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Jan/Feb 2018 Fiction

Morning Crew

by Eli Cranor

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel


I guess I come out for the same reason as everybody else—to burn. Not calories or my waistline, just burn. If I miss a morning, the rest of the day don't seem right. This morning I was the first one to the gym, turned on the lights, got the balls out, and had my shoes laced before Killer Jeff walked through the door.

Killer Jeff coaches with me and teaches Algebra-1 at the high school to the kids who are forced to take it. He had worked his way up to teaching Calculus, but only rich kids took Calculus, and with rich kids it don't matter if they show their work or not. Killer Jeff started playing basketball with the morning crew during his Calculus days. He don't need it as much now, but he still needs it. Last week a kid brought a knife into his class, and Killer Jeff elbowed Dr. Joe in the nose the next morning.

Dr. Joe's all the time getting elbowed, shouldered, and thrown down. It's as if him healing everybody every day, and delivering the babies, too, just ain't quite enough a penance for the way he plays ball. Dr. Joe don't take no breaks, and in pick-up basketball that's just about unforgivable.

"Heads up, Coach," hollers Dr. Joe as he whips the ball around his back on a no look pass. The ball shoots outta bounds and into the stands. I shake my head.

"For what?" I say.

Dr. Joe don't hear me and sprints to get the ball. He's already sweating. It's cold in the gym, below freezing outside, and Dr. Joe's already sweating. He better have his mouthpiece in today; somebody's gonna knock his ass off and won't call no foul. The morning crew only got one commandment: you call your own fouls, and don't nobody call no fouls. Even the young ones know that.

The young boys are lazy like boys generally are, lazy and inconsistent. Besides me, Dr. Joe, and Killer Jeff, most the other ten are young boys. They stumble in each morning around 5:45, at least 15 minutes late.

Killer Jeff sets his feet and drains a three-ball. The net makes the sound of precision and accuracy and childhood. The old guys are on the board. It takes us six possessions to score again.

The boys keep the score. I'm pretty sure they cheat like most boys do until they get caught and it costs them something real for the first time in their life. It don't matter no ways. Us old guys always get here first, always get on the same team, and we don't play to win. Most old men learn that—ain't no sense in keeping score.

I heard some statistic about meteors, or maybe it was asteroids, the other day on the news. This woman said that the chances of a giant rock hitting the earth and stopping its spinning was the same chances as you and your spouse making it to 100 years of age together. Why someone would put it like that I do not know, but if that don't make you want to quit keeping score, don't know what will.

One of the young guys pulls up and shoots another three. It clangs off the rim. They get it and shoot again. This time it goes in. They say the game is over. I look to the old guys and nod. There's not a one of us that ain't glad it's over. The games have been getting longer lately. All the young guns want to do is shoot threes, and all us old guys want to do is burn. We all got our reasons, though. Killer Jeff got them three years of Calculus. Dr. Joe got medicine. And me? I got to keep keeping score.

I coach football at the high school, the same school where Killer Jeff teaches Algebra-1. Waking up as the head-high-school-football-coach every morning feels like strapping on a heavy ass badge, one of them old bronze stars with six points and little rounded tips, a thing all boys dream of but a thing once worn soon loses its luster, a lesson you only learn as a man.

"Hey, Coach, how's the team looking for next year?" says one of the young guns as we're unlacing our shoes. I study him. I can't remember if he played for me or not.

"Be lucky to get a first down."

"Ah, come on now, Coach."

I cut my eyes at Dr. Joe and Killer Jeff. Their heads are down, working hard at their laces.

"Chillerton's got the best team in the state," I say and watch the young boys bristle. Chillerton's our rival. A good rival at that—close by, mean and nasty—couldn't ask for much more.

"Shoot, Coach," says the boy, "you said that same line when I was playing. We beat them fuckers by twenty one."

"Watch your mouth, son," I say and remember the boy, a squat linebacker who barely played his senior year.

