Go Get ‘Em, Slayer

“Listen up, you little snots. In this world, you’re either the top dog, or you’re not. And if you’re not, then you’re breakfast. I didn’t become the number one small forward in the state my junior and senior years for slacking off. These days, you weaklings have no drive. It’s all bullcrap about feelings and political correctness and whatever else those stupid pamphlets said before I used them as campfire starters. Now are you just gonna sit there or am I gonna see some hustle?”
Under the tawny broom of his mustache, Coach Baker’s mouth pursed around his trusty whistle. The shriek jolted his gym students into action, and the squeaking of rubber sneakers against polished maple planks brought a special kind of satisfaction to the former basketball star. Sometimes being a gym teacher was a thankless job, and a health teacher even more so. But he knew these kids needed a push, and that wasn’t going to come from some spineless liberal counselor with safe space training.
Speaking of spineless… “Hey, Engelmann! Did I say you could stop running?” The scrawny kid was hunched over, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. But he was still upright, so it irritated the older man that he wasn’t responding. This kid was the usual weird loner type. Baker had picked on kids like Rodney Engelmann mercilessly in high school. It wasn’t like he could help it—kids like that made it too easy.
Still, as an adult, Coach felt an uncharacteristic urge to help him out. Maybe if he could just get a kick in the pants, Rodney would become more popular, possibly even make something out of his life. Then Coach Baker could be the one invited on one of those talk show segments about hometown heroes. Yeah, that would be great. His old lady would love that. Mind made up, he marched over to the lanky teenager and clapped a meaty hand on his shoulder.
“Englemann, come with me to my office. Let’s have a talk, man to man,” Baker said through a smiling mustache. To the other students he shouted, “Class dismissed! Go get cleaned up.”
“Am I in trouble?” At this moment Rodney resembled a field mouse on Planet Earth just before it gets eaten by a fox. Baker sighed.
“No, you’re not in trouble. We just need to have a chat.” The two of them made it to the coach’s cramped office and shut the door to lessen the stench of sweat emanating from the gym. The coach sank down into his worn office chair with a groan—the basketball injury that had kept him from going pro was acting up again. A few moments passed in silence while Coach Baker merely studied Rodney, who sat perched on the edge of a chair as if ready to take flight at any provocation. The kid’s eyes darted around feverishly, like a feral animal. Unusual behavior for a normal kid, but the coach dismissed it.
Finally Baker grunted and stuffed some chewing tobacco into his lip from a canister on his desk. “Listen, kid. We both know you’re a loser.” Rodney looked offended, but Baker went on. “Not like it’s the worst thing, I’m just being honest. You’re not popular. You don’t get any ass, and I’d be willing to bet the only people who sign your yearbooks are teachers and the school secretary.” At this point Rodney was beet-red.
“Is there a point to any of this?” God, even the kid’s voice was lame. This was gonna be harder than Baker had imagined.
“My point is, I can help you. You need to wake the hell up and become fierce. Be merciless! Grow a spine, never take no for an answer, and when you want something, you need to take it. Hell with the consequences. You’re only limiting yourself, and unless you want to be a loser all your life, you need to get your shit together and toughen up.” Coach Baker aimed a glob of dip-spit into an empty Gatorade bottle, eyeing Rodney to see how he was taking this.
“What if… What if I want something I can never have?” There was the shifty glance again, this time laced with guilt.
“Englemann, what did I just say? You want it, take it.”
“But, the consequences wouldn’t…”
“What is it that has you so worked up? This is quality advice I’m giving you, here. Is it a girl or something?” Coach guffawed when he saw the answer in Rodney’s face. “Ah, so it IS a girl. What’s her name?”
“Penny, uh… Penny Lawson.” Now that was a surprise. Penny Lawson was the captain of the dance team. A real stunner, albeit a little cruel to her classmates, and also completely out of this guy’s league. Still, for Coach Baker to doubt himself now would be to admit defeat, so he just grinned, shifting the lump of tobacco wedged in his lower lip.
