Up from Grundy

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fiction

Cameron MacKenzie

Up from Grundy

 

 

You, Coach said, are a loser. Feel that for a second. I bet it hurts something god-awful.
  Coach sat on the orange bedspread with his chapped fingers folded up tight in front of him. Coach with his mustache. Coach who smelled like mint Skoal and sweat in his polo shirt and too tight khakis that he had to pinch at the thighs so he could sit down right. The mattress creaked underneath him and from where Byron sat in the motel room chair he couldn’t help but see the bulge of Coach’s crotch.
  Byron turned his head and looked around the room at the worn-out carpets and limp curtains and the drop ceiling. It wasn’t late but it was dark, and outside the roads were covered with ice and sand and salt that would still be there when the next storm came down out of Tennessee.
  You showed some guts to get here, Coach said. Guts, he said again, and his face crinkled up like a bag. Look here, he said. That boy tonight wasn’t any better than you. Wasn’t any stronger. Any faster. I tell you what that boy tonight was.
  What was he, Coach? Byron said, his eyes still on the ceiling.
  Coach’s hands gripped one another. Son, he said. You listen to what I’m trying to tell you. You worked your tail off to get out here. You flew through districts and nobody saw you coming, and at regionals? Nobody had you over that boy from Stonewall. What was his name? That boy’s name?
  Branson.
  Branson, Coach nodded. Big son of a bitch. Nobody had you over him. Nobody said, Hey son, you’re gonna wreck this boy’s train. Nobody said that. Nobody but one body. And who was that body?
  Byron looked at his hands, so Coach raised his chin and said it again: Who was that body?
  You, said Byron.
  Damn right, said Coach. He stood up off the bed and sat back down and he pulled on the sleeve of his jacket. I’ll tell you why right now, Coach said. It’s because I could see something in you from the word go, son. And you went out there that night and you wrecked that boy’s train. You wrecked it good.
  The more Coach talked the wider his eyes became until the whole scene could be playing across the backs of them. He jerked his shoulders. Boom! Coach said, popping his elbow into his open hand. Hard crossface! Up and over, he shouted, and Coach was up off the bed again, swimming in the air with his arms to imitate the moves as he ticked them off. Wrist control, get the half in, get it in deep, walk it over. Walk it all the way over and pinned, he shouted. Branson’s on his back!
  Byron had heard it before and he didn’t want to hear it now, but Coach wanted to hear it because Coach knew he was right. Nobody had Byron winning the district at the beginning of the season, and nobody went out to regionals to watch him beat up the Branson kid—nobody except Coach, who had driven Byron down to Grundy for states in his own pickup and paid for the hotel rooms out of his pocket because Coach knew what it was.
  Coach was the only one who knew what it was, and now Coach leaned over in the motel room and he put his elbows on his knees. He was older up close. He dyed his hair. His cheeks were littered with little broken blood vessels. Byron shifted in his chair.
  Now that boy tonight, said Coach. That boy was scared. Not scared of you. Local boy. Grew up out here. Coal miners, son, I know it. They’re my people. And that boy knew everybody in that whole damn room. Knew the music they played over the PA. Knew the mat you both got down on with your hands and your knees. Did you even get a good look at him? You see his people up in those stands? That boy ain’t going to college. He ain’t got no desk job waiting for him. You were going in there for a—look at me—you were going in there for a coronation. You thought you deserved it. And that boy over there knew something else. He felt the breath of the beast, son. Listen to me now.

