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CHAPTER 15

The next morning what little slack there is between Barbour and me is drawn tighter than a bowstring. He stands around with his blockers watching my every move, as if somehow that will intimidate me. What he doesnt know is Im visualizing his muscular body sinking to the bottom of the pool at All Night when skinny little Chris Coughlin swims him into submission. He has no idea how badly I want a clean shot at him myself, a little self-defense action to render him infirm. Under normal circumstances I could bait him in front of his friends and bring him right at me, but Dad was clear that he doesnt want any escalation with Marshall or Barbour. The connection between Rich and Mike is unclear, but its definitely there, and the bottom line is that Heidi and the twins have to be kept safe at all costs and, of course, if we can pull Alicia back under the umbrella, hooray for us.

Georgia was there when we got back last night, working through Heidis stuff with her, and before she left, she stopped in my room.

Dont want you getting into a bunch of mess over this, she said. You got to be a professional. You work for me.

But as a professional, I said back, youve got no problem with my defending myself.

No, but I have a problem with you creating a situation where you have to defend yourself. Georgia knows me like a well-read book. She said, You listen to me, and I told your daddy the same thing. The way Rich Marshall is acting right now tells us hes less rational than usual, which means hes not rational at all. And it wouldnt be all that hard to get that Barbour boy cranked up right with him. They may not be brothers, but they came out from under the same rock, which means if you mess with one of em, youre messing with the other. If you want to kick somebodys ass, you get some gloves and do it in the ring. I told her I had an even better plan than that. I had somebody lined up to do the ass kicking for me.


The scenario at All Night Fitness is almost surreal. Several coaches and a couple of athletes from the Athletic Council are there, along with football players to cheer Barbour on. Icko runs the workout to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, while Benson and Simet watch from the pool deck. Simet was quick to agree to that; he knows the story about Icko bending rebar for Barbours benefit back when Barbour was still threatening Chris about wearing his brothers jacket.

Chris is big-time pissed at me. Why I gots to do it? he says. Why not somebody with muscles like Tay-Roy?

Cause youre the guy who can take him, I say, and because youve got a reason to get even. Remember how he scared you?

He scares me right this minute, Chris says. What if I beat him, and then he finds me alone by myself?

Mott is behind us, listening. He leans forward and whispers into Chriss ear. If he finds you alone, Ill beat him to death with my steel leg. And thats a promise. And Ill go over and tell him that right now if you want me to.

Like just take it off and whack him? Chris says.

Right across the side of his ugly head, Mott says back.

Thats a good visual for Chris, but hes still worried. The rest of the team gathers around him while Barbour steps out of his sweats. Hes pretty impressive physically, and that brings back Chriss demons. I tell Tay-Roy to take off his shirt, which he does just to let Chris make the comparison.

Okay, I say. So we got more muscles on our side, and a steel leg. All you have to do is get in the water and keep swimming until that scumbag quits. You dont even have to swim faster than he does, just longer. Okay?

Jackie steps forward and ruffles Chriss hair. He says, Kick his ass, and Chris breaks into a big grin. Nobody has ever heard Jackie Craig say ass. Then Dan puts a hand on Chriss shoulder. Its only about tenacity, Christopher. Tenacity will get the task completed here.

Chris watches Barbour, stretching and hyperventilating, across the pool. Though his buddies are kidding and cheering him on, Barbour shows no signs of humor. And he isnt looking over here at Chris. Hes looking at me.

Im looking back.

Icko tells them both to get in and warm up. Chris takes a hundred yards at about three-quarter speed, ten or twelve deep breaths between, and repeats, warming up like he has every day for the past four months. He looks good in the water, comfortable. Im proud of him.

Barbour takes a couple of laps and says hes ready. Simet stands next to Benson with a big smile. This wont take long.

Icko brings them up to the blocks. You said you can take Chris in the short stuff, right, Mike?

Whaddaya mean?

I heard you say you could take him for a hundred yards. Do you still think that?

Hell, yes. What does it matter? This isnt a race.

I know, Icko says, but we do interval training, and to keep it fair I want to be sure the intervals are equal. If youre about the same speed, you get the same intervals between. So were doing ten one-hundred-yard swims, leaving the blocks every two minutes. The faster you swim, the more rest you get.

