From his window seat on the bus, Eli read out loud the only billboard on the desolate, over-grazed, prairie at the western edge of Decatur which was Jacksboro’s chief sports rival and which was where Eli and the Tiger Kittens were traveling to play their first game of the season. The billboard pictured a pair of dice below the phrase, “Eighter from Decatur”. He turned to a crew-cut butter-ball in a straw cowboy hat sitting next to him and pointed out the window.
“What’s that sign about?
“You ain’t never seen that before? Shit, ever’body knows about Ader from Decatur. She was a nigger whore back in them cattle-drive days when them old waddies used to go to town just to find a whore house. She was famous. They used come from far and wide. And when she died, they made up a great big a funeral for her. I’ve seen pictures of it.”
As they approached the modest stadium lights of the football field, Eli tried to make sense of how a fundamentalist, white, right-wing, racist town could decide to represent themselves to strangers passing through with a reference to a dead black prostitute who had been an unconsecrated human pilgrimage site for the frustrated penises of lonesome cowboys. The incongruity emphasized what he had been trying not to acknowledge—that he was hopelessly out of his element.
The Decatur High School football team was known as the Eagles, but the junior high school team had to be called the Eaglets, just as Eli’s team had to be the Kittens, and Eli took some solace in this. There were bands, and cheerleaders, and streamers and balloons and lights and an announcer. It was a mini “stadium” that really looked like a small town rodeo arena–and had been originally.
The boys marched off of the bus and were escorted to a locker room where they stashed boots and jeans and hats to replace them with ill-fitting uniforms. The coach gathered them around him for a prayer and pep-talk. In the typical fashion of West-Texas men, he did not waste words. He gazed around the room silently, making eye contact with each boy individually. No one made a sound. He crossed his arms and settled his posture down into his feet.
“We cai’nt start out this season on a bad note, and we ain’t goin to are we?”
“NO SIR!” they replied chorally.
“Well, I expect ya’ll know by now exactly what you’re supposed to do. Ain’t that right?”
“Well then, just go on out there and do it.”
But Eli was not confident that he knew exactly what he was supposed to do as he followed his team mates out onto the field. Even after weeks of drills and practice, he still had only an unnervingly opaque grasp of what was supposed to be happening on the playing field, so he was relieved to begin the game by sitting in his uniform on the bench, looking on and cheering when it seemed appropriate, and acting disappointed when it was apparently customary to do so. He concentrated with all his ability to understand, but the effort only muddled his already over-stimulated senses. The lights, the cheering, the bullhorns and bands, all seemed to spin around his head like a stick-whipped nest of hornets. He longed to lie down alone in some quiet place.
The coach slapped a hand like a meat-loaf hand on Eli’s helmet.
“Get on the field and tell Jake to come on in.” he said.
Eli did as he was told and joined the huddle. Strange incantations were uttered by the quarterback, shoulder pads and helmets were mutually slapped and everyone fell into line. Eli had figured out more or less where he was supposed to be in formation. When he got it wrong, someone always looked at him incredulously and shoved him into the right spot, so he hoped that he would receive the same sort of guidance now. The quarterback counted, he took the ball from the center, and Eli ran an arc around the Eaglets looking to catch the ball in case it was thrown to him.
As it happened, he had done exactly the right thing and the ball was thrown to him and he caught it just as he was clipped and spun almost off of his feet by a player from the other team. He regained his footing and ran hard for the white line at the end of the field. He could feel someone panting just over his shoulder. The crowd was screaming. He heard his name being shouted as if from everywhere at once as he crossed the line like a bullet and brought himself back around to a stop beside the goal-post. A joyful contentment that he had not anticipated began to well up inside him and he could feel his face begin to smile. It dawned on him as he struggled to catch his breath that from that moment, his life was starting over. It was going to be a different life than he had ever dared to imagine was possible for him. One of the guys wearing a whistle and a black and white striped shirt approached him smiling, and gently took the ball from his hands.
“You ran the wrong way, you stupid fuck” he said in a hoarse whisper.
The rest of the game as well as the showers, the locker room, and the ride back to Jacksboro was mercifully erased from his memory. It was the first time in his life that he felt ubiquitously despised. And utterly alone. His father was far away, and his mother had lately been emotionally absent. On Monday, he got to school late, so there was little opportunity for anyone to persecute him in the morning, but at lunch time, everyone left the building for the corner store to buy a cardboard burger and a Dr.Pepper. He never got a chance to eat. Fortunately, he only had to take them on one at a time, and he fought well enough to re-establish a grain of dignity, but he still came out of it limping, and disconsolate.
He returned to class bloody and bruised, with spit in his hair and on his shirt torn so that he could no longer button it properly. The teachers plainly knew what had happened, but let it go, supposing that, after all, he had it coming. He did not go to football practice that day, or any day afterward. He kept to himself as much as anyone would allow, except to defend himself from daily physical attacks in the mornings, at lunch, at recess, and sometimes after school as well. Every new day seemed like a punishment for having woken up.
Blake, the quarterback, was reading out loud:
“Hadees in his black churiut swept down upon Persifoen…”
“What a fuckin dumshit”, Eli thought to himself. Gradually his attention was pulled to the sound of people yelling outside, and laughing. Someone in class stood up to see into the street and gasped, and then the whole class jumped to the row of windows despite the teacher’s protests.
Two dogs were coupled together, as sometimes happens to dogs during or after coitus. They could not pull themselves apart, and a crowd of boys outside found this unbearably amusing. High school boys who were through with classes for the afternoon had assembled in the street to throw rocks at the dogs which were unable to navigate their linked bodies cooperatively in order to escape. Still inseparable, they now were tail to tail, and they moved and stumbled in ridiculous circles, whining and barking, rolling the whites of their eyes in fear. A brick hit the bitch in the ribs with a thud that Eli could hear even through the closed windows. Moving in close, the boys began to beat the dogs with lengths of broken live oak branches. More and bigger rocks and bricks were hurled at the animals from close range along with the wielding of heavy sticks until both dogs lay trembling in the street. The laughing, shouting boys skipped off together toward a line of parked cars.
Eli looked off in the other direction at the horizon beyond the town, and thought about the pastures and wheat fields stretching out from the windows of his father’s car as they drove back to Denton every other weekend. His father, who had often quoted poetry out loud to himself or to anyone who might be listening had recently quoted a few lines of Whitman as they drove to Denton together for a weekend, passing by a copse of drought-stunted live oaks where lovely red Santa Gertrudes cows grazed on sweet deep emerald grass of a recent rain.
“I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
Thy do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable of unhappy over the whole earth.”
He wanted to be driving away in that car with his father, but the week was just beginning, stretching out before him like a long dark sewer pipe.