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Authors: Chris Lynch

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BOOK: Slot Machine
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Then my hamstring tightened, then twisted, like something chewing on the muscle, pulling me down into a squat, pulling me back down to earth.

So I was still here. I couldn’t get out, not for a minute, couldn’t even pretend my way out. More than anything else, this worried me. Because if a guy can’t do a little pretending when he needs to, can’t take a little trip on the inside—that’s when the guy is really truly trapped. Really truly trapped.

“Well then, what
are
you good at?” Coach snapped. He’d just given us our morning pep talk on how much sex and mayhem we would enjoy if we would ever make his glorious varsity football team. Then we broke up into groups for drills according to position—offensive backfield, defensive backfield, receivers, linebackers, and linemen. I told him I was misplaced with the linemen, and that’s when he asked me the pointed question of the day. I hesitated a couple of nanoseconds so he asked me again, only louder and funnier for his audience.

“So, Bishop, what the hell
are
you good at?”

What I wanted to say was, “I’m a kid, asshole. Give me a milk shake and a game of Monopoly and I’ll
show
you what I’m good at.” But I couldn’t say that. So I said the opposite.

“I can play quarterback,” I said, shocking myself with brilliance and stupidity. Playing the line was just too slow a death. I wanted the express.

Anyone who has ever been inside of a ringing church bell probably can appreciate the sound of ninety hopeful thirteen-year-old football ruffians
yeowww
ing at the same moment. Anyone else couldn’t imagine it.

“Quarterback?” Coach asked in mock seriousness when he could talk again.

“Quarterback,” I assured him. “I have an arm like a shoulder-mounted missile launcher. But more important, I have the
mind
of a quarterback.” I tapped myself on the dented temple of my helmet.

“Oh, gimme a break,” the real quarterback said, snatching the ball away from the coach. The three other backup quarterbacks did what backup quarterbacks are supposed to do: They backed him up.

“Gimme a break.”

“Ya, gimme a break.”

“Gimme a break, wouldja, fat boy.”

“No, no, no,” laughed the coach. “Bring that pigskin back here. Kid’s got some balls he wasn’t showin’ before. I like that.”

Mouths dropped open everywhere when Coach flipped me the ball and called out, “Live drills, live drills. First teams line up over here on field A.”

It had gotten serious. Nobody laughed now. I found myself nervously reading players’ faces to try and see my immediate future. Grim. The tough players looked tougher. The medium players looked out of it, dumbfounded. Only the marginals, the fourth and fifth and forget-about-it stringers, looked sympathetic. On their faces I saw sympathy winces, practicing for sharing my pain.

“Know any plays?” Coach asked.

“Of course,” I said. “I was a lineman yesterday.” And surely I did know them. There were only two pass plays, and I had had an intimate look at them over and over as each play unfolded above my prostrate body. So I got to study the whole process, the way fish must watch fishing from beneath a glass-bottomed boat.

I called out Plan B. I swear I heard giggling from my own offensive line as I grunted out meaningless decoy numbers and directions before taking the snap.

“Hut, hut, hut.” I’d thought I would never get a chance to say those magical words into some guy’s big butt. But here I was. It was a storybook ending.

“Hut, hut, hut.”

My hands were sweating so hard, I spent the entire six seconds of my dropback trying to squeeze a grip on the ball, passing it to myself from hand to hand, to knee, to hand. I wasn’t even looking up at what was coming my way until finally, just balancing the ball on the fingertips of my throwing hand, I looked up. I shouldn’t have.

How true it is that the greatest things in life seem to whiz by a person—like Alfredo sauce in a fantastic northern Italian restaurant—and the most wicked things always take forever to unfold, dragging and dragging and dragging by in almost suspended motion until all the agony has been wrung out of them and into you.

Whether my linemen merely stepped out of the way, or whether the defense was just so hungry to get me that they were unstoppable, I’ll never know. All I know is that I raised my eyes just in time to look directly into the face mask of the animal who got there first, and see over his shoulder as the ball flitted off to a better place without me. The guy was just then landing from leaping at me. The grille of his mask pressed into mine, so I could watch the shifting of his insanely gritted teeth while he carried me down. When we landed, we bounced. He bounced right over me, ripping my helmet along with him. This made way for the second guy, who landed high, his protective cup smashing me in the chin. It was just as hard as a helmet, only somehow more degrading. A third guy drove his helmet into my side. The fourth ambled up casually and just fell on me. I made a sound like a whoopee cushion out of both ends as all the life gasses fled me.

