Thursday, November 15, 2018

A short story...


Mixed Signals

Part 1 of 2

I see their safety and a linebacker move, cheating to our left side, focused on Bud Jackson, our big tight end. That leaves our wide receiver, Ari Fischman, one-on-one against their corner. I nod toward Ari. He pats his hip. We’re on the same page.

I go under center, my heart beating a mile a minute. This is it, the game on the line, third and three from our own forty-five yard line. The ball is snapped and I drop back. Ari sprints upfield five yards, then makes a tight cut to the right sideline. I pump-fake as he cuts and the cornerback bites, charging in to jump the route, sure of an interception and a touchdown. Ari wheels and goes up the sideline—all alone. I loft the pass, hit him in stride and he’s gone, fifty-five yards for the score. With less than two minutes on the clock, we’re up 20 - 14.

I run downfield, chest-bump Ari, then hug him. We’d worked on that route over and over, staying after practice every day, perfecting the timing, perfecting the signal that would set the play in motion. And it went down just as we’d practiced it.

The extra point is good, now it’s 21 – 14. I watch our kickoff sail into the night sky, up through the lights of the stadium. Our guys are downfield to stop the return at their twenty-five. They run a couple of desperate plays, but it’s too late. The gun sounds. Game over. We’ve whipped our arch rivals for the third year in a row. There’s nothing sweeter.

Our team rushes to midfield jumping up and down, fists punching the air, the pure thrill of victory. There’s one exception. Coach Hickman stands with his arms crossed, watching the celebration, his jaw clenched, his eyes unblinking. I know I’ll have some explaining to do.

We give our opponents a rousing cheer and line up to congratulate them on a great game, which it was. Then we gather in front of our grandstand, filled with parents, faculty, students, aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it. The band plays our Alma Mater and we join hands and sing along.

What a feeling! The lump in my throat makes it hard to sing. Looking up at three thousand people, it feels like the whole city is there. And if they’re not, they’re at home listening on the local radio station. But that’s our town, Gold Ridge, a little burg in the foothills east of Sacramento, population twenty-eight thousand, give or take. The supporters turn out for every event at our school. Heck, it’s standing-room-only in the auditorium when the debate team competes. No question: Gold Ridge High is the beating heart of our community.

The Alma Mater ends and we trot across the field, through the gate and up the hill to the gym and our locker room. I spin the combination to open my locker and hang my helmet inside as Coach comes up behind me.

“Bobby, in my office. Now!” He spits the words at me.

“Sure, Coach.” I turn and follow him down the hall.

The walls of the office consist of paneling halfway up, then glass to the ceiling. There are mini-blinds inside the room but they’re never closed. We might as well be in a fishbowl. Coach Hickman’s two assistants are sitting at their desks as we enter; he tosses his head, signaling them to leave. They go out without a word, avoiding eye contact, closing the door hard behind them.

“Okay, Bobby. Tell me about that damn play. The play that overruled the one I sent it. The play that could have cost us the game if you’d screwed up.” He’s livid, sputtering, his voice rising as he speaks.

“Well, Coach…I saw the free safety cheat over to cover Jackson, along with the linebacker, so I knew Bud would be doubled. That left Ari one-on-one on the right flank—”

“So how did you call your frickin’ play? I didn’t hear an audible. No audible, Bobby! Goddamn it! How was the rest of the team supposed to know what you were doing?”

Shit. He’s right. He’s got me. It was just me and Ari, like we were playing two-man football on the playground. I want to crawl under the desk and hide.

“Well? Damnit! How did you call the play?” Coach isn’t letting me off the hook.

“Well…it’s something Ari and I work on, almost every day, when practice is over. If I see the opening, I give him a nod, he taps his hip to say he’s got it, and then he runs the wheel route.”

“Oh! Oh, so that’s it! The two of you worked this out, all by yourselves, after practice.”

He’s shouting at me now, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. Guys are poking their heads out of the locker room, staring at us, wondering at all the noise. Coach isn’t finished.

“You think you’re some big goddamn hotshot—”

“Nah, Coach, it’s not like that.”

“Big Bad Bobby Harold, hotshot QB, got recruiting letters from colleges all over the country, gonna play for some Division I school, be a national champion.”

“Coach, come on, we didn’t do this to make you look bad—”

“Just shut up. Shut the fuck up!” He’s quiet for a few seconds, pacing around the office, staring at the floor. “Okay, hotshot. Get the hell out of here and go take your shower. But we’re not done. We’re gonna talk about this again…”

I start for the door. Can’t wait to get out of there.

“…and tell your kike friend to get his ass in here.”

Whoa…did I hear that? Are my ears playing tricks? Did he really say kike? I stop at the door and spin around. “What? What did you just say?”

