We beat the Auburndale Crabknuckles in straight innings. Dad came to watch with some of his buddies and they were, by far, the loudest – and drunkest – spectators there. In the third inning I pulled my helmet off and waved it at them – inciting a riot from dad and his buddies. Then one of the Crabknuckles blind-sided me with a flying tackle; as it turned out, we were in the middle of a play. Hitting the ground helmet-less, I blanked out for a few seconds during which the whole tenor of dad’s riot changed.
Subsequently, a school security guard approached dad and notified him that kegs were not allowed at high school football games. The riot took a more violent turn in response. What resulted was that dad and his buddies had to be bailed out of the Sheriff’s lockup the next morning. We won the game, though. I suppose two counts of drunken disorderly and one reckless endangerment are a small price to pay for that notch in the league’s ledger.
The chemistry teacher gave me a detention for cutting class – turned out that John had lied, he never had any permission. I don’t blame him directly – he had his own succubus whispering in his ear whose name was Liz – a man with a succubus is a long way from sane. I suppose we did form bonds of friendship, though. Or at least John must have. He had done most – almost all – the talking.
Thanks to Janice, I failed the chemistry test for lack of studying. Dad didn’t seem to care, though. He told mom, “Kid had to fail one sometime.” Mom, for her part, seemed relieved.
Janice was cross with me for a few days after the incident in my room. She only got over it when I agreed that Office Manager was a much more desirable position than Chief Pilot aboard the shuttle. She awarded me a kiss – which, with practice, I was tolerating a lot better – and a promise to take me shopping again. I’m still not sure about shopping – what in the world I need more than two pairs of jeans for is still beyond me – but I suppose it’s what people do, how people enjoy themselves. Sort of like kissing, really.
Nick went back to Spencer’s and convinced the proprietor to sell him a lewd magazine. He showed it around school until a teacher confiscated it. Nick got detention but, my opinion, he was spared a worse fate at the hands of the women in that magazine. I thought he should thank the teacher, but he disagreed – sometimes vociferously.
“Just drop it, Jack,” he’d stomp away from me. “There’s nothing diabolical about Playboy.”
For the big game against the Barnacles, Coach Mike started me as a running back. “Jack, you’ve put three linesmen in the hospital in two games, we need you where your power can get us on the board.”
A running back’s job is like the job of a crash test dummy: by running repeatedly into a brick wall he searches for flaws in its design. During the game against the Barnacles, I learned that any wall erected by the Bellevue Barnacles can be trusted in. In fact, so trusty are their walls that, by the beginning of the 2nd inning, the ringing in my head was already louder than ever before. Which made it twice as hard to understand anything in the huddle.
As a linesman my huddle-time duties revolved mainly around beating my chest and giving war-like grunt and having them in return, but now, as a running back, I was directly addressed at times, even asked my opinion. My opinion? This game would be more interesting if at least one player on each team had a gun.
John, hand swooping through the air, would devise elaborate strategies for each of us. He’d slap at my chest and loose a babble of esoteric jargon: buttonhooks and pinholes and gaps and reversals. Even before the ringing I didn’t understand those words. Then, when the ringing began, I was relieved of the burden of ignorance by not being able to hear in the first place. Everything was much easier then because I was back to nodding and grunting in a war-like manner.
Well, everything was easier except the plays I had to run.
The trouble began in the middle of the 2nd inning, after the Barnacles had already posted a 21 point lead. That lead was a whetstone honing our resolve, it was the long, keening sound as the stone runs over slick steel. It was the edge – the sharp hunger – that cut through the defense and drove us back across the field towards the goal.
In the huddle there was the grim atmosphere of duty, of soldiery and sacrifice. We were all hard men and fell; with a roar we broke and took the field. The snap came and the Lemmings moved and swung like clockwork; blockers blocked, runners ran, and decoys feinted. John dropped back, testing the ball in the air but not yet loosing it. Finally he swung, and, spiraling, the ball found me just beyond the line of defenders.
I spun on my heels, shaking off the nearest opposition. Two Barnacles charged me from the right, another scrambled up from behind. Beyond and above them the crowd leapt and roared like an engine being jumped alive. I ran to the left, away from the defense.
If I had understood a word of what happened in the huddle I might have known to run right. I might have known that two blockers were ready there to escort me to the goal. But I hadn’t understood. Goddamn, infernal ringing.