The stretcher I was carried away on was wider and softer than the cot I slept on. The sky was powder blue and blissfully, peacefully cloudless. The stretcher carriers were good, very good—in sync, gently swinging me as they all stepped together, left-right-left-right. I thought, “I might like to ride in a hot-air balloon someday, just like this. Blue.”

I was a success. One play, and I was out.

“Making a mockery of my fine football program,” Coach was muttering as I wafted by. “
Mocking
it. Mocking
football
?” he questioned, in total disbelief.

“Hut,” I said. “This doesn’t count, does it? Hut. Hut. If I can’t make it on my own? Hut, hut, hut. This doesn’t cost me any vouchers, hut, does it?”

When they got me back to the nurse’s station, I perked up. I felt like I was home. “Hi, guys,” I said to all the people I didn’t know. I felt great, but I was still lying down.

There was no available cot for me because apparently day two is the biggest day for sick bay. That’s when all the other athletic bottom feeders wake up and realize what I was sharp enough to pick up on day one. Which is: “Holy shit, Batman, get me out of here.”

So they dumped me off the stretcher and propped me in a chair. I no longer felt great. I slumped forward until one of the stretcher bearers put a big paw on my chest and straightened me up. Undaunted, I slumped again. He straightened me again. The nurse came over, joined in a discussion I could not hear clearly other than a few angry “Coach says under
no
circumstances is that kid allowed...” and dismissed my assistants.

“How are you?” he said, but he didn’t care. So I didn’t answer. Then he pulled out a little capsule, broke it open under my nose.


Yeowww
!” I hollered, and snapped my head back. It burned my nostrils, my eyes, and my throat. “That smells like ammonia. Times ten.”

The nurse smiled, whipped out his little penlight, and started looking into my eyes as he talked. “You have answered correctly, have passed the examination, and are free to go.”

“Go?” I asked. “I didn’t even get to lie down and regroup. You’re supposed to let me regroup, aren’t you?”

“Are you suffering any headaches?”

“No. Not yet anyway, but I’m sure I will. It’s a little early to tell yet, don’t you think? Maybe we should hold me over for some observation.”

“Look,” Nurse said, pointing over his shoulder at the basket cases who had beat me to the cots. “I have a lot of real injuries to treat here. We’ve got an unusually soft crop this year.”

I looked around him at the patients. Holding their knees, holding their elbows, rubbing their heads. And moaning, every one of them. They were good. There was a lot of talent in the room.

“Oh, what?” I pressed. “Because they’re moaning? I can do that.
Woooo-ohhhh-ooooo
,” I sang, wrapping both arms around my head. “But I didn’t want to make a big fuss. I believe a man should suffer silently.”

“Good,” Nurse said. “Then do it outside.” He pulled me up out of the chair by the hand.

When he got me up close, I came clean. In a whisper, however. “Please, please, please, you can’t send me back there. I won’t make it. I can’t do football again. I don’t know what that coach guy has planned for me, but I won’t survive it. I won’t. He’s probably X-ing and O-ing out a plan right now in the dirt that ends with me decapitated. Did he ever send a kid home dead before?”

Nurse watched me and listened with wide eyes. “You don’t have to worry about all that. You’ve got special orders
not
to return to the Football Sector.”

I jumped up and down as if I had just scored a touchdown, even though my head really did hurt now. I spiked an imaginary football. “Thank you, thank you,” I said, pumping Nurse’s hand. Then I slowed down, touched my temple gingerly. “You got anything for my head?”

He reached into the pocket of his baggy white pants and pulled out a few packets of Tylenol. “Here. This is all I can do for you now.”

I told him I would get by on that and shuffled happily along, waving to all the poor saps who were going to be sent back to the front no matter how much weeping and wailing they did. I stepped out into the sunlight and sucked it all in. Free. I felt so free. This was an unusual freedom, because normally they only did slotting in full-day increments. Even if you washed out, you finished the day in the slot you were in, then you got reslotted the next morning.

