Authors: Chris Lynch
“Basketball Sector’s okay,” Mike answered a question nobody asked. “But some of the guys’ll drive you crazy. I have this one guy, I don’t know what it is, but he reminds me of you, Elvin.”
I lifted my head from listening closely to the Rice Krispies. “Mikie,
been reminded of me by
basketball player. What’s wrong with the guy?”
“I’m not sure. I keep giving him the ball in perfect position, and he keeps giving it right back to me. He could be really good, though. I’m working on him. I’m working on him hard.”
“And they’re a lot more fun than all these eighth graders around here,” Frankie pushed. “Bet they have lots of real man-size fun planned for tonight. It’ll be cool.
“Do we really have to, though?” I asked, being uncool enough to ask such a thing. “Do we really
to be cool?”
He didn’t puff up. He didn’t joke. He didn’t brag. “I do,” Frankie said evenly.
Mikie stood up with his tray. “I have to go,” he said. “My venue’s all the way across the campus. And
have to walk.” He winked at Frank.
“Oh, cut it out. They don’t
the golf cart for me. We just get to drive it around on the course sometimes. Jeez, you guys.”
“Go then,” I said, pushing Frank along. “Get going. I have to sweep the floor here before I get to start.”
“Oh ya,” Frank said, seizing the opportunity. He hopped up and followed after Mikie, bending his ear about going tonight. It was funny, and somehow made me feel a little safer, that as big as he talked, Frankie still needed Mikie to okay it.
“Remember,” Coach Wolfe stressed, “these exhibitions are for the purpose of getting you fellas some live-action experience, a chance to try out what you’re learning, and to test your own readiness. They are
auditions for the school’s wrestling team, and they are
some kind of accumulation of points in some imaginary standings. It is an educational exercise for all, and as such, I don’t want anyone getting overzealous at this early stage of the game.”
That speech, I realized, was for my benefit. Not that my zeal was a threat to anyone. On the contrary, Coach was fearing for me as a
. My man Axe did not appear to have any modulation control anywhere on his finely tuned thresher of a body, and his matches the first couple of days—against some pretty decent athletes—were wars. Wars he didn’t lose.
My first two wrestling days, on the other hand... well, Coach put it generously when he said we were starting from scratch and building very slowly. The plan seemed to be to find my appropriate level of competition. For practice purposes all the “big ’uns,” the junior heavyweights, heavyweights, and super heavyweights, did a lot of intermingling. Working my way down, I was thankfully allowed to go my first match against Eugene. A sport, a gentleman, a humanitarian, and a mentor, Eugene carried me through that whole match. He was good at making it look almost like a legitimate fight, taking the opportunity to show me a few new maneuvers along the way. He let me get to the second round before my inability to move him in any direction at all became just too obvious, and he finished me mercifully. He was even polite enough to whisper, “I’m going to have to pin you now,” just before grinding me finally into the mat.
Eugene was the only super heavy, but there were two legitimate heavyweights. One was a real wrestler, so Coach bypassed him and matched me with the other guy, Bellows, a track-and-field washout who was cut for refusing to learn any kind of form in the shot put. Apparently he just kept heaving the thing like a lead softball and placing second or third anyway. Then he’d sit, a little Skoal Bandit pouch of tobacco under his lip, to shamelessly razz the opposition and spit brown streams across their line of vision. He was a jolly enough guy, in a menacing way, but he had pretty much the same approach to wrestling that he had to putting the shot. Form was an imposition; brute force was enough.
This much Bellows appreciated about the rules of wrestling: Get that sucker down, and flatten him there.
He achieved part A in ten seconds, meeting me head-on, taking a hugging grip of both of my thighs, lifting me up and tackling me down. Hard. I felt the cartilage between my ribs crackle when we crashed together.
I wasn’t giving up part B so quickly.
He didn’t let go of my legs. He held and pushed, his feet digging in behind him as he drove me like a wheelbarrow farther into the floor. I twisted one way, flipped all the way over on my belly. With a vicious twist, he pulled me back. I leaned up, as if I were trying sit-ups, and he stood, still holding my legs, forcing my upper body to the mat again.