"Yes, sir."

 

When I get home it's still dark. Susan's sleeping in. I can't blame her none, knowing she's got to see Dr. Joe this afternoon. I had to take a half-day. Hoping to make it back by lunch.

At the bedroom door I can smell her.

Don't need no doctor to name it, the sweet, fruity smell of death, almost chemical. I guess it is, guess that's all anything is—chemical—or nothing at all. But Susan's my wife, and that smell is a part of her now, and you learn as you go that most the games are won or lost before you ever take the field.

"Coach?"

Her voice is small as it cuts through the dark and the smell.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Y'all win?"

"You know we don't keep score."

She laughs beneath the covers.

"You get me a glass a water?"

"Yes, ma'am."

 

The next morning Dr. Joe runs harder than usual, and I don't blame him. But it's not his fault. He even beat me to the gym. When I pull up, he's jogging laps around his rust-colored Ford, already sweating. I respect him for driving that old truck all these years. He could afford nicer.

I don't say nothing, just walk by and unlock the door. He takes one more lap around the truck and jogs down to the court and keeps making laps until we shoot for teams.

The tenth player shows at 5:47, 17 minutes late. It's the squat linebacker, that boy. I don't look at him, neither.

"Let's shoot," I say.

Dr. Joe takes the ball, dribbles three hard times behind the foul line, and drops it through the net. When I get up, I miss my shot on purpose. Just can't stand the thought of being on Joe's team. Not today.

 

At school I try to not see another living person but can't help it. I got about 60 boys on the team this year. I reckon I owe it to them to show my face, even despite the odds.

I hear the bell ring and know they'll be coming. I've seen the trailers a lot of them coming from. That gets me up from my chair. I lean against the metal doorframe and watch them come. They run, and that's good, a strong sign despite the team that Chillerton's got. There ain't many things 16, 17, even 18-year-old boys run for these days.

"Hit a knee," I say, and they do.

I wonder if I carry with me now some new kind of power, if Susan's smell hangs thick on me and these boys can smell it. They kneel before me like soldiers with their backs swayed and chests out, nodding when they're supposed to, acting good, too damn good. I realize they know, and that just about does it. Everybody knows everything these days. There is no longer mystery in the world. I blame it on porn and cell phones.

I don't let it phase me though, not for the here and now. I blow the whistle, and they get to lifting their weights. Ain't really much for them to do other than grunt and sweat. They still call it football, but it ain't, not in the winter, not in the cold—can't even have a ball in their hands during the offseason, afraid somebody gonna get a concussion.

I watch.

They grunt and sweat harder than they have in years, their skin smooth and fresh and tight from the blood and the muscle. Knowing they know, I can't take it. I blow my whistle again. The boys trot to me and kneel.

"Killer Jeff," I say. "Go grab me a football."

Under different circumstances, he would have hesitated, but not today. He trots away, and the boys' eyes grow wide like young men's eyes before the clasp is undone.

Jeff trots back and tosses me the ball. The boys' heads turn in unison. I see hope in their eyes. I rub the ball in my hands. The leather's rough, as if it knows the man that holds it, knows what he's about to do.

"Reckon y'all got more use for this than I do."

I toss the ball up amidst the kneeling boys like a loaf of bread thrown to the hungry. Their hands rise to meet it.

 

"Coach?"

"It's me," I say.

"I knew it was."

"I know."

"Well, ain't you something," she says.

I smile, but don't say nothing else, just lay there next to her despite the smell, despite everything. What else is there for a man to do?

"I ain't got to go play ball this morning," I say.

She don't respond, like she's thinking about it, but that's not what she's doing. I hear her lungs catch. She's breathing, that's all she's doing, just trying to breathe. I hear her steady herself in the darkness, the short breath that comes before a word.

"You ain't got to be done with everything on account of me," she says and breathes in again. "You'd go plum crazy, and you know it."

The wood floors are cold on my bare feet.

