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Within the next two weeks we round out our swim team from the Sahara with guys cut from football and cross-country. (How do you get cut from cross-country?) I head over to the gym on both cut days, take down the names, spend a couple of days matching them with faces, then issue a personal invitation to those I believe would look most out of place in a Cutter High School letter jacket. Simet does his part by cementing a deal with All Night Fitness that allows us three hours workout time per day; one at 5:00 A.M. and the other two right after school. He stretches things a little, telling them I was once an Olympic hopeful, and that if I make it big, hell make sure All Night gets good press.

You told them I was an Olympic hopeful?

There must have been a time or two when you hoped youd go to the Olympics someday, he says.

Ah, semantics.

So how many more do you have for me?

I say, Drafted ten, landed three.

Any that stand out?

I smile. Simon DeLong.

Simet flinches. Simon DeLong weighs three hundred pounds.

Two eighty-seven, I tell him. And hes grown an inch. Hes almost five-eight.

How did you get him into a swimsuit?

I let him do that himself.

Yeah, but how did he find one?

That was the easy part. I sent the Speedo people a body shot and told them he was determined to deck himself out in their stuff. Federal Express showed up a day later with swimsuits, warm-ups, goggles; all from Tyr. Shipped directly from Speedo headquarters.

Simet knows Im lying but appreciates the humor. He shakes his head in true amazement. God, whats it going to be to put Simon in a circle pattern?

I say, Dangerous.

Who else?

Know a kid named Jackie Craig?

Simet says he knows him by sight, but thats about it. Jackie is nondescript. Medium build, brown hair, about five-ten; the kind of guy who could get away with robbing 7-11s because even if they caught him on camera, no characteristic would stand out. Hes been cut from J.V. football.

And last but not least? Simet says.

Andy Mott.

Is that why you told me about Simon DeLong first?

You have to admit, never in the history of Cutter High School has a team of this diversity been assembled.

Simet considers, then, I admit that.

If you look in the dictionary under surly, youll find a picture of Andy Mott glaring back at you so hard the edges of the page will curl. He walks with a strange limp, though I dont know anyone who knows why. It isnt something youd ask, and it isnt something hed offer. Hes a junior; a big guy, close to six-three. Tay-Roy says he benches major pounds and can do as many pull-ups as most guys can do sit-ups. In the hallway he limped up to me and said, Heard youre looking for swimmers, and I said, Yeah, and he said, Sign me up, and it occurred to me that was eight more words than Id ever heard him speak. I said, Okay, already wondering what that would do to the long bus trips we were in for.

I start showing up at All Night around three-thirty every morning, knowing every mile I swim will pay off at the end of the season. Oliver Van Zandt says hell pay me five bucks a week to find and wake him so he doesnt have to sleep with one eye open for the morning aerobics woman setting up for the early class, or some maintenance guy coming in early to make a pool repair.

He works out with me on weights, then watches me swim. Its nice to have the company.

At least things on my romantic horizons are calm through this, which I believed at one time would never be the case. I need that calm, rational, straightforward support in guiding this Bart Simpson swimming team through football city, and Carly Hudson gives it to me.

When my parents adopted me, they sent me to a child therapist because my two-year-old rage scared them. Her name is Georgia Brown and, simply put, she saved my life. I dont remember specifics, but shes quick to tell me I was a true hellion with an astonishing temper even by her standards, and shed worked with kids like me almost ten years by then. In the face of the slightest frustration, Id leap into the air, throw my legs straight out and land as hard as gravity would allow, or run, screaming, headlong into the side of the bathtub. If some other kid in my day care took a toy from me, or even had a toy I wanted, I went for that toy with malice aforethought, and all who resisted paid dearly. Mom and Dad took me to Georgia s playroom (in her home) once a week to work out the rage that accompanied the loss of my mother and the hours upon days of being left unattended.

Normally Georgia doesnt work with kids over five, but she either took a liking to me or didnt want my name on her list of future mass murderers, so though I dont see her formally now, when I feel the need I show up on her porch. She warned me back in junior high that I would have struggles with girls. Lots of kids with your early childhood history have a real problem being left, she said. The first girl you run into isnt likely to be the one for you, nor are you likely to be right for her. That will also be true of the second and the third. Which means what? and before I could answer, Youre gonna get left, darlin. Plenty of times. Get it through your peanut head.

Georgia gets away with calling my head peanut because shes mixed race, too. Shes fond of saying if they called in an airstrike on the two of us having coffee, they would wipe out two-thirds of the people of color in town.

At any rate Georgia gave every warning I needed to avoid the landmines of love, and I proceeded to march into battle and step on every one. All the way through junior high and early high school, I picked girls flattered at how much I was willing to do for them. I carried their books, traded the best parts of my lunch for their sorry peanut butter sandwiches with no jelly, even did their homework. Each one loved it right up until she couldnt answer her doorbell without seeing my smiling face and started inventing reasons to ditch me, at which point I turned into a pint-sized stalker, walking by her house to see if she was home and who might be visiting her, calling and hanging up when she answered-all stuff that could get me arrested as an adult.

