I don’t know if it’s a special gym class or what, with the fourth-graders joining the third-graders like this, but oh shit here they come, the boys taller, the girls prettier, and we’re all squirming to get a look.
I’m working my way down the line of them—Billy McAteer, Dana Smith, Rebecca Jones—when everyone hears it: click-clack, click-clack, click-clack and I know immediately what it is. It’s cleats. I’d done the same thing, in the kitchen, over and over and over. You get a new pair of shoes, a new pair of cleats, you want to wear them everywhere, and you want to hear how they sound. They sound, I don’t know, like business. You wake up thinking about them. You go and find them when you get home. You run your fingertips over them like they are your own two kittens.
The gym teacher’s voice booms: who’s wearing the cleats on my waxed gymnasium floor? I’ve forgotten the gym teacher’s name but in my mind he’s young Charlton Heston but in the kind of running shoes my dad used to wear. It’s 1986. The gym teacher has a mustache because all grown men have mustaches.
In an instant, all of us, the popular kids, the not-popular kids, the dorks, the kids who smell like wood smoke, the kids in glasses, the kids who have shaved heads because they have lice, we all, like deer in the woods, zero in on the sound. It’s coming from Jimmy Butler. Three things about Jimmy Butler: 1. He’s the best soccer player. 2. He’s mean. 3. He’s poor.
The line of fourth-graders freezes. The teacher marches toward Jimmy Butler. This is incredible. Girls like him. Boys fear him. He can score a goal in a hundred different ways.
The gym teacher is towering over him now. He wants to know why Jimmy Butler is wearing cleats on his gym floor. Jimmy Butler says he doesn’t know why he’s wearing cleats, but we all know why. Or maybe it’s just me who knows. Jimmy Butler rides on the bus with me. We pick him up last, from the trailer court off of Route 220. He’s one of the kids who smells like wood smoke.
Jimmy Butler’s face is turning red.
You have to take those off, the teacher says.
Jimmy Butler does take them off, and for the rest of gym, he runs around, in his socks, slipping, and the world is on its head, and there is no truth, and there’s a part of me that thinks I might run over to Jimmy Butler’s circle and ask if I can play dodgeball with them, but I don’t.
After gym, we’re all lined up, third-graders in a line, fourth-graders in a line next to us. I find myself not next to Jimmy Butler but close enough, a few behind him. As we walk to the door, I watch his feet. A quarter-sized circle of pink skin shows through on both of the heels.
At the door, Jimmy Butler leans over and grabs his cleats. They are brand new, stiff, black on top, milky-white plastic on the bottoms. I know these kinds of cleats. We don’t have any money, either, but my cleats, at home, are a little nicer. Everyone knows the hierarchy of cleats and Jimmy Butler’s cleats, good as he is, are at the very bottom. His cleats are better only than no cleats at all.
Outside the door, on the carpeted stairs, Jimmy Butler falls out of line just long enough to slip into his shoes, just long enough so that, when he falls back into line, he’s right next to me.
I tell Jimmy Butler I like his cleats.
And then he calls me a faggot and the boy in front of him laughs and calls me a faggot, too, but I don’t care. I loved him then and I love him now. You should have seen the way, even at that age, he’d take a wild ball from the air, on his chest, like it was nothing. He’d let the ball fall to the ground, touch it with the outside of his foot once, maybe twice, plant, and smash it into the corner of the goal. He was our guy. We passed him the ball, or tried to, and he’d run it down and do something with his feet that we could not do with ours. If it were up to me, he could have worn his cleats on the gym floor all day. He could have done whatever he wanted. I loved him, and I still do, and he never knew my name.
Seth Sawyers’ writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sports Illustrated, The Morning News, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel about two 10-foot-tall people who one day meet in 1994 Baltimore.