I keep having a dream I’m about to propose to my girlfriend when Larry Bird appears in the bushes, smiling at me in a creepy way. I wake up in terror. I consider telling my girlfriend, but I don’t want to jinx anything. Our relationship is shaky. Besides, my girlfriend hates Larry Bird. He broke her heart when he divorced her in 1993. One night, in the dream, I rise from a knee to approach Larry Bird in the bushes. “How could you do that to Janet?” I say, right up in Larry Bird’s face, although I’m trembling because it’s Larry Bird. “I’m sorry for the pain I must have caused,” Larry Bird says. His smile falters: “I kept having a dream about you proposing to Janet, until I finally understood you two would make the better match.” And Larry Bird fades away until nothing’s left but his mullet.
To save money for our wedding, my girlfriend and I decide to join a controversial televised making out competition. How it works is Janet and I make out on stage while a crowd of people gather around us and cameras roll. If an audience member becomes aroused, they must leave the stage. The last person standing wins a new car. As Janet and I are making out, I whisper to Janet, “It’s weird to do this with everyone watching.” “I know,” Janet says, “but please try to focus.” Suddenly, an anti-make-out protestor runs onto the stage holding a gun. She shouts, “It’s time to bring science into the equation!” I scream, “Guns aren’t science!” and I run off the stage before we are shot. Later, Janet and I sit miserably in the green room, where I continue to argue with the protestor in my head. It is true, in a way, that science led to the creation of guns (the argument I imagine the protestor presenting), but “gun” is not a metonym for “science” (the argument I imagine presenting to the protestor), unless the protestor means to suggest science gone wrong, Oppenheimer style. Shit. Now I am realizing I would have lost the argument. It’s unfortunate for me; for Janet; for our wedding, which will have to wait; and most of all, for science.
Shane Douglas vs. Flyin’ Brian Pillman
[WCW Saturday Night, 10/17/92]
You know the elbow drop is coming because a good
six seven seconds before, Pillman
tapped his right elbow twice
You imagine Shane, recognizing this, would move
out the way, but that’s not the way
The way wrestling works is—
What are you, chicken?
Stan Hansen vs. Carlitos Colón, bull rope match
The rope is for you to strangle your opponent.
There’s a cowbell attached, you can hit him over the head.
To win you have to drag him across the ring and touch
all four turnbuckles. If you let go, it’s an immediate disqualification,
for cowardice. The biggest difference between pro wrestling and real life—
in wrestling, only bad guys get to be cowards. How you know you’re a bad guy is
somebody challenges you to a bull rope match because you’ve been avoiding them,
the rope is meant to bring you together so they can strangle you
and hit you over the head with a bell fair and square. How you know
pro wrestling and real life are the same— cowards
can withstand all sorts of pain.
Arn Anderson vs. The Great Muta
[NWA Power Hour, 1/12/90]
Muta has his face painted,
looks like a boy back
from a long night of trick
His signature move
is a Moon Sault
Anderson is the dad
who listens to his son
late at night.
Grabs him by the neck,
pushes his face against the mat.
Razor Ramon vs. Shawn Michaels
[WWF SummerSlam, 1993]
Scott Hall died. He was sixty-three. He became famous on nineteen
nineties television as Razor Ramon, six foot seven, two hundred
eighty-seven pounds, oily hair, buttoned-down flowered shirts
opened halfway to show gold chains. He said he ‘oozed machismo’,
would call his opponents ‘chico’ in an accent that was fake
and thick but also fitting. Is that okay to say? —
How there can be beauty in white privilege.
I can’t say that, I don’t think, if I want to be critical
in commemorating this man’s life. Not his life.
Pro wrestling isn’t real. It simply borrows from real life.
It burrows through real life. For what? For me,
the image that came up, as a boy splayed on the ground
in front of other boys, of what brave was was him.
