I’m watching as the freshmen mill around in the lobby, trying to
decide which ones will survive The Clink. There’s no telling. Not
just from looking at them. The black kid with dreads down past his
shoulders and the trapezius muscles bulging up beneath his earlobes stands
no better chance than the built-like-a-beer-keg white boy. They’ll
both start out on the fourth floor, endure the grueling practices, the ice
baths in the horse troughs that follow, the campus-wide chapel on Tuesdays,
the tongue lashings of Coach Chick, the preaching of Coach Towers, and the
haircuts. Everyone gets the haircuts.
It’s funny, the look in the newbies’ eyes when they first step
foot in this place, like it wasn’t what they were expecting. From the
outside, The Clink is just a four-story tall, rectangular structure, white
mortar and dented gutters cutting a grid across all that red brick, like
the lines on a football field. On the inside, though, The Clink houses
every member of the Treeland Baptist Tornadoes, a mediocre Division II
football program located in the southwest corner of Arkansas, a small town
with fewer than ten thousand residents called Tula.
There are only a few names left on my check-in sheet when the McKissacks
enter the lobby. They don’t come to me first, instead going straight
for the stairwell like they’ve already talked with Coach Towers. Up
and down. Up and down. They prop the door open with a busted cinder block,
the mother and father and son carrying framed posters and duffel bags,
Dallas Cowboys bed sheets and pillowcases. I sit in the lobby as they walk
the four flights of stairs again and again. When they finally finish and
come for the card table, I can barely stand to look at the kid.
“McKissack,” says the mother. “Taylor McKissack.
I know who he is. Everyone knows—Taylor McKissack—the highest
rated quarterback to ever sign with Treeland Baptist University. Across the
country football is played at places like Treeland Baptist University by
dudes like me. Sloppy dudes. Sometimes we get a guy like the ones you see
on television. A monster. A freak that runs fast as a fucking cheetah.
Every once in a while, we get guys like that. But when we do,
something’s always wrong. They might look like a five-star wide
receiver but play offensive line, or they can’t read, or
they’ve just raped some poor girl back home and it’s her word
against his, and he can really play. It’s always something.
Those dudes you see on TV don’t have a clue about a place like our
dormitory, a place like The Clink. Guarantee it. I hear the big time
players live in apartments, each one with their own room. Coach Towers
lived in The Clink. I’ve lived in The Clink for four years. Worked my
way down from the fourth floor to the first, and now I run the show.
I’m the HMFC: Head Mother Fucker in Charge. But mostly the
guys just call me “Crates.”
The McKissacks are just standing there, still looking at me, when I say,
“Coach Towers assigns the numbers.”
“Are you,” the mom says, and I almost tell her, almost just
drop that acronym on her like an atom bomb, “the Resident
I take a can of tobacco from my back pocket. Pop it loud, my index finger
slapping hard and flat against the top of the can.
“Yes ma’am. I am.”
“I like your manners, son,” says McKissack’s dad and
something about the way he says it makes me stop with the can. “What
position do you play?”
A part of me wants to tell him how I played tight end for the Dumas
Bearcats, how I scored a few touchdowns, but when I got to college they
made me eat so much I could feel it in my throat all the time, and then I
got fat and my hairline started receding so I grew my beard out and it only
really grows on my neck.
I don’t say any of that, though, just this: “Left guard.”
“That’s a tough spot,” says Mr. McKissack. “But
I nod, feeling all that food lodged in my throat again. “He just
needs to sign here, and y’all are good to go,” I say.
“Team meeting at eight tomorrow morning.”
McKissack’s dad picks up the pen and offers it to his son. Taylor
sits there with the end of the pen to his lips for at least thirty seconds,
reading the whole damn housing agreement. The kid doesn’t belong
here, not in The Clink. I study his face. He’s beautiful, and
I’m not gay. The kid is beautiful. Mainly it’s his hair, blonde
in a way that looks unnatural, but it’s not. He’s built too.
Stacked. Not like I said before, not built like a quarterback but plays
tight end. Taylor McKissack looks like a quarterback and he plays fucking
quarterback. Everything about him looks right. He smiles, takes the pen
down from his lip, and signs the bottom of the paper. I know right then he
won’t last. He’ll be lucky to make it out of training camp.
“So that’s it?” says McKissack’s dad.
“Yes sir. His roommate hasn’t checked in yet. And don’t
forget the team meeting tomorrow at—”
“—eight,” says Taylor and smiles. “Right?”
I clamp my jaw and nod.
“Yeah, and don’t be late. You’re on Coach Towers’
“Taylor is never late,” says McKissack’s mom.
“Isn’t that right, honey?”
I finger the tobacco can beneath the table, watching McKissack as his
mother’s question lingers.
“Taylor?” she says, raising her chin.
The kid still doesn’t say anything, and that alone gives me hope.
Four years in The Clink have taught me better, but damn, it’s my
senior season. I wouldn’t mind going out on top.
“He’ll be fine,” I say and finally crack the can open.
The smell rises and burns my nostrils.Grizzly Wintergreen Longcut. My favorite brand.
Taylor nods toward me, a short inconspicuous nod, but it’s enough.
“What’s your name, son?” says the father and I
can’t help it, I sit up a little straighter.
“Thank you for your help, Mr. Bates.”
They turn to leave right as Black bursts out of his newly appointed room on
the first floor, bouncing around on his toes like he’s happy he
doesn’t have to walk up and down those damn stairs anymore.
“New meat?” Black says. “We got some more new
“Black,” I say, nodding toward the McKissacks.
“The fuck, So-Crates?” says Black. “This one don’t
look like right.”
Black has been in too long. He’s a four-year guy, like me. Four years
and the first floor—we earned it.
Mrs. McKissack steps back. I wonder if she knew right then. Black keeps
shifting his weight from foot to foot in front of her. He’s short,
too short to play linebacker, but the perfect size for the Tornadoes. He
has great hips too. Mrs. McKissack keeps staring at him like he’s an
aberration, not something she was expecting from Treeland. It dawns on me
then, why Taylor’s parents let him choose this place over some big
time school: they think this is a church camp. It’s the
“Baptist” in our title. She didn’t think Treeland had
dudes like Black. But we do.
“So-Crates?” says Mr. McKissack, his voice still
strong and even.
