mouth guard

 Brandon Hansen

There’s this show on MTV called Ridiculousness, where Rob Dyrdek, 42, is the coolest, wittiest, snap-backin’est, high schoolin’est adult ever, and he spends 22 minutes of a half hour around 10pm laughing at and narrating videos he handpicked from the part of the Internet where people get hurt. The Monster Energy Drink logo is stitched on the front of his caps, and he wears overlarge sweatshirts also bearing the Monster Energy Drink Logo. He rolls the sleeves to his elbows. He is always ready to skateboard. His co-star, Chanel West Coast, is Los Angeles beautiful. She throws her whole body into her laugh.

          Tonight, I’m watching Ridiculousness, limp, mouth slack. The videos go like this:

          A large child, wearing sunglasses, stands on a rock in a raging river. He poses for a picture. He is then pelted by paintballs that streak across the screen. He shrieks. He has absolutely nowhere to go. He lifts his leg up and covers his face with his arms over and over, screaming, “I swear I’m going to kill you guys!”

          A pastor stands in a courtyard, amidst a prayer circle. He holds a pigeon in his hands, and as he finishes his hymn, he tosses the pigeon in the air. It lands seven feet behind him with a thump, dead.

          A woman, probably mid-forties, wearing her burgundy cardigan and khaki capris and flats, tries her hand at the dirt bike. Her family stands around her. She slams the throttle, and she screams at the camera before she collides with her sister, who is in a wheelchair.

          “Jesus!” Rob Dyrdek says, throwing his hands in the air, yelling at the floored woman on the huge screen. “Your sister just ran over you with a 250 Kawasaki!”

          I feel that touch of sleep absolve me of Rob Dyrdek, and somewhere between the slow blink of eyes and the pulsing ache of my calves and back, I fall asleep.

 

          “Oh, this is gonna be good,” says Rob Dyrdek, his voice bouncing as he rubs his hands together. The crowd around him is raging, he is shaking his snapback head and smiling. Chanel is pushing her hands over her dress, smiling and looking around at everything in the room. The huge screen, displaying the videos, is on me now, and I am laying prone on the dusty grass. This is fifth grade. I am sixty pounds.

          “Why is the biggest thing on this kid his eyeballs?” says Rob Dyrdek.

          I remember this. The way that helmet hurts. God. Every night, I have to rub away a hot rectangle from my forehead, where the helmet presses into me like it’s trying to kiss my brain.

          I am lying across from Cole Dollar. Cole Dollar weighs 90 pounds. He ran for 23 touchdowns in seven games last season. He has leg hair like my dad. We are on the cusp of a Nutcracker, as we call it, like actually call it, where Cole Dollar and I roll over, stand up, and slam into each other. That’s it. And it’s all I think about all day.

          Today Cole is especially unhappy, because his dad, the same one who beats up his wife and went to jail after being tazed once in the chest, and once in the testicles, is especially unhappy, and he is our assistant coach, and he made the whole team do up-downs until one kid puked and then he laughed at the kid who puked.

          The whistle blows. I roll. Cole rolls. He hits me so hard I feel his lungs hug my lungs.

          “Oh, oh, oh god! Hahahaha!” screams Rob Dyrdek. He pauses the video, and points at my body, aerial, spinning. The crowd roars, they slap their knees.

          I watch myself take thin, shaky breaths, then claw at the dirt while I scramble to my feet. I watch as the team hangs their heads and move on to the next thing.

          I sputter my breath and jog over to them, and we line up in rows like this:

 

                    PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN

                    PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN

                    PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN

                    PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN

                    PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN                     PAIN

 

          Cole’s dad screams at us to get on the ground. We whimper through our mouth guards, and sink, paw away the rocks, as we lay on the ground, eyes to the sun. Cole’s dad screams for us to lift our legs, so we lift our legs for three minutes. Our vertebrae arch, our abdominals burst at the seams. He screams for us to chop our legs, and we do, and this always rips us to pieces.

          “Beat your bellies!” he screams, and I see his shadow, blurry at the appendages with his thick arm and leg hair, pass over me as he paces. He sweats through his sunglasses, paces our pain square, and we hammer our bellies with our dirty little fists.

          “Scream!” he screams, “Scream!”

          And we scream through our mouth guards, and beat our bellies, and my back streams pain from the bottom vertebrae to my neck, and my guts mash, and I am still dizzy from Cole’s hit, and Rob Dyrdek is there the whole time, roaring with laughter, screaming at the screen:

           “What is this?” he says, and Chanel West Coast laughs her horrendous laugh, “A cult?”

          The TV is still on. My mouth tastes like sleep. Rob Dyrdek looks confused. On his screen, flickering in a grainy, black and white image, is a girl, in a thick black dress, playing in a blizzard.

