15 August 2009

Free Shoes

Depending upon the weather and the selected activity, I had two choices of footwear for Physical Education: bare and “street.” Indoors, I could usually go barefoot for tumbling and any particular school's version of the universal, red utility ball game known officially as “dodge ball” but locally and variously as “blood ball,” “kill ball,” “death ball,” “smear the queer,” and “that game we play when it rains.” Basketball, unfortunately, and square dancing (who cared?) required some form of foot wear and my “street shoes” were accepted and served rough duty. Outdoors, all sports required shoes and I presented no incongruity on the field; children wore their “street” clothes for Physical Education. This was true for all the elementary (or grammar) schools I attended.

Gymnasiums in those schools were as likely as not also the cafeterias and auditoriums, as well as linoleum covered. Physical Education classes were generally co-ed, though games were often assigned by gender. Boys whooped and flapped around in disordered fashion with little observance of rules and little expectation of skill, whatever the designated sport might have been. Girls tended to form small discussion groups. Fundamentals were stressed with obsessive frequency and little outward effect. “Street” shoes fit in just fine. We had relay races and “tumbling.”

This was well and good for elementary school, grades K through 6 (or 5, depending on how any particular district was organized, whether they used “junior high schools” or “mid-schools” as the transition to “high school.”). Junior high school or mid-school, gym requirements changed drastically. Physical Education classes were segregated and, while the boys were required to wear jock straps, the girls could stop going altogether due to “cramping.” We were asked to play real games, football and basketball and baseball forming a holy trinity. The level of competition during these games increased, a reflection, I suppose, of generally increased competition throughout the student population. We were no longer little kids. First girls and then boys began to feel the effects of hormonal tides. We no longer “played” and the games in which we engaged ourselves were the outlines of cliques and social stratification that would follow us, in some form or another, for the rest of our lives. Special footwear became an imperative.


Nan usually falls asleep early, a combination I think of the many drugs within her system and sheer boredom. Her eyes lose their focus, her rhythmic shaking slows and slows and slows, she stops heaving to retain her drool. She relaxes into the bedclothes, the flannels and quilts her mother and I have insisted on using to make her bed, have laundered ourselves in place of the wretched linen the hospital provides. The room is dark, the door is ajar and the hospital insinuates itself blah blah blah.

I think we are comfortable, I think we are growing accustomed to these circumstances. Nan is no longer attached to the various machines that monitored or assisted her vital functions. Her wounds have healed, her condition is stable. She is still tested by shifting teams of physicians, she is still losing weight and she is still having trouble accepting nourishment

It has been almost fourteen months, it has become a routine and I don't have to look at my watch to know when it is about 8:30 PM. Nursely chatter and gossip-tones are my wife's nightly lullaby; I can distinguish the voices, provide the faces from which they issue, but I still don't know all their names. Nan's mom has developed relationships with the nurses, but her motives are mercenary and expeditious. She's a smart woman, Nan's mom, and uses idle conversation and cranberry bread to bribe these dim nightingales toward some semblance of humanity. They, in turn, find themselves forming a “relationship” with Nan and, according to plan, treat her with the respect and compassion often withheld from more objectified patients. In private, Nan's mom expresses a vague distaste for nurses, their personal limitations, their lack of broad education. Same thing with doctors. Same thing with sons-in-law.

We have formed a kind of truce, the three of us. Nan stays in the hospital for rehabilitation, therapy, treatment and around-the-clock-care. Nan's mom helps baby-sit her granddaughter, Ariel, spends a lot of time at the hospital, keeps Ariel's father posted and informed, and just sort of arranges things. I work, I keep house, I cook, I stay up late at night sitting on the porch in the dark and recently occasionally I see this girl I met.


I was taking marinated chicken breasts out of the refrigerator, I was chopping up carrots and onions, and Ariel was telling me about her day at school, about an assembly for the whole school during the afternoon. All the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders of her mid-school assembled in the cafeteria/auditorium for an anti-drug rally. There were motivational speakers, a video, a testimonial speaker and a “rock” band whose members were also police officers.

“They were called 'Hogs Wild,'" Ariel said. “Because they were all policemen, they called the band 'Hogs Wild.'"

“I get it, sweet pea,” I told her.

“It's like a joke on the people who don't like the police, who maybe think that police are bad or even call them 'pigs' or something bad like that,” she continued.

“This is great. This is really interesting. Did they wear their uniforms?”

“Oh, yeah, it was cool so people will see them when they play music and then they'll know the police can be cool and rock out like normal people.” Ariel was really into this. Those cops had really made an impact on her perception of law enforcement. “They played all these cool songs and even some eighth-graders got up and danced.”

“Did you dance?”

