The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THE CHAIR KICKERS’ TALE

There was once a bored and powerful king who proclaimed that any man who could tell a story without an end would be granted riches and glory. For weeks, no one dared attempt the task, but then a farm boy climbed the steps to the palace. He was introduced to the king, and right away he started into the story: “A farmer had a stockpile of corn. A locust came and took a grain of corn. Another locust came and took a grain of corn. Then another locust came and took a grain of corn. Then another locust came and took a grain of corn…” and on and on for eleven days, until finally the king grew tired and awarded the peasant a bag of gold and a spot on his royal military council. When war struck a few seasons later, the king sent the peasant to the front line to die, and the kingdom inherited his meager earnings.   

 

I. How It Begins

In the morning, Boss Cline carves day from air. The gatekeep of the Goldsboro Coliseum and Event Complex punches buttons and twists dials to gear up the supermouth cabled on high—five arrays of five jumbo speakers each.

And there are five of us from Event Prep. We huddle with crews from other departments as part of our usual routine, in which we squint our eyes against sleep and await the terrible thunderclap above, in which we slouch under steel-rafter sky as the third shift crew flies loose and weary (those scraps of the night who rub their sockets and drag their spent bodies from the white-green light where they’ve newly unbuilt a basketball court built the first shift previous).

And we envy these brothers as they pass from us oblivious. Then Boss Cline’s word cannons from speakers into the hollowed arena, and we wonder how it came to be that it’s 4:30 a.m. and we still got no coffee.

Boss Cline says: “Let Housekeeping re-clean the clean concrete floors but east to west this time, not north to south, and fill the walkbehinds with low-foam solution. Cloudy streaks are quite apparent from the view above, my little water-blind fish.

“And let Maintenance do something, anything worthwhile, but goddammit if I catch asses in chairs and eyes fixed on the TV, I’ll break every goddamn seat in this arena and give you an eternity of broken to fix.”

And Maintenance, our fearless and shadowy kin, sits in the break room and sips the last of that goddamned coffee while Boss Cline continues: “Let Event Prep set the stage and chairs to their normal standards, which is to say the best, though in half the time, as union techs will need the floor for a bit after it’s cleaned. Many thanks in advance to the hard workers of Event Prep for rising to the challenge.”

And then, an auspicious announcement: “Today, the hiring committee will stand with me in the sponsor suite to watch the work of your venerable crew leader Pops O’Donald. Yes, the rumors are true, we’re considering his promotion to Operations Manager.”

And we recite: Let Pops leave us in his blessed dust; let him have an office with a Chinese rug.

 

II. The Crew

Within the curved walls of the arena, our circular world of false-forward and false-forever, we become Event Prep, known also as the Chair Kickers.

We are Pops, Mr. C, Phil, Jeb, and Benny.

And all the years of service from Pops are thirty and two, which puts him three years from retirement. Pops suffers sleepless nights and blinks too often, and we know him as the waking dreamer, and also as Brazilian, though he’ll never remember that faraway world, his birth name, the language of the parents that couldn’t keep him.

So every day we recite: Let Pops sleep and dream of strange long agos.

And all the years of service from Mr. C are twenty and one. He worked on F-4 Phantoms that flew to Vietnam and views freedom as light that bends at walls. He continues to live and spend by cards, gin, and pussy, in that order, from Friday to Sunday.

So every day we recite: Let Mr. C have a longer weekend.

And all the years of service from Phil are nine. He runs a hip-hop label that can claim only Cham B. LaRone, who also happens to be his cousin, though we pretend not to know this. Phil graduated from the local university’s prestigious music production program.

So every day we recite: Let Phil’s credentials be honored.

And all the years of service from Jeb are seven. He has a history in oil fields, eastern Texas, sick Ma, dead Dad, then dead Ma. There also may have been a failed marriage, or a marriage that never was. The only book Jeb has read is the Holy Bible, and he writes in his notebook before and after the shift, and during breaks. Many call him queer, though soon Benny will inherit the name.

