by Jim Walke
Pilot dropped into his three-point stance and waited for the center to snap the football so he could murder the guy from Walled Lake High lined up across from him. Whistle. Snap and explode out, thumbs up palms open punch with elbows locked, inside the framework of the body. Every ounce of force, rep in the weight room, each tiny maddening detail of the week delivered to the same eight inch area on the boy’s chest, pounding like a stamping mill. Punch, reset, punch. Some offensive linemen screamed obscenities or barked like dogs, but Pilot, Pile to his friends, didn’t make a sound. He could feel a smile pulling at the shape of his mouthguard as he smashed the kid back, and he counted silently. At 200 hits, when Pontiac had gone up by five touchdowns, the guy’s eyes had begun to glass over. A trickle of blood ran from his nose at 250. Whistle. One more shot, and he went down twitching, his face dragging on one side.
Pile’s cleats scraped and caught on the broken asphalt as he crossed the road in the dark back to the school buildings. The crowd had siphoned off after the ambulance pulled away and the refs called the game for Pontiac. A slender figure stepped into the cone of light from the fixture over the locker room door. Mori. She equaled exactly one-third of his weight, twelve inches shorter. They’d measured once, over the summer. That was all they’d done.
She reached up to put her digital recorder in front of his face. Mori’d wanted to be a journalist since grade school. A reporter who didn’t know Pile might have asked him about the boy.
“What are you doing to prepare for the Wonderlic?” she asked.
“A little early for that,” Jake said. The tall Pontiac quarterback had come up behind Pile. His uniform was clean, as if he’d sat the bench instead of playing the entire game. “Let’s finish district finals first. Then maybe college ball.” The dazzle of the stadium lights on the distant field outlined him for a moment, and then died as someone in the press box pulled a switch.
“The Wonderlic,” she said. “The cognitive test all NFL rookies have to take to become eligible for the draft. Any thoughts?” Her sideline reporter act.
“Sounds like a porno,” Jake said.
Pile agreed after some thought. “Lesbos.”
“You’re morons,” Mori said. “Be serious.”
Pile and Jake shared a look. Different for each, Pile thought. It wouldn’t be the same test for guys like Jake, quarterbacks. Pile’s would have questions about large objects to move, concepts that could roll over and crush him if he let them. Can you lift this? Can you protect? Black or white, upfield or down. Jake might be asked what it was like. That’s what Pile would ask. What’s it like to be in the center of that pocket? To have recruiters at each game taking notes, fighting to get into your living room and offer you a scholarship. How’s the air at the center of the world? Maybe that’s what the NFL wanted to know, too. How did you get this way? Can we make more like you? The men giving the Wonderlic test would lean forward with their own microphones at the ready to catch what the quarterbacks said, an old reel-to-reel spinning instead of Mori’s tiny recorder.
“Are you going to wait?” Pile asked Mori. He asked, even though she always waited.
“I can drive us,” Jake said. The three friends had traveled in the same orbit since the days when Mori had used a scratch pad with cartoon characters for her mock reporting. She used to wear a moth-eaten fedora that had belonged to her grandfather, with a t-shirt stuffed inside to keep the brim off her freckled nose.
Pile and Jake split off inside the door: Jake continuing into the locker room that smelled of menthol and a potato funk of sweat, Pile heading toward the cage. The weights were inside a metal enclosure on the stage off the old gym. The coach knew Pile’s routine, and left it open for him after games. He stopped at the janitor’s closet to wash his hands, only his hands, his routine. Grass-stain and dried sweat covered the rest of him, but he unwrapped the tape from each finger and scrubbed them with harsh soap until they were pink and tender.
Still in cleats and pads and muddy uniform, Pile set his helmet next to the bench press and racked four plates onto the bar. 225 pounds, the same amount used by the colleges and the pros for measuring a lineman’s strength. Not a huge amount; the number of reps mattered. Twenty-four reps was good. Very good for a high-school lineman. He settled back under it and locked his scoured fingers around the bar. His arms felt unattached, drained by the week of preparation and the pounding of the game.
Deep breath and up off the pegs. One. Nothing but the bar moving steadily. Two. No jerking. Wonderlic. Stupid name. When Pile saw his own test in his mind, only one man waited in the room. Iron gray hair, beak nose, and the houndstooth hat. Pile knew him by sight; he’d seen him coaching on the sideline in the old college football films, but he also knew somehow that the man didn’t want him to say his name.
What’s the right answer?
The bar wavered, and Pile shoved it up and away from his chest. Twelve.
You listening, son?
“Yes, sir,” Pile said. His neck ached where he bridged down against the bench.
The man didn’t speak again. Lights hung far above the cage like spots of pain. The bar had slowed to a crawl. Nineteen. All the way up. Keep it moving. Pile spasmed and shoved the bar onto the pegs before it could fall on him. His arms throbbed.
After a moment, Pile gathered his helmet and headed for the showers, looking at the door and nowhere else.
Mori sat in the center of the truck seat between them with her feet on the hump of the transmission. Pile watched as she pushed her short blond hair behind one ear before reaching over with a practiced motion to steer while Jake lit a cigarette. She straddled the crown of the road, running them down the middle where the potholes were scarcest. The sickly heater beat on their legs, fighting the freezing air that cut in the open windows. Pile stuck his head out into the blast. It felt good to be cold after a game.
They worked their way across the grid of streets and out of town. Occasional real estate signs flashed by, but mainly they passed high weeds and empty driveways. The houses dwindled and fell away to fields gone to brush. Lights strung along the horizon made it seem to Pile that they rode at the center of something that kept moving, staying out of reach, yet he couldn’t imagine what might be out there worth the electric bills to keep it lit.
Jake flicked off the headlights as they approached a four-way stop. No beams appeared on the cross-road, so he flew through the intersection and snapped the lights back on once they’d reached the other side.
Sections of chain link fence topped with barbed wire ran alongside. The factory grew in the distance, swelling up alongside the road. A mile long, with a roof covering more than fifty acres, it had been the largest building in the world when it was built to make B-24 bombers. They would roll along the assembly line, straight out the end of the building onto a runway and fly off to the fight. After the war GM had turned it into a transmission plant and sealed the giant door where the planes escaped.
Jake steered them off onto the shoulder with one hand on the wheel and slalomed the truck over the gravel, through an open gate into the Wake—a parking lot, one of a dozen surrounding the factory, out of sight of the main road and miles from any inhabited houses. Pile had never heard where the name originated. It was simply the Wake, and had been since the factory closed three years ago and unemployed most of the people in town.
The truck nosed into the circle of vehicles and kids around a haphazard bonfire of wooden pallets. Fishstick had his dad’s Chevelle backed up almost to the flames, the dented trunk propped open with a piece of re-bar. Torn cartons spilled cans of beer over the spare tire. Chemicals lined the rest of the space: drain cleaner, acetone, boxes of cold medicine. Pile reached in and pulled out three cans of beer with one hand. Fishstick appeared at the edge of the circle, the 2-liter bottle in his hands rocking methodically as he mixed a batch of crank. A girl with stringy hair followed him, rocking her own bottle like a baby.
“You clocked that guy, P,” he said. Fishstick’s eyes were bits of coal. He’d already sampled. “Fucked his shit up. He seized up like a carp on a hook when they put him on the gurney.” Fishstick’s eyes flashed to the beers in Pile’s hand, to Jake behind Pile. He charged everyone else two bucks a beer, and used a sharpened can opener to collect.
“Fuck yeah,” Fishstick said. The bottle never stopped moving. The chemicals inside rolled in a thick brown wave. “How many schools there tonight, Jake?”
“Five or six maybe,” Jake said. “Some MAC shitters, maybe Northwestern.” He popped open his beer and took a step toward Fish. “I’ll know for sure tomorrow.”
Recruiters couldn’t speak to a student after the game, and were limited to two hours on the weekend. Pile had been on display at Jake’s house for the Saturday rush the last seven weeks like a piece of meat. He stood four inches too short to start in a pro system at a major program, and was not agile enough to zone block for a spread offense. Pile made a great high school lineman. He would also get a free ride wherever Jake wanted to go and sit the bench for four years because that was the deal.
Mori walked away from the fire. Pile followed and they stood looking at the outside of the defunct factory, lit only by the flares of a few scattered lights like a blacked-out town. Kids had begun to disappear after it had closed, simply not showing up for homeroom the next day. By the time unemployment benefits had run out, the school had been one-third empty. Mori shivered, and he shrugged off his varsity jacket to drape it around her slender shoulders. Pile had been inside the factory with his mother once when he was a boy, before she got laid off along with everyone else. He remembered steel stamping machines two stories tall, lanes between them wide as streets filled with the bicycles and golf carts that the management used to get around the production floor. Jake’s father had been an engineer in the plant, and he’d told Pile about the miniature fire engine and ambulance that had wailed up and down the passages when the sheet metal crimper tore the legs off a scab worker who had gotten too close. Pile wondered if the machines still stood silently in the dark, too big to move, obsolete, useless anywhere but especially on this spot.
“He won’t go to Northwestern,” she said.