He let go of my legs when I wouldn’t stop squirming side to side. He climbed up my body like a tree. Climbing horizontally up a felled tree. If he couldn’t pin me with leverage, he was going to pin me with might. He grabbed the balls of both shoulders in his claws, and he squeezed. Squeezed and pushed.
I had no chance this way. I
had any chance of winning, but I never expected to. What was important, to me, was to not get pinned. I couldn’t fight off this press, but I could writhe. I
him pin my left shoulder, giving it up so easily that all his weight fell to that side, and I lifted the other one. When he tried to compensate, I lifted the right.
“Predicament!” Coach called. “You’re in a predicament, Elvin. Get out of it.”
“Well, no shit,” I grunted, as I strained to achieve zero improvement of the situation. I hadn’t yet been told that a predicament in wrestling was when you were not quite pinned, but you might as well have been. And if you don’t break out of it, they blow the whistle to stop the action.
Bellows was determined to pin me before that happened. With one hand still on each of my shoulders, he lowered his head and butted me in the chest.
The whistle blew. “Abusive move,” Coach called.
“Ya,” I concurred, gasping.
“No punishing moves,” Coach told Bellows, slapping him on the shoulder. “That would cost you a warning in a real match. Two of ’em would cost you a point.”
Bellows stuck out his hand and yanked me to my feet, even though I was quite happy where I was. “Okay, let’s start over again,” he said, bouncing anxiously.
“I think that’s good for now, boys. Let the other guys have a crack,” Coach said, and I almost hugged him.
“Nice job,” Eugene whispered when I staggered back to the edge of the mat. “Way to hold that predicament.”
I was still breathing hard, my ribs killing me with every heave, when I thanked him. I winced when Bellows came by and slapped my back.
But I liked it.
Axe, though. Axe was a different story entirely. Axe was the kind of guy who would slap your back only if you were standing on a cliff above a bay full of alligators. He was next on my dance card one rung down, at super middleweight.
Emphasis on the super. I never saw a kid so
before. His arm muscles were dense and lashed with lumpy veins, his legs like two thick nautical ropes, and his bones—very dangerous—were practically filed to points on his elbows, cheeks, and temples. He had a face that never changed for anything, and looked like he didn’t enjoy not one minute of whatever he was doing.
The only bright spots, as I could see them that morning, were the “no overzealous” speech and the soothing memory of “no punishing moves” from the day before. It would be all right, I thought, because I didn’t have big aspirations here. I knew what was what. All I wanted was to hold my little bit of ground. Hold off on the pin. I could live in a predicament.
Yet when the match started, it all meant nothing.
Axe could wrestle. He did it all by the book, and nobody could stop him. When we met, the first thing he did was to slap away my outstretched hands, spin me around, and lock a grip on me from behind. He took his powerful right arm and threaded it up under my soft one. His hand held the arm from the inside of the elbow, and he yanked it almost behind me. Then his left hand came up and slapped onto my neck, and in one mighty, overwhelming swoop he flipped me to the floor.
I was nearly paralyzed. The move, and the hold that followed it up, were so efficient, so controlled, and it seemed to me so damn mean hearted, that I was immobile with dread. Axe now had my right arm pulled firmly back, and his left hand pressed so hard against the side of my head that the heel of his hand was leaving a bone bruise right behind my ear.
I looked out from under Axe’s hand as he pressed my cheek to the floor. I could only see anything with the eye that was against the mat, the other being blocked by Axe’s fingers. I felt like the helpless antelope I always saw on the nature show, the one that didn’t get away, the one left staring big-eyed into the camera as the big cats swarm him and the rest of the herd escapes.
No punishing holds. My head hurt, my neck was twisted like a wrung towel. For one half of one half of a second my muscles thought there was a chance. Everything hurt ten times as much when I twitched. I was staring right into the faces on the sidelines, and they looked uncomfortable for me. I wished I could look away.
“That’s enough, Coach,” Eugene yelled out.
I hated that I was such an asshole as to think nobody could pin me.
“Predicament, Elvin,” Coach yelled. “Break it.”
At a certain point you always see the antelope stop kicking and lie back. I lay back.
