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The Cafeteria Strut

Chuck Larson, all-state in three sports but particularly potent on the football field, was the most popular boy in high school despite his guess in history that the Rosetta Stone was a ski mountain in Colorado.  He was so popular girls actually fainted—this is no joke—at the sight of him each day as he strutted from the gym after practice to the cafeteria with Coach at his side and a phalanx of backseat buddies and beefy linemen.  Coach had his table tennis paddle with him so that he could whack anybody who didn’t hustle.  When Chuck and his entourage reached the cafeteria, carefully trained food service personnel served them a special gourmet meal, food and service the rest of us couldn’t buy even at Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que. If we had tuna fish, for Chuck and his cronies it was steak and walleye.  If we had hamburger stretched with soybeans, for Chuck it was a 54 ounce Tomahawk Ribeye.

Those were simple times. All of us felt safe inside whatever cocoon we happened to inhabit. Except for me. Or that’s how it felt, anyway, as if I was alone and hung out to dry in the teeter-totter world that went bad. Chuck bathed in adulation the way a voluptuary samples powders and perfumes, seldom so ravenous that he didn’t take a good twenty minutes to strut to the cafeteria.  He soaked up glory like a sponge. By the time he became a senior with two Dakota state championships under his belt, the fainting girls were a problem. Coach recruited several misfits like myself to sit on benches at strategic points on the cafeteria route.  “Do a bang-up job,” Coach said, tapping his paddle against one humongous thigh, “and I won’t run the hell out of you.”  Coach was famous for those fifty-minute runs.  He would take us outside and sit himself down in a lawn chair that sagged under his weight.  He would place his paddle on one thigh, take out his stopwatch, and shout, “Go.”

We went. It was good training for life’s hard knocks, he liked to say. “When you go out in the world,” he said, “you’ll need a pistol in one pocket and brass knuckles on almost every finger.” Sad thing is, he turned out to be something like right.

We were supposed to protect the fainting girls from bruises, concussions and an unladylike disarray of clothing when they keeled over.  The job was a privilege, Coach told us, and he would see to it that we were recognized at the year’s last pep rally.  “Chuck himself will give you a salute,” Coach said in a high-nasal voice that sounded almost feminine, the result of a near-fatal accident. Maxwell, the misfit who took credit for the accident, loved to parody Coach’s reedy voice when he wasn’t around.  Before Coach dismissed us, he told us we would have to bring our lunches and stay to the sidewalk benches we were assigned. “Chuck doesn’t like to see the girls get hurt.”

“If he doesn’t do right by us,” Maxwell said to me, “I’ll start pounding nails into his footprints again.  Maybe a spear in the pipes wasn’t enough for the old geezer, huh?” Maxwell was a gamer. He believed in magick.

I shrugged.  I lived on the bench anyway, staring at the water tower across campus that glinted in the bright sun, the same tower I could see from the rented house where I lived with my sick mother and my father, a trucker who was seldom at home, which was a good thing.  When he was in the house, things went to hell in a handbasket. As I waited for a glimpse of Molly, the girl I loved hopelessly, it was easy to pretend that the water tower really was the Rosetta Stone and that Chuck flew down its hieroglyphic slopes in a hooded red parka studying the terrain below with glances through a pair of sleek goggles.  As for Molly, I was too bashful to speak to her, but knew her schedule.  She had pep squad when Chuck practiced and I would see her jog to the gym in khaki shorts and top, stop at the tall door to leap high, one hand stretched high and her caramel-colored hair, if unbraided, flying every which way as a finger touched the head of the door with grace and triumph.

Maxwell was assigned the bench closest to the gym; it was his job to report the first sighting each day.  Maxwell sometimes spent his free time creeping around campus with a silver ball-peen hammer in his book bag to pound penny nails into Coach’s footprints.  He had learned in anthropology that one tribe believed that such a ritual cursed the victim with impotence or caused some unpredictable tragedy to occur.   When he wasn’t stalking Coach with his silver hammer, his idea of a good joke was to tiptoe up to you while you daydreamed and squirt a mouthful of water in your ear.

His vendetta against Coach dated back to the day he spit, on a dare, into the face of a jock strutting towards him who said something demeaning to him. The jock, instead of beating him to a bloody pulp then and there and maybe getting suspended, dragged him to Coach, who was also the school’s drama director and unofficial disciplinarian.  The jock, aching for revenge, threw Maxwell down like a sack of potatoes on the proscenium as Coach worked in despair with the Homecoming Queen, or the H.Q. as we called her.

