The kid was small, not quite 100 pounds. Closer to 90. They didn’t know his name and they didn’t know his grade but they knew he’d been about 20 minutes late to practice. Coach said they should run him, and he gave them the superball.
Coach watched practice every day from up against the far wall of the cafeteria, out by the folded-up lunch tables. He rarely moved from that spot, and was content to shout out directives to the boys where they wrestled on the mats. Just their names and a handful of words. Kirby: your legs. Jason: watch the neck. The boys couldn’t decide whether Coach thought he was acting tough or if he sincerely believed this was normal behavior. It was impossible for them to understand him as a person, as someone who had once been as young as they were and who had once learned wrestling from another heavy and silent man. He had grown up in a different place. They grew up in his.
“Victor and Declan,” Coach called out. It was a statement, and expressed a complete thought.
The two boys took their hands off one another and stood. The rest of the team continued to roll on the mats around them, grabbing for ankles and breathing through their teeth. Across the sea of shoulders and backs the two boys saw Coach against the wall and the kid standing next to him. Skinny, with glasses. Not much bigger than a child. Victor grabbed the bottom of his shirt and wiped the sweat off his face.
Coach didn’t move as the boys jogged up. He didn’t look down. They knew better than to speak first so they all stood there for a few moments, watching Coach watch the mats, until finally Coach uncrossed his arms and let out a sigh. As though this were all just a little more than he had planned on today.
He shoved his hand into the hip pocket of his sweatpants and rummaged around, his face bunched up in concentration. Then he pulled out his fist and held it between the three of them. With his eyes still out on the mats, Coach opened his hand. In the center of his palm sat a little green bouncy-ball. The kind you’d pop out of an egg at the supermarket.
“Victor and Declan,” Coach said. Another statement, and not exactly an endorsement. “Go give him a run.” Declan took the ball and they all walked out into the hallway.
All things being equal the superball wasn’t that bad. Wind sprints were worse. It was close to 40 yards from the double-doors at the back of the hallway to the bathrooms at the far end, and the team ran it in relays every single day before they hit the mats. Every Monday Coach stood by the doors with the whistle around his neck, giving it the little chirp that would send the next two boys down and back. He often spoke to them as they ran, delivering his views on a variety of subjects both local and national in scope. How missing one day of running is like missing a week of anything else. Chirp. How the principal should allow them to come in on Saturdays to get in work. Chirp. How the questionable legality of this stood at odds with the tradition of American exceptionalism that was decaying in this country if not already dead. Chirp. How he was going to run them until somebody puked. Chirp.
But their conditioning was first rate. Victor was new to the team at 165 but still ripped through the entire weightclass at his first tournament. In the finals, Victor could feel the boy beneath him begin to tire and he bore down on his neck until he heard the boy scream. The ref drug Victor away and the trainer ran out onto the mat, snapping on blue plastic gloves. The room was packed to the roof, hot and silent, and Victor watched as a woman stood up on a far riser, and from there she shouted out her boy’s name. The only sound in the gym was the breathing of the boy on the mat and the mumbled questions of the trainers. No one answered that woman and she did not call again but she remained standing, her hands folded up in front of her mouth.
Victor stood at the edge of the mat. He couldn’t stop smiling. The muscles in his face were pulled up tight. “Get that kid out of here,” somebody said. Victor stood there alone in front of all those eyes in nothing but a singlet that dug into his shoulders. He felt like he could burn the whole place down. Could just cut it straight through.
In practice, Coach would lob the superball down the hallway and two boys would race to catch it. One grabbed it out of the air and they both ran back to Coach. The winner went to the back of the line and the loser lined up with somebody fresh to chase the ball again. No Coach now though, so as soon as Declan came through the double doors he took a crow-hop and reached back like Randy Johnson threw the ball as hard as he could.
The kid looked at the two larger boys. “Go get it,” said Victor, and the kid took off. Tip-tap tip-tap on the linoleum. He came back puffing and put the ball in Declan’s outstretched hand. Declan threw it again. The boys couldn’t even see where it went. The kid ran off, came back after a bit, and the ball went back in the hand. Whoosh. Again. Out into the adjacent hallway. The kid brought it back and right when he was about to drop it, Delcan closed his hand.
The ball bounced on the floor between them. Each bounce got a little lower.
“Pick it up,” said Declan. The kid didn’t hesitate.