“I said tell your buddy Fischman to get his ass in here. Now!”

I close the door behind me, hard enough to shake the windows, and go into the locker room. Ari Fischman, my best friend since grammar school, is sitting in front of his locker pulling on his socks. He looks up at me and grins.

“Hey, Bobby. Lots of yelling going on in there. What was that all about?”

“You’re about to find out, buddy. He’s not happy about our improvised play. He wants to yell at you now. Says to get your ass in there.”

Ari laughs. “Okay, I’m on my way. Did you remind him that we won? Against our arch enemies?”

“Hey, just make sure you are wearing your iron shorts, pal. Cause you’re gonna get chewed.”

I watch him walk away, another lamb to the slaughter. Time to shower and get dressed. I’ll have to wait for Ari. He’s my ride home. Should I have mentioned the kike comment? Did Coach really use the word? I know the man is an arrogant, self-serving little prick. But an anti-Semite? I’ll wait to compare notes with Ari, see what Coach Hickman says to his face.

__

I’m dressed and ready to go when Ari comes back to the locker room. He’s still smiling, but that’s Ari. It’s hard to shake his easy-going nature. As we leave the gym, there’s a small group of parents and kids, milling around outside, waiting for players to emerge. We see Jason Braxton, a sports reporter for the local newspaper heading toward us.

“Hi, Bobby, Ari. You guys got a few minutes?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. He opens his notebook and takes a pen from his pocket protector. “So…tell me about the touchdown play. Was that Coach Hickman’s call?”

Wow. Right to the point. Ari nudges my elbow and winks at me. He’s taking charge of the answer.

“Yeah, Mr. Braxton. Coach has us work on this all the time, so when we see the right situation, we can run that play. Bobby made a nice fake and the cornerback sold out, tried to jump the route. I was all alone ’cause they were doubling Jackson, our tight end. So, yeah, Coach gets full credit for that one.”

Ari smiles and I nod in agreement. Braxton is writing furiously in his notebook. He asks a couple of follow-up questions, closes his book, thanks us, and we were on our way. When we are safely out of earshot, Ari breaks up laughing.

“Wait till Coach reads Braxton’s column tomorrow. Ha! He’s gonna love being the genius behind the winning play.”

We head for Ari’s car, laughing all the way.

__

 I open the front door to a hearty welcome—hugs and kisses from Mom, a great bear hug and slaps on the back from Dad. They don’t attend the games anymore. My dad can’t take the excitement. His chest pains would flare up and he’d be popping nitroglycerin tablets all night. They stay home and listen on the radio. Even listening to the radio, Dad has to leave the room if things got too tense. He was in the bathroom when I lofted the game-winner to Ari. Mom had to tell him what happened. We gather at the kitchen table and Mom puts out fresh-baked cookies and milk. I give them a play-by-play recap. It’s our little family tradition.

When I climb into bed, bone tired, it’s 11:30 p.m. I wonder what Monday practice will bring. Coach Hickman said the issue isn’t closed, that we’ll talk again. Maybe Ari’s quotes to Braxton will wind up on the sports page and cool his jets.

Coach Richard Hickman is an odd character. He’d been an assistant to our former head coach, Harris Bratigan, a real legend in the high school coaching ranks. When Bratigan retired early due to health issues, the job went to Hickman. It became clear to all of us players that Hickman only cared about one thing: his own career. He sees our high school and its football program as a stepping stone to bigger things—a head-coaching job at a small college, then on to Division I and the big bucks. It’s all about Hickman.

It’s a small-man thing. Hickman is barely five nine and weighs about a buck fifty. He has to look up to most of the players on our team. Heck, I’m six two, a hundred and ninety pounds. You can probably guess the nickname the guys hung on Coach Hickman: he’s Little Dick. I wonder what Little Dick will have in store for us at practice Monday afternoon.

I drift off to sleep, replaying the winning touchdown in my head, watching the cornerback charge with my fake, seeing Ari heading up the sideline all alone. Beautiful!

__

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, head down, waiting. It’s Monday evening and my dad will be home any minute. Mom is acting busy, moving around the kitchen, looking out the window every few seconds. Finally, we hear his car in the driveway.

“Don’t you go anywhere, Bobby. You’re going to have to explain this to your father.”

I don’t reply.

“Did you hear me, young man?”

“Yes, Mom. For God’s sake, I’m sitting right here.”

She turns to glare at me. My father drops his briefcase in the hall and comes into the kitchen.

“Hi, honey.” He gives Mom a peck on the cheek. “Oh…hi, Bobby. Home early from practice?” He goes to the fridge and pulls out a beer, reaches into the drawer for the opener. He turns around, looks at both of us, from one to the other, then again. “What? What’s going on?”

It’s quiet for a minute. My mom stares at me.