He’d put the throttle to the floor like rushed masonry. He’d simply drive through. When I was a child I watched a man lie dying in the street—the crowd orbiting bloodshed like a solar system taking shape. And now I am leaning to my left because the corner ahead is acute. That we will take a sharp turn and somehow keep on moving. The man in the street was doing nothing but dying, and back then I was doing nothing but not dying. These are thinner lines than we’d like to imagine, as if we could welcome a blown tire or flipping the car into a tall tree. There are ends all around us: Each drive is like a fish gasping for water—lessons not about how to turn the car, but how to brace for an unexpected impact and then drive through. Sometimes force is an ocean. Sometimes we call brutishness holy—treating death like a newborn child, crying. Throwing the car sideways is a path leading to confession; furious countersteer like the answer to every prayer.
image: Scott Masear
It might be strange—I want to say it is
strange, the acrobatics a mind makes of memory
to grope at a shy feeling. Four men
are playing pickleball in the rain, after dark,
behind the bar I’m leaving. I see them
from far off, my eye strung through lunges
under yellow lights. I know without having
to approach—their taut chests; breath not quite
fogging air; the not-quite-cold
of the rain—how their hot skin burns
through wet cotton. Look how my body
shrinks against imaginary lust, wishing to pinch
hit for intimacy. Forgive this mix
of metaphors, of feelings. I don’t want to grip
a bicep or lick sweat from thick curls. When a ball
falls short, they say it’s in the kitchen. & I know
what that’s about, whiskey-whipped & single.
I know, too,
what my mother would say
if she were here: Kate, you should ask
if they need someone to play in. Her utterance
a bright racket of lacerating care. My hips
rotund & low-slung as ever under laceless
underwear. & if I were braver I’d say
Ma, I’ve always been played in. I’d say
Ma, I’m tired of being the someone
everyone wants to play in.
I hang a piñata shaped like my father’s face from a goalpost at my high school football field. My first smack frees his denture. His nose caves next and out pours clove-flavored gum, tubs of Noxema, green daubers of Absorbine Jr., bone-in chicken breasts, loose change, and a pack of rolling papers. I keep the rolling papers, but I shovel everything else back through his nose. My high school class observes me from the sideline. They wear lab coats and hold clip boards. They sip Gatorade from little paper cups. My father’s face has fallen down. It’s lighter than I expect. I shield my face with my father’s face and run under the bleachers, where I meet an old boyfriend. He explains the graphs on his clipboard. The graphs are about me, but I don’t understand. He puts on my father’s face and we make out. He tastes like clove gum. I peel off my own face and place it, tenderly, over my father’s face on my boyfriend’s face. A bell tolls to signal a touchdown.
“Glutton,” I greet Simon as he climbs out of his rental car. I give him a crisp bounce pass and the basketball makes that nice smacking sound when he catches it.
“Glutton!” he replies, palming the ball and reaching for the sky.
We hold back smiles until we can’t at which point we allow ourselves a little laugh, topped off by a high-five and then a one-armed hug.
He’s driven four hours from New York to central Pennsylvania to hang out for the weekend, meet my six-week-old daughter, and play as many rounds of Sutherlands versus Gluttons as time and weather permit.
We’ve been friends since the first hour of kindergarten.
We’ve been Simon and Michael, a two-person clique, since elementary school.
We’ve been the Sutherlands and Gluttons since senior year of high school.
We enter my rental town house a few miles from Penn State where I’m teaching a million first-year writing classes for $33,000 a year. We rented the place sight unseen, so the day we moved in, peering out one of the bedroom windows, I was delighted to feast my eyes on a full-length basketball court attached to the nearby middle school.
Simon gives my daughter a warm greeting and she immediately smiles.
Out on the court we warm up. We start with layups and take increasingly longer shots. We catch up on life, referring to each other as Sutherland, and then we make a certain exaggerated eye-contact with a raised brow that means we’re ready to prepare the stopwatch and migrate to half court.
* * *
As freshmen at our affluent high school in suburban St. Louis in the late nineties, Simon and I avoided the cafeteria. We had an open campus policy, which meant during lunch we could walk a half-mile to Subway, smoke under the smoking tree, or shoot around at the gym. We never smoked and only occasionally went for a spicy Italian sub.
When we showed up Freshman year, lunchtime was different. The friends with whom Simon and I sat in middle school were part of the Desegregation Program, which bussed city kids to our white suburban school district. I don’t remember being told by these friends that they wouldn’t make the transition to high school with us. Perhaps I chose to forget this reality over summer break.
Even after we had access to a car, we still mostly stayed on campus. Perhaps we were just horsing around, trying all kinds of funny trick shots like we were the Globetrotters and then maybe Simon made a half-court shot. And then maybe I made a half-court shot and we got excited and decided to make a game of it. Then came the rules. In high school we’d become rule breakers; we pulled all kinds of harmless pranks, but when it came to the many games we invented, our games, we loved rules. Our rules were not just necessary but sacred:
- Fifteen minutes on the clock.
- We alternate shots.
- All shots must be taken from behind half court.