“Penny, huh? You’ve got good taste, kid. Not a problem. You’ve just gotta be bold, and like I said, don’t take no for an answer. Women like that should be fought for and won, even though they play hard to get. Now, here’s what you do.” And with that, Coach Baker commenced in telling Rodney exactly how to subdue his crush on the battlefield of courtship.
What followed over the next few weeks were daily lessons after school on being tough, building strength, and above all, becoming the kind of jerk everyone wanted to be around. Coach Baker began to notice people paying more attention to Rodney: shouting him out in the hallways, smiling at him, maybe slapping him on the back every so often. Everything seemed to be going wonderfully. Baker began to think maybe he should become a motivational speaker. He even started workshopping seminar names. “Become a Risk Taker with Coach Baker” was his leading pick so far.
One Friday in Baker’s office after Rodney had settled back in his seat, Baker once again breached the subject of Rodney’s transformation.
“I think you’re ready,” he said. Rodney looked uncomfortable at these words. Traces of his old squirmy self reemerged.
“Ready for what?” He squeaked. No amount of training could make this kid’s balls drop any faster, Coach reflected, so he was still stuck with that annoying voice of his.
“You know exactly what,” Baker said irritably. “Penny. You need to go for it.”
“Coach, I’ve been thinking… I’m happy now. I don’t get picked on as much, and I have some friends now. Maybe that’s good enough for me.” Rodney blanched when he saw the anger in Baker’s jowled face.
“Good enough? Are you joking? Since when has our goal been ‘good enough?’ I promised myself I would do my job, and no way in hell does it end with ‘good enough.’ Now, you’re gonna get over this stupid fear, go do what you set out to do, and we’re gonna forget you ever said the words ‘good enough’ to me. Good? Good. Now get the hell out of my office.”
“Alright, Coach.” Rodney got up as if to go, but Coach Baker stopped him.
“Rodney, just remember. What did I tell you? What do we always say?”
Rodney chewed his lip for a moment, then spoke.
“Ask for forgiveness, never permission.”
“That’s right. Go get ‘em, slayer,” Baker said with a grin and a fist pump. Rodney’s eyes widened at these words, and he gave the coach an odd look, as if to say, Is this really okay? When Baker shot him a thumbs-up and a wink, the boy nodded, beaming, then left the office.
Saturday morning, just after six, the phone rang in the Baker household.
“Pumpkin, can you get that?” Mrs. Baker mumbled before falling back asleep. Her canasta meeting with the girls had run late the previous evening and she was still sleeping off her white zinfandel hangover.
Baker’s voice was thick with sleep as he answered, “H’llo, Baker residence.” The voice on the other line was one he immediately recognized: an old teammate, Neil Warner. Officer Neil Warner nowadays.
“Yeah, hey, Paul,” he said, using Baker’s first name heavily. “I hate to call you up like this, but I booked someone a short while ago and I think you might be able to help me fill in some blanks about the incident. You mind coming in?” Though the words were innocent enough, Baker could tell the request wasn’t really a request. It was a thinly veiled summons. It was a “You’re-Not-In-Trouble-But-If-You-Resist-You’re-Gonna-Be.”
“Sure thing, Neil,” he said, pulling khakis on with the phone wedged between shoulder and stubbly cheek. “Be there in twenty. But I gotta know, who’d you book?”
“This kid, a student of yours. Rodney Englemann.”

The ride to the police station was a tense one. Twice Baker almost rear-ended someone slowing down for a stoplight. Both times he cursed them out and flipped them the finger as if it were somehow their fault for stopping at a red light. He couldn’t stop thinking about what Rodney could possibly have been picked up for. DUI maybe? Drug charges? Could he have decided to forget Penny and instead saved up to buy a hooker? That would explain his shiftiness the previous day. He finally screeched into the parking lot, parked taking up two spaces, and strode into the squat brownstone police station. Neil was waiting in the front to offer him a cup of coffee and a grim expression.
