Jacob Under God

Jacob Under God

Arizona evenings were holy, I’d say that at least. Smear of long lavender sky, cut down the center with blazing whisps of red cloud. Glowing like God. The wind ruffled Lake Havasu’s blue face. Mesquite trees bent and shivered. I was streaking by on Palo Verde, running with the rest of my friends under this spread and trying not to think about eating.

As usual, I was trying to make weight. I had to get four pounds off by next morning, before our wrestling team went up against Mohave. Mohave was Lake Havasu, my team’s, rival. We’d usually wrestle Phoenix teams, guys we didn’t know very well, guys who weren’t an hour away and potentially dating someone sweet you liked.

I was hoping at least two pounds just wilted off my frame during this run and that I could float the other two tonight. I wore layers of sweats from head-to-toe, and I let the dry air drench me, pull out the sweat I needed to lose.

I thought about the night ahead of me. I wouldn’t eat or drink a thing, like an ascetic, would spit in a cup. It didn’t sound like a good night.

I didn’t know who I was up against this year either. But I’d never lost against Mohave, in fact, it would be embarrassing to lose against them. Still, I didn’t know who would match up to me in my weight class. I didn’t know if I’d wrestle a guy from last year, or someone very good who would come up or down to my weight class. A real champion, someone who might have placed at state. Who knew. My stomach felt sour and my nose was stuffed fat from heaving hard.

Who knew.


I slept for two hours the night before, thrilled and fearful and ready. I barely paid attention during class the next day. I fell asleep during Mr. Abner’s pre-calc and he kicked me out, so I just found one of my boys and we drove over to Terrible’s and wasted time until last period, when the match began.

By the time last period arrived, I’d dropped my doubt and felt confident I’d be fine. Last year, I was a regional champion and placed in state. I was good. I’d won most of my matches. I’d heard the happy cries of my mother and girlfriend while they’d squeal and shriek when I won. They would be here today too. I had to put on a show. I’d be good.


Coach Rollington was a real asshole, but nobody really cared. He’d led Havasu to state championships for over ten years, and that’s what mattered to most people, including me. Our team met in the locker room and Coach was shoving us in, yelling about something and such and such. He liked me when I won, disliked me when I lost. He grabbed me and threw me into a locker he said, “Perkins, I’m going to need you to wake up today. You look exhausted.” I said, in a straight line, “I’m fine, Coach,” not wanting to show him any weakness. Sometimes I felt like he came down hardest on me. I could never tell if he had that sharp attitude because I was the only Black guy, (Latino to boot) on the team, I was good and he was trying to make me better or he was just a dick. But at least he was a dick that got results.

He slapped me on the back and I strode into the room. Mohave’s Coach, Byron, was a tall, frothy-haired man who loved to smile. He had a completely different approach with his team and he treated his guys like they were family, whereas our Coach wanted us to go to state, go to college, wrestle for life. I just wanted to win the next match.

The scale was set up in the corner and we stuck around in clusters talking about pretty much nothing. I glanced at who I’d be up against. All the guys looked hungry, eager, red-eyed. I noticed one other guy, dark-skinned. I couldn’t tell his race; I refused to look at his face, nor study it.

All those guys, regardless, were like me, weren’t we the same on the mat? I looked away quickly, no way I’d let them see me glancing at them.

I stood there, still trying to look larger than I was, as I ignored the piquant smells of feet, mat-plastic and must blasting from the A/C. Eventually, it was my turn. I stripped myself, stood on the scale, felt Rollington’s pin-sharp gaze. Some of the young guys on Mohave cut their eyes my way too and I puffed my chest, not even looking at the scale. I made weight. Today should be easy.


My mother says since I was a boy, I was always wrestling Somebody. She said I flipped and fell about her belly, she said when I was a toddler I’d try to pin my father.

I don’t remember the point in which wrestling became a passion, but after that it became Something More. It consumed me, watered me. I’d drill with a partner as often as possible, study videos, dream about matches. I cared little for school, and I loved my girlfriend but even she knew where my heart lived. My mother told me wrestling was brutal, ugly, gross. And she was right. It was all those things: sweat slamming against sweat, bodies dirtying quick as they squeaked across a dull purple mat, there was grunting and whining and pure, uninhibited testosterone. But the mat was my palace, my temple. So every little nasty thing that happened was sacred to me.


Mom and Valerie were in the crowd already. I noticed them out of the corner of my eye as I swaggered into the gym. My violet-haired girlfriend used to be a Matmaid, our team’s version of cheerleaders. She blew me a kiss and my mother rooted and roared along with two of my pals.

I warmed up with the team. After we were done, the matches started. I started warming up on my own. Some other guys were listening to music, leaping up and down to hype themselves up, awaiting their own turns. I barely watched the matches before mine.

Then it was my turn.

I went to a corner, took off my sweats, stripped to my singlet spandex and put on headgear.

I strutted over to the scorer’s table, told them my name and weight class. I felt the guys from the other team checking me out but I ignored them, tried to make my eyes look fiery. The only guy I actually noticed, without really wanting to, was the dark-skinned person from the locker room. He was in my weight class and apparently I was going up against him. Funny. I usually didn’t like to look my opponent straight in the eye until we were on the mat but this time I was genuinely curious about him. I tried to glimpse at his face but I couldn’t see it. I was irritated that I couldn’t and the more I tried to see his face the more it smudged before my eyes. I wondered if I was starting to hallucinate from having lost too much weight, too fast. Whatever.

