The Blades

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
An ex-high school football player has a hard time letting go of the past - especially the parts that aren't true.

This is a very long short story - nearly 9000 words! But the length is necessary. Hope you enjoy it.

Submitted: December 21, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 21, 2014

A A A

A A A


Victory! The Paulson Panthers prevailed in their opener, a 19-17 thriller at home over the Tigers from Hamilton. This game that went down to the final seconds had everyone on the edge of their seats. When it was all over, the students in this school of fewer than two hundred rejoiced. The only thing that could top an exciting win on the field was the party that came afterwards.

Dozens of teenagers stood on the lawn outside of a run-down country house. All of them were drinking and having a good time. Some talked. Others danced. A few had gotten to the point where they were stumbling everywhere they went and laughing uncontrollably.

Most of those in attendance wore t-shirts and shorts although a few jackets and sweatshirts could be seen in the crowd now. It was that time in early September when the cool air of autumn starts creeping in and slowly removes the summer heat one degree at a time.

It’s the best time of the year, Ryan Lockhart thought to himself. Everyone is back in school and they’re ready to get wild on the weekend. People are enjoying themselves. Pretty young girls are getting wasted, some of them for the first time. And most importantly, we won our first game. It was a little closer than I would have liked but a win is a win.

Ryan slowly made his way through the crowd. Everyone he passed stared at him. He wondered what they were thinking but didn’t let it bother him. Being the center of attention was nothing new to him.

His jersey had become a lot tighter since his freshman year as his size had increased. The hair on his head and face was longer than it had ever been since he had recently decided to let it grow out in both places. His big hands gripped a bottle of rum which he held against his stomach. He didn’t mind drinking from the keg like the others but he wanted to use this chance to show off his superior drinking abilities.

An undersized sophomore, not watching where he was going, crossed Ryan’s path, stepped on his shoe, and almost made him drop the bottle.

  “Hey!” Ryan shouted at the boy. “Watch where you’re going!”

  “Sorry,” the boy replied without stopping or looking back.

  For a moment, Ryan stood there and stared him down. His fists were clenched and he was ready to knock that boy out. But he reminded himself that no one likes a fight this early at a party so he just let it go.

  Also in his path was a blonde-haired girl in purple shorts and a white junior varsity volleyball t-shirt. Her back was turned to Ryan and she was dancing rhythmically to the music. He didn’t know who she was or what her face looked like but he liked the way she moved. So he crept up behind her and gently placed his fingers on her hips. She didn’t notice at first but once she did, she jumped forward and spun around.

  “Keep your hands off me!” she said with her finger pointed at him as a warning.

  “Fuck off prude.” Ryan couldn’t stand those prissy young girls who didn’t like being touched. But he knew she would change after a couple more drinks. Until then, he planned to occupy his time by having an important discussion with the quarterback.

  The QB was seated on the tailgate of an old pick-up. He and his girlfriend sipped on beers and talked with some of the other players who were standing around them.

  “I can’t believe that was the same center they had last year,” remarked one of the players whose jersey read, ‘McKenzie’. “He must’ve gained at least twenty-five pounds.”

  “I don’t see how he did it,” said the player standing across from him wearing number fifty-three. “I pigged out all summer and only put on ten.”

  “You know why that is right? It’s because everything we ate we just burned off at work.”

  One might think it a bit silly for two of the biggest boys at the party to be complaining about not being big enough but anyone who saw tonight’s game could tell that size was something this team needed more of.

  “Maybe that’s the problem,” reasoned number fifty-three. “Instead of working we ought to be hitting the weights.”

  “That’s what I’m saying. Next summer I say to hell with work. We’ll just eat and lift. Get big in the summer so we can kick ass in the fall.”

  “That’s all we’ll do man. Eat-lift-eat-lift-eat-lift…

  Before long McKenzie and fifty three were chanting ape-like, “EAT LIFT EAT LIFT EAT LIFT –“

  “DRINK SHUT UP.” The QB interrupted to a round of laughter.

  Ryan was standing with the group now and joined in the laughter. When they noticed him, everyone turned to look at the new arrival.

  “Good game tonight.” Ryan extended a hand to the QB.

  “Thanks.” QB returned the handshake. He was obviously exhausted from the game and it took a lot of effort for him to give a firm handshake. He wore jeans and a sleeveless shirt, showing that he wasn’t bothered by the cool evening air. His hair was combed back and held down by gel. He looked like he could have the prettiest girl in school. The girl he was holding may have been just that. Her face was lightly tanned with long eyelashes and a warm smile. Her hair was dyed an unnatural shade of red that somehow looked natural on her. Together, this couple looked like the king and queen of the party.

  “I’m glad we won,” Ryan continued. “But two points over Hamilton is hardly a reason to celebrate.”

  QB shrugged. “A win’s a win.”

  “That’s what I always say but Tri-Valley’s going to be a lot tougher.”

  QB didn’t feel like talking about football. His body was really sore, head buzzing from the beer, and he had his girlfriend in his arms. Nevertheless he assured Ryan, “We’ll check out the game film. Work on our problems. Watch Tri-Valley’s highlights. See if we can come up with a good game plan.”

  “I can tell you right now what you’re doing wrong. Five things Coach Morris is too dumb to notice.”

  “Doesn’t escape a genius like you though,” QB muttered sarcastically.

