Coach O

By Robert Hinderliter

Featured Art by Owen Jones

Coach Oberman watched from his office window as a group of students prepared the bonfire by the south end zone. Two kids stacked tinder while another knelt beside a papier-mâché buffalo they would throw on the fire at the end of the pep rally. Oberman couldn’t wait to watch it burn.

He’d just gotten off the phone with Mike Treadwell—coach of the Ashland Buffaloes—who’d called to wish him luck in tomorrow’s game. Mike had been Oberman’s assistant for three years before taking the job at Ashland High. And now, after back-to-back state titles in his first two years, he’d been offered the defensive coordinator position at Emporia State University. This would be the last time they’d face off.

“I’ll miss seeing you across the field,” Mike had said. “Although I sure won’t miss trying to stop that Oberman offense.”

This was pandering bullshit. In their two head-to-head contests, Mike’s Buffaloes had routed Oberman’s Hornets by at least four touchdowns.

“I just wanted to say thanks,” Mike had said. “I couldn’t have gotten this far without you.”

He’d said it like he meant it, with no hint of sarcasm, but Oberman knew there was venom behind those words. In Mike’s two years as assistant, Oberman had treated him badly. Mike had a good mind for the game, there was no denying that, but he was a scrawny wuss with thick glasses and a girlish laugh. He didn’t belong on a football field. Oberman had banished him to working with the punter and made him the butt of jokes in front of the players. When Mike’s brother-in-law be- came superintendent at Ashland and handed Mike the coaching job, Oberman had scoffed. And now Mike was moving on to a Division II college while he was stuck muddling through another losing season with an eight-man team in Haskerville. He knew the irony wasn’t lost on either of them.

Oberman picked up a playbook from his desk and flipped through it. In his seventeen years as head coach of the Hornets, the playbook hadn’t changed much—mostly I-formation offense heavy on power runs and quick play-action passes. And in his first few years, those plays had been good enough to keep Haskerville near the top of the standings, even winning a couple regional titles.

After that, however,  the program had gone downhill, bottoming out with a 2-8 record in ’01 and hovering around .500 ever since. The plays weren’t to blame. In a little Kansas town where cows nearly outnumbered people, he just didn’t have enough decent athletes. He’d whipped his group of dim-witted farmer boys into shape as best he could, but it would still take a miracle to beat Ashland. He’d need to think of a genius game plan, something to put Mike in his place one last time.

Oberman dropped the playbook, grabbed his jacket, and stepped out of his office into the locker room. He took a deep breath of sweat, steam, and jock-straps, then made his way through the empty gym to the rear exit. Outside, a few of his players were milling around the field, either tossing a football or lounging on the bleachers watching the cheerleaders run through their routine. The pep rally would start soon. Oberman walked out to the sideline and stood there, hands on his hips, until a voice from the bleachers called his name.

“Coach O!”

It was his quarterback, Javi Esteban, sitting alone on the bottom row. He had a two-liter bottle of Pepsi gripped in one meaty hand and the other raised in a wave. Oberman stepped over.

“You sticking around for the fire, Coach?” “Guess I am.”

“Wanna throw a ball around?”

With his round cheeks and fleshy arms, Javi was built more like a trombon- ist than a quarterback. But he was nimble for his size, and strong. He could sidestep a charging defender and launch the ball fifty yards downfield with the flick of his wrist. When he was on his game, he had D-II talent, maybe even D-I. Oberman had already fielded a few calls from recruiters.

Javi was a quiet kid, with a sadness in his eyes even on the rare occasions he smiled. He didn’t have much to smile about. His dad had lost both legs in Iraq, and his little sister had cerebral palsy. He worked weekends at the putt-putt course across from the cemetery. Football seemed to be the one bright spot in Javi’s life, and he especially liked Oberman. After practice, he’d stay to help Oberman put away equipment. Sometimes they’d talk, but usually they just worked together in silence. It was at these times, Oberman thought, that Javi seemed most at peace. He liked the kid, but now he was in no mood to play catch.

