By Willie Smith
I crashed open the
door. Hustled through the empty locker room. Banged into the head. Flushed a
wall of urinals – skush! skush! – one after the other. Then turned and foot-flushed
I spun around.
Stormed through the swing door into the smaller, inner locker room.
Found my locker.
Kicked it five times with my street shoes. Spat on it. Twirled the combination.
Yanked it open.
Grabbed jock, shorts, shirt, shoes. Threw them out on the bench. Changed up.
“French America!” I
huffed, tying laces. “God French
I punched shut the
locker. Left the lock on the bench. Belted my way through the head, through the
underclassmen locker room, out into the hall.
office. Thought about spitting on his window. Thought better. Not because I
loved Coach more, but because my mouth was parched.
I was late for
practice. Indoors today, because – although you’d never know it from the gym –
a torrent raged outside.
I jogged up the ramp
to the classroom section of the south wing. Loped the linoleum till I came to
the shop. Angled north past home ec. Gathered speed along restrooms, school
store, janitorial supply, till I reached the cafeteria.
stride, I shoved open the bar-handled door.
Bright lights, noise
and stale air re-awoke my headache.
I squinted. The door
slammed. I jogged in place.
Coach – arms folded –
stood beside the serving line. On the opposite end, closer to me, ran the pack.
team captain, in front. John, Cliff,
Tom – knotted behind. Alex, Phil, Greg, Marc – stretched back two or three
tables. S.H. straggled – rounding the row over by the serving line.
“Let’s go!” Coach
yelled. “C’mon Alex, Phil – you can catch Cliff, Tom! Let’s go,
As he strode by, I
“This is our fifth
lap,” he growled, hammering a step ahead of me. “Ten to go. C’mon, fall in,
keep the pace.”
My head pulsed. My
ears whined. Breath seared my lungs. My eyes shut. Bodies elbowed past.
I forced my eyes
open. Focused on Marc’s butt. Marc had never beaten me. In disgust, I tried to
step it up. Coughed. Straightened, hands on hips, pain in side.
“Let’s go, Woodrow!”
Coach hollered, spotting me, falling back fast. “Where you been, son? Gimme
five extra laps, Woodrow!”
My stomach puzzled
gas. My pace dwindled further. Paralysis of the breadbasket. I fought collapse.
S.H. wheezed at my
back. If he passed – mere froth on the tsunami of disgrace. No… S.H. stood for
Shit Head. He had a real name… No. Johnson would never pass. Cold mercury
burbled in my stomach.
“You doin’ OK,
Woody?” Shit Head Johnson gasped at my side.
“Got a hangover.”
“First time,” I
confessed. Unthinkingly. Couldn’t think. Guts syrup, chest styrofoam, legs
We reached the end of
a row, puffed around the edge of a table that seated eight. But now its chairs
were like all the other chairs – upside down on their tables.
Skimmed my fingers along
the veneer, as we stumbled, changing direction, S.H. leading me by a toe.
Johnson’s being the
slowest on the team wasn’t half the problem. The crux of his being team butt
was how he acted.
He was a nerd. When
you asked him how his day was going, he said, “Fine, yeah.” If somebody told a
joke, Johnson didn’t get it. If it was recently out of style, Johnson wore it.
If you turned around too fast, Johnson was in your face with a question.
He didn’t talk too
much, but he had a flair for interruption. He never knew what you were talking
about. His favorite topic was how he worried you didn’t understand what he was
S.H. was the kind of
guy, if he was a chicken, he would’ve been pecked to death seventeen years ago.
“Excuse me,” he
gasped. “Hope you don’t mind my asking… Hear tell you and Colleen are not…
I fisted my way even
with his frame, as our narrow-heeled shoes thudded fluorescent-lit linoleum,
and rain exploded outside.
“Why you got drunk?”
“Maybe.” I hawked.
Came up empty – save wooden scotch taste.
“She dump ya?”
