Playground Hustle (Fiction) (7/10/10)

30 Sep

Holding a cluster of tissues to his nose, Greg listened to the mind-numbing repetitions of his fellow Jehovah ’s Witness. “Worse has happened to us.”

It kept repeating over and over in his head.

When they arrived at the motel, their room number falling limp on the door, a poor half-crooked 5, Greg dropped his bible next to the television and immediately went to the bathroom. Blood eased its way down his forearm, under his ironed white button-down. He noticed that some had even splattered onto his necktie, even though its navy blue color made it barely visible. In front of the mirror, he began to undress, from his cufflinks down to his shin-high navy blue socks. His nose was swollen and turning a pale yellow. He thought of Hollywood movies where the hero would take his nose between thumb and forefinger, jerk the bone back into place, and attempt a masculine cry toward the heavens. He wondered if God would heal this wound.

Leaning over the sink, he took a long look into his own face. Dark circles had started to form under his eyes, his chest hair had begun to grey and yet he’d only just turned thirty-one. Eventually, his gaze fell to his penis. He rolled it around in his hand. It was slightly longer than the spread of his hand. He smirked at its undeserved profundity, at the statue of David, and all the pictures of Adam and Eve he’d been subject to throughout his recent years. When he entered the shower, the waves of water soothed his broken nose, and he stood there under the running water for ten minutes before grabbing his washcloth.

He left the bathroom in a white cotton tee shirt and boxers. He walked to his bible, picked it up and sat limply on his bed. Sal had already picked the bed closest to the door and unpacked his acoustic guitar. Greg wasn’t in the mood for hymnals, so he flicked on the TV and drowned out Sal’s soft finger-picking. Sal stopped and arose, also in boxers and a white cotton tee. “While you were showering, I began reworking the Job theory. We need to show more clearly why he chose not to curse God when God took away his flock and his family. Don’t you think we’ll reach more people that way?”

Greg coughed, put his bible on the bedside table, and shut off the TV. Sal put down his guitar and the two of them sat next to each other on the bed for a few minutes. Greg stared at the wall, while Sal reached into his boxers. When they kissed, Greg missed the shower, the hot water, that short instance of pain.

~ 50 years earlier ~

Teddy learned quickly the rules of the playground. Palmer Harris’ son had the swing-set, Mayor Graw’s daughter was queen of the sandbox, and Jimmy Thomas reigned the monkey bars. All that was left for him was the rusty spinning wheel which all of the kindergarteners and first graders got sick while riding, and it wasn’t left for only him. Every kid in the second and third grades, who weren’t friends with these playground Castros, took residence on the same wheel. Teddy’s older brother, Reese, would come over on occasion, saying things like, “She used to spin in my day,” or “D’you sit in the kindey puke, Tuddy?” His brother was in the fifth grade, so naturally nobody defended him. Willie Draven would mumble things like, “Go back to the fifthees, snail-eater,” but the collective of them thought that if the day came where Reese heard such a thing, we’d have to section off a portion of the grounds for a grave, a big grave, one to fit a boy who loved the more than occasional Hershey bar.

On a sunny day in late September, Teddy never saw it coming.

Reese was about to leave the playground for lunch. All fifth graders had to do so at quarter after noon. It was state law. On his way toward the door, he turned toward the kindergarteners, specifically Willie Draven.

“Where’d you get that jean jacket, Philly?” Reese asked. It was Willie’s fathers from when he was a kid. It barely fit. The teacher referred to it as a ‘sensitive subject’ on Willie’s first day there. “From the trash?”

Teddy turned to his left, expectant to here Willie make his nearly silent rebuttal. There was no voice to be hear, or boy to be found. ‘Philly’ had already scaled the few feet to where Reese stood and laid a fist to him unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Drew Harris stepped down from the swing, Lacey Graw came up from the sandbox, and Jimmy Thomas lanked his way to the ground from the monkey bars. Before the teachers knew what happened, the playground children encircled Reese. Willie stood over him, fist still clenched, mouth closed tight. Nobody could stop staring. Mouth agape, Teddy watched his older brother on his knees, blood slowly coming from his nose. Teddy smiled.

This was the same day Teddy knew he wanted to be a boxer.

~ 9 years later ~

“Theodore Richland?” his high-school English teacher presented during attendance.

He raised his hand, “its Teddy.”

He watched her make some sort of marking on her attendance sheet and move on to the next student, “Paula Thompson?”

Teddy’s eyes returned to the window to his left. Outside, two juniors in sweaters talked with a sophomore girl. They held books, the boys’ at their sides and the girl’s to her chest. It seemed as though every time the boys would say something, the girl would laugh hysterically. He sat in class, putting words in their mouths.