He arches one eyebrow and I think back to my freshman year: the first away
game on the sleeper bus when we rode fourteen hours over to Georgia, played
the game, got our asses kicked, then rode fourteen hours home stacked in
tight on the foldout bunk beds, bouncing with the bumps in the road, a heat
rising and hanging, a smell like body spray and moldy cheese. I almost lost
it that night. The walls closed in and wrapped around me. I’m a
big-ass dude. It was hot in there, all piled up like that. A book saved me,
though. The Republic by Socrates. I remember trying to hide it,
but by the tenth hour, I gave up and turned on the light. Black was my bunk
buddy. He asked what I was reading. I showed him the cover. Black gave me a
look like I’d said something about his mother. I cringed when he
Mr. McKissack’s face looks something like Black’s did on the
bus four years ago.
“Crates,” I say, trying to help him out. “You know, for
Mrs. McKissack kisses her son on the forehead. Mr. McKissack shakes
Taylor’s hand. The lobby doors swing open. Taylor watches their car
drive away for way too long to be cool, and then the doors close.
“Do you guys have a playbook?” Taylor says, turning to us.
“I’d like to have a look.”
I feel the wrinkles in my forehead tighten.
“Who the fuck is this kid?” says Black.
“Taylor,” says the boy and reaches out his hand. “Taylor
McKissack. I’m the new quarterback for the Treeland Baptist
My wrinkles turn to troughs. I don’t know why I care. I guess I want
to win, but deep down I know he won’t last a week. Black cuts his
eyes at me, serious for less than a blink. He slaps my belly with the back
of his hand.
“Wait till Lang hear about this little nigga,” Black says and
laughs again. “Come on, Tayla. Let me show you the
way.” I watch them go, Black with his arm draped over Taylor’s
shoulders, Taylor smiling but unaware.
The meeting room is just linoleum floors with exactly ninety school desks
lined in ten rows. I haven’t seen Taylor since Black took him away to
God-knows-where. There is a very reasonable side of me that doesn’t
expect to see him ever again. But then I do. He’s already sitting in
the front row, in the very middle, the desk closest to the podium.
I’m telling you. The boy doesn’t have a chance.
The voice comes from behind me. I don’t turn. Don’t have to. I
can tell it’s Black by the smell of Skittles on his breath.
“McKissack about to get his ass beat.”
“Yeah,” Black says, crunching a Skittle. “Lang
Lang came in with Black and me. We were different back then, thinner. Lang
was the skinniest quarterback in the NCAA. He looks worse now. He beefed up
a little last year but most of his weight gathered in the middle, and
somehow his legs got scrawnier. For three years Lang was our only option at
quarterback, but now there’s Taylor McKissack. Lang’s cowboy
boots are propped up across two desks. There are freshmen standing.
I turn back and eye McKissack. Despite the odds, I hold out hope for the
boy. I mean, shit, it’s my senior season and he is better
than Lang. Anybody’s better than Lang. But his goddamn shirt is so
tight. I think I can see his nipples. He has sweatbands on his wrists.
He’s reading something, and for a moment there is hope, but then I
realize it’s the Bible.
Black’s Skittle breath is still hot on my ear but then the door opens
and Black’s sweet heat is gone. The room goes silent. Coach Towers
walks in fast like he’s about to tell us the most important thing in
the world. He is bald and it makes him look older than he really is. He
isn’t much over forty-five. I already know what he’s going to
do before he does it. He’s going to make a sacrifice. A small flame
catches and lights up his eyes.
“Wait there, son. Wait right there.”
I already see the beer-keg-shaped freshman in his crosshairs, the one that
just walked in late.
Towers steps out from around the podium, craning his neck over the ninety
school desks. “Turn around.”
No one moves.
“Go on, turn around,” Coach says, pointing, teeth bared,
“and get your ass out of here. Walking in late to the first
meeting, wasting my time.”
Towers whispers when he says “ass,” but still says it, like
maybe Jesus—or Mr. Mayberry, the University
President—won’t hear him if he whispers. His face is red. I
turn and see the boy who came in late. He’s that short, squatty white
kid from the lobby. If I remember correctly, he’s a linebacker.
Expendable. Coach Towers knows any kid who is late on the first day will
only cause trouble later on. Coach points his finger to the door. The boy
says something but leaves. He’s the first to go. There will be more.
There are always more.
“All right, guys, listen up,” Coach says. “I’m
looking for difference makers.”
I’m not listening. Coach looks for difference makers every year. He
wants guys who know what it means to be on time. He wants guys who put the
team above themselves. He wants young Baptist men who love Jesus. He wants
ball players. He wants Taylor McKissack.
By the time Coach is finished talking, Taylor is in need of a neck brace,
squeezing his little leather-bound Bible, nodding along with Coach’s
every word. Chill the fuck out. I think it so hard I almost say
it. This is not the way you win the starting job for the Tornadoes. You
don’t sit in the front row reading the Bible. No. You chill the fuck out.
Taylor doesn’t chill out, but he’s about to. Coach Towers
finishes his speech and we clap. Then he introduces Coach Chick. He’s
short like Black, and squat, but he’s white like the kid Coach Towers
just sent home. Chick used to be a hell of a linebacker in his day. He
likes to tell this big fight story where he and a bunch of his high school
buddies take out a whole bar filled with Marines.
There’s this line that gets me every time, where he says this woman
has got him around the shoulders. He says that he’s got on these
slick little boat shoes and there’s beer and blood on the ground and
somehow this woman has a hold of him to where he can’t move. He keeps
saying the floor is slippery. But the part that gets me, the best part, is
when his buddy cracks a beer bottle over the woman’s head. He says
she falls like a “sack of shit.” Chick actually says that line.
Says it every time and doesn’t whisper. Then they kick a popcorn
machine over on top of the woman.
He always pauses when he gets to that part in the story, pauses and bites
his bottom lip and looks up into his skull like maybe he’s asking
himself if there was ever any other way, but that’s not what
he’s thinking. Chick’s just setting up the punch line, waiting
for the weight of the popcorn machine and the broken beer bottle to settle
in around the woman lying on the floor, and then he says, “And now my
buddy, the beer-bottle swinger, he’s a fucking Baptist
preacher!” When Chick laughs, and he always laughs at this point, it
sounds like a pig squealing. Maybe worse. “Ain’t talked to him
in ten years, but sometimes I think about driving over to Nashville one
Sunday morning, sitting in the front row of his congregation and watching
that motherfucker sweat.”
I’ve read a lot of the old guys—Machiavelli, Plato, Socrates,
Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer—those guys have a lot of stuff
figured, they know the good and the bad in the world, but I get the feeling
they’d have a tough time with Chick.
Chick trots up to the podium. He’s wearing a purple wind suit with a
swirling Tornado on his left tit. The suit makes diaper sounds when he
“Thanks, Coach,” says Chick, nodding at Towers.
