Joshua Mohr: Find Your Fight Song
WELL, WHAT WOULD a good ol’-fashioned euphemism between spouses be if it didn’t make Bob Coffin feel like marvelous shit? His wife saying that he’s looking more like his father every day, which means fat and bald and defeated, which was what led her to suggest that Coffin ride this godforsaken bicycle to and from the office.
It’s dark. Bob pedals his ass off because he’s late for dinner. Nothing worse than surviving 10 hours in the cube working for a boss who metaphorically sodomizes Coffin all day, only to walk in the house and be flogged for keeping the family waiting to eat.
Worth noting that he’s not on the bicycle by himself: corporate rucksack slung across his chest diagonally, the bandolier of the working stiff. It’s pushing 40 pounds because of a couple oversize books on HTML.
Here’s when Coffin’s archenemy, Nicholas Schumann, pulls up next to him. Schumann slows his SUV, rolling down the passenger window so he can scream out at Coffin, “Shall we engage in a friendly test of masculine fortitude?”
See, Schumann is a douche of such a pungently competitive variety that he carries a picture of himself wearing his college football uniform in his wallet. And shows it to people! Seriously! Coffin will be huddled with the other dads of the subdivision at one barbecue or another and Schumann will whip out the photo and talk about how he singlehandedly guided Purdue to an overtime win over the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and how nobody thought they had a chance, but as the quarterback he had to keep his team focused, poised, grinding, etc., etc. All the neighborhood fathers hang on Schumann’s probably fabricated renditions from his glory days. He has these dads trained to sniff out Bob’s jealousy and has even said things in front of them like, “Gentlemen, it appears that Coffin doesn’t enjoy the great American pastime of pigskin.”
They shake their astonished heads. Their eyes eyeing Bob like he pissed in the damn sangria.
“You really don’t like the pastime of pigskin?” the disgusted dads ask.
“I give up,” Coffin mutters.
“That’s your problem,” says Schumann. “You can’t give up. Not when Notre Dame’s linebackers are blitzing your back side. Believe me, that’s a life lesson.”
Anyhoo, here Schumann waits for Coffin’s answer re: a duel of masculine fortitude.
The weighty bandolier continues to creep into Bob’s skin.
“You wanna race me?” Coffin yells back from the bike, more panting than actual yelling.
“You have an unfair advantage.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” says Schumann. “I have about 30 advantages over you.”
“I won’t go over seven miles an hour. Come on: Let’s see what you’re made of.”
It’s a despicable truth about the human animal that people often thrust themselves into the crosshairs of unwinnable equations. Logic is meaningless. Lessons learned get heaved from windows. All that life experience jets the coop with myopic majesty, and it’s here ye, here ye, gather ’round and take a gander as another dumb man makes a monkey out of himself.
Coffin’s particular monkeyness on this particular evening with the bicycle and the bulky books and the bandolier and the self-hate and Nicky All-America ragging his ass from the window of the SUV, challenging Coffin to a race there’s no way he can win and Bob knows he can’t beat Schumann, but he doesn’t care. He can’t care. There have been too many unwinnable contests in his life, and Coffin’s hell-bent on seeing how he does against the Notre Dame pass rush, how he stacks up to what might be categorized as an insurmountable obstacle. Is he the kind of underdog who flouts expectations, or is Bob Coffin as miraculously pitiful as the subdivision fathers say?
So there Coffin is, shirking the boring tradition of reason. There he is yelling to Schumann, “You’re on, you rat bastard!”
And thus the contest is underway.
So far, so good—Schumann stays at seven miles an hour. Coffin pulls ahead. He’s winning! He’s a full SUV-length ahead, and his lead is growing; all the sweating and panting and painfrom the clawing bandolier jabbing into him is worth it. Adversity is a stepping stone. It’s in contests such as these that men disclose the true fight in their hearts.
But lo and behold, here’s what Schumann does next: He has the vehicular gall to shatter the established ceiling of seven miles per hour. He pulls up even to Bob, flashes another Nicky All-America grin. Then he pulls ahead. Now it’s Schumann tooting the damn horn! Now he toys with Coffin, slowing down and saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, they’re neck and neck going into the home stretch…”
“Fuck yourself, Schumann!”
“Did you tell me to fuck myself?”
Which brings us to the moment when a certain self-celebrated college football hero reveals the existential interior of a rancorous cheater, edging his SUV a bit into the bike lane, almost clipping Coffin, and Bob swerves into the rough patch of dead grass along the side of the road. Only a few feet before he’d be rammed into that unruly oleander.
“Watch it!” Bob yells.
“Do you know what your problem is, Coffin?”
Still edging the SUV…
“I’m being run into an oleander?”
“You don’t have any balls,” he says.
But Bob will not be testicularly ridiculed. Hell no, he won’t. He hemorrhages pragmatism. He cremates common sense, sends its ashes up into the atmosphere in a stunning cloud. Because in his head, right that second, there’s no choice but to act. If Schumann is some kind of male ideal—ruggedly handsome ex-jock, subdivision bigwig—then up until this second, Coffin has been his opposite, his doormat. And this is one doormat who’s about to rocket off the floor to fight.
Bob takes his left hand off the handlebar in preparation to give Schumann the bird, except once his hand moves, the weighty rucksack makes the bike go herky-jerky, balance faltering, front wheel turning quickly to an unanticipated angle, and Coffin flies over the handlebars. He is airborne. He has left the bike behind and travels a few feet ahead of it, though this trip will be short-lived and soon his voyage shall transition into an excruciating landing.
The bike crashes, and so does Coffin.
