Authors: A. M. Jenkins
For those who are struggling; for those who have made it through; for those who have been left behind
It’s all yours. Your hands rise, fingers spread, ready to…
Sure enough, the first week of practice is like sliding…
The alarm clock has been going off for a while.
Apparently God was trying to tell you something, the other…
The first game is an away game.
You pick Heather up early in the evening. You’ll take…
The next morning is Sunday. Sunday always gathers own momentum;…
That night you dream you’re driving the pickup with Heather…
By the time a few weeks have passed, you’re feeling…
Used to be you’d hang around practice to give Dobie…
Sixth game. Final score: Panthers, 21; Bulldogs, 10.
In the field house Monday afternoon, Dobie seems okay. He…
It’s a comfort to watch Heather get dressed.
You keep thinking about her all the way home, through…
The air has caved in on top of you.
“Are you okay?” Heather asks.
Late the next afternoon you enter the field house with…
You see Heather for a brief moment between classes try…
When you finally get home, you pull up the gravel…
It’s all yours. Your hands rise, fingers spread, ready to feel the firm scrape of the football, ready to pull it to you, ready to tuck it safely in.
But the ball bumbles against your fingertips. It lurches away, and that beautiful spiraling pass ends its life in a series of ugly bounces across the field.
Then there’s just a football lying untended on the grass, just that—and your empty hands.
When you open your eyes, the joyless feeling has already crawled onto your chest. The ceiling of your room presses you down into the mattress. The air settles in your lungs so heavy that it’s almost too much trouble to breathe.
You kind of remember having some bad dreams, but you can’t remember what they were. You just lie there, flat as the faded streak of afternoon sunlight that slants
through the western window and impales your bed.
It’s almost night. You’re supposed to pick up Curtis and Dobie, so the three of you can go out. Your eyes move, skimming the room, trying to grab hold of anything that will break the suction of the bed.
A newspaper clipping tacked to the bulletin board. It’s a black-and-white head shot of a guy in a football jersey, and underneath in bold print:
AUSTIN REID: PRIDE OF THE PARKERSVILLE PANTHERS
That picture smiled out of the sports section during last year’s state semifinals. Now it smiles out over the bedroom.
Shoot, that guy in the picture there wouldn’t lie around on a Saturday night. He wouldn’t think how it’s too much trouble to
So you roll slowly to sit up. Get to your feet. Lumber down the hall, past your sister Becky’s room, into the bathroom. Stop in front of the sink. Raise your head to look into the mirror.
The guy reflected back at you is the same one from the picture. Only he’s not smiling. And he hasn’t got a jersey on. Not even a shirt. But still, that
him—dark hair, straight white teeth, a strong jawline, a nose that’s not anything special.
You lean forward, looking into his eyes. They’re blue.
What do other people see when they look into them—those eyes in the mirror? Are they flat? Cold?
Or just nothing at all?
You look harder, trying to feel anything for him. You try to get him to smile, to see if that will help.
All you can get is a dull stare.
Your gaze slides down to your own hands. Even now they can almost feel the football bulleting into them. Your hands are big, strong. Like your dad’s hands, you remember, even though he died when you were only three. That’s what you remember about him; strong hands, lifting you up to sit on the bathroom counter.
You’re staring at your hands and the memory runs, like a movie: the hiss of shaving cream escaping into a frothy white pile; the sharp clean scent. The soft light foam hanging off your cheeks like a floppy beard. The connection, you and your dad, both scraping tracks in white lather, you with a toy razor.
You raise your head to stare into the mirror again. Those three-year-old cheeks belonged to you. Not some guy in a picture. You.
You turn the faucet handle all the way to the right. Shoot, there’s plenty of people who are abused or neglected, plenty of people who would probably love to have your particular life instead of their own. Your life that’s a gift from God.
It’ll be an outright sin if you don’t snap out of feeling this way.
The water rushes down the drain, running from cold to hot, sounding so alive and urgent that it gives you the traction you need to climb out of this rut.
Okay. So you’re going to clean up a little. Then you’re going to put on a fresh shirt. Put on that smile, like clicking on a button.
And then you’re going to go out.
