August 1, 2016

Fiction by Christopher Hivner: "One for the Thumb"

Christopher Hivner writes from a small town in Pennsylvania surrounded by books and the echoes of music. He has recently been published in Illumen, Dead Snakes and Jitter. A collection of short stories, “The Spaces Between Your Screams” was published by eTreasures Publishing. website: www.chrishivner.com, Facebook: Christopher Hivner - Author, Twitter: @Your_screams




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One for the Thumb


    We were the worst of the worst. Losers of 30 in a row. 0-30 in my three year high school football career. As I began my senior year, we had little chance of changing this pattern. The Fighting Dairymen of Wilcox High. You heard me, Dairymen. The school was founded by Stanley Wilcox, the biggest rancher in Sunnyburn County and descended from a long line of noble dairy farmers. We played teams like the Tigers, the Timberwolves, the Warriors; teams that made you think of fierceness, courage, strength. The Wilcox Dairymen makes me think of 4 a.m. and cold hands on cow teats.
    The last three years had been a nightmare. Our coach was a nice man who had no idea what he was doing, and he admitted as much. Coach Janus was the near-retirement age history teacher who took the job on a temporary basis. Seven years ago. Each year the school board solicited resumes, but no one wanted the job. Who wants to coach at a tiny school in a tiny cow town with a team that barely matriculates enough players to fill the roster?
    Practices started in August, two weeks before school opened. When we gathered on the field, prepared for Coach Janus's agility drills from 1957, we were met instead by our new coach. He introduced himself as Ron Stark. He looked so young, he couldn't be old enough for this job. I sneaked a peek at Oral Tasker, our center, who could grow a beard by second period if he had shaved first thing after he woke up and thought there's no way Ron Stark could be Coach Stark, but he was.
    He walked back and forth in front of us as we sat on the practice field, explaining who he was and where he had come from. He grew up in California, played college football at Stanford, and played three years in the NFL as a third string defensive back and special team’s player.
    My mouth dropped open. I hoped I didn't look as stupid as I felt, but our new coach played in the NFL. He made it to the Promised Land. I could see golden beams of light illuminating him as he spoke. His feet didn't quite touch the ground, hovering a few inches in the air as he glided around us. The chorus of angels that I was sure followed him wherever he went was just starting up when the coach fell silent. His gaze, steel girders emanating from his eye sockets, was locked on Specter. James Harlow Timmerman the third, better known as Specter because he was tall, cadaverously thin, with sallow, sunken skin and a thatch of black hair somewhere on his head (it never seemed to be in the same place twice).
    Specter had laughed because Coach Stark was not a star in the NFL, but only a special team’s player. The chortle caught in his throat when he realized Coach had heard him and eventually got lost in his lungs as he ran laps around the field for a half an hour. The lesson continued the next day as we were shown how strong and fast you have to be just to make an NFL roster for a few years. We all decided that if Coach Stark was only good enough for third string, the superstars must have been torn from the thigh of Zeus (I took Mythology as a sophomore, some of it stuck. Who knew?).
    Over the next few weeks I felt something I hadn't experienced in three years as a Wilcox High football player. Confidence. Besides updating our playbook and techniques, our new coach inspired us. The first part of every practice was spent sitting and listening, a lecture on what it took to be a real football player. Perseverance, effort, teamwork, excitement, desire, finding the soft part of the zone, reading the blitzes on a third and long when it's late in the game and you're deep in you're own territory and the other team has just been killing you all night with pressure on the quarterback whose limping and has a bad shoulder as it is and would it kill the referee to call the defensive end for the illegal move he keeps doing, and why is the opposing coach on the field all the time, you're not supposed to be on the field . . . Coach got a little carried away on that last one.
    The lecture I remember the most was the "creating a legacy for the school". Coach told the seniors that there wasn't much he could do for us besides win a few games in our last year. No one could erase the 30 straight losses, but we could change the future for the freshmen. Football wasn't just a team sport for the time you were playing it, he told us. We would always be a part of Wilcox High School football. No matter how old we were or where life took us, we would always be the Fighting Dairymen. Our stories would be swapped with other generations like kids trading baseball cards.
    Coach Stark had us close our eyes and remember when we were in sixth or seventh grade, and we'd sit in the stands with our parents watching the games, dreaming about when it would be our turn to be out on that field in the red and white jerseys. We never thought about the losing; we just wanted to play. Then he told us to imagine ourselves on the field during our first game this year. A fresh batch of young faces watching us, dreaming in fire engine red and mud-caked white. We could change things for the future. And we could do it while running around like the barbarian horde sacking Rome.
    The day of our first game, I was strangely calm. I really believed we could win. The coach had us so wired the teachers were complaining because none of us could sit still in class. During last period study hall, I sat in the library, closing my eyes to visualize each play I was going to make in a few hours. I couldn't help but think back to last year before our first game.
    We were going to play West Manchester, the best team in our league. I sat in English class thinking about the game. I wanted to win so badly, and I knew we were going to lose. But not just lose, we were going to get massacred. The teacher busily wrote notes on the board and chattered on about her love for Chaucer while I stared straight ahead and saw only West Manchester players scoring again and again, just like the year before. I heard their inevitable laughter rolling around inside my head, and suddenly I didn't want to play that night. Then I started to cry. Right in the middle of class, the tears streamed down my face, and my body shook. I came out of my reverie enough to know everyone was staring at me, and Miss Peel wanted to know what was wrong, but I couldn't stop.
    This year was different. We were playing Huntingdon, and we could beat them, and we did, 21-13. The celebration went on into the night. Couples danced into the streets, car horns honked "We are the Champions", the Mayor declared us city heroes and proclaimed September 10, Dairymen Day! Ok, by 'into the night' I mean 11 when our parents made us come home, I did dance with someone's mom, the Mayor declared us too loud and told us to get off of his lawn and technically September 10 was already Dairymen Day, celebrating all the town's dairy farmers.
    But it was a big deal, and around school we were heroes. I've never been clapped on the back by so many teachers or been flirted with by so many girls. Coach Stark knew how big it was as well. When we got to practice Monday afternoon, he had a surprise for us. We lined up shoulder to shoulder like soldiers on review. One at a time he shook our hands, told us how proud he was, and presented us with a ring.
    In the NFL, it is the goal of every player to win the super bowl, the championship game at the end of the season. You have to earn your way in and play your guts out in the game, but if, by any combination of talent, determination and luck, you win it, you get a huge bejeweled ring. No matter what else you do in life, no one can take that ring away from you once you have it. Coach Stark played only sparingly for three years, and no one but his family and friends remember he played, but he had a ring. A big, beautiful, dazzling, gaudy jewel encrusted man-sized ring.
    We got adjustable copper colored ones with the tensile strength of aluminum foil, but we wore them like they were Polaris, shining beacons for lost travelers. This was why we loved Coach Stark. He understood. I was now 1-30 in my high school football career, and it felt great. One win blotted out at least ten losses and shoved the memories of the others to the back. Every day we could look down at our cheap, tin rings and know we achieved something great. I wrote the date and score of the game in very tiny print around the inside of mine. I am 41 now, and I still wear the ring, and when someone gives me that odd look, I take it off and regale them with the story behind it. When I finish, I wake them, give them some Visine for their glazed over eyes, and send them on their way.
    The mighty fighting Dairymen were not finished winning that year, though. We won three of our next five games before getting clocked 42-14 by West Manchester. By this time we thought we were rock stars. Four wins and coach gave us a ring for each one. We wore all four at once, every day, flashing our hands around like we were somebody. Our walks were now struts, our friends were now entourages, our tables in the cafeteria saved for us like it was a New York night club.
    The high of being 4-2 lasted a long time. Even after we started losing again, we still felt confident. We played every game like it was our last two hours to live. We may have lost, but the other team knew they had had to earn it. They walked off the field knowing they had been hit hard by a Dairyman, and the shame of that did not wash off easily.
    So it came down to the last game of the season against New Castle. We were 4-5 with one last chance to win and end the season with a non-losing record. It hadn't been done by Wilcox High since 1968. Coach Stark didn't give us a speech before the game this time. Usually he talked for about twenty minutes, mental preparation to be tough and smart, to remember why we play the game. Play with pride and sportsmanship and leave your mark, preferably somewhere in the middle of your opponent's chest. But this night was different. He gathered us all together on one knee.
    "Gentleman, raise the hand you normally wear your rings on." Twenty seven hands went up, rights mainly with a few lefties mixed in.
    "Look at your hand and imagine you are wearing your rings right now." I stared at my hand for really the first time. Mine was small, and my fingers were stubby. I made a mental note to thank dad for that later. Then I saw the rings, four thin bands of tin sparkling like diamonds. Coach waited, letting our mental pictures settle in. Then he gave us our only instructions for the night.