- When we announce how many shots we’ve made before taking a new shot, we must give credit for all made shots to both Sutherlands. “Sutherlands have five. Five a piece for the Sutherlands.” We never keep track of how many shots each individual Sutherland makes. If one makes eight and the other makes two, during our postgame debriefing, we will agree that we just didn’t have it that day, even though eight made shots by an individual is an above average performance.
Because we weren’t competing against each other, the Sutherlands needed competition, so at some point we gave birth to the Gluttons. I imagine we liked the way the word glutton sounded. We amused ourselves with language. Before we invented Sutherlands versus Gluttons, we would dribble the ball around the basketball court addressing an imagined audience as “folks,” spewing jokes about the mundanity of our lives, occasionally stopping to take an actual shot. We may have also enjoyed the irony of the name, as we were skipping lunch to be the Gluttons.
When I ask Simon about how we arrived at the Gluttons—his memory records and retains everything—it turns out there was a concrete event attached to the Gluttons’ origin story. We had been at a Chinese buffet stuffing our faces with sesame chicken and egg rolls and Mongolian beef for two hours. Then, we came up with the most sensible idea: take the seven plates of greasy food sloshing around in our stomachs and go run around a basketball court. Thus, the Gluttons were born.
What allured us to Jason Sutherland is a more difficult question to answer. Jason Sutherland was not a national star. He wasn’t even a star at the University of Missouri. He was known for his hustle and gritty play, a far cry from the nonsense game we made of taking uncontested half-court shots. We had always been drawn to underdog players and underdog teams, those a little more on the margins, perhaps similar to our idiosyncratic two-person clique.
* * *
Over the years I’ve moved many times and we’ve played on many courts, inside and out, full courts and half, almost always in street clothes. The court we play on in Pennsylvania is sloping, the backboard rattles and the double rim doesn’t give an ounce of love. Yet, the Sutherlands manage to make 10 shots and the Gluttons rally for 13, only 5 shy of tying the all-time record.
Chasing down long rebounds and air balls then firing the ball to Simon as rapidly as possible so we can maximize the number of shots we take, is more tiring than it used to be. The next day we go at it again, but our arms are sore, and a brisk wind is whipping around, stinging our cheeks. Despite a poor performance, I want to keep playing the game. I half-jokingly suggest we do another round the next morning before Simon hits the road. We both chuckle a little, a wouldn’t-that-be-nice chuckle, knowing that Simon needs to get back for work and I need to get back to parenting and grading hundreds of papers.
* * *
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been shot through space and time, unable to take a moment to take stock of what’s happened over the last year or two or ten—unable to reflect, mourn, appreciate—because time keeps shooting me forward. Sutherlands versus Gluttons, perhaps more than anything, helps me slow down and feel connected to a previous self. A self that could create such a playful and whimsical game. A self that could sleep without grinding his teeth. My daughter, now four-years-old, creates new games almost every day. There’s the one where she pretends her toy horse is a delivery truck and she delivers diapers and formula to babies. The one where she’s a stuffy who comes alive in the middle of the night and flails about, waking up her human family members. There’s Tickle Monster and Scratchy Bear and General Store and everything else. All her games feature their own absurd rules and logic. Parents with older children always tell me: enjoy it now, it goes so fast, these are the best times. I don’t actually want to freeze time, but I do want to freeze my daughter’s uninhibited style of play, her reckless abandon.
image: DT Walsh
Belly full of mac and cheese and soft serve ice cream,
my dad would take me down the halls of the mall
to the arcade
for our post-buffet tradition.
Cup of tokens from the counter
the table breathing to life from its pores,
timer and score counter lit up with the sound of the buzzer.
It was me vs. Dad-liath once again.
I’d clutch the striker with my small hand
ready to wreak upon my father a crushing defeat.
I felt unstoppable acting as forward, defense and goalie all at once,
sliding the plastic puck zig-zagging wall to wall with what felt like perfect precision,
over and over until time ran out.
I took a victory march around the video game machines.
On a player-abandoned screen I watched a muscley shirtless man
down a stone pit to his death on a bed of nails.
Here in my present, I know he let me win.
I know that both the arcade and the buffet will close,
and that, in only a few years’ time, my dad’s tremors would begin.
I have learned that the strong and consistent will fall
And I will have to surpass them.
I will have to let them go like air.
I put the bread in the toaster. I put the toaster in the yard. I held my hand over your head and cured you of all of it, everything. But I didn’t think that one would work. We last spoke when my children came home, excited to share with us what they had learned at school: the man who invented Australian Rules Football once pooped for ten meters. You scoffed. But I believe them. I believe that there was a moment, in 1858, where an endless shit seemed possible – a whole crowd on the brink of seeing the infinite.
