Pain Eyre took her spot on the line, her panty a little crooked, sitting uncomfortably over her hockey helmet. She was a smallish girl but she wasn’t very quick or agile and she only had a couple years on skates. Everyone held their breaths, crouched, and got ready to hit. She was a new jammer, and they were by far the most fun to watch. Jamming in roller derby is where the rubber meets the road, or more appropriately in this case, where it meets the sport court. Experienced jammers have learned how to test a jam, how to determine the proper energy output required in order to penetrate the opposing defense. They know from long hours on their quad skates which of the slower defensive members they might be able to scoot by, which of the hulking giants they might lure into a trap—feint one way and then the moment their weight gives itself over to that side snap back the other way. The best jammers develop an almost uncanny ability to sense an opening just before it happens like a dualist hearing the click on the big clock before high noon. But they also know when they’ve been ensnared; they don’t waste all their energy trying to release a clamp—a defensive strategy by which two or three girls wall a jammer in, blocking escape and repelling her teammates as they batter away from the outside hoping to force an opening. An experienced jammer will continue to probe for weaknesses, but if she’s caught she’ll know to save her energy for the right moment.
New jammers, on the other hand, are all enthusiasm, all top speed and full steam ahead. In their minds, they are already in a power jam scoring countless points as the other jammer sits helplessly in the penalty box. The reality, of course, is much more sobering. First they find fear—a sudden unreasonable desire to pass the starred panty (which marks them as it did Cain though their invulnerability is a dare not a warning) to anyone nearby even as they slip it on over their glassy phallic helmets. Then the whistle and the immediate and suffocating feeling of running out of room as a cliff’s edge of finely-tuned asses looms into view. If they are lucky or skilled enough to get through the first pass, they quickly realize as they skate the lonely ellipse back towards the pack that they must do it again and again, must inevitably fall headlong against a shore of hips as eternal as any in the long history of the sea.
And then there are the times they don’t make it through at all. They get clamped and spend the rest of the jam pressed like wine grapes, skins and all. And it must seem as though the opposing jammer is making short work of the defense, scoring untold points as they clumsily juke against yet another helmeted monster with a clever pseudonym like Jillenium Falcon or Neverending Tori. And, of course, the audience is always uniquely helpful, yelling advice like, “Get through” or “Push harder” or “Go around,” as if it were somehow revelatory, as if it was a lack of understanding rather than the material reality that is several hundred pounds of wheeled muscle blocking the open track. This is the time to watch the jammer most closely. This is where the quit will happen if it’s going to happen. Some of the new girls, even as they sag from exhaustion, will continue to fight until the two minutes are up or the opposing jammer calls off the jam. Old man in the sea be damned; these girls come up for air among the sharks only to do it all over again two or three jams later. These girls grit down on several layers of shark teeth. It has to be or else there would be nothing left but chalk dust piled on the inside of their mouthpieces. There was no quit in these girls. Even when common sense told them to save their energy, they couldn’t do it, couldn’t convince themselves to hang back like a hammer stroke already on its way.
And even when they didn’t make it through, their stubbornness short-circuited their logic processing centers, refused the building of crucial synapses, interfered with their ability to learn the lesson. The next jam would likely be the same and the next one. As either Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein never famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to come out different,” but in this case it might be better than the alternative because those who learned the lesson of their first jams too easily tended to quit before they could develop the attitude of the raised fist. You can see it in their faces. When you’re a part of the pack, personal failing can be hidden in the confusion of the mêlée—at least from the audience—but when you’re the jammer, all is revealed—even to the least discerning eye. To some, being revealed in this way is worse than any hit or fall.
The whistle blew and Pain Eyre ran right into the defense as did the other jammer, Sylvia Wrath. For a little while it looked like she was holding her own and then Sylvia Wrath snuck by the inside line and right through the pack. Pain, I could tell, was starting to panic. She could see Wrath out of the corner of her eye as she made her orbit and headed back towards the pack to start a scoring run. An experienced jammer would know to relax and keep probing for a way through or keep pushing her captors forward until they broke the pack formation, which was twenty feet, but Pain couldn’t move these women far enough. They were just too good. Wrath went spread eagle and cut through like a cleaver and scored five easy points as Pain was spin cycled by the defense. It didn’t look good, but then it happened. As Wrath was coming around for a second scoring pass, she got boxed for committing a penalty, which meant for the next minute Pain was free to score without having to worry about the other jammer.
But first things first, she needed to get through this pack. With the help of the offense, she was finally able to break through and was slowly, because she was already exhausted, approaching the pack—the beast of many backs. She knew she didn’t have much time before Wrath was out of the box and X-winging it towards her six. She seemed determined not to be trapped. If she could escape once, she could do it again. Simple logic works well under pressure. Simplify the situation; simplify your purpose. Give yourself one thing to do. That is what her coaches told her in practice. She began to pick up speed in order to use her size like a wrecking ball. If she could knock down at least one girl, it would be that much easier to get those five points back. She came barreling in at top speed, got low and took aim at the shortest blocker, who, unfortunately, saw her coming and jacked her shoulder right into Pain Eyre’s solar plexus—a totally legal move called a can opener. The word “timber” flashed on the inside of her eyelids and she began to fall backwards. Derby girls are taught to fall forward onto a kneepad for a reason. Falling forward allows the skater to make use of her kneepads and wrist guards, which protects her from breaking her tailbone or hitting the back of her head against the floor. Derby is about skating, yes, but it is also about falling. When you are fresh meat, you spend more time learning how to fall than learning crossovers or hockey stops. It is a game where progress can be measured in the number of falls. First you are taught to fall, then you are taught to stand back up.
From the stands, it didn’t look like much. People fall in derby all the time, but when she didn’t get up right away, we knew she was hurt. Most nights there will be a skater or two shot off the track like comets whipping around their perihelion, but those often turn out not to be the most devastating. The skaters took a knee and silence descended on the track and in the audience. Pain was down. As she fell, her leg twisted beneath her, which caused it to break just above the shoe line of the skate, a very common but horrible spiral trib/fib fracture. She had months on crutches to look forward to. Sometimes, though we are told otherwise by every beer commercial and Facebook meme, there is also a price to pay when we don’t know when to quit.
Carlo Matos has published four books of poetry and one book of fiction. His poems and stories have appeared in such journals as Iowa Review, PANK, Another Chicago Magazine, and Paper Darts, among others. Carlo is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a teaching artist of the Roost Moans Poetry Coop. A former cage fighter, he now trains fighters and is at work on a novel.