The cake glistened under the harsh sunlight. Frosting carved this way and that held like Elmer’s Glue to the three layers of spongy softness. This monumental feat born of a baker’s skillful hands sat in the window on Main Street luring the hungry tummies of a group of kids passing by on their way home from wrestling practice – grueling drills and inhumane starvation took place every weekday afternoon at the local junior high school.
Jared and his buddy Mike pressed their noses up against the window dreaming about stuffing their mouths full of the sugary goodness once the season was over – two long months. Until then, especially during practice, they’d wear layers of sweats under dark green garbage bags, taping the plastic to their wrists and ankles, forcing limited diets of bread and water on themselves, and if the unwanted pounds remained, they’d stick their fingers down their throats to eliminate whatever might be left in their already shrinking stomachs. A lonely existence, because this abnormal treatment of their own bodies scared away would-be girlfriends. Making sacrifices in the name of school spirit. That’s what they called it. It didn’t help that after their matches and tourneys, they gorged themselves on junk food, adding the weight right back.
“What the fuck you doin’ that for?” Big Pat said. “You’re just making it worse for y’all selves.” He popped forward from the other few wrestlers guffawing about the streaks of saliva and snot on the glass and pressed their faces closer. “Get a good look, assholes.”
Both Jared and Mike struggled against Pat’s big hands, fighting to breathe. Jared tore loose from his grip, and said, “you want a piece of me? You think you do, but you don’t. I’ll see you on the mat, fat boy.”
The boy, a little more than half the size of Pat, danced around in front of the wrestling team’s gargantuan heavyweight, a 13-year old already weighing 220 pounds. Jared did the Ali shuffle, his feet scraping against the ice-covered sidewalk, and rolled his fists like the champ tapping Big Pat’s belly and laughing when it jiggled. Pat clamped on to his head, pushing him back, “try it,” the bigger boy said.
Mike, the team’s smallest wrestler, jumped him from behind and egged Pat to get him back. “I got him,” Mike said. “He’s all yours.”
Jared shed Mike from his back with little effort. The other boys left the group, already blocks away, stepping into the stretched shadows cast by the squat buildings downtown.
“Just one bite,” Jared said, weighing the consequences of his sweet tooth. “All I want is one big-ass bite.”
At 132 pounds, coming off an undefeated season, he wanted to keep his reputation intact at the same weight, but he knew his growing body might have something different to say. The small salads at lunch killed him, especially when the cafeteria served cabbage burgers, and everyone around him moaned with delight.
“Nobody’s stopping you,” Pat told him. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The big kid looked like a giant shadowy blob in the sunlight. He punched Jared on the shoulder as if to remind him.
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” he said, then stepped off the curb and sauntered down a side street.
Mike held a deep admiration for Jared because without Jared, Mike was invisible. Mike looked like a turtle covered in an oversized blue-and-gold warmup jacket, his thin neck sticking out of a hood pulled halfway over his curly brown hair, turned and started to walk alongside his best friend, leaving the three-layered cake behind. He remembered Jared’s first teen birthday cake a few days before practice had started. The misery began then.
“Do you think you’ll go undefeated this year?” Mike asked. His raised eyebrows made Jared think he was worried about a potential loss, especially in one of the most stacked weight-classes of the state’s western region. Jared loved the sport; he was a “natural” his coach would say, and Mike had to admit, he did make it look easy. The tough part was making weight. He saw that Jared struggled to drop 10 pounds in a few days to the first weigh-in before wrestle-offs, the informal tourney that decided the starting lineup.
Timmy Westerkamp, the JV’s 132, prayed he wouldn’t make it, but when the boys stripped down to their Fruit-of-the-Looms, standing behind the junior high’s legend in the making – the one and only Jared McConnell – the expression on Coach Markham’s face sagged, and his eyes misted. The coach wiped at his puffy jowls. The balance bar of the scale hit the top, showing he was a few ounces too heavy. He had Jared step off. Coach Markham recalibrated the scale, then had Jared step back on, this time removing his skivvies and telling him to blow all the air out of his lungs, and to imagine that he was as light as a feather.
