Self is watching as the girls, on the other side of the field, wheel into position before the targets that are set up with bales of straw backing them twenty paces downwind. The girls carry bows and arrows, like a gross of Dianas. Self wishes he were over there with them, they and their exercise seems to have a mythopoeic resonance which tag football (where he is stuck) will never have. Tag football is a clumsy game that only two people on your team are good at (Wilbur Thomas and Tony James) and two people on the other team are good at. Wilbur is the quarterback. At the signal Wilbur gets the ball and runs back and all the boys spread out in a clumsy flower of cries and misdirections, except for Tony, who finds his pocket. Tony catches the pass and runs ‑ or Norman intercepts it, who is one of the good ones on the other side. Although being tag ball you are supposed to pull the little cloth strips out of where they are wedged into the band of the gym shorts to stop the man with the ball, nobody bothers when Coach Sick isn't around. You all throw yourselves on each other in a general orgy of tackle, so that sometimes even when the ostensive goal of the game ‑ the crossing of the goal line by Tony or Norman or Wilbur or Jurgen ‑ is reached, nobody pays any attention, busy as they are trying to drag one another down.
Self is good at one thing, though. Here it comes. Down set
one two four hike hike hike. The ball wobbles up to Wilbur. Our tenuous formations, all the boys crouching, dissolve. Now for the thing you are good at. There is a deaf boy on the other team sometimes. Sometimes not ‑ every other week he has some special class he attends at another school, so his appearance in gym class is irregular. Along with his deafness his hormones early released. At fourteen he weighs two hundred pounds. Self's body is paltry by comparison. Nobody could meet him head on, nobody has that terrifying Mongol much of chest arm neck and leg. So self trips him. He protects Wilbur by tripping him, which somehow he has a talent for. It is a bold thing to do, but not really hard, since the deaf guy is pathetically unaware of anything except the thing he sets his mind on, as if he existed on one narrow reel of perception, about a half inch in width. So self can just slip in and trip him. Wilbur says Street is the team tripper and pats him on the back. That makes people laugh, because everybody knows that self and Mark get high after school or sometimes before school in the grove of pine trees behind the second field. The deaf boy has been sufficiently shaken up by self's success in tripping him that he has changed his mind about the point of the game. For the deaf boy, the point, now, is to crush self. When the ball snaps, he comes rushing at self and there ensues a chase, which sometimes goes on for a while if nobody attracts the deaf boy's attention. Self will be hightailing it, god damn it god damn it somebody tell this ape to stop! Everybody laughs. Even the girls know about it.
They've started to call him Tripper. Street the Tripper.
You all are lined up outside the dressing area. Self wears two white socks with different colored stripes around the upper part of each. People in the school ask him why, and he says he hates symmetry. He says it in french: Je deteste la symmetrie. He hopes that he is pronouncing that right. He wears a t shirt with a Led Zeppelin logo on the back which Coach Sick has told him not to wear. He is supposed to wear his t shirt with the Gladstone Goats logo on the back. He wears green, nylon shorts. Coach Sick has just come in, and the noise you all make talking to each other dies down. Tripper, Coach Sick says, you go and change.
Can't Coach. My other shirt is dirty.
Durn it, son. Why are you so hardheaded? One of these days I'm going to beat your meat. Tomorrow you better just have your shirt washed. And I don't want any ifs ands or buts.
Then Coach Sick reads outloud from a little notebook. There is an undercurrent of hilarity in the room, because a joke is going on. Before Coach Sick came in, Wilbur and Norman had stuffed the smallest kid in class, Mike, into one of the lockers, and told him not to make a sound. Mike had struggled, but once they got his legs in the locker he'd gone limp. He was resigned to being stuffed in the locker. The lockers line the wall, and the boys line up right in front of them. Self happens to be in front of the locker Mike is locked in. Mike doesn't want to call out because of what Wilbur said, but he wants to make some sound. So he raps on the door of the locker, but not too loud. You swing your fist back and knock on the locker, too. You cough. Mike, growing a little desperate, says let me out. In a whisper. You cough, Coach Sick looks up at you.
Don't act up on me. I'm just about to give you five laps.
There are giggles. Coach Sick looks at these boys. What is so funny?
Who asked you, Mr. Thomas?
Durn right nobody.
Mr. Healy here Mr. A. James here Mr. T. James here Mr. Kirkbuzzer here Mr. Mowley Mowlaw Are you here here Mr. Nobbles here Mr. Olbey yo.
Coach Sick finally reaches Mike's name. Mike Skovisich. He
always mispronounces it. Michael Skrochits, he says.
