At most, 14 skaters may be on the roster for a specific game.
–Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Ruleset, Team Parameters 1.2
You ought to have your head examined. You’ll have to, actually. Equipment check: spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch. It marks the start of every bout—more forceful, really, than your average anointing. Knees, elbows, wrists will all have their carapaces pried, shelled joint-guards held agape as if to verify the oyster-soft flesh inside. You will spit out your teeth now—almost invisible, the latest mouthguards—to avoid spitting them out later. It is a private party, you’ll be checked against the list: numbers, some of them words (B00M, CR2Y, N0H8, R1P), matched on clipboard, penalty board, arm, jersey, arm.
It would make more sense to sing the National Anthem (somebody’s sorority sister, somebody’s AA sponsor, an all-too-local hip-hop artist with a lot of heart) before the helmet check, but oh well. It will be Ref Furry (yes, it means what you think it does), or Bear Back Rider (that one too) or Two Minute Man (each derby jam, or play-period, lasts two minutes, so we’ll let that one alone). Whichever referee you get, he’ll stand in front of you and he’ll palpate your helmet, gently, hands at your temples, then a bit harder, lifting it, rattling it against your scalp, static building up in your hair, Frankenstein’s monster vs. amateur phrenologist.
You’ll past muster, sheep-shorn Velcro straps, taped-together elbow pad and all. You’ll return to the bench, unclench that helmet, hold it to your chest, superfluously, for the Anthem, pretending you pledge allegiance to any other god.
Abel and Willing, Adamant Eve, Adamn Good Call, Up N’ Adam, A’blazin’Grace, A. Moral, Aaron Grievances, Agnus Die, Aversion Mary, Archbitch of Slamterbury, Angel Retentive, Allah Inyahbizniz, Althea N. Hell, Alma Geddon.
Back Stabbath, Ben Hurt, Blanch Davidian, Caia-Phatass, Carpe Demon, Dali Ram-Ya, DawnTaze Inferno, Devil or Nothing, Devoida Mercy, Doris Day of Reckoning, Enoch Already.
Fall About Eve, Godjammit, Gideon Wheels, Gloria Hole, Guns n’ Moses, Harley’s Angel, Helsa Wayton, Jehovah Hit-This, Jesus Pieces, Joan of ARRGH, Judas Priestess, Kilty-As-Sin.
Mary MagdaLeanOnya, Mess O’ Potamia, Panti-Christ Superstar, Pontius Pile On, PurgaTori, Pope John Maul, Rebelations, Simeon Saturday, Sistine Shrapnel, Skaten Spawn, Sivil Serpent, Sweet Mary Pain, Taint Francis, The Vegan Mary.
3. Passion Play
To watch roller derby for the first time is to experience a passion play of sturm und drang, the metrics of which you might not have a clue. Rare are the sports, after all, where the most popular player is the one sauntering around in an “Ask Me About The Rules of This Sport You Have Already Paid to Watch” (paraphrasing) sandwichboard.
And yet I promise you—since I sold you the ticket, right?—roller derby is instinctually understandable. It offers a parable, human and basic. Two teams, in two colors, equal numbers and strength. Two opposing scorers, “jammers,” each sanctified with a star. All other players are “blockers”—the jammer-hitters, the soul stealers. Both jammers race to pass this mutinous blockade, “the pack,” as many times as possible without breaking any rules, or any bones, or dropping dead of exhaustion.
The rest—the screaming whistles, the orchestra-conductor signals, the whole Ptolemaic apparatus of referees rotating the rotating skaters on the track: that is merely the theatre of interpretation, exegesis; the sermon where flawed, mortal action is tied immediately, with bluster and authority, to a choral meaning. With each turn of the track, some skaters are punished, exiled, “boxed” with a gesture like a master admonishing a dog. Others will see their opposition evaporate, “out of play,” for being too far from the shifting pack: a cautionary tale of social alliance, avoiding hubris and disdaining sloth.
The faster jammer is beatified in a mimeshow of manifest destiny: a referee locks on her, points, and stays pointing, tracing her path as she makes each additional lap through colliding blockers. The contrasting call, “you are not lead jammer,” favors a man sweeping useless crumbs from his waist. That first jammer, “lead jammer,” wins the purest and most fitting right of all. The mortal right to surrender, exalted; to tap her hips, “call the jam,” bring the whole bloody race to a halt, at least for that round.
We call it “eating the baby”; it is only one of many endemic sacrifices. Have you ever seen Hungry Hungry Hippos? Played pinball? Ever snaked a toilet (thanked god, you had guests in the house, for that saving sucking sound)? You are about to be the marble, the bearing, the once-digested something-unspeakable reamed hollow, fragmented, and suctioned back into an underworld you thought escaped.