“Bobby? Your father asked a question.”

I swallow hard and begin. “Dad, I got kicked off the team today. Coach kicked me out of practice…told me to clean out my locker.”

“What?! Oh my God! You can’t be serious. How could this happen? Bobby, for God’s sake, your senior year, all the colleges that are interested in you—” Dad nearly drops his beer on the counter, comes to the table, pulls up a chair. His face has gone white. He looks at me like he’s seen a ghost, hoping I’ll tell him it’s just a nightmare and he can wake up now. Mom is there, hovering behind him. “Okay…okay…” He gathers himself. “Let’s all calm down.” He’s talking to himself. “Okay, son. Tell me what happened.”

So, I tell him about Monday football practice. How late in session, we’re practicing running plays, and we’re doing a sweep to the right, and Ari has to block the defensive end. Only Coach has put Bud Jackson on defense so that Ari has to block him, and Bud outweighs Ari by fifty pounds, and there’s no way Ari can block him. And Coach makes us run this play over and over, and Ari is getting his butt kicked, again and again. And Coach is yelling at Ari, up in his face yelling, calling him a pussy, and a candy ass. And then it gets ugly and he’s calling Ari a sissy Jew boy, and a hebe, and a kike…

“I couldn’t take any more, Dad. I got between Ari and Coach Hickman and told him to lay off. And then Coach starts yelling at me, and I’m yelling back, and then he pushed me. And I pushed back—hard. And he went down flat on his back. Hit his head on the ground. He jumped up and told me I was off the team, to clean out my locker and to get my ass out of there before practice was over.”

Tears are rolling down my Dad’s cheeks. I can’t stand the look on his face. He taps his shirt pocket, reaches in and pulls out the tiny bottle of nitro tablets. Mom runs to the cupboard to get a glass and fill it with water. Dad pops a pill under his tongue. He’s breathing hard, like he’s been running uphill. He closes his eyes and leans back in the chair.

“Okay, look.” He sits up and wipes his eyes. “I’ll call Coach Hickman. Things obviously got out of hand. We can fix this. This is not the end of it. We’ll set up a meeting, you’ll go in and apologize. You’re sorry it happened, you were just…just…protecting your friend. I mean, look, it’s Ari! He’s like a brother, for God’s sake. Coach will understand. It’s gonna be okay—”

Dad winces in pain and grabs his chest. I feel a jolt, like I’ve hit an electric fence. Is he having a heart attack? Right here at the table? The look on Mom’s face screams panic. We get Dad up and into the living room, get him to lie down on the couch. Mom runs to get water and an aspirin. I’m sick to my stomach.

“Dad, you’re right. I’ll apologize. I’ll do anything. Anything Coach wants. Okay? Just rest, take a deep breath.” I'm crying now, can't hold it back. Nothing like this has ever happened to us. Did I do this? God help me.

_____

Stay tuned. Part 2 will be posted soon.

_____

Friday, October 26, 2018

A short story...


Chicken in the Ruff

Joey was getting cold feet. I could tell by what he was saying on the phone, by the tone in his voice.

“Geez, I don’t know, Arlo. Maybe it’s not the right time. Know what I mean? I mean maybe we should wait, see what happens. You know? Enroll at J.C. See how it goes.”

I was through arguing with him. If he didn’t want to go, so be it. I was going. Leaving this very morning at 3:00 a.m., sure of only one thing: I was heading east, to Sacramento, then Reno, then Salt Lake or Denver. I was not going west to San Francisco. Frisco was the end of the line, not the beginning. You went to Frisco and then you went to the Golden Gate and jumped off. Finito. The end. No, I was going east, to places I’d never been. I mean, isn’t that what Hemingway did? And Kerouac? They went somewhere, somewhere new, somewhere they’d never been. Remember what Hemingway said, “In going where you need to go and doing what you need to do, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with.” Sure you do, but if you stay in your hometown and go nowhere and do nothing, what are you going to write about? No, it was time to leave. And I was leaving Vallejo tonight, with or without Joey.

“Look, Joey, I’m going to be at Terry’s, up there at the Barrel Club, at three tomorrow morning. I’m gonna have breakfast—the best bacon, eggs, and hash browns in town—and then I’m leaving. I’m blowin’ this pop stand. I’m gonna see some of this world. If you want to come along, great. If not, no hard feelings, buddy. Maybe it’s not the right time for you, but it’s the only time for me.”

Joey was quiet. I waited for him, letting him mull it over.

“Take care of yourself, Arlo. I love you, buddy.”

“I love you too, Joey.”

He hung up. I stared at the phone for a minute. Would I ever see Joey again? Friends like him don’t come along very often. Maybe once in a lifetime.

