The Tetherball Champion


Let me tell you an important thing about myself. Just beneath my skin, a few millimeters down, there’s a purplish shell. I’ve looked it up, and it most resembles the attributes of an insect exoskeleton, which tells me that I’m descended, at least partially, from insects. In my opinion, alien insects.

I discovered the shell beneath a scab on my left knee at nine. At that age, I was forever skinning my knee when some fashion of running, jumping or sliding coincided with a deficiency of timing, coordination or dexterity. A crusty coagulation of blood would subsequently form at the injury site. You know the sort. It was my odd pleasure during a scab’s tenure to meddle with it – compressing, prodding, picking. Occasionally, I would tear the scab right off, flush with a queer sense of elation at having rendered the area pure. You see, the jaggedness would unnerve me, even though it was my picking that had made it uneven. Not infrequently, I would toss the scab into my mouth, enjoying the metallic taste and how the congealed blood made my front teeth stick together as I chewed.

It was under just such circumstances that I discovered my insect shell. Molesting a scab on my knee, I made the decision to tear it off completely. My timing, however, was premature. An insufficient amount of new skin had grown beneath the scab. In other words, it was not ripe for the plucking. Still, I felt compelled to press on, or, rather, pull off. Wincing with self-reprimanding pain, I peeled the crusty disk from its curdled foundation. It ripped reluctantly, setting the nerve endings rooted in the underlying flesh alight with exquisite pain. To my credit, I retained sufficient poise to rest the quarter-sized scab on the kitchen island for future observation and/or consumption. You see, if it had fallen on the floor, I wouldn’t want to eat it, because it would be dirty.

I blew on the re-opened wound for comfort, and, in that moment, glimpsed something staggering. Just beneath the surface of my skin was a dense, fibrous matter, its color and consistency not unlike the shell of a beetle. Whimpering, I forced the fleshy circle open to see how far the anomaly extended. Although the pain was too excruciating to inspect as thoroughly as I would have liked, I became satisfied that the beetle-like shell ran beneath my entire leg, up through my thorax (if you will) and likely underpinned my entire body.

While the discovery of my insect nature was staggering, it certainly squared with the fact that when I swish water, it turns green and takes on the odor of crushed millipedes.

A dark melancholy took hold in subsequent days as I set myself to the task of observing my fellow students at Oak Park, desperate for signs of similar physiological abnormalities. When Annabel Cox fell from the monkey bars and scraped her elbow, I hovered.  When Todd Blum came careening down the hill screaming with delight, only to smack his head into the side of the Big Toy, I lurked.

I took to carrying a magnifying glass in my back trouser pocket, whipping it out to inspect all manner of child wounds. I stooped low at times, serving as an encourager of injuries to my contemporaries, sticking out a surreptitious leg at Kickball or executing a discreet shove during Four Square. To my great dismay, no one exhibited a similar physical makeup as me, or, for that matter, seemed to possess any non-human traits!

To say that the self-discovery caused me a sense of alienation would be a gross understatement. For a time, I was forlorn. I retreated within myself, harboring my secret with a silent resentment. However, after a period of earnest soul-searching and thorough self-reflection, I came to the conclusion that, in spite of the unique attributes of my body, I was under no lesser obligation than the other fourth-graders to perform the functions of learning and playing, just as adequately as I could.

Even to excel!

My outlook improved significantly after this epiphany, which had a tangible effect on my behavior toward my fellows. I became quite well-liked! I can say, without arrogance, that I was a force to be reckoned with during recess. Among the various sports that were endeavored, my favorite was Tetherball, in which it’s the task of each opponent to spin a ball-attached-to-a-rope-attached-to-a-pole to its ultimate clinching against the side of said pole. The winner is successful due to the more forceful spinning motion he or she exerts on the ball as compared to his/her opponent, causing the rope to wrap ever upward until no rope (or tether) remains, at which point the ball clinches against the side of the pole, the sight of said clinching declaring that the match has a victor! My singular prowess at Tetherball bolstered my reputation as a formidable sportsman at recess, increasing my popularity at Oak Park Elementary exponentially.

I graduated fourth grade with excellent marks and developed several earnest relationships that last to this day. As time went on, my habits changed, and my behaviors matured. By sixth grade, no longer was I so wildly unbalanced that I was constantly injuring myself. My grooming habits improved as the onset of acne and near-vulgar obsession with the female form overtook my mind like some brand of madness, a consistent surging of hormones serving as catalyst for said obsession.

At some point, I began to question the shocking personal discovery of several years prior. After all, was I an insect expert, then or now? Certainly not. Accordingly, was I in any position to self-identify as an insect, much less an alien insect from a far-away world? Absurd. How foolish I had been to think I was any different than the others. Perhaps, as an insecure fourth-grader, I had wanted to be different, I conjectured, hazarding an impressive (for the age) psychological self-profile.

Eventually, the once-traumatic discovery took on the character of a childhood fantasy, the wild musing of a nine-year-old boy who lacked the scientific and analytical abilities I had developed in the two years hence.

Sixth grade was in full swing in 1977 when I conquered Steve Mattia in a best-of-seven Tetherball series attended by everyone at recess – practically all the students from fourth through sixth grade. It was one of the bitterest Novembers on record in Pennsylvania. The cold rendered my hands raw as I pounded the ball furiously against Steve’s parries and counter-attacks. I can easily call up the image of Steve’s face, his eyes wild with fear at the prospect of losing his crown as Tetherball Champion of Recess as Game Seven came to a thrilling end, the impact of my final attack slapping Steve’s hand back so forcefully on his block that he spun sideways onto the blacktop, where he lay for several minutes, crying.

I remember the warm, satisfying rush of adrenaline at the adoring applause, but more importantly, a perceptible change in how Lily Peabody treated me from that day forward.

Lily and I were married twenty years later, on September 17th, 1997, in a private ceremony on a sprawling ranch in Montana. I had arranged everything, and Lily was completely surprised. I made the proposal only days before, slipping the engagement ring through a thin leather strap on her bridle as we set out for a ride among the rust-colored hills. As soon as she mounted her horse, she spotted the ring, and when she turned back to me, tears in her eyes, I was already on my knees.

Several days later, on a solo hike while still on honeymoon, I discovered that I could bring down an elk by unhinging my jaw, launching poison-soaked tentacles stored in my thorax from my throat. What a kick! In the throes of some preternatural swoon, I gazed onward as the tentacles enveloped the unsuspecting animal, suction cups binding to its skin as needle-thin teeth injected a thick, purple poison that caused the elk’s body to self-destruct. The poor creature imploded violently, a torrent of blood and guts spraying in a twenty meter semi-circle that coated me from head to toe. Still largely intact, the elk’s body was twisted inside-out, its organs undulating as they flopped plaintively against the side of the mangled corpse.

You should have seen the look on my face! Suffice it to say, this was all terribly surprising, and it took almost a full hour for the shock to wear off.

When my nerves had finally steadied, I felt a sudden, overwhelming compulsion to eat the animal’s organs. I found that I quite enjoyed feasting upon the elk’s innards, relishing the metallic taste and how the congealed blood made my front teeth stick together as I chewed.


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