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Authors: Chris Crutcher

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BOOK: Whale Talk
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I start to make up some wild story to explain my circuitous route home, before realizing a couple of sentences into it that I must sound like the goofball of the
universe. “Never mind,” I say. “I’ll pay you money not to tell my dad.”

“I just wanted to thank you,” she says.

“For what?”

“You know, for taking my nephew onto your swim team.” She looks tired, and grateful.

I say, “Hey, I need him more than he needs me. He’s not going to be a bad little swimmer.”

“He’s been in school twelve years,” she says. “This is the first time in eleven years anyone has paid one bit of attention to him, other than to make him drink urine out of a Seven-Up can or trick him into giving a dog an erection.”

I know all the Chris Coughlin stories. His hard times have come at the hands of teachers as well as kids, some of them not nearly as major as the Seven-Up incident, but just as devastating in the long run. Through the years Chris was always with our class part of the day, being mainstreamed in art and music, and of course he was present for class functions like Christmas parties or class plays.

In fifth grade our teacher was a guy named Sanford Davis. That year was the first most of us had a man teacher, and we were pretty excited about it, ready for someone to challenge our budding masculinity. But
Mr. Davis wasn’t exactly the hands-on mountaineer we had in mind. He was the new preacher at the Mountain Bible Center, and he ran his classroom the way I imagine he ran his church, with a holy iron fist. He tolerated exactly zero bullshit in his classroom. We sat in rows, the person with the best grades in the front seat to his far left, moving down the academic gradient to Chris Coughlin in the back seat of the right-hand row. Every three weeks he went through his grade book and reseated us. The one person who never moved was Chris; his position was nailed down by a good twenty points. Davis often used him as an example of an “unfortunate” and threatened on a regular basis to put a student in a desk
behind
Chris, which I suppose would have had to be considered educational wasteland. He talked about Chris as if he weren’t there, though most of the time it was hard to tell if that bothered Chris or not. He would hear his name, look up, then go back to what he was doing. I now know he felt every sting. He’s slow, but he gets the basic stuff just fine. Seven years later the mention of Davis’s name brings a crinkle to his nose.

We were waiting for the designated Santa, and Davis was killing time having us make all the words we could out of the word
Christmas
. The concept of moving letters around to do that was beyond Chris, but he saw two
right off; his own name and what he believed was Jesus’ last name, and he wrote them down in that order.

Davis was pacing up and down the aisles, hands folded behind his back, smelling of Old Spice and trying to catch us cheating. He turned around at Chris’s desk, ready to retrace his steps, noticed Chris’s unpardonable sin, bent down and told him to reverse the order of the names. Well, the problem was that slow as he was, Chris has always gotten excited anytime he did something on his own, and having to change the order would mean he didn’t do it right in the first place, and he dug in his heels and refused to budge. By God, he had found those two words by himself and they were right and he wasn’t going to erase or scratch them out.

Davis said, “You can’t put your own name before the name of the Lord.”

Chris said this wasn’t the name of the Lord, it was Jesus’ last name.

Davis said they were the same thing; that lord was a title, like king.

That was
way
past Chris’s ability to understand.

Davis tried to explain that Chris simply shouldn’t put his name ahead of Jesus; it wasn’t right.

Then Chris said the smartest thing that was said all day. He said they told him at Sunday school that Jesus
liked kids and He was nice. So He wouldn’t mind.

Davis made the mistake of saying Chris went to the
wrong Sunday school
, and Chris just sat there stupefied. Then Davis did the thing somebody should have shot him for; he made Chris stand up beside his desk, and he said, “Chris Coughlin thinks he’s better than Jesus.”

Davis didn’t know that Chris’s brother took Chris to Sunday school each week, that now Davis was treading on holy ground. Chris spun out, screaming that Davis was a liar, that
nobody
was better than Jesus and he did not go to the wrong Sunday school and he would be glad to bring his brother in here to kick Davis’s ass for saying that.

I got to escort him to the office, and he spent the next minutes trembling and trying to explain how he wasn’t better than Jesus and he went to the right Sunday school because his brother took him and his brother would never take him to the wrong one. Of course nobody there knew what he was talking about, and in the end, Chris Coughlin missed the Christmas party. Another day in the life…

I look at his aunt now, standing next to her beat-up Dodge Dart. She looks small and helpless, kicked by the world. “Really,” I tell her. “Chris could be a real swimmer if he stays with it.”

