Good Sorts*

Kristine Langley Mahler

It’s the classic description of someone who’s nice, good, noncomplaining: a bore. 


You keep trying to take advantage of a technicality—you doubt your own modesty (something valid, unreturnable, righteous, delayed). Sharp words, a quick apology—infringement you notice, adapt easily, without complaint. You are a good sport who’s asked to play, to join.


Plans are being made. Rules and customs protect the challenge—some participants, at the top of their abilities, fall in love. With magazines and books devoted to all the ways to improve, you follow, ready to start when it’s your turn, attentive. Nothing will distract his approach. 


You never, never take your time. You slip, you distract, stand to the side. You cast a shadow that might distort his cue, go back when you’re connected, bend over the table.


Cardinal rule: never test before diving into dangerous horseplay beyond your depth. You’re out of reach—anyone can get caught in an undertow. Running is universally frowned on; one bone can ruin the rest.


To keep him, you tie him up.


You want to ask if that’s his practice too. You hold up while you scuffle through the pachysandra, doubtful; you think you’ve won.


You flub a crucial point, say distinctly, “I’m awfully sorry,” moan on and on about it. You are practicing, you crowd in on someone else, idling; it’s maddening to see waste. You see others waiting. 


Surrender? Needless to say, beginners find that both hard and scary, close to a hazard, gouging ruts in ice. You fall, you land in a lump, watch the boys abbreviate a ban. They move on to expert terrain, ready and able.


You can’t control a collision: losing one’s heart is obvious as a cliché. You smooth over your vocabulary, your binding has opened, you have gotten tangled in the spill. You repair the damage. You’re a prime target.


You gather enough force and momentum to shatter, as dangerous as a hurled spear. Careless, you’re that careless, you yell, you break, you did not expect you would not be asked again.


Sex is the absolute boss and is not to be argued with. There’s no extra room. Crush out a cigarette, strike a match, unrelenting: sit down when you’re told to and on the side you’re told to. Don’t grab or do anything without orders—especially if you might be responsible. Always wear rubbers. 


You boomerang back, maintain as little as possible. The approach has indented the surface silence. Someone is rattling away. This is not fair.


You veer in the direction of another person as a warning, a trap. You rest, you smooth out the scuff you made, the sign of a couldn’t-care-less attitude, keep up till he calls it off. 


You’re lost, you jam up the progress. You call it on yourself, your temper, yourself. You try to be depressed, but it makes you invite a faster play. The tension you create smothers his resentment, makes his game worse. Your game is at its brilliant best.


You open a gate, latch it securely behind you, remember all those movies. You skim by inexperience, bolt, nerves-on-edge, protected from unnecessary poking. You walk in front of a beautiful beast, offer sugar, your hand flat as a plate. He can mumble it up with his lips; you will retain all your fingers.


You light a match, break it in two, drown it and stamp the remains. You leave in good order; you’re certain everyone knows. You make sure branches and twigs you’ve pushed back snap in the face of whoever’s directly in back of you. You remember that. You leave your property, and it’s all right, you pay cash, you smile and thank-you. 


Ready. Shine your shoes. Hang up your dress.


You leave the room in apple-pie order—towels in the hamper, tissues in the wastebasket, no clothes allowed. You are responsible, you go to your parents, ask what rules are frowned on, rules you’ll want to learn to keep interruptions at a minimum. You can be competent and content. You have a long sundown, you get wrinkled, baggy, prepared with pocket overshoes, a waterproof covering for your hair.


Girls are handsomely dressed; a plain little dress will define you. You respect that what is impeccable may be impossible. 


And the funny thing is that you act bewildered when you find you’ve chosen wrong. You have real problems: a muddy, uneven field, a rocky road, the wind, the snow, the silence.

*An Erasure Memoir.

Source : Haupt, Enid A.  “Chapter 7: Good Sports Go Places.” The seventeen Book of Etiquette, David McKay Company, 1963. 

No words have been added and all words/letters appear in their original order.

Kristine Langley Mahler has nonfiction recently published/forthcoming in Storm CellarChautauquaQuarter After Eight, Sweet, and Crab Orchard Review, where she received the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. Kristine is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel, an assistant editor at Profane Journal, and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.