By Timothy J. Brown
I just stared at the combination lock, blinking.
Around me pants were dropping, shoes were being tied, and the other boys were scrambling into their white-and-green gym wear that we all had to buy for gym class.
They were garish and well-used garments, the kinds of things that needed replacing or retiring—like many other things in this private-yet-affordable grade school.
Numerous teachers came to mind. As did a number of the urinals.
See, we all bought these shorts-and-shirt combos labeled in the school handbook as “approved physical education attire” used from the stock that the school had available year after year. At the end of each year, if they didn’t fit anymore, you turned them back in upon which they were apparently washed, intentionally shrunk, and re-used on another unsuspecting student.
Over the years my gym shirt acquirements were so thread-bare you couldn’t tell where the white shirt ended and my pasty-white chest began.
And these garish, well used, thread-bare “uniforms” lived in these little wire baskets in the locker room on the boys’ side of the main bathroom, just off the gymnasium.
Styled in yellow and brown tiles, the locker room looked as if it had been intentionally decorated by an angry interior designer to encourage everyone not to spend much time there. These wire baskets lined the walls from floor to ceiling, with a skyscraping stack in the centre of the large L-shaped room. A few benches were unhelpfully placed around, and they were reserved for only the cool kids. We all knew that.
They did have two rarely-used shower heads and a main drain in a small separate area of the changing room where modest boys used to go to change. In future years you would find me here.
The whole layout seemed to intentionally push you to get out the door, and so on this first day of fourth grade, the brutalist layout was working as everyone was rushing to get to gym class.
Well, everyone except for me.
Me? I was staring at the combination lock standing between me and my disgusting gym uniform, a necessary get-up for gym participation of which there was no getting out of. Believe me, I asked.
“Why do we need a lock anyway?” I’d ask my Dad later, recounting the harrowing half-hour I spent staring at it, willing it to open with my eyes because, well, my fingers weren’t doing the trick.
“So no one will take your things,” my Dad responded matter-of-factly, eyes on the road as his son explained to him why, unfortunately, he and physical education just weren’t going to work out.
“Take the things? Who would want to do that?! Those clothes are disgusting!” I was appalled that some unnecessary barrier was set up between me and a passing gym grade. All this just because someone who obviously was not under the clock to change for gym class thought the gross get-up we were forced to wear should be kept safe from imaginary burglars with a penchant for armpit stank.
In writing this reflection, a quick Google search has enlightened me to what I can only imagine is a small, but apparently dedicated, group of humans who are into that kind of thing. Huh.
Still, the lock was unnecessary and, as it was, immoveable.
I mean, I didn’t even get to choose the combination on it. Right, left, past the first number to the second one but not a scootch past, and then right again but not past that first number or else the whole thing was fucked. Also do not pass Go or collect $200.00. It might as well have been a calculus equation to my 10-year-old brain because I couldn’t remember the combination anyway, and the numbers I was turning to weren’t working.
I knew the combination I had been assigned had two of the same numbers in it, and a third different number. I was pretty sure the two numbers were a 36 and 34, but in what order and which one was the double? Or was it a 16 and 14?
Hell, these numbers had no meaning to me anyway! How could you just assign me a random number without any sort of emotional or intellectual connection?! How was I going to remember this sort of thing under all this pressure?
Pants around me kept dropping. Shorts were being pulled up.
“Wait, why are the shorts so short?” I thought, looking around. I hadn’t even tried the outfit on. My parents had just assigned them to me.
Were we all going to look like this? These gym shorts were no larger than briefs on most of the guys, even the skinny ones, of which, I was not.
I began to imagine that this all might work out better if I didn’t get this lock open. Perhaps I could negotiate not only a different lock, but also a different pair of shorts than what I imagined to be a thong that was staring back at me through the wire mesh of the basket.
“I could probably pull my socks up high,” I mumbled to myself.
Yes. That would help. Bring the eye to the floor and obscure the midsection. It had to work.
Soon I was one of the last few in there, staring at these shorty shorts behind this damned lock. The totem pole of the class hierarchy left in the locker room was getting low now. It was only me left in there and the few other kids who I was pretty sure I was cooler than. Pretty sure. There weren’t many.
And they were lacing up their shoes.
“Hey,” I said to one of the guys, “I can’t get this lock open. Can you help me?”
The blank stare on his face let me know that the gerbil in his head had fallen off its wheel, probably due to the excessively tight shorts keeping oxygen from his extremities. Or the shirt that looked as if it had been vacu-sucked onto his upper body encouraging brain hypoxia at such a young age. Giving him a once-over, I thought, “Maybe this is all for the better.”
I walked out of the locker room, the only one in my class still dressed in my school clothes, my dime loafers (I put dimes in my penny loafers to up their value) clicking as I walked on the gym’s tiles. Our school had a restrictive dress code: collared shirts only, long slacks for boys and girls, unless girls wanted to wear a dress then it had to be knee length.
Boys could not wear dresses. It was an unwritten rule.
Dress socks and dress shoes. No sneakers, except for gym class. And with those sneakers you had to wear the essentially neoprene gym clothes bought from the rummage sale at the school’s Open House at the beginning of the year. If there weren’t any left in your size, you could get a special order.
And here’s the thing: I wasn’t fat enough to get the special order.
See, they let the fattest kids special order new gym clothes to fit them. I was what the lady at JCPenney called “husky.”
