Lisa Sharon: Breakaway

I’ve been thinking about punctuated equilibrium. Just the name is cool. The theory is that not all evolution takes place slowly and incrementally. Sometimes a group from a larger population breaks off—maybe the group gets isolated because of a flood or something—and because the population is small, the individuals undergo rapid evolutionary change. When they’re reintroduced to the larger population the new development becomes predominant. Looking back at the fossils left during that time, we don’t necessarily see the period of isolation where the change occurred, all we see is the rapid overtaking of the larger population with this new trait. The evidence of the existence of the interim population is found only in its effect on later generations. Steven Jay Gould came up with the term.

 

Zach based his science project on one of Gould’s essays in Biology last year. When he presented the project to the class, he did it as our teacher; Dr. Quaid. He wore fake glasses, Dr. Q’s signature plaid flannel shirt, rumpled his hair and spoke in a southern drawl that nailed him. Dr. Q. laughed and I’m pretty sure Zach got a few extra presentation points.

Anyway, the idea of punctuated equilibrium is stasis, sudden change, new stasis. A hitch on the continuum of life. The point at which everything changes.

 

My mom kicks aside a pile of dirty laundry by my bedroom door. “Phillip, you’ve got to at least get your laundry done.” I can tell she’s not really mad. Just doing her job.

“Yeah, and besides,” Annie stands at my mom’s hip and practices to be her, “you always say you’ll clean your room and then you leave your stuff in the bathroom and I have to clean it up.”

I ignore both the nagging and the annoying lack of logic.

On a purely objective level, I suppose, my room is messy. There’s dried mud by the closet where I dropped my soccer cleats, and there are ants on the windowsill where I spilled Gatorade last weekend. But I can mostly tell the clean clothes from the dirty and, besides, it’s my lair. Anyway, it’s the third time Mom’s said something about cleaning since I got up this morning. I mean, I get it.

“And his room stinks,” Annie tells Mom.

“Clean,” Mom orders, and she and Annie disappear from my doorway.

“I’ll clean it before I go,” I say. I’m leaving for college in a week so I’ll have to clean or I won’t have any clothes to pack.

 

A couple weeks after the accident Mom and a couple other moms helped Zach’s mom clean his room. They packed most of his things away in boxes. I wondered what they did with his trophies and the picture of me and Zach dressed as Batman and Robin for Halloween when I was seven and Zach was six. But I didn’t ask.

Mom came home from Zach’s and went straight upstairs and didn’t come out of her room until it was time to get dinner ready. Then she stood at the counter and chopped and stirred and didn’t say a word even when Annie sat at the kitchen table trying to get help with her math homework. She didn’t even rise to the bait when Annie slammed her book closed and said, “Okay, I’m going to watch TV.” That night Mom went practically hysterical about my room. “I am NOT going to clean your room after you leave. When you come home it’s going to be exactly how you leave it. Ants and all.”

 

“I’m going to Jeremy’s,” I yell as I head out the back door.

“What?” Mom opens the screen door. “How long are you going to be gone and whose car are you taking?”

“Dad’s?”

“Okay, but ask, don’t make the announcement as you’re walking out the door.”

My parents were divorced when I was eleven, but Dad left his old Honda in the garage for when he visits. I keep the key in my coat pocket. I fill the gas tank. Dad pays insurance and maintenance. I used to just take the car and go, no fuss, but lately Mom’s been making a big deal about my asking for the car and knowing where I’m going and when I’ll be home.

 

Dad was pretty broken up, too. After the accident, he called me from California where he lives with his new family. “Hey, I’ll be there for the funeral,” he said. “It’s kinda tough right now to fly to Cleveland twice, so I’m gonna gamble on getting the ticket late.” He had planned to come into town the next month for my high school graduation so this would mean two trips. With two little kids and not a lot of money, Dad doesn’t come home too often.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Zach, Zach” he said softly, as if he couldn’t believe it. I could picture him shaking his head, eyes closed, like when he told me that he was moving out of the house. I could hear him holding back. Was he going to cry? The thought shocked me. “I keep thinking about when you and Zach were little,” he went on. “God, his folks must be broken up.”

He paused and I filled the break with a sound in my throat.