  Ryan ignored the remark and persisted. “Number one. You’re looking for Wallace on third and long when he’s covered and your other receivers are wide open.”

  “Wallace is the only one that can catch long passes. Hamilton knew that. That’s why they had double coverage on him.”

“Number two. You’re afraid to run with the ball. You’re sliding before anyone can touch you. If you learn to take a hit you can get an extra yard or two.”

“I’m a passing quarterback. Not a runner. If I take too many hits I won’t be able to throw anymore.”

The players surrounding QB were getting increasingly irritated with Ryan’s criticism. They passed uncomfortable glances to one another, wondering when this was going to end.

“Three. You looked slow as hell in the fourth quarter. I know it gets tiring but you’ve got to keep giving it all you’ve got. You looked downright lazy out there.”

QB set his beer down and cracked his knuckles. His girlfriend put her hand on his arm to calm him down.

“He took a lot of hits tonight,” fifty-three said in QB’s defense. “Got sacked a few times. hurried throughout the game. That’s enough to wear out even the strongest quarterback.”

“That brings me to number four.”

“I’ve had enough of your numbers.” QB started to get up but his girlfriend pulled him gently back down.

“You wait too long to throw the ball. You spend all that time dancing around in the backfield waiting for the perfect receiver to come along like some girl who can’t decide what to wear.”

QB sprang to his feet and got in Ryan’s face. As he did so, people started drifting toward them to see what was going on.

“Listen buddy,” QB said sternly. “You’re in no position to be giving advice. You’re not the coach. Not the quarterback. Not on the team. You don’t go to our school. I don’t even know who the hell you are.”

Ryan laughed it off. “You know who I am. I was the quarterback here.”

“Was.” QB stood inches from Ryan, staring intently.

“When I took over as quarterback, Ty Lewis found me at a kegger and told me what I was doing wrong. If he hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been so good.”

“Well, this quarterback doesn’t need your advice. So why don’t you get out of here before I throw you out.”

Ryan’s face grew serious. He moved closer to QB. “Don’t pick a fight you can’t win, little boy.”

With a hard sudden shove, QB almost knocked Ryan off his feet. After Ryan regained his balance, he put the bottle down and took his shirt off.

“Come on pretty boy!” Ryan dared him. “We don’t have to be on the field to see who’s got the stronger arm.” He thumped his own chest so hard it left a red mark.

QB’s girlfriend begged her man to sit down and relax but he paid no attention to her. His arms were guarding his face like a boxer does. Everyone at the party was now gathered around the two men.

They were just about ready to start going at it when the owner of the house, a young man who had just graduated from Paulson two years earlier, ran outside and came between them.

“No fighting here guys,” said the owner. “You hear me? No fighting.”

“I didn’t come here to fight,” said Ryan. “Our new quarterback here is a little too sensitive. That’s the problem.”

“Look, I don’t care how it started or who’s at fault.” The homeowner looked directly at Ryan as he spoke. “But I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Ryan looked incredulous. “Me! Why me? I didn’t lay a finger on this kid. He shoved me.”

“That doesn’t matter. This is a high school party. He has a right to be here. You don’t. Now please leave.”

High school kids surrounded Ryan, standing silently and giving him dirty looks. The dirtiest one came from the blonde girl in the volleyball shirt. He could see that she thought she was better than him. They all thought that. And that disgusted him.

Angrily, he picked up the bottle and his shirt and went to his car. When he took off, he hit the gas pedal as hard as he could, sending a cloud of dust and a few stones from the gravel driveway in the direction of the students.

 

On a narrow road in the dark wooded countryside, Ryan pushed the pedal to the floor. Deer often jumped out of the fields and into the roads in this area but right now he didn’t care.

After downing the remainder of the rum, he threw the bottle out the window. His father had given him some money in the morning, which he had used to keep himself drunk since then. There was still enough cash left for one more bottle.

The music was cranked up as high as his car stereo system would allow. The town was just up ahead and he had no intention of lowering the volume or the speed to avoid the local police.

Just before entering town, however, he recognized three cars at a small house. He slammed on the brakes and held the wheel steady until the car stopped. The sound of the screeching tires filled the air for a mile around.

Three men had already stepped outside the front door when Ryan pulled into the driveway. The music was off and the lights were politely on dim as he carefully parked.

“Wonder who that is,” said one of the men.

“Can we help you?” another one said half-jokingly.

Ryan was walking up the dark driveway toward the house.

“Let’s see here,” said the biggest of the three. “I see a jersey. I see…number eight. I see old quarterback himself Ryan Lockhart!”

“Ryan!” The trio called out with their beers raised up.

“What the hell are you guys doing out here?” asked Ryan as he neared them.

“We heard some maniac slamming on his brakes,” answered Chris, a slender blond-haired man with glasses. “We should’ve known it was ‘racing Ryan’.”

“No, I mean what are you doing at this house?” Ryan had reached the group by now and gave each of them a handshake.

“I live here now,” answered Bobby, a short pudgy skinhead.

“Since when?”

“Since about two weeks ago. Right on the edge of town where I like it. I can turn right, go into town, and see all my friends. Or I can turn left, pee in the grass, and be bothered by no one.”

“Lord knows nobody in town wants to see your (cough, cough) peeing,” joked Larry, the big fat one.

“Let’s all go inside,” suggested Chris. “I’m getting raped by these mosquitoes out here.”

