January 30, 2004

he Escape Artist: Novel Excerpt #2

By Henry Wasserman © 2004

“Nice game last night,” boomed a voice from behind the lockers as John pushed the double doors open.

“Thanks Ced. You too,” said John, falling into the normal Sunday conversation with Cedric Jones, the only other player who consistently showed up on Sunday to get therapy. “Big Ced” was a monster of a man, a star defensive lineman who the pro scouts lost interest in after he blew out his knee his senior year in college.

“How’s the knee?” asked John, marveling at the breadth of Ced’s shoulders as the big man reached for his knee brace. “Sore as usual, but it felt good last night.”

“Yeah, you were killin’ em,” mumbled John, jealous of the big man’s natural ability: “4 sacks would feel pretty good to me too.”

“Yeah, well, you know I hate this game. Just tryin’ to make a living. If I had your education my black ass would be on Wall Street. See ya in there,” Ced said, knees cracking as he walked toward the trainer’s office. Ced grew up in the projects in Bridgeport, and the only real education he ever received was on the football field. He hated running, hated the way the coaches treated him. Most of all he hated God for delivering the knee injury that took away the million dollar contract promised him by the scouts. John avoided blocking him in practice at all times, as Big Ced took out his hatred on anyone who got in his way. John saved his body for gameday—he’d be long gone if he went full steam every practice. He wondered if Ced was right, if football was a kid’s game, and felt a tinge of guilt for his Ivy league education.

He left his wondering in the locker room, and padded in socked feet to the trainer’s room, wearing only a towel and the team issued too-tight shorts. The new trainer was female, and had insisted that the players wear shorts at all times. It was mildly annoying to get out of the whirlpool with wet shorts, but her rule had held up after she refused to treat anyone who came in without wearing them. She was young and pretty, and in her first week, mysterious groin injuries had stricken half the team. But she knew how to control them, and when the players realized she wasn’t amused, their injuries healed as quickly as they’d been created. Earning respect from that bunch of clowns wasn’t easy, and John admired her toughness.

“Nice game last night John,” Deborah drawled as she hooked the electrodes up to Ced’s knee.

“Thanks Debbie. I couldn’t have done it without ya.”

“I told you that Debbie isn’t allowed. That’s a name for girls with big hair and husbands.”

“Sorry Deb. I’ll take the usual, and if you got time to check out my neck, that would be nice.”

“No problem.”

John unfolded the paper and scanned through the headlines on the front page. Priests abusing children, Feds to cut taxes… the bold print blended together and screamed “BAD NEWS”. He hated the news, as it trivialized his life and always made him wonder if the world was as bad a place as the front page said it was. He made one last search for a piece of good news, and on Page 2 a headline caught his eye: “Earthquake kills 10,000 in India.” He closed the paper and opened it again, not believing his eyes. 10,000! And it didn’t even make the front page!

“10,000 people die and India and it doesn’t even make the front page.”

“We ain’t in India John. This is the US of A” Ced smiled. John snapped his eyes to Ced, and decided that the big man was just egging him on.

“I hear ya Big Ced.”

The two men stared at the wall, and John felt slightly comforted by Ced’s smiling acknowledgement of the strangeness of the world.

“Ok big guy, let’s check out your neck first and then I’ll ultrasound you.” John marveled at the efficiency of her hands as the trainer pulled his head forward with her right hand, and immediately found the source of the pain with her left.
“Did you do this last night?”

He felt a tinge of fear when he heard the surprise in her voice. He remembered the first time he’d gotten hurt, seeing the eyes of his high school trainer after he’d heard something in his knee pop. But John felt confident in his self diagnosis—he hadn’t been wrong in years.

“Yeah I guess so. I don’t remember anything serious, but I’ve got shooting pains this morning.”

She pushed and pulled his neck, her fingers prodding around the root of the pain. John thought he might have enjoyed her touch if she hadn’t brought worry into the picture. He recognized the tune Ced hummed quietly while the electrodes buzzed his knee. Deborah told John to hang on a second, and picked up the phone in her office.

“I got the bourgeois blues” John sang quietly, and Ced’s humming stopped.

“You know Ledbelly, John?” Ced boomed, happily surprised. “That’s the man right there.”

“Yeah I know Ledbelly. I know the bourgeois blues.”

“You don’t know nothin about no bourgeois blues. I remember this time in college…”

Deborah came out of her office, with rapid strides and eyes on the floor. She cut Ced off:

“Uhh, we’re gonna send you to get an MRI just to make sure it’s nothing serious.”

Alarm bells went off in John’s head. The fear jolted him awake. “Make sure? Make sure of what?”

Henry Wasserman is a writer from Los Angeles, CA. The Escape Artist is his first novel.

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