The Chatham Park High School fieldhouse pipes burst. Rust-clumped water peeled down the hill and painted the grass copper. The janitor cut the line to the water station used for practice. He said if one pipe went the entire system was contaminated. He interlocked his fingers and explained that all pipes were connected, an incredibly complex system that few people understood. People expect water to shoot from a faucet but need to remember it makes quite the trip.
So, for the entire season Byrne and the rest of the football team had to run up the hill and find the stream that curled through the woods. They moved like forty deer, leaping over fallen limbs, elbow to elbow in front of the current, knees settling into mud, sucking down the water that trailed, somehow, from Lake Lehman. Byrne always reached the water first, his throat so dry it itched. The first few days he drank too quickly, gulping and spitting bile, feeling like a child pushed underwater. He felt like he was losing control over his body, losing his muscles and bones to liquid.
Full-pad scrimmages in August were Coach Pine’s bread and butter. He said there was no grace in the game. You go hard as Hell now and those weekend games will be walks. Claimed that God, or whatever else they had believed in, had rusted the school water, made them give that extra effort to reach the good flow. Football wasn’t about running 10 miles, it was about running 10 miles and an inch, and that final inch was the death of most.
Maggie, Byrne’s girlfriend, told him to be careful. But she wasn’t worried about the heat. She said the stream was tainted, said one of the assistant coaches always pissed in it. She said it with the authority of legend, and Byrne imagined Coach Fleming straddling the thin stream, letting loose. Maggie really had no idea what she was talking about. Byrne knew that, yet he couldn’t help but admit her words, even the false ones, carried so much weight.
Byrne waited at the end of the orchard row. He was between double sessions, his body feeling good from the exhaustion, his mind almost drunk from exertion. His sneakers covered in dust and smashed Idareds and Macouns, the mix of beige and purple like a bruise. He picked dried cider from his corduroys. The woman at the entrance had taken his dollar and given him a shot of mulled cider in a plastic pill cup. He sucked it down and Maggie shook her head. She handed him her cup and he took that down also, but half the drink spurted on his pants. He padded the stain with crumpled tissues from his pockets. Bits of white stuck to his palms. Maggie walked away, her fingers patting her thighs.
He waited for her. She tucked a bag full of Haralsons under her arm and against her chest, and was gone down the dwarf rows. She was taller than some of the trees. She kicked the fallen apples and they sloshed along, heavy and wet. Byrne turned away for a second and lost sight of her. When he looked back, it was as if the trees had swallowed her form. Maggie knew they couldn’t stay for long but she didn’t seem to care. When Byrne said he’d be late for practice she said there was a first time for everything. She thought bad things lasted for only that moment, that Coach would stare Byrne down, punish him with a lap, and all would be fine, as if memory died with consequence.
Byrne kept his alarm clock inside a pillow. Tucked within the down, and then stuck in a drawer. It did nothing to muffle the sound, but it stopped him from slapping off the ring and going back to bed. Instead, he rifled from under the sheets, pulled out the drawer, and fished through the stuffing, fingers prodding for the plastic. Then he stood in the center of the room, head swirling, shins knocking into the footboard. Only once, after he put the wrong time, did his father have to wake him, and he did so with a pot of water: Byrne’s eyes were open but he couldn’t move his mouth while watching the water break the plane of the pot and flush onto his stomach, the sheets, then curl down the sides of his bed. That was the last time he slept-in on Saturdays.
His parents sat at the table, sliced potatoes steaming under their chins, pulp pressed against the sides of their glasses. Breakfast would last until noon for them. Round one at sunset, then a deep nap, afghans piled to their necks, than a second round, their stomachs calm from the rest. If Byrne’s little brother was home he was most likely in the attic, looking for issues of Action Comics their father claimed he never had. Cab had invented an entire history for their father, all on the basis of a few photographs from Portland, scattered like puzzle pieces at the bottom of a box. Byrne told him images could lie, but Cab didn’t believe them. He would point to the picture and say that type of thing couldn’t be faked.