Coach and I hit it off right away. The first thing he had our team do was to lie on the grass and look up, and he talked about having gratitude for the men and women who prepared the field in late winter, who fertilized, watered, and mowed the grass, who prepped the mound, who made sure the stakes were sturdy for the base bags, who lined the field before the games, who ran the snack bar, and the umps who called the games.
I got it, because I loved how the field expanded from home plate down the lines like a large fan, how different parks had different fences, some zigzagged across the outfield, some arced as if drawn by a compass. And the chalk. I had always wanted to be a catcher who scratched and removed the inner lines of the rectangle of the batter’s box, who kicked up chalk. Catcher—that was the position I most desired.
In the last week of practice, coach called each of us aside to tell us what he was going to work with us on one special thing. He said he was going to teach me how to run. I told him I was hoping to learn to be a catcher first, and that I could pitch, which wasn’t really true. I had no fastball, but could throw a sidearm curve that was so large in its arc other players laughed at it, made their friends try to hit it. It was a blooper pitch but on its side. But Coach said it was more important to learn to run.
At practice I ran with one other guy, Erik, while the team took infield and outfield practice. Coach ran with us, telling us how to stretch our legs, how to land, how to pick up our feet. He taught us how to get a good jump, how to stand or squat with our feet to get the best advantage.
Then coach told me I could learn to be a catcher. I was bad. I was clumsy, stiff. My hands were slow. I dropped many pitches. I could not get out of the catcher’s squat to go after a bunt. But I kept at it, thinking I would improve. I did, but not much.
I griped about my parents a lot, but Coach told me I needed to be patient, that being a single mother was difficult, being poor was difficult, but at some point in the future I could leave that behind me.
We won more games than we lost. We were tied for first going into the last two games. My knees had taken a bad turn and I could barely do my three innings in left field.
In the top of the fourth, coach told me to put on the catcher’s gear. We had our fastest pitcher on the mound. I thought the coach had made a big mistake, putting me behind the plate with our best pitcher and needing a win. I was wrong. Carl threw fast. Most kids never swung. In the fourth he threw twelve pitches, three balls and nine strikes. I dropped half of the pitches. In the fifth he gave up one hit, and I let two balls pass, but no runs scored. I led off the bottom of the fifth and coach told me to eliminate the rest of the chalk in the batter’s box, which I had to do before the ump showed up. I made a whirling cloud of white, beautiful dust.
In the top of the sixth, the first two batters hit come-backers to Carl, but the last batter hit a dribble down the third base line. All those practices on how to run, how to leave the squat—I stood up, I took long strides, I got the ball in my bare hand, I spun, I threw to first. The batter was out.
The next day my knees hurt so bad I could barely walk.
The last game I played for two innings in left field and could barely stand. We were losing by nine runs, with no chance to win. Coach told me I could pitch the last inning.
He told me before I went to the mound to never throw my sidearm curve twice to the same batter. I walked the first two hitters, got a foul ball out to third, walked another. The next batter lined one into my glove. Then came the kid they called Farm Boy—he had forearms bigger than my thighs. I threw two fastballs that he took for balls, then two more that he pulled foul. I threw a sidearm curve that he barely nicked, and the ferocity of his swing knocked his helmet off. People laughed. I threw another ball, then threw eight more slow fastballs that he fouled off. Coach came out to encourage me.
I wound up, took the exaggerated stride toward third, and delivered the sidearm curve. Farm Boy started to swing early again, but caught himself, and had the time to re-cock the bat, swung dead legged and flat-footed, and hit a tremendous home run over the left field fence. It was the longest home run anyone had ever seen in Little League. We were all struck with admiration. Coach left me in, and I got the last out.
We finished second. Our season was over. But that home run enjoined me to a story that lived on, a story of perfection.
