a short story about wrestling with God
by Keith Manos
Dad yells, “Get in here, Dallas. You have to see this kid.”
I drop my spoon in the bowl where a few limp noodles linger in the slimy broth, my dinner on this Thursday evening, and trudge reluctantly into the living room. “What kid?” I’m starving. As usual. I want to finish my dinner even though it tastes lousy.
Dad gestures with the remote at the television. “Look! This kid proves what I’ve been telling you.”
Then I get it. The kid on the screen is legless beneath his knees. He’s wearing green shorts and a tight t-shirt. The sports guy calls him Jimmy MacKenzie and adds that Jimmy wrestles 120 for his high school team in Indiana. His upper body is huge, all shoulders and biceps, as if baseballs are stuck underneath the skin in his arms. As Jimmy pops around the mat in his practice room, the sports guy babbles on about him, that he’s only lost once in ten matches, that he has a great attitude, that he’s captain of his team.
Dad uses the remote to raise the volume so I can hear Jimmy say at the end, “I just try to do my best. That’s all.” He’s breathing hard because his practice just ended. “My goal is to get to State.” He smiles at the camera in that wish-me-luck kind of way.
Get to State?
Then the news program shifts back to the studio where all the newscasters join the sports guy in gushing about Jimmy MacKenzie, how he’s an inspiration.
“See, Dallas.” Dad lowers the volume, sets the remote on the arm of his recliner, and reaches into the mini-fridge next to the chair for another Budweiser. “Always do your best. That kid’s only got half his legs, but, shit, he still wins matches.”
Sure he wins matches. Indiana wrestlers suck. Not like guys here in Ohio. “I know. Dad . . . Always do my best.” “Yeah, not like last two years.” Dad cracks open the can and takes a swallow. Then he sets the beer on top of the fridge, shakes his head, and groans. “That was fucking brutal at the end.”
Thanks for reminding me.
“If that kid can win matches, just think what you can do,” Dad continues, without looking at me. “It’s all about busting your ass, you know. That’s how you win a state title.” He punctuates his sentence by saluting me with the can.
Yeah, a state title. At 132 this year.
State runner-up last year at 126. Third at 120 as a sophomore. “I get it.”
The news program ends followed by a commercial for Pizza Hut. Damn. I love pizza. Especially with sausage and mushrooms. I’m starving.
Dad gulps more beer and wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his Dayton Diesel work shirt. Four empty cans rest on top of the fridge. Dad’s full belly makes him settle deeper into the recliner as he points a stubby finger at me. “You know, I didn’t have an older brother to help me at baseball.”
He means Harlan, my older brother, who got me started in wrestling when I was in elementary school. Harlan still lives at home even though he’s two years out of college. And I know Dad’s story. He tells it in this dingy living room every World Series. Sometimes he even brings out pictures of him standing proud in his baggy uniform, Grandpa next to him holding a two-foot trophy.
“I had to do it all by myself to be All-County.” His forehead wrinkles. “I had to bust my ass . . . That’s what you gotta do.”
“I will.” Wait! “I am, Dad. I am.”
“Practice . . .” Dad clicks the remote, and we both watch Pat Sajak and Vanna White walk on the stage to hug each other. “Grinding it out at practice. . . Doin’ extra . . . that’s what wins a state title.”
“I’ll win it.” I should have said that at the beginning. Save time. That’s what he wants to hear.
Dad peers up at me and sighs. “How much?” The same question he asks every day when I get home from practice and start to eat dinner. The glint in his eyes from staring at Vanna disappears, and his eyes darken, the leathery skin across his cheeks tenses, his grip tightens on the beer can. He’s ready to get pissed off.
Then I sigh. “Eight over.”
“Eight pounds?” His voice goes up eight decibels. “On a Thursday?”
I should have lied.
“I’ve got it under control, Dad.” I glance at my soup bowl. Feel the rumbling in my stomach. Start to move back to the kitchen to search for Saltine crackers to crunch up and drop into the broth. It’s my last meal until Saturday night after the match.
“You’re one thirty-eight?” Dad won’t let it go. “You got Johnstone on Saturday, and you’re eight over! Not good, Dallas. You shouldn’t be more than four.”
He’s right. Donuts and chocolate milk this morning. Pizza slices for lunch today at school. I love donuts. I love pizza. I love Snickers. The wrapper says it’s less than two ounces. Shit.
Dad ignores Vanna and the balding guy spinning the wheel. “That Johnstone kid isn’t bad. He qualified last year.”
The arrow stops at $1,000, and the bald guy asks for an R. Pat shakes his head slowly and declares no Rs are in the phrase.