You’ve parked your truck in the usual spot, past your country neighborhood with its patchwork of trailers, houses, small farms, and ranch land, out where the old railroad tracks disappear into dirt and tall grass. You and Curtis are sitting on the tailgate, but Dobie slouches long legged in the bed of the pickup, carelessly leaning against the wheel well next to the ice chest.
This is partying, Parkersville style.
Your beer bottle’s empty now, but you don’t move to throw it away.
“You all right?” Curtis asks, eyeing you as he takes another swig from his longneck. Curtis Hightower is your closest friend, your next-door neighbor, too—not in the town sense, where neighbors live right in one another’s back pockets without ever knowing each other, but in the country sense, where neighbors are like family, yet everybody’s got a little elbow room.
“Yeah,” you say. You
all right, and what would you tell him, anyway?
Sometimes I can’t face getting out of bed? Sometimes I feel so crushed I can’t move?
Like Curtis can do anything about it anyway. “I’m fine,” you add.
Dobie pats the ice chest. “Want another?”
Dobie looks at you for a moment, confused like a dog, like you didn’t speak his particular brand of English. Then he nods. “It won’t hurt to lay off for one night,” he says, as if to comfort you. “You drank enough at the lake last week to last you through a dry spell.”
“Hell, Austy’s probably still getting over that one.” Curtis swings his legs idly, as relaxed looking as ever, but his dark eyes are sharp on you. He does that sometimes, his words dry and teasing, his eyes searching.
Tonight you think they might be searching for something Curtis feels but can’t name. You swing your legs, too, your hands gripping the edge of the tailgate, trying to think of the right words to say. Curtis has a head-on, outspoken way of looking at things, and you don’t particularly want him looking at you right now.
You grin. “I think it’s a good idea to leave some of the drinking to the other guys,” the Pride of the Panthers announces in just the right voice. “That way they’ll all be busy burping and pissing while I’m out chasing the ladies.”
Curtis chuckles. You relax.
“They ain’t ladies once you get through with them, Austin,” Dobie remarks.
“Now, why do you say that?” you ask, to egg him on. Curtis just listens, his eyes roaming out into the darkness now. “Why shouldn’t they have a good time, too, without you calling them sluts?”
“I didn’t call nobody a slut.”
“Are you saying you’d marry some girl who’s slept around?”
“Well, no, but that’s different.”
“Nobody’s going to marry Dobie,” Curtis says, deadpan. “Not with that beer gut he’s getting.”
“So are you,” Dobie shoots back. Dobie believes anything anybody says to him. Curtis is exaggerating about his beer gut; in fact he is outright lying. Dobie is tall and thin and mostly cowboy hat and legs and belt buckle. He isn’t muscular like you or even wiry like Curtis. He’s just Dobie.
Curtis laughs and takes another drink. Curtis has a cowboy hat, but he doesn’t wear it much, and he doesn’t have a beer gut, either. He isn’t the type to argue if he knows he’s right.
You set the empty bottle down beside you. Girls are another thing that’s not right anymore. The Pride of the Panthers has always had a girlfriend—but you haven’t had one in a while. Just haven’t been able to get interested. The way you haven’t been able to get interested in much of anything.
That joyless feeling is out there in the darkness around the pickup, hanging like a low cloud; you can feel its edges brush against you.
Curtis drains the last of his beer and tosses the bottle into the bushes. He hasn’t dated anybody since Kat Hopkins broke up with him in the spring, and he doesn’t want to talk about girls, either.
“Two-a-days start Monday,” you say to nobody in particular, and saying it almost makes you feel a little better. Not that you’re looking forward to sweating through sprints and conditioning drills, line drills in sweltering pads. But Monday morning you won’t have the option of wallowing around in bed like you have all summer; you’ll be out there in the late August sun doing what you’re told.
You’ve always played for sheer fun. Practice or games, doesn’t matter which—there’s nothing like running the play and actually having it work, turning to see the ball coming at you, feeling it fly straight into your hands as if it’s been sucked there.
On Monday, you’re pretty sure, you’ll wake up with the sun, and find that this drag-down feeling has faded away like some bad dream.
