Authors: Geoff Herbach
The End of the Fall
School ended for two weeks. Winter break. I'd be leaving town to visit Andrew and Grandpa Stan and Tovi, my cousin, which I was psyched about because college questions would go away and I'd be with family in a not-empty house.
And Tommy's Pig Boy thing had calmed me down. He'd given me a purpose! So before leaving for Florida the next morning, I agreed to be social. (I hadn't done anything with anybody since Thanksgiving.)
I went to Dubuque, Iowa, to walk around the mall there with Abby Sauter and Karpinski. Karpinski drove. I sat in the back.
On the way, Abby turned to me and said, “My little brother told me you're protecting some kid in his class.”
“Me?” I asked. “Or do you mean Karpinski?”
“Ha!” Abby laughed.
“I don't do shit for children,” Karpinski said. “I don't like children. They're really dirty, have you noticed? Dirty hands and shit.”
“That's nice of you, Felton,” Abby said. “Keeping a young man safe from terror in the halls of Bluffton High.”
“Yes,” I said. “It's my duty.”
“What kid?” Karpinski asked.
“That pig kid,” Abby said.
“Little fat ass?” Karpinski asked.
“No,” I said. “Tommy Bode. He's not a little fat ass.”
“He's pretty fat,” Karpinski said.
“Nolan doesn't like him,” Abby said.
“No shit. Nolan kicked him in the stomach,” I said. “I saw him do it.”
“Nolan has problems,” Abby said. “That's when your hand bled?” she asked.
I nodded. “He pissed me off.”
“Yeah, Nolan's not doing so well,” Abby said. “He's not soâ¦” Abby trailed off.
“Why? What's wrong with Nolan?” I asked. What did Nolan have to worry about?
“I'd probably kick that little fat ass in the stomach,” Karpinski said. “I'm a dick.”
I looked at Karpinski. His jock eyes twinkled.
“It's my job,” Karpinski said. “I have to keep the dipshits in line.”
“It's my job to protect them.”
“There's gonna be some trouble, man. We're going to have to fight!” Karpinski laughed.
“You're a dick,” I said.
“Always have been, always will be,” Karpinski said.
“You just figure that out, Felton?” Abby smiled.
“No,” I whispered.
“Abby, you drinking peach schnapps or something?” Karpinski asked. “What's that smell?”
“I don't know,” Abby mumbled.
Karpinski had moved on from the conversation, but my hands were balled into fists. I was pretty close to crushing Karpinski. Here's what I thought: Why don't you bully me, you dick? I'm a dipshit. Bully me, okay?
In Dubuque, I didn't have a lot to say.
“Come on, man, lighten up,” Karpinski said. “I was just joking. I wouldn't kick that fat pig kid. He's beneath me, man,” Karpinski said as we waited for Abby outside PacSun, where she bought clothes that made her look like a beach volleyball player. (She was an All-Conference volleyball player after all.)
I just nodded at Karpinski.
“You think Abby's drunk?” he asked.
“I protect the dipshits, man,” I said.
“Ooh, I'm scared,” Karpinski laughed.
Jerri took me to the airport in Madison the next morning. “Have fun!” she said dropping me off.
She didn't say, “I'll miss you.”
Back in Bluffton, Jerri disappeared into the arms of a dude named Terry Sauter. (Is that last name familiar to you?)
Am I Brutal Like My Dead Dad?
Grandpa Stan Thinks I'm Dad's Clone
My grandpa Stan sipped an iced tea on the side of his backyard pool. It wasn't too warm outside, maybe mid-70s, but Andrew and Tovi were swimming around, splashing each other. The sky above was winter Florida blue. Grandpa's little palm trees blew around in a breeze. I lay on a deck chair next to him.
“Why do you play such a brutal game?” he asked.
“Football?” I asked.
“What other game do you play?” he asked.