“No way,” and Ariel said this with emphasis
. “They played that song from that TV show—‘bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?’—and some old songs we didn't know and the drummer did this really cool solo part to a song all by himself....”

As she rattled on, I suddenly realized that Ariel had been to her first concert, her first “rock” concert, at school that day. It was true, she'd been rocked by Hogs Wild as part of some D.A.R.E. community outreach program, but she'd also really heard electric music in person for the first time. She'd enjoyed it tremendously.

“...and people cheered and clapped so much they came back out and did two 'freebirds.' Even the teachers were clapping and....”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “The band played two whats

“They played two 'freebirds',” she answered.

“What's a 'freebird’?"

“You know, like when the band is finished and they leave but everybody keeps clapping and yelling and people yell 'freebird' but you're supposed to have a lighter to do it for real like at a concert...”

I was both surprised and a little shaken. “You guys call an 'encore' a 'freebird'? You guys called the band back on-stage by yelling, 'Freebird!'?”

“Yeah,” she shrugged and might as well have said, “Duh.”

“Have you ever heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd?” I asked her. “Have you ever heard the song 'Free Bird'?”

She had no idea what I was asking her. She didn't know what those words meant.

“Never mind,” I backtracked. She was twelve. “So, what did Hogs Wild play when they came back on-stage?”

She visibly groped to pick up the threads of her thoughts. “Um, I'm not sure but there was a cool part where they all like moved at the same time, like a kick, like this....” and she started to demonstrate a little stage-craft, a little shuffle step to which I could just imagine uniformed police officers really grooving.

“Which one was the cutest?” I asked her and that was a completely different kind of mistake.


No street shoes in my gym,” Coach bellows.

It has rained that day, it is raining all day, and period 3 Boy's PE will not be playing flag football on the all-purpose athletic field. Instead, we will stay inside and play a few rounds of “blood ball.” Already, red utility balls are in evidence. Coach tosses them to the milling class from the Dutch-doors of the equipment room. They are retrieved, they are bounced, they are thrown and caught, they are thrown and not caught.

There will be no hard soles on my shiny, hard wood floor
,” he again announces and he is talking to me.

“Blood ball” (“dodge ball”) is played in a few variations along the same general theme. Kids in a circle, kids against the wall, or kids on two teams are the usual permutations. At Jefferson Junior High, two teams play on a basketball court, the centerline designated the “death line” across which no one could pass unless on a suicide run to the “hole” to rescue captured teammates. I will spend that hour darting across waxed, ash wood floors in my bare feet and I will blister.

I begin to notice the other boy's shoes, the sneakers and tennis shoes they wear and that make it possible for them to run, stop, turn, and leap without pain. I notice Coach watching me and I know if he's wondering if this day will be my last day of PE, if I'll start ditching and not dressing out because of my pain, my humiliation because I don't have “gym” shoes. He imagines me one of those poor kids whose family can't or won't afford proper athletic footwear for their child. He imagines me smoking cigarettes, of glimpsing me after school with hair hanging down in my eyes and an adult-sized cigarette awkwardly held in child-sized fingers, defiantly self-conscious and painfully self-aware. He wants to know if he will have to cast me out, to scorn and mock me for the rest of my junior high school “career.”


“When I lost Nan's grandfather,” Nan's grandmother told me, “I thought the world was over. I thought there would never be another person in my life like that.”

I was listening.

“And I think to myself, I think I understand, how 'gone' Nan is for you...the way she is, she's not really here anymore. She may come back someday, but for now, she is 'gone' to you. It's like you've lost her but she's still here and she still needs you and there you are.

“I know I was surprised when I realized the world wasn't over, that there were other people in the world, that there were other people in my life.”

I knew that one of the people she was talking about was her live-in boyfriend, Roger. And I had recently found Carrie who seems receptive to forming a relationship, an emotional relationship beyond the sexual, despite my present situation. Despite Nan's situation. And that's the difference.

When Nan's grandfather died, he did just that. He died. They said cancer, they tried treatments, the treatments worked for a while, and then he died. Dead. Nan's grandmother was able to mourn, to grieve, to “heal,” and to move on. She can take her boyfriend to the cemetery and point to a particular spot and say, “This is where my dead husband is buried.”

Nan and I are in quite different circumstances. I fear that Nan is very much alive, that her character and her personality and her memories and her intellect and her emotions are very much intact. The thought of this is terrifying, partly because I cannot believe she will get any better. The damage has been too great, has gone on too long for me to hold out any hope that she will live out her life as anything other than what she's become.


I was “it” then and they, my friends and my enemies both, threw those red utility balls at me fearsomely and I dodged them as best I could in my bleeding bare feet until I learned how not to play at all.

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