by Mary Ann Cooper

I shivered in my basketball uniform, my red jersey randomly blotched with sweat. Hiding in the school hallway, I stood by the emergency exit and wondered if any of the guys on my team had noticed I was missing. I nudged the door open a crack and looked outside. The cold November air settled on my skin like a wet bathing suit. It was dark now, the lights in the parking lot bouncing off the lineup of cars and pickups. Spotting my friend Tom standing by his car, I waved, giving him the okay to come in. As he ran towards me, he held the lumpy burlap bag out and away from his body.

It was 1973, and we’d just won our junior varsity basketball game against Ft. Middleton, our rival from the next town over. I played center on the team and had made the winning shot. After high-fiving everyone, I ran the other way while my teammates headed for the locker room. I hoped my father hadn’t seen me leave. The game had ended two minutes ago, but he still stood at attention in the gym, grimly satisfied that we’d won our opener. His military haircut and steel glasses made him easy to spot.

He’d stood the entire game, arms crossed against his tall, angular body. When I walked by him, he gave me a nod. No smile. No “good game.” I guess when you’re the principal of the high school you have to stay in character, even at basketball games. Even at home.

Tom entered the gym looking excited and scared at the same time. He handed the rustling bag to me.

“Let’s go,” I said. We found a spot under the bleachers. It smelled of dust and stale sweat. The pep band was warming up for the varsity game, strains of “On Wisconsin” repeating over and over.

“Did you get the streamers?” I asked.

“Yeah. Red and gold. School colors!” he said, pushing back the brown glasses that covered most of his face.

“One more year and I get contacts,” he’d say periodically, while tapping his frames.

Two more years, I usually said to myself, and I’ll be out of this high school.

“Did they fight you when you attached the streamers to their legs?” I asked.

“Yeah. The pigeons were freaking out. It’s a mess in there, Dave,” he said, pointing to the moving, frenzied bag.

I felt sorry for the pigeons. It hadn’t been easy to catch them. For days, Tom and I had laid the corn out in his barn, making a path towards our makeshift box trap. Once caught and imprisoned in the wire cage, the four birds stepped in circles, occasionally flapping their wings. Even now, bundled together in a bag, I’m sure they were still as startled and confused as when we first caught them. I sensed their tiny brains shrieking, “What’s happening?” “What’s happening?”

Sitting and watching the captured birds, I heard people entering the gym for the game. Feet pounding above us, they scaled the bleachers; kids, adults, everyone. Friday night basketball games were a major event in small farm towns, and our little town in Wisconsin was no exception. First, dinner at the church fish fry, then on to the game. I knew my mom and my two younger brothers were out there. And of course, my father. But he was everywhere in my life.

I was popular in our small high school, but never invited anywhere. Because of him. There were parties every weekend, but I wasn’t included. Once, a girl that I was dating asked me to one. It was at some senior’s house on the edge of town. His parents were gone for the weekend, and word had spread. Pulling up in front, I felt the thrill of being part of something outside of school. From the driveway, we heard Grand Funk Railroad blasting throughout the house. I smiled at her as we walked in together. This is so cool, I thought. Finally!

The small living room was packed with people I knew from school. It smelled of beer, pot and cigarettes, a smoky haze sitting above the one lit lamp. Kids talked and laughed, and some danced in the corners of the room. But it all got quiet when I walked in. Many of them stood up quickly, hiding beer bottles behind their backs. Some of them ran out the back door. I knew what they were thinking: The principal’s kid is here! Who invited him?

Standing there, I felt sick. I turned to my date.

“Let’s go,” I said.

She took my hand. “I’m sorry, Dave. It’s not you. You know that, right? It’s just, well, your dad and everything.”

I nodded.

“I’m gonna stay, ok?” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

“Sure,” I said, walking out. Of course she’s going to stay. Who wants to be with the loser?

Driving home, I felt like crying. Now I get to go home and sit with my family and watch TV. Banging on the steering wheel, I once again cursed the fact that I was the principal’s son. It never changed: no parties, no girlfriends, nothing—all the kids living in fear of Principal Johnson’s wrath.

* * *

Because I had nothing else to do, I focused on schoolwork and sports. Unfortunately, my father also coached tennis and insisted I play. During matches with other schools, he stood on the sidelines screaming at my partner and me if we messed up a shot.

“Come on, ladies, start playing!” I felt my face get hot as my opponents kept glancing over at him.

“Do you want your skirts, girls?” he’d yell.

Every time it happened, I wanted to walk off the court over to where he was standing. And then I wanted to take my racket and beat him down to the ground with it.

But I kept playing, never looking over at him.

* * *

Most of my teachers were fine with me, unless I missed a homework assignment or screwed up a test. And if I did, upon his orders, my father knew about it within the hour. That same evening, his feet were barely inside our house before he started. Walking up to me, he’d put his face real close to mine.

“What the hell were you doing last night instead of your homework?”

He waved away the feeble excuses I offered.

“I don’t want to hear it. Keep it up and you’ll wind up in the community college, sonny!”

Under the bleachers, Tom tapped me. “Dave? C’mon. It’s time!”

The bleachers were packed, blue and gold colors dotting the crowd. Our uniformed band marched towards the center of the floor, trumpets and saxophones gleaming under the stark gymnasium lights.

“Wait for players to come out,” I told Tom, holding one side of the bag.

Finally, the band started playing, and people sang along, stamping their feet and clapping, waiting for their team to enter the gym. The air sizzled with anticipation. And just as the varsity members broke through the eight-foot “Go Warriors” paper barrier, four crazed pigeons flew towards the ceiling, streamers trailing behind them. They raced back and forth across the gym, reaching the wall and then dashing back. The crowd screamed with glee, heads tilted back and pointing. Children stared, open-mouthed. The team watched, doubled over with laughter, while the band, unaware of what was happening above them, kept playing.

My father stood frozen, his mouth a straight line. I stood hiding, my mouth a huge smile.

The pigeons lived in the rafters of the gym for weeks before they were finally caught.

To this day, the principal, despite his relentless investigation, never found out who released the birds.

It was one of the best days of my life.

Mary Ann Cooper is a writer concentrating on memoir and personal essays. She has recently been published in Salon, Halfway Down The Stairs, Brain, Child Magazine and Literary Brushstrokes. She is presently at work on her memoir, The Hollis Ten, a group of stories about growing up in a family of eight hungry children in Queens, New York. Mary Ann is a member of the Westport Writers Workshop, and when not writing, enjoys painting with acrylics. She resides in Westport, Connecticut, is comfortable in crowds and still never leaves her plate unattended.