They’ve been together from the start. Chick was just a player when
Coach got the job. He must have seen something in him, though, something
even Dostoevsky wouldn’t have recognized, but Coach Towers sure did.
“You can’t relax,” starts Chick, and I smile because I
know what’s coming. “Can’t never relax, in football or in
life. You relax and that’s when you get your ass beat.”
Taylor’s sitting up straighter now like he’s trying to rub his
forehead on the podium, trying to reach up and kiss the short fat coach in
the wind suit.
“How many of y’all got a girl back home?”
No one moves.
“Show of hands. Come on.”
A few of the freshmen lift only their fingers, then glance around the room
and put their fingers down. Taylor raises his hand, extends his whole
“Good, good,” says Chick. “Probably her senior year? Or
maybe a couple y’all got ripe ones? Got you a plump little junior. A sophomore?” Chick smiles at the thought.
Coach Towers is pacing behind Chick like a baker at the oven, eyes down on
“You relax on that sweet little thing back home, you don’t call
her after practice, you forget your three-month anniversary or her birthday
or her dog’s birthday or any of the other little things women like
and think are real important—you forget any of that and you’ll
call her, and she won’t answer because
Chick says the last line loud and choppy, the same way he says the line
about the beer bottle and the popcorn machine. Coach Towers keeps his eyes
on the floor.
“That’s why we aim to cultivate within you a sense of
urgency,” Chick says, quieter now. “Everything you do matters,
everything is a competition. You either win or you lose. Question
is,” he pauses here, beady eyes scanning the crowd, “how bad do
you want it?”
Chick nods to Coach Towers and steps away from the podium. No one claps for
Chick. Taylor folds his arms across his chest. It’s cold in the
meeting room. I can definitely see his nipples now.
“Old guys, find your young bucks.” Coach Towers says, wiping
sweat from his brow. “I need a ‘personal nugget’ by
tomorrow’s meeting. The worksheets are on the podium.”
I try not to go up there. I don’t have McKissack’s number so I
have to, but damn, I don’t want to. The Clink is hierarchal like
everything else in our world: seniors on the first floor, freshmen on the
fourth. There are of course discrepancies—a red-shirt freshman who
was left on the fourth floor, a fifth year senior with no floor below the
first—but for the most part there’s a system, and the system
works like this: keep playing ball for the Tornadoes and you have fewer
stairs to climb each year. Simple as that.
But they broke the rules for Taylor McKissack. If I had to guess, I’d
say it was Coach Towers that did it. I couldn’t see Chick bending
that way, even if he does coach the quarterbacks. But Towers knew he needed
to win this year or the reign of his difference makers would come to an end
with very little difference made in Treeland’s win column. Those were
the pressures that made someone up the food chain put Taylor on the third
floor with the sophomores. He doesn’t have a roommate either. Barry
Gordon never showed, and if I know Coach Towers, Barry Gordon will never
show. If I know Coach—and I do—there is no Barry Gordon. Never
So Taylor has a room to himself on the third floor surrounded by dudes who
have fought their asses off, gone through hell, gotten the goddamn
haircuts, all in order to clink down one rung from the
fourth floor to the third floor. I’m telling you, I felt sorry for
the kid the moment I saw him.
I beat on his door with the meat of my fist. He opens it like he’s
been waiting for me. “Hey, Justin,” he says
“Call me Crates, kid.”
He steps back from the door and invites me in with an open palm and a bow.
He looks like Willy Wonka, welcoming me to his Chocolate Factory. I peek in
his room and see pictures hanging on the wall. It looks like an office
break room, random bits of motivation outlined in plastic. Everything is
white and proper and clean. Thank God the kid can throw a fucking football.
“Nah,” I say. “My room.”
“Cool,” he says and steps into the hall.
His footsteps are light and quick as he follows me down the stairs.
I push my door open with my knuckles. I knew my room would look as foreign
to him as his did to me. The bookshelves are getting ridiculous. English
Lit majors have to read a lot of books. These aren’t just books for
class, though. I have my own collection. But anytime one of the guys come
in, it is nice to palm it off on being an English major.
He goes right for the bookshelves.
“Bradbury? You read Bradbury?” he says and takes my copy of
The Martian Chronicles down from the shelf.
He would go for Bradbury. Fucking Bradbury. I read that book when I was
“He’s my favorite. It doesn’t have to be all
doom-and-gloom. Ray finds a way to show the light.”
I’m thinking about how Taylor called him “Ray,” like he
knew the man, when I hear Black’s voice in the hall. Then I hear the
“Bradbury is for little kids,” I say quick and loud.
I walk to my shelves and scan for the heavy-hitters. I can’t find my
Schopenhauer. Can’t even find my copy of the Tao Te Ching.
“Forget it,” I say. “Let’s get your ‘personal
nugget’ out of the way.”
“But, Crates, I want to be enlightened.”
He says that last word funny, like he’s never said it before in his
“Listen, you’re my little-bro for this year and that means
I’ve got to report back with some random fact about you by
tomorrow.” I start unfolding the worksheet. “Sorry kid,
enlightenment will have to wait until further notice.”
“Fine,” he says and smiles.
I hear them starting up next door. It sounds like a butcher slapping a
hard, cold piece of meat. I look at the kid’s eyes for any signs of
recognition. There are none.
“Let’s keep it simple,” I say. “What do you want to
“Like when I grow up?”
“Yeah, like when you grow up.”
He puts his finger to the corner of his mouth and looks down at his hands.
I realize then that there’s only one path for Taylor McKissack, the
same one he’s been on since fifth grade, or whenever it was that he
first picked up a ball and strapped on a helmet.
“A quarterback?” he says. “I am a quarterback.”
The pounding next door quickens, double time playing out across the
“Okay,” I say. “A quarterback.”
“What about you?”
“Yeah, what are you going to do after you graduate?”
The LSAT study book is splayed open across the top of my computer. I tell
myself one more time that I am smart enough.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Sure you do. What’s your purpose? What
do you love— ”
“I’m asking the questions here, kid.”
They are beating on the walls now. I hear a baby cry in between the
pounding and decide it’s time for Taylor to leave, hoping the boy is
as innocent as he appears. When I turn to look at him, both of his hands
are on the wall.
“Are they okay?”
I don’t know how to answer his question. Black is just Black. The
girl is a cleat chaser. This is Treeland, and for some reason, despite
being a Baptist football program, we’re all fucked up. Like a team
full of preachers’ kids.
“That’s good for now,” I say.
“But what about,” he pauses, long enough, maybe, to tell me he
understand there is no answer for the sounds that are coming out of
Black’s room, “the worksheet?”
