Running Back

By Jeremy Griffin

I was with Nosh, cruising around town in the clunky brown pickup his older brother Chad had been forced to give up after his second DUI. The case of Pabst we’d bought off a couple of frat guys was in the middle of the floorboard, already half-empty. This was in early September, a Friday, close to midnight, and my guess was that right about then most of our graduating class was heading out to keg parties and sorority mixers at whichever schools they’d left town to attend. But not me and Nosh. A year earlier we’d been promising athletes, part of the Nix High Gators’ starting line, him a linebacker, me a running back, but now we were just another couple of washouts, prowling the quiet streets of Nix, Louisiana, like a pair of penned-up animals sniffing around for a way out.

In fact, I didn’t even realize we had drifted over to my mother’s side of town until we crested the hill at the intersection of Boman and Norman and Nosh pointed to the large white house on the corner and said, “Hey, look, there’s the dyke’s house.”

My first instinct was to knock his putty-colored teeth down his fat throat, because it was my mother he was talking about, she was “the dyke” to him. Except that Nosh—Clayton Noshinski—was at least twice my size, with a stout blocky build and arms as thick and powerful as elephant trunks, and I wouldn’t have put it past him to fracture my clavicle like he did that cornerback from Neville (practically lifted the kid off his feet like a father scooping up a child and then flung him into a gaggle of cheerleaders—cost us twenty yards). So instead I just snickered and stared ahead like it wasn’t even worth turning my head to look at the place. Which it wasn’t.

“Uh-huh.”

The house, just ahead on our right, was one of these huge white antebellum deals that the Historic District was known for. Positioned atop a small hill like some kind of ornament, it had a broad wraparound porch and a tiered walkway extending down to the sidewalk, where a pair of magnolia trees flanked the entrance. The place belonged to Valerie Davenport, a senior partner at the engineering firm where my mother worked as a secretary. She was a lanky woman with a weird taste for vintage blouses that made her look like a character in some old western. She’d been a friend of our family’s for over a decade. Once, in fifth grade, I’d interviewed her for a social studies project on bridges, came in second place. Mom had been living with her for almost a year now, ever since my parents’ divorce had been finalized. Actually, she’d also spent a couple weeks there back during the initial separation from my father, although everybody—including me and my two younger brothers—had just assumed it was a friendly gesture on Valerie’s part, offering up a place for Mom to crash until all the messy legal business had been sorted out. We didn’t think anything of it, the same way we hadn’t thought anything when Mom started accompanying Valerie on out-of-state engineering conventions a year earlier, although looking back this probably should have set off some alarms, because who the hell brings their secretary along on one of those things?

Then there was the evening that my parents had called us all into the living room and sat us down on the sofa and, with the tight-lipped gentility of funeral directors, explained to us that mom would be moving in with Valerie. This was four months into my senior year. “I’ll be right across town,” my mother had said as she wiped away tears. “Not even ten minutes away. I’ll see you all the time.”

For a few seconds no one said anything. The antique clock on the mantel ticked patiently. “You’re telling us you’re queer?” I said finally, more like a statement.

Mom looked pained. She studied the rug and smoothed back her long red hair. “I know it’s difficult to understand. I really do. But Val makes me very happy. And I—we, I mean, me and your dad just want us all to be happy. Does that make sense?”

“So, Dad doesn’t make you happy?” my brother Devon, 13, rebutted. He crossed his arms over the faded Misfits logo on his t-shirt.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Then how did you mean it?”

“People change, honey. That’s all. It’s no one’s fault.”

“This is bullshit,” I said.

“Language!” Dad cut in feebly, his first contribution to the conversation. He’d been staring vacantly at the wall behind us, the same ten-mile stare you see on soldiers returning from combat. Over the past few months he’d dropped a good twenty pounds and had started attending this divorced men’s prayer group at First Methodist; he was always going around quoting Proverbs.

“It is!” I continued. “She’s all like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m queer now, and I’m moving in with Val,’ and we’re just supposed to be like whatever?”

My brother Chris, 10, whimpered and then began to sob, his customary reaction to family turmoil. There had already been talk of having him see a child psychiatrist. “Are you mad at us?”

Mom cupped her hands against her chest. “Oh, sweetie, no no no! It’s not that at all.”

“Then how come you don’t want to live with us anymore?”

Her eyes flicked to Dad as if she was waiting for his input, but he was still staring slack-jawed at the wall, completely checked out. She leaned forward and put her hand on Chris’ knee, and her eyes welled up with fresh tears. “Baby,” she said softly, soothingly. “You’re still my boys. You’re still my angels.”

Now, as we approached the house, Nosh said, “Man, that place is nice.”

“I guess.”

“What do you think they’re doing in there?”

“Who cares?” I belched, tossing my empty beer can out the window. “Fuck her.”

“Dude! What if they’re, like, straight up sixty-nining right now? I mean, just full-on lezzing it?”

