Something Like Faith, Chapter 2

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Photo: Sean Hudgins

My schedule this quarter bites: no classes with Guin and mornings are a cruel experiment in time wastage, a two-hour penalty for wanting to go to college. Spanish 3:  all quizzes and memorization. Mr. Reison, burying us in exercises, trying to survive his last year before tenure. We’re not sure he speaks Spanish.

Calculus:  the word says it all. Mr. Golline (“Golly!” with an “n” tacked on) bubbling over about the “beauty of mathematics.”  Encourages us to sing our answers. I wish I were making that up. 9am.

Luckily for me, Thomas Jefferson High develops mind and body. Physical Education. In other words, each morning gets topped off with a bonus hour of Coach.

On a normal day, these are one hundred sixty-five minutes to count down until lunch. Today, they’re a death march. My head still wants to erupt, and each second draws me closer to seeing Guin, meaning my follow-up on last night’s “date.”  The wait might kill me, but what if the follow-up is there is no follow-up?

TJH has a “semi-open campus,” which means at lunchtime students can walk to one of three places, each within two blocks of school. The couples go to Mick’s Sub Shop. Mick has eight tables outside and about twenty booths inside. The tables and walls are painted blue and gold—our school colors. Mick knows where he gets his business.

Guin eats in the cafeteria with a rotation of four or five of her closest friends—kind of an in-crowd/artsy hybrid. The constant is Paige. They were best friends until third grade, then Paige moved here, five years before Guin did. I tend to remember all the details. I’ve never gotten a handle on Paige. She watches me. I mean, I’m not a stalker, but—yeah, that sounded bad; try again. Stalkers are creeps who collect undergarments and watch from the bushes at night. Guin and I have conversations in the daytime, and Paige always says “hello” to me, but keeps an eye on me while Guin and I talk. If I try to bring her into the discussion she’ll respond, then go back to sentry duty. I have no idea what she thinks of me.

But I greatly prefer when they have lunch together, because she always eats with Paige unless she’s seeing someone. Probably half of Guin’s high school lunches have been veggies with cream cheese on sourdough some Loser bought for her. I’m sure the Kintons have appreciated their savings.

Should I ask her to lunch already? Would that seem arrogant? Is she trying to get away from arrogant guys? But straight nice guy won’t get me there; she as much as told me that last night. Dweebs aren’t arrogant. I’ll invite her to Mick’s.

*

“So now we’ll graph the quadratic function obtained and the 3 tangent lines in the same coordinate system and label the tangent lines and points of tangency. Who’s got this?”

There’s five minutes left in Calc when my stomach goes into freefall. Am I broke? I draw my arm behind my back in slow motion, trying to elude Golly’s attention. He takes any movement as a raised hand. If you can’t ad lib a question when Golly calls on you, then he warbles, “Okay, Mr. Kingsley, give this problem a shot!”  Compared to everyone else in the room, I’m waving like a carrier crewman signaling his plane. With two minutes of subtle tugging and jerking I finally wiggle one leather corner out of my back pocket. The wallet slides out. Sick turns to panic. Nothing. I spent what I had while waiting to appear early—but not too early—at Guinevere’s.

The millisecond first bell rings, I’m jostling for the door. Jeff always carries money, with his weekend mechanic job and his little hobbies. Everyone else goes right, with traffic. I head left and plow my way upstream, then duck out a side door and sprint down Dead Hallway. It’s three times farther to the shop this way, but it’s empty.

The industrial arts building sits behind the school. Though stories of suicides abound, Phil told me they locked up Dead Hallway because it opens by the parking lot, which tempted too many shop guys to stop by their cars before shop. Even a principal like Mr. Hughes could interpret those three-minute extracurriculars.

I’ve only pulled out my keys once, the morning I stood in the sleet pounding for Phil and finally noticed his Camaro was missing. Still, I carry them every day for emergencies like this. Phil probably knows I have them but avoids the subject. He’d have to turn me in.

