Practices go better than I could have imagined through Christmas vacation. We’re still holding two a day, and all seven of us show for every one. Chris actually gets used to Andy sliding his leg under the bench before each workout, and at one point he sneaks over and touches it. Icko uses what little free time he has to study for his Class II driver’s license so he can drive the bus, for which the school district will pay him. He turns into our utility guy, coaching out-of-water activities and doubling as team psychologist (“You want to turn out like everyone thinks you’ve already turned out?”), tripling as manager in charge of making sure Chris always knows where his swimming suit and goggles are and that he isn’t terrorized by the existence of Andy Mott on the team or on the planet.
Our first road trip, which takes place on the second weekend back from vacation, sets the stage for our season. It’s an evening double-dual meet between us and two Idaho schools, which means it doesn’t count in the conference standings. Swim teams are spread pretty thin throughout eastern Washington and northern Idaho, so the travel can be grueling. We’ll be on two-lane blacktop most of the way, and the sky begins spitting snow as we prepare to leave. Icko, who has come straight from his job at Burger King, disappears into the school and returns with two burlap bags filled with tire chains, throws them into the back of the bus, and calls all aboard. Neither of the district’s two minibuses is available for the trip, so we’re traveling in what seems like a 747.
Mott puts on his headphones as he steps onto the bus, walks back to the last seat and lies down, disappearing from view. The rest of us, plus Simet, fill in the first three rows behind Icko and bring out the cards and Game Boys and reading material. It’s a seventy-mile trip that will take about two hours, given terrain and road conditions.
When we’ve been on the road fifteen or twenty minutes, I lean forward and tap Simet on the shoulder. “You ever figure out the letter requirements?”
He grimaces. “I was supposed to have them up for consideration by the Athletic Council before the first meet,” he says. “I put them off until the first conference meet.”
“I have an idea.”
“How about anybody who hits his best time each time he swims, gets a letter.”
He frowns. “You kidding me?”
“No, man, listen. This is perfect. Remember what it was like when you started swimming? You got faster by the week, just from the competition and the increased workouts and stroke technique. Seriously, I hit my best times every week for a couple of years when I started. Almost everyone did.”
He considers. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “I can’t be sure.”
“They probably didn’t have clocks back then, but trust me, it’s true. And here’s the beauty of it. The Athletic Council will never figure it out. I mean, if you asked the track team to do that, no one would letter.”
Simet smiles. “You might be right. I’ll tell them I could choose an arbitrary number of points, but that might be too easy because a lot of teams will have only one entry per event, and my guys would pick up too many easy points.” He thinks a minute longer. “One thing, though.”
“You don’t tell any of these guys until after we swim tonight. I want them going all out for their first meet, so we know we’re getting the most out of them the rest of the season.”
About a half hour from our destination, Coach walks back and slips Mott’s earphones off, calls for everyone’s attention. “Listen up,” he says. “How we do in this first meet sets the stage for the rest of the year, sets our goals. I want you to close your eyes and listen to me.” He pauses. “That’s everyone but you, Icko.”
Icko laughs. “Got my eyes on the road, boss.”
“Okay, the rest of you. Picture this. It’s a big school, a couple of years old. Two stories. The pool is at the west end. We enter through the north side of the gym and walk across the basketball floor to the lockers.” He goes on to describe the place in detail, from the lighting to the electronic timing pads, the coaches’ office, even the lifeguard stands. He wants us to visualize it, he says, because he wants it to be familiar. Nothing new or big or scary. The pool is longer, so we’ll have to get used to that during warm-ups, but remember it means fewer laps. There’ll be good swimmers, but they’ll have some guys who are new, also. Since we don’t know how we stack up, we just go out and hit the best times we can. Nothing we do tonight will be wrong. We’re just discovering who we are as swimmers.
“A double-dual meet is exactly what it sounds like. We swim against each team individually. It’s as if we’re swimming two meets. So we could lose to one team but score points against another. Again, just swim as hard as you can and have some fun. We’ll hit the pizza place on the way out of town.” Again he pauses. “Okay, anyone have any goals they want to state for everyone to hear?”
From the back of the bus, Mott says, “My goal is to not assault anyone with my leg for laughing at it.”
“That would be good,” Simet says. “Assaulting the entire student body with your middle fingers is about as far as I stretch. Besides, I don’t carry bail money with me.”
Icko yells back to him, “Besides, this is Idaho. Even swimmers are required to carry guns.”
Chris’s eyes widen. “There’s guns?”
Simet laughs and ruffles his hair. “Icko was teasing. No guns on this one, Chris. Not even the starter has a gun here. They’re newfangled.”
Chris says, “Newfangled,” and laughs. He’s been obsessing about the starter gun since he heard such a thing exists. It does not help that Mott has been telling him if the starter is mad at his wife, sometimes he shoots a swimmer.