Tovi had told us earlier in the morning that she'd accepted a tennis scholarship to the University of Georgia. Andrew and I were like, “That's amazing! That's so cool!”
Grandpa Stan said, “Are you sure, sweetheart? You don't have to play if you don't want to.”
Up until my grandma Rose's death a year ago and Andrew's entry into his life, Grandpa Stan only cared about tennis. That's what Tovi told me. I wouldn't know because Grandpa wouldn't talk to us back then. He pushed Tovi to play like he pushed my dad when he was a teen. Tovi said, “He just yelled at me to work harder and run harder, and he shouted at me about scholarships all the time.”
But that morning in Florida, he said to her, “Maybe you should stop the competitions and start having a little fun.”
“What the hell?” was Tovi's response.
“Why do you play such a brutal game?” Grandpa Stan asked me.
“Fun? Murder is fun?” he asked.
“It's not murder,” I said.
“Slaughter? Is that a better word?” he asked.
Remember, Grandpa had been at Bluffton's homecoming game in the fall. We played Prairie du Chien and I destroyed them. Coach Johnson took me out midway through the third quarter because we were ahead by a lot and the Prairie players were diving on the ground instead of hitting me because I'd crushed so many of them that they'd gotten scared. (I like that feeling, knowing they're scared of me. I look to hit them instead of running toward open field.) Recruiters said I run angry.
“I don't slaughter anybody. It's a game. I score touchdowns.”
“You could play golf. Have you ever played golf?” Grandpa asked. “It's very relaxing.”
“I'm one of the best football players in the country. I don't want to play golf.”
“How can that be fun? Breaking people's backs?”
“I get out my frustrationâ¦It makes me feel normal.”
“Okay, okay.” Grandpa Stan waved his hand, dismissing the conversation.
Tovi and Andrew splashed around. I rolled off the chair, stretched in the sun, then cherry-bombed the hell out of them.
NCAA rules forbid schools from contacting recruits between Christmas and New Year's. I didn't get a single call. Facebook was still going. (Unofficial representativesâgirls and alumniâposted on my page.) I received direct messages on Twitter. But if I turned notifications off on my phone, I didn't see any of them. For the first time in several months, I was sort of free.
Except that Andrew asked me about Aleah the third day while we ate some cardboard toaster waffles. “How is she?” he asked.
The waffle caught in my throat. “Gone” is all I said.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “It's okay,” he said, like he expected the break-up.
My chest hurt.
When I stay in Florida, I stay in the room where my dad used to sleep when he visited years ago.
I don't necessarily believe in ghosts. Not real ghosts, spirits floating around and saying “Boo!” and crap, but maybe I did back then, back on winter break.
Dad's room doesn't have much in the way of pictures or posters or stuff from when he was a kid, except one framed poster of Bill Murray, totally cross-eyed, from the movie
with “The Wisdom of the Lama” written on it (
). It's pretty funny. “Your father made me move this poster all the way to Floridaâhe loved Bill Murray that much,” Grandpa said.
I can appreciate that Dad loved Bill Murray. Was Dad a comedian wannabe like me? Maybe.
There are no boxes filled with papers or books in the closet. There are no boxes of old cassettes or records. There are no tennis trophies or medals or ribbons. I actually sort of figured that Andrew, because he's constantly on the lookout, would find some awesome treasure trove of Dad information: diaries, letters, musings, crap like that, which would say,
Reinsteinâ¦this was your father who gave unto you your hair and manly lifeâ¦
He left behind a Bill Murray poster and some clothes.
A couple pairs of his shoes sit on the closet floor. They fit me perfectly. (I took a pair last year.) A few dress shirts hang on the bar. One drawer is filled with T-shirts and shorts. The shirts smell like my dad, which you wouldn't think I'd remember, but I do.
That smell made me feel close to him. Over break, late at night, I'd ask questions to the air. “Did you feel better when you crushed a tennis ball?”
I don't know that I believed in ghosts exactly, but I'd feel air move when I asked a question. It felt like Dad was saying, “Yes.”
