The Clink

by Eli Cranor

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. Number eight.”

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 Assistant?”

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 selfless, honorable.

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’ time now.”

“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.

“Justin Bates.”

“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 meat?”

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.

“Yes sir.”

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 said, “So-Crates?”

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 short.”

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 Tornadoes.”

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.

“Yo, Crates.”

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.”

“Already?”

“Already.”

“Lang?”

“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 moves.

“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 goddamn arm.

“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 the floor.

“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 she-will-be-fucking-your-best-friend.”

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 was.

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 and smiles.

“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 eight.

“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 girl.

“Bradbury is for little kids,” I say quick and loud.

“Pardon?”

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 life.

“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 be?”

“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 girl’s ass.

“Okay,” I say. “A quarterback.”

“What about you?”

“Me?”

“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 all.

“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 says—”

“Fifty yards is a long-ass throw. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

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 serious.”

“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?” Taylor says.

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 extra energy.

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 Central Avenue 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 savior.

“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 know Snake.”

“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.

“Not you.”

“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 field.”

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.”

“Easy, Lang.”

“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.”

“Hey, Crates?”

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?”

“No clue.”

“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 that.”

“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 tomorrow.

“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 gun. “CREEK!”

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 his neck.

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 game?”

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 that ass.”

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 spotted…”

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 end.

*

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 often.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Right.”

I put my head down and try to leave.

“Hey, Crates?”

“Yeah?”

“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 something.”

I turn to walk away.

“Crates?”

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.

“You’re serious?”

“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 Taylor.

“The penis?”

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 clippers.”

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 fuck on.”

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 takes.

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 us.

“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 tradition.”

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 along.

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 Halloween.

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.


ELI CRANOR played quarterback in college and then coached high school football for five years. These days, he’s traded in the pigskin for a laptop, writing from Arkansas where he lives with his wife and daughter. Eli’s football-themed column “Hash Marks” appears regularly in the Oxford American. He was awarded the Robert Watson Literary Prize by The Greensboro Review and honored by The Missouri Review for their 2018 Miller Audio Prize. Eli is currently at work on a novel.