You have broken the pack off the start whistle, punching between two blockers with your shoulder while dashing laterally to the other side. Pulled off balance, the blockers waver out-of-sync, slight tug-of-war. There is static in their convection field, and you hit again, pummel them, hips churning, squeezing between, shoulders lancing, wedging one foot through.
A break: Hurty Gertie falls in the crush, and you overleap her, gain her breach. You are knocked out of bounds by Groper Cleavage, but remain on your feet and rush the diagonal path her own sliding body has opened. Someone else—D-Cup Chopra?—is called to the penalty box. That leaves only one opposing blocker left. You don’t see her. Maybe your own blockers have her? Smile: you must be almost through.
Except, charging forward, here she is—Ms. No Name, the one you willed yourself to forget, and she awkwardly hipslaps you—tink!—a hit so small, so seemingly ineffectual, your brain offers a sound like one loose nickel scattering to the floor. But because you didn’t see her, had all your momentum going in exactly the wrong direction, you wobble, and surprising even yourself, fall to a knee. You are stopped dead, in all that motion and disorder, just for one second, but that second is enough for them to swarm.
They eat you up: a pounding waterfall that easily overtakes you—Groper is back, smash!—Hurty is back, smash!—and quickly, so very quickly, you are back with all of them in front of you. The baby has been regathered, regurgitated—you have to do it all again. Welcome to ascension: “He will return the same way you saw him go.”
5. Perpetual Virginity
The truth is, if I were going to have an affair, it would be with you. One of you—the burden of so much choice. The husbands and boyfriends know it; the wives and girlfriends–equal opportunity–know it, too. We can make them Derby Widow T-shirts, chain our new matronyms (Mimi Furst and Hugo Furst; Wholigan and Whosdaman; Smashtag and #girlfriend), make the teenage afterprom argument that just because events take place late at night, doesn’t mean there’s anything “going on.” Cross your fingers—
cross your legs.
It is simply The Case of The Too Many Bodies burgeoning together, alive. Like joining a tribe of bonobos, where initial contact is to place a warm hand on a neighboring groin, and where brightly colored butts signify a readiness to play. Thighs striated like expensive sushi; thighs dusted with cellulite as light as pocket lint; thighs marbled with the cold of early morning, where you fell, hard, at dark o’clock practice and speckled those thighs with tears while I held the ice—there.
But you, you have the body I like the most, finely turned, neither fleshy nor winnowy: compact, square. It is hard to believe that you carried a child (a child snuggled sleeping, somewhere) though I have heard the same said about me, and we both disbelieve it of ourselves—raise our shirts and pinch our midsection skin, point out the barely perceptible maplines, as if they might lead us, only, home. But let me say it, once, aloud: the only thing hard to believe is that you carried a child for someone else, my dear. That for all the tumult and scraping, our limbs blunting, clouting, the mating dance of our bob and weave, cat and mouse, on the track, only on the track—that no fresh life was born, incarnate.
What can anybody expect? What can he expect, my husband? We live hard hours in a menstrual hut where we make each other bleed. When I return to my native bed, my husband seems almost rude in his maleness, a roaring, befuddled Heathcliff ready to carve out his Catherine, or sweep her up the foyer stairs. He encircles me, says, “You feel like a little armored tank,” and I fall into the melee. I bring him the smell of other women. I die on the sword, but bring my shield to you.
It strikes me suddenly, miles into the lap sprints, what the problem is: I’m ugly. That’s what it is; the issue all along, so obvious. My body is something horrible, disgusting, a gargoyle, my legs grotesque Flintstone clubs, knotted like turds. That’s what’s different between me and the girls in front of me: they aren’t machines, they stink and strain, I can hear them panting, they each have a skunk-stripe of sweat right down the middle of their buttcracks, yes: but they are human. Meaningful. Worthy. Their bodies are what bodies should be; they step, cross, push, step, everything works together with dignity. While I am a slagheap of white-hot failure: my ribs splintering into pick-up-sticks, my chest a bellows that hums, then whimpers, then screams, a melting Dali watch, weakly ticking. I lash my right leg over the left, throw, throw, stroking in rhythm with the line like a chain-gang oarsman, but every cast (expelliarmus!) is a little short, a little more inadequate, more shameful, then something worse than shameful. Hate is here, and it can’t be banished. I’m scratching my arms; I’m burning secret “O”s of false surprise; I’m shitfaced on some floor somewhere, again, drooling at the mouthhole; I’m picking my nose and eating it; the man is heavy on me and he covers my mouth; I’m holding the noose and swaying and trying to decide. I’m losing ground, losing, always losing, and I reach for the chain to the trapdoor that will let down the tears—throw, throw!—and I’m ugly, ugly, so ugly, and that fucker still won’t come.
