State Champ

From the series: Old, Embarrassing Shit that Lies Dormant on Writer’s Cafe That’s Gonna Get Lost if I Don’t Transplant it Somewhere. So here’s its new home.

Marvin drives over the bridge back into town. He needed a sack of potatoes for tonight so he’d run out to the discount grocery on the north end. He passes the speed limit which is posted in black and white a few yards before the bridge. Below it, in green with white letters, is another sign. That sign reads Home of Marvin Grimes 1967 OHSAA State Wrestling Finalist. And there is another sign on the other side of town, where you drive down the hill past the lake, proclaiming the same thing.

This post on the north end was taken down sometime back in the nineties when they widened the road. By then his marker was fading and chipping around the edges from nearly 30 years of exposure. Rust stains ran down the post from the bolts holding in on. He assumed it wouldn’t be replaced but, to his surprise, it was. He had an old pal on the town board who made sure of that. And maybe they used stainless steel bolts this time.

Marvin needs to be home in a hurry so he does a few miles over that limit.  His son’s driving into town to see him today. This doesn’t happen often so he needs to be home by 3 pm. His son, Scotty, isn’t bringing the girls, as his wife Melanie’s taking them to a museum or somewhere like that.

Marvin gets home with ten minutes to spare. Scotty, like his father, is usually on time. So this gives Marvin at least a few minutes to check on the Indians score.

Scotty arrives around 3 as planned. If nothing else, he’s usually at least punctual. He comes in the back door which sticks. He pushes it a few times with accumulating force until it finally gives. Once inside, he repeats the process in reverse. Though the clamour has already announced him, he declares himself anyway.

“Hello. I’m here.” His father always tells him, just come in the side door. Don’t bother knocking.

He walks through the kitchen to the living room where Marvin is on the couch watching the game. His father turns the sound off.

There’s an ungraceful silence and exchange of looks as they struggle for where and how to start this thing. It’s a shame, really, that they have to go through this ritual, like unfamiliar dogs testing each other out.

After seconds which seem far longer, Scotty finally begins. “How’s it going, Pop?”

The house is sparsely furnished, though he’s lived there many years. There is little character to place, unless lack of character is in itself something. The curtains are always pulled tight. It never makes Scotty feel welcome. He doesn’t like the word cozy, but it most adequately describes the antithesis of this place. To Scotty it breathes claustrophobia and insularity. He tries to find something on a wall to focus his attention on, but there isn’t much.

“I’m good.” Marvin says. “How bout the Tribe?”

“Pitching could be a problem,” Scotty says.

Scotty begins to pace the room to this sonata. There’s only room to share a seat on the couch, which he finds uncomfortable. The the only chair always has books on it. Marvin never understands this pacing and assumes he needs to lay off the caffeine. Or that maybe this is what a wife and kids does to a man.

They spend the next hour talking about the Indians and gas prices and the weather. And about where they’ve read the best french fries are in their state. It was a graceful transition into easy conversation, like a manual transmission that shifts gears without jumping or grinding. They’re both relieved by this. But Marvin doesn’t ask about Melanie or the kids. Or even Scotty’s  half-sister who’s preparing for college. Marvin will say he doesn’t ask because Scotty doesn’t tell. Scotty will say he doesn’t tell because, obviously, Marvin doesn’t care enough to ask.

As the conversation flows, Scotty’s pacing slows. He stops for moments to look at the floor or around at nothing. He wishes there was something more to hold onto.

Scotty’s come to understand what these visits are really all about and he tries his best to accept it. There’ll be minutes, maybe hours, of chit-chat about mostly nothing. It’ll be superficial talk about Oreo and Dorito flavors and gossip about folks he barely knew 20 years ago. And it’s all pretense. It’s innocuous banter that’s meant to lull Scotty into lowering his guard. So that when the blow comes, he might not be fully prepared. So he might be shocked enough to question whether that punch to the gut from what he thought was a buddy might really be just a mistake. But it’s no mistake because, at the end of the day, he already knows who and what this is all about. Nothing else. And nobody else. That’s the way it always goes and the way it’s always been. And that’s why Scotty assumes he rarely asks about Melanie or the girls. Cause ultimately, they don’t play into this. Scotty could talk for hours about them because he loves them. But that’s hours Marvin can’t afford to give up. He’ll only get a couple hours from Scotty today. Half will be wasted with this bullshit. The rest can’t be wasted on them.

