I found my father’s bed at the end of the corridor. A nurse held his pallid arm up to the light. She adjusted one of the tubes and lowered his arm back to his side. In the neighboring bed, a man older than my father was connected to beeping monitors. He followed me with his eyes. Landis and my mom turned their heads as the nurse walked out.
“What are you doing here?” asked Landis.
“What do you mean?”
My mom pressed a knuckle to her lips.
“Go back,” she whispered. “You’ll give him a shock if he sees you here.”
I pointed at my brother. “What about him?”
“I made weight, then got on a plane. I’m forfeiting. They’ll give me a wildcard bid. You can’t afford to do that.” He nodded at the bed. “He’d care, even if you don’t.”
My father appeared small in the bed. He too had been a wrestler. Not a very good one—never got him anywhere—but still. It didn’t seem right that any committed participant should be so reduced. We identified ourselves with our misshapen ears and odd, lumbering gaits. What we shared most, though, were stubborn hearts; we were descendants of Jacob, who’d bested an angel in a nightlong match.
Yet it was my father’s heart that had failed him. Years of smoking Camels had yellowed his skin. Stress lines carved rivers through his face.
“You gonna weigh in?” Landis was a junior. He’d made the NCAAs twice already. I never had. I was a senior in college. Last ever chance. Weigh-ins for one of the conference tournaments, which my school was hosting, were in a few hours. I was over. I felt the extra weight inside me, a stone in the pit of my stomach.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let me know if he dies.”
I hadn’t intended such melodrama. A hilarious wish to cry crawled up my throat. There was no need to explain the situation’s absurdity.
My mom called for me to wait. I stopped for a second. Then I was gone.
“What are you doing?” Redding asked.
Faded posters with clichéd motivational quotes plastered the locker room walls.
“I’m over.” I didn’t bother to say why. Redding wasn’t the type to hear more than three seconds of an excuse. He recruited me when I was in high school.
“Why aren’t you already sweating?”
“Going in now.”
“Hurry the fuck up,” he said. “Be in after I change.”
Plenty of other fathers resembled mine. Mothers, too. He belonged to one of a few competitive tribes. Coaches, parents. Rivals. When we went to Jersey to compete—especially places like Bergen County—we saw sport jackets and Ferragamo shoes. Guys took work calls on their cell phones. Pennsylvania, where I grew up, drew NASCAR caps and camouflage, lips fat with Skoal. Audiences at tournaments could be mistaken for gatherings of hunters. Still, when we traveled beyond our states, Jersey and PA people could be found hunched over the same hotel bars, discussing a referee’s bias or some heroic overtime win. Their moods and topics of conversation depended on how their sons had performed.
One hour remained until weigh-ins. I had three pounds yet to shed. My priority. I jogged around the mat to loosen up.
The door to the wrestling room squealed open. Redding’s shadow shot across the mat. He was a brick of a man: short and solid, with apish arms he kept half-bent when he walked. For a second, that look of daily panic washed over his face. When he went home to his wife and baby girl, he cut the truth of his own career’s end from himself, only to let it grow back when he reentered to coach us. My Classics professor would’ve called him a masochistic Prometheus.
“We don’t pay you to miss weight,” Redding said. “That’s not included in the scholarship—missing fucking weight.”
He jogged next to me. His voice was a loud, berating blur. You hated and trusted him for the same reason: his method worked. He grabbed my shoulder, and we began to drill. A heavy forearm clubbed my head. Our bodies moved with auto-precision. I tried to focus on the familiar feeling of dehydration. But the thought of my father, and who he and I would be when this thing ended, confused me. I could not touch the thought, or see it, and still, its shadow followed me around the room, no matter how fast I moved.
Redding struck me again. I melted into a crowd of boys, huddled close. Most of us wore only underwear. The light fell on our heads as we edged along, the shuffles of our bare feet echoing through the gym. We could smell the basketball court’s fresh lacquer floating on the cool air.
My dad flanked the group. He tried talking to me; I stared straight ahead. He continually lifted his cap and ran a hand through his hair—a tic he’d always had. He may not have felt good about the situation. Never would’ve admitted it. Instead, he talked of “same age, same weight:” a true test of the better man. It was Eastern Nationals. I’d won two tournaments just to qualify. To compete at a high level, dropping a weight class was imperative. You had to be big for your weight. That much never changed.
I puffed out my bony chest. In line, the older boys shot confident looks at the younger ones. Some had shaved initials into their heads or bleached their hair an Eminem blonde. I squeezed my fists, trying to look aggressive until my turn arrived.
The scale was digital. I stepped on. 80.2. Two-tenths-too-much.