 

In between lecturing on how aliens brought civilization to Earth from Alpha Centauri and leaning out the door to leer at the soccer girls that passed by in the hallways, Coach taught algebra. He taught it in a dress shirt that he kept shoving back down into his pants, his chest high and his hair in all directions. Math, he’d say, is like wrestling. Wrestling is like time. Time is like God. God is like Math. And wrestling is nothing other than the sport of God. With whom—tell me, boy—with whom does Jacob wrestle for a night and a day? The scholars will tell you that it is an angel but the scholars have not read. No sir. They eschew the original text. Didn’t think I knew that word did you? And what cannot be eschewed must be embraced. That’s Shakespeare, son. And they say I’m the math teacher. Merry Wives. I wouldn’t know much about that, though. Never been to Windsor neither. All right now who can tell me about Brahmagupta?
  He’d settled on Byron early. He saw a long kid with a thick neck who hadn’t even thought about wrestling. Coach talked him into the first practice easily because Byron was easily talked into things. Coach could see that too and knew that it would have to be burned out of him, so on the very first day Coach ran Byron with the varsity up and down the hallways that smelled like bleach until Byron retched into a trash can. Then Coach ran him some more. Coach ran him and he said, in front of the whole team he said, You thought you had this all figured out, didn’t you, boy?
  He said, You think you’ve had it tough? You don’t know what tough is. You don’t know what real work is. What it is to see a man across from you face-to-face. What it is to know there ain’t no other way out but through him.
  Byron ran harder, ran with bile in his cheeks. And he ran not to beat the kid next to him even though he did that each time down and back (did it easy, not even a contest), no—Byron ran to show that smug motherfucker with the whistle in his teeth that he didn’t give a shit who he was. Line ’em up. I’ll whip every single one of your boys. Your boys and you too.
  Coach watched it all for a while. He liked the kid’s speed. He liked his easy turns at the far end of the hallway and he especially liked the way the kid would eyeball him every time down and back. After a while Coach blew the whistle. He sent the boys back to the mats and he pulled Byron aside.
  Coach sat the boy down. He got him a paper cup of orange Gatorade and he took a seat next to him but didn’t put his arm around him. Coach knew it was too soon to touch him. After Byron caught his breath, Coach walked him down to the little trophy case by the gym, a small and dusty little hutch. The glass doors were dim with cleaner that never got rubbed all the way out. Coach didn’t say anything for a while, and then he leaned down and pointed out, in the back behind the footballs, the grainy picture of the last state wrestling champ, 1972. A skinny kid with big hair on the top step, holding a small plaque at his waist. That’s when Coach said, Look at this. Coach said, I don’t show this to kids. No reason to. He said, I’m showing this to you. Look at him. This boy in the middle of all this. This boy’s still here, Coach said. He’s here and he’s not going anywhere. It’s like he never left. Like he never got old. Never got slow. And he’ll still be here when you do. This boy’s up here forever.
  Coach stayed where he was, with his eyes on the back of the case and his hands on his knees. And Byron couldn’t tell if he was doing it for him, stretching this out into something rehearsed, or if he was still down there in that picture for another reason unguessed. After a while Coach turned around and looked back up the empty hall. He said, You tell me what gets to be there.

 

Coach was getting hot in the motel room.
  It’s not that you get to be the champ, Coach said. It’s that the champ gets to be you.
  He was up in a low crouch, slapping the back of his hand into his palm, Pow! And that boy’s the champ, Coach said, swinging his outstretched finger to the closed shades. He’s the champ and you ain’t and you’ll never be because you got too much to care about.
  Coach, said Byron. I’m done.
  Coach stopped.
  I’m done, said Byron.
  Coach looked at the boy where he sat, slumped in his sweatpants and his hoodie and his white sock feet. Coach closed his mouth and he stood all the way up. He pulled at the edge of his jacket. He pulled on it twice. His fingers moved to the buttons and he snapped closed a few of them, and then he turned without a word and walked across the room to the door and he slapped it open and walked out into the night. The cold air ran down the wall and the door hissed closed.
  Byron let out his breath. He looked back up at the drop ceiling and he looked over at the bathroom. He thought about showering but he didn’t get up. He took a few deep breaths, and he felt his wide chest rise and fall against his shirt. He could feel every muscle. He could feel them running long and loose down his arms and down the backs of his legs until they slipped into the bones of his hands and his feet. He was in the best shape of his life and he knew it and he knew there was nothing he could do about it. He looked at the shower.
  The door opened again and the cold air ran back into the room. Coach was standing on the sidewalk, his hand flat against the door. He had on a big brown Carhartt jacket, his gut high and tight against a white T-shirt. He was standing there against the night, half in that bad light of motel rooms. Green and sick. Coach said, Get up. Get your shoes on. We ain’t done.