Pile didn’t answer. His arms ached from the bench-press. Jake was a pro-set quarterback, the wrong style for the spread offense run by the university where Mori had been accepted. She’d finish high school early and would leave for Northwestern’s journalism program in January. Pile had seen pictures of campus in one of the shining brochures every coach brought to Jake’s house. The buildings were clean and ivy-covered. It looked like another country. In the summer when Mori had made her decision it had seemed possible, but now that the weather had turned cold and the leaves had fallen he had trouble imagining leaving home without her and Jake both. When he tried to set his mind to the problem of Mori he felt too slow, as he did in front of the recruiters.
He crushed his empty can when he couldn’t think of anything to say, dropped it in the debris at the edge of the lot. Mori crossed her arms under the drape of his coat and continued to watch the huge building as though it might move or change. After a moment, he backed away and went for another beer.
Fishstick’s girl stood at the car pouring a new mix into her bottle. She looked up at the sound of his steps on the gravel. The bonfire licked up behind her, limning her in fire. He would have sworn that she smiled at him. It may have been the empty gesture of a girl so high that she was not in her own body, happiness without reason, but it gave Pile the sense that she saw him approaching from the dark like an animal looking for warmth. The air around her twisted and bent as if she stood in a mirage. Or a cloud of chemical fumes.
A flash. Eruption. Heat rolled into the night sky. The fireball engulfed the girl. She dropped the open bottle of acetone and reached for the flames on her clothes, her hair. The crowd skittered away like cockroaches.
Pilot saw the flame wind itself around her like shining cloth. His muscles wanted to fire off, to jump or hit or grab and block. He could fix this. He could save her. He stood by and watched.
Jake leapt the bonfire. He caught her in one arm, carried the screaming girl a few long yards and tackled her to the ground to roll out the flames. Fishstick stood a safe distance away, watching, unmoving except for the rolling crank bottle in his hands. Everyone knew his dad probably wouldn’t kill him over the car as long as he brought home some product. Pilot still could not move.
The crowd watched the fire crawl and hump the Chevelle, eating its way forward in surges as chemicals burst open. It died to a slow flicker consuming the paint and interior. The possibility of the gas tank exploding seemed remote, like something that might happen in a movie or a more exciting town. Trucks and cars were moved to form a new, larger circle with the destruction at its center. Kids eased closer to the burning wreck.
Mori crouched over the sobbing girl, still in Jake’s arms, asking how she felt about losing her hair and eyebrows, to please speak clearly into the recorder. Crystal, that was her name. Someone laughed. Pile’s gut spun around the tepid beer he’d consumed. Jake and Mori got the girl to her feet, bundled her into Jake’s truck. Pile would need to find his own ride. He thought he saw a figure at the edge of the pulsing light from the burning car, a gaunt man wearing a hat.
The weight cage stood empty when he arrived Saturday afternoon. Pile’s plates were still on the bar from Friday night. He washed his hands, lay down and took a grip.
What’s the right answer?
“Fuck you,” Pile said. He lifted the bar up and off the pegs.
Don’t believe that to be it, son.
Seventeen on the first set: total shit. Pile went to his locker and brought back the tiny brown glass bottle. A liquid sphere dangled at the tip of the dropper when he unscrewed the cap. Pile tilted his head back and placed it under his tongue. It made his mouth numb in seconds. He smelled hot metal and slid under the bar, cranked it up and down twenty-one times.
Not bad. Let’s try something else. How much is tuition at a good school?
The recruiters at Jake’s house had all nodded to Pile politely while describing their plans for Jake’s arm to lead them to a national championship. When Jake had made it clear that they were a package deal, that he wouldn’t play without Pile protecting his left side, the recruiters would each look him over. He’d tried to stand up straight.
“What’s your time in the 40-yard dash?” one of them would ask.
“Five seconds,” Pile’d said. Everyone in the room shuffled papers or looked at the floor. They’d seen the film. The tuna dip his mother had made him bring along sat untouched on the coffee table.
The drug began to wane on Pile’s third set.
How many football players in D1, again?
Pile knew this one. Mori had drilled the numbers into both of them: 12,000 college football players, 210 taken in each draft and not all those made the team. The average age professional football players lived to: 55 years.
His pecs were screaming, his chest tight, engorged with blood. He racked the bar before he tore a muscle. District finals on Friday, then the state playoffs. Three more games.
Pile hammered on the warped storm door at Mori’s house. Flakes of paint fell from the frame. His jaw clenched. He’d seen movement inside when he’d knocked the first time. She’d missed three days of school since the party.
“Mor,” he yelled. “I want my jacket back.”
He leaned his head against the glass. It was cold—frost on the grass this morning—but that didn’t bother him. He heard Mori’s voice even when she wasn’t around, asking questions in a running soundtrack. A V of geese crossed over the house, their primitive call falling around him.
Pile continued to school. He cut out of class at one o’clock to hit the cage. The thunder of bouncing balls and shrieks came from the nearby gym where the junior high kids played dodgeball. No Wonderlic today. It should have bothered him that the man had been dead a long time, but that seemed no stranger than anything else. He kept the weight light, pushing himself into extra sets to fatigue the muscles rather than tear them down. Pile showered off to head home early and eat before practice—film study of their Friday opponent, nothing strenuous. The old pipes shuddered and kicked when he shut off the water. As he dressed in the locker room, it seemed as if the old coach would say something. The moment passed.
Pile walked a half-mile out of his way to pass Mori’s house. It looked and felt empty. Movement in the shadows of a gaping garage door: a pack of feral dogs nosing through picked-over trash. He thought he recognized one or two of them. Pile walked faster, let his arms swing loose.
His mom backed out the front door as he came up their loose steps.
“Oh, honey, you scared the shit out of me,” she said.
He hated her red polyester uniform. The name tag. Her eyes seemed constantly tired now, as if she stayed awake all night looking through the want ads for jobs that didn’t exist. She’d begun smoking again.
“Mori’s uncle dropped off your varsity jacket. You’re going to get pneumonia if you keep handing that thing out, Pilot. Remind me, how much did I spend on it, again?” She reached out and touched his face. The uniform smelled like grease no matter how much she washed it. “Why didn’t you tell me she was leaving? I thought there would have been a get-together.”
Pile shifted his duffel to his other hand. “I told you Mori planned on enrolling early.”
She maneuvered around him and headed for the car. “You didn’t say how early. I can’t believe she’s already gone to Chicago . . . it’s only November,” she said over her shoulder.
“What?” Pile asked.
“Gotta go, sweetie. Don’t stay up too late. Eat the leftover tuna before it goes bad. It has protein.” She seated herself in the car and got it started before he could ask anything more, and she was backing up and lighting a cigarette and yanking her hair into a rough pony tail at the same time and then gone.
On the walk back to school, the wind carried the smell of snow and rust. He shoved his fists into the pockets of his jacket and hit hard plastic. Mori’s recorder. He’d never known her to let it out of her sight. He turned it over and over, fumbling and almost dropping it more than once; it had been made for smaller hands. Pile finally managed to catch the tiny play button with one fingernail. Her voice asked him about the Wonderlic again. For Pile, growing up around Mori had meant hearing every conversation more than once.
“Are you going to wait?” he heard himself ask again. Apparently not. Why would she leave? School would be out in another month.
He found a seat at the back of the classroom the team used for film study. Other schools had digital video broken down by position. Pontiac had an old TV and a VCR with no remote. The team manager sat down front and pushed the buttons when the coach yelled at him. Jake took a seat and stretched his legs out into the aisle. Pile borrowed a set of headphones from the guy next to him and fitted the plug into the jack on Mori’s recorder as the lights dimmed. All he needed were the images to know what to do. The pleasant ache of his workout felt like a suit of armor weighing on his bones.
Flint Calvary, their district finals opponent, came up on the screen as he heard the conversation in the truck again. The factories in Flint had been closing in waves over two decades, leaving a wasteland of burned-out houses and people too poor to get away. Tough kids, desperate, playing for blood tomorrow during their one chance in front of the scouts drawn to watch Jake. Pile followed the defensive line every play, linebackers in his peripheral vision, tracking blitzes and stunts. Counting heads. Searching for tendencies. The end who would line up across from him had made first team all-state. Fast and sharp, with a sick spin move. Pile absorbed the guy’s repertoire.
The muffled explosion of Fishstick’s car made a rumble in the headphones. Screams, a rustle of running feet, Mori’s excited questioning. The track split from memory here as Jake and Mori had delivered the scorched Crystal to her grandmother’s house. Again, he saw the girl wreathed in flames. Not struggling. Standing there and waiting for Pile to save her. He caught the girl’s moans—fear or pain, he couldn’t tell—and heard her refuse a ride to the hospital several times. The slam of the door when they dropped Crystal off ended the track, and he struggled to find the stop button. The sound skipped.
“Don’t.” Mori’s voice. Tight.
His fingers found something. The playback stopped. His stomach clutched at his dinner. Pile tried to find the right button without looking.
“Sounds like a porno,” Jake said. He’d rewound too far. Jake sat in the front row, watching the game film with his mouth hanging open in the half-dark.