“Drop ‘em,” said a bearded man, who held a clipboard. He pointed at my boxers.
I looked at my dad. He nodded and raised his eyebrows, lifting his hat. I slid my boxers to my ankles. Climbed back on the scale: 80.00.
“You’re good.” He grabbed my wrist and with a Sharpie, wrote, ‘80 9&10.’ “Next,” he yelled.
My father passed me my clothes. His fingers rested on my shoulder. We walked in silence to the cafeteria.
“How’s second place feel?” he’d asked later that day, on the way home. I’d given up a takedown with ten seconds left to lose in the finals.
I pretended to be asleep.
We arrived home late. Inside, a reheated lasagna steamed on the table.
“Come on, eat,” my mother said, hugging me tightly. “You both must be starving. Landis waited up for you.”
My father smiled and raised the trophy above his head. I trailed behind, dragging my Batman gym-bag by the strap. Landis ran up and hugged me, a sleepy grin on his face. He congratulated me about fifty times.
“I’ll bring this to the service station tomorrow,” my father said. “Show Brawly and crew.”
The three of us looked at him. I think my mother’s eyebrows were raised. Landis was eager to study the trophy. He talked about the ones he’d win in the future. I said I just wanted to eat.
My father’s eyes flashed in defense. He muttered something under his breath and tossed the trophy on the table. The shiny plastic wrestler on top of it snapped off. He reattached it the following day.
“Wake up,” Redding shouted. “Is it going to break you?”
I was sweating good now.
During the pauses in our wrestling, he made me do pushups or sprints. Redding won a national championship in college. None of us knew how he’d competed at so light a weight, given his current size. We often found him in the room doing pull ups with the lights off, three 45-pound plates swinging from a belt on his waist. He routinely accused us of not hating our losses enough. You didn’t back talk him. He could dismantle any person on campus—besides maybe Chambers, our head coach, who was a three-time NCAA champ.
“Big bad senior,” Redding said. “Last ever chance. And this is how you’re moving. Like someone ready to go 0-2 at the barbeque.”
Had I been able, I would have chopped Redding down. I would’ve used the heel of my Asics shoe to stomp his eye sockets in and watched him drag himself in confused circles as I worked my takedowns on his bloody, whimpering form. I would’ve stepped over his corpse to the All-America honors I sought and knew I would never find.
He struck my solar plexus with his forehead as he followed through on a double-leg takedown. My mouth emitted a glob of phlegm.
“I swear to God I’ll do it every time if you don’t get your head in this,” he said. He pushed me back to my feet, doubled me again. I couldn’t breathe. On one knee, I held up a hand—a pathetic flag—begging a moment’s rest. I was using all of my energy to contain the thoughts that Redding kept shaking loose.
The bus chugged down the interstate in the sparse dawn light. Some of the junior high boys laughed, shooting rubber-bands at each other. Some slept with headphones tucked in their ears. Mike bragged how his girl had let him go down her pants at his birthday party.
“What’s that feel like?” asked Landis.
He grinned. “Better than eating after weigh-ins.”
“Bullshit,” said Landis, who was supported by a chorus of naysayers.
Every couple of minutes, I’d glance out the window and see our brown Subaru. Its two headlights trailed close in tow. Some of the other parents traveled in the caravan as well. The Big Red I’d chewed for hours burned a hole in my cheek. The feeling wasn’t pleasant, but the gum was necessary. Gum aided salivation. A bottle half-filled with pink spit dangled from my fingers. I had to fill the container before we arrived at the gym in Tunkhannock. If I did, I’d be exactly 1.4 pounds lighter. I’d be on weight.
At one point, everyone but the bus driver and I had fallen asleep. I kept my eyes on our Subaru and its lone occupant, with whom I shared a piece of endless highway.
As we neared the Tunkhannock exit, my father drove alongside the bus. It was then light enough that I could see him darting his eyes at the bus windows. He found me and waved. I can’t remember what I did. Whether I waved back or not.
Landis didn’t place, but I won the tournament. Teched my kid in the finals. Even won OW. When the tournament director announced the words “outstanding wrestler” followed by my name, my father squeezed my hand—squeezed it so hard I thought it might break.
“No one has anything on us,” he said. “You’re the best tonight.”
Redding waved something in my face. A jump rope.
“Go,” he said.
The rotating loops of the rope became surreal. I’d reached this point in the cut many times over my career. This time was no different—as long as I didn’t want it to be. Sound had evaporated in the ninety degree heat. I was at the door. No knocking required. Just had to pass through. The worst of it was over. I knew I was on weight. I could actually feel the difference. Never once in seventeen years had I missed. Still, something sat heavy inside of me. The un-eroded stone. I’d shred myself to purge it.
