This Sunday morning, my Honey Nut Cheerios tastes awesome. Our living room chair is super comfortable. I’m doing what Dad did last week. I’m alone. I’m staring out the front window at the snow, the empty street, a frozen cornfield. My body is totally relaxed.
My mind, however, is a wreck.
Mostly because I got pinned again last night by Jeremy Yankton, almost like it was my first wrestling match. Like I hadn’t learned anything since I started almost two months ago. Coach Mac didn’t say anything, but his face twitched so much I could tell he was fighting back the words he wanted to say.
Somehow I have to convince Randy that I still want to be friends even though I don’t want to hang out with Neil. The editors gave his camera back to him, so last week, Randy asked me to help him write the captions for his pictures, At first, it was a little uncomfortable, but I made him laugh when I wrote under a picture of Mr. Franklin talking to Karen Bauer: Asst. Principal sets record for assigning detention number 10,000. I changed it, of course, to Mr. Franklin meets with Karen Bauer, student council president, to discuss graduation ceremony plans.
I chew on my last spoonful of Cheerios and set the plastic bowl on the floor next to the chair. I close my eyes for a moment and feel the cereal settle in my stomach. When I open my eyes, the Sunday morning sky is still gray, patches of snow are still on the front lawn, and the house is cemetery quiet. Dad’s bedroom door is wide open, but his room is empty. His bed looks like he hasn’t slept in it. Plus, the Toyota isn’t in the driveway.
I frown. Where is he? Did he have a night out in Cleveland and stay there? Wouldn’t he have called me?
Of course, he could have just gone out for breakfast and didn’t want to wake me. Or maybe he just drove in his car to talk on his cell to Mom without me overhearing the conversation. Two weeks ago they argued about who wanted custody of me. Right? But it could be that the argument was about who had to take me. Is that it?
I glance once more at the driveway, like maybe Dad will pull in at any moment. He didn’t leave a note, he hasn’t texted or called, and his briefcase remains open on the kitchen table.
His moods have been terrible recently. His second semester classes haven’t been any better than those he had first semester, and I can tell he’s bothered that he hasn’t been able to watch me wrestle.
But still, where is he this morning?
I pull up my feet and sit cross-legged now in the chair. I lean forward a little until I can look in both directions down the street.
I did walk up to Coach Mac with my wrestling gear back at Amherst, but I kept on going into the locker room. I saved my three ounces of courage. In other words, I chickened out last night and didn’t quit. Greg was right there, waiting to give me a ride home, and I couldn’t quit in front of him. Dad, of course, had told me there was no Q. So, after Greg dropped me off, I told myself one more match. One more match and the season—and possibly my wrestling career—will be over.
One more match to prove to Coach Mac he hadn’t made a mistake asking me to come out for the wrestling team. Plus, I have to show Coach Hanson I do have heart, regardless of what happened last night at Dalton. Mostly, though, I want to convince the whole team, especially Nick, that I’m not just filling a weight class, that I can win, too.
“Master your mind,” Jason Selk states in 10 Minute Toughness, and get rid of the “clutter.” My clutter is Dad, Mom, Marcie, Randy, and now Laura. It’s not like a water faucet and I can turn off my thoughts about them.
Laura, of course, is big in my head now, especially since I discovered she’s the one who’s left the notes and sketch on my locker and the texts on my phone. Before I got on the bus last night, she told me that she snuck a look at the contacts on Billy’s phone, found my number, and began texting me.
I forgot to ask her that. I know her dad wrestled and now Billy, so wrestling must be in Laura’s blood, too.
But could it be that she simply wants the Amherst Eagles to win the conference championship and I’m needed at 106?
Or did she do all that because she feels sorry for me?
Because she knows I have to drill with Billy who crushes me at every practice.
Because I haven’t won a match.
And because I’ve been pinned so much.
I study now the dead and snow-dusted cornfields across the street, how they stretch past my eyesight, and wonder what farmers do in winter when they can’t seed or plow or harvest their crops. I search again left and right down our street for Dad’s Toyota, but the street remains empty.
To be sure, Dad needs a break. He’s been more uptight lately, coming home late from his evening classes and complaining even more often about his students, the dean, the provost. He wants to know if his contract will be extended, and I’ve learned that they keep putting him off. He deserves a day with friends.
Has he made any friends since we moved here?
Maybe that’s why Dad sat in this chair in the dark. With the cornfields in front of me so silent and calm on this morning, I definitely feel a peacefulness sitting here with nothing to do. In fact, I sit for about twenty more minutes, enjoying the quiet in the house as I try to dismiss the clutter from my head, as if I can make it all float away through the window in front of me.
Unfortunately, Laura, Randy, and Dad stay in my head.
I take a shower, and by noon, Dad still isn’t home. Nor is he home by four o’clock. I call his cell but he doesn’t answer, so I leave a voice message. This has happened twice before—in Richmond, Indiana and once more in Toledo—both times Dad was late returning from a conference. I don’t recall him saying, however, that he was attending a conference this weekend.
