I Play With Balls by Paul Crenshaw

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official village sign for "Intercourse PA" in front of barn - sign says, "Formerly Cross Keys' Founded 1754

For a time in junior high I introduced myself to people I didn’t know as Phil McCracken. Sometimes it was Phillip Mycrevice. Not my father’s friends, or anyone from church, but at away games while the girls’ team was playing, I was Peter Pullit to the concession stand workers, cheerleaders from the other team, random men in the lobby of whatever ancient gym we happened to be in. These were towns named Magazine and Mansfield and Mena, dark spots you’d hardly notice at night, if you’d somehow gotten lost and strayed onto the small state highways that ran through them. I’d say my name was Jack Meoff or Mike Hawk or Ben Dover and try to keep a straight face while my friends spewed Sprite all over the lobby floor.

Every away game brought out one of my alter-egos. We’d sit on the bus as our coach steered us through the December twilight and I’d think up names: Clint Toris and Dixon Cox and Harry Sax. Then, while the girls’ team was warming up on the court, all the guys would hang out in the lobby of the gym.

“Dick Hertz,” I’d say when a group of girls walked past. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Matt Sterbate,” I’d tell a group of senior citizens when they stopped to ask if we were ready for the game.

The girls always played first, so during the girls’ game we sat in the bleachers and obsessed over the cheerleaders. All around us sat the people from our town and on the opposite side of the gym sat the people from Danville or Dardanelle or Dover. Sometimes, when the game was close or the band struck up during a time out, the crowd would cheer so loudly that it seemed the walls were coming down.

In the noise, I gave my characters backstory. I said Phil McCracken hailed from Mianus, Ohio. Phillip Mycrevice was from Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Long before the internet I had a list of lewd-sounding cities I could name as the hometown of one of my alter-egos: Balltown, Iowa, and Cooter, Missouri. Weiner in my home state of Arkansas and Hooker in neighboring Oklahoma. Butts, Georgia and Climax, North Carolina.

I wanted to know their motivations, these characters I created. Phil McCracken had moved to this part of Arkansas after his parents had divorced. His mother had kicked his father out after a fight there in Mianus. His mother would not let his father back in Mianus, and so his father filed for divorce. It was a tragic story, I would say to Dustin Blankenship there in the stands, shaking my head as the girls missed another shot and the crowd gave up hope of them winning, but not quite as tragic as Phillip Mycrevice, who had to leave Intercourse and move to the nearby town of Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, where he worked in a lube factory, greasing axles so they eased properly into their holes.


At halftime of the girls’ game we went to the locker room to dress for ours. The locker rooms always smelled of jock straps. There was always a turd floating in the toilet. In the muted noise from the gym, we stripped down to our skin, and maybe that’s one reason we were always thinking about Dick Hertz and Matt Sterbate—our small sad penises were always exposed to each other, and the only way to ease the uncomfortableness was to take control of it. At home at night we took ourselves in our own hands to alleviate all the anxiety we felt from our changing bodies, but here in the locker room we couldn’t let anyone know that, so we deflected suspicion by always being suspicious. With our dicks strapped in and our chests just sprouting hair, Pat Hiscock was a funny name because it hid how often we thought about patting our own.

Everything else was so serious. Our coaches were always reminding us that we represented our school and our town. In church we heard of the sins of the flesh and felt like the words were aimed at us. We didn’t want to represent anything except our hairy selves, and I’ll admit there were far too many fights in those locker rooms, anger that came out as aggression, but there was also the celebration of our hairiness. Our deepening voices and vices. Our testicles and testosterone. Our unbridled joy at coming up with a name like Peter Fitzinwell, who moved here from French Lick, Indiana, a town, we said, named after him and his exploits.

We always lost. We ran onto the court while the band played Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and the crowd rose up and stomped on the bleachers. In the great cacophony of our small little towns, Dustin Blankenship and I sang “We will, we will, fuck you!” as we whipped the ball around, but it was all a sad show. Our town was a football town, and, after the first few minutes of excitement, when it seemed we might actually make a few baskets, the crowd lost interest as we fell further behind. Our parents left early, and in the locker room after the game no one said Pat McCrotch or Rob McClitoris.

