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Rival Nights

Rival Night

 

The dog farted, or maybe it was me. Either way, it's rancid. Heavy cream, cream cheese, Parmesan, and Italian seasoning. It smells like Alfredo sauce and sewer water.

Where we differ, the dog and I, is that I can give him the credit. There's no need to own it if you don't have to.

It's survival of the fittest at its finest.

I'm watching the Luyter game with my sister-in-law, Cherry, and their dog, Milo. My twin brother, Stephen, is the head coach for men's basketball at Luyter University. She tries to lighten the mood and says it must be weird to be watching Rival Night on the TV.

I look down at my old WCU Men's Basketball t-shirt and lay the sarcasm down like a dead body and say, "Yeah, well, court-side gets old after a while."

I used to be an assistant coach for Western Cuttling University; Luyter's rival.

My brother and I never had bad blood, and we took the rivalry as a brotherly dose of friendly competition. It wasn't weird for us, even though people wanted it to be.

It was actually really fun, while it lasted.

Luyter and Western Cuttling are pound-for-pound the best college basketball programs in the country. Their scouting and recruiting is legendary. When they play each other, it's called Rival Night. And it's a big-time tradition in the area, since the schools are only an hour apart.

On my last Rival Night, Coach Kovolchik had had it with Luyter's man-to-man defense. It was killing us. Plus, their star Forward, Thomas Frine, was blocking our star man below, Jamil Greene. So, Coach K called a timeout and we gathered around him.

The same way my brother's team is crowding around him right now on the TV.

I notice something.

"Hey Cherry, have they always done that?" I ask.

"What?" Cherry says, "Wait! Hold on."

Her eyes stay locked on the screen while she leans down and looks like she's reading braille off the coffee table, feeling around for her phone.

Then the camera changes to the visiting team's huddle. Their coach wipes the eraser board in frustration. His face looks like a sweaty purple onion with eyes.

She looks at her phone and answers a text message, then immediately starts typing another. Bouncing her head, looking up, then down at her phone, transcribing some hidden message like her life depends on it.

Anyway. Back to my story.

It was the same scenario as the one on screen now, when Coach Kovolchik calls a time-out and says that we're going to have our Forwards switch to the opposite sides of the key, giving Jamil some relief.

We'll mix em up. We'll trick em with a sudden unexpected burst of speed.

And hopefully, Coach says, we get some god damn points on that god damn board, pronto.

"But." Coach Kovolchik says, wielding the uncapped dry erase pen like a weapon, offering a whiff to each of their noses, "You wait until I turn and face the crowd. That'll be the signal when to switch. Now, does everyone understand that?"

The huddle nods in unison.

"I fuckin' god damn hope so."

Ref blows the whistle.

Kareem, our Point Guard, curbs his usual hustle. And Luyter's defense matches the pace without issue, which I thought was odd. For fast paced teams, it's tricky to get acclimated to a slower rhythm.

Kareem crosses half court and dribbles in place, waiting for the signal. Then, Coach K put his hands on his hips and turns to face the crowd. The Forwards at the bottom of the key make the planned swap.

But their defenders go right along with them, seamlessly. I swear, their defenders were damn near magnetic.

Coach K looked at me in disbelief. I shrugged the credit off to a well-developed man-man defense.

We tried the same trick again, except, we swapped everyone around.

And when Coach K gave the pre-agreed upon back turn, Luyter's boys moved like they were running the same play. They were twins.  

It was way too coincidental for Coach K to believe. Maybe it was a way of troubleshooting, but Coach K burned our last time-outs and orchestrated some outrageous switch arounds for the boys to do. He had to prove to himself that something was up. Everyone in the huddle looked at each other in their shared confusion.

Coach K slapped the dry erase board, "Just do what I fuckin' say!"

And everything he tried, Luyter followed. Flawless. They knew where we were going. There was no other logical explanation...I thought.

After the loss, Coach K banned cell phones on the court on game days. Then in the same breath, retracted his decree. Saying that he shouldn't have to ban shit if he had any type of loyal coaching staff. And that there's no way any defense could predict the strategic insanity he threw at them. That was unless Luyter's new recruiting strategy was giving full rides to clairvoyants.

He said Luyter's good, but no one's that good. He was convinced someone was a rat.

I was the third to be released. I had no idea how we got burned, or how Luyter did it. I assumed it was survival of the fittest at its finest...Until right now.

The time-out ended, and Cherry turned back to me as she slid her cell phone back on the coffee table. "Sorry, what were you asking?"

"I was asking if they've always had mics in the time-out huddles?"

"No, I do think so. I think it's kind of a newer thing." Then she looked back at the TV.

"Hm."

I tried to step through it in silence and not let my body language show it. I want a way out of asking her the obvious question on my mind. But I can't find that golden nugget.