At five o’clock, my dinner is a can of vegetable beef soup and a boiled hot dog, certainly not the healthy foods Dad wants me eating. My algebra and history textbooks sit untouched on the kitchen table. I don’t want to watch television, but I need sound inside the house so I turn it on. I click on the remote and channel surf to ESPN and basketball games, to the sci-fi channel, and then to “South Park.” I hardly watch the cartoonish images of Eric and Kyle and Kenny; instead, I just listen, letting the characters’ voices distract me as I clean up the kitchen and put pots and plates into the dishwasher.
I’m glad when Laura calls later.
“You okay?” It’s Sunday evening but her voice is still high octane.
I’m honest with her. “No.”
“Don’t feel bad. That Dalton kid was really good. He went to Districts last year.”
I sigh. “That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
She pauses and then says, “Sorry.” Her voice mellows, and she also sighs into the receiver.
Then we talk about school, Billy, everything except the last match of the season against Newton Falls, the meet that will determine the conference champion. Her voice abruptly goes up again. “Do you still have my charcoal drawing?”
I look at the living room wall as if I can see through it to my bedroom. “Yeah, it’s on my nightstand. I like it. Thanks.”
“Guess what? Two of my sketches are going to be exhibited.”
“Really, where?” I try to match her chirpiness.
“At the Amherst Public Library. I just wondered if you want to go see them?”
I hope this isn’t a trick question. “Sure.”
“How about tomorrow after practice? My mom can take us.”
I think about Dad. I still don’t know where he is. “I don't know.”
Laura sighs. “Well, let me know in English class, okay?”
She pauses again, then: “I hope I’m not putting too much pressure on you, Alex.”
Pressure? I feel pressure like a pillow over my face all the time but not from Laura. “No, of course not.”
“Okay . . . just checking.”
A minute later we hang up with no real plan about going to the library, which makes me feel crappy. I decide to tell her in English tomorrow that I would really like to see her artwork on exhibit. Her wrestler sketch is awesome.
By seven-thirty my homework still isn’t done, and I’m bored by this television show about the mystery of Stonehenge. Dad isn’t home, but I figure he has to be home soon. Like me, he has school tomorrow, classes to teach, right? I call and once again it goes to voicemail.
I feel better when ten minutes later my cell phone rings.
“Where are you?” he asks.
“At home. Dad, where are you?”
“I don’t know this street. The car won’t start.”
“The car? Where are you, Dad?”
“In my car.” He sighs. “It won’t start. I think it’s out of gas.”
“Dad, did you call for a tow? Where are you exactly?”
“I was at the college yesterday,” Dad explains in a flat voice. “In the cafeteria. They don’t bus the tables like they should, Alex. They don’t. I watched them. Then I tried to show them.” Dad sighs again. “They ignored me,” he grumbles.
“Why were you showing—? Wait, Dad. Your car . . . it’s out of gas? Where are you? I’ve been trying to call you.”
“I went and saw a movie. Tom Cruise was in it. The audience was directed to turn off our phones. I didn’t want to get escorted out again, son. I didn’t want to embarrass you. I turned it off . . . I turned it off.”
“Dad, you have to tell me where you are. Maybe I can get a teammate to pick you up.” No way was I going to call Randy.
“N, Alex. N for No. It’s my own fault, I drove around. I think I ran out of gas.”
I grip my cell phone, my eyes still on the deserted street in front of our rented house. “Dad, just tell me where you are right now.”
“I don’t know the street names.” He pauses, and I imagine him stretching his neck to look. “I can’t see any signs. It’s too dark.”
I pace in front of the front window. He’s right. The winter sky is cold and black. “Why didn’t you just come home after the movie?”
“I told you. I decided to drive. I remembered the route, the directions.”
The skin on my forehead gets damp. “The route? The directions? Where were you going?”
His voice gets loud and curious. “Did you win last night?”
“No. But why did you want to—”
“That’s okay, Alex. You’ll have more matches. I’m glad you went out for the wrestling team.”
I’m not going to let him off the hook. “But why Illinois, Dad? Is this about a new job? . . . Mom?”
Dad ignores my questions. “You are going to win, son. I know it.”
“Dad,” I almost yell back, “Tell me where you are. I’ll get a teammate to pick you up. You must be freezing.” I’m still pacing with my phone at my ear and looking out the front window as a winter gloom settles on the cornfield across the street.
Dad pauses. “No need, son. The car won’t start. I just can’t sit here.”
I stop pacing and return to the chair where I sat this morning. My forehead feels hotter, and sweat gets clammy on my back. “Dad, why did you want to go to Illinois? Did something happen with Mom?”
“I have to leave, son. It’s too cold just sitting here.”
“Huh? Dad, let me call someone.”
“I saw you wrestle that one time. I think you can be really good. You’re going to win a lot of matches.” He sighs again. “All I ever did was wash dishes.”
“Dad . . .”
Then the phone goes dead in my ear.