I have one goal, but it’s for Tay-Roy: for him not to get sexually assaulted on the deck by the female spectators from either of the opposing schools. Man, that guy looks like a serious hunk in a tank suit. Tay-Roy says one of us is going to be disappointed because his goal is opposite that.
Dan Hole says he’s going to use this meet to further study his personal kinesiology. Icko tells him to drop for ten.
Jackie Craig, who has disappeared while sitting right in front of us, says, “I just want people to still be in the water when I finish,” to which Icko responds by shaking his head and whistling “The Impossible Dream.”
Then we’re all looking at Simon. He shrugs.
“Come on, Simon,” Coach says.
Simon starts to talk, but his voice deserts him and a tear wells up in his eye. He shrugs again, and we look up to see Mott limping up the aisle. He sits beside Simon, albeit with his back to him, knees in the aisle. Mott looks at Coach. “How ’bout puttin’ me an’ DeLong in the same events?”
Coach thinks a second. “We could do that.” Mott grabs Simon’s knee. “They’ll think a one-legged asshole is a lot funnier than a fat guy.” He gets up and limps back.
I watch him slip on the earphones as his head disappears below the back seat. He’d never want you to know it, but he’s got some class.
The meet itself is an eye-opener. I’m in way better shape than I thought and take the hundred and two hundred freestyle pulling away. My times aren’t world beaters, but they’re very competitive for the beginning of the season, and I even blow one turn in the two hundred and still pull it out.
The kid in the lane next to me slaps the water after the hundred, and I’m sure I hear him say he’s never been beat by a nigger, which for some reason doesn’t ignite my will to hold his head under water till he passes out. I reach across the lane rope and grab his hand, like I’m shaking it, pull him close and whisper, “Get used to it.”
Mott does his best to take the heat off Simon. After they call the hundred-yard breast stroke, just as Simon is about to shed his warm-ups, he tears off his sweatpants, jerks his leg off with a flair, and throws it over to me. If it were a gymnastic move, it would have received a ten, and the crowd falls dead silent.
There is a ten-minute delay at the end of the race because one of the judges can’t determine whether or not Andy used a legal kick. In the breast stroke, a swimmer’s legs have to kick symmetrically, and lo and behold, the rule book states nothing about one-legged swimmers. Dan Hole solves the problem by suggesting that since it’s a double-dual meet, and since two swimmers on both teams beat them both, why don’t they disqualify Mott against one team, giving third-place points to Simon, and not the other, giving third-place points to Andy. That is the way it finally goes down in the book.
Chris gets third-place points twice because he’s swimming the five hundred free and the hundred individual medley against nobody else from our team, and Tay-Roy does the same in the hundred fly and the two hundred I.M. Jackie pulls down a pair of thirds in the fifty free and the hundred back. Those races are short enough that there are still swimmers in the water when he finishes, though he bumps his head hard enough on the third turn of his backstroke race not to notice.
The Idaho teams are from neighboring schools and have a rivalry going, as well as a lot of friendships because most of them swim on the same summer team. They’re friendly but a little aloof, and I can’t tell if that’s because they aren’t sure if we got off the bus on our way to Burger King, or if they think they might catch whatever we obviously have.
When it’s over, we gather our things, shake hands with the other swimmers (most of whom wish us good luck, knowing how badly we need it), and head for Pizza Hut, where Dan almost blows cerebral capillaries trying to convince Chris that ordering a twelve-inch will give him more pizza than two six-inchers. Bottom line is, Chris wants two pizzas, and that’s what he gets. “He’s more intelligent than we think,” Dan whispers in defeat. “He almost understood that.” Simon gets two pizzas, too, but he takes Dan’s advice and makes them both twelve.
Andy declares this whole experience a real bonus for Chris, making the swim team and getting a math tutor in the mix. He says it like he says everything, with extra sarcasm, but Dan just says, “Darn tootin’.”
We take our same bus seats, seats that will come to belong to us as the season progresses, and start the trip home through what quickly turns into heavy snowfall.
We’re feeling good. We not only walked away from our first swimming meet with as many people as we went into it with, but we all walked away with points. Chris is so proud of himself we almost have to give him two seats, and Simon is so grateful at having stood on that starting block and not melted away with embarrassment that his relief is leaking all over the bus. Jackie Craig seems exactly as he did before we hit the water, but I tell myself even a ghost has to feel good about this. Icko tells Dan Hole he’s so proud of him he’ll give him a bonus of three big words on the way home, and Dan promptly uses up two: euphoric and rapturous, both to describe his current emotional state. Mott says little, but slaps Simon on the shoulder as he limps back for his seat, adjusting his headphones as his head again disappears from view.