So every day we recite: Let Jeb walk with God, else he walk alone.

And all the years of service from Benny are less than one, as today is his first day. He’s come on part time with the hope of working his way up to full. When he told Phil that he’d failed too many classes and that his boyfriend of five years left him for a doctoral student, Phil didn’t call him a fuck-ass like some, but instead apologized for Benny’s current situation: “I should have warned you: this coliseum is steel, and we magnetic as fuck.”

 

III. Headway

As the Housekeepers re-clean the clean floors, we gather in front of the elephant door and await orders from our noble leader.

“Fucking ____,” Pops says. Fucking teeth, fucking wives, fucking winter, fucking June. And when Boss Cline mentions a possible promotion, Pops says, “Fucking carrots.”

“OpMan is yours,” says Phil. “You’ll have a desk by Monday. We better gaze upon your cherubim cheeks while we can.”

But those cheeks melt like wax when Pops frowns. “They’ll always dangle something.” He moves his shoulder out from under Phil’s hand. “I’d have eighty percent of my pension if I retired today. Eighty is plenty.”

Pops presses a red button, and the great-wide vinyl wall zips open to heavy wet spring.

“These years,” says Pops. “I have so goddamn many.”

And Jeb says, “The glory of young men is their strength, and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”

“Shut up you idiot.”

We file behind as Pops marches up the ramp to the loading dock. “We’ll gather equipment from the warehouse and then build the stage as the floor on the north end dries.”

We know our Pops will surely impress the hiring committee, no matter the time crunch. They have chosen to judge our chair set for the Globex Sales Convention, which calls for only a few thousand chairs and a mid-sized stage. Pops knows this stuff—it pumps through each of his throbbing organs.

After we leave our shift at night, we each eat dinner and watch our programs, and then most of us wrap blankets tight around our bodies and sleep infant-like the entire night through. But Pops—he closes his eyes and swims half-awake through boundless seas of green-padded chairs; he scales aluminum crags of stage all the way up to the stratosphere. Then his alarm clock sounds at 4 a.m., and he reports to the coliseum to tell us what he’s seen.

 

IV. Holding Pattern

After the stage is built, the clang of metal on metal begins to rattle from the rafters above us. The union riggers maneuver tools as they swing from our sky.

“Hold tight!” shouts a belay-man as he loosens some rope so his partner can climb higher. Across the floor, sound techs swarm our stage and shout coded commands between the uproar of amplified feedback. Two twenty-foot towers of speakers stand in each corner downstage.

“Fucking shit-Christ,” says Pops. “This ain’t Elton John.”

The Globex Convention has never before required special lighting and sound, much less union guys. Industry rules prohibit us from setting chairs or other equipment while they have the floor.

Pops lifts his radio to ask the airwaves how long we’ll have to wait. A long pause, and then only Gladys from Housekeeping responds: “Hell if we know. It’s your job to know.”

Pops blinks in time with the long hand of the clock. He works some figures on his clipboard. “If we start in half an hour, that’ll be three hours to doors. 3,000 chairs divided by three sections divided by 180 minutes. 171 minutes. Something like six chairs a minute with no breaks.”

“Possible,” says Mr. C. “We won’t have room for mistakes.”

And Jeb says, “Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” And Pops curses Jeb and the Lord and the Lord’s mercy. We follow him to the break room to wait for our turn to take the floor.

It’s nearly lunchtime, though no one’s in the mood to eat. Instead, we gather around as Pops gives our first-timer, Benny, the Chair Talk: “With a standard event chair, you have the male and the female parts of the lock. I call the knob-tipped shaft the dick. The slender, ever-waiting hole is the pussy. You have the dick on the right side of the frame and the pussy on the left. So to help our inanimate lovers achieve carnal relations, we must lift the frame and ease the knob into the hole. Then we simply let go—the shaft slides into place, and our lovers remain in union till death do they part. God is a wise and horny bastard.

