Reading group guide for Zebra Skin Shirt
About Zebra Skin Shirt
Narwhal Slotterfield, a smart-aleck, chaos-loving basketball referee (aka a “zebra”) loves bending the rules for the Underdog—at the games he works, “everyone in the gym has a chance to win and everyone has a chance to hate” while he “keeps an eye out for the little guy while simultaneously taking advantage of him.”
He is in love with Veronica, a delightful woman he met by chance in the rain, and during the drive back home to Denver from St. Louis after visiting her family, they stop at an old diner in the tiny run-down town of Holliday on the eastern Colorado plains for a greasy burger and greasier fries. During a trip to the toilet, Narwhal decides in a burst of love and inspiration to propose to Veronica in his typical unconventional manner.
But the universe, it seems, has other plans—upon his return to their table, time has stopped completely for everyone and everything except for him. Pouring coffee is suspended between kettle and cup, the setting sun stays put just above the horizon, and Narwhal’s beloved is unattractively trapped in the middle of taking a bite of her burger.
As time does not go on, Narwhal is forced to face uncomfortable truths about himself, Veronica, and even the nature of being human. And through these discoveries, he has the miraculous choice to either focus myopically on himself or, like an unlikely superhero referee, to right the wrongs of the world.
The concluding volume in Gregory Hill’s zany, loose Strattford County trilogy, Zebra Skin Shirt is a wild book of time-warped stream of consciousness and space-shifting solipsism, at once a man’s search for himself and a triumphant struggle for love. _____________________
Excerpt from Chapter One
My career has consisted of seventh grade boys glaring at me for accusing them of double dribbles; girls in ponytails telling me to fuck my own face; and parents, so many parents, simply loathing me. One must ignore the sneers and the comments, the hip-checks.
Once, in a high school playoff game, I granted a three-pointer even though a toe was clearly on the line. At halftime, as I walked toward the custodial closet that served as the officials' dressing room, the disadvantaged coach grabbed my shirt collar and threatened to slice off my manhood with a butcher knife. The choice of knife would seem suspect; I think you’d want something more nimble, like a switchblade. There’s no accounting for what a person will say when they feel threatened. As for me, I said nothing. Let the game continue. The underdog pulled off a miracle.
I never blew my whistle for a technical, ever. I hoped this leniency would endear me to them, those monsters. It didn’t, ever. Instead, my leniency invited the whole glittering rainbow of human cruelty. Entire gymnasia, home crowd and visitor, would chant my name in derision. Led, of course, by the cheerleaders, who made up a song just for me. “He’s blind, he’s dumb, he don’t know the rules. Slotterfield! Slotterfield! He sucks it hard!”
In its limited poetic capacity, the cheer united the opposing forces of Us and Them against Me. Hatred binds. Which explains why I was never investigated, reprimanded, or otherwise cautioned by any governing body in any of the leagues that wrote my checks. Basketball is entertainment and my games were entertaining. The people in charge knew what I was up to and, by refusing to discipline me, endorsed it.
My specialty was Avoiding Blow-outs. My other specialty was Giving Hope to the Underdog. My other specialty, and my favorite, was Creating Chaos. If things are getting dull, call a foul on the short kid. It doesn’t matter if he’s not within a dozen feet of another human. He’s short, therefore someone will be indignant, thereby dramatically upping the emotional quality of the contest. Athletics thrive on emotion.
When I worked a game everyone in the gym had a chance to win and everyone had a chance to hate. It’s difficult, maintaining that sense of balance, keeping an eye out for the little guy while simultaneously taking advantage of him.
Being as tall as I am, I’m never the little guy.
After a typical game, I would exit the gym without changing out of my shopping-mall-shoe-salesmen outfit, without speaking to a single person, and then drive to my apartment and drink filth and listen to the neighbors choking their children. There, reclining on my recliner, staring at my vertically unheld cathode-ray television, I would enjoy a very specific fantasy.
I’m a passenger on a lifeboat. It’s been six days since we watched the mast and the cargo and the captain go under. This is after the whirlpool, but before the sharks. Me and the parents and the players and the coaches and the cheerleaders and my child-choking neighbors, all floating together in a longboat, staring at one another as if we were all cartoon pork chops. A tropical sun bears down from a cloudless sky. The rations are gone. The only option is to draw lots. Last lots. I win. I eat the porkchops.
At this juncture, if you were my shrink and if I were telling you this, I suspect you would jot something in your notepad. I suspect you’d write, “This man is a creep.”
I can’t argue with you, Doctor. I am not inherently likeable. I acknowledge this freely. I am honest, though.
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