Barbour says, Lets just do it.

This poor bastard has no idea what hes in for.

Icko starts them, and Barbour flies out over the water with a grunt. He swims ahead of Chris, but Chris catches him coming off the wall, having learned to flip at the deep end. Barbour touches him out, but he comes up gasping, where Chris is barely breathing hard.

Mott quickly organizes a lottery, and we each throw in a buck. We have Barbour dying anywhere from two hundred to seven hundred yards. I pick five.

Hes dust in four, actually has to be helped out of the water. Its all we can do to get Chris to stop. Hes into this swimming thing.

I cant help myself. I walk over to the other footballers and offer to let them make it a relay. Barbour has regained enough breath to say, Fuck you, Jones. In case it slipped your mind, one swimmer didnt hit his best time every time. You tanked that last race. Youre the only guy who doesnt letter.

I know, Barbour. Some things just couldnt get any better.

Jackie gets Chris out of the water and jumps around the deck with him. On his own, Chris walks over to Barbour and sticks out his hand. He says, You beat me on the first one. That was pretty good.

Get away from me, you little retard!

Chris is stricken; he has no defense for that.

I start back toward Barbour, but Simet yells my name. It just tells you how bad he got beat.

Barbour tells him to go to hell.

Benson tells Barbour to get hold of himself, and Simet pats Benson on the back and says he might want to run his boys through a Dale Carnegie course in the off season.

Mott and Dan pat Chris on the back and tell him he just won us all letter jackets, and Simon puts him on his shoulders.

Barbour is long gone, but Benson comes over to tell Chris he did a hell of a job. And he apologizes for Barbour calling him a name.

You should get him in trouble, Chris says. He dont sposed to call me that.


Its hard to say much about the rest of the year. We sit at our own table for the winter sports banquet, and when time comes to introduce us and talk of our accomplishments, Simet makes them sound like those of any sport, never mentioning when he talks about third-place points that there were only three swimmers in the water, or that sometimes they were ready to turn out the lights by the time we finished.

We voted Chris Most Inspirational, and if there is anything that will be indelibly burned into my consciousness about this season, its the look on Chriss face when Coach hands him the trophy. He giggles until I think hell pee his pants, then he touches the gold-plated swimmer at the top, which is pretty muscular, and says, It gots Tay-Roy up here.

Tay-Roy winks at him and makes a muscle.

Then Simet hands out our letters, never mentioning the controversy but letting the parents of the other athletes know what an amazing group of guys this is. Today the quality of the Cutter athlete is elevated, he says. We began the year with only one true swimmer on the team. Most of these guys turned out with no idea what they were in for. The pool was too short, and the lanes werent wide enough. We worked out a system for dry-land swimming so we could keep everyone working all the time. Some days the air and water in the pool were so warm I thought guys would pass out, but not one did, and not one ever backed off.

He rubs the back of his neck. This was a different kind of team than Ive coached. Jackie Craig said his first words on the way to the State meet. He just showed up twice every day and swam his heart out. Dan Hole turned us Shakespearean, and Tay-Roy kept us supplied with interested females. Coach smiles wider and shakes his head. And Simon DeLong. Simon waves to the crowd. You may have noticed that Simon does not have the body design of the swimmers you see atop the Olympic starting blocks, but let me tell you, folks, this kid has a sweet breaststroke and backstroke, and if he stays with it, in another year you wont recognize him. Then he says, I dont know an athlete in the world with more courage than Andy Mott, and he doesnt elaborate.

Every one of these guys, every time he swam, with one exception, hit his best time, which was the criteria we set for our letters, which I will now present.

We dont get the jackets yet-that happens at an all-school ceremony at the end of the year-but Coach calls each swimmer up to accept the certificate. Everyone but me.


The afternoon my guys actually get the jackets, a few days after the state track meet and a week and a half before graduation, might just be the highlight of my high school career. Morgan calls the new lettermen down to the gym floor team by team, makes a long speech about the tradition of Wolverine athletics, how everyone who wears the blue and gold is a cut above, an elite athlete in an elite program. We are the envy of our conference, he says.