Still, Scotty has tried to be sympathetic to it all. And deal with it. He knows that mostly being alone, having a life’s worth of emotions and experiences and memories and time to think – we all want someone to understand us. And care. To sympathize with our unique journeys. To care and appreciate who we are as human beings, not as just some electrician who drives a Mazda or a lady who comes into the market to buy pork chops once a week.

So he waits for the first chapter to end, which he detects it right off the bat. Chapter two begins with a conversation deflected from generalities about courtesy to the subject of parenthood. And with that comes the allegretto in this movement of Marvin.

“And parents just aren’t respected by their kids. You’ll come to know that soon enough,” Marvin says.

Marvin had separated from Scotty’s mother when he was 10. He’d been caught cheating. Word back then was Marvin had gotten along with some chippy named Carter who must have appreciated his title of State Wrestling Finalist more than his wife appreciated that title and his boozing. But this Carter dropped him shortly after that for another’s fella’s title of Senior Executive Vice President which brought far greater perks.

“We always think about our kids. And we look out for them the best we can, given the circumstances.”

Of course, Scotty knows this. He breathes deeply at this posturing. And he’s stopped wondering about what motivates this turning of simple facts to rhetoric. He’s now well familiar with this covert technique of mining for accolades. But it’s really more than just accolades. It’s yearning for gratification or satisfaction from a job well done. It’s trying to wring some fulfillment from a cloth that’s long been dry. It seems absurd but sorta makes sense when you understand there’s nothing else to wring it from.

“We just do what we can, when we can,” Marvin says of himself and the parents he’s representing.

“Like how?” Scotty asks. These aren’t generalities his father is speaking of. He is speaking of himself. And Scotty is curious exactly what his father hasn’t received enough credit for. He also knows it’s a trap and he shouldn’t take the bait. But he always does.

“Well, remember that time, you were what – fourteen? And you wanted to see Motley Crue? Kids don’t always appreciate things like that their parents to do for them. They just take it for granted that it’s a parent’s duty.”

Of course he remembers that. His father brings it up at least once a year.

“You wanted to go so badly. And your mother wouldn’t take you.” He wants to add that she was probably too busy dating her present husband at the time. But he doesn’t say that.

“So I saved for months so you could sit up front. You remember that? We could see those guys sweating.”

Scotty knows all this, far too well, but responds cordially anyway.

“Sure.”

He also remembers his father bitching about going, the noise, how congested the parking lot was and how expensive the beer was.

“That’s just one example of what a parent does,” he added. “That concert was no picnic for me, I’ll tell you. But I did it for your sake.”

“So why are you telling me this again?”

“Because it’s not just about me. I’m making a point about parenthood in general.”

But it was just about him. For, if this activism had any soul, it would lead to more than pronouncements in emails and sermons from that couch.

Scotty understand the request. He also believes it isn’t our past achievements that get us through another day or week, it’s today’s achievements that do. He holds that belief close to his heart. He hopes it’s something his children will learn so he sets an example the best he can.  So he withholds his gift of praise now as a matter of principle or disappointment or maybe both.

“It was a decent thing you did. But that concert was a long, long time ago. A lot’s happened since then,” Scotty says. “And, to be honest, I don’t think about it much anymore. I’ve graduated from college. Had kids. Bought a house. Even run a marathon. Melanie had her cancer scare. I got laid off. A lot of water’s run under the bridge since then.”

At the time, that concert had meant a lot to him, yet his father had been mostly annoyed and perturbed all night, which had kept Scotty on edge too. So he has trouble understanding why it now seems to mean so much more to his father when then it seemed like the shits to him.

“Honestly, I only think about when you bring it up or I hear one of their songs on the radio,” Scotty says.

Martin purses his lips, looks away from his son and nods. He’s thinking and not saying what that is. This melodrama is the queue from which Scotty is supposed to respond. But these are just stage gestures so he doesn’t.

And this is the problem, Marvin thinks. Always dismissing favors. Never stopping to think or consider or appreciate what’s been done for you. And never caring about what anybody else feels or thinks.

Then Scotty says, “Melanie took the girls at the zoo today. Melanie’s seen those giraffes and elephants countless times. It’s not about her, it’s about our girls. She’s with them today, doing it with them because she wants to. Not out of duty. She wants to see them smile. Make them happy not out of duty but because they’re our kids and that’s what you do for the ones you love.”