I take a breath, thinking Taylor McKissack might really have a shot after
“We have to be back at the field house in an hour,” I say.
“Go get some rest.”
“Coach Chick says I should work on my long passes, the ones over
fifty yards. He says my accuracy on those passes could be improved. He
“Fifty yards is a long-ass throw. I wouldn’t worry about
The girl screams through the concrete walls and Black moans like some
tribesman after he’s killed a lion or a gazelle. I imagine blood on
his face and hands.
“Do you think Coach Chick likes me?”
My door is open. I pull it closed.
“I wouldn’t worry about what Coach Chick likes. There’s
some advice for you. That and grow a fucking set. Cut it with the
holier-than-thou shit. That shit will get you fucked in here.” I
pause. Black’s room is eerily silent now. “I’m
“Fucked?” he says.
Black’s door opens. Black comes out first, followed by the girl with
a baby in a car-seat carrier thing. She reaches out, turning, and almost
touches Taylor. The baby is silent, a silence so complete it echoes off the
concrete walls and bounces back, again and again, reminding me there is
real pain in this world.
“Hey,” says Taylor and waves to the mother and her child. She
does not stop. Does not turn around. She walks down the hallway. Black
whistles and a black freshman appears at the end of the hall, holding a
dirty napkin over the camera that hangs in the lobby. The mother walks on,
swaying a little, maybe limping. The kid removes the napkin and points at
her ass. The baby cries.
“I didn’t think girls were allowed in our dormitory?”
Black stares back at the boy. I’m standing there between them, and I
can almost smell the girl in the hall. I can smell her, baby
powder and sweat.
“Dormitory?” says Black and shuts his door.
We make it through camp and it’s obvious Taylor is the best
quarterback. He’s yet to throw a bad ball. The only incompletions
he’s had during practice have bounced off the facemasks of our
scraggily group of wide receivers. On day six, some talk sprouted up that
Taylor was too good for them, threw the ball too hard, too fast. The next
day every pass left his finger with touch, floating softly but steadily
into the outstretched hands of all those bitchy receivers.
Our first game—an unwinnable contest against the East Texas State
Wolverines, an FCS team, competing in a completely different league than
our little conference in Arkansas—is Friday. So we have a light
practice on Thursday, and by Thursday night, the guys need to burn off the
We burn ourselves up at Snake and Earl’s. No way we’d have made
it through four years of The Clink, four years of Treeland Baptist, without
Snake and Earl’s. Treeland is in Triglo County. Triglo is a dry
county. No beer. No casinos. No nothing. But if Black is driving his
Bronco, we can make it from The Clink to Snake and Earl’s in less
than thirty minutes. The beer joint sits right across the county line, on
the outskirts of Hot Springs.
Hot Springs is my kind of place. Real hot water runs beneath the town.
You’ll see people carrying milk jugs full of it. They say it’ll
cure cancer, make a soft dick hard—the elixir of life—that sort
of shit. That hot water has been attracting all walks of life to the
backwoods of Arkansas for a good time now. The Chicago White Sox held
spring training at Hot Springs in the time of Babe Ruth. Al Capone
couldn’t get enough of the place, especially during Prohibition.
It’s president Bill “Slick Willy” Clinton’s
hometown, and the birthplace of the Assemblies of God, a division of the
Pentecostals. I saw a car catch fire and explode in the middle of
two weeks ago. Two black dudes just let out running down the road. Took the
cops twenty-seven minutes to get there. I timed it. Take all that, put it
in a pot of that hot, bubbling water, stir, and you start to get a picture
of Hot Springs’ appeal. It’s the sort of place where gangsters,
Pentecostals, and presidents are split open, laid bare, and shown for what
they truly are—bare, forked animals. It’s the sort of place
where a boy like Taylor could get lost.
And for some reason, I brought him with us. I don’t know why, but I
did. It’s just me, Black, Lang, and Taylor. Not another fucking
freshman, and that was dumb on my part. Like Towers giving him his own damn
room on the third floor, especially since he’s supposed to be our
“You see this white boy throw that damn ball today,” Black says
and puts his Bronco in park. He shuts the truck off and turns around to me
and Taylor in the back seat. Black is only a pair of eyes, two rows of
teeth. Snake and Earl’s neon green sign illuminates little stray afro
hairs on his head.
“I did,” says Lang.
Inside the bar it’s Thirsty Thursday. It’s also Karaoke night.
Black does a mean Prince. “Purple Rain” is a crowd favorite.
The bar has a metal door with bars over the window. It gets some biker
traffic when the weather is nice. But the bikers are really just a bunch of
doctors and lawyers with leather chaps. There are no bikers in the bar
tonight. No doctors or lawyers either, probably because it’s
Thursday. A game is on, some preseason NFL stuff. There’s just a bar
and three tables. That’s it.
“Where’re all the ladies?” says Lang.
“Snake probably got them in the back,” says Black. “You
“Nah, Earl’s the ladies man,” I say and watch Taylor. His
eyes are glued to the game.
“Hey, stud,” Lang says. “Who you think got the ladies?
Snake or Earl?”
It’s a set up. There is no Snake, or Earl, just a dude named Goates
who sold his car to buy the bar. He drives a purple golf cart instead, Tornadoes
emblazoned across the front in a bright yellow, Impact font. Despite the bar and the golf cart, this place
doesn’t attract the ladies. You don’t come to Snake and
Earl’s for the ladies. You come for the lady in the bottle.
You come to get drunk.
“I’m going with”—Taylor pauses and puts a finger to
his chin—“Snake. I bet Snake has the ladies.”
“No way, dumb shit. Ain’t no ladies,” says Lang and
glances to Black and me then points to Taylor and shrugs his shoulders. We
don’t respond. Black gets up and takes the stage.
“What’re you drinking?” Lang says.
“The regular,” I say and raise my Makers on the rocks.
“Me?” says Taylor.
“Let me guess—a fucking Diet Coke?” says Lang.
“I’m not drinking anything,” says Taylor. “We have
a game tomorrow.”
Lang snorts, wiping beer foam from his lips. “What the hell
difference does it make, you pecker dick? You’re not gonna touch the
Black has a pink boa wrapped around his neck. He’s up on stage giving
“Purple Rain” his best. If I hadn’t personally seen him
break a quarterback in half on a weak-side blitz, or heard the sounds
coming from his room in The Clink, I’d think Black had a little sugar
in his tank. It’s his hips. It’s the way he moves his hips.
“What you think of that up there?” says Lang changing the
subject, probably not wanting to think about the Wolverines, instead
nodding toward Black and his boa.
