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HIKE! by K. Winkler

25! 36! 42! Hike!

Senior year, 1955. Not one game, not one damn game. Until now. Feel the ball. Hands on it, moving across the ball like they move across Diane’s thighs in the night. She wants me. I can feel it, like I want the ball, panting for it, sweating for it.

“Jimmy?” Diane’s breath in my ear. “Don’t you worry about playing. I don’t care. I love you. I love you.”

* * *

“Coach? You going to let me play, finally? My family knows it’s my chance. My Daddy’s going to be there.”

“We’ll see, boy, we’ll see. Damn shame you hurt that ankle. Damn shame. At least you got the scholarship locked up.”

“But my family…”

“I know, son. I know.”

* * *

My family. My Daddy.

“Hurt your ankle during practice. What in the hell is that? Dumbass thing to do.”

“It’s not like I did it on purpose, Daddy.”

“Don’t get smart with me, and go wash the damn car.”

Cleaning the car every blasted Friday since I was old enough to reach the hood. Soap in the cuts from my afternoon job at the mill. The mill where Daddy lost his little finger and the lobe of his left ear and Mama lost her hearing and let her mind turn to mush. The looms spinning in her ears for ten hours, six days a week. One week off in the summer: Christmas Day and Fourth of July.

My sweet Mama.

Started out in the dye works when she was fourteen years old. Fourteen years old. Moved to the looms two years later and been there ever since. I’ll be damned to Hell if I do that. Damned to Hell, Mama.

Feel the ball. My ticket out of Hell. This field’s my road to salvation. Football’s the cross. But Daddy don’t care.

* * *

“What good is going to college if you can’t play ball. Thought you wanted to play ball?”

“I’ll get an education, won’t I? I got a four-year scholarship. I may not play ball, but I’m going to get my business degree and come back and run this chicken shit outfit, you wait and see.”

Slap. “You show a little respect, boy. This chicken shit outfit puts food on the table and into your fat mouth.” A pause. “You, running things. I’ll believe that when I see it. Never in my life seen you without a ball in your hand. Football, basketball, baseball. Your Mama had to pry a baseball out of your hands one night. Your grip was so tight around that ball, you didn’t even wake up. Thought you’d play ball for sure.”

“I couldn’t help getting hurt, Daddy.”

“Damn shame, though, damn shame. You were all-state. Could’ve been pro.”

“I know, Daddy. I know.”

* * *

25! 36! 42! Hike!

No one will suspect it. They just put him in because he’s a senior and they want him to play before it’s all over, they’ll say. They’ll think, no one will see me. I’m the center with the quarterback’s hand up my ass. I’m just supposed to hike the ball. Hike the ball.

* * *

The water flowed over the car. It was warm coming from the hose that had been coiled in the sun. It didn’t matter that the biggest game of my life was happening the next day. There I was standing in the narrow gravel driveway, washing the dark blue Ford with its leather interior and whitewall tires. I washed Daddy’s car every Friday. That was that.

Mama smiled at me through the side window. I waved without thinking, the hose in my hand. I drenched myself with the water, now cold, coming up from the depths of the well. I jumped back, feeling the cold touch on my skin. I looked up at Mama. She was laughing, throwing her head back and laughing. It was good to see her like that.

My sweet Mama.

Mama’s Daddy had worked in the mill too. For a time. He always hated it though, wanted to move back to the country. He was too poor. The only thing to do was stay in town, work in the mill. Mama wanted to live in the country. She remembered the big garden they had. Wasn’t much room for a garden in town. Not much room.

Union men came to town one day. From up North somewhere. They started talking to the men down at O.D.’s store, started talking about how things could be better at the mill, and my granddaddy listened, clutching his chest holding those lungs, those brown lungs.

Granddaddy started meeting with the northern men until the mill men found out. He lost his job and drove a dry cleaning truck the rest of his short life. Died three years later, coughing up blood. I never knew him, but Mama tells me these things, and I wonder, I wonder, why did she marry a mill man?

* * *

“Betty, get me a beer. Get me an ice cream cone. A banana. Pick up that dirt on the floor.” Never once heard him say please. Not once. My kids will say please. They will say thank you. They will be grateful and not take their mother for granted. Diane. Beautiful Diane, they won’t take you for granted and neither will I.

25! 36! 42! Hike!

* * *

It was dark when I let myself in the little mill house on 6th Street NE. They don’t name the streets in this little town. They just give them numbers. When they end up having to build another street and more little boxes, they just go to the next number. We live in the white area of town, on the East Side. They use the same numbers for the Black. They’re just west is all. Just west. Mama and Daddy used to live in 305 next door, but 307 had a little more room when I came along. Of course, they never said, but I think they expected more kids. Mama always wanted a girl, I think.

But I’m glad there wasn’t a girl.

* * *

I let myself into the little mill house and tried to be quiet. It wasn’t that I was drunk. Coach told us not to drink too much, not good before a game. But I’d been out with Diane a little longer than I should. Not that we did anything, nothing serious. Coach warned us about that too, but I knew my Daddy wouldn’t like it, me being out late with Diane.

* * *

“Why can’t you marry a mill girl? They ain’t good enough for you? I can’t believe you’d go and marry a preacher’s daughter. I thought I taught you better.”

