As I’m getting off the phone, I’m being pulled over, and it’s the first cop I’ve seen outside of movies in a year. I give him my license, my registration, my full attention, then finally the carefully autographed citation. But I never say a word. And I’m pleased to see this drives him fucking crazy.
When he walked up, he saw me talking into my hand right before I rolled down my window, but it was obvious he didn’t want to accuse me of pretending to be mute because of the watchful eye of his dashboard cameras. He didn’t know that I was simply trying as hard as I could not to use news of a tragedy just to get out of speeding ticket. My brother had just called me with news of the latest missing person from our high school, this time the young, bright-eyed basketball coach, and I was at a loss of words with him, too.
Luckily, the cop won’t check my trunk because of his frustration at my silent treatment. Instead, he goes through three stages of grief I’ve become so familiar with right there at my window. Denial, anger, then acceptance. I’m disappointed when he skips stages two and four, bargaining and despair, because he locks up staring at my fingernails. Most people do.
I find a low road to park out of sight, then start looking for a branch to support my weight. I need to keep in shape with all the funerals turned high school reunions these days. It’s an exercise routine that’s evolved naturally really:
After the suspicious disappearance of our football coach and my reoccurring visions of trying to fold his squat, sausage-like legs into a bag easy enough to manipulate, I felt the need to hang off various stairwells and construction beams at a work site to build up my forearms. After our mysterious missing hockey coach, a discarded shelf balanced on the corner of the dumpster was a good place to work on my wrists, an exercise this man used to swear by to develop maximum shot power, never dreaming what it was best used for. And after our incredible vanishing swimming coach, the third at our school and finally enough for the local news to recognize a pattern at other schools in the area, I tried, disastrously, to do leg lifts to work my abs on the thin, metal brace of a truck stop’s bathroom stall. It came crashing down before I started feeling a burn, but that was even more satisfying.
What coaches don’t know is that when they make kids run miles until they puke, tackle rows and rows of sleds painted to look like snarling quarterbacks, curl weights until their arms go dead, aim for the same goal, hoop, hole and repeat throws until an internal gun site is forever adjusted, hold weights over their heads in the deep end and tread water until it feels like they’re desperately supporting a dead body, piston their legs and the teeth of their cleats into the dirt until they dig down enough to actually hit water, what they are really doing is giving these kids the physical capability to kill them with their bare hands. This is a danger that, so far, the coaches have not recognized.
My first chin-up bar had been securely attached to doorjambs for decades, an important first step in waking myself up with quick, pointless workouts before gym classes I hated. But the week before the empty coffin of the football coach was lowered into the ground, I was on a long walk in the woods and discovered that there weren’t any good branches anywhere, let alone a mysterious free-standing doorway that would give me the quick comfort of my morning workout. Immediately, I almost stumbled over an open grave. And when I saw black bones knobbed by bulbs bleached orange from the sun, I thought, “Wait, who the hell was that?”
Then I laughed and remembered that’s where I started to bury all the barbells I didn’t use anymore.
I remembered climbing trees all through childhood, but on that day, it was ridiculously hard to find one with a branch low enough to reach. I needed to do three important exercises, routines I’d learned from high-school coaches, but with my own imagination taking the place of dreams of last minute victories holding sticks or balls in my fists. First off, simple curls to hit my biceps while fantasizing about reaching through my windshield and ripping a bumper off a tailgater. Second, I’d turn my hands around to hit my triceps while I imagined dragging myself from the flames of an apocalyptic wreck. Third, I’d twist my hands to hit my forearms, dreaming of hanging from my steering wheel, dangling out the windshield of my car buried deep in the crumbling nose of Mount Rushmore. I always thought strong forearms would be good backup in any crisis situation, and any of these imagined scenarios allowed me to pull against my own body’s heavy blood, bones and water way past any reasonable point of exhaustion.
A couple years ago, inspired by my religious exercise routine, my little sister tried to mount her own makeshift bar over a spot on her carpet where her cat constantly puked. The idea was that this placement would help her exercise forever, discouraging her from ever putting her feet down. To this day, she continues to step in it, but I’m confident that one day she’ll be able to stay up there forever.
Of course, I knew I’d have to wait a lifetime in vain for a cliffhanging situation and maybe a chance to amaze any wide-eyed, mouth-breathing bystander with impossibly powerful wrists. My favorite daydream was someone saying to a shocked crowd, "Holy shit, I thought he was pulling himself up onto that helicopter, but he won’t stop exercising!” Hey, it could happen.
So I stopped crossing my fingers and waiting for it to happen, endless finger crossing being, of course, its own workout. I finally understood that strong fingers are all you really need alone in the woods. And crossing your fingers is a better exercise than a decade of red-faced, sputtering coaches screaming in your face to "get it up!" any goddamn day of the week.