All the first-year lettermen stand in front-flanked by the second-and third-year lettermen-each receiving a jacket in a blue box tied in gold ribbon. When they announce the swim team, Carly and I stand and cheer, and they all throw a fist into the air. That plays to mixed reviews in the bleachers until Mott pulls up his pants leg, unhooks his leg, and thrusts it high into the air. The gym goes quiet. This is way better than his middle finger, because how can you suspend a guy for holding up his leg? He hands it to Jackie, who is taken off guard a moment, then thrusts it high. Andy Mott swam this entire swimming season on one leg, and not one kid outside the team even knew it.

And in the end I live up to my name. The Tao-the real Tao, that knows and is everything-celebrates irony. Nothing exists without its opposite. I didnt earn a letter jacket because I could, and all my friends did because they couldnt. Some things really dont get any better.

And some things do. Chris taps Simet on the shoulder, and Simet calls me down to the gym floor. I work my way down through the crowd, watching Chris retrieve a paper sack he has hidden behind him. When I reach him, he pulls out a blue-and-gold jacket and hands it to me.

I dont get a jacket, Chris. I slowed up at State, remember?

Simet says, Take a closer look.

I unfold the jacket, and my throat closes over. Across the back it says, COUGHLIN, on the front it says, BRIAN.

My brother would of been glad if I gave you this, Chris says. So I did.


It would be nice to say the year ends on this note, that we walk away feeling bigger and better because we set a goal and met it, that a bunch of obscure guys who never had friends before, now have friends and life looks different. And thats all true, but that isnt how it ends.

I talk the guys into switching sports through spring, into getting ready for Hoopfest. If you think we didnt look like swimmers, you should see how much less we look like basketball players. After our third practice Mott says, Lets do this like the Chicago Bulls did when they had Michael Jordan. You find some guys who can play this worthless sport, and well be your entourage. The other guys are quick to agree.

My dad is a pretty fair ballplayer, particularly under the boards, and Simet is one of those rare animals like me, a good athlete on land or sea. We need a fourth, and I pen in Motts name, because though he doesnt move real well on the court, he can put down three pointers with alarming regularity. After a few practices we discover he can also place the alley-oop pass pretty well, which could come in handy when we want to surprise a team for those last two or three points. We enter ourselves in the open division, knowing that will pit us against some tough teams, but well be competitive.

We call ourselves the Slam-Dunking Mermen, in deference to our entourage, who attend most of our practices over at All Night and give us regular scouting reports on the Bushwhackers, Rich Marshall and Mike Barbours team. With any luck, fate will not stack us up against them, but they are in the same division, so its not unthinkable. If both teams keep winning (or losing, for that matter), we could run into them. Part of me would like to see that happen, and part of me wants to avoid it like STDs.

Barbour hates our entire team worse than ever, because somewhere a little after Easter break Kristen Sweetwater finally called it quits with him and was able to stay with it. It probably helped that Tay-Roy started putting moves on her on the heels of Barbour humiliating her yet again, and Tay-Roy has far less tolerance for her acceptance of that kind of behavior. He told her no girl he was with would ever be subjected to it, and if she started to go back with Barbour, hed kick Barbours ass. It would be a true battle of the Titans, and I dont know whod walk away the victor, but Ive watched Tay-Roys resolve as a swimmer and as a bodybuilder, and if youre going to take him on, youd better bring a lunch. Tay-Roy is old school. If something doesnt look right and it falls within his sphere of influence, he influences it.


The Slam-Dunking Mermen look a little different than the run-of-the-mill four-man teams early on a Saturday morning in late June on the first day of Hoopfest. Of ten thousand players, filling up three full blocks of downtown Spokane, we are the only team with a uniformed entourage. They wear the same T-shirts we wear, with a picture of a carp horizontal to the basket, stuffing the ball. Dan Hole is never three feet away from his clipboard, on which he records our stats with the consistency and accuracy of a computer. Chris Coughlin cheers loudly in his letter jacket, though the temperature will probably top out at eighty-five degrees, and Tay-Roy, whose chest expands the T-shirt so much the carp looks like an eel, holds Kristens hand. Simon, whose T-shirt expands the other way so the carp looks like a whale, and Jackie Craig, who wears swim fins, man the Gatorade cooler. Carly is playing on a team of her own, so most of the time were playing simultaneously. When were not, we find her and bring to bear the full power of our outlandish support. She and her teammates like it better when were playing simultaneously. My mother does not come downtown for this. She says shell just bring our medical cards to the hospital.

