Don't Stop Me Now
We move on to throwing and catching with a partner, then run some basic plays to test who fits best in what position. A supermajority is lined up for quarterback tryouts.
I shake my head. Justin’s already got that position locked down. No one else is gonna get it.
I stand off to the side, roasting in the sun. Which position should I claim? If I were naive, I’d be in the quarterback line with the dandruff-haired freshmen. But I’d never have a prayer, even if I was good.
Lineman? Out of the question. You have to be the size and weight of a brick wall. Guys like that big corn-fed fella, Gunner, get it. Farm boys have the advantage.
Then there’s running back - Calvin’s position. You gotta be fast to do that. But I won’t take it away from him.
Wide receiver? I’m a pretty good catch. Let’s see who’s in line - Bingo. No one of any particular skill or importance. I got this one bagged.
It’s a good thing Truman High football is a joke. You only have to be mildly decent to earn a starting position. Most of these guys never played before high school; the school’s so small that it’s desperate for players and will take literally anybody. Even Angus. Who also happens to be trying out for wide receiver.
I trod across the crunch-grass field to the receiver line, my T-shirt sticking to my back. My bra is drenched and chaffing. I’ll have to grab a new one from the thrift store soon. This one’s so old, it’s trash.
As soon as I line up behind Angus, I’ve unwittingly started a conversation with him. That’s the way he is.
“H-h-h-hey, Stephanie,” he stutters. He’s a babyfaced, big brown doe-eyed boy with a mop of floppy brown hair, tan skin, and the trace of a pencil-thin mustache that he never shaves.
“Hey, Angus,” I say, not really looking at him. He’s a sweet kid, don’t get me wrong; I just prefer to talk as little as possible.
“I-i-isn’t it a g-g-great day for f-f-football? S-so nice out.”
“Yeah,” I say flatly. “Sure is.”
“I think they’re gonna-uh gonna-uh make me a s-s-starter this year.”
“That’s great,” I say. “I hope they do.”
I mean it, too. Only, Angus doesn’t have a prayer. He’s the worst player on the team, hands down. That’s just common knowledge - to everyone but him.
“C-c-can you believe it’s alr-r-ready senior year?”
I smile bitterly, stare at the ground.
“Couldn’t come soon enough,” I mumble.
“S-s-some of the guys were s-s-sayin’ it’s a good thing we have a g-g-girl this year cuz you can bring us-s-s water.” He doesn’t know what he says. He just repeats what he hears. He doesn’t know what it means.
I rake a hand through my ponytail. Let’s ignore the fact that I grew up playing flag football on little kid teams, practicing with my dad. Never mind that some of these guys and I were on the same parks and rec teams in middle school, back when I was a foot taller than any of them. Who could remember that I used to be the best player on the team? Eighth grade was a lifetime ago, after all.
“You’re up, Parrot!” the last receiver calls as he jogs off the field.
“M-m-my turn!” Angus smiles and says in a sing-song voice. He trots to the line of scrimmage.
They call him Parrot? Those assholes. They give nicknames to everybody. Disguise insults as terms of endearment.
They called me Kansas last year.
I wait on the sidelines for my turn, stuck in torrential thoughts.I think too much. That’s my problem; if I didn’t have all these racing thoughts, I wouldn’t constantly feel like I’m on the razor-thin edge of sanity. And I wouldn’t feel the need to go out and do stupid shit like try out for football, fully knowing I’m the most hated person in school. But when you’re stuck, alone, late at night, with nagging, biting thoughts, you’ll do just about anything to catch a break from them.
“Next!” Coach shouts at me, repeating himself. “Are you deaf? You’re up!”
Loud thoughts - see what I mean? They block out even the screams of an irate ex-Marine.
I jog to the huddle of offenders, cheeks turning pink with embarrassment. Their eyes all glare at me. All except Calvin. When I squeeze in beside him, he places an encouraging hand on my shoulder blade.
“Here’s the dealio,” Justin says, addressing the group. “I’m gonna get the snap, fake a hand-off to Calvin, and then throw a long pass down the field to you, Stephanie. Got it? Break.” The huddle scatters.
That didn’t make any sense. Justin’s directions gave me no real information. Did nobody else notice?
“Hey, wait,” I say, grabbing Justin’s arm and yanking him back to look at me. “You never specified where you want me to go. Left, right, center? Down twenty yards, thirty?” I lock eyes with him so he knows I’m not a pushover. I’m not taking his shit this year.
He puckers, his forehead creased in a frown. Studying me.
“Center,” he says finally. “Thirty-five yards down.” Then he stalks to his place behind the line.
If that was meant to be a test, I do believe I just passed. But I can’t get too excited. That was only a preliminary. The real test is whether or not I can catch.
Bring it on.
