Preview of “High School Runner (Freshman)”

“Are you dead?” I asked. There was no response. “Coach?” I said.

It was six a.m. and I was still rubbing sleep out of my eyes when I found him.

He reminded me of roadkill—one of the dead raccoons or opossums I often saw on the country roads surrounding our town. I thought of my brother and what he
always said when we drove by a bloody lump on the road. He’s sleeeeepy … Saying that was one of the few things my brother intentionally did to be funny, although he was often funny unintentionally.

Drawn close, fascinated by the awful possibility of a dead man before me, I hovered over coach’s body, inspecting him, looking for clues. There were no telltale wounds anywhere—no holes, no red leaking out of him. It was all like a dream, actually. I know that’s a cliché, but it was.

I nearly swallowed my tongue when he farted. It was a high-pitched whine like letting air escape from a balloon. He sat up and rubbed his red eyes with his thin fingers and picked up his big black glasses from where they sat beside him and delicately placed them on his nose. “K1,” he said anxiously, a rasp in his throat, “what the hell time is it?”

“What?” I think I said.

“What the hell time is it? Does anyone else know I’m in here asleep?” He quickly rose from the mat. “Doncha have a watch?” he asked. “Did I sleep through school or what?”

“It’s about ten after six,” I said. “Everyone’s here. For morning practice.”

Coach glanced nervously around the wrestling room as if witnesses might be hiding in the corners or somehow wedged behind the signs on the walls. The room was empty but for me.

“I mean,” I restated, “they’re not in here. They’re waiting for us. For me … They stopped waiting for you. I had to go to the bathroom and I accidentally came in here. It was dark. I turned the lights on. There you were.” I pointed at the spot of drool, or maybe it was sweat, on the floor.

He sighed in relief and covered the lower part of his face with his thin fingers. His brown eyes, so deep brown they seemed black sometimes, stared into mine. He was thinking. This made me nervous. “Sit down,” he finally said.

I looked around for a chair. There wasn’t one.

“On the goddamn mat,” said Coach.

I sat down, avoiding the wet smear.

Coach scooched over on the mat so he was directly across from me. We were both sitting cross-legged. There was a black clock with a white face ticking away behind a black steel cage on the wall. I listened to it, not quite counting the ticks. Neither of us said anything. This went on for some time.

“Listen to me,” said Coach finally. Then he bit his lower lip and tilted his head down toward the floor so I couldn’t see his face. His shoulders began to hitch up and down. He was crying. “Can you keep a secret?” he whispered.

And that was the real beginning.

But I might as well start at the start. The very start, I mean.

*****

Before that October morning in the wrestling room when my cross country coach became Coach with a capital C. Before Slade. Before Keene and K1 and K2 and Ridgeline and Moats and Leonardo Chavez and Popeye and Squid. Before the hares and the hounds and the gun and the ninja and Victor’s and One of Us … Before all that, there was Willie Davis and the day that I, Sherman Leopold Kindle, first understood what I was supposed to be.