By Jordan Escobar
Toothless and hungry, he wakes in the back of his truck. The sky remains broken on grimy windows, as he rubs sensation back into his stubbled jaw. This day and this day again. The pops and aches of his discarded body remembering its own vulnerabilities. He sits on the tailgate, tapping the ash out of his cigarette, and considers the days when this body was still his servant in command of a diminutive world.
His ridged spine poked through the dampened undershirt, traces of where the bones grew too fast to keep pace with the pock-marked skin. A choir of Adam’s apples squeaked in the din of the locker room, and the smell of talcum powder and sweat and cheap aerosolized deodorant hung thick in the air. Some boys smashed blackheads in mirrors, turning cheek to cheek to measure their countenance, and the soft veneer of the first sprouts of facial hair, wild unkempt stalks bunching in disordered patterns. Like the boys themselves, they had to be cleaved to be tamed.
What it means to be a man: to be beautiful and hide your beauty. Imago Dei. The school’s motto painted on the wall above their heads. Made in God’s image, each of them, a divine creation orchestrated for a divine purpose.
Every person on the team was evaluated and categorized according to ability. The blocking sled was a specific tragedy that awaited all the big boys, the unskilled players whose only talent was size. They’d push the sled forward, inch by inch, with an assistant coach riding it, shouting demeaning phrases as the veins in his neck pulsated under the afternoon sun. Maybe he’d go home to his wife and young children, and tell them how good his day was.
But all the boys wanted was a green-eyed glance from one of the girls. A little modicum of attention to take and hold. Their hearts were breaking, and so were their bodies.
But the coaches told them not to worry, those middle-aged men who had passed through the fire of adolescence to become role models to their former selves. You can’t be in love anymore. You’re married to the game. Football is your one true spouse. Put on your wedding dress: cleats and a jersey. Veil your face with a helmet and facemask.
At the end of practice, they’d gather in the prayer circle: Give us this day our daily bread. And the booster club, made of doting mothers, would supply the boys each Thursday evening with tri-tip steak and heaping mounds of sheet cake. The coaches encouraged eating, as if indolence offered some specific advantage. The boys sat dazed at picnic tables with their distended guts and half-lidded stares imagining some glory-bound victory.
Because every moment had amounted to that. All those hot summer days, two-a-days, morning lifting, evening running. Gatorade diluted with hose water. The odor of fresh cut grass with sprayed-on lines. A color you could smell.
And on game night, before stepping onto that field, they’d slam their helmets into each other, feeling their vertebrae pop into place, and hear a profane rendition of the hymn, “My God Is Mighty To Save,” reverberate through the shower stalls. And then they’d cross that threshold, slapping the school motto on the way out.
Applause and the brass revelry of the school band greeted them as they took their unblinking positions. The stadium lights could brighten up their darkest nights, and the junebugs and moths still swarmed the sulfur-lit haloes, like tiny gods blessing their supplicants.
Those days, morality was only determined by the things the refs did or didn’t see. Shit-talk was allowed and promoted, as linemen standing inches across from each other stared into the lifeless black of their opponent’s pupils, and only saw a creature not worth saving.
Because violence saps the mercy from a boy’s heart. And later some of those boys grew to become prison guards, swinging their keys and staring through the bars of the condemned with the same level of dead reckoning. Indifference makes beasts of us all.
And for the others, when they aged out of that one glimmering moment of life when physicality propelled them to the upper echelon of achievable society, they were left with the swollen mass of their broken bodies and the frayed nerves of an angry mind, taking whatever job might pass their way: fry cook or ranch hand. Or maybe a construction worker in their midst, whose fatigued muscles can only afford himself a pick-up truck, and place to park it, for one more night.
Jordan Escobar is a writer, teacher, and zookeeper in Boston, MA.