Here. The voice comes out all echoey. You cough, but you can't cover it up.
Coach Sick looks up. We all laugh, and then his face instantly puts the stop to that laugh, which we all knew it would. His face is all puffy, like an unmade bed someone feverish has been sleeping in. His eyes are squeezed up and reddish, and his lips are chapped. He wears a baseball cap pulled down low on his forehead. Now he pulls it off and wipes his hair back with his arm. I told you boys once. He puts the cap back on, as low as the first time. Now I mean it. You can't be locking durn Mike in the durn lockers, like I told you and told you. Now that is ten laps, and I mean now, and I'd like to catch the boy that tries to cheat me on a lap. I'd surely like to beat that boy's meat. Christ, now, Tripper let that boy out of the durn locker before I have to come over there!
So there self is, his knees drawn up. He's wearing a Dylan t shirt, the one that shows Dylan’s profile like he looked when he did Blond on Blond. Except on the shirt he’s purple. Self is trying to not-comb his hair to look like that. Self’s shorts are still regulation nylon gym shorts, green trimmed with gold. He's leaning back against the cold tile of one of the walls of this room, looking on as Coach Wurtemburg, using Albert and Tony as models, explains wrestling grips. He says headlock and Albert about wrenches Tony's head off, he says flip and they are both all over the mattress, wiggling one over the other like two newly caught fish in the bottom of a boat. Coach Wurtemburg is caught between explaining and looking around at you all and trying to keep track of Albert and Tony. He looks down at them, goes hey, putting his hands on Albert’s shoulders, who at the moment is struggling not to be pinned. Somebody says in a fake deep voice take it easy son and Coach Wurtemburg looks up and says Mike, you are about this far
Mike’s father has a shop in the Memorial Cherokee Shopping Center, located on Memorial Drive, about a mile from Gladstone High if you cut over the field in back of Cherry. It wasn’t a very intense shopping center. It has a drycleaner, a barber, a used book store, a shoe repair place, Mike’s father’s shop, a crafts store, and a Chinese restaurant. The Chinese restaurant exudes a horrible smell every once in a while, an odor of barbecue sauce and rancid grease. The smell crept into other of the shops. Self, for a while, had a job working Saturdays for the lady who owns the used book shop. The smell was the worst thing about the job, because if the Chinese restaurant smell wasn’t bad enough, there was the smell of the old musty paperbacks, and when the two would get together in the afternoons it was sickening. They cook rats over there, self says to customers, and some of them laugh. The smell would hang doggedly on self’s clothes after he left work.
Mike’s father is a painting contractor. His shop is just an office and a backroom. The office is inhabited in the afternoons and on Saturdays by Mike’s sister, Lorrie, reading intensely, with
a frown on her pale, blotched face, behind a desk. Sometimes she would come into the bookstore on the day self worked with a dozen
paperbacks in an old, torn shopping bag, and trade them in for three romance novels by Viola Trefoils. Viola had written two hundred twenty, and Lorrie was up to number twenty‑five. Self would say how’s Mike and Lorrie would say he’s still a stinking brat. Then she’d put down her dollar and put her books back in the grocery sack. It was the same grocery sack every time.
The back of Mike’s father’s shop is a space where he kept equipment. His guys would come in and get equipment and check in on the time clock. Sometimes they would venture into the front office, to find out how far Lorrie had gotten with Viola Trefoils, and she would tell them this is my twentieth one or whatever the number was without even looking up from the book.
The parking lot in back of Mike’s father’s shop isn’t paved. They put a lot of broken rock in back there instead, and use has eroded long ugly reddish swatches in that. There are puddles of water here and there, from this afternoon’s rain, still not evaporated by midnight. There is a faint winy smell of paint back here. Paint cans are piled up near the shops back door, and one of the cans is open. There is also a smell of honeysuckle. There is a copse of pines, little seedy pines and weeds, behind the driveway. That is where the honeysuckle is growing, and kudzu, and poison ivy, and beggar’s lice. There is a lot of rusted barbed wire strewn around back there too. That was dumped back there maybe even before the shopping center was built. There are three vans parked in the parking lot tonight. Everything is big and silent under the big moon. You all approach the vans like three pedlars, your packs on your backs. Two of the vans have signs on them: The Big S Painting Company. S for Skovisich. The other van is a white, year old Econoline as yet unmarked by any insignia. The sign is on order, Mike says. You feel a whole lot better about that, because if it was on the thing you knew you’d have a time persuading Mike that you all had to take it off. He’d cry about vandalism and how his Dad was going to kill him. But the Georgia licence as it is might well attract some dubious attention from the pigs, and a sign advertising a dumb paint company from Stone Mountain Georgia, accompanied by three underaged boys claiming to be all of them Skrotchits was going to be definitely uncool in the general scheme of things in Mississippi and Texas.
