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#19

Off the Bench



     The visitors’ locker room smelled like a hamburger, for some reason, and it reminded Eric that he was hungry. He sat in his blue Multioak High uniform with his back against a cold locker as Coach Verck adjusted his belt and prepared to address the team. Eric stuck his long legs out in front of him and admired their leanness, how they flowed gracefully out of the bottoms of his baggy shorts and disappeared down into his sleek high-tops.

     “Boys,” said Coach Verck. “Today in the teacher’s lounge, a certain teacher of Special Education approached me and said – and I’m sure he meant well – but he said, ‘Coach, I think you guys can really put up a good fight tonight against Far East.’” Coach Verck paused and pursed his lips, looking each member of Multioak High’s basketball team in the eye. Then he said, “Now gentlemen, tell me this, show of hands: how many of you came here tonight to ‘put up a good fight?’”

     Eric raised his hand. No one else did.

     Coach Verck stared at Eric in disbelief, opening and closing the clip on his clipboard. “Really, Eric? You came here to ‘put up a good fight?’”

     “Yeah,” said Eric, his upraised hand starting to creep back down. “Wait, is that not right?”

     “We don’t play these games in order to ‘put up a good fight,’ Eric. We play them to win them. I don’t care who the competition is. We play the games to win them. Putting up a good fight is never our goal. Never!”

     “If,” said Eric, “you had asked who came to win tonight first, I would have raised my hand for that one. I didn’t know there were more options coming.”

     “Immaterial,” said Coach Verck. “You’re not playing tonight. Your focus is not what it needs to be. Neither is your drive to succeed.”

     Eric looked around at his teammates for support, but they were all looking at the floor.

     “OK,” said Coach Verck. “Everyone, gather around, hands in the middle. ‘Victory’ on three. No wait, ‘triumph’ on three. No. OK, show of hands, who wants ‘victory’ on three, who wants ‘triumph’ on three?”

Eric didn’t vote.

 

     Reggie started at power forward instead of Eric. Eric sat on the end of the bench and scanned the crowd for familiar faces. A fair amount of parents and students had made the trip over to Far East for the game, hoping for the upset, and Eric wondered if his stepdad was among them. He hadn’t spotted him yet.

     At the first time-out, Eric joined his teammates as they gathered around Coach Verck. He wasn’t exactly sure what the score was, but during a brief pause in Coach Verck’s exhortations to take better care of the ball, Eric chimed in with a few well-chosen words about the importance of keeping Far East off the offensive glass. Coach Verck said, “Eric, you’re not part of this time out. This time out is designed to be a forum for strategies that lead to wins, not strategies that lead to the putting up of a good fight, which is, as we know, the extent of your ambitions. Go sit down.”

     Eric shuffled back to his seat at the end of the bench. He untied his shoelaces and then leaned forward and let a glob of spit slowly drip down to the floor from his bottom lip. He was bored. He looked up at the scoreboard and was shocked to discover that the game was still in the first quarter. Eric looked down the bench at Coach Verck who was absorbed with shouting euphemisms at the elderly referee while the rest of Eric’s teammates on the bench leaned close together and discussed the Far East cheerleaders who were performing a routine far more suggestive than the Multioak administration would ever allow.

     Eric stood up, stretched casually, and walked out of the gym, shoelaces flopping. He followed the smell of popcorn down the hall past a few unsupervised little girls giving their dolls hideous haircuts with safety scissors. He rounded a corner and spotted the concession stand. He walked up to the counter where a chubby girl with glasses and braces sat on a stool and drew smiling horse heads on a yellow legal pad.

     “Hi,” said Eric. “Can I have some popcorn for free?”

     The girl looked him up and down and flashed a shy smile. “Do you play basketball?” She was already scooping popcorn into one of the large-sized boxes.

     “I also play drums,” said Eric, accepting the box from the girl and tilting it up to his lips, shaking the buttery popcorn into his mouth.

     “It’s weird that you’re out here while the game’s going on,” said the girl. “Usually players stay in the gym during games. You’re the first player who’s ever come to the concession stand during the game.”

     “Thanks for the popcorn,” said Eric, nodding at the girl and strolling off.

     “Your shoes are untied!” the girl called after him.

     Eric wandered up and down the halls of the school that weren’t gated off for a long time, scoffing at the student art work on display in glass cases and looking at photos of Far East sports teams from the 60s and 70s that gave him a peculiar, confused feeling. He went into all the men’s bathrooms that he passed, looking for funny graffiti. He found plenty of graffiti, but none of it was funny. He left his empty popcorn box on the back of a toilet in a faculty men’s room. Then he wiped his hands on his uniform and headed back toward the gym, the buzz of the crowd growing louder as he wound his way closer.