“Now, consider a damaged chair. Say a knob is bent a little to the left from rough handling by someone who tried to force an ill fit. When I get these poor little chairs, I have to wiggle and jam the dick into the pussy. It’s heartbreaking. You see?” Benny grimaces, and Pops shrugs.

Knowing we still got plenty of time to kill, we head to the break room, where Mr. C steps in and asks Pops to tell us again about The Sole Recorded Account of a Sighting of Boss Cline.

“When was it, Mr. C—ten years ago? It was one of those long days. I think we were babysitting a blood drive in the exhibit hall, just the two of us. We were reading the papers in the break room when in walks some crony in a suit and tie. Said his name was Luddy or something.

“Well, we’d been on our asses for a while and were thinking we’d been caught—maybe secret cameras. But this Luddy guy wasn’t concerned about our asses. He asked if we’d be willing to do a favor for Boss Cline, and of course we’re not idiots so we said we would. We followed him from the basement tile up to the carpet on the first floor and then to the first of several doors that required punch codes.

“So we walked through ten or so hallways, past all these code-locked rooms—and then there we were, standing at the double doors of Boss Cline’s office. They were solid cherry oak, those doors—I swear it—with intricate carvings of tropical flowers, and also these criss-cross lattices, like it was the entrance to an Arabian palace or something. Back me up, Mr. C.”

“That’s right,” Mr. C says, without looking away from the game on the TV.

“Well, Luddy walked us right through those doors, and I expected to find Jesus himself floating above a pool of sparkling water. In all my twenty-some years I had never seen this man whose voice I heard every morning. I felt like the goddamn Scarecrow who come to beg for brains.

“But here’s what was: this man—Boss Cline—had no motherfucking hair on his flesh. None. His skin looked soft and springy, like he was some inflated newborn. So Luddy introduced us, and Mr. C and me were all bumbling and curtsying before this giant, all-seeing infant. Boss Cline didn’t seem to care or even notice us. He just squinted and squinted and I thought maybe he couldn’t see or even hear, maybe he still thought he was alone in his office. But then he told Luddy to tell us to sing him a Christmas carol. So Luddy told us. Mr. C and I side-glanced. I think I even laughed a bit. Sure, the holidays were upon us and whatnot, but who’d guess that Boss Cline would want a couple of old goons to do a tone-deaf song and dance. What kind of entertainment is that? But this was no joke. Boss Cline squinted and squinted and waited in his baby skin, and Luddy crossed his arms, scowled, and motioned for us to begin. I looked to Mr. C and he looked to me. I said, ‘Jingle Bells?’ and Mr. C nodded and we sang the first few words of that holiday favorite before Boss Cline’s eyes flared open and beamed into us with an unnatural force that clenched our nuts to command we sing something more tender.

“Keep in mind we understood this truth without a word spoken. We just knew ‘Jingle Bells’ was finished and jumped right into the correct song—‘Silent Night’—and when our voices unified Boss Cline grinned and rubbed his smooth hand back and forth across his immaculate head, and Mr. C and I sang that carol low and pretty to the end, then three times more until Boss Cline said, ‘Good, that was nice,’ and we knew it was time to go. We were all confused and dream-walking as Luddy led us back through those carved doors and secret hallways, back to our chairs in the break room. He told us to take an extra thirty minutes for our services. Then he was gone. I wouldn’t believe it myself if Mr. C hadn’t been there.”

As usual, we ask Mr. C if it really went like that. “Sure, yes. Like that,” he says.

And then suddenly our radios beep to announce a caller. Boss Cline’s calf-leather voice graces our humble airwaves: “Pops. Come in, Pops.”

We turn down our volume while Pops turns up his.

“Go ahead.”

“May I ask why you’re not on the floor setting chairs with only three hours until show time?”