Those blockers ran in at that moment and destroyed the assault from the right. But three steps away to the left, I was alone and quickly surrounded. It was then only a matter of seconds before they caught me. The prematurely bursting crowd fell limp and spent into their seats. The whistle blew and the play ended.
Three plays later we’d scratched together 10 yards and hard-earned the right to four more plays. In the huddle, John pounded me emphatically on the chest and mimed an underhand. I nodded fiercely and took my position on the field.
The snap was met by the thunder of the crowd. I flew to the right, sliding past John and around the wall of linesmen. John turned behind himself and almost swung the ball out but stopped just a moment short. He was looking for me behind but I was out past the line of scrimmage. When he turned again there was panic written in his round eyes and screaming lips. He hurried to find a target for his throw but it was too late; the defense was upon him and already leaping for his throat.
John took the blow so hard that the ball was knocked loose. It leapt out of the crush of bodies like soap from a slippery grip. One of the Barnacles was on it before it hit the ground twice. He swept it up into his arms and took off running.
When we trudged off the field John gave me a dejected shove and an angry stare. “Where the fuck were you?” That much I could lip-read over the indomitable ringing.
By the intermission after the 2nd inning the scoreboard ominously reported 28-0 against. The Lemmings were racing towards the cliff edge of disaster and ready to fall into the sea of defeat.
In our locker room the Barnacle lead was a parasitic vine, creeping, crawling, and wrapping around the very heart of the team. It snared us, silent and insidious, sinking bean sprout tendrils into our skins and sucking up the juice and energy within. Lethargy felt like a heavy, wool blanket on our heads, stifling, oppressing, silencing, stopping.
Finally, I could stand it no more.
I thrust onto my feet, clearing my throat and unsheathing my tongue. The team’s eyes turned to me as one.
“Boys,” my voice rang in the silent locker room, “in just a few minutes we will become again combatants in an epic battle with uncertain rewards. Right now the outlook may seem grim, I know. I see in your faces defeat, dejection – and, yes, even cowardice. I can see your livers run yellow and your backbones quiver. So I thought I might take this opportunity to remind you all what we’re fighting for.
“We’re fighting for the points that come in multiples of seven. We’re fighting for that mark of honor in the league’s statistical analysis. We’re fighting so that when we see those Bellevue kids at the mall, or the arcade, or the park, we can smugly know we are better than them at an abstract, and ultimately ephemeral game. But above all – most damn importantly – we’re fighting for the glory to be found in that pizza we will share after this game. Most off all we are fighting for the pizza. It’s the only thing you win you can touch. The pizza of victory.
“Not truth, no. Freedom does not concern us. We do not fight for honor, glory, or power. Not even for plain old survival. But for the pizza of victory.
“So, when I see the cowardice in your eyes it has cut me to the quick. It has clothed me in sackcloth and ignominiously shorn my scrotum. There is not a hair left beneath my waist because of you! I spit on your cowardice. Have you all so easily forgotten the pizza of victory?
“So what if these Barnacles grind our faces in the dirt? So what if they drive us farther and farther back with every play? So what if our parents and girlfriends see us humiliated and disgraced? So what if, seeing this, our girlfriends decide to leave us and get new boyfriends in Bellevue? We are Lemmings! And Lemmings always keep their eyes on the pizza of victory.”
I had envisioned applause. I had envisioned a rallying, a reverberation of pride to accompany my speech. Perhaps we could even charge out of the locker room fired and ready to kill. I had hoped for at least a convicted and respectful silence.
Instead I got confused stares. “What’re you talking about?” someone jeered. “Pizza?”
John pulled me down onto my seat. “What the fuck’s wrong with you today, Jack?”
By the time we jogged out to the field I knew: it was all up to me now. The team was lost, mired in the swamp of defeat and dragging their feet against an out-rushing tide. The lights blazing over the misty field, the crowd roaring and snapping, the blood-soaked grass, the unyielding earth – all these things were for me now. Victory – and with it glory – was to be mine. It was time, I realized, to take matters into my own hands.
So I waited for the ball to come to me. I bided my time through a few plays as we slowly gained a pittance of ground. A yard here, a yard there, we won them with grunting and sweating, with strain and twist of sinew, with blood and spit left on the ground.