“Who said anything about marrying, Daddy? I only date her is all.”

“You only date her. I bet that’s all you do. I know all about preacher’s daughters, I do. I know all about them.”

“Yeah, you know something about everything, don’t you, Daddy?” But I didn’t say it where he could hear.

* * *

I went in as quiet as I could, but he still heard me. He waited for me. He had a reason.

“I’m going to take you someplace, boy. Show you what it’s all about since you going to come back and run the show.”

“I got to get some sleep. I got a game tomorrow.”

“You know you ain’t going to play.”

“I might.”

“Come on, let’s go.”

I didn’t want to go with this drunken old man. Yes, he’s old. I saw the lines in his face and the hair thinning in the dim light. I saw him stooped, but only a little. “I said, let’s go.”

We drove through the night, and he didn’t say a word. We drove to the motel near the highway, the only one in town. Daddy got out of the car and told me to wait. I watched him go in, watched through the window as he headed to the registration desk, a smile on his face for the clerk who grabbed his hand and slapped him on the back.

Everybody knows Daddy. Black and white. Men and women. They know his name.

I watched through the window as Daddy talked to the man who pointed towards the far end of the building. My eyes followed where he pointed, an end room with one old blue Chevy parked in front. Then I looked back and saw Daddy leaving the office, one hand upraised. He came back to the car. To get me.

“Come on, son. Let’s go.”

I didn’t want to go with that old man.

* * *

25! 36! 42! Hike!

It’s raining. My last high school game and it has to be in the mud. Is he watching? Is he there? Just knew I wouldn’t play, didn’t he? Said I wouldn’t play. Here I am, Daddy. I’m playing, and coach has a plan for me. They’ll have to squint to see my number and look in the program to see my name. They won’t ever suspect it. I’ll be a true freshman who hurt my ankle before I ever wore the uniform. But I’ll suit up every damn practice, rain or shine, even though I know I’ll never go in. Never go in. What does the rain mean to me?

* * *

We left the car, and I felt a sprinkle of rain on my bare arms. Hadn’t brought a jacket. I looked at Daddy, but he wasn’t saying a word. Not a word.

“What are we doing here?”

“Nothing much, that’s for sure. Just going to visit some friends of your dead granddaddy, that’s all.”

Pounding on the door. Pounding. Pounding. Then he came to the door, the man, tall and thin with blond hair. “What’s this all about?” he said and held the door close to his body.

That was when Daddy pulled out the Colt from out of his belt. I’d seen it before, whenever he went to guard the mill. “This is about you leaving town. That’s what this is about. You go wake up that Jew friend of yours and get out of my town.”

The man didn’t argue. Nobody ever did.

I saw the two fumbling around in the dark, whispering in the dark.

“There ain’t nothing to discuss. Y’all just be quiet and get your things together.” Daddy leaned against the door, his hip cocked.

The men shut up and pulled their clothes off the hangers that clinked together like a chime. They pulled their worn suitcases out from under their beds and stuffed in the white shirts and black ties. They put on their shoes.

Seemed wrong for it to be so quiet. I could hear them breathing, could hear their clothes rustle as they tied their laces.

I stood by my father, by the door, watching as they struggled, smelling their fear. They knew what could happen in the silence. We all did.

They closed their suitcases and looked to my Daddy, who was still holding the Colt casually in his hand. He waggled it towards the door. “Now, get!”

The men passed us by, the blond one staring towards the ground, the other looking in our eyes. He looked at us like a man should, like he knew he could defeat the old man if the fight were fair, if he’d had time to think. I wanted to say, “Don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. He’ll beat you till you’re blue. Beat the shit out of you. I know. Nobody bests him. Not at this game.”

Daddy came to the door once they were in, their suitcases thrown casually in the back.

“Now, I’m going to be behind you. Kind of an escort out of town, out of the state in fact.” Daddy turned to spit, even though he never touched chew. “You won’t stop until you get out of state, you hear?”

The men nodded and started the car. Daddy and I watched them go.

“We going to follow them?”

“Give it a minute. Let them get a head start.” He fingered his gun, and I knew. He hoped they wouldn’t make it out.

* * *

25! 36! 42! Hike!

I push the ball down into the hard earth and call the numbers and say the word. Down between my legs, I point the ball. The snap! I don’t let go. They don’t expect it. I pull the ball to me like Diane. I hold her tight against my pounding chest. They don’t know. They still don’t know.

Fake right. Fake left.

Are you watching, Daddy?

Run right! Right! Right!

I’m on my way out of here.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Katie Winkler’s short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Punchnel’s, A&U Magazine, AIM, Rose and Thorn, and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, among others. Also, a playwright, she is a member of the Dramatist Guild of America and frequently writes theater reviews of productions at Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theater of North Carolina. She teaches English composition, literature, and creative writing at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH HIKE!:

Set in 1950s South, Hike! gives the reader a strong sense of place, as well as character. Although we never know the narrator’s name, we know him through his world, his hopes, his dreams. In him is a piece of every boy, everywhere–a universal story–yet we’re also anchored in the life and circumstances of this particular boy who we want to see succeed.