“Get down.” Redding nodded at the mat. I curled my body into a shell. The shape maintained my sweat. The air felt warm, heavy, and hard to breathe.
“Three more,” I wheezed to my dad, who sat in the otherwise empty bleachers. He held out his palm. I high-fived him as I passed.
“If you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself,” Dad called. We’d arrived early for practice so I could run. Laps, when it was just us, felt like play, not work.
“This is the fastest I’ve ever run!” I shrieked.
“Just might be,” he said. “Championship effort right there.”
Despite statistics, you believe you’re destined to be the best. Tournament champ. State champ. NCAA All-American. Medals for country, even. As you advance in the sport, the chances of being the best grow slimmer, yet your confidence in destiny strengthens. Your supporters tell you time and again that you’re the one. And when you fall short of your goal, when you realize you’re not as good as you thought you were, when you sense your body failing, when you see your younger brother lay claim to the plans that were yours, when you realize that it is not a match but a map with the directions out of your shitty town, when you look back at what you’ve sacrificed for the success that never arrived, you feel betrayed. Why would the ones who care the most tell the biggest lies? As if you, too, are not to blame.
I sprinted back to my dad. He dropped his John Deere cap over my head. It fell across my eyes and smelled like smoke.
“Ready for practice?”
I came closest to missing weight in high school. It was a tournament at which a man named Redding would be scouting me—my senior bid at the District 11 Holiday Classic. I banged my head against the bedroom wall. Thirteen pounds had to vanish within twenty-four hours. Thirteen pounds.
“Christ, Landis. What the fuck am I gonna’ do.”
“Shouldn’t of ate all that at Grandma’s.” He lay on the top bunk of our bunk beds that were by then too small, his foot dangling over the side of the wooden frame.
“You’ve got five yourself,” I said.
He was right. Five pounds was a practice. Maybe a run afterwards.
I said it was time to go to Mike’s basement, and Landis agreed, so we packed a bag of clothes. We hopped in my rusted Cavalier and went.
Mike’s old man had made his basement a small gym that happened to contain a sauna. Our routine went like this: mat, heavy bag, treadmill, jump rope, sauna, and again. I wore a plastic jumper beneath three layers of sweats. It felt like a leech on my skin. I envisioned lying on a table and asking Jim Bell, head varsity coach, to cleave off fingers and toes, or to flay large chunks of skin from my thighs. The parts could’ve been stored in the freezer. Sewed back on after season. I felt jealous of that Ohio boy I’d seen on the news, the wrestler with no arms or legs.
College scholarships were all my father talked about. I almost didn’t want to go to school, just to spite him. If I didn’t get the thirteen off, Redding would know I’d missed weight. Goodbye, top prospect; hello, forever.
Plastic cards were good for keeping the pores open. At hotels with saunas we used room keys. At Mike’s, I took my driver’s license and wiped another sheet of sweat from my brow. Landis’ expression was fixed in a warped scream, or so my distorted vision told me. Steam turned to water in my lungs. I spit on the floor. Landis poured water over hot rocks in the sauna. We did pushups on the wooden bench. I did fine without food, but I needed to know where the drinking water was. In case things got dangerous. I had awful cotton mouth. A white film had formed over my lips.
A knock, and then Mike’s voice: “Time to go.”
Then other voices. Shadows—like grim, furtive angels—darted before my eyes. Landis and Mike’s faces came into focus. I found myself stretched on the ground, half-in, half-out of the sauna. The colder air had dropped me like someone on a UFC highlight reel.
“I don’t know,” Landis said. “This is too much.”
Mike helped me onto his scale. His old man had bought him a nice digital one. I wondered if it could read my thoughts. I pleaded for it to be nice to me. It held so much power.
“Come on, there you go. Step right on there. My dad made sure it was calibrated with the PIAA regulation scales.”
I looked down. Still three pounds over. In that moment, I understood that will alone did not guarantee a desired result. Sometimes it was simply too late to change. Changing would mean disappearing.
“Let’s go,” Landis said. “You can get the three off tomorrow.”
“Get up!” yelled someone who sounded a lot like Redding. “It’s time.”
Landis had always been the more level-headed brother. Maybe this was why his wrestling progressed so naturally. His body grew colossal, his skill immense. He had a shot at winning NCAA’s; as a sophomore, he’d placed fifth, and earned All-America honors.