7. Apostle’s Creed
You will never love anyone the way you love the ones you started with.
In swaddling clothes, bundled, thick kneepads and elbows and wrists.
Trailing loose tabs (“that strap’s backwards, yo”), new-made, sheepish mummies.
You click together, wheels knocking like Tic-Tacs, but never was the cradle so close to the crypt.
Right before it happened, you had a premonition. It was a bad drill, turn-around-toe-stop- stops: as tortured as its description. Legs swivel open and, turning 180 degrees, clack shut with a screeching onto stoppered tiptoes, woefully inadequate brakes. It is hard enough for new girls to do slowly, but we were in a brisk, synchronized line. “I feel like crying,” you said, and because it was not an unusual sentiment, we ignored you.
I was just retrieving myself from the floor myself when you pitched down behind me, shoulder impacting first. It was a classic fall. From the Hermès Fall Catalog. I mean to say, there was no reason for me to have paid attention, for those silent ellipsis points to have sprung between us in a trail that dog-led me to turn, skate back, and take your left, still working, hand.
There was debate about it, your limp right arm, a cluster of interested faces tapping at it gingerly, mouths skeptical. “It is probably only sprained,” a coach pronounced, and you agreed so quickly, “Yes, just sprained, ” that I wondered if you were really shattered in half, like a sideways version of that joke for tall people, “How’s the weather up there?” Since in the conversation we had just held, you had whispered, “My shoulder is broken,” and I had said, “Yes, it is broken, but you are all right, you are all right.”
So ours was a marriage heading to the hospital and not the chapel, resentments already setting in. Close arguments in the car about my driving (“Slow down! Not so bumpy!”), awkward small talk, barely repressed tears. Could there really be so many things malfunctioning—a full ER waiting room, reciprocally indignant—inside so many people in what quickly became the middle of the night?
Until finally, and with the solace of morphine, your word and mine prevailed. “Broken!” the midnight orthopedist was almost jubilant, “Definitely broken!” Iridescent image of an arrowhead in the wing of your back, tip of yourself lodged in its paradoxical prey.
When the bout is going badly, nobody wants to wear the star. Star on the helmet, mark of the jammer, signet of the scorer—you’ll get the most pictures, speed-swooping each clear slice of track like Dorothy Hamill, so there’s that. But that one-half a glorious solo lap involves, of course, the clotted, horrible portion—coming up again each time you succeed, like a Facebook friend with violent schadenfreude—where you are the pack’s punching bag.
In theory, we all want to do it—jammer stars march our socks, our sleeves (cloth and inked), wink out from behind an ear, strobe that soft spot dead in the center of the back of the neck, where no gear can protect your motor neurons, your integral stem. Hell, I’ve even got a winter hat I forced my sister to knit, a longjohns star panty (what we call the helmet covers: intimacy turned lewdly inside-out) in cable and purl.
But now that the score is 200 to some two-digit number that, like the end of vital phone numbers, memory wants to transpose, the situation is different. Regular jammers, the good ones, begin to malfunction, throwing bolts (“Equipment failure!”) like their toe stops had ejection triggers. Backup jammers, back away. Run that pull-list from acme to zenith, nobody wants that halo—shark bait—on their head.
When the bench coach hands the star panty to you—looking not at you but a little past your shoulder, with a shrug to the general universe like, here goes nothing—it will be a sad item, already soaked wet, not in any immediate way, although the last jammer’s helmeted head, now pinched between her knees, is still steaming. Wet like a tack blanket from a horse beaten to death in the long 18th century—something like that. Drooping in your very own hand, five points in desperate need of a boob job.
And when you hand it over again, two minutes later, you’ll be seeing stars—shooting ones, lightning bolts, the sick white-and-grey pulsing of your overthrottled optic nerve. You’ll return it, skidding on one knee, humbled, face downcast, a penitent, which you are.
10. Immaculate Heart
She is tiny—short, even by our standards, where proximity to the earthly glue of all those conjectural gravitons isn’t a bad thing. But not just short—tiny, slinky—one wispy cocktail straw jammed in a barroom bucket of pretzel rods. Mental note of the waitress whip that would—swish—wipe her away.
She mulls an appropriate derby name: Teeny Meenie, Slimmy Hoffa, La Petite Mort? Finally she settles on Flutter: sting like a butterfly, that kind of thing. But like all new skaters, she’s not exactly light on her feet. There’s nothing more mistakenly giraffe-like than a really small new skater tripping predictably over her own unfamiliar hooves. Like God was practicing giraffes in arthropod scale model before he got them right.