Coach gave me a catcher’s mitt at the celebration. I clung to that catcher’s mitt after the season. I pounded it when I was mad. I carried it around like a bear’s paw on my left hand. I mounted it on a bookstand. I oiled it every spring. I took it to college. When I fell in love, I smothered my face in it and yelled.
image: Brooke Kolcow
The television broadcast displays the fifth set score in the upper left-hand corner, the game count rising steadily for each player at exactly the same rate, the rate of service, because neither can break the other’s serve. Tournament rules state that the fifth set cannot be decided by a tiebreaker. If there is to be a winner, one must break the other’s serve. What if the decisive break of service never occurs? This worries me. We’ll be trapped in this moment of extended ambiguity, an undecided tennis match, forever. I feel my life constricting. Lunch is in the freezer. I have nowhere to go but here, which is nowhere. Death, I guess, is having nowhere to go but nowhere, it’s the same idea, so maybe I shouldn’t think about it, wherever it is I have to go. Think about perseverance instead. Think about tennis, I tell myself, true tennis¸ pure tennis, if such a thing exists. Those who play tennis persevere insofar as they keep hitting the ball, or at least trying to hit the ball, because hitting the ball leads to winning, winning leads to money, and money leads to more tennis. Which leads to more hitting of the ball and, if all goes according to plan (and assuming it’s possible to break the opponent’s serve even once), more winning; in conclusion, it creates an endless cycle of tennis. There must be a better reason to win, I think to myself, a more compelling goal than more tennis. Otherwise, every time you hit the ball, you effectively condemn yourself to exponentially more tennis. Unless you happen to miss the ball, which leads of course to losing, which leads to less money, which must lead, according to the formula we’ve established above, to less tennis, tennis in steadily decreasing quantities until you arrive ultimately at no tennis, a total tennis content of zero, having nowhere to go but nowhere, meaning death. Now I understand why they try so hard to win. They don’t want to die. Few of us do. I can’t stop watching. Will it end? I tremble secretly before this seemingly obvious question.
Ode to the Houston Rockets’ 27 consecutive missed three-point shots in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference FinalsAaron Calvin
Failure is an American-made machine and
Oh! How it hums.
When the lights go out &
The night of defeat
embraces you, tender & humid.
The smell of success all gone
cloying & sweet
in its decay.
The coffee spilled on this poem
as it was written;
that small prayer.
A black screen is accompanied by the drawn-out violin notes of a tango. The first camera shot pans across the red seats of the arena. They are empty except for a few judges who are sitting up high and scribbling in notepads. A practice session is taking place. A half dozen teams move at top speed, arching their necks and flicking their legs to the tango’s accents. Their blades catch the light. The camera zooms in on a teenage Florence Pugh and Lucas Hedges. Their exhales release visibly in the cold air. Florence twizzles into Lucas’ arms. As she tosses herself into a dip, the golden hoop of her earring catches on a button of Lucas’ shirt, and her earlobe tears open. The camera angles toward the ice. A bright dot of blood splashes the surface. The tango music fades.
The camera cuts to a picturesque scene outside the arena: a town caressing a lake’s edge. A wide shot captures the same group of teenage skaters, but they are now walking along main street and wearing tank tops and shorts as though they are vacationers. The oldest boy pops into a convenience store. Another boy takes off his shirt, runs toward the water. A teenage Anya Taylor-Joy steps closer to Florence. Her cupid’s bow looks how it always looks—perfect—like twin crescent moons. She tucks a wisp of hair behind Florence’s ear and reveals a tiny row of stitches.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. You know how it is. This stuff happens.” Florence shrugs.
A bell chimes, and the convenience store door opens again. The oldest boy walks out, carrying a case of beer and a gallon of soap. The other boys cheer. Florence rolls her eyes.
The next morning, the fountain outside the arena overflows with soap bubbles: a summer snowdrift.
Florence and Lucas jog up and down the narrow hallways of the arena. Their coach walks by and pulls Lucas aside. The conversation is muffled, but from the way they both glance over, Florence knows Lucas and the coach are talking about her.
The tango music returns. Florence paces in her hotel room, speaking on the phone with her mom.
“It’s just a lot of pressure,” she says. Her voice cracks.
She notices movement outside and steps toward the window. A judge stands inches away from the glass, staring into her room.
Florence sits alone in the locker room. A florescent light buzzes overhead. When Florence removes her headphones, she hears a noise coming from a bathroom stall. The noise is someone vomiting into the toilet over and over.
Anya’s manicured nails help Florence into her costume. She pulls a zipper surrounded by rhinestones. Anya places a warm hand over Florence’s goosebumps.
“It’s freezing in here. You’d never know that it’s summer outside,” Anya whispers into Florence’s ear, allowing her lips to brush along the stitches.
