As if the playing fields of elementary school weren’t depressing enough, a throng of us headed up there to play soccer after a cafeteria lunch that consisted of weenie wraps, green beans, and warm apple sauce. The grass was yellowing in the full sun. I was fuzzy from the sodium, slow and gluey, and couldn’t keep track of who was picked for teams, only that my name, as usual, went unspoken till the last. We scrawny and pasty were left trying not to look hopeful and sad. I stared at the rippling heat near a distant chain link fence, pretending to be deeply absorbed. The one rule of recess soccer was that everybody had to play; there was no bench. It got down to me and another guy whose retainer bar glistened in the sun.
“Day,” the captain said, as though choosing which way he wanted to die, and I sprung to life, as much as I could anyway without moving. “You’re goalie. Let’s go!”
And we were off, everyone dispersing into their respective positions, and the usual hierarchy unfolded—coolest at center and forwards, the second tiers taking up the defense, and the rest hanging at the fringes hoping for a stray ball to prove themselves human. I stood between the posts of the goal. There was no net behind me, nothing but hot air to shoot through. The opposite goalie was a squiggly noodle in the heat.
Being goalie was a big honor and I was determined to do well. It is, though, a position the born failure was made for. If he’s actually presented with a chance to do his job, he’ll choke, going the wrong way or freezing, the ball sailing right through. But usually the powers that be don’t let it get that far. Whenever the ball comes remotely close the captain raises his hand and announces, “Goalie change!” and promptly takes over. The failure’s scuttled to the side where he watches the action play out, shame hardening over him like wax. Once the play’s over, he’s reinstated, and perhaps, too, are his hopes. For now, though, they were just tossing the coin, and I had a moment longer to believe I was worth something.
There are two kinds of born failures: those who know it and never pretend otherwise, and those who are blind, declaring victory even when witnessing the calamity of their actions, and are thus in a way self-preserved in delusion. I didn’t know it yet, but by winter I’d be blooming into full failurehood, the latter camp my chosen style—preserved if not thriving in an unbreakable orb of self-fantasy.
From where we played, I could see the swings and the wood chip side lot. On a cold wet morning a couple months from now, I would be volunteered to play center during our before-school touch football game. Center was normally a coveted position, but not when right after hiking the ball you’re pushed and end up sitting in the mud, going all day with brown Rorschach blots on the seat of your light trousers. But I got a laugh, a big one, and kept getting them until the end of the day when I was convinced of my comedic talents. Victory!
Later, there would be the solar eclipse. We were instructed on how to view the miraculous happening by our earnest, way-too-excited teacher Mr. Ritchie. He of the golden beard told us that the moon would pass over the sun in hushed tones, as though if the sun heard it might never let such a thing happen.
“Don’t even think about facing the sun,” Mr. Ritchie whispered. “Stand with your backs to it, utilizing your viewing cards to watch. If not, you could be blinded for life!”
He passed out index cards, two each, one with a pinhole to hold in front of us so the sunlight could shine through, and the other to place in the path of this beam of sunlight. The hole was to act like the lens in a slide projector, focusing a tiny image of the sun onto the second card. All this with our backs to the action.
When the time came, the whole school was released from class to stand around in the fields with cards poised for the show. By then, my cards were not only poked, they were bent and smudged with chocolate and snot. When the oohs and ahhs started coming, I tried my hardest to angle the cards just right, but there was nothing. When a great shadow began sweeping over the land, I dropped the cards and turned into the deadly glare. I shielded myself and reared back, convinced I would never see again. Which was almost a good enough excuse when, still stumbling, I stepped on Mr. Ritchie’s big toe, causing him to miss the eclipse while he jumped around holding his foot like a cartoon buffoon.
“Goddamn you, Day!” he shouted, and my classmates got to glimpse the true nature of our teacher. Success!
Then there was the time I murdered my Grandpa’s tropical fish. I watched him feed them, opening the lid to his aquarium and carefully sprinkling the flaky food across the surface of the water. The few pieces were nabbed quickly. They seemed so much hungrier to me, so the moment he turned the corner I was feeding them, shaking the canister hard like parmesan cheese over a pizza. So hard the cap came off. The food lay like a miniature mountain range across the water. Fish swam up and gorged until the masses caved, muddying their blue world in a dark rain. I figured the bottom feeders would be thankful, and went outside to the front where something I’d seen earlier still bothered me.
Next door lived a widowed man who hadn’t spoken in a year, having taken a vow of silence after the funeral of his wife. Beside his drive was this perfect line of his beloved’s prize tulips. It was hard for me to allow something so perfect to exist. Show me a placid pool and I’d be the first chucking in a big stone. Fresh snow—I’d pee a series of figure eights. Someone sleeping peaceful—give me a pair of cymbals. And these tulips, they were easy pickings, literally. I walked up the guy’s drive, plucking each flower head as I went, crumpling them in my hand and tossing the petals up where they fell over me like confetti. Thrown on my grandma’s roof, they exploded like colorful snowballs.