Taylor doesn’t move.
“Hey,” says Lang, taking hold of Taylor’s chin with two
fingers, turning his face like he might kiss him, or hit him.
“I’m talking to you.”
I kick Taylor under the table.
“Sorry,” he says and peels his eyes away from the television. I
look at the screen. The Cowboys are winning by more than thirty points. I
nod to Goates. He’s real, you can’t make up a dude like Goates.
He’s just a bald dude with a scar. He changes the channel.
“What’s the question?” says Taylor, rotating his chair
toward Lang, really focusing now. “I wasn’t listening.”
“Fuck you, man. Who the hell you think you are? Ain’t no way
you’re starting over me tomorrow.”
“Fuck you too, Crates. Fuck everybody. This’s my goddamn senior
season and y’all are all just ready to hand it over to this little
blonde-haired bitch? Fuck you, man.”
I’m surprised. Lang’s usually stronger than this, more
conniving, a practitioner of the dark arts. Mental Jujitsu. Lang uses your
force against you. I’ve seen him do it. Marveled at his restraint,
but not tonight. Tonight, Taylor is under Lang’s skin and I
can’t help but grin.
“I’m sorry, Lang. I just want what’s best for the
team,” says Taylor and I can tell he really means it.
Black belts out the last few lines of “Purple Rain,” those high
notes where Prince goes on and on. Black hits every one. Lang stands up
quick. His chair teeters on edge. I reach for it, but it falls, crashing
against the concrete floor. The sound startles the small crowd, and no one
claps for Black, even after all those high notes.
“Don’t worry about it, young gun.”
I suck my teeth, eyes on Black fingering the boa with the same look on his
face as Lang had when he stormed out of here.
“You know why I don’t drink?”
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was an alcoholic. My dad
told me that that sort of thing runs in families, in the blood. Can you
imagine being an alcoholic?”
I clink the ice in my Makers.
“I can’t,” adds Taylor. “I just can’t imagine
“I guess,” I say. “But if you take away all a man’s
demons, you might take his angels too.”
“Oh,” says Taylor and turns back to the television, but the
Cowboys are gone, replaced now with the Real Housewives of
somewhere a long-ass ways from here.
When we get outside, Lang is lazy-eye drunk and waiting for us. He kicks
Goates’s golf cart into gear and pulls out from the shadows. The
headlights aren’t as bright you’d think.
“Damn, Lang, you fucked up my show,” says Black. “Fucked
up ‘Purple Rain.’”
“Get in,” says Lang, eyeing Taylor. The cart jumps forward then
jerks to a stop.
“Not tonight,” I say.
“Get his ass in the fucking cart,” says Lang. “This what
we do. You do. I do. This what we do.”
He sounds retarded, but he’s just drunk, and he’s right.
We’ve all stolen Goates’s golf cart. Every single one of us
steals Goates’s cart at some point during our freshman year.
It’s a rite of passage. I think of Taylor’s single room on the
third floor. I don’t think about our game against the Wolverines
“Fine,” I say, “but we’re all coming.”
Lang is driving, which I don’t like. Black and Taylor are riding on
the bench seat. Taylor’s in the middle. I like that. I remember his
mom, his dad, how they stayed for three hours, probably hanging all those
motivational posters in his room. I hop on the back where the clubs go and
put my hands on the roof. There’s not much to this tradition. We take
a few laps around the parking lot and then put the cart back in its spot.
Goates is a good dude.
The air feels cool on my face. It was stuffy in the bar. I open my mouth
and drink it in. “Creek.” I remember when I stole
Goates’s golf cart. Slade and Dean, those were the seniors that made
me do it. Those motherfuckers. “Creek.” But I was the
first freshman in my class to do it, even before Black or Lang. Sometimes
they still bring it up in the locker room. This will be good for the young
By the time I hear Taylor shouting, we’ve already hit the creek bank.
The golf cart folds, the top collapsing under my weight. I hear the breath
go out of all three of them as I come down hard on their heads. Lang
whispers, “Fuck,” and I know something is wrong.
Really wrong. Lang is a tough motherfucker.
Breakfast is at seven the next morning. I knock on Lang’s door so
hard, so long, Black comes out in the hall and gives me this sleepy look
like he’s trying to make sense of the pink boa still wrapped around
Black knocks while I go get my master key.
When we finally get inside the room, Lang looks like shit, lying there on
the bottom bunk, the top bunk empty because Lang’s paid his dues.
When he finally stands, I can tell his shoulder is still bugging him, his
goddamn throwing shoulder. He doesn’t say anything about it. Just
brushes past me on his way out the door, holding tight to a green Gatorade
bottle I know is spiked with the Wild Turkey we had to stop for on the way
home from Snake and Earl’s.
Coach Chick counts every head at breakfast, wearing his game day wind suit,
staring at Lang like he wants to stick his foot so far up his starting
quarterback’s ass Lang could taste his size nine Nike tickling the
back of his throat. Instead, we eat. Black’s still wearing the boa,
dousing his eggs and hash browns with Louisiana Hot Sauce. Lang takes a few
sniffs and looks like he’s going to puke.
I don’t see Taylor until we load the bus. After staring at Lang and
Black all morning, Taylor is refreshing. We all wear the same thing on game
days, suits and ties. Coach Towers scrounges up extras for the players who
can’t afford them. I couldn’t afford one, Lang couldn’t
either, but we damn sure didn’t let Towers buy us a musty ass suit
from Goodwill or wherever it is he finds those blazers for the poor kids.
I’m wearing my daddy’s suit. Lang is too. I can tell
Taylor’s suit is new, his pants starched and pressed, just like Mrs.
McKissack wanted them to be.
There’s a seat open beside me on the bus. Seniors usually get to sit
by themselves, but Taylor sits down beside me. I don’t say a word for the duration of the three-hour bus ride.
By the time we get to Texas, I’m sweating. Everyone’s sweating
except Taylor. He’s glowing as we exit the bus and walk the field,
most of the guys wearing oversized headphones, heads bobbing along to the
beat as they inspect the yard lines, the end zones, the landmarks where
they’ll shed their blood today.
I can tell when Towers gives us his pregame speech he knows we’re
about to get our asses kicked. I can always tell when he’s lost
faith. It’s the way he rubs the bald spot on his head, over and over
again, like there are seeds planted beneath his scalp and if he rubs them
hard enough, long enough, his hair will grow back by halftime.
Chick, on the other hand, appears unfazed.
