We’re famous in Cutter for a couple of days after “plunging off the treacherous, icy two-lane” and “surviving the wintry night,” as the Cutter Free Press put it. Our team picture made the front page, and with the story slanted toward the events after the meet, the events of the meet were cleverly obscured.
The school paper took a different slant:
Cutter Mermen Set Records
In a performance this past weekend that may well rival the winning of the state football championship, the Cutter High School swim team set school records in nine individual events and one relay. Swimmers Dan Hole, Andy Mott, Jackie Craig, Simon DeLong, Tay-Roy Kibble, Chris Coughlin, and The Tao Jones scored points in those nine events in a losing effort. The small size of Cutter’s team made winning either of the meets in this double-dual event virtually impossible. Cutter’s team includes no divers, and their small numbers exclude them from participating in more than one of the two relays.
Nevertheless, the Herculean efforts of the small but fiercely competitive group of athletes could be the seed that spawns an athletic dynasty in the distant future, the likes of which Cutter High School has never known, according to team Captain T. J. Jones.
Coach John Simet was not available for comment.
A controversy arises over some of the syntax and word choices, but the reporter and the editor were able to convince the journalism teacher that certain journalistic license was in order to present the team in its most positive light. It may have helped that the editor and the reporter are one and the same, and the journalism teacher didn’t actually see the article until the paper was published and in the hands of the student body.
Simet sits on top of his desk in the empty classroom a few minutes after the bell, reading and laughing while I stand by the door waiting.
He places the paper on his desk. “Man, I am going to, if you’ll pardon the expression, eat shit over this.”
I stare at my article. “You think?” I read a few sentences aloud. “Nothing there that isn’t fact. I guess I could have played up Mott’s disqualification, but why bust a guy when he’s riding high?”
“Do you have any idea how Benson and Roundtree will respond to this? I’ve got to present our letter requirements at the Athletic Council meeting this afternoon. You’ll be lucky if they don’t require you guys to win every meet just to win a lowercase letter.”
“Tell them I got out of control.”
“They won’t have trouble believing that.”
“And that you’re pissed; that you’re requiring me to write a column next week about how facts can be used to present a different picture than what is true.”
“It’s just not in your nature to try to make my life easy, is it, Jones?”
I agree it is probably not in my nature.
I’m not in the hallway five seconds before I hear the melodic tones of Mike Barbour floating to my ears.
I turn. He’s with Rich Marshall, carrying the newspaper. “Saw this article on your swim team.”
I say I’m glad he was able to get someone to read it to him.
“I got through it okay. Took me a while, though. Kept stumbling over the word dynasty.”
“It does have three syllables.”
“That wasn’t my problem,” he says back. “My problem was with the meaning. I thought it meant something about winners. What was that, some Special Olympics swim meet?”
“You’re welcome to get some of your football boys together for a little intramural meet,” I tell him. “Say maybe as a fundraiser to get some of you guys tutors.”
“We’ll do a swim meet,” he says, “if you guys wanna follow it up with a little flag football game.”
Marshall clears his throat. Man, I feel like I’ve been transported to jock-monster hell. These guys are the worst of the worst. This isn’t about athletics, this is about assholes. “Do you have any respect for anything, Jones?”
“Yeah, I have respect for some things,” I say back, and have to hold myself back from saying I have respect for little kids and women and their right not to be treated totally like shit by some unconscious subhuman ass wipe.
“Like what?” he says.
“Nothing you’d recognize, Rich. Really, save your brain cell for helping the PE teachers pick up balls after class. Maybe they’ll let you keep a few of them so you’ll have enough to figure out that a real hunter only murders adult animals.” Man, I’ve got it going for these guys, more than I realized. I feel snakebit every time I’m around either of them.
“You better be a little careful what you say to me, Jones,” Marshall says. “I’m the same as a teacher when I’m in the building. Don’t make me report you.”
“Report me, Marshall. Report me. Go tell Morgan I’m showing you nothing but contempt. Be accurate for once in your life. Do it next period. I’ve got a history quiz.”