 

The first time Byron saw the fireman’s throw it looked too simple, too obvious. He saw two wrestlers in the video, head-to-head, grinding and pulling at one another until one pushed the other back up on his heels. The man getting pushed reached out for a wrist, crouched down and used the other’s momentum to slip under him before flipping him onto his back for the pin. The whole thing looked like water.
  The first time Byron tried the fireman’s in practice he got caught kneeling on the mat with his arms up over his head. His sparring partner spun behind him, grabbed Byron’s arms, leveraged his elbow right between Byron’s shoulders and pushed his face over his knees and into the mat. He held Byron there for over a minute, dragging him around until his teeth cut his lips open.
  When Byron asked Coach to show him the fireman’s, Coach made him practice it for thirty minutes straight. You see the long hand on that clock, don’t you? I’m asking you a question. That long hand, son, is the one you’ll want to be following. From the six to the twelve. You track that thing across half of that big white clock face. Track that thing like a bird, like a big black bird across the face of the moon, and the owl of Minerva only flies at midnight. You tell me what that means and I’ll let you knock off early.
  Byron never did figure out what that meant, and thirty straight minutes of a three second move left Byron shaking. But he got it. The wrist, the drop, the loop, the flip, every piece coming together until it was all one thing. After a week Byron could do it with his eyes closed and half the time he did. Coach made Byron practice it on the mats and out in the hallways. Coach made him practice it with a tackling dummy he snuck out of the football equipment room and he made him practice it on a string of kids all lined up and waiting for it. As Byron got better, he added a little something special at the end. What Byron did was, he stood up.
  He stood up with the man draped across his back like a sack of potatoes and then he’d rise up on one foot. Up on his toes. This is the part that would take forever. Like the two seconds at the top of a roller coaster. Look around, son, you can see the whole park. And the first time Byron twisted his shoulder around and dropped all of it right down in the middle of his partner’s chest, it made the kind of sound that made people look away. Coach didn’t look away.
  Hot damn! is what Coach said.
  Byron got called on it every once in a while. He lost a few matches while kids were lying on the mat, croaking like frogs. But Byron won enough to get to districts, to get to regions, to get to states. Coach started to shout out in practice that Byron was going to murder every sonofabitch in the country under 185 and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it and Byron heard it and he believed it. And all the while the fireman’s throw got so deep in him that it felt easier than saying his own name. He flipped that move over in his sleep and he did it perfect every time like a key in a lock. Byron could even feel himself do it in the motel room chair, and when Coach opened up the door Byron knew he had to get up and stop feeling that move he was never going to be able to pull again without going to jail.

 

You think you’re too good for it.
  Coach shook his head out at the dark road and the headlights that scanned it. They drove through a stop sign and down into a holler and back out again. The trees hung close to the road.
  Always did. You didn’t even want to wrestle. Never even liked it. Not that I could tell what it was that you did like. Go out and get in trouble with all the rest of the delinquents, I suppose. What do you think they’re doing out there right now. Running with bad company and burning up time but all right then, here’s what I’m saying.
  What are you saying, Coach.
  Goddamn it, what I’m saying is that if you think this is about wrestling then you’ve got it wrong, son. Flat wrong. You’re looking past the wrestling, Coach said. Just fine. Not everybody needs it. But here’s what it says. It says—I’m talking about wrestling here—it says that you’ve got to give that other man his dignity. Got to recognize that he’s just as much a man as you and he thinks he deserves it too. And that’s why you’ve got to crush him. Without mercy. If you cheat him, he’ll know it and he won’t forgive it and it shouldn’t be forgiven.
  They came out into a wide, dark valley. Green eyes winked out in the fields and faded back in the dark.
  By God, son, you learn that and the whole thing just opens up. Listen here, Coach said. Ye must be proud of your enemies. What do you think about that? A crazy man said that and he’s right. Coach swallowed hard. He tilted his head and kept at it.
  Be proud of them, Coach said, and make them proud of you, because for every other man, you are the enemy. People may tell you something different but it’s the truth, and at the end of the line it’s just you and him.
  Coach stopped. He held that silence because he wanted the next line to stick with the boy but when he went to speak his voice failed him altogether. The line came out in a whisper. The second Coach heard it he wished he hadn’t. Wished he had said it a different way. Thought, Well now it’s said and what can we do with that. What can we do with what’s out there. A goddamn whisper like some damned dead and gone ghost.
  They took a turn and drove up high on a ridge and back down onto a pale gravel road. Through the dark Byron could see the lights of a house hanging against the black, the trees rushing by, unimportant.

