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Authors: Chris Lynch

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BOOK: Slot Machine
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Until, pressing hard into the glass, I saw how much fun this wasn’t. I forgot, floating in my temporary freedom, that everything here has a purpose, and that fun is
not
that purpose. The swimmers locked in the cauldron of the Swimming Sector were working harder than anyone I’d seen in camp up to that point. The coach’s whistle screeched like a cat under a car wheel every twenty seconds as he beat on them, pushing the boys through the water. He knew he had one of the prize Sectors, and let them all know it.

“You wanna swim? Or you wanna go out there and run cross-country in the hot sun?” he yelled into the ear of a skinny blond boy bobbing lifelessly in the water. “’Cause with your body, those are your choices. There’s already a long waiting list for this Sector, and with all the football and baseball washouts pounding on the door tomorrow... you just better give me a stronger butterfly than the one you’re givin’ me.”

My mouth hung open. I was at a summer camp in the middle of July where you could not swim. And staring in there, even with the sun crisping my neck, I didn’t want to. Everyone in the pool, splashing madly away, looked to be sweating.

There was one place I felt confident of getting comfort. The dining hall. I found a new well of strength as I sweated my way up the long hill to that big chalet in the sky, with its American, Vatican, Massachusetts, and Knights flags huffing away against the clouds. The Knight was silver on a field of red, with a monstrous lance. Made the Native American on the Massachusetts flag look even more naked and in jeopardy than usual.

When I got to the dining hall, I found it taken up with a gaggle of wrestlers. All over, guys were just flinging one another to the floor, crashing and grunting so hard and in such numbers that the building vibrated like a Jell-O house. I took one look and turned right around.

I didn’t even stop at the Track-and-Field Sector because the smell of sweat was so strong even from a hundred yards away.

I’d seen enough. The camp was everything I’d imagined it would be. I was heading back to my Cluster to have a well-earned lie-down when I found the Sector I wasn’t even looking for. The Sector I never even suspected. The Secret Sector. There, isolated at the far end of the compound, past the administration building and the library, and the four seminarians’ dormitory building that could house eighty, I heard the strangest noise.

Laughter.

This, I had to see.

When I turned the corner of the last building and passed through the small woods on the other side, I came to a clearing that was like changing countries. Two squads, a total of twelve students, combined with almost that many counselors and coaches, strolled around in what could best be described as the Country Club Sector. Officially, the Golf and Tennis Sector, or GolTenSec.

Golf and tennis! They had a manicured nine-hole course hard by two clay courts. Everybody smiled and joked. Nobody hit anybody else. Not on the head, not in the gut. There was no leg whipping. There were no takedowns of any kind. These guys on the right would hit, but only fuzzy little yellow balls. Those off to the left would hit a little harder, but only dimpled little white balls. They were all tanned already.

How the hell did a guy rate GolTenSec? That’s what I wanted to know.

I was going to find out, because right there in the middle of it all, telling the jokes, getting the laughs, running the whole party as he bopped between both groups, was my old buddy Frankie.

I crept away before they could see me, all those long-legged, pearly-toothed, white-shoed, eerily happy little ball smackers. Like a daylight coven.

“What do you mean, how do I rate? Elvin, I’m a great tennis player, and an even better golfer.” Frankie was lying on his bed after dinner, stretched out with his hands cupped behind his head. Looking kingly. I stood at the foot of his bed, dripping. I’d just come out of the shower—the
community
shower, gasp—and hadn’t bothered to comb my hair or completely dry off. I stood with my towel tied around me like a skirt.

“Come on, Frank. You’re not that good. You’re okay, but you’re better at other stuff, like baseball for one, and hockey for another.”

He smiled. “You’re right, Elvin. I’m not that good.”

“So?”

He sat up, all earnest all of a sudden—and earnest is not one of Frank’s natural modes. “All right, Elvin, I’ve been trying to explain this to you already. It’s just, like, I
fit
here, know what I mean? Like I said before, this new world, all the older stuff—it fits me better than kid stuff ever did. I don’t know why, but I just knew that I could do what I wanted to here, that I could get my way. And I do. But it’s no mystery, man. I get what I want because I act like I expect it. Confidence. Act like you don’t give a shit about anything, and they give you everything.”

