“I thought better of you, Fish.”
I just nod. It’s been a week, a goddamn week, and it’s Sunday. You think they’d shut the hell up on Sunday, but they don’t.
“Your brother, now, I might’ve expected this out a him,” continues Brother Frank, lead pastor of Taggard’s fancy new nondenominational church, Christ Zone. My little brother, Jerry, giggles behind me.
That’s really all I can say, they’ll never get it, never understand why I did what I did. So I just nod. I’m not even sure why I did it. No one knows why. If I were to poll the congregation, take Brother Frank’s little earpiece microphone and scream into it, “Why are we here?” The people, the sheep, if they were honest, would admit to their ignorance, or at least feel it down deep somewhere, feel it in their souls, the sins that lead them to Christ Zone and the strobe lights and smoke machines that serve as substitute for the Holy Spirit.
“At least you’re here,” says Brother Frank. “You’re in the Zone.”
It’s a renovated Walmart. There’s no hiding that. Concrete rises in cracks where they ripped out a cash register to build the altar. A ribbon of blue paint encircles the sanctuary, Bible verses written above and below. Foldout chairs sit atop the rubble.
“You hear me, Fish?”
Brother Frank cocks his head at me, the same look I give Zane, the lead singer of the praise band, when he asks us not to clap at the end of a song, saying, “Give your applause to Jesus—only Jesus,” as the fog machine farts and a smell like pancake syrup fills the void.
Brother Frank huffs and shuffles off toward his die-cast, chrome pulpit.
“Fucking preacher,” says Jerry and swipes his hand up the crack of my ass. “He don’t get it, Fish. Don’t none of them get it. But don’t worry, big bro, I get it.”
“Sure you do, Jer,” I say. “Sure you do.”
The new Walmart is bigger than Christ Zone. We go after church every Sunday, me and Mom and Jerry. The congregation is all here too; men in their overalls, some in suits and ties, women with babies and tattoos you can’t see in the dark of Christ Zone but can damn sure see in Walmart.
Jerry tells Mom he’s going to the magazine rack, says he’s going to “check out some titties.”
Mom hears him, I know she hears him, but lets him go. Dad left three years ago. I was twelve, Jerry was ten, and Mom was just left, alone.
“Be careful,” says Mom.
I watch my brother walk in the opposite direction of the magazine rack. The bit about the tits was too much. He knows that, but there’s no use trying to hide anything anymore.
Jerry turns down aisle ten. The sign hanging above it reads:
Personal Hygiene—Baby Products—Paper Towels
Mom eyes the crumpled paper in her hands. She had worked hard on the list all morning, jotting an item down, striking through it, then writing it again while Brother Frank preached from Revelation.
“Milk,” says Mom, then says it again like she’s thirsty. “Milk.”
I hustle to catch up with Jerry.
The back of Jerry’s pants bulge. He wore his Bulldog football shorts to Christ Zone and no one said a word. He doesn’t hear me coming. I slap his ass and a box of tampons fall from his shorts.
“Shit,” says Jerry, scrambling for the box. “What the fuck, Fish?”
“Tampons, Jer. Really?”
“Get off it.”
“What the hell you gonna do with tampons?”
Jerry’s elastic waistband pops against the cardboard box, concealing the contraband. A greasy grin creases his face. “Butt-chugging.”
“Shit, Fish, don’t act like you’ve never heard of butt-chugging.”
“I don’t even want to know.”
“You do know,” he says, taking three bottles of hand sanitizer down from the shelf. “Pussies know all about tampons.”
I’m just about to slap the box again, when I feel the hand on my back.
“What the Nantz brothers getting into today?”
The voice is hard and calloused like the hand. Pigskin.
“Hey, Coach Chick.”
“Jerry?” says Chick, eyeing the hand sanitizer. “Planning on cleaning the locker room tomorrow after practice?”
There’s a look in Jerry’s eye, a look like “butt-chugging” is on the tip of his tongue, but then it’s gone. Jerry is solemn, stoic. He looks down and says, “No sir. Mother has cancer.”
Coach Chick is visibly startled. He takes a step back in the narrow aisle. An overhanging box of Platex Ultra-Absorbent Tampons touches his shoulder, but then he stops, catching himself. Chick’s the new coach this year. It was a big deal when we got a former college coach, but he’s different than Coach Meadows had been. I can’t really say what’s different about him. From what I heard, he beat the hell out of some graduate-assistant at his old job.
“Cancer?” says Chick.
Jerry nods, eyes down.
“Why the hand sanitizer then, son?”
My brother’s eyes rise slowly. “It’s the contagious kind.”