In a short while the euphoria and rapture wear off and, except for the droning of the engine, the inside of the bus is like a dorm room. Simon sounds like he turned into a sputtering chain saw, and when they get in sync, he and Mott are dueling nostrils. Simet and I talk awhile, but before long he’s drifted off, too, and only Icko and I see the storm turn to a blizzard as we slow to about twenty miles an hour. The flakes become so thick and heavy we seem to be disappearing through a white wall.
The small transistor radio hanging from the rearview mirror warns us to stay home by the warm fire for the evening. Winter storm warnings are posted through tomorrow.
I say, “Uh, Icko, did I hear him say the road we’re on is closed?”
“Couldn’t be,” he says back. “We’re on it.”
“Hell, yeah,” he says. “Used to drive truck over the continental divide in a lot more weather than this. Rolled one of those babies all the way down a mountain once.”
I tell him that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
“Like to killed me,” he says. “Law of averages says a guy doesn’t have two of those in one lifetime.”
As he says it, bright light fills the interior of the bus like the Fourth of July as the loud blast from the horn of a state snowplow brings everyone up in his seat, and Icko cramps the wheel hard to the right. He pulls it back quickly, but the bus begins to slide, and for a few crazy moments we whirl as if we’re on the Scrambler carnival ride, then hear a bang! as the front fender smashes into the natural rock wall on our left, violently reversing our field back to the other side and over a six-foot steep embankment.
Simet is up and through the bus in an instant, checking us for injuries. Mott limps up the aisle, slipping off his headphones. “Damn,” he says. “I been on drug trips that weren’t that good.”
Chris’s hands are frozen into grips on the back of the seat in front of him, eyes wide, paralyzed. Jackie sits in his seat, head immobile, glancing side to side, waiting for someone to tell him what happened. Tay-Roy slept through it and is just now looking around. Simon hyperventilates.
No one is scratched, but Icko informs us we are at the bottom of the ditch with the fender smashed against the right front tire and we’re going nowhere on our own. “I got up to the road,” he says, “an’ it is nothin’ but white out there. Gonna be here awhile, men.”
Chris glances around frantically, looking ready to go ballistic, but Simet is right there. “You’ve been camping before, haven’t you, Chris?”
Chris says, “With Brian.”
“Well, that’s what this is. It’s a camping trip.”
Chris says, “I wish my brother was here.”
“So do I,” Coach says back. “But we’ll have to do this camping trip without him.”
“Gots to do everything without him,” Chris says. “He’s dead. They gots his picture in the trophy case, though. You seen it?”
“Every day,” Coach says. “Your brother was in my class. Real smart guy.”
Icko goes back out into the snow, returns in just a few minutes. “Plenty of fuel,” he says, “and the engine’s working, so we can keep warm. All the comforts of home, which is a damn good thing, ’cause we ain’t going to the real one for a while. I put a flare up on the road, and we’ve got plenty more, but it’s a good bet nobody’ll be by for a while.” He holds his wrist near the speedometer light. “Close to midnight. Nobody’s gonna miss us till two or so. Should have help by early morning.”
The bus is equipped with an emergency pack that includes blankets, and we all have warm coats. Icko figures if we hang some of the extra blankets ceiling to floor about a third of the way back, we can keep the front part of the bus in the low sixties all night, running the engine intermittently.
Mott glances longingly to the back. “Sounds like I got to give up my seat.” He looks around at us. “What the hell, no reason I can’t come up here and see if I can pick up some social skills.”
“If you can pick up social skills from us,” Tay-Roy says, “you are in serious deprivation.”
“He double flagged the student body,” Simet says. “He’s plenty deprived.”
A hint of a smile crosses Andy’s face in the green glow of the dash lights. I’ve never seen him smile before.
We hang the blankets and settle in. Coach says he and Icko will take care of the flares and the heat, that we can relax and get some sleep. “We’re the only ones getting paid,” he says. “And when this makes the papers, we’ll be taking the credit for saving your lives.”
“It’ll be on page twelve,” Simon says, “when they find out who you saved.”
We sit with our backs to the windows, legs on the seats, struggling to get comfortable, and little by little the bus settles into silence. Icko starts the engine a couple of times while Simet hustles up to replace the flares. In the silence Mott says, “What if this is it for you guys?”
I say, “What do you mean?”
“What if I’m the only one to make it out? What if snow fills up this ditch and covers the bus, and I’m the only one smart enough not to be buried alive? Who do you want me to kill when I get back?”
“Find the guy operating that snowplow,” Icko says. “He didn’t even look back to see what happened to us.”
“He must have figured we squeezed by,” Simet says. “Those guys are pretty good about helping folks out when there’s trouble.”