They both take some time to digest this.

Marvin can see they’re splitting in different directions over this so he starts considering Plan B.

Scotty continues.

“So I hope we’re not holding today over their heads 25 years from now. I’m sure they won’t need that crap. Life’s hard enough. Besides, we’re doing what we want to do, making them happy. We try not to see that as a chore. It’s a privilege. And maybe that’s the difference in the way you and me see things. And why expectations might be different.”

Marvin lets him finish the thought while he strategizes further.

“Melanie’s doing it with them. Not for them. There’s a difference.”

Scotty wonders if Marvin is paying attention. It’s fundamental to Scotty’s way of seeing and responding to his ideas about parenthood. But Marvin’s too busy formulating another plan.

Then he adds, “And to be honest, I don’t want to see it any other way.”

Sometimes Scotty gets too caught up thinking aloud like this. It has gotten him in trouble here as well as home.

Marvin hadn’t even been there for his second granddaughter’s birth. He’d felt like an odd-man-out at Scotty’s wedding and the birth of their first. Scotty’s Mom and new husband hate him. Her as much for the cheating all that time ago as for not being all that present during Scotty’s teenage years. And Melanie’s parents and sibling didn’t know him from the man in the moon. Marvin had been there by himself and for all that Scotty could do, it was still really weird. He felt like an outcast. He didn’t fit in with any of them.

So when the call came they were headed to the hospital for the second one, Marvin didn’t get it. He must’ve been asleep or something. If he’d had a better idea of the due date, he might have been more attentive and prepared. But nobody keeps him informed of anything. Seems they do all the communicating on Facebook, which he’s found a reason not to care for. And, just to cover all the bases, he likes to say, “you‘ll tell me what you want to tell me and invite me to where you want me to be.” It’s been a convenient excuse for remaining ignorant.

Marvin switches gears by asking about something he knows they have in common. This might bring things back around.

“Work going okay?”, Marvin asks.

But Scotty knows how this one goes too.

“Yup.”

Scotty wilfully neglects any more detail, knowing this is not ultimately about his employment. There is no need to add disturbance to the downhill flow. It does nothing for the stone but offer it resistance.

“You know guys like us, we worked. Not like a lot of these other lazy bums these days.”

Another sonata. But Scotty’s wise to the subtext. It isn’t guys like us who worked. It’s guys like him. And again, drudging up another achievement from the past. Attempting to ride the crest of a wave that has long since crashed. And his son isn’t going to supply that gratification.

“That was a long time ago for you too, Dad.”

This is where Scottie knows things can to get intense. He’s shut down these platitudes of the common man’s grandiosity twice now. He truly wants his father to escape this rut of excavating satisfaction from the past. And in the absence of anybody else to validate him, he relies on Scotty, who is failing.

“Scotty. Why you always gotta to this?”

“Do what?,” he asks. But he knows.

Scotty figures this is what you do for somebody you care about. Persuade them away from bad habits. Encouraging his self-aggrandizement over ghosts never encourages him to move beyond them.

“I know you think cause I got a big gut and maybe I don’t do as much as

I used to, you think I’m just a lazy bum. But I’m not. I do some things. And I’ve done some things. Pretty distinguished things I might add that you never give me credit for.”

Scotty knows this script. This is why he paces. This whole drama is like being forced into a play he hates, like Waiting for Godot.

“You saw the sign on the way into town, did ncha? I was almost State Champ.”

That sign is like a curse to Scotty. And his father too if he only knew it. It might as well be Marvin’s headstone.

“You were State Finalist. But not Champ, Dad.”

“I didn’t say I was champion. You’re not listening.”

“Yes I am. State Finalist was a fine achievement”, Scotty admits but his father ignores.

“Do you how much work that took? How much effort? The sleepless nights. How much pressure was on me? The whole school was behind me. And this town still recognizes me for all that with those signs. One on each side of town. And my singlet is over at the high school too as a reminder too.”

Scotty knows the reality of things. That nobody in that town gives it more than a second’s thought to it on any given day. They give it no more thought than the population of the town that’s posted a few miles up the road. It exists. It’s fact. But it’s mostly irrelevant to anybody’s day to day living.

“And you never acknowledge me for any of it, though this town does every day. This town proclaims it but my own son can’t tell me ‘good job’.”