“I’ve got to do some thinking, Javi. Save that arm for tomorrow.” “Okay, Coach. I’ll be ready!”

As Oberman walked away down the sideline, he shook his head and cursed. Javi’s eyes had been red, his gaze unsteady. That Pepsi bottle was probably a quarter full of vodka.

He’d been aware of Javi’s drinking for two weeks now. Kids were kids, and he didn’t begrudge them a few beers on the weekend, but one day Javi had looked wobbly in practice, a half-beat slow on all his reads, and Oberman had smelled liquor on his breath. He’d debated whether to say something, but the next day Javi was sharp, zipping the ball to his receivers, so Oberman held his tongue.

And then during last Friday’s game, Javi threw three interceptions against the Willow Creek Muskrats—the winless, perpetually bottom-feeding Willow Creek Muskrats—including a first quarter pick-six that put the Hornets in an early hole. He looked dazed and sloppy. Oberman pulled him aside at halftime and asked him if he was fit to play. Javi insisted he was fine, and in the second half they came back and won, thanks mainly to their running game and defense, but the near-disaster cost Oberman a sleepless night mulling over what to do.

The following day, Saturday afternoon, he’d gone to Javi’s house. He’d planned to talk with the family, make them aware of the situation so they could rein in the problem before it got worse. In the Estebans’ living room, Javi’s mom offered him store-bought cookies while Mr. Esteban sat scowling in his wheel- chair, clearly drunk. Javi’s little sister, Mia, sat on the floor watching a cartoon. She smiled up shyly at Oberman, skinny arms twisted across her chest. Javi, white-faced in the corner, looked at Oberman with such panic and pleading in his eyes that Oberman couldn’t bring himself to mention the alcohol. And the whole next week in practice, Javi had been focused. Oberman had thought the problem was behind them. But now here was Javi tonight with the two-liter.

He’d have to say something. He couldn’t afford another shaky performance out of his quarterback, especially against Ashland. There was too much on the line.

Earlier that day he’d been coldly reminded of how much was on the line when the superintendent, Bob DiMarco, had called him out to the district office for a chat. He’d lectured Oberman about how a winning football team really brings the community together, lifts the spirits of the whole town. He was sure Oberman remembered what that felt like, all those years ago. It wasn’t a threat, exactly. Oberman had been the football coach and PE teacher at Haskerville High for seventeen years now, and he doubted they’d fire him even if he never won another game.

Still, it pissed him off that DiMarco thought he needed a pep talk. The foot- ball team meant more to Oberman than anything. His pride as a man, his sense of self-worth—it was all out there on the field. Every day in practice he shouted himself hoarse, whipped lazy blockers in the helmet with his whistle, and got down in the mud with his players to show them proper technique. He didn’t need some bureaucratic prick telling him football was important.

The sun was falling behind the pine-tree shelterbelt surrounding the field. A faint clack and low hum sounded as the floodlights came on and started to warm up. Oberman walked across the field, cutting a wide arc around the cheerleaders. It had rained that morning, and the grass was spongy under his feet. The field smelled clean and earthy, and as he stopped at the 50-yard line and looked from end zone to end zone, he thought of all the hours he’d spent on football fields—all the joy, camaraderie, and lessons the sport had given him over the years. He’d been playing or coaching since he was eight years old. His happiest memories were all related to football. He’d even been one of those clowns who proposed to his girlfriend on the field. That had been his senior year at Fort Hays State, when he ran up in the stands after the last home game of the season, grabbed his girlfriend’s hand, led her down to the sideline, and knelt on one knee. Her name was Sandra, and they’d been married now for eighteen years.

Remembering that moment—the giddiness he’d felt as he loosened the tape from his ankle where he’d hidden the ring, the clamor of excitement through the crowd as they realized what was happening, Sandra’s hand to her mouth, already sobbing and nodding before he could even say the words—remembering that moment made Oberman queasy. A great yawning cavity opened in his chest.