Sure enough, the first week of practice is like sliding into a well-worn groove. There’s no doubt you’ll be starting. Your body, at least, still seems to have a fierce interest in the details and mechanics of football. Inside you still feel pretty much like a flattened tire, but it’s not too hard to shove that feeling down and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
This is Coach Van Zandt’s first year at Parkersville. Nobody knows yet how far he can be pushed. All anybody knows is that he used to be in the marines, and he’s passionate about his job.
After one play, when everybody’s heading back to the line, Coach gives his baseball cap a furious tug. “Stargill!” he bellows. “Whatcha doing lying in the dirt?”
Brett Stargill lumbers to his feet, towering over Coach. Coach’s paunchy stomach is the only part of him
as wide as Brett. Still, Brett just shrugs, eyes on the ground.
“You ain’t hurt ’less I say you’re hurt.”
Curtis said earlier in the week that Coach thinks he’s some kind of drill sergeant. He said that’s okay, though, since Coach takes his football seriously. Curtis takes his football seriously, too.
When Coach hollers, “Water break!” nobody needs to be told twice to take off for the coolers Dobie has set up on the bottom row of the bleachers.
You get in line with Curtis, waiting for the water cooler on the end. Both of you are a little apart from all the jostling and joking. Both of your gray practice jerseys are dark with sweat. Curtis holds his helmet under one arm. His hair is sweat-plastered to his head.
You undo your chin strap but don’t take off your helmet. Instead, you just stand there, staring out at a world framed by rigid plastic edges.
“You’ve been playing different,” Curtis says out of the blue. “You’re not as focused as you usually are.”
Now you see that his dark eyes are on you; they’ve got that sharp, considering look. If he thinks you’re going to spill your guts, he’s wrong. There aren’t any words for what you feel sometimes, and, anyway, there’s nothing to talk about.
The guy in front of Curtis steps away from the cooler, but Curtis hasn’t noticed. “You’re the one needs to pay
attention,” you say, and give him a friendly shove toward the cooler.
Curtis picks up and fills a paper cup, and everything moves one step closer to normal. While he drains the cup in one long swallow, you pull the silence around you like a blanket. He bends to fill the cup a second time, dumps the whole thing over his head, and shakes like a dog, sending drops of water flying.
Now it’s your turn. You push your helmet up and gulp down aching cold water, letting some run down your chin and neck to cool your front.
Everybody else is straggling onto the field. You crumple the cup, toss it into the trash, and turn to walk back, too.
“Hey,” Curtis says, not moving. “Austy.”
His tone stops you in your tracks. You turn to look at him. Curtis’s eyes are brown, but not the soft brown most people have. They can be hard like a flint striking sparks, if he’s angry. Which isn’t often; Curtis doesn’t let much get to him. Right now, though, his eyes are zeroed in on you with the intensity that means there’s some kind of emotion backed up behind them.
“It’s not just football,” he says. “You’ve been acting different. Out of it. Like you just woke up. Or like you’re some old man, in slow motion. Hey. You know you can talk to me, don’t you? If anything’s wrong?”
Curtis is quiet, not much of a talker. But he’s one hell of an observer.
“Nothing’s wrong,” you tell him. It’s true. It
—because you’ve got nothing to complain about. Nothing to explain, nothing that makes any sense. Nothing that’s a
problem, like what other people have.
Take Curtis. It was about five years ago you found him in the tack room out by your family’s barn. He was sitting with his back to the wall, knees drawn up, head buried on his arms, so he didn’t know you were there. You could tell he was crying, and you turned to sneak away—but that didn’t seem right, so you came back and sat down beside him without saying anything, and just kind of kept him company till he was finished. You didn’t look at him or ask about it, and he never did say what happened—but you had an idea what it was about. Sure enough, right after that his father left for Nevada with one of the summer interns from his law office.
Curtis never did talk about it much, but he spent quite a bit of time that fall out in the wooded acres behind your house, sawing up an old dead tree and hauling the chunks to your family’s barn to chop them small before flinging them onto the woodpile. Hardly said a word about his dad—but for a long time after that, whenever you went over to the Hightowers’, you felt like there was an invisible hole right in the heart of the house; a jagged hole that everybody walked around and nobody talked about. It’s still there, even five years later—though now it’s not so huge and the edges have smoothed.