I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, not wanting to give him the pleasure of seeing my irritation. He was one of these guys who got off on pressing your buttons, seeing how far he could take a joke until he’d pissed you off, at which point he would laugh and tell you to quit being a baby, haha, he was just messing around. He had a ruddy, pitted complexion and a thick crust of acne across his forehead. I’m pretty sure that the only reason we had anything to do with each other was because everybody else had left town. He’d been the number two ranked linebacker in the state, already verbally committed to LSU, up until April when he’d been arrested for statutory rape. In his defense, the sex had been consensual, and the girl—Juliana Monroe, who sat in front of me in trig, forever swathed in the boner-inducing aroma of lavender body butter and cigarettes—would have been 18 in less than two weeks, but that didn’t stop LSU from retracting their scholarship offer. Ever since then, Nosh, who had been banking on a full ride since he was like eight, had been working as a cook at the Olive Garden. The inside of his truck reeked of parmesan.

The end of my athletic career had been far less dramatic: I’d slumped into Coach Bullock’s office on a Monday morning a few weeks after Mom had told us about her and Valerie, and I’d informed him I was quitting the team.

“Are you fucking with me?” he’d said, peering at me over the dusty computer monitor.

“No, sir.”

“Last game of the season’s in a week. You can’t just get through it? For your teammates?”

It wasn’t worth trying to explain how football had lost its relevance for me. School too, and college applications. Pretty much all the things that are supposed to matter when you’re seventeen.

“No, sir.”

He rubbed his eyes. “Is this cos of that shit with your mom? You’re really gonna fuck everybody else over because of that? Well bravo, Cantrell,” he said, clapping, these dense flat clacking sounds that seemed to fill the small cinderblock room. “Now get the hell out of my office.”

A single porch light was on at Valerie’s house, but otherwise the place was dark. Nosh pulled over to the curb. He folded his arms on top of the wheel.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“What?”

“Don’t park here.”

“Gosh, why not, Robbie?”

“I’m serious. We shouldn’t be here.”

He made a show of peering around outside. “There’s no street signs. We’re allowed to park here. Besides,” he said, reaching slowly into the case of Pabst, “I need another beer.” He popped the tab and took a long gulp, eying me the whole time. “Ahhhh!”

“Dude, I don’t want her to see us, okay?”

“What do you care? She’s your mom. Moms love it when their kids visit.”

“I’m not visiting.”

“Well, maybe you should.” He did this chop-chop thing with his finger, like he was scolding me. “Maybe you should pop in, be like, ‘What’s up, lesbians? Thanks for fucking all my shit up. How’s about a threeway?’”

I slugged him in the shoulder, not entirely joking. It was about like punching a redwood. “Shut up.”

He went on, “I mean, if it was my mom, I’d be pissed, you know? I’d want to get back at her.”

“Well, it’s not your mom.”

“And thank Christ for that,” he said under his breath.

The crazy thing was that he sort of had a point. We could have handled the divorce, me and Devon and Chris. We probably could have even handled her leaving Dad for someone else. But why did it have to be a woman? Maybe it’s true that you are who you are as soon as you’re born, and maybe it had just taken her a while to own up to that, and so it wasn’t her problem if other folks couldn’t deal with it. But she’d kept it to herself her entire life up until then, so why couldn’t she have kept it a little longer? For our sakes, just until I had gotten the hell out of town and my brothers were old enough to fend for themselves? Not long after everyone had figured out what was really going on with Mom and Valerie, I started getting text messages from numbers I didn’t recognize asking me if homo ran in my family. Yur dyke mom is going 2 burn, one of them said. Someone scratched “FAG” into Devon’s locker—there ended up being this big PTA meeting about it. And one night I returned home from cruising around with Nosh to find my father cleaning fresh egg off the front door. “Look what she’s doing to us!” I hollered. I was standing in the yard, swaying slightly, my arms outstretched like I was looking for a brawl. “It’s not fair!”

But Dad simply shook his head and waved me off the way he usually did whenever I complained about the situation with Mom. “It’s not her fault,” he muttered. “This is just people being ignorant.”

Deep down I knew he was right, but when you’re watching your willowy father wipe globs of yolk off your front door at 1 AM, you start looking for people to blame.

And so this was why I leapt out of the truck and scurried up the walkway, I guess, to remind her that the rest of us were still here, that finding happiness doesn’t mean that every other goddamn thing in your life just goes away.

“Atta boy!” Nosh yelled behind me.

At the top of the hill, I crouched behind the neatly trimmed shrubs running along the front of the porch. I peered around the corner toward the door and then, satisfied that the coast was clear, crept up the front steps. The wooden planks squeaked pleadingly as I moved toward the door, still not quite sure what I hoped to accomplish. I could recall feeling something similar back during JV games the first couple times that the ball found its way into my hands—this panicky sense that there were maybe a million different options here, any one of which could drastically alter the course of my life. But of course there aren’t a million options, and I don’t think there ever are. There’s just one: you catch the ball and run like hell.

So when I noticed the white wicker patio set in the corner where the porch angled around the side of the house, I knew what I had to do.

I crept over and peered around the side of the house. The set was two chairs and a small circular table with a glass top. I tried not to imagine Mom and Val sitting there in the early evenings, cocktails in hand, chatting about the people they had left behind to be together. This, as far as I knew, was what couples did together. Hell, for all I knew this was the whole reason they had picked out the set.