    "Get out there and win one for the thumb!" he screamed at the top of his lungs and sent us out the door of the locker room like a pack of wild dogs. We played that way for most of the game. Whenever we would get in trouble, we would huddle up and just stare at our hands for a second. New Castle couldn't handle us on defense. They never got past midfield the whole game, and we knocked the starting quarterback out with a concussion. His replacement looked like a deer to us, dinner for a pack of starving wolves. We chased him here, we chased him there, and when we caught him, we let Bambi know the fire was closing in.
    If our offense had been as good as our defense, there would have been nothing to worry about. We scored on our first possession but missed the extra point and then couldn't score again. Coach called a timeout with 39 seconds left in the game. We had just given the ball back to New Castle and our 6-0 lead was shaky. If New Castle could score, with the extra point we would lose 7-6, and it would be another losing season for the Dairymen.
    Coach huddled up the defense and told us we had tied a school record.
    "You guys have ten sacks tonight. That ties the record. How about one more? Break the record, win the game, and go home with a cheerleader."
    "How about four more, smash the record, and go home with the head cheerleader?" I said, feeling full of myself. My motor was revving over the red line. I wanted to win so badly I could taste it. Really, my mouth was coated in grass, dirt, and a little blood. I needed a post-game celebratory Coke desperately. Coach laughed at my outburst and smacked us all around in that traditional football manner that outsiders never understand.
    Coach Stark ran off the field and it was up to us. We could make history for our poor school. We would be the topic of conversation for at least a year at the diner and our hands would be full of metal.
    New Castle came to the line. Our defense got into position. In my middle linebacker role, I jumped around behind our two defensive tackles. When the ball was snapped, I thought the space time continuum had crumbled. Everything was in slow motion. I saw the New Castle quarterback drop back to pass, but each step took an eternity. All our linemen rushed straight up-field. I took a step back into coverage. When the New Castle center saw me go backwards, he turned to help his teammate block our tackle. The quarterback was looking from right to left, trying to find an open receiver, his feet dancing over the torn up sod.
    I saw the opening. The New Castle center had been dragged to his right in a fight with Billy Hancock, our huge defensive tackle. There was a gap in the line, and I had a straight path to the quarterback. I charged. My head told my legs to run very fast, but the message must have gotten intercepted by the arms or something. I felt my legs pumping, churning, my cleats tearing into the grass. So why wasn't I moving any faster? The quarterback didn't see me yet; he was looking to his right. He cocked his arm back, and I thought my chance had been lost, but then he pulled the ball back down. His dancing feet took him to his left. His head swiveled that way and abruptly stopped. He had seen me.
    Running with everything I had, I was close now. Knowing he was in trouble, the quarterback cocked his arm back again, preparing to throw the ball away. My chance was slipping through my stubby little fingers. As he stared at me, wide eyed and weary of being hit by large angry children of dairy farmers, I leapt. Stretching my body out from head to toe, I lunged for the quarterback.
    While I was in the air, I caught sight of my hand out in front of me. I stared at my fingers again and wondered why a father would do that to a son. Then I looked at my thumb. A fat, thick worm with a half-moon nail I thought. So hideous it was separated from the other fingers and in fact is not considered a finger at all. If any digit ever needed an adornment, it was the thumb.
    Just as the New Castle quarterback was about to propel his arm forward, my hand struck it at the elbow. I continued my flight through the air until my upper body collided with his head. We both hit the ground with a violent grunt. My full body weight drove him into the ground, and I tried to make myself feel as heavy as I could. I wanted him to go home never wanting to be hit by number 52 again.
    I rolled off of him and saw the ball bouncing free. Before I could make a dive, Billy Hancock wrapped his ham-hock hands around it, but the ball squirted free. It jumped into the air and sailed right to me. I tried to pull it in, but it bounced off of my chest and out of my reach. Craning my neck around I saw it bounce up again, this time into the hands of another one of my teammates. He never broke stride as he took it in for a touchdown.
    Everyone was going crazy. The band played the school song loudly and proudly and a little off key. Players were running toward the end zone, hugging one another, dancing, knocking each other over. The PA announcer's voice shot up to an uncomfortable octave as he screamed "Dairymen score, Dairymen score, Dairymen score!"
    What I remember most was the familiar smell of high school football game hot dogs, cold hard ground, and a night sky full of stars. Because while everyone else ran around like mad, I lay on my back on the field, holding my hand up against the black fabric of the heavens. A star lined up over each knuckle, including a bright twinkling one over my thumb.
~Christopher Hivner

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