you see the game for free and you know they sneak beers between innings. It wouldn’t be much different than what they were doing now, except they’d be getting paid. “Actually,” a cool voice interrupted, “what with the fifty pound case and the constant trips up and down the stairs, and the fact that this is usually the second job of most of these guys, as it is with William, the gentleman who just helped you, I’d say it’s really quite a bit different than what you’re doing right now.” Dougie looked at the row in front of them and saw the kind of girl he’d only seen in his mother’s catalogues. She was smiling a little as she offered her critique of Worm’s imaginings, and Dougie couldn’t help but notice how everything about her seemed as clean and distinct as the field did when you sat this close. Her teeth were a freshly painted baseline and her dark hair looked as soft and lovingly cared for as the infield. She was sitting immediately in front of Worm, and she was turned up towards Dougie, who surprised himself when he was able to look her right in the eye: “Worm here’s in a union. He doesn’t

believe that anybody really works for a living.” She smiled widely, and it occurred to Dougie that he wasn’t sure how long it had been since he made a pretty girl laugh, if he ever had, and how amazingly buoyant it left him. He knew he’d be replaying and embellishing that exchange in his mind as he hauled scrap wood to the dumpster all week. Heck, all foreseeable weeks. “You just wish you were in a union like mine. Don’t hate because I make a living wage, Chief.” Dougie knew Worm wasn’t going to let his neck get stepped on, so he braced himself. He tensed as he wondered if Worm was going to reveal any of the number of unflattering details of his situation: the way the guys at work called him “Tiny;” the correspondence courses his mom dutifully executed to get him his high school diploma; the lack of a lock on the door of his room. Before Worm had the chance, the young woman intervened: “Now, now, boys. I’m sure you’re both doing very important work.” She turned back around and Dougie and Worm silently continued the argument through the national anthem. The game began, and as the first few innings passed, Dougie and Worm leaned forward and discussed the action while Chris sat back, sipping his beer and frequently glancing at his phone. The sun was beginning to set and everything on and around Dougie’s frame was glistening. Sweat had soaked though the undershirt worn to absorb it. The remnants of his second oversized beer sparkled in the bottom of his cup, which was dampening his shorts. His eyes were beginning to feel warm and he was laughing harder and harder at Worm’s guarantees that he was going to score more than the Cardinals. Dougie was watching the game and listening to Worm, but he was paying at least as much attention to the girl. He saw that she was with another young girl, but that they weren’t talking very much. He was trying to memorize every detail about her, as he didn’t know when he’d be this close again. To her, to the field, to anything. Chris’s silence seemed to indicate that he wasn’t especially glad that he’d called his old

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boys and Dougie knew he wasn’t going to be in a position to afford seats like these anytime soon. He studied the perfect silk rope of her ponytail, the little light ear hairs that glowed yellow in the fading sunlight. When he’d seen her filling out a scorecard, he felt a familiar feeling in a new way. The longing was what was familiar. Dougie had long ago settled into a routine malaise that was relatively free of sharp pains. He’d accepted his place at his job and his humiliating inability to make himself move out of his parent’s house. After high school when Chris went to a commuter college and Worm’s dad got him in as an apprentice, Dougie had just stayed at the department store he’d worked at since he was sixteen. He’d tried a few college classes and dropped a few, scraped by in a few before quitting. His father had a client that worked construction and got Dougie a job with the hope that he could get on the lead crew after a while. But a while had passed, a year and a half had passed, and Dougie was still doing clean-up, and paying his parents $25 a month in rent. He was still going up to Sharkey’s with Worm on Friday and Saturday nights and shooting pool. The only thing that had changed was that he had more gut and less hair. He was twenty-five and felt like there were only similar days in front of him. This was the dull depression he knew well, but he was feeling something especially stinging tonight. He looked at all the other people in the box seats and felt as if he stood in relief. He watched a young couple a few rows down that were fussing over their toddler’s cup. He watched the graying man with the glittering watch put his arm around his grandson. He watched Chris look up only to see if he and Worm needed another. Just a few years before, Chris was at Dougie’s house every afternoon, smoking pot and eating cheeseburgers after their morning in class. Having giggle fits as he listened in on Dougie’s mom’s noontime call home from work to her son. (“MOM! Would you let up? It’s one test! Yes, Chris said he’d study with me next time. Let it go.”) Dougie had gotten quiet and realized he

should snap himself out of it before Worm accused him of “getting all contemplating and shit.” His spirits perked up immediately when, in response to the stadium announcer’s announcement that Barry Bonds was stepping to the plate, he saw the young woman cup her hands around her mouth and let out a heartfelt but controlled boo. Her friend covered her shocked smile with her hands and mouthed “Elizabeth!” Elizabeth pointed to Bonds as he approached the plate and all Dougie’s modest movements forward made audible was something about a “total cheater” and he saw that she moved her arms around her head as if to indicate something about a head becoming many times its normal size. Elizabeth’s friend sat back, lightly shaking her head. Dougie hesitated a moment but then leaned forward and said “Boy, a little rough on Barry, weren’t you?” The gamble paid off. Her smile almost hurt Dougie’s eyes and she playfully said, “Hey, my parents pay good money for these seats and I’ve got a right to seize them to come down here and dispense my righteous indignation. He’s a slime ball cheater. Did you read that article about him in Sports Illustrated. There’s no doubt he’s juiced up on a hundred different ‘roids.” Then she flexed a thin arm that made up for what it lacked in muscle with endless, unblemished tan, and said “he needs to get his guns like I do – with just vitamins and spinach.” Dougie and Worm stared slack jawed at her for a long moment, but Worm broke out to clap his hands and proclaim, “Oh, Dougie, this is the girl for you.” He leaned towards Elizabeth and said, “He ain’t never forgiven that guy for some bad throw he made in the nineties.” He turned to Elizabeth’s friend, who had never once turned around, and said to the back of her head, “Hey, what about you, Sweetie? You hate Barry Bonds, too?” The young woman’s friend uttered an icy “no” without turning her head or even moving very much at all. Worm sat back in his seat and shrugged his shoulders at Dougie, who continued leaning forward and said, “Yeah, and he’s a real sweet guy, too. Isn’t one of his ex-girlfriends

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suing him because he stopped paying for her house when his wife found out?” Worm muttered that girls were doing things like that to him all the time. Elizabeth said, “Yeah, that was in the article, too. Someday, someone’s going to make him feel like an asshole in front of the world and he’ll know how his wife felt. I like to let him hear about it, but it doesn’t really bother me all that much. He’ll get what he deserves.” She turned back around and said, “We all do.” Dougie repeated her last words to himself as he sank into the sea of neatly tucked polo shirts and pleated khaki shorts that had risen all around him to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” They all came back down to his level, and while he watched Bonds take his position in left, he wondered what both he and Barry deserved. Neither of them deserved a girl like Elizabeth. He imagined what her boyfriend must be like. He pictured him standing over a patient in surgery, surrounded by adoring nurses, asking for some kind of clamp. He couldn’t imagine how a guy his age could become something like that, but he knew some must. How do those guys get through those tests? Did they go through a high school like his? Probably private. At those schools, they probably had people that helped you figure out what you’d be good at, and set it all up for you to get to the right school. He wished he’d had a counselor or someone show him what he should do. Everyone sat down and Chris mechanically removed the cell phone from his pocket. Dougie watched as Chris read a message, snickered, and resumed pecking away at the keys. He pictured the three of them in high school, at the parties where there were girls and beer bongs and high fives and they were in the thick of it all. This was the first time he’d seen Chris in almost six months, and though he called and nagged him about it every so often, he realized that he didn’t really care that he didn’t see Chris anymore. He just called because he wanted to know what was happening with him, what was happening to some people, just so he knew that it was possible that things do still happen. That

girls still meet guys and like them. As he was typing, Chris snickered again, and Dougie snapped at him, “who are you passing notes with, anyway?” Dougie’s stomach sank as Chris looked at him for the first time in 3 innings and said, loudly enough, “I’m writing a poem to your mom. By the way, she told me to remind you it’s home by midnight or you’re grounded.” Worm let out a long “Daaaaamn!” and Elizabeth’s friend put her hand over her mouth. Dougie swallowed his beer and set it down slowly, keeping an eye on Elizabeth’s ponytail, which hadn’t flinched. He started to respond with a simple “f-off” or something, but he didn’t. He just stared at the back of her head and didn’t think much at all. Chris’s smile faded and he slapped Dougie on the back and said, “Aw, I’m just giving you shit, man. Don’t get all brooding on me. I’ll get you another beer.” Dougie stood up after Chris had gotten halfway to the tunnel and Worm started to ask where he was going but just watched as he scooted his way down the aisle. Dougie stopped at the end of the row, and looked into the upper recesses of the stadium. He looked at the seats he sat in last season with Worm and the girl he was screwing at the time. He then turned to an ad for the Army playing on the Jumbotron. After a moment he started down the stairs – slowly at first, but as he got closer and closer to the field, he moved a little faster. Elizabeth watched him break into a light run, and by the time it dawned on Worm what was happening, he was frozen by the remarkable grace with which he saw his longtime friend, his fat bastard friend, hurdling the railing that circled the field. When Dougie felt the first little bit of dirt jump into his flip flop, it dawned on him that he hadn’t given any thought at all to what he would do when he got to Barry. He wasn’t quite in a sprint, and since Barry played a deep left, Dougie had a surprising amount of time to think before he got there. He’d been struck by how satisfying it was to be back on level ground. He noticed how a stadium always felt like it was ti-

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tling him towards the field. Everything pointed to the field he was suddenly on, and the ground felt as sure and forgiving as the church fields he’d played on during grade school, when he’d hit the occasional home run. He couldn’t believe how easy it had been to get onto this stage, and he realized that this moment, and everything that would follow, was what he deserved. He heard a murmur roll through the crowd and he only then thought of the forty thousand eyes that all might be upon him. What was he going to do? Should he moon him? Flip him the bird? Should he mock his steroid use by making a stabbing motion at his arm? Should he tell him off? What would he say? None of the ideas struck him as right, and in spite of lugging a spare tire, he was closing in on Bonds with still no idea. The thought froze him, and when he got near Bonds, whose pose had gone from one of casual bemusement to a bit of flinching concern, Dougie looked right into Bonds’ eyes and saw that he was putting his hands up to protect himself. The pleasant surprise of Bonds’ concern was soon shattered as Dougie realized that Bonds seemed to be getting a foot taller and a foot wider with each step. Completely flustered by the recognition of how all this must look, and the childlike stature he presented in front of this hulking man, Dougie could only wave his arms wildly and yell something like “HAAAH!” at Bonds, who pulled back on a jab he’d started to deliver when he saw Dougie run by him. The bleachers roared and Dougie turned to wave at all the shirtless high school guys who were pointing and flexing at him. He then saw two men in blue shirts and black shorts emerge from behind the outfield wall and start jogging at him. One had his hand to his side. Dougie wasn’t sure if he should keep running or just turn himself in peacefully, but when his ears locked upon one of the kids in the bleachers yelling, “run, fat ass, run!” he decided to keep his fat ass moving as long as he could. He stopped cold and started to reverse direction. He hadn’t realized that Bonds had taken a few steps towards him, and when he swung his

head around to head the other direction, he was only able to take a step before his eye was met by a baseball-sized elbow that was fixed in its position so firmly that Dougie’s feet flew up in front of him and the first part of him to hit the ground was his neck. A heartfelt “oooh” passed around the stadium like a ringing wave. Dougie brought his hand to throbbing scratch of his crushed eye socket, and cracked open his good eye in time to see Bonds strolling away, saying, “Don’t try to show me up, jackass.” Three huffing security guards then appeared above him and Dougie heard one of noticed it was the fat one who said, “Now was that worth it, kid? You got a night in jail to look forward to.” They stood him up turned him back towards his seat as they put cuffs on him. He saw Chris holding his hands on his head and looking at everyone around their seats. Worm was watching the scene while snapping pictures with his phone. Dougie then scanned down a row, and saw Elizabeth standing with her hands covering everything on her face but her eyes. But while the security guards were crunching the cuffs around his wrists, she saw that he was staring at her. Unfolding into an image that Dougie would remember through all the hot summers he would face over years, she slowly brought her hands down, blossomed into another smile and gave him a big, nodding, thumbs up. Dougie looked down one more time at the endless green beneath him and finally wondered if this wasn’t the best that he could do.

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You’re Man O’War Annie Hartnett

“T

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erry Bradshaw’s quarterback coach,” my grandfather said, introducing himself to the ruddy-faced man on the stool next to him. “For the Pittsburgh Steelers.” My grandfather really worked as a mechanic, and no one in the bar knew who Terry Bradshaw was. We were on a month-long tour of Ireland, and each night my grandfather claimed to be somebody different. I had just turned thirteen that spring, but no one in the pubs we visited ever said anything to me about my age. “I’ll need a drink for Shirley Temple,” my grandfather said, gesturing towards me. “Make it a strong one.” The bartender laughed, stacking maraschino cherries onto a tiny plastic sword, swirling grenadine into ginger ale. But one night, my grandfather brought over a tall pint glass to the table where I was reading, spilling beer on my book as he set the glass down in front of me. He chuckled as he walked back to his seat at the bar. I put my face close to the beer, and stuck my tongue into the froth. The chocolate colored beer was bitter awful. It didn’t taste like the cool Bud Light cans my best friend Marie and I had been drinking in the woods behind our middle school. “We’re practicing,” Marie said, when she handed me the first can stolen from her parents’ basement. It sprayed all over the dead leaves when I opened it, a small white ocean flowing from the aluminum top. I didn’t know what we were preparing for, but I knew that practice was important. “Mia Hamm,” my grandfather said, when I strapped on my shin guards. “Give’em hell today.” “It’s just practice,” I said, shrugging. “Mud in your eye,” he said, tossing me my water bottle.

We went to Ireland that summer so we could scatter my grandmother’s ashes. My dad was supposed to come, but he had a last minute business deal. My grandmother’s urn took his seat on the airplane. “Amelia Earhart,” he said, strapping the seat belt around the ceramic jar, giving the top a little pat. We left a spoonful of my grandma in every place we visited, even though she gave specific instructions to be scattered in Donegal. “No sense of adventure,” my grandfather said, as he sprinkled her into a fountain in Dublin. We drove to a new town every day. At the gas stations, there were magazines devoted entirely to horses. Marie had made me take down the horse poster above my bed just before I left for the trip. “You’re Man O’War,” my grandfather said, as he tossed another magazine on the clerk’s counter. “Just like your old granddad.” “The girl can hold her liquor,” my grandfather said when he called home to my parents, and then laughed into the phone to let my mother know he was joking. “Should I put Ms. Tullamore Dew on the line?” I listened with my back to him as I soaked my foot in the bathtub. I had stepped on stinging nettles earlier that day when we had toured the garden of an old Irish castle, and I was trying to soak out the barbs from the arch of my foot. The angry red bumps itched and stung at the same time, but by dinner I couldn’t feel them, because by then I was Marilyn Monroe on her second wedding day. One morning, when my grandfather was still asleep, I used his phone card to call Marie. She asked me if I had found anyone to kiss in Ireland. I said I hadn’t. She sighed with heavy

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disappointment and said she’d kissed one of her brother’s friends, a sophomore in high school, two years older than us. I asked her what it felt like. “His tongue was slippery.” “His tongue?” I asked, surprised. “Like a little fish,” she said. My grandfather groaned from the other room so I hung up the phone just then, and I didn’t have time to tell Marie about Irish beer. I thought about anchovies all day.

Baskets

I

Carol L. Gloor

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shot them in sixth grade, with mittens, in sooty March twilight alone with a leaking ball I’d nagged from my father:

Shivering, bouncing, shooting from every spot, retrieving it from the filthy ice, the mud. Hour after hour, every day I could, learning to run while bouncing, then shoot off the backboard, If we stayed out at the pubs past ten learning to leap, wait a nanosecond, then push, o’clock, my grandfather would order French dribbling, layup, jump shot, fries for me, except in Ireland they called them how the ball fit my body, chips and served them with mayonnaise instead learning so well I knew when it left my hands of ketchup. A few times he ordered me another whether it would score, whether I would have beer, but most of the time it was just an orange again that delicious delay when the net Fanta. I’d listen as my grandfather got into arguholds the ball before it drops. ments about football, but he was almost always talking about soccer. I learned that a match was I made our little intramural team, a game, and a pitch was a field, and the Irish didloved the cheering, passing, plays, n’t really have baseball at all. I chewed on soggy the sweat and the showers. French fries as my grandfather’s accent got But the best that came of it thicker and his laughs got louder. In the mornwas the good knowledge, ing, I watched his hands shake as he lifted a teafifty years later as I sink a free throw, cup to his lips. that for a long time the body is hard wired, “Your grandma’s lightning mad today,” has no choices, must remember he’d say, even when it wasn’t raining. “Better not what it has learned. wear my golf shoes.” Then, of course, finally, it does not. Two years later, Marie and I hid in the half-rotted tree house in my backyard. Everyone I knew was inside, eating potatoes, macaroni, little cubes of cheese. Marie took a bottle of whiskey out of her purse. “You miss him?” she asked. “I miss everybody,” I said, as the liquor burned in my chest.

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The Retcon Salvatore Pane

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hen I was twelve, my mother left me in Dallas, Pennsylvania to live with Aunt V for the summer. This was back in ‘91 when I spent three days a week at a YMCA basketball camp. Coach showed up late to the first practice so the dozen of us Fighting Millionaires busied ourselves watching a kid named Rogan lob a rock against padded gymnasium walls. We didn’t have the key for the ball chest so that rock was going to have to do for entertainment. Most of the Y coaches were high school athletes. So we expected some buff dude to burst through the doors on a Harley and unlock the mysteries of life, important things like brandishing a pocketknife or unhooking a bra. But then Coach appeared and we realized just how quickly our fortunes could evaporate. He was bony and his clothes were too tight, his jeans ripped at his ankles. Even his shirt was weird. It had this cartoon lion wearing horn rimmed glasses across the chest. When asked about it later, he said it was supposed to look “pensive.” Coach made a fist and tapped his lips three times. “Jesus Christ. How many of you are there? Seventeen?” We formed a loose cluster around the half court line. Somebody shouted, “Twelve.” “Twelve. Twelve. Yeah.” He sat down Indian style. “Why don’t we just sit a minute and try and figure this all out? Sports is all about confidence, right? You can’t put that ball through that orange hoop back there unless you have some serious confidence. So let’s just close our eyes and imagine ourselves throwing that ball in and making some points.” Coach palmed his knees and took a deep breath. We all just stared until Rogan started giggling. “You retarded or something?” Coach untied his greasy pony tail and slid the rubber band into his pocket. “What’s your name, kid?”

But before Rogan could even get a word in, Coach waved for him to stop. “I don’t even care. Just start running laps, guy.” So for fifteen minutes we sank imaginary shots and listened to flat-footed Rogan slapping his sneakers across the rubber floor. Then Coach went to the front desk and returned with construction paper and markers. He unlocked the ball chest and gave us each a basketball with explicit directions not to dribble. He just wanted us to touch the balls and draw how they made us feel. I doodled a giant sad face riddled with purple pimples and bloody surgical scars, my own form of peaceful protest. “Hey, I need to smoke or I’m going to blow my brains out.” Coach checked his wristwatch, a red plastic one you’d find in a cereal box. “Yeah. I think that’s going to be it for today.” We wandered outside in a daze, imagining the brutal beatings we were going to take at the battle-chiseled hands of the Comets, the Hawks, the Lancers, the Bruins, even those dopey nerds from the Patriots. Some of the younger guys held out hope. We still had two full months of practice before a weekend long double elimination tournament. Maybe today was just a fluke. I wasn’t so optimistic. A line of minivans waited for us in the sun, and beyond them I spotted Cousin Audrey’s beat-up Oldsmobile Cutlass. She was sitting on the trunk smoking a cigarette, and if I squinted just right she resembled a younger, happier version of my mother: long auburn hair down her back, a ratty Pearl Jam t-shirt three sizes too large. She pulled a final drag before dropping her cig to the asphalt and grinding it up with her combat boot. I hopped up alongside her as Coach stumbled out of the Y—a bulky cassette player hooked to his belt. He sang loud as he pleased. “Out by the box car waiting/take me away to nowhere plains.”

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“Who the fuck’s that?” Audrey popped a But I knew she hadn’t started looking, stick of Juicy Fruit. that all those hours spent “career planning” were “Him? That’s Coach.” actually whittled away in the Back Mountain Memorial Library tracing the blue and yellow paths I spent as much time as possible with of American highways in oversized atlases. Cousin Audrey, and thankfully she always let me Sometimes Audrey would tell me her secret fanread in her room between practice and dinner. I tasy: taking off in her Oldsmobile to some unthumbed through back issues of comic books, foreseen destination and never looking back. I Web of Spider-Man and Green Lantern mostly, while maintained that it didn’t seem like the most senAudrey posed by the window trying to look dra- sible of plans, that Dallas, PA was as good a matic, a hand mirror a few inches shy of her place as any. face. She studied our neighbor, Teddy Holtz“You know,” Aunt V said, “eighteen man, and his two younger brothers as they really is too old to be living at home. That’s the tossed the pigskin next-door. The two smaller age your brother moved out. Of course he was ones were unremarkable little sausages who going to Penn State, but I guess we can’t all be dropped whatever easy passes Teddy pitched so lucky.” Audrey made no reply so finally Aunt their way. Audrey wasted hours staring at that V shifted her tactics and acknowledged my presguy, a senior at the time if I’m remembering this ence. “I forgot to tell you, Connor. We got ancorrectly, his muscles glistening in the afternoon other postcard from your mother today. It’s in sizzle. the kitchen if you want it.” Sometimes, if I was really lucky, Audrey I sped through what little remained of would pull out her acoustic guitar and play for dinner, grabbed the postcard from the kitchen me. I realize now that most of her songs proba- and retreated into my guest bedroom upstairs. I bly weren’t any good—they were all these folksy didn’t plan on decorating. I didn’t know then I’d numbers about space aliens from beyond the be trapped there for seven years, that my mother grave or bloody mutants who hacked up famiwould spend the rest of her life zipping around lies. But I envisioned myself as the type of man America like a pinball, performing at chili cookwho would grow up to marry a singer, to take offs and state fairs, her postcards dwindling in my rightful face in the shadowy crowd and frequency and length, not to mention coherence. watch my lover shine, a fantasy I would harbor I kept a shoebox of her postcards bedeep into young adulthood. Audrey was too neath my bed. They came from places like timid for crowds though, and the small bead of Clarksville, Tennessee or Eureka Springs, Arkansweat that ran down her forehead every time she sas, each one proudly describing my mother’s sang just about broke my preteen heart. misadventures in the Midwest touring with EzeAfter that first practice, Aunt V overkiel Weeks and the Holy Rollers. My mother had cooked a pot roast. I ate in silence, an easy feat tried to live “an artistic dream life” as long as I considering Aunt V had never much taken a could remember. First it was sculpting, then shine to me and observed me with a critical eye, writing a novel about her childhood, then trying as if she wasn’t quite sure how I ended up at her her luck at fashion design, all while manning the dining room table. cash register at the used bookstore in downtown “So,” she said to Audrey, “how’s the job Selinsgrove, a hick town in Central Pennsylvania hunt going?” sandwiched between farms and densely packed Audrey folded her arms across her chest. forest. Things began to look up when two black She’d finished high school three weeks ago and ladies showed up at our church and caught her planned on taking a few years off before college. belting out the Gospel Acclamation. They liked Aunt V broached the job issue every night. her so much they invited her to replace a backup “It’s going fine.” singer. Mom told me a new and glorious life [ 35 ]