“It’s the union guys, sir. They haven’t left the floor.”

“You could have started half an hour ago. I made a deal with Harold since these changes came last minute. Didn’t you read the email this morning? You should always read your emails.”

“My apologies, Boss Cline,” says Pops. “I’ll have the floor ready by show time.”

“You have two hours.”

Pops checks his watch. “Pardon, but I think you mean two hours and forty-three minutes.”

A stretch of white noise, then, “I said two hours. You have to finish by the time the show pros arrive so they can do a full security assessment before doors open.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Give me a ten-four.”

“Ten-four, sir.”

Our leader latches his radio to his belt loop and rubs his overworked eyelids. He figures more quick math on his clipboard. We need to set about nine chairs per person per minute. “Impossible,” he mutters.

Phil grabs the clipboard from Pops’s limp hand and confirms the calculations. “We’ll do it,” he says.

 

V. The Chorus

This is when the important work begins, when we live up to our nickname—the Chair Kickers. Not everyone kicks, however—it’s a sensitive art handled by the more adept men—Pops, Mr. C, and Phil.

First, they spend a couple seconds positioning the starter chair so it’s perfectly parallel to the front of the stage. They always set from right to left and front to back, as so: drag, slide and lock, toe-tap the legs into perfect alignment—Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung. At the end of a row they land one final kick at the outer frame of the last chair to shift their work into perfect alignment.

Simpler, but just as important, is the carrier’s job. One: bring folded chairs four at a time from rack to setter. Two: with three chairs balanced against one leg, beat green padding of one chair’s seat until it opens. Three: use one hand to feed chair to setter while using other hand to open another chair. Four: repeat steps one through three until rack is emptied.

And thus we gear as machine.

We split into teams of two, except for Pops, who handles the work of three people. Mr. C struggles with Benny and his cloddish technique.

“Gimme a chair, fool!” he shouts, but Benny only trips over a chair rack when he attempts to speed up. Still, they are quick enough.

And so it passes that after twenty-some minutes, we break into a steady sweat. Green upon green springs from our work, and to Boss Cline up above, it must seem as if we paint lines in fluid strokes.

We become the empty everything as the rhythmic clamor of the chairs washes clean our minds: Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung.

Phil notices our problem after the first hour. Pops is always compulsively precise, but the air in the arena suddenly feels off-balance. Jeb and he are flying ahead, building rows even faster than Pops, so he takes a couple seconds to quadruple check the numbers. Jeb takes over when Phil sprints to the center section.

“I hate to say it, Pops, but we’re at least two racks short. I counted.”

Pops keeps kicking. Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung.

“Do you want me to take care of it?” Phil asks.

Again Jeb speaks from afar: “If any provide not for his own, he is worse than an infidel.”

“Shut up you fatheaded sommabitch!” Pops shouts across the room, though we know he regrets his choice of words in light of Jeb’s recently dead mother. But the chairs—what of them? He counted those racks in the basement four times yesterday. He never miscounts, and certainly not four times.

Boss Cline, in his omniscience, finds just the right moment to radio down and ask Pops what the hell is going on.

Pops sighs and lowers his chair to the ground. He lifts his radio. “I’m sorry, sir. I must have miscounted the racks. I’m sending Phil for more.”

“Is that so?” says Boss Cline.

Phil lifts his own radio. “It was my fault, sir. I took two of the racks Pops had counted and used them for the flea market yesterday. I should have said something.”

“I see,” says Boss Cline. “As you were.”

“Ten-four,” says Phil. He clips the radio back to his belt and turns to meet the expected scowl of our leader.

“You didn’t take those chairs,” says Pops.

“No.”

“Why’d you lie?”

Phil shrugs. “I want you to get that Chinese rug.” He presses on. “The forklift won’t fit behind the stage at this point. I’ll have to roll the racks over by hand.”

Pops nods. “Go.”