He’d found out last weekend that she’d been seeing Lonny Hinkle, the Haskerville High English teacher.

The past Saturday, after he’d come back from the Estebans’ house, Sandra told him she wanted to have a girls’ night with her old college roommate. Maisley was living in Lawrence now, working in the provost’s office at KU, and every few months Sandra would drive up to meet her for a movie and mar- garitas. She would crash on Maisley’s couch and drive back to Haskerville the next day. Usually they’d plan their get-togethers a few weeks in advance, but Oberman knew Sandra had been stressed lately, dealing with her mom’s demen- tia, so he told her to go ahead and have fun, and he would take care of Ruth.

Ruth had been living with them for three years since her diagnosis, but in the past few months she’d taken a sharp turn for the worse. She was always talking about trolls. They were everywhere, she said—their red eyes peeking out from air vents or under the couch. They wanted to tear her to pieces. Oberman and Sandra had to constantly reassure her that she was safe, that trolls weren’t real. And so he’d understood Sandra’s desire for a night away.

The following morning, before Sandra came home, Oberman got a call from his brother in Dodge City.

“Were you guys in Dodge last night?” his brother said. “I was dropping off Ashley at around 1 a.m., and I swear I saw Sandra coming out of that bar by the China Chow. But she was with this tall bald guy. It looked like he was wearing a scarf. You know anything about that?”

Oberman told his brother he was crazy, that Sandra had been home all night. And then he hung up, locked himself in the bedroom, and pulled out his hunting rifle from the back of the closet. Hands shaking, he took the gun from its case and laid it on the bed.

Could it be true? Was Sandra cheating on him? In the past year, she’d started acting strange—trying a vegan diet, listening to New Age music, and reading books about spirituality and emotional detoxing. It’d left Oberman baffled and annoyed. At one point he’d told her that if he had to listen to one more second of that goddamn sitar, he’d throw the CD player out the window. He winked when he said it, but they’d been at odds since Ruth moved in, and maybe he’d been ignoring warning signs. “I feel like I’m on the verge of a great transforma- tion,” she’d told him recently. At the time, Oberman had just rolled his eyes. Now, though, he wondered if her transformation involved Lonny Hinkle.

Hinkle had come to Haskerville two years ago from somewhere in the Northeast—Connecticut, maybe, or Vermont. He was in his mid-thirties, still single, and wore that red scarf nine months out of the year like a European dandy. Oberman had suspected he might be gay until a rumor came through the teachers’ lounge that he’d moved to Kansas to escape a chaotic love triangle with the principal and Home-Ec teacher at his last school. In their few con- versations, Hinkle had bored Oberman senseless with talk of animal welfare. He’d apparently adopted three rescue dogs and was trying to set up a regional ASPCA chapter. Sandra had recently started volunteering at the local animal shelter. That must’ve been where they’d met. Maybe, Oberman thought, they were in Dodge on some sort of humanitarian mission—saving a dog from an abusive home or scoping out a suspected exotic animal smuggler. Sandra had  a big heart. He loved that about her, and he loved that ridiculous sweater she wore with the corgi on it, tighter than she realized. Made her look nineteen. And, anyway, this wouldn’t be the first time she’d forgotten to tell him about some volunteer activity. But as he stared at the rifle on his bed, his mind whirled with dark thoughts.

Oberman walked off the field, sat on the front row of the empty visitors’ bleachers, and watched the stands on the home side slowly fill with people. All HHS teachers were expected to attend, but so far Hinkle hadn’t showed. He wouldn’t dare. Most of the other teachers had arrived, along with several dozen students and a few of the team’s most ardent supporters. It wasn’t like it used to be. Back when they were at the top of the league, half the town turned up for pep rallies, and game days brought out Hornets flags in every yard and motivational signs on every store window. These days, no one could seem to muster much spirit. DiMarco was right.