‘My hair looks like a poodle’s ass,’ he imagined from the boy in the red sweater.

‘N’yut, n’yut, n’yut,’ the girl laughed. He remembered her from home-ec, stirring a bowl of cake batter with her girlfriends. Teddy pondered the face she would make after undoing his belt, after she came. He pondered whether these poor excuses for guys thought they were actually funny or if they thought she was legitimately crazy.

‘My grandfather and father both played football for this Jackson High, and I plan to do the same, or my name ain’t Pickle Johnny,’ said the blue sweater.

Another n’yut, n’yut, n’yut from home-ec girl.

He hated them, stared solemnly. Teddy remembered his grandfather leaning toward him at the last family reunion. It being a year that ended in five, the menu was seafood: imitation crab, barely defrosted mini-shrimp, lobster bisque from the can, and grandma’s “famous” oyster stew. His grandfather always got rather ruffled after a few ales, distressed, restless. That year, his grandfather pointed bluntly at a group of men in sweaters who were discussing something with his daughter, Teddy’s aunt. He never made eye contact, but Teddy wouldn’t forget the words.

“Sometimes a man in a sweater needs unraveling.” With this, his grandpa got up from the table. When the Sweaters raised their hands to receive a handshake from the esteemed old man, his gramps came out swinging. That was when Teddy’s mother put all the whiskey back in the cabinet upstairs.

~ 3 years later ~

It was his first summer after high school. Teddy, known better at this time as Theo, was selling weed. Andrea was his girl then. She worked at the local ice cream shop on the corner of 8th and Juniper. Vanilla was his favorite, but it wasn’t hers. She grew out of liking it after it stained her black skirt one afternoon. Theo should’ve known it was going to melt, but it was her decision to fuck him before putting it away. It ran down over the counter and under the two of them. She didn’t want to stop. Neither did he.

When Andrea got off work, the two of them retreated to the basement of his parent’s house. He made it his own world. Posters of Neil Young were hung up all over the room: most with his shirt on, one with his shirt off. It seemed that every time they got high, she’d ask why he had a poster of a shirtless dude on the wall. Theo always repeated, “He’s a man that felt more comfortable with a guitar than in a sweater.” He knew she didn’t understand, but she hadn’t ever questioned further. In the corners, he had guitars: two electric, two acoustic. One of the acoustics was signed by a local boy before he got on a bus for Vietnam. Theo hadn’t wished the boy well, or even thanked him for the signature. The two of them had just shook hands. That was the extent of it. About three feet off the wall from the signed acoustic was a punching bag. It was brown in color and looked as if it had been through a war. There were several tears near the top and a small hole near the base of the bag, letting sand sprinkle occasionally onto the floor. He used it a lot lately, especially when he came home from working at the new McDonalds.
Andrea pulled apart grass from his tin of it and rolled a joint. When they first started going together, she would always tell him that she was rolling a jay and let him spark it. Instead, she lit them by herself and would smoke the whole thing unless he went over, sat next to her, and reached for it. When Theo asked why she didn’t stick to her old protocol, she responded, “War changes people, man.”
Theo laughed to himself.
They talked of possibly going to the university, but let it pass. He talked of leaving Jackson and starting north with his friend, Gale, a back-up drummer for Jim Morrison. She talked of throwing her stepmother from the kitchen window and finding a way to come with him.
Theo laughed again.

~ 8 years later ~

Brooke Fenham was on his arm in late 1981. A man walked up to them on the sidewalk, a tall African-American with arms that could’ve reached the moon. Teddy saw the right hook before it connected. He nudged Brooke out of the way, twisted so that his back faced the man, and elbowed him right in the muscle that joined his shoulder and his neck. The attacker went to one knee, but got up quickly, producing a switchblade. Teddy backed up, but didn’t back down.
“Why are you doing this?!” Brooke cried from behind him. He didn’t look toward his girl, just said, “Everything’s going to be alright, baby.” A swipe from the knife, a miss. Another swipe. This time, Teddy caught the man’s wrist, moved in with a left hook to the right eye. The attacker went down. Teddy stole the switchblade to his pocket and straddled the man’s chest. He threw blow after blow into the eyes, the temples, the ears. When he thought the man deserved no more, he finished. He was still breathing, but most would’ve confused him for dead, a mass of swollen face. Teddy didn’t wipe his hands. Instead he lit a cigarette and stood up. He turned to Brooke, holding out a blood-stained hand. She stared at it, silent.      He asked if she was alright, still nothing. Teddy moved closer to her. Brooke moved further away, and further still when he took more steps. He knew it was over. After a scattered repetition of the words, “self-defense”, Teddy walked on.
“Fine, fuck you!” He yelled, rounding the street corner. Her tears just came in stronger waves. “Do you always walk away when somebody saves your life?!”
Days later, Teddy would serve his last day of classes at North Carolina University. He never finished his music major.