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would begin for us now. School was out for summer anyway, and Mom said I could stay in Dallas. For the briefest of moments I didn’t connect Dallas to Aunt V or Audrey, I linked it to Texas, thinking I’d spend my summer gunning down Indians and branding cows. I’d stop being the scrawny dork who took daily kickings from my oversized tormentors and actually start afresh, transforming myself into the strong, brave man I’d always felt destined to become. The moment I finished her postcard I read it again. A thin wall of plaster separated my bed from Audrey’s, and as I pored over my mother’s rant on the pros and cons of truck stop waffles, I could hear my cousin strumming her guitar inches away from my body. When the music stopped, I was completely hard. I stayed very still and waited for everything to return to normal. At the next practice, Rogan was missing. So was Petey Karaban. Then Dave something-or -other and Mark Quick. Any kid with an ounce of self-confidence would bolt the minute Coach sent them running laps. The few who remained were the type of sad summer children who didn’t have anything better to do, who would prefer to subject themselves to torture than spend the entire season trapped indoors watching soap operas with blubbery women. I stayed. And because of my continued participation my life slipped into a familiar pattern. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I’d practice with Coach, draw a bunch of nonsense, and afterwards Audrey and I would lounge on her Cutlass and watch him pass without even a nod. She always had something mean to say— “His spine isn’t straight” or “His cassette player is beyond lame”—and I was too oblivious at the time to know why. Then Audrey started showing up to practice. The first time she hung back by the pommel horse, drumming her bittendown fingernails over the leather. When Coach finally bumbled in reeking of smoke, Audrey acted as if her presence

was the most ordinary thing in the world. “Can I help you?” “I’m Connor’s cousin.” Coach shifted his weight from side to side and buried his hands in his Army jacket. “Oh, yeah? Who the hell’s Connor?” “That one.” She pointed me out. He thumbed his right eyelid. “Listen. You going to cause any trouble? I mean are you going to be a disturbance or anything? Because we, the Fighting Millionaires that is, we got a lot of shit to keep track of and we don’t need any more distractions.” She shrugged. “All right, but you stay back here by that—” he gestured at the pommel horse “— that thing. And try and stay quiet, you hear?” From then on out Audrey became a fixture at Fighting Millionaire practice, and before long Coach let her finger paint and meditate with the rest of us. And if anybody ever asked when we were going to practice for real, Coach just made them run laps or told them not to let the door crush their skulls on the way out. Eventually Coach did concoct a series of intricate plays, but they were all too complex for us to pull off with any consistency. He’d purchased a dozen pairs of glasses from Rite Aid, knocked out the lenses, and told us to wear them during the upcoming tournament. At specific intervals he’d shout out the code words—“ham sandwich”—and everybody would drop their glasses leaving the other team discombobulated. That was the closest he ever came to coaching. One day, while drawing whether or not sneakers brought us joy, a high-pitched boy named Grant elbowed me in the ribs while I sketched the Joker blowing up Robin. “Want to hear something mega weird I heard about Coach?” he asked. “Yeah, sure.” “My dad’s on the Y council and I asked him why we got stuck with such an odd dude. You know who he said Coach was? Albert Billings.” “Who’s that?” “Albert Billings? The mayor’s son? He

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Autumn & Winter ‘11

got himself into trouble and his father had to bail him out with community service: babysitting us. I bet he smuggles heroin. Or baby skulls.” After practice, I watched Coach stroll out of the Y and found it very unlikely that this dawdling man had the capacity to smuggle drugs or deceased fetuses. He didn’t even have a belt and his pants drooped below his waist. Audrey rocked back and forth on the Cutlass. She cupped her hands to her mouth. “Hey, Coach, you want a ride or something?” He didn’t look up so she reached through the front window and honked twice. Coach tugged down his headphones but didn’t move any closer. He just stared at us like a visitor from another planet. “I said ‘You want a ride?’” Coach looked nervously from side to side. “Okay.” He stretched out across the backseat, propping his worn Keds against the passenger window. Every once in a while he’d push his hair out of his face and point in some vague direction. “Turn here,” he’d say, “back down that way.” He led us out of Dallas and across the five miles of highway to downtown WilkesBarre, a cluster of closed shop fronts and the occasional shopper scurrying in and out of Jamesway or Murray’s Pawn. We arrived at his apartment building—a brick tenement behind Abe’s Hot Dogs. The moment we rolled to a stop, Coach hightailed it out of the car. He didn’t even look back. “Why’d you give that jerk a ride home?” I asked. Audrey spat her gum out the window. “Shit if I know. He’s kind of cute in a totally pathetic way.” I kicked my feet up on the dash. We didn’t speak the whole way home.

quiet for the most part, but Audrey did get me to cough up his name and political lineage. She never talked about Teddy Holtzman from nextdoor anymore and I missed the way he ignored her and left Audrey to myself. With more of Audrey’s time being wasted daydreaming about Coach, I was free to really memorize my mother’s postcards. In her latest, her flirty cursive told of an introduction to a Nashville record exec who promised to make her into a singing sensation. I had already committed her prose to memory when Audrey burst into my room, her hands clasped behind her back. “You’re never going to believe what I found at the library today.” She joined me on the bed and spread a yearbook open on her thighs. Wyoming Seminary High School 1987: Anabasis. “Do you know what this is?” she asked. I shook my head. I had to concentrate all my mental faculties on not getting wood. “Albert Billings’ high school yearbook.” She pointed out the youthful face of Coach, but to be honest, this high school graduate looked nothing like the man I knew. His hair was washed and shiny, cropped close to his head and parted neatly to the left. He wore wireframed glasses and a beige suit. Captain of the Debate Team and Member of the Latin and Spanish Clubs. His classmates voted him the Nicest Personality. “What do you think happened” Audrey asked. “Beats me.” I had no idea how someone could make so radical a transformation. If I did, I would have attempted one a long time ago.

Finally, after weeks of Audrey’s hints, Coach invited us inside his apartment. His pad was three times bigger than my guest room. His kitchen bled into his living room, just a couple of lawn chairs and a stinky couch situated After that first ride, Audrey started around a coffee table. chauffeuring Coach following every practice. Coach cleared a newspaper off the couch The second we dropped him off she’d barrage and insisted we sit. “PBR ok?” me with stupid questions: Where’s he from? How Audrey averted her eyes and pinched her old do you think he is? What’s his favorite food? I kept knees. “Sure.” [ 37 ]


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We sat in silence, Audrey sipping her beer, and I could tell she felt nervous just by the way she kept adjusting her hands over her knees. She kicked at a stack of books before picking up the top two. “The Miracle of Mindfulness? Breathe, You Are Alive? What’s all this shit?” He snatched them away and piled them neatly on the table. “You know anything about monastics? They’re like these uber-monk guys who’ve given up all worldly pursuits. They just sit around and try and be still. The art of stillness. Ultimate nirvana.” “You buy into that?” Audrey asked. “I do now.” He tapped the book. “Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s like emperor of the monastics or something. Motherfucker changed my life. There’s rumors floating around the underground that he’s starting this colony of like-minded people in Niagara Falls. Tabula Rasa. Clean slates for everyone. Dig?” “I’ve been planning something like that myself,” Audrey announced breathlessly. “Not a new colony or anything like that, but just up and bolting, leaving everything behind.” She paused. “Why Niagara Falls?” “I don’t know.” He chugged his beer. “Because Niagara Falls fucking rocks I guess. Hey, you want to try some breathing exercises?” And just like that our weekly schedule ballooned to include visits with Coach to learn about meditation and how to “take every step as though you’re kissing the earth.” Coach figured out I wasn’t down with the monastics pretty quickly. One time I asked if monastics were supposed to drink beer and curse, and Coach deadpanned that he only followed the purest elements of the religion. When he caught me nodding off during a mind cleansing exercise, he finally took me by the shoulder and steered me toward the closet. “I want to show you something,” he said. “Audrey says you have a hard-on for comic books.” I nodded halfheartedly. The thought of Audrey and Coach interacting without me didn’t sit too well. We entered the closet and Coach yanked an overhead chain, revealing rows of long boxes stacked one on top of another. He

must have owned close to a thousand back issues. “Me and Audrey are going to work on some advanced techniques today. You hear what I’m saying?” He slid out a box and popped the cardboard top. I was impressed; he bagged and boarded. “These are kind of old now. They’re from when I was your age. Some of my little brother’s too. But you’ll like them. John Byrne’s Man of Steel is some serious shit. Check it out. Kryptonian motherfucker.” I took the comic but kept my eyes on Coach. He snuggled up real close to Audrey and draped his bony arm around her shoulder. The worst part was she didn’t seem to mind one bit, they just closed their eyes and exhaled as though some great weight had been lifted. For years after Coach’s exile, those in attendance still talked about the Fighting Millionaires/Dolphins game. They ran a full court press and backed into a two-three defense. We blindly swarmed at whoever possessed the ball, leaving the other four opponents open for an easy jumper or lay-up. There were only seven of us left anyhow and the refs barely agreed to let us participate. But Coach sat calmly on the bench as the Dolphins ran up the score. Concerned parents climbed down the wooden bleachers to yell at him, but he just waved them off. At halftime I overheard the refs discussing whether or not there was a mercy rule on the books. I guess there wasn’t because nobody came to rescue us during Coach’s halftime speech. “All right,” he said, marching between two rows of lockers, “I think you’re doing a hell of a job out there. You may not be leading in points or whatever but you’re having the time of your lives right? That other team, the Dolphins or whatever? They’re all rules and systems. You don’t want to be like them. You see all those patterns they’re running?” “Plays?” I asked. “Sure, whatever. They’re like cogs in a machine. Future investment bankers or something. You guys are motherfucking rebels, all

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right? Uber-monks.” He scanned our faces. “Okay, I get it. You’re a little worried about what old Coach has up his sleeve, right? Well I got a plan. Just you wait. I got a plan that’s going to fuck those Dolphins hardcore ninja style.” With two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Coach called a timeout and drew us around him. He reached beneath the bleachers and produced a neon pink duffel bag. “Thought I was kidding you about that secret plan, right?” Coach passed me a pair of plastic frames. I poked my finger through where the lens should be. He had enough for all of us. “You guys know what to do,” he said. “Ham sandwich. Don’t forget.” I ran to the three point line as a gangly Dolphin inbounded the ball. Coach waited for him to jog to half court before shouting the code, immediately causing all Fighting Millionaires, Coach included, to chuck our glasses onto the court, our first act of solidarity. And as predicted, the Dolphins and even the people in the stands were silenced. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Audrey in the bleachers with her own pair of glasses. And before anyone could think of what to do next, one of our guys darted forward, swiped the ball off some dumbstruck Dolphin, and brought the score to nineteen to seventy-three. At Coach’s apartment that night, I smelled marijuana for the very first time. He dug a shoebox out from beneath his futon and rolled a joint. He insisted that Audrey and I celebrate with him but I didn’t really understand what for. I assumed Coach wouldn’t be allowed to coach anymore, but what I hadn’t seen coming was our outright disqualification from the remainder of the tournament. Audrey passed the lit joint to Coach who did a curious thing: he offered it to me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to smoke pot but didn’t want to seem like a major dweeb either. So I raised the joint to my lips and prepared to draw in when Audrey reached over and knocked it to the ground. Coach dropped to his knees and rescued the smoking joint from the rug. “Christ, Audrey.

You want to burn the place down or something?” “He’s only a kid, Al.” They glared at each other. Neither of them noticed me staring. Al. I’d never used his first name before and I’d never seen Audrey say it either. Was it possible they were hanging out without me? I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I knew something had fundamentally changed. Coach took another hit. “Why don’t you go read some comics, Connor?” “I want to stay with you guys.” “Connor, now!” Audrey had never yelled at me before, and I didn’t know quite how to respond. So I trudged off to the closet and pretended I wasn’t close to tears. I tried to read a random issue of The Saga of Swamp Thing but couldn’t help looking over my shoulder to see what Coach and Audrey were up to. They were on the couch, real close again, and it didn’t look like they were meditating to me. They just kept passing that joint back and forth and after a little while Coach stood up, took Audrey by the hand, and led her toward the bedroom, the door closing with a thud. My hands were shaking by this point, so I walked over to the fridge, grabbed myself a PBR and started drinking. It didn’t taste particularly good—I poured about two-thirds of it down the drain—and abandoned it in favor of Coach’s comics. Swamp Thing had traveled back in time to kill the nothingness before creation, yet despite the low murmur of Coach’s cassette stereo, I heard every gasp the two of them made. I tried not to get hard and failed only twice. When they were finished, Coach sauntered out of the bedroom and looted through his cabinets. He’d forgotten to put his shirt back on and it surprised me how boyish his half-naked body looked. He nosily crunched a few chips before pausing by the closet and eyeing me curiously, a still smoking roach perched precariously between his fingers. “Uh, whatcha reading there, guy?” I nodded at the nearest long box. “Swamp Thing.”

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“Swamp Thing?” He ducked inside the closet. “Fuck Swamp Thing. You know about Crisis on Infinite Earths?” “Nah.” “Jesus Christ. You know what a retcon is?” “No.” “Retroactive continuity. When the writer changes a character’s back story or alters their personality. Crisis on Infinite Earths? It was this big DC event back in the ‘80s.” He scratched furiously at the back of his neck before bringing the joint to his lips. “The characters had all been around too long. Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. Had seen too much, you know? So DC used this Crisis thing to just hit the reset button. The multiple earths imploded and everyone restarted at day one. Kept the traits that worked. Fucked the ones that didn’t.” I halfheartedly flipped through the first issue’s pages. I tried to look severe. “Heard you’re in trouble with the cops. That true?” “I follow my own laws.” He showed me the joint. “You see this? Got caught selling a dime bag. Old man pulled some strings and I got probation without verdict for a first time offender. Five-hundred hours of community service at the Y.” I sealed the comic in its plastic sleeve, wondering what Coach’s expulsion from the basketball league might mean. “Audrey showed me your high school yearbook picture.” His eyes narrowed. “Oh, yeah?” “What gives? Why the retcon?” He didn’t hesitate. “My little brother drowned in the Susquehanna couple months after I graduated. He was about your age. Thought it was time to live a life of meaning I guess. Living for two and all that shit.” I nodded. Did Audrey know? Would she have told me if she did? I never did find out. The bedroom door cracked open and Audrey appeared, her hair matted against her face. She came up behind Coach and wrapped her arms around his stomach. They smiled at me, and I hoped we could become a legitimate family, that I could be happy. Unfortunately, that was not

going to happen. All at once, every person I cared about disappeared. I received a postcard from my mother three days after the Dolphins game, a scribbled mess about how the Nashville executive—Duke McCallister—had driven her and the Holy Rollers to Carson City, Nevada to cut a demo. Apparently she wouldn’t be able to write for a while now that they were really cooking. And she might not make it back in time for fall. But spending a semester or two in Dallas wouldn’t be so bad, right? I’d re-read that postcard nine times in a row when I heard a knock at the front door. Aunt V had gone to her book club meeting down the street and I hadn’t seen Audrey all morning. It was Coach carrying a dinged up burgundy suitcase. “Hey, guy. Audrey home?” Audrey snuck up behind me and gripped my shoulders. She looked nervous. I could hear the Cutlass’ motor running out back. “I was starting the car,” she whispered, dropping her suitcases to the floor. I touched one of the handles. “You guys taking a trip or something?” She looked to Coach for reassurance, but he just shrugged. “Listen,” Audrey said. “We didn’t want you to see this, ok? But me and Al, we have to go away for a little while.” I turned to Coach. He was smoking a cigarette and blew smoke out the corner of his mouth. “I left the comics in my apartment. Thought maybe you could look after them now.” “You’re leaving?” “Al broke his probation when he got banned from the Y league. You know what probation is right?” “Yeah, I know what probation is.” “He’d go to jail if we stayed.” I always tried to act older around Audrey and Coach, but this was too much. I broke into tears and Audrey held me, Coach checking his watch and scanning the horizon. “I’m going with you,” I said through tears.

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That moment had always stayed with me, my younger self huddled in the doorway, my face hot and wet. Coach made the first move, a half-smile spreading across his face like the time he offered me pot. He would have let me come and we could’ve remade ourselves into a family in that new world he was planning somewhere deep in the Canadian wilderness, all monastics and meditation and stillness and peace. But Audrey shook her head no. She pushed me away, leaving me helpless to watch as they sped off towards the gray sunlight. An hour passed before I heard Aunt V’s heels clicking down the sidewalk. She shielded the sun from her eyes and called out to me, but I couldn’t hear her over the persistent hum of the cicadas. I closed my eyes and pretended I’d gone with Audrey and Coach or even my mother, that I could finally be someone other than myself.

Stewart Lake

T

Carol L. Gloor

____

hough last year I swam across this half mile lake whose only danger is its tangled weeds, this year, at sixty, with drastically thinning bones, I am afraid. I know too many ways to die. It is over my head. Panicked flailing, Water choked breath. Darkness. Then I remember this is how the world begins to shrink, stiffen. I’ve been swimming fifty years, most of it over my head, so I stuff fear in my bathing cap and begin slowly, the easy strokes: breast and side, rolling to back, the bowl of the sky, the only sound my breath, heartbeat, arms, the easy strokes, known from childhood. I could do them in my sleep, and have, while thousands of miles away the American Olympic Women’s Softball Team prays Hail Mary before play, and here the green hand of the lake reaches up to hold me safe.

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Stymie Magazine

Late Heart

O Tim Kahl

Autumn & Winter ‘11

Basket Weaving ____ Ed Coletti

ne more mad rush up the field but my a-fib prevents the dash back on defense. I concede my heart

wants to explode. That afternoon, my wife takes my family’s medical history, and I relate my legacy of cardiopathy to my kids. The younger one is banging a ball through the hallway and scoring goals against the door. I hate it that I’m coming to this game so late, twenty years past my prime when I can only read about the greatness of Beckenbauer and Platini, sweet Pablito Mundial, watch Maradona’s hand of God on video and decide if I’d survive in such a crooked heaven. My son twangs the doorstop with another kick. The next strike and a glass tumbles off the table. He gets a red card from my wife. I will be the next sent to the turf, similar to how Leonardo’s elbow KO’d Tab Ramos. My wife will ascribe the cause of my fatality: death by chasing a ball around a field. My only regret: my heart came too late to this game.

T

____

ry to forget for a second that the Bulldogs won again on Thursday. They beat Idaho, a [basketball] game which had all the excitement and noise level of a poetry reading.

– Fresno Bee January 5, 2007 We poets are a sorry lot. Albeit we may be gods in Russia. But in this country in Fresno California poets are the stuff sportswriters scuff from their shoes. Our readings, how boring. Our books, unread. Perhaps we need to diagram plays, develop tactics, perfect our finger rolls and poetry slam dunks, find cheerleader groupies to increase the sound level, make poetry a lustier ballgame, home court advantage our own.

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For what seemed to be the longest time, neither of us threw another punch. Then we looked at each other. Ed Coletti ____ David exclaimed, “Are we out of our fucking minds?!” s we began circling, I observed to David Then he decked me with that same damn hyphy that his shoelaces were untied. But do you think he fell for that old poem, I shoulda seen it comin’ that time. trick? Yes he did, and I tagged him with a straight left So no rope-a-dope next time for the young contender. bloodying his nose something terrible. I took an 8-count, mandatory at my age, I didn’t give him time to stanch the flow staggered back on to my feet. but waded in with a flurry of combinations I felt it wise to offer that we’d better to his jaw and midsection. David wobbled, clean up for our poetry reading. but managed to say, “Good shots” then continued by stating his preference But trust me, it ain’t over yet, some real ugliness for Petrarchan over Shakespearean sonnets. is sure to break out here tonight at the reading. During a brief caesura, as I prepared my reply, I may appear to be old, tired and spent, I felt my face torn apart but just keep your eyes on my shuffling feet and by the fiercest blow I’d ever taken. know I never saw it coming, and he was all over me clearly that something is going to strike you with hooks, crosses, upper cuts, high up above, right there pentameters, couplets and epigrams. in the middle of your I reeled and rocked and knew that this guy poetastin’ mush-melons! deserved my very best strategy and tactics.

Boxing with Poet David Madgalene

A

Bouncing off the ropes, I hit him with my best impression of Mike Tyson’s voice: “The ref stole my title, and I have children to take care of” Then I got in a couple of spondees but he was too young and fast. Madgalene tattooed me with trochees, tetrametered me mercilessly, and sent me reeling into the ropes with his hyphy poem. I reclined against the top one pretending to catch my breath which was coming to me in wooden cubes trailing sawdust all over my throat. At least I pretended to pretend.

develop tactics, perfect our finger rolls and poetry slam dunks, find cheerleader groupies to increase the sound level, make poetry a lustier ballgame, home court advantage our own.

Such is the boxer’s inner chess master. Madgalene wove an epic tale himself.

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Basketball Lucy Jane Bledsoe

M

_____________

________________________________________________________

y mother’s message has always been as plain as buckshot. The moment my father broke her heart is the defining moment of her life. Should I choose to ally myself with him, in any way, I may as well just kill her. But tell you what. Let’s leave Freud out of it. I’ll just give you the facts. I’m a basketball player. Division I recruit for the University of Oregon. Six foot two inches. My mom is shortish, you might say dumpy, and a painter. An abstract painter. Who do you suppose contributed the most genes to me? Yep, him. And guess what? I found him. I met him. He happens to also be the father of my two new best friends, Becky and Sarah McCormack, the hotshot twins from Indiana, basketball’s Mecca. I haven’t told Becky and Sarah. I haven’t told Mom, either. He for sure doesn’t know. Last he heard, like about 20 years ago, Mom wasn’t able to have children. So it wouldn’t even occur to him that the big girl his daughters just befriended was also his daughter. Like I said, I don’t think Freud is going to be helpful here. But the genetics of the situation are sort of interesting. What’s coincidence and what’s DNA? Our heights are genetic, obviously. But maybe even the highly unlikely fact that we all ended up playing for University of Oregon has some plausible genetic explanation. After all, Coach Washington recruited all three of us. She’s attracted to a particular style of basketball, right? What’s funny is that my father spent the last 10 years grooming Becky and Sarah for that recruiting moment. Whereas I played in New York – hardly basketball Mecca – and for a private school to boot. My mom is supportive of everything I do, and she loves the scholarship, but you couldn’t really say her

dreams for me ever included athletic competition. So my father’s extensive training with the twins might have been superfluous. We all have his ball-playing genes, including a tendency toward a cooperative style and singular focus. All you had to do was feed us and put a roof over our heads. Mom will like that part. We got what there was to get from Michael. His staying in our lives wouldn’t have contributed anything more. I am, however, on the brink of bringing him into our lives. My life. Mom’s life. Michael’s life. And maybe most alarmingly, Becky and Sarah’s lives. I have to figure out how – or if – to do that. Back to the facts. Here’s what I know. Twenty-one years ago, my mom owned a café in Wallop, New Mexico. She was young to have her own business, just 33 years old. She did most of the cooking herself, famous for her meatloaf, fried chicken, and pies. She’d grown up in Adler Hollow, Arkansas, a town she hated with passion and usually referred to as A-Hole, Arkansas. She didn’t like to talk about those early years. Who cares, she’d say, about anyone’s painful little mortifications? According to Mom, the human imagination is our only triumph, and we should exercise it to our fullest ability. The rest is reporting, and reporting is always false. Start with the fallibility of facts, she likes to say, and you’ve started to tell the truth. In any case, I do know that she got pregnant when she was 16 and had one of those botched abortions, which totally fucked up her uterus. They said she wouldn’t be able to have children. By the time Michael drove his truck through Wallop the first time, she’d already had shows in a few galleries, one in New York. She was frying chickens and baking blackberry pies, grateful for the hard glare, sage-scented New Mexican sun, to have escaped Arkansas, to be painting, making something of herself. She once

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threw a chair across the café when a reviewer wrote that he saw the Missouri River running through every one of her paintings. He meant it as praise, but she thought she’d escaped. Mom had a lovely house, with a big garden. I always feel bad when she describes her eggplants and spinach and tomatoes and raspberry vines, and even worse when she goes on about the flowers she raised, right in the among the vegetables, because now she’s stuck in Brooklyn with just two window boxes. Because of me. I’m why she had to leave. New York, she once admitted, is the best place to hide. How do you think that made me feel? Michael had the fried chicken that came with greens and sweet potatoes, a slice of lemon meringue pie, and four cups of coffee. Mom had given up on men by then. She had her painting, her garden, her café. As Michael and Mom chatted, he watched the other waitress, Mom’s employee, a girl named Merilee. Mom says she wrote Michael off that evening because of the way he watched Merilee’s ass. She did notice, though, how easily she and Michael talked. He was a reader, and they liked a lot of the same books. He slept in his truck that night and came back in the morning for breakfast. He was impressed that Mom was there again at 7:00 a.m., at how hard she worked and how well she cooked. The café is still there. Mom and I stopped this summer when we drove crosscountry to take me to school. It’s kind of a dump now, and that made Mom sad. She’d put so much work into it. Not to mention, she’d met my father there, although of course she wouldn’t admit the place held any sweet nostalgia for her. It was the work she regretted. The following week, Michael parked his truck in front again, and Mom thought it was for the food and for ogling Merilee, which it may well have been, but he sat at the counter again, which Mom serviced, and they talked all morning. His route took him through Wallop every week and on the fourth time through, he told Mom that he’d visited two galleries, one in Santa

Fe and one in Albuquerque, that showed her work. That surprised her, but then the next week he reported that he’d found more of her paintings online. He said, “I like them.” Mom said, “Thanks.” Michael must have been embarrassed by his brevity, because the following week he went into detail about her colors and forms, plowing through his own embarrassment at not knowing the correct art terms, because he really did want to tell her. Straight forward, Mom said, direct and honest. The sex, she told me when I was 13, was exceptional. “Exceptional how?” I asked. “Exceptionally good.” She paused, looked at me, probably considering my age and wondering about the appropriateness of this conversation, and then made the decision she always makes, which is that the truth, the bald truth, is always the most appropriate, and added, “Mind-altering exceptional, life-changing exceptional, flat out the best sex I’ve ever had.” Then she looked momentarily regretful at having said so much, but ended with a shrug and, “He’s your father. You were conceived in that love. You have a right to know.” Even then I knew that “a right to know” meant to know the information she chose to share. It did not mean the right to know him directly. He quit driving the truck and opened an auto parts shop in Wallup. He said he didn’t care that she couldn’t have kids. He also didn’t care that she didn’t believe in marriage. “You should know,” Mom told me when I was 18, “that love is possible. Not likely, but possible. Never enduring. You’ll be lucky if you have even a few months of what your father and I had.” She paused and then gave me a couple of rare adjectives. “Real tenderness. Knowing tenderness.” Then Mom went to New York for an opening and slept with the gallery owner. She says she still doesn’t know why. She slept with him twice. Her biggest regret in all of life is that she felt compelled to tell Michael about this slip when she returned to Wallup.