Barbour steps forward and my heart races. I can’t say how much I want to mix it up; how badly I want to feel my knuckles buried in the cartilage of his nose, see blood splattered on the lockers. I don’t even care whether it’s his or mine. “You’ll never see one of those goofballs you call swimmers in a Cutter letter jacket,” he says. “Not one. You know who the male student rep to the Athletic Council is? You’re looking at him, my friend of color. Off color.” He grins.
“You guys just keep doing what you do,” I say, my voice pinched as I walk away, slowly as if I couldn’t give a shit; in fact I can barely breathe. I get upstairs and into an empty science lab, where I lean against the wall and talk myself out of going to the council meeting myself to tell them how screwed up it is to give a nothing-burger like Mike Barbour a vote on the athletic welfare of Chris Coughlin or Simon DeLong.
I don’t have to run into Marshall more than once in a day to give myself permission to get out of the building for lunch. I invite Carly to my house for something to eat and anything else that might happen, since Mom is at work and Dad usually spends Wednesdays out at Head Start, but she has a paper due, so I drive over alone. This thing is getting out of hand, starting to mean too much. What will I do if Mike Barbour ends up with the deciding vote on our letter jackets?
Dad’s car is in the driveway, so I figure I’ll run it all by him; he’s always good for an intelligent perspective. But I don’t see or hear him inside. I pour a big glass of Gatorade and dig some cold chicken and potato salad out of the fridge, take it into the living room, and flip on Sports Center. Dad’s coat lies across the back of the couch and his boots are under the coffee table; very unusual because my dad is a world-class neat freak. I mean, he can have a bike torn down in the garage and every tool is in its place before he stops to take a leak. Mom kids him about it all the time.
I holler “Dad” a couple of times, but except for the TV, the house is quiet. The guys on Sports Center seem determined to make me care about hockey, so I flip them off and wolf down my food, thinking I’ll run up to my room for a short nap before I head back. I see the door closed to my parents’ room, which is as unusual when they’re not in it as the coat on the back of the couch, so I knock once and push it open.
The room is dark but for the flickering of the TV, where a group of humpback whales swim across the screen, emitting faint whale songs. A dark form fills the overstuffed chair in the corner by the dresser.
No answer. I flip on the light. He sits, staring at the screen.
“Hey, man,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“Hey, T. J.”
“You sick or something?”
“Something,” he says. His beard is wet, eyes rimmed in red. “Turn the light off, will you?”
“Yeah, sure.” I do. “Dad, what’s going on?”
“Nothing. I’m fine. Just leave me alone, okay?”
I’ve never seen my dad like this. “Not okay. Come on, what’s going on?”
He sighs. “Thirty years ago it happened,” he says. “And sometimes it hits me like it was yesterday. Why didn’t I look under the truck? It would have taken three seconds. Hell, if I’d checked for a flat I would have seen him.”
I start toward him.
He says, “Don’t. I’ll be fine. You go on back to school.”
“I’ll be fine. This happens every once in a while…you just haven’t seen it. It’ll pass.”
He says, “Go.”
I’m not worth much in my afternoon classes; it’s hard to see someone as big and strong as my father reduced like that. It makes me feel helpless to know that still happens. The guy is always there for anyone who needs him. He deserves better.
I’m in the locker room after school, getting into my sweats to take the bus ride over to All Night, my mind back in Dad’s bedroom.
“Jonesey, Jonesey, Jonesey,” Barbour says. “Looks like your coach jumped ship on you.”
I snap into the present. “Oh, yeah?”
“We had the Athletic Council meeting.”
“That’s right. Wait till your Special Olympics squadron gets a load of your letter requirements.”
“Save me the suspense.”
Mott and Tay-Roy are headed for the door; they stop to listen.
“Simet went along with us; said it would be too easy for your boys to pick up points when there were no swimmers from the other team in some races. Got us to award the letter on ‘personal improvement.’”
“Hey, we’re improving. Why should that bother me?”
Barbour started to laugh. “Because it means you have to hit your best time every time you swim.”