Husky meant I could unfortunately fit into a lot of clothes, just barely. Husky meant I had to get everything with an elastic waist, which cut off the circulation between my belly and my butt. It generally left a crinkle on my skin when I undressed every day, like the ridges on a Wavy Lay’s potato chip that held the dip so nicely in place.
In light of that description which came pouring out of my fingers just now, you don’t have to wonder why I was husky…
So, I clicked across the gymnasium floor to my fourth grade teacher, Ms. K. She was cool, and I wanted her to like me. Except I knew I wasn’t cool and was kind of annoying because things that came easier to other kids did not, for some reason, come easy to me.
Like shutting up during quiet time and opening combination locks, both of which annoyed her.
“Uhm, Ms. K? I can’t get my lock to work.” The whistle for gym class dangled around her neck. In our school every teacher taught every subject because apparently they wanted to make sure the teachers got nice and tired of us by the end of the school year in order to pass us on to the next grade level.
The other kids were running around the gym, exercising before the start of class through unstructured play activities of which I desperately wanted to take part in. Well, except for the fact that I knew I’d look like a sausage casing with bulges at my extremes.
Still, I would get to wear sneakers…
“Tim, I can’t go into the locker room to get your clothes. I can’t leave the other kids, plus, it’s the boys’ locker room. You have to figure this out.”
“Uhm, I tried to figure this out, and obviously I can’t get it,” with these last words I gestured to who I considered to be the most inept student in the class who was dressed in his green and white skivvies picking his nose in the corner. Somehow he had made it, and yet there I was. If he could do it and I couldn’t, then something was certainly wrong, right?
She rolled her eyes.
We walked to the door of the gym where she flagged down the volunteer custodian as he was ambling down the hallway.
“Can you help him?” she asked the kind octogenarian in blue overalls, gesturing annoyedly at me with the clipboard she held in her hands.
He turned silently without acknowledging my existence, and headed for the locker room. I walked with the custodian back into hell, a journey which took a good bit of time because you could clock the man’s speed with a calendar.
“Which basket is yours?” he asked me. I pointed to it. “What’s the combination?”
“Yeah, about that…” and I explained that I knew it was three numbers, two of them the same, and that I think they were separated by two digits on either side of the first and third number, and was pretty sure a four and a six were involved.
He nodded and disappeared into the custodial closet between the locker rooms, reappearing with bolt cutters.
“The lock won’t work after this,” he said in a cautionary tone.
“That’s OK,” I shrugged, “it’s not working for me now. None of this is.”
The lockbar cracked in two and clanked to the ground.
As he shuffled off to rehang the cutters, I quickly began to undress, stretching the elastic in my husky slacks to allow them to fall to the ground as I quickly unbuttoned my collared shirt and tore it off with such aggression that the alligator sewn on the front ripped off.
I slid on the short shorts which revealed more of my upper thigh than your standard pair of Batman briefs. In fact, my briefs were probably visible, though I wasn’t sure because I had recently stopped wearing underwear with superheroes emblazoned on the butt, coloured piping outlining the contours of the garments.
My new “big-boy briefs” as my mother called them, assuring me they were anything but, were bleach white, matching my pale skin tone almost perfectly. A Mary Kay consultant couldn’t have made a more perfect selection.
It didn’t matter. I had to get out there now.
I shoved my clothes into the wire basket, pulled up my socks to cover as much of my calves as possible—you know, so the shorts wouldn’t look so short—and jammed my loafers on top of my slacks. I tied my sneakers and re-shelved the basket with haste. I watched a dime squeeze out onto the floor somewhere, now lost forever. If you thought I was going to crawl around on that gross floor where I had just recently witnessed my classmates sit and disrobe, you didn’t understand my general disgust for all things disgusting. Then I ran out the door.
“Alright!” I heard my teacher say as I slammed through the gymnasium doors, “Line up!”
My classmates all assembled single-file in front of the doors, ignoring my presence altogether. I had made it just in time to head back into the gross of the locker room. Class was over.
I would later be relieved to learn that I had only missed some lame calisthenics and baseline activity exercises intended to help the teacher gauge where we were on physical fitness. In a sense, my hanging out in the locker room for the whole class gave her a pretty accurate assessment of my abilities, honestly.
As I took my place at the end of the boy’s line, I thought to myself, “Yeah, this all seems about right.”
But at least I wouldn’t have to deal with that Rubik’s Cube of a lock anymore.
Well, until that custodian replaced it for me the next week with a new, unfamiliar combination that had no mental or emotional resonance. I cursed him slowly under my breath as I stared at the piece of paper with my new number puzzle, and slowly twisted the combination in sequence. He made sure to hand me the new number on a slip of paper, and I made sure to put it in my loafers so I wouldn’t lose it.
The curse words were said slowly to match his gait as I imagined his journey from the box of discarded locks he surely had somewhere to my wire basket, knowing that the tool of torture he clutched in his paw would lead me to another 45 minutes of awkward failure.
With the last spin, I tugged so hard I’m surprised the whole shelving unit didn’t give way. The lock opened.
I looked around. I was not the last one to be getting changed!
I gazed down at the lock in my hand, my bested foe, and did the only sensible thing: I stuck it in the wire basket, never to use it again, and prayed desperately that someone would come and steal my toddler-sized gym clothes so that I could petition to buy a new pair like any self-respecting fat kid.
But until that day came, I’d squeeze into those shorts and hit the gym tile. If I was going to lose at every organized sport, I was at least going to do it dressed for the occasion.
Copyright© 2020 by Timothy J. Brown