I realize then that I misread Chick at breakfast. He wasn’t
disappointed in Lang. Far from it. He was elated, thrilled beyond words
that he now had a viable reason to put Taylor in the game, even though
he’s just a freshman, barely eighteen years old. Taylor is the better
quarterback, but he’s green. Lang, on the other hands, is still drunk
and possibly has a separated throwing shoulder. Chick knows it, and I know
it. I’m afraid Coach Tower knows it too.
When the game starts, Lang’s drunkenness is on full display. Chick
keeps dialing up long pass after long pass, and poor Lang, man, he can
barely chunk the ball ten yards down the field, each pass coming out
sideways, wobbling end over end like a punt and falling to the turf before
anyone—including the East Texas Wolverines’ defense—can
get a hand on it. Three and out. Punt. Again and again until the first
quarter is over and Towers finally pulls Lang off to the side, back behind
the bench to have a talk with him.
I’m still huffing from trying to block the gorillas they have playing
on the defensive line, guys that look like linemen and play like linemen
and probably didn’t have to eat a bunch of frozen chicken and drink
all that chocolate milk just to get up to proper playing weight like I did.
Between breaths, I can hear Towers hissing at Lang.
“Your ass is drunk, son,” Towers still whispering his
curse words. “Drunk, and here we are playing our first damn
Lang burps out his response. Towers has no choice but to bench him.
Taylor is toeing the sideline, helmet already on, like he knows today will
be his day, but what he doesn’t know is that Coach Towers knows
better. The saucy old coach is barking into his headset now, arguing with
Chick about who should replace Lang. A school as small as Treeland can only
afford two scholarship quarterbacks each year. There’s a tight end,
Rusty Smith, who’s filled in some in the past when games get out of
hand. Coach Towers is pleading his case to Chick, saying, “We put
that boy in, and it’ll be baptism by fire. We’ll be making a damn sacrifice.”
Towers closes his eyes, nodding, as Chick offers his retort. Chick stays in
the press box on game days. He’s the offensive coordinator, so it
kind of makes sense. Chick says he likes to get a bird’s eye view of
the game, a better vantage point to make his adjustments. But the truth is,
Chick goes psycho on the sideline. Two years ago he made the best defensive
linemen we ever had cry in the middle of game. The hulking nose guard was
balling when he walked off the field, went back to the locker room, and was
never seen again. Third quarter of a fucking conference game. From then on,
Chick stayed in the press box.
“McKissack,” hollers Towers and my toes go cold. “Warm
your ass up. You’re going in.”
I check the scoreboard. Halfway through the second quarter. We’re
only down two scores, but we don’t have a chance. I know it. Towers
knows it. Chick knows it, but for some reason it’s like he just wants
to see a beautiful thing like Taylor McKissack destroyed, or maybe Chick
doesn’t have a clue. Maybe sitting up that high in the press box, he
can’t see what I see down in the trenches.
The Wolverines have us outweighed thirty pounds to a man, a team full of
athletes that look the part they’re playing. The Wolverines score
again, putting them up three touchdowns, and then it’s time for
Taylor to make his debut.
In the huddle, Taylor kneels on the turf, and for a second, I’m
scared he’s about to ask us all to join hands, bow our heads, and
pray. He doesn’t, though. He just calls the play, looking each of us
in the eye like Coach Towers didn’t do before the game because
Taylor’s faith goes deeper than football.
The kid’s snap count sounds different than Lang’s, sharp and
consistent. My fingers dig deeper into the turf. The big-ass nose guard
across from me grins, grunting something out from around his mouthpiece. I
can’t be sure, but I think the monster just said, “About to eat
Taylor barks for the ball and the field comes to life, twenty-two bodies
crashing together, moving as one. From the trenches, I can’t see how
Taylor bounces around in the pocket, dodging the defensive end who squirts
free and has a straight shot at his blindside. I can’t see how Taylor
scrambles, off toward the visitor’s sideline, right toward Towers.
I’m too busy giving the nose guard everything I’ve got, fearing
if he gets his hands on Taylor, he really will eat his ass. I do see the
ball, though, after it’s left Taylor’s hand. Even the nose
guard sees it. We both stop for a second, watching it fly, spiraling up so
high it gets lost in the clouds before appearing again, sixty yards down
the field, like a prayer, or a lightning bolt, tip down, right into the
hands of a wide-open Treeland receiver, a senior named Jimmy Pinkney,
standing in the back corner of the end zone.
When the side judge raises his arms, signaling touchdown, Taylor’s
just standing there, pointing up to the heavens where he sent the ball,
smiling like I’ve never seen a guy smile on a football field before.
I run for him, taking him by the waist, lifting him up and spinning, poetry
in motion, ballet on the gridiron. It’s only after we complete our
pirouette—Taylor light in my arms, warm like baby Jesus—that I
see the yellow flag.
The official wearing the white hat clicks on his wireless microphone.
“Holding. Number sixty-nine. Offense. The ball will be
I’m still holding Taylor as the referee drones on, explaining how I
held the hungry nose guard. I sit my quarterback down gently and watch as
Jimmy Pinkey trots our way from the end zone, still with the ball in his
hands, like he knows if he gives it up he’ll never get another shot
at such a glorious, sixty-yard reception. The ref claps for the ball, and
Jimmy shakes his head but tosses it to him anyway.
In the huddle, Taylor has a look on his face like Coach Towers did before
the game. I can’t help feeling like whatever comes next will be my
fault because I held that nose guard.
When Taylor barks for the ball again, I’m cautious with my hands. The
gorilla-sized nose guard blows right past me, making starving sounds.
Taylor isn’t looking when the monster gets him around the waist.
I’m just standing there, my hands still out, but definitely not
holding anyone or anything. The nose guard lifts Taylor high above his
head, a sacrifice to the gods of the gridiron, and then brings him down
backwards, over his shoulder, a reverse suplex, like something Andre the
Giant would’ve done to Hulk Hogan during WrestleMania back before the
Giant died of congestive heart failure in a Paris hotel room, just waiting
to attend his father’s funeral.
The ball squirts free at some point before Taylor hits the ground, rolling
to a stop beneath my feet. I stand there over it, watching as the nose
guard celebrates his sack, humping the air and howling as he beats his
chest. Jimmy Pinkey dives in late for the fumble, maybe remembering how
good it felt to catch that perfect pass, but again, the ball squirts free.
A linebacker scoops it up and sprints for the end zone, following a caravan
of headhunting Wolverines. Jimmy just lies there, looking up at me, my
hands still out in front of my chest, palms exposed.
“Fuck, Crates,” Jimmy says and closes his eyes. “I think
they killed the kid.”