I peer through the crack between the ancient wooden doors. Getting caught coming out of here would be announcing my keys over the PA. Three jean jackets at the corner of the outbuilding, puffing away. Smoking on school grounds is an automatic three-day suspension. Phil says he picks up about five hundred butts a week. My hunch is they’d enforce the rule against copying school keys a little more strictly.

They won’t flick their smokes until the second bell rings. I’d have thirty seconds to find Jeff, get the money, and cross the entire school to the gym. Maybe on a motorcycle. So I either risk coming out now or guarantee that I’ll be late for PE. If I fail to score the money after gym class, I’ll be asking Jeff right in front of Guin or miss her altogether.

I stick the key in and turn slowly, but nobody uses this door so it’s rusty and loud. Fortunately, the burners are talking louder than the squeak.

“Whatcha doin’ this weekend?”

“Maybe driving to Iowa. Wanna go?”  Iowa’s drinking age is 18; Illinois’s is 21.

“Prob’ly.”

I’m out the door, but need to close it behind me.

Errrrrk! the hinges cry.

The middle smoker turns his head.

Screw the thing, I’ll have to get it after I find Jeff. I sidestep against the building, then pop out into the line filing into class like I’d just been leaning there. Jeff’s not in the room yet. He’s skipping today. Is the whole world conspiring to drive me insane?

No, there he is. Flirting with Darla, reigning Shop Queen. She’s not that good looking, with her big nose and bigger chin, but she drives a Mustang and she can make a chair ten times better than Jeff can. They’re a constant “almost.”

“Jeff, I need ten bucks.”  And without looking away from Darla, he’s reaching into his pocket.

“What’s going on, Paxton?” Darla greets me.

“Not much, Darla. Just getting my extortion money.”

Jeff laughs, but Darla forces a smile and looks away. Does she not know that word? More reverse Midas touch. Jeff literally throws a ten in my direction so I’ll go away. I catch it on the move, already dodging the stragglers. I’m halfway down the main hall, now empty, when the second bell rings. I’m going to make it.

But I didn’t lock that door. It didn’t even close behind me.

“Shit.”

I try not to swear for two reasons. Mr. Charles, my English teacher since sophomore year, claims that using profane language makes the brain lazy. He lets us complain in class, and even “disparage one another,” as long as we’re “creative and expressive with our ripostes.”  But if we’re “trite,” he gets a free shot. Nobody can insult the way Mr. Charles can, and I’ve never heard him resort to expletives.

More importantly, I wont become my father.

I don’t feel creative, though. I feel like God has it out for me. If I leave that door unlocked, it’s ninety-nine percent no one will notice. But if Mr. Hughes walked by, then Phil would hear about it, say he didn’t do it, and Hughes would start a witch hunt for the keyholder. Or ask Phil who else has keys.

Shit!” I repeat, reversing direction.

*

I race down the stairs, only to brake hard because Coach Brighton stands blocking the locker room doorway. He has the rest of the class sitting close by to watch the show.

“Well, Mr. Kingsley. How very kind of you to join us. Do you happen to have a pass?”  He has this tone that says he knows the answer to every question, but it’s obvious from my expression that I don’t have one. If he thought I did, he wouldn’t ask.

“No.”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘no.’  I don’t,” I respond at the same volume.

“Is this your first tardy for my class?”

I just glare at the mole above his left eyebrow.

“Should I repeat my question, Mr. Kingsley?”

“No, this is not my first tardy for your class,” I monotone.

“Do you happen to know how many you have?”

“Two.”

“Two?”

“Yes, two.”

He makes a production of walking back to his office, removing the grade book from his desk drawer, and counting aloud.

“One…two…three. I assume you know from experience what happens when a student gets three tardies in the same semester?”  He specializes in these double bind questions.

“Yes, I do, but I don’t have three tardies. I have two.”

“I see. Im not telling the truth. Or can’t I count? Which are you suggesting?”  Several of the guys look away.