“What? That’s not possible.”
“Probably it isn’t. None of you guys can swim one race slower than you did the time before. One bad race, no letter.”
I say, “You’re full of shit, Barbour. Simet would never do that.”
“You can get the details from him.” He points to Simet walking through the locker-room door.
I holler, “Coach!”
Barbour cackles. Coach looks up.
“Gotta ask you something.” I hustle over and whisper, “Way to go.”
The following meets are carbon copies of the first, except Icko keeps the bus on the road. I swim the fifty and hundred, or the hundred and two hundred, and win every time. The other guys swim whichever events will bring us the most points, establishing times in races they haven’t swum before and bettering their times in those they have. As long as no one falls asleep in the water, we’re all a good bet to get faster and faster. Improved stroke technique alone will keep everyone in the running, not to mention the monster conditioning.
What I like about the meets more than the swimming, though, is the bus ride. When Icko pulls the door shut and fires up the engine, it feels almost cocoonlike. We talk about things we’d probably never mention in any other arena: Simon’s mother drinks like a fish, Mott spent most of middle school in drug rehab, Tay-Roy lost a baby brother to SIDS, Dan Hole’s father has heart trouble, Chris’s aunt plays bingo, and Jackie Craig may or may not have a voice box. Simet and Icko let us talk, feeding questions once in a while to keep the conversation going, but never intruding.
It gets to be ritual; a half hour before we reach our destination, Simet begins going over each of our races, so between then and the end of the meet, we talk or think nothing but swimming. Then we stop at some local pizza place and, depending on how much time we have, eat there or take it on the bus with us.
Toward the end of the semester it becomes clear we may have problems with academic eligibility. “I’ve been doing the responsible thing,” Coach says, walking to the back of the bus to remove Mott’s headphones, “and it appears a couple of you are in danger of failing one or more classes. Mr. Mott is in danger of passing one. Hey, guys, this is serious business. You have to carry a two-oh average, and you have to be passing every class.”
Mott says, “I’m going light on the academic thing this year.”
Coach says, “You were until a minute ago. Now you’re going heavy.” He removes a folded sheet of paper from his pocket, holds it to one side to catch the light from the dashboard, squinting to read. “Mr. Hole, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Coughlin, you’re all in great shape. Mr. DeLong, you are walking the edge in biology. Mr. Craig, you’re three percentage points under in speech. Mr. Kibble, you don’t seem able to remember your valences and the periodic table of elements in chem, and Mr. Mott, you are exactly one percentage point below passing in six classes.” He stares at the page. “Mott, how do you do that!”
“It isn’t easy, sir. I have to keep close track. Last week I got luckier than usual on an American history pop quiz and my grade slipped up over passing. Scared me.”
“Well, if that scared you, prepare to be terrified, because before this semester ends, you are going to bring every one of those grades at least to a C.” He turns to Jackie. “Mr. Craig, what is your problem in speech?”
“That might be it right there,” Simet says. “Mr. DeLong?”
Simon says, “Biology is right before first lunch. I start seeing the things we’re cutting up on my plate, and pretty soon I just have to get out of there.”
Coach walks to the middle of the bus and retrieves a huge duffel bag from the overhead rack, dumps it onto the seat. “Icko, can you give me light back here for a sec?”
The dome light goes on. Simet rustles through the educational debris on the seat. “I took the liberty of getting the specifics from your teachers.” He hands Jackie a copy of the periodic table, moving him to the seat across the aisle from Tay-Roy. “Enunciate each element loud and clear, Mr. Craig, as if you were delivering the Gettysburg Address. Mr. Kibble, when you hear the element, you will give Mr. Craig back the symbol and valences. When you have them down one hundred percent, you may stop.”
He hands Chris Coughlin a coloring book and a large box of crayons. “You said you like to color, right, Mr. Coughlin?” Chris’s face lights up; he obviously loves to color. “Mr. Coughlin, since you are passing all your classes, I’m going to have you tutor Mr. DeLong. Do you know what a tutor is?”
Chris says, “Does he color?”
