“Andrew Skolnick’s Miracle,” Part 7: “Game Changer.”

M.J. Downing

Drew’s uniform number couldn’t be seen for the mud caked on him. It was Thursday night, and Durrett played St. Xavier at the old Manual High field on Burnett street in the midst of a driving rain.  Very late in the game, the score stood at 14-0 for St. X. Durrett’s ground game, which had once been Kyle Jensen, moved the ball only by dint of the blocking that came from Drew and two linemen, the center, Barry Oliver, and the left guard, Dave Brentzel. Oliver, a sophomore making his first start, and Brentzel, an all county senior, along with Drew led the undersized Doug Smith, more at home on the diamond than the gridiron, through meager holes in St. X’s defense, where they might net three yards a play. Usually, it was only two yards, with no sustained drives.

            Smith, who was faster than Kyle had been, lost all recourse to his speed in the ankle deep mud that ran down the center of the field and side to side to the hash marks.  Passing wasn’t much of an option for either team, even St. X, who had a killer quarterback. Every attempted pass had the ball trailing mud in the air as it wobbled to its slick-handed targets, who often could not see for the driving rain. Mostly, it was a battle of attrition, and with X having big line and heavier, stronger ball carriers, they were winning.

            Drew stood panting in the huddle with his teammates, listening to the play call, the same one they’d run through most of the game.  Brentzel objected:

            “Look, man, we gotta get Doug out to the flats, where there’s less mud.”

            “Linebackers are just waitin’ for him,” the quarterback mumbled. “Coach says we just need to wear down the line.  They gotta be as tired as we are.  You get Doug into the secondary, and he’ll make the corners miss.”

            “Yeah,” Doug gasped, “if the mud out there isn’t over my chin.”

            Drew chuckled at that as they broke the huddle and waded back toward the line of scrimmage. A strong gust of September wind caused the rain to turn and sting Drew’s eyes. At least it cleared away some mud from his nose and the corner’s of his eyes. He could see better.

            “Tell Barry and Dave to cross block toward you. Take a step back like you’re pass blocking, and then you hit Dave’s man.  It’ll be a different look. Dave’s guy will think he has a free shot into the backfield. Take him out and you’ll wipe out the left side and get Doug out into the flats.”

            “What are you doing here?” Drew whispered.

            “I told you last night that I wanted to see the game.  Turns out, I was free!” Kyle’s voice chuckled in Drew’s ear. “Do it, man. Their linebackers will be rushing in, the corners are playing close, and  Dougie will slip in behind you. You’ll see.  What you got to lose?”

            Drew paused, turned to look at Doug. He pointed at him, then patted his own right hip. Doug turned his head like he was puzzled, but he nodded. Drew gave Barry and Dave his brief instruction.  With a nod, they all went to the line.  At the snap of the ball, Drew took a half step back, just enough for Barry to slip by him. Both the nose tackle and Drew’s man were taken down in a tangle of limbs into the mud, and Dave’s guy was taken out with a hard shove from Drew, who managed to keep his feet under him. Doug’s hand hit Drew’s right flank, and Drew charged forward, past the line of scrimmage, churning mud like a tractor. Doug let out a shout, as Drew took down the linebacker.

            “Yeah!” Doug cried and let go of Drew’s jersey, stepping out to the left,  Doug found firmer footing beyond the hash mark.  The X corners had jammed the line. All they could do was try to catch Doug Smith as he got to the harder surface, and they had no shot. Doug had the step on them he needed. Drew looked up from the mud to see Dougie streaking toward the end zone. 

            The cheer that went up from the Durrett faithful in the stands was mighty, but it had no size.  There were about twenty of them in the stands on this miserable night, but Drew raised his fist in the air and cheered with them.  It was only one touch down, and it was the last quarter.  He walked toward the sideline, pulling his helmet off to get the mud out of it.  The quarterback, asked him, “Why you pulled that stunt, I’ll never know, but if we get the ball back, do it again.”

            With a smile and a nod, Drew trotted towards his bench, watching as players pounded Doug’s pads in congratulations. 

            “Tell them to go for two on the conversion,” Kyle said. “Tell ‘em to do the Green Bay Sweep. You, Dave, and Doug can beat them around the corner.”

            “I can’t tell that to the coach, Kyle!” Drew whispered.

            “Tell’em it’s what I would do.  You’ll see.  It’ll work!”

            “Drew,” the coach called to him, “that was some pretty heads-up improvising out there, boy!”