Mike takes the key out of his pocket and unlocks the door. He opens it, and the light inside there clicks on. .
Mike, hurry it.
I’m hurrying. Piss off.
Mike goes behind the seat, into the back part, and unlocks the sliding side doors.
Wake up. You re drooling, you pig, you got your fucking mouth open, look at this, look at this, a fly’s going to get... Cut it out! I just wanted ‑ What? I said, I wanted to show you something. What? Look at that. See that, man. Fucking dawn, man. Son, we
call it the mystic hour around these parts. Fuck, what is it? You can call it dawn, though, if you want to. What is with you, man, do you... Somebody is going to, hey, no, don’t, somebody is going to have to take over pretty soon, like I can’t drive too much further, hey, let’s not listen to music now! It’s too early. Somebody, please Trip, like take over, I am fucking... Shit. How long have you been driving anyway. Here comes the sun. Since that place we got the gas at, hey. Where you got those beaver mags? Here comes the sun. Hey, that’s not...Mike wants to go in the back and make it with Rosy Palm and her five finger... Don’t take it out! That’s not how here comes the sun goes. Sorry, but I am not fucking listening to Neil fucking Young again for a while. I mean, God. But how about that on the road, like, mystique, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, I mean America. The vast and siren spaces, man. Siren my ass, I am fucking tired of it, too early. How early is it? Is somebody listening to me, serious, I like got to go... When are we going to eat? What do you want me to do, run into a truck? Goddamn! Who did it, Wilbur you did it, you did it Trip, shit. Whoa, roll, no! It is too cold! What? Roll it up! You motherfucker. At least it woke you up. I am not lying, it is like, like the road is sort of swelling. What have you been tripping on? I want some of that, no seriously. Okay, next stop, let’s... How about that one, great. Love the Big Boy, greasy stuff. Your turds after this stuff come out like butter. Has anybody ever told you you are one unappetizing, I mean this is still what? Six thirty? You all take the cake, this is my van God
damn. Did you hear that? Did you, this is his van? We all stole this van honestly, like pioneers. Theft is the backbone of this country. You all... Next time I’m going to run away with some girls. Yeah, purely bitches. Me and a pretty pair, now that will be nice. Who’d you take? Let’s sit over there, in the booth. Good, now I am going to chow. Down, boys, get in there. I’ll have some pancakes, ma am. Coffee. Gah, I need some coffee. This one, here, yeah, with the bacon, please. I’ll have the Daniel Boone special, coffee for me too. I’d like to add milk to that. Get you some milk, Mike. I’d take Waylann. Cindy. Which Cindy? Marstone, not Tryweir, no way. I just, that bitch talks like all the time. Man, I would take Tryweir, she is, I been out with her... Ah, that looks great ma am. Yeah, we are all like on a trip? and we are all like going to this like special Bible Study camp? on account of we were voted most likely by our class? We all had to do sermons, see. It is a special program at our school. Like he’s going to be a preacher, it’s a program called Young Preachers of America... The Viola Trefoils Bible Studies Camp, it’s near Biloxi. I guess most teens today, what with sin and all, yeah, they wouldn’t be trusted out like this by their parents, but we’ve like all been voted most responsible in our school... And God Bless you, ma’am, tell her Mike, yeah, God, yeah... Damn it, stop kicking me! Hey, what, you think she, of course, man, now just calm down boys, future preachers... Hey, you know I bet everybody is fucking stunned at school. Maybe I ought to try the card? No, not yet, you don’t have the balls is your problem. My Dad’s definitely stunned, gonna stun me, gonna stun your behind son, when you get home. Hey, ma’am, it sure was good, we want you to know, we pray every day, don’t you pray every, Mike? Oh, he is a little tetchy today, going out to the... Well I’ll pay out of this twenty, okay... Wilbur, let’s...My Dad’s stunned too, but they stun you when you’re at the breakfast table, they stun you, when you’re good and able, everybody must get stunned, I’ll drive, pussy, go on back there, okay, keep down, come on, fuck, let me at least get an hour of sleep, no more, hey, stop it, stop it, stop fucking with me Wilbur...
The mouth, your mouth. It is another of those things which you carry on your face to direct you, orient you. You carry your eyes, you look, you look to be looked at, and you carry your nose, which sniffs out puzzling tracks, scripts of an, an... ancient and buried existence, ne jamais retrouvé, never like refound, which once, perhaps, dominated your kind.
