A high school pole vaulter's journey to the state finals.
If You Face the Ground,
You’d Better Kick the Sky
The pole-vaulter hangs at the end of a fourteen-foot length of hollow fiberglass tubing, its tip jammed into a metal-lined box at the end of the runway, the rest of it forming the top of a question. His feet have just left the rough, rubbery surface of the runway, and he begins to lean back. As he does, he knows he wasn't fast enough. The pole had been too long and he'd had to lengthen his approach without properly testing it first. His long, blond hair is falling back as gravity pulls at him, but his body rises nonetheless. He hears so many voices inside: “This isn’t your pole,” “You can’t do this." But it's his coach’s last words that that ring out loudest of all: “First steps color the run. Get the first steps right and you’ll fly. Get your face to the ground and kick the sky.”
I wasn't fast enough. I can't do this. His elbow screams in pain. He aims his feet at the sky.
A face-plant into greasy Sizzlelean and scrambled eggs is a bad start to any day, made worse when the smell tripped his olfactory alarms and sent his stomach—brimming with a noxious stew of midnight Mac n’ Cheese and a six-pack of Lucky—into body-convulsing reverse.
The two young men on the couch burst out laughing as Swan threw the blanket clear and scrambled for the stairs. The upstairs bathroom door slammed shut. The sound of retching drifted down to mingle with the “Looney Tunes” theme piping from the old brown box Magnavox blinking in the corner.
When Swan came back downstairs, his mouth nasty with the taste of bile, the guy with the huge, red afro and peach-fuzz mustache was burning the end of a brass one-hitter with his Harley Davidson lighter. The other guy—a squat, muscle-bound youth in a “Ride the Lightening” t-shirt—indicated the plate of bacon and eggs and said, “Eat up. You got a meet today, right?”
Swan sat down on the floor and wrapped himself in the blanket. One look at the food made him groan.
“I’m not hungry, Hi.”
“Well, you can piss off,” Hiram said slowly to his best friend, “because you’re going to eat it.”
Swan speared a strip of bacon. It hung limp over the end of the fork, glistening with grease. His stomach churned and he shoveled the food into his mouth.
Behind him, Hiram dismantled the one-hitter and packed it full of weed from a baggie on the coffee table. Fro leaned forward, exhaling a thin cloud of smoke.
“Want some?” he asked.
On the TV, Elmer Fudd held his finger to his limps and warned everyone to be very, very quiet.
Swan shook his head. “Got sub-districts today,” he mumbled through a mouthful of egg.
Fro’s heavy lidded, red eyes squinted up, confused.
“Sub-districts: track,” Swan explained. “You understand?”
“Yeesss…” Fro said, straightening up. “But what I don’t get is why you’re going there.”
Fro looked at the skinny, long-hair, his face still a bit pale from vomiting and huddled in a ratty, blue blanket.
“Bullshit,” he said, breaking into a smile.
Hiram punched him in the back of the shoulder and broke out into a fit of coughing. Fro rubbed his shoulder and shot Hiram a hurt look. When he could breathe again, Hiram said, “Swan here’s the school record holder in pole-vault.”
Fro looked back at Swan, the same, dopey grin on his face, and said, “You got a track meet today and you drank all that last night? Man, you must not give a shit.”
“He doesn’t need to, esse,” Hiram said, dropping into his favorite Cheech and Chong impression. “That’s how good he is.”
Hiram hand back the pie. Fro swore and dropped the hot metal.
“Anyway,” Hiram continued, ignoring Fro, “Swanny-boy professed his undying love for Mary last night. What’s he got to lose now?”
Swan dropped his fork with a clatter.
“Oh, God. I didn’t, did I?”
Memories of the thirteen-year-old Mary’s bemused smile and patient, “there, there” patting on Swan’s head rose up through the murky depths of his hangover. He groaned again. “Oh, God. I did.” As he buried his face in his hands, both Hiram and Fro roared with laughter.
Once he’d calmed down enough to speak again, Hiram gasped: “Don’t worry about it, dude. She was joking about it after you passed out in her lap.”
And with that, both Hiram and Fro burst out laughing again: Fro braying like a donkey and Hiram gasping for air. On the TV, Bugs Bunny had Elmer Fudd hoping around like a rabbit in a rabbit costume complete with long, pink rabbitty ears. Swan let them get on with it and wolfed down the rest of the food. When it turned out there wasn’t any cheese in Fro’s mother’s fridge—something Swan always ate to get over a hangover—Swan said goodbye and hurried out the door.
A gray blanket of clouds weighed down the sky, dampening the bird song from the maple trees roadside. Swan jogged down a two streets, and then across a field overgrown with milkweed and blackberries, to the small, brown trailer he and his mother shared.
The screen door screeched open, but that wasn’t a problem today: his mother was up already, getting ready for another ten-hour day at The Pie House. She checked that he’d eaten breakfast, let him know that his bag lunch was in the fridge, and handed him three dollars in food stamps for snacks and drinks.