Simet nods. “He colors. In this case he colors guts.” He hands Chris a biology coloring book; now where the hell do you suppose he got a biology coloring book? “Mr. DeLong will tell you which gut it is and what color to color it. If he tells you to color anything green, you yell to me.”
Simet sits beside Dan Hole. “Mr. Hole, you have the toughest job. You are going to make certain that, for the first time in his life, Andy Mott passes all his classes with a C.” He hands Dan a sheet of paper. “This is a list of Mott’s missing assignments. We will take a chunk of time on each road trip, and tack on forty-five minutes to our workout time each day until the end of the semester. I’d like you to go over his assignments before he hands them in. Mr. Jones, you will play backup to Mr. Hole. If Mr. Mott gives him any trouble, hide Mr. Mott’s leg.”
For the rest of the trip, the periodic table of elements and their valences bounce off the walls in Jackie and Tay-Roy’s voices, while Mott pumps Dan for answers and Dan tries for all he’s worth to make Mott figure them out for himself. Chris takes instructions from Simon, meticulously coloring pictures of opened-up frogs and worms and cats and cows.
For the remainder of the semester the first forty-five minutes of workout takes place in Simet’s classroom, and we get out of the water forty-five minutes later. When grades come out, though Mott has threatened Dan’s life daily, we have the second-highest cumulative grade-point average of any winter athletic team and are all eligible.
The first day after semester break I read that my times in the sprints are among the top five in the state, and Simet is beginning to think not only can I get us points at the state meet, I could actually win something. We don’t say that to anyone but each other.
“You’re going to have a houseguest,” Georgia says. I’ve been stopping over a couple times a week after practice to work with kids. I like that I always walk away from those sessions knowing something about myself I didn’t know before. Georgia says I’m a natural, which is probably true because almost every kid she works with is referred from Child Protective Services and so has a history of loss. “Connection,” she tells me over and over. “There is very little about humans that doesn’t have to do with connection.”
Georgia nods. “Her momma screwed up. Turned all her kiddies over to Rich for an entire afternoon. The caseworker placed them all immediately. The family they found for the boys couldn’t take Heidi. She talks about you all the time. I called your daddy. You’ll be good for her.”
After all Rich has done, Alicia turns around and gives him the kids. Shit, Heidi isn’t even his. “Think she’ll be at our place a long time?”
Georgia shrugs. “That’s the caseworker’s call. Heidi was pretty freaked out after six hours with Rich and no one around to protect her. God knows what he said to her.”
“When will she get there?”
“I’ll take her in a little while,” Georgia says. “Don’t want to put any extra pressure on you, but she might be feelin’ needy.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep an eye on her.” I’m thinking this might be good for Dad. He always comes alive when there’s a chance to help a kid. After seeing him in the bedroom, I’m beginning to understand why.
I stop at Wolfy’s for a quick early evening Coke with Carly, so Heidi is home when I get there, sitting on the couch next to Georgia, facing the door, waiting. My parents have gone to bring back Happy Meals to celebrate.
Heidi is off the couch before I can get out of my coat, bounding across the room, leaping into my arms as if I’m her long-lost best friend. The impact almost knocks me over, and I’m choking in the tight grasp of her arms around my neck.
“Hey, Heidi,” I say through a semiclosed windpipe. “What’s up?”
“I live here,” she says.
“Oh, yeah? Great. I need a sister. My parents like girls better than boys. I can get you to ask them for things I want.”
Most of that goes over her head, and she glances back at Georgia.
“She was worried you wouldn’t come,” Georgia says. “She needs someone familiar. It’s going to take time for her to get used to your dad, who basically looks like a serial killer.”
I look at Heidi. “We’ll have him eating out of our hands before sunup. He’s the nicest mean-looking dad in the whole world.”
Heidi’s expression goes cold, and it takes me a second to remember, with Georgia’s help, that “dad” doesn’t exactly conjure up the best images when your “dad” is Rich Marshall.