The tango’s violin notes corkscrew into each other. Something in the melody sours. The camera cuts to a shot of the fountain outside the arena. Its liquid flows bloodred. The camera cuts to a shot of all nine judges lined up in the stands turning to stare directly at Florence. The camera cuts to a shot of the girls kneeling in a circle on the floor of the locker room as they carefully wipe down the edges of their blades. The camera cuts to a close-up shot of Anya twisting a tube of red lipstick. The camera cuts to a shot of Florence styling her hair in front of a mirror. Her reflection takes its hand and calmly grips the hot metal of a curling iron. Her reflection doesn’t flinch. The camera cuts to a nighttime shot of Florence in full make-up. She is wearing her costume. Her skates are laced up. She walks into the lake. The ripples catch moonlight.
The tango music stops.
The announcer tells Florence and Lucas to take the ice. The camera cuts to the pair. They arrange themselves into their starting pose at center ice.
The camera cuts out.
image: Bob Eckstein
yesterday I was playing golf with my friend
and we heard moaning sounds from bushes
near a railroad track on the outskirts of the course
at first I just continued my game thinking it was
probably not anything or maybe some tramps
fighting or taking drugs or something
but I could picture myself from an outside view
playing golf while someone died in the bushes
so I went to investigate and found two tramps
a man and a woman smoking cigarettes
I asked if they were ok and they laughed
the man said "are you ok Julie?" and she laughed
and gave me a thumbs up
I think they were having sex back there.
On one magical night in February of my senior year, I set a school record by making seventeen three-pointers in a single game. That same year I entered into a serious relationship with a beautiful junior named Joanna. Joanna was intelligent and funny. She had silky black hair that smelled of vanilla and jasmine. She adored minerals and plate tectonics and wanted to be a geologist. She loved cruising the backroads of our small town and gave the kinds of blowjobs that melted my mind to mush and transformed the world into music.
These days I stay away from the employee break room and eat three cups of vanilla custard at my desk. I’m trying to lose weight, but for some reason it isn’t working. Despite this, I go out of my way to make sure my coworkers know I’m trying. It’s the trying that’s important.
The most common method I employ is to eat my vanilla custard as fast as possible, press my silent phone to my ear, and loudly announce to the phantom caller on the other end that I am going to skip lunch for the day and take a brisk walk around the parking lot. Then I pass the remainder of my lunch break in the bathroom, reading the closed captions on muted YouTube videos while sitting on the toilet.
At the conclusion of the workday, I drive to my empty apartment in my badass yet slightly rusty Shelby Mustang. When it’s time for bed, I thump onto my creaking mattress and stare through the dark at the low, popcorn ceiling of my bedroom. Eventually, I close my eyes. Soon I am transported back to that February night of my senior year of high school. The varnished floorboards gleam underfoot. I backstep behind the three point line and receive a no-look pass. I float into the air and let fly an arcing shot. It does not miss. It never misses. Even on the darkest of nights, The Legend shines on.
Our old friend Jerry from the skateboarding days had Ronald McDonald hair. A zany perm of harmless brown. Everyone in our crew had a nickname and his was “Jerry’s Kids,” a reference to those Jerry Lewis telethons. It wasn’t cool, and I never called him that, but he was a puny newcomer and newcomers took shit.
Our old friend Jerry from the skateboarding days claimed his mom dated Huey Lewis sometime in the 70s. Most of the skater dudes couldn’t care less but I did because we loved Huey Lewis. And the News. Parked in front of MTV for most of my childhood, I considered Huey a paternal figure, a kind uncle, or someone like my neighbor, Jim, who drank beer and joked around, inviting us kids over to pet box turtles and baby gators he’d rescued from the roadside. Someone affable and kind and up for a good time.
Our old friend Jerry wasn’t alive at the time of this alleged romance so there’s no way to confirm if Huey told his mom corny jokes while they drank good whiskey in her kitchen or if at the end of a date, he’d loosen his tie and yawn-smirk when he said he was beat and Johnny Carson was about to start and could he come to her place and stay for the show. Or if when he had a few too many, he’d sing outside her fire escape until she yell-whispered out her window, “God damn you Huey, you’ll wake up this whole town with that golden voice of yours. Get your ass up here!”
Our old friend Jerry would visit us during those strange summers when we were in our early 20s and unemployed and stupid hopeful because we still had our library books and a roommate who managed a Taco Bell. Sick of chalupas and scrounging our parents’ couches for change, he’d treat us to his version of Shepherd’s Pie: instant mashed potatoes and cheap-ass ground chuck with a generous layer of Kraft Singles. He was a short-order cook at some restaurant back in our hometown and somehow he made trash taste delicious. Jerry would smoke his menthol cigarettes and make us laugh while we drove aimlessly on Orlando highways listening to music out of our boombox because the stereo broke a long time ago. Never the News. Just Operation Ivy, Sneaker Pimps, The Geto Boys.