I reach down and help Jimmy up. Neither one of us wants to look back and
see what’s become of Taylor McKissack. I’m afraid he’ll
be dangling halfway out of that nose guard’s facemask, the oaf doing
his best to digest what’s left of our only hope.
When I finally turn, Taylor isn’t on the ground anymore. He
isn’t anywhere. I truly fear the nose guard has already eaten him.
But then I see the stampede of Wolverines almost to the goal line now and
the single Treeland player busting his ass to try and keep them from
scoring. I have to squint to read the number eight on his jersey. Right as
the linebacker with the ball breaks the plane of the end zone, the burly
nose guard peels back, lowers his shoulder, and clotheslines Taylor. The
first thing to hit the turf is the back of his helmet. I hear the sound he
makes from thirty yards away, like the last nail being driven into the
cross, or maybe the first. Either way, the savior gets crucified in the
After the bloodbath on Friday, Coach Towers gives us Saturday completely
off. It’s the first time in four years I remember getting a day off
after a loss. He says we could all use a Sabbath. He also says the team
will go to church together on Sunday morning, the First Baptized Church of
the God of Americas. It’s a black church. Then we’ll have
practice Sunday afternoon.
I see Taylor Saturday morning. He’s just sitting in The Clink’s
lobby with the television off. Across the country, college football games
are being played and Taylor isn’t watching. I try not to think about
what that means for him. I doubt if that’s happened ever before in
his life, but maybe after yesterday, after that ravenous nose guard,
Taylor’s seen enough football for one week.
“Better enjoy the day off,” I say and think about putting my
hand on his shoulder, but I don’t. “Doesn’t happen
“Yeah,” he says. “Right.”
I put my head down and try to leave.
“What are you doing today?”
Today we have the haircuts. We always do it the day after the first game.
Doesn’t matter if a freshman played all four quarters. Doesn’t
matter if we won or lost. We give all the first-year guys nasty haircuts
after the first game. It’s like stealing Goates’s golf cart, or
living on the fourth floor; it’s a tradition. I look at
Taylor’s blonde mane—the golden waves like a young
Achilles—and I can’t imagine taking that from him, not after
all he lost yesterday.
“Go back to your room, Taylor,” I say and feel like I’ve
already said too much. “Get some rest. Take a nap or
I turn to walk away.
I keep walking.
“Are you going to church tomorrow?”
“We all go,” I say over my shoulder. “We have to.”
Taylor is still sitting on the sofa in the lobby with the television off
when we bust in wearing pantyhose on our heads and hockey masks. He turns
from the black screen and stares at us, a hollow, disappointed expression,
the way Coach Towers looked during the entire bus ride back from Texas.
I act like I don’t see him.
We set the chair up in the corner. It’s not really a chair.
It’s just a cinder block we use to prop open the lobby doors. Black
plugs in his clippers, blows at the blades with his bright, pink lips, and
says, “Let’s cut.”
We’d gathered in my room an hour before, all the seniors, and no one
said a single word about the game, or Taylor, or if we’d really cut
him too. We didn’t even say anything about the haircuts. We were
ready for some action, ready to move on.
Black whistles and the freshmen sound like cattle as they make their way
down from the fourth floor and into the lobby. The hair comes off in waves,
each one a little different than the last but much the same. I remember
getting my haircut. They gave me the “Coach Towers.” Took
everything off the top, left the sides. I looked like an old saggy bald
man. A ball sack. It was gross. Now that’s the only cut I give. I cut
the young fat boys. The linemen.
“Crates, you wanna cut one a mine?” says Black.
“Yeah, nigga. Four years? You earned it.”
I take the clippers as a wide-eyed black boy sits down on the cinder block.
His tight sponge of black hair scares me. I don’t know what to do or
where to start. Black always cuts the black kids’ hair.
“Just give him ‘Da Penis.’”
Black gives every black kid “Da Penis”: balls on the back of
the head, the shaft running over the top, and the head of the big black
dick rounding out the front of the hairline. Every black kid gets “Da
Penis” just like every fat kid gets the “Coach Towers.”
A group of freshly pruned freshmen have gathered in a circle around the
cinder block and the clippers. I scan their faces, but I don’t see
It’s one thing for Taylor to sit on the sofa and watch from a
distance with his golden locks. It’s another thing for him to walk
into the circle. It’s doesn’t look good.
“Cut that motherfucker, Crates,” says Black.
He’s talking about Taylor. It didn’t matter that he’s our
only hope, we’re all losers now, even Taylor. I look at the boy. His
eyes are the pale blue of innocence, like a toddler’s nursery, his
mouth turned up in an ignorant grin. And that hair—my God—that
fucking beautiful hair.
I feel Lang’s heat before I hear him. His right arm is still in the
sling. He paws at me with his left. “Give me the damn
Lang nudges his way through the crowd, wearing a cowboy hat for the
occasion. He’s been there all along, probably plotting for this very
moment, maybe even all the way back to Snake and Earl’s. I realize
now that I underestimated Lang. I’m thinking of Jujitsu as he reaches
his good arm, his left arm, up for the clippers
“Nigga, get your ass out the chair,” says Black to the black
boy sitting on the cinder block.
The boy rises and Black yanks the clippers from my hand, clicks them on,
and slashes a divot from the back of the boy’s head. The young
defensive end touches the bald spot. It looks like a birthmark or a scar, a
dull gray absence of hair. He pulls his hand down and there’s blood
on his fingers.
“What you waiting for, nigga? That’s your cut. Now move the
The boy rubs the spot on his head and dissolves back into the crowd.
It’s Taylor’s show now. All I can see is his hair, the shock of
Alexander, Achilles—the hair of America, man—like everything
they ever told you this world could be or whatever, it’s flowing
right there in Taylor’s hair.
Black passes Lang the clippers. I can’t watch.
I move over to the sofa. I sit down right where Taylor had been sitting.
It’s warm. There’s a smell there too, like deodorant. The kind
you use when your mom gets the call from your seventh grade P.E. teacher,
the first time you really stink. Maybe Brut. Something simple. Something
strong. I hear the mob gasp from back around the cinder block. I cringe.
It takes a while. Lang is an artist with the clippers. He ventures out of
the land of genitalia and bald spots, experimenting with racing stripes and
Samurai top-knots, weird shit that isn’t as funny as the classics.
The crowd is silent for at least ten minutes. I listen as the clippers buzz
and the soft tufts of angel hair rustles under the boys’ Nike shoes
and cowboy boots. I listen for Taylor, a sound, a whimper, anything to tell
me one way or the other, but there is only silence. My heartbeat thumps
like it does before games. Then I see the boy.