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Autumn & Winter ‘11

He went ape-shit. Completely wallbonging jealous. He dumped her. Cruelly. He itemized with precise detail every personality flaw in her makeup. He said he didn’t know why he’d ever thought he loved her. Within a couple of weeks he was dating Sue, a tall and thin and severely beautiful woman who ran marathons. She wanted children and was pregnant, allegedly accidentally, within months. Michael married her. Mom sold the café and moved to New York. Not for the publicist. She couldn’t care less about him. But she couldn’t stand witnessing Michael’s new life. Also, Mom, too, was pregnant. She refused to abort me. She found a doctor who was willing to take the chance and shepherd her through the dangerous pregnancy. We crashed with Sophia, her oldest friend, who had a place in the West Village. For months we lay on a mattress on the floor of Sophia’s tiny apartment, Mom holding onto me for all she was worth, me surviving in that damaged uterus. There were days, she said, when she literally squeezed her vagina tight, willed me to stay inside, stay connected to the umbilical cord. To birth me they sliced open Mom’s belly, and they did that a month early. Obviously, I lived. So did Mom. In fact, we thrived. We spent a full year, the three of us, in Sophia’s apartment, all her lesbian friends adoring me and sustaining Mom. She was, once again, through with men, and relished being an honorary lesbian, even if she couldn’t will herself to be a real one. Our lives were tentative back then, and Mom likes to say that Sophia’s apartment was a second womb, that we were nurtured by her best friend and her friends. Sophia died last year of breast cancer and Mom is once again heartbroken. It is so the wrong time for me to spring Michael, not to mention my half-sisters, on her. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Shortly after I turned one year old, Mom won a Guggenheim. We used the money to get our own apartment. The years flew by as if Michael had never happened. Except, of course,

for the oversized girl that is me. Mom dates two men now. One is married and quite a bit older than she is. He’s an arts administrator who says his wife is uninterested in sex and wouldn’t mind his having a mistress, although its best to not let her know. Mom also sees a polyamorous actor, younger than herself, who is lots of fun and severely ADD. He takes her to parties that make her feel young. Sex is reportedly good with both, although very different. “You are free,” Mom said on my 21st birthday, “to find your father. Pursue a relationship with him, if that’s you want.” Of course by then all the subtexts were crystal clear to me. She didn’t need to add: if you do so, you’ll destroy me. And: I won’t lift an eyebrow to help. Anyway, I knew my dad was just a story. A good story. I liked Wallup. I liked the fried chicken and pie. I liked his truck. I liked the idea of exceptionally good sex. I didn’t need him to be a real person. Mom and I had a very good life. Which I’m about to shatter. Everyone who cares about girls basketball has known about Becky and Sarah McCormack for a long time. They’ve been legendary since the 8th grade. The big surprise was that they signed with U of O. When I first heard the news last spring, I was devastated by my bad luck. It meant the bench for me. I spent a few long, uncomfortable months thinking of them as my major rivals and even considering going elsewhere. But by the time Mom drove me crosscountry to begin my real life, I’d rallied. Hardy competition was exactly what I needed to shine. I planned on leaving those tall twins in the dust. They’d drive me to be sensational. This kind of talk always makes Mom a little uncomfortable. Not that she isn’t competitive. Artists compete all right. But with a veneer of civility. In basketball, you sweat and bleed to get your position on a team, and you never hide the fact that that’s what you are doing. You’re not only always in competition with your opponents, you’re always in competition with your

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own teammates, vying for starting positions and the most playtime. I love the directness of that. The simplicity. And the honesty. That’s the thing about my mom. She considers starch honesty her trademark. She still thinks she has something to teach me about truth-telling. I’ve started rolling my eyes when she gets on this track. I tell her that basketball is the most honest game in life. You have a goal: getting as many balls through the hoop as you can. You have grace: moving your body with the greatest degree of precision. You have love: the bonds you form with your teammates are deep. “I get it, BJ,” she said as we drove across the Mojave Desert. “It’s like basketball is the metaphor for your life.” “No,” I said. “Basketball is my life.” Mom helped me move into my dorm room. We went out to dinner with my roommate, another girl on a basketball scholarship, and her parents. Then she left Eugene the morning of my first practice. I arrived at the gym a full hour early and skipped the locker room. I was already in my sweats and I wanted to go directly to the court. The lights were still out and the floor had been freshly varnished. The air was cool and dark, with a faint woody smell. I couldn’t believe the expanse of bleachers. The arena was huge. I imagined it full of cheering fans, and my feet turned to ice. I willed them to warm up. I willed myself to rise to this occasion. Me, playing Division I ball. It was my moment. Not my metaphor. My real time dream come true. Someone had already rolled in the rack of basketballs, so I grabbed one and bounced it. The echo was hollow and full, a perfect sound. I dribbled to the basket for a simple lay-up, nothing fancy. Just as I caught the ball falling from the net, I heard the thunk-thunk-thunk sound of the lights being switched on. It was Coach Washington herself. She didn’t smile or comment on how early I’d arrived. I knew it was expected, that I’d work harder, much harder, than the other girls. I was the wild card among the recruits. Hardly anyone had heard of me. I played for a private school in

New York, and while some Division II schools had made me offers, U of O was the only Division I school to recruit me. In fact, Coach Washington hadn’t even intended to recruit me. She was visiting a friend in New York, a retired coach, who happened to mention me. I also happened to have a game the next night, and so they went. Coach liked my style of play. She made a point of going back to see me in a couple more games. Besides my athletic ability, she thought I had leadership potential. The U of O team had been a bit ragged the last couple of years, some difficult interpersonal stuff, and a bunch of the girls were graduating. She said it was a good time for a fresh start, that she needed girls who would help unify. I was only a freshman. I knew I was going to have to prove myself. The McCormack twins were the next out on the court. I knew them from photos, but they are much more formidable in person. For one thing, they’re gorgeous. At 6 foot 3, they’re an inch taller than me. Long, thick, dark brown hair which they both wear in messy ponytails that swing. Big brown eyes. Full sexy mouths. Every media story comments on how although they’re not identical twins, they still look exactly alike. But their personalities, I’d soon learn, are very different. Becky is shyer and still-in-the-closet gay. She always seems a little confused and slow to respond, but these are false appearances that in fact serve her well on the court. In truth, Becky is fierce. Sarah is the front person for the pair. She’s funny, loud, protective of her sister. Even though they aren’t identical, they are so obviously bonded you can practically picture them twisted up together in the womb. After nodding hello to me, they started running their own private drills, complicated and silent and intense. They dropped all 12 of their first shots. I wonder if they felt their father in me. Unconsciously, of course. I look just like him. I have his gawky nose, green eyes too close together, thin lips, dirty blond hair. Maybe we all somehow sensed our sisterhood. Because from the first minute of the first scrimmage on that first day of practice, we all knew, without dis-

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cussing anything, that we were going to rule this team as a trio, freshmen or not. I snagged rebound number one, and by the time I looked up, Becky and Sarah had each lane. I shot it to Becky who fired it to Sarah, and we had our two. We stood in a little triangle, briefly clasped six hands over our heads, and that was it. They roomed together, and I hung out in their room every spare hour. We ate together, studied together, and partied together. They were a blast. I loved how wholesome they were, sometimes naïve, but open to anything that came their way. They had a subtle accent, hokey and broad, and I swear they smelled like fresh hay. Of course I still had no idea, at this point, that we were half-sisters. But I did know all about their father because they adored him. I envied the relationship. He texted them all the time, called almost daily, always said I love you, advised them about their game and playing for Coach Washington. I soon learned that he and their mother were divorced, and that he’d gotten custody when they were 10. They loved their mother, too, of course, but she was prickly and a workaholic. She’d remarried soon after the divorce and they couldn’t stand her husband. They were intrigued about my family, too, and loved hearing about my New York life, which they called glamorous. Once Sarah asked what I knew about my father, and I would have answered if I could have, but suddenly Mom’s tales seemed so empty. Hearsay. Just stories. I especially wanted to tell them about a particular memory, but I was afraid that doing so, telling it out loud, would somehow destroy the dreamlike memory by exposing it to too much light. That I might kill the tender hope in the memory by handling it. Their questions had reopened my own. I was 10 years old. On a bitter winter morning, at about 7:00, our doorbell rang. Mom was in the bathroom getting ready for some meeting and she shouted for me to see who was there. Our apartment is on the ground floor of a brownstone, and we can see our front porch if we look out the window farthest from the door. A very tall man stood in the few inches of fresh

snow, hands sunk in the pockets of a Carhartt jacket. He wore no hat, blue jeans, and work boots. He struck me as profoundly handsome, like some rare animal spotted in the park. With a hand on the railing, he backed down the six stairs and looked up at our apartment. Some instinct told me to hide, so I let the curtain fall and backed away from the window. But a strong curiosity pulled me forward for another peek. There were snowflakes in his hair. By now my mother was out of the bathroom and she pushed me aside so she could look, too. “Oh my fucking God. Jesus fucking Christ.” She grabbed my arm way too hard and said, “Stay inside. Do not come to the window again, do you hear me?” By now the doorbell was donging again, and Mom crept silently to the door and pressed her back against it. “Aren’t you going to open it?” I asked. “Shh,” she hissed and held up a threatening finger. I felt frightened and baffled. Why was she afraid of the handsome man? The doorbell rang again, and then yet again a couple of minutes later. Mom canceled her meeting and didn’t take me to school, either. In fact, the man came back several more times that day, ringing our doorbell and waiting on the porch. He returned again in the morning, and Mom kept us on house arrest another day. I didn’t dare ask any questions. We ate canned soup and dry cereal, whispering and tiptoeing around our apartment, until the third day when the doorbell quit ringing. Then we carried on with our lives as if nothing untoward had happened. Walking home from the subway on that first afternoon back in the world, I asked, “Was that my father?” “How silly you are!” my mom sang out. “Of course not.” “Then who was he?” “No one.” I pretended, even to myself, that I believed her. I never asked about that visitation

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again, and wondered if it had been a dream. Sometimes Sophia told me things, and she did so defiantly, right in Mom’s presence. Mom would try to shush her, but Sophia argued that I had a right to know what there was to know. She said that shortly after we moved to New York, while Mom was still pregnant with me, my father had come looking for her. He apparently stood outside Sophia’s apartment and begged to be let in. He wanted to apologize for being such an asshole, even if he was now married with a kid – Mom and Sophia didn’t know about the twins – on the way. “He was miserable,” Sophia said. “Utterly, thoroughly miserable. He knew how badly he’d fucked up and somehow he thought if he could only see your mom, he’d find some kind of redemption for himself.” I couldn’t read the look on Mom’s face. Full-throated, definitely. Longing, maybe. Pain, maybe. With an overlay of dismay. “Soph. That was a million years ago.” “It’s your daughter’s history. I’m only – ” “What the hell was I supposed to do? Tell him, come on in! Pat my gigantic belly and tell him to meet his other kid, who – as he well knew – might just kill me in her birth?” “For fuck sake,” Sophia said, laying a hand on mine. “It’s my daughter’s history,” Mom quoted sarcastically. “She knows how dangerous her birth was.” “I’m not saying you should have done anything differently,” Sophia said quietly. “I’m just saying BJ has a right to know he came looking for you.” Mom waved a hand through the air. Sophia persisted. “There were other times, too. It was like a bear to honey. He never got over you, that much is clear.” “He had his family,” Mom said. “He had nothing to offer us. Whose side are you on?” Sophia shrugged. “It’s not about sides. I’m just explaining so she understands.” “Do you understand?” Mom asked me. “Yes,” I lied. We all three got starting positions, Sarah

at center and me and Becky as the two forwards. They were excited because their dad was coming from Indiana for the first game. I looked forward to meeting him and hoped I was invited for whatever they did after the game, although I felt a little sheepish about that hope. After all, I was just a new friend, even if we were already tight. Luckily, I didn’t see him before the game. I shudder to think how I might have played if I had. It was a dynamite game. We won, 73 to 68. After shaking hands with the other team, I turned to the twins, but they looked as though they had closed ranks. They were jumping up and down, waving at their dad in the stands. I headed for the locker room, embarrassed that I felt left out. Someone grabbed my arm and pulled. I turned and it was Becky. “Hey. Come meet Dad.” “Now?” I asked. She laughed. “Yeah, come on.” Sarah was already striding across the court toward a tall man standing with his hands deep in his jacket pockets, a gigantic grin on his face. Would I have known just by the fact that I looked exactly like him? Probably not. Who thinks, oh I look just like that person? But I saw instantly that he was the man from the memory/ dream. The man standing on our snowy porch, ringing our doorbell every few hours for two days straight. They introduced him as Michael. I felt ferociously nauseous. He held out a big hand. It was warm and kind. His nose long and prominent, like mine. His eyes set close. His hair wispy, dark blond, but going gray. For a fast moment, I assumed he’d know by touch and sight. My world swirled, and I readied myself for everything to implode. But nothing happened. He was raucous with his two daughters, his other two daughters. They joked and then started discussing the game, and I could tell they were going to go through it, play by play. He didn’t have a clue about me. I was swamped by a violent wash of jealousy, watching him love the twins. No one ever had gone through a game with me, knew by a single descriptive word which pass I was talking about,

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and had something to add about its execution. They did not ask me to join them for their post-game celebration. Becky and Sarah both gave me hugs and said they’d see me tomorrow at practice, and off they went with Michael to eat and talk and laugh somewhere private. I spent half the night walking around campus, a light drizzle soaking me. I didn’t care if I got sick, if I lost my scholarship, if I got shipped back to New York. I didn’t go to any of my classes the next day, although I did show up for practice. Becky and Sarah were so involved in their father’s visit, they didn’t even notice that I avoided them. Off they went again that evening for another dinner with Michael. He would be flying back home in the morning. Leaving me with one gargantuan secret. Which brings me to the current moment. Deciding when and how. I guess if is also a question. What if I don’t tell? I love my friendship with Becky and Sarah just as it is. My father is no longer a dream. But he doesn’t have to be a bomb, either. I feel like that girl at the window, looking out, only now I can look for as long as I like. I don’t have to pull back. I can flat-out stare. This makes me feel powerful, like I’m finally in control of my own life story. I am the only one who knows, and you know what? I don’t think I will tell. I’ve never played better ball. Coach Washington loves what she sees in me, Sarah, and Becky. We work. We work hard and we work well. We’re a scoring/rebounding machine. We start getting press after just a couple of games. We also get a lot closer. Sarah is having big issues with her mom, and she’s quit speaking to her. Becky has fallen in love with a girl in her dorm and is struggling with coming out. Both of the twins rely heavily on me. I have an amazingly cool mom, in their eyes, and they love hearing how I can – they think – say anything to her. They are also greatly comforted to hear about Sophia and her friends, how easy it is for me to accept Becky’s sexuality. The closer we get, the

more guilty I feel about my monstrous secret. And the more keenly aware I am that if I tell it to them, I will betray my mother. Maybe everyone is hurtling down a path toward betrayal of her mother. It’s just part of the extended birth process. And that’s how it happens, like another kind of birth. We’re sitting around on a Tuesday night, cracking jokes about how stupid it is that we haven’t gone to bed yet since we have weight -training at 6:00 a.m. We’re eating the kettle corn Michael sent them. They love kettle corn and swear you can’t get the good kind here. I love kettle corn now too. We’re laughing about making ourselves sick on it. Maybe the vomit jokes trigger my confession because it hurls out of me with zero premeditation. I don’t plan it. I don’t think of a good way to do it. It just happens. “I gotta tell you guys something,” I say. “What?” they ask in unison, their smiles crushed by the gravity of my tone. “This is going to sound crazy, so I’ll just say it. Michael. Your dad. He’s my dad, too.” There should be a word for shocked bewilderment. After a few seconds, Sarah tries to cough out a little laugh, tries to make this into some kind of joke. I say, “I’m serious. It’s true. I can tell you the whole story.” They’re staring and they don’t look friendly. I start talking fast. I tell about the café and Merilee. I don’t get far though because Becky interrupts and says, “BJ, this isn’t funny.” “It’s not supposed to be funny.” The twins exchange a look. Then Sarah rallies and says, “BJ, we love you. I know it’s weird being friends with twins. But you don’t have to – ” “No,” I say. But I stop because Becky has stood up. “BJ, don’t. What you’re doing is kind of sick.” “He doesn’t know,” I say, hearing the acute desperation in my voice. “My mom had an abortion when she was a teenager. They told her she couldn’t have children. That’s what Michael thinks. So he wouldn’t ever suspect – ”

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“Stop it,” Sarah says. She remains seated, but Becky is at the door saying, “I gotta go to bed.” Sarah then gets up too and pats my knee in her kind, Midwestern way. She just leaves. The next day at practice they treat me like a mental patient. I can tell they’ve talked about how to be with me. Their greetings are artificial and too kind. I don’t know what to do or say. I’ve broken our friendship. I’ve broken everything. We don’t eat or study together for the rest of that week, and we also lose our first game. I have never felt so alone in my life. I wish Mom had aborted me. Finally, ten days after my attempt at revelation, I try again. I have to. There’s no other way out. I have to convince them. I knock on their dorm room door at about 10:00. They’re both in bed, studying. I sit in a desk chair and no one says anything for a couple of minutes. Then I say, “You have to believe me.” “We thought we knew you,” Sarah says. “But this is just too weird.” “You need help,” Becky says. “You should go see the counselor.” I see everything on their faces. They think I’ve fabricated this extraordinary story to get inside their twindom. They now see my New York life with my artist mom as lonely and pathetic. I’m unstable. I’m beyond needy. I see that they’re right. I’ve been delusional, thinking that this friendship with two basketball stars is real. I stand up, burst into tears, and run from their room. That night I pack to go home. But I don’t have any money, and when I call my mom, she won’t buy me a plane ticket. I don’t tell her what’s wrong, and she says the first semester is the worst, that I have to hang in. She says it’ll get better after the holidays, she promises. She doesn’t have a clue, but somehow I’m comforted, just hearing her voice and realizing she is a real person, not a figment of my imagination. The following weekend is Thanksgiving and I’m thankful that Sarah and Becky fly back to Indiana. I have the whole long weekend to

take walks and read and try to decide what to do. If I tell Mom, she’ll probably let me leave school, at least this school. After all, she’s been running from Michael her whole life. She’ll want me out of range, too. But by Sunday morning I’ve remembered that I’m a basketball player. It’s not the metaphor for my life. It is my life. I’m in the starting lineup on a Division I team and I’ve let my personal problems get in the way. We lost a game that we shouldn’t have lost. I decide to keep my eye on the ball, literally. Becky and Sarah are no longer my friends, but they’re still my teammates, and I’m grateful for the clarity of that relationship. I go to the gym on Sunday night. I shoot a hundred free throws. I run suicides all by myself. I practice my three-pointers, a weak part of my game, determined that by junior year I’ll have the best three-pointer stats on the team. I run and shoot and pivot and, yeah, sometimes cry, until I feel like all the pain is burned away. Then I walk back to my dorm room. I hope my roommate isn’t back from break yet. I’d like just a couple more hours of solitude. I open the door and burst into tears all over again. My room has been ransacked. What’s going on? Then I look more closely. Ransacked, yes, but benignly ransacked. I find long-stemmed red roses tossed randomly all over my bed and the floor. A plate of chocolate chip cookies sits on my desk. A Danny Granger – my favorite Indiana Pacers player – jersey is laid out on my bed. Three giant bags of kettle corn are propped up on my pillow. Next to them, a note. I unfold the piece of paper and read, “Please come see us asap. Love, Sarah and Becky.” I am so stunned that the obvious doesn’t occur to me. Instead I think that they’ve decided, after discussing it over break, that I need prescriptive kindness. They’ve developed a plan for rehabilitating me. They’ll soften me up with “love,” and then once they get back in close, implement some sort of intervention. I wonder if they’ve talked to Coach Washington. I tear up the note and begin breaking the

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rose stems in half. The door opens and the twins burst into my room, all arms and legs and words. They’re hugging me and crying and saying how sorry they are. I manage to get them off of me and I hold my palms out to keep them at a distance. I don’t think I actually say “Back” out loud, but I might. As Sarah talks, everything starts swirling again. “We’re so sorry, BJ. God, what idiots. We talked to Dad. Dad.” She says it three more times, as if she’s making room for me in the word. “It’s true. Oh, man, he can’t even believe it. None of us can. We were going to call you but we decided we wanted to wait until we could be with you in person to talk.” “It’s true?” My voice is a whinny. I had begun to think I really had made it up. “He wanted to come back to school with us. But we wouldn’t let him. We wanted to talk to you alone. We’ve been such assholes. Such huge fucking assholes.” “We just didn’t know,” says Becky who is quieter and also a bit more defensive. “I mean, we’ve only known you for a few weeks. So. It just. You know, sounded so absurd.” “It’s scary,” Sarah says. I feel so confused, and somehow still angry. I don’t want the roses and cookies and kettle corn, though when my eyes fall on Granger’s jersey, I realize that I do want that. I don’t know if I want Michael, or not. I’ve lived 18 years without him. “He said whenever you were ready,” Sarah says. “But he really wants to see you.” “We told him you were ours,” Becky says. “Not his.” “After all – ” Sarah starts, and then maybe thinks better of what she was going to say. Probably something about the 18 years. We stay up and talk all night. Literally. Becky says she was gripped by intense jealousy at first. Sarah claims she was thrilled from the first second. Becky swears that she’s thrilled now, too. They both express dismay at how close they came to never knowing the truth. It started because Becky decided to come out to her dad.

