Boys’ sports at Cutter High School are driven by the downtown alumni, who call themselves “Wolverines Too,” almost as much as it’s driven by the athletic department, or by Mr. Morgan, the principal. That bothers me because the power behind Wolverines Too is a guy I never forget to keep my eye out for. His name is Rich Marshall, and he eats what he finds dead in the road. Supposedly WT is a group of community-spirited Cutter graduates who hung around after graduation to make their fortunes in this mountain town of nine thousand people just far enough north of Spokane to be Hick City. In theory, their organization supports all Cutter extracurricular activities. That should encompass music, drama, honors society, the chess club, and, in my book, the kids who hang out on the smoking hill. In fact, it encompasses male jocks. Wolverines Too is basically a group of guys whose glory days unfolded on the Cutter athletic arena between the ages of fourteen and eighteen and who want to re-create those glory days through the lives of Cutter’s current stable of jocks. They “mentor” them, and sometimes find them jobs in their places of work. They’ve been known to raise significant dollars for football equipment or basketball uniforms when allocated athletic funds run low. In my memory they have never raised a dime for a girls’ team. I find it interesting that not one former female athlete belongs to the group.
Rich Marshall encompasses most of what I believe is wrong with our species, and I don’t say that just because of his family’s civil-rights record, which is not unlike the Barbours’. The entire Marshall family operates in a permanent state of confusion because they can’t figure out who they hate most. Rich graduated the year before I started high school, so by all rights I should have never had contact with him, but a year after he graduated, his dad died of a heart attack and Rich took over Marshall Logging, which is probably one of the few viable logging companies left in the Northwest. Mike Barbour sets chokers for them in the summer at about three or four times minimum wage. I swear, Barbour’s the only guy I know with a full ride to high school.
Rich and I got crossways of each other when I was a freshman, after he shot a deer out from under me.
Let me back up a bit and say I don’t get it about guns and male bonding and becoming one with your father or uncle by killing some animal born unfortunate enough not to know what a malevolent subspecies the human predator is. To quote my favorite philosopher, Chris Rock, “What kind of ignorant shit is that?” I think people don’t consider sometimes how arbitrary things are. If this country had been founded by photographers, fathers and sons could bind their connections bringing back pictures of the animals they now bring draped over the hoods of their four-wheel-drive pickups. They could do that now if they understood that the whole hunting thing got started back before you could get meat at a drive-up window. But when an activity has outlived its usefulness in this country, we keep it alive by calling it a sport. It’s a sport to drive to the edge of the woods and fire a nine-hundred-mile-an-hour missile that tears a hole in its target before that target even hears the crack of the rifle. Listen, if you want to make a sport of deer hunting, take any weapon no sharper than an antler, chase it down, and get it on. Yeah, yeah, the deer would then have the advantage of speed, but you’d still have the overwhelming advantage of malicious intent.
A digression into politics there, but I’m better now.
I was recounting how I got on the bad side of Rich Marshall, as if there were a good side. I was a freshman, hanging out at Durfee’s Chevron with a bunch of guys my age, drinking pop and listening to heroic stories about their first football season, which they were in the middle of. It was the final weekend of deer-hunting season. Rich had already decided Barbour was going to replace him as Jabba the Jock and had taken him under his wing like out of some United Way Big Brother from a negative universe. Rich and Mike and Mark Wyberg roared into the station in Rich’s big ol’ Ford dually, one of those monster pickup trucks that runs on diesel, with dual wheels in the rear and a camper on the back that he still claims every cheerleader in school has been naked in. I swear, if God had made Rich choose between that ugly truck and his you-know-what, which he claims is also supersized by McDonald’s, it would have been a three-day decision. Anyway, he stormed into the front office yelling, “Any you guys not got your deer yet?”
There was no yet for me. No one who values longevity would bring an animal he just shot for kicks into my mother’s kitchen. Marshall pulled a twenty out of his wallet. “One a’ you guys run down to Bender’s Sports and get you a tag,” he said. “Quick.”
I asked why.
“Got us a little one tied up out there,” he said. “Nailed his momma, and the dumb little shitter just stood there. So we lassoed him, cowboy style, but we can’t chance bringin’ him out with no tag. Fish an’ Game boys all over the damn place. I can talk ’em out of him bein’ too small if I got a tag on ’im; just say he was a long ways off an’ I misjudged. Gonna take that bad boy over to Hoyt’s Taxidermy an’ have ’im stuffed. Put ’im in the yard come Christmas.”
I feigned interest long enough to get the approximated coordinates of the doomed Bambi, then said no chance was I going to get a deer tag so these erstwhile frontiersmen could gun down a baby deer with a rope around his neck, courageous as that sounded.