 

It's me, Killer Jeff, and Dr. Joe all on the same team. For the first time in a long time, things feel right in the world. We even got two other old guys on the team with us, Father William and Dennis. I feel like Father William knows, too, and that's why he's here, but I'm probably reading into things. He comes most Monday mornings, especially if the three Catholic cheerleaders were at Sunday's mass and sitting in the front row. I don't know Dennis, but he's missing hair on top and I like that at least something has been taken from him.

I don't realize it until they score the first basket. It's my old player, the squat linebacker, who scores it. He slaps hands with another young boy in a way that old men never did—selfish taps of the knuckles and palm, a snap of the fingers. When they snap, I see it's the young guys versus the old guys.

The squat linebacker guards me.

I back him down in the post and call for the ball. Dr. Joe's dribbling hard to his right with his head down but slashes a no-look pass over the tops of heads and hands and the ball hits me in the chest. I feel the linebacker's knee in my thigh, his hand on my back. I turn and jump and shoot. The ball hangs in the air then spins through the net.

"Two-two," I say, and the old men take notice.

"Oh, okay, Coach," says the squat linebacker, grinning over his shoulder.

 

We've played the first team to 30 for as long as I can remember, even back to Killer Joe's Calculus days. The game today's been ugly. I've had a lot to do with that. I've fouled that squat little linebacker ever chance I got. He's still scored half their points.

We're tied now at 28, next team to score wins. They got the ball.

He's up at the top of the key, dribbling, when he waves the other boys off to the side. They move out near the three-point line, leaving only me between the boy and the basket with the game on the line. He smiles and turns his fat ass to me. It's his damn fat ass that's beat me all day. It's too wide to get around, and he just keeps backing me down. He's doing it again, and that's when I smell him.

It's a fruity smell, but different. Fruity like something out a can, something harmless, something boys spray on themselves in hopes of attracting women. I've seen the commercials. The boys spray it on, and the women fall from the sky and stick to the boys like magnets. Problem is, women don't work nothing like that.

He's just about got me under the rim.

I feel it coming. I know he's going to bump me with that dumpy, fat ass, and shoot the game winner. I get a hold of his shorts with my left hand and my right's ready for anything, when they hit him.

Dr. Joe gets him first. Jumps up and lands on the boy with his armpit in his face. Killer Joe comes in low and takes out the boy's legs. The boy makes the sound of revelation as the air leaves his lungs and the ball leaves his hands, bouncing alone near the free throw line.

My legs feel heavy as I run to the ball. Then it's bouncing out in front of me, as if it don't need my guidance, like the ball knows the score. It's a fast break, and it feels good—a touchdown kind a feeling, a game winner. I take the ball in both hands and gather myself for the final two steps, jumping, rising, telling time to fuck off on my way up. The ball rattles through the rim.

My feet touch down and no one is there. I turn and see the old and the young alike still gathered at the other end of the court. I raise my hands, palms out to my side. The old men look at each other, and now they remember the problem with keeping score. The ball rolls back down the court. Dr. Joe bends to pick it up, looking my way. Of course the ball finds Joe. It's his job to deliver such news.

"What?" I yell.

"He called foul, Coach," says Dr. Joe. "The kid called foul."

 

I go straight for the faucet when I get home. The water's cold from the tap this time of year. I drink from it, head turned, swallowing in long, hard gulps. I rise and put a glass to the water. I fill it nearly to the top.

The light's are on in the room, but I don't look at her. I can feel her though, feel the weight of the covers on her skin and her bones. I know she's thirsty.

"You ain't even got to ask," I say and hold the glass of water out for her.

"I ain't thirsty," she says but reaches for it anyway.

"Coach?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Y'all win?"

"No, ma'am."

I hear her breathe in hard, like she's wagered something and lost, seen the losing with her own eyes.

"Thought you didn't keep score?"

"Guess there ain't no way around it."

And she don't say nothing. Don't have to.

 

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