Again, Coach Chick is shook. He folds his arms across his chest, letting them rest there atop his gut. He turns his beady eyes to me as Jerry stuffs the three bottles of hand sanitizer into his pants and waddles down the aisle.
“How you holding up, Fish?”
I think back to last Thursday, the day before our first football game. I remember what Coach Chick said, how he said the word disappointed over and over again. I remember my dad talking to me like that. Mom doesn’t talk like that, not anymore. She’s the only who hasn’t said a word about what I did, hasn’t even asked why I did it.
“Still not gonna talk about it?” says Chick. The skin on his neck hangs in soft folds and layers, straining against his words. “I get it, Fish. I really do, but just know I’m here for you, buddy. When you’re ready to talk, you know where to find me.”
The dangling box of tampons falls from the shelf as Coach Chick turns to walk away. He doesn’t pick it up, doesn’t even stop. On the front of the box there’s a picture of a girl, maybe my age, maybe eighteen. She’s climbing the ladder of a swimming pool. She’s pretty. She’s clean. There is no trace of blood in the water, just like Christ Zone and Walmart. Sterilized. I’ve never seen a girl like her in my life.
“Come on, Jer. It’s Sunday.”
“So? We ain’t got school tomorrow. Labor Day, remember.”
“Yeah, but still, I’m not doing it. That’s disgusting.”
We’re in the basement. It’s our refuge from a distant mother and an absent father, coaches and preachers. There’s a Led Zeppelin poster tacked to the wall. A lava lamp. I bet we’re the only kids in America with a lava lamp and Zeppelin. We live in the basement. We do everything in the basement: shit, piss, shower, shave—Jerry started shaving last month, I taught him—jerk off, watch movies, dress for school, eat, sleep, and wake, in the basement.
Mom stays upstairs.
When we got home from Walmart, Jerry cracked the tops off the hand sanitizers, dumped salt in the bottles, and began pouring his concoction through cheesecloth into one big bowl. I just watched him, eyeing the unopened box of tampons.
“What’s with the tampons?”
“Suspense, Fish. I’m building suspense.”
“You’re retarded, man.”
“If by retarded you mean deviating from what is generally expected, then yes, I agree.” Jerry slides his finger under the tampon box’s lid. “I am a retard.”
“That’s not even the definition.”
The box lies empty on the floor. The pretty girl smiles up at me from the edge of her undiluted pool. Jerry’s soaking the tampons in the bowl like teabags, the little white strings draped over the edge, braided and cute like the girl’s hair.
“This shit is like seventy proof. The same as Jack Daniels, or Bacardi.”
“But the tampons, Jer. What’s with the fucking tampons?”
“You’re going to stick those tampons up your ass, aren’t you?”
“Damn straight,” says Jerry. “Shit gets you fucked up, and you don’t even have to drink the nasty-ass whiskey or vodka. It just goes right in your bloodstream like E. coli, and then wham—two minutes later, you’re drunk as shit.”
I study the soaking tampons and imagine actually sticking one of those things up my ass. There is a line, some boundary that once broken—penetrated—is impossible to come back from. I know this. Jerry knows this. The veil was lifted when Dad split. We saw behind the curtain. All the good in the world, all the charades parents put on for their kids, evaporated when Dad split. Santa Claus? Christmas? Jesus in a manger? Bullshit. There is no doubt in my mind that that led to this: ultra-absorbent tampons soaking in a bowl of hand sanitizer.
“You’ve done this before?”
“Read about it on the internet,” says Jerry. “But I’m about to do it. I’m about to get retarded.”
Christ Zone looks different with the lights on, looks just like what it is—a born-again Walmart. I have to keep reminding myself of that. Jerry sprayed from both ends all night. During his worst moments, the shit and the puke came simultaneously. His poor little legs lifting and quivering as he shat, head deep within the five-gallon bucket Dad had used to store our baseballs.
Brother Frank sits buried within a pile of chords and wires running from the strobe lights, smoke machines, and guitar amplifiers, all the reasons people choose Christ Zone over the stiff, hardwood pews of the First United Methodist Church.
Brother Frank jerks hard against the cables. “Fish?”
“What is it, son?”
“I, uh, I guess I wanted to talk.”
Brother Frank stops wrestling with the chords. He goes still, completely slack, amorphous, as if he hopes he’ll just ooze out through the wires and cables. But he doesn’t. Instead, he lies there, his big doll eyes lolling, eyes that look like someone thought it’d be funny to put them so close together.
“Is now a good time?”
“Of course, Fish. I knew you were coming.” Brother Frank grins through his tangled mess. “You want to talk about your transgression?”
“Well, I guess. That’s part of it.”
“It was an awful brazen thing you did. And now, of all times. Right before your senior year. Right after we hired Coach Chick.”