When he’d gotten the call from DiMarco to come to the District Office, Oberman didn’t think the meeting would be about football. In the aftermath of hearing about Sandra and Hinkle, he’d made a poor decision.

At least he hadn’t shot anyone. In fact, by the time Sandra came home on Sunday, the rifle was back in the closet. He didn’t say a thing. At practice and during games he was all snarling intensity, but off the field he couldn’t stand conflict. In eighteen years of marriage, he’d never struck Sandra, never tore into her with hateful words, and never touched another woman. All Sunday he avoided her, sitting in the den with the Chiefs game on, thinking about what to do.

And then on Monday morning, when the teachers’ lounge was empty, he put a bullet in Hinkle’s mailbox on top of a sticky note that said END IT. But the janitor saw it first, and soon all the school employees were gathered in the lounge along with the police, who were saying that whoever put the bullet in the box could be charged with aggravated assault. Hinkle was white as a ghost, and no one would look at Oberman.

That’s where things stood. So far the police hadn’t talked to Oberman. That must mean Hinkle had played dumb when they questioned him. He wasn’t ready to admit the affair. But that could change any moment if his fear began to outweigh his shame. And even if Hinkle kept his mouth shut, Oberman wasn’t out of the woods. He’d written the note in blocky caps, but he hadn’t thought to wipe the bullet before leaving it in the box.

There was also the question of how much other people knew. Had the other teachers really been avoiding Oberman’s gaze when the police came, or was it just his imagination? The timing of DiMarco’s meeting had been suspicious, but the conversation hadn’t strayed from football. Or was that in itself a sign that DiMarco was on to him? Wouldn’t it be natural to bring up the big event from earlier in the week? Oberman’s students were of course aware there’d been a major commotion on Monday, but their jokes and wild speculations made it clear they hadn’t connected anything to him. So it was mainly DiMarco he’d been worried about, and possibly the other teachers, until the call today from Mike Treadwell.

It had only been a small comment at the end of their conversation. “By the way,” Mike had said, “say hi to Sandra for me.”

It could’ve been innocuous. Like everything else Mike had said, the tone had been friendly. But in his two years as assistant coach, he’d only had the brief- est of interactions with Sandra. They might’ve exchanged a few pleasantries after a game or during a chance encounter at the grocery store, but certainly not enough to expect Oberman to pass on a greeting. Had a rumor reached Ashland? Had Mike heard about the affair, or maybe even seen Hinkle and Sandra together? There’d been a long pause on the phone before Oberman replied, “Sure thing,” and quickly ended the call.

At the time, he’d decided to give Mike the benefit of the doubt, convinced himself he was over-thinking things. But now that he’d given the comment time to simmer, Oberman felt that Mike must know something. In fact, maybe that had been the whole point of the call—trying to psych Oberman out, or just rub it in. A little payback for the way Oberman had treated him. But to bring a man’s wife into it over an old grudge—that was too far.

The pep rally had started now. On the field, four beefy linemen were per- forming a skit dressed in drag. They wore flowery dresses and long blond wigs, and as they sashayed around each other, bursts of laughter sounded from the stands. Out past the end zone to Oberman’s right, the bonfire had been lit and was glowing weakly.

With all the activity across the field, Oberman suddenly realized how strange he must look sitting alone on the visitors’ bleachers. As he stood up, he heard a sharp rustling sound from the shelterbelt behind him. He turned and peered into the dark tangle of trees but couldn’t see anything. Probably a raccoon or a possum. But who knows—maybe Ruth was right and there was a hoard of trolls in the darkness just waiting to swarm out and tear the flesh from his bones. He gave a bitter laugh and then stepped away from the trees and headed back across the field. Although he took a wide angle around the skit, he still noticed several faces from the stands look away from the show and watch him. Back on the home side of the field, Oberman stood next to the bleachers and watched his linemen wiggle their hips and address each other in falsetto. That was Sanders, Molovski, Banks, and Jackson. Four fat oafs with no talent. They were all going to get pancaked by the Ashland defensive line. The thought made him angry. If his team got steamrolled, he’d have to spend two hours watching Mike Treadwell grinning at him from across the field. Oberman could feel it already, as if it were happening right now.

