Maulball

© Copyright 1997 by Ed Skinner
All Rights Reserved

This is a work of creative non-fiction.

“Did.”

“Did not.”

“Did, too!”

What had promised to be a perfect Memphis day for backyard games had just taken an ugly turn, in my direction.

Butler’s light brown crew cut ruffled in a sudden breeze as he glared at Howard. Howard stood toe-to-toe with his lip jutted out. Everyone else waited, fidgeting in the cool breeze as the early October sun warmed McKnight’s back yard.

“We don’t want him,” Butler said, jabbing a finger over at me.

Howard, the other team captain, puckered his long triangular face and stretched his ten year old body as tall as it would go. He scanned me from head to toe.

I had the same hair and haircut as the two of them, but the similarities stopped there. Butler’s eyes were like Howard’s, brown. Mine were blue. Butler was strong and smart and Howard was wiry and tough, different but still athletic. I could’ve been the “Before” picture for the 98 pound weakling except I didn’t weigh that much. And my last name was “Skinner” so my nickname was guaranteed. I always wore long sleeve shirts–red plaid today–and dark blue jeans to disguise my thinness. On my feet were black, high-top tennis shoes with white shoe laces, broken and re-tied in at least two places. The blue Ked’s label was missing from the right shoe.

Howard scrunched up his face before turning back to Butler. “Well, we don’t want him, either” he said, crossing his arms.

Everyone looked at me to see how I’d take it. My stomach had a hard knot but now I felt my throat tighten into a lump. I was losing it. No, I ordered myself, don’t start yelling and screaming and, horror of horrors, don’t cry in front of the guys again, not like last year!

“Besides,” Howard said drawing attention back to himself, “you ain’t got enough on your side. You haf’ta take him.”

Waddy, Miles and Morton, the three youngest kids, started counting.

“Four in Butler’s team,” Miles announced, dancing about to count everyone. “Five counting Butler.”

“Howard’s got five, too,” said Waddy, looking at the fingers on which he’d counted the other team.

“You didn’t count yourself,” Morton said as he turned toward Butler, “so that’s six for …”

Butler spun and glared at the young trio, reminding them of their status. Morton gulped before looking left and right to check his buddies, Miles and Waddy. They hadn’t moved but they did seem to be leaning slightly away from Morton.

Morton, abandoned, clamped his mouth tightly shut, smiled and shrugged to Butler.

Butler turned back Howard and played his Ace. “It’s my ball,” he said. “Either you take him or I’m leaving.”

Over in Butler’s already chosen team, Redus kicked a rock-like dirt clod across the yard. “Come on, guys.”

Stepping forward, I volunteered, “How ’bout I play on both sides. Okay, guys?”

But Howard and Butler continued to stand and stare at each other, red-freckled to brown-freckled nose. They hated to agree. It came from their 1950’s neighborhoods.

Howard lived in a very large house on Lombardy that looked like a Spanish Mediterranean villa. It had five bedrooms, two balconies and a breakfast patio. Howard’s father was an attorney. His mother, an artist, sculpted Howard in the nude when he was too young to protest and the little statue, two feet tall and complete in every detail, occasionally showed up in public places such as the main corridor of the public school.

Butler’s family lived two blocks away, around the corner and down Humes in a working class neighborhood. Their house was red brick, square, with every room like a cube. Each bedroom had one door, one closet, and two windows, just like the house next door.

“Forget it,” Butler said waving everyone away. He turned and started to leave.

Jackie stopped him. “Look,” he said, “how about a game with no sides?”

Several nodded.

Knowing what this usually meant, I looked to Bebop in time to see his eyes flash and his eyebrows rise. He raised a hand to his face before casually asking, “Well, what about Maul Ball? We haven’t played that all year.”

The older kids agreed and, while the little kids looked about for an explanation, Butler nodded his agreement.

“All right,” he said, turning back to the playing area. He leaned back and cocked his football arm before adding, “but I ain’t gonna be first.”

Releasing his throw, Butler’s arm propelled the football up in a long, high spinning arc. Well practiced, the older kids in the two teams scattered and mixed in a rough circle. The little kids watched in confusion for a moment and then ran to find a place with the big kids.

“First one it hits is it,” Howard yelled as everyone focused on the ball’s descent.

It struck the ground and careened toward Jackie. Yanking in his stomach, it cleared his belly by less than an inch.

“Missed me,” Jackie shouted.

“It got your shirt,” Redus said pointing.

“Nope. Missed me completely.”

Tumbling end for end, the ball hit, jumped back toward Jackie and then bounded forward again. After two more abrupt leaps, the ball rolled and wobbled along the ground in a wide arc. It stopped in front of my toes.