Sarah sat in for support. Michael was pretty fine with it, although he kept saying she should date men for a while, just to be sure, as if she hadn’t already done that in high school. Then Becky mentioned their friend BJ’s mother’s best friend, Sophia, in New York, and how helpful it had been to hear from BJ about Sophia. Michael had said, “Sophia? In New York?” Such a thin lead, but he grabbed it. “Yeah,” Becky said, eager to get on with her own story. “She’s BJ’s mother’s best friend?” They nod. “BJ Rogers’ mother is Estelle Rogers?” Sarah claims that she started to believe in this moment, just by the look on Michael’s face. She says, “He blanched,” and we all laugh at her using that word. But Becky was still trying to talk about herself, understandably, and so she had continued, “Yeah. She’s a famous painter. Anyway – ” “Is BJ adopted?” By now Sarah was getting an icy feeling in her bowels. Becky was just annoyed that he wasn’t listening. Sarah took Becky’s hand, which scared her, and said, “No, she’s not adopted.” Michael was actually shaking, they could see this. He said, “Your teammate BJ Rogers is Estelle Rogers’ daughter and she’s not adopted.” Finally Becky caught up with Sarah and Michael. Sarah said, “Dad.” Becky said, “Do you know BJ’s mom?” Sarah said, “Estelle wasn’t supposed to be able to give birth. She had a bad abortion when she was 16. But she did. Give birth. To BJ.” “Oh, shit,” Becky said. “We were so mean.” “We didn’t believe her,” Sarah whispered. Then, louder, “Fucking A. She looks just like you.” Despite our sleepless night, we have an incredible practice the next day. Our mojo is back. Coach Washington is relieved. She even

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asks, after practice, trying to sound casual, if we had “resolved” something over the break. “I’ll say,” Sarah says, and we all laugh way too hard. Coach looks confused and maybe even a little left out, but she knows to leave well enough alone. She’s cool that way. As long as we’re at the top of our game, she doesn’t care what gets us there. We tear Cal up that weekend, beating them by 16 points. Me, Sarah, and Becky score 52 points between us. From now on, that’s how we’ll measure our game, by our combined stats. We talk about it that night, how I may have been the one to make that layup but it wouldn’t have happened without Becky’s pass. How Sarah’s rebounds were possible because of Becky’s and my blocking. They let me back in. That fast. We even joke about being triplets, and we practically are, with my birthday just two months ahead of theirs. No one brings up Michael again, but I am well aware they’re waiting for my consent. What they don’t know, what I haven’t really been able to explain, is how keeping me from Michael has somehow become, over the years, goal number one of my mother’s life. But she would hate what’s happening now – everyone but her knowing – even more than my getting to know him. I borrow money from my roommate, buy a plane ticket, and fly home for the weekend. I don’t tell the twins I’m doing this until I go to their room on my way to the airport. They nod and hug me. I say, “Don’t tell Michael, okay?” I plan my approach on the plane ride. I will mention that he divorced Sue, the severely beautiful marathon-runner, years ago. I will tell her how he has only dated “lightly,” as Becky and Sarah put it, devoting himself instead to them. I will definitely tell her how lonely they think he is now. I especially want to point out that it was a couple of decades ago that Michael and Mom had their rupture. Both are different people now. It will be painful for her to hear about what a good father he is, but surely – after

the initial stab – that will count in his favor. Most of all, I want to tell her how much I love having sisters. When she sees me at the door, Mom gasps as if a tragedy has happened, and I realize that for her, it has. I will soon be delivering the details. I imagine her slapping me. Shouting for me to leave the apartment and never come back. I desperately miss Sophia who would know how to help us negotiate this new territory. Mom grips my arms too hard. “Honey, what’s wrong? Why are you here?” “I just wanted to come home. I miss you.” Both are true. “It’s not that big a deal. A six-hour flight. If it were a six-hour drive, I’d come home all the time.” Never mind that the short-advance plane fare has put me hundreds of dollars in debt. Mom wants to go out to some fancy restaurant for dinner, and I can tell that she hopes, unconsciously of course, to ward off whatever painful truth is coming her way with poshness. I insist on ordering out Chinese food. I launch even before the food has been delivered. I say, “You’re right, Mom. Basketball is a metaphor for life. The intense focus on one thing: an orange ball. And how that – ” “Cut to the chase,” she says. “You’ve come home to tell me something. What is it?” “And how that intense focus opens you up to all this other stuff. Like love.” “BJ. What.” “I’ve met my dad.” Her mouth twitches. A bolt of something rocks her chest. But she doesn’t look away. She doesn’t get up. Quietly, even calmly, she says, “And?” I’m thrown off, to say the least. You might even say she looks relieved. “He’s Becky and Sarah’s dad.” “Yes. I know.” I stand. I pick up a pillow and throw it across the room. A hundred bolts of something shoot through my chest. I scream, “You know?! You know?!” “I figured it out when we were driving cross-country. You’d mentioned Sarah and

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Becky before, and of course I noticed their last name, but there are thousands of McCormack’s. I guess their twinness diverted my attention. And for some reason I always pictured him having a boy. It never occurred to me, until this fall, that Becky and Sarah were his daughters. Besides.” She pauses and gazes past me, out the window, beyond the bare branches of the tree in front of our apartment, into the soft gray sky. “It’s not how I thought he’d show up.” “No. You figured he’d come to you. It’s always been all about you. Your great big love affair five million years ago. And whoops, look what happened, a 6 foot 2 inch girl. Oh well. Let’s just hide her in a Brooklyn closet. It’s always been about you. Just you. All about you. Well, guess what. Becky and Sarah are mine. For that matter, Michael is mine. He’s not your lover anymore, but he is my father. This has nothing to do with you.” “Well, it sort of does, BJ. I mean, I had a relationship with him. You didn’t.” This incenses me. I’m fire-breathing mad. White-heat mad. For my entire life she’s kept my father a secret from me, a man who was living quietly in Indiana, raising my two halfsisters, a man who looked for us several times. While my mom kept us sequestered in New York where she splattered paint around and dated dingbats like the old arts administrator and the young ADD actor. Because she was too afraid. That’s what I see at last. Her plain old fear. Of a man she once loved. Alone. Afraid. Hiding behind the door and telling me to shush. I heft my duffel and walk out. I pass the Chinese food delivery guy who is coming up our steps. I run to the subway and take the train back to JFK. I call my sisters and ask for their – Michael’s, actually – credit card number, and they give it to me. I charge the ticket change fee, and then fly back to Oregon. I keep the blanket over my head the entire flight. Back in the dorm, I tell Becky and Sarah everything because I’m never going to keep secrets like my mom. For a day or so, they comfort me, and then they gently start suggesting I might

have been a bit hard on Mom. She calls every few hours and I refuse to take the calls. Nor am I willing to see Michael. I tell the twins to tell him to stay in Indiana. After a week, I call her. When she picks up, I say, “If you knew, why didn’t you tell me?” “We were driving across the Mojave Desert when I figured it out. You were already entangled with the girls, carrying on about how they were going to drive you to basketball glory. I figured it was destiny.” “The Mojave Desert. Destiny. What are you talking about? This is my life.” “I know. I know. I’m sorry. But you have a full scholarship. What were we going to do? Make a U-turn – yes, we were in the Mojave Desert and probably didn’t even have enough gas or water to turn around anyway – and drive you back to New York? Enroll you in City College?” “This isn’t about you.” “I know that.” It’s the first time she’s admitted it. That’s something. Then she says, “I figured there was a 50 percent chance no one would ever figure it out, anyway. I mean, how was it going to come up? At least then, when we were driving, you were presenting those girls as enemies.” “No. I never thought of them as enemies. Rivals, maybe. Which is completely different. I knew they would be my teammates. I knew I would respect them. You understand nothing about basketball.” That shuts her up. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. So I hang up on her. But something in me starts to shift. I think hard about the look on her face when I told. She had crumbled. In a good way. Like tension letting go. I expected such a different reaction that it has taken me some time to understand. But I think I saw a tinge of hope. Something bright flickered in her eyes. At the time it had made me angry because, yep, it was all about her. But still. I’m not an idiot. I do know that my happiness is pretty much inextricable from hers. Becky is the one who comes up with the idea. She wants to do it as a surprise. Her face is

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wild and joyous as she explains how it’ll be when they first see each other. She smacks her hands together and says, “Fireworks.” Sarah and I put the kibosh on the surprise part. “It has to be successful, Beck,” Sarah says. “We want it to work.” None of us say what “it working” means. We go online together and buy the plane tickets, fixing it so that Mom and I will arrive in Indianapolis at the same time. Then they sit with me while I call her. “Hi, Sweetie,” she answers, like everything is normal. “I’m sitting here with Becky and Sarah,” I say. She remains silent. “We’ve just made plans for Christmas. You and I are going to Indiana for a week.” Here’s what it feels like. I’ve opened a door. On my side of that door is a giant vacuum. A little like a black hole. It’s sucking my mom through the door. As much as she’d like to say no, she can’t even find her voice, let alone words. I smile at the twins, and they silently pump fists in the air. “Mom?” I say. “I’m here.” “I really want this.” I think I hear tears. She’s nowhere near as tough as I thought she was. She’s not even a little bit sophisticated, either. She’s pure A-Hole, Arkansas. With some Wallop, New Mexico thrown in. The Missouri River running through. “What would Sophia say?” I ask. I wait out her silence, seriously wanting an answer. “I mean it. Tell me.” “Sophia would say, ‘You big chickenshit. Go say hello to the man already.’ She’d also say, ‘Do what your daughter asks you to do. She’s a hundred times more together than you.’” “She’d say that?” “She did say that. On several occasions.” Sarah and Becky call their dad about 15 times a day before we leave for Indiana. They tell him to make sure he orders an organic turkey. That he gets a grand fir tree, the kind that smells

the best. They suggest he weed through their old ornaments, keeping only the best, and that he not, under any circumstances, buy tinsel. He needs to hire someone to clean the house, not just think he can do it himself. They email him a grocery shopping list. They tell their mother that they will spend the entire spring break with her and her husband, but that they won’t see her at all over the Christmas break, sorry. Then they leave a day before me, insisting on getting there early to check on Michael’s preparations. I half-expect a no-show. My flight gets in two hours before hers, and I pace the airport. I’m at her gate 20 minutes early. When the plane starts to unload, I count the passengers to distract me from my rocketing anxiety. She doesn’t appear to be on the plane. I remind myself that we bought tickets really late and that she’s probably seated near the back. Once again she surprises me, stepping out of the jet way and ambling up the ramp like it was all her idea. She smiles tentatively and looks around, like I might have Michael and the twins hiding behind a ticket counter. She doesn’t look too frightened. Just a bit startled. Becky, Sarah, and I agreed that an airport meeting would be all wrong, and they arranged to have a car come get us. Michael, reportedly, can hardly stand the idea of not fetching guests at the airport. He says it’s rude. And my mom thinks a private ride from the airport is a ridiculous extravagance. But both parents are doing their best to let us manage this holiday. The shiny black town car does feel incongruous, but that’s okay. Mom and I both need the armor. We pull up in front of a plain but large tan house. The driver opens the door for us and then goes around to retrieve our luggage from the trunk. There’s a big woodpile, covered with a clear plastic tarp, next to the driveway. An expansive side yard has been paved over and a hoop is attached to the side of the house. About three inches of fresh snow cover the neighborhood, but someone has shoveled and swept the basketball court clean. Becky and Sarah tumble out the front door. They’re wearing warm-ups and Sarah’s

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carrying a basketball. Michael steps out, tall and handsome as ever. My legs practically buckle, but thankfully I see what has to happen now. I take Mom’s elbow in my grip, as if I’m her parole officer, and guide her forward. I’m surprised that she doesn’t resist. In fact, I feel her presence as soft and aching. Michael is speechless, his gaze flying back and forth between us. I realize that I can wait. That I want to wait. That by definition they have to come before me. “Let’s shoot a few,” I say to the twins. They grin. I let go of my mom, pausing a second, making sure she won’t fall over. I kiss her cheek and whisper, “I love you.” Michael says, “Estelle.” Mom starts to laugh. I’m mortified. I think she’s going into abstract painter mode, diving into her foxhole of absurdity. But I’m wrong. It’s a true laugh. Michael joins her. They actually bend over, Mom holding her stomach and Michael bracing his hands on his knees. They are laughing so hard they’re in danger of falling over. We three girls look at each other realizing that there is so much we don’t know. Sarah tosses me the basketball. Becky says, “Come on.” We walk around to the court on the side of the house. I shoot from the sideline and it bounces off the rim. Becky leaps for the rebound and fires it back to me. I miss four more times, but we repeat this drill until my fifth shot falls soundlessly through the hoop and net.

Golf in Florida and Beyond

O Ed Coletti

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n film, I discover my father peering out from the deck of a cruise ship at the Caribbean or at a school of dolphins skipping. I like to believe this smiling profile is the very one he had when alone on a Dade County golf course (just Dad, early in the morning before the sun and humidity rendered clubs ungrippable). Perhaps over the boat’s bow rail, he’s gazing beyond his life and mine, like on the first tee early mornings before the fierce sun can interrupt his union with the vivid sunlit dimpling ball he will launch starting only millimeters off the grass, traveling outward, imperceptibly rising exploding in so many minor stages of symphonic grace notes preceding crescendo just beyond the horizon behind the sea.

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That Fabulous Catch Fred Zackel

T

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he young man who caught a Shooting Star was half-dozing way back in the outfield, close to the fence, scratching a callus and daydreaming, when he caught on to what everybody relaxing in the stands on the left side of the stadium was looking at. It was that middle time of the summer when a few lucky folks had one or two red tomatoes in the garden, while everybody else still had hard green ones. He raised his glove to shield his eyes and realized that the fast approaching fiery ball would pass right above his head and about thirty yards beyond. A line drive from directly above the rising moon. He ran for it, for where it would be closest, speeding up, raising his glove higher, stretching, trying to catch that bright light descending. He knew where the fence was behind him. He wasn’t worried about banging into it. But could he intersect with the flaming rock? At the last instant, when he saw he was coming up short, he jumped as he never had jumped before, stretched as he had never stretched before. Wished he were taller and tried being taller. It hit the web of his glove faster than a speeding locomotive, bowling him over, flipped his legs over his head, made him roll completely over twice once he hit the ground, and set the glove on fire. When he shakily got to his feet, he held high the flaming rock from outer space. He had caught the meteor in his mitt. But the leather was on fire, and he had to strip off the glove from his hand from the heat and the flames. He threw it on the grass. It flared and smoked. The stadium roared. Rose to its feet and roared, and the bleachers creaked like they were going to collapse this time for sure, which made

some babies cry and some young mothers clutch their babies tighter to their chests. Some young men spilled their beers and jettisoned their hot dogs, but, well, hell, that happens anyway. The young man had to rip off the glove, and a teammate helped stomp out the flames. The glove was now forever blackened, and he was sorry for that. His best glove since junior high was charred, gone. Broken in better than nothing else he had ever owned, except his junior high sneakers. He looked up. The game was stopped, well, postponed, of course. The young man was called forward and got a hearty round of applause from everybody in the entire stadium standing. The team physician looked at the young man’s hand, slathered antibiotic cream to start the healing and hydrocortisone cream on it to stop the itching, wrapped it with gauze and then tape, and told the young man what a lucky young man he was. The team physician immediately wanted to send the young man to the local hospital which had a burn unit hardly ever used, but the team manager, already struggling with a losing season and bored fans, had desperately jumped at the chance to toot the team’s horn. “I want to introduce this young man, this fabulous outfielder, to the stadium,” he said on the PA system. “How ‘bout another round of applause for that fabulous catch!” After the game, JoEllen, a second string slut from the junior college, got to the young man first. Took him out back behind the bleachers, to her brother’s minivan, and taught him the benefits of being a celebrity in less than ten minutes. Being as how she was his first, being a gentleman of small town Ohio and also “new” to the celebrity game, he asked JoEllen immediately afterwards, “Did I hurt you?”

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When she blinked, laughed and said no, he said, “Would you marry me?” Which is what gentlemen from small town Ohio traditionally said after they had sex for the first time with any woman, more experienced or not. When the young man and JoEllen came out from the minivan behind the bleachers, the young man had his first press interview from some stringer from the local paper who got there late, which is where JoEllen introduced herself as his fiancée. And the young man nodded, unsure of events over the past forty-seven minutes and unaware of what that word truly meant to his future. They both had their photographs taken for the next day’s morning paper. The engagement didn’t last long. His fiancée JoEllen and her former boyfriend Carl G. later that night took a box of white wine and a six-pack of cold beer and a blanket up to Blanket Hill on Apple Creek Road where they celebrated under the stars their very lucky day. On their drive back to town, at 4:45 am that Sunday morning, Carl G. and JoEllen tried to beat a CSX train across the Pibald Road Crossing and lost their lives. The next day JoEllen’s mother lamented that “JoEllen never got the chance to see her picture in the paper,” even though it was a morning edition. And she only missed it by a half-hour. Two camcorders and five cell phone cameras actually caught the day’s action for posterity, as fleeting as posterity is. The quality of the color was astonishing, by the way. The Ball of Fire, as one person called it, came in a great arc from the eastern horizon, arching high enough in the twilight sky that everybody in the stadium had time to spot it, nudge the one they were with, and point at the sky. The young man caught the Ball of Fire, got knocked off his feet rolled completely over twice, maybe by the shock wave, and them staggered to his feet, his glove on fire, but outstretched, and the flaming meteor was in his mitt, still flaming.

Then he threw his glove on the grass where the mitt flared and smoked. The cell phone photos got transmitted across the four corners of America within nine minutes. Although it took until nearly noon the next day before the entire nation had a chance to watch the Fabulous Catch, as people were now calling it. By then, one of the camcorder owners had sold the rights to his footage in perpetuity to the local TV station he habitually watched. The local passed the footage up the chain of command to the network in New York which immediately made it available to all its affiliates. The camcorder owner would always rue the day he sold all the rights in perpetuity to his footage of the Fabulous Catch for such a paltry sum of cash. But who really cares about him? The footage from the second camcorder was truly of poor quality. The hand was shaky and only part of the Fabulous Catch was caught on film. However it made YouTube, which registered 1.5 million hits within the first 24 hours. This footage gained the most lasting currency, and the camcorder owner did get his fifteen minutes of fame, although nobody ever noticed his name. That following Monday the young man did let his biology teacher examine the meteor, who called in the high school chemistry teacher, and the two of them shut out the high school physics teacher because they hated his haughty airs and body odor and bad grooming. The meteor was ordinary space rock, although with less iron and nickel and more silicates than most other space rocks. It was “more like a skeleton of a man,” said the biology teacher to the town newspaper, “than a man.” The meteor was the size of an apricot pit and pretty much the same color, except for some charmarks on one side, as if it had been left on the grill and almost forgotten. “It should have burnt up in the atmosphere,” said the physics teacher, who made sure he got interviewed. “That so much of it survived, well, it was a miracle.” When pressed, he added, “It should have

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burnt up his glove. It should have burnt up his hand. It should have exploded and burst that whole outfield into a ball of gassy flames.” The physics teacher was only interviewed once. The young man however did look good in his interviews over the next week. He looked cheery, but reluctant, which is what America wants most in its Heroes of the Hour. On the other hand, the young man was prone to visible despondency and almost uncontrollable stammering whenever the tragic death of his fiancé JoEllen the night after the fabulous catch was brought up. The stadium asked if the young man’s glove and the meteor could be placed on display. But by then one of the town’s bankers had gotten to the young man first and had given him a gratis deposit box at the bank. What the young man did not learn was that the banker often circumvented bank policies, circuitously opened the deposit box and let his poker buddies not just hold but fondle the burnt glove and raggedy meteor. After a couple weeks, well, fifteen days, the young man’s life had defaulted back to normal. He still lived at home. He went to work and did his job like everybody else. He never traded on his fame. Never ran for public office. Never came to be a preacher. Never tried motivating anybody with any speech about his one bright shining moment. The young man never told others what went through his mind, either, when he jumped, leaped, stretched, lunged for that shooting star. Oh, he might mumble something indistinct about instinct or habit, or joke about how he wished he were taller. In truth, on his mind was a single question: Am I nuts?

Sunday Drive

H J. Bradley

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ands on the 9 and 3 position. Feet planted on the floor. Eyes looking forward and to the side. This driver is ready to go. Selecting shopping carts is a gift, as my eyes and hands scan the corral, searching for that well balanced piece of engineering, a cart designed for speed and cornering, a cart that rides on two wheels, a cart that can pop off wheelies while full of various groceries. Throughout the aisles, I don't just take corners on a dime, I cut them in half, whishing past other shoppers as they head to the cashier's line and in their eyes is the look of jealousy, of animosity, of insanity, wondering who was that young man. And when the lanes are clear, the left foot plants itself on the back axle, the right pumps the plastic mass, and the cart shakes louder as it and I eventually become one when the right foot joins the left and I tuck my head in and wheeeeeeeeeeeee! this new breed of man and machine speeds its way down down down as I can hear the chatter of Saturday night dirt track racing announcers providing commentary in a machine-gun southern twang, "Dang-look-at-that-boy-go. Uh oh-there's-gonna -be

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Stymie Magazine -a-collision-if-he-don't-watch-out. We-got-themakinsof-a-cartwreck-here." And when a shelf, a shopper, or my sanity begins to inch too close, I plant both feet onto the ground, as the wheels squeal the cart to a stop. (The look of a terrified shopper within close range of a slowing cart is priceless). NASCAR has nothing on me because in the supermarket, I am Dale Earnheart, Richard Petty, Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti, Evel and Robbie Kinevil rolled up into one seething ball of 5'7" full of derring-do as I dart from aisle to aisle through and through, lapping suckers and list holders, leaving the average shopper in my dust. And I must admit, every time I do it, it feels really good. Some may call me dork, nerd, or dweeb but they're just jealous that they could never match my speed. All I ask is when you are shopping and you see me coming your way, you let me pass. I’ll make sure you get the driver wave before I leave you in my wake.

Autumn & Winter ‘11

The Helicopter

D

Matthew Duffus

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ating the third-ranked junior tennis player in the world had its downside. For starters, she was never around. While Toby graphed co-sin in trigonometry or explicated “Dover Beach” in English, she practiced at the racquet club. Her parents had taken her out of school after sophomore year and found a tutor who understood what doing the bare minimum meant: she studied for two hours every morning, in between cardio training and groundstrokes, and never had homework. And she got to travel all over the world—next week she’d be in Monte Carlo— while his parents only let him go if she made the final of an American tournament. “Traveling costs money,” his father told him. “And you don’t have endorsements to cover your expenses.” Worst of all was the embarrassment of being the number two player at his school while she had scrapbooks full of articles about her in fifteen languages. Every time they hit together, she stopped repeatedly to point out his errors. He knew she didn’t mean to flaunt her skills, that she responded automatically, but it was getting so that he never wanted to play with her in public. His psychology teacher (a subject she didn’t have to study) would have told him he needed to get over such an outdated, gendered response, but at seventeen, he cared more about his friends making fun of him because of how much better she was. As though any of them could have gotten a racquet on one of her kick serves. No matter how unhappy he felt at times, though, he didn’t want to be known as the guy who dumped Jayapradal Mishra. No one, not even his brother Curtis who was too young to care about dating, would understand why he would ever consider doing anything so ludicrous. * His high school’s cross town rival, St. Thomas, played their home matches on the local country club’s four clay courts, sandwiched between the back-nine of the signature golf course and the Tudor-style club house. The courts sat [ 60 ]


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in a row, with stands at one end and a waisthigh, ivy covered chain-link fence separating the other three sides from the sixteenth fairway. He stood on the second court, twirling his racquet by its rubbery grip, watching his teammate and nemesis, Rob Boyle, warm up on the first court—the Show Court, as Jaya called it. He had assumed he’d be number one again his senior year, but Rob had changed that. A gangly, red-headed freshman, he’d climbed the ranks all pre-season with his conservative, keepthe-ball-in-play style. His long, freckled arms reached balls no one else could, and he sliced every shot with zero pace. Playing him was as frustrating as hitting against a wall and as exciting as going to physics lab. But it worked. During their challenge match on the eve of the season-opener, Toby had consistently over-hit, falling prey to Rob’s strategy, which caused error after error and the loss of his top ranking. He blamed Jaya, who had been in the semi-finals of an indoor tournament in Toronto at the time, because she’d told him to be aggressive. When he reminded her of this over the phone that night, she’d said, “Aggressive, not reckless. Don’t you know the difference?” Just as he and Alex Chen, his opponent, finished warming up, Jaya arrived with his mother. Her parents had bought her a sports car for her birthday two months earlier, but she’d made them return it, afraid it might be misconstrued as an illegal gift from a sponsor, so whenever she was in town for one of Toby’s matches, which rarely happened, his mother picked her up. The spectators—more than usual for a high school match owing to the schools’ rivalry— parted for Jaya and his mother, making room for them in the front row. Jaya had on one of her famous tennis outfits, the main reason his friends would never understand his complaints. The white, elasticized fabric set off the suntan she’d cultivated while winning a tournament in Buenos Aires two weeks earlier, and she’d freed her hair from the whip-like ponytail she normally kept it in. Once a week, she trimmed the ends, refusing, like Samson, to allow anyone else to touch them. She smiled, then mimed a back-

hand to remind him to watch his form. She was beautiful. Even the embarrassing position of playing number two in front of his girlfriend couldn’t dampen his spirits. Secretly, he’d been working on a new shot that he intended to unveil— to unleash—that afternoon. Though he thought of it as a new shot, it wasn’t of his own devising. Jaya had come up with it, of course, and it was one reason—along with the luster of her black hair and the way her seventeen-year-old body filled her skimpy tennis outfits—that her fame exceeded that of the two Ukrainian girls above her in the rankings. A journalist had dubbed the shot The Helicopter, though Jaya, out of modesty, refused to call it anything. She’d first used it on match point at last year’s US Open Juniors final. Her opponent, now a top-twenty professional, had stood frozen at the net as the ball screamed past her and skidded off the baseline. The velocity came from Jaya’s unique followthrough: instead of sweeping her racquet over her opposite shoulder, she brought it straight up and finished with the twirl that had given rise to the name, as though her racquet were a propeller that would lift her off the ground and carry her to Immortality. Toby had watched the shot in slow motion on YouTube, and he thought he’d figured it out. The key was to hit the ball on the run, feet apart for stability. If he lined it up properly, as he’d tried to do while practicing it in his driveway, one good wrist snap guaranteed him a winner. The match moved quickly, Chen serveand-volleying, Toby playing aggressively, trying to put on a show for the largest crowd he’d had all season, though it paled in comparison to the nine thousand who’d attended Jaya’s exhibition in Mumbai during winter break. After each point, he looked over at Rob, standing flatfooted at the baseline, preparing to hit another of his looping ground strokes, and hoped the fans were wondering why such a dull player was seeded number one while Toby Vander, whose take-no-prisoners strategy was wiping Alex Chen off the court, languished at number two.