My turn to remind Dad. “I beat him last year in the District semis by seven.” Jeremy Johnstone from Dayton Christian is good but not that good.
“You gotta beat the scale first,” Dad chortles before getting up and shuffling into the kitchen. He opens a cabinet door and pulls out a box of Triscuits. Cheddar cheese and Triscuits are awesome. “Jimmy MacKenzie,” he calls out. Then Dad waves a hand at my soup bowl. “Now use your two goodlegs and put that damn bowl in the dishwasher.”
I do as I’m told. As always. Seconds later I’m in the dark hallway of our one-story house. The ticking sound on the television and Dad crunching on Triscuits push me to my bedroom. I can’t remember. Do we have any potato chips?
The clock on the nightstand says 6:42. My trophies on the bookshelf gleam against the overhead light, the books tossed into the garage long ago to make room for them. My Algebra 2 textbook is still on the floor where I left it. We’re supposed to do the odds on page 124. Polynomials. My dark laptop screen adds to my guilt. It’s reminding me to work on that research paper for English. My topic? Crash diets.
Which is what I have to do now to make weight for the Dayton Christian match. Damn.
A thirty-minute nap wouldn’t hurt though. Get refreshed. Then tackle those algebra problems. Google some more diet websites. Write the introduction. I belly-flop onto my bed and let my face sink into the blue bedspread. I slide my cheeks against its scratchy surface—or is it just my acne? Faint clapping sounds from the television drift into my room. I’m Dallas Cord now. On the mat, I’m someone else, someone different, the kid who rips every opponent, wins tournaments, gets high fives. Afterwards I’m plain me again in this house with Dad and Harlan.
Suddenly, Harlan is at my doorway, leaning against the door jamb. “How was practice?” he asks.
I sit up, a little embarrassed for some reason, and fix my face so Harlan sees the wrestler Dallas. “The same as yesterday.”
“Eight, huh?” He exhales loud. “Dad told me.” Harlan wrestled for Cheney High six years ago. A league champ at 160 pounds. But he’s different now. Like he’s a stranger to me. Like one of us has forgotten we’re brothers. Maybe me. Jesus is his brother now.
I stand and move to my desk and slide onto my chair. The black laptop screen chides me. Diet websites have been bookmarked since I made varsity as a freshman. “I got it under control.”
Like Dad, Harlan shakes his head slowly. “Eight over on a Thursday. That’s rough. As muscled as you are, that’s going to be tough to lose . . . You worried about Johnstone?”
I swivel hard in my chair to face him. “What? You think I don’t want to make weight?”
Harlan’s eyes are the color of burnt toast. “Satan makes us have doubts, you know . . . fears.”
I stare at him. “I’m not afraid of that punk.”
“No, of course not. Still, eight over—”
Change the subject. “Why you home so late?”
Harlan straightens his lean body and peers down the hallway as if he can see all the way to the street. “I went to Mom’s grave . . . cleaned the dead leaves off her stone, said a prayer, talked to her.”
Harlan misses her. So do I. He says God wanted her. I say fucking cancer wanted her.
He faces me and chuckles. “I bet Coach Mac made you guys do scrimmage matches for over an hour. Huh?”
“Yeah.” I nod, keeping my face blank and distant. “We went live against each other for at least that.” Coach Mac’s Thursday practices are always brutal. No one is allowed to stop. At the end two freshmen quit. “And I’m still over.”
“Coach Mac hasn’t changed at all,” Harlan snorts. “Did anyone today take—?”
“No, Harlan, no one took me down.” I’ve wrestled varsity for four years. No one has ever taken me down in the practice room. Last year no one in Ohio took me down until the state finals.
He grins and drags the fingers of one hand through his buzz cut. “That’s my kid brother.”
I shrug, thinking Harlan will leave now and that I should get a buzz cut too. Maybe lose some ounces. I click my mouse to light up my laptop screen.
Harlan sighs, again like Dad. “God’s blessed you with exceptional talent, Dallas.”
I eye the screen, feel pangs in my stomach. Sure He has.
“Have you read your Bible today?”
It’s in my room. Somewhere. “Um . . . no.” More guilt.
“Oh, Dallas, you know you . . .” He trails off, his eyes scanning my bedroom, searching for it.
He gave me the Bible three years ago. A Christmas gift. When I was a kid Mom took Harlan and me to Christ Church every Sunday. I liked the bake sales, the Christmas plays where men dressed in robes and a plastic baby was Jesus. I could do without the sermons, however. When I hit middle school and Mom died, Dad didn’t see the point anymore. So I stopped too.