So she’s Flutter, and her call sign—the jersey number the refs will bark, the announcers will intone, the program will inevitably misprint—is X0X0. A kiss to the universe—an air hug, squared. Insubstantial, in a sport where brunt is everything, gunnysack meets flatbed, shotput kisses sandbag.
But creation clockworks on, and the rough beasts of Fresh Meat rise, over the succeeding months, from their nattering legs. Flutter is hardening, muscles clipping on the way scissors sharpen a paper doll. She doesn’t, actually, flutter—she beats. Not wings: the beat of a hot carotid. A determined, steely tide that brings her, churning, at our backs again and again and (jesus, really?) again.
Until one day, I clear the pack, gain lead jammer status, crane my neck behind (uh-oh!) and call off the jam, all without noticing my bench coach twirling the go-hand—Shari Lewis sans Lamb Chop—for me to continue around. It is only a scrimmage, so I can take the extra time to make my lapse worse, more obvious. “There wasn’t going to be time for a pass, the other jammer was right behind me!” His eyebrows raised. “It was Flutter jamming, right behind me, and she’s gotten so good!” Mmmm-hmmm: unforced error, ancient history, please move along. But a considering cast of his head, there at the last, before the dismissal. It was Flutter, the Immaculate Heart, and really: she’s gotten good.
11. Act of Reparation
Everyone loves a penalty box vacation. The chance to stretch your screaming legs (“Not in the ref lane, D0A!”), tilt your head back (“D0A, do not remove your helmet!”), get some sun. Was it worth it, what you did? She did back-block you, Leggy Phlegming— her forearms against that old trampstamp you got in college amounted to a push, even if it was true, you didn’t 100% totally need to fall down. That hit after the whistle ending the jam felt good, all the more so because the other girl was so surprised. Some people pay good money in dark nightclubs to trip like that.
Anyway, the company is usually good. There are no stool pigeons, nobody in for cop killing or child molesting, and we’ve already all been, by mutual consent, getting it up the ass. You can ask how long you are in for (“30 more seconds, D0A”) as many times as you want, and probably will, comparing arithmetic (“I’ve got 23 seconds, I think, you have 17”) like longtimers in the rec yard shooting the bones.
Re-entry, of course, takes a little more finessing (“5 seconds, D0A, you may stand”). You hold yourself erect: motionless but eager, at your most winning, a tenth-grade suitor poised before that doorbell, wilted flowers at your side. You need to make it up to them; you need to enter, cape flying, like Mighty Mouse, here you come to save the day! Bust up that wall, take that jammer by the hand, whisper that you mean it this time, sweetheart, you’ve really changed, you promise—but nobody will actually make you say you’re sorry.
It is 11 or 11:30 or midnight, and somewhere—in an unloaded warehouse, in an empty airplane hangar or auto-body garage or night-blackened civic arena—derby girls, drenched as otters, live-wired from exertion and adrenalin, are coming off shift. “When do regular people exercise?” They are asking earnestly, stretching in pools of light where bats and moths circle. “If it wasn’t late nights, I swear I’d never find the time.”
They are filing themselves into the starlight, savoring the comparatively fresh air broadcast by 3rd shift at the dogfood factory down the road. They are disbursing into ragged carpools, decamping to the pithily named Late Bar, where the clients are few, but the tacos are many. They are—the instant their skates are off—discussing themselves on Facebook.
They are thinking of their roommates and clean sheets, and praying for an unoccupied shower.
13. The Seven Sorrows
Blisters; bad announcing (“Another great jam by The Big, err, LeBOOBski!”), leagues who smear arcane substances, soda syrup, Gold Bond, bong water, whatever the hell that is, in a doomed effort to make slippery floors less slippery; “that guy” in the self-made Lego body armor holding a sign with your name; botching a star pass (“The Pivot is eligible to obtain Jammer status by retrieving a dropped Jammer panty unless the Jammer is in the penalty box, in which case the Pivot will not be considered the Jammer until the original Jammer…”); walking by a rotting compost bin behind a restaurant and involuntarily thinking, “who here plays roller derby?;” people asking you, in all innocence, what kind of parade it is and when it starts, when you thought you were wearing regular clothes.
14. The Seven Joys
Ghost points; a really satisfyingly messed up X-ray, the first time you jump the apex (whether you land it or no); screaming whatever you want, “Atreeeeeyu!,” “Ou sont les neiges!,” “I’m on your team!” (you are not), in the heat of battle; Skater First toilet signs; unearned street cred; saying, “roller derby saved me” and knowing that it’s true.
Reprinted with permission from The Rumpus
Photo: Roller Derby — Skate of Emergency by Gomisan