            “You want to improvise? Let’s go for two on a sweep,” Drew muttered. The coach’e eyes widened. Drew added, “It’s what Kyle would do.  He’d see that we got some juice in us now, they’re back on their heels, a bit, and the grass is only wet down there nearer the goal line.”

            The kicking team were trotting out on the field, and the coach called them back.  There was a moment or two of discussion with the official, and, Drew put his helmet back on.

            “Have you looked in the stands?” Kyle asked. Drew shook his head,’no.’

            “MaryBeth’s parents are both with her.  She said that they never come to games.  What’s up with that?”

            Drew trotted back onto the field and into the huddle.  The quarterback looked at him and said, “Coach Wyatt says you got the play, Drew.”

            “Sweep left, me and Dave pull, everybody else, cross block down to the right. Dougie, hang on my tail. On three.”

            Casting a glance toward the stands, as they broke the huddle,Drew saw a darker mass amongst the rain slickers and hooded coat.  That was where, he’d bet, Mary Beth’s father sat, in the cloud that seemed to boil around him much of the time.  His wife, Dolores was likely beside him, fretting about what the wet would do to her perm and her shoes.  Why they would come to a game, especially in the driving rain, Drew didn’t know, but he figured that it had to do with all the time he and MaryBeth had spent together taking care of Kyle that first week he was home.

*

            “Your parents are…well, different,” Drew told Mary Beth as they sat at Kyle’s bedside on Tuesday night, waiting for the pain killers to kick in. Drew had heard her mother, Dolores, smack Mary Beth not long before, and it stayed with him, a sound he’d heard too often in his seventeen years, a stinging pain he had not felt on his skin since he outgrew his father. “Different” was Drew’s way of trying to be polite.

            “They’re parents, right? They make rules, so…” Mary Beth said, shrugging her shoulders. It served to bring the discussion to a sudden end, so Drew turned back to his stricken friend in the bed, whose limbs and face were relaxed.

Kyle had yet to attain any coherent state that week, as the doctor’s said he might, before his condition deteriorated.  That was the case with Creutzfeld-Jakob’s Syndrome. As Drew knew, Kyle had told him that trying to work in his own mind was awful.  But the doctor’s promised that with a reduction in pain, Kyle might have some ability to communicate, for a while at least, though he might be confused and agitated.  The night before, Drew urged Kyle to try and find a way to talk with MaryBeth and his parents. And Kyle said that he would try.  And on Tuesday night, as Drew and MaryBeth sat with him, Kyle’s eyes fluttered open and he spoke to them.

            “Not much time.  Meds are going to take me down, but the pain is better in my head.  Need to say…much,” he whispered.

            “Oh, Kyle, are you going to be okay?” MaryBeth asked, bending to kiss his face.

            “No. Can’t get thoughts straight. Worried about you,” Kyle whispered.

            “Worried about me?” she repeated as though stunned.

            “I’ll go get his folks,” Drew whispered, leaving the room to give the two of them some time alone. Drew took his time going down to the kitchen where they all sat around the table, taking a break. When Drew allowed as how Kyle was awake, they needed no prodding and swarmed back in the room, Emma at their heels, all anxious to see Kyle as himself again. When Drew walked in, a few minutes later, Mary Beth stood away from the bed, arms crossed, stone-faced.  Drew walked up to her.

            “What’s wrong?” he asked.

            “Uh, uh,” she muttered, “No.”

            “I didn’t ask a yes or no question,” he said. “ I asked what was wrong.”

            She turned a brittle smile to him, and said, “I’m ready to go. You want a ride?”

            Kyle’s eyes were closing as he mumbled a few words to his family.  He’d be quiet soon and sleep, so Drew said, “Okay. Sure.”

*

            At the snap of the ball, Drew pulled and followed Brentzel around the side. Dave mowed down the linebacker, even as Doug got the pitch and turned toward the flats.  Drew managed two cornerbacks, one with either hand, and Doug waltzed into the end zone, making Durrett’s score eight.  

            However, with three minutes remaining in the game, and St. X driving through the mud, they made enough first downs to keep the ball as the clock ran out.  Drew could only watch from the sidelines.

            “14-8,” Kyle’s voice sighed. “That’s the best loss that we’ve had to them in a couple of seasons. Not bad.”

            “Who are those guys, anyway?” Drew asked. He stood at the far end of his teammates on the sidelines, watching the St. X Tigers manage the ball.

            “You mean, aside from last year’s state champs, with sixty percent of their starters back? They’re a tight, well-coached team. Uh, oh.  Look. Here come the Stevenson’s to have a word with you.”