Mom and Dad return from Mickey D’s with the Happy Meals, and Heidi wraps an arm around Georgia’s leg to watch Dad bring them out of the sack. When he holds hers out to her, Heidi watches warily, but the image of Ronald McDonald and the smell of the greasy fries win out, and she steps up and takes it. She says, “Thank you,” and seems to forget her fear once she gazes at the goodies inside.
Most kids have that same initial response when they first lay eyes on Dad, but he’s great. He opens his Happy Meal slowly, peers inside with the same delight he sees on Heidi’s face. She is meticulously careful, extracting one fry at a time, relishing each bite. Dad mimics her, but not in a disrespectful way, and soon she is smiling at him, sneaking peeks out of the corner of her eye.
And then it happens. As Heidi removes the bag of fries from the Happy Meal box, the sack catches on the edge of the lid and fries tumble onto the floor. She is instantly wide-eyed and horrified, glancing from the fries to my dad to the fries to Georgia. Tears squirt out of her eyes as she gasps, “I’ll clean it up! I’m sorry! I’ll clean it up! It will be okay!” and she is on her knees picking up the fries and putting them into the bag one by one, looking fearfully at my father.
Instantly he turns his fries onto the floor and drops to his knees with her. “We eat ’em down here all the time. That’s how they’re best.” The panic drains out of Heidi as fast as it washed over her. She watches him with true joy. “Mmm-mmm,” Dad says, picking up fries as fast as he can and stuffing them into his mouth. “I haven’t had my fries like this forever! I’m glad you reminded me.”
Heidi starts to laugh, picks up a fry, and puts it carefully in her mouth.
What the hell, I dump mine, too, and suddenly the three of us are grazing over the living-room rug.
Mom shrugs her shoulders at Georgia, who says, “I think I brought her to the right place.”
I walk Georgia to her car, where she turns and holds me by the shoulders. “Baby,” she says, “it’s a tall order for you to have this kid around; she adores you. I wouldn’t do it, but she’s fragile and you’re the only other person to have made good contact with her besides me, though I think your dad may have made a big inroad just now.”
I say, “What inroad? He always eats off the floor.”
“She could stay at my place, but she has a real hard time letting me be with other kids; and if I can’t be with other kids, I can’t work.”
“Don’t worry about it. Dad and I’ll have plenty of time for her. Maybe I’ll get a Rich Marshall dartboard,” I tell her, “and we’ll have some fun.”
I don’t need a Rich Marshall dartboard because before I know it, I get the real thing. I guess he didn’t get the message that Child Protection Services got a temporary restraining order to keep him away from Heidi, because he bangs on the door after midnight, loaded to the gills and groveling like the bottom feeder he is. I have the room next to the stairs on the second floor, so, by default, I greet all strangers in the night. Rich is the first, and I meet him on the porch. Apparently Alicia dropped out of his sight when she lost the kids, because Rich thinks she’s here.
Man, these guys never fail to amaze me. They’ll call any name, exact any pain. They’ll humiliate and slap and threaten to kill. Then the minute she leaves, he loved her more than life itself, is repentant for every bruise and scar, inside and out. He’ll do anything; the remorse is without condition. Until the second she says no. Then he comes after her like a gut-shot badger.
That kind of behavior is pretty hard to understand, though it’s been explained to me many times by my mother in regard to some domestic violence/abuse case she’s tried in court. Though she understands it, she doesn’t have a lot of time for it in anyone over three years old.
At any rate Rich Marshall is way past three years old. “I wanna see Aleeesha,” he slobbers at me.
I say, “Alicia’s not here, Rich.”
“I know she’s here. I gotta fin’ her; tell her I’m sorry. I fucked up. I love her, man. Where’s she at?”
“Go home, man.”
“No, man, she’s here. I know it. She’s here with my kid. I need to tell her I love her.”
“Heidi isn’t your kid, Rich. And Alicia’s not here. Maybe she’s with the twins. Find out in the morning and you can call.” I should know better than to argue with a drunk.
“I can’t call her in the morning; they got a fuckin’ no-contact order on me. I got to see her tonight.”
