One man's past bears shocking fruit as his son enters a youth wrestling league.
|I held my dying son in my arms. I held him in my arms and wept. My tears fell, mixing with his blood on the cold pavement, a sickly cocktail.
His body was light in my arms, a kindergarten frame now one soul lighter and still shrinking. My Achilles, my Alexander the Great, my JFK, bleeding his last breaths not long after taking his first steps.
Sirens whined in the distance, promising nothing but to be too late. The puddle of blood was massive now. I didn’t think it possible his fragile frame could hold so much, but there it was, like wax from a candle burnt to the last inch.
I cried harder.
Make me the man he will never be.
Coach Hawkins blew his orange whistle, and it began. Sparring, lashing hands, circling. mano a mano, man to man. Except not men, not this time. This was a youth wresting practice, a new program implemented by the new coach.
Their small bodies slapped the mats, like defrosted steak on the cutting board. Slap, pack. Slap, pack. Little groans. Hissing breath, small teeth clenched. Yes, youth. This was the newest division, the kindergarten league. 5 year olds, 6 at most. Young minds, small bodies engaged in mortal combat, in ancient arts.
The whistle blew again, and it was over for now. What can you expect? Even the Roman Coliseum had a schedule. Civilized violence.
The children gathered around Hawkins, his orange whistle hanging around his neck.
“All right, kids,” he said, “Good practice. Anthony, you’re against James in the final Sunday, so be ready.” He smiled, and patted both boys on the back. He could be amazing, somethng like Jesus, or...
Charisma. Pure unadulterated charisma. And so Jesus it was, children gathered around his knee as he performed miracles, told stories, taught life lessons, coached. Fathered.
Anthony ran to his father who stood at the side of the gym, silent, watchful. A grin broke out on his face as his son approached.
“Nice job, Ant,” he said, laughing. “You got this guy Sunday.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Anthony said, smiling back.
“Come on, let’s go out for some ice cream.”
“Awesome, ice cream!” Anthony ran off to get his bag, little feet slapping against the mat.
Mark, his father, breathed deep, remembering the smell of asbestos-tinged air, the feel of foam rubber, of sweat. He had wrestled, once upon a time. The sport became the father he never had. The old man left him, but left him with this. He couldn’t complain.
“That’s quite the little wrestler you’ve got there, Mark. He and Pitney’s boy are the best we got. This Sunday should be interesting.” Hawkins’ face exuded good will, a understated confidence.
“Yeah, Ant is excited.”
“Yep, well, keep it up. He’s got talent. Got to develop that early.”
“Practice at 7, don’t forget,” Hawkins said as he turned away.
Hawkins returned to the mat. Mark watched him go. That was the father he wished he had had. He saw the old man’s shadow in every word, every gesture. He was glad Anthony would get to experience that.
Anthony returned with his bag, his young face glistening with sweat.
“Let’s go, ice cream!”
Mark smiled and walked out the door, son at his side.
You see, it started with my wife. I work a lot, and she takes care of our son. And substitute teaches, but that’s an argument for another day.
She approached me at breakfast one day. Said I didn’t spend enough time with Anthony, that I worked too much.
I dismissed her, blew her off, told her I’d think of something. That week, Hawkins showed up.
Perfect, I thought. Spend some time with my son, and make a man out of him at the same time.
It worked for me.
The mug was hot, the coffee hotter. A good morning.
Mark sat at the dining room table, a half-empty bowl of Raisin Bran, a steaming cup of coffee, an unfolded newspaper on his knee. A half-completed ritual to the gods of the middle class.
“Morning,” said Jen, entering the kitchen, still in her pajamas.
“Hmm…” Mark grunted, still nose deep in the morning’s news.
Jen stopped, hands on her hips. ‘Mornings,’ she thought, sighing.
She tried again. “So, how’s Ant doing with his wrestling?” she asked, offhandedly.