Your kind? she says. She gives you a stare. What kind are we talking about? She giggles.
The nose, you continue, your voice with that fine, slightly stoned quality, the words having such flow, such liquid and pure enjambment, just keep talking, is a monument to a tyranny once so universal that it is amazing that it was ever overthrown, even for this brief grace period. Your arms spread, let’s call it human history. Let’s, she says. And you know that can’t last. The eye has a tendency to overburden itself, the eye is a freaking workaholic. Now the antenna will last forever, but the works of the eye, saying this in a sort of Vincent Price way, are doomed, baby.
She laughs and laughs.
Self sits near a little pool. A lot of brownish scum floats on the surface of the pool, bumping lazily into water lilly pads. Small turtles are swimming through the water and perched on the pads and crawling - with that oddly jerky, oaring ambulation so reminiscent of wind up toys expressing a movement unspooled by a metal spring - around on the gravel and rocks that circled the pool. The little legs of the turtles surging through the water in measured strokes fascinate self. The flesh of these turtles is a very vivid shamrock green. Their turds are the same color almost. Self remarks on this. I am sure glad my shit is a different color than my skin, he says.
Look at this, man.
He looks. There is a turtle perched on a rock next to Julia’s foot. It has its neck craned out. There’s a red spot on that ropy green neck. It keeps pulsing.
Self’s look slides unsteadily off the turtle. It moves onto Julia’s foot, a bit of cinema here. Well, everything feels movie-like tonight. Julia is tanned down almost to the little fjords between her toes. Self can see a hint of pallor there, just a hint. Her toes are painted red. Her leg is bare up to her knee (self’s look traces it) and bare down to her gym shorts (self’s look plunges down along the line of it). She is wearing black gym shorts, and self’s look pulls up there.
Self has on the same kind of gym shorts. Black, with a white stripe. Julia had given him the gym shorts. They’d met, at Wilbur’s friend Bea’s house. Bea shared the house with Julia. Julia had said, do you want some shorts?
Bea laughed, and Julia explained that they’d kicked out a roommate and were dividing up the stuff she’d left behind. She’d left a lot behind. Actually, it wasn’t clear if it was left behind or if she was going to come back to get it. But the attitude today is fuck her. Self says sure, he is always into free stuff.
That had been around twelve noon. Since then self had fainted twice. They’d all taken some mushrooms. Then he’d been with Bea and Wilbur and Julia walking around the University campus, and that whole area. Austin, first time self has seen it. Hard to believe we actually made it here, self keeps thinking. Mike had gone off somewhere. At some point Wilbur told self that Mike said he was going back to Atlanta. Self had thought gosh, he’s got all my stuff! But later on (at some point) self thought, well, I bet he isn’t really going to go back to Atlanta, I bet when we get back he’ll be in the van, asleep. Mike, self thought, shouldn’t have come with Wilbur and me. He’s miserable.
Self looks up. There is a big tower with a clock on it looming in the sky when he looks up.
Julia has been telling stories for a long time, mostly about her mother, who went crazy when Julia was six. Once she went to see her and her mother and this other inmate at this asylum got into a fistfight. Other people have been talking too, we’d wandered through a party, met some pseudobikers, but self is glued to what Julia has to say, that’s what he’s been following. Julia and self have definitely bonded tonight. Bea and Wilbur said goodby a while ago, people keep drifting into and out of self’s field of interest, and self gets lost listening to Julia’s voice, sometimes submerged in what she is saying, sometimes suddenly losing the thread, finding himself in odd places. Like this pool, where’d the pool come from?