 

The kitchen counter was scattered with newspapers, bills, coupon inserts, empty potato chip bags and half-eaten loaves of coffee cake. She was somewhere past forty, with frosted bangs and a big chin. Heavy hands and thick shoulders and calves. The skin was peeling around her green eyes.
  You should’ve told me you were coming Chip, she said to Coach. You should’ve told me you were coming and that you had company. She looked down at the packages of food on the counter. I could’ve fixed something, she said. She dropped her hand onto the counter. I can get you some tea, she said. Do you like tea?
  Thank you Deidre, I’ll have some tea and so will this young man, Coach said. Deidre, this is Byron. We were at the wrestling tournament today and Byron here took second.
  Did he.
  That’s a fact.
  You’re good are you?
  I took second.
  It’s not first.
  No ma’am.
  So who’s better than you?
  Boy from Grundy.
  Well there’s no arguing with that, she said, and as she said it a long and a mournful groan came out of the next room. The sound of a man calling in his sleep.
  Byron looked from brother to sister and neither behaved as though they’d heard anything at all. He looked back out at the doorway to the next room. Coach stood straight-backed, a big empty smile on his face.
  I’ve brought Byron here because I want him to meet Greg.
  Deidre nodded her head once, hard. Okay, she said.
  I want Byron to meet Greg and I want to talk about Greg’s history and about his sacrifice. The empty moan came again.
  Okay, said Deidre. She nodded her head the same way as before.
  Greg, Coach said, is a hero. The kind of hero of which we are in short supply. Isn’t that right, Deidre?
  Deidre had turned around to the stove. Greg is a hero, she said. She kept her back to them and busied her hands with the water and the pot and the little box of tea bags.
  That’s right, said Coach. Greg is a hero and a man to be admired for what he’s done and to be understood as a model for what he’s given.
  Deidre turned back from the stove and she looked at Coach. She put her hands on the countertop and she pushed her chin forward as though she were about to say what had been said before and needn’t be said again. Her eyes were on her brother and his face was tight and pleading. Deidre turned back to the stove.
  Let’s go say hello to Greg, she said, and she walked into the den.

 