“Pip, I’m so sorry,” he said.

It was too much to hear him call me Pip like when I was a little kid. I couldn’t answer. “I’m gonna try to be there. But I’ll see you soon either way.”

“’Kay Dad. Hope you can make it early,” I said.

 

To get to Jeremy’s you have to drive down the steep, curving, hill on Woodbury Rd. where the accident happened. They said there was a pool of black ice at the bottom, just where the road curves to the left. There’s a yellow ribbon tied around one of the maples lining the road. It’s getting a little ragged at the ends but it stands out against the dark background of the woods. They haven’t fixed the curb yet.

Sometimes when I drive down that road I deliberately don’t look at the ribbon. I keep my eyes on the taillights of the car in front of me, my hands at ten and two, my foot lightly on the brake. Mostly, when I drive to Jeremy’s, I go the two miles around to Anderson Creek Road so I don’t have to drive by it at all.

 

“Beckham sucks,” Jeremy says. We‟re sitting in his room taking turns playing FIFA ’11 on his computer.

“I didn’t say he didn’t suck. I just said he’s done something for American soccer. That’s all.”

“Like what?”

“Well, he’s gotten people interested.”

“Like who?”

“Like people. You know the ones with arms and legs and mouths? They walk and talk and stuff.”

“Name one person who is interested in soccer because of David Beckham.”

Jeremy is a natural born contrarian. He can keep a conversation going about nothing for the whole afternoon if he’s got a willing participant. I usually get tired of the argument before he does. Zach used to keep him going, though, until Jeremy dug himself so deep that he’d end up making some inane pronouncement and Zach would say “ding ding” like he was ringing the bell at the end of a boxing round. Then Jeremy would say that he was actually agreeing with Zach the whole time. It was a regular comedy routine.

“Susan Crawford, Annie Bell.”

“Exactly. Girls. They’re not interested in soccer, you idiot, they’re interested in David Beckham.”

“Trevor Morgenstern.” He was one of the new kids on the soccer team.

“Exactly. My. Point,” Jeremy said. “He can’t play for shit. He just wants to be Beckham. No way he would have made the team if . . .” He trailed off.

“Let’s shoot some baskets,” I say.

 

Zach was a year younger than me but we were neighbors so I’d known him most of my life. Dad and I used to go with Zach and his dad down to Ramsey Park to play baseball when Zach and I were little. My dad and Zach’s dad had a running who-has-the-better-baseball-player-kid competition going, so when he was nine and I was ten, Zach decided we’d switch to soccer, a sport neither of our dads played.

Zach was the fastest guy on the team but his foot skills sucked. He could carry the ball down the field then he’d pass to me so I could weave it past the defenders and into the corner of the goal. My foot skills are awesome. Coach Mike always paired us in games since we got things done. We’d practice our pass-shoot routine, or run the four mile training course together, talking, doing occasional sprints, or jogging side by side with just our breathing between us.

The thing about Zach was that when he was around you knew it. Even when he was quiet, people would look to him for his reaction to whatever had been said or done. It wasn’t a conscious thing. None of us would have said that we wanted Zach’s approval. I’m sure none of us even thought about it. In elementary school, he ruled the playground. Picture a wiry second grader standing at the top of the jungle gym directing the pirate crew to fight off scalawags, or attack the girls, leaping down with a grand swish of his imaginary sword, and you have Zach. He always seemed to suggest doing the thing we all realized was exactly what we wanted to do.

And he was fast. Watching him on the soccer field reminded me of that cartoon, Ricochet Rabbit. Bing, bing, biiing! Sitting around watching soccer on TV, he’d be moving. His knee was always bouncing. And his brain raced like a molecule in a hot room. He even talked fast. Our physics study group had to stop him and back him up to give us time to absorb “Geezus, you guys are dim,” he’d say. He’d grab a brownie that one of our moms had made to thank him for preventing us from flunking, and stuff it in to his mouth.

He was too fast. Too goddamned, fucking, fast.