Then I saw him, the monkish widow, standing just outside his garage, bathrobe, slippers, and white hairy legs. I froze and looked him in the eye, his jaw dropping by degrees until he shook his fist and said, “Goddamn you!” I ran into my grandma’s house, where my grandpa stood gazing into the black waters of his aquarium.
“Why are all my fish dead?”
“They’re sleeping,” I said. “With full tummies!”
My grandma arrived, I thought, to save me from Grandpa’s growing wrath. “I just got off the phone. What’s this about destroying the neighbor’s tulips?”
“At least he’s talking now?”
Then there was my bed wetting. Every morning until about my sophomore year I woke up thoroughly damp. Being a bed wetter is a born failure’s daily reminder of his true nature, and he rises to pursue his vocation, often without bathing. This prevented me from sleeping over with friends without elaborate preparations. After awhile I just gave it up, but when in sixth grade our teacher announced with glee in his fat face that we were all going to Outdoor School for a full week, I began preparing for the worst.
I set about proving my manliness ahead of time at every possible turn. P.E. calisthenics, long division, lunch in the cafeteria—I made my physicality known. In a week’s time I would be discovered as the guy who peed his bunk, a hard fact to spin, but at least they might remember me doing a trio of clap-style push-ups while barking like a seal, or how I could eat the peel of an orange without breaking a sweat. Between bells one morning I decided to do some chin-ups in the boys’ bathroom. Two metal panels had hid the urinals from passersby, but one panel had been damaged and removed; the framework was still intact. So as others stood relieving themselves, I seized the opportunity—I jumped up and grabbed the cross bar and began doing chin-ups. This was funny and impressive, until a large student came in who I mistook for a teacher. I flung myself down, slicing my ass a good five inches on a protruding screw in the process, a fact I did not realize until someone pointed it out.
“Man, your ass is bleeding!”
The guy’s friend scowled and said, “And your shorts are ripped in half!”
I went to that darkened sanctuary of the born failure, complete with paper-covered cot and tongue depressors—the nurse’s office. They called my mom and an ambulance came for me. My emergency, though, didn’t warrant siren lights or a quicker speed. If anything, they were going slower, and I overheard a joke about a fencing mishap. But it did get me out of Outdoor School. I spent the week at home watching game shows and soap operas, my right ass cheek elevated to protect my eighteen stitches. Triumph!
When I turned 15 and got my learner’s permit, I sat for hours at a time in my oldest brother’s defunct 1971 Volkswagen Squareback pretending I was driving. After I heard about how you could jump start a car by pushing it to a certain speed in neutral, shifting into 2nd gear and popping the clutch, I waited for everybody to be gone before trying out the theory. I got the car rolling down our farmhouse drive, which was built for such escapades as it was slightly downhill. Bordered by a pasture on one side, blackberry bushes on the other, it stretched about 100 yards before it curved out to meet the two-lane rural highway at the bottom. It was a summer day at lunchtime, not much traffic.
Once moving, I jumped in the car to steer and pedal with one foot out the open door. I got it going, faster and faster, my speed now registering on the round speedometer. Half-way down, the traffic of the two-lane within sight, it was rolling fast enough to try the trick. I closed the door and slipped it into 2nd gear. I popped the clutch and heard the engine grumble a second before it ground to a halt—forgot to pump the gas. I opened the door to try again. If I timed it just right I could start it up at the bottom of the hill, crank the e-brake and stop before safely turning out.
I got it moving good enough, but running alongside the car I tripped and fell. Lying on my stomach, I watched the car barrel down the drive on its own, then turn somehow in the direction of the road. It drifted across the little highway, trundled through the yellow weeds on the other side, and came to a halt in a wall of rhododendron. If a car had been coming, people would have died. I would forever be known as Eric, the Manslaughterer. A week later, though, someone tracked down the owner, calling my brother and offering him cash. Win!
In my senior year of high school I was christened manager of the student store. The place had run at a loss for years but when I took over we were soon in the black, a fact my huge-boned teacher Mr. B. was made speechless by. It was due to an across-the-board price hike and the addition of yard-long licorice ropes and Blow Pops, both of which became a fad either to have draped over your arm or sticking out of your mouth during lunch. At that time I wore military pants every day—imagine the irony, coupled with a white Polo up top!—and the afternoon I got caught for embezzling, I was wearing desert fatigues with side pockets at mid-leg. These I filled with quarters during the period after lunch when I counted the money. I had been skimming like this for weeks and we were still in the black, only less. I had a shoe box already full in my locker, and now I figured I had enough for that new Yonex tennis racquet I had my eye on. After closing up, I went to my next class, walking the empty halls like Santa’s sleigh itself. When I saw my teacher in the hall, I passed him with a smile.
“Hey, Mr. B.,” I said, over the sound of coins. “How’s it going?”
I kept walking and he kept looking, jangly step after jangly step.
During the days afterward that I spent alone at home in school-sponsored convalescence, I realized management wasn’t for me. I had to own something, to be the one and only, so I placed an ad in the classifieds under Business Opportunities. My idea was to open a night club in downtown Portland, and my ad read as so: Wanted, investors for awesome opportunity. Serious inquiries only. Capitalist willing to shoulder full burden. Of course the capitalist was me, but the phone number was my parents’. Within an hour I had my first call. It was my father.