I froze.

The rules said the ball had to actually hit you. It didn’t count if the ball missed everyone. Technically, I was safe and could just throw it again. But I desperately wanted to look good today. I wanted to run and dodge and jump as hard as I could and really show them. So, I scooped up the ball and ran for the far end.

“Mine!” I yelled.

Starting from McKnight’s house, his backyard sloped down to the east toward my yard just over the white picket fence and beyond the bushes. The upper part of McKnight’s big yard had green-painted metal chairs, little round concrete walking stones poured in place, a red brick barbeque and a bird house–we called it a three-story apartment it was so big–at the top of a thirty foot pole.

A flower bed with edges of bricks set like saw teeth separated the upper half of his backyard from the lower half. That’s where we played. It was a flat, rectangular area, ten by twenty yards, and running north to south. Football worked great on the makeshift field. Baseball, in the summer, was a little awkward with the flower bed running beside first base and into right field but we made do.

Just inside the north end zone was the wide mound of an old vegetable garden that had been abandoned to Bermuda and crabgrass. Behind that, a wire fence with metal posts lined off the boundary with the rental duplex next door. Down at the opposite end zone, a matching but vine-entangled wire fence marked the beginning of Mrs. Schaeffer’s overgrown yard of plants and vegetation that snared three or four hardballs each summer.

Well, the instant I claimed the ball, Bebop, Butler, McKnight and John headed for mid-field while Jackie and Redus split off to circle in the far end zone. Everyone knew their place. If I got past the middle, the end zone guards would turn me back to the center. The little kids, new to the game, ran into the middle until Butler and John herded them out to guard each flank where they wouldn’t get crushed in a pile up.

I looped around the opposite end zone and jogged in place, waiting. I knew the little kids would get bored and abandon their posts.

Sure enough, in just a couple of seconds they started trotting toward me. Butler yelled at them but it was too late. I sprinted past the little tykes, shot through the hole they had left, and flew toward the other end of the field. Jackie leaped out from the main group and, for just an instant, hooked his finger in one of the belt loops of my jeans. Luckily, the threads gave way and Jackie tumbled to the ground.

Aha, I thought grinning, you can’t catch me. I’m too quick for you: no one can get the ball from me!

Behind the pack I cut across the field to avoid the end zone guards. As I did, Waddy and Miles trotted out from the other side to cut me off. They were both small but Waddy was quick and Miles was known to bite. Not good. I turned to see if I could double back but John had already filled the gap I’d used and now the entire pack was closing in. My only hope was to catch them off guard by suddenly taking off at a right angle and then shooting up through the middle.

I dug in my foot to stop, but my heel skidded and I fell. My hip struck the ground followed by my elbow and, as I watched in horror, the ball floated up and out of my hands.

Butler stopped and shook his head. “Nobody even touched him,” he sneered. “What a chicken!”

My cheeks burned but no one was listening or watching. John had the ball and the pack was reforming and spreading out again.

John was tough, fast and agile and he ran like a gazelle. He bounced as he ran and his longer, jet black hair shimmered with each leap. He wore a white T-shirt that seemed out of place with everyone else in long sleeves. The ends of his dark blue jeans were turned up in a wide, two-inch cuff revealing his white socks and black, high-top PF Flyers with the decals ripped from the ankles.

John lived next door and he was my best friend. We played Clue and Chinese Checkers, made snowball forts in the winter, dug holes for army men in my backyard in the summer and made battleships, cruisers and destroyers out of scraps of lumbers and hundreds of tiny nails.

John will let me catch him, I smiled to myself.

First, he looped away to the far end, cut sharply to the left, and then came back up the field toward me. I ran out to meet him.

I planned to come in from the side, take him at the waist, and let the impact knock us over. It’d be a solo tackle.

But suddenly, John dug in his right heel and, spinning left to reverse his direction, cut sharply out of my reach.

“Hey,” I yelled as John sprinted away from me, shot between two tacklers, and held out his right arm to fend off another attacker. For an instant, he looked like the football player on my homework folder.

John streaked on to the far end of the yard. Without stopping, he curved around and started down the opposite side next to the brick-lined flower bed.

Butler, Bebop and Howard glanced at each other. Butler nodded and all three began to move. Howard trotted over and took up station by the flower bed. Butler herded the little kids into a line forming a tunnel along the flower bed leading to Howard. And Bebop ran in a wide arc, around and behind John.

John saw Bebop coming and, for a moment, started moving away from him, down the kid-lined path toward Howard and Butler who waited. John realized the tackle was unavoidable. He slowed to wait for Bebop who would only touch-tackle him this close to the jagged red bricks.