But still the ball would not come to me; though I hung wide and open the ball would not come to me. I called and waved, frantic, and finally John’s eyes found me, but passed me by. He let his gaze rove to center-field where he found a receiver, under coverage, and fired the ball at him.
The ball never found its target but John’s message to me did. He would no longer throw to me. If I wanted the ball I would have to take it.
As we wound up to the next play, I put myself just two steps closer to John. The line formed before us, the men hunkered into position, dug their heels into the turf. John cleared his throat with some preemptory babble then called for the snap: “Hut! Hut! Hike!”
I leapt at him, the collision threw him aside. The ball sailed up into my hands and I growled.
The world narrowed into a tiny point of light, a pinprick of reality suspended like the un-moving seconds before me. I ran for the nearest gap in the line, but the Lemmings, confused, fell into disorder around me. Some ran straight to me and fell at my feet as defenders tackled them from behind. I vaulted both friend and foe, racing for that closing gap. Others tried to reposition themselves to block but, without coordination, found themselves stacked against two, three, or even four foes and soon overwhelmed. And still that gap was closing before me.
I turned away from the gap and raced back to the left. Both the Barnacles and the Lemmings gave chase. Too quickly I came to the field’s edge and was forced to turn back, dodging tacklers to either side. Now the Lemmings too were trying to stop me and I juked around them as often as I did the Barnacles.
It was John who finally caught me with a blindside tackle that brought more than half of both teams raining down on top of me. As we were extricated from the pile, he hammered on my helmet. “What the fuck, Jack? Why can’t you play ball here?” His look was torn and wounded. He was betrayed and he couldn’t explain why. It shamed me to see that look. Fitting my helmet on quietly, I plodded to the huddle.
By the 4th inning the despondent home crowd was already suffering attrition. My dad and his friends, listlessly resurgent like last night’s bowel-disquieting dinner, hung off the bleachers in various states of drunken disrepair. Then – suddenly – a break out play.
The ball was snapped. John found me, favored me with a charitable grin and nodded. He underhanded the ball into the pit of my stomach. Fixing a fell look in my eyes, I resolved to not fail him again. With the ball buried in my arms a change overcame me. I was carrying the torch now. No time for games.
A shadow burned in my eyes and heart as I turned and saw the line of defenders. An on-rushing tide of thundering power they were. A hell-bent cavalry bearing down on me recklessly, hoofs beating the war-cry of perdition. And I, a lone berserker. A lone savage, swinging a crude club above my head, opening my throat in harsh defiance. And charging. Alone. Against the tide of defenders I charged; my feet ripping the turf, churning up sprays of dust and grass.
Then I looked up again and the Barnacles had changed. Their helmets were filled with white-hot light. Glowing plasma dripped from their sleeves and cooled to smoking coals on the turf. Imps! The Barnacles were imps!
Rage washed over me. An ululation of wrath shredded my lips and scalded the air before me. Tucking my head in, I charged into the glowing heat of fusion.
Later, Nick told me that, hearing my war-cry, some of the Barnacles turned and fled. He told me that, not satisfied with penetrating their line, I chased down and tackled every single one of them before running for the goal. He told me that the very last defender I chased up and down the field for two minutes before I caught him. Then I planted my shoulder in the small of his back and scattered him to the floor. The kid – a water boy as it turned out – was in the hospital for a week after.
I don’t remember any of it. All I remember are wide swashes of primary colors on a crepuscule canvas. I remember enemies colored the searing white of the sun. I remember the slashing reds and oranges of wrath. I remember black, black hatred. I remember the green turf bleeding into the dusky sky. I remember the stunned silence on the field and bleachers when, still roaring viciously, I spiked the ball in the goal.
Only then, as the frenzy in my brain cooled, did the broad colors begin to focus themselves into details. The Barnacles were strewn across the field, broken and ruined. The clock had wound down, the final score was 28-6. Despite all my rage, the Lemmings, heads hung low, slunk to the lockers in defeat.
I didn’t follow the Lemmings into the locker room. I couldn’t. I hung my head and walked towards the sidelines.
Janice waited there. “Go a little psycho much?” She had her fists on her hips, chiding me.
I shook my head and shot a look back to the Barnacles celebrating while, out of focus behind them, the Lemmings moped towards the showers.
“We didn’t win.” My voice almost broke.
Janice’s lips narrowed into a tight line. “No, you didn’t,” she agreed. “Well, let’s get out of here. You can buy me some pizza – loser.”