The drive from North Carolina to wherever the hell he was going would for sure be a long one. Teddy brought his last ounce of grass. He was getting over the stuff. He had to, or there was really nowhere to go. He placed a joint in the front pocket of his button-up and hit the road hard. Most would’ve guessed Teddy Richland to have grabbed nearly every damn thing from his run-down apartment on 35th, but he only took a handful of clothes, of money, of weed, and three books: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Different Seasons by Stephen King, and a battered old copy of Frankenstein by Mary Sheilly. He wasn’t sure if those were his favorites.
The second night of driving north on I-86, Teddy stopped at a gas station. Thirty-seven-years-old and counting, his hair had begun to grey slightly. To his surprise, it didn’t affect the amount of girls he got. Even after deciding to quit college, it just seemed like they just kept falling into his lap. He met Paula Sobel that afternoon at the gas station. She was standing outside smoking a cigarette. Teddy thought that her tie-die shirt made her look like she was desperately holding onto the sixties, but never the less he ran his eyes around her curves. They started with her long, curly black hair, still wet with hairspray, moved down to her round shoulders and perfect chest. Teddy could do nothing but smile wide, following the rest of her hourglass figure. She took a drag and blew it in his direction as he went in to pay, “Where ya headed, cowboy?”
Teddy laughed hysterically on the inside. If she weren’t wearing a tie-die, he would’ve thought that she popped right out of a ‘50s film. He thought that line to be pricelessly cheap. He responded with a raised finger that said wait a minute. Teddy paid and returned outside. She was finished with her cigarette and was looking rather puppy-like and bored. He gave her another and lit one of his own. “So, where you headed, cowboy?”
That question again, really? He smiled wide immediately, but replied, “I don’t know exactly. Maybe New York, Maine, Jersey –”
“D’you say Jersey?” She asked, pushing off slightly from the wall and standing on her own. “I’ve got a cousin in Jersey. Boxer. Started givin’ lessons to amateurs about three weeks ago back at his place. He’s a pretty cool dude. Maybe you’ll meet him. Whereabouts you think you might go in Jersey?”
She had him with ‘boxer’. He took the last long drag of his cigarette, and the spirit of cheesy old Hollywood lines, he asked, “Honey, you lookin’ to go with me to Jersey?”
She smiled and nodded. The two of them climbed into the Ford Ranger and headed even further north. Maybe the ring was where he wanted to go. Maybe he just wanted to fuck someone else. Either way, Teddy had his truck, his books, his weed, his girl. Nothing but the Jersey line was going to slow him down.

It was in the middle of Pennsylvania, late June 1982. Larry Holmes had just fought the White Hope, Gerry Cooney, for the Heavyweight title. Holmes retained his title, throwing Cooney from the spotlight. Teddy and Paula had stopped at a diner. Next to that headline on the daily paper, he saw the words, “William Draven to Receive Additional Sentence”. He bought the paper from the machine and began reading before they even sat down at a table. Paula was concerned when she saw the look on his face, “What’s the matter?”
Teddy didn’t answer until he was done reading.
On Wednesday, William Draven – prisoned in 1976 for murder by assault – has been sentenced to an even larger prison term due to actions taken within prison walls. Witnesses and officers state that Draven was illegally fighting in the common area. “It was a set-up fight,” says Officer Delham of Johnstown’s death row sector. “The two prisoners agreed to fight each other. There was an assembly of prisoners encircling the two of them. Draven gave most of the damage but was handcuffed quickly. Other inmates informed us that this hadn’t been the first organized fight of recent weeks.” Our reporter was later told that Draven is eligible for another four years for assault and battery. His court date is set for June 29th at 12 pm in the Johnstown Judicial Building.
            “Shit on me, Sally,” Ted blurted. “My brother just shed a tear for his stereotypes back in Jackson. We never knew he had it in him.”
Confused, Paula asked, “What are you talking about?” Before Teddy could answer, the waitress came and the question was never brought up again.

