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Authors: Chris Crutcher

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BOOK: Whale Talk
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“Foster parent can’t do that,” Rich says. “You got rules.”

“Yeah,” Dad says. “I’m telling you, when it comes to protecting folks, I make my own rules.”

“You got a lot of guts, messin’ with a guy’s family.”

“And I wouldn’t forget that,” Dad says. “I’ve got a
lot
of guts.”

Rich turns for his pickup. “For a baby killer,” he says. “A lot of guts for a baby killer.”

Dad shows no reaction.

“Better keep your hands off my wife, Sambo,” Rich says as he brushes past me. “You and your daddy better watch your backs.” He’s in his truck and gone.

“You gonna call the cops?” I ask on the way back.

“We’ve got the evidence,” Dad says. “I’ll wait and see what happens with the calls and the artifacts. When a guy gets past a certain point, legal action just pisses him off. We don’t want Rich thinking he has nothing to lose. That’s the worst place for a stalker. If he thinks he can win something by staying away, maybe he will.”

I repeat Rich’s parting words.

“And we will watch our backs, won’t we, son?”

I agree that we’ll watch our backs.

 

Under normal circumstances Simet and I would take a school car or his Humvee to State, but he wants the team in on this and so arranges to borrow his uncle’s
Winnebago, a vehicle so wide it’s illegal in three states. Luckily one of them isn’t Washington.

Because I’m the only one swimming, and because our struggle with the Athletic Council has become public, the students lined up to see us off this time look like those being sent home for writing a threatening essay. No cheerleaders, no marching band, and—surprise!—no one from Wolverines Too, which was out en force when the football team boarded the bus for State.

The ride over is great. Icko manages the beast as if it is a super school bus, with Simet in the copilot’s seat and the rest of us lounging in captain’s chairs and sprawled out on the beds. Mott wants to get one of those transparent maps you put on your back window, skip the meet, and see how many states we can color in before anyone discovers we’ve told the school to kiss our ass.

“Better get a map of the world,” Simon says. “It’s a question of them
caring
.”

Mott smiles from his sprawled-out position on the bed. “Better make it a map of the solar system.” Which launches Dan Hole into some discourse on astrophysics, until Icko informs him he doesn’t consider the season over yet, and Dan could “build up a real set of pecs talking about that stuff.”

The meet is held at the University of Washington
pool, a pretty impressive place if you’ve been swimming in backwater towns of eastern Washington and northern Idaho. The water is just as wet and the pool just as long, but there are seats for as many people as usually see a basketball game in Cutter. Teams from all over the state, male and female, dot the deck and fill the practice lanes, and hordes of fans yell encouragement from the bleachers.

My races are spread over two days. The hundred on the first, and the fifty and two hundred on the second. It’s intimidating even though my times are fastest in the state for the hundred and the fifty. The other contenders are surrounded by teammates, all in flashy warm-ups with state-of-the-art workout bags, as opposed to my gray sweats and canvas bag.

The team officials won’t let my guys onto the deck because they’re not participating, so they stake out a spot low enough in the bleachers where I can hear them cheer, while Simet and I throw our stuff in a corner next to the starting blocks.

I swim the hundred tonight, the fifty and two hundred tomorrow. The instant I hit the water for warm-ups, I know the sprints belong to me. Simet and my Far Side swimming team have brought me to exactly the point I need to be: that place where my strength and
stamina and timing meet at a perfect vortex. I
will
get off the blocks like a shot, and I
won’t
miss a turn. And nobody can take me in between. There are few times in your life when you
know
, but for me this is one of them. I swim some easy laps, some middle speed, a few pickups, and come out of the water confident.

Tay-Roy calls me over to the bleachers before my prelim to the hundred, leans over the rail. “You know, if you win just two events, Cutter will place ahead of a whole bunch of teams. You could put us in the top ten by yourself.”

I do already know that. Simet has told me so many times there’s no way I could forget. A good showing exonerates him from skipping out on the wrestling job.

“And if you won three—”

“I won’t be winning the two hundred, Tay,” I tell him. “I’ll be lucky to place in the top six.”

“Even that,” he says.