            “Oh Drew, honey! Yoo hoo!” Dolores called, as though she was an old friend. There was no cloud around MaryBeth’s father now, and Drew had to wonder why.  He lifted a hand in recognition, but he had no smile for them.They stood on the track, above him, the two parents dressed against the weather, with Mary Beth beside them looking as dismal as the rain. Her coat wasn’t water proof; her uncovered hair lay lank on her shoulders; and Drew thought that she looked like a wet grocery sack, next to her waterproofed parents. Her eyes tracked everywhere except to Drew, and he knew why.

            Drew muttered low beneath his breath, “You’d think they’d get her a rain coat.”

            “I don’t credit them with thinking overmuch about her.  God, my poor baby. She looks awful,” Kyle said.

            The father’s voice was strong, polished, cordial, and it cut Drew bone deep when he heard it.

            “A brutal game. Wasted effort and a hard defeat, eh? I read it in your eyes, son,” Dr. Stevenson said, extending his hand over the fence, which Drew took in his muddy grip.  The doctor’s grip was firm but brief, not a genuine handshake, and Dr. Stevenson withdrew his hand, staring at the mud on it. A handkerchief took care of that. He handed that soiled item to his wife to deal with, and she promptly handed it to her daughter, who pocketed it.

            “We played hard,” Drew said. “So did they. Fair’s fair.”

            “Yes. Yes, I suppose it is. And, since you face imminent defeat, I’ll not make my business with you laborious. I wished to ask you a question, man to man,” Dr. Stevenson.

            “Yes sir?”

            “What are your intentions toward my daughter? You see, I know what went on between you two nights ago.”

            “You mean our disagreement and me walking home?” Drew asked.

            “What is he talking about?” Kyle asked. Drew shook his head.

            “I mean your misguided attempt to take advantage of my daughter,” Dr. Stevenson replied. “Now, I understand that a young man like you, with my beautiful daughter—“

            “I made no such attempt, sir.  Anyone who says so is lying,” Drew replied in even tones.

            “What attempt?” Kyle demanded.

            “Now, remember, dear,” Dolores chimed in, clutching her husband’s arm “he’s been really upset about what’s happened to Kyle.  The poor thing has even hallucinated Kyle’s voice, haven’t you, hon? I’m sure that this is all a big misunderstanding. It’s stress.”

            “In any case,” Dr. Stevenson said, “I will not permit you to date my daughter.  Is that clear?”

            “I have no intention to do anything of the kind, sir,” Drew said, clenching his fists and taking a step closer to the fence.  He wasn’t as tall as the father, but in his filthy pads, he loomed toward them, fighting his father fear, and Mary Beth’s father stepped back. “And, I will not accept any rides to or from the Jensen’s house from her.  You should know, though, that they expect her to return, when she can, to help with Kyle.  Their son needs her.”

            “As long as we are clear on your intent,” Dr. Stevenson added, pulling his wife and daughter away with him. Drew glared at all three of them, looking like a misshapen ogre from faerie tales, threatening from below the road. Mary Beth’s gaze locked onto his, then, and she gave him a half smile.  He could hear Dolores say as they walked away,

            “What a brutal young man. I do not understand what you see in him, MaryBeth.”

            “You heard that, right? You’re the brutal one?” Kyle asked as Drew watched them walk away. Drew turned back to the field and watched St. X run a sweep that got them a first down.  Two more snaps and the game was over.

            “Look, buddy. We need to talk—or you need to tell me—about what happened between you and Mary Beth Tuesday night.”

            The clock ran down, and Drew took the field, moving to shake the hands of his opponents.  Every defensive player that he faced that night made a point of shaking his hand and praising him for his efforts. The nose tackle, the one the college scouts were watching, even said, “Man, I want to get with you after this season is over. I gotta work out with you.” Drew smiled and said, 

“Skolnick. I’m in the phone book on Lucas Court.  Train there, too,” he said as the others left the sodden field.  

            Defeat, he understood.  Threat, he knew well. These things were certain, and he knew where they could hurt him. Mary Beth’s smile as she walked away from him minutes ago contained something of both, and it left him unbalanced. He knew he needed to talk to Kyle, and he wanted to see his eyes at the same time.  That was going to be hard.

            “Kyle?” he muttered as he stood alone in the midst of the muddy field.

            “Yeah, buddy?”

            “The other night, when you were talking to your folks, Mary Beth offered to take me home. What did you say to her when you spoke to her?”