I had asked him to meet me at Jeremy’s instead of me picking him up like we originally planned. That was a change in our routine. For punctuated equilibrium the external force doesn’t have to be monumental. It doesn’t have to be an earthquake or a meteor strike. Just something that isolates. A few finches get caught in a cross-wind and end up on an island in the Galapagos. So when I asked Zach to drive himself, I became the Act of God that led to the punctuation that disrupted the equilibrium. I’m the external force that led to the hitch in the timeline and now Zach is becoming part of the fossil record. No use beating myself up over it. Life is random.

 

The accident happened in the Spring. Most of the seniors were getting ready to start their senior projects. Mine was working in the lab at the biotech company my next door neighbor had started up. I pipetted and titrated and did other things that were supposed to give me an idea of what life as a biochemist would be like. I‟m okay with boring details because I know they lead to the monumental discoveries. I’m a patient guy. Never been a thrill seeker. Steady and reliable. That’s me.

I heard about the accident from Coach Mike. He called each of the guys on the team, choking out the news one player at a time. We ended up gathering at his house. We didn’t plan to go there, just one guy said he was going and so another went and then the rest of us followed. We sat out on Coach’s patio. He brought out Coke and chips that we ate because it was food. He pulled out the grill and Jeremy and I ran out for hotdogs and buns and more soda. We played basketball and foosball. Sometimes voices were raised then lowered suddenly as if someone was keeping his hand on the volume and turning the knob.

“Guys, I feel like I should say something, but, shit, what can I say?” Coach put his hand on his forehead. He was standing by the grill and we had stopped the basketball game to get our burgers.

Zach used to do a hilarious imitation of Coach’s half-time pep talks. I swear to God, looking at Coach standing by the grill, holding the spatula in his hand like a flag and struggling for words, I started thinking of Zach’s bug-eyed imitation. I almost laughed out loud, awful as that sounds. I could sense that feeling through all of us, like electricity over a copper wire. The tug of understanding and suppression.

Coach took a deep shaky breath and said, “We’re gonna miss Zach. There was no one like him.” And we all nodded in agreement.

We hugged each other when we left and said, “See ya, man.”

 

We didn’t all get together again until late summer when the soccer team started pre-season captain’s practices. Captain’s practices are at one of the crappy elementary school fields with a track around it that fat people from the neighborhood jog on in slow circles. It’s traditional for college-bound players to come for as many of the captain’s practices as they can. Passing on our wisdom to the new kids. The coach isn’t allowed to work with the players, thus the term “captain’s practices,” but sometimes the coach hovers and it’s okay for him to show up at the end of the first practice just to go over introductions and soccer business.

It’s the first time I’ve played soccer since the accident. It’s easy to feel like Zach is there; just on the other side of that defender, sitting on the bench, throwing the ball in from the sidelines. A flicker in the constant movement. I find myself looking to pass to him and then I remember and send the ball to another teammate. It feels great to move, to outmaneuver and use my foot skills to elude the defenders, to send a shot sailing over the head of the new sophomore goalie. It feels good to sweat and to breathe hard and to have my world enclosed by the white lines around the field.

When we’re done Coach walks over from the parking lot where he’s been observing. We gather around the goal, stripping off our shirts and drinking from our water bottles. The freshmen shove each other and pour water on their heads. The returning players talk about positioning and strategy.

Coach’s smile is enthusiastic. “Looking good,” he says. Then he launches into the same strategy talk I’ve heard five times. Since I’m not going to be playing, I allow my mind to drift. I realize Coach Mike has begun calling the roll when I hear a small freshman voice say, “Here.” He goes through his list of freshmen, each name followed by “here,” spoken in the player’s best attempt to give the word a little of his individuality. A short, gruff “here” says I’m no nonsense, I play hard and like to win. A longer, two toned “here” says I’m fun but don’t be surprised if I’m late for practice. Some of the names are hard to pronounce and Coach laughs when corrections are yelled out from the group. The names and the responses go on in a drone until I hear, “Zach . . .”

Suddenly Zach is there. Dominant. Filling the air with his presence so that the world is only Zach. Coach Mike’s face is frozen into horror, or sadness, or just stopped in time to allow the reality that should have been, to be, for just a moment. The jostling and joking stop. The sound of birds and traffic stops. Then, as so often used to happen in Zach’s presence, a coordinated idea takes hold, a cohesive thought that leads to synchronized action. Jeremy and I and several others lift our hands into the air. “Here.”



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