Mott appears beside him. “Remember, this ain’t just for you,” he says. “If you’re up in the team standings,
we’re
up in the team standings. Don’t want to put too much pressure on you….” He laughs.

I blow my prelim field away, earning the fast lane for the finals. I’m nearly a full tenth of a second faster than the second-place time, and I do feel strong. I wish there
were more drama, but I win the final by the same margin.

Before we head back to the Winnebago, Simet calls in my time to the TV stations in Spokane, so Cutter will get the news. He has fulfilled his promise, picked up valuable points for the all-sport title. Another first would put us close to the top, and then even a fourth place could put us ahead going into spring sports. With the kind of track team we should have, we might wrap it up.

 

There isn’t much more drama for the fifty than the hundred. I’m a couple of tenths off the state record after my prelim, and tie it in the final. Two firsts put us in eighth place in overall meet standings. The next relay knocks us out of the top ten because number nine and ten both have strong teams, so our ability to place in the top ten rests on whether or not I can hit my best two hundred.

I qualify fourth, first in my heat. Something is happening here that I recognize from times when it seemed like the universe was lining up athletically for me. My first hundred is within a half second of my best hundred time ever, and I finish easy, saving myself for the final. The two hundred has always been my toughest race, because when I’m supposed to turn it up on laps six and seven I either don’t turn it up far enough, or too far and then can’t bring it home. But I’m in a zone, feeling
stronger with each lap. If I can hold this till the final, I could surprise some folks.

We go back to the parking lot between the prelims and the finals to hang out and let a little pressure off. Simet uses his cell phone to leave Benson and Morgan messages, telling them I have exceeded his wildest dreams; that a good finish in the two hundred is a real possibility, and maybe they should start cleaning out a place in the trophy case for the all-sport trophy. “Nothing wrong with greasing the skids,” he tells us as he snaps the phone shut. “Be nice until we don’t need them anymore.”

We get the call back from Benson within five minutes. Simet answers, listens, hands me the phone. “He was out shoveling the walk,” Simet says.

I say, “Hey, Coach, what’s up?”

“I hear you’re knockin’ ’em dead over there. We’re all real proud of you.”

I say thanks.

“Just the two hundred left?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you win it?”

“Maybe if a kid named Ray Roscoe drowns in warm-ups. He’s got Olympic trial times in the two and four hundred.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Wilson High. In Tacoma.”

Benson is quiet a moment. Then, “They’re no threat. Anyone there from Seattle Heights?”

“Two guys. Pretty good swimmers. I qualified a tenth of a second ahead of one and about a second behind the other.”

“That’s a problem.”

“I was just swimming to qualify,” I tell him. “I’m closer than that.”

“They took us in a couple wrestling matches we should have won at their state meet yesterday. I’ve made the calculations, and I believe if you take them both, we’ll go into spring in first place.”

“Make you a deal.”

He laughs. “Shoot.”

“I beat both Seattle Heights swimmers, you vote for our letter requirements.”

Silence. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“What you can do is raise your hand when the yes vote is called.” I glance at Simet, who’s shaking his head as if in warning.

Benson says, “T. J., you’re not threatening to throw the two hundred, are you?”

“Did I ever tell you who my favorite baseball player of all time is?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Shoeless Joe Jackson.”

“Let me speak with your coach.”

I hand the cell phone to Simet. Mott gives me thumbs up.

Chris Coughlin says, “They gots a baseball player with no shoes?”

“Shoeless Joe,” I say. “Sometimes he didn’t wear shoes.”

“And sometimes,” Dan Hole says, “he compromised his love of the game for his own personal, which is to say
financial
, gain.”

“Yes, he did,” I say.

Icko glances at Dan as if to say, “The season isn’t over yet, my pearly-mouthed friend,” and Dan smiles.

Simet listens into the cell phone, glances at me, then at the rest of the team. “Coach, that’ll never hold up. You waited until we were gone.” Pause. “Maybe that’s true, but there was no hurry.” He listens another moment, then says, “I’ll think about it, Coach, but I can’t promise.” Then, “Okay, I
won’t
promise.”

He waits, holds the phone away from his ear, grimacing at Benson’s tirade.