“I know, but that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.”
“But, that was a big decision, a huge, life-impacting choice, and not just for you. Think of your mother, your brother. He looks up to you, Fish.” There’s a skinnier cable slicing across Brother Frank’s mouth as he speaks. “Have you prayed about it?”
“What you did.”
“God cares, Fish.”
“Okay you’ll pray about it?”
I don’t want to lie to him, so I don’t say anything.
“If you’re not going to talk to God, maybe you should go talk to Coach Chick.”
“I talked to Coach already.”
“I know, but maybe you should talk to Coach about what you talked to Coach about. That’s why we’re in this predicament. Denton has a heck of a team, Fish. I mean, we scraped by Lutherville last week, but Denton? God-almighty. I heard they have a new running back this year, a black stallion.”
Brother Frank jerks against his restraints as if the thought of the Denton Pirates and their new running back Tyreek Bloodsaw put the fight back in him. But the cables have him; there’s no denying that. If he wants to continue his crusade against the Methodists, those chords are his only hope.
“Butt-chugging.” I say it without thinking or knowing why.
“Pardon?” says Brother Frank, finally breaking free of his chains, standing now. His Taggard Bulldogs’ football t-shirt is sweat-dark from his pits to his navel.
I try to speak, but what is there to say after such a thing has been said? After such a thing has been done?
I’m walking toward the sliding glass door. Through it the day is gray and peculiar. Warm September air rushes in as I rush out. The door rattles on its tracks, opening, staying open, then closing with a soft thump.
When I see the field house, I stop running. I’m standing on the practice field, in the end zone. The field is dirt, barely any grass left. I remember that flooding is a problem when it rains. Ankle deep water saturates our feet. Belly flops ensue. We always have to stuff our cleats with newspapers to soak up the water, wadded Sports Sections, my name in there somewhere: “Bulldogs look to rely heavily on Nantz for Chick’s first season.” Headlines in bold. The black ink still wet on my fingers, Jerry’s fingers, all the boys’ fingers.
Newspapers might have caused this.
That’d be a good place to start, but Coach Chick wouldn’t understand newspapers. They mean too much to him. He’s probably in his office right now reading one. I move to take a step, but I can’t. I’m stuck.
Maybe if I tell him about Campbell Weatherford, the running back before me, before Chick got here, and how I saw Camp with a girl, a young girl, younger than the girl on the Tampax box, maybe Coach would understand. Camp took her into the bedroom at Cecil James’s house back in May, right when school was letting out. We were partying. The fact that Campbell was at a high school party should be evidence enough, but I know better. I’d have to tell Coach everything, and still, I don’t think he’d understand.
They weren’t in there long, but only Camp returned to the party. I thought about going in, checking on the girl.
I went home.
I remember Jerry saying he knew her, that she was younger than him too. Then the next day, we’re all at the Bulldog baseball game and in walks Camp. Strutting. There was something about the way he walked. It wasn’t summer yet, but it was hot. The way people watched him walk, like all those touchdowns, all those homers, added up to something more than just lights on a scoreboard.
The townspeople—Brother Frank, Mrs. Clayton, Principal Rexroot, the girls, all the girls, young and old—watched Camp from the bleachers. Nobody knew. There’s no way Brother Frank could have known about Kelsey Vall: thirteen years old, skinny pigtails braided tight, in Cecil James’s parents’ bed crying, alone. No way Brother Frank knew. But they’d seen Camp prance across that goal line. They’d seen the ball explode off his bat. And though he was already three years gone, and a soft paunch pushed against the fabric of his cut-off t-shirt, the words, “Conference Champs,” stretching, billowing out but fading like Camp’s small town celebrity, the crowd didn’t care. The shirt sure didn’t care about Kelsey. Why did I care about Kelsey?
It begins to rain.
I stand and let the water rise past my ankles and fill my shoes.
“Fish? What’re you doing?”
I can barely hear Coach Chick, can barely see him. His hand is up shielding his eyes from the rain. He’s wearing a huge white poncho with BULLDOGS stamped across the front in red. I mouth the words, “Tampax Ultra-Absorbent.”
“Fish, son, it’s raining.”
I feel the rain. I know it’s there, but I can’t see it. I see only Kelsey Vall, Brother Frank, Zane and his praise band, the pretty girl in the pool, Jerry passed out on the sofa, the tampon still in his ass. Campbell. Camp-bell. Camp.
“What’re you doing in the rain, Fish?”
“I told you already,” I whisper, the water rising around me.
Coach Chick is wading across the field now, the rain battering the white poncho like machinegun fire. But Coach Chick does not bleed. Nobody bleeds anymore.