I take my place on the far right side and crouch in ready position, listening for Justin to yell “hike”. When he does, I take off down the field, outmaneuvering some crappy defenders. I’m thirty yards away when I turn to look for the pass - and realize it’s not headed towards me at all, but instead spiraling through the air towards the other wide receiver - who fails to catch it. It slips right through his extended hands.
I throw my hands up. Really? Um. Okay. So go ahead and lie to me.
We get called back into formation for the second down.
“Yo, Justin,” I call, an edge to my voice, “What was that about?”
“I don’t - ” He shrugs and shakes his head, looking at me like I’m loco. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Do I really want to put up with this for a whole season? If I can prove I’m good enough, I won’t have to.
“Just throw the ball to me next time,” I command. I wear my “fight me” face. He rolls his eyes and we start up the next play.
This time when I run down the field to get open I almost don’t expect the pass. Fool me twice, ya know?
But then it comes, and I’m all tensed up to spring and catch it. I leap, feel the rough pigskin slide easily into my hands. I did it.
Then, out of nowhere, BAM. I’m slammed to the ground, a heavy male body on top of me, my shoulder taking the brunt of the impact. It goes numb, and my arm slacks. The ball tumbles from my grip, my fingers unresponsive.
For a moment, my mind reels into panic. I’m in a dark room, forcing a guy with grab-hands to get off me. I’m ready to kick, punch, fight, scream.
Then a whistle blows, and I’m back to the present. The guy gets off of me. My whole arm is now sore. Most of the guys are laughing. They’re laughing because I just got sacked.
I stand and massage my shoulder, feeling returning to my hand. It’s not dislocated, that’s all that matters.
Third down: another chance to prove I can do this. Let’s go. C’mon.
“You OK?” Calvin mutters next to me.
“I’m fine,” I say, brushing him off.
“You good, Stevie?” Justin asks, feigning sympathy. “D’you think you’re still able to play? Or d’you need to stop?”
“Eat my shorts,” I reply.
“Oooh!” One of the boys coos. “She got you!”
Justin’s face turns to flint. I’m gonna pay for that comment.
“Turner, get ready for the hand-off. You’re gonna drive the ball down. Everybody else, make sure you keep the defense off of him. Got it? Let’s go.”
For the third-down, we crouch in position. “Hike” is yelled, the ball is snapped, and I do what I can to lure some defenders after me, out and away from Turner. But when I look back to find Turner, I hear Justin yell.
“Stevie, get open! Get open!”
“What?!” I call, then notice the brown ball flying through the air just a little too far to my left. I’ll never reach it in time. I sprint after it, but it’s no use. It hits the ground and bounces several yards ahead of me.
“Where were you?” Justin yells.
“Seriously?!” I snap back, red hot anger rushing to my face.
“Yeah, Stevie, that was all you,” Turner mouths off.
“Lay off, man,” Calvin speaks up calmly.
“Lay off your mom,” Turner retorts.
Coach toots the whistle - several short, sharp blasts in a row.
“That’s enough! Roberts, you’re done for the day,” Jarhead yells.
“What? But - ”
“Get off my field. Go home. You’re done.”
I look around, stunned. Some of the guys are sniggering, trying to hide their laughter behind helmets and hands. They disguise their smug grins with innocuous nose-wipes or elbow coughs.
“C’mon, Coach - ” says Calvin.
“I don’t want to hear it, McIntyre.” He holds up a hand. “I won’t have no one causing trouble on my field. She needs to leave.”
Capping my inner grammar Nazi, I refrain from correcting the poor bastard. Instead, I silently, calmly, with all eyes on me, tread casually over to the sideline bench, pick up my Big Gulp, grab my board, and as soon as I hit the parking lot, I skate away, tossing the warmed, near-empty soda cup into the trashcan as I roll. A perfect ten outta ten exit, I’d say.
I skate until I hit the 7/11 I stopped by on the way to practice. This is where I go for all my needs.
I grab a glass bottle of Yoo-Hoo chocolate milk from the refrigerator section, slap the exact change on the counter, wave to Denny the cashier, snap the cap open, take a sip, and roll out.
I skate home in the early-evening, late-August fading sun. When I hit my driveway, I step on one end of my skateboard, shooting it up to my hand. I tuck it under my arm and guzzle Yoo-Hoo around to the back of the house, where the stairs to my second-story walk-up apartment are. A limp basketball net is nailed above the garage door. A flat basketball hibernates, weathered, near the garage gutter spout.
I pound up the paint-peeled wooden steps to our front (back) door.
I open the door and am greeted by the sound of belching, the smells of beef stew, sweaty socks, and beer. I lean my board against the wall beside the door.
“Where were you?” Zennen asks, his Belorussian accent thicker than usual. He’s been drinking.