S.H. had zero luck
with girls. He and they were like putty versus a magnet. Nil reaction. Even his
female teachers awarded C-minuses. Men instructors gave Johnson B-minus. He had
no strong suit. He was mediocrely not stupid at everything. Track was his only
sport. In three years he had never beaten anybody.
deliberately of lemon, grapefruit, green blackberry…
“Know I got no
business asking… wondered if what I heard is…”
Saliva welled under
my tongue. I spat on a table, grunted, pulled away from S.H. Fixed my eyes on
Marc’s blue shorts. Pumped, pistoning ache into my gut. Eating throb for
I was even with
Cliff, when Coach yanked me out. I huffed, puffed, coughed, weaved in place.
He had seen me spit
on that table. What was wrong with me? I arrived fifteen minutes late for
practice. I was looking the most sorry-assed of the bunch. Now I had gone and
drooled on school property!
The pack was coming
around again. Benzil was four tables ahead of the tangle of John, Cliff, Tom.
Coach pulled him out. Benzil leaned over, touched his toes, breathing hard, but
“Woodrow here thinks
he’s a rich-boy. Don’t hafta work. Take him upstairs and run his ass ragged.”
Benzil huffed: “Run
the halls, third floor?”
Coach patted him on
the butt, muttered yep, gazing at the far corner of the cafeteria, yelling:
“C’mon Cliff – you got Tom beat! C’mon Tom, let’s haul
The third floor was
usually janitor-free this early in the late afternoon. It had been a stormy
spring. This was our fourth practice indoors. We thought we knew the
But today we jogged
up the cement stairs, banged open the bar-handled door – to find two
hillbillies waxing linoleum with machines like squat garbage cans.
“Keep to the inside,”
Benzil muttered, jogging close to the lockers.
He set a canter. I
ran at his left hip. My stomach had tired of nagging, I was breathing OK, the
legs weren’t giving it much thought.
“You aren’t often
late – how come?”
“Oh… I dunno.”
“You and that Colleen
French still steadies?”
We passed the
janitors intent on their waxing. The machines keened, groaned, thrashed.
“She dump ya?”
I saw he was smiling.
Tight mouth in a taut face. Benzil was half Indian. His dad had been a
Philadelphia Italian in the Air Force, lost over Korea.
When I failed to
answer either question, he huffed, he didn’t see why Coach made us run indoors
on account of a little water. Running in the rain would make us run better in
the sun. We’d sweat. Rain slake it off. Harden our muscles. Secret of good
Then Coach made us
circle the cafeteria, switched on the lights. Didn’t want us to hit tables.
Coach had no guts – c’mon, would I race him around the rectangle… maybe two
hundred yards of hall?
We lengthened stride,
neither committed to a race. But mutually picking up the pace every fourth or
Last night burst in
my mind like a firework.
Colleen met the new
boyfriend in a coffee shop in McLean. He’s nineteen. Going to college
somewhere, she won’t say. I drove her home from debate.
We are parked in her
driveway. She is saying it’s over. No need to pick her up again after class.
I want to puke –
nauseated by rejection. I rev the engine. Ask her to get out, ask what for me
“I dunno,” she shuts
the door. “I’m not sorry we met, it’s just…”
“Yeh.” I drove off.
Can’t even find this
guy, much less slug him. No name, no address. She has fallen in love with the
unknown. This is my first dumping.
I bought a fifth of
scotch, faking my age on sheer depression. Parked on the Potomac south of Mount
Vernon. Consumed most of fifth in less than half hour. Drove away randomly.
Crossed a bridge.
Wondered why not dive into the river. Made it somehow home.
Mom holding my face
in her chilly hands: where had I been? what had I had?
about a hamburger. Off to bed.
Math class flashed
past. Caught a glimpse of an inequality still on the blackboard. I had been
doing well in math. Till meeting Colleen four months back – trading academic
interest for a feel, a taste, a tease.
Benzil said, “Guess
you got your finger in. She let you do that?”