I don’t even know his name. Some squat linebacker from some butthole
town in Arkansas, a short stump of a kid built like a brick shit-house. He
looks like that kid Towers sent home on the first day. He might be
the kid Towers sent home on the first day. I can’t tell. He
hasn’t been subjected to the clippers. He’s still sporting a
buzzcut, like some sort of soldier. I can’t imagine why he cares, but
he does. He sees the crowd gathered in the lobby, the clippers buzzing in
Lang’s left hand, and bolts for the stairs.
“We got a runner!” I yell. “We got a fucking runner!”
I stand and wave for the mob to go after him.
A runner is the worst thing. Us old guys take the haircuts as a sign that
you’re in, and in The Clink—a world of winning and
losing, ups and downs, a black and white world—you’re either in
or out. And this little fucker sprinting up the steps like he trained to
run a stairwell-running marathon is definitely out. I want to
catch him, hold him down, and let Black carve a bloody, black dick across
the top of his scalp.
I hear the footsteps behind me and know the others have followed. Of course
they followed. Every one of them has had this thing done to them and there
is nothing that draws men together like shared pain.
Black passes me, taking the steps two at a time.
By the time I get to the kid’s room, Black and a few other freshmen
are already standing there, beating on the door. I tell them to step back.
I put my shoulder into it, feel the lock give way, and stumble into the
room. I hear the pellet, humming like a wasp as it whizzes past my head.
Then another grazes my belly. I don’t feel it. I just hear it.
“He’s got a gun!” I yell and crawfish backwards, the
doorknob still in my hand. I slam the door shut. The entire mob is out
there in the hall, and I think about bursting back in and sacrificing the
young ones, the ones with the fucked up haircuts, but they don’t call
me So-Crates for nothing.
“We need pillows. Freshmen, go get some fucking pillows.”
They scatter like soldier ants following pheromones. I’m not their
queen, but I damn sure like the way they listen, like the way they follow
directions. I watch as they retreat to their rooms, rooms I assigned them
on that first day. They reemerge with their pillows and their bald spots,
their penises and Mohawks.
“Line up,” I say and take a few of the young ones with pillows
and position them in front of the traitor’s door. I tell some to
squat, let others stand. I’m a big dude, and I’ll be damned if
he’s shooting me again with that fucking pellet gun again.
“On hut,” I say and they nod. After all those Treeland football
practices they know hut better than anything else. “Down,
set,” I pause and I breathe, “hut.”
We burst through the door. The pellets clank off the walls, one after
another. I hear one of the freshmen grunt. He’s been hit, but we know
better than to stop now. We’ve been trained. We make it to the little
fucker’s bed. I shout, “Get ‘em!” and my soldiers
drop their pillows and attack.
He’s a squat little fucker and shucks the first few that come after
him, but then I put my arms around him and squeeze. That’s all it
In the stairwell, Black sucker punches him, right in the gut, but when this
kid sees the cinder block and the clippers in the lobby he comes back to
life, writhing against my grip. He’s wet with sweat, slippery, like a
greased-up pig, a football in the rain. He squirms free and tries to run,
but there’s nowhere to go. The mob closes in. There are too many of
“What the fuck, man?” says Black, trying to be the voice of
reason. “Just chill out. Chill the fuck out.”
The mob inches closer. The young linebacker feels it and starts swinging
his arms in a figure eight like a hippie at a Grateful Dead concert. The
mob gives him some space. Black flicks on the clippers and the boy spins
faster and faster.
“Fuck this shit,” says Black and looks at Lang. Lang holds up
his bum right shoulder, shrugs, and looks at me.
“Come on, kid,” I say. “It’s a Treeland
I must have been bleeding worse than I thought from my belly wound, or
maybe I make a face, something sad, a final sign of exasperation—I
don’t know—but all I see next is that last lock of golden hair.
As Taylor steps toward the boy, I realize he’s been by my side all
Lang has taken everything from him. One of his eyebrows is gone. A single
tuft of his hair remains, his bangs. That little sliver of blonde dangles
down in front of his eyes. He looks like a clown, a deranged, chemo clown.
But he still has all that power in his right arm. He moves like an athlete,
quick steps, lateral movements of the hips, around to face the boy. Taylor
is holding his Cowboys’ pillow. He drops it. I see a little of his
own blood streaked across the pillowcase, or maybe it’s mine. He
glides into the middle of the circle, where the dumbass linebacker is still
spinning his crazy eights. The mob recedes for a moment, like maybe the
linebacker’s spin-cycle tactic is going to work. And then Taylor
McKissack decks him right in the jaw with the grace and precision of a
sixty-yard touchdown pass. The boy falls hard. The back of his head hits
the cinder block and cracks, like a rotten pumpkin on the day after
The boys cheer, and Black calls the ambulance.
There were so many guys who came through The Clink. So many guys who
thought they could make it as a Tornado. Besides Black and Lang and me,
there were only three other seniors who made it down from the fourth floor
to the first from our freshman year. But there were so many others, man, so
much hair was left on those lobby floors.
I don’t know what it was that made us different. Why we made it and
someone like Taylor McKissack did not. I thought about that for the rest of
my senior season, even afterwards, when I didn’t get into law school
and became the offensive line coach for the Dumas Bearcats, my alma mater.
I kept wondering if it meant anything at all. Lang ended up recovering from
his shoulder injury before the home opener. We went on to win six games. It
was a good way to go out.
Taylor McKissack never took a snap for the Tornadoes. I can still see the
look on his father’s face when he pulled into the parking lot of the
First Baptized Church of the God of Americas.
The service lasted almost three hours. I remember watching McKissack, the
back of his head, the places where Lang had pushed too hard, cut too deep.
At one point, right when the black preacher screamed, the congregation
moaned, and Black stood up with his hands raised and his eyes closed,
Taylor turned around and looked straight at me.
He looked different. That’s all I can say. I can’t say if it
was a good or bad kind of different—just different.
Then, when we were coming out through the big wooden doors, everybody still
sweating from the service, I saw Taylor’s dad standing in the parking
lot. I wondered if he knew Taylor had put that dumbass linebacker in a
coma. I’m sure he did.
Taylor walked on, unaware, walked right up to his father, almost like he
didn’t recognize him. He got in the car and the engine roared. Towers
didn’t say a word. Chick’s wind suit rustled against the late
summer breeze. Black said a prayer, I think, or maybe it was just the
lyrics to some rap song I didn’t know. Lang shrugged his shoulder,
his throwing shoulder. I could barely make out Taylor’s profile
through the tinted car window, but I knew he still had that strand of
blonde hair hanging down in his eyes and the one fucked-up eyebrow.