When he got to the hallway that led to the gym, he went up a flight of stairs to the upper level of the bleachers on the visitors’ side. He stood at the far end of the bleachers and craned his neck, looking out over the animated spectators in their royal blue Multioak High apparel. Some of the fans were standing up and shaking their fists, and almost everyone seemed either furious or appalled. Eric couldn’t understand most of what the people were shouting. Then, near the bleacher’s middle aisle, Eric saw his stepdad sitting hunched over and engrossed in a book. Eric made his way through the agitated crowd, ignoring the stares and questions of the fans that he passed, and sat down next to his stepdad. “Hey, Barry,” said Eric. “What’re you reading?”

     Barry looked up and said, “I don’t know. I had your mother tear the cover off and mark out all the places in the book where the title appears. I’m sick of titles spoiling books for me. They’re too revealing.”

     “Oh,” said Eric. “When did you get here?”

     “Half time,” said Barry.

     “It’s past half time already?” asked Eric.

A man sitting on the other side of Barry stopped shouting personal abuse at one of Far East ’s student managers long enough to say, “It’s the fourth quarter.”

“It is?” asked Eric. “Wow.”

     “It is?” asked Barry. “Oh, whoa, it is.” He went back to his book.

     “Does mom have to work tomorrow?” asked Eric. “Or can she cut my hair?”

     Barry waited for an enraged roar from the surrounding crowd to die down before he said, “She has to work, but she said she might have time to cut your hair as long as you don’t want anything fancy.” Someone, probably a referee, was blowing a whistle with long, shrill blasts, over and over.

     “Eric!” Eric looked up and saw Reggie standing next to him in the aisle.  He was breathing hard, his uniform was soaked with sweat, and he had the beginning of a serious black eye. “Coach says you have to play!”

     “I do? Why?”

     “Because,” said Reggie, “I fouled out, Tim tore his ACL, Will tore his ACL, Rob fouled out, Jimmy got ejected, and Travis got ejected, tried to sneak back into the game, but they recognized him and now he’s probably suspended for the year. If you don’t play, we forfeit.”

     “OK,” said Eric, rising to his feet. “See ya later, Barry.”

     Barry said, “If you’re playing, tie your shoes.”

 

     Down on the sideline, Coach Verck put a trembling arm around Eric’s shoulder and said, “How’s your focus?”

     “It’s great” said Eric. “I want to win. What’s the score?” It looked as if there were chunks of Coach Verck’s hair missing.

      “Don’t even think about the score,” said Coach Verck. “I just want you to go out there and foul number 12 repeatedly.” Eric noticed Coach Verck’s clipboard splintered into pieces beneath his chair.

     Far East’s coach was screaming at the ref about the length of the timeout. The ref was screaming at Coach Verck to get Eric into the game or forfeit. On the court, Far East players and Multioak players were screaming at each other in terms that had little to do with basketball. The fans on both sides were screaming about the unfairness of every aspect of their lives, in a way.

     Eric knelt in front of the scorer’s table and tied his shoes so tightly that he nearly broke the laces. Far East ’s shooting guard – number 12 – was watching Eric’s every move and cracking his knuckles. Eric stood and jogged out onto the floor. A whistle blew, the ball was inbounded, the shouting in the gym grew and blended into one sustained blast of noise, feeding off of itself, and five shockingly quick fouls later, Eric was back on the bench with sore ribs and an ugly knot on his forehead, watching Coach Verck grind his teeth and acknowledge the forfeit with a full minute still left on the clock. The crowd was still in an uproar and the individuals with the worst attitudes from both fan bases had found each other for conflicts in the halls. Eric strolled out onto the floor for the post-game handshakes, but no one else seemed interested in sportsmanship, so he just waved at the Far East coaching staff and called “Good game!”

     One of the assistants, a former Far East star fresh out of college, walked over to Eric, shaking his head. “Look at this mess,” he said. “Why couldn’t you guys just take the loss and go home?”

     Eric shrugged as he knelt to untie his shoes again. “Probably something to do with our intensity of focus.”

     The assistant sighed. “I suppose that makes sense. We stress intensity of focus too.”

     On the way home, Barry summarized the plot of his book so far, and it sounded an awful lot like To Kill a Mockingbird but Eric didn’t tell him. He didn’t want to ruin the ending.