I grabbed the chair that was closest to me and pitched it headlong over the porch railing and those foofy shrubs, into the yard, where it toppled down the slope and came to rest on its side at the bottom of the hill.

“Hell fucking yes!” Nosh was yelling, over and over.

Leaping over the railing, I tumbled into the wet grass and then scrambled down the hill and tossed the chair into the back of the truck. “Go!” I said as I hopped into the cab.

Nosh put the vehicle in gear and spun away from the curb, sending up a spray of wet gravel. As we squealed onto Norman, I looked up at the porch. The empty space where the chair had been was like the gap left by a missing tooth.

Minutes later we pulled into the strip mall down the street and drove around back where we were hidden from the road. It was dark, the only light coming from a single wire mesh-encased bulb over the OfficeMax loading dock. From the brush-covered sides of the drainage culvert behind us came the creaking of bullfrogs. A warm breeze came through, stirring the trash in the gutters. We hoisted the chair out of the back of the truck and set it on the pavement. Nosh, drunk on beer and reckless exhilaration, was still howling with laughter, big dumb gooselike honks. “That was classic, dude! So fucking funny!”

In the glow of the loading dock light, the chair looked otherworldly, a relic from a distant era. I stared down at it. “How much you think it’s worth?”

Nosh opened another beer and sat down on the tailgate. The suspension groaned wearily. “Dunno. Couple hundred bucks maybe.”

“What do we do with it?”

“Fuck if I know. You took it. I figured you had a plan or something.”

I didn’t have a plan. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a plan for anything. My hope, quite simply, had been that snatching the thing would be enough to get him off my back; I figured he’d have his own ideas of what to do with it. But he was just sitting there on the tailgate watching me with this little smirk, like I was supposed to give some kind of performance, and so just to make him happy I started stomping on one of the legs, jokingly at first, but then harder and with a burgeoning rage, stomping and stomping, savoring the satisfying crack of the wood, until finally it was just hanging by just a few splintered fibers—and then all at once I was on my knees pummeling the chair, punching and clawing at it as if I expected it to fight back, and I think maybe I even wanted it to fight back, I wanted something to fight back, if only to reassure me that I was worth the effort, that my anger was real enough to fend off. In a feverish haze, my mind drifted back to that afternoon in the living room. Chris’ crying. Devon’s murderous scowl. Dad’s pathetic passivity, his hands hanging limp between his knees. Mom looking at us with that ridiculous hurt in her eyes, like we were the ones who were leaving her.

Finally, when the thing was little more than a misshapen white mass, I stood up, panting, and braced my hands on my knees, letting my head hang down between my shoulders. My face was streaked with tears, and my knuckles were bleeding. Thick rivulets of blood ran down between my fingers. The chair looked like a dead animal lying belly-up on the side of the road. I wondered if it was worth returning it to the porch, placing it back with the rest of the set like nothing had happened, but no, some kinds of damage you just can’t undo.

“I bet that felt good,” Nosh said from directly behind me.

I don’t know why this hit me the way it did—maybe because he was right, it had felt good, it shouldn’t have but it did, and I wasn’t ready to think about what that said about me, about where I stood with Mom—but in a swift pirouetting motion that would have made Coach Bullock proud, I grabbed the chair by the armrests and hurled it at him as hard as I could. He brought an arm up to his face a split second before it collided with his head, knocking him off the tailgate and then clattering into the back of the truck.

I froze, my arms still outstretched, fingers splayed. The bullfrogs had fallen silent.

Groaning, Nosh staggered to his feet. He looked like a baby trying to stand on his own. The hair on the side of his head was dark with blood, and his lip was bleeding. He touched it and looked at his reddened fingertip with a puzzled expression, as if he wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. I didn’t move.

“You threw the chair?”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“You threw it at me.”

“I’m sorry.” I couldn’t say if this was true, but I’m pretty sure I wanted it to be, and I wanted that to mean something.

He probed the inside of his cheek with his tongue, spit out a gob of blood, and a slight, dreamy smile crossed his face, like he was remembering a joke, and for a second I thought maybe this would all be okay, that maybe, like me, Nosh was beginning to realize that none of this was worth what we’d been putting ourselves through, that all it took for the game to stop was acknowledging that it could stop if you really wanted it to, that maybe we weren’t bound after all by the lives we’d been handed.

But then, as quick as it had arrived, the smile was gone, and his features stiffened the way they did out on the field just before the snap, a hard symmetry of hate, and he lowered his head and clenched his fists, preparing to charge, and what can you do then but brace yourself, feeling the sting of anticipation settle in your in your legs, metallic and cold, because you know that any second now you’re going to have to run?

 

Jeremy Griffin teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. His work has appeared in such publications as the Greensboro Review, the Indiana Review, and Shenandoah. He is also the co-editor of Corduroy Books, a literary review site. His wife thinks he looks better without a shaved head.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “Running Back

  1. I truly love your site.. Pleasant colors & theme.
    Did you build this site yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to create my very own
    blog and would love to know where you got this from or exactly what the theme is named.
    Kudos!

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