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When he was winning, he liked to provide his own commentary, and so far, his inner announcer, a jaded ex-pro who thought he’d seen everything, sounded impressed. Vander has the answer to each of Chen’s moves. He’s playing flawless tennis! He’s nailing off-balance passing shots from well behind the baseline and top-spin lobs so good Chen isn’t even trying to chase them down. He couldn’t agree more. And each time they finished a game and he flipped the numbers on their scoreboard, he compared the tally to Rob’s. When he was up 4-1, Rob led only 2-1, and when he’d finished his first set, 6-2, his teammate was losing 2-3. As he walked to his chair for the between-sets break, he tried to ignore the stands, but Jaya looked so amazing he couldn’t help himself. She rarely wore anything not tennisrelated, an embarrassing prospect on the Sundays she accompanied him to his grandparents’ house for brunch, though his grandmother had liked her immediately—Jaya asked her questions about her childhood, cleared the table, and sat through hour-long viewings of family photo albums. And he wasn’t crazy about the way people, his friends, even fathers, were leering at her, just as the crowds that gathered to watch her at tournaments and a certain late-night talk show host did. She sat as primly as she could in such an outfit, hands in her lap, legs crossed at the knee, the tennis ball-sized bulge in her calf muscles evident when she re-crossed her legs. He almost wanted to call time and beg her to cover herself with one of his towels, but he knew it would be a futile gesture. She called it his quaintly-paternal streak and said she found it endearing even though she had no intention of changing. “I train ten hours a day for this body,” she’d told him once. “Why should I hide it?” He couldn’t even appeal to his mother, who he knew was unaware of all this; watching him made her so nervous she held her breath throughout each point. During the break between sets, his friends cheered for him, and his mother paced behind the stands, working off some of her anxiety. He felt good. In all the times he’s played Chen,

dating back to seventh grade, Vander’s never held such a commanding lead. When he stood to begin the second set, he didn’t even care that Rob had won two straight games and regained the lead. He smiled at Jaya, who cupped her million dollarinsured hands around her mouth and said, “Come on, Toby!” Just as he got to the baseline, she added, “Watch your second serve!” A few opportunities presented themselves early in the set, but they lacked the dramatic potential he wanted, so he kept The Helicopter under wraps. Chen played recklessly, though, taking bigger chances, and the match moved so quickly he feared he might not have the right opportunity. It had to be today. Jaya would be traveling for the next three weeks, and he wanted her to see it, to know, along with all the other people in the stands, that he wouldn’t always be number two. Even at 5-2, his mother still looked nervous, and Jaya made motions reminding him to keep his volleys firm. But he didn’t care. Ladies and gentlemen, today we’ve witnessed the emergence of a new star. Vander has shown the all-court brilliance that will make him a champion. Right before Chen served, Toby realized he’d plagiarized that line from Jaya’s Wimbledon quarterfinal last year (named Match of the Week by Tennis TV). The announcer, an Australian woman who’d won the junior Grand Slam twenty years earlier, had been one of Jaya’s biggest fans ever since that match, where she’d beaten a Swiss girl so badly she’d broken down in tears, her wailing echoing throughout the stadium. Jaya had sat in the locker room with her until she’d calmed down, half an hour later. That was the last time he’d watched her with his friends. When the match ended, the camera zoomed in on Jaya’s back as she helped her opponent off the court. George, his oldest friend, had sighed and said, “She can kick my butt any time.” He dumped his return into the bottom of the net. He scanned the crowd while waiting for the next point, hoping that no one had noticed how badly he’d miss-hit that shot. They hadn’t. Instead, the majority of the fans had leaned for-

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ward to steal a better view of Jaya, bent over retying her shoe. He could practically see the drool at the corners of his friends’ mouths, the embarrassed desire in the eyes of fathers, who tried to hide their interest from their wives by moving their heads with the rhythm of Rob’s match, all the while maintaining eye contact with the tautly stretched fabric straining to cover Jaya’s sculpted thighs. When Rob’s opponent finally made an error, the crowd’s collective sigh of relief had as much to do with Jaya’s sitting back up as it did with the completion of a long, tense point. This image still fresh in his mind, Toby stood at the baseline, prepared to finish his match and save Jaya—to drag her away, if necessary. Under pressure, Chen double-faulted, giving Toby match point, and he realized that the moment he’d been waiting for had arrived. With one swing of his racquet, he could end the match and rescue his beloved like one of the Arthurian knights he’d read about in Miss Abernathy’s class. After his next serve, Chen charged the net, and Toby moved left, leaving his forehand side exposed. Chen volleyed deep into the corner, and Toby took off. The ball was perfectly placed; afraid of making a mistake, Chen had barely made contact, so when it hit the tightlypacked clay, the ball bounced waist-high and seemed to wait for Toby. He stepped into it just as he’d watched Jaya do so often. She claimed the first time had been an improvisation, that she only began practicing it after the press picked up on it, but she rarely hit a normal forehand any more. He struck the ball squarely, bringing his racquet straight up as he slid to a halt, a puff of clay rising at his feet. In the front page newspaper photograph after her US Open win, Jaya looked like a statue from his Western Civ. textbook, an ancient goddess of war: her front teeth, glowing in the flash from a dozen cameras, biting into her lower lip; the tendons in her neck straining against the straps of her dress; every muscle in her right arm bulging. Toby concentrated on striking a similar pose, so it took a moment for him to notice that

Chen had turned his back to him. Was he looking for the telltale mark the ball must have made when it slammed into the clay? No. He was watching it sail over the ivied fence, still rising as it passed above the golf cart path. By the time it began its descent, everyone—the crowd, Rob, the golfers on the links, Jaya—was following its trajectory. It landed just shy of the sixteenth green, bounced three times, and rolled out of sight. Racquet still poised above his head, he turned toward the stands. He passed over the faces of his friends, red with stifled laughter, and his mother, who exhaled dramatically, and looked at Jaya. She stared back at him, both feet on the ground, her face blank. The crowd took his cue, collectively turning from him to her and back again. He wasn’t sure if he imagined it, but he thought he saw her left eyelid twitch before she stood up, smoothed the front of her dress, and walked away. “That’s not how it was supposed to happen,” he said, facing the puzzled gallery. As he said this, she began to run, and he dropped his racquet and chased after her, cutting across Rob’s court mid-point, almost getting beaned by one of his lazy backhands. He lagged behind her through the parking lot, past his mother’s station wagon, and along the edge of the putting green. But he couldn’t catch her. She was faster than him, and by the time he made it around the clubhouse, she was a white flash on the ninth fairway.

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This is Fury, This is Love James O’Brien

A

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t nineteen, I begin playing rugby. This is a club sport, no official tryouts, no NCAA oversight, no scholarships. Just muscle and sweat and rage and love. If you are insane enough to work through the first weeks of practice you are good enough to play. This is our logic. Few understand it. We don’t care. We practice on a stubbled field north of my college, nothing but crabgrass, stone, and broken glass between a forest and a slackwater marsh. Methane and rotting smells seep from the marsh, hang close to our ragged field. A collapsing barn leers from the sidelines, the planks whitening and warped, and, in places, the earth buckles in hard rows that snag the toes. The nearest water fountain must be a mile away. The temperatures in late August break one hundred degrees. The humidity flexes between ninety and one hundred percent. My shirt clings to my chest, damp, before I even begin to run. When I breathe deep enough I swear I do not need a drink of water. On the first day of practice we run six miles through the tangled forest behind the field, launching over fallen logs and tearing through poison ivy. The mud path swings through the tree bolls, a mudslick at best, and, when we cut out of the verge, drenched and splattered with mud to the waist, we jog alongside a highway where rusted trucks speed by. Then, we circle in the center of the field, jogging limply, until the last of us chugs to the fifty meter line, halfway between the bent goal posts. When he arrives, we form tandem lines, side by side, and run Indian sprints around the field’s circumference. This is an exercise in which the players pass the ball to the end of the line, then the last man sprints forward and repeats the back-pass. Our line runs about forty meters. We pass quickly. We do this for two miles. This is the warm up.

Then, we drill. Drilling hurts. This is where we hit one another for fun. I am tackled by a large man who calls me a bitch. The air leaves my lungs. I gasp and hold myself on the ground. He becomes a close friend of mine at that moment. Those late summer days, the air swollen with the water’s weight, we heave along the field, tossing scuffed balls back and forth, running until sweat comes so strong that it looks like we’ve been swimming. The sun throbs behind a low haze that crawls off the slack water, and it hangs there, high above, like an estranged brother. An old and ancient wound, still bleeding, still hurting. It burns us through the murk, tans our skin mud-brown, wears us into ragged flesh tacked to splintered bones. Fieldside, ash and oak loom over scrub and holly, and spiders spin long webs between their branches. There, in the thin shade, flies congregate in whirring constellations, and we lurch there to drink water, to sit in the little shelter afforded to us. We sweat even there, smacking at the busy flies, counting our bites, slurping down hot water from old soda bottles that taste of vinyl. When rain falls off the Chesapeake the rugby pitch softens into a wide slick and my team runs onto the field, tackles each other until blood and mud covers our bodies from cleats to caps. We look like newly-made men, dredged and sculpted from the earth, hulking forms clayed brown but for the whites of our eyes, our crooked smiles. There, on the pitch, we drill until our limbs swell and ache, and our throats run thick with blood, sweat, soil, and old beer. After my first few practices, mudstreaked, bleeding, and my skin purpling already, but still cognizant, still present, our coach, a small man with dark skin and a Fu Manchu who closely resembles Genghis Khan, tells me about the rules that govern the game. They go something like this:

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If the ball goes out of bounds the penalty is called a line-out. Here, the teams array in lines of between three and seven perpendicularly to the sideline. One player chucks the ball in and the opposing teams each lift a player off the ground, usually five or six feet in the air, and attempt to gain possession of the ball. If a penalty occurs the defending team has two options: a field kick or a scrum down. A field kick is merely a punt—an easy way to push play out of a defensive zone. The scrum, though, is where the action occurs. In a scrum, the forwards, the largest, angriest guys on the field, usually with the correlated reputation of being the filthiest drunks on the squad, bind into a diamond by crouching and hammering their heads and arms places they otherwise would not be. Then, a scrum-half rolls the ball into the center of the scrum while the forwards slam against one another’s shoulders, dropping and pushing as they attempt to rake the ball back into their team’s possession. My coach smiles and spits his dip on the field, the tobacco juice running down his moustache. He asks me if I have any questions. I ask him where I’ll play. He eyes my wide shoulders. “You, my son, have the look of a forward,” he smiles. “You’re gonna hurt and be hurt,” he says. He’s right. A scrum is the roughest part a rugby game—an integral moment in which teams pack into diamonds and slam into one another, trying to rake the ball back into their team’s possession. There, I play frontline, a position called “prop.” I get rammed directly into the opposing players by the tight five, the other forwards. I flank a person called a hooker, the guy who rakes the ball from the opposing scrum. Compared to other props, I’m small, weighing in between sixty and one hundred pounds below their weights. When we play large teams I often get driven under by men far larger than me, meaning that I collapse under their shoulders and get bowled under their stomping legs. It’s my job, too, to make drives, to break through lines. I do this well, better than scrumming, because I am small and fast for a prop. I hurt people, stiff-arm

them to the throat, knock them to the hard ground and leave them howling. Then, I forget them. We drill each afternoon, passing the strange oblong ball between our ragged lines, sprinting forward when we must pass, yelling play calls, criss-crossing now and then. We run in pods of three or four, diamond-shaped, and we down the ball every few meters, scramble over it, and repeat this until we reach the tryzone. Our team is small, a gang of thirty or so, whose numbers fluctuate in response to arrests, expulsions, and injuries. But, we feel. We feel that it should never stop. We do not have pads. We do not have touchdowns. No goals. We have tries. We keep working. There is no stoppage of play. Time does not stop on the pitch. We stay hurting. Our limbs ache where the joints meet. Our nuts press tight to our thighs, vacuum-sucked by compression shorts. We keep them close so no one will take them away. We are drooling knuckledraggers. We are in love with all of this, so much. Weekends, we pack into cars, uniformed in blue and white neoprene, and drive north to Baltimore or Washington to play other university clubs—Hopkins, Georgetown, Salisbury— schools whose numbers outsize ours many times, schools deep in distant cities, engulfed in noise. We do not ride to rugby games. We do not take private buses. We do not charter flights. We swarm—a knot of old ball sweat and cheap whiskey, hollering drunken oaths, blasting Led Zeppelin or Metallica. The air in the cars is stale, close, steeped in ball sweat and mingled with the static smells of neoprene jerseys so unwashed that the mud and the blood have dried to the same stiff color and made the shirts more brittle than the bones of the assholes we overrun. We are cinched up with staples and safety pins, stained with the things cleaner men have not even remembered to forget, those who punch phone numbers and stock tickers and board meetings into sleek PDAs. We’re stocked up on booze and delinquency. The cars rattle, shake

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with spoiled axles, unattended transmissions, the speaker’s bass. We sing songs that make people turn, shake their heads. The tamest one begins: Jesus can’t play rugby ‘cause the motherfucker’s dead. At a game on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. we check the field for used syringes and find two. We trash them in a rusted bin. We play. The field coughs dust and I breathe this in. I charge, swinging the ball in my arms. I drive and knock down a man with his beard knotted into plaits, my palm to his jawbone. Someone hits me, wraps me, and pulls me to the ground. My legs go over my head. The ball arcs behind me, bounces, and other players mass and claw over it in a ruck. I crawl to my feet, join the others to ram the press with our shoulders and hips. We run and we tackle and fall to the field, rolling and kicking. Sometimes, wedged between the ground and other bodies, I cannot breathe. There, you can’t even scream if your bones shatter. We pack together with our bruises and blood rubbing, grinding dirt deeper into our split skin. We return the way we came—packed in cars, reeking. I sit silent, drunk, and drink beers from the cab floor, lowering the cans whenever we push by other cars. I watch the passing world. Watch cities rise and fall. Watch trees budding. Trees dying, their boughs fragile, rattling. Animal carcasses rotting underneath, smears cobbled to the roadside. I see the water open near its final mouth, watch the indifferent gray swell and collapse. I see men break. Be broken. I see them tumble to the ground, hobble up, limbs awkward, backbent. Their faces long, sometimes, screaming. Once, a man ran along the field, his legs near horizontal to the frozen ground, the oblong ball clasped to his chest. His breath clouded and flashed in the winter cold. Then, two others came and, in opposing tandem, drove his legs. The snap carried to the sidelines. His bone jutted from the flesh, just a splinter at a distance. We talk about the injuries we’ve seen, the injuries we’ve felt, and I think on how my body has leaned down, carved to muscle and anger. We speak in hard chortles, a talk and

laughter bursting, and then go silent, thinking. Nights, we sit fireside, beer in our hands, pain barbing our guts. We speak in slurs as the embers hiss low, until night falls, until darkness clamps the treeline. Then, an interior night, the pain that sleep cannot repair. How it falls. Drops in the night. A slow rain. I’ll wake cramped, bleeding, sometimes, from cuts I did not know of, as though I leak in impossible ways, and my head swells, pressing against the skull. My muscles spasm as though fevered, as though they reach for something I cannot. When I sneeze my nose cracks at the bridge and blood dribbles from my nostrils. This happens regularly. And, for a day or two afterwards, I’ll hear it whine against the cartilage when I breathe. We are a morbid kind of instrumental, played only with our grunts and the sound of our wrecked joints. This hurts a little when sober, but becomes much more fun after a few beers. We pop beers and joints, let the froth wash over us, pour into our veins, make our bodies feel fine. This is how I spend three years. Within that time I sustain six concussions, seven broken noses, at least four sprains (one to the neck), a dislocated shoulder, and countless bruises, cuts, scrapes, and minor muscle pulls. I do not remember my injuries, but I do recall that they happened. I remember the after-times, sitting on the sidelines and cupping my head as if to hold my thoughts in place, my teammates grabbing me by my shoulder, telling me to stay awake. My brain pounded and ravaged, and, often, when walking through a supermarket or washing the dishes, I find myself forgetting where I am, what I am doing, who inhabits the broken body I call my own. I know my joints by the cracks they make, where the tendons and fibers lock imperfectly, where they ache. I know myself by the pain I have witnessed, the losses I have sustained. Above our field, once, an osprey catches a low current and bears itself up until it diminishes to a sideways gash on an otherwise vacant sky. I sit on the sidelines, unable to feel the left

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side of my body, unable to tick my fingers, electric currents crackling through my muscles. I had been tackled at my knees, lifted from the ground, and dropped on the nape of my neck, driven into the dirt. My team plays on before me, breaking lines, driving, receding, and driving again. They yell play calls, curses. The hawk cruises far above, dipping and rising, coasting in a wary orbit. Then, it dives, somewhere in the far reaches of the field, beyond where anyone but me could see. When it rises it rises lopsided, weighted, and it flies off to the trees. Here, I know the hawk had taken from the field a small creature, an injured creature, too weak to break its grip. Did it scream. Did it struggle. Did it writhe and bite. Or, did it just collapse in, tired and supple. That is how it happens. A hawk dives. A beast dies. No one hears it. Years later, maybe one or maybe two, the left side of my body ticks in strange ways, cramps suddenly, spasms. I play again, healed supposedly, and, after sacking a three hundred pound Greek with skin like cottage cheese and a smell like molding socks, I rest on the sidelines, the game complete, feeling restored. I drink limeade mixed with vodka, smoke cigarettes before the next game, waiting to hit someone that hard again. But before that, before I threw my body into the rugby pitch’s tumult, before I knew what it was to break and to be broken, I was nineteen, and, to me, nineteen was a good age to get fucked up in the most visceral way possible. A good time to make the world as fucked up as I felt.

Call-Up

T

Daniel Browne

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he Mad Ants were on a tear. Hitting the open man. Crashing the boards. Shooting the lights out. Weaving and achieving. I was standing in the tunnel, my usual spot. I’m an athlete, too: no one has more agile thumbs. I’m the Kobe of the Blackberry; I’ve put in the reps. While the Ants sucked the life out of the Energy, I was checking flights to Salt Lake. Next stop: Provo for FlashBighorns. At the same time, I was e-mail blasting my favorite bloggers: Check out Pookie’s line, 18, 12, 9, and 5. Tell me the Pistons couldn’t use some of that tonight. Ridiculous Upside hit me back right away: Nah, they’re committed to developing Kwame Brown. Good one. An overall number one pick, Kwame’d been mistiming blocks and bricking free throws for eight years now; four teams had paid him in the neighborhood of twenty million. Meanwhile, my boy Pookie was still scratching at the gate. I was already one-thumbing a reply when the Blackberry hummed the familiar strains of H to the Izz-o. It was official: I was blowing up. --Word. --Big fucking problem, Rick said. --Rolling my eyes, I said. Actually, they were still glued to the game. Iowa was making a run. Good news for the hundred-odd fans who’d forked over their ten bucks, annoying for me. A nail-biter is fun for the whole family, but total Pookie domination was the better story. --For reals, Rick said. --Barkley? I said. –I saw it. Here’s what we do: One of our guys calls him out. Pookie, Ladarius. One on one at the Showcase. We sell tickets, give the money to charity. I could hear Rick pegging his desk-size ball off the office window. –Love it. But I’m not talking about Charles. The final horn sounded. 101-97, Ants. The happy fans shuffled out with their cannonfired T-shirts and their coupons for Carlos O’Kelly’s Mexican Café. A knot of gangly, spotted kids in IUPUI gear were hanging around, not

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waiting for the players but ogling the Madame Ants in their maroon hot pants. Now I really did roll my eyes. But hey, what do I know? Fort Wayne ain’t L.A., and the Madame Ants ain’t exactly Laker Girls. Hell, stuff my bra, replace my self-respect with body glitter, and I could pass for a Madame Ant. Maybe the frat boys had a shot. --You there? --Barely, I said. --It’s Fletcher, he said. Now Rick had my attention. The hundred and fifty-two players in the D-League were all my boys. But Fletcher was my boy. --The Twitter thing again? Rick, I don’t even want to hear it. --Becky… --You guys need to tell Mooney. He can put Sun-Tzu quotes up on his white board till his last three hairs fall out. He’ll never have as many followers as a halftime tweet from Fletcher Bryce. --Becks… --I’m just saying. Did I miss the part where the guy turned into Pat Riley? --It’s not the Twitter thing. Fletcher’s been called up. I’d been heading toward the visitors’ locker room, hoping to hitch a ride on the team bus. I stopped short. --Get the fuck out! Who? --The Knicks. I did a little hip-and-elbow dance in the empty hall. Fletcher Bryce in New York was a PR flack’s wet dream. The guy was a decent enough big: twelve points, ten boards, and two blocks for the Bakersfield Jam this season. And with the Knicks’ front line wiped out by injuries, he’d at least get to sniff the court. But that wasn’t why I was licking my chops. Better players had been called up before. What made Fletcher special was the other stuff: the mocking smile when he hit a jumper, as if to say, “Don’t expect that to happen again”; the deadpan travel guides he posted to his blog (“When planning your Sioux Falls weekend getaway, be forewarned: the lazy river and body slide are closed indefinitely

due to mechanical problems.”); the shit-talking with fans while he rode the bench. Not to mention the rocker hair and the chiseled face; the twice-broken nose just gave it character. The first time New Yorkers heard him on Mike in the Morning, quoting Homer Simpson and Clyde Frazier in the same sentence, they’d be hooked, and the D-League would be on the map like never before. I made a mental note to call Mike as soon as I was done with Rick. --Where is he now? I asked. --That’s the problem, Rick said. I’d forgotten there was a big fucking problem. --No one knows where he is. I winced. I could feel the makings of a headache creeping up my brainstem. --Where’s the team? --On the road to Albuquerque. He missed the bus this morning. --His agent? --Hasn’t heard from him. --His cell? --Straight to voicemail. And before you ask, he hasn’t tweeted or blogged all day. I didn’t say anything. I already knew where this was going. --This is bad, Becky. We’ve been busting our asses trying to make this mess resemble a professional league. If this guy doesn’t show up for his physical by the end of the day, the Knicks are going to move on. And we’re going to look like The Replacements. --The band? --The movie, Becks, the fucking movie. Keanu Reeves and his gang of lovable misfits. Only we’re not going to get a shot at redemption because the Commissioner is going to shut our asses down. I knew better than to ask my next question, but the conversation had nowhere else to go. --What do you expect me to do about it? Bap! Rick’s ball caroming off the window again. --He likes you. He relates to you. He’s probably got The Replacements on his fucking

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ipod. The band. If we’re lucky, he sees your number on his phone and decides to pick up. If not, you’re going to have to go get him. --I’m supposed to be in Provo. --Flash-Bighorns? Sports Illustrated and ESPN will to have to coordinate their team coverage without you. --Rick… --No need to say it, kid. I’ll go fuck myself. You get Fletcher. How to describe Bakersfield? For starters, it’s the smoggiest city in the U.S., a factoid that was unmistakable when I rolled into town. The top headline on Bakersfield.com that day was “Murky Water Flows From Bakersfield Faucets.” Alongside it was a reminder to enroll your child in the Kern County Cutest Kid competition. So basically, the pitch is “Bakersfield: Come for the Pollution, Stay for the Judgment on Your Offspring’s Looks.” There are also a lot of Basque restaurants for some reason, though I always end up eating with the players at Rusty’s Pizza, a team sponsor. It’s gotten around the blogosphere that NBA players all love the Cheesecake Factory because the portions are big and the food is consistent from city to city. But my boys are living off a forty-dollar per diem, which makes a fifteen-dollar chicken Caesar look pretty pricey. So Rusty’s it is. Fletcher’s apartment was on the second floor of an anonymous motel-looking complex. A dump, but at least he had a view of the empty pool. No answer when I knocked, of course, so I went down to the building manager’s office. I was expecting a fat lady in a mumu speaking broken English or an old-timer hiding behind a greasy mustache, but the guy at the desk was young: slicked-back hair, short-sleeve buttondown shirt, and a face so burned there were white rings where his sunglasses went. He seemed eager, a little jumpy even. --I’m looking for him, too. That asshole owes me rent. --When did you see him last? I asked, thinking, what is this, Law & Order? --A week ago. I told him to get a job.

--He has a job. The manager worked his lips like he was sucking an invisible toothpick. --I play in a league down at the Y. I don’t call it a job. --I’m sure you’re a legend over there. He smirked. –You his girlfriend? My eyebrows jumped. I’d been on the road with ballers for three years, and as far as I knew, not one of them had ever seen me as girlfriend material. I wore jeans and T-shirts, not short-shorts and halters. I smack-talked them instead of tittering at their lame jokes. I knew way more about the game than they did. Let’s just say I wasn’t their idea of fun. Fletcher was different, but was he that different? I’d gotten drunk with him dozens of times, but I never felt like we were close to making a good bad decision. All he ever wanted to do with me was geek out about bands and movies. My guess is that the only thing he had in common with the other guys was that he thought I was a dyke. --I just need to know where he is, I said. Slick shrugged. –I told him they were hiring at the Home Depot. Maybe he took my advice. I was about to say thanks for nothing, but a flicker of clarity—call it publicist’s intuition— stopped me: That’s exactly what he did. The headache that started back in Ft. Wayne was in full throb now. Son of a bitch took his advice. The Home Depot parking lot was massive, bigger than any of the arenas my boys played in. There was even a hot dog stand—not a cart, a separate building with picnic tables—off to one side. My back was slick with sweat by the time I got close enough to the hulking orangeand-beige bunker to make anything out. Sure enough, there was Fletcher, loading a palate of cacti into the bed of a pick-up. --Tell me this is a fucking joke! I was still about twenty feet away, but I was closing the gap quickly. Fletcher’s head snapped up. When you’re a five-foot-two white girl with a job like mine, you learn to project. Right away his chin fell to his chest, like I’d caught him skipping school.