“Nah…” we slipped
around a corner where I knew his mechanical drawing class met… “yeah.”
I suddenly smelled my
own sweat. Acrid, sweet. Like a rotted flower. Was I OK? I kept mum, double-timed
to match his pace.
“You know…” he
responded to my doggedness by striding faster… “my dad, before he died, told
Larry, my older brother, he should – out on a date – keep his pecker…” he
really turned it on… “in his pants.”
Benzil never got any. He was brown, short, stringy, wide-nosed. I was a medium,
unremarkable Anglo – once got good grades.
I sprinted after his
I never got any
either. Colleen, a year ahead, the first. She seduced me. Her tongue parted my
lips, her hand found the zipper; although I remained technically virgin.
Caught Benzil and we
tore together around a corner, nearly bowling over Stobbs – the head janitor.
“You boys can’t run
up here today!” he screamed, but we were full tilt gone around the next corner
before we heard a thing.
Besides, we weren’t
listening. We weren’t talking. We were breathing, our hearts beating, arms
pumping, torsos slogging, legs flying, feet airborne. We were running.
side we whizzed past 305 – Spanish
“Let’s go another
lap,” he gritted.
“Make it two.”
“OK.” He wasted
energy, shooting me a half-grin. “Sure you’re up for it?”
In answer – I moved a
pace ahead. He responded immediately. We flew neck and neck around the math
class corner. Sideswiped a floor waxer.
One of the newer
janitors yelped. The other one kept pushing the waxer, hovering bristles over
I was leading by a
ball hair when we rounded the mechanical drawing corner and smashed into
Stobbs. Couldn’t be helped. We clobbered him. Knocked him on his can, trampled
his shins and shoulders. Inadvertently dislodged his dentures.
We stopped. We had
Blood flooded our
stalled limbs. We panted like women giving birth. We turned around, hands on
hips, gasping, pained.
“You fuckers tried to
kill me!” he was screaming.
I fell to my knees.
Gagged. Vomited bile, snot, trachea grease. I had nothing else to give. Hadn’t
eaten since the scotch.
Guess I passed out.
Never quite collapsed. Events blur. Stobbs screaming. Benzil huffing he thought
it was OK, we could run up here…
Things get fresher in
the gang shower. Warm water hydroplaning tiles. Steam, soaked chaos, jets of
hot – as if hell had gone to heaven.
I was OK. My head
didn’t throb. I was no more nauseated than usual. Remembered, a little,
refusing to let Benzil help me down the stairs. I felt tired, hungry, but safe.
out of the steam. “Coach wants ya,” he said. “In his office. Soon as you
Once again in street
clothes, I stood before Coach’s desk. He held a large chaw of Beechnut in his
left cheek. His sweats drooped over his blubber. He wore his navy fatigue cap.
He leaned back in his swivel chair. Crossed his short, thick legs. Placed his
dirty Converse in the middle of the cluttered desk. Pulled up his sweatshirt,
scratched hairy flab. Said, “Woodrow, I owe you an apology.”
When I showed
incomprehension, Coach cleared his throat, tongued his chaw, spat into the
waste can next to his swivel chair. He explained he didn’t know I had been sick
all day, absent from school with an illness. Didn’t realize I had stayed home,
rested up, all so I could make practice that afternoon. Sorry he chewed me out
for being late.
I nodded. I was
exhausted. I felt the birth of another headache.
“Say, Woody,” he spat
carefully into the can. “Word is you barfed up there. That right – you toss
I nodded. Sure. Yeah.
I had done that.
chuckled, rolled his chaw to the
opposite cheek. “Yeah, that Stobbs is awful pissed off somebody puked his
precious fresh wax. Guess he’s gonna take it to Administration.”
I muttered, noticing
tobacco saliva at the corner of his mouth, “Sorry.”