“Well, we’re in trouble, and he ain’t helpin’,” Icko says. “If I got to freeze to death, and the boy’s got a killin’ heart, that guy’s got my vote for now.”
I check to see if this conversation is freaking Chris out, but he’s fast asleep.
“How ’bout you, Coach?” Mott says. “What if you had a freebie?”
“Can I just have them maimed?” Coach asks. “Do I have to go for the whole package? I have this brother-in-law…”
“Nope,” Mott says. “Got to be terminated.”
“Have to take a rain check then,” Simet says. “Somebody’s got to support my sister.”
Mott says, “DeLong?”
Without hesitation, Simon says, “My mom.”
A brief moment of dead silence. “Care to elaborate on that?”
“How ’bout you, O silent one?” he says to Jackie.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you to use your mouth to talk?” Mott says. “Your shoulders are for your arms to hang off. You got to speak up, Jackie boy. Otherwise how do I know who to waste?”
Jackie shrugs again.
“We’ll come back to you,” Mott says. “Be thinking. Muscle man, what about you?”
“Nobody pops to mind,” Tay-Roy says. “Maybe I’ll give you my proxy. I have a feeling you have a long list.”
“That I do, Popeye. That I do. Jones?”
“I’m into saving lives,” I tell him. “So I’ll have you waste yourself. First. That way I save all these others.”
“Half-black guy around these parts?” Mott says. “Shit, you should have a list that stretches to Seattle. Think you’d rather be a one-legged white boy, or a black guy with everything in working order?” He nods toward Simon. “Or a fat guy.” Toward Chris, “Or a dummy.” And Jackie, “And…whatever that is.”
Simet says, “That’s enough.”
“Isn’t that why you want us around?” Mott says, ignoring him. “Give you a little edge on superiority?”
I say, “Mott, I didn’t ask you to swim.”
“Naw, you didn’t. I’m here of my own volition.” He looks at Dan. “Volition, you like that word, Hole?” He turns back to me. “I’m just checkin’ out the nature of things. You know, how things are.”
“Yeah, well, while you’re checking them out, be careful what words you use.” The heat is rising in me, adrenaline spilling over.
“So now you’re the savior, too. Make sure nobody says anything bad about your team.”
All of a sudden I have him by the collar, pulling him toward close. “No, you don’t say anything bad about our team.”
Simet’s hand clamps on my wrist. “Let go, T. J.”
Mott’s and my eyes remain locked on each other. His stare is cold.
Simet says, “T. J.” again, and I release my hold.
Simet says, “You check on ‘the nature of things’ on your own time, okay, Andy?”
Mott says, “Whatever.”
Mott puts the headphones back on his head, settles into his seat. I stare out the window into the falling snow, wondering how I let him get to me. Maybe it’s because he’s partly right. I did go looking for guys who were out there a ways. Up until now, I thought it was pretty clever. Maybe I’m being an arrogant asshole. I consider that as the bus settles again into silence.
“Hey, man, don’t worry about it.” Mott’s voice startles me. “Sometimes I just have to be a prick. Counselor says I have a personality disorder.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I mean, I don’t know. Maybe you were right.”
“Naw,” he says. “I’m just good at making people think that.”
“I don’t know. The letter jacket thing-I’ve let myself get a little obsessed. I picked that, you guys didn’t.”
He dismisses that, is quiet a few seconds. Then, “Third guy after my dad left. On the off chance you make it out and I don’t, he’s the one I want offed. Canada Smith is his name. I got a trust fund for this leg. Get Canada Smith, and it’s yours.” He’s quiet another few seconds. “Got to do it slow, though.” Another moment of quiet. “Ol’ Canada couldn’t figure out which bed he was supposed to sleep in.”
“I’d tell you the rest of that story, but we don’t know each other that well.” He laughs. “Maybe after the Olympic trials.”
Snowflakes build on the windows. Other than Coach slipping out to put out a new flare, or Icko intermittently starting the engine, there is nothing more than the sound of heavy breathing.
“You might decide you’d rather be a one-legged white boy than all brown an’ shit,” Mott says, after I’ve been sure he’s asleep, “but believe me, you’d damn well rather be brown than be somebody got done by his mother’s boyfriend.”
I can’t even imagine it, can’t believe he’s telling me.
As I think it, he says, “My counselor says the only chance I have is to tell people I’m a prick; that way I might have less reason to act like one.” He settles down in the seat. “So, consider yourself told.”
Around four the interior fills again with light, and an engine idles in the near distance. Icko is out the door, scrambling up the hill before most of us can clear our eyes, and before we know it, a state snowplow driver has us standing in the snow while he hooks a chain to the front bumper and hauls the bus to the highway. He and Icko pound the fender away from the wheel far enough to make it drivable, and we are headed through the snowy night, our first meet-and our first group therapy session-behind us.