The girls were already on the bus when we climbed on, heads still wet from the showers, our breath beating out before us. On the way home, we sat in the dark after being soundly drubbed, and thought about the girls in the front of the bus: Jennifer S. in her cheerleader outfit and big permed hair, silently doing her homework in the dark. Was she thinking about Dick, Michigan, I wondered, as lights from passing cars highlighted my loneliness. Would she find Three Way, Arizona, funny?  

One night in Hartford, Arkansas, a town near the Oklahoma line, we were standing in the lobby, waiting to buy popcorn or nachos smothered in imitation cheese. Hartford was another small town you’d miss if you’d sneezed, assuming you ever ended up on that highway in the first place. There were almost as many churches as houses. This was a town that had once claimed as mascot the Hustler, but, since opening up team sports to girls sometime in the ’70s, had changed it to a beaver.

“A fucking beaver,” my uncle said. “They named the girls’ team the Beavers instead of the Hustlers.”

I was thinking of who I wanted to be: Bo Nerr or Willie Stroker or Richard Weiner, when a group of girls walked past.  

“Neil Down,” I said, holding out my hand. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Amanda Mount,” the lead girl said, shaking my hand, and in my shock I didn’t answer. She looked at me with one eyebrow raised like Mr. Spock, and I knew I’d met my superior, but she was gone before I could get her phone number. I knew that at age 13 our relationship would be little more than long-distance phone calls in which we made plans that would never come to fruition, but, still, it hurt to not have even gotten her name, this lewd girl who seemed to see the world in the same way I did.

After basketball came track, and then the school year ended. By the time we started back in August, all of us had hair in places we didn’t know would hold it. Instead of creating new names, we modified our own, according to initials. I’ve since learned that lots of junior high kids did this, all across the country, but it seemed at the time as if we were the first. We called Shawn Campbell, initials S.C., Suction Cup or Sucking Cock. Dustin Blankenship was Dinky Balls or Dick Breath. I was Pretty Cunt or Peacock Cum, depending on the day and who was doing the naming.

It always comes down to who is doing the naming. And if it’s a bunch of boys in 8th grade, you might want to step back, cover your ears. They’re caught up in a changing world, one that doesn’t like to listen to all the things banging around inside their bodies, and would rather they keep that shit hidden. But boys have always known the best place to hide something is in plain sight, where people who aren’t looking for it will never find it, so people like Phil McCracken are born. As boys, we believed those older than us had forgotten what it was like to be young. At my age now I know Phil McCracken has been around for a long time, hanging out with Mike Hunt and Harry Sax and all the old jokes we voice instead of what we really want to say, which is that we’re uncomfortable in our thin skins, consumed by desires we can’t always control, still living in a world where so many think it’s sinful to discuss said desires.

I still wonder about unfortunate names. I relish stories or pictures on the internet in which the person is named Brownie Shytles or Dixie Normous or Chew Kok. Rusty Kunts. Dr. Pornsak. In a local election Mike Weiner ran against Thea Beaver. In another election Judy Swallows claimed she had 24 years’ experience, and some 8th grade part of me wondered where Dustin Blankenship was and what he was doing.  

Recently I told Jennifer S., whom I ended up with 30 years after those junior high basketball games, about the famous novels Under the Bleachers by Seymour Butts and Yellow River, by I.P. Daily. Twenty Yards to the Outhouse by Willie Makit, illustrated by Betty Wont and published by Andy Dint. Supporting Athletes by Jacques Strappe. Things That Itch by Mike Rotch. She rolled her eyes harder at each name and title, and I could see her wondering what was wrong with me. But, later, she admitted to singing the diarrhea song as a kid, so maybe what we find funny isn’t that far apart.