“If they have a no-contact order,” I say, “it’s for day and night.”
My efforts to keep this under control go up in smoke with the hardening behind his eyes. “You fuckin’ my wife?”
“Nope. I have a girlfriend.”
“Shit. You have a girlfriend.”
“Strange as it seems. I’m not sleeping with your wife, Rich.”
“She used to like your kind. Niggers or chinks or whatever.”
“That would make me a chigger.”
“Had little Heidi ’cause of one of you,” he says. He’s so drunk he doesn’t remember I already know this. He glazes over a bit, sneering, maybe picturing Heidi’s dad. “But she loves me now.” As an afterthought, “Chigger. Tha’s funny.”
I say, “Sounds like you won Alicia for sure. Aren’t you worried the cops will catch you here?”
“It’s fuckin’”-and he holds his watch to the porch light, squinting-“after midnight. How would the fuckin’ cops know I’m here?”
“Maybe because I called them when I heard you ring the doorbell.” It’s a lie, of course.
“You black asshole!” he yells. “You fuckin’ black bastard asshole! You are fuckin’ Aleeesha!”
He pulls up his T-shirt, exposing the butt of a pistol, but before he can even think of reaching for it, it is in my hand.
Rich stares at his belt, confused, as if the gun vanished into the hands of Merlin. He is embalmed. A whimper sounds behind me, and I glance around to see Heidi on the stairs, her raggedy, one-eyed stuffed otter in her hand.
“Nigger girl,” Rich says. “Come here to me. Where’s your momma?”
I move back, and she scurries to wrap her arm around my leg, staring silently at Rich as I holler for Dad, and light splashes across the floor as my parents’ bedroom door opens and he barrels toward us. I don’t care who you are; you could be Rich Marshall or Mike Tyson, but the sight of my old man coming at you out of the dark, bare chested with a baseball bat in his hand, is a daunting sight.
“This ain’t over,” Rich says. “Nobody fucks with my family.”
“Looks like it’s over for now,” I say, but he is already headed down the walk.
I give Dad the pistol, and Mom and I sit with Heidi while he calls the police. I expect her to be scared, but all she can say is she wishes my daddy had given old Rich a good whack with that bat. We decide we will call my father the Louisville Slugger from now on. Heidi thinks that’s pretty funny.
When we have her back in bed, I tell my parents Rich thinks I’m having sex with Alicia. “I barely even know her,” I tell them.
“That doesn’t matter,” Mom says. “Don’t fool with him. The last thing in the world you want is to be in Rich Marshall’s cast of characters. He’s a stalker, pure and simple, and stalkers believe what they want to believe. You don’t even want him thinking your name.”
“Too late for that. He uses it in vain every day at school.”
“Well, I’ll be on the phone at seven-thirty in the morning,” she says. “And if Rich Marshall spends one more hour in that school, they’d better have a hell of an attorney.”
“Cops will pick him up tonight,” Dad says. “We won’t have to worry about that for a while.”
I tell them I’m not afraid of him even a little bit. In fact I’d welcome the chance.
Mom puts her hand on my knee and grips it hard enough that I feel heat. “Listen to me, T. J. You might be stronger and quicker now, but men like Rich are relentless, and they’ll come after you in ways you can’t imagine. If he believes you’re taking something that belongs to him, he’s as dangerous as they come. I see men like him in court every day.”
I say I’m pretty familiar with the way Rich Marshall operates.
“You think you are, but this is completely different from him shooting that deer. That was just mean. When he’s in this spot, he’s desperate, which means he imagines things, like you sleeping with Alicia. When he talks like that, he isn’t telling you what he thinks, he’s telling you what he fears. One thing you want to know about Rich Marshall is this: In his mind, what he fears is his worst enemy. Anything that makes Rich Marshall feel weak will bring him at you like a devil. At that point, it isn’t about whether you can whip him, it’s about whether you see him coming.” She squeezes my knee again. “You listen to me, young man. If you’re wanting to try out your testosterone, try it out on someone else.”
Mom won’t let me go to bed until I promise to keep my testosterone under control.