The range of talent in the open division is wide. Most contestants have experience in organized ball, and the majority at least played on a varsity team in high school. A few have played in college. We draw a team thats way out of its league for our first game, so Simet and I rotate out and let Dad and Mott do most of the scoring, Dad from underneath and Mott from beyond the three-point line. Motts in shorts today, his bionic leg exposed to the general public for the first time. He really is deadly from long range. Every time he sinks one, Chris goes out of his mind. During timeouts Mott walks over and rubs Chriss head for luck. Jackie has gotten down the art of clapping the swim fins, which adds a decidedly strange sound to our successes.

They come toward us like a twister in the distance, the black funnel cloud adjusting its trajectory no matter how you try to dodge it. Each time we finish a game and check the postings, which go up almost immediately on the side of a truck trailer parked at Hoopfest Central, we see the Bushwhackers headed right at us. If we each win our last games today-Saturday-we meet at 8:00 Sunday morning. I imagine they would love that. All bragging aside, Im the best player on either team, but Marshall has Dad overmatched, and Barbour and Simet are too close to call. Their point guard, Alex Neilson, plays at Spokane Community College, and their fourth man is Thurman Weeks, the sixth man on our high school team. Man for man they outmatch us, and if this were four-on-four, wed be dust. But one guy is on the sidelines at all times, so we have a fair chance.

Our final game on Saturday is close, but we play tough and win it by four. Barbour and Marshall annihilate the team they play, and were set for morning.

Dad invites everyone over for dinner in the evening and to set up our strategy for the game. Icko, who has been working most of the day and missed our heroics, supplies juicy burgers from Burger King and a whole bunch of soft ice cream. He tells us the burgers were left over, but theyre hot and tender and Im pretty sure he used part of his days wages to feed us. Of all the guys likely to lose something when this team breaks up, he stands to lose as much as any. He was living by himself at All Night when I met him, staying out of sight and trying to put his son through college. Now hes adopted us. I swear the guy would do anything for any one of us.

Sunday breaks cool and clear. By 7:30 players stream toward the courts like lemmings. The air is filled with the sound of bouncing balls, balls careening off front rims and backboards, interspersed with the sweet swish of a thousand shots touching nothing but the bottom of the net. The Bushwhackers are on the court when we arrive. Rich sneers at me and watches my dad as if he were the true enemy in a real war.

Except for Chris Coughlin, we ignore them. Chris paces the sidelines, watching Barbour and Marshall as if they were man-eating tigers, his letter jacket snapped to the top as if he thinks one of them is going to strip it off.

Tay-Roy stands on the sidelines beside Kristen, ignoring Barbours existence.


The game has every possibility of turning sour from the beginning. Heidi came down to watch us all day yesterday and is now a fan of Spike Lee proportions. When it was clear we would play the Bushwhackers this morning, it was agreed that she and Alicia would stay home, but Heidi was inconsolable, particularly after Dad had said hes going to be shooting from the bleachers to keep from getting beat up underneath all day. Heidi is literal. We tell her Daddy Rich will be there and that hell be playing against us, and she wants to go anyway. We call Georgia, and she says if Alicia is willing to show Heidi that she can protect her from Rich, it might even be good for the kid. Georgia thinks shed like to take in a day of Hoopfest herself and will come down to walk Heidi and Alicia through it if need be.

It is a mistake.

They get first outs. Im on Barbour, Dads got Rich, and Simet is on Alex Neilson. Mott and Weeks will sub. We play better than we have a right to play, probably because Rich has seen the twins and Heidi with Alicia and Georgia, and it gets into his head. He calls Dad Pops and works him over inside, but Dad is patient and pulls down several offensive boards and gets a couple of put-backs. For most games there is only a court monitor, but the Bushwhackers have already been involved in some near fights, so we have a ref.

The ref warns Rich twice about flying elbows and pushing Dad from behind, but Dad tells him no sweat and plays through it. Dad doesnt have finesse, but hes in killer shape for a guy his age and even stronger than he looks. He plays smart, always stays between his man and the hoop, and picks up a lot of garbage rebounds.