Mark’s face lit up, newspaper dropping down. “Oh, he’s doing great! He’s wrestling this Sunday for the number one spot on the team. Against Pitney’s kid.”
Jennifer smiled; her question brought the desired effect. That topic always got her husband going. She crossed the room behind him, and laid her chin on his shoulder.
“I’m really glad you’re spending more time with him. He needs his dad.”
“Yeah, I think it’s good for him, too. The wrestling, I mean. He’s got talent, that’s what Hawkins says,” Mark said.
Jennifer sighed. “Listen, honey, just be careful. He just, well, he seems too young.”
“Nah,” retorted Mark. “Wrestling did wonders for me.”
“Baby, you were in middle school. He’s in kindergarten. And I’m not saying stop, just be careful,” said Jen, rising, and walking to the sink.
“Jennifer, you’re talking about it like he’s going to die or something, like this is war or something. This is good for him. Turn him into a man,” Mark said, with a hint of finality.
Jennifer spun on her heel. “He’s 5, for Christ sakes. He needs to be a boy before he becomes a man. He’ll grow up on his own terms, if you let him.” She was getting angry.
“Honey, he’ll be fine. He’s doing great. He likes it. Coach Hawkins says..”
“No, no, no. Enough of the Coach Hawkins bullshit. You know how I feel about that man. He makes me uncomfortable. He’s just, I don’t know. Weird.”
It was Mark’s turn to sigh. He’d heard all too much about Jen’s bad feelings over the years. If not Hawkins, then someone else. “Not that again, honey. Hawkins is a good coach — a lot like mine, back in the day.”
“Now hold on, I thought we were talking about Anthony. I’m hearing an awful lot about you here.”
“Well, I… I just like Hawkins. That’s all. I think he’ll be good for our son.”
“Good for our son, or good for you?”
Jen started in again. “I mean, is it Ant that needs him, or you? Sounds like you’re the one who needs a father. Ant’s already got one.” She paused. “Sort of.”
Mark stood, furious. “What the hell do you mean, ‘sort of’? You just said a minute ago you were glad I was spending more time with him, being a good father.”
Jennifer stepped up close, finger in his chest; her words hissed out, dripping with venom. “How can you be a father until you get your head out of your ass and quit trying to be someone’s son?”
“Jen, I am being a man, doing stuff with our son, being home more. What else do you want?”
“I want you to put this father-issue masculinity bullshit behind you! I don’t care if you never had a father! If you don’t man up, Anthony is gonna end up in the same boat.” This was the first time in years she’d mentioned Mark’s childhood. And never this bluntly.
He slumped back into his seat.
Jen sighed. It had been a low blow, and she knew it. “Listen, Mark, I’m sorry, I just don’t want to see this go bad. I just think you’re getting in your own way when it comes to being a dad.”
Mark looked down, and reopened the newspaper.
A few minutes later, he looked up and opened his mouth to speak, but Jennifer had already walked away.
Man, we couldn’t wait for that Sunday. Anthony because he wanted to wrestle. Me because I wanted to show Pitney up.
Todd Pitney was a coworker of mine, over in accounting. We had never got along, I hated how he looked at Jen, a fact I had told him on more than a few occasions. I was gonna enjoy my son kicking his kid's ass.
Maybe that’s selfish. Maybe that’s what pushed this too far. My destructive selfishness.
I knew my wife was right, on a basic level. That this father shit was going to tear us apart. Hell, this wasn’t even about me anymore. It was all about that shadow from my past, that old man I never really knew. Even long dead and gone, the man I didn’t remember still pushed me.
He spoke through Hawkins. It felt like that, anyway. I was right, I thought; he was just like Jesus. Heavenly father, and heavenly son. How did he do that, multitask like that? How could I?
I was starting to realize the answer, to think like he thought, to think like God himself, the greatest father ever recorded. To think like he did in the Garden of Gethsemane all those years ago.
Salvation through sacrifice.
God forgive us for what we do.