After he graduated from Cheney High School and before he went to college, Harlan dragged me to his youth group meetings where someone always played a guitar and warned us about Satan and losing our souls to him. Sinning would lead to our skin burning for eternity in Hell, jackals biting our arms and legs, worms slithering out of our mouths, the devil and his minions laughing at us as we shrieked in pain.
To comfort me, Harlan told me to pray.
Okay, I tried. It was like talking to a tree.
Harlan steps deeper into my room. “Ah, there it is.” He smiles and pats my shoulder as he passes me. “Kind of under the bed.” He picks it up and hands it to me.
The Bible is heavy in my hands. It probably weighs a pound. That’s what I’ll lose just by sleeping tonight. This isn’t leisure reading. It’s homework. Worse than algebra.
“Go ahead, read it. You know, get inspired.”
I flip through the pages, stopping about halfway through. A guy named Jeremiah is worked up about King Zedekiah and another king from Babylon. I slap the book closed. “Not feeling it, Harlan.”
“C’mon, Dallas, read some more,” Harlan insists, gesturing at the book in my hands. “Try Psalm 18.” He smiles.
“Is that the one about the guy wrestling the angel? I got homework, Harlan.” That match lasted the whole fucking night, and when the guy lost, he had to change his name. Our matches today lasted an hour and a half.
“Look it up,” Harlan tells me. “It can help, especially with your wrestling.”
“Help me?” Dumbass. I want to kick myself for giving him the chance to start in, but I find Psalm 18. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies. I stare at Harlan. “I don’t need the Lord to save me from Jeremy Johnstone.”
Harlan’s eyes turn to the ceiling for a moment; then he stares at me. “God gives those with faith tremendous power, makes them strong against their opponents.”
“Right,” I say to make him stop. I beat Johnstone by seven last year. Had him on his back twice. I did that. Not God.
“Athletes especially need faith.” He gestures with his forehead at the Bible in my hands and jabs a thumb at his chest. “I wish I had more of it when I wrestled.”
“What do you mean? You won a lot of times.”
Something flickers in his eyes. “I think being more serious about my faith—my soul—in high school would have helped me do more than win, Dallas.”
I turn the Bible over in my hands. “Well, it’s kind of hard to understand . . . the words and all.”
“If you want, I’ll help you.” He sits on my bed and reaches for the Bible. He never sits on my bed. Never comes into my room. Never asks about the Bible. Then I remember.
He found a new church after she died. New friends.
Almost by instinct, I scoot my chair closer to my desk. “No, I’m good. I can read it on my own.”
He keeps his eyes on me and pulls his hand back. “Eight over, huh?”
“Yeah. Eight.” I drop the Bible onto my desktop. It will go back under the bed after he leaves.
Harlan shakes his head, his eyes downcast. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
We both know the answer.
Harlan’s face gets cloudy as he stands. “You’ve got talent, Dallas. I was never that good.” He passes my desk and taps the Bible with his finger. “Read it.” Then he strolls out.
I get up, shut the door, walk over, then close my laptop. Thirty minutes. That’s all. A power nap. I plop on my bed again, burying my face against soft pillows that smell like stale bread. I kick off my sneakers.
Mom made me pray before bedtime when I was a kid. She taught me how to flatten my palms against each other, to close my eyes, to repeat the same prayer each time, her calm voice encouraging as I recited the words all the way to amen.
After she died, I quit praying. I saw it for what it is: a sign of weakness. A crutch. And when I stopped the make-believe talk, I started winning matches. A lot of them.
I check my clock. 7:19. I close my eyes and picture myself on the victory podium at State. I’m standing at the top, tired but happy, dressed in my blue Cheney High warmup, holding the gold plaque they give state champs. Then getting scholarship offers so I can get out of this old house and away from Harlan’s Bible. I’ll leave it under his bed.
But it’s a stupid daydream. Dreaming doesn’t win a state title. Nor does praying. It won’t help me beat Johnstone or lose even a pound. I beat him last year without praying. I beat everyone except Randy Chase in the finals.
I pull half of the bedspread over me. Settle onto the bed. Ignore my stomach. Thirty minutes. That’s all. Fucking eight . . .
“Dallas . . .” The voice is small and close. “Dallas, wake up.” Louder now. Familiar. “C’mon, buddy.” It cuts into that last warm moment of a dreamless sleep, forcing my eyes open, making me blink against the overhead light. What time is it? Harlan stands next to my bed, his face a milky blur. “C’mon, get up.”
“Harlan, what the—?” He’s in my room. Twice in the same day!