I’ve been tardy to PE exactly once before. As if I could forget these little scenes.

“I’m saying I know of only two.”  You The names dance in a circle around his head. Coach could singlehandedly turn me into my father.

“I have the dates right here.”  He waves his grade book.

“Okay,” I say, and turn away without another word.

“Mr. Kingsley, where do you think you’re going?”

I stop on the first step. “To the office.”

“No, no, no, I wouldn’t want you to miss out on my class. We all need exercise.”  Sonofabitch! The word echoes in my head like a dropped bowling ball. “And, knowing your dedication to our basketball team, I’m sure you wouldn’t choose detention after school.”  He sounds so sincere they probably believe he means it. “So that leaves lunch hour. Why don’t you just bring your lunch to the office today and tomorrow? I’m sure they’ll enjoy your company.”

We play badminton the whole hour.

*

At 11:58, the bell releases us.

Guin has U.S. History third period. I get there after the door has opened. Students shoving and insulting, hurling themselves into the hallway’s general chaos. Guin walks out beside Tom Baker. Tom  plays centerfield and bats cleanup. Baseball is not a glory sport at our school. Still, starring in obscurity beats failing on center stage. Guin and Tom receive arm’s length from the masses. Some even apologize when they bump into Guin, not because she acts offended but because she’s Guinevere. Tom keeps touching her shoulder.

I’m standing against the wall. She doesn’t notice me, even though Tom brushes against me as they pass. She giggles as he wildly exaggerates someone stupid by gesturing with his arms, his eyes and his teeth. Tom smacks a freshman across the forehead in the process but the kid just ducks back into the crowd.

“Hi, Guinevere,” I nearly shout through Tom’s donkey laugh.

Guin’s blue eyes, squinting with amusement, register me when she’s two steps past.

“Hi, Paxton,” she says and keeps walking.

“And then the little shithead goes ‘but I didn’t know it was your car,’” Tom continues. I lean back against the light blue concrete block wall, feeling the coolness against my skull. I painted this wall. The least it could do is fall on me.

They’re twenty feet down the hall when she looks back over her shoulder and says, “Don’t forget to move, Paxton. I’ll see you after practice, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” I manage, nodding like a Slinky dog.

I hum U2 the whole lunch period, straight through The Unforgettable Fire. Mrs. Vandercoop, the school secretary, thinks I’m autistic.

*

Other than days we have games, we practice for two and a half hours right after school, except Mondays, when we practice before school to work around the girls’ schedule. It’s Tuesday, which means we’re learning the offense and defense of the team we’ll play this Friday.

We shoot around, then stretch and run ten laps.

“Gather up,” Coach says when the last stragglers wheeze in. We sit in the first three rows of bleachers. “Here’s how we’re going to beat Byersville…”  I used to memorize every word he said  during strategy sessions. Each day of my junior season I prayed—just in case it helped—for  the opportunity to prove myself in a real game situation, not just scrub time. I would burn their offense and defense so bad their coach would ask his assistant how we got their pre-game notes. I’d make 10 assists to go with my fourteen points. Six steals. Four rebounds from sheer hustle.

I’ve never gotten in with more than 3 minutes to go or fewer than fourteen points difference.

Today, I’m not that concerned with the Knights’ triangle rotation offense and half-court trap defense. Okay, less than “not that concerned.”  I spend half the lecture nailing imaginary twenty-five footers against the stunned Knights (“Who is this guy? Why didn’t we get scouting on Kingsley!”), the other half picturing Guin cheering for me.

“Okay, let’s set it up. Belucci, Fitch, Hollingsworth, Trash, Davis at point, run our offense.”  The starting five. The Chosen. “Myers. Thompkins. Hoffman. McKinley. And…” he looks up and down the bleachers while the others take the court, even though there’s only two of us left. Me and Jared Nillson. Twelve guys on the team, but Eddie Dennison has the flu. Nillson plays his lungs up every practice, but lost his right thumb in a combine accident the summer before our freshman year. Nill’s my favorite guy on the team. We’ve been friends since first grade. He’s right-handed, though.