Once up, Byrne pushed through the back door. Frost gilded the yard. He flipped the hood over his head and jumped a few times. He hated to stretch. His first step on the grass was always unsteady, but he settled into a stride by the treeline, and kept pace along the narrow path, lined by willows scalped years back. Soon he reached the field, and the high grass ebbed into dirt, packed the texture of woodgrain. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head and was blind for a moment. He closed his eyes in that moment although there was no reason to; either way he would only see black. He dropped his sweatshirt and kept forward, and the cold had passed into heat. His left knee quavered every few strides and he imagined each sinew and turn, and the thought of stopping felt fine, walking back along the trail–enjoying it, for once, as much as trees in the dark could be enjoyed–and stealing some potatoes from his father, who always had a handful too much anyway. Always too much.
But it was better to run. He had to run. His father had always said he would never be shit on the field unless training became second nature. Until Byrne wanted the pain that spooled along his hamstrings. Double sessions became triple sessions, a special hour of near-death on his own, often at the peak of the sun. His father, like Coach Pine, always wanted Byrne to train at the hottest, driest times, to suck in the thirst, to control his body. Soon heat passed into a chill, a tickle along his skin, and he wondered what it would be like to die midstride, to fall down into the ground. If anybody would find him there. In the dirt.
The school’s middle distance coach told a story about a runner from out West. Idaho, Wyoming, somewhere wide and flat. The runner was out on a midnight run, and he went down a long, thin highway, the center line curling and spooling into the black ahead. The runner tried to stretch his strides as far as possible, reaching with his toes, clocking the asphalt at an even cadence. And then he forgot how to run. He tripped off the road and fell into the creosote. He looked at his legs and he thought, all these years of moving forward, and now you fail me. It was as if I’ve never used you before. Supposedly they found the runner a few days later, still talking to his legs, pausing between sentences as if he was waiting for a response.
It took a month for Byrne to realize Maggie’s hair was auburn and not red. He could never admit that to her. She asked why he held strands between his fingers and he said because it was soft. She said guys never liked hair, or fingernails, or shoes. She asked what he would do if her hair was blonde, would he still like her, and he said yes, but she said he had no way of knowing. Then why even ask the question, he said?
Byrne wondered how he forget Maggie’s warning about the stream. She’d gotten into his head before, but this time was worse, this time he couldn’t part his lips in front of the current without seeing both her and Fleming shaking their heads. So he stopped drinking. He ran with the rest of them up the hill and through the woods but he doubled-back as soon as they lowered their chins to the water. He hid behind a willow and looked at the trunks around him, swabbed with sap. He learned that he could will saliva. Sometimes it took a cough, sometimes a prayer.
Maggie didn’t want such suffering. She told him to bring his own water. Fill a thermos. Stick a gallon in his duffel bag. But Coach Pine wouldn’t have that. When one of the cornerbacks brought a cooler, Pine emptied the contents down the player’s back. It was a windy afternoon and the kid ran like his limbs were frozen. Pine had his rules, and this was one: bring yourself, and only yourself, to the field. That way you can leave your body there and have nothing else left.
“Where are we going,” Maggie asked. They were still at the orchard but would have to leave soon.
“I don’t know.” Byrne took another bite. Bitter. He spit it out and the clump disappeared into the brush.
Maggie shifted on the top fence post, her plate set on a rail. Byrne had cut the slices with a Buck knife in the bed of the pickup. Mud crusted the blade, and when Maggie wasn’t looking he’d spit on the silver and rubbed the gunk away. He spread paper towels on the edge of the bed and sliced the apples down the center, the exposed cores pocking the smooth white. He sucked the juice like the apples were oranges. His throat wanted water, not this new sting.
“We can go wherever you want. I mean it.”
“I wish we could stay here.”
“They close at dusk. And I need to leave before that anyway.”
“I know. I still wish.” She hopped down and wiped her butt. There was nothing there from the fence but she brushed anyway. Byrne wasn’t big on coming back to the orchard. Maggie said the orchard hadn’t made him late; she had. That didn’t make things any better.