“Let’s go running.”
“What?” He’s making no sense, and he’s making a lot of sense. Running? I’m eight over. The red numbers on the clock say 8:03 P.M.
“Sure.” His voice strong now, confident. “It’s a little cold outside, but . . . Jeremy Johnstone. You got to get ready.” He’s already dressed in gray sweatpants and sweatshirt, a red OSU stocking cap on his head. He graduated from Ohio State two years ago. He works as an IT tech for a company in downtown Dayton now. “I bet I can outrun you,” he teases. “You need to lose the weight.” He nudges my shoulder. “C’mon.”
I sit up, yawn, rub my eyes. “Okay, Harlan . . . okay.” Eight over. Shit. I check the temperature on my phone.
Five minutes later, I’m dressed in thick socks, navy blue sweats and a heavy coat and we’re outside, stretching on the driveway, our breath turning to mist. I take a couple of lunges, like we do at practice. My body scolds me. It still wants to sleep. We’re probably crazy, or stupid, to be running when it’s January and thirty-seven degrees outside.
Without warning, Harlan starts jogging, looking back for a second to see if I’m coming. He swings his arms the way boxers do before their bouts and pounds onto the street.
I don’t ask where we’re going. It doesn’t matter. Except for the thumping of our feet in the street, we run for a while in silence, the frigid wind at our backs.
Harlan breathes deep. “I’m sorry if I got pushy before.”
“Forget it.” I don’t want another sermon.
He grins, his teeth bright under the streetlights. “You know . . . it just feels . . . good to run . . . like when I wrestled.” He studies me for a moment. “Let’s pick up the pace a little bit.”
“Okay.” And I match him step for step. I’ve never seen Harlan go for a jog. Maybe he’s training for some church 10-K later this spring.
Two blocks later he slows and his breathing evens out. His stride is long and steady. He points at the next street. “Let’s run . . . down Sycamore.” On either side, cars are parked in gravel driveways in front of cold-looking bungalows.
I nod. My right shoulder burns a little where I wrenched it climbing the rope at practice, and I wonder if this running is a good idea. Harlan points next at a red brick house about fifty yards up the street. “Race you there.” He takes off.
I catch him, pass him, beat him. For some reason, it feels good, hearing him stomp up behind me, out of breath and coughing a little.
“Way to go,” Harlan says, gulping air.
“Want to go back?” I know now why it feels good to beat him. I hate losing. I hate those two guys who beat me last year and the year before that. I had to stand below them on the victory podium.
He looks shocked. “No way.”
We jog slowly now, getting our wind back, down the gravel berm of streets where there aren’t sidewalks and homes sit farther back from the road.
“What do you think . . . about State . . . this year?” Harlan’s calm voice seems strange as he pumps his arms and jogs along next to me.
He should know the answer, but I tell him anyway. “I’m going to win it all.”
“You will . . . if you have faith in yourself . . . and in Him.” Harlan eyes the gray clouds for a moment.
I stay quiet and match Harlan’s pace, turning corners when he does, jumping over potholes, wondering when we’ll head back.
A car passes, the driver honking at us. The car’s dirty fumes slam my face. A dog barks from inside a two-story house. Television screens send a blurry blue glow through the windows. Harlan runs faster. I stay with him even though my lungs ache from the cold air. He didn’t have to endure a three-hour practice today.
“I’ve always wished . . . I qualified for State.”
“Yeah?” Harlan lost at Districts. Dad grimaced next to him as Harlan cried. Convinced by Harlan’s tears, I made a vow against losing that day.
“I was probably lucky . . . to win conference.”
He got a takedown against the Smithville kid with ten seconds left to win by one. Dad almost ran on the mat to hug him.
“And then . . . I blew it . . . at Districts.”
I don’t look at him. I take a breath, and when I exhale, my breath makes a cloud in front of my face. “That must have sucked.”
Harlan exhales too. “If I had . . . turned to God . . . maybe . . .” But he doesn’t finish. He wants me to finish his sentence.
We turn onto Maple, and when Harlan angles into the park, I follow him. The metal fences are half buried in snowdrifts, but the gravel road around the park is clear enough, so we take it. Harlan and I jog around the baseball diamonds, past the playground where swing set chains rattle in the biting wind, and onto some frozen grass which crunches beneath our feet.
Minutes later, we exit the park and turn onto a dark street. Ash Street. I stay close to the curb to avoid a couple of cars driving by. In one of them the passengers are laughing. My lungs still ache. Plus, my sweatpants, Nikes, and socks are wet from the slush next to the curb. It feels like I’m dragging twenty pounds on my ankles.