“Put it in my hand.” The kid put it in Declan’s hand.
Declan was the best in the state at 171, and his ears and nose hung off his pockmarked face like meat. At matches Declan carried around a roll of duct tape, and while the smaller boys wrestled, Declan would jump rope with the tape roll bobbing up and down on his wrist like a bracelet. Right before his match, he’d would walk out onto the empty mat and peel off two long strips, then he’d get down to one knee and lay them out in a slow and even X, running his palms along the strips to push out the air bubbles. After he was satisfied, he’d walk over to the other team’s coach.
“That’s where I’m going to pin your boy,” he’d say. And he would.
Declan always stood a little too close. He never broke eye contact first. Always seemed to be on the verge of a smile that never came. As though, if it ever came down to it, he knew what would happen. He wanted you to know it too. He wanted to show you.
Whoosh goes the superball. Tip-tap-tip-tap go the shoes. The ball goes back in Declan’s hand.
Victor didn’t like watching the kid run. He found it offensive. An athlete’s born with narrow hips. When an athlete runs his toes drop down underneath him and his heels pop up behind like he’s spinning a log in a river. You can watch the back of somebody like that and every muscle sucks and rolls together. God made them that way, and Victor knew they deserved to be hurt.
This little kid’s knees knocked together. His legs shot out at wrong angles and his big feet flapped around on the tiles like a seal. When he ran back up with the ball, the kid’s head swung from side to side like was in complete disagreement with what his body was being asked to do. As well he should be, thought Victor.
The kid was all alone in the hallway, up and back, for thirty minutes. He had started to close his eyes when he ran. Clench his hands into fists. His shoulders were up around his ears and his eyes were watering but he wasn’t going to quit on Declan. Not on the state champ.
“You want to throw it?” Declan looked over to Victor. He had a huge cracked smile on his face. He was in the throes of something wonderful and he wanted Victor to know what it was. He knew that Victor needed it too.
Victor told him no. No he didn’t.
“You should,” is what Declan said. Victor pursed his lips and looked at the floor. He shook his head. The big smile on Declan’s face faded away and his eyes went cold. When the kid came back Declan dropped the ball on him again. The kid was struggling now. Missed it two times right in front of them. He stepped back. Focused. Measured the distance. Grabbed the ball.
The next time down the hallway the kid started to make little whiny noises up in his nose.
“Cut that shit out,” Declan called after him.
“Fuck you,” the kid shouted back.
“Fuck me?” This improved Declan’s mood. “Fuck me? You know what you just earned yourself? You think you’re getting back into practice before the sun goes down?”
“You can’t do this,” is what the kid said. Victor looked up and all the way down at the end of the hall he could see the kid’s face curled up like a fist. “You can’t,” the kid said. Victor looked back down at the floor. As if someone like that could tell them what they could and couldn’t do.
It was sometime in December that Victor took an easy match with a boy from across town. It was going to be the first time he had wrestled in the school gym and so Victor invited his family. He invited his friends. He even invited a tall blonde from the volleyball team who had a sweet smile and a ponytail that swung all the way down to her high little ass. Victor figured he had the match in his pocket. He figured he would show everyone what he had learned since he had started wrestling for Coach.
The other boy was the same size, same height. Brown hair, young face. Completely normal. But about three seconds into the match, two giant hands dropped down out of the gymnasium ceiling and started to play with Victor’s body like it was a stuffed bear. His head got pushed into his armpit and lodged there by a shoulder. He couldn’t see anything but his own shoes. He could hear himself breathing, and he could hear someone else breathing up against him. First on his back, then down by his waist. Then his limbs began to move. Began to get moved.
Victor tried a few things. He stuck the boniest part of his elbow into the other boy’s chest and tried to leverage him back. The boy slipped to the side and cranked down on Victor’s shoulder. Victor tried to straighten his leg, and his ankle began to twist until he almost screamed. But he didn’t scream. And just when he was about to congratulate himself on that little victory, thick white panic foamed up through his chest. The crowd sounded like a wave getting sucked down a beach and underneath it all Victor could hear the ref. He was right down there on the floor. Right alongside him. Counting out numbers. Points. Victor turned his head and he could see him. A small man with a gray mustache.
