The Linebacker

In high school, he was one of three linebackers. All three wore good names on their backs. Sword. Seabolt. King. Strong side. Middle. Weak. Being part of a triumvirate meant something to him. They didn’t win all their games but were second in the state of Texas senior year. He got an offer to play in college—a D3 in Kansas, but still. He turned it down. He liked games but not the attitude, the big talk and pumping up. He went to Rice for the civil engineering program and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s in English and a girlfriend who was still a couple years away from a theatre degree and could play any character but herself. She got pregnant despite birth control and had a miscarriage and fell into a pit of depression and he went in after. He thought he understood what was happening until he found her crouched in the darkness, gnawing on the bone of her own arm. She lashed and clawed and kicked and when they were back in their apartment, he looked at her sleeping and healing in bed and knew two things: this would happen again and he only had it in him this once. He kissed her forehead good night and finished a master’s in the Pacific Northwest and met a woman four years older who not only knew how to be herself but how to love who she was. She made pottery in her studio and had a way with her hands. Eventually she started doing this thing in bed where she cuddled up behind him in the night, slowly slid her hand around, touching him through his boxers like it was against the rules and kissing the back of his head. A few times she whispered it’s okay. Soon he would be on his back with her under the covers swallowing him, swallowing him whole. It reminded him of something that happened when he was too young and still unable to finish. He’d never told her or anyone but some part of her knew where to find it and the pressure that started building all those years ago finally, at long last, released. Besides the pottery she had a good job while he taught a couple classes a semester and wrote surreal stories about people going down into pits where they found other people gnawing on things and he published a few. She asked him once why he never wrote about finding someone more like himself down in a pit and he didn’t know why but gave it a try so someone like her found someone like him down in a pit and approached him from behind that certain way and touched him that certain way and held him in her mouth that certain way and eventually her stomach started to hurt and she hunched over and heaved and heaved again. He put his hand on her back and comforted her and he thought she was going to be okay but then her jaw dislodged and something started to slide out of her open mouth: a pale, translucent whelp with thin membranes where its eyes should have been. The image disturbed him and he didn’t even want her to read it but she told him it would be okay no matter what though he knew this wasn’t true and was right. She didn’t speak a word of the thing they left behind as if it had never existed at all but asked if something had happened to him when he was a child. He told her about the lady with the iguanas down the street and, after that, she no longer did the thing under the covers but spent more and more time in her studio making some of the rawest work she’d ever made, primal, paleolithic, as a critic from one of the weeklies called it, not long after he left to get his PhD in one of the only places that would have him, back in Texas, not too far from home. They tried long distance a year and two months before she called one night and asked if he was seeing someone else and he said no which was technically true. She was sorry. She had been but it was over now. He said she didn’t need to explain but she thought she owed him that much and said she was the kind of person who needed touch and more than every third weekend. Did he understand? Could he forgive her? Why wasn’t he mad or sad—something? How could he go without touch? Didn’t he even miss her? Of course he missed her and of course he couldn’t go without touch and he was going to explain the next time they talked but she said she would always love him but had to move on. He wished he still wrote stories because he’d been conceiving one about a man who had been writing stories about pits for years and fell into an actual pit and still didn’t know how to get out. After they said goodbye for the last time he found himself sitting in a bar beside a woman even more unmoved than him, pretty but worn down by the world, hunched over the counter like a lizard, barely moving, conserving her calories, waiting for something to flit past her mouth. He offered to buy her next drink and she hardly glanced at him and said I’m good. He wanted to run away but thought he deserved to sit with it because he was nothing special after all and finished his drink and his PhD and got a term position at a small college up in the panhandle where he found himself in a similar bar one night with a couple colleagues when someone said his last name. He turned and tried to place the guy’s face, eyes twinkling, hoping to be recognized. He was just about to say the name when the other guy said his own name and it was one of the other linebackers from, what, three decades ago? Holy shit, he said. Holy shit right, the other linebacker said. Where you been, man? The other two linebackers had caught up at the 10-year reunion and at the 20-year thought maybe the last of their little crew might show up late but not a word. But you were always a loner, the other linebacker said. A loner? He’d never thought of himself that way before, but the word hung over the whole conversation standing at the bar talking about their lives. The other linebacker had gone on to play college ball at a D2 in Oklahoma but hurt his knee bad as a redshirt freshman and got a job doing HVAC repair and a wife and they started having kids right away, four of them, if he could believe it. What about you? the other linebacker asked. He told the other linebacker that one of his girlfriends in college had a miscarriage and his fiancée had, well—here, he didn’t know how to explain the thing they’d left down in the pit—but his old teammate took the pause for a sense of loss and made a face like sorry, man. He knew he was supposed to feel sad about not having a family of his own at this age but he didn’t feel much of anything at all though he did sometimes wish he’d been strong enough to face the actress girlfriend’s depression and that he wasn’t the kind of man who needed to be molested like a child, which was something he could never say in a million years. He didn’t want their conversation to get depressing or weird, so he told the other linebacker everything had turned out okay for him and settled into the comfort of his CV, the modest list of publications, the PhD, the job. The other linebacker was impressed by every word of it or anyway acted as if he were prodigal and it felt good for a moment, really good. One of the other people from the department—yes, they were still here, just sidelined for a couple drinks or maybe three—said how weird it was to think of him, this guy, as a football player, a linebacker, and his old teammate looked at them like they were crazy. This guy, he said, patting him on the shoulder, this guy was the shit, and told the story about that time on kickoff when he blasted through the wedge and tackled the receiver so hard that it bent his own facemask. As if that didn’t say it all, the other linebacker started another story, one he didn’t even remember and may have been about somebody else entirely, but it was okay because he was remembering kickoff that one Friday night all those years ago, hurtling down the field as if nothing else in all the world mattered, every part of him in touch with every other part, how the guy with the ball tried to juke right, how he knew, just knew beyond all doubt, where they were going to meet, how in the second before they collided, helmet to helmet, face to face, he glimpsed the other kid’s eyes and they were so afraid. He remembered, or sort of remembered, coming up stunned from the tackle, facing away from everyone else into the opposing end zone, scowling off into the still darkness of the empty baseball fields beyond the chain-link fence and the coyote hills stretching out endlessly into the night, a stadium packed on two sides but not a single person in his periphery, and how he roared—roared—into the abyss, however oddly silent, muted by the vacuum of space stretching out before him, until his teammates rushed into him from behind, jostling, hugging—at once exalted and grounded to the earth. He must have got a concussion that night, because he’s never been able to remember another moment from the game, didn’t feel himself reenter the stream of time until later that night driving home, or maybe tonight, sitting in his chair with his two dogs at his feet, warming before the crackling fire, coming back into himself from wherever it is that we go.

Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

About the author

Shane Castle is an assistant professor of writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His stories have appeared or will soon appear in Black Warrior ReviewIndiana ReviewWest BranchSalamanderMcSweeney's Internet TendencyNorth Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere.

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