before cross country practice, we lingered in the hallway, stretching out our prerun stretch for a glimpse of the single-file line of fully padded football players carrying their helmets toward twinkie field. our friends on the volleyball team breaking at the drinking fountain. who is going with what to homecoming.
after practice, we recovered in this hallway, moving waxy ice filled coke-cola cups up and down our shin splints until our legs were rubbed red and numb. umbro athletic shorts and ankle socks wet along the trim from the runoff. who is going to drive us to kasson on friday night for the game? coaches like bouncers, trying to herd us out so they could lock the school. did alex leave yet? i didn't see him come out of the locker room?
as an eighth grader on the cross country team, this could be an intimidating place filled with people with drivers liscenses and complicated underwear who could ruin your social prospects in a second. on the other hand, if they laughed at something you said, you wanted it to echo in the hallway, tingle in the ear of everyone. by tenth grade you have partial ownership of this space. you've been on varsity for a few years now, your personal bests and your splits are listed on a bulletin board. you train in the off-season, so mr. g doesn't make you clean out your locker at the end of the fall. now he's coaching basketball, but he remains lenient -- well, comparably lenient -- toward his runners.
mr. g has habits as strict as his rules: in the van we will always listen to tom petty; freshman are in charge of unloading the bus. right around the time of the auction, he will pass out chokecherries for the team; freshman aren't allowed to talk above a whisper on the bus. he will take us waterskiing in lake city during double sessions; after a meet you cannot leave until you've returned your uniform to him on a hanger.
it's this last rule that has me in a bind freshman year. we've just returned from a meet where -- per usual -- i had a mediocre finish. there isn't enough interest in cross country, so i'm on varsity but i'm sixth or seventh runner and my score rarely matters. on this day i've leaked blood into the built in underwear of the purple shorts. i'm standing in the locker room trying to decide what to do.
"pista!" mr. g monotones. "still need your uniform."
i've shown princess linda my dilemma. she is wide eyed and probably thankful this isn't her problem. i stall, and think of excuses. but there is no way that mr. g is going to let me leave without turning in that uniform. plus, it is made out of a material that seems more complicated than the cottons i'm used to washing at home.
so i hang my uniform in the laundry room and leave school quickly.
the next day we are stretching in the hallway. mr. g is washing uniforms. he's spraying aerosol long enough that it begins to just sound like white noise. i have my nose balanced against my knee. it's sarah, a year older, a popularity legacy who's sister paved a path for cute boyfriends, bouncy hair and tan legs. this season sarah skipped an interval workout, pleading pregnancy scare. she sat in the back of mr. g's van, face grey, listening to "free falling." the pregnancy scare was a false alarm.
"oh my god, what are you doing in there mr. g?" sarah asked. snapped gum.
"cleaning uniforms," mr. g called out into the hallway. "looks like pista sat in some mud."