“Coach, that may or may not be a good coaching technique, but it doesn’t work with
peers
, okay?”
Pause. “Well, maybe not in your eyes, but technically I am your peer. Listen, why don’t you let us take care of business here and you have your weekend. There have to be some good games on.” Pause. “Yeah, sure, we’ll keep you informed.”

He flips the phone shut, gazes into our faces. “Coach Benson told me not to tell you this until after the meet; I said I’d think about it.” He puts a finger to his temple and glances toward the heavens. “There. I’ve thought about it. They held an Athletic Council meeting Friday.”

“Lemme guess,” Tay-Roy says. “They voted on our letter requirements.”

Simet’s eyebrows arch. “That’s cowardly,” he says. “I was gone, and Janet Lindstrom voted with Benson and Roundtree.” He slams his fist into his hands. “I could have talked them into it.
Damn
it! Don’t worry, guys, this isn’t over.”

I am pissed. This is exactly the reason I’ve never turned out for anything; they always have to have it their way. They seem to listen, but in the end they make the rules and to hell with the people who have to follow them. They have no respect for what we did, no respect for what we created out of thin air.

We’re deflated. We are eight laps from the end of
our season and have met every goal we set.

“This isn’t over, guys,” Coach says again. “They can’t
set
the letter requirements, they only have right of refusal. I’ll get us what I can.”

That doesn’t wipe the look of dejection off most of my teammates’ faces. Mott isn’t dejected at all. He’s pissed. I’m with him.

“I don’t know whether this helps,” Simet says, “but there’s one thing they can never take from us, and that’s this time. As a young man I coached swimmers on their way to the Olympic trials. I’ve coached championship teams at all levels, but I have never coached a team with the guts this team has. When I’m looking back on my coaching career, this is the team I’ll be proudest of.”

He means it—we know it, feel it—and it still feels like hell. For everyone here but me, and possibly Tay-Roy, this is the way it always is. Do your best and get the crumbs.

I grab my tank suit, and we start for the door, when the sounds of sobbing turn us around. Jackie Craig sits in the captain’s chair behind the driver’s seat, his body convulsing.

Chris Coughlin watches him with anxiety you can almost feel. Icko walks over and puts a hand on Jackie’s forearm. Mott says, “Hey, man, them fuckin’ jackets are ugly anyway.”

Jackie gasps for air, convulses again, shaking his head.

“Naw, really,” Mott says, “they are.”

“It’s not the jackets,” Jackie says, doubling his word count for the season. “It’s…”

We wait while he works to catch his breath.

“It’s…I don’t know what I’m going to do when this is over. I never belonged to…
anything
. I was never on a team, never chosen for…” He stops, breathes again. “When I got on this team, I couldn’t believe it. I kept wondering when you guys were going to find me out and make me leave. The reason I haven’t said anything all year was so you wouldn’t notice me. I didn’t want to
bump
anything, you know? It’s like when there’s a mean dog, you just stand there and hope he doesn’t see.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head from side to side. “What happens when this is over? God, what am I gonna do?”

Icko grips Jackie’s shoulder. “You’re gonna do whatever you have to do to keep this alive,” he says. “We ain’t a mean dog. Right now, you’re gonna get up and help T. J. swim this race. Then we’re gonna order some hella pizza, as you guys say, an’ have us a goddamn victory party.”

“Hell,” Mott says, “none of us could swim worth a
shit. We’ll find somethin’ else we can’t do worth a shit an’ turn out for that in the spring. Wanna coach a rugby team, sir? Then, hell, come summer, maybe we’ll turn out for Little League.”

 

Because I qualified fourth in the two hundred, I don’t have an inside lane, but I kept myself out of fifth and sixth spots, so I’ll still be close enough to see the leaders.

Warm-up feels good, my stroke powerful. This is it. I’m planning the race as I swim, accelerating into my turns and coming out of them as if on a sling.

Ray Roscoe warms up two lanes over, and we’re gliding through the water stroke for stroke. For a brief second I wonder—if everything goes just right, could I take him?

The guys line up low on the bleachers, waving their towels in support. Apart from Tay-Roy, they look wounded, once again handed second-class citizenship. I hate Benson; I hate Barbour. Those assholes set us up—man, they have to have it all—and all of a sudden I have new resolve for this race.

BOOK: Whale Talk
4.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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