Second String — 1985
“Were those boys making fun of you?” Mom asks.
I shrug and dig my fists deeper into my pockets.
She’s talking about the boys at the football banquet hours earlier. Tonight was the night of the much-anticipated Oak Park High School Letter Ceremony, a potluck dinner celebrating the efforts of the small suburban football team. The ceremony and dinner was held in the fully carpeted gymnasium. Even the basketball court with its big eagle emblem is made of carpet. This small community at the edge of Agoura Hills, California, is secluded and tight knit. It’s so small a community that the high school and junior high are on the same campus. There are only 143 students in both schools, so everyone knows each other, has grown up together, and the majority of the people here are Jewish. No one here talks with a twang. All the parents, players, and coaches treated the barbeque brisket my mother made for the banquet as some kind of foreign delicacy, never before seen or tasted. The dish was much more popular than the bucket of Pioneer fried chicken the starting quarterback’s mom brought and served.
Oak Park is the smallest place we have ever lived. We moved here with my stepfather in July from Glendale, California. It’s a true hellhole for an awkward kid from Mesquite, Texas. Frankly, I think the whole state of California sucks ass—palm trees, street gangs, the ocean, smog, Disneyland, traffic, and those fucking singing raisins. I have taken most opportunities to show my disgruntled view of the current state of affairs, in ways most people would not see as positive. I never wanted to move here.
“I thought you were doing better here,” my mother says. “Aren’t you happy?”
Have you been paying attention?
In fact, I measure my time in this god-forsaken place by the displeasure I have experienced. My first day at Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale last January, I was informed all the classes were full for the semester—I was given English, P.E., Science, and the same Beginning Typing course three-times a day—SsSsSs UuUuUu CcCcCc KkKkKk.
I took typing in seventh and eighth grade. When am I ever going to need the skill of knowing how to type?
My mother said, “A diverse skill set makes a well-rounded man.” Mesquite, Texas, my home, offered what I considered diversity; Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Catholic, Christian and white. Just walking through the door of Hoover and mingling with the students was an uncomfortable cultural lesson in languages, odors, and attitudes. I had never heard of countries such as Armenia and Ecuador. My biggest education came from the Philippine break dance gang; they chased me home from school to kick my ass. They wore matching sleeveless black t-shirts with a hood, a nickname, and number on the back. The leader had a tail of hair hanging down to his ass, he would pop-and-lock punch me in the face, while the other boys cursed at me in a foreign language and spat on me. I can honestly say getting your butt whipped by a dancing teenager with a girly haircut sucks. Those boys were a minor disturbance, compared to the unrest the greater Los Angeles area experienced. Not the street gang explosion or the hysteria over the AIDS epidemic that gripped the city with more fervor than the fear of what moved in the shadows when the sun went down.
Most nights during the first four months, as the moonlight poured through my window, I scoured the alley three floors below. I was convinced Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker, was coming to get me. Two of his victims lived and died in Glendale, their houses just a few blocks away. After my parents forced me into moving to California, this seemed like a logical conclusion, death by serial killer.
The fear of a murderer on the loose in the sunshine state was real to me. After all, my grandmother’s cousin Butch killed more than a few people out here in the late sixties and early seventies. He stuffed their bodies into oil drums or something like that, young women and men, who just simply disappeared until the cops caught Butch. The ballad of Butch was retold over pumpkin pie and holiday cheer. The way some members of the family tell the story, Butch either escaped or was released from prison and went back to what he knew.
During those early months, the Night Stalker was on everyone’s lips; the corner deli, the checkout line at Ralph’s, bus stops, even the lunch line at school. I could not move ten feet without hearing his name. He kept me up at night, scared shitless. I slept with a steak knife. In the end, cops did not get him. One afternoon, normal citizens recognized him on the street. A footrace ensued and several men and women quickly encircled him and beat his ass to a standing ovation of on-lookers. The cops came to the serial killer’s rescue. Even though Ramirez deserved to be beaten, I felt bad for him. So many people cheered as the group punished him. I related to that feeling of being an outcast.
“If they were picking on you, maybe you should be more social,” my mother suggests. “Show them who you are. You have a lot to offer, you’re the life of the party.”
The two crowning social achievements of my time in Cali: the night last spring when the Hoover School LAPD brought me home from a science class trip to Yosemite National Park. I brought weed and got a girl stoned I had a crush on. Her friends freaked out and turned me in. The last month of the school year, I became the administration’s poster boy for community outreach; recovering addicts came by to speak to me; the cop lunched with me several times; I fulfilled community service projects for the upcoming drug-awareness week programs. My favorite part was all the kids in my other classes talking about the incident. They described the bad person that turned Alison Wong onto drugs as if he was far removed from my reality. They called him some new person named Jason. One of the girls in my English class even asked me, “Hey Tex, you know who that is?”