I want to say “None of your damn business,” but that would evoke the wrath. So I just say, “Around.”
“You hear that, Mary Beth?” he says to my mom. He’s not even looking at me. His glazed eyes are glued to the TV. “Your daughter’s been rolling around town for hours again. You know what I think? Drugs.”
“I am not doing drugs,” I assure calmly. But it’s no use. No one hears me.
“Honey, Zennen and I have been concerned about your behavior.”
From where I stand, I have a view of the micro-living room. I have to walk around the wall to my left to see my mom, sitting at the kitchen table, counting her tip money and balancing her checkbook. She’s not looking at me, either.
“Take a seat,” she says, thumbing bills from one hand to the other.
Instead, I pull a bowl out of the cabinet, rinse off a spoon in the sink, grab a box of cereal from the counter - off-brand Lucky Charms, this week - and pour the rest of my Yoo-Hoo with it into the bowl.
“Mom,” I say, pausing to eat a spoonful of cereal. “I’m not doing drugs. Seriously. Do I smell like marijuana? No.” Another milky, crunchy, sweet spoonful.
“We’re just worried because you’re always gone. We don’t know where you are if you’re not at home.”
“Well, I could definitely be at work. Or the arcade, or Calvin’s. That’s pretty much the extent of it.” I take another bite, waiting for her to say something.
Her eyes widen. She puts the cash down, organizes it into a neat stack, and recounts. She stops at the end.
“I’m missing twenty. I know I had six-fifty when I left work. There’s only six-thirty here.” She looks hard at me. I can just hear her mind scream, DRUGS. “We’ll talk about this later.” She sighs. “I don’t know how we’re gonna make this month’s payment.” She puts her head in her hands. You can see the remnants of her beauty queen days, despite her now chronic stress and exhaustion. Gray hairs and crow’s feet can’t hide her radiance.
I take my bowl and head to my room. It’s just a little closet, what once was the long, thin pantry between the stairwell and the kitchen. I take a detour through the living room where my twelve-year-old twin brothers are sitting on the ratty carpet, playing video games?
I ruffle Bowie’s hair. “Hey, lamebrains. Where’d you get the Nintendo 64?” There’s no way Mom or Zennen got it. We can barely afford to have a telephone.
“Jimmy,” Axel and Bowie say in unison.
“Ah.” I raise my eyebrows. Jimmy has been their imaginary friend/scapegoat since they were six. He doesn’t exist - only, Mom hasn’t figured that out yet. She thinks he’s their very real, very rich best friend from school.
And she thinks I’m the one who took twenty bucks to pay for drugs.
“Alright. Well. Enjoy your gift from Jimmy,” I smile. Then, crouching to their ear level, I whisper under the electronic soundtrack, “This is the last time I cover your asses.” My smile resumes, and I stand up, satisfied.
“We love you,” the boys reply, eyes never deviating from the screen. The sound of manic electronic pings follows me to my room. I chuckle bitterly. Love. What does it even mean?
My room is just wide enough to fit my twin-sized bed, with no gaps between it and the wall. On the far end, behind my headboard, is a small window. There’s about two feet between the foot of my bed and the door, where I keep a knee-high chest of drawers to hold my clothes. To get to my bed, I have to literally climb on top of it.
Along the walls I have various shelves containing stacks of CDs and old little kid football trophies. I also have a rack where I hang my guitar. Then there’s all the posters. Mostly bands are plastered to the walls and ceiling, but there are some movies and athletes, too. The only light is a bare bulb with a ratty hanging string directly above my bed. Sometimes if I sit up in bed at night to get some water, I’ll forget the string is there and nearly jump out of my skin at the feeling of the long spider thread tickling my nose, face, and hair.
My Discman almost always is hidden under my pillow. That way no one takes it, and I can listen to music as I fall asleep.
And then there’s the one chunk of my wall still covered with a map, strings, pushpins, and scraps of paper scribbled with fragmented theories, forgotten ideas, and false-hopes mistaken for evidence.
I oughtta take it down one of these days. It only serves as a useless reminder now.
I sit on my bed for the next few hours, eating cereal, listening to music on my Discman, and watching the world fade to black outside my window.
I figure I’ll call Calvin tomorrow after work, go check out the team roster once it’s posted outside the athletic director’s office. I doubt I made the cut. But they never cut anyone anyway; they can’t spare the players. But what am I gonna do if I don’t make it? Give in to defeat? Or duke it out?
It’ll be alright. I’ll make the cut. Everyone always does. Even Angus. No sweat.
I watch the back-porch lights of my neighbors and the stars overhead as I listen to “Iris” by the Goo-Goo Dolls. I inhale the warm summer night and dream of the day I can finally get out of this town.