I flexed my swollen pecs, tightened my fists. I was ready. He was still from Mohave, whereas I was on a championship-winning team. Whoever he was, I’d take him down. I’d never let him win on my territory.


Soon, we were on the mat. I could hear my girlfriend and my mother hollering. The Matmaids kneeled on the mats and drummed their fists on the plastic. I heard my name and a lightning bolt of ego sizzled through my body.

They said his name, but I couldn’t remember it. It was something full-sounding, short. I ignored the temporary lapse in my memory and came toward the center of the mat, facing him.

The referee had us shake hands. He blew the whistle and we immediately tied up.  I put one hand on his neck and another on his shoulder so I could get a firm hold of him. He didn’t seem that strong to me; he was twig-thin and I held him pretty firmly.

He put his hand on my neck; we were practically in the same position. We started tugging and pulling and yanking so one of us could make a move. If I could just get him to push into me, I could lure him into a fireman’s carry. And that’s exactly what I did. I threw the kid down and he was on his back. This was too easy. Time to pin him.

He climbed to his stomach and worked his way up to his base. He stood up and went into a switch and now he was on top of me. Usually, I’d get a whiff of a guy’s body odor at this point but he stunk like nothing, a stench I’d never encountered, he smelled like something clear.

I got up the first time, did a stand up, broke his hand clasps and we were back to neutral.

I still couldn’t see his face and it was disorienting me but I tried to ignore the maddening sensation of looking at a faceless person. I could see his legs at least, they were brown and birchy, and I focused on his left thigh so I could get him into position.

I tried for a single-leg and shot but he sprawled. Fine.

I grabbed for him again but he put me in a cow catcher and I was on my back. Fuck. I was definitely not going to get pinned in front of my friends, team and family like this.

I struggled under his weight and felt his hardened muscles press into mine. I let out a long breath. Here we were. Just two almost-men molded and shaped and starved for this moment, to trade nasty heat and fear and fury.

At least that’s how I felt. This guy made me shake inside, not only was he a better wrestler than I thought, he also was haloed in an energy I didn’t understand. He wasn’t particularly vicious, wasn’t afraid of me, and he wasn’t mechanical or too-eager like some other guys I’d wrestled with.

I got to my stomach. Contemplated my next move, how to get away from this guy. He hit me with a crossface and his wrist dragged across the bridge of my nose. Seriously fuck him.

He tried a crossface cradle but I got back to my base, did a sit out and got away. I could hear my girlfriend and mother’s voice screeching above the crowd, high as heaven.

There was so much snapping and pushing and pulling and aching with this guy but it didn’t feel as vicious as usual. It felt increasingly terrifying, like the more I struggled against him, the more he had the upperhand. The more I tried to pin him, the more he foresaw what I trying to do.

There was a moment, in which he tried an arm bar, where I thought he might tear my limb clean off. But not just my arm. I thought this guy could snap me straight down the center and I’d be two halves on the floor, wriggling for the world to laugh at. I thought he might break something irreparable in me.

There was a point in which our match turned inhuman. I was no longer wrestling a man but misty spirit; he was so difficult to understand.  This battle became something I desperately wanted to win; I wanted to take him down so much I could feel my passion throb in my teeth. I needed to conquer him, needed it with every snap of sinew, every pull of bicep and shrug of hip. This wasn’t about being a champion or not embarrassing myself in front of my peers, Coach, my family and friends. Now this was something pit-deep and personal.

This was it. I got out of the arm bar and escaped again and then we were back in a neutral position, on our feet. When we tied up, I almost took his head off, I practically assaulted this guy’s neck. The dark-skinned kid didn’t seem angry or bothered. The ref yelled a warning at me but I didn’t care.

Then we were back to wrestling. I still couldn’t see the dark kid’s face and I felt like a wretched light was leaving my head, but my muscles and legs were still moving strong, I was still battling.

The air got scorching and we continued, the screams stilled and littled and all I could hear was this guy’s breathing. Huff. Huff. Wheeze. The husky squeak of our shoes. My body kept struggling, brain kept thinking of countermoves but I felt my spirit lifting up beyond the gym to the crisp purples and wild whites in the crimson Arizona sky. My body could give a new name to this place, this place where we wrestled.

This match wouldn’t end, of course. I knew, without truly knowing then, that it would never end. Even after the referee blew the whistle and the points were added up. This man would remain with me, perhaps forever, wrenching me down from the heights of personal glory, showing me the way a body could lose, could float high, could find new angles to fight, could be something like angel.


About the Author

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a writer, poet and university professor. The author of the cross-genre collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, the short story collection WHEN TRYING TO RETURN HOME and the poetry collection KINDS OF GRACE, her work has been a New York Times Editors' Choice, Best Fiction Book of the Year, Most Anticipated Book to Read in 2023 by Today and long listed for the Aspen Words Prize. She has been granted fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Kimbilio and CantoMundo and is faculty at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and the Yale Writers' Workshop.


Martin Rulsch, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons