Head of the Hooch — Parts 1 & 2

A few weeks back, I wrote about how stories come about.

Part 1 was published last week and here is the rest of the story:

The weigh-ins and practice runs were done. Pizza on the Hill smelled like a locker room crammed full of rowers from fifteen to fifty. “Carb load” was a keyword for pizza with the younger rowers. The more serious had steered their way clear to a plate of pasta and healthy green salad, but they were the exception.

School colors dotted the room like a prelude to a gang movie. College of Charleston girls sat at one table while Brown University boys took up another while several other schools were sprinkled throughout the crowd. The fire marshal would have shut the restaurant down had he happened by on that chilly night.

Nestled on the corner just a short walk from the Chattahoochee River and the closest pizza place to the landing where the Head of The Hooch tournament was set to go off on Saturday, Pizza on the Hill had quickly called in all of their servers and were running pizzas through the oven as quickly as possible.

The overpowering smell was due to the fact that many of the teams were simply camping out on the river bank with porta-lets, but no shower facilities. The girls bathroom had a steady stream of girls with makeup cases in tow making the best of it while several did the pee-pee dance in line.

Trevor Daniels sat at the far end of the table of Brown rowers taking it all in and appreciating the well tanned Southern women, one in particular. The guys from the eights and fours had all ended up here. Raucous laughter and course humor floated in the air in a room filled with participants in a sport often characterized as “eight nuts in a shell.”

No one was waiting for the men’s room, so Trevor made the line and turned to find a College of Charleston female in line behind him. In fact, it was one of the lonely pasta eaters that he had marked as a ringer. She had intense blue eyes, a nice tan, and a smattering of light freckles.

“Wrong line, I think,” he said to her by way of a greeting.

“No, I’m fine. Thanks,” she said with a smile.

“Jen,” he said reading her embroidered name, “It’s the men’s room.”

“Listen,” she searched his jacket, “Waffler? You’re name is Waffler?”

“It’s a nickname.”

One eyebrow raised as she waited for an explanation.

“It’s from the movie, Mystery Men. Each of us in our four took a nickname.”

“With your griddle of justice,” she began the line from the movie.

“You’ve seen it!” Trevor said.

“Just the Smash Mouth video,” she said.

The door swung open and one of his teammates pushed past. He let her go first and was rewarded with a small smile. Turning he found another C of C girl in line behind him.

“Wow. Don’t they teach you to read at Charleston?” he asked her pointing at the men’s room sign.

“Nice try,” she said, “but I’m immune to pick up lines.”

“What about her?” he said tossing a thumb at the closed bathroom door.

“Skyler? Forget it. Ice water in her veins until the season’s over.”

A few minutes later, Jen Skyler appeared at the door and swung it wide, letting him in.

“It’s all yours.”

When he was done, he was disappointed to see that she was gone. As he walked past the Charleston table, he heard the murmured comments, “Gone back for the captain’s meeting,” “left her jacket,” “back soon enough.” He glanced and one of Jen’s teammates caught his eye.

“Another one falling for the Sky,” she laughed.

He felt himself flush and then spotted the jacket with Skyler written in big letters across the back.

“Let me have the jacket and I’ll run it back to her,” he said.

The girl hesitated. Finally, she handed it to him holding on to it just a bit as he took possession.

“Good luck,” she said and laughed again.

He ran, holding the maroon jacket, hoping Jen had taken the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. A quarter of the way across, he met her coming towards him. He flagged her down as she started to pass him.

“Looking for this?”

She stopped.

“Thanks. Now I gotta go,” she said.

He ran alongside her, and she finally relented and made small talk with him until they reached the far side of the bridge and the captain’s meeting that was already in full swing. Most of it was rules about right of way and boats overtaking other boats. When it wrapped up, Jen pushed her way through to the rest of the crew captains and coxswains from College of Charleston. With nothing better to do, Trevor stayed where he was and tried to look inconspicuous. One of the girls must have said something because Jen glanced over her shoulder.

“Are you still here?” she said with a flicker of mischief in her eyes.

“I didn’t have anything better to do than wait for you.”

“Not much of a life then.”

“Want to go for a walk?”

She tsked and waved her finger at him.

“I do have better things to do,” she said.

“Walk you back to your pavilion at least?” Trevor asked.

They swapped first names and noted the events they would run over the next two days. As it turned out, the College of Charleston pavilion was only a stone’s throw from Brown’s. Both teams were camped out and expecting a cold night in their sleeping bags.

“We’re neighbors.”

She rolled her eyes at his corny jokes and felt angry that the corners of her mouth seemed to want to smile at him, a University of Brown rower of all things.

“I could move my bag over here and keep you warm tonight.”

“I’d rather sleep in my own urine,” she said.

“Given how cold it is, you shouldn’t have wasted it at the restaurant.”

She shook her head.

“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow from the finish line,” she said.