He grinned, spat
without looking, hit the can. “I could give a chicken crap about that scrawny
asshole’s wax. Tell him next time I ordered
you run up there. This here team’s got priorities – ain’t that right?”
“Sure.” I wondered if
he knew the meaning of the word. If I
knew the meaning.
“So you th’ew up.” He
grinned, winking chaw. “I like that. Proves you with the program. I gotta
admire fella gives his all. To me, Woodrow, if a man don’t chuck after a race,
he didn’t run that race. You hear me, son? It’s not for nothin’ they call it
guts. It’s born inside.”
Now that he mentioned
it, my stomach churned.
A moment passed. I
stood in limbo – like a bad dream remembered inside a nightmare. My fingers
trembled. Cold sweat bathed my chest. I forgot English. I forgot where. I
forgot what. I stood rooted to the floor.
Coach frowned. Swung
down his feet. Hunched forward in the chair. “What was your sickness, Woodrow?”
My eyes found the
battleship gray. “I, uh, ate a bad burger. Out driving around went to Acey last
night. Must’ve, I dunno…”
“Bad hamburger, huh?”
His face wrinkled, he appeared to swallow a squirt. “You still chasin’ that
I raised my eyes from
the linoleum. Said, no, that was gossip. She and I were through.
He grinned, stood.
“That a fact? Yeah, there’ll be others. Never get split tail outta yer life
totally. I’m sorry you had to bump into Stobbs like that. He’s nasty when he
gets a burr up his butt. Don’t pay his bullshit no mind. Go home, meat and
potatoes, get to bed early. Food poisonin’ ain’t no picnic. Believe me, had it
enough myself in the Service.”
panties engulfed my mind. I had never seen them. Only felt parting elastic and
rayon under skirt. My first, my very first.
Yes, there was scent
that lingered. Drove me to gnaw my finger. God knows I licked ample electric
odor off knuckles. Whispering her name, closing eyes, sampling the remnant on
my own flesh.
Now gone. Now
He came around from
behind the desk. Clapped my butt. Told me go go home forget that split tail.
Don’t let Stobbs bother me neither. He wanted me in shape for the County relays
coming up at the end of March.
But Stobbs got his
way. Three days later, Administration prohibited indoor practice. It had been
brought to their attention the interior of the building was not insured against
accidents caused by running.
The rest of that
spring, when it hurricaned, practice was called. If we really wanted, we could
run a few laps in the weather. Everybody went home.
Except Benzil. The
second time practice got rained out, I joined him on a five mile slosh over the
When I jogged out to
him on the track, he yelled through the downpour, “Gonna keep up with me this
“Gonna warm up?”
“I’m warm, I jogged
out from the locker room.”
“OK – twenty laps…
We clammed up for
about two minutes. Down the first straightaway of the second lap, Benzil
finally cut the riot of the rain with, “You won’t find Coach’s lard ass out
I was hurting from
fresh blisters. My spikes were new. The rain was shrinking them up weird. I
didn’t feel like talking. Going into the bend to begin the fifth lap, I said,
“Nice day, think it’ll rain?”
Toward the end of the
thirty-minute five miles of striding, he gasped, “I’m gonna fart!”
He did. The rain ate
whatever stench. As if I could smell or take time to smell – catching a cold,
concentrating on keeping up with Benzil.
Turned out he was
dead wrong about running in the rain improving your ability to run in the sun.
I just got more colds, uglier blisters and strange muscle spasms.
kept running with him on rainouts. The opportunity for pain attracted me. I
still possessed a male hymen, though it hung by a thread. Didn’t seem likely,
with Colleen out of my life, I’d lose it soon. But by tugging, scratching and
digging in other directions, I hoped magically to rip it free.
ashamed of being human, Willie Smith’s work celebrates this horror. He is
a regular contributor to Andrei Codrescu's Exquisite
Corpse Magazine. His latest story anthology can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Willie-Smith/e/B008381M30/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0.
much else to say, really. Just sitting around waiting
for death or retirement, whichever comes first.