The man sat crank-sided in the chair. His head listed back, the bones of his face twisted up as though stretched and left to dry. His Velcro shoes sat sideways on the footrest and his bad arm lay tight against his ribs, the curled fist up near his chin. It gave Byron the impression that the man was lost in thought.
  Hello sir, said Coach, and he bent forward at the waist. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Been awhile indeed.
  Six months, said Deidre, and she took a seat in a deep chair lined with magazines.
  Six months, said Coach. Well. He patted his hand against his own leg. The man in the chair didn’t move and he made no sound. A thick black strap held his glasses on his face and it was difficult to see his eyes.
  Well sir, I’ve come by with a friend of mine and I want to introduce him to you. I wanted him to meet you. Greg, this is Byron.
  Coach opened his hand by his side, indicating where he wanted Byron to stand. Byron walked up and stood there and looked down at the man gaping in the chair.
  Greg is an Iraqi War veteran, said Coach. First sergeant, US Army. Isn’t that right sir? The man in the chair remained as he was.
  Go on there, son. Shake his hand.
  I won’t.
  What do you mean you won’t?
  I mean I don’t want to shake his hand. I don’t want to shake his hand.
  He ain’t going to hurt you, boy. You go over there and take that man’s hand and you give it a shake and you thank him for his service.
  Byron didn’t move.
  You won’t touch him and you see what he’s done for you? Coach’s voice was even and quiet. All the edge to it was gone. He said, You see what he is so that you can be what you are and you won’t even pay him the common decency of shaking his hand?
  Byron bit the inside of his cheek. He looked at the floor and he took a step. As he came closer to the chair he looked up and he could see the man’s gray and watery eyes where they took in the ceiling. Byron leaned over and he picked up the free hand that sat in a limp fist by the man’s thigh. It was cool to the touch and damp, the skin loose around the bones. Byron could only think of handling a dead chicken.
  First Sergeant Greg served two tours in Mosul, said Coach. Two tours in which he was highly decorated. Coach moved to the couch and took a seat and Byron sat beside him. Coach continued to speak, and he did so as though he were addressing a large group of people in the otherwise empty room. He spoke about Greg’s deployment and of his time in the desert and Byron noticed that Deidre had begun to nod at the rhythm of what he said. Coach continued to explain that Greg had been a leader of those who were under his command, and that he had demonstrated what it meant to be a model for American men everywhere.
  What happened to him? Byron said.
  The man in the wheelchair whipped his head to the side. The headrest rattled and then he was still.
  Coach’s smile stayed where it was and he acted as though the man hadn’t moved at all. He looked at Byron and said, Well, son, he’s right there why don’t you ask him? Don’t speak about him like he ain’t right here. He’s right here, ain’t he, Deidre?
  Deidre stood up and she walked into the kitchen.
  Byron said, What happened to you, sir?
  What do you mean what happened, said Coach.
  I mean, Byron stopped. I mean how did he get into the wheelchair.
  It was a roadside bomb wasn’t it Greg?
  Greg was silent.
  It was a roadside bomb, said Coach. Twenty klicks outside of Mosul and his team rolled up on a—
  It was thirty klicks Chip, said Deidre. She walked back in with three steaming mugs on a plastic tray. She handed a mug to Coach and to Byron and then returned to her chair. It was thirty klicks, she said. And you always get this part wrong. It was thirty klicks and you’re going to say it was a camel but it wasn’t a camel.
  Greg twisted once and hard in the chair. He slammed his free arm against the armrest and he began to moan.
  It wasn’t a camel, Deidre said loudly. It was an ox. And I don’t know where they got an ox from but they had an ox and—
  And they’d wired that ox up every which way, said Coach. Tricked it up something awful didn’t they, Greg? Coach held this question open, and they all three sat watching as Greg strained against the straps that ran across his chest and his hips. Byron looked from brother to sister.
  Something awful, Coach leaned over and said to Byron. And you didn’t have to get but so close to that thing and look out.
  Look out, repeated Diedre quietly. She sipped her tea from her mug that she held in both hands and looked over the rim of the mug at Greg, and she looked at her husband as though he were a full and a hale and healthy man.
  They all sat quiet in the room. From somewhere upstairs Byron could hear the ticking of a clock.
  Greg moaned once and he began to rock against the straps across his chest and his hips. The chair swung gently beneath him and the plastic rattled.
  Easy there Greg, Diedre said, like she were speaking to a horse. The man slowed and stopped and returned to his twisted position.
  They’re getting you all worn out aren’t they, Deidre said. She shook her head. You two, she said, and when she said it there was teasing in her voice, as though Greg had been taken out for a hard night of strippers and booze. She said, You two have come over and just worn him slam out. Deidre took another sip of her tea. Then she cleared her throat and sat up.
  Jerry’s supposed to come over later to help me but you two have worn him out early, she said. Look at him. His head’s drooping on his chest. His head’s drooping on his chest and he’s got to get some sleep. Chip, get Greg up to bed for us.
  You need me to pick him up?
  Pick him up and take him up the stairs for us.
  Greg moaned and his free hand flew to his face.
  I need you to get him into bed, Deidre said. And once you get him there, I’ll put him down. That’s right Greg, Chip’s going to get you to bed and I’ll put you down. Look at him. It’s time for him to go to bed. You’re tired aren’t you, honey. These two boys have worn you slam out.
  Greg had begun to moan again. The sound was hollow and wobbly and it rose up high and then choked on itself. Then it started again.
  He’s beat Chip, Deidre said loudly. Help me get him up.
  Coach looked over to Byron. I think the boy should do it, he said. Coach said, I think the boy should do it to demonstrate the proper level of respect. And to understand the facts of what this man has been through for him.
  Diedre slowly stood and she brushed at her robe and she said, Chip, quit the bullshit now and help me out.
  I ain’t doing it, said Coach, and his eyes were wide and serious on Byron.
  I’m not, said Byron.
  Chip, come on now.
  Greg had begun to rock in his chair. His moaning found a single pitch and held it.
  The boy is going to learn what it is to give a United States veteran a hand and to help him to end his day.
  Chip, I don’t need help getting him into bed, I need to get him up the stairs and we can’t wait for Jerry.
  Greg’s head had begun to slap back and forth against the headrest and his glasses were getting turned around on his face.
  I said we’re getting you there, honey.
  Byron shouted over the noise, Don’t you have one of those things?
  What things?
  One of those things, he waved his hand at the staircase. Those things on the stairs.
  What the hell are you talking about?
  Those things—the elevator, staircase things. Conveyor belt. Ah, shit.
  Escalators?
  Yeah, like an escalator.
  Like at the mall? Who the hell is this kid? Son, what is wrong with you? Escalator?
  I mean, a rail. A fucking rail like you see on TV.
  A rail.
  Yeah, a rail. Into the wall.
  Do you know how much those things cost?
  Byron raised his hands.
  Of course you don’t, shouted Coach. Of course you don’t know. You don’t know because you can walk up and down the goddamn stairs on your own two legs.
  Byron stood up with his eyes closed and said, I’ll do it. I’ll just do it.