I take a step back, my waterlogged shoes heavier than expected. I stumble. I fall. I lay back in the water. It covers my ears. Each raindrop falls without remorse, a sound like baptism, a sprinkling. I watch and listen, trying to make sense of it all. That’s the problem: Campbell Weatherford never worried a day in his life, just a touchdown-scoring machine. That’s why everyone loved him. I remember thinking about that when I told Coach Chick what I told him last Thursday, the day before our first game.
I don’t hear Coach; I feel him, his words vibrating up through the water.
“Let’s get you in the field house, Fisher. Get you warmed up.”
The field house is freezing, absolutely chilling. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe that’s what finally gets me. I don’t know.
“You come to talk?” says Coach Chick.
My mouth is frozen.
“I got a little time before practice.”
In fourth grade I laughed at Corey, the stuttering-boy. He sang “Nothing But The Blood” in the Dwight Elementary talent show, but even Jesus couldn’t keep Corey from stuttering. I remember the laughter expanding, growing in my gut until it exploded, so loud, so strong that Corey simply stopped singing, jammed the microphone back into the stand, and walked off the stage.
“Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” I say, aloud, against the churn of Chick’s window unit.
“Now you’re talking,” says Coach Chick and hustles his nuts, crosses his legs.
“The Bible, Coach, I think about it a lot.”
“Good, Fish. That’s good.”
“And I don’t think it comes right out and says it, but I think it’s in there.”
“No, not the blood.”
Coach Chick uncrosses his legs, leans forward.
“Murder, rape, all the regular evil—I get it,” I say, watching Coach. I’m shivering. “People get so mad they kill other people. So horny they just can’t help but fuck.”
“Language, Fish. Watch your language.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” I say. “But there’s something even worse, a sin that’s unforgivable.”
Chick’s eyebrows arch, a look on his face like what the fuck.
“I know, Coach. I know. Honestly, I shouldn’t even tell you this, because then you will know too. Then you’ll be held responsible.”
Coach fingers the whistle around his neck but says nothing.
“What did Brother Frank preach about on Sunday?” I say.
“Something from Revelation. Something with trumpets, maybe?”
“See, that’s the difference between Brother Frank and Jesus. You’ll never forget ‘turn the other cheek,’ but you already forgot Brother Frank’s Revelation sermon.”
“Fish, I’m just wanting to know—”
I raise my hand. “The answer is the same as it was last Thursday. It’s not changing. Butt-chugging, Coach. Did you know such a thing existed?”
“Of course not, and that’s why you’ll be fine. You will pass Judgment. But me? I’ve seen it all, stared straight through the fog machine and into Zane Abernathy’s fake ass. His real name is Zack, Coach. He made up a fucking stage name for the church band.”
Coach stands and checks his watch. Water drips as his great white poncho unfurls, billowing in the air conditioner’s churn like a freshly freed tampon floating in pink water.
“About time for practice, Fish. You sure you don’t want to come back out and play?”
I shake my head. I wish, God, I pray for the veil. How nice it would be to cut the sleeves from my shirt and walk around a Taggard Bulldogs baseball game like the world fit neatly in my palm, or to plug my ass with enough alcohol-saturated tampons to free myself from the pain, or preach from the book of Revelation, or coach high school football—play high school football—or scribble grocery lists in church, or leave. Just walk the fuck out of Taggard and never look back.
“I told you already, Coach, I’m not—”
The words are on the cusp of my lips, right there, but the thought of saying them again is too much, too hard. Instead, I do the only thing that would make sense to Coach Chick. The thing people have done and will continue to do when they are finally faced with a question that has no answer.
“Will you pray with me, Coach?”
Coach Chick jerks back like I just bounced a football off his forehead.
I know Jerry is in the locker room, telling the other boys—boys who went dove hunting with their dads on Labor Day—about butt-chugging. “Fucking awesome.” That’s how he’ll describe it. Coach notices the sound of the boys, his boys, but does not turn from me.
“If we pray,” says Coach Chick, “you gonna play ball?”
A bead of water drips from Coach’s nose and splatters on his desk. It’s just water, not blood or hand sanitizer or anything like that. The drop lands on a stack of papers, already expanding, bubbling out across the envelope lying atop the stack when I realize it’s the letter I wrote him, explaining my reasons for quitting football. It hasn’t been opened.
I turn to leave, pushing the door against the wind. It’s still raining and the water makes me pause, for only a moment, because the office is so cold. I am so cold. Then Coach Chick says:
I turn to face him, expecting a final plea for me to come play running back for his Bulldogs. But instead, Coach Chick is down on one knee, head bowed, forehead wrinkled, tears like raindrops gathering in the corners of his eyes.
“We’ll pray,” he says.
The door closes. I walk alone against the rain.
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