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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Gut Check

A Novel

Eric Kester

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)




I guess I’ll start with how my parents came this close to naming me Thor. Seriously. And you know what? As ridiculous as the name sounds, I kind of wish it was mine. Thor is a beefy name and it would’ve fit me well since I’m a pretty beefy dude. Like, as a Thor, I’d proudly lumber down the hall and cute girls would stop and think, There goes 260 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal, rather than what they think now, which is probably more like, There goes 260 pounds of cheese cubes and man boobs. I’m sure girls would still laugh when I accidentally broke a pencil in my big clumsy paws, but it would be a flirty laugh, like a giggle, and they’d say, “Oh, Thor, your giant hands are so strong…” and I’d reply, “Well, you know what they say about guys with big hands…” and they’d grin and be like, “What “do they say about guys with big hands?” and I’d be like, “Greater risk for cancer” or something equally stupid because I’m so awkward around girls I blow it even in my fantasies.

Thor, God of Thunder. Has a gritty ring to it, right? Much better than my actual name, which is just Wyatt. Apparently it was a compromise between my parents, back when they actually agreed on stuff. My dad wanted me to have a tough-sounding name like most of the men who live here in Grayport. Practically every guy in my town is called Hunter or Gunner or Archer, like they were named after what job they’d have if we were surviving in a postapocalyptic shantytown. Frankly, Grayport isn’t far from that. A postapocalyptic shantytown, I mean. Our local economy went to crap eight years ago, and half the stores in town are still boarded up. Our beaches, if you want to call them that, aren’t filled with people, but are littered with debris brought in from the storms that constantly rock our coast. Hell, even our high school football stadium, the jewel of the town, is falling apart. The whole thing is made from lumber we’ve recycled from shipwrecks, and our long row of state championship flags flies atop poles that are actually old ship masts.

Grayport doesn’t have much to be proud of besides our football team and our general aura of blue-collar toughness, so it’s no surprise that my dad proudly claims that I’m named after Wyatt Earp. He was this legendary Old West gunslinger with a “don’t F with me” attitude and an absolutely savage mustache (google the guy—he had so much testosterone I’m pretty sure even his mustache had a mustache). But my mom says I’m really named for her uncle Wyatt, who, if legends of his greatness are to be believed, was an assistant librarian with a moderate case of asthma. I’ll let you figure out which Wyatt I take after.

But I also have another name—a secret identity, if you will: Poncho Pete. Only three other people know about it, and frankly that’s three people too many. It isn’t exactly a privilege being Poncho Pete, so I’m relieved that so few people know I’m the loser hiding beneath that claustrophobic mascot costume. One person who knows is my best friend, Nate, a fellow freshman and my coworker. Nate helps me sell rain ponchos at our little wooden booth underneath the stands of Grayport High’s football stadium. Since most everyone in Grayport already has a rain jacket to protect against the constant storms, our poncho sales were lagging big-time, so our boss, Mr. Cliff, created Poncho Pete, a giant caricature of a fisherman whose nose comprised like 75 percent of his face. For some reason Poncho Pete wore a cape. It was a poncho.

The third person who knows my secret identity is Dad, who made me take the job in the first place. My dad is not a guy you argue with, but I complained pretty hard since this job meant I’d be working during our home football games, and in Grayport you’re a nobody if you aren’t out there cheering on our boys to another state title. Plus there was the humiliation of being a mascot—what if somebody from school recognized me through the eyeholes cut into Poncho Pete’s nostrils?

This argument seemed to really piss off my dad. A few days before the football season we were eating breakfast and I brought up the humiliation thing. He just sat in silence, stirring his whiskey and coffee. After a while he mumbled the word humiliation to himself, real bitter-like, and stormed off to his fishing boat in the harbor. I was still salty about the situation later that day when our landlord stopped by our apartment and handed me a letter addressed to my dad. I couldn’t see much when I held the envelope up to a light, but I did make out a faint final warning on late payments.

I put the letter on Dad’s dresser and then called old Mr. Cliff to say, You got yourself a Poncho Pete.

* * *

“You feel that, Wyatt?” Mr. Cliff held out a wrinkled palm and caught a raindrop that seeped through a crack in the wooden bleachers above us.

“I can’t feel anything in here, Mr. Cliff,” I shouted from the muted depths of my oversized fisherman head. It was actually the most comfortable part of my costume, since my bright yellow rain slacks were two sizes too small.

Nate sat coiled on a stool behind our booth, an empty cash box in his lap. He was pouting because I’d convinced him to be our cashier. A second raindrop plopped on his nest of curly blond hair, and he pulled up the hood of his complimentary poncho.

The rain must’ve been coming down hard. It was the opening night of football season—fourth quarter against our biggest rival, Blakemore High—and the electric excitement in the air seemed to have coalesced into an actual storm.

I tilted my head back so I could inspect the bleachers above through the eyeholes in Poncho’s nostrils. Suddenly, as if responding to the mystical power of Poncho’s giant schnoz, the bleachers began to shake. Raindrops shook loose from the wooden boards and sprinkled down on us, and the long row of glowing lanterns began to sway from their creaking ropes, throwing creepy shadows across our stadium’s makeshift concourse. The rumble quickly crescendoed into a quake of cheering and clapping and foot stomping. You could literally feel the wooden boards of our shabby stadium rattling like a leaky ship in a storm.

Grayport touchdown. Must’ve been.

The dank underbelly of Grayport Stadium was suddenly abuzz with activity as dozens of vendors scrambled for their AM radios. Behind each booth a blur of hands frantically contorted antennas and twisted volume knobs to better hear Bobby Tingle deliver the play-by-play from the world above. Cliff, Nate, and I huddled around our radio, and I held my breath to better hear Tingle’s call through my fisherman head.

“… and Grayport retakes the lead on Brett Parker’s thirty-three-yard QB keeper!”

Tingle’s voice always trumpeted with pride, despite his moderate but passionate listenership. Since practically the entire town was packed into the five-thousand-seat stadium, the only radio listeners were us stadium vendors, the parking attendants outside, the lighthouse operator by the bay, and all those Grayport fishermen enduring another dark, wet night on boats bobbing somewhere in the Atlantic.

“I’ll tell you what, folks: We just got our answer to whether the much-feared Blakemore linebacker, Derek Leopold, would be able to bottle up Brett Parker. The league’s reigning MVP just juked Leopold outta his socks on his way to his second score of the game. Parker’s sensational play has really got this place jumping … and on cue, here comes the rain, thick and heavy!”

Mr. Cliff clapped his hands together. “Alright, boys, man your positions! Wyatt, this is your moment. Just like we rehearsed.”

Mr. Cliff proudly referred to the rain dance as Poncho Pete’s Blood Rite of the Merciless Monsoon, but really it was just me swaying awkwardly while Nate tooted out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on his recorder. I reluctantly stepped in front of our booth and began hopping around with my arms extended like an airplane. I always hate dancing in any setting. When people look at a guy my size dancing, they don’t see coordination or confidence or even comedy. They see jiggles.

As I danced, the guys working the Italian sausage stand next to us shook their heads and smirked before averting their eyes when the secondhand embarrassment got too strong.

Copyright © 2019 by Eric Alden Kester