“Jared.”

Nill jumps up, thumps me on the shoulder, and runs onto the court.

Now I can figure out the defense.

I play adequately. Once, I steal the ball from Curt Davis when he tries to dribble through the trap.

“Good play, Kingsley,” Coach yells to shame Curt. The next time, Curt learns from his mistake and crosses over at ankle height. I was once better than Curt—I beat him the last time Coach had a one-on-one tournament, which did nothing for my playing time but did, coincidentally, end team one-on-one  tournaments—but now he gets all the game experience plus everything he learns scrimmaging against me. This practice, Coach lets everyone else but me play offense.

Afterward, the team showers, which means we sing in the shower. We have the world’s most tone-deaf basketball players, but they compensate by singing loudly. I sing, too, but at a moderate volume and occasionally in the right key.

My other musical rebellion is that when the group hits the wall:  “COME AND DANCE nah nah nah nah, ALL NIGHT LONG…”, long pause, “WANNA HEAR SOME FUNKY…”, I often sing the actual lyrics. For some reason, this makes Travis Schaup laugh. Because the singing always improves when Trash stops, I feel obligated to keep him laughing.

“—WANNA HEAR SOME FUNKY—”

“—Ol’ black water, keep on rollin’, Mississippi moon won’t you keep on shinin’ on—”

“—BAHAHAHA!”

When I’ve finished singing and Trash has stopped imitating a sheep, he shakes his wide, jowly head.

“Kingsley, you motherin’ encyclopedia, there any songs you dont know?”

He, Jared and I hung out in eighth grade when he was still just Travis and all three of us were starters on the eighth-grade team. Everyone still loves Nill, so he’s safe. I’m the problem. Trash can’t decide whether he’s big enough to carry me on his coattails or if he needs to kick me sometimes to show he’s slumming. I think he respects me for not giving up, but resents me for failing and causing him this tension. Trash is a little self-centered.

I finish showering. The remaining chorus tortures some song so badly I can’t identify it. Chad Hollingsworth, now dressing, turns his box to the classic rock station, adding Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” to the bedlam.

“Hey, Romeo!” Trash looks over the row of lockers to where I’m drying off. “‘Been a Long Time.’  This your theme song?” he shouts.

I stare at his moose smile for a second before I get it. I’ve had such a bad day, I haven’t even considered that everyone is gossiping about me.

“No, ‘Beat It!’” Chad tells Trash.

“Yeah, no way he’s getting any there,” Belucci adds.

“Why’d she dump Chuck, anyway? I heard—”

As if on cue, Coach comes walking out of his office.

“Heard what? One of you Uglies got a girlfriend?”  He asks like it’s a joke but he expects an answer.

The guys go silent. Jimmy Page cranks out his solo.

“Trash?” Coach asks, “You don’t have a new girlfriend, do you?”

“Always, Coach,” Trash affirms, combing his thick black hair and beaming at himself in the mirror. Trash is almost certainly speaking the truth. He’s continually pursuing another girl dazzled by his build and status (he starts at tight end as well as power forward) then dumping her after he gets somewhere. Guys bet on how long he’ll take.

But Coach knows that’s not it.

“Nill? Some lucky lady get your rock?”  Trying the most honest member. He’s hoping it is Nill, too. No threat to Coach’s ladder-climbing from that romance.

“Nope, safe and sound.”  Jared waves his left hand with the gigantic blue and gold class ring. We say he uses it for weightlifting.

Coach grins cheerily, which means he’s getting pissed. His idea of loyalty is everyone should be loyal to him.

“You know anything about this, Kingsley?” Coach asks, buddy-buddy. I didn’t see it coming. I’ve just dropped my towel and I’m sitting on the bench naked, reaching for my underwear. Does he already know? Is that why he screwed me at lunch time? Or is he asking because he thinks I’ve got the most to gain from sucking up?