Sometimes, when I say something lewd, she will point at me and say, “That’s 8th grade Paul.” She says she loves adult Paul, the one who writes such beautiful sentences, but about 8th grade Paul she is unsure. I vow then to never tell her about all the things I did in junior high that she doesn’t know about, but then I remember how Dustin and I spelled BOOBS on our calculators, or changed the lyrics of the Barney song to “I love you, you love me, homo-sex-u-ali-ty,” and I can see her reevaluating our relationship.  

I’m not sure how to explain to her why Sugar Tit, South Carolina, was so funny. I could cite how much we worried about our changing bodies, the acne and awkwardness, and that laughing at our disparate parts was a way to reclaim the shame we felt when thinking about how much we wanted sex in a society that treated it as sinful. I could say we already saw the long days ahead of us, how we would struggle to find someone who viewed the world with the same amount of humor and cynicism as we did, knowing most of society was fake and full of people who’d rather forget the word fuck exists. There were too many temples in our town, too many tenets that told us to love one another as long as those we loved kept to a strict code that didn’t involve cocks or cunts.  

We might also have wanted to be someone else. Many nights I wanted to be taller, bigger, more loved. I wanted to live somewhere there wasn’t a church on every street corner, where the air wasn’t as stifling as the sermon. We already knew then that we would be judged on our looks and preferences and orientation, our language and who we loved and how often we loved them, so to take it all back from those who would own how we thought, we said fuck it, and embraced everything as funny.

I still find foul words funny. Place names can amuse me for hours. “Imagine living in Humptulips, Washington,” I’ll say to Jennifer, and then have to prove that there really is a place named Humptulips, Washington, which sends us searching for others, like Bigbone, Kentucky, and Floyd’s Knob, Indiana.

“You think the town was founded by a guy named Floyd with a big knob?” I’ll ask her.

“It doesn’t say big,” she’ll reply. “Just knob. Maybe it was a regular-size knob. Only a man would say it was big.”

This checks out, though I bet the people in Floyd’s Knob are funny and don’t fear the afterlife. It also forces me to consider why I assumed it was big, if there’s something wrong with the chromosomes I carry, but before I can think too long about the size of Floyd’s knob, I’m off on a different track.  

“How do you think Virgin, Nevada, got its name?” I’ll ask her, and though she rolls her eyes when I ask such things, sometimes she’ll open a bottle of wine and sit beside me on the couch.  

“Either everyone there is a virgin, or everyone isn’t and they want to be.”

“That makes sense,” I’ll say, pouring my own glass, wondering how two people ever end up together in Virgin, Nevada, or if the people in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, think of their town name during sex. If I lived there I know I would say “Entering Intercourse,” every time I drove into town, or “Entering Intercourse from behind” if I came in the back way.

Then I’ll think of the story I heard about a girl with the last name Morehead who wrote a sex column for her student newspaper titled “Everybody Loves Morehead.” Or the recent headline I saw that read: “Students Get First Hand Job Experience.”

And sometimes, if we talk long into the night, and open another bottle of wine while discussing Butteville, Oregon, or Ballplay, Alabama, or the headline I saw that read “Girls School Still Offering Something Special—Head,” I’ll tell her this story:

A few years after high school, not long before I dropped out of college a second time, I took a summer job pouring concrete. One insufferable day in July we drove to a job site near two car dealerships across the street from each other. One was Dick Cummings Cars. The other was Dick Longing Dealership. In the interminable days when the heat hit over a hundred and I saw the future stretch out before me, all the ways the world would hurt, I’d look at those signs: two big Dicks staring at each other with their unfortunate names. And in the unbelievable summer of my early adult years, still laughing at dicks and coming and all the longing we carry for companionship, all the ways we try to make ourselves comfortable within a culture set for us by people who never learned to laugh at the absurdity of life, I’d go back to my terrible job, suddenly happy, sure now that with a name like mine I could make it.

Meet the Contributor

Paul CrenshawPaul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/CranRob

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