But in your life, there are no holes. Your house is just
a house like anybody else’s. And you’ve got nothing to talk about.
“I’ve just been a little tired,” you tell Curtis.
“Reid and Hightower!” Coach is hollering. “Get your asses in gear! Time to get back to work!”
The two of you start running back.
“Cox! Try to get the goddamn ball in the
As everybody lines up you can see Curtis’s eyes on you. Impersonal now; you’re just an object he has to track and follow.
“Blue thirty-four!” Cox shouts. “Blue thirty-four! Set…Hut! Hut!”
You sprint forward and cut inside. You can feel Curtis shadowing you, but the ball is spiraling toward you. You stretch out your hands, ready to feel the clean smack of the catch.
It doesn’t come. Curtis gets a hand up; the two of you get tangled up somehow and you both come down in a heap on the grass.
Curtis gets immediately to his feet; he’s in his usual between plays half awareness and barely gives you a glance as he scoops up the ball and tosses it back to the center.
You lie outstretched on the turf and wait for your breath to come back into your lungs.
“Reid!” Coach hollers. “You don’t jump up and get
moving, you better be able to show me some bone sticking out!”
So you get up, panting; Curtis has already trotted back to the line.
You follow. Alone and empty-handed.
After practice on Friday, Curtis asks if you and Dobie want to go grab a burger or something.
“Sure,” you answer, although you’re not really hungry. There’s nothing else to do, and, besides, there’ll be plenty of people down at the Dairy Queen. It’s easier to click on that button around a lot of people. Easier to go through the motions of having a good time.
You drive, Curtis rides shotgun, Dobie’s in the back. The pickup bumps across the field house parking lot, bottles rattling and bouncing around in the bed.
Since it’s Friday night, the Dairy Queen is pretty crowded. You have to park way back in the corner of the lot, next to the close-cropped grass lawn of the church next door. When you get out of the truck, you’re close enough to read the weekly quote-on-a-sign in front.
First Baptist Church of Parkersville, Texas
BE JOYFUL ALWAYS.
1 Thess 5:16
Curtis gets out and slams the door. Dobie climbs over the tailgate. You stand there looking at that sign—the three little words in bold black letters:
Be joyful always
. It’s almost like God’s speaking to you personally.
Things are about to get under control. Sure they are. Once the season starts, they will. Every year since ninth grade, crossing that goal line for the first time pumps you so full of joy, it all overflows and gets reflected back by a thousand people in the stands feeling the same thing. That first Friday night always puffs you up so light you could float out of the stadium and onto the bus.
This is senior year. It’s bound to be great.
It’s going to be a great year.
You join Curtis and Dobie, walking across the parking lot. “I’m kind of hungry, too,” Dobie’s saying. “I might have a burger or two just to keep y’all company. Oh, man,” he adds. “Look who’s here.”
He nods toward the cherry red Miata parked in front, a bright patch of color between the fluorescent lights and the darkness.
And there they are next to it—Heather Mackenzie and Melissa Larkin, standing at an outside table, talking to some other girls. You dated Melissa for a while last year; it was an amicable breakup and the two of you still get along fine. And Heather is hands down the most beautiful girl in town, the number one girl on every guy’s “Top Ten To Do” list.
But that’s not the only reason she captures your eye. It’s because you’ve always thought she’s like a jigsaw puzzle that’s just a little bit incomplete. And you like the feeling of holding someone else’s missing piece in your hand.
“Look at Austin, making plans,” Dobie observes. “You can just about see the gears turning.”
You weren’t really making any plans at all, but now you have to make a big point of looking like you were. So you walk a little slower and let a slow-moving grin take over your whole face while your eyes take a little extra time appreciating Heather’s long legs.
“Aw, I was just kidding,” Dobie says quickly. “You know she won’t go out with nobody our age. Remember how she shot Cox down when he asked her out in front of everybody?”