 

VI. An Exception to the Rule

Phil opens the glass door and lets the lumpy wheels of the additional carts fall silent over soft linoleum. Two suit-men with gelled hair stop him before the hallway’s bend. “Are you Phil from Event Prep?”

“Maybe.”

“Boss Cline has requested your presence.”

“But these.” Phil motions toward the racks.

The suit-man with gray hair nods to the blond, who promptly pushes Phil aside and assumes his position between the racks. He starts around the bend in clumsy three-point maneuvers, but before Phil can help, the other suit-man has him by the arm and is pulling him toward the elevator.

“The name’s Lonny,” he says once they begin their ascent.

Phil accepts the handshake. “Lonny? You mean the Lonny?”

“Excuse me?”

“Nevermind, that was Luddy. Have I done something wrong?”

“I don’t know. Boss Cline doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Do you have a guess?”

“It’s useless to guess at Boss Cline’s intentions. Just this morning he told me to move two racks of chairs somewhere no one would find them.”

Phil gloves his hands with his pockets to soak up all the sweat.

Instead of taking him to a fifth-floor sponsor suite, Lonny steps out at the second floor. Phil follows him into a carpeted area, past phone-locked secretaries to a code-locked door.

He punches numbers and leads Phil through one hallway to another coded door, then through two more coded doors. Sooner than Phil expects, they reach the cherry oak doors of legend. Upon them: a carven lattice, but no ornate flowers.

Lonny knocks three times. A muffled voice grants them entrance. At this point, Phil nearly expects a man with a full head of hair to greet them from behind a modest executive desk—he knows Pops’s memories come in strange shapes, when they come at all.

Phil steps into the warm yellow light of the office. The walls are lined in bookcases and leather furniture, and before him, corralled by an expansive U-shaped desk, sits Boss Cline. And to Phil’s horror—the man is exactly as Pops described him: a newborn wrapped in a wool suit, squinting into all creation.

“Come, boy. Stand closer to me.”

The rounded cheeks; the chinless jawbone; the protruding, suckling upper lip of a babe. Phil clasps his trembling hands behind his back.

“Ease up—this is not the principal’s office,” says Boss Cline in his liquid baritone. “You’re here because you impress me.”

“I am?”

“My men have been watching you. You’re a smart man, Phil. You know how to play your surroundings. You know how to speak to people to make them feel at ease. You’re too good to work down on the concrete.” He says all this still squinting. “How would you feel about moving up to the carpet?”

“But Pops . . .” he says.

“Pops is a builder and a family guy. We all love him. He’s perfectly suited for what he does, and I’d be an idiot to move him elsewhere. Besides, he’s three years from retirement. He’s aged out.”

“So there’s no position? There are no board members?”

“I am all judges,” says Boss Cline. “I’ve seen his performance.”

Phil huffs and stands broad-chested before this almighty child-man. “I’m sorry, Boss Cline, but I can’t be the OpMan. I can’t take the job you shammed over Pops.”

“OpMan? No, you have it wrong.” Boss Cline lifts a pair of tweezers from a desk drawer and holds them idly between his thumb and forefinger. “I can hire practically any numbskull for that job, so long as they can answer calls and keep the labor in check. You’re more of a thinking man. I want to put you in a suit and tie. I want you to be an executive assistant, like Larry here, only you’ll be the number one guy, the one with all the secrets.”

Phil doesn’t answer right away. He watches as Boss Cline plucks imperceptible hairs from his forearm.

“Listen, Phil, I know you have loyalties. I know those men are your brothers. But at some point, the bigger cat has to catch bigger mice if he doesn’t want to starve. Don’t sacrifice your potential.”

Boss Cline pauses for a response that Phil doesn’t give, then continues. “You are the architect of your own reality.” He plucks. He smiles. “Look at my skin—it’s vernal and soft because I fight imperfection with my little dagger.” He slashes the tweezers across a tiny swath of air.