Barbour is trash-talking me like Dennis Rodman, but Im quietly working him over, bringing him out on me because my jumper is falling, then driving to the hoop when he leaves me room. Its illegal to dunk because the backboards cant handle it, so Im setting them just over the rim. Barbour does have a nasty inside hook he lifts over me a couple of times, but I watch it close, and the third time he tries it, I slap it into the crowd, then land directly in front of him, staring.

When we have them down 19 to 17, they bring in Weeks, who is deadly from outside. At Hoopfest a regular basket counts as one and a normal three pointer counts two. Dad waves Mott in, hands him the ball, and says, End this shit. Weeks steps back and sinks a two-pointer for them, and we get the ball. I drive past Barbour to the hoop, flip the ball out to Mott, who pivots on his bionic leg to square up and sinks the long ball. Slammin Mermen 21, Assholes 19.

Heidi jumps up and down, clapping with glee, with no sense of her fathers humiliation. We try to shake their hands, but only Weeks and Neilson respond. Marshall slams the ball into the ground so hard it lands two courts away, and he and Barbour disappear into the crowd.

Dad waits until hes sure Rich is gone, then hoists Heidi onto his shoulders at her request. Chris dances around like hes been set free, Jackie claps his fins together like a baby seal, Simon thrusts a meaty fist into the air while Dan runs over our stats to deaf ears. Tay-Roy and Kristen watch.

As we gather the last of our gear, we hear gasps on the other side of the court and look up to see the crowd part. I glimpse the muzzle of the deer rifle, think its pointed at Dad, and scream his name, but Rich levels the barrel on Heidi, the one person whose loss would touch us all most. Dad whirls at the sound of my voice and instinctively dives directly into the path of the bullet. His body crashes to the pavement with a thud.

There is chaos. Later I will learn that Barbour followed Marshall back, trying to catch and stop him, and was actually the guy who got the gun away; and that Alicia threw herself over Heidi and the boys in an act that will go a long way toward getting her kids back in her care.

But in the moment, there is only me and Dad. He says, Oh, man, this is bad.

Im screaming for a doctor, but he puts his hand to my mouth. Is Heidi okay?

I spot her under Alicia, next to Georgia. Yeah. Shes okay. Hold on, Dad. Theyre getting help. All around me people holler for a doctor.

He shakes his head, and I see blood leaking onto the pavement. He says, This doesnt feel good, T. J. I dont think we have much time.

Dad, be quiet. Just relax. Theres help.

Listen! He breathes slowly, and I hear air being sucked through the wound. His namewas Tyler.

What?

The little boy. Under the truckI can see him I hear the sucking sound again. This isntthe light and the tunnel thing. I just see himremember. The widowshe was StacyStacy Couples.

Dad, hold on. His head is cradled in the crook of my arm, and I look up and scream again for help. The crowd moves in; there are sirens.

Im not going to make it, T. J. I can feel him giving up, relaxing. Listen to meIm not afraid, but listen. Not one minute He starts to fade but fights back. Not one minutefor revenge

Dad, come on. Stay with me.

Listen!

I hold his head tighter.

Not one minute for revenge. Ive spent my lifelooking backwanting to change things This is okay Promise you wont

I glance over at Rich Marshall, pinned to the ground by Tay-Roy and Mike Barbour. Barbour is screaming at him. If I werent with Dad, Id kill him. Dad

Promise.

Dad

Promise!

I do.

Youre going tohave toforgive him, T. J He had no ideawhat he was doing

That was Jesus last line. Hold on, Dad.

Youre sure Heidis okay?

Shes okay, Dad. Alicias got her.

He smiles faintly. Guess I killed one and I saved one. Tell your mother

Oh, God, my mother.

Tell her I love her.

Youll tell her yourself, Dad. Just hold on.

Tell her thanks.

He smiles, and I feel the most familiar feeling I know, that of the deer slipping away. My father is gone. I didnt get a chance to tell himhe saved two.

There is a doctor, then paramedics. They pound his chest, give him mouth-to-mouth, hook him to the electronics, but Dad is gone. They dont pronounce him dead before placing him in the ambulance, but thats for my benefit. The cops cuff Rich, dragging him away; Chris Coughlin runs in circles, Mott stands silent on the edge of the court.


CHAPTER 14 | Whale Talk | WHALE TALK