It felt like the end of everything.

Javi was his only hope. When the kid was locked in, he gave their team a shot against anyone in the league, even Ashland. And there was Javi now, still sitting alone on the front row of the bleachers, a zoned-out look on his face even as everyone around him hooted at the drag show. The two-liter, almost empty, was squeezed between his knees.

Oberman approached the side of the bleachers and quietly called Javi’s name.

When Javi looked up, Oberman motioned for him to follow.

“What’s up, Coach?” Javi said once they’d stepped away from the stands.

He’d brought the two-liter with him. His face was flushed, eyes bleary. “Let’s go to my office,” Oberman said. “We need to talk.”

Javi frowned but followed his coach toward the gym. As they walked, Oberman grabbed the two-liter away from Javi. He unscrewed the bottle, sniffed it, took a swig, and grimaced.

“Come on, Coach,” Javi said. “It’s the pep rally.”

“I don’t know how you’re still standing,” Oberman said. They stepped inside the gym, and he tossed the bottle in a trash can by the door.

“It’s the pep rally, Coach,” Javi said again. “And practice. And the Willow Creek game.” “Not the Willow Creek game.”

“I sure hope the Willow Creek game. If that’s how you play sober, we might as well flush the season down the toilet.”

They passed through the darkened locker room and came to Oberman’s office. He unlocked the door, and they stepped inside. The walls were cov- ered with old team photos and clippings from newspapers announcing the team’s regional titles. Next to his framed bachelor’s degree was a poster of a football player in a three-point stance, two fingers taped together, face splat- tered with mud. Above the player were the words: When you win, nothing hurts. — Joe Namath.

“Have a seat,” Oberman said. When he looked across his desk at Javi, he felt sorry for the kid. At seventeen, Javi already seemed beaten down by the world. But Oberman admired his perseverance, the quiet courage that got him through each day. Seeing Javi sitting there staring down at his hands, his pudgy cheeks flushed and shoulders hunched forward, Oberman felt a sudden tender- ness toward him.

“How are things at home, Javi?” he said.

“Ah, you know, Coach.” He glanced up and then quickly back down. “Same old crap.”

“How’s your sister?” “She’s fine.”

“And your dad?” Javi shrugged.

“You’re helping out your mom?” “Yeah.”

Oberman sighed and leaned back in his chair. He looked out the window. The bonfire was blazing now. As a precaution, a fire truck had pulled up twenty yards behind it. On the field, the cheerleaders were performing their routine as a pulsing dance song played from the loudspeakers.

They sat in silence for a minute, and then Javi raised his head. “How are things with you, Coach?”

The question caught Oberman off guard. No one had asked him that in a while. He looked down at his desk. Next to the playbook, magazines, and grade sheets was a stuffed plush football that had been a birthday gift from Sandra back when they were dating.

“To tell you the truth, Javi, I’ve been better.” “What’s going on?”

Oberman saw the concern in Javi’s bloodshot eyes. He grabbed the stuffed football, squeezed it, and looked out the window again. Maybe he should tell Javi everything. He trusted him not to go blabbing. And who better to talk to about life’s unfairness, about how the world can be absurd, and painful, and relentless?

The bonfire was raging. The cheerleaders formed a wobbling pyramid.

He’d tell him, Oberman decided. He’d get it all off his chest. He opened his mouth to speak.

And then Lonny Hinkle walked past the window. He was headed toward the bleachers, blowing into his hands, red scarf looped around his neck.

