Learning From The Setter
By C.A. Cole
Half way between the equator and the North Pole, our nascent relationship disintegrated, blew to dust. The car, a 1978 Impala I’d inherited from my great-aunt sputtered to a stop, too.
“Well,” Robert said, his words emanating from the space where his front teeth should be, “at least we can use that hot spring.” He shot out of the car, grabbing a towel before he slammed the door, and climbed down the bank to a hot springs along the river. He didn’t once turn to see if I was coming. Not once.
I’ve gone out with men as into sports as Robert, but they weren’t usually so one-track minded. I myself was a volleyball fan. Big time. I hadn’t played since high school, but I’d acquired free tickets to the university’s women’s team, and since they changed to rally scoring, I’d been hooked.
My friends and I have had the same seats and knew the people who sat around us: the younger guy with the new baby; the dapper widower who used to be a dentist; the young couple who recently bought a weekend cabin; the retired professor who’d had back surgeries and walked with a cane. It was a tight little group that had been sitting in the middle section of the gym since the inception of reserved seating. We gobbled the macadamia nuts Suz brought back from her trips to Hawaii and shared popcorn sprinkled with jalapeno salt. Needless to say, we all could stand to lose a pound or two.
Robert was the interloper. When the dentist gave up his second reserved seat to save money, Robert slid into it, squashing the rest of us in the row.
First thing he told us was he used to be on the Notre Dame Football team. By way of introduction! No, “Hi, I’m Robert,” but “I played on the Notre Dame Football team.” As if those of us in the Middle Mountain Conference cared about hot shots in the Midwest. The dentist stared at the back of Robert’s head. When Robert trudged up the stairs for his game allotment of popcorn, the professor sniggered, “He must have been the place kicker.” He claimed to be 5’ 8”, but I’m 5’ 8” and I swear I could see the swervy part in his unevenly trimmed hair.
He was cute in a redneck sort of way. Blondish with a rattail. An earring or three, but there were those missing teeth, probably knocked out on a football “play of the game.” Yeah, right.
That was during the first game of the season. Our team, the Rampaging Wyverns, was hosting the premier volleyball tournament in the country. Big name schools. Minnesota, USC, a team from Georgia. His sister played for Southern Cal, Robert said. Number 32. That would make her 12 years younger than him. I couldn’t argue. My youngest brother, also a Robert, was 13 years behind me in age, still in his twenties, which made this new Robert a tad older than my baby brother.
I worked at the college library, shelving books, mending magazines. That’s where my master’s degree in anthropology got me. I look like someone has plucked out every third hair on my head, and all the excess has gone to my eyebrows. It’s hard being the ugly duckling, the one who has to hide in the library stacks. I thought I was a fun, interesting person once you got to know me, but there weren’t many men that bothered. I hadn’t had a boyfriend in six years or a date in over two. At 41, I was resigned to my limited social life; volleyball games in the fall, women’s basketball in winter.
But Robert. At the CU game he appeared in black and silver, the Buffs' colors, instead of red and yellow, ours. During the Pepperdine match he cheered for the away team in a blue and orange shirt. “My other sister played for them,” he assured me. During the Ohio match it was his uncle who attended school there, and at the Utah match, outfitted in crimson and white, it was his grandfather’s alma mater. His best friend was a Lobo, and his mother once dated a guy from Air Force. Sometimes he appeared in his Bronco best instead of the opposing school’s colors. Not once had he cheered for our girls.
Annoying as his sports affiliations were, something started between us. His blue eyes were sometimes visible under his Nebraska—his older brother coached there—Huskers’ cap. He was one of those men who took up more than their share of space, his legs nudging my pudgy ones. Sometimes we reached under the seats to get our drinks at the same time and our knuckles knocked. He’d give me a gap-toothed grin.
When he wasn’t cheering for the opposing team, he was dissing ours. “That setter stinks,” he said the one time she flubbed a tip. One mistake in a four-year career.
“Hardly,” I shot back. She was notorious for the dump, that little sneaky move where you look like you’re going to do one thing and instead you fake out the other team with the decisive maneuver—a quick, over the net with the ball, slam down. In your face.
He told me he was a special education teacher, but he didn’t work much. Substitute teacher, the sincere part of me supplied, which would explain the free time but made the financial situation sticky. He went to Rockies games. Followed the football team out of town. Sat around all afternoon listening to games on the radio, and he was at the volleyball games earlier than I was. I had to crawl over his feet to get to my seat.
“What do you think he really does?” Mary Lamb asked while the six of us were eating pizza at Suz’s place. The tail end of the Wyvern football game was on, and we were watching our red and gold men get pulverized.
“Who knows? Who cares?” Dana laughed.
“He’s kind of cute,” Suz ventured but the others hooted her down.
“He is,” I said. “Except he needs to get his teeth fixed.” Usually I’m not that critical. Really.
After the last regular season home volleyball game, he walked me to my car. My friends trailed behind, poking each other. Suz called early the next morning. “Well?”
“Well, nothing,” I said, but he and I went out to dinner the next night, to a sport’s bar of course, where he could watch three football games at once. Our conversation consisted of “Pass the ketchup” and “Did you see that play?” That’s when we hatched the plan to drive to Montana through Yellowstone.
I provided the wheels and the potato chips. He provided CDs, every one of which was some caterwauling male whose voice reminded me of air hissing out of balls. It made me want to drive right into the almost dry Chugwater reservoir, and have the car churn through the mud until our ears were thoroughly plugged.
“Good, huh?” he asked, gaping at me with that broken-toothed grin.
“Like fighting cats.”
“Country’s the best. My cousin owns the label so I get these all for free. I met Dwight Yokum once.”
I wished for anything but ballads of bad men and worse women.
In Cody we lunched at a barbeque spot. Dressed in a pair of jeans with chaps, Robert kept a cowboy hat perched on his head throughout the meal.
We filled up the car before leaving town, but had to use my gas card because the stations were different than the ones in Colorado, and he didn’t have the right card. He’d spent his last cent leaving a tip at the barbeque place. A measly $1.52, but he told me he’d reserved and paid for the hotel in Chico. I tried to convince myself it was a fair deal. I do all the driving and pay for the gas for the guzzling auto, the lunch, the hotel (two rooms) the night before; he supplied god-awful CDs, the cheap tip, and the two nights at the hot springs lodge.
We took the Chief Joseph Highway, up through rocky cuts in the mountain. He filled me in on his version of history and even though it didn’t sound right, I was glad he’d turned the caterwauling off. “So who’s going to be your cousin or grandfather in this story?” I wondered.
*We wound our way through the pines and buffalo grazing along the river in the park until we came to that spot half way between the equator and the North Pole.
I got out of the car and leaned on the hood. Probably I should check under it, but I had no idea what to look for. Robert scurried down the path to the hot pool. By the tilt of his head, I could tell he was talking to the lone form lying on the beach. She shook her long blonde hair behind her shoulders. I wondered what he was telling her, that his brother was a park ranger? He hooked his fingers in his belt, giving the girl—I imagined she was seventeen and playing hooky from school in Gardiner—his gap-toothed grin.
The sun was losing its potency. I leaned in the car for my sweater, then climbed in the driver’s seat and tried the key. To my surprise, it turned over.
I didn’t feel guilty dumping his duffle bag on the side of the road; he probably was related to that blonde.
C.A. Cole lives in Colorado where she has a small but dedicated group of writing friends. She also enjoys the Colorado State women's volleyball team, who are Rams, not Wyverns, although she doesn't know why teams aren't a little more creative when picking a mascot. Recent publications include Hobart, Trillium, and flashquake, with work upcoming in Mud Luscious.
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