The maintenance man was off the tractor. He walked like he’d just gotten down from a horse. Ass out, knees bowed. He wasn’t very old. He looked old from far away, but now, up close, he looked in his forties. He shook Byrne’s hand and continued on to Maggie. He didn’t offer her his hand but she smiled. He said he could see her eyes from the tractor. He said they were a light tan, almost like pure maple. She liked that. She liked when she was compared to things. Byrne agreed, but he was not in the conversation. They were doing fine without him, and he wondered, how old does a man have to be before I stop wanting to break his neck for talking to her? Here I am standing a foot away, and I could grab him by the back of the neck and swing him to the ground. Stomp the hell out of him. Eyes like syrup. What was he thinking?
Eyes like syrup.
What was she thinking?
He went away, and her lips pushed to the left. She was going to say something, but they heard a whistle. Maggie’s father leaned against the door of his Dodge. He didn’t bother waving because they already saw him.
Byrne stopped her before she left. “Are you coming tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there.”
She ran away. It was nice to hear promises once in a while.
Coach Pine jerked down Byrne’s facemask. His neck buckled, and he stumbled forward, his hands pressing into coach’s windbreaker. Three missed tackles. Two you get, Pine said, three you pay for. North Hills? They’ve got a sure back. A sophomore. Good Lord, he can run. And when he breaks through, when his ass flies out of the backfield, what the hell are you going to do? Let him pass. I bet that’s what you will do. Sooner or later you’ve got to buckle down. Too much girl, you’ve got. Got her on the mind. Nothing wrong with having her. Happy you do. She looks good. But you’ve got to let go of her on the field. Your mind can’t work both ways at once. You can’t go with her each day between practices. You need to go home and sleep. You shouldn’t even sleep in your bedroom, you should go down to the basement. That’s right. You have a basement, I know you do. Your old man once said he had water down there. Then he put that sealer on the concrete and its nice and bone dry. Get yourself down there and get to sleeping. Cover your eyes with something. Tell your Mom to wake you up in time for practice. All those days you spend with that girl and those apples and you’ll be flimsy as a noodle. You can’t take much of that. Save her for the offseason. She’ll be there. You know she will.
Pine spread his feet. He wore the same black sneakers as the referees. Buckle down, you bastard. Feet as wide as your shoulders. He slapped his stomach. He wasn’t fat. Not at all. Wide as your shoulders, damn it. And you get down and you’re ready to spring forward. I don’t want you going for that back’s ankles or his neck. I want you going for his torso. The center. That’s where his heart is. You see his crotch. I see his heart. Take him down and out. Do you understand me? Down. And out. Do that right and that’ll be something you can live with, something you can share. You’ll have other girls. Believe me. They all seem important at the moment. Then the hunger passes and you’re new again. You stay with this football thing and you’ll have more.
Pine had Byrne suit up again. Practice had ended an hour ago, and the locker room was empty, torn medical tape and worn Ace bandages overflowing the garbage. A ripped jock strap slung over the shower head. His parents were probably waiting for dinner, his father starving, his eyes in all directions, his mother turning on and off the soup, the broth flaring to bubbles before settling thin again. But Byrne wasn’t finished. Full pads, helmet, cleats. Pine walked him out to the center of the field, a hand on his back like he was his father. Byrne looked toward the bleachers but Maggie was gone. That was why Pine had mentioned her, he’d seen Byrne drop an out pattern pass and look toward her. He couldn’t help himself. But he hadn’t seen her leave. Maybe her father had whistled her home. Maybe the maintenance man gave her a ride on the tractor, through the rows of Cortlands, and she downed the apples until she was drunk. With love or something close to it.
Pine told Byrne to do nines. Sprint the length of the field but stop on each whistle. Stop, crouch, and bound forward, into the ground. Then get the hell up and keep going. Pine always whistled nine times, and Byrne knew there was no reason to keep going further after the ninth whistle. Why keep going when the work is done? So he got started, thighs heavy and slow. Down in the dirt and the fading lines. Up again and forward. And on up to nine. Then down on the ground and breathing up grass, the blades trilling against his tongue. Down, and if he pressed his tongue hard enough against his gums he could still taste apples. Or Maggie. But not water. He was dry on down to his core, and as he sprinted through the final line, he dove to the ground. Rain had made the hill green again and the rusty runoff had sunk into the mud. All things felt tainted. Byrne rolled on his back and wondered if the stream could somehow flow toward him.