She smiles. “He’ll stay with it as long as there’s somebody like you to watch over him. He says you’re his hero. He’d do anything for you. It’s a moment for him. He doesn’t get very many moments. I just wanted to thank you.”

Before I can say another word, she is back in the Dart, driving down the road.

Man, what kind of a fucked-up world is this? You should have to be a lot more than decent to be a kid’s hero.

Practices go better than I could have imagined through Christmas vacation. We’re still holding two a day, and all seven of us show for every one. Chris actually gets used to Andy sliding his leg under the bench before each workout, and at one point he sneaks over and touches it. Icko uses what little free time he has to study for his Class II driver’s license so he can drive the bus, for which the school district will pay him. He turns into our utility guy, coaching out-of-water activities and doubling as team psychologist (“You want to turn out like everyone thinks you’ve already turned out?”), tripling as manager in charge of making sure Chris always knows where his swimming suit and goggles are and that he isn’t terrorized by the existence of Andy Mott on the team or on the planet.

Our first road trip, which takes place on the second weekend back from vacation, sets the stage for our season. It’s an evening double-dual meet between us and two Idaho schools, which means it doesn’t count in the conference standings. Swim teams are spread pretty thin throughout eastern Washington and northern Idaho, so the travel can be grueling. We’ll be on two-lane blacktop most of the way, and the sky begins spitting snow as we prepare to leave. Icko, who has come straight from his job at Burger King, disappears into the school and returns with two burlap bags filled with tire chains, throws them into the back of the bus, and calls all aboard. Neither of the district’s two minibuses is available for the trip, so we’re traveling in what seems like a 747.

Mott puts on his headphones as he steps onto the bus, walks back to the last seat and lies down, disappearing from view. The rest of us, plus Simet, fill in the first three rows behind Icko and bring out the cards and Game Boys and reading material. It’s a seventy-mile trip that will take about two hours, given terrain and road conditions.

When we’ve been on the road fifteen or twenty minutes, I lean forward and tap Simet on the shoulder. “You ever figure out the letter requirements?”

He grimaces. “I was supposed to have them up for consideration by the Athletic Council before the first meet,” he says. “I put them off until the first
conference
meet.”

“I have an idea.”

“Shoot.”

“How about anybody who hits his best time each time he swims, gets a letter.”

He frowns. “You kidding me?”

“No, man, listen. This is perfect. Remember what it was like when you started swimming? You got faster by the week, just from the competition and the increased workouts and stroke technique. Seriously, I hit my best times every week for a couple of years when I started. Almost everyone did.”

He considers. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “I can’t be sure.”

“They probably didn’t have clocks back then, but trust me, it’s true. And here’s the beauty of it. The Athletic Council will never figure it out. I mean, if you asked the track team to do that, no one would letter.”

Simet smiles. “You might be right. I’ll tell them I could choose an arbitrary number of points, but that might be too easy because a lot of teams will have only one entry per event, and my guys would pick up too
many easy points.” He thinks a minute longer. “One thing, though.”

“What?”

“You don’t tell any of these guys until after we swim tonight. I want them going all out for their first meet, so we know we’re getting the most out of them the rest of the season.”

“Fair enough.”

About a half hour from our destination, Coach walks back and slips Mott’s earphones off, calls for everyone’s attention. “Listen up,” he says. “How we do in this first meet sets the stage for the rest of the year, sets our goals. I want you to close your eyes and listen to me.” He pauses. “That’s everyone but you, Icko.”

Icko laughs. “Got my eyes on the road, boss.”

“Okay, the rest of you. Picture this. It’s a big school, a couple of years old. Two stories. The pool is at the west end. We enter through the north side of the gym and walk across the basketball floor to the lockers.” He goes on to describe the place in detail, from the lighting to the electronic timing pads, the coaches’ office, even the lifeguard stands. He wants us to visualize it, he says, because he wants it to be familiar. Nothing new or big or scary. The pool is longer, so we’ll have to get used to that during warm-ups, but remember it means fewer
laps. There’ll be good swimmers, but they’ll have some guys who are new, also. Since we don’t know how we stack up, we just go out and hit the best times we can. Nothing we do tonight will be wrong. We’re just discovering who we are as swimmers.