Julia talks and talks. Over her succulent tongue the ghosts tumble, leaving ghostly treads, bends and shivers on the pink flesh. They come out and out. They don’t come from the brain, Julia says. She gets into this. The problem with science. She knows all about it. The problem is that we get all our pictures from bullshit like biology books, but reality is poetic, Street. Don’t you think? She talks, and out of her words mass like inexplicable omens. Words come out like stars in the night sky, glorious and sinister, emblems of fate. Words come out like the wind blowing leaves around aimlessly. Words come out like little panes of transparent glass, shook off high buildings and falling through the air, words come out like a host of invisible men. Words come out like bubbles, like froth. Words come out like demons, or they come out like blubber. The mouth opens, there are teeth there, and the black cavern goes back and about there is where the words start from. The mouth closes, the lips hop, the mouth opens. Like eating in reverse. The cheeks puff out, slightly, and pull in, slightly. Her cheekbones are just visible, the fine cut of her eyes, and then her profile falls back into shadow. The head wags a little bit, her hair is long and aubergine where she is sitting, and then when they get up and walk, under a streetlamp’s random light, the hair is shot through with auburn, a few startlingly red strands. Words wind away. Self interrupts, but why? He falls silent again. Julia’s words wind away, pilgrims, to another cul de sac. Your ears. But how about her ears? Her two ears, two perfect whirls. The cilia in that wind, the little hammer and tongs, vaguely conceived from a picture in a child’s encyclopedia. Arm and Hammer. And then up to the brain. Troops of dark impulses. Does she hear herself, is she self-entranced? Self is self-entranced, he walks within a little circle of his own light, self-light. Julia says that when she writes poems she always thinks about how words do things. And how every time it is magic, every dog that comes to Spot is enchanted, every time you order from a menu man you are doing sorcery man. She laughs at her own words.
But no, self says. I can see that, too. I’d love to see your poems.
Dad yelled, Mom cried. The usual.
Are you going to have to go to some juvenile delinquent place?
Sitting on the hot concrete, leaning against the wire of the high fence. Wires that intertwine, a running blazon of diamond shapes with rounded angles. His back presses against the fence, he shifts, moving his shoulder blades, looking for a comfortable posture. He is wearing black gym shorts with a white stripe, and a Willy Nelson t shirt. There is a wooden racket next to where he sits. The head of it wears a heavy wooden brace, firmly screwed into place with wing nuts, to prevent the wood from warping. The brown leather wrap around the handle is sticky. Self’s hands are sticky. Self’s legs are red. Red from sunburn. The afternoon burns away in a sky that is all ladled azure, maybe one faroff flaw of white on the far horizon. Jurgen, who sits next to him, is hot and sweaty and a little red. Nothing compared to what self knows his face must look like, that gets so red when he exerts himself. And it is hot, too. His face is emitting heat like a furnace. He has a plastic bottle half full of water. The other half he has poured over his head. Now he takes a sip of the water left in the bottle. Right on the court beyond his knees and the thin, slanting band of shadow thrown by the fence a chubby boy is playing tennis with a darkhaired boy, they zigzag around on the court, neither one is coming down to the forecourt, territory of which they are both manifestly wary. The chubby boy represents Gladstone. Coach Goddard had told Trip that he could go out and watch the team and practice with them, but that because he was suspended from extra-curricular activities he couldn’t play against Tower. The chubby boy, Bill Timmer, isn't, self thinks, as good as me. Although self, who has their mutual win loss column counted up in his head, knows that his superiority to Bill consists in the rather ineffable factor of grace. Self considers that his service, his returns, his backhand are all done with a certain panache. Bill's clumsiness is, indeed, efficient, but it is rather painful to watch. At this moment Bill goes barrelling for a ball, his chubby legs flying, and just gets there in time, turning his whole body around with the force of his return. Bill's play, as usual, is full of these last minute returns. That is because he lags behind his opponent, he continually gets into a position where his opponent is running him around on the court. Luckily for Bill, he doesn't play many people who have the wherewithal to take advantage of that lag. The dark haired boy, who represents Tower, slokes a slow return down the alley line, and Bill, who is right there, returns it with a good cross court stroke. Bill was lucky with that one, self says. The dark haired boy serves again, making a great unclogging noise, and Bill returns. The dark haired boy hits a long, looping pop. Bill runs to the far line. He stands erect, his racket high. It is like he is getting ready to swat a nervous fly with a flyswatter. Both Bill and the dark haired boy watch the ball hit and bounce. Bill releases his racket. He hits the ball with the wood, and sends it on a wild flight over the fence into a bank of grass.
Hey, this isn't golf, self yells.
A back and forth of middle court shots. Pock of the ball again and again. Attrition tennis. The different pocks of the ball hitting the concrete and the ball hitting the tennis racket strings. Risk a few killer shots, self thinks. Risk, Goddamn.
There are eight courts in this complex, and on the three courts over there is another game in progress. Self thinks, it looks like we are biting it. Self glances over to the other game to see how Gladstone is doing, but he can't tell from the play. He thinks, well, I don't really care. I just want the sky to look like this, I just want to sit here soaked and tired like this, I want to listent to the balls pocking, and the squeak of the rubber soles of the tennis shoes sliding, the difficult friction of a run and a stop, I just want it all to happen.
I don't know. Everybody keeps yelling at me, telling me I fucked up. But I didn't fuck up. I didn't fuck up.