Rich looked like he might use my head for a speed bag when I started humming “Davy Crockett,” but one of the other guys offered to go to Bender’s. It was never a bad idea to build up a few points with Rich; he had graduated the previous year and, as part of his commitment to Wolverines Too, was donating time to work out with the team, and you just might end up staring across the line at him in some practice drill designed to make you eligible for state disability funds.
Anyway, while Marshall and his Gang of Two drove Ralph Raymond to Bender’s, I pedaled my mountain bike out past the old Carter place deep into the woods on an overgrown one-lane logging road to a clearing where, sure enough, the young deer stood vigil over its dead mother, a nylon rope snug around his neck, tied to a pine tree. This wasn’t just Bambi, this was early Bambi. Mom and Dad said later it may have had to do with the loss of my own mother, but I’ll never forget the look of it, head bowed, standing over her still corpse. I could almost feel the weight in its chest in my own.
The fawn lurched as I rode up, choking on the tightened noose, but I laid my bike on the ground, talking real soft as I moved in, and though it jerked back in panic twice more, I was able to slip the rope over its head. It bounded away a few yards, stopped, and ventured back. I knew Marshall couldn’t be far behind, so I yelled and whistled and even slapped it on the butt, but it never got past the edge of the trees before turning back.
Across the clearing a cloud of dust rolled up behind Rich’s dually as he slammed on the brakes, snatched his rifle from the gun rack as he leaped from the cab and sprinted toward me and the deer with Wyberg and Barbour close behind, screaming my name.
Even with all that commotion the fawn wouldn’t go far, and there was nothing left but to throw myself over it. To shoot the deer, asshole Rich Marshall would have to shoot me, and in my imagination that would be better than to witness this killing. Wyberg and Barbour tried to peel me back, slapping the back of my head and kicking my ribs, and in the chaos the deer kicked a three-inch gash in my forehead, but I held on like a bulldogger and Rich couldn’t get a clean body shot. I will forever remember the sensation of that animal going slack in my hold as the bullet went through its temple.
Then the three of them proceeded to kick my ass all over the clearing.
Even at fourteen I was big enough to do some damage to Wyberg, and under different circumstances would have welcomed the opportunity to put a few well-placed bruises on Barbour’s face, but the fight had drained out of me with the soul of the deer. They loaded both animals into Rich’s dually, backed over my mountain bike twice, and left me in the middle of the clearing soaked in a mixture of the deer’s blood and my own.
I met Mr. Simet for the first time as his Humvee crested a rise in the single-lane dirt road and swerved to miss me, walking directly down the middle toward town-“determination,” as he put it, “smeared across my face in blood and dirt”-and he told me to get in. At first I wouldn’t-couldn’t-tell him what had happened. He stopped by his place to let me clean up and loan me some sweats so my mother wouldn’t have to see me like that, but I took only a glass of water and asked to be taken home.
Simet said later he thought I was crazier than an outhouse rat, and he rendered a credible imitation of my ranting and raving the rest of the way to my house. “Rich Marshall had no right to kill either of those animals. That spoiled rich asshole isn’t starving; he wasn’t hunting food. His family owns an entire logging company, for Christ’s sake. Rich Marshall hunts because he likes to hurt things. An entire football field isn’t big enough to hold how big a shithead Rich Marshall is. I’m by God tired of living in a part of the country where you become a man by mounting some helpless animal’s horns on the hood of the pickup your old man should have made you earn instead of dropping it on you like some Charlton Goddamn Heston rite-of-passage gift on your sixteenth birthday.” Simet still re-creates that speech any time he catches me cranking up.
Other than telling me they were antlers, not horns, he let me purge, and when he dropped me off at my house, said I should probably call the cops; that if my story were even close to true, Rich Marshall should be prosecuted for assault.
No chance I was calling the cops, but the following Monday morning I pulled on my bloody T-shirt and jeans and, for the next five days, wore them to school like a soldier draped in his war-torn flag, telling everyone who asked and most who didn’t where the blood came from and which unconscious ass wipe put it there-all in the face of significant opposition from the front office. In my imagination people would hear my story and demand that Rich Marshall have nothing further to do with Cutter High School; that even Wolverines Too would drop him like a smoking turd. Mr. Morgan requested that Mom and Dad intervene, citing a school rule prohibiting “disruptive attire”-a rule they used on me once when I wore a T-shirt with a cartoon depicting a proctologist standing over his patient, his dutiful nurse beside him, extending a can of beer. The caption read, “I said a butt light, not a Bud Lite.” Actually, Mom and Dad sided with the school on that one.