My mom was never okay with our antics—no matter how good we got. I don’t think she could’ve imagined what our family life turned out to be. At first, she thought we were merely athletes like other kids, unaware that the sport we’d chosen reserved its successes for those willing to let it consume their lives. She’d ignore our directives to forgo cooking us dinner, and when we’d refuse to eat it, she’d scold us for wasting food that we could not afford to waste. My father justified our turns in the sport’s extreme ceremonies by means of simple economics. He’d ask her if she could pay for college, and if she couldn’t, whether she wanted her sons to stay around and become pill addicts like some of their friends. She’d switched from part to full-time work at the Weis Market, and still, their combined incomes weren’t enough. We blindfolded her with this necessity narrative, and then asked her—our statue, the only stable one of us—to balance the scales of our uneven lives.
After Mike’s basement, I came home and thought about the three pounds. I didn’t want to take Landis’ suggestion and wait until morning. That was dangerous.
I leaned over the toilet and stuck my fingers deep down my throat.
“What are you doing?” my mother asked, the question growing louder as it left her mouth. I’d forgotten to close the door.
“Mom, nothing,” I said.
“What’s the matter with you?” she screamed.
My father ran into the bathroom, a confused look on his face.
She’d seen my thin shoulder blades curved backwards like wings, my body convulsing. A small bit of stomach bile made an amorphous yellow shape in the water.
“I want you to look at what you’ve done to him,” my mother said, pointing at me. “Your handiwork. He has an eating disorder. Like a fucking ballerina.”
“He doesn’t have an eating disorder. I’m not okay with him throwing up.” He turned to me. “How much are you over?”
Her punch was followed by the thin crack of his nose breaking.
She drove him to the hospital. Before leaving, she told me to get dressed and get in the car; no way was I staying home. I prided myself on fearlessness when it came to fights, but I did not wish to challenge the look on her face. I sat in the back seat of the Subaru, took stock of the scene: him with his head tilted back, bleeding into ice cubes, which were wrapped in a Disney t-shirt he’d bought on their honeymoon, and her letting him have it with her silence. As we drove, I became the void into which their marriage fell. They weren’t to blame. Simple as it was, governed by the knowledge that athletics, for us, were golden tickets, my father’s fervent mentoring was ten percent vicarious thrill, ninety percent wanting better for his boys. The problem, though, was ninety plus ten made one hundred. No room for anything else. A man rendered invisible in the gentler spaces where sons often searched for their fathers.
My parents rode with this silence from then on; it didn’t stay where it was supposed to—encased in that singular evening—but instead followed them wherever they went. Still, she never let him travel to the big matches alone.
“Time to go,” Redding said. He prodded my ribs with his toe. “Get up and check.”
I stood but made no move to strip.
“I said get on the scale.”
“Fuck you. I’m not weighing in.”
“Get on the scale.”
“I’m on weight. You or that scale can’t say otherwise. I know I’m good.”
“It doesn’t matter what you know. Get on the scale.”
Redding stepped to me, his chest almost against mine. I couldn’t tell what it was that glittered in his eyes as he tried to process my refusal. I thought he might hit me. I hoped he would. One hit from Redding and something would break: an eye socket, a jaw. It all amounted to almost a cliché. What was I but a kid who hated his dad for pushing him to this final act that would soon be over? And him: a guy who’d allowed himself to be more of a coach than a dad. Maybe an awareness of this truth was what had caused his heart to fail. Without warning, tears poured from my eyes. Redding watched me weep like an overgrown child. He was the last person I’d ever want to cry in front of.
“Get dressed,” Redding said. He nodded, chin tilted down at his chest, as if confirming something for himself. “Get out of here.”
The smell of ammonia wafted through white corridors. I sprinted to my father’s room. His eyes were closed. A machine now supported his breathing. He looked fragile as a paper doll. Landis and my mom were gone—perhaps getting food in the cafeteria. I looked around, unsure of what to do. A nebulous reflection stared back at me from the polished floor. I sat down on the bed. Took his hand.
“You can go home now,” I whispered. I lifted his arm up, like he’d won something, and I thought of the times after my greatest matches: how he’d smiled with intense pride; how even my mom would soften, undeniably happy. I lowered his arm back to the bed.
When I returned to the gym, weigh-ins were over. My mom and Landis picked me up an hour later. They informed me that Dad had passed away.
I once dominated a kid in front of his mother. Many times, actually, but this one stood out. She sat on the first row of bleachers. We were the visiting team. Score was 14-3 when I decided to put him down. I placed him in a leg cradle—my legs bent his knee to his head, like a fetus—and I did it on his mother’s side of the mat. I stared into her eyes as he screamed that he couldn’t breathe. The anguish on her face made me squeeze harder. The kid’s threat was no joke. He passed out. She, of course, ran onto the mat—as if he hadn’t been humiliated enough. Despite her shrieks and the heartbeat in my ears, all I heard were my father’s echoing claps.