            “I told her that you and I thought that her parents were hurting her, somehow, and that she should trust that you were going to help her.”

            “How’d she take that?”

            “It was funny.  She denied that her parents ever caused her harm, said I just didn’t understand how it was in their family           .  But when she heard my folks coming in, she clammed up.  Her eyes looked funny, sorta cold.”

            “It’s funny she didn’t say anything about it last night.  I fact, she didn’t mention it, so I figured that she just wanted to forget about it,” Drew muttered, “like it was some big mistake, which, or course, it must have been.  I mean, just look at me.”

            “I look at you and all I see is my best friend,” Kyle said. “Tell me what happened.”

            “I don’t know if it’ll help you any, what I’ve got to tell you.  I can’t get my head around what happened with her, but here it is:  she didn’t drive away from your house toward mine.  She drove over to Bellarmine’s campus and parked.  There were cars all around us, but we were under the shadow of a big tree, with no people around.”

            “I know the spot. Student Parking.  We went there pretty often.” Kyle whispered.

            “Then…she said that if I wanted her…that it was okay,” Drew said.

            “Did you? Do you want her?” Kyle asked, louder.

            “Is that a trick question? Of course I want her, but it isn’t right.  She came across the seat and kissed me, and I panicked. I couldn’t just…you know, with your girlfriend.   I got out of the car and walked away. She drove off.”

            Wind blew harder and it stopped raining. The aching of wet, cold hands and feet, the weight of the mud on him began to make Drew tired. “Did you hear me, Kyle?”

            “Yeah, I did, buddy, and I don’t know if you did right or wrong.”

            “Yeah.  She’s so sweet and beautiful, and, and…I just wanna protect her…and me.”

            “Who’s that over on the sidelines?” Kyle asked. Drew looked up and saw a large figure there in a hooded slicker, one he recognized, and it made him shiver. 

            “Its my father,” Drew said and started walking toward him. The slicker was one that Kyle saw every day, for it hung on a hook inside their back door.  When it was gone, his father would have a hard time, trying to lay block in the rain.  That meant that the hard time would be passed on to Drew and his mother when he got home, especially if he had that slicker on, still. He’d shake it out, splashing the whole kitchen in disgust, ignoring his wife’s flying hands asking him to stop.

            Drew’s father tried to loom over him, before Drew could step up, onto the track, whose height gave him six inches over his son.  But Drew had tried on that slicker just last summer and found it small.  He pushed his father back with his right hand alone.

            “Hey! Where you get the balls to push on me, boy, ‘specially since I came here to help you!” his father cried.  He didn’t attempt the push Drew back, though.

            “I’ve been pushing a lot of big guys around, and I wanted to get on level ground. Out of the mud.”

            “Shit. That doctor’s right.  You must’ve slipped a cog or two.  You ain’t been right in the head since you’s a boy.  Looks like now, you gone round the twist, out there on the field, talkin’ to a boy that’s as good as dead.”

            “What doctor are you talking about?” Drew asked, coming closer to his father.  The father fear ran too high in him at times. There comes a point where that fear, transformed by anger, can become lethal.  Drew knew that he was more than a match for his own Dad, physically, but at the mention of a doctor, another threat appeared: the fatherly forced authority. The institution of both was bigger than any individual and could be far more threatening.

            “Stevenson was the name.  Said that you were trying to force yourself on his daughter.  Now, I seen her, when she was with you and Kyle, and I wouldn’t mind forcin’ myself on her, too, but this Dr. Stevenson allowed as how he thought I ought to get you some help, said it was ‘actionable’ if I didn’t get you to a head shrink, see if we can’t get you straightened out.” His old man sneered as he said it.

            “You can’t do that. Mom wouldn’t let you,” Drew said, panic rising, a bigger force looming over him.  People were saying that he was crazy. If a doctor was saying it, that could mean trouble that Drew had no defenses for.  Maybe that’s why Mary Beth had smiled at him.  Maybe that was what she wanted.  But why? If she was being hurt, why wouldn’t she want protection? Drew wanted protection, and he needed it immediately.

            He stepped back and cried out at the sudden blur at his side.  He had not heard the other hooded figure approach from below the bleachers.  Drew saw the punch, though, that came in from the side, saw his father’s head wobble back and forth, his jaw go slack, and his eyes roll back. The other figure caught Drew’s father before he could hit the ground and said,

            “C’mon and help, damn it. This cracker weighs a ton.”

            With the rain, “The Flood” had come back and the game wasn’t over yet.

Stay tuned for Part 8.

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