An electric jolt of pain ran up Victor’s thigh. He twisted on his side to relieve it and as he did so the normal boy’s elbow dug deep into his neck. And then, almost too easily, Victor’s arms were brought up over his head. His face turned slowly up to the glaring ceiling lights. The speed of it spoke to the level of control being exercised on him.
Two points, shouted the ref.
This boy, Victor thought. He could kill me. If he wanted to kill me he could. If he wanted to do anything at all to me right here tonight it would happen. In front of all these people. If he were allowed.
Pinned, shouted the ref.
But he’s not.
The little kid was crying now, down at the far end. He’s saying he’s not going to bring the ball back. Saying he’s going to go home. Declan’s got his hand out. Saying put the ball in my hand. The kid backs up against the wall and he slides down to the floor. He’s letting it go now. Really letting it all go. The backs of his hands are lying flat on the floor at this sides.
Victor says “OK.” He thinks he hears himself say that. He tries again. “That’s enough,” he says, and he waves his hand. A gesture. He looks away when he does it. He looks back up to the closed double-doors and through the windows in those doors to the dark and empty hallway on the other side. Victor drops his hand.
Declan steps away. He’s away from Victor and he’s alone, standing in the center of the hallway. He crosses his arms over his chest and spreads out his feet just a little. Declan lowers his chin and he looks at the kid down there where he sits.
The kid starts crying all over again. He turns his head to Victor and Victor looks back to Declan, and that’s how the kid finally understands that the whole thing is hopeless. That not even the ball in his hand will save him.
Declan just stands there. As though it’s his right. He shows no disgust or remorse. No fear or anger. He’s as still as a stone in a stream.
It took a few minutes, but the kid eventually quieted down. He stood up, and he trotted back up the hall.
Here he comes. He runs the back of his hand across his face. He puts the ball in Declan’s hand. The kid is sucking hard in the back of his throat, trying to pull the snot back up into his nose. Declan watches him for a moment. Then he leans in.
Delcan, quietly now, Declan asks the kid a question. What he asks him is whether he wants to be a pussy his whole life. The kid doesn’t answer.
“You heard me,” Declan says.
“No I don’t want to be a pussy.”
Declan reaches back and throws the ball again. The kid turns and staggers down the hallway.
“It’s over there,” shouts Declan, pointing to a corner. The kid jogs to the corner. He’s coughing on his snot and his eyes are blurry. “Got to get down on your knees,” says Declan. “It’s down there.” The kid gets on his knees. Then Declan turns to Victor with a grin. The sort of grin that says if-you-don’t-think-this-is-the-absolute-tits-then-I-don’t-know-what-else-I-can-do-for-you. He holds up his hand and there, perched between his fingertips like a diamond in a setting, sits the little green ball.
“You see it yet?” Delcan shouts. Victor turns and he walks back into practice.
The week after Christmas an old graduate came to practice, an ex-regional champ who had gone on to wrestle at Clarion. Big guy. Doughy face with a crew cut and big legs. He moved faster than anyone Victor had ever seen at that size. When he swung around to show the kids a move his arms carved clear and clean shapes out of the air. He talked quickly, all statements, no questions. As though everything had already been decided. When it was time to run he came out into the sweatstinking hallway with the rest of them and busted his ass up and down the tiles right alongside them until the sweat just poured off his unplaceable face, and he couldn’t stop smiling.
Coached shouted for him as he came back into the cafeteria. Victor stopped in the middle of the room. He looked out at the boys where they were rolling. He knew Coach wasn’t going to call twice. He jogged over.
“What’s going on out there?” Coach asked him.
“Declan’s running him.”
Victor shrugged his shoulders.
“Is he running him good?”
Victor looked back out around the room. He was waiting for something that wasn’t there and wasn’t ever going to be there and had in that room perhaps never been.
“I guess,” was what Victor said.
Coach looked down at the boy and he squinted his eyes. Just a little. Behind them the whole team was practicing their throws. Big slaps on the mat, like something was being built up or torn down. Then Coach snorted. He stood up. He pulled on his nose with his thick fingers and he shouted out another kid’s name. Freshman. Madison. Eager little guy. Victor listened to Madison come tip-tapping over behind him. Coach pushed his hand down into the hip pocket of his sweatpants and he dug and dug around. Made a bit of a show of it. Finally he held his hand back out. He opened his fist slowly, finger by finger. It was one of the swirly ones. Red blue and green.
“Madison,” Coach said to the kid. “Do us a favor and go run Victor.”