“But that was a long time ago too, Dad. And sometimes moving on is a good thing. If I hadn’t moved on, put a lot stuff in the past, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. Do you understand?”

Unappreciative, Marvin thinks. I’ll never break through his self-centeredness. Or his hatred of me.

“Moving on can be a good thing, Pop. It really can,” he implores.

Scotty stops his pacing to announce his need to leave. He doesn’t want this to escalate. He doesn’t want to take the fallout of an argument back home to Melanie and the kids. He wants his night with them to be as pleasant as possible with no sniping or griping from him over an afternoon that went to hell.

“Alright. I think I gotta go.”

“But it’s only been what – an hour and a half? What happened to two hours? Can’t even give your old man two hours?”

“The little one’s got a spelling bee coming up. I promised I’d get home to help her practice.”

Marvin looks away in disappointment. He’d thought the talk about Doritos and the rest had maybe gotten them somewhere.

“But you should come to the competition. She’d like that.”

“We’ll see. I didn’t know anything about it. You’re too busy to keep me in the loop.”

Scotty asks what makes it so hard for him to remain outside the loop? Is he too busy?

Whatever the history and politics between themselves, Scotty knows that his father has the girls’ emails. And he can call them on the phone to talk whenever he’d like. But he doesn’t. And that has nothing to do with Scotty.

“The phone works both ways,” Scotty adds.

Always the smartass, Marvin thinks. Anger wells. But he keeps a lid on it. He feels he’d made some progress today and doesn’t want to screw it up with malicious accusations.

Scotty goes out through the kitchen. He reaches the door and says, “If you want to go, give us a call for the details.”

Scotty hopes this isn’t just some passive-aggressive bullshit he’s playing.

But Marvin wants those details now. It will show his son is sincere. And an invitation to go with them would be even better. He might go if he could just ride along with them. And Scotty knows that his father wants all of this. And he wishes Marvin would want to go badly enough to drive himself. Or just make a call for some information. So Scotty isn’t going to waste even seconds on details which likely wouldn’t matter anyway.

“Okay. We’ll see.” Marvin gives an actorly sigh to express his frustration with not being further coaxed.  Can’t waste an ounce of breath to show me he really wants me to go, he laments.

Scotty heard that sigh all the way from the living room. He doesn’t bite. Instead, he reach reaches for the doorknob, preparing to jerk since he knows it’s stuck.

“When will I see you again? Another three or four months?” he hears from the other room.

Scotty’s on the verge of escaping the lion’s mouth. He should know better. But something nags at him, telling him this can work, because it should.

He releases the knob. Out the window he sees the face of the neighbor’s garage. There’s nothing more than a brick wall. In a voice louder than normal so he can be heard from the kitchen, he says, “Melanie and I decided we’ve got to paint the deck sometime next month. We’re taking a weekend to do it. So the girls should be around if you want to stop by.”

The other voice replies, “to be a babysitter? Thanks a lot.”

“More like to spend some time with your granddaughters.”

Marvin in annoyed by the gall. He can’t even thank him for the concert or take him to the spelling bee and now tries to persuade him into babysitting. He wonders how he ever became so selfish. Must have been his mother.

“I’ll think about it,” Melvin says. But he won’t too much.

“Let me know. Cause if Melanie’s folks or Grandma Rose get the opportunity, they’ll want it. Whoever asks first, gets it.”

Grandma Rose likes taking the girls to the movies. And the girls like that too. The youngest one always get Sugar Babies, just like her Dad. Marvin knows nothing about her preference in candies or little else, really. And it’s mostly because Scotty keeps it all to himself.

Melanie’s folks like taking them to the dairy upstate where they get ice cream and play putt putt and get to pet the farm animals. The youngest likes going down the big metal slide. She’ll grow out of that soon enough, but Melanie’s folks appreciate the joy she gets from it now. The oldest prefers her ice cream in a cone, two scoops. She goes with an old standby, Chocolate Chip as one, then risks the other selection with something more novel. Last year it was Cake Batter, which was okay but not as good as German Chocolate Brownie the year before.

But Marvin’s too smart and principled to get conned into babysitting. He’s not gonna get used that way.

“Did you hear me, Pop. Let us know.”

Marvin expresses his disappointment with the day with an affected, “Uh huh.”