“Sorry it isn’t more,” she apologized.
“Don’t worry about it, mom.”
She gave him a hug and then kissed him on the cheek.
“Good luck at the meet today. I know you’ll do your best,” she said, and then hurried out the door. Their old, gray Datsun ground into life and drove off, trailing dust from the gravel driveway.
Swan stripped off his clothes and threw them down the hall to land on his bed. Taking one of his mother’s fluffy, pink towels from the bathroom, he went to the kitchen sink and stuck his head under the hot water. Later, he used the damp towel to clean his pits and privates, and then put on his track uniform. He packed his track bag, locked the front door, and then sprinted to the high school where, with any luck, the team would still be waiting in the parking lot for Coach to arrive with the bus.
As he sprinted up, he saw that only an annoyed Coach Johnson waited outside.
“Seat twenty-two,” the dumpy middle-ager barked, checking off Swan’s name on the list and tossing the clipboard up onto the driver’s seat.
Swan ducked through the controlled chaos that was the Nittosa High School track team before a meet. Bits of paper, some bags—even a set of cleats—flew across the aisle. Swan collapsed into his seat near the back. He positioned his bag as a pillow and curled up to sleep. He had two hours until they reached Pomeroy. He hoped that’d be time enough to sleep off the hangover.
He’d hope wrong.
As the bus pulled into Pomeroy High School’s parking lot and Coach Johnson ordered everyone to gear up, Swan felt his temples would burst. He guzzled water, hoping it was just dehydration.
Johnson stood up at the front of the bus, clipboard back in hand.
“Okay, everyone, listen up! We’re never going to take first place unless we’re all willing to put in a little extra effort. Rossiter! I’ve got you down here for the 400 and the 800. How about trying the long jump and sixteen hundred today? Emily! You only signed up for javelin. I want you at the shot-put and discus areas today. Don’t look at me like that. You’ve tried them a couple of times at practice. Come on, everyone. We need every point we can get, so I don’t want to hear any ‘I can’t do it.’
“You, too, Lake,” he said, causing Swan to stop massaging his temples and look up. “You only signed up for pole-vault. I want you to give long jump and triple jump another try today. Come to think of it: I want you to do the sixteen-hundred as well.”
Ignoring Swan’s burst of protest, Johnson moved through the remaining names, assigned extra events according to some preordained plan which, given the looks of confusion and voices raised in protest, none of the team could fathom.
By the time the meet started, everyone had relented, agreeing to enter the events Johnson had assigned. Even Swan agreed to do the long jump and triple jump, though he held out on the sixteen-hundred: a stale whiff of cigarette from his fingertips almost sent him running to the toilets at the end of the field. Swan place forth in the triple jump and sixth in the long jump. He placed first in the pole vault, breaking his own record by three inches, but this surprised no one. All the other competitors had been freshman who’d just started vaulting. There was only one vaulter in the district who could compete with Swan, and that was Deschutes up in Potlatch. They’d meet in two weeks at Districts. Until then, Swan could rest content with his 13’6” today.
Nittosa placed third overall, with most of the team qualifying for Districts in at least one event. To celebrate, Johnson stopped the bus at a supermarket and bought Coke and Juju Fries for everyone. The team fanned out among the aisles, grabbing snacks and drinks for the ride back home.
Swan took a bag of Doritos and a can of Mountain Dew to the check-out counter. One of the team, a girl sprinter, seeing him hand over the food stamps, asked: “What’re those?”
Swan looked around to see that no one besides the old lady at the register was listening.
“They’re food stamps,” he said.
“And what’re they?”
“You don’t know what food stamps are?” Swan said, disbelieving. “They’re like money for food.”
Her eyes brightened. “Oh! I’ve heard of those.” And then she looked confused. “They’re for poor people, right?”
Feeling suddenly embarrassed, Swan took his change and his bag and hurried back to the bus.
After the team had settled back into their seats, Coach Johnson made an announcement.
“I’d like you all to know that John Lake broke the school record (again) today, and is now ranked second in Washington state. Let’s give him a big hand, everyone.”
Cheers and shouts of congratulations ran out. Several hands from neighboring seats clapped him on the back and shoulders. Blushing, Swan tried unsuccessfully to shrug it off unimportant. Only when he stood up and took a bow did the honest cheers die down.
No one from Nittosa High School had yet placed second in any event at Finals.
Now, John Lake—whom good-natured friends called Swan—stood within striking distance of not only first place, but also of breaking the state record of 14’6”. Only one thing stood in his way: the surprising rise of Deschutes, whose unofficial 14’-vault at a practice last week had caused Coach Johnson a minor heart attack.
He gave the red-faced Swan a look all-too-easily read: "We're going to work you even harder now."
End of Part 1