The H.Q., whose name was Tina and who later came to a very bad end, was trying without much luck to learn her lines in A Streetcar Named Desire, a play chosen only because she and Chuck had seen the movie in a film class together and decided they had to play Blanche and Stanley. It would be a hoot, they thought, but the H.Q. had trouble remembering what time of the month it was, much less her lines.  She was an atrocious actress even by the standards of Coach, whose idea of great drama were the television reruns of a sitcom called Father Knows Best.  In need of a break, he opened his mouth into a broad smile and left the H.Q. to her own mnemonic devices.  He nodded to the jock, who dragged Maxwell across a baseball diamond and two football fields to the school’s septic tank.

Maxwell fought like hell, kicking and screaming.  “You fuckface!  Your fate is sealed!”  That didn’t deter the jock, his facial muscles as tight as a drum. He pulled Maxwell up the tank’s metal ladder, rung by rung, with Coach urging him onwards.  The way Maxwell told it, Coach had a rubber duckie smile the whole time that would have wiped clean a filthy latrine, but moments before the jock drowned him like the runt in a litter of kittens, Coach benevolently interceded.  Instead of a dunking, Maxwell received the paddling of his young life.  Coach saved him from what would have been a possibly terminal dunking, but also earned his undying animus.

Each day after our new assignment, which, as absurd as it was, was sanctioned by the school’s principal, Maxwell took a bologna sandwich and two checkered flags to a perch near the gym.  The rest of us, tense, nervous, sat on other benches further along the school’s covered walk, quickly dispatching our own gummy, cheese sandwiches as we waited for Chuck.  Maxwell was supposed to follow Chuck like a familiar.  If there was an early flurry of fainting, we expected him to wave the flags like a switchman, but he was unreliable.

Sometimes he gave greater priority to his lunch than to the protection of delicate female skulls.  They fell like tenpins. At other times he waved the black-and-white flags like an artist covering airy canvas with fluid swirls of checkered cloth, hypnotizing himself, working off adrenaline and anger, oblivious to our confusion.

We hated Coach, too, but at least we got the chance to cradle fainting coeds; Maxwell had only the taste of bologna on his breath, and for company only his checkered flags, his silver hammer and his penny nails.

The girls would synchronize their watches during morning announcements and gather near noon in sleek coteries along the covered walk.  Without Maxwell’s flags to warn us, they sometimes fell like glass trinkets, eyes rolling back as though watching themselves faint.  “Is he hot, or what?” we heard them say, which was often fair warning. It was a form of sexual hysteria that I had never witnessed before.  It required adolescents of a certain age with overactive metabolisms and imaginations to drop as if shot through the head at the sight of a muscular, hormone-crazed young man.

From my bench I would stare down the walkway, dazzled by the carnival of swirling color.  Their suntanned legs were more suitable for bareback riding over ranchland than for restless drumming beneath desks smudged with inky fingerprints and carved with graffiti.  The most provocative girls had permanents or carefully styled bouffants, a sight seldom seen anymore except in old movies or TV series set in the middle of the last century.  We lived in an alternative universe. They wore short skirts and stood on heels, hips cocked.  Almost without exception, rumor had them available for more than malted milks if you were Chuck or one of the anointed members of his offensive line. The linemen favored long, thick mullets that year.  Some things never change.

A few of the girls were more modest, more lady-like, at least until Chuck arrived.  They would lean towards Chuck like long-stemmed flowers, their faces clear with health or the miracles of dermatology.  Once, I passed Molly in the doorway of the social science building, her hair braided and her eyes full of sparkles of light as Chuck flirted with her.  He winked at me.  “You a freshman?”

I blushed, my mind paralyzed by his attention, until Molly slapped him playfully on the shoulder.  “Hush, sweetie,” she said.  “He’s a senior, same as us. Name of Haimirich.” She mispronounced it as Hīmlik, as if my mission in life was to apply pressure on the abdomen between the naval and the rib cage.

“Heimlich?” Chuck said, grinning his infamous, good-natured, shit-eating grin. “Is that maneuver named after you?”