The four of them went into the living room of the house. Chris and Larry lounged on the sofa. Bobby brought a chair from the kitchen for his new guest before seating himself on a recliner. In the center of the room was a cooler full of beer. Ryan fished out a can before taking his seat.

The room contained nothing more than the furniture and the cooler. The walls had apparently been painted very recently. It was obvious to any visitor that Bobby had bought a fixer-upper. He succeeded in making the living room look brand new but one glance at the other rooms revealed that he had a long way to go.

“I’m glad you’re here Ryan,” said Bobby. “We need to change the topic of our conversation. Talking politics gets us nowhere.”

“Especially when you have one dem, one rep, and one indie in the room,” added Larry.

“Throw in a little alcohol and you’ve got yourself a dangerous mix,” concluded Chris.

“I don’t give a shit about politics,” mumbled Ryan.

“Before we discuss anything,” said Larry, looking at Ryan as he spoke. “You’ve got to tell us about your arrest last week.”

“Oh yeah,” Bobby remembered. “Tell us what happened. I’m dying to hear about it.”

Before he began, Ryan took a long swig from his beer and got more comfortable in his chair. “Well, here it goes. Last Thursday I was out drinking.”

“What else is new,” Larry commented with a laugh.

“Must’ve been about two in the morning so I was obliterated by that time. I was on my way home when I stopped to take a piss between two parked cars over on Lincoln Drive. Didn’t mean to but I ended up peeing on one of the cars. I’m almost finished when some guy across the street starts yelling at me. I look in front of me and see a police car. Look to my left and see a cop coming toward me.”

The other three are turning red with drunken laughter. Ryan paused for a moment to let their laughs die down a bit.

“I didn’t want to get busted for urinating on a cop car,” Ryan continued. “So I zipped up my pants, picked up my beer bottle, and winged it at him.”

The laughter ceased. The listeners showed astonishment.

“Did you hit him?” asked Bobby.

Ryan nodded. “On the shoulder, not the head. Didn’t knock him out like I wanted to but it bought me some time. So I ran up the street a little ways. This cop started gaining on me so I climbed a fence in someone’s yard. When I got to the top, I lost my grip and fell to the ground on the inside. I started to crawl away but before I knew it that cop was on top of me. I tried to fight my way out and get away but …then I saw them.”

“Saw what?” asked Larry.

“The blades. Right in front of my eyes. Like the bars of a cell that keep you from escaping. It was no use resisting at that point. I knew I was beaten.”

Ryan’s audience nodded somewhat understandingly.

“Did they throw you in jail?” inquired Chris.

“Overnight. Let me go the next morning. I called into work and told my boss what happened. He said he’d had enough of my screw-ups. Fired me over the phone.”

Chris, Larry, and Bobby hung their heads in sympathy.

“That sucks,” commented Larry. “After all that time you put in there.”

Ryan took another swig and shrugged. “I never planned on working there forever.”

“What are you going to do now?” asked Bobby.

“My dad’s loaning me some cash for the meantime. Till I get something figured out.”

“We’re here for you if you need anything.”

Ryan shook his head quickly back and forth like he had just snapped out of a trance. “Let’s not talk about that. I didn’t come here to get pitied.”

“Tell us Ryan,” said Chris. “What would you like to talk about?”

“How about football?”

“Excellent idea,” said Larry. This was a topic Larry was always up for discussing. If his friends ever needed to know an obscure rule, a member of any NFL team’s roster, or information about an incoming college recruit, he was the man to ask. “Who’s going to the super bowl this year?”

“Colts-Packers,” predicted Bobby.

“Patriots-Giants,” guessed Chris.

“I have no idea,” admitted Ryan. “I don’t follow the NFL.”

“College?” Larry suggested.

“High school.”

“What’ve you got to say about high school ball?”

“I’ve got to say we kicked some ass when we were out on the field.”

“Hell yeah we did,” agreed Bobby.

Everyone in the room relaxed a little. They were entering a discussion about their playing days which required no thinking, only recollecting.

“I still have nightmares sometimes,” said Chris. “Where I drop the ball in the end zone against Redford and we lose the homecoming game.”

“But you didn’t drop it,” Ryan pointed out. “That was a twenty-eight yard bullet right to you. I had no doubt you were going to catch that.”

“It was a good pass,” Chris conceded.

“Can’t remember how many yards I threw for in that game. Two hundred? Two-fifty? Something like that.”

“That was definitely your best passing game,” said Larry. “You were always more of a running quarterback.”

“I could run. I wasn’t afraid to take a hit either.”

“Hell no, you weren’t,” said Bobby. “Remember that defensive end you plowed over at the goal line against Hamilton?”

“And I’ll never forget that hit you took at our last home game,” mentioned Larry.

“I remember that like it was yesterday,” said Ryan with all seriousness. “I dropped back for a pass at about midfield. Couldn’t find anyone open. I was about to say ‘hell with it’ and run straight up the middle. Then out the corner of my eye came this beast of a linebacker. He crashed into me before I could even react to his presence. I was unconscious for a few seconds. Then when my eyes opened, I saw the blades for the first time. Vertical green lines separating me from the rest of the world. Keeping me from getting back on my feet. Keeping me away from my team. I knew I wasn’t going back in the game. I was done.”

“You were lying on your back,” Chris reported. “Your head was turned sideways. There really was grass in front of your eyes. You shouldn’t be surprised by that.”