But not this time. Morgan was, at the age of thirty-six, the youngest principal in school district history and lacked full appreciation of my parents’ history growing up in the age of civil disobedience.
“Our son is disrupting his classes?” Dad asked as the three of us sat in Morgan’s small inner office. I said before, Dad is a motorcycle guy, and he looks like a motorcycle guy: brown hair to his shoulders, an earring, tattoos gracing his massive forearms. He’s real decent and articulate, but he looks like he eats children.
Morgan said, “In the sense that the bloody shirt attracts so much attention, yes.”
“So the other students are refusing to work in order to stare at T. J.’s shirt? And the teachers are paralyzed from their duties because they can’t take their eyes off him? Does that remain constant throughout the entire class period, or does it seem to dissipate when everyone gets bored with it?” Dad was never a fan of the controlling aspects of the educational system.
I think Morgan was beginning to sense that dealing with my parents might be more difficult than dealing with me. “Don’t be absurd. That kind of behavior undermines the authority of the school in the students’ eyes. Certainly as a parent you can understand that.”
Dad said, “Don’t take it on.”
“Leave it alone. If you don’t exercise authority over it, your authority won’t be undermined.” Then Dad asked if Morgan knew how my clothes got that way, and Morgan said there wasn’t a hearing citizen in the county who didn’t.
“And what are you doing about it?”
Morgan said it was outside school jurisdiction, a matter Dad and Mom could take up with the legal system if they so desired.
“Tell you what,” Dad said, “we’ll let it ride. And that should be a relief to you, because you’ve got this maniac running loose in your school and he’s not even a student. T. J. knew what he was getting into when he went to the clearing; it’s not as if Rich Marshall’s reputation is a secret.” Then he said, “Let me give you a piece of advice that could make your life easier. The last time I tried to power struggle this kid, he was five years old, and I was at least three years too late. I doubt you’ll have any better luck than I did. If you suspend him, we’ll support him however we have to. Truth is, I think this is a free-speech issue.”
Mom was more succinct. “Suspend him and deal with our attorney.”
Mr. Morgan was not one to welcome outside intervention, particularly of the legal variety, but he also didn’t like being strong-armed with the culprit right there in the room. “What will you do if Rich takes matters into his own hands?”
I said, “He did that.”
Mom said, “I’m assuming you have some control over an alumni group whose name is all over the printed programs for your football and basketball teams.”
“Whose members you allow into your school building on a daily basis,” Dad added.
“Of course, but that control is limited.”
Dad said, “You make sure our son is safe during school hours and I’m sure he can take care of the rest. He’s already survived the best Rich Marshall has to offer.” He stood up, dwarfing Morgan. “We could have made a lot bigger fuss over this, sir. If I had a brain in my head, I’d get a restraining order that would put Rich Marshall three states away from my son. But T. J. talked me out of that. For now. If there’s a scent of trouble, you will be getting some very bad publicity.”
I wore my bloody garb of protest through the end of the week to no further administrative challenge. In the end I was proud to have forced Rich to take the head shot, spoiling the fawn as a trophy. There’s always a pearl somewhere in the shit. Mom was proud she made the school think we had an attorney that wasn’t her.
I can’t look at Chris Coughlin without seeing myself. At one level that’s strange; he’s maybe five-eight and a hundred-thirty pounds, and before I got him swimming, five of those pounds were dirt. He can’t have three percent body fat, and in a swimming suit you can see the outline of every tiny muscle in his body. He’s pale as chicken gravy, and his eyes are dull as automobile primer. Only when he’s tickled does a light flash behind them.
That could be me. When my bio-mom Glenda was at the top of her druggie game, she would leave me for days, propped in the crib or the car seat, sucking on an empty bottle, crusted food on my chin and four-days-unwashed shirt. Strange men came in and out of her place at will. I’ve heard my mom say a thousand times that if you give her a drug-addicted mother with a kid under two, she’ll give you a ninety-five percent chance of that kid getting molested or beat or both. I guess ninety-five kids had already gotten it, because I have no sense of that ever happening to me.
But the wrong guy, pissed at Glenda and whacked out on crank, could have changed the way my mind and body respond to the world in a heartbeat. So when I see a guy like Chris Coughlin eating shit, it’s personal, and I mean in a bottom-level, core, DNA sense. Sometimes I trick myself into thinking I’m this righteous dude who stands up for the downtrodden, sort of a spiritual Robin Hood, an independent superhero who goes his own way, but the reality is, most of the time it’s not a choice. Even though I have all these gifts, these physical and intellectual treasures, when I see someone getting kicked I feel it. Georgia, who was my childhood therapist, says it’s because those first two years were full of losses, and even though I don’t remember them in my mind, my body-my being-remembers.