He can hear the gravel crunch as his son pulls out of the driveway. He turns the volume back up on the Indians game.

After the loss that afternoon, Marvin walks to the kitchen. He pulls the flask from a cupboard and slips it in his pocket. Then he drives over to the high school.

The front door is locked. He can see the janitor so he bangs on the glass. The janitor recognizes Marvin so he opens the door.

“Thanks, Jimmy. Your Dad doing okay?”

“Yup.”

“And your Uncle Bill? Still on the Town Board?”

“Oh yeah. They’ll have to blast him off.”

Jimmy knows he’s not there to exchange pleasantries about family.

“Just let me know when you’re leaving,” he tells Marvin.

“Will do. You’re a good fella, Jimmy.”

Jimmy half smiles and goes back to mopping.

Marvin walks down the hall and takes a right toward the gymnasium. The fluorescents are off but enough late afternoon sun lights the way. This is the new high school. It smells different than his had. In the change, they brought all the old school’s sports memorabilia over here. It’s all displayed in three glass cases, mixed in with all the new stuff from more recent achievements, set in the wall leading to the gym. There’s an old basketball with a net draped over it from some regional championship a long time ago. There’s photos and plaques and trophies from teams and athletes who won regional titles and maybe even got college scholarships. And trophies for performances in tennis and track and field. And above the cases, running the full length, are photos of coaches for track and field, soccer, baseball, football, swimming and wrestling from over the many years.

Marvin knows exactly where his singlet was within all of it. It’s framed in black wood. On a brass placed tacked to the bottom it’s etched Marvin Grimes OHSAA State Wrestling Finalist 1967. Though it would fit like a melon in a sock now, he can’t help but wonder what the singlet might feel like. Was it soft or scratchy? It escapes him now. And after all these years, does it still carry his scent?

He stands there a few minutes before departing with an overdone sigh.

Then he turns and opens the door to the gymnasium. Thankfully it’s empty. He walks over the hardwood to a seat on the bleachers, lowest row on the home side like when he was 17.

He pulls the flask from his pocket, unscrews it and takes a giant swig. It breathes out his nose after he swallows.

I was almost State Champ, he thinks. Helluva an achievement.

Marvin arches forward as he did then, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. He’s in that singlet and ears guards, utterly exhausted and sweating buckets. Coach Ross puts his arm around his shoulders. “You were one of the best, son. Nobody but us will understand just how hard you worked for this. And what you deserve.” He sits there a few minutes, trying not to cry.

******************************************************************

On his way out, he gives that singlet on last look. It’s propped next to a plaque of Coach Simpson. Simpson had coached the football team for decades to moderate success. Everybody knew him as a rough ex-Marine who coached like a drill sergeant. Football was and remains a big deal in this town so, by proxy, coach Simpson had been too. Marvin never played football. And it always kind of annoyed him that they got all the glory without nearly as much effort. No rope climbs. No sandbag drills. No Noah’s Arch. No cutting weight. So he never gave much attention to that plaque of Coach Simpson. But if he had, he’d see his quote, “What defines a man is not how often he wins but how he moves on from defeat.”

The halls have dimmed as the sun has settled even more. But that’s okay because Marvin knows his way out by now.

************************************************************

Scotty pulls into his driveway and walks in the kitchen door. Melanie asks how it went.

“Same old thing, you know.”

“Try not to let him get to you,” she says. She tells him that every time. And she means it sincerely, not as a directive, because she feels it’s best.

“I told him about us painting the deck. I said he could stop over to see the girls if he wants.”

“What’d he say?”

“Said he’d think about it. You know what that means.” She can feel the sadness on her husband. It’s real.

“You’re a good man, Scott. I think so. Your children think so. Your mother thinks so.”

“Thanks, Sweetie” he says as they embrace.

Melanie thinks back to how Grandma Rose said that Melvin had been a poison to her son. And if they weren’t careful, he’d be the same to her their children. That the poison could spread through Scotty to them. It would affect their entire family. Melanie told her husband about that and he had wondered why. She could have kept it to herself but didn’t. And that meant something.

So the next day, Melanie posts on Facebook, “deck project coming up” along with a picture of it, all weathered.

And Grandma Rose responds within a day, “need any help?”

And Scotty calls his father, informing him of the date, time and location of the spelling bee. The call will go to voicemail because Marvin’s got the Indians game on and it’s a close one.

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