“Papa's worried that you're too much like your dad,” Tovi said. Tovi calls Grandpa “Papa.”
Me, Andrew, and Tovi walked down Fort Myers Beach. Grandpa Stan had stayed behind at the house because he wasn't feeling well. (Turns out he had an ulcer and a hernia!) We'd driven out there because Andrew plays with that old-fart Beach Boys cover band called The Golden Rods. He had a practice a little later at the White Shells Hotel.
“He's worried you're too much like our dad too,” Andrew said to Tovi.
“I'm not anything like him. I don't get why all you other Reinsteins are so angsty. Life is great,” Tovi said.
“I agree,” Andrew said.
“Yeah, wellâ¦” I said. “There's a lot of bad shit in the world, you know?”
“So?” Tovi asked. “There has always been bad shit and there always will be bad shit. Why worry about it?”
“You sound like Karpinski,” I said.
“Who?” she asked.
Pelicans crashed into the water near us, scooping up fish in their big rubber beaks.
“Papa asked me last night if I thought you'd be offended if he sent you to a psychologist,” Tovi said.
“Me?” I asked.
“She's not talking about me,” Andrew said. “I'm my own psychologist.”
“Yeah, good luck to you, brother,” I said. We walked for a minute or two, then I said, “Do you think I'm really like Dad?”
“I do,” Tovi said. “Totally.”
“Why? How exactly?” I asked. I knew I looked like him and we were good at sports and crap. But Jerri had told me that we weren't alike otherwise.
“You have a killer instinct,” Tovi said.
“All great competitors have a killer instinct,” I said.
“I meanâ¦I meanâ¦” Tovi paused.
Andrew stopped walking. He grabbed her wrist. “What?” he asked.
Tovi spoke to Andrew, which I guess was easier than speaking to me. “Felton just has this vibe. It's like this coiled thing. It's like if the wind blows the wrong way, he might destroy somebody's face.”
“Oh,” Andrew said, nodding. He looked up at me. “Remember when you kicked the doorframe by the bathroom and the lights went out and that picture of me, you, and Jerri fell off the wall upstairs?” Andrew asked.
I sort of heard him, but I wasn't thinking about my door kick. I was thinking how fast I pinned Nolan Sauter's neck to a locker and how good that felt. I was thinking about how close I was to killing Karpinski because he got away with bullying little schmucks, which sucks, which made me want to destroy (and if I was going to protect dipshits, wasn't that a good thing?).
“That's life. That's who I am,” I said.
“That's exactly who your dad was too. Wound tight, man.”
“Are you scared of me?” I asked Tovi.
“Me? Hell no. You're not going to mess me up. I actually feel awesome when we're together because I know you could kill just about everybody.”
Andrew nodded thoughtfully. “That's why Tommy Bode likes you so much. He's your Pig Boy.”
I shook my head. “What? How do you know about that?” I asked.
“I'm not dead,” Andrew said. “I'm in Florida, but I have a cell phone and email and friends. Bony Emily tells me everything.”
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I'm proud of protecting the little people.”
“You're protecting a pig boy? Do people want to make him into bacon?” Tovi asked.
“No. They're just mean to him.”
“You're nice, man,” Tovi said.
“Are you going to hurt others to protect him?” Andrew asked.
“I don't know. I don't think I have to really. Nobody messes with me, Andrew.”
“Butâ¦butâ¦butâ¦” Andrew stuttered.
“What, man? Get it out,” Tovi said.
“Aren't you just pouring more mean into the world?” Andrew asked.
“No,” I said. “No. I'm not doing anything. Just keeping Tommy Bode from getting his ass kicked all the time.”
“Seriously. That sounds awesome,” Tovi said.
“Yeah. I suppose,” Andrew said.