“Eric? The paper called me about some business about a want ad?”
I froze, mouth dry. “Want ad?”
“‘Capitalist willing to shoulder full burden’?”
“Oh, that,” I said. “It’s a project I’m doing for marketing class.”
“I see,” he said. “Well, just tell me first next time, okay?”
Maybe I failed with the nightclub, but I proved a slippery enough pretender. So I decided to take matters into my own hands; running the student store had taught me that much. I began to build credit. I went to a local electronics store called Tom Peterson’s. The owner was a man with a crew-cut who stood in front of faux-seasonal backdrops advertising a no-credit check special. By then I’d dropped out of high school and was working full time at my father’s piano and musical instrument store. I stood in front of a wall of Zeniths wearing slacks and penny loafers.
“I’m trying to build some credit so I can buy my dad out and start my own guitar store,” I said to the salesman.
“Well, Zenith’s a great national brand, if recognition’s what you’re after.”
He didn’t get it, but I got the TV anyway and after less than a year I had it paid off, not missing a single payment and always on time. Finally, the moment to make my move had come. I knew my father was sick of having a guitar department, I’d made sure of that, letting the hippies and stoners jam for twenty or thirty minutes before leaving with a single E string. He was itching to use that square footage for items that sold for more than 80 cents. So I thought I would get a loan, fully credited now, and buy him out. I had a business book that explained many things, one of which was Anticipation.
I spent most of the night before my meeting with the banker anticipating his questions. What are your long-term goals? What is that special something you can bring to the marketplace? What would be your first step after receiving all your money? I only wanted $20,000.
In the morning I went into the bank manager’s office half-expecting to come out in no time at all with big bags of cash emblazoned with dollar signs. I even cleaned out my trunk, just in case. Well, I had the no-time-at-all part right.
“Mr. Day, what collateral can you offer?”
“Yes, what can you put up against our investment?”
“I bought a TV on credit.”
“I see that,” he said. “But certainly it’s not a $20,000 TV, is it?”
“It’s pretty nice,” I said. “It’s a Zenith.”
“I suggest you ask your father about this, discussing you taking over on a time arrangement perhaps. And speaking of time,” he said, checking his huge watch. “I really have to be going.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Really, thank you.”
I took the man’s advice, and my father, always looking to do something nice for me, relinquished control of the guitar department. I lasted a year before going belly up. Fact is, I’d been bored stiff, some days not a single customer, and only myself to deal with, who turned out to be quite the hostile stranger. A relentless rising tide of debits and credits and capital expenses confused me into insomnia. I didn’t know what any of it had meant, including myself, and was left broke and with nothing but a desire to know something, anything about anything.
The community college loan officers were not as finicky. All I needed was a schedule and a pulse. Business wasn’t for me, I learned, but being a sensitive type was. I bought a lot of black clothes to set off my tragic paleness, and worked at yellowing my finger tips with roll-your-owns, and before long I was sitting in back of creative writing workshops convinced I was Ernest Hemingway. I married a woman who could make me feel like a failure at the drop of a hat; she wore many hats. We went up to northern Washington one weekend to see David Sedaris read. He was gay and short so was met with spousal approval. We got there early for decent seats. It was before Sedaris was a mega-star, yet the auditorium filled with college students. Just before the reading was supposed to begin, my wife released her talons long enough for me to get a drink of water and use the restroom. Just before returning, I spotted Sedaris looking back at me outside a pair of glass side doors. He was alone, standing in the dark and smoking. I decided not to return to the auditorium, to let my wife evil-eye the co-eds a little longer, and stepped outside not really knowing why. I guess if I could talk to him he might say that he thought of himself as a failure, too. We’d strike up if not a friendship maybe a sense of camaraderie.
I asked him if I could have a cigarette. He was small and compact, looked a mixture of amused and paranoid, as though the authorities might nab him any moment for being so unread yet rich.
“Sure,” he said, pulling out his pack of Gitanes. “Help yourself.”
“Thank you,” I said, and leaned in to accept his light.
I took a big long draw to show him how comfortable I was around celebrity, intending to strike up a conversation after. I stood instead two feet away from him coughing uncontrollably in his face. I turned to hack the remains of my integrity into the night. When I glanced back, somebody was ushering the author inside. He looked over his shoulder before the door closed, appearing a touch concerned, and I waved to let him know I would probably live to tell the tale.
But as goalie on that sunny day in elementary school, I had no idea any of this was going to happen. I got my hint, though, soon enough. The mass of players started to get bigger and bigger, and I saw the ball coming at me. Before he could switch me out, my team captain fell, and a pair of opposing forwards shot past a handful of backpedalling defenders. One forward passed across to the other, who kicked it toward the goal, and I dove for it. The ball, each segment of black and white visible to me still in slow motion, sailed clean between my hands, and for a moment there I seemed frozen in space, my arms straight up like a celebrant reaching for the sky.
Eric Day lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches English at The New for the Arts and Academics high school. He is working on a collection of humorous essays about growing up in rural Oregon, called Raised by Trees.