In sixth grade, the first year of middle school, our Physical Education teacher was Coach Stogie. He really was shaped like a stubby cigar; a shrunken man, thin-limbed as Mickey Mouse. Some of the girls had hit their growth spurts and were already taller than him. But it didn’t matter. His voice made of him a giant.
“Come on, folks! Let’s see some hustle!”
He never talked to us; he barked like a junkyard dog at the limit of its leash. His commands were whip-cracks you couldn’t help but obey.
If Coach Stogie taught us anything, it was that life had two kinds of people: winners and losers. His class was all tug-of-war competitions, games of us-versus-them dodgeball, and timed mile laps. He’d stand to one side and count, out loud, the number of sit-ups, push-ups, and chin-ups each boy could do.
“Come on, son!” he’d growl at me. “One measly push-up! Let’s go!”
In Coach Stogie’s office, there was an immense whiteboard behind his desk like the flag behind General Patton. Each boy’s name was written there, in blazing red marker, for all to see. Mine was at the very bottom, ranked as having the least upper body strength in my grade.
In the locker room, the other boys flapped limp wrists in my face, and taunted me with high falsetto voices. Even the girls could do one push-up.
Before class, Coach would have us jog out into the mowed fields behind the school. The eighth graders played soccer and football in those fields.
At the far reach of the school grounds, where the grass became the woods that surrounded us on three sides, there sat a solitary, abandoned telephone pole. Without being told, we sensed it for what it was: a relic of a lost time. The brown wood ossified, turned gray, and warped so profoundly that it leaned precariously to one side. At its base was a faded, blue handprint as large as any of our heads.
“I don’t know how it got there,” Coach swore to us, “Cookie Monster must’ve gone out and touched it or something.”
Each morning, we were to jog out into the fields, to the pole, and place our hands against it. Coach Stogie never joined us on these warm-up runs, but he warned:
“Make sure you actually touch the blue hand. No cheating. I’ve got a sensor back there, and if you don’t touch it, I’ll find out.”
There was something unaccountably off-putting about that ghostly handprint. The fingers were too long, the pads at the end of each digit too wide. Whatever made it had fallen away to one side as it left its mark, giving the impression of a hand put to glass during a murder. That’s how I surmised the blue color wasn’t paint at all, but the monster’s strange blood.
It was a silly, kiddie thought, the kind you’re meant to leave behind the moment you move to a school with mandatory sex ed., locker-lined hallways, and honors algebra.
Still, I was quite sure Cookie Monster didn’t have fingers like that. I’d lay awake at night, trying and not trying to imagine what did. Rearranging the profile of a fox or wolf in my mind’s eye – frightening myself, as I transformed it to something grotesquely human. Other nights, I simply imagined the monster had the face of the burn victim in the back of our biology textbook (the one Miss Jernigan, our science teacher, didn’t know about).
Our PE class had wildly different sized legs but roughly similar cardio-vascular endurance. Invariably, we’d arrive to the telephone pole as one teeming mass. Well-adept at forming impromptu lines, we’d queue up and, one-by-one, touch our hands against the imprint of the monster’s claw.
Waiting my turn, the feel as you moved into the shadow of the treetops. The temperature dropping ten degrees, and the coils of my guts seeming to slide coolly against one another. The eighth grade boys said a body had been found among those tall, thin pines --a former solider, wrapped in his camouflage poncho, three weeks wormy with deathrot. They also claimed Mad Max lived back there, in a cave – a wizened old man with a long, white beard and hands like chicken’s feet. He’d spy you from his hiding place in the impenetrable thicket. If he took a liking to you, he’d follow you on your bike ride home, ducking into the shadows each time you looked over your shoulder to see if he was there.
When my turn came, I wouldn’t actually touch the monster’s imprint. My clammy palm would hover a few centimeters before the petrified wood. Then, I’d quickly jerk it back. Like it burned. Like it could infect.
I went on like that for months. Never daring to touch. Praying Coach was lying about the sensor.
What else could he be lying about?
Despite my best efforts, one day, three of my friends and I were reprimanded for sharing a private joke while Coach was talking. When you got into trouble in PE, you were made to “run laps” for the rest of the period. Of course, there was no quarter-mile foot track at our underfunded, rural school; you just had to run out to the telephone pole. Running out and then back to the basketball courts counted as one lap.
That day, one of my friends finally noticed how I never touched the pole.
“Aren’t you scared Coach will find out?” he asked. “He has a sensor.”
I hadn’t wanted to share my revelations. I was already taunted enough by the other kids. Something else, too. I knew, by some inherent magic, that speaking my thoughts out loud would make them real.
“You all promise not to tell?”
They did, and I trusted them (though I didn’t mention how long or how often I’d thought about it).
“Coach Stogie made the handprint. He’s the monster. He changes when no one else is around. He sliced his palm under moonlight and made that mark with his blood.”
We continued walking for the rest of the class period, discussing the monster’s macabre signpost. My friend, Ross, who spent summers with his dad in Alaska, wondered if the creature was preternaturally attuned to the smell of its own fluids.
“Maybe he wants us to touch it so he can follow the scent,” he explained. “You know, track us like a hunter. Follow us back home.”
We decided the blood might also be sentient, like each piece might have a mind of its own. It could work its way inside you. Microscopic worms, wriggling through the tiniest pores of your fingertips. From there, they’d burrow deep into your arteries and tissues.
“What would you look like after you transformed?” my friend, Joseph, asked.
I told them.
Life went on.
Amongst ourselves, my friends and I never again broached the subject we talked about that day in the fields. But, a few days later, as our PE class queued during our morning warm-up, I noticed many of the others were no longer touching the telephone pole. They were only pretending to touch it. The next week, Miss Jernigan had us rip out one of the back pages from our biology textbook – the one with the burn victim’s face.