The orange whistle blew, and it began again. This time it was personal. Pitney and Mark stood next to each other at the side of the gym, eyes fixed on that white circle. Otherwise, the massive room was empty, still. Just five people: two sons, two fathers, one coach.
Anthony and James circled each other, their small, kindergarten heads wreathed in foam, ear protectors, mouth pieces. Little knights in Spandex armor.
And they fought, lashing arms and legs, spinning, turning, with the energy only a kindergartener can have. They didn’t have to be strong. Oh no, not strong. They had to be hard, vicious. It was like a cock-fight.
James’ mouthpiece came out, and bounced across the mat, a trail of spit drawing a twisted stream on the red rubber foam.
Pitney took a step forward to protest, to stop the match. Hawkins waved him back.
“Let them go,” he said. “They need this.”
My father’s words, Hawkins’ mouth.
And so they went, no mouthpiece. If anything the intensity increased. Anthony spun his spindly arms, and suddenly the end was in sight. He had James pinned.
James sunk his teeth into Anthony’s shoulder, throwing him off.
Mark burst to his feet in a rage. “What is this?” he yelled.
Hawkins motioned him back, his bald head glistening with sweat. No pin, and no foul, his look said.
“Let them go,” Hawkins said. “You need this.”
You can’t be a father and a son.
Now blood, sweat, and spit ran together on the mat. Anthony was pissed, James seeing red. All form dissolved to nothingness. This wasn’t wrestling, not anymore. Little fists came down like hail, hammering relentlessly. Hawkins said nothing as wrestling turned to bare-knuckle boxing, and boxing turned to a shapeless flurry of movement and hate.
“Let them go,” Hawkins said. He looked directly at he two men standing at the side of the gym. “We need this.”
Mark turned to Pitney and swung, his fist connecting with Todd’s temple. It was like an epiphany. He saw Hawkins glance, he saw everything.
He saw his past, his father. He saw the present, his son. And he saw the future, the salvation. But first the sacrifice.
Todd dropped to a knee, but came up swinging. Hawkins smiled and nodded.
Two fights now, but one battle. The same war. Four sons now fought, one father.
Hawkins smiled a sad smile. He knew where this ended.
The boys had left the mat in their blind rage, fighting all the while toward the door of the gym, toward the parking lot. Sweat flew as hit after hit pounded back and forth, so much energy.
They became a little tornado, and as they saw their fathers engaged in the same, their efforts redoubled.
Out the doors they burst, and the fathers released each other temporarily, making a mad dash to the door. Hawkins held the door open as they passed.
Into the parking lot they tumbled, a flurry of action, kicking, hitting, biting, scratching. Both fathers and sons.
Like father, like son. Except it goes both ways.
Hawkins watched as James picked up the broken beer bottle. Hawkins watched as he swung it in a wide arc, intersecting with Ant’s neck. Hawkins saw the first spurt of hot, sticky blood hit James in the face..
Catholics sprinkle babies at birth, a few drops on the forehead. Just a little spurt, but it is enough.
Hawkins saw Anthony fall. And he smiled.
“Let them go,” he said. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
As my son fell, I turned and saw. I saw James, coated in blood. I saw my son, bleeding his life out. I saw Hawkins smile. Heard him speak.
My dad’s words, Hawkins’ mouth.
I ran to my son, and scooped him up, breath still sighing from his deflated lungs. His small form shook as I held him.
Pitney picked up his boy and ran. Far away.
He could do that, he could run. I was glued to the spot.
So I cried.
He died. No curtains ripped, no ground shook, no storms came, but the sacrifice was made all the same. To gain a father, I had to lose a son.
Hawkins walked up to me as my son breathed his last. He crouched, his orange whistle brushing my dead son’s forehead, tracing a cross as it swung. The orange rosary of this new church.
He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Practice at 7,” he said. “Don’t be late.”
My dad’s words. Now, my dad’s mouth.
As I closed my son’s eyes, I knew I would be there. At 7. I lost my son, but only because I still needed a father.
Save me, dad.