But Chuck was more than just a senior. Robust and good-looking like some muscle-bound steroid freak, with high cheekbones and a square jaw, he always focused his eyes modestly on the middle distance.  In Streetcar, he flaunted his stuff, as though going all the way for a score, improvising like a pro when the H.Q. fainted on stage after he removed his shirt and thumped his chest.  He stayed in character and carried her to the wings.  While Coach revived her with smelling salts, Chuck put his shirt back on and returned with her understudy.  Everyone, except the stage technicians like me backstage, hooted and hollered and thought the fainting spell was part of the script.

The day after this performance, the campus was abuzz. “Oh my God, is he hot or what?  Oh my God!” Coach expected an epidemic of fainting.  He spoke to us briefly in the well-modulated tones of a snake oil salesman, invoking the saintly power of positive thinking.  Then he waved his paddle in our faces, reminding us that this was one day when mistakes would not be tolerated.  Finally, he armed us with a medical device purchased through the generosity of an anonymous donor,  “A philanthropist from over in Bismarck.”

We pocketed these devices and hastened to our posts, behind and slightly to the side of whichever girl we had been selected to protect.

As luck would have it, I was assigned to Molly.  She was one of the few girls who had never fainted, but I had studied her habits for so long that I was certain I would be able to predict when the amount of blood reaching her brain was no longer sufficient to compensate for the sight of Chuck.  Then I would have three options; I could use my medical device, cushion her slow-motion tumble, or miss her and let her smack her skull as a way to hurt what I loved most.

In those days my empathy was limited. I imagined Molly would faint the way an alcoholic might pass out after one too many shots of rum. The sight of Chuck made girls about his age drunk. I was jealous of Chuck to beat the band. Those young women stared at him, their breathing grew short, heavy, some kind of sigh or grunt involuntarily escaping from their mouths, and they swooned to the ground like flowers that wilt after too much sun.

Chuck knew what was waiting for him, of course, and he loved it.  Unless he was especially hungry or running late, he took his time, loitering with each group of admirers, and the day after Streetcar would certainly be no exception.  It was hard on all of us.  I feared his occasional outbursts, but at least they were quick and merciful.  He would emerge from the gym ravenous, crouched low, his steel-trap muscles rippling as he sprinted in a dazzle of broken-field running, bowling over any moving object without a skirt or faculty badge.  The girls, bedazzled by such power, dropped like ticks, and our low-budget reflexes were no match for such a blitzkrieg. On such days, Chuck seemed like perfection itself.

In fact, he only made one public mistake in his high school career; that near-fatal blunder, though nobody else knew it, was brought on by Maxwell and his penny nails.  At a track meet, Chuck was scheduled to throw the javelin, and he hoped to break the state record.  He had flirted with it at several previous meets, he was well rested, and he was performing in a good wind before the home crowd.

But something went terribly wrong.  On the crucial throw he miscalculated and hurled the javelin like a spear, right through Coach’s neck.

Coach had been bearing down without mercy on the geeks, the gamers, the gearheads, and the ones like me who kept our heads inside a book. All of us had been designated to carry water for the jocks.  Maxwell had made his way during the track meet onto the field to pound penny nails wherever he could. Coach had caught him red-handed. When Chuck made his fateful toss, Coach was swinging his paddle wildly above Maxwell’s skull, so the javelin took him completely by surprise.  Flailing his arms wildly, he went down, pinned like a biology specimen to the grassy infield, the paddle still flapping spasmodically. He had taught Chuck everything he knew about the javelin, had directed him through his every stage performance, and at one pep rally had claimed to love him like a son.

After a few paralyzed moments Chuck, his arm still dangling before him, tried to rush to Coach.  Everyone could see what he wanted to do, yank away the javelin and make things right, reverse time, change the fabric of reality, and probably he would have done it, that’s how magical his charisma was, but his teammates restrained him.

Two medical technicians rushed to the stricken coach.  As delicately as Boy Scouts they unfastened him, like unpegging the corner of a tent, and gently placed him on a stretcher, the javelin still in his neck. They had to cut it with a hacksaw before they could maneuver him into the waiting ambulance.  Miraculously, Coach was alert the entire time, able to wave his paddle to the shocked spectators before the ambulance, its siren bleeping, rushed him to surgery.

Maxwell nodded knowingly, his lips pursed in triumph, and pointed to his nearby book bag, which was clunky with his silver hammer and what was left of a pound of penny nails.