An explosion. Axe released his grip, half lifted me, and slammed me flat on my back. He had caught me napping. I was pinned and croaked.
And pretty well broken.
I was still grieving over it as I sat in a folding chair in that same dining hall, munching popcorn and waiting for the movie to start at eight that night.
“That stuff is drenched in coconut oil,” Mikie said, pointing at my large tub of popcorn. Just like the one he was eating.
“And butter,” I added, staring at the blank screen. “And salt. I only wish they had some caramel to spray on it.”
“So what’s gone wrong, Elvin? You not an athlete anymore?”
I took a deep breath and was reminded. My ribs hurt. My shoulder hurt. My elbow felt as if I could bend it the wrong way if I wanted to. And even if I didn’t want to, somebody would probably eventually do it for me.
“Come on, Mike, none of those jokes, okay?”
“Jesus,” he said, quieting down and joining me in staring into the whiteness. “You sure are low tonight.”
I was, and he was surprised by that. I was surprised by it myself. I guess I had managed to handle it a different way all the other times. So why was this different? was what I couldn’t figure out at first.
Why was this defeat so different in a life that had been so chockablock with little defeats?
I did know why it was different. It just took me a while to admit it. What was new here was that for the first time ever I was committed. I had declared myself, even if it was only
myself. I could joke off losses before because I never really wanted anything before. I never really
to be picked higher than last for touch football, I never really
to survive more than two minutes in dodge-ball, I never really
to swim anything fancier than the dog paddle, so I could always say it was okay—because I wasn’t really trying. But now I wanted something—a little something, but still something. I wanted it, I tried hard, and I could not do it.
I didn’t want to win. All I wanted to know, all I needed, was this: Could I not get trashed? Could I do even that? Could I survive in that world that seemed to be coming toward me whether I liked it or not? Could I pick one thing, say
This is not going to happen to me,
and then make it not happen?
The answer today was No, and I had never felt so helpless in my whole helpless life.
“I hate it here, Mike,” I said.
The credits started to roll on
Ernest Goes to Camp
“Could be worse,” Mikie said, pointing at the screen.
“Even Ernest is more of a man than I am.”
low,” he said.
Just then Frankie came up from behind. He had been sitting in back with the older guys. “So what’s it going to be, guys?” he asked.
Mikie took the liberty of answering for both of us, which was usually fine. “Nah, Frank, I think I’m just going to stay and watch the movie with Ernest here.”
“Mike,” I whispered. “I want to go.”
He turned to me, raised his eyebrows. “It’s against the rules, you know.”
“Ooo gee,” I said, making an authentic dopey-Ernest face. “What do you think they’ll do if they catch me? Send me home? Oh mercy, oh heavens, please, not that.”
“Then I guess we’re going.” Mike shrugged.
“Yee-hah,” Frank cheered quietly.
We rode together in Obie’s ancient brown Chevy van—me, Mikie, Frankie, and two other counselors, Okie and Odie. Obie drove. Bouncing around in the back of the van—which had no seats, just space and yellow shag carpeting top to bottom—I whispered to Frank how odd I thought his friends’ names were.
“Bozo,” he snarled into my ear, “those are just nicknames. Nobody has names like those. They’re shortened. Obie, Okie, Odie. O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Donnell. Get it?”
“I get it, Frank, but I don’t think that really shortens their names much. They save a syllable, big deal. Are they
No one else could hear us over the music that was surging so hard through the cheap speakers that the songs were unidentifiable. There wasn’t even a need for us to whisper. Despite this, Frank was mortified.
“We have to have a rule, Elvin. Whenever you feel like ridiculing people who could hurt us
, you must run it by me before opening your mouth. You don’t even appreciate nicknames, for god’s sake.”
“I’ll type up all questions in advance,” I said.
“That would be good, but we don’t have time. Just don’t embarrass me.”
“What are you two talking about?” Mike asked, leaning in to hear.
“I’m embarrassing Frank.”
“Well then, cut it out then, Elvin,” Mike said. “We have to be on our best behavior or we won’t be selected to hang out with Opie and Orgy and all the other guys.”