I knew there was no way I was going to be able to go on without ever asking, so now might as well be the time.

"Hey Cherry." I stare through the side of her head. "When was the last time you went to a game?"

She chuckled and leaned in, like she was telling me a secret. She says, "Honestly, I haven't gone in like a year. Is that terrible?"

I show my top row of teeth. And with nothing but breath I mumble, "Despicable."

Then I say, "Hey Cherry."

She thinks I'm starting a joke, so she smiles and says, "Hey Reed."

I say, "Did you just text my brother what the other coach was saying in their huddle just now?"

When Coach K called me into his office, I already knew I was done. I sat down and didn't say a word.

He said it was a sign that I wasn't begging to keep my job.

"A sign?" I asked.

"That you either had something to do with it, or that you're as stumped as I am."

I spread my fingers, and then close them, in the I-don't-know fashion.

I was tired of it. It was at that point where the relationship would always be tarnished. It's like asking your wife if she's cheating on you; Even if she's not, the fact that you even had to ask could dent steel.

"Reed." He put his hands on his desk and his head dropped, "Just tell me something. Anything. Even if you didn't do it. If you say you did, we can just burn this. Have you read what they're saying about me? They're saying I'm on a witch-hunt. That I have a mole, or that I'm paranoid. They say I'm no good anymore, and this is just a sign of my denial." Then he says, "It's either someone comes clean, or I clean house. That's the only way I keep my job, Reed."

I stood up.

I said, "No one's a mole, Coach. And you're not paranoid. You're the best coach there is. And that's the issue."

As I turn to the door I say, "Your hide for losing's gone thin, Coach. That's all."

And I meant it. Winning is lotion for calloused hands.

Cherry's forehead shows that she's picked up on what I'm really asking her.

Then she stops, her eyes go crazy and she says, "Oh, oh, oh. Reed. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It's not what you're thinking."

I shift my posture on the couch. I rub my mouth and blink a lot. I cross my legs.

She puts all her fingers on her chest like a canopy above her heart and says, "I was there on Rival Night last year. Remember?"

She's right, she was. It's incredible how quickly you can snap into witch-hunt mode.

"I only do it because other coaches' wives are doing it." She holds her phone under her thumb pressed on her hooked pointer finger. "You know Coach Timli's wife, Rachel, from Gutterbrine? I asked her why I never see her at Gutterbrine home games anymore. And she starts falling all over her words, and comes up with some bullshit excuse, I can't remember what.  Anyway, two weeks laterβ€”"

"I remember." I say, and growl into my hands, "You've gotta be fucking kidding me, Cherry."

The phone slides into her palm, she grips and points with it, "And you, of all people, know there's no way in hell Gutterball could beat Luyter the way they did without something going on behind the scenes."

My mind is in so many what-if situations right now. Where did all the good fortune come from? The wins? Was it earned and honest? This is my adult version of finding out the tooth fairy doesn't exist.

I say, "So...Stephen has you stay home to text him what the other team is doing?"

"Not Stephen, one of the assistant coaches. You know he'd never be all right with that. But if all the other wives are doing it..."

She stops for a beat and sounds like she asks herself, "Right?"

Her eyes start to water. "I mean, I don't want my husband being called a loser just because I'm the only wife in the conference not willing to play ball."

I calm her down and tell her I get it. It's not any coach's fault. The TV network is the one to blame, really. And even then, they're just trying to beat their competitors, and give their viewers the optimal experience. The coaches, their wives, the TV channels, are all laced together like fingers in their own sibling rivalries.

It's survival of the fittest at its finest. A cosmic game of spin-the-bottle.

I tell Cherry all this as I pull my phone out.

I text Coach K and ask him how he's feeling about Rival Night next week. And if he wants to grab a drink tomorrow.

Cherry's head recoils and shakes, "Oh my god."

She covers her mouth and tightens her lips like something bit the tip of her tongue. She looks down at the dog on the floor and says, "Jesus."

I hit send, and over my chin I say, "That was me. I farted."

Next week at Rival Night, everyone is standing behind Coach K, including me.

He's holding the dry erase board like a hymnal book, giving a silent seminar over his shoulders. He looks back and says, "Got it?"

The team nods.

And with ten seconds of the time-out left, he hands me the board. I scribble on it. Then I flip and show the camera my thank you note to Cherry.

Dedicated to Brandon J. Lee


James J. Hatfield is a Durham-based, displaced engineer who loves science and art, and other contradictions. He is a Weymouth Fellow, a Sterling Room For Writer's Fellow, and was a featured poet at the 2018 West End Poetry Festival. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Walter, Orange Terror, and Technician. He is a founding member of the Peebles Writing Collective. See more of him on social media @jamesjhatfield