“A double-dual meet is exactly what it sounds like. We swim against each team individually. It’s as if we’re swimming two meets. So we could lose to one team but score points against another. Again, just swim as hard as you can and have some fun. We’ll hit the pizza place on the way out of town.” Again he pauses. “Okay, anyone have any goals they want to state for everyone to hear?”

From the back of the bus, Mott says, “My goal is to not assault anyone with my leg for laughing at it.”

“That would be good,” Simet says. “Assaulting the entire student body with your middle fingers is about as far as I stretch. Besides, I don’t carry bail money with me.”

Icko yells back to him, “Besides, this is Idaho. Even swimmers are required to carry guns.”

Chris’s eyes widen. “There’s guns?”

Simet laughs and ruffles his hair. “Icko was teasing. No guns on this one, Chris. Not even the starter has a gun here. They’re newfangled.”

Chris says, “Newfangled,” and laughs. He’s been
obsessing about the starter gun since he heard such a thing exists. It does not help that Mott has been telling him if the starter is mad at his wife, sometimes he shoots a swimmer.

I have one goal, but it’s for Tay-Roy: for him not to get sexually assaulted on the deck by the female spectators from either of the opposing schools. Man, that guy looks like a serious hunk in a tank suit. Tay-Roy says one of us is going to be disappointed because his goal is opposite that.

Dan Hole says he’s going to use this meet to further study his personal kinesiology. Icko tells him to drop for ten.

Jackie Craig, who has disappeared while sitting right in front of us, says, “I just want people to still be in the water when I finish,” to which Icko responds by shaking his head and whistling “The Impossible Dream.”

Then we’re all looking at Simon. He shrugs.

“Come on, Simon,” Coach says.

Simon starts to talk, but his voice deserts him and a tear wells up in his eye. He shrugs again, and we look up to see Mott limping up the aisle. He sits beside Simon, albeit with his back to him, knees in the aisle. Mott looks at Coach. “How ’bout puttin’ me an’ DeLong in the same events?”

Coach thinks a second. “We could do that.” Mott grabs Simon’s knee. “They’ll think a one-legged asshole is a lot funnier than a fat guy.” He gets up and limps back.

I watch him slip on the earphones as his head disappears below the back seat. He’d never want you to know it, but he’s got some class.

 

The meet itself is an eye-opener. I’m in way better shape than I thought and take the hundred and two hundred freestyle pulling away. My times aren’t world beaters, but they’re very competitive for the beginning of the season, and I even blow one turn in the two hundred and still pull it out.

The kid in the lane next to me slaps the water after the hundred, and I’m sure I hear him say he’s
never
been beat by a nigger, which for some reason doesn’t ignite my will to hold his head under water till he passes out. I reach across the lane rope and grab his hand, like I’m shaking it, pull him close and whisper, “Get used to it.”

Mott does his best to take the heat off Simon. After they call the hundred-yard breast stroke, just as Simon is about to shed his warm-ups, he tears off his sweatpants, jerks his leg off with a flair, and throws it over to
me. If it were a gymnastic move, it would have received a ten, and the crowd falls dead silent.

There is a ten-minute delay at the end of the race because one of the judges can’t determine whether or not Andy used a legal kick. In the breast stroke, a swimmer’s legs have to kick symmetrically, and lo and behold, the rule book states
nothing
about one-legged swimmers. Dan Hole solves the problem by suggesting that since it’s a double-dual meet, and since two swimmers on both teams beat them both, why don’t they disqualify Mott against one team, giving third-place points to Simon, and not the other, giving third-place points to Andy. That is the way it finally goes down in the book.

Chris gets third-place points twice because he’s swimming the five hundred free and the hundred individual medley against nobody else from our team, and Tay-Roy does the same in the hundred fly and the two hundred I.M. Jackie pulls down a pair of thirds in the fifty free and the hundred back. Those races are short enough that there are still swimmers in the water when he finishes, though he bumps his head hard enough on the third turn of his backstroke race not to notice.

The Idaho teams are from neighboring schools and have a rivalry going, as well as a lot of friendships because most of them swim on the same summer team.
They’re friendly but a little aloof, and I can’t tell if that’s because they aren’t sure if we got off the bus on our way to Burger King, or if they think they might catch whatever we obviously have.