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--Becky… I held up my hand. --Shut the fuck up and follow me. He looked around to see if anyone was watching us. --I’m working. --Is this for the blog? Like a Ron Artest, Best Buy thing? ’Cause I’ve got news for you, Chuckles, that was the off-season. Even RonRon knew better than to skip out on a game. Fletcher shook his head. –I quit, Becks. I can’t do it anymore. I folded my arms and looked him over. He was wearing a Slayer T-shirt under his Home Depot apron, sleeves cut off. Now that his skin was exposed to daylight—probably the first time in years—freckles were already showing up on his shoulders. Frankly, he looked hot, but he was staring back at me with such a beaten, hangdog expression, it ruined the whole effect. --Go talk to whoever you need to talk to, I said. --I’ll be at the picnic tables. I turned away before he had a chance to answer.

--Doesn’t matter. I can’t put myself through it anymore. --You mean playing at the Garden? What every kid with a hoop in his yard dreams about? That’s what you can’t put yourself through? --Becky… I set my elbows on the table and leaned in closer. –Help me understand. He looked down at his giant big man hands. --You know I’m not going to stick there. --Actually, I don’t know. They’ve got injuries. --So I get a couple of minutes in garbage time. Then what? --You kick some ass, get a ten-day contract. Then who knows? You don’t need me to tell you this. Is there anything more ridiculous than a six-ten man sitting at a picnic table? I didn’t know whether I wanted to smack him upside the head or buy him an ice cream cone. --I’ve been doing this since I was twentytwo, he said. –Six years. Do you know how many summer leagues I’ve played in? How many I ordered a blue slushy and tried to find training camps? Do you know how many scouts a table with shade, but there weren’t any. A few came to check me out in China, Greece? minutes later, Fletcher came loping up with his I did know actually. It was my job to awkward big man’s gait, still wearing his apron. know. But seeing the misery on his face, all I --I’m sorry they made you come all the could do was shake my head. way out here, he said. --Every time, I call my mom and dad, tell I flashed him a blue grin. –It was this or them it’s actually happening. All the hard work. Provo. Passing up grad school. It’s finally paying off. --I want you to know I thought about it, And every time something goes wrong. The suhe said. –I’ve been thinking about it. perstar thinks I’m a smartass. The coach says --Yeah? I’m not as tall up close as I seemed from the --I’m done, Becky. It isn’t in me anystands. The owner wants to make room for that more. If it ever was. kid from Brooklyn because Nike says they can I slurped up the dregs of my slushy, get him into the dunk contest. making that loud bottom-of-the-cup sound --That one was total bullshit. Everyone through the straw, just being a brat. –Well, knows… you’re going to have to tell it to the Knicks. --Every time took something out of me. They called you up today. And now there’s nothing left. I can’t call my His eyes widened. –No shit? mom and dad again. I can’t throw all my shit in a --No shit. suitcase again. I know where this is heading. For a second, I thought it was going to What could I say? This time would be be that easy. Then Fletcher closed his eyes and different? I knew enough to know that Fletcher exhaled slowly. was probably right about his chances. And he [ 70 ]


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was smart enough to know I knew. Spin is my job, but in my experience, it only works on people who want to be spun. I could convince Ridiculous Upside that Fletcher was the most charismatic big man since Shaq, but it felt wrong trying to convince Fletcher. Still, duty compelled me to give it one last shot. --Forget the business. What about the game? Don’t you still love it? He stared at me for a good long moment. He seemed to be concentrating, like he was lining up a free throw. --Not as much as you do, he said. I gave him a yeah-right look. --Come on. --Who’s refing Suns-Spurs tonight? --Crawford, Wunderlich, and Malloy. --See? --It’s my job to know that shit, Fletcher. --No, it isn’t. Damn. Right again. There was no reason I needed to know who was refing a random midseason NBA game. I knew because Phoenix and San Antonio had a fun rivalry going, and Crawford had a history of quick whistles with Tim Duncan, so there was potential for drama. Back in Ft. Wayne I’d been trying to figure out how to program my Tivo from my Blackberry. --When you’re my size, Fletcher said, it doesn’t always start with love of the game. I let that one sit for a while. I noticed for the first time the music blasting from the hot dog stand: More Than a Feeling. Good god. Rick would be checking in any minute, and one way or another I’d have to bring this heart-toheart to a close. But between the stillness, the haze, and the schlock rock, I could feel a torpor coming over me. That vast blacktop might as well have been the lunar surface, we were so far from the world of lay-up lines, half-time tweets, and post-game stat-pimping. And I was starting to see why that appealed to Fletcher. --You passed on grad school? --Journalism. Michigan was offering me a full ride. --But basketball was more glam? --Not to me. Sebastian Junger, Jon Krakauer. Those are my boys. But basketball seemed

to be where I had a leg up. --You’re an amazing writer. Was I blushing? I couldn’t remember having done it as an adult, so I wasn’t sure. --The blog? It passes the time. You know, since I’m not into cards or shitting in the new guy’s shoe. A thought occurred to me, and it was such a good one, it was all I could do not to jump off that splintery bench. --You play for the Knicks, I can help you get a book deal. Fletcher smiled weakly, like his mom was telling him he could win the Pulitzer if he just put his mind to it. --Problem. The minute the team cuts me, no one’s going to care what I have to say. This time he was wrong, and the snotty kid sister in me had to fight the urge to wag my finger at him, Mutombo style. –The minute you step onto that court, your story has an arc. That’s how you get people to care. Not just the basketball freaks. Real people. Trust me. This is kind of my area. --What if I don’t even want to write about basketball? Now he was just being dense. – Basketball’s taken you around the world. You’ve met guys from every walk of life. Guys who come from nothing, and now they’re getting paid hundreds of millions to put a ball through a hoop. Black kids who never had anything but pride, and some white guy in a corner office is telling them what to say, how to dress. You’ve had teammates whose countries were at war. You’ve had teammates who were sleeping with each other’s baby mamas. Shit, I bet you and I know a half-dozen guys who are afraid to come out of the closet. I pointed my chin in the direction of the store. –If you look at your life and what you’ve been through and you don’t see anything to write about, then you should just go back to work. For a minute or two, he just hung his head, not answering. Then he looked at me from behind his floppy hair, the coolest hair in profes-

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sional sports. --I’ll go, he said, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. --I’ll go if you come with me. I started to laugh but got stuck on a nervous half-smile. --Dude, you know I live in New York, right? Whenever I’m not on the road, I’ll be there with your jersey on. Fletcher shook his head. –I need you to come on the plane with me. --Why? --I can’t do it by myself. For half a second, I expected him to bust out the Fletcher Bryce smirk, the one he always wore in my thoughts of him, the one that said, “you do know I’m fucking with you, right.” But then he reached across the table and laid his hand on mine, making it disappear. Not knowing what to do with my own face, I bit my lip. --You’re the only one in this game I can talk to, he said. Now I was sure I was blushing. H to the izz-o, v to the izz-a. Rick’s timing was impeccable. Part of me wanted to let it ring. But why? So Fletcher and I could get lost in each other’s eyes? However it was going to be between us, I knew it couldn’t be like that. I extracted my hand from Fletcher’s and answered the Blackberry. --You can unclench, dude. We’re on our way.

I was making myself yawn. What if I let Fletcher blog the news? How would he do it? I’m excited to play in the Mecca, Medina, Alpha, and Omega of Basketball. Truth be told, my dream was to be a rock star reporter, but hey, I’m tall. Believe it or not, I’ve worked hard, and since I started out in life with more than most ballers, you could say I’ve sacrificed. So I guess I’m ready to show I deserve my entourage, hyperbaric chamber, and flock of hos as much as the next guy. I smiled. But was that Fletcher the same guy who couldn’t get on a plane without me holding his hand? Before he slipped into oblivion, he had mumbled something about seeing me in the tunnel the first time coach called his number and he stepped onto the Garden floor. But he could be riding pine for days or weeks before that happened—if it happened at all. I thought about the torpor that had settled on me in that fuggy Home Depot parking lot and how it was just starting to feel good when I hit on the magic words to bring Fletcher around. A pang of guilt made me shift in my seat. Fletcher groaned. He might have been happier if I’d left him there, let him be. No. Maybe Fletcher Bryce wasn’t a baller for life, but he was a writer. That much I knew. New York was what he needed. Probably. Almost definitely. And I’d be there to cheer him on and hook him up with the right people, and maybe we’d end up in bed together, his huge feet hanging off the edge. Just not every night. Not most nights. He fell asleep almost immediately once As my arm tingled and began to lose we hit cruising altitude and somehow found feeling, I gazed out the window and thought room on my shoulder for his heavy head. In any about what I was missing. Flash-Bighorns was normal chick’s movie, it would’ve been the other already underway. I wondered if I could get an way around. A special snowflake, that’s me. internet connection and check the score, but I tried to get at my Blackberry without then I remembered I’m the one who updates the disturbing him, but I couldn’t. I’d have to draft score; the bloggers get their info from me, and the press release in my head: The New York no random fan would bother to tweet from a DKnicks signed center Fletcher Bryce to a Gatorade call-up league game in progress, would they? today. “I’m excited to play in the Mecca of Basketball,” My mind started to feel itchy. What Bryce said. “It’s been a life-long dream to compete at the about tomorrow night? Would I be able to make highest level. I’ve worked hard for this opportunity. I’ve it out to Tulsa for the 66ers’ showdown with the sacrificed. I’m ready to show the world I belong in the Red Claws? My boy Ladarius had been flirting NBA.” with the league scoring record all season and the [ 72 ]


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Claws weren’t exactly stacked with stoppers. History in the making. And then the following night was Austin for Toros-Thunderbirds. Austin, the best city in the league by a mile. I actually had friends in Austin, and a favorite restaurant—okay, a truck, but damn, those breakfast tacos! Mecca, Home Depot, my bony shoulder—all Fletcher wanted was a place to rest his head. If you ask me, though, rest is for the offseason. Home? Home is anywhere hustle points count as much as style points, “luxury box” is an obscenity, and the only fans are diehards.

Going Home

“T Michael Chin

____

ime to go home,” the referee shouted. In the din of our little auditorium, only my opponent and I could hear him. For wrestlers, going home meant ending the match. We always had a plan for going home, but things changed. Maybe the crowd lost interest. Maybe the rest of the show ran long. Maybe someone got hurt for real. Fred busted his forehead open on my knee. He bent over and thought I would drop a forearm on his back. I planned on a kick. He lowered his head as I lifted my leg. These accidents happen. A little blood never bothered Fred, and, ordinarily, it wouldn’t Barry Wallace, the founder of HWC—the Hardcore Wrestling Company. Blood drew fans to our twice-a-week shows. Where the big companies shied away from too much gore so they could stay family friendly, we knew our audience: young men, sick of one-sizefits-all, thirsty for violence, sex, blood. Most of all, blood. Barry worried about Fred, a veteran pushing 50. Barry rarely had him bleed and when the guy got opened up by mistake, it was time to go home. Fred teetered, fists up like a boxer. It was hard to tell if he was acting or really dazed. Years before, that had been a sign of how good he was. I ducked a wild swing, dug my shoulders beneath Fred’s torso, and lifted him. I spun slowly, building the anticipation for my finishing maneuver. “Yessir,” one of the commentators called, just audible outside the ring, “big Jim Norton is ready to wrap this one up.” I had to wait for Derek and Penelope. When I saw them coming down the aisle, I leapt in the air and fell back, slamming Fred. I rolled over and hooked his leg for the pin. The ref never counted. He gave all his attention to Penelope, just outside the ring ropes. Hard not to be distracted, legs like hers,

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white collared shirt tied off at her midriff, unbuttoned low enough to see the tops of her breasts. If a man got past that body, her eyes had a tighter grip than any wrestling hold. I stood up, all piss and vinegar. To the fans, Penelope, as much as Derek Houston, the behemoth she managed, had been my archnemesis for months, ever since she left me for him. I stalked toward her. They had set me up. Anyone who watched much wrestling could see it coming. I moved toward Penelope, not seeing Derek sneak in the ring behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder and spun into it, only to get nailed with a steel chair. Despite the clatter of steel, despite the fans’ cries, despite the red warmth oozing out my forehead, the ref didn’t notice a thing. Derek rolled Fred’s body on top of mine and got out of there. I turned my face away from the stench of Fred’s stomach sweat as the ref spun around. He slapped the mat three times. Fred got the pin. My feud with Derek got a little more heated. Barry sat at ringside. He nodded. * I had worked for Barry all ten years of my adult life. He recruited me at an amateur wrestling tournament my senior year of high school. Told me he could get me in the ring, get fans cheering while I hit all the big moves just like the guys on TV. When he started HWC, Barry planned to fill half the roster with established pros like Fred, and the other half with fresh faces. He wanted young guys like me with a foundation the veterans could build off, teach us how to sell a blow, how to pace a match, how to talk on the mic. So I left the blue skies of Pottsville, Pennsylvania for the city of Baltimore. Barry found me gigs stocking shelves or pumping gas to make ends meet while he tossed me twenty bucks a night to wrestle. Plenty of guys came and went. Those of us who stuck around saw the company grow. True to Barry’s word, there came a time when I didn’t need a day job. I would never arrive as a star. I was strong, but undefined. Not handsome. Not a

monster. I spent years curtain-jerking, making other guys look good. I had been with HWC eight years when Penelope signed on. Barry said she wasn’t just the kind of girl men would fight over, but the kind men would pay to see other guys fight for. He paired her up with me to serve as my lightning rod. Eight years, nobody cared about my overhead suplexes or my cross arm breakers. When I was defending Penelope, though, all I had to do was punch a guy’s jaw to bring the crowd to its feet. So I moved up the card, Penelope at my side. The two of us started dating backstage, then Barry, who always said the best storylines came from reality, made us a couple in front of the fans. Two years later, Penelope left me for Barry. He plugged Derek in as his surrogate in the ring. “Tonight was good.” Barry sat on a bench in the locker room. We all huddled around him, towering over the little man. “You really popped the crowd,” he said to me. “Made them think you had it won.” I nodded. “Now, Penny,” he went on, “you’ve gotta make sure the crowd sees how you’re distracting the ref. Everyone knows you’re a knockout, but there’s gotta be action.” “What should I do?” Penelope asked. “Kiss the guy?” “Not subtle enough. You see how you’ve got your top three buttons unhooked?” Barry ran a finger along her blouse. “You go out with just two undone. Then you pop the third loose in the ref’s face. Every heterosexual man in the crowd will stare at your chest.” Penelope smiled. “That’s smart, Barry.” “Now you,” Barry turned to Derek, “need to—” “I know—I rushed the chair shot.” Derek looked down at his big hands. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” Barry stretched his neck. The rings under his eyes seemed to grow darker. A lot of folks said Barry didn’t sleep. Some said it in awe of a

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wrestling genius. Others said it in terror for what he might come up with in those waking hours. “You need to wait on that chair shot. Give the crowd time to react, and for Chrissake, give Norton a chance to get his hands up and protect himself.” “Sorry, Jim. Shoulda gave you more time.” Barry went on, “We’ve got our first payper-view at the end of the month. And I’m putting you on the card. This show is all about popping the crowd—the people in the arena, and the people at home. I’m going to call play by play myself to help that along. “What we need from you three is a moment. Something so shocking people talk about it in their everyday lives, when they forget pro wrestling is supposed to be taboo. “Norton, after a hard match, Penny’s going to trip you, and Derek’s going to steal the win.” Barry’s eyes shifted between Penelope and Derek, “The two of you are going to celebrate and laugh at him. And then you,” he turned back to me, “are gonna snap.” I leaned forward. “You’re gonna grab a chair, then you’re going to come in and obliterate Houston with it.” I nodded. “And then you’re going to turn to Penny.” We all turned to Penelope. The eye we could see widened. The other hid behind her bangs. “You’re gonna look scared.” Barry stood, and seemed to grow larger before our eyes. “Everyone’s gonna think Norton will go on and destroy Houston. But instead, he’s gonna go stalk after you.” Barry turned suddenly. “He’s gonna lift the chair, and the crowd’s gonna go wild. But in their heart of hearts, they’ll never believe he’ll do it—not good guy, Jim Norton. “But you will. You’re gonna paste Penny right on the forehead.” Barry slammed his imaginary chair down. “You’re gonna smash her, and no one will know what to do. You’ll drop the

chair and look at your hands, asking yourself what you’ve done while the EMTs run out.” “I don’t know, Barry.” Derek rubbed a hand over the tattooed bulge of his bicep. “I mean, couldn’t he piledrive her or something? Protect her but still make the point?” “If he cushions the blow, the fans are gonna see it. Not all of them, but enough of them. It’s been done. This is pay-per-view. We need to make it real.” Derek looked to me. I looked at Penelope. She brushed her bangs back. It looked like she might cry right then and there. Her eyelids flitted for a second, before she pulled them open wide again. “Sounds good, Barry. Real good.” * Barry hardly ever came out to the bar after shows. I liked that, because Penelope was more herself when he wasn’t around. I set her Blue Moon draught on our little table, and took a drink from my Yuengling. “Thanks.” She pressed the little sliver of orange down beneath the foam of her beer and took a sip. I looked off to my side. Derek had to be the only 6’6”, 270 pounder in the world who couldn’t get himself noticed at a bar. He waited, waving a ten dollar bill toward the bartender. Me and Penelope used to sit at that very same bar before we got together. We would squeeze in so we didn’t have room for anyone else to sit by us, and play that game where we bounced a quarter in a cup to make the other person drink. The two of us would both stagger when we stood up and lean on each other when we walked outside. Sometimes I’d slip my thumb under her shirt above her waistband, just to feel her skin. “You OK?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t I be?” Penelope said. “It’s just, you know, the chair.” She shifted on her stool. “It’s fine. I mean, it’s what Barry wants.” “You never took a shot like that before.” It wasn’t a question. I knew the worst she

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took was a push off the mat to the floor. I practiced that with her for a week—how to fall so she spread her body out to absorb the blow against the widest surface area she could. “Can’t be that hard. Just stand there and look scared. Wait for you to hit me.” She gave me the same phony smile she gave Barry before. “You do all the work.” “I know.” I scratched the stubble on my chin. “It’s got me nervous. Never hit a lady with a chair before—only the boys.” “You just gotta aim lower, right?” That cracked me up. “Is it OK with you?” Soon as she asked it, she drank from her beer again. A chair shot would probably make her bleed, might even leave a scar, or give her a concussion. The boys were always getting their brains scrambled. Penelope’s eyes shone the brightest blue, even in a shithole bar like that. In the right light, I could catch a little swirl of green moving in toward the center of the left one. Could only see it when she opened her eyes wide. “I’m fine.” I wiped a hand around my glass. My hands always looked stupid next to hers. Big, rough, hairy. “No skin off my back.” * Derek’s knuckles turned white, benching 275. He grunted, but his arms hardly even shook going up again. On the tenth rep, I helped him get the bar back up on the hooks. Two and half weeks out from pay-per-view, and he was as big as I’d ever seen him. “I respect Barry as much as the next guy,” Derek said. “But what kind of screwball has somebody smash his girl with a chair?” “That’s the business. Barry knows what sells.” Derek gulped down water from his 80 oz. bottle with the wrapper peeled off. “This is the same guy who sends Fred out there to get his head cracked open when the guy oughta be in a nursing home already.” He shook his head. “You hear Fred might finally retire after those stitches he had to get last night?” “I didn’t hear that.”

Derek set the water down. “Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this spot for our match. You get me up top for a superplex, but I block it, and beat you down.” He slammed his fist into his palm. “Then I go to superplex you out of the ring. The crowd goes nuts. Then you hook my legs and small package me down to the mat.” “That’d pop the crowd all right.” I had wrestled almost eight years longer than Derek. Times like that, it felt like a century. The small package is a finesse move, and Derek couldn’t give or take finesse so well. Coming off the top rope, somebody was gonna break his neck. “Might be hard to pull off, though. And if it’s sloppy, the crowd’s gonna shit all over it.” “Yeah, we’d have to practice. But this is pay-per-view. We gotta do something special. And I’m looking to pick up some new moves.” I got under the bar and lifted off. The luxury of being Derek’s size was you didn’t need a lot of moves. The guy was a monster, so everything he did looked like it could kill somebody. It was average-sized guys like me who needed to have range. I stopped at five reps. My stomach didn’t feel right. “Gotta pick up more moves if I’m ever going to move up the card.” Derek pulled the collar off the bar and reached for a 45 pound plate. “Gotta get big.” * Twelve days before pay-per-view, I looked out from the part in the curtain dividing backstage from the arena. When the time was right, I would run out with a steel chair to chase Derek and Penelope away. Derek picked up his opponent and turned him upside down before slamming his back down on the mat. This was a squash match—one where someone the fans know shows off all his moves against a nobody so he can look good. Derek pulled the kid up, doubled over, and coiled his arms around the kid’s waist, facing the opposite direction. Before he hit his finisher, he would always blow Penelope a kiss. She would sigh and twist her body, a regular school-

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girl. Derek went on, picked the guy up, back to chest, turned him in air, and threw him down on his shoulders for the power bomb. He put one foot on the kid’s chest and got the three count. Derek picked the other guy up one more time and hooked his arms behind him, holding him wide open so Penelope could lay a slap across his face. The crowd booed. She pointed her finger toward the ceiling. Derek let go of the guy’s arms and set up to power bomb him again. That was my cue. I bolted down the aisle, holding the chair over my head. I was slow enough so, if it wasn’t fixed, Derek could have hit the move then retreated. As it stood, he dropped the kid and ran. By the time I got to the ring, Penelope was alone, staring at me, frozen in terror. I held the chair at chest level, pointing a finger in her face. The crowd went nuts. I got both hands wrapped around the legs of the chair, and pulled back like I was going to swing. Right on cue, Derek tripped Penelope, sending her face first to the mat. It was a fall we had practiced a hundred times, her best fall. He dragged her to safety out of the ring while I stood there, chest heaving. The crowd knew that was all they were getting that night, and started chanting “NORTON! NOR-TON!” “Derek Houston cannot run forever,” the commentator said. “These men have a date with destiny.” * One week before pay-per-view, I sat in the locker room, my back to Penelope. She stood behind me. I remembered when she used to sit there and rub my shoulders after a match. I gasped. “Don’t be a baby.” Penelope rubbed the cotton swab harder against my back where I got cut on the ring steps a half hour before. “You know, you could just bandage it up.” “And you could just get infected.” The cotton swab went away, and soon enough she patted the bandage down on each side. I looked over my shoulder. “Thanks for taking care of that.”

“No problem.” She got up, took a step away. “Figure you can return the favor after you open up my forehead.” I swung my leg over so I sat the right way on the bench and could really look at her. “Still can’t believe Barry’s making us do it.” “I know how to pick a boyfriend, huh?” I shrugged, picked up a t-shirt. “Barry owns his own company. He can take care of you. Can’t ask for more than that.” “I want to ask you something. She played with the clean edge of the cotton swab. “It’s just, sometimes, I feel like you’re not OK with me and Barry.” “Most of the time, I’m fine.” I coughed. “I just get these moments.” “What kind of moments?” All the boys in the locker room were a ways off. Two of them were arm wrestling, the rest of them yelling, cheering. “Like last Christmas. First Christmas we weren’t together,” I said. “We never spent Christmas together. I went to my mother’s. You always caught a train out to Bumblefuck to be with your family.” “But it’s the first one after we split up. First one when we didn’t talk on the phone, and when I didn’t know I’d see you when I got back.” I scratched my chest. “See, it never bothered me when I knew you’d be there. And Christmas was what it always was. It was like being a kid again—no place I’d rather be. And my old man would tell me I should move back home, and he could get me a job at the brewery. But I knew I had something better waiting for me. “But last Christmas, things weren’t right. I wanted to be at your mom’s, or your apartment, or mine, or the arena.” I looked down. It was bad enough to lay all that down on a woman, to let her that deep inside. I couldn’t look at her. “Then I looked out the window. I know I was just daydreaming. But I saw you.” “You saw me?” “I saw you.” I nodded. “It was snowing, and you were standing in the yard in this white

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sweater, your cheeks all red. And you just looked so happy. I could see the way I loved you, and the way I thought you loved me. And you lifted your arms. You were spinning out in the snow. You looked so happy.” Half the guys across the room cheered. They swapped dollar bills, the arm wrestling match over. “So I’ve got moments like that.” Penelope didn’t say anything. When I got the nerve to look at her again, she didn’t show any of that happiness I was telling her about. Her eyes were a blur where they should have been wide and blue. “Anyways—” “I don’t,” she cut me off. “I don’t want to lead you on, Jim.” “Lead me on?” She tossed the cotton swab in a trash can and sat down by me. “I like spending time with you—I really do. You look after me, take care of me. And you treat me good.” “That’s all I ever—” “But I don’t see you like a boyfriend,” she went on. “That’s what I was figuring out when I left you. I think I see you more like a brother or something. And I love you like that, Jim. But I don’t see you like you see me.” I swallowed. “But you see Barry like that?” I shook my head. “That’s all you ever see yourself being—eye candy on the boss man’s arm?” “It’s OK for now. But it’s not forever. See, that’s where you and Derek and Barry— that’s where you all have it wrong. You probably dream about running off with me to wrestle for one of the big companies.” “So what? I ain’t supposed to have goals?” “Dream all you want. But this business is bullshit. You guys get caught up in it until you don’t even know what’s real from what’s fake.” She sighed. “And that’s fine. But don’t expect me to play along. I’m here for a paycheck. When the next thing comes along, I won’t look back.” I wanted to say something, to stand up for the business. But the business had me

smacking her with a chair in one week. I pulled on my t-shirt and picked up my duffel bag. The strap ran over the bandage, over the real cut. Real pain. * An hour before pay-per-view, Barry changed the end of our match. Not only would I hit Penelope with a chair—I would do it after I overcame her interference, and pinned Derek in the middle of the ring. “It’s gonna launch a whole new character angle.” Barry said. “Houston, give me some sign you’re listening.” Derek lifted his eyebrows. “Jim lays me out for the pin. I sell it like I’m dead until they’re carting Penny out.” “You can have a little enthusiasm about it. You’re gonna be a part of history.” He straightened his sports coat. “I’ve gotta do one last check on the mics. Everybody get ready.” He half-skipped on his way out the door. The locker room came alive with chatter, guys talking about their matches, talking about the buy rates on pay-per-view, talking about the size of the live crowd. Seemed like everyone talked, until Derek stood up and overturned his bench. The wood slammed against the concrete floor, and everyone fell quiet, turning to him the way they had to Barry seconds before. “This is bullshit!” Derek kicked the bench, hard enough so the boards buckled on impact. “Every week the same guys go over. And it’s never the young guys.” “Derek, it’s not like that,” I said. “The hell it isn’t. You’re gonna hit her with the chair, and that’s what everyone is gonna remember. But not only that, you’ve got to pin me along the way.” “You think I want to hit Penelope?” I kept my eyes on him. “That’s a sacrifice.” “Yeah, well counting the house lights while I lie down for you is a sacrifice too. Maybe you don’t remember what that’s like.” I had felt that anger. “I remember getting embarrassed, jobbing out night after night. But that’s growing up.”