At the end of each crushing love affair I went to Georgia, and each time she told me, Honey, youre always wantin to make yourself indispensable. You figure if you help them with their worst problems, theyll never leave. Since you cant figure out exactly what their worst problems are, you help them with all their problems. Any girl who will let you do that is pretty sick. Healthy people want to solve their own problems, which, by the way, you have plenty of. Best way to be healthy in any relationship is to take care of yourself and let the other person do the same. She asked did I understand her.

I said I did, and to prove it I went right out and fell in love with Carly Hudson. I mean facedown in the soup in love; head-banging, eye-popping, short-of-breath, plead-with-the-universe-till-your-voice-box-is-raw kind of love. The kind of love so deep that, when its not going the way you want it to, your ancestors moan. Shes a jock, which appeals to me out of the chute. Dark hair, dark eyes, makeup applied with a subtle artists eye and hand. There is no butt-twitching or flirtatious glancing or any of the symptoms that usually rocket me to Hormone City, but her natural sexuality is jarring.

Im one of those guys whos loquacious in love. Our first real date was for a Coke on a study break, and by the time it was over, I had already told her she took my breath away. She was quiet a few minutes, then proceeded to say that was the fastest way she could think of to get her to change her phone number. If Georgia had been going to pick one girl out of the billions inhabiting the planet, this is the one she would have picked, the one least likely to ever let me fix her life.

I met her on the river. It was the end of summer between my sophomore and junior years, one of those dry, hot days when everyone is at the river the minute they finish whatever they had to do for the day, which for most of us is before ten oclock in the morning. That was the summer Id decided to become a championship water skier and wake-boarder. Id get up at four in the morning as the sun peeked over the mountains to the east, pick up a couple of buddies, get the boat on the water while it was smooth as an ice-skating rink, and ski until the winds came up, then hang out on the dock or the beach until evening when the water calmed again to the point that you could see the reflection of the mountains as clearly as you could see the mountains themselves, and ski or wake-board until dark. I was in my Speedo about eighteen hours a day.

Carly was new that year. Her dad is this big-time builder from over in northern Idaho and had contracted to build a fancy resort hotel on the river, then develop a couple of high-rent subdivisions. Between all the new high-tech industries and resort developments, Cutter is one of the faster-growing towns in the state. At any rate, I was pretty popular that summer because of the boat, and for the price of a few gallons of gas Id take almost anyone for a spin on the skis. In return, they had to drive while I skied. I was working my way through this makeshift slalom course a few of us had rigged up when I spotted Carly and a couple of girls from my class walking onto the city dock, and I signaled Mike Morrow to take me in. I glided toward the dock, turned around as I reached it and sat, perfectly dry above the knees, very cool.

Carly walked over, failed to mention my studly landing, but struck up a conversation. Before I knew it, I was showing her the sights up where the river narrows, in the wilder, faster water. I pulled close to shore, out of the current near water that swirled deep beneath shady pine trees. I cant even remember what we talked about, but all of a sudden two hours were gone and I was pretty much thunderstruck.

I was cool, didnt ask her to the Legion Hall dance that night, figuring shed show up with friends and Id nab her away. Only the friend she showed up with was Mike Barbour. The deer incident, my cultural heritage, and the fact that I wouldnt turn out for sports had already locked Barbour and me into Christian-gladiator status.

Barbour has always been popular in that loud, conquering-hero sort of way. Since middle school he was ahead of his time: first guy to shave, first to throw back a six-pack. On the dance floor he showed pelvic action worthy of Elvis. Carly kept him at a distance, but it was killing me that she walked in with him, or that she danced with him at all. Old stirrings of not being chosen welled up, and my first instinct was to get out of there because that particular feeling has historically resulted in bad behavior. On the other hand, I was majorly pissed at myself for not asking her to the dance earlier; the window that had opened seemed about to close and lock. So when Barbour went to take a leak, I asked her to dance. She smiled and said she thought that was me standing over there by myself.

I thought, Right. In the middle of a part of the United States so white that every fourth year some group of survivalist assholes formally petitions Congress to create a fifty-first state from the land between here and Missoula, Montana, for whites only, she thinks she sees the same Kung Fu Jackie Robinson she spent two hours on the river with this afternoon. I didnt have the words for that, so I said, Yeah, Im hard to miss. How do you ladies do it?


Youve been in town two days and already found the biggest asshole weve got.

She smiled. Guess he reminds me of my father.