Now I’m going to backtrack; otherwise, you’ll think I’m overreacting. My freshman year, I was young and cocky, but enthusiastic and hustling my butt off. This was Matthew Brighton’s first year coaching. He had some difficult guys on the team. Probably he’d count me among them, but he’s clueless:  two guys were practicing criminals who happened to play basketball. They’re probably hooping in Sing Sing now.

This was midway through football. We had pre-season, “voluntary workouts” that Coach Brighton couldn’t officially attend. The football players weren’t there, obviously. Basically, it was the short and/or skinny guys, and I was running the floor like a maniac, going coast to coast with reverse lay-ups and over-the-shoulder no-look passes. Of course, I wasn’t impressing anyone important, but back then reason number one was I enjoyed playing basketball. Things change.

Anyway, someone decided to rifle the Coaches’ office. Jefferson’s not a rich prep school, so the football, basketball, wrestling, baseball, and track coaches all share the same ten by twelve. We had fifteen or twenty players, no one’s counting or supervising us, and we’re subbing freely. Then we arrive for “workout” one Friday—I remember, because those two guys had “business” on Fridays—and  five of the coaches are waiting for us. Coach Brighton is standing there with crossed arms, his face red as the American flag hanging over his head.

“Gentlemen, someone took money out of Coach Sanchez’s wallet. It seems clear that one of you must have done it. Is anyone ready to confess?”

Now Cheese-and-Rice, think about this:  someone picked the lock probably mid-afternoon, walked in, searched the desks and maybe even the pants’ pockets until they found a wallet with enough, took the cash, walked out, probably even locked the door behind them, and Coach B thinks that this party is going to quail at squinty eyes? Say, “Me, me, I did it! But I’ll mend my ways! Can you ever forgive me?”  I try to remind myself he was a new coach.

Every guy standing there knew who had robbed Coach Sanchez. Yes, it was likely racist, since these same two guys referred to him as “Coach Nacho” or “Coach Spic.”  The coaches had every reason to be pissed. But what were we gonna do?

He doesn’t know me from Adam at this moment. I’m just hunching in the crowd, the shortest guy there. I should be the least conspicuous.

“Paxton Kingsley, who stole the money?”  Oh, sure Coach, it was Pick and Thumper. Now can I have my identity change for the witness protection program? I mean, none of us had seen them do it. We knew, but we didn’t know in any legal sense. If I’d seen it, I might have felt obligated to do the right thing. Who knows?

But he’s accusing me, singling me out. Why? Because he’s heard about my parents. How many times have I wondered if my basketball career at TJH might have actually existed if I had answered differently?

“Coach Brighton, we didn’t do it. None of the guys here stole anything. What’s your evidence to be accusing us?”

Coach alluded to those ill-chosen words at the start of this season, three years later. I’d bet he recalls them right now as he waits for my answer. I’m damned if I do or don’t, he thinks. Except this time, there’s no one else to rat on. All he wants to know is whether one of his precious starters is preoccupied. He could give a rip about my life. But I will be damned if I’m going to tell him about Guinevere.

“No new girlfriend, Coach. Just some guys making noise.”  He nods at me like I’m full of it.

“Curt, who were you guys talking about?”

“Uh, we were just teasing Kingsley.”

Right like that, no effort at dodging the question. I’ve tried to keep my attitude toward Curt clean—just a guy who works hard and happens to start at point instead of me—because in my situation my father would hate him and I refuse to be my father. Truth is, my father does hate him.

Coach Brighton turns back to me slowly, as if he’s finally caught the thief and oh, is he happy it’s me. What gives you the right to know about my private life? My mouth forms the “what” without permission but no sound comes out, so I look guilty and speechless and caught. Why dont I just say that? I know the answer and hate myself for it:  I’m still hoping he’ll play me.