Our old friend Jerry from the skateboarding days disappeared around the time we all graduated college. Or it’s possible we were the ones that disappeared. Maybe it was more of a mutual vanishing. We asked people what happened to him and there were rumors of heroin and some toxic girlfriend but no one knew for sure.
Every time I play Sports, I think of him and his mom, who I never met, and how she might have held Huey in her arms on some disco dawn and imagined having his child. Someone just like him. Someone affable and kind and up for a good time. Someone like our old friend Jerry.
image: Philip Witte
Kate skates like she’s already had every bruise,
scrape, or broken bone possible. Nothing
can hurt her. She zips through neighborhoods
with narrow streets and traffic; she goes down
big empty hills with her eyes closed. She listens
to the sound of her wheels on pavement and thinks
about being small and new to skates again,
learning to place one wheeled foot
ahead of the other, like a fawn getting its legs
right. She likes it late at night when no one
can see her, when she can sweat and whoop without
an audience. One time she fell and knocked
herself unconscious and when she tells this story
she leaves out the part where someone stole
her skates right off her feet and she walked
home three miles in unmatched socks.
The way she tells it is, she woke up in soft
roadside grass, looked at the sun,
and vomited from a concussion.
At the Bowling Alley
I am the same as in real life—all or nothing.
After a strike, the flash of a goofy cartoon pin
across the scorekeeping screen. After a slow,
sad drift into the unprotected gutter,
taunts of an animated ball with arms
and eyebrows. But I do feel cool.
My shirt has a collar and tassels and dice
embroidered on the lapel. He didn’t let me win.
But when I am pulled into the arms
of Player 1, we kiss in the near-quiet of the place—
just us and the all-American pastime,
the thump of balls on lanes and falling pins.
It's last August at my buddy Tom's place, and I've been sleeping on my alcoholic father's leather couch while visiting from New York, and the only way I can tolerate his presence and the near-constant reminders that he softened from a wife-beating drunkard into simply a hermetic one with a dead ex-wife is to, yes, drink all day, and so there's a medium-long exchange of questions about My Next Novel and Why Nobody Read The First One and, yeah, also The Crime Wave before we both produce bottles of Wild Turkey 101 and half-watch Twins baseball until a friend mercifully swoops me from the parking lot and offers their vape pen, which I decline because I’ve rebranded as Midwest Sober (i.e., can drink but can no longer do drugs), and this reminds the car-goers that I used to alternate between Actually Sober with Meetings and Sponsors and Working The Steps but now am Very Much Not Sober At All, and this, like, harshes the mellow (i.e., we get quiet while NPR drones about the largest single non-complex wildfire in recorded California history) and I’m no pyro-physicist but this seems Not Good so we feel worse and someone asks how the visit is going overall, and, well, y’know, in true Minnesotan fashion I can only respond: "It's going." From then on, everyone tries to avoid the Prodigal Son shit, and especially at Tom's since We’re Trying To Have Fun, and that's why someone yanks Cornhole from the garage, but nobody can do it, not really, I’m too visibly depressed and dandruff-ridden and sexless, and the awkward silences volley with pregnant pauses until it's all unforced errors and The National glitching on Bluetooth speakers as I plumb myself with another White Claw. My dad might not know how to ask seeing as he's a permanently disabled forklift operator who married a blind farmgirl, but my friends all went to college and so they sense my “writing life” is Sisyphean with less exercise, and that every Minnesota visit could be the last because I will presumably kill myself. But you can’t acknowledge that, not in daylight, so we slurp boozy seltzers and avoid politics or indie literature and toss frisbees then footballs then slap the boards across grass approximately 10 yards apart and split into two teams of two and stand beside the cornhole platforms and flip bags until we’re equal parts sloshed and sweaty. As drunken dullards with fluency in longform improv (i.e., joking without humor), the tosses start goofy: long-snapping, submarine-style, slowpitch softball, behind the back and between the legs Globetrotterish kinetic yes-anding, but pretty soon—like writing, like white-knuckling through oxycodone ER 80 mg cravings—you either get serious, or get dead, and whether it’s writing or building an Actually Sober Existence, I keep grinding toward the former when I really want the latter. Yet life and cornhole only proceed forward, so after a dozen more drinks and someone offering me ketamine (which I want to snort but decline), we slog through two games but gradually take the last one, well, seriously and reach match point, down 20-18, the third game, best of three, series tied 1-1. This is when the Cornhole Moment happens. See, bean bag toss is scored to 21 with “cancellation” scoring; this does not mean the bean bag has said something problematic and then writes a peevish New York Times op/ed, but instead means only one team wins a round of tosses. If you toss a bag into the hole, it is three points and if you toss a bag onto the board it is one point, so 20-18 is dire, especially if the other team has a bag flattened against the upper-left quadrant, which they do and there’s only one throw left, which there is, ergo we are (i.e., I am) about to lose unless I can dislodge that bag from the board and somehow also score three points.