New Year's Eve, Tovi's mom, Evith, came down from Atlanta and we all went out to a giant buffet at the club in Grandpa Stan's golf community. This was something I was looking forward to. Growing up with hippie Jerri, I didn't have the opportunity to attend many buffets.
Last fall, I went to an “all you can eat” buffet with Cody Frederick and his dad and it was maybe the best day I've ever had in my entire life. I probably ate ten pounds.
During the New Year's Eve dinner, I became vaguely aware that Evith and Grandpa were staring at me. I had ham in my mouth and I was cutting a piece of prime rib and my plate (third plate) had maybe three pounds of mashed potatoes piled on it. I looked up (felt the stares). Evith and Grandpa stared back.
“Whuh?” I said, mouth full of ham.
Evith shook her head. “Like seeing a ghost,” she said.
“This is what I'm saying,” Grandpa said to her.
“Felton is sitting at the table, duh,” Tovi said. “He can hear you.”
I swallowed the ham, then looked back and forth between them. “Tovi's right. I can totally hear you,” I said.
“You just look so much like your dad,” Evith said.
“I know, I know,” I said. “I've heard it all before.”
“Not just look,” Grandpa Stan said. “You act. You are. You eat like Steven.”
“I eat like my dad?” It sounded so ridiculous. My head buzzed a little. “Everybody eats, Grandpa. You eat like Dad too. So does Tovi.”
“No,” he said. “Nobody eats like Steven but you.”
I pushed my chair back and stood up. “Well, I'll stop then. Don't mean to bother you.”
“No, honeyâ¦” Evith said.
“Sit down, Felton. Grandpa doesn't mean anything bad,” Andrew said.
“I mean, I want to help you,” Grandpa said, his face flushing. His tufty white hair stood on end. “Have you ever tried meditating?”
This made Tovi burst out laughing. “You guys are so nuts!”
” Grandpa shouted. “
People at tables around us paused. They stared at us.
“Sorry,” Tovi said.
What's weird is that I'd already sat back down and I was already eating again. Jesus balls, I love me a buffet.
One of Dad's T-shirts from the drawer has a picture of hand on it pointing to the left. Above it, in these blocky 1980s letters, are the words, “I'm with Stupid.” There's a picture in a family album of Dad, maybe seventeen, arm around Evith, maybe fourteen, wearing this shirt. “I'm with Stupid”âarrow pointing at Evith. It totally killed me. I thought it was hilarious.
I'd pulled the shirt out of the drawer several times during the week. I showed it to Evith on New Year's and she said, “God, I hated that shirt. Your dad tortured me with that. I was always stupid.” She kind of laughed. Tovi laughed. Andrew stared at it.
Grandpa said glumly, “Your father's favorite shirt.”
That night, I asked, “Can I take this?”
Air moved in the room. “Yes,” it said.
I packed the shirt in my suitcase. I was leaving in the morning.
I woke up before almost everybody. I climbed down the stairs and found Grandpa Stan alone, sitting at the kitchen counter, drinking an orange juice.
I poured a glass for myself and sat down next to him.
“Have you made your college choice?” he asked.
It was nice to have someone ask oddly. As much as I hated all the people up in Bluffton constantly being in my business about college, I felt sort of bad that no one in my family had asked. (I know now they were trying not to pressure me, that Andrew had actually told Tovi and Grandpa to lay off.)
“I think so,” I said.
“Not Northwestern?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Definitely not.”
“Good,” he nodded. “Wisconsin?” he asked.
I exhaled. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Who am I going to tell?”
“Stanford,” I said.
“Yes!” he said. He pumped his fist. “Very good school. Very good choice!”
“Thanks,” I said.
“I'll pay for it,” he said.
“If you don't want to play games, if you want to study and forget athletics, I'll pay for Stanford. That's a fine school.”
“Grandpa,” I said, “I love football. You even told me to love it last summer.”
Grandpa nodded. He looked down at his hands. “I know. And it feels good to run people over. Okay, fine. I want you to love what you do.”