          The film spatters black flecks over the white rage of the storm, and Rob and Chanel and the audience are quiet as the girl’s figure dances about, pushing the snow into piles with her bare hands, letting the icy wind whip through her hair. She is squeezing handfuls of snow and letting the water run down her arms, where the wind blows it thin across her skin and it freezes. She prances, and with every kick we see her little buckle shoes blur in rhythm.

          The film goes on like this for an hour, and the audience’s faces are sinking as they watch the girl slow down. Her arms are crossed tight over her chest, her hair is frozen. She stumbles up a set of concrete stairs, and her body falls against the wooden door. She is still. The camera zooms out to a huge brick building, maybe a castle, four stories, with windows, set under arches, gathering the snow as it fell.

          I’m up again. I watch myself make my first tackle in football. It’s sixth grade. It’s from the ground. I have learned to fight from here.

          The running back cuts through the hole, arms tucked over the ball, head down, and I stick my entire leg up, his shins connect to mine in two thuds that jolt up my leg, and he flips over. It happens just like that.

          “That’s a baller move right there,” says Rob Dyrdek, eyes closed, smiling, nodding, clapping his hands.

 

          Awake again. “Where the hell did this video come from?” says Rob Dyrdek. Chanel West Coast’s eyes, a deep brown, framed with eyeliner wings, are wide open.

          Sitting on a pedestal in front of a silver cross, grazing the ceiling, is the little girl, dead, in her black dress, eyes white, vacant, encased in a glass box. Pointing at her is a nun.

          “You must ask,” she says to the other little girls and boys in black, “if you wish to go outside.” The kids are silent. The audience is silent. “Or this is you,” the nun says, simply.

          I’m up. We’re hitting the Gilman. It’s my freshman year of high school. The Gilman is a long, heavy sled, from which a man-sized, cylindrical cushion juts out. We are charged with pounding it up, then slamming it down. Jeremy slams it down. Jesse slams it down. Matt slams it down. Tyler slams it down. Tony slams it down. Jimmy slams it down. Louie slams it down. Cole slams it down.

          I load up my stance and lunge at the Gilman on the whistle. I throw my whole body into it. I pump my legs, lift it into the air, and I twist my back to wrench it down, but instead, I slip beneath it, and the sled lands heavy on my legs.

          The pressure is insane. I push at the bag, but it won’t budge. I feel the long bones in my legs bending. The whole team screams, Rob Dyrdek, screams, “Oh, shit!”

          My teammates rush to either side of the sled and lift it off me. I am fine. I wobble to my feet, and I remember the way my guts feel, the way my teammates look at me as I walk to the back of the line, their frowns through their facemasks, and I wish that that thing would have just broken both of my legs.

          I’m not falling back to sleep by now.

          “Jesus,” Rob Dyrdek sighs. A scene of a shirtless guy in shutter shades trust falling the wrong way off of a hotel balcony is cut short, and replaced with the black and white grain again. We see two nuns, in a cemetery, with a street sign reading “Seventh Street” in the forefront. They throw the glass box that holds the little girl into a hole that was dug fast. The glass shatters, the whole crowd cringes, throws their hands over their ears. The rest of the video is 45 minutes long. It is the nuns, in full garb, piling dirt, spade by spade, into the grave, as the video flits its black and white specks on the gray of the whole thing.

         Sophomore year, when most people had quit, and eleven of us remain healthy, my coach insists that we block with the ice pick technique.

          “Imagine,” he says, “that you are holding an ice pick in each hand.”

          We all nod, our dirty hair dripping sweat into our eyes, our bodies wet, grabbing every flying particle of dust that we’ve kicked up. Rob Dyrdek stands way behind our coach. I see Rob in someone’s yard through the fence down the street, and I can’t hear him laugh, but I can tell that he is.

          “Now, you’re going to hold the ice picks like this,” says coach, and he presses his fists together tight to his chest, so his elbows flare out, “and jam them into the defender’s chest.”

          I ice pick my heart out, loading myself up in the hips and slamming into number 44, the biggest guy on North Dickinson’s, five-time state-winning team, and I am chopping my feet, but he is a wall, and I am a breeze.

          Cole peels out of the backfield with the ball tucked between his gorilla arms and his gorilla chest, and I hear those feet cranking only the way Cole’s do, and number 44’s eyes shift to the ball, and like the genius he is, he throws me backwards into Cole, and we collide, and my arm is locked into Cole’s, and I land flat on my ribs, and Cole lands on his head. We gained one yard. I am wheezing.

          “This is a segment I like to call, ‘Teamwork,’” says Rob Dyrdek, rubbing his hands together, running his tongue over his smiling lips.