“But I like the freedom of part-time labor,” says Phil. “I manage a record label.”

“Don’t kid yourself.” Boss Cline drops the tweezers back into the drawer. He motions for Phil to take a seat in the leather armchair to the right of his desk. He punches something into his computer’s keyboard and turns the monitor around to show Phil.

It’s a high-definition video feed of the arena floor. He zooms in on Pops, whose sagging cheeks drip with sweat. Boss Cline lifts his radio. “Pops. Come in, Pops . . . I need you to have the chairs ready in the next ten minutes. The show pros are waiting in the locker room.”

Pops glances at his watch, and Phil does the same from the office on high. Another ten minutes shaved from the prep time. On screen, Pops lowers his radio and mouths several obscenities. He raises it again.

“Ten-four.”

Back down on the floor, the rest of us hear Pops shouting new orders. The team revs into a blue-streak rhythm. We will finish, it has never happened any other way. Benny and Mr. C sprint from rack to row; Jeb wastes no movement—he’s done impressive work to keep up without Phil. And Pops leads the way.

They inhale the same breath. Phil hears the song of chairs in the deepest canal of his ears: Skreeek-kachung-tungtungtung. Skreeek-kachung-tungtungtung.

“Tell me, Phil,” says Boss Cline, “is that what freedom looks like?”

Our hero fixes his eyes on his brothers at work. He can practically hear Jeb’s rally cry: They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and will not be faint! He watches as they whoop and holler and fly into their last few rows.

Boss Cline turns the screen away. “They will succeed. You know this. Pops always succeeds.”

He hands Phil a sheet of paper that lists the starting salary. Phil has never made half as much.

“Plus VIP access to every club in town,” says Boss Cline. “And a lifetime supply of coupons for free oil changes, among other perks.”

Phil stares at the paper in his hands.

“You need time to think. Get back to me before the weekend.”

Phil nods.

“Do you have any questions?”

Phil folds the paper and tucks it into his shirt pocket. “No.”

 

VII. Cooldown on the Catwalk

After our valiant and legendary set, we pile into the elevators for a ride up to the catwalk. Mr. C stays behind, since he is afraid of heights.

After Pops rehashes the tale of the crew’s feat, we press Phil to explain his secret absence.

“The suits wanted help moving boxes.”

We scoff.

Benny takes a few trembling steps onto the metal webbing. The rest of us walk fearlessly and watch the scurry of show pros some hundred feet below.

Boss Cline radios for Pops. We gather around in anticipation.

“Great job today, my faithful man. You really impressed the committee.”

“So I have an official interview?”

“I’ll let you know before the weekend.”

Pops lowers the walkie, then raises it again. “Ten-four.”

Phil turns to the railing as we congratulate Pops on this promising news.

“Hey Phil,” says Jeb. “Aren’t you for our man?”

Phil looks over his shoulder. “Yeah, of course. Great job today.” He turns back to the arena. The show pros have readied their stances at each entrance.

“Melancholy shithead,” says Pops. He walks up behind his friend and lands a jolly slap on his back. We all stand at the rail, even Benny, who has finally made it across the webbing.

A sugary jazz blasts over the speakers. Below, a few choice audience members trickle onto the floor, escorted by ushers to their front-row seats. Then the show pros pick up their radios simultaneously, lower them simultaneously, and widen their stances.

“Here come the crazies,” whispers Phil. We lean deep into the metal at our hips.

The head show pro raises both hands in alert to his coworkers. Mere seconds pass, and then the northeast and northwest entrances spew a chaotic mob of Globex sales trainees. They rush for the front row, and while the show pros corral some, more make it past. Several people unhook chairs and bring them closer to the stage. A woman shoves a man to the ground for the last front-row seat. The 3,000 chairs fill quickly. Several people are forced to stand.

The show pros reach a state of near control, and the unhooked chairs are returned to their rows.