“I see those blades every time my life takes a turn for the worst. Every time someone or something is keeping me from doing what I want to do, going where I want to go. When that linebacker hit me, it was the first time I really understood what defeat was. We could’ve been state champs. Instead, I sat out the last game. We lost and didn’t even make the playoffs.”

The other three politely allowed for a little silence before turning to more cheerful memories of their playing days. Ryan leaned back in his chair and listened to his old teammates tell their own stories. Each tale helped him to remember his greatness and forget the jealous arrogant youths he had encountered this evening. It was like he had just returned home after a long trip to a strange hostile land.

All afternoon, Ryan had been watching videos of their last season playing together. It got him so fired up, he just had to go and watch some football. That was why he went to the game. But the way Ryan figured it, those boys he saw tonight weren’t worthy of wearing the uniform. Bobby was a second string fullback when he played but could probably start for this year’s team. Chris was a wide receiver that could find a way to get open even if there’s double coverage on him. And just imagining McNicholls and number fifty-three going up against big old Larry was enough to make him laugh.

“What do you think of this year’s team?” Ryan asked the group after not saying anything for about ten minutes.

“I don’t know anything about them,” answered Larry. “First game was tonight. Anyone know how they did?”

“They won,” Ryan muttered into his beer can.

“Good for them,” Chris said enthusiastically.

“Against Hamilton. By two.”

Bobby whistled. “Hamilton must’ve gotten a lot better.”

“No, they still suck.”

“Did you see the game?”

“Yeah, I was there.”

“Was it a good game?”

“It was pathetic. That quarterback looks lost out there. Running back and forth. Sliding. Waiting all day to throw. Throwing to guys that aren’t open.”

“It’s only the first game,” said Larry. “It’ll take the kid some time to learn how to run an offense.”

“Not with his attitude. That boy’s a cocky little prick that won’t listen to anyone.”

“You know him?” asked Chris.

“I talked to him after the game at the kegger.”

The room fell silent.

“When you say ‘kegger’,” checked Bobby. “You mean a high school keg party.”

Ryan nodded. “Tried giving the boy some advice and he got all offended. He even tried starting a fight with me.”

“Kegs are for kids,” said Larry.

“Besides, no football player wants to hear criticism right after the game,” added Bobby.

“Ty Lewis used to do it all the time,” said Ryan. “Came to the party and told me what I was screwing up on.”

“That was one time,” Chris corrected.

“And that was the year after he left high school,” said Larry. “Once you’re old enough to drink in a bar it’s kind of silly to be drinking with high schoolers.”

“If you want to drink and talk football on Friday nights,” Bobby offered. “Come here and do it. You’re more than welcome.”

Larry and Chris nodded in agreement.

“We’ll help you find a new job too,” assured Larry.

“I’m not looking for a job,” said Ryan.

“Oh?”

“Everything that’s happened to me lately. The arrest. Losing my job. Getting into it with the new quarterback. It’s all happened for a reason. It’s made me realize that I’m wasting my life. I’m not doing what I really want to do.”

“What is it you really want to do?”

Ryan slapped his thighs and jumped to his feet before proudly announcing, “I’m going to Michigan!”

No one responded right away. Chris rubbed his forehead in frustration. Larry looked down at his beer can.

Bobby broke the silence with, “What are you going to Michigan for?” He was already quite sure of what the answer would be but asked in the hope that it would be something else.

“To play football,” Ryan answered.

Again everyone was silent. They all thought this nonsense had stopped a long time ago.

“Good luck,” Larry muttered without taking his eyes off his beer.

Ryan was expecting a more favorable reaction. Nevertheless, he was glad his plan was out in the open. The details were starting to come together in his head and he was about ready to share them with the others when someone interrupted those thoughts.

“You’re not going to Michigan,” said Chris coldly.

Everyone looked over at Chris without saying anything.

“We all exaggerate a little,” he continued. “Especially when we talk about the old days on the field. But Ryan, you’ve gone too far.”

“I think it’s time for another change of topic,” said Bobby, hoping to avoid an unpleasant change in the atmosphere.

“No, we’re going to talk about this,” Chris demanded. “This has gone on for too long. Somebody has to tell him. It’s not healthy.”

“Tell me what?” asked Ryan. He was disturbed but not surprised by Chris’s hostility. Ryan had always sensed some jealousy from him and he knew why.

“For one thing, it wasn’t a twenty-eight yard bullet you threw to me. It was a seven-yarder that almost went out of bounds. I had to tiptoe to stay in bounds while reaching for it. And you didn’t throw for two hundred yards. Not in that game or ever. You had a hundred forty yards, which was your season high.”

“What are you my personal statistician?”

Larry and Bobby laughed nervously.

Chris proceeded. “And there was no way we were ever going to win a state title.”

“We’ll never know. I missed the last game.”

“We were already out of contention by that time. We had five wins and four losses.”

“Injuries and blown calls cost us those games.”

“Tri-Valley beat us twenty eight to nothing. Doran beat us thirty-seven to fourteen. Scores like that are a little too lopsided to be blamed on a few bad calls. And as far as injuries…” Chris held up his hands and looked around the room as if to make sure there weren’t any objections. “…nothing more than what every other team goes through.”

Ryan looked over at Larry and asked casually, “What do top prospects run the forty in?”