 

After Greg had calmed down, Byron walked up to him in the chair. He reached back and he peeled off the straps around Greg’s chest and his lap. The body rocked in the chair like driftwood, and as Byron got in close he could smell feces and milk. Greg’s eyes remained on the ceiling and Byron reached out for Greg’s good hand. He took the man’s wrist between his fingers and then Byron bent down, his head low to the ground like he was searching for something in the carpet. He eased into Greg and he drew Greg’s arm across his own shoulders and then he rocked away from the chair. Byron drew the man out of the chair, sliding chest, belly, and hips across his shoulders before slipping his free arm around the twisted and frozen legs that came dangling behind. As Byron stood Greg drooled a long white string of spit down onto the floor.
  Coach followed them across the room and he followed them up the stairs. At the top of the hall Coach walked ahead and he turned into a room at the end and clicked on the light. Byron walked down the hall with the hollow body on his back past the dim pictures that hung there and Byron didn’t turn to see who was in them. As he came into the brightness of the room he bent back down to his knee. He slowly rolled the muscles in his shoulders and stood and pulled his arm back out from around the legs and he lay the long limp arm down beside Greg on the fully made bed.
  Byron stood up and he looked around. Coach was standing by the footboard. His hands were at his sides.
  He was a good man, Coach said. His eyes were on Greg where he lay silent on the bedspread. They wanted kids. Had a good job out at the Wellmore mine. Coach stopped. He cleared his throat. He had achieved nothing of note, Coach said.
  Deidre came into the room and she walked past Byron. She said nothing to either of them and she walked to the foot of the bed and Coach stepped back. Deidre reached down and took up one of Greg’s feet and she began to peel off the Velcro straps of Greg’s oversized shoes.
  You think he’s less than a man and I’m going to tell you he’s more, Coach said. He’s something for us to, to look upon. To ponder over. His body. Byron, do you see what I’m trying to say?
  Byron turned and he saw that Coach was standing next to him. Standing close enough to touch. But Byron didn’t touch him, and Coach keep looking at the man on the bed as Deidre flipped the shoes off onto the floor. And Coach asked the question again.