Jared, crossed himself, and stepped back on the scale, knowing Timmy was watching with hopefulness. He closed his eyes and thought of the clouds. Coach set the scale at 132 and the balance bar bobbed up and down, then it’s see-saw motion settled in the middle, floating like that feather. He looked at his watch and counted five seconds, making sure the machine had it right. Timmy stepped on next and with complete confidence didn’t bother looking. He got off, smiled and flexed his thin barely visible biceps like the Hulk. A ridiculous gesture. He was sure Jared wouldn’t make it to the first match of the season.
Mikey came up behind Jared and slapped his back between the straps of his practice singlet and an already damp T-shirt underneath. “Keep working, man, you need this.”
Jared kept silent, and slunk down on the bench. He felt tired and the weight of his headgear felt heavy. He fiddled with his teeth guard, chewing on the lemon flavor. Timmy was no match. He pinned him on a regular basis in practice, but if this weigh-in took place at their first match, he would have been given the option to “wrestle up,” in the next higher weight class, or not at all. Sacrifice. Coach Markham preached it all the time. “If you guys want to be something great, you have got to sacrifice.”
Practice ended, and the sweat dripped off the boys’ heads in the cold of the night. Jared reached into his hoody pocket, remembering the cake in the bakery window downtown, unable to control the saliva rolling down his chin. He could hear Markham’s voice in the back of his head, like a small, but growing ache. “It’s about discipline, McConnell,” Coach told him after having a breakout season in his first year in seventh grade. “Next season is yours, but you gotta stay disciplined. You gotta want it!”
Nearly a week had gone by, and the team opened against its rival the Marsh River Bearcats on a Tuesday night. On Monday after practice, the day before the match, Markham had the boys lined up for a weigh-in. Over the weekend, Jared starved himself, eating handfuls of veggies, and sipping on protein shakes, then ran a few miles on the nearby country roads still slushy and muddy from the last snowfall. He wasn’t too worried about conditioning, having been pushed by his older brother Phillip who spent his time working out at the high school on Saturday afternoons. Jared had already puked a few times on the mat. That’s when Phil, a scholarship prospect at Iowa, told him he was ready. “Don’t let up,” he said, clasping Jared’s shoulders. “And don’t be a pussy like them other turds on your team.”
Let Phil down, no way. No way. After their workouts, Phil headed for the weight room with a girlfriend in tow. “I’ll see you back home.” This was code for shoo fly shoo.
Monday, when Jared stepped on the scale, Timmy watched the bar sink with a thud. His lips tightened. Jared was three pounds under. Markham smiled, satisfied that his star was good to go. After practice, Mike and Jared again found themselves loitering in front of the bakery.
About half a block away, Big Pat saw them, and yelled, “Go home already, we got a match tomorrow, dumb heads.” They could hear the boy bear grunt as he jaywalked across Main Street.
“Man, I can’t wait until tomorrow,” Mike said, in a squeaky mouse-like voice, which had been changing since the start of school. An Adam’s Apple was beginning to form, and he was proud of it. “We could probably already count five wins, maybe seven if the Miller brothers bring it. It’ll be tough.”
Jared’s mind wandered. He had doubts about it, and if all this weight cutting was worth it. “Well, I got to meet my mom at her office, so I’ll see you tomorrow at school.” Mike tugged on the straps of a heavy backpack filled with books, then picked up a gym bag with his wrestling gear, a growling bulldog stamped on the side of it.
“Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Jared said.
Mike replied, for some reason disbelieving his friend. “OK, but I’d get home. I think it’s gonna snow again.”
Jared’s stomach hurt, he knew he needed to eat something. He’d been lightheaded all through practice and going through the motions. Easy enough. The drills were second nature, plus they went light, not driven to muscle failure. Markham took them “live” for about 20 minutes before he told them to take a knee, and he started to talk about the scouting report on matchups, then ordered cool-downs, which equated to a slow jog around the gym for 10 laps, then stretches.
Jared went into the bakery. A college girl behind the counter asked him what she could do for him. His adolescent mind wandered for a moment, before the pastries under the glass display stole his attention. He gave up on scrounging for a way to flirt with the much older girl, knowing she was out of his league, anyway.
“The glazed donuts are good,” she said. “I baked them fresh a few hours ago. Wanna try a hole? Got plenty of samples.” Her voice raised on the last word.
He blushed, then turned his face to hide it, pretending to give a longer look to the cake in the window.