When it’s over, we gather our things, shake hands with the other swimmers (most of whom wish us good luck, knowing how badly we need it), and head for Pizza Hut, where Dan almost blows cerebral capillaries trying to convince Chris that ordering a twelve-inch will give him more pizza than two six-inchers. Bottom line is, Chris wants two pizzas, and that’s what he gets. “He’s more intelligent than we think,” Dan whispers in defeat. “He almost understood that.” Simon gets two pizzas, too, but he takes Dan’s advice and makes them both twelve.

Andy declares this whole experience a real bonus for Chris, making the swim team and getting a math tutor in the mix. He says it like he says everything, with extra sarcasm, but Dan just says, “Darn tootin’.”

 

We take our same bus seats, seats that will come to belong to us as the season progresses, and start the trip home through what quickly turns into heavy snowfall.

We’re feeling good. We not only walked away from our first swimming meet with as many people as we
went into it with, but we all walked away with points. Chris is so proud of himself we almost have to give him two seats, and Simon is so grateful at having stood on that starting block and not melted away with embarrassment that his relief is leaking all over the bus. Jackie Craig seems exactly as he did before we hit the water, but I tell myself even a ghost has to feel good about this. Icko tells Dan Hole he’s so proud of him he’ll give him a bonus of three big words on the way home, and Dan promptly uses up two: euphoric and rapturous, both to describe his current emotional state. Mott says little, but slaps Simon on the shoulder as he limps back for his seat, adjusting his headphones as his head again disappears from view.

In a short while the euphoria and rapture wear off and, except for the droning of the engine, the inside of the bus is like a dorm room. Simon sounds like he turned into a sputtering chain saw, and when they get in sync, he and Mott are dueling nostrils. Simet and I talk awhile, but before long he’s drifted off, too, and only Icko and I see the storm turn to a blizzard as we slow to about twenty miles an hour. The flakes become so thick and heavy we seem to be disappearing through a white wall.

The small transistor radio hanging from the rearview
mirror warns us to stay home by the warm fire for the evening. Winter storm warnings are posted through tomorrow.

I say, “Uh, Icko, did I hear him say the road we’re on is closed?”

“Couldn’t be,” he says back. “We’re on it.”

“We okay?”

“Hell, yeah,” he says. “Used to drive truck over the continental divide in a lot more weather than this. Rolled one of those babies all the way down a mountain once.”

I tell him that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

“Like to killed me,” he says. “Law of averages says a guy doesn’t have two of those in one lifetime.”

As he says it, bright light fills the interior of the bus like the Fourth of July as the loud blast from the horn of a state snowplow brings everyone up in his seat, and Icko cramps the wheel hard to the right. He pulls it back quickly, but the bus begins to slide, and for a few crazy moments we whirl as if we’re on the Scrambler carnival ride, then hear a
bang!
as the front fender smashes into the natural rock wall on our left, violently reversing our field back to the other side and over a six-foot steep embankment.

Simet is up and through the bus in an instant,
checking us for injuries. Mott limps up the aisle, slipping off his headphones. “Damn,” he says. “I been on drug trips that weren’t that good.”

Chris’s hands are frozen into grips on the back of the seat in front of him, eyes wide, paralyzed. Jackie sits in his seat, head immobile, glancing side to side, waiting for someone to tell him what happened. Tay-Roy slept through it and is just now looking around. Simon hyperventilates.

No one is scratched, but Icko informs us we are at the bottom of the ditch with the fender smashed against the right front tire and we’re going
no
where on our own. “I got up to the road,” he says, “an’ it is nothin’ but
white
out there. Gonna be here awhile, men.”

Chris glances around frantically, looking ready to go ballistic, but Simet is right there. “You’ve been camping before, haven’t you, Chris?”

Chris says, “With Brian.”

“Your brother.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what this is. It’s a camping trip.”

Chris says, “I wish my brother was here.”

“So do I,” Coach says back. “But we’ll have to do this camping trip without him.”

“Gots to do everything without him,” Chris says.
“He’s dead. They gots his picture in the trophy case, though. You seen it?”

“Every day,” Coach says. “Your brother was in my class. Real smart guy.”

BOOK: Whale Talk
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