“No new girlfriend or your new girlfriend. Which is it, Paxton?”

*

After the hallway invitation, I didn’t see Guinevere again, so I called from the payphone in the lobby before practice to say I would not make supper—if she wanted me for supper. I sounded just that lame explaining it to her machine. I call again right after I get out of the locker room.

“You don’t want to come over?” she asks.

“No, it’s not that. We just finished and even if I got a ride, I wouldn’t make it in time. Don’t you eat at six thirty?”

“Yeah, but my parents understand about commitments. Can you get a ride? I’m only going to be here until 7:30, then I’ve got jazz rehearsal.”

It hasn’t been my best day. To see Guinevere for an hour, I have to sprint to the parking lot and beg whomever’s still there to drive out of their way. Then I’ll be stranded and either walk home—five miles, maybe—or ask a ride from her, plus I’ll have to make proper conversation with Noel and Gretchen Kinton when I feel like I’m about to bite through my teeth. Not much choice, really.

“If you’re sure it’s alright, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Okay? Bye.”

God, heres another chance for you to prove you exist. Please, please let Jared not have left yet. I’m praying for a miracle, because Jared almost always leaves first so he can get home to do his homework (you can see why I like Jared but Jeff’s my best friend).

I hit the front steps so fast I nearly plunge head first. Someone is just pulling out, maybe Jared. Can’t tell from behind in the dark. I sprint, but the car tears out of the parking lot, squealing its tires and fishtailing. Not Jared.

Two cars left.

Red Chevy Caprice. Coach.

Brown Oldsmobile Toronado. Curt.

Neither gentleman is in the parking lot yet.

I don’t really believe in omens, but that headache was a warning. The last time I stayed home sick, Dad pulled a chair into my room and nursed me with stories about alcoholics in our family who died from liver cirrhosis or killed themselves or beat their wives and children. From 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. he talked, with no breaks during meals. I’d take that day over this.

Options: 1)run to Guin’s; 2)call Jeff; 3)go ask one of those two for a ride.

I’ve already jogged five miles, played defense, and run sprints and suicides. Guin lives as far from school as I do. Running seven-minute miles, I’m there in thirty-five minutes—twenty-five late for dinner, only thirty-five before she has to leave. Running five minute miles, I’m dry heaving before I get halfway.

If Jeff could walk out the door the second he answers the phone, I’d probably make it in twenty minutes. If I go call him and he can’t come, Curt and Coach will probably leave before I get back.

And if one of them comes out now, I’m there in ten.

Before the locker room interrogation, I could have asked Curt. We’re not friends, but we get along. I cheer for him during games because what am I going to do, cheer for the other team? Of course he’s a brown-noser, and I’ve heard rumors that his family has Coach Brighton over for dinner weekly, but you can’t believe what you hear in the hallway, and he’s never done anything to me (except get all my playing time). Until now.

Or I could ask Coach. Ha fripping ha.

Maybe I could call Jeff and, if he can’t come, call Guin and tell her I’m sorry, but I have no way to get there until—

Curt and Coach come through the door. Together. They stare at me.

if I run four minute miles, I could make it by six forty

Seeing Guin is more important than avoiding humiliation. She wants to see you. Dont blow this. 

But I’m not walking toward the parking lot. I’m turning back toward the building. I just can’t do it.

I’m halfway back up the concrete stairs in front of the building when the whole plan shatters:  the front door is closed and locked. I wasn’t considering being locked out, because I’m not really, except that Coach Brighton just saw me moving toward the building. So I am. Really.

The whole day’s futility buries me under a mudslide. I sit down on the steps and let the chill seep in.

Behhhh!

A car horn. I’m not looking.

Behhh! Behhhhh!

A wimpy car horn.

Coach Brighton’s Caprice is pulled over near the parking lot exit. He’s gesturing to me.