This, like so much else, does not seem possible.
Escaping suicide ideation is not the goal of pseudo-sports, but pseudo-sports (e.g., bag toss, beer pong, 8 Minute Abs, fetch) are a prime venue for escaping suicide ideation, and in this moment I am meditating on Cornhole Moment production like a Tibetan Buddhist meditates on death; the master Atisha is said to have told his students that if a person is unaware of mortality, their meditation will have little power, and I am fully aware of mortality in most waking (and many unwaking) moments insofar as my friends worry I will mortally wound myself, so this final toss sort of becomes a referendum on whether I should be alive or not. My inner light, or whatever, suggests that by stepping to the right of the board and opting for a parabolic helicoptering leftward slurve, I might knock the other team’s bag to the grass and maybe bounce my bag in for the game-winner.
So, I go with that.
I don’t know.
I was pretty drunk and extremely depressed.
As I corkscrew the bag and my arm extends and then flops like an elephant’s trunk, I sigh ‘till I’m lightheaded. Having botched everything else to simply feel non-suicidal, I’m now trying this: Cornhole. Fucking Cornhole. There’s plenty I could say and won’t about my own childhood cancer and poverty and mom dying young, but since the old man beat her into a brain bleed and the Subsequent Divorce of ’96, I’ve slogged through all these therapies—Art, Movement-Based, Movement-Based Art, Cognitive, Behavioral, Cognitive Behavioral, Acceptance and Commitment, Rejection and Ambivalence, Psychodynamic, role-playing that felt really weird and thus Psychodynamic, puppet-based role-playing that was somehow less weird but possibly still Psychodynamic, EMDR, puppet-based EMDR, relatively static but nonetheless Psychodynamic EMDR—but that’s only the clinico-psychological history because I’ve also tried 13 different anti-depressants on top of writing fiction with footnotes, writing fiction without footnotes, ripping off David Foster Wallace with and without footnotes, publishing sociopolitical autofiction that sold pretty well for an indie (but, thus, hardly sold at all), foreclosure, briefly living in my car and bathing at the library, moving from Minneapolis to New York City, attending the NYU MFA program, glugging a bottle of Old Crow daily the entire final semester, quite literally running out of money due to alcoholism and being a white-trash adjacent tenderfoot from the Midwest, moving from New York City back to Minneapolis, enduring eight months on my dad’s couch as a 27-year-old man, moving from Minneapolis to New York City again after lying on a job application and getting hired and working at a university, cocaine, mushrooms, acid, more cocaine, ketamine, fentanyl, various iterations of oxycodone and hydromorphone, heroin (twice), parasocial relationships, blunting how sad I am through long lists and irony, rubbing against the fourth wall, not rubbing against another person in about eight years, probably like 100,000 cans of beer, reminiscing about my college football days, more beer, reverting to jock-ish tendencies and less beer and seriously considering a tryout with the European League of Football as a defensive lineman for the Hamburg Sea Devils, submitting to various literary journals and online publications with mixed success, kiss-whiffing men at bars, having too many psychodynamic issues to facilitate romance with women, being vaguely bisexual but basically asexual, and finally just Going There in my work and admitting that I am jealous of strangers holding hands, of novelists with even small amounts of money or prestige, of NYU classmates with wealthy parents, of friends who have steady sex or maybe just occasional pleasure, of people who have diversified their Reasons To Live portfolio when I only have literary delusions and haven’t experienced meaning (i.e., a non-suicidal moment) since my beanbag floated with a slight wobble, rose to the tree line, dropped like a 12-6 curveball and smashed a corner of the other bag on the board, rippling it up and to the left as if slapping Jell-O while my friends and their partners and seemingly all the people I’d never be and lives I’d never live gasped and pointed and then hooted and hollered as it flopped into the weeds and my bag somersaulted into the hole, a winner, proof of concept, another moment where you’re alive and I’m alive and at least I’m writing it down.