Fingers are all you need when you’re digging.
My routine is strenuous, and I know some might wonder why I don’t just grab the nearest rifle and storm the school and be done with it the way kids are expected to these days. Well, that was never a serious consideration after I read the news about a neighboring town where some kid screeched into the parking lot, cocked his weapon, headed for the worst memories of his high school cafeteria...only to hear screams and gunshots and realize some other fucker had already started a rampage. Imagine how embarrassed he was driving home. I can’t think of a better reason than that to keep my crazy shit under the radar.
After crunching around the deadwood and brush for a half hour, I settle for a branch in spite of its strange angle. As I try to pull my body up and up and up, I realize that because of the awkward slant of this limb, it’s forcing me to swing and strain in a completely new way.
I realize I’m working a new muscle between my bicep and forearm that has never twitched before. I keep pulling, watching as the tendons and blood bulge in a spot I’ve never known was alive. And as I strain for a few final curls, I start thinking that if working out is supposedly only to impress females, imagine how shocked they’d be if I discovered a completely new muscle to display. I win, right?
You hear so much about the symmetry of the human face and body being the main cause of attraction, but has anyone ever tried waving a girl over with one giant finger instead? One tiny barbell or a crooked tree and about ten minutes a day, you could create a beautiful swollen digit that would make even the most right-brained, math-loving ladies swoon.
Just like my dad once said, "Anyone can watch a good movie, but a bad movie takes endurance." The same thing applies to exercising. Back in Junior High when I was first forced to train for a football season that was an entire year away, I wandered curiously over to the wrestlers’ workout since their bodies seemed to be in better shape than everyone else, with the possible exception of the swimmers. See, the senior football players seemed like a bunch of bulbous fat fucks to me, and I had little interest in looking like them long after my high school sports career was over. Beet-red faces, double chins flapping as they relived their bullshit in the bars. But the football coach caught me and yelled, "You wanna get strong?! Or you wanna walk on the beach?!"
I mumbled, "Uhhh, walk the beach?"
Wrong answer. But it turned out I ended up running on "the beach" after all. The beach in question being the coaches’ nickname for the gravel piles surrounding the equipment sheds, a punishment that was eerily like that reoccurring dream where someone’s chasing you and your shoes can’t get any traction.
It didn’t matter though. This was a way better penalty than his dreaded shout of "Do laps!" where you simply had to run until you puked.
But I was cut from his team soon enough, therefore only forced to puke once.
It was plenty.
He was the first coach I killed. The football coach. None of them went the way I planned, and this was no exception. He would spend time in the weight room, putting the barbells back in order, sucking in his stomach as he lingered in that one spot in the corner where the mirrors showed your entire body. I knew his routine as well as my own.
I was gonna brain him with a curling bar when he reached around the corner to switch off the lights. But the curling bar slid off the wall and clanged against the ground, making him hesitate and step around the corner instead. So I reached for the next closest thing, a hockey stick someone had been using to prop open the storage closest. I stared into gray eyes and a cracked and wrinkled face not out of place on a certain national monument.
“Only ten more pounds, pussy!” he used to scream when you’d catch him sneaking two more plates on while you were benching. “That’s only ten more bags of potato chips!” Then he’d leave you struggling with it against your throat exactly six seconds longer than he needed to. He would have denied it if anyone had the balls to call him out on it.
I brought that stick down so hard that I fully expected him to split into two more goddamn coaches. Instead, he croaked and pressed a fist into his fractured skull and crawled toward an exercise bike. He actually climbed aboard and started pedaling as if it would help him escape. He probably wondered through the glaze of blood in his eyes why the bike wasn’t going anywhere as I hammered the top of his head into a jagged Rocky Mountain skyline. No, more like the Black Hills. He only dropped off the bike when I jammed the hockey stick in the spokes. I think that dumb fuck actually expected to pitch over the handlebars in spite of a complete lack of momentum. I hoped it was his last thought so the other coaches would get a good laugh in hell.
I carried him out on my back, accidentally leaving the stick behind. At first I thought it was a huge mistake. Then I discovered that a bloody hockey stick left in a weight room reserved for the football players had caused a rivalry between the teams, an unintended but hilarious consequence of my actions.
Next was the swimming coach, a smoker lost in a perpetual cloud of wheezing. In fact, the summer before he cut me from the team, there was some debate about whether such a sorry specimen could really swim at all. Determined not to make as much of a mess as the football coach, I planned on drowning him when he showed up early to chain-smoke, blue-veined legs wiggling off the end of the high dive like a fucking toddler while he listened to his favorite ‘80 hair bands, songs that never inspired anyone to do anything, let alone swim faster. Well, maybe once...