He found the spot on the recording close to where he’d stopped. He listened to Crystal’s ride home again. On the TV screen the defensive end blew past a fat kid from Midland and smashed the quarterback. The video came to an end and coach swapped it for one of Pontiac’s last game. Pile made himself relax his grip on the recorder to keep from crushing it.
There had been the click of the track, so time had passed. Fabric muffled the sounds. She’d turned it on in the pocket of Pile’s jacket. Jake’s voice came through as a low golden murmur, the way he’d sounded since third grade when he wanted something.
A scraping as she shifted position suddenly. Pile sat up in his chair, one hand reaching for the source of what he heard.
“Jake, you fuck, cut it—” Mori said in his ears.
Jake laughed on the recorder. Pile watched him in the front row, watching himself on TV—the perfect delivery, the arm extended like a Greek statue, posed with his plant leg straight as the ball intersected with the receiver downfield.
“Please,” Jake this time, so close that Pile flinched as if he could feel the breath in his ears.
“You’re hurting me.” Mori. “Please.”
The recording cut out after another three minutes, when the panting had turned to animal sobs. He kept listening, waiting for another voice to tell him what to do. The film had stopped and the team cleared out by the time that Pile was able to pry his fingertips free of his grip on the edge of the desk.
He spent the night in the cage, and listened to the recording three more times. Three more games. The old man leaned against the incline bench, arms folded, and didn’t say a word. His eyes cutting under the brim of his hat. Pile didn’t lift anything, only held a weight in his lap most of the night to keep from rising off the ground and echoing around the inside of the cage. The movement inside her house when he’d knocked—she’d been in there—that quick pull back and cover, like a deer shot too low that would escape into the woods to die.
Pile opened his eyes after what felt like a short spell to find late afternoon light coming through the one high window, making a second cage of shadow on the floor as it fell through the metal grid around him. The time had slipped away. His body ached. Put the plate down, right leg, left, up. He shuffled into the locker room like a man after an accident, and began to prepare. Wash the body and cover it: pads, uniform, tape, helmet, swaddled in layers of armor and banner. Sit in the wet dark as the others filed in, wait through the noise of speech and plan, finally line up to march after twenty-four hours of immobility.
The crowd howled like an animal in the sudden dark of evening. Crossing the track now, the thin cinder moat that separated him from the ones who watched, and then he stood out under the lights. The frost had left flash-burned streaks across the ground. His cleats snapped off blades of grass still frozen in place. He lined up and faced the defensive end from Flint. The boy’s eyes were bloodshot, and he kicked a firm foothold for his first rush into Pile, his flight to prove that everyone had come to see the wrong young man play football.
Pile thought that the old coach might be watching up there along with all of the young, hungry recruiters. He wondered if the man would have let him play on his team in the old days.
The ball snapped, and Flint hit him in a bull rush sliding to the outside. Pile felt the swim move coming, the arm up and over, the change of direction. So easy to twist and let the end’s momentum take him out of the play and to the ground. Pile had done it a thousand times. Ten thousand. Jake would step up and deliver the ball and the whistle would blow to end the play. Return to the line and take a stance and hit and whistle. Again and again, forever.
And Pile planted his feet, the wrong thing to do, and the end surged inside of him, tasting the sack, feeling Jake in his arms, already talking to the recruiters after the game—Pile could see it shining in his mind’s eye—and Pile turned with the boy’s momentum and leaned back and heaved with everything he had. When Flint’s feet left the field his eyes widened. Pile swung him through the air like a child, turning to his friend who stood directly behind him, exactly where Pile had known he’d be.
Jake balanced on that perfect plant leg, arm extended, body relaxed after releasing the torque that had sent the ball downfield to a wideout running free. Textbook delivery. Pile swung the body of the defensive end like a sledgehammer straight through that left knee. Time seemed to slow for Pilot, and he could see the joint flex, the tendons resisting, and finally snap and fold in the wrong direction like an unstrung bow. Jake went down screaming a mixture of animal sound and plea.
He lay there in the center of the field, and everything lay there with him. Pile walked off the field and across the cinders and asphalt, dropping his helmet, discarding his football pads along the way.
Few lights outlined the empty school buildings. The locker room passed by, the sink, and he entered the cage.
His fingers were grimy when he wrapped them around the bar and lifted off. He’d already put it up a dozen times when the old coach came into sight. Pile grunted out six more.
“There is no right answer,” Pile said. Nineteen.
The coach took off his hat for the first time and sighed. Twenty-one. He ran a gnarled hand back over the slick gray hairs on top of his head, pulled up a chair and sat down to watch.
Twenty-three. The bar weighed the entire world. Pilot let it down once more.