Though I was shocked by the accident, I had to stifle a laugh when Coach went down like one of the girls fainting. I didn’t know what to do with my mixed emotions. I imagined the javelin holding my father to the ground during one of his drinking bouts when he swung his belt instead of a paddle at any part of my body he could reach.

Coach was finally taken off the critical list and Chuck became himself again, as though he had walked into and out of somebody else’s nightmare.  Miraculously, Coach had only a nasty scar and that voice, high and sweet like Molly’s, to remind us of his brush with death, and Chuck received a great outpouring of sympathy.  “He’s more human now, don’t you think?” I overheard Molly say.  “Now I can see he needs love and compassion more than the rest of us.”

When I heard that, I wanted the son of a bitch dead like a doornail. I went looking for Maxwell, determined to ask him to conjure up more magick.

Even so, the day after A Streetcar Named Desire, I stood as ordered behind and slightly to Molly’s side as Chuck and his phalanx approached.  He was still strutting like Stanley, still the spit and image of Brando in the movie all of us had been forced to watch in English class, and I knew my work was cut out for me.  We had also read Julius Caesar in English, and looking at Chuck it was easy to imagine Caesar in Rome, desperate petitioners reaching out with their pleas.  Crossing up Chuck on his exalted plane was as unthinkable as betraying Caesar.  Like Chuck, Caesar no doubt consoled a few with a clap on the back, an intimate nod.  He probably nudged others in a generous show of affection, deigning to treat a second-string senator as his peer.  For the girls, Chuck had his patented vague smile, that sensuously full underlip slightly curled at the corners.  His smile, sometimes aided by a hooded wink, was usually what did them in.  First a sigh, then a rolling of the eyes, and finally a seasick swaying before the swoon. Chuck took them down like deadfall.

That day, when he seemed most like a deity, I revived Molly by pulling from a pocket the medical device from the philanthropist, a vial of smelling salts so strong it would have made a dead horse kick.  “Never rely on the kindness of a stranger,” I murmured, waving the salts like a wand before her upturned, neighing nostrils, cradling her gently and smelling her soapy aroma.  “Take advantage of the one who loves you.”

Her eyes fluttered and her mouth opened in a bright smile.  She laughed. “Gotcha,” she said. “I don’t faint, even over a dreamboat like him.” For a moment, we were intimate and carefree, as if lying alone on a checkered blanket in a prairie field full of high grass with a picnic basket beside us.  It was a moment of camaraderie, of joyous freedom, that I’ve seldom managed to find again. It was as if Chuck had magically transferred some of his charisma to me. Then she stared away to the cafeteria.  “Did you see him in Streetcar?” she asked.

I stood and pulled her to her feet. I stared darkly at her.  I didn’t say a word.

“Wasn’t it the loveliest thing you ever saw?  He was wonderful, like one of those statues come to life.  Are we lucky to have him here among us, or what?” She laughed again.

“Got me again,” I said.

It was her valedictory. Before I could stammer out a reply, one of her girlfriends touched her on a wrist and she was gone, and so was Chuck.

A year later, I happened upon her wedding announcement in the local paper one Sunday.  My mother had died and I lived alone, worked in the oil fields as a roughneck, a job that didn’t suit me at all, and saved most of my pay so that I could get to college one day.  It was spring and flowers were brightly in blossom after a hard winter.  Molly wore a wedding dress and looked about the same in the black-and-white snapshot as she had when she jogged in her khaki outfit to the gym, always running late and then stopping at the door to leap high like Chuck when he slam-dunked a basketball.

As my own valedictory, I drove to the high school on a day of deep clouds and found my way to the wooden bench where I had spent so much time for four years. It was summer. The campus was hot and deserted, the grass gone brown.

I ran my rough hands over the bench’s rotting wooden slats. I could see the bright glare of the water tower. Chuck was long gone, of course, playing football at the state university in Fargo, still a success but no longer making anybody faint, and I remembered that he had once declared that the Rosetta Stone was a ski slope in the Rocky Mountains.

Oddly enough, those memories, unlike Chuck’s fame or my crush on Molly, haven’t faded with time, and I’ve come to understand that my life’s vocation, one sentence following another, is to climb into the clouds as if they are mountains and rappel down their slopes, deciphering their whorls and hieroglyphics as if I hold between my fingers a key to some indecipherable understanding.

It gives me hope in dark times.


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