Section BTitle: Kneepads
Author: Jesse Goolsby
Category: Nonfiction

I’m a college sophomore in Sterling, Colorado, far northeast part of the state, where Rocky Mountain seekers shake their skulls at combines and cows, at how Kansas has reached in and stolen half the state.

     I’m wearing my blue basketball uniform, and tonight I sport massive, white kneepads as I stretch, minutes before tipoff at the Northeastern Junior College gym.  Their cartoonish mascot, the Plainsman, waddles up and down the sidelines in front of the run down wooden stands quarter-filled with locals hiding flasks, spitting pulped tobacco into Coke cans.

     We’re the visitors, from down in Colorado Springs, and from the bleachers a nasally twang calls out to me, asks how many dicks I’ve sucked, screams above the blaring warm-up music that a guy with that much padding on his knees could gulp his horse dry.

     I glance over, but I’m too anxious to stare across the twenty feet to him and his hunched group.  They all lean into one another, some donning wide, white-brimmed cowboy hats; almost all wearing the red faces of hard boys that wouldn’t mind a fight, win or lose.

     My teammates avoid me as we pull our knees into our chests and fold our arms over our heads.  I try not to listen, but the locals keep on me—it’s a cow now—and I glance around for security, but there’s none.

     I don’t know if it’s the flat brown fields, the off-kilter traffic light in town, the county sign they’ll rarely pass, or the fact that they’ll have to wake up and slip into their warmest clothes to work the dirt, but something, a mash of these things pumps out apathy for these foul-mouthed hecklers.

     There are others: a thirty-something in a business suit with his young freckled son, disinterested teenagers with headphones and far off stares.  There’s not a single person in the stands on our side, and yet I look around for someone to save me.

     I recall my cramped high school gymnasium two states away, where one by one, smiling ex-loves sat amid crowds calling my name.  But this isn’t home, and no one waits for me, anywhere.

     I glare down at my kneepads, their excruciating size, the way they bulge out and up and around my knees like gigantic marshmallows.  I contemplate my body and its joints, my bruised elbows, clicking ankles, but most of all, my kneecaps, how both have cracked and split, how a tender bundled mass seeps through to fill the gap just below the skin.

     I consider how, when given the chance, I’ll dive again, landing knees first on the waxed hardwood, feeling, but not comprehending, the unzipped pain of pride.

     I don’t consider that whatever happens this night no minds will change.  This is no place for games.  Who will remember my leap into the stands, the spit can spilling into my hair, the local boys’ taunts, or the moment on the bus, post-game, when I peek out the frosted window as two ice bags work their magic on my slowly dying knees?

     It’s the vocal asshole from inside: short, lean, flannelled.  He shoulders the bricked gym wall bathing in a dull yellow light.  And with him, a red-haired woman six inches taller in thin jeans takes his white hat and puts it on.  Their faces disappear underneath the wide brim, and she lifts her hands and places them on the backs of his shoulders and pulls him close.  I want her to be ugly, but when they turn around I see her clearly, and I wonder why the hell she hasn’t left.

     When they walk away he sways wildly, and then he swings his truck keys in a lazy orbit around his index finger before they jump into a dented blue Ford and drive away.

     On the slow roll back to the Springs I quickly dismiss the game and my knees.  It’ll be years before I require cortisone to stand upright; so tonight, through oversized earphones, I listen to loud love songs.  Night is good for that.

     The stiff bus seat forces my tired head to the window where I think of the size of the world.  I think about the blue Ford, the now-falling snow, how she’s somewhere in Sterling, Colorado. 

Jesse Goolsby's work has appeared widely, to include recent publications in Alaska Quarterly Review, Harpur Palate, The Greensboro Review, and The Journal.  He serves as the Fiction Editor at War, Literature & the Arts.  "Kneepads" comes from his brief experience playing small-time college basketball in the late 90s.  Follow him at