“Sorry to pull you out of bed so early,” the police officer said. Baker shrugged nonchalantly, chafing the warm styrofoam between his palms.
“No big deal, I was getting up to do my morning jog anyway.” A blatant lie, but Neil nodded like he actually bought it.
“Good, keep that heart healthy. You’ll need it after today.” That was when Neil turned serious. “Paul, I need you to tell me everything you can about your relationship with this Englemann kid. Top to bottom, leave nothing out.” He guided both of them to a spartan room with depressing walls and simple metal chairs. A big mirror on the wall reflected Baker’s face under the fluorescent lights. He didn’t like how old it made him look.
“Not much to tell, Neil. He’s a student in my gym class, never been too bright, or athletic, or likeable. Sort of like that Kevin guy in our Algebra class, the kid with all the hair we used to throw gum into.” Here Baker paused to laugh. Neil didn’t. Clearing his throat uncomfortably, Baker went on. “I noticed how much of a loser he was, so I decided I would try to help him move up the food chain. Call it a way to make up for all the shit we pulled in high school. I’ve given him a few pep talks, nothing else. Now will you just tell me what he’s been arrested for already?”
Neil studied him for a few moments, then simply said, “Murder.”
Baker laughed. But when he saw Neil wasn’t joking, he looked dumbstruck.
“Wait, you’re serious? That can’t be right. Just yesterday he needed a damn pep talk just to ask out a girl he liked. Englemann can’t be a murderer.” Baker was about to go on until he saw Neil had perked up.
“A girl? Did he mention her name?” The officer’s voice was serious.
“Penny Lawson. She’s a popular one at the school, boys are all over her.” Baker didn’t like the shade of pale his friend was becoming upon hearing this.
“Last night, deputy Kittinger discovered the mangled body of a 16-year-old girl in one of the parks nearby. We ID’d her as Penny Lawson. When we canvassed the area, we found Rodney hiding in a convenience store nearby. He confessed almost immediately. Paul, he mentioned you by name. He said you understood, that you told him to go for it.”
“Shit. Shit, shit.” Baker buried his face in his hands. Then he looked back up suddenly. “It wasn’t my fault, Neil. I told him all that shit because it’s what everyone says. Be fierce, be merciless, don’t take no for an answer.” He knew he probably wasn’t helping his own case, but how could Neil blame him for any of this happening?
“This doesn’t look good for you, Paul. I’m gonna be honest.” Neil wouldn’t meet his eyes, and Baker knew that was a bad sign. Before he could respond, a deputy came up and touched Neil’s arm.
“Kid wants to talk to Baker. Says it’s important.” Baker would have given a vital organ right then and there if it meant he could have avoided coming face to face with the embodiment of his failure as a teacher.
“Baker, you okay with that?” Neil was finally looking at him. Pride on the line, Paul nodded slowly.
“Sure, yeah. Let me just—” He tried to drink the rest of his coffee, but his hand was shaking too hard and the amber liquid sloshed down the front of his Patriots t-shirt. “Shit. Shit, shit.” Angrily he threw the cup at a nearby trash bin, where it glanced off the side and tumbled onto the floor. The former basketball star stared at the missed shot, then straightened and walked past Neil to where the deputy led.
The moment the door opened into the interrogation room, Coach Baker felt like he was going to throw up what little coffee had made it down his throat. Rodney sat calmly in his chair, hands chained to the steel table. His wrists seemed almost too small for the cuffs. Four scratches trailed down his cheek, presumably from Penny. He looked like exactly what he was, what he’d always been—a kid. Bewildered eyes stared at Baker as he entered the room.
“Hey, kid,” the coach said weakly. Rodney immediately perked up, desperate and eager to get his mentor’s approval.
“I did okay, right, Coach? Ask for forgiveness, never permission, just like you told me. Right? I’m going to be okay?”

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