So as this Far Side team assembles, I know I’m choosing an arbitrary battleground. Knee injuries aside, there is nothing inherently wrong with organized football or basketball, and there are guys who play and guys who coach who I have nothing but respect for. But sports here are too big a deal, the jocks get too much, and that doesn’t leave enough for the rest of us. That wouldn’t bother me as much except for the way Barbour and some of the real gung-ho guys use Chris and guys like him as examples of what happens to someone who wants a little piece of it, if only through the fading, worn letter jacket of his dead brother, as if they’re delivering some message to the rest of us. I’d better be a little careful, or this could get too important.
A few days pass before I root out any more potential Aquamen-no Aquawomen are stepping up-but I do encounter a guy who will turn out to be integral to our swimming fortunes. Even before Simet strikes a deal for use of the pool at All Night Fitness, I start training on my own. Like I said, a lot of how you do in the last meet of the year depends on the number of miles you put in long before the first. I decide to swim late at night or early in the morning to avoid fifty-year-old ladies running laps up and down the lanes (what kind of workout is that?) and the Sidestroke Club, which is a group of ten or fifteen men and women who think they can get in shape swimming sidestroke about eight miles a day. I hate to tell them, but swimming sidestroke is the exercise equivalent of putt-putt golf.
I’m psyched to get going, and I wake up for my first workout at 2:30 A.M. All Night Fitness really is open all night, twenty-four hours a day, fifty-two weeks a year, Christmas included. I go overboard from the start, hitting the weight room first, alternating between upper body and legs, covering all the muscle groups; twelve reps on heavy weights, drop ten pounds for ten reps, drop ten more for eight. When my muscles feel like tapioca, I head for the pool, determined to flip my turns only at the shallow end so I can use that underwater shelf to knock myself silly enough to actually consider this project an intelligent undertaking. I’m not in good enough shape to hold my stroke for long distances, so I swim eighty-yard repeats leaving every minute-thirty seconds until there is an even chance the night guy will have to siphon me out of the scum gutter.
I’ve got to learn to start slower.
In the locker room I peel off my suit and stumble into the sauna. It’s stone cold, so I flip the switch and sit naked on the cool redwood bench waiting for heat, breathing deep, feeling that sweet burn in my arms and chest.
A voice from nowhere. “You leave that on, you’re gonna give me night sweats.”
My yell ricochets off the walls like a bullet fired into a stainless-steel freezer. I see no one at first, then a foot slides out from under the bottom bench, followed by a leg, followed by a guy who turns out to be Oliver Van Zandt. He puts a finger to his lips. “Shut up or you’ll bring in the night guy.” He is dressed in gray sweatpants and a T-shirt, with a completely white beard and hair falling to his shoulders; looks like Gabby Hayes with muscles.
I say, “Man, you scared me to death.”
“If I had, you’d make less noise.”
“You fixing something under there?”
He opens the door, glances around the empty locker room, pulls it shut quickly. “I live here.”
“In the sauna?”
“In the club,” he says, and proceeds to detail a schedule that includes a full shift at Wendy’s followed by one at Burger King. His son is a sophomore at U of W in Seattle. He can’t afford a mortgage and tuition, so he joined All Night for just under thirty bucks a month, works out, showers and shaves here, and sleeps hidden out between the hours of eleven and four-thirty or so, when the place is virtually empty.
Man, this is hard to believe. “Do you always sleep in the sauna?”
“Never in the same spot two nights running,” he says. “Sometimes I get into the pool equipment room, sometimes back in one of the exercise rooms under the mats. A moving target is hard to hit.” He watches me carefully. “You gonna give me up?”
“You mean tell?”
“Yeah.” His look is hard.
“Hell, no,” I say. “Man, this is too good.”
I flip off the heat switch to avoid overheating this guy’s bedroom. You have to admit, living in a fitness spa has its allure; might not have exactly what you want in cushy furniture, but the weight machines provide about every kind of recliner you can think of, and you’ve got a bathroom with hair blowers on the wall and even a telephone. And a whirlpool. You’d pretty much have to stay at the Las Vegas Hilton for that.
I love the way life can put things in perspective for you. I’m worried about pulling it together enough to qualify for State in swimming while I put a little grief into Mike Barbour’s life, and here’s a guy who spends more than sixteen hours a day working for minimum wage with no benefits, who has given up his home so his son can escape the same fate. As I lie in my warm, comfortable bed, drifting off for a couple of hours before school, my quest seems less daunting.