I showed up barefoot, ready to swim, ready to dunk him and hold my breath for a record two minutes if necessary. But he held onto the diving board like a vise, and I couldn’t dump him into the water no matter how many knuckles I crushed under my heels. We struggled all the way back into his portable stereo and stack of music, and I ended up squeezing one of his inspirational sports mix CDs until it exploded, then plunged one of the shards into his throat. It was an easy shot, that vein that swelled up in practice, the one that told us that someone was about to get bellowed at, a target as clear as a flashing arrow pointing at that motherfucker’s mouth, which is exactly what it was really.
When I think back, I’m still amazed blood came out instead of smoke.
Although how can someone fire a starter pistol in our ears every day and not expect a reaction. How many times have the other swimmers dreamed of taking that toy gun out of his hand and pushing it up his nose until it disappeared? Who’s idea was it to bring a gun to practice anyway? And this shit is my fault?
Once upon a time, it was a coach who brought the first gun into a school. Don’t fucking forget it. They started it.
But the pool was much easier to clean than the weight room. And nothing like the impromptu paint job the bleachers got when I caught the Cross Country coach doing laps down the rows afterhours.
Taking this man down was unexpectedly brutal. Not just because of the surprising amount of fight in the wiry little punk, but because he high-stepped those grandstands much faster than me, and I couldn’t even blame it on the weight of the crowbar I was carrying. He absorbed blows with his hands and elbows for what seemed like hours, until his forearms were crippled bags of gravel and water, until he couldn’t even make a fist around the broken knuckles. Luckily, I cornered him at the top and put him over the rail with a well-placed home-run shot to the ear. But nobody could have guessed the power in that hippie. Maybe I should have exercised my legs more, just like he always said before he cut me from the team. He’s right. That’s an exercise kids sometimes forget. But you’d think there was a way to do it without all the puking, you know?
One good thing, carrying that man was as easy as carrying about fifty bags of potato chips. I could have piled a hundred of those suckers in my trunk that night and never broken a sweat.
I didn’t kill the basketball coach. He really did just up and disappear one day. But everyone else is in the wood, buried within a half mile of each other, within a half mile of my exercise branch. What is that exactly? Six times around a football field? Could you run it without throwing up? Who gives a shit.
You don’t realize this, but the parts of your body that develop strength first with almost every exercise are your fingers. This side-effect is considered incidental and almost always ignored, but it actually enables you to dig deep into the ground when you really need to. Try it.
Athletes have no idea that this is really where all that training pays off. It’s a pity fingers are rarely tested to their potential, maybe only during those adolescent years where you’re not quite ready to fuck, of course. But your fingers are more important than you’ll know because it means you won't ever need to carry a shovel and a coach at the same time.
Hanging off that branch, I realize that anyone can get into shape, but it takes a special kind of dedication to work on something new, for no good reason, especially if its purpose is to inflate a mysterious muscle with blood. You ever see a lizard do those fast, tiny push-ups to engorge that red pouch under its head? Think about that. Our late football coach will never know how effective his offensive line could have been if, instead of pointless snarling and endless marching in place, he suddenly shouted "Dewlaps!" instead of “Do laps!” and a shock of blood-red, frog-like throats expanded under a row of helmets. Opposing defensemen would have shit themselves in fear. Or at least confusion.
This is when the branch snaps and drops me hard to the ground. It’s only about three feet down, but since my legs are crossed under me and it’s impossible to unfold them in time, it feels more like five. Maybe fifty.
I’m relieved to discover my ankle isn’t broken and it doesn’t effect my driving after I make the long, painful walk back to my car. But I’ll be forced to disguise my limp during the next funeral because an injury is never as interesting as the potential story, even if there’s no one around to hear you make one up. Which is how it should be. Never the other way around.
How does that saying go? If a coach falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear him, you can invent any goddamn story you want. Actually, you don't even have to do that. Everyone else will do it for you.
The rampant theories about what’s happening to all our coaches are much more interesting than the simple truth. Just catch one outside the weight room. If by some miracle it just exercised, it won’t have any fight left in it.
But once they’re in the ground, there’s nothing to worry about. People think we all look the same inside, have that same dancing skeleton you see on everyone’s front door during Halloween. Not true. Our bones look like any animal once they start peeking through the skin.
I wipe my hands on my thighs, fingernails black, soil wedged tight under each nail, packed up to the root, probably filling my hands, maybe even my forearms by now. One day, I’ll have dug deep enough with my fingers that the dirt will have filled me up completely.