But I can tolerate the pain. All the aches. I can ignore the hurt in my shoulders after climbing the rope. Take the pounding on my knees from all the sprawling at practice, the grind of wrestling against Billy or Calvin every day, and even the sprints at the end, how my lungs burn and spasms grip my calves at every turn. I’ve formed a truce with the pain because I can endure it, even go beyond the discomfort if I need to.
Pain isn’t going to beat me. Losing weight isn’t going to beat me.
“You really think . . . you can win . . . State?” Harlen waits for me to answer.
“Coach Mac says I can.” The chilled air actually feels good now. I’ve got my second wind. In one block, I’m turning left, heading home, no matter where Harlan goes. “And I say I can.”
“That sounds . . . arrogant.” His voice is real serious. He wipes his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
I turn to glare at him. “I only think it, Harlan . . . I don’t say that . . . to anyone.”
“God listens to our thoughts, Dallas . . . all the time.”
I breathe and think of donuts and pizza and shitty noodle soup. “Harlan, if God is listening . . . to my thoughts . . . He’s gotta be bored.”
Harlan chuckles and says, “He’s running with us.”
Yeah? Then let’s see if He can keep up.
I run harder down Ash, crunching on dead leaves, like the ones Harlan brushed away at Mom’s grave today. Years ago, Harlan and I tackled each other in piles of leaves, laughing and swearing at each other, our fists pummeling into each other’s ribs, until Dad would storm out of the house and yell at us to finish raking the yard.
“Dallas,” Harlan pants behind me. “Dallas . . . wait.”
But I don’t.
“Dallas . . .”
Whatever he’s saying, I don’t hear it. I leave Harlan behind. I’ll leave Johnstone behind, too. He’s the real reason I’m doing this. Feeling this fatigue. The cold.
I leave Ash and turn right onto Oak. My face goes numb, and my wet socks get heavier. I imagine myself falling ill after the State Tournament. One of those rare diseases that doctors from all over the world come to check out. My name will be on the television news, like Jimmy MacKenzie. A picture of me in a hospital bed. Harlan standing next to me, looking sad. Coach Mac patting my arm. Dad won’t be there. Mom’s cancer made him hate hospitals.
I reach the end of Oak, turn, and sprint harder, trying to prove to myself the pain doesn’t matter, remembering today’s practice when Coach Mac kept badgering me over and over, shouting as loud as he could, “State’s coming up. You ready, Dallas? Huh, are you?”
“Yes sir!” I yelled back at him because that’s what he wanted to hear, and that’s what I wanted to say.
My feet make rhythmic splashes on the slushy street, and several minutes later I turn at the intersection and head home. Harlan is somewhere way behind me in the dark.
“Dallas . . .”
Is that Harlan?
The pain moves up my legs and centers itself in my middle, twisting my insides and squeezing my stomach. I race away from that voice and these new aches that jab at my insides like spikes. The frigid wind makes me squint, and I lower my face into it. I pump my arms and try to ignore my aching stomach and heavy legs. I don’t stop until I’m back at our driveway. I peer down our street, but Harlan isn’t in sight.
Inside the house, Dad is still in his recliner. More empty cans rest on the fridge. He glowers at me, then slurs, “Check your weight.”
“I’ll do it in the morning.” I begin peeling off my sweatshirt and wet socks.
He punches the air with his beer can. “Now!”
So I do. I walk to the bathroom where we keep the scale and pull off the rest of my clothes. Sweat cools against my skin. I drag a towel across my back and chest and step on the scale. I’m six and a half over, but at least my hunger is gone. When I walk out of the bathroom, Harlan stands there, glaring at me. He’s still dressed in his gray sweats and the stocking OSU cap.
“Why didn’t you wait?” He takes a deep breath. “I thought we could—”
“Could what, Harlan?”
“I thought we could . . .”
This time I finish his sentence. “Pray together? Huh? Did praying help Mom?” I stare at him. “Did it?”
He doesn’t answer. He’ll never understand. I stomp past him to my bedroom and put on my pajamas. I plop onto my bed and jam my damp face against the stale-smelling pillow. I’ll copy the algebra homework from a classmate tomorrow, ask Mrs. Cravitz for an extension on that English paper, eat nothing on Friday.
And that Saturday I make weight. I’m a half under, in fact.
But Jeremy Johnstone of Dayton Christian High School beats me by three points.
Figures God plays favorites.
I’m heading to Pizza Hut anyway, and if He wants me to change my name, I’m not.
© 2023 Keith Manos All rights reserved.