Yeah, you heard about that. But still you look at Heather—there’s something like a string pulling your eyes toward her. Heather’s like you; her father died when she was little. Of course, nobody talks about it, not right out. When Heather moved here in the third grade, the story was that her parents were divorced, and her dad was still in Ohio. But somehow word leaked out that Mr. Mackenzie killed himself, and, of course, the news zipped along phone lines and flashed in whispers from ear to ear. It’s been years since you’ve heard anybody mention it—but that hasn’t kept you from thinking
about it, from wondering whether the Mackenzie house has a dark jagged hole at the heart of it, like Curtis’s, or whether it’s just a house, like yours.
Tonight the first thing that captures your eyes, like always, is Heather’s rear end, tight and tilted like the back of a Camaro; and when that brief surge of interest is gone you look a little longer anyway, wondering if she’s ever had to click on a button or two to get Heather Mackenzie up and running.
Curtis doesn’t slow, just walks right past them; the only thing he’s interested in is that Kat’s not at any of these outside tables. You don’t say anything to Dobie, and you certainly don’t say anything to Heather. You just follow Curtis through the door.
Inside at the counter, he stands beside you scanning the room the way he always does since he and Kat went their separate ways.
“Parkersville’s got five thousand people in it, right?” Curtis’s eyes flick from booth to booth.
“So how come we keep seeing the same ones over and over?”
“Beats me,” you say, knowing what Curtis really means is the ones he keeps seeing don’t include Katherine Hopkins. Curtis can be pretty negative sometimes. He wouldn’t hesitate a moment to sit there like a lump in the middle of everybody else’s good time. On the other hand,
there’s you; if God sends you a personal message to be joyful always, you’re going to take it seriously.
So when one of your little sister’s friends walks by, you reach out and give her ponytail a gentle tug. She’s been at your house a couple of times, but you can’t remember her name. She whirls around, breaks into a big smile, and says “Hi, Austin.” Exactly the kind of light friendly contact that helps pin things together so that the bottom doesn’t drop out of the evening.
When the food’s ready you get down to the business at hand: eating. This hamburger is the first meal you’ve had today, and you may not be hungry, but your body’s going to wolf down every bite.
“God, Austin, don’t they feed you at home?” Becky’s friend calls boldly from a nearby booth. She’s little, freshman-sized, underdeveloped—and she’s got on enough makeup to pave Highway 171.
Her tablemates are giggling. “I must have missed a meal,” you tell her, flashing a grin that dissolves the giggles into elbow poking. “Either that, or I’m having a growth spurt.”
Dobie has just taken a bite, but at the words “growth spurt,” he starts snickering into his hamburger.
“Now, Dobie,” you tell him, “get your mind out of the gutter. There’s nothing dirty about a little
now and then.” Normally, calling attention to Dobie in front of females would make him slide under the table—but
right now all he can do is set the hamburger down and put his hands over his face, and try to stop laughing long enough to swallow.
Curtis eyes Dobie. “You’re not choking, are you?”
Dobie shakes his head frantically, behind his hands. His ears are beet red.
“Maybe you ought to whack him on the back a couple times, Austy,” Curtis suggests.
Dobie shakes his head again. After a few more moments he manages to swallow, and lowers his hands. “Don’t do that, man. Don’t make me laugh while I’m eating.” His face is getting back to its normal color.
“All I said was I’m having a growth spurt.” You start to add something about spurts being against the penal code—“penal code” being a surefire Dobie cracker-upper ever since eighth-grade social studies.
But Dobie’s attention has been caught by something outside the window. “Dang,” he mutters. “I think I’m getting a growth spurt right now.”
You turn to look. It’s Heather again, still outside. This time she’s bending forward to lean over the table. It is amazing, the lines a plain old pair of jeans can take on when a girl is wearing them. You feel like a dog perking up its ears.
Curtis has long since given up looking around for Kat. He’s just stirring a straw around and around in the cup he hasn’t taken a drink from. If Curtis was a dog
right now, his ears would be limp and drooping.
You notice that Heather has one thumb hooked through a belt loop; the other hand flips her hair back over her shoulder. It crosses your mind that she knows how good she looks in those jeans, and wants everybody else to know, too.