Ron is watcher, it seems. He watches his pick-up basketball team–five guys trying to fit together on the court. He watches Dawn on the dance floor, and that tiny star tattoo on her shoulder. He watches Darby run, her short legs all sweat and muscle. He watches his friends veer off–and up–into popularity. He watches his dad move in with his grandmother and make do. But he’s more than a watcher: He’s a hustler on the court, a free-thrower, a poet, a poker player, a rule breaker, a loving grandson, a runner, and a ruthless competitor in those eight laps around the track–the 3200 meter. In nine interwoven stories, award-winning author Rich Wallace brings a small-town high school to life through the sharp, spare voice–and the heart-pounding defeats and triumphs–of an athlete.
An Excerpt fromLosing Is Not an Option
It was the fourth home game of the season, so it’d be ten in a row for us if we could avoid getting nailed going over the fence. We’d gone six for six the year before, in fifth grade, but they’d tightened security that fall.
We dressed dark so we wouldn’t be seen, and we knew how to lie in the tall weeds behind the field, timing our move while other kids, less cautious, got caught sneaking in.
We’d never been caught.
I was psyched.
I always walked the four blocks over to Gene’s house before the football games, even though my house was closer to the stadium. This was late October, so the sun was down and the sky was barely visible through the maples, broad enough to meet above the street and still holding some red and amber leaves. I needed a sweatshirt under my coat, but no gloves yet. Definitely not a hat.
I walked in the street, right down the middle, rarely having to shift to the sidewalk for a passing car. The traffic to the game was out on Main Street, away from our neighborhood. Most people walked to the games anyway, especially on nights like this.
Gene’s house was like ours. I’d walk right in the back door. His mother would be doing dishes, his father would be reading the paper with a fat cigar in the center of his mouth.
“Ronny’s here,” Gene’s mom would call, and he’d come racing down the stairs.
He’d shoot me a look--No fence can stop us--and go over and kiss his mom.
“Have money?” she asked.
“All I need.”
“Pooh-Gene,” his dad said, looking up from the paper, “you going to a dance?”
“Pretty fancy shirt for a football game.”
“It’ll be under my jacket.”
His father just gave him the look--amusement mostly-- and nodded as he went back to the paper.
This was a little odd, this button-down pinstriped shirt Gene had on. But he grabbed his jacket and kind of pushed his chin toward the door.
“Maybe we’ll see you at the game,” his mom said. Both sets of our parents would be there (our older brothers sat the bench; they might get in for a few kickoffs in a blowout, but mostly they played on Monday afternoons with the JV squad). If we saw our parents there, we wouldn’t let on that we knew them.
Foot traffic was heavy by the time we got to Main Street, and you could feel the banging of the drums six blocks away and the tinny sound of the fight song riding over it.
We turned up Buchanan Street, moving into a darker zone to approach the field from the far corner. “Dickheadsaywhat?” Gene said.
He started cracking up.
“You suck,” I said, laughing, too. He got me with that a couple of times a week. I smacked him on the arm with my fist.
He stopped walking. “It’s a little early yet,” he said. “Give it about ten minutes.”
We took a seat on the curb. He took a filter-tipped cigar out of his pocket, about the size of a crayon, and stuck it in his mouth.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked.
“Smolinski.” His neighbor, a freshman in high school.
He lit the cigar and took a long puff, holding the smoke in his mouth. He handed it to me. The inhalation was surprisingly hot but had a hint of vanilla or something mild.
We both took another puff, then he rubbed it out on the pavement and put it back in his pocket.
“Save that for later,” he said.
We’d kicked butt that afternoon, touch football on the street in front of his house. His block had more kids than mine for some reason, and we always managed to get on the same team, whether it was stickball, football, street hockey, or driveway basketball. There were always other kids around, but we stuck together. We were such close friends with each other that all our other friends seemed peripheral. It was like we shared two homes, two sets of parents, and two older brothers. My parents’ photo albums had more pictures of Gene in them than any of my cousins or uncles.
We usually won. He’d hit me with square-outs all the way down the field (telephone poles marking each goal line). We did better than the Giants or the Jets were doing.
Two guys were walking down the hill toward us in a hurry. Jerry Boyd and Peter Macey. Peter was in the group that had parties and went to the movies with girls. Jerry was his shadow.
“Geno,” Peter said as they walked past.
“What’s up?” Gene said.
Peter kept walking, turning backward for a few steps. “Going to the game?”
“See you there.”
Gene stood up from the curb, wiped off his pants.
“What a jerk,” I said, meaning Peter.
“No,” Gene said. “He’s cool.”
“He sure thinks so.”
Peter did stupid stuff like writing girls’ names on his notebook covers. We didn’t want anything to do with that stuff.
“Time to move,” Gene said, taking a deep breath. He turned to face me squarely. “Quiet,” he said.
“I know.” I’d almost screwed it up the week before.
We walked the length of the stadium but a block up the hill from it, then cut through a yard, crossed the gravel parking lot, and made our way down the grassy hill at the corner of the Sturbridge Building Products lot. We edged along through that little patch of woods till we were diagonally across from the refreshment stand, back by that low, shedlike building where they store the pole-vault mats and the lawn tractor.
We knelt there, amid the fallen leaves and stray beer cans, surveying the scene.
Gene nudged my arm. “Falco,” he whispered, staring straight ahead.
I looked around. Mr. Falco, a janitor from our school, was standing inside the fence about fifteen feet from our hopping spot, a place where the barbed wire atop the chain-link fence was cut and hanging and that tractor shed afforded maximum shelter. His back was to us, but it was obvious why he was stationed there. Too many others had been using this spot.
We had alternatives, but we’d need to be quiet. We’d need to risk ripped coats and scratched faces, but we’d get in. We’d save the two bucks’ admission.
“Under?” I whispered.
He looked around. “Yeah. Let’s go.”