But Bebop didn’t slow: he slammed into John at flank speed. I could see John’s eyes flaring as he went down. His head thudded into the soft grass an inch from the bricks.

“Hey,” John jumped up, “you’re not supposed to tackle this close to the flower bed!”

“Yeah sure,” Bebop grinned, “but now I’ve got the ball.” Bebop pranced away like a court jester, whooping and hollering. John snorted at the empty air but Bebop was gone.

Still laughing, Bebop ran toward the smaller kids at the center of the pack. He kicked up his knees as he ran and Morton, seeing those boney pistons coming, bolted out of the way. Waddy and Miles scattered too and Bebop zipped through the middle untouched.

“You little chickens,” he said.

“Hey, that’s illegal,” I yelled.

John balled his fists and tightened his shoulders again. “Cut it out, Nash!”

Bebop laughed, stuck out his tongue and danced away.

For several minutes, McKnight had stayed back, away from the fray. But now that Bebop had the ball, he started to move. First, he backed up to the end zone as far away from Bebop as he could get. Then, when Bebop was facing the other way, McKnight started his charge. McKnight had twenty pounds on Bebop and was two years older. It was awesome and terrifying to watch him hurtle across the field.

Bebop never saw him coming. McKnight grabbed Bebop just above the waist and stopped running. The two of them skidded to a stop as Bebop looked around to see who had him. McKnight grunted and tightened his grip. Bebop had time to yell, “Hey!” before being lifted up in the air. McKnight turned him sideways, threw him down, and fell on top.

There was a loud “Whoosh!”

But Bebop held onto the ball. He thrashed and struggled to get loose, but McKnight held one of his legs. Bebop struggled up to his knees and, just then, McKnight shifted his grip to the ball. Bebop’s eyes widened for a moment but then they narrowed as McKnight began pulling. Bebop grunted with effort but, a fraction of an inch at a time, the ball moved deeper into McKnight’s grip away from Bebop.

In ten seconds, it was over. McKnight had the ball and sprinted away to freedom.

Everyone stopped. No one spoke.

John had been fast, shifty and hard to tackle but a planned attack had stopped him. Bebop was his usual mean and rule-breaking self, but someone would’ve braved his cruelty and brought him crashing down.

But now McKnight had the ball. He was taller, heavier, stronger, quicker and more cunning than the rest of us combined. And he was devious, crafty, and held a long grudge. Just last year, two games had been abandoned when McKnight got the ball because nobody could bring him down, singly or collectively. The sky had just grown darker and darker and, finally, everyone went home. McKnight had quite a collection of baseballs, footballs and Frisbees.

And now in a brand new season, McKnight had the ball again.

Waddy, Miles and Morton, unaware of their foolishness, plunged for McKnight. They looked like fat little gum drops on tooth pick legs running toward a brick. McKnight chuckled as he planted his feet for their attack.

Waddy reached McKnight first and hit his left thigh with a wet “Thwack!” Waddy wore tan pants, a white shirt and a light brown wind breaker and looked like a large Band-Aid wrapped around McKnight’s bulging thigh.

A moment later, Morton jumped for McKnight’s neck but hit too low: he would’ve fallen to the ground if McKnight hadn’t caught him. Morton smiled in relief and then discovered McKnight’s arm was around his neck, cutting off all the air. Morton’s eyes started to bulge as he fanned the air with his arms.

Next, Miles grabbed McKnight around the waist. He could only reach slightly more than halfway around and immediately started to slide down. Grabbing each of McKnight’s back pockets, Miles hung down from McKnight’s backside like a touch football flag.

McKnight jogged heavily forward, his rising heels threatening to kick Miles in the crotch. Miles let go with his right hand to protect himself but as soon as he did, his left hand slipped away from the remaining pocket. He rolled away like a spent cartridge.

Next, Waddy began to shake loose from McKnight’s thigh. After five more steps, he had slid all the way down and was sitting on McKnight’s left foot. With each thudding step, Waddy’s teeth clattered together like tiles in a Scrabble box, thrown on a table. Waddy let go and bounced once more on his bottom before finally stopping.

McKnight still carried Morton by the neck. His loose but flailing arms grew wilder and his face turned an even darker red.

Redus, John, Butler, Jackie and Bebop formed a single line across the field. Seeing the blockade, McKnight shed Morton who was the color of an eggplant and poured on the speed. He crouched forward for momentum and charged into the waiting pack.