Is that good or bad? I was being haunted by the feeling that goes with the knowledge that something you really want is going to the very worst possible place. God, where in the rule book does it say that the good guy, the guy thats easy to talk to, the guy who unties the damsel from the railroad tracks seconds before the train would cut her into thirds, gets to be the friend, while the asshole gets the good stuff? Thats how my mind gets going when I expect the worst.

Its bad. But I always have to check those guys out. You know, to be sure of my instincts.

Instant relief. I dont totally understand it. Some people will have asshole parents and turn out just like them, like Barbour or Rich Marshall. Others see through it and turn out the opposite. I discovered later that night Carly hadnt had it easy. Ol man Hudsons a hard-drinking hardass whos never satisfied, and he used to knock his wife around in a minute if she got out of line. When Carly was a freshman, back in Idaho, her dad talked her into turning out for the J.V. cheerleading squad instead of basketball and volleyball because he thought being a jock was unfeminine. I hated the idea, but I was a cutie, she told me. When the student votes were in, I had more than there were students. And remember I said Dad talked me into it.

As I found out later, when Carlys involved with something, shes gotta have her hands on every part of it, so she helped design the outfits, worked up new yells, and even choreographed some dances. At halftime of the first J.V. basketball game the cheerleaders joined the drill team in a song-and-dance thing Carly had worked up. The grand finale required the three cheerleaders to bend over and flip up their skirts so people could read THS. The small crowd cheered wildly, even the players pointed and clapped, and old man Hudson came out of the bleachers like he was nuclear powered, grabbed Carly by the elbow, and jerked her toward the door, screaming that she was a whore and a bitch, and the next time he caught her showing her ass hed beat her half to death.

The crowd sat stunned until we were out the door. A couple of other parents told me later they tried to follow, but by the time they recovered from their shock, we were driving out of the parking lot. That night I got a beer opener from the kitchen and a ball peen hammer from the garage and redecorated his brand-new Lexus; smashed all the glass and ran the beer opener down each side, fender to fender. Then I went back into the house, threw my tools of destruction at his feet, and told him for every mark he put on me or my mom, Id put another one on the car, and if he wanted to start right now, go right ahead, but be prepared to explain himself to the newspaper and the TV station.

I said, Whoa!

Yeah, whoa, she said back. He was a well-respected businessman who didnt need the bad press. He hasnt laid a hand on me or my mother since. The next day I turned my cheerleaders uniform in to the office and asked if I could try out late for basketball.

Of course there are scars. Carly is a talent in a lot more areas than just sports. She can sing, I swear she has a photographic memory, plus shes fashion-model good-looking in the face, though way too strong and powerful to be considered anywhere near that in the body. Yet, when I asked her once what she thought she was very best at, she said, Packing.

I said, Packing? Packing what?

She said, Clothes, hair dryer, makeup, food. Before our nonviolence treaty I could pack everything my mother, little brother, and I would need for three days, in just under the time it took my dad to run to Zip Trip for another half-rack of beer after he loosened my mothers teeth. She went on to tell me how shed drag her and her brothers suitcases over four-foot snowdrifts, staying off the road, because her dad would find them gone, grab a couple of beers, and patrol the streets.

Jesus. Why three days?

Because thats the longest my mother ever stayed away. She said she probably disliked her mother more than her dad, because she hated the weakness she saw every time her mother went crawling back. Id have been out of there a long time ago if it werent for my brother, she said. I gave up on Mom by the time I was twelve. Thomas is turning sixteen this year and hes almost as big as Dad, so I dont think therell be any trouble.

Then, in answer to the unasked question of why she was telling me all this, she said, So heres the deal with me and guys, bubba. If were friends, were friends. If we have sex, we have sex. I dont sleep with more than one person, and I wont go with anyone who does. We double up on birth control. And nobody runs my life, which means I dont go in for a bunch of whining when I have something important to do and you want to go to the prom. You interested?

Actually, at that point I was still stuck back where she said, If we have sex, we have sex.

I was interested, and the rest is history. Georgia Brown says Carly saved me from having to learn that middle-school lesson over and over again into my fifties.

Funny how everything is relative. If my father were ever to behave the way Mr. Hudson behaves, hed spend the rest of his life begging forgiveness-from the Turkish prison my mother would see to it he was sentenced to. And if anyone ever broke my mothers jaw, theyd better be ready to take a bullet.

So if Im Carly, a good day is one in which no one in my family gets brutalized; and if Im Chris Coughlin, a good day is when nobody calls me dummy and the football players dont jack me up, and somebody puts their hand on my shoulder and smiles at me when they see me staring at my dead brothers picture in the trophy case. If Im The Tao Jones, a good day is when I lock onto whatever Im passionate about and pursue it with abandon, whether its swimming, or messing with Mike Barbours head, or a good journalism story, or Carly Hudson.

If youre my father, a good day is one in which you avoid remembering the events of July 27, 1968.

Everything is relative.

CHAPTER 3 | Whale Talk | CHAPTER 5