He turned back, a bit dejected and she bit her lip as she watched him go.

“Trevor.”

He turned.

“Thanks for bringing me my jacket.”

The wave he threw her might as well have been the bird. It poked through even her armor a bit, but she had a competition to get ready for.

Most of the camp had died down as Trevor jogged back toward Northshore. He needed to think to get ready to compete tomorrow and he didn’t want to be around when his teammates crashed out at the pavilion. Crashing and burning was his specialty, since he always seemed to find another girl to peek his interest. One of these days, he’d find someone.

Footsteps pounded behind him.

“Is that the best you can do?” said the voice that had been playing in his head for the past twenty minutes.

He looked over his shoulder, unsure of how to react.

“Oh, c’mon on, don’t be mad,” she puffed out as she came alongside of him and matched his stride. “Did you expect me to jump up and down like a school girl in front of my team and yours? Besides, you go to Brown.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I was all set to go to Brown and be a part of the best woman’s crew in the country, but the coach rescinded his scholarship offer minutes before the deadline because some witch’s rich grandfather gave the school a hundred grand.”

“Monica Evans.”

“Ugh, don’t even say that name. Yes, Monica Evans. I may slit her throat in the middle of the night tonight.”

“She’s very good.”

An ugly look played across Jen’s face.

“We’ll see after Sunday who is the best between her and me. As for you, I think you can forget about any plans you had for us.”

“I was thinking,” Trevor said, “about a nice dinner after the races tomorrow and maybe a walk around downtown.”

“Wow, treating me to pizza? That is classy.”

“Not pizza. Sticky Fingers, the best rib place in the South.”

“What does a northerner like you know about food in the South?”

“Quite a bit,” he said.

“Tell you what. If you can beat me back to the pizza parlor then we can talk about dinner tomorrow night,” Jen said.

She sped away and he watched her go, but didn’t break stride. Rounding the next corner she was jogging in place waiting for him.

“You must not like me much,” she said.

He slowed his pace even more and she fell in beside him.

“It’s not very smart running hard enough to pull a hamstring the night before a race. Monica Evans would be disappointed if she won by forfeit tomorrow.”

She punched him squarely in the shoulder.

“I hate you,” she said, but there was a smile on her face. “That would have sucked. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about tomorrow night. I usually only go a mile and a half the night before a race.”

“We’ll run across the Market Street bridge and then back up the river.”

When they got close to the pavilions, Jen whispered something to him and he nodded. Before she could say something else, Trevor made a hard right turn toward down town and she clopped through the silent pavilions until she was back with her team. From her sleeping bag, she listened intently until she heard a tentative jogger slow down at the Brown pavilion twenty feet away.

The shells moved on and off the river as dawn broke and ragged sunlight flooded across the chilly November morning, down on the Hooch. The downtown revitalization for Chattanooga had focused on both sides of the river around the bridges and the area now strewn with crew teams, sleepy parents, and vendors of diverse goods was just one area designed to keep the downtown area open year round and flooded with visitors. People going to the town’s premiere aquarium were startled to find streets closed and parking scarce.

To the naked eye, chaos seemed to reign over the waterfront as vendors called, teams took their boats off the river, lone rowers screamed results into cell phones for loved ones who couldn’t make the trip, and a few tourists wandered through it all wondering what had happened to the place they had hoped to enjoy a quiet walk. Inside the overall swirl though was a series of highly choreographed plans executed to nearly perfection as each team put months of grueling, early morning practice into place.

There were too many boats for head to head races to determine a winner so successive heats were run of the same types of boats with the time determine overall winners. Jen’s team was a surprise winner of their heat, but still fell just short of winning with a third place out of eighteen teams. Brown finished first as usual, but at least Monica Evans wasn’t a part of that team.

Jumping up and down like girls half their age, Jen’s team celebrated the unexpected bronze. After eating hot cinnamon rolls from a vendor in celebration and wiping their hands on the dewy grass, the team decided they would watch a couple of more early morning races. After screaming their lungs out for a couple of Charleston teams, they were ready to tour the city. Jen begged off, claiming that she was going to knock out a couple of hours of sleep in the midst of the chaos.

Three hours later, the alarm on her watch went off and she was up and jostling for position on the Walnut Street Bridge which held the best views for the contests. As a four man shell came around the bend above the bridge, she began to shout.

“Let’s go, Brownnnnnnn. C’mon Brown. Let’s go Bearsssssssssss.”

Similar calls for Brown and other schools went up from the bridge and as the Bears’ shell disappeared from view, she and another girl ran to the other side of the bridge and yelled again until it came into sight and plunged full speed towards the finish line. Jen jumped up and down as Trevor’s team cruised across the finish line with an amazing time.

“What’s a Charleston girl doing yelling for Brown?” said a squeaky voice.

Jen turned to see Monica Evans standing there. Jen knew Monica’s face from the Brown website. Her friends had called her a stalker, but she hadn’t been able to resist finding out what her nemesis looked like. Momentarily, Jen considered picking Monica up and tossing her over the bridge like she had dreamed about in her moments of frustration, but instead she simply coughed into her left hand to give herself a chance to recover.

“I’ve got a friend on the team.”

“My boyfriend Erik’s on the team,” Monica said. “Who’s your friend?”

“Trevor,” Jen replied as the two broke into a jog toward the area where the boats came off the water.

“He’s a nice guy,” said Monica.

Jen resisted another urge to shove Monica into the river, crowds of people, or hot vendor grills.

“Hey Jen!”

One of her coaches stood there, wanting to talk about the Sunday race. Monica snapped a “bye” over her shoulder and it was more than a few minutes before Jen could extricate herself from the situation.

By the time she got down to the water, the Brown team was gone.

“Looking for anyone in particular?”

Trevor stood eating a piece of pizza. A strand of cheese was stuck to his scraggly, unshaved chin. She was tempted to play dumb and hard to get, but the corners of her mouth were crinkling up on their own, again, so she reached up and cleaned the cheese off instead.

“Just you,” she said.

“Monica said you were around, cheering for Brown to win.”

“I’ve got some other friends at Brown.”

“Oh really,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I was surprised to see that she walked away from the encounter in one piece.”

“I was tempted.”

Water lapped softly against the concrete stairs as they worked their way towards the top of the course. Sounds from the event fell away behind them and after the small talk between them died down there was only the rustling of their shoes and exercise pants rustling through the long grass that grew along the river.

Trevor tentatively reached for her hand and she gave him a shy smile and happily acquiesced. He pointed out places in the river where the current picked up or fell off. Many of these, Jen’s team had spotted when they did their test run, but a few places were a surprise.

“Would have been nice to know about those this morning,” she said.

“Well, now you know. Couldn’t give them away when I still had a race to run, now could I.”

“Do you always read a river this well?”

“Naw, but I spent a couple of summers down here. My grandpa lives up river and we used to take a shell out in the mornings and go all along this part of the river.”

“Does Monica know all of what you just told me?”

“Well, I brought the team up to speed in one meeting, but she seemed a bit preoccupied with Erik. Besides, she doesn’t figure she can be beat anyways. You know she’s undefeated in collegiate woman’s singles this season.”

Jen gave him a look of death.

“She won’t be after tomorrow,” Jen said.

“Talk is cheap,” Trevor said with a smile.

Another look of death at least until the corners of her mouth remembered to smile at the boy.

“C’mon, let’s find a street and jog back. My legs are stiff,” Trevor said.

“Do you think you’ll be able to scrounge up a razor before tonight?” Jen asked him. “You’re looking kind of scruffy.”

“I’ll figure something out.”

They separated again when they got close to their pavilions and met up after the medal presentation for that day’s events. She saw him cheering when her team got its bronze and she whistled loudly during his gold presentation despite the confused looks from her teammates.

Broad Street beckoned and they followed it up to Sticky Fingers where she insisted on pre-race pasta, but wasn’t put off from trying one of his ribs basted with the Habanero Hot sauce. By the time the walk home started, they were talked, but contented as she wrapped her arm around him and leaned just a bit as they cruised back ignoring the bemused looks of their fellow rowers at the mixed school jackets that the couple wore.

Sunday was even more glorious than the morning before and a mist came of the water as the early sun warmed the chilly river. Trevor was out of sight from the start line but close enough with his binoculars to have a clear view of the start.

Monica’s shell shot off the line ahead of Jen and it was soon clear that it was a two boat race as the others fell steadily behind. Trevor saw the girls jockeying for position. Trevor couldn’t believe that Jen was ignoring all of his advice, but despite that, she came nearer and nearer. When Jen’s boat was within a length of Monica, the Brown girl was forced to yield per the rules and give Jen a clear path.

Jen never let down and drove the length of the river for gold as Trevor repeated her run along the river. He ignored the disdain in Monica’s eyes as he met Jen and helped her carry her shell up to the truck and then walked her back to the City of Charleston pavilion. When they got there, Jen pulled off her outer jersey and handed it to Trevor. He jogged over to his packed gear and dug out a jersey to give her.

“You didn’t even use the advice I gave you,” said an exasperated Trevor.

“Of course not. If I had, it wouldn’t have been my victory!”

She gave him a long hug at the base of his bus steps as the diesel fumes swirled around them. After a moment of hesitation gave a short, she added a sweet kiss as his bus erupted in cheers and jeers.

“Now, you’ve wrecked my chances with all the Brown girls,” he said cheerfully.

“Well my entire reputation is ruined just being seen with you.”

He started to say something else, but she put a finger to his lips.

“Don’t ruin it,” she said and gave him one more kiss.

She stood transfixed shading her eyes until the bus turned a corner and faded into a memory.


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