I checked my backpack. I had all the essentials for life on the road, even a sleeping bag that rolled into a package the size of a football. Joey and I had spent hours making checklists, going over what we’d need, but only the bare essentials. No extra weight. Whether you were hitching a ride with a trucker, or hopping a freight train, you had to be able to toss in your pack and follow it quickly.

The letter I’d written to my mom sat on my desk. I resisted the urge to open it, read it through one more time, maybe add a note. No way around it, she’d be worried sick. But I had to do this. And the time had come. My room was in the back of the house, added on by my father a year or two before he died. A door opened onto a small patio. I’d used that door many a night, sneaking out of the house to party with my friends, then letting myself in just before sunrise. This time I wouldn’t be coming back. It was 2:45. I looked around, hoisted my pack onto my shoulders and headed out the door, closing and locking it as quietly as I could.

It was a short walk from home to Terry’s Barrel Club along the freeway. The café there was open all night. It was June and the weather was cool, a marine layer starting to move in, typical for the North Bay. I wondered if Joey would change his mind and join me at Terry’s. Who was it who said, It’s like the Chance brothers—Slim and None?

I walked up Buss Street, heading for the frontage road along the freeway, and started to think about breakfast. It may be the last good meal I’d have for a while. Terry’s prided itself for something called Chicken in the Ruff. A sign painted on the building depicted an angry chicken with a bag full of beat-up golf clubs—you know, like he’d hit his ball into the rough. It dawned on me that after all these years, I had no idea what Chicken in the Ruff was. I should probably ask before I leave town.

I pushed the door open, walked in and looked for an open booth. And then I nearly dropped my pack. There was my brother Gary, sitting with a friend, smiling, laughing, his deep blue eyes, sparkling with humor. He didn’t see me at first, locked in conversation. I stood staring in disbelief. He was wearing his Air Force khaki uniform, starched and pressed, his tie meticulously knotted with a perfect dimple slightly off-center. He looked toward me, smiled and waved me over. I walked to the booth, dropped my pack and slid onto the seat across from him.

“Arlo! Great to see you. How have you been, brother? God how I’ve missed you and Mom. It’s great to be home.”

I reached across the table and he grabbed my right hand in his. “Gary, what are you doing here? I mean, this is a shock…to see you…I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“Well, here I am, baby brother. And not a minute too soon either.” He paused and glanced at my pack. “Hey, how about some breakfast? It’s on me.”

He waved to the lone waitress, a pretty girl with auburn hair, and in a minute my order was on its way to the kitchen. The girl was back quickly with coffee for me and a refill for my brother. We were alone in the booth now, his friend gone somehow. In fact, we were the only customers in the café. I stared at him, not really sure what to say. God, he looked good, sharp and precise, his wavy blonde hair neatly trimmed, lean and well-built, six feet, maybe one seventy-five at the most. And he never seemed to age. How he pulled that off, I’ll never know. I listened to him as he filled me in on the details of his journey.

“…so, I stopped here on the way home. Didn’t want to barge in on you and Mom, wake everyone up. I figured the sun will be up soon enough, and then I’d come banging on your door. You still sleeping in the room at the back of the house? Still sneaking out to carouse with your buddies?”

He laughed and flashed his brilliant smile, white teeth gleaming in the fluorescent lights of the café. The waitress brought my breakfast and I dug in like it was my last meal. In the meantime, my brother carried the conversation, one story after the other, cracking me up with his adventures. I glanced at the clock and saw that is was nearing 4:00. I’d forgotten about Joey. Joey loved my brother. He’d be enjoying this conversation, I was sure of that.

“Come on, Arlo. Let’s head for home, give Mom a surprise to start the day.” He called the waitress over, handed her some bills, left a generous tip. She gave him a smile that spoke volumes.

“You make it look so easy, Gary. I wish I had what you have.”

“Don’t worry, little brother. You’re a good kid. Your time will come.” He punched me lightly on the shoulder as we left the booth and headed for the door.

The fog thickened as we walked, first along the frontage road, then down Buss Street toward the corner of Russell. The closer we came to home, the dimmer my brother’s image became, the fainter his voice, till I was alone.

I moved quietly along the side of the house, through the back gate, and opened the door to my room. I don’t know why I took the key with me. I should have left it with the note to my mother. I dropped my pack in the closet, undressed, and crawled under the covers. My eyes were heavy. In spite of the coffee, I was asleep in no time.

 ***

I called Joey around 11:00 a.m. the next day, told him I’d pick him up, drive out to the J.C. to register for the fall semester.

I never told anyone about the night I left home, ready to hit the road and see the country, ready to dull and blunt the instrument you write with. No one wants to hear that kind of stuff. No one would believe it. Everyone knows my brother is dead and gone, has been for years now. I took the note to my mom and stuck it in my sock drawer.

            Maybe I'd need it, someday.

_____