A hypnotic contralto, like Boss Cline’s but dipped in corn syrup, booms over the speakers and cuts the raucous chatter of the crowd, “Test, test. Okay, everybody settle down.”

The room obediently falls silent. A man in a lustrous gold jacket enters stage left and walks to the center. “Wait a second. Who are we kidding?” He sweeps his palm out over the troops who would follow him anywhere. “Ladies and gentlemen of Globex, sales-gods-in-training, who’s ready to climb to the top?”

IF THERE WERE BEES

Lacey and Otto took to the coast and rented a motel room for the weekend, right on the water. Workers in white hazmat suits had descended upon their house, cutting holes into the walls because the bees had filled their home.

Lacey first saw the bees while pruning back the bougainvillea two weeks before: a small cluster near the kitchen window, a nest the size of her fist tucked up beneath the overhang. Otto told her they would be gone in three days.

“They do that. You can’t just kill them,” Otto said and leaned against the kitchen counter. The nighttime light in the house looked staged for a play—dramatic, expensive.

When Otto spoke, he touched his beard, pressed his index finger to his hidden jawline, a glass of wine in his other hand. He liked animal facts.

“In the spring there are bees. Three days and they move on. Everyone knows that,” he said and left the kitchen.

Lacey stood at the counter spiralizing summer squash and listening to the bees as they bounced against the kitchen window in the dark. She wanted Otto to lean his face into the back of her neck and speak so she could feel the heat of his breath. What she wanted him to say was, It’s okay. I’ll fix it.

Within a week, the small nest became a horde, and in two it was an invasion, the buzz like a chorus in the walls. The house seemed to pulsate, bee wings busy inside light fixtures on the ceilings, against candelabras affixed near the fireplace.

When the men came, they wandered through the house, writing down numbers and knocking on the hollow spaces of the walls, using a heat sensor to find the hive. One of the men told her, “They’ve been here for months. There are honeycombs in the walls. You’ll have to leave for a few days so we can take care of it.”

Lacey woke in the motel room hearing the noise in her sleep. She lay still and imagined the men in suits cutting human-sized holes in her dining room walls, stepping into them and scooping out the honeycomb as if there were rooms between her rooms, ones she hadn’t thought to fill with anything until now. She listened to the early sounds of the motel waking up—the clatter of silverware on the lanai below, an ice machine running. She rested her hands on her stomach at the space between her hip bones, an enclave.

It was the sort of motel that was nice because it was on the ocean and not nice because it was on the ocean, everything sick and wet with salt water, sun-bleached and painted over so it peeled. It sat on a wave break at Mussel Shoals, public beaches in either direction that in the summer were littered with children and Popsicle-colored umbrellas. But now, in early spring, there were only morning surfers like seals, and a thick marine layer socked in the coast.

Otto rolled over to face her. A few gray hairs had grown in near his temples and the cowlick at the crown of his skull. They made her want to climb inside him and offer up apologies from the inside out. His bright blue eyes were more clouded now. She’d stirred the silt.

A few days before the bees, she’d come home from the doctor’s office in a taxi, and he’d said, “You can’t unring a bell.”

Otto was hurt by her decision in ways she didn’t know he was able to be hurt. And still he took care of her: glass of
watered-down ginger ale and crackers on a plate with her painkillers. She slept in their bedroom, drops of blood like Rorschach tests on the white sheets, and he slept on the couch until their stay at the motel.

The line of light at the bottom of the blinds was gray and slim, waiting to be uncovered. She wove her boney knees between his warm legs and pressed her torso against his.

“Wake up,” she whispered and waited for him to say, touch this.

“Coffee,” he said instead.

She licked his neck, stubble against her tongue like concrete.

Otto got up from the bed, leaving Lacey naked on the starched sheets. He opened the blinds. The dull morning came in and made everything feel wet and cold, the lilac bedspread strange. Lacey decided that the brