Monday, September 10, 2007

Muscle Memory (Part 4 of 4)

The first play is crucial, Coach says. The first play is where you decide who is a man and who is a boy. At the first snap of the ball, I must hit seventy-one as hard as I have ever hit anything. I must put the top of my helmet in his facemask. He must see nothing but my head coming at him like a blue missile, and hear nothing but the explosion of plastic shells meeting. I must make him afraid. This is called “putting paint on him.”

When the huddle breaks, I see seventy-one on his knees in front of the ball. I have never seen him from the ground. I only know him as a small body in red, captured from a distance by a wobbling camera. Face-to-face, he is as big as I am, maybe bigger. His uniform strains to hold him. I am not afraid. He is a fat boy. Quick feet will always beat a fat boy, Dad says. Short, choppy steps.

I crouch over the ball, wrapping my black gloves around it. Seventy-one has a foot back. I picture the path his helmet will take when he tries to go past me. I imagine the first step I must take to make my helmet meet his. I do not have quick feet, but I am smart. I know where fat boy seventy-one is going.

The count is called.

I snap the ball.

Seventy-one goes where I knew he would. Our heads bang together. The crash echoes in my ears. My neck flexes back. The edge of my helmet presses into my collar. I bite hard on my mouthpiece, feeling my teeth touch through the thick rubber. My vision goes yellow and white, but my feet keep moving, keep driving. For an instant, he wobbles, giving up one step. I want him to fall, but he does not. No one will ever see that one step I fought for. No one will know that I won the battle. The whistle blows.

As I get in my stance for the next play, I see a streak of blue on seventy-one’s facemask, a scrape from the top of my helmet. I imagine my own mask without a trace of red. I put paint on him. I am the man, he is the boy.

His foot is dropped again. I may be slow, but he is stupid. I picture his first step and plan my own. This time, fat boy, I will knock you down.
The count is called.

I snap the ball.

His hand rises. He is going to swat me. I brace my neck against the foam collar and drive towards his numbers, waiting for the slap on my helmet, imagining the hard ground under our bodies when I knock him down, the humiliation in his eyes when the whistle finally blows and I help him up like a gentleman.

The swat never lands. His hand goes under my mask, pulling at my chinstrap, scratching at my cheeks, gouging my eyes. I see nothing but his thick fingers, his hand inside my mask. My chinstrap breaks loose. My cage shakes and turns. The world outside my helmet rocks. I keep driving. My shoulder lands hard between the seven and the one. He topples back, pulling at my mask, taking me over with him.

I straddle his fallen body. My helmet, unstrapped by my enemy, comes off easily in my hands. My exposed face burns with sweat in the tracks left by his fingernails. I grip my mask with black-wrapped fingers, swinging my helmet over my head, bringing it down again and again on the enemy’s fat masked face. The helmets crack like rifle shots, echoing off the concrete stadium walls. Each impact leaves a dark, satisfying streak of blue paint.

I see his eyes and they are afraid.

I do not hear the whistle blow.

Muscle Memory (Part 3 of 4)

We cross the plywood bridge over the track. The boards flex and rattle like wooden drums under the weight of the team. With the first sinking step off the bridge, my cleats drive through the grass into the wet dirt. Each step sticks in the moist sod as I run to the opposite end zone for the pregame pep talk. The gold jerseys and blue numbers of my team keep passing. Their helmets are covered in the small adhesive tomahawks that Braves earn for tackles, yards gained, or touchdowns. Each player, as trained, drops to one knee when he reaches the end zone. I am the last to arrive, struggling with a body that I want to grow into.

I have two tomahawks. If a running back gains over one-hundred yards in a game, each offensive lineman gets a tomahawk. I am too slow to play defensive line and make tackles, so I am only the center. Centers do not make tackles, gain yards, or score touchdowns. I cannot earn a tomahawk that is only mine.

Dad has moved from the end zone to the sideline, walking up and down like he belongs, wrapped in his blue and gold warmups, talking with the chain gang and the referees. I know that in the patch of visiting Brave fans that have collected while we were in the locker room, my mother is passing out egg salad sandwiches and my grandfather is polishing the lenses of his binoculars.

Coach hikes his nylon shorts up under his paunch and slides the Sterling Football Staff hat off his greasy comb-over. “Tonight, gentlemen, is going to be a test. On the field, you’re going to have a tough game. Off the field, you are going to have to show your very best sportsmanship. The home fans sit right behind our bench, not theirs. They’re going to have some things to say to you. You are to be gentlemen at all times. When you come off the field, leave your helmet on, face the game, and ignore everything behind you. You are representing Sterling High School, and, goddammit, you are going to behave yourselves. If those people piss you off, use it on the field. Get pissed out there. Use it to beat their team. Got it?”

There is a rumble of agreement. I nod.

“Okay, hats off, moment of silence.”

The sound of snaps breaking loose is like bugs chirping in the grass. I pull my helmet off and lean heavily on it. Head down, eyes closed, I picture the perfect hit. I see it from above, fifty-four versus seventy-one, two small bodies on a game film, a slow-motion replay. Seventy-one comes out of his stance too high, and my shoulder is in his stomach before he can put his hands on my pads. I take short, choppy steps, the same steps that knocked Dad over every time. The force of my legs churning, cleats digging sod, drives seventy-one backwards. He catches a heel. His weight shifts, body rotating around his hips (because if you control the center of gravity, you control the enemy, Dad says), and I drive his back into the dirt, hearing the wind knocked from his lungs on impact. In my mind, I am an angry machine. I hate seventy-one. My mask tears at the grass, my legs driving, keeping the enemy on his back, humiliating seventy-one until the whistle blows.

“Amen. Let’s play,” Coach says.

I look up. Dad is walking backwards across the track on his way to the bleachers. He catches my glance, smiles, gives a double thumbs-up, and turns his back on the field.

Muscle Memory (Part 2 of 4)

We jostle down the narrow aisle, struggling with our equipment. When I reach the door of the bus, the dirty air of LaSalle-Peru’s factories fills my lungs. The team wanders around the gravel lot, lost outside the bus. Dad’s car sits empty across the street in the visitor lot. Dad, always early, squats in the far end zone, a small body in blue and gold staring at the field over the orange corner pylon.
Coach gets us moving. “Let’s go, goddammit! Ten minutes! Don’t stand around like a bunch of baby robins, all mouth and asshole!” His whistle chirps. Under his breath, whistle still in his teeth, he mutters “God, I hate this place.” We jog toward the north end of the field, where a tall digital scoreboard announces that we are in the “Home of the Lasalle-Peru Cavaliers.”

Lasalle and Peru are two different towns. If we could play them separately, the game would be an easy win. But Lasalle-Peru High School, the combination of the two, always gives us a good battle. We are only one town, Sterling, Illinois, home of the Sterling Golden Warriors, but we are not the Warriors. The Warriors are the varsity, who will arrive on another bus for a later game. We are the Braves. We will become Warriors someday. Coach, who teaches government during the day, was a Warrior in 1951. Dad was a Warrior in 1965, fifty-four just like me, starting middle linebacker, led the team in tackles, and has the yearbook to prove it. I will be a Warrior next year. Who would want to stay a Brave?

We are not facing the Cavaliers. Our opponents are the Incas. I don’t understand why an Inca would want to become a Cavalier. It doesn’t matter. Next year, I will still be fifty-four in gold, and I will still face seventy-one in red, Warrior or Brave, Cavalier or Inca.

Coach yells at our backs, “Keep off the track, goddammit! Don’t tear up their track! You’re guests in somebody else’s house!” I jog on the gravel shoulder, avoiding the cinder lanes. My cleats squirm on the hard surface. The rubber nubs are pressed back into my shoes by the gravel, jabbing my soles with each step. I tolerate the pain, trying to be a good guest. My teammates pass me in small groups, each with a matching equipment bag on his shoulder. I am too big and slow to run with them. They are talking and laughing quietly. I try to catch up, clutching my helmet in one hand and my pads in the other. They keep passing until there are none left. They have all disappeared into the locker room tunnel, and I am running alone.

The locker room stinks with the sweat of absent freshman Incas. I choose a section of the red bench, sit, and pull my Sterling Football sweatshirt over my head. Static jumps in front of my eyes. When the light reappears, I am sitting in my game pants and the grey cutoff t-shirt that keeps my skin from sticking to my shoulder pads. I feel the ragged, unhemmed edge against my stomach, proof that this is my game shirt, the shirt I cut myself, the shirt I have to wear under my pads during games. My game shirt is good luck. I have to wear it.

My elbow, forearm, and hand pads are collected in the shoulder pads resting at my feet. I pour them onto the concrete and reach into the gold mesh, crawling inside the giant torso. My jersey is gold, not yellow, because Sterling players are never yellow, Coach says. My head emerges from a rolled collar of foam. When I hit another player, the collar will keep my head from snapping back. It will keep my neck from breaking. When I lean back, the foam presses against the base of my skull, hard and reassuring. My armor will protect me in battle.

I pull the straps of my shoulder pads under my arms and buckle them to the front of the pads. The elastic digs into the rolled fat of my sides. When I draw up the laces, the plastic plates squeeze against my soft chest, forcing my body into another shape, flattening the top of my thick stomach. I tuck the jersey deep into my pants and snug up the webbed belt, because I am a football player, and football players cannot look like fat slobs, both Dad and Coach say.
When I have squeezed my arms through black elbow and forearm pads and forced my stubby fingers into black padded gloves, no skin is left exposed. Black makes me look tough, Dad says. He bought the pads for me because I am not very intimidating. I am big for my age, my doctor says, and I have great potential, Coach says, but I am lumped with baby rolls, a soft two-hundred pounds on bones that are still growing. I need to lift weights. I need to get strong. But when I pull the ear pads of my helmet over my protruding ears, when my soft face is behind the cage, when my chin is pressed up in a leather strap, and when my arms are wrapped in black, I feel intimidating. I feel gold, not yellow. Tonight, number seventy-one will see only hard black pads, a helmet, and eyes that are still trying to be angry.

Muscle Memory (part 1 of 4)

I want these pads to fit. I want the foam and plastic to be part of me, like a shell. The pads hide my soft fat. Dad says that I look good in pads, that I look like a man. The pads make me hard. They are my armor. The foam between my tailbone and the bus seat keeps me propped up and off-balance, leaning toward the window. I don’t mind. These are my pads. If I want to be a football player, I must learn to live in them.
The whine of the bus resonates through my Walkman, blocking out the voices of my teammates. My teammates did not change out of their school clothes. They are not in uniform as the bus rolls down Highway 30 towards Lasalle-Peru, not fidgeting in their armor. They sit alongside blue equipment bags stuffed with pads. When I was released from sixth period driver’s education, instead of walking to Casey’s with the team for pregame Twinkies, I went to the locker room and changed into my game pants. Coach says junk food is bad before a game. Dad says it will make me fatter.

I am wearing a Sterling Football sweatshirt and my game pants, trying to get used to the scratchy blue elastic and inner pockets full of padding. The rigid plates on my thighs dig into my waist. The foam paddles on my hips creep out of their pockets. My hands rest on the rounded foam cups over my knees. My school clothes and this weekend’s homework are in a duffel bag on the floor between my black cleats.

I am a football player, Dad says. Football players can sleep in these pads. Football players have to be hard inside, just like their pads are outside. Football players wear pads like armored skin. I cannot tell Dad that my skin is too tight, that the extra-large pants are still not large enough. I cannot tell Dad that my seams are going to split.

On the seat next to me, my oversized plastic shoulders sit empty, wrapped in gold polyester mesh, the number fifty-four in blue facing front. There is no name printed on the back, just another fifty-four, so that is who I am: fifty-four. On the open neck hole, my blue helmet sits with its grey wire mask facing me. In the empty space where my head belongs, the gears of my Walkman turn. Van Halen pounds in my ears.

Music makes me feel more intense. We need to be intense, Coach says. We need to prepare for battle. Coach doesn’t allow any chatter on the bus. Chatter isn’t intense. Coach says study playbooks, but I am the center, and my job is simple. There will be a padded body in red and white in front of me when I get into my stance. The body will be wearing number seventy-one. If the play is a run to the right, I must make number seventy-one move left. If the play is a run to the left, I must make him move right. If the play is a pass, I must keep seventy-one in front of me until the whistle blows. No matter what the play, he will try to get the ball. I must stop him.

I have watched seventy-one on videotape. I know seventy-one’s patterns. I know that if he is going to try to go past me to my left, he drops his left foot back. If he is going right, his feet are straight. I know he likes the swat-and-swim, usually to my left. He will smack me on the side of my helmet with his right hand and swing his left arm over my shoulder when I flinch, swimming past me.

I know how to beat seventy-one’s swat-and-swim. Dad and I spent the week practicing in the back yard. When I get swatted, I must drop my head and drive my left shoulder between his numbers. I cannot flinch. I must drive in against the swat and ignore the instinct to duck. I must do exactly what my body doesn’t want to do. “That’s what helmets are for,” Dad said, as he rapped mine on the earhole with his knuckles, making a racket inside my plastic shell. When I tried to duck, he claimed I had a hundred-dollar helmet on a five-cent head. When I finally learned not to recoil from his swat, I knocked him over mid-swim. He rolled in the grass, wheezing. When he could speak again, he said “Nice hit, but not angry enough. Let’s do it some more.” I knocked him down again. I knocked him down until it was routine. He said he wanted me to be an angry machine. He wanted me to hate him. “The game is about hate,” he said. I kept knocking him down, trying to remember how it felt, trying to be angry enough. I knocked him down until it got dark and Mom made us stop.
The bus whine gets louder as we pull in alongside the stadium. I reach into my helmet to turn off the music, pull my headphones off, unzip the duffel bag, and drop the Walkman on top of my clothes. Even the mumbling that Coach allows during bus rides (because it is technically not chatter) has stopped. From his seat behind the driver, Coach rises and turns as the bus grinds to a stop. “Okay, you hamburgers. The tunnel to the visitors locker room is at the end of the field, under the scoreboard. I want everybody changed and on the field in ten minutes for pregame. Hustle up.”

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Since I've been heavy on "cycle" and light on "scribe" lately, I'm going to try to post some fiction. Apologies if this doesn't translate it well to blogging... it was originally intended for dead trees. How 20th century!

The next post (or two, or three) will be my short story Muscle Memory. This was a huge hit when it debuted in a graduate fiction workshop... yet no one wants to publish it. So (muttering to myself about the value of a graduate degree in creative writing all the while) I give you Muscle Memory.

(Required fiction disclaimer: Though your author did in fact put on pads for Sterling High School many years ago, these are characters, not people. Read accordingly.)

Obligatory Fleet Rundown 2: Workin' 9-2-5

What fleet would be complete without this year's hottest fashion accessory, the urban poseur fixed gear? Mine's a Redline 925, its silly moustache bars swapped for even sillier bullhorns and its rear brake/freewheel removed.

Let's be honest here... the sole purpose of this particular bicycle is to carry a pathetic, balding 34-year-old and his messenger bag of corporate casual attire to and from a gray cubicle, all the while letting him pretend to be a 20-something urban fixie punk. Nothing more to see, move along please! It's past the old man's bedtime anyway.

(This does, however, have the dubious distinction of being the only "racing" bike in my stable, since it carried me to an underwhelming "last of the fixies" finish in the '06 Des Moines "Cranksgiving" alleycat race. I'll let the reader decide if that makes it more or less sad.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Obligatory Fleet Rundown 1: Big Bruce

What cyclist's blog is complete without an exhaustive, bike by bike, part by part rundown of every wheeled thing cluttering the garage? In honor of this long-standing tradition, I present to you... Bike 1 of 4!

Underneath the logo-less exterior is a Bruce Gordon Rock 'n' Road, circa early '90s (mine since '02), now wearing its second coat of paint thanks to Cedar Falls, IA framebuilder Rich Powers. The build is kind of "nuovo-randonneur minus the handlebar bag" using modern parts, taking inspiration from the fine French steeds in
The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles by Jan Heine. (An aside: Do you own a bicycle and a coffee table? If the answer to both is yes, this book should be on the latter.)

Weirdness that makes it uniquely mine: A mountain triple crank with the inner ring left off for a 34/42 mini-double, the cyclocomputer mounted on the front fender with high-test Velcro (since the bar-end shifters on Paul's Thumbies take up a lot of handlebar space), and a homebrewed headlight mount on the left fork blade made from PVC and a threadless headset top cap.

Prior to the repaint, I used to pummel this poor beast on just about every surface imaginable: dirt, snow, gravel, daily commutes (and the resultant paint-trading in the bike rack at work), who cares? But now, it looks so damn good, I fear it's becoming a garage queen.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Inaugural LimpStrong Ride – Saturday, October 20

Okay, so it’s not really a ride per se, just me trying to chalk up my first century since (pauses, calculates, considers fudging the number in shame)… 1999. But since I’m notorious for letting myself weasel out of my own self-imposed goals (see also: coffee addiction, inability to eat sensible portions, Internet Surf Overload Disorder), I wanted to put this one out there for all three of my readers to see. Between that and a cutesy name, I figure I’m golden.

The event will commemorate six-plus months since I suffered a nasty femur fracture and had some pretty pricey titanium hardware installed. Hence, the LimpStrong Foundation for Femur Injury Awareness, a purely fictional organization devoted to proving that the femur-impaired can live normal lives and ride a bicycle 100 miles without sag support or helpful volunteers serving peanut butter sandwiches and Gatorade. That's right, folks, a solo, unsupported century. Heck, if I’m feeling particularly metric, I might tack on an extra 25 miles and call it a 200k!

Watch this space for LimpStrong training updates, and mock me if I don’t complete the ride. The threat of semi-public humiliation may be just what I need to get motivated.

(Disclaimer for Lance Armstrong’s lawyers: LimpStrong is a humorous parody which has no relation to the LiveStrong Foundation, intends to raise absolutely zero dollars, and should in no way be construed as an infringement on the LiveStrong trademark or all the wonderful work done by said foundation. Please find larger fish to fry and leave my silly little one-man goof to peter out all by itself. Note also that I can be bought… hook me up with the Chinese factory that cranks out those ubiquitous yellow rubber bands, have them make me just one titanium-colored “LimpStrong” bracelet – hold the lead paint, please – and that’s the last you’ll hear of this. Promise.)