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Derek clicked his tongue. “Then you get to a point where you just don’t care. And trust me, it’s even worse then. That’s when you start to feel all the passion you ever had for this business slip away.” “And I’m supposed to look forward to that?” By most measures, Derek was a bigger man than me—taller, thicker, stronger. But in that moment, he was a boy. “There’s a stage after that, if you stick it out, do things right. After you hated losing, and after you stopped caring, there comes the point when you’ve paid your dues, and you start to move up. You win one match, then another. And then there’s the point when you’re grateful for the chance to win. You take your losses so you can get to the next match, and when you do win,” I put my hand in the air, “when the ref raises your hand, the smile is real.” I remembered that feeling from when I started winning. But even that feeling seemed like it hit a long time ago. Derek had part of it right. That night’s match was an afterthought. Bashing Penelope’s skull would make me famous. That’s where the business took me. Derek shook his head. “So how long I gotta wait for that?” I slapped a hand against his shoulder. “Stick it out. You’ll be all right.” I bent over, and we set the bench right together. * Ordinarily, I jogged to the ring, slapping hands with the fans. That night, I sold the situation, walking slowly, no expression on my face. I took a look at Barry. He had his headset clamped tight over his slick black hair. When Derek’s music hit, Penelope stepped out from behind the curtain first. She wore this glittery silver dress. When she stepped out in front of the crowd, it was like every light in the place swung her way. She shone. Derek came out behind her. His shoulders heaved, and the guy looked ready for war. Just like Barry planned it, I jumped Derek as he climbed through the ropes, punching him from all sides. After I got my shots in,

Derek wrapped his arms around my waist and backed me into the corner, where he slammed his shoulder into my gut. When you know a guy, you hit him harder. Derek and I knew just how hard we could each take a hit, and we didn’t pull any punches. Before long, the match settled down. I whispered for Derek to put me in a chin lock. He wrapped a bicep over my throat and kneel behind me while we both caught our breath. I rubbed my forehead, and found my fingers coated in blood. “Rip his head off!” Penelope screamed. Derek stayed on offense for the next ten minutes. I called most of the action, telling him how to throw me, which hold to use. I had my hope spots when I landed a few punches or surprised him with a roll up to almost steal the pin. Derek had me by the waist, and I could tell from the crowd’s boos the moment he blew his kiss. He picked me up for the power bomb, but I slipped out the back and landed on my feet, I spun him around, then teed off on the guy, hit him with lefts and rights. He dropped to his knees, then toppled to the mat. The crowd grew louder. I bounced into the ropes, and felt a tug at my ankle. Light enough not to faze me, but I stumbled to sell Penelope tripping me. I glared at her, and gave Derek time to get up and make a charge. When I heard his footsteps, I stepped aside. He leapt, and landed chest first on the ropes. I hoisted him up on my shoulders, carried him to the middle of the ring, and slammed him. The crowd chanted along as the ref counted one-two-three. I knelt, soaking in the moment. For my character, this marked retribution. In reality, I tried to remember to be grateful for the win. My work wasn’t done. I rolled underneath the bottom rope, and headed to the announcer’s table. I shoved Barry on his shoulder the way he told me to, got him off his chair. I picked up that folding chair and collapsed it. The guy commentating with Barry yelled, “Norton is an animal!”

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Penelope brushed her bangs out of her eyes. She opened her mouth in fear. I looked her in her eyes the way Barry told me to. It was a look that was supposed to represent our history, looking at her as my valet, my lover, the woman I held above all others, above myself. And then the woman who betrayed me—slept with my archrival, cost me matches. She was every love of every man’s life. She was every ex-girlfriend. It only lasted a second. But a second in Penelope’s eyes always seemed longer. I felt her curled up against me while the sun peeked through the blinds on a Sunday morning, and I sniffed at the orange scent of hair. I saw the first smile she ever gave me. The crowd howled. For a second, I thought they celebrated our love, celebrated everything I had seen, everything we ever were. But all that the people could see was her fear, my chair. Nobody ever hit a girl with a chair, least of all a girl like Penelope. They couldn’t believe it was going to happen, and yet Barry had conditioned them to expect it as the only way this could end. Derek played dead in the ring. Barry stood. Small as he was, he seemed to loom over us. He inhaled and exhaled into his headset. I raised the chair, and leaned back. Penelope’s lips trembled. I turned on my heel and smashed Barry. I caught him clean across his forehead. His headset flipped over the back of his skull as he flopped to the ground. The crowd fell silent. A tear fell out of Penelope’s eye. A camera flash went off, and she blinked. When her eyes opened, they were brighter than ever, bright as that dress. She sidled away until she had her back against the ring. The shine of her dress seemed to spread out from her, consuming the mat, the ropes, the posts. The whole ring was shining. I saw it for everything it had ever been. I ran a hand over my face, smeared the blood and sweat against my fingers, out of my eyes. When I looked again, everything looked

dull. The other commentator scrambled. “Norton has gone insane! What a chair shot! What a match!” I dropped the chair. It was time to go home.

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The Slapsmith Rion Amilcar Scott

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icolette fingered the scars above her eye and the tender spots along the side of her face. Her shoulder ached as did her back which had absorbed the shock. The train pushed away, clanging along the tracks. She thought she could still hear voices hooting at her. The baby was okay though. Cried a little, but he was okay. There were rips in his yellow blanket and smudges of black dirt and grease splotched all over it. She had fashioned the blanket into a sling to hold the baby. There was dirt about his face, which she brushed off. The river was down the slope. She washed her hands in it and cleaned off her son—making sure to get the dirt out of every little crevasse and crack—and then she tended to her own wounds. Nicolette grumbled as she washed, shaking her head, thinking angry things and spitting them from her mouth when they became too volatile to contain. There was little to be done now, but in the future she’d heed what her mother had said about trusting strange men. But he looked so honest, she thought, as she shook dust from her green sweater and jeans. “What’s a girl like you doing out here on these rails alone?” he had said after lifting her through the open train door. “I’m not going to bust you. Let me help you out.” He was nice at first, offering her a private corner in the dusty car. The gentle rocking of the train lulled her into a peacefulness she hadn’t felt for some time. But soon he was grabbing and pulling at her sweater. His friendly smile turning wide and sinister. The baby crying and whining. Men standing around laughing and hollering. Strange hands reaching for her. As she rolled away from the rails they still chuckled and screamed. Calling her filthy names. She again touched the raw scars with her free hand and wondered what they looked like,

how long they would be there. Purple notes darkening her wheat brown flesh. Nicolette could still hear the hollering and laughing sitting at her ear. Men having fun could sure sound menacing sometimes. Nicolette walked along the track, looking out at the dark waters. The jagged rocks squeaked loudly beneath her feet. She had left her bag, which held almost her entire world, with the men on that Southbound train. Just down the embankment was Cross River, a town she had hoped to bypass. She looked up. Overgrown branches like groping arms reached for her. She looked to her back. No one would take advantage of her again. They’d get theirs one day, she thought. All of them would. The baby bawled, wailing punctuated by staccato stabs. She bounced him gently in her arms and spoke soothingly, which only seemed to agitate him. Her face ached as the chilly wind blew against it and her shoulder ached and her feet ached. The cold stabbed pinpricks through her sweater. Nicolette thought of the baby’s delicate flesh and pulled him closer. The temperature had nowhere to go but down. The pain in her back made her stop. Why did the men have to act the way they did? She wrapped the blanket more tightly around her torso and kept hiking, putting miles of track behind her. Down the hill, beyond the brush, Nicolette spotted a fire. She walked toward the light like it was calling for her. The baby had quieted. Twigs cracked beneath her feet. She crouched behind a bush and peered into the flames. Watching a fire was always so soothing, but never more so than now. Her limbs needed rest. Her mouth needed water. Her fingers needed heat. A man sat alone by the fire. The baby waved his brown limbs and struck a high note. The man looked up.

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“Who’s out there?” Nicolette moved toward him. “Hello,” she said. There was a tremble in her voice; she hoped he didn’t notice. “Girl, you’re all beat up. I been there.” The bruises from her fall had turned purple—just as she had imagined—and there were scratches and scars from before. “I fell.” The man winced. “Look like you been hit.” She shook her head. “No, I fell.” “Them bruises ain’t from no fall; a man did that to you. Boy, they getting more savage along these rails. You lucky they didn’t try to do worse. I heard some stories.” “Can I sit?” she asked. “I’m tired.” “Sure. You look like a tough girl— ” “I am.” “But ain’t no girl tough enough to be out here all alone with a baby. Don’t you have a man?” “Just this little one here.” Nicolette felt uneasy. Foolish. Saying too much had gotten her hemmed up so many times. She lied. “I’m meeting up with some people in town.” “Water?” He passed Nicolette a large jug and she took a long swig followed by another long swig. “Thirsty, huh? Bet you hungry too, mama?” She smiled at the man. The firelight flicked across his face, casting shadows and light. His nose was twisted and his upper lip slashed. His eyelids puffy and his skin thick and leathery. He touched his face every few minutes as if to obscure the ruddy splotches on his perpetually swollen cheeks. “Gotta be careful out here. Every nigga you meet ain’t on the up and up. I’m only telling you this because you’re young. Even tough girls trust niggas too much when they young. I may not look like it, but I used to be a tough guy. Greatest slapsmith the Southside ever saw. Used to brawl with the best. ” The man showed off his red, swollen

and scarred hands. “Look at these. Ever seen this, huh? That comes from twenty years of slapboxing. I won the World Brawl four years running. Got knocked slapdrunk in the fifth. Ain’t never recover. They call me Slapfest. Heard of me, huh?” Nicolette shook her head, still eyeing his hands. Once upon a time, hands flew toward her face. Slaps and punches. They looked nothing like the slapsmith’s hands. They were soft and thin. A manly vein bisected both hands, but the nails were always bright and clear; neatly and obsessively rounded and filed. “Girl, you never heard of Slapfest? Know what the World Brawl is? Well, I guess that makes sense. You on the train, so I guess you coming from out of town. It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me where you coming from or nothing about you if you don’t want. I ain’t nosy. “Yeah, I’m a tough guy. Only lost the World Brawl that one time because the nigga cheated. He punched me! Punched me four times in the face and nearly knocked me the fuck out. Ref said he ain’t see it. Can you believe that? You not supposed to be punching a nigga when you slapboxing. In the papers they said it was some win at all costs type shit. Said any professional woulda done the same thing to win, but to me it’s a matter of integrity. Who you is is shown by what you do when you desperate. I was getting him. He only hit me cause he was desperate than a mu’fucker. Pardon my language.” He stood and swung his arms wildly, ducking his face from the rain of imaginary blows. “Blap! Smack! Blap! I slapped that nigga like Smack! Blap! Blap! right across his face.” A man approached. An even older man. He had friendly features and his cheeks and chin were dotted with scraggly gray hairs. The slapsmith paused. Then he held up a frying pan. “Like my pan?” It looked old and gritty; flaky and burnt; veteran of many fires; cast-iron heavy. Nicolette nodded again and looked around for an out. She eyed the approaching man cautiously. He was

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tall and skinny like one of the men from the train. Perhaps she could break for it. Up the grade and back to the tracks. With tired limbs and a baby? There was no cause to run yet anyway. “Hey Daf,” the slapsmith called to the man as he sat, resting a cloth bag next to the fire. “Hey there,” Daf, responded. “And who is the lovely lady?” “Why, I never got her name,” the slapsmith replied. “Nicolette. And this little guy is Bobby.” “Well, hello Bobby and Nicolette. My man isn’t bothering you is he? No? That’s good. You guys hungry?” “As ever,” Nicolette said. Daf began laying bacon strips into the pan above the fire and he cracked an egg atop the sizzling strips. Nicolette said she would feed Bobby while Daf prepared the food. She walked off to get some privacy, unbuttoned her blouse and pressed the baby to her nipple. “What a pleasant surprise,” she heard Daf say. “How often do we get to entertain guests?” “Remember that guy who knocked me down in the fourth match during the last World Brawl and I couldn’t get up. She and that guy share features don’t you think, huh?” “That was a long time ago. Those days are gone.” She felt the men watching her as they chatted back and forth. She shut her eyes and sucked in a wisp of air. Fully in the moment, just her and Bobby. She imagined a silhouette or dark outlines. Lines were all they were. The shadows that exist for only a moment near a flickering flame. But then the chattering from the two threw her from the moment. Daf’s friend made little sense. Nicolette looked around at the menacing trees. Peacefulness, she realized, was synonymous with vulnerability. She became sad and then scared. And she asked herself why again she had failed to heed her mother’s words. Though Bobby wasn’t finished feeding, she removed him from her nipple, buttoned her blouse and returned to the fire. Bobby bawled

and whined and Nicolette shushed him. The men had begun eating. Nicolette dipped her bread into the bacon grease and chewed slowly. The three of them were quiet. She noticed for the first time a chorus of crickets and, in the distance, the lapping river. Nicolette asked for another slice of bread. Daf reached into the bag. “The Breadsman,” the slapsmith said. “That was his name. Owned a bakery in Cleveland and slapsmithed on the side. I was good at talking shit; said this fight would be ‘The Death of a Breadsman.’ He ain’t like that. That’s why he punched me. “The World Brawl. One day, 25 matches. Like a tournament and shit. First time I ain’t make it past at least the second round. Lots of money was riding on me. But that don’t matter when you up there in the moment fighting. When you in that ring it’s just you and another warrior. That’s all that matters and eventually when you start slapping it’s just you. Everything else disappear. And then you disappear. And that’s when I’m most alive, when I disappear. People come from all around to fight. They got slapsmiths everywhere, but mostly in Cross River. We invented that shit. Tournament of emperors, not kings. They give you a purple cape and a crown when you win, not a belt. Four years in a row I’m the champion. And the only way I get taken out is when they cheat me. You about as slapdrunk as a mu’fucker when you get to the end of that thing. I done seen people start it a genius and they retards by the end of the day.” “Now, now Slapfest,” Daf said. “I don’t know if our guest wants to hear all that.” The slapsmith started yelling, “He cheated. He punched me. You a slapsmith or a coward?” He stood and bounced on the balls of his feet. Again dipping and ducking from imagined blows. Slapping and backslapping the air. Emitting a soft hissing sound with every slap he threw. The man glared at Nicolette. “Come on. Come on.” He looked just as he did before, except his eyes were glassier. He was staring at an invisi-

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ble enemy and all had disappeared. Shadows danced about to the rhythm of the fire. She imagined an audience, lusting and crying for the violence. Nicolette flinched each time the slapsmith swung his hands. The baby cried with a new rhythm. The sounds echoed through the night. “You’ll have to forgive our friend,” Daf said. “He’s off in a zone. There’s no rousing him when he’s like this. Give him a minute and he’ll calm. Look at him. You, me, that baby, even his own body. It’s all disappeared. He might not look it, but he’s at peace now. He’s lucky, really, that he has a place to go and just be. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it, Nicolette? Nicolette?” Nicolette trembled and tears beaded at her eyes. She didn’t hear Daf’s words, she only saw the slapsmith’s menacing taunts. “I’m Slapking Of The World and who the fuck are you?” Nicolette remembered the train and the men snatching at her, baby be damned. She grabbed a cloth from the ground and wrapped it around her free hand as if she were a slapsmith. “I’m not down for the count, uh-uh,” the slapsmith bawled, slapping at shadows. “I can go another round. Another two. Uh uh. That nigga punched me. That nigga punched me. Let me at him. ” Nicolette sprung to her feet, snatched the skillet off the fire and slammed it into the side of the slapsmith’s head. Bacon strips flew through the air. The baby roared as if cheering. The slapsmith dropped to the ground, out cold. Daf rushed toward his friend. His movements reminded Nicolette of the men on the train. Before Daf could reach the slapsmith, Nicolette rammed her foot square into his testicles. Daf stumbled, holding his crotch. He fell, groaning and wheezing. As he tried to rise, Nicolette tossed the skillet toward Daf, striking him in the mouth. She could hear the clang of the metal grazing his teeth. He fell back onto the dusty ground. One hand cradled his crotch, the other his bloodied lips. Nicolette bounded the embankment and walked swiftly along the track, listening to the

music the rocks made beneath her feet. She shushed her son and bounced him and finally he fell asleep peacefully against her chest. Every so often she’d stop to adjust the sling and to glance at the flickering fire at her back. Soon she could no longer see the injured men and then even the flame was no longer visible. What a long walk it would be that night and an even longer journey across that twinkling river to wherever she’d eventually rest her head. She paused again to shift the sleeping baby. She looked down. At her foot was a rock, big and smooth, heavy to the touch. Nicolette rested it in the sling, a good luck charm, sitting right where the tightness in her chest met the untroubled child.

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The Gift of Nothing Chris Wiewiora

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“That which you work against will always work against you.” —from Iron, an essay by Henry Rollins

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paper. I wish I could just cut away my fat. The doctor feels me up. His hands squeeze my droopy chest. He’s searching for something wedging between my chestplate and pectoral muscles like an extra layer of meat on a sandwich. He is slow, and thorough. Mom sits in a chair in the corner watching me like TV. I stare at her the whole time. I shouldn’t have told her I was embarrassed to dress out in front of the other middle school boys in the locker room. Do you need a bra? they say and point to me as I dress out. Man Boobs, they say and try to pinch me before I can pull my T-shirt down. The doctor doesn’t have much to say. He’s fat, fatter than me. I’ve always liked him because he feels bad recommending weight loss to me. He clutches his love handles and tucks them into the waist of his pants. The doctor looks over at Mom. He shakes his head. Mom shrugs her shoulders and says that she was concerned that it might be something more. I hoped the doctor would find growths to scoop out, tumors to do chemo on, a thyroid problem I could swallow a pill for; anything other than me just being a fat kid.

am searching online forums for techniques on how to work out better—how to become a machine—when I stumble across an essay about weightlifting published in Details magazine by Henry Rollins, the lead singer of the hardcore punk band Black Flag. During shows Rollins is known for confidently prowling the stage without a shirt while sweat rivulets over his chiseled chest. Rollins purposefully flexes his bulging bicep when he curls the microphone to his screaming mouth. I would never have thought that Rollins had considered himself a loser and a spaz as a kid. In his essay, Rollins says a gym teacher turned him on to working out. He reinvented himself by building a shell of muscles around his weak body. Rollins admits to listening to ballads while working out. It’s like he’s in love with “the Iron,” as he calls it. Rollins says that the gift of the Iron is that it is not easy to lift it off the mat. Rollins reflects that you can build yourself up as much as you want, “But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.” You can change, I am a full-time college student and I but the way you measure yourself always stays the same. To me, a mile is still a mile. Four years have a part-time office job at the university, but ago, I started running to shrink away from being I work out more than 10 hours a week. Working out is my real job. Clock in, clock out. Even if I the fat kid. skip class or I sneak up the back stairs of my office building when I’m late, I only feel guilty I am a boy getting a breast exam. My when I don’t work out. I do sets of 20 pushups mom is concerned. The way she says as easy as I used to eat a serving size (17) of po“concerned” is the same as when we go shoptato chips. ping in department stores and she asks where When I first started running, I could the husky section is for me and plus-sized for her. Mom lets me pick out my clothes, because hardly do 10 pushups without plummeting my knee to the ground after a set. I was soft. I she can only eyeball how big I am. would let myself skip working out if I ran 3 In the doctor’s office, my thick naked miles in under 25 minutes. I would blow out the thighs squeeze on top of the examining table. final stretch back home and check my time on I’m sweating and my skin glues to the butcher

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the kitchen’s microwave. Recently, I’ve clocked a 17 minute 12 second 3-miler. I could run another mile and still pass the fat kid trying to run fast enough not to have to work out. Now, I do at least 150 pushups a week. I don’t just do the pushup where you have your palms parallel to your shoulders as you lower your arms to a 90-degree angle then press up. No. I inhale as I let the tension clinch my lower body from my ankles through the stones of my calves and along my hamstrings that are as flat as slate. My biceps ache supporting the fat kid’s belly. I take a moment to hate this feeling, hate him. The fat kid’s chest heaves as it hangs with gravity. He wants me to give up. I do not let myself buckle under the fat kid’s weight. I gush out my breath. I press up and away from sinking. I have not had a good workout unless afterward my fingertips numb so I can’t hold a pen, my arms inflate so much that I can’t scratch my back, and my knees shake so much I don’t know if I can stand. Edging my body to collapse—instead of listening to the fat kid begging me to skip a set—and shuddering as I get up feels better than the afterglow of sex.