But not me. I was a special case. For almost one whole day, I was a man without a slot.

One giant “Reflective Period” was what I had. I used it to make a tour, to see finally what the hell was going on here. I could do that because of my special status. I was momentarily unattached. And if you didn’t belong to a group around here, a mystical thing happened—nobody in that group could see you. You didn’t register.

The camp, retreat, compound, the joint, was actually a seminary, set on a few acres of small green hills. A very pretty place surrounded by evergreens. It was easy to see why it would be a good place for the kind of spiritual getaways they held here the rest of the year. They had only three or four actual seminarians on the premises, and we hardly saw any evidence of them at all. They were mostly just black laundry hanging on the line outside a dormitory.

Whatever it was—seminary, camp, retreat—it was impressive, and overequipped. They had a white brick gym building the size of Madison Square Garden, complete with a hockey-style hanging scoreboard and retractable bleachers. I pictured it: those long midwinter nights when the seminarians needed this stuff for a good game of hoops, one on one, with a third guy at the scorer’s table and the fourth being the crowd. But when I wandered in, there were about forty guys down on the floor and a handful of counselors in the stands.

I saw my buddy from sick bay, Paul Burman. He wasn’t half bad, but still I could see he didn’t belong here in Basketball Sector. He was the tallest player by a head, but he only put the ball in the hole when there was no other choice. On most teams a guy like that would be option one—feed it to the big guy. But it was clear the big guy didn’t want it. The team would push up the floor, players dig in under the hoop, the pass would come inside, defense would collapse on Paul, and he’d kick it back out.

Then somebody else, a forward, put up a jumper. It missed; Paul grabbed the rebound—soared, two feet above the rest—then passed it back out again. His face remained frozen through it all. He didn’t smile. He didn’t scowl in intense pleasure like rebounders do.

If I could get a rebound like that, just one, my whole life, I sure would smile. Paul didn’t want it. He had the tools that made him a basketball player. I guess he wanted a different set of tools. Funny, funny—I sat there wanting his.

Why couldn’t there be a way to trade? And why couldn’t I have something to trade him?

The only real intensity he showed was on defense. On offense, he just took up space and moved listlessly. On defense, whenever anyone tried to drive through the lane, he got there first, went up, and swatted the ball with a fury. He didn’t just block it, he mashed it, as if he could one time hit it so hard that it wouldn’t come back.

I found him so riveting to watch, I didn’t notice right off who the point guard was, feeding Paul the ball time after time. It was Mikie. I’d never seen him like this. He ran the floor, he barked out plays, he called defensive assignments. And everyone listened to him. I watched the coach watching Mike.
My
Mike. He kept writing on his pad, whispering to his assistant, nodding, stroking his chin, clapping. Mikie penetrated and scooped in a layup. Mikie made a steal, Mikie stuck a jumper. Mikie threaded a pass through traffic to Paul. Paul passed it back out. Mikie passed it back in, harder. Paul threw it back out again. Mikie threw a bullet right into Paul’s hands that must have stung. Paul’s chest expanded double as he jumped straight up and
jammed
the ball in through two defenders.

Mikie was a monster. I had never seen this. But somehow I knew it. Shooting twenty-one in his driveway, Mikie always managed to beat me by just a few points. One on one with Frankie, who was a lot taller and pretty good, Mike’d still win by a few. In gym class at school, when Mike was playing against a so-so player, Mike was a little better than so-so. Then, when mighty David Myers came into the game, Mikie became
great
. The level of competition. Mike had a gift for always playing above it. He never seemed to want to play way above it.

And there it was. He was doing it to the whole of our new school. I always figured we would get to a level Mikie would not be able to exceed. Half figured this would be it. It wasn’t. It wasn’t even in sight.

You’d think I’d be loving it. Shouldn’t his best friend have been loving it?

I couldn’t watch anymore, so I left.

It was a few hundred yards downhill to the pool. The sun beat on my face all the way, and I thought about how nice it might be to take a swim. There was a bubble dome over the pool building, and glass walls at either end, making it kind of like swimming outdoors. I peered in through the glass blocks, my mouth watering at the thought of all that cool water. Even the chlorine smell, so strong it seeped outside the building, had a kind of refreshing something attached to it.

BOOK: Slot Machine
3.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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