The first time that he met Uri Sobel, a boney underground boxer from Soviet Russia. His accent was much thicker than hers but could still be understood. When Teddy walked in he saw Uri standing in the corner, shirtless, hopping like a true fighter against a speed-bag. He was abnormally skinny yet nearly seven feet tall with veiny, defined muscles on his arms. His hair was buzzed, a black and white tattoo of an eagle over Russia’s outline on his stomach. He stopped bouncing, “How are you?”
“Good,” Teddy said, stepping further into the establishment. It was rusted, old, and decaying. “This is quite the training room, huh?”
Uri just looked at Paula. “He is funny guy?”
She shook her head. “He wants to be a boxer. He was mugged, and he beat up the mugger.”
Uri’s eyes came back to Teddy, gazing up and down over his whole figure. “You can’t be fighter. You dress like big pussy man. You think Heavy Holmes got to be who he is today by wearing khaki-pant? Try and hit me.”
Teddy wasted no time. He lunged forward into the reach of this absurd character, attempting a right hook. It was blocked with ease, and he received a hard uppercut to his abdomen. Teddy coughed, but kept going. Each swing blocked and countered. Each move was opposed and strategized against. “I thought I said hit me.” Swing, counter, swing, counter; Teddy stopped to catch his breath.
“Did you think this easy, American boy?” Uri questioned, barely having broken a sweat. “I will train you if you really want be boxer, but you get own trunk and glove. Okay?”
‘Did I really lose that much strength in a year?’ he thought. ‘I guess I was fitter in college.’
Teddy started by selling the weed for ‘trunk and glove’ and ended his stay in this town outside Scranton with a Middleweight Championship. Uri Sobel died shortly after, reportedly too far into a Russian mafia syndicate. Teddy’s last fight ended like many other fighter’s retirement discoveries: by the hand of up-and-coming Mike Tyson. After that attempt at the Heavyweight Championship in ’86, Teddy drove to Maine. A pregnant Paula came with him. It was to be their second child.

They’d moved to Maine and life wasn’t easy for the 41-year-old. There was beginning to be a trend of college-level importance in the workplace, and with Teddy having dropped out in ’81, he went back to school. He studied English thoroughly, while working two jobs to support his family. All in all, Paula had three children: Julie, Paul, and Theodore, Jr. He called the latter, Teddy Jay. In college, the subject matter came easy to him. It was a much easier regiment at the University of Maine than the honors program at the University of North Carolina. Teddy received a bachelor’s degree in English, and began teaching it at Julie and Paul’s high school. They weren’t very big fans of their dad’s homework, but learned very quickly. As a matter of fact, most kids in his courses learned quickly and scored high on their state tests.

When the school received more funding, Teddy got a large bonus.

With this bonus, he bought an agent. The agent helped him sell his first book, The Boxer’s Guide to Professional Writing. It was a satire instructional book on developing the craft of writing, told through the narrative voice of a boxer. The already established writing community, in large, saw it as “amateur-ish” and “a novice at work”, but when the current population of up-and-coming writers picked up copies, the views changed as a lot of great local works utilized his formulas. Teddy went on to win an award in April of 1994 for Best Instructional Book of the Year from Writer’s Digest. After his one-millionth copy sold, he decided to go back to school for his doctorate and became a college professor for the very college he graduated, the University of Maine.
A new millennium rounded and Teddy Richland was surrounded by pain. Paula came down with pancreatic cancer and couldn’t beat it. Julie, at age 20, got caught up in methamphetamines with a shaky boyfriend and drove south against his will. Paul, at age 16, turned from high-school soccer to the attention of the only street gang in northern Maine. He was shot by an officer of the law after first firing, himself. Teddy Jay, now 12, didn’t know what to do without a brother, sister, or mother. He wasn’t made to go to school for the first few weeks after these events and Teddy Jay became gradually mute as the days passed.
On this particular afternoon in late November, the boy stood and watched the backyard out of the expansive dining room window. His father attempted to talk to him but received no reply. Teddy was working on his second publication, this one a novel of poetry mixed with prose. It examined the states of mind during unconsciousness in the boxing ring. It was a dark piece of work that started off rather faith-oriented in the first few chapters and dropped quickly into a haunting aesthetic that frequently threw religion to the wind. Critics would call it the result of his family problems.
Three knocks on the door.

At the age of 57, Teddy answered in his University of Maine overcoat. He was shirtless in boxers. The two sweater-clad men coughed at the sight of his grey-haired chest. They were obviously uncomfortable. “Hello?” Teddy questioned over the rims of his glasses.
“We’re with the Jehovah’s Witness Organization of Maine, or J-WOM. If we could have a minute of your time to talk about our mission and the book of Job, we would be very appreciative,” the one on the left said, holding a bible with his two hands against his waist and smiling wide.
Teddy Richland took it all in. The Jehovah’s witnesses, his awaiting laptop with his next book being stalled, his silent son by the window, the absence of the rest of his family, and the sweaters. He hated the fucking sweaters. Teddy hauled back and laid a fist to one of those Jehovah’s witnesses, and he sprawled into the Maine snow. Teddy closed the door.
He was later convicted of the assault, paid bail and medical bills, but it didn’t affect his writing career.

Everyone understood that sometimes a man in a sweater needed unraveling.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Creative Work


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