Oberman sucked in a breath. Unbelievable. What fucking nerve. Was he try- ing to prove a point, to show he wasn’t rattled by the bullet in his box? As Oberman watched, Hinkle approached a group of teachers, grinning broadly. He gave one of them a jovial slap on the back. If he had the balls to come out tonight, Oberman thought, that meant he’d be there for the game tomorrow, smirking down from the bleachers as the Hornets got pummeled. Oberman dug his fingers into the stuffed football. His head felt like it would burst. He swung back to face Javi.

“What’s wrong, Coach?” Javi said.

“What’s wrong?” Oberman said. “What’s wrong?” He leaned forward. “What’s wrong is that you’re trying to sabotage my team.”

Javi frowned. He shook his head slowly.

“Listen carefully to me, son. I know things are fuzzy right now, but I want to make sure this gets through to you. Are you paying attention?”

Javi nodded, eyes wide.

“If you show up drunk tomorrow, I’ll blow your fucking brains out.”

Even as he said the words, he felt disgusted with himself. This hadn’t been his plan. He’d meant to chastise Javi, sure, to tell him to get his act together. But not like this.

Maybe, he thought, Javi would take it as a joke. He watched him carefully, waiting for the slightest sign of humor. They could laugh this off, pretend Oberman hadn’t been seething as he said it, pretend that when the words came out, they hadn’t both believed them.

But Javi didn’t laugh. He held Oberman’s gaze and then slowly, as the weight of the words settled in, his eyes started to water. He blinked and looked down.

There was no going back now. A new reality had been established between them. They would both have to accept it and move forward.

“Are we clear?” Oberman said. “Yes, Coach,” Javi  mumbled. “Then get the hell out of my office.”

Javi stood up unsteadily, gripping the back of his chair. He didn’t look at Oberman as he left the office and shut the door softly behind him.

Oberman sat at his desk for a few minutes. He picked up the playbook and set it down again. He stared out the window at the fire. Finally he got up, grabbed the stuffed football, and stepped into the darkened locker room. Far at the back he could make out Javi slumped on a bench, shoulders shaking. Oberman locked his office door behind him and walked out into the gym. On his way to the exit, he tossed the football in the trash.

He’d already opened the back door, the cool air rushing in, when a thought occurred to him and he stopped and turned around. He came back to the trash- can, peered inside, and reached down. He came up with Javi’s two-liter. In four big chugs he drained the bottle and dropped it back in the can. Then he shoved the door open and stepped out into the night.

On the field, the cheerleaders were holding up huge cardboard letters while the crowd yelled,
“H-O-R-N-E-T-S . . . Gooooooo Hornets!” Oberman barely glanced at the stands as he made his way toward the bonfire. There were two students tending the fire, both freshmen girls. After the last cheer had finished, the crowd would gather around the fire, and as the grand finale these two girls would throw the papier-mâché buffalo on the flames—glue bubbling, horns turning to ash, eyes bursting from their sockets.

Oberman stepped up to the girls. The alcohol hadn’t hit him yet, but never- theless he felt a giddy rush of energy. The girls looked at him nervously. “Hey, Coach,” one of them said.

Now that he could see the buffalo up close, he could tell what a shoddy piece of work it was. It looked like a deformed dog with horns. He reached down and picked it up. It was so light, he thought. He almost laughed at how light it was. He stepped toward the bonfire and raised the buffalo above his head.

“Coach, hold on, it’s not time yet!” one of the girls said. “Coach O?” said the other, her voice concerned.

But Oberman wasn’t listening. He was looking past the fire toward the shelterbelt. There in the darkness of the trees he could see them—dozens of red eyes glaring out at him. Above the crackling fire he could hear their gnashing teeth.

They watched him, unblinking. It was only a matter of time.

Robert Hinderliter‘s fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Columbia Journal, Sycamore Review, Fugue, and other places. He grew up in Kansas and now teaches English literature at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea.

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