The things Frank said, the things he knew, were so far away from me that I couldn’t even start to try to follow him. I knew that they just didn’t, and never would, apply to me.

“Forget I asked,” I said, and turned away. “Enjoy the country club.”

“Wait a minute,” he said.

I stopped, and as soon as I turned, somebody snuck up from my blind side. Whoever it was took a mighty two-handed yank on my towel, trying to rip it off.

I’ve spent my life expecting that—at YMCA camp, at school, at my cousins’ summer cottage—so I was not unprepared. My knees buckled with the force of the pull, but my iron-rolled towel held. A second guy then came up, and the two of them pulled in opposite directions. It peeled open like stage curtains.

It sounded like a girlie show. High-pitched whistles, screams.

“Holy...”

“Get a
look
at that sucker.”

“Jesus, save me, it’s hideous. What’d you get, your thing tattooed?”

I didn’t look around to see one single laughing face. I didn’t try to retrieve my towel. I stared straight ahead, over Frankie, into a knot on the pine-paneled wall. Waiting for it all to go away.

Frankie jumped up on his bed. First he threw me his towel from the top of his locker. Then he stood there, staring wickedly down on the people closest to me, while he unbuckled his own pants. Then he yanked them down in front.

“How ’bout this one?” he yelled, walking forward to be right in front of one of them. He started wiggling his hips and pelvic thrusting. Right at the guy’s face level. “Whatsa matter, guys, you don’t get outta the house enough? Is this what you came here for?” Frankie pressed on, coming an inch from touching the kid’s face with it, until they all backed away without saying anything. The one with Frank in his face took longest to leave, and was purple when he did.

I wrapped Frank’s towel around me. It was smaller than mine, so I had to hold it in place, and my belly lopped over.

Frankie tried to be calm as he took his spot reclining again, but he wasn’t really. Those kinds of guys don’t bother him—in fact he sort of is one of those kinds of guys—but he looked worried. Worried for me.

“I don’t think I could be a fitter, Frankie,” I said. “Not like you.”

“Maybe you could,” he said, but he said it very weakly.

“No, I can’t.”

“Well,” he said, almost like an apology, but then definitely not one. “Well I
can
, Elvin. I will, you know.”

“I know,” I said into the floor as I walked toward my bunk. “I went by the Hoop Sector today. Mikie will fit too. Thanks for the towel, Frank.” I saw my own towel on the floor a few beds away from mine. I didn’t bend down to pick it up, just kicked it along and under my bed.

Mom,

Well, you’re in luck. The football coach and I had a bit of a falling out. So if you ever do come back to claim me, there is a good chance I will go home with you. It was no big thing, just a little strategic difference about how exactly the squad should be run. Great minds will differ now won’t they?

On the other hand, I have become most popular with my shipmates. It’s something to do with my MOLE. You remember my MOLE, don’t you Mom? I guess I haven’t had a chance to show you my MOLE lately, but picture it just like when I was a baby, only five
hundred
times larger and bluer. Well, due to my MOLE, all my disrobings—for showers, for bed, or just to escape the sweat crust I’ve built up before noon every day—have become popular activities. They are by far the most unifying community events here, much bigger than movie night or campfire time, although they are similar in that the guys do all link arms and sing
songs
at my MOLE, Mom. It’s just a shame that it’s only gargantuan and blue and fuzzy and not hot as well, or I’m sure there’d be marshmallows involved.

Wear sunblock 45 down on the Vineyard, Mom. We wouldn’t want you getting too exposed too. Say hi to Chelsea Clinton for me.

Love,

Elvin Bigtop

Chapter 4: Take me out to the ball game, and pummel me.

I
COULD ONLY IMAGINE.

“Morning, Thor, how’s tricks?” I inquired brightly, though I felt something short of hopeful about the prospects. I was to be resentenced this morning to a new sports gulag.

Thor was authentically bright and chipper this morning as he sat on his bunk, reading a rather stunning magazine called
Great Big Ones
. But I don’t think it was any great big ones that had him so up. It was me. He knew I was coming for reassignment this morning, and frankly Thor was beginning to really warm up to me. Every time we had a conversation, he looked ready to explode with laughter. He tossed
Great Big Ones
aside.

“Bish,” he greeted me. “How the hell are ya?”

“Oh god, this is going to hurt real bad, isn’t it?”

“Jeez, would you stop already? You’re so gloomy all the time. Fact is, I worked my butt off and pulled you one plum assignment. You’re gonna want to kiss me. But you can’t.”

I would not bite. I just stood, waiting, my hands folded in front of me.

“Baseball Sector,” he said, beaming.

“Baseball Sector?”

He nodded. If he wasn’t just toying with me because I was vulnerable, then he was right, this was a coup for him and a reprieve for me.

“I heard Baseball Sector was standing room only.”

“I got seniority, so I got clout.” He kicked back on his bed looking satisfied.

He had clout—even his bunk said that. He had an actual bed, with springs. He had the same kind of skinny locker we all had, but he had four of them pressed together. One of the seminarians actually came by every few days and picked up Thor’s toxic laundry bag. That was power.

“You did that for me?” I said through a very twisted, skeptical expression.

“I did it for you.”

Baseball. I never even dared dream it. Not that I had any knack for it, any skill at it, not that I had any affection for the game or the slightest contribution to make to it. I had nothing. In fact I had more nothing for baseball than all the nothings I had for other sports combined. A herculean nothing. But neither was I likely to get mauled during my stint in the Baseball Sector. Every kid knew this. That was why on day three, Baseball Sector was the hottest ticket in town. The waiting list was overflowing with soft kids seeking asylum after two days of full-contact war games.

There are so many bodies in baseball camp, nobody’s got time to harass you much if you stink. You just take your three cuts,
whiff
, and get out of the way, because
everybody
is waiting to hit. You sit around in right field for a while, let one go through your legs, let a couple more go over your head, and you’re out of there. Third base? Just show them your famous “hands of stone,” catch the ball with your stomach, or—my favorite, guaranteed to get you the hook—duck when a line drive comes your way. On the off chance you actually get to and corral a grounder, throw it ten feet wide and into the brook. All of this, to me, was natural, and I never had to work at it.

It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t much fun, but it kept a guy off the line, out of harm’s way, and reasonably comfortable. The equivalent of a minimum-security prison.

Unless.

“There is one, ah... well it’s not a
catch
, exactly...”

Unless.

“Don’t look that way, Bish. You can’t expect such a great deal for nothing.”

Unless.

Thor pulled it slowly from behind his pillow. The Mitt.

“No, Thor, no. You can’t do this. I don’t want to catch. I can’t catch. Why do I have to be catcher? I can’t even get into that position—look.” I went into a half squat, then abandoned it as I struggled back up with a mighty groan. “See? Won’t work.”

“I had to tell them you would. Nobody else’ll do it. They had three catchers, and one of them broke his finger yesterday.”

“First base. I can play first base. There is no law that says the fat kid has to play catcher. Look at that guy in Detroit. Cecil Somebody. Size of a house. I saw him on a Pizza Hut commercial or something. Isn’t he a first baseman? And that guy on the Red Sox, very large, very large.”

Thor just closed his eyes and shook his head. “Bish. It was the only way I could get you the slot. You gotta go.”

He handed me the mitt solemnly, like an eviction notice or a last smoke. I took it. It was as big as a meat-serving platter, and very heavy.

The first half of the day was drills. First the pitcher drilled me in the kidney while I was batting. Then he drilled me in the face mask when I was behind the plate.

One of the impressive things about a baseball program is that there are so many micro coaches for all the fine skills. Basketball just has the basketball coach, and maybe a couple of assistant coaches. Baseball has a manager, a batting coach, a pitching coach, a third-base coach, a first-base coach, an infield coach, and a bullpen coach. And on
this
team, for today at least, they had a catcher’s coach.

“Do something with him, will ya, Vinnie?” the coach yelled to one of the counselors. “We got to scrimmage this afternoon, and he’s gonna wreck the whole thing.”

“First,” Vinnie said, talking loudly, as if I were a moron rather than just out of shape, “you cannot
sit
on the ground behind the plate. Get up.” I got up and followed Vinnie to what they called the “lower field,” the raggedy, unkept practice diamond where players who needed remedial work were isolated so they wouldn’t infect the healthy athletes.

BOOK: Slot Machine
11.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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