Larry answered like he was being quizzed and hadn’t caught a word of what had been going around the room for the last couple minutes. “Four point five is an outstanding time for a running back or a DB. For any other position, anything under five is good.”

“What about bench press?”

“Three-fifty for a lineman. Three hundred for anyone else.”

“Please don’t encourage him,” Chris pleaded.

“Just giving the facts. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

While stroking the hair on his chin, Ryan considered the numbers he was just given. “Last time I checked, I could put up about three hundred…”

“You could never bench three hundred pounds,” Chris disagreed.

“Never timed myself in the forty but I’m sure it’s somewhere under five seconds.”

“Are you serious? Look at that belly you’ve got!”

“I can lose it anytime I want.”

“Listen to that heavy breathing. I doubt you can run forty yards without stopping to catch your breath.”

“I just need to get back in shape. Few weeks of working out and I’ll be back to my old form.”

“You drink too much to ever get back into shape.”

“I drank like an animal in the old days and still played like a champion every Friday night.”

“That was sixteen years ago!”

The words hung in the air for a moment. The mention of how much time had passed since high school upset Ryan. He knew he had been waiting around too long before going to Michigan but didn’t like being reminded of how long it had been.

“You know Ryan,” said Bobby matter-of-factly. “If you want to involve yourself with the game again, you ought to consider coaching.”

“There you go,” Chris agreed, glad that someone else was joining the conversation. “Lots of guys get started in coaching at our age, especially ex-quarterbacks.”

“I could help you put together a good offensive scheme,” Larry offered.

Ryan pursed his lips together while he thought about this suggestion. “You’re right. I’ll go down to the school tomorrow. Tell them I don’t like what I’m seeing out there. Have them give me Coach Morris’s job.”

“That’s not what we meant,” said Chris.

“I can show those boys how to play the game right. Relearn the offense and work out with the players. That’ll help me get ready for Michigan next year.”

“They’re not going to fire Coach Morris,” argued Larry. “They’re coming off a winning season.”

“And just won the first game of the season,” added Chris.

“But I’m a legend at that school,” said Ryan.

“You’re not a legend.”

“I must be pretty good if a big name school like Michigan wants me to play for them. I’ll take their word over yours any day.”

Chris exhaled slowly. “Now here comes the biggest delusion of all.” His voice was much quieter now. He was tired of arguing and wished he could just call it a night. But not before everything that needed to be said was said.

“I remember when you got that letter,” Chris continued. “You were so excited. You showed it to all of us. It was from a little division-three school in northern Michigan. They said they wanted you to come to their school –by paying your own tuition –and perhaps joining their football team as well.”

“About a year later,” added Larry. “You told us it wasn’t just a college but a university in Michigan.”

“Then it became The University of Michigan,” mentioned Bobby.

“And then it wasn’t only a letter but a scholarship offer from U of M,” Chris finished.

Larry and Bobby had taken Chris’s side. For Ryan, this was worse than when he was told to leave the kegger, seeing the faces of all those people who were against him. It was bad enough to get that from a bunch of teenagers but these guys were supposed to be his friends. He felt like getting in his car and kicking up some gravel again. But this time he was determined not to give in to the pressure of the crowd. He was going right after the source of the conflict.

“You’re jealous,” Ryan accused Chris.

Chris shook his head sadly. “I’m not jealous. Never was. Every time I try to bring you to reality you call me jealous because it’s easier for you to believe that than the truth.”

“You were the baseball star and I was the football star. I was getting more attention because our school was a football school. You couldn’t stand that so you joined the football team. Only you were too small and too slow to make it on the gridiron so you were never anything more than a mediocre player. And all that time you spent trying to outshine me in the fall took away from your batting practice time. You never went pro in anything and you’ve blamed me for it ever since.”

“I went out for football because I thought it would be fun. And it was. We all had a good time. We all contributed to a winning team and felt good about ourselves.”

“I led that team,” said Ryan tensely as he pointed a finger at himself and then to Chris. “You hardly did anything to make that machine work.”

“I was second team all-conference. Just like you.”

“That’s because of that one catch you made that I threw to you.”

“They don’t make those selections based on a single play. They go by seasonal stats. According to the conference, you and I were equals.”

“You both had me beat,” said Bobby, awkwardly trying to break the tension. “I couldn’t even get an honorable mention.” It didn’t work but it made them pause for a moment.

“I’m going to Michigan…” said Ryan stubbornly.

“Please stop saying that,” begged Chris.

“…like I should’ve done right after high school.”

“I wish you had gone to that school in Michigan.” Chris was on the attack now. He spoke with authority and gave Ryan a fighting man’s stare. For years, he had wanted to tell Ryan what was on his mind and he wasn’t holding back now.

“You could’ve played the game for another four years,” he said. At the same time you could’ve earned a degree and landed a decent job after graduation. I told you right after you got that letter that you should go.

“But you didn’t go. You were too scared to start out at the bottom again in a place where nobody knew you. You tried to be a high school quarterback for life. You kept hanging out with the players, going to kegs, hitting on high school girls. Only to find out  three years after graduation no one cares if you played football in high school.

“And because you haven’t accomplished anything since then, you’ve built up your past so much that exaggeration isn’t a strong enough word. If you’re trying to change your past by lying about it, it’s not working. Because the only one who’s believing those lies…is you.”

Larry and Bobby were no longer looking down or away. They were staring directly at Ryan, in obvious agreement with everything Chris had just said.

Those kids at the party looked at me exactly the same way. They think they’re better than me. They’re jealous. I was the quarterback. I am the quarterback. I’m going to Michigan. Nobody’s stopping me -”

Then without any warning, Ryan sprang from his chair and charged at Chris. He landed on him with all his weight and immediately reached for the throat.

Chris, smaller but in much better shape than his attacker, quickly turned the tables. He moved his hips out, threw on a headlock, and cranked it downward as hard as he could. Soon, Ryan was on the bottom, gasping for air.

The hold wasn’t tight enough, however, because Ryan was coming close to breaking free. For that reason, Larry decided to intervene. In one motion, he pushed Chris aside and belly flopped onto Ryan with his two hundred fifty-pound body. Bobby wasted no time in snatching the car keys from Ryan’s pocket.

When Larry first landed on him, there was a brief moment when Ryan had a chance to escape. He fought as hard as he could to get away but once Larry’s entire body was positioned over his, they appeared. Those green vertical lines were like a jungle that couldn’t be crossed. Though he could see his old team mates right in front of him, there was no hope of putting a finger on them as long as those blades were in his path. He gave up his struggle and lay on the sofa like a dead man.

Chris put on his glasses, which had fallen off during the scuffle, and went into the kitchen to cool off. Larry got up carefully, making sure Ryan had really given up before setting him free. Once Larry was a few steps back, the old quarterback stood up slowly and silently.

“I guess I’ll go home now,” said Ryan, just above a whisper. He searched his pockets.

“I’ve got your keys,” Bobby informed him. “You’re in no shape to drive. It’s just a fifteen minute walk to your house. Come back here tomorrow around noon. We’ll have lunch together and then you can drive home.”

Ryan walked out of the house without saying a word. The others stood still and watched the door close behind him.

“And we thought politics was a dangerous topic,” said Larry.

 

With his head hanging down, Ryan walked down the driveway and onto the street toward town.

Was Chris right? He wondered. Or was he such a convincing speaker that he was able to make the other guys believe what he said? I was great in high school. I know I was. I think about those days all the time. I can still do it now. Can’t I?

Up ahead was the sign welcoming drivers to the town. Ryan guessed it was about forty yards away. If he could make it there in less than five seconds, he could play college football.

From a three-point stance, he propelled himself forward, counting the seconds in his head. At about the four second mark, he slipped on the pavement and landed on his belly.

Determined to get up and attempt it again, he quickly got back to his feet. And when he did, all the liquor he had consumed in the last four hours shot upward from his stomach. It came out in four heaves, each one smaller in volume but greater in pain than the last. When it was all done, he sat down on the road to take a rest.

That was forty yards. He told himself.

But when he checked his distance from the sign and remembering the second count in his head, he had to tell himself the truth.

It wasn’t forty yards. I can’t do it.

What normally would’ve been a fifteen minute walk took him almost thirty. Several times he nearly fell down. He swerved from one side of the road to the other the whole way. Luckily, no one drove on this particular road at this time of night.

Still two blocks from his home, he stopped at a liquor store. It was around midnight and the shop was about ready to close. There was just enough money in his pocket to get another bottle of rum.

Behind the counter was a short skinny middle-aged black man who was preparing to close up the store. He put the closing on hold when his last minute customer arrived.

Ryan walked zombie-like to the middle aisle and grabbed his bottle. Seven hours earlier, he had bought the same brand in the same small size so he could sneak it into the game, where alcohol was prohibited. Now, after getting kicked out of a party, getting in a fight with one of his old friends, and vomiting all over the road, he wished he had just bought the more economical large size and stayed home.

“Ryan Lockhart,” the clerk identified as Ryan arrived at the counter.

Always proud to be recognized, Ryan straightened up and made eye contact. “How do you know my name?”

“I saw the back of your jersey.”

“Oh.”

“And I remember seeing your name on the sports page every week. Long time ago. You were the quarterback, weren’t you?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Well, Mr. quarterback, technically I shouldn’t sell you this cause it’s after midnight now and we’re supposed to be closed. But you look like you’ve been through hell tonight so I’ll make an exception.”

Ryan thanked him inaudibly and put his money on the counter. The clerk put the bottle in a bag and made change.

“Did you go to the game tonight?” asked the clerk.

“Yeah, I went.”

“I heard on the radio they won a nail-biter. That must’ve been exciting. How do they look this year?”

“They’re…alright. I guess.”

“You know, seeing you in that old jersey sure does bring back some memories. I wish they’d never gotten rid of that old design. Sure the new style looks more unique but so many great players wore that old jersey. I wore one myself.”

“Were you a quarterback?”

The clerk gave him a sarcastically puzzled look. “Do I look like a quarterback? No, I was a running back. Three year starter from eighty-eight to ninety.”

Ryan’s eyes grew wide as recognition set in. “Alvin Robinson. Paulson’s all-time leading rusher. Fourteen-hundred yards your senior year.”

“We went to state semis that year.”

“You had over a hundred yards in that semifinal game.”

“I also fumbled twice but thank you for not mentioning it.”

“I was in sixth grade that year. I used to watch you play.”

“It’s nice to be remembered.”

“So what happened to you? Why didn’t you go on to play at the next level?”

Alvin rested his forearms on the counter, now in no hurry to close up. “Ah, I would’ve liked to play ball in college. But my grades were low and I didn’t have the motivation to study any harder. Besides, I had big dreams outside of football –just didn’t know what they were yet. So I took a job at Rhen Tech. I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do right away so I stayed there a little longer. Then a little longer. Then after twenty years, three wives, and two kids, the plant closed on me. After that, I took the first job that came along –this one.”

Ryan nodded sympathetically. “I just lost my job too.”

“What’s your story?”

“I could’ve gone to ...college.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Ryan shook his head. “I guess like you I was waiting for some opportunity to come along.”

“And it never did.”

Ryan’s face showed regret.

Alvin laughed. “Look at us here. A running back and a quarterback. We used to be stars in high school. Now I look more like a water boy and you look like a lineman.”

No one had ever told him he looked like a lineman before so the comment caught him by surprise. But then he saw his reflection in the glass. The man he saw there was not the same one who played for Paulson High sixteen years ago. He was round. He was big. He was a lineman.

“I’m a lineman,” stated Ryan.

“You’ve got the right shape for it,” said Alvin as he counted the last of the money in the register.

“I’m a lineman.” This time a little louder with a madman’s smile forming across his face.

“Say it loud. Say it proud.”

Now he was shouting, “I’m a lineman!”

“Not that loud.”

“I’M A LINEMAN! I’M GOING TO MICHIGAN!”

In a hurry to close the store now, Alvin started killing the lights. “Go anywhere you want. Just don’t stay here.”

Putting his arms up in a lineman’s blocking position, Ryan charged through the door.

 

When the door closed behind him, all the players turned their heads. They were big guys, aged eighteen to twenty-two, wearing dark blue workout clothes. Some lifted dumbbells, others barbells. But for now, everyone stopped.

“I’m a lineman!” announced Ryan.

An older man stood in the middle of the weight room, arms folded with a whistle around his neck.

“We’ll see about that,” he said and motioned toward a vacant bench.

As Ryan took a seat, three of the biggest men in the room began loading the bar with weights. When they were done, there was over four hundred pounds on the bar.

Ryan lay down, took a deep breath, and lifted the bar up. Then he lowered it until it made contact with his chest and raised it all the way up again. And just in case anyone blinked too hard and missed it the first time, he did one more repetition.

“Get this boy some pads and a helmet,” the man with the whistle ordered his assistant. “Let’s see if he hits as well as he lifts.”

Tasked with blocking an all-American linebacker, Ryan got into his stance and stared at the target in front of him. On the second ‘hut’, he ran forward with lightning speed. The linebacker fell backward so hard it knocked down him and the safety standing behind him like a pair of dominoes.

It was opening game and Michigan Stadium was packed with over a hundred thousand fans. Suited in his maize and blue uniform, Ryan prepared to run through the tunnel onto the field. Though he couldn’t see the end of the dark tunnel, he could hear the cheering in anticipation. As he moved closer to the field, it grew louder and louder.

When the branches hanging from the old trees were no longer blocking the light, he was able to see them all. It had been over a year since he last came to this place. Everyone from Paulson High was there to welcome back their most famous alumni as he made his way up the driveway in his new sports car.

After stopping his car, he got out and downed the last of his rum. He threw the bottle into the crowd and watched them all fight over the souvenir.

The first to greet him was the blonde girl. She was fully developed now and wearing a varsity volleyball t-shirt. She grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let go of it the rest of the night.

“People don’t believe me when I tell them Ryan Lockhart tried to touch me at a party last year,” she told him.

“Are you going to let him touch you this year?” asked Ryan.

She laughed playfully. “If he’s a college football player, he can do whatever he wants to me.”

The blonde led Ryan to the keg where she poured a beer for him. The receiver of Ryan’s empty rum bottle was standing next in line, waiting to fill it up with beer and drink it for good luck. It would be the newest Paulson kegger tradition.

The same truck was parked in the same place with the tailgate down. QB’s girlfriend had her arms around the new QB. McKenzie and number fifty-three were standing nearby, both of them much bigger than they were last year.

“Good game tonight,” said Ryan.

“Thanks Mr. Lockhart,” said the star struck QB. “What brings you here?”

“We have a bye week this weekend so I thought I’d come down and see the old high school team.”

“We’ve been rooting for Michigan all season,” said McKenzie. “Do you think you’ll get to play for the national championship?”

“I’m not thinking about that now. I’m just worrying about one team at a time.” Ryan turned his eyes to QB’s girlfriend. “Nice to see you again. I see you’ve found someone new. What happened to that other quarterback?”

“He was a loser,” she said disgustedly. “I dumped him right after the last time you saw me with him.”

“He got dumped as quarterback too,” mentioned new QB. “About mid-season last year, Coach Winters had had enough, benched him for the rest of the season.”

Ryan frowned. “Have I seen you before?”

QB nodded, a little embarrassed. “We’ve met before. Sort of got off on the wrong foot.”

“That was you!”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. I definitely wouldn’t want to do it now. You’re huge! How did you get so big in one year?”

Ryan glanced at McKenzie and number 53. “Tell them how we do it boys.”

The chant began. “EAT-LIFT-EAT-LIFT-EAT-LIFT-” Before long, everyone in a football jersey had joined in.

 “Well, I’d love to stay and talk football some more,” said Ryan as soon as the chanting wore down. “But right now, I’ve got something important to take care of.”

The blonde’s foot had somehow gotten stuck in a hole so Ryan had to lift her up out of the ground before throwing her onto his shoulders. The front door of the house was already open so he walked right in.

On the living room floor, he unloaded the weight from his shoulders, slamming it down so it shook the entire house.

“Brought a case of beer for you guys,” said Ryan.

Larry and Bobby got up off the sofa to shake hands with their old teammate.

“Great to see you,” said Larry.

“The wolverine himself,” said Bobby.

“Shouldn’t you be in Pasadena?” asked Larry as he and the others took their seats.

“We leave tomorrow,” replied Ryan.

“It’s a shame you didn’t make it to the national title game.”

“There’s always next year. Where’s Chris?”

“Probably at the batting cage,” answered Bobby.

“Batting cage?”

“Yeah, ever since you became a star lineman at Michigan, he’s figured he still has a chance at going pro.”

Ryan smiled. “I’m glad I could inspire him. His tough talk last year led me to realizing I wasn’t a quarterback anymore. You all helped me realize that.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out three tickets. “That’s why I got these for you.”

The two men accepted their gifts. “Rose Bowl tickets!” they exclaimed simultaneously.

“Give the other one to Chris when you see him. And tell him when he plays in the World Series to get me a ticket behind home plate.”

“All three of us will be there rooting for you,” promised Bobby.

“I know you will. Anyway, got to get going now. Flight leaves in the morning.”

“Wait. On your way out of here, could you do me a favor?”

“What is it?”

“Plow through my front door just like you do through those defensive lines.”

Never one to shy away from a request, Ryan got into his stance, paused for a moment, then bolted toward the door, knocking it completely off its hinges.

He fell on top of the screen door in the entrance of his house. It was the last in his path of destruction that had started from the liquor store. A couple lawn ornaments were knocked down, one on top of the other. A rum bottle was shattered in the middle of the street. A mailbox had been pulled out of the ground and slammed down in the neighboring yard.

His house consisted of three rooms occupying less than three hundred square feet. The floor was made of old creaky boards that hadn’t been swept in ages. A stench that combined alcohol, body odor, and old food filled the rooms.

Everything from his closet he threw onto the bed. The weights were all the way in the back. He had bought some used weights years ago but had hardly touched them since then.

One by one, he rolled them out to the living room. He started with the forty-five pound plates. Next he rolled out the thirty-five pounders, followed by the twenty-fives and tens. Then he threw the dumbbells quarterback-style at the living room wall. The last one missed and hit the TV screen.

“That’s alright,” he said aloud as he walked into the living room. He gave the coffee table a hard kick, sending it into the kitchen. His weight bench, which had been used primarily as a chair, was drug out to the center of the room.

“No time for TV,” he told himself as he opened the refrigerator. “From now on, I’m only doing two things.” He took out a half-eaten hamburger, threw the buns on the floor, and shoved the beef patty into his mouth.

With a stuffed mouth and a weight in his hand, he started lifting, chewing, and chanting. “EAT-LIFT-EAT-LIFT-“

This was what he needed to do. Eat nothing but protein. Spend all day lifting weights. Become bigger and stronger than anyone alive.

Tomorrow, he would to tell his father about his plans. After borrowing some more money, he would go buy a jug of weight-gainer. With a little asking around, he could possibly score some steroids as well.

When the burger was eaten, he dropped the dumbbells on the floor and went back to the fridge. There was no meat left in there so he looked in the freezer and found a package of frozen bacon. He attempted to eat a slab but soon became so frustrated trying to chew the icy meat that he threw it across the room.

The barbell, which had been standing up in the closet getting rusted, was on the bench now being loaded with weights. A pair each of forty-fives, thirty-fives, twenty-fives, tens, and fives plus a forty-five pound bar added up to two hundred eighty-five pounds. Four hundred was his goal so he would need another set. For now, this would have to do.

Ryan positioned himself on the bench and gripped the bar. At first, his breathing was deep and slow. Then it changed to quick shallow breaths. When he felt he was ready, he pushed upward. The bar didn’t move.

Again he tried, this time raising a shoulder blade to try and lift up one side at a time. Still, he was unsuccessful.

Discouraged by his failure, he got up and stormed around the house. Tears started welling up in his eyes. He desperately wanted a drink but there wasn’t any left. The house was a pig sty. The belly he carried around was much bigger than he had ever realized. He couldn’t believe what his life had become and how long it had taken him to realize it.

The faces and voices he had encountered throughout the evening came to his mind. Getting rejected by the girl, pushed by the quarterback, pinned down by Chris and then by Larry, insulted by everyone. He had to fight back. He had to get this bar up and show them all he wasn’t finished.

“You won’t beat me!” he declared.

Back on the bench, he closed his eyes and concentrated. Last time he was mentally unprepared for the heaviness of the weight. This time he wouldn’t be caught off guard.

With a push that required more strength than he knew he had, he lifted the bar up slightly. When the progress stopped, he reached down inside of himself and found some additional strength to keep the bar moving.

The bar rose steadily until his elbows were locked. For a moment, he enjoyed his small triumph. All he had to do now was lower it to his chest and bring it up one more time.

But when his eyes opened, his confidence disappeared. He tried as hard as he could to renew the determination that had enabled him to lift the bar up.

“I’M A LINEMAN!” he shouted defiantly.

But it was too late. They were filling up the room, thousands of them. He knew he was beaten. 


© Copyright 2020 Tino Myren. All rights reserved.

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