          Cole snaps to his feet and shakes his head, muttering, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” My organs wither away. We return to the huddle. The quarterback will pass the ball. We are on the line again, and again, on this play, I launch out of my stance and ice pick Number 44 for as long as I can. The ball is in the backfield somewhere, and number 44 is looking for it, so he leans into me, and I load all of him and all of me into my legs, when number 16, from the far side of the field, blitzes at me in ten yards’ worth of furious steps and launches himself into my distended left leg, and my knee crumples under my body at an angle I only see in Rob Dyrdek videos.

          “Oooh,” says Rob Dyrdek, scrunching up his face and turning away from the screen. Chanel West Coast feigns vomiting as the crowd covers their eyes.

          I am on all fours, breathing in and breathing out and breathing in and breathing out, and I push myself to my feet, and an arc of lightning shoots from my left leg to my hip bone, and I bite on the mouth guard and scream, and hobble back to the huddle, and the quarterback says something, and we get on the line, and I ice pick Number 44, and we get back in the huddle, and I ice pick Number 44, and we huddle, and ice pick, and huddle, and ice pick, and all the while, Rob Dyrdek is watching me from the end zone down the field, the small muscles in the corners of his mouth turned down in disgust as I put weight on my leg, over and over, and every time, it wobbles like I’m rubber.

          I walk by a lady on Seventh Street, around 2:30 in the afternoon, on a Saturday. I’m walking off the stiffness in my left knee, and it’s a great day for it. It is 77 degrees outside; the sun is bouncing off the bleached sidewalk. I see the lady from the bottom of a hill, and she is doubled over. She wears a thick brown parka and long black pants. She is dragging a full travel bag with a sleeping bag strapped onto the handles. Her face is caked in a deep red foundation, cracked and fissured where her wrinkled face is compressed. Her eyebrows are graphite, drawn on huge. In place of her eyes are two black slits. She radiates pain like heat.

          As we pass each other, silent, I feel the warmth sucked from my body, and I am frozen to my last fiber, and whether or not she is magic doesn’t matter, because either way, she has me watching myself, bird’s-eye, as I walk down Seventh Street, staring forward, and my courage is buzzing on the ground beside me, and her agony is way down the street, warming the atmosphere.

          “You guys are losing 48-0,” laughs Rob Dyrdek through the earhole of my helmet, and he starts clapping his words, “How! Do! You! Even! Do! That!”

          He’s somewhere, and I’m sprinting down the sideline, and the rain is plastering my skin, and their cornerback has me covered, and Rob Dyrdek is screaming, “This is your last chance.”

          Our quarterback pitches the ball to Cole. Cole sets his feet, cocks his shoulders, and launches the ball sixty yards in the night air. This is a halfback pass to the end zone. This is a miracle thing.

          I look up. The man covering me is keeping up, easily. Our feet chop in unison. The lights shine through the haze, and break apart in the bars of my facemask. The ball is there. It hits the defender’s finger tips, and something in me tells me to hit the ground, and so I hit the ground, and the ball spins loose into the night, and it’s all there: the medial collateral ligament, torn, and healed, the abdominals, strong, Cole’s dad, back in jail, Cole, himself, my friend, the Gilman, slammed into the ground, the Homecoming game, me, pounding my chest, standing over their star quarterback, writhing, the pigeon, on the ground, the kid, painted, the wheelchair, tipped, and the dust, falling.

          I catch the ball. The crowd, on the sidelines, in Rob Dyrdek’s studio, goes wild. Chanel West Coast blows me a kiss.

          I sit up. I am cold, wet from the grass. Cole jogs to me, and helps me to my feet. He tells me it was a nice catch; I tell him it was a nice throw. I look around. The lady from Seventh Street came to the game. She’s there, on the sidelines. Both sidelines, actually. I look for Cole’s hand on my back, muscular, but instead it is thin and pale. I look at him, and she is there instead, and she looks at me with her slits for eyes. I look up. The scoreboard reads only zeroes. The light shines on her, all twenty-one of her, on the field. She is the fans storming the field for the other team, and the fans trickling onto the field for ours. She is hugging me, saying nothing. The rain is melting the foundation off of her face, and underneath, there is more foundation.

          I look up. Rob Dyrdek floats there, his snapback flipped forward, dripping rain. He is holding Chanel West Coast’s hand. She is in a flowing white dress, her hair is soaked. They say nothing.

          I push the lady off me and peel my helmet off. By habit, I rub the hot rectangle off of my forehead. I take off my shoulder pads and all of the ladies from Seventh Street watch me do it. I pull the jersey off the pads, and drop them. On my jersey, the number 84 is green. The body of the jersey is white, spattered in blood and dirt. I can’t tell what is what. I shove my face into the jersey, and weep. “Uncontrollable Urge,” the Ridiculousness theme song, rumbles in the night like thunder.