Just when I thought things could not get worse, Craig came to visit, a few weeks later, at the start of summer. They thought a familiar face might do me good. In a display of rebellion, we totaled my mom’s car by driving across front lawns and crashing into a retaining wall. He and I drew an impressive crowd of cops wielding firearms, helicopters with spotlights, dogs, pissed–off homeowners, by-standers, and angry parents. I lived in California six months and no one other than the police took the time to know my real name. The number one irritation I carried around living in this state is that everyone, including my teachers, calls me Tex.
“Well, were they making fun of you?” she asks again, as my step-dad exits the room.
“What do you think?” I respond.
“I think they were being supportive,” she answers. “I mean the whole J.V. team stood up at once, they didn’t give anyone else a standing ovation. It seemed very sincere.”
I can tell by the tone of her voice that she does not believe this statement. The same tone she used when she told me how happy I would be moving from Texas to Glendale, Glendale to Oak Park.
You are not that stupid and neither am I.
“They just recognize your achievement, lettering on the varsity as a sophomore is a big deal,” she adds.
“Yeah mom, a big deal.”
She is right, I did letter on the varsity team. Everyone who played lettered on the varsity. The point the J.V. team made was that I didn’t earn the recognition. As a second-string receiver and corner back, I only played on a few of the special teams. My stats were impressive line of zeroes; zero catches for zero yards, zero tackles, and zero interceptions. My two brightest moments on the field were outstanding. First, in a game against Calabasas High, a mutant teenager held me on kick-off coverage, spinning me around a couple of times before hurling me into the ground. My head snapped back and I hurt my neck. I wore a brace for two weeks. Second, a few weeks later I ran onto the field during the pre-game, as the cheerleaders held a paper banner supported by two PVC pipes on both sides. I was second through the sign, behind Bradley, the biggest boy on the team and he hit the banner with such force the poles flew out of the cheerleaders’ hands and right in between my legs. In full stride, I did a complete somersault, in mid-air, landing right side up without missing a step. I had no idea what was happening. The display of acrobatics was so impressive that the local cable television commentator remarked, “That was number 20, Jason Carney, with that spectacular display of gymnastics.” The J.V. team is right: I did not earn the recognition, but I did not ask for it either.
“The coach said nice things about you,” she says. “He expects you to contribute a lot next season.”
When my mom had called and registered me at Oak Park, she inquired about football. Hoover high’s school-cop suggested sports might be a positive outlet for my behavior. Ten minutes after speaking with the school secretary, the varsity coach called my mom back. He mentioned the outstanding merits of and talent within Texas High School Football seventeen times in the three-minute conversation. After my mother explained to him my situation and the reason for our move, I earned my way onto the varsity team. The fact that he’d never seen me didn’t matter because I was from Texas and sounded like a very pissed-off young man. I had not played football since the seventh grade. Then, I played three positions: end, tackle, and guard. I sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water bottles, and tackled anyone who came near them. I suck at football.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Jason,” she says, “I thought you did great.”
Our house is only three-hundred yards from the stadium; she only came to one game, the first one. My grandfather and uncle were visiting from Dallas, so everyone watched me stand on the sideline, while my team lost by thirty-five points. Not only did we play badly, we looked bad: bright-yellow pants, brown jerseys with yellow numbers, and bright-yellow helmets with brown facemasks. Not that my skill level or uniform mattered. The team record was as horrible as we looked at 1-10.
I do not have any friends, and I have had several altercations with other boys during the year.
“You just need to try harder,” she says, “interact with the other boys.”
The most contact I have with anyone on the team is at the video store. One of the seniors—a good looking blonde surfer type, very popular, drives a hot car—works there. I go in three or four times a week and rent porn from the back room. We say hello, he does not check my identification, and we say goodbye. Interaction.
“If we put our minds to it, we can find a way for you to fit in out here.”
I tired of my mother’s fake attempts of concern. The simple solution: pick one place and stay there. Three different schools from the start of my first year to the beginning of my sophomore is ridiculous. My mother is too complex for simple solutions, preferring drastic change to fix all ills, preferring indirect riddle conversations instead of asking the required maternal questions about how moving makes me feel and how it feels to be an outcast.
But the truth is, I am tired of talking about everything; some things don’t need to be examined, they just need to be personally addressed. Stay out of my business, I got this one.
“We seemed to interact tonight, lots of positive interaction,” I say, walking downstairs to my bedroom.
Tonight was humiliating, the most embarrassing moment of my life; everyone could see what was going on, the J.V. squad’s intentions were more obvious than the fact I was the worst player on the team. Parents in the bleachers even said out-loud, “Look they are making fun of that boy.” I swore to myself, as the coach handed me my letter and I stared into the thirty smartass grins of that standing ovation, absorbing every moment of their laughter and jeers—they are going to eat this moment come the fall. I resigned myself to the idea that this is my home; next season, they will stand up for me again.
They will not be calling me Tex. I have been practicing.