Butler, Bebop, and John hit McKnight at or below the waist. Jackie and Redus went high. For a brief moment, McKnight kept moving with all five of them. I could see arms moving inside but I couldn’t tell who was doing what. Then, as if he’d stepped on a land mine, John flew back out to the right and tumbled in a heap. There was a muffled “Umph!” and then Bebop rolled away to the left, his arms wind-milling the empty air. Jackie dropped with a “thud” to the ground and Redus crumpled away landing on top of Jackie.

Only Butler remained. His arms were locked around McKnight’s waist and he gripped his own wrists on the other side. As McKnight staggered forward, Butler carefully slid down so his grip could immobilize McKnight’s legs. If he could stop him long enough, I knew, two or three others would be able to push McKnight over. But before Butler could slip down far enough, McKnight gave out a loud grunt and Butler’s arms burst open and McKnight trotted free.

Turning to survey the carnage, McKnight chuckled and began tossing the ball up and catching it.

“Nah, nah, can’t catch me,” he sang.

He’s unstoppable, I thought. McKnight’s just a solid mass, shedding anyone who tries. Last year’s trick of slowing him down so everyone could gang up wouldn’t work: he’s figured out how to break loose even from five guys at once. We’ll never stop him.

And then I realized there was one technique no one had ever tried, one method of stopping McKnight I’d never seen.

He wouldn’t expect it!

It just might work, I told myself. I’d be the first to actually stop Jim McKnight all by myself. All by myself, I repeated, seeing the glory and recognition. After that, everyone would want me on their team. I’d be chosen before John, before Bebop, even before McKnight himself!

I smiled and looked around. Far away and on top of the old vegetable garden mound, McKnight pranced, tossing the ball to himself. The little kids nursed their wounds in a huddle on the other side of the flower bed. They were out of the game. Bebop, John, Butler, Redus and Jackie still loped and milled about yelling and gesturing, but they never went any closer than fifteen feet to McKnight.

McKnight continued to throw the ball to himself. He even set the ball down once, took three steps and dared anyone to try and get it. No one did.

The time has come, I announced to myself. I walked out to the middle of the yard.

“Hey!”

Everyone turned to look at me.

I planted my feet on the imaginary fifty yard line.

“Come on,” I yelled. “I’ll stop you.”

McKnight looked at me and a broad grin slowly covered his face. A wide space opened up as Bebop and everyone pulled back. McKnight tucked the ball into the crook of his left arm and began trotting toward me.

I scuffed my feet on the hard ground for traction. I couldn’t afford to slip. This was it.

McKnight accelerated slowly, his feet pounding into the ground faster and faster.

I crouched down and scrunched up my face as hard as I could without closing my eyes. I had become a rock. I was granite. I was limestone. I was prehistoric basalt, embedded deep in the Earth.

Halfway across the space between us, McKnight kicked into a solid run. From my head on perspective, he looked like a cannon ball gently rocking back and forth in the air, slowly growing larger and closer.

I am a rock, I told myself. Solid masses don’t pass through solid masses. Rocks don’t go through rocks. They stop. Over and over I repeated it; I am a rock, I am a rock.

McKnight looked like a battleship now and I could almost see thick roiling smoke gushing from the back of his head. His breathing was like huge steam-driven pistons, sucking in and then exploding out with barely contained violence. His arms looked like cannons, loaded with five hundred pound explosive shells, ready to fire at point-blank range.

I am a rock, I said. My legs are massive and hard and, through the soles of my sneakers, I could feel my toes digging into bedrock. I am the Great Smoky Mountains, I am the Rocky Mountains, I am the great continental divide, I said to myself.

I closed my eyes for the impact.

I am a ro …

There was a loud “klunk” in my head.


When I awoke, I saw milky blue sky and big puffy clouds. It felt like I was floating. That’s real nice, I thought.

John was shaking my right arm.

“Wha..?” I moaned, still adrift in the heavens.

“Are you all right?” John said, trying to pull me up into a sitting position. “You should go home.”

Bebop grinned down at me from the other side. “You’re crazy. That was really stupid,” he laughed.

But then, he did something he’d never done before: he leaned over and punched my left arm firmly, but not hard, and gave me a big toothy grin.

Butler grinned, too. “Yeah, crazy,” he said patting my back. “You knocked him down, all right.”

Five yards away, McKnight held the ball and danced in a little circle. “Knocked me down but didn’t get the ball,” he taunted.

Butler leaned over, took my limp hand and pulled me up as Bebop and John guided. My knees felt like the fatigued metal in a bent Erector set girder. They led me toward the gap in the fence.

John looked over his shoulder at the other players. “We’re leaving,” he said.

“We’ll get you tomorrow, McKnight,” Butler added as he ran ahead to hold the bushes open at the fence gap.

“And we’ll get you good, too,” Bebop said, following me through and catching the branches after I had passed.

What a great game!

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