So I sling the guitar strap over my neck. I hate how it makes my chest part into two distinct mounds. I switch on the amp and the speaker buzzes. Then I plug in the cord from my bass to the input, sizzling like steak on a grill. Once, John said how he wished he had a more built chest like mine, but not as fat. I felt the backhand compliment was like someone patting my shoulder a little too hard. I don’t know why John and I are friends. We don’t have much in common. It’s wrestling season and as I tune up John tells me about running “stadiums” in sweatpants and a hoodie, taking suppositories squatted over the toilet, and sticking his finger in his mouth to touch his uvula like a magic button at the back of his throat; all to drop weight for his matches. Ready, I set my thumb on the pickup, and close my eyes. My wrist slides up and down the guitar’s neck, it’s all muscle memory, and I play the song “Bloodclot.” I hum the lyrics, “I can see 360. I can see all around me.” When I am in my room alone and playing this song, I spin around and get dizzy watching the cord lash like a string of licorice. I near the bass solo and my chest is In high school, I am 195lbs—an almost brushed by something. With my eyes still closed, two-hundred pound blob of fat wearing X-L T- I shrug my shoulder, trying to adjust the guitar shirts whose necks tighten like a noose and the strap. And then it comes again as gently as the armholes squeeze my arms like a sausage casing fuzz of lint. I miss a note, but keep playing. and a 38-inch waist that is so tight the paunch of The touch keeps occurring and I feel my my belly folds over my belt. I want to blame nipple hardening. I think I am nervous, since I someone, something: snack food companies, don’t play for other people often. As I let the video games, Mom, genetics, the too-hot last note ring, I squint through my eyelashes and weather, high sodium counts, portion sizes, see John’s hand reaching for my chest. I jump Happy Meal toys, free refills, husky sections, back against the wall of my bedroom. anything other than me—the fat kid. “What are you doing?” I say, crossing I am in my room with my friend John, a one arm over my chest. wrestling jock. He points to the bass guitar lean“Oh man, your nips got like diamonds,” ing against my wall and asks me if I can play John says. He bites his fist, trying not to laugh. something for him. I say sure, adding that I can I hold the neck of the bass in my other even do a few songs with my eyes closed. I love hand, defending myself. John thinks this is the thump, thump of the bass in any song by the funny, like it’s all a joke. I think about how guipunk band Rancid. tars are called axes. I want to chop John into “Alright man, rock on,” John says, rais- pieces of meat. ing devil horns. [ 86 ]


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When I read the Rollins essay, I know I need to add resistance. It is not enough to do pushups anymore. On the U.S. military’s physical training website I find how to incorporate weights. I take two 15-pound free-weights and set them on the ground, parallel with my body hovering in pushup position. My thumbs rest on the bars. If I were to curl my arm all the way back then I would look like a hitchhiker. I press up, puffing out my breath as I straighten my arms and lock my elbows. I adjust to balance on one arm, then pull the other arm with the free-weight up next to my kidney. I hold the free-weight like a boxing glove. I punch the 15 pounds back to the floor, beating up the fat kid. As I do my final set of these free-weight pushups, I think of myself as John Henry—the folk hero who slung 20-pound sledgehammers in each hand to beat a steam engine in a race to open a hole through a mountain. Then I feel the tissue in my bicep stretch like Silly Putty pulled too far—snapping. Looking at my bicep, I remember that John Henry won against the steam engine, but his heart wore out. It was not enough to be a man. A bruised knot rises like a speed bump in my vein. I need to make myself into a machine. I massage the popped blood vessel, smothering it back into my hungry body.

low at-rest heart rate because of the running. I asked a nurse what I could do about that. She said, they never suggested this, but I could add salt to my diet to spike my heart rate. After my physical, I wanted to see how fast I could go. I clocked my best mile at 5 minutes and 20 seconds. I know that’s not that fast. In 2000, there were only 6 American men recorded who ran sub 4-minute miles. I have a 125,000 times better chance of getting struck by lightning than running faster than 15 miles per hour. I can’t run that fast more than a mile. In comparison, during the 2007 Olympic marathon trials, Ryan Shay, with a record of running a 5 minute 8 second pace for 26.2 miles, had to run 3 minutes faster than his best to qualify for the 2008 summer games. Trying to subtract time, Shay collapsed from a massive heart attack. The chambers that pumped his blood were too big, constricting too tightly that day; he was like a car topping out for too long and his heart was a little wet engine that blew. Shay died from running. If I’d known about Shay when I had my EKG, I might’ve stopped running for fear that my heart would slow, slow, slow, and then stop. But now, I know that I would rather risk dying than not be able to keep losing weight. This time, the doctor does another EKG and says that my heart is amazing. “I hate runners,” the doctor says. I’m not sure if he’s jealous or jokAt my annual physical, the doctor shines ing. Either way, I’m glad that I can keep trying a light in my eyes and checks my ears and has to kill the fat kid without killing myself. me take deep breaths while he puts his stethoscope on my chest. For my physical the year beI’ve heard how some people tack up a fore, when I began putting in 20 miles of runpair of “fat clothes” to their wall. Some have a ning a week, I was in the same examining room. circus tent of a 3X-L T-shirt, or a pair of 54-inch I noticed the doctor had me breathe longer than jeans (the biggest size made), or an extra-long tie usual. “It’s probably nothing,” the doctor said. to fit around their neck. I buy “goal clothes”—a “But I’d like to do an EKG.” size too small to shrink myself into. As soon as I The EKG would test the strength of my fit, I throw away my husky clothes. I don’t want heart. The doctor wanted to see if my heart was anyone else to wear them. weak. I knew my grandmother (my mom’s side) had died after surgery on an aneurism. Nodes I keep a workout journal. Looking were placed on my chest like a constellation and through the previous four months I add up what electrical cords connected-the-dots. I’ve gained: 280 miles running—from my home The results were negative. I just had a in Orlando, I could have run north past the state [ 87 ]


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line of Florida. In my four years of running, I’ve gone more than 2,500 miles—the length of the Appalachian Trail and back. If my body were a car, I would need an oil change. In an issue of Runner’s World magazine, I idolize the marathoners who put in more weekly miles than they drive. They are taut stick figures with a stretch of lean muscles woven around elastic tendons. They look like they are dying to run. There’s a hunger behind their eyes like they can’t wait to come back from a run emptied and eat, eat, eat, because they earned it. On the back cover is a North Face ad: There’s a man, Tim Twietmeyer, with a salt and pepper, caterpillar-thick mustache and in his heavily callused hands is a plate of silver belt buckles that look like cheap, pewter souvenirs you could buy at any gift shop outside of a mineturned-museum. Each of those belt buckles is stamped with the words “Western States”—an ultramarathon held in the Rocky Mountains. The race was originally a horse race, until in 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh, a myth of a man, rode to the starting line on a horse that collapsed from exhaustion. Instead of getting a replacement steed, Gordy, a 200lbs burly guy, said he would run the race on foot. You have to imagine Gordy as a man with sinews of muscles that probably looked like roots and a set of coal black eyes set in his skull draped with vines of hair. This mountain-man not only ran and finished, but crossed the finish line in less than 24 hours—the cutoff time for horses. And the silver belt buckles aren’t just participation medals for finishing. The race is 100 miles. Silver means running the race in less than 24 hours. The Western States is more mileage in one day than I run in a month. And there are more than 25 buckles on the plate. Tim’s granite-face looks like he could run against the wind forever without being worn down. In the corner of the ad is North Face’s slogan: Never Stop Exploring. I have never asked myself: How far is far enough? Next to Tim, I don’t really run that much.

When I run, I never walk. It’s not just because I agree with one minor shoe company’s ad that “If you ran without sacrifice, congratulations. You just jogged.” I run without slowing because it is the only time I feel weightless. In the split seconds of my legs slicing the air like scissors, my feet hover above the ground, against gravity. I am a blur of a body, without mass. One person’s “run” is not another person’s run. I believe “running” to be running 7minute or less miles—the speed that would get you kicked off a high school men’s cross country team if you ran any slower. When I run, I run. My stride spreads over sidewalk blocks, though I mostly run on the road’s asphalt, facing traffic. I like to have the cars spotlight me. Running is subtracting the fat kid. Each step pounds the fat kid on the anvil of the road. The more I hit him, the less he will be. In high school, my brother and I watch Kevin James’ standup comedy routine on TV. James makes a joke about how he used to be able to wolf down two Big Macs. He loved to eat. James says that now, he can only get halfway through one Big Mac without feeling like a bear that has been shot in the ass. He’s tired of eating. We laugh. My brother is skinny. He has a car and always buys fast food before we watch TV together. I don’t ask him, he just buys it and feeds me. I feel like a farm animal always ready to eat. Kevin James says his goal is to lose enough weight so his stomach doesn’t jiggle as he brushes his teeth. My brother laughs, but he doesn’t notice how James is wearing all black. I know it is the best slimming color. Instead of pointing that out, I laugh, too. Not because it is funny, but because laughing at James is like wearing black. There’s a note that is always on top of my desk: flex abs. I lie on my back like a turtle on its shell. I am exposing my belly as I do crunches. I curl

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up, off one shoulder blade with my fingers at my ears, and I touch my right elbow to my left knee, then mirror the modified sit-up. Each time I come up, I feel like a whale breaching as I puff out air and clench my belly button toward my chin, flattening my back. I’m waiting for my sixpack to surface. I follow the modified sit-ups with a set of crunches where my back is flat against the ground while my legs are straight up in the air. My feet could walk on the ceiling. I am the letter L. Every time I lower my legs to the floor, I imagine myself as a lever on a slot machine pulled downward for the jackpot. When I am done with my workout, I take off my T-shirt and walk through the hallway to the kitchen. I don’t care about the sweet and sour stench of my drying sweat, because I want to see my skin’s shine in the window across from the refrigerator. I parade back to my room like a glistening rooster. A cock. A jock. Every night I brush my teeth without a shirt. Looking in the mirror, I think, How much more of the fat kid can I erase?

too fast, but I feel like passing on some advice to this kid. “The cement will mess up your knees.” The kid comes down into the street, but speeds up. He listened to me, but I don’t think he wants to hear any more. I follow the kid and lengthen my stride, accelerating through a turn. I gain and run a half -step in front of him. Even though I speed up, I am breathing in and out only through my nose, while the kid begins to breathe in and out through his mouth to keep up. If he isn’t going to hear more from me, I want to show him what running is. I let him pull ahead, only to pass him in a few strides. I am going to get him to empty himself out. On a quarter-mile straightaway the kid takes off. He pounds his heels into the asphalt, kicking his knees back wildly. His arms flail like he is trying to grab a rope to pull himself ahead of me. I smile. I like this kid’s spunk. I lean my shoulders forward and lift onto my tiptoes, prancing. I know I am running at about 90% effort. I eat air like a buffet. In through my teeth and blown back out through my mouth. EffiOne day, I am running a paced 3-miles, cient. I pass the kid. when I see a kid, probably just beginning college, I hear the kid stop. I turn around, runreally hoofing it on the sidewalk down my street. ning backward, with my arms open. He isn’t wearing a shirt. I can see the curves of “Come on,” I say. his toned muscles etched on his bare back. InThe kid looks like he hates me as he sets stead of slowing down and coming to a stop, his palms on his knees, hyperventilating. I know ending my run, I keep going and catch up with that feeling of giving your all. Your stomach’s the kid. acid tickles your throat. You might throw up. “Hey,” I say as I run next to the gutter, I slap my hand down on my tough thigh. parallel with the kid on the sidewalk. I laugh like a bark, challenging the emptied kid. I The kid slows down as he sizes up my am glad to give him this gift of being nothing. running uniform: I am wearing my short-shorts with their swim trunk-like lining so I can easily I come home from running and find my slip them up and over the bricks of my thighs. mom eating at the table. When I look at her I My shoes have no laces, only a pull-string syslose my post-run appetite. Mom’s T-shirts are as tem. I have on a loose, long sleeve mesh shirt. wide as long, she has elastic in her jeans’ waist, The kid lifts his chin to acknowledge me, and recently she’s bought “house dresses” that I then goes back to his quick pace. hope she won’t wear in public. The style is called “You know,” I say. “You should run in a mu-mu and when Mom is eating ice cream bethe road.” I normally don’t like to have a confore noon I can’t help but think of the word versation while running, and I hardly ever run “cow.” with other people because they always say I go I try to bring up the fact that the spoon [ 89 ]


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in her hand is the same as a needle in her arm. She’s putting junk in her body. Mom says, “I never bugged you about your weight.” I wish she had just told the fat kid to go run laps around the neighborhood. Instead, Mom signed herself up for the Weigh Down program with the mantra “Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” She talked about a self-control exercise of having only one M&M from the bag and then putting the rest in her purse. Later, there was an empty wrapper in the garbage. I go to the fridge to get some water. On the wall bordering the kitchen and Mom’s study, there’s a photo of Mom and her sisters when they’re all in college. And Mom is skinny. Her short-shorts are cuffed. Mom’s thighs are milky smooth with no hair, no dimples, no cellulite. At the fridge, I fill up my cup from the water filter. I stopped drinking soda as soon as I wanted to make the fat kid thirst. I lost 10 lbs in a few months. I drink at least 64 ounces of water every day. My piss is so clear I don’t have to flush. As I gulp water I watch Mom, still eating. She looks at me and says between mouthfuls, “You work so hard.” I want to tell Mom I believe the quote from 5 foot, 6 inch and 105 lbs super model Kate Moss that “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” Sometimes, I want to be skinny enough to not have to work out anymore. I know of some runners who have such a low body fat percentage that in summer they have to wear a jacket outside or else they will shiver in the sun.

The intern follows me out of the office door. He looks at the hallway’s carpet where I’m still pointing. He claps his hands together. This is his last chance to give up. But he gets down on his palms and starts to puff out his pushups. I respect him for being a man about this, but I am going to show him what it takes to be a machine. I get into position for perfect pushups: my hands at my shoulders, my butt tucked in, back straight, and elbows locked ready to bend down to 90 degrees and back up again. My hydraulic arms pump. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth like an exhaust pipe. I hold each pushup for one second, idling, and look at the intern struggle. The intern does his 16th pushup with his arms shaking, just able to lock his elbows back up. His knees plummet into the carpet. I finish a set of 25 by leaping onto my feet and standing up, brushing off my hands on my pants. The intern is gasping. He looks disappointed with himself. I look into the office. My boss and the other interns aren’t watching. I don’t know if they’ve seen any of this. I want to point to the ground and say, “Look at this,” like something happened here that was important.

Now, I weigh 165lbs and am 6 feet in my running shoes. I wear medium sized T-shirts that are loose over my chest and 33-inch waist jeans that I always have to wear with a belt. When I knock my knees together, my thighs do not touch until the cleft of my groin. Depending on if I shit or just ate, my In the office, I call an intern weak. I weight fluxes as low as 160 and as high as 170. I mean it jokingly from one guy to another. The use the same scale, in the same grocery store, at intern takes it personally. I guess it’s because he’s the same time to weigh myself every week. It pudgy. Before I know it, the intern says he bets might seem like I’m obsessed. But I don’t have a he can do more pushups than me. scale in my bathroom. If I did, I’d weigh myself I lift one eyebrow and smile with my lips every day, and then I would be obsessed. closed. I pull my shirtsleeve back and show him my baseball-bicep. My veins look like stitching At the grocery store, I stand on the scale. through my skin. I watch the needle soar up the numbers and The intern stands up, staring at me. stop. My eyebrows furrow and I look down at “Alright,” I say. “Right here, right now.” my feet, stomping the metal sensor. I point at the intern and then to the hallway. The scale reads 156lbs. I am not dyslexic. [ 90 ]


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The needle points to the number that is too low. I step off the scale, then step back on. The scale reads 156lbs, again. I am wearing sneakers, jeans, and a Tshirt like I always do whenever I’m not running. I jump up and down on the scale, seeing if it wasn’t registering all of me. Still, the scale reads 156lbs. I consider exchanging my basket for a cart to load up and pack on weight. But I walk the aisles with a basket, picking out items for a three-ingredient kitsch and get behind two women in the 10-items-or-fewer line. Two other women fill in behind me, so that I am sandwiched in-between them all. The manager in a navy cardigan comes up to me and taps my shoulder. “Sir, please follow me,” she says. I look left and right. I want to say I would never steal food. As I lift my arm to point my finger at myself and ask, “Me?” the manager smiles and shakes her head a little, cutting off my question. “I’m just going to open up another lane for you,” she says. I wonder if she’s hitting on me. The two women behind form a cha-cha line. The manager ushers me forward, then notices the women linked to me and her hand cleaves the air. “No,” the manager says. “You can stay in this line.” The way she smiles at them is so different from assuring me. I had relatively the same amount of groceries as the women in line with me. I didn’t act like I was in a hurry. I’ve been coming here for years and have never received special treatment. I don’t ask why I was picked from the one grocery line to another. The fat kid never would have been chosen.

155lbs. That afternoon, I call my doctor. “Maybe you need to eat more,” my doctor says. I want to argue that that has never been the answer. But I realize I may have finally killed the fat kid, because I am being told I should not subtract any more of him from me. I have to maintain instead of plummet. It’s the difference between sprinting until I collapse and pacing to go the distance. Soon after I am told I have to find balance, a beautiful, skinny college friend of mine who recovered from anorexia tells me a poem of hers, titled “she is a small, thin girl,” is published online. I read it and love it. To other people it might be about numbers, but I know it is about how we look in the funhouse mirror of our mind. My friend captures the struggle with her lines: so she forced herself to eat (everyday for months, she would force herself and it felt like lifting weights, training for a marathon)

When I get home from my classes at the university, I turn on the stove. I fill up a pot of water. My stomach croaks. I think of how you can put a frog in cold water, set it on a burner, turn on the heat, and it will allow itself to be boiled alive. As the pasta churns, I realize I have been losing weight since entering college. If 195lbs looks like a potato, then 150lbs is a celery stick. I don’t like the feeling of being full, because I feel like I’m gaining. Instead of eating the pasta, I turn on my coffeemaker. This is a trick I learned: coffee satiates hunger and its caffeine propels any workout. I listen to the sputter of the percolation and stretch. In two days, I check my weight again. I drink a cup of coffee and decide to go This time, the scale says 154lbs. I am shaking as running without my shirt on. I am not the fat kid I leave the supermarket without buying grocer- anymore. I’m antsy. I want to show off the body ies. I’ve built. During the week, I come back and check I don’t normally run without my shirt. my weight two more times: 157lbs and then One summer, when I still had some flab from [ 91 ]


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the fat kid, I ran without a shirt so I could tan at the same time. I remember passing a house and hearing someone whistle from their garage. I didn’t know if they were mocking me. For the rest of the run, I wanted the security of a T-shirt covering my body. In the present quiet of my afternoon run, I glance at parked cars’ windows or just feel old “problem areas” that invisibly jiggle and shift, now uncontained by a shirt. As I run, I think about the Buddhist idea of Nirvana: becoming nothing. I was a cup of water being poured into an ocean. But I want even less than that. I want to evaporate. A breeze hits my bare chest and combs through my stomach hair. I didn’t eat the pasta and I already absorbed the coffee’s caffeine. My energy is draining. Soon I am going to be running on fumes. I know this is dangerous, but the gift of running is that you get to see how far you can go on empty. I will not reach the horizon; still I keep my chin straight ahead. I don’t glance at the windows of the parked cars. I am afraid of seeing the fat kid’s reflection. There will always be pushups, crunches, curls, and mile after mile after mile. I go.

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Contributors

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Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s story, “Girl With Boat,” won the 2010 Arts & Letters Fiction Award, and is nominated for inclusion in the 2010 Pushcart Anthology. Her stories have been published in many other journals, including Shenandoah (upcoming), ZYZZYVA, Fiction International, Bloom, and Newsday (as a winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project). Her novel The Big Bang Symphony was published in May 2011.

Italian-American poets (with Ferlighetti, DiPrima, et al) titled Avanti Popolo edited by James Tracy (Manic D Press). He is publisher of Round Barn Press. Ed lives with his wife Joyce in Santa Rosa, California where he founded and, until recently, operated the respected Bay Areawide Poetry Azul Reading Series. His internet presence includes “Ed Coletti’s P3” and also “No Money In Poetry.”

J. Bradley is the author of Dodging Traffic (Ampersand Books, 2009) and The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Robot (Safety Third Enterprises, 2010). He is the Interview Editor of PANK Magazine and lives at iheartfailure.net.

Mike Florian owns and operates a manufacturing business in Vancouver, Canada. He writes stories outside of regular working hours and his work has been published in Word Riot, Prick of the Spindle, The National Post, Ascent Aspirations and Tryst3 among a number of other magazines and newspapers. He enjoys open water rowing during summer and skiing in winter.

Daniel Browne is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program for creative writing. His fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Artisan, Spilt Ink, Slice, and Gulf Stream. He has written about culture and the arts for The Believer, Mojo, Before the Mortgage, The Jewish Daily Forward, Meatpaper, and an upcoming issue of The Oxford American.

Carol Gloor is a 63 year old semi-retired attorney who has been writing, mostly poetry, for 45 years. She has been published in many small journals, most recently the online journal AmeriMichael Chin lives in Baltimore and works full-time with can Diversity Report and the print journal Calyx. a program for gifted children while pursuing a graduate degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poem, She is a member of a poetry collective in Chi"Faith," will be published in the initial edition of The Floor- cago called Egg Money Poets, and their website board Review. is eggmoneypoets.org. Matthew Duffus’s fiction has appeared in /nor, where he received 2nd place in their annual fiction contest, Cimarron Annie Hartnett lives and writes in Portland, Maine. She dedicates this story to her grandfaReview, and Grain. In addition, a story is forthcoming in Madison Review. He is the fiction editor of Grist: The Journal ther, who was her biggest fan. for Writers.

Italian-American Poet and Painter Ed Coletti graduated from Georgetown University and the Creative Writing Masters Program at San Francisco State University (under Robert Creeley). Coletti has published several books of poetry and recently has had work published in ZYZZYVA, Big Bridge, divide (Univ. of Colorado), Lilliput Review, Italian Americana, Unlikely Stories, Blueline, The New Verse News, Jerry Jazz Musician, poem,home An Anthology of Ars Poetica (Hill & Waber, 2009 Paper Kite Press) and the anthology of

Dave Housley’s story collection, Ryan Seacrest is Famous, was published in 2007 by Impetus Press. His work has appeared or is coming soon in Columbia, Hobart, Nerve, PANK, Quarterly West, and some other places. He is one of the editors of Barrelhouse magazine. Tim Kahl is the author of Possessing Yourself (Word Tech, 2009). His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Journal, Parthenon West Review, and many other journals in the U.S. He

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appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at the poetry and poetics blog The Great American Pinup (http://greatamericanpinup.wordpress.com/) and the poetry video blog Linebreak Studios [http://linebreakstudios.blogspot.com/]. He is also editor of Bald Trickster Press and is the vice president of The Sacramento Poetry Center. He currently teaches at The University of the Pacific.

tional festivals, including: ORIENTOCCIDENT (Courte de Arges, Romania, 2006), EST-OUEST (Die, France, 2006), Poetry International (Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2007), SOTZIA (Tallinn, Estonia, 2008), Poetry Days (Riga, Latvia, 2008), The International Poetry Biennale V and VI (Moscow, Russia, 2007, 2009), and “Kievskie Lavri” (Kiev, Ukraine, 2009, 2010).

Originally from Colorado, Timothy Kercher currently works as a high school English teacher in the Republic of Georgia and works on a project of translating and editing an anthology of contemporary Georgian poetry. A merit scholarship recipient at Vermont College of Fine Arts, he completed his MFA in Poetry and Creative Writing in January 2010. He served on a translation panel at Vermont College 2009 Summer Residency and a panel at the 2010 AWP Conference to discuss studying writing and translating overseas. Besides Georgia, his experiences abroad include emergency relief work in Bosnia, the Peace Corps in Mongolia, and ESL instruction in Oaxaca, Mexico. His own work is currently or forthcoming in Atlanta Review, California Quarterly (CQ), Concho River Review, ellipsis... literature and art, Sierra Nevada College Review, Soundings East, and Whiskey Island Magazine, among others. His translations from Georgian are forthcoming in The Dirty Goat, Los Angeles Review, Jelly Bucket, and Poetry International Journal.

Tim Layton teaches writing at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. And while it's taken a long time and a lot of hard work, he's forgiven Don Denkinger and is generally more accepting of human error.

Shota Latashvili is the author of eight collections of poetry and three collections of short stories, and also works as an editor at a prominent publishing house in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. He has been writing and publishing poetry, essays, and prose since 1990. In 2007, he won the SABA Prize for Poetry, Georgia’s most prestigious award and, in 2009, the international poetry award, “Kievskie Lavri” (Kiev, Ukraine). His poems have been translated into many languages (English, German, French, Dutch, Russian, Portuguese, Romanian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Estonian, Latvian, Albanian and Azerbaijanian). He has also participated in many interna-

Corey Mesler has published in numerous journals and anthologies. He has published four novels, Talk: A Novel in Dialogue (2002), We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon (2006), The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores (2010) and Following Richard Brautigan (2010), a full length poetry collection, Some Identity Problems (2008), and a book of short stories, Listen: 29 Short Conversations (2009). He has also published a dozen chapbooks of both poetry and prose. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize numerous times, and two of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He also claims to have written, “Wichita Lineman.” With his wife, he runs Burke’s Book Store, one of the country’s oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores. He can be found at www.coreymesler.com. D.N.A. Morris is a writer from Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in Laurels Literary Journal of the University of St. Thomas. James O’Brien graduated from Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing and Environment in Spring 2011. He currently works for University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Colorado Review, Surreal South '11 Fourteen Hills, PANK, The Collagist, NY Tyrant, Portland Review, and over a dozen other publications. He can be found online at

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www.thedevilsthroat.com.

where he misses running in the hot Florida afternoons. This year his nonfiction has appeared in Salvatore Pane’s has been published by Weave, Yemassee and There Will Be Words as well as on Quick Fiction, The Boston Literary Magazine and Fo- Etude, Saw Palm, SwinkMag.com, SplinterGeneralio. He serves as Emeritus Editor of Hot Metal tion.com, and Freerange Nonfiction. Read more at Bridge, the official literary journal of the Univer- www.chriswiewiora.com. sity of Pittsburgh, where he has interviewed Charles Baxter, Don Lee and Tom Perrotta Fred Zackel's dark fictions are available for among others. His book reviews appear regularly most e-readers through Kindle or the Nook. He in BOMB and PANK, and his original graphic is a regular essayist for 3 Quarks Daily, and he novel, The Black List, has been purchased for has published two novels and more than 90 publication by Arcana Studios. He holds an short stories and essays. He teaches literature at MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and Bowling Green State University in Ohio. blogs at salvatorepane.wordpress.com. Joe Ponepinto was a hardcourt basketball player for 25 years. Now, he's Book Review Editor at the Los Angeles Review. His short stories and criticism have been published in many print and online journals. He lives in Michigan with his wife, Dona, and Henry, the coffee drinking dog. Nick Ripatrazone’s recent work has appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, The Mississippi Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal. He is pursuing an MFA from Rutgers-Newark, where he teaches a course on sport literature. Rion Scott has stories forthcoming or published in the pages of PANK Magazine, Fiction International, Confrontation Magazine and other publications. He received an MFA in fiction from George Mason University, where he was the recipient of both the 2008 Completion Fellowship and the 2007 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. He currently teaches English at Bowie State University. Curtis Smith's most recent books are Bad Monkey (stories, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (novel, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside Press). Chris Wiewiora is a first year MFA candidate at Iowa State University’s Creative Writing and Environment program. He currently lives in Ames [ 95 ]


Stymie - Autumn & Winter 2011  

The Autumn & Winter edition of Stymie Magazine featuring work from Curtis Smith, Corey Mesler, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Carol Gloor, Nick Ripatraz...