(Did I mention that my dad coached basketball? They fired him after his sure-to-make-state team went five hundred because his star center broke both ankles jumping out of a hay loft. Why was he jumping out of a barn? Maybe he was stuck like this. I would jump right now. I would break my neck if it would get Coach fired.)

I jog down to his car. He rolls down the passenger window.

“You need a ride?”

Run now and arrive after she leaves. Walk home. Find another payphone

“Yeah, I do.”  As I pull the door closed, I remember thanking God last night. I laugh.

“What’s so funny?” he asks.

“A lot can change in a day.”

“Well, just because I had to do my job earlier doesn’t mean I’m going to leave you stranded tonight. Besides, I’m not supposed to leave anyone lurking around the school.”  I laugh harder. His eyebrows furrow and I can see the muscle in his jaw clench inside his cheek.

“Coach, can you drop me at Guinevere’s?”

“Hohoho,” he says, thinking he gets it now. Close enough. I tell him her address.

He turns on the stereo. Genesis, “Man on the Corner.”  I might have chosen “Land of Confusion,” but no, now that I think about it, this fits better. Or maybe “Coming in the Air Tonight.”    I glance around his car without turning my head. It smells of fake pine. Dangling from the rearview mirror he’s got a gold chain with some symbol, maybe a letter from the Chinese alphabet. I’ve never seen Coach with a female.

“Have you been married, Coach?”

He looks cross-eyed at me.

“I’m twenty-six. I started coaching you when I was twenty-three.”

I’ve taken too much from him today to let that go.

“Some people are divorced and married again by that age.”

He looks at me again for a long time, then shrugs.

“Okay, you’re right. I wasn’t, though.”  I check the symbol again and he notices. “Oh. Good eye. That’s from my lady friend, Sam. Samantha is spending the year in Japan.”

We’re about halfway to Guinevere’s. The masochistic me wants to ask about Samantha, the vengeful me wants to demand why he picked me since day one for his personal whipping boy, and the rest of me just wants to get there. But he speaks first.

“Can I ask you a question?”  Since when does he wait for permission? My stomach churns. But why should it? Stupid stomach. 

“Yeah?”

“Why didn’t you just tell me you were going out with Guinevere?”  He waits a moment, but I can’t put together a first sentence. Or word. “Why do you try to undercut me every chance you get? Like even just now. What does that gain you?”

I’m a smart guy. I have a four point and am applying to Northwestern, UCLA and Princeton (not that I can afford any of them). I think a slack jaw indicates stupidity. None of this helps as I sit in Coach Brighton’s car with my mouth gaping.

When I don’t answer, he turns his head to read me. Then he starts laughing again.

*

“So what did you say to him?” Guinevere demands. I’ve described the situation to her, excluding the subject of Coach’s questioning in the locker room. I just said he was prying.

“Something feeble, like ‘I’m just trying to play basketball.’”

“Oh, my God, Paxton, what’s the matter with you? You had the chance to make him answer for all his bullshit.”  I wince. “What is it, Sweetie? Not ladylike enough for you?”

“No, it’s not that,” I mumble, though she knows she caught me, “it’s what came next.”  I had decided not to tell her, but I can’t seem to regain my balance. Her calling me “Sweetie” tips me further, even though it’s sarcasm. “He told me, ‘You would have seen a lot more playing time if you had just done that.’”

“Ouch! But what’s new? You’ve always said if you had sucked up, he would’ve played you.”

“I know. But it’s different to hear him say it.”

She knows about PE today. She doesn’t know that, in the silence of the last mile in Coach’s car, I remembered another tardy. I was late for a sub who acted like he could give a rip. I assumed he hadn’t marked it down. Wrong again. I can’t deal with seeing myself from Coach’s perspective, much less help her to.

She shrugs. “Makes sense. You want some dinner? Dad’s working late tonight.”

I smile, which feels unfamiliar; it may be the first time all day.

“A cozy dinner for the three of us? Sure.”

Guin looks at me funny. Probably surprised to see me recover so quickly. I haven’t.

 

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