“That’s not real, it’s a just a display piece,” she said. “Fooled ya, huh? Don’t worry, it gets everyone.”
He turned back and gave a bashful grin. The pangs in his stomach wouldn’t go away; they out-performed his heart palpitations at the sight of this girl. When he did turn around, he discovered a donut hole sitting on a napkin in front of him. He didn’t have time to think. Before he knew it, the round ball of cooked dough in all its glazed glory was sitting on his tongue. As quickly, it was ground up in the back of his mouth. Unused to chewy solid foods, he swallowed it with a gulp. His eyes lit up, and she noticed how he stood up taller and how the worry lines on his forehead faded. While to him, her freckled face and bright red hair seemed even brighter and redder, almost glowing. She couldn’t help but laugh, revealing a set of braces, the jagged pieces of her smile didn’t seem to fit in with her long graceful body, or at least she appeared that way; she was nearly half a foot taller standing on a box behind the counter. A long black apron made her seem more imposing.
“Do you want one more?” she asked.
He couldn’t resist her smooth voice, ending up with four of the balls down his throat before he could escape the bakery. He had asked for a few donuts before he left, paying with his allowance money, among the five dollars he received each week from his Pops with a stern reminder to put it away in savings.
Discipline, he heard coach Markham say.
He could feel the donut holes like they were alive in his stomach. In at least a few ways, he was eating away his chances of knowing what it felt to be like his brother, a champion. Phil told him what it was like to get to the mountaintop, to have that medal hanging around his neck at the state tourney in front of thousands of people and to see dad in the stands nodding, mom with tears in her eyes. In a private talk, Phil shared a beer with Jared and told him he wanted more of that with the Hawkeyes.
“That’s the shit, kid, I’ll do everything I can now to win,” he said, crushing the empty can in his hand and laughing because of the silly grin on Jared’s face, half from the light beer buzz, and half because Jared knew deep down this was only the beginning. The first match on Tuesday represented a small step but right now, it seemed like a monumental step, like he was facing a 20-foot wall, being almost sure the sweets in his belly would undo him. Like Samson, he let the girl too close. Temptation was about to chew him up.
He grabbed the bag of donuts, flush with anxiety, and said, “I got to get home.” He waved to her opening the heavy glass door to a rush of wind.
She beamed her flashing smile and said, “come back and try that cake sometime… Oh, and more free donut holes.” Delilah never gives up.
Once outside on Main Street, Jared ducked into the first alley he could find, bent over a trash barrel, and jabbed his fingers down his throat. The undigested dough landed in a steaming clump at the bottom of the steel barrel. It was out. Thank God it was out. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and saw the sun’s rays clawing at the last minutes of daylight. Tears rolled down his face as he ran the mile and a half it took to get home. No supper. Straight to bed.
On Tuesday night, no one was the wiser. His parents and Phil sat in the stands as the team ran out for warmups. Jared glanced up at them feeling like he had dodged a bullet. He made weight by half a pound but in his mind, it was a half-pound too close to his dream being tossed away in a trash barrel. He was glad it was the donut holes instead. After pinning his man in 26 seconds, the referee raised his hand; Jared pumped his other fist into the air. Timmy, who had wrestled earlier, jumped around cheering with his teammates, Mike and Big Pat, who rushed out to give him a bear hug. His dejected opponent slunk off to shake hands with Markham.
The pain of the last few weeks disappeared. Jared soaked up the adulation, scanning the blur of faces. Then he saw her. Leaning against the stands on the home side, the read head from the bakery was standing by herself applauding. The cheering subsided and he moved back to his chair, taking his place in the line-up with an immovable grin. He stayed staring at the girl, the siren who tempted him, enamored by her courage to show up and watch him, but how did she know? Bemused by this serendipitous occasion, his unfocused gaze settled in her direction. One of the Miller brothers caught him in his carefree rudeness.
“What you lookin’ at McConnell?” he asked, bumping his chair. Perry was the team’s 155-pounder; his twin brother Paul wrestled at 167.
“What?” a startled Jared asked. “You heard me,” Miller replied.
“That’s my older sis!” He added, “Put your eyes back.” Perry squinted at him, then at his sister, who lifted her hand, supplying a meager wave. Jared shrugged, keeping his secret intact, but knowing now there was a chance his sin could get out.