And the valiant Schumann doesn’t even pump the brakes. He keeps driving. It’s funny how people expose their camouflaged spirits in moments of emergency. Coffin watches the taillights disappear.
RUCKSACK AND BIKE be damned. Bob leaves them in a heap. His cargo now is what he perceives to be a broken clavicle, though it’s only bruised. He limps through the subdivision’s front gate.
“Coffin?” a voice says.
Bob limps in the middle of the road. There’s blood dripping from his brow. He’d been so mired in savage thoughts that he hadn’t heard the whir of an electric car come up next to him.
“Hey, Westbrook,” says Bob.
“What’s the other guy look like?”
“Wish I looked like Schumann.”
“No, it actually was Schumann.”
“He kicked your ass?”
“He ran me off the road. I’m going to kick his ass now.”
See, Westbrook, unlike Schumann, can keep his vehicle at a steady speed, chugging next to Coffin down the darkened block. “You’ll be massacred.”
“That’s why we play the game.”
“Purdue versus Notre Dame.”
“Which one are you in this metaphor?” asks Westbrook.
“I’m Purdue. I’m the underdog.”
“At least let me drive you to his house. You look like a hammered turd.”
“I have to do this on my own, Westbrook. If our paths should cross again, we’ll toast to my victory.”
“Our paths have to cross again. You still have my tent poles, remember?”
With that, Westbrook speeds off, and Coffin’s solitary limp powers on.
THE OPTIONS THAT are currently being weighed in Coffin’s incensed mind are a) knocking on Schumann’s front door and calmly waiting for a greeting, then attacking with boxing tactics observed on late-night ESPN: left jab, straight right, left hook; b) checking for an open window to shimmy in, surreptitiously entering Schumann’s residence and skulking the place until he locates a safe hideout and waiting until Schumann’s wife and kids go to bed, then attacking the douche; c) taking the American flag that hangs from a silly stick on the Schumann château’s front porch and heaving it through the huge picture window in their living room like it’s a javelin, which will no doubt alert the Schumanns to a certain somebody’s presence on the lawn, and once the man of the house exits the abode to investigate, well, that’s when Bob gets busy attacking.
A meteorologist might call the conditions an unusually warm night.
So this is Bob—this is who Bob Coffin apparently is—standing in front of Château Schumann. This is Bob Coffin fighting off the pain in his clavicle and ribs. This is him fighting off the pain of much more than that. Clavicles heal. Ribs, with rest, are sturdy as ever. What can’t be measured in the moment are the changes going on inside Bob; his sudden audacity at so many forces in his life. He will be bullied no more.
He huffs and puffs and prepares for battle with the likes of a lowdown predator who left behind an innocent man like roadkill. Coffin weighs the pros and cons of each proposed strategy, and a noise comes from inside Schumann’s house.
This is a noise Bob knows.
A noise we all know.
Screechy. Mewling. Lilting. High-pitched. It’s a musical instrument.
Yup, those are fucking bagpipes coming from Schumann’s!
Coffin’s next move becomes obvious as he stands on the darkened lawn, the bagpipes pushing him to retaliate. Here he is bleeding on the grass. Here he is bleeding, and Schumann is in there merrily playing songs for his family? It inspires an elegant gush of rage in Coffin and so he snatches the skinny flagpole and positions himself in front of the huge picture window, pulling back his arm to heave his patriotic javelin. He feels the bruised clavicle burn even though he’s using the opposite arm to throw, not that the agony much matters, no way, because nothing’s going to keep Coffin from doing this.
Watch as the javelin sails, the American flag whipping behind it.
Watch and admire the toss as it glides toward the window.
Watch its trajectory and think: The HOA will not be impressed with what’s transpiring on one of their hallowed lawns.
Watch and proclaim: “I am a brand-new Bob.”
Then the huge picture window explodes. The breaking glass halts the hero’s bagpipe recital. Commotion in the douche’s lair. Footsteps stomping into the living room, assessing the damage, and any second now Coffin will hear a stampede to the door, to his person, and the featured brawl can commence, pitting the underdog versus Notre Dame.
Schumann opens the front door, holding his bagpipes, spies Coffin huffing and puffing out on the lawn. He yells back into the house for his wife and kids to stay put, he’ll handle this, it’s only Bob. Then he says in a calm voice, “Your head’s bleeding pretty good.”
“Look,” Schumann says, “let’s not make things any worse.”
“You can’t smear me into the oleanders.”
“Seriously, your head is pouring blood.”
“And my shoulder’s probably busted, too.”
“I’ll take you to the hospital.”
Coffin stares at the bagpipes, limp in Schumann’s arms like a sleeping toddler. Bob wipes some blood from his face and asks, “What song were you playing before?”
“The fight song of my alma mater. Called ‘Hail Purdue.’ ”
“A fight song?”
“Our call to arms.”
Having just fought for himself, Bob feels like he needs to hear the song in its entirety. “Fire it up again, maestro,” Coffin says.
Schumann looks momentarily confused, then shrugs.
He gets the bagpipes going, those gigantic, funereal squawks. Coffin stands on the lawn listening to “Hail Purdue” coat the whole sub-division in celebration. For some reason, Coffin has brought his hand up and placed it over his heart like he’s pledging allegiance to something. And he just might be.
Joshua Mohr is the author of three novels, including Some Things That Meant the World to Me, an O, The Oprah Magazine Top 10 Read of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller; Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice on the New York Times Best Seller List; and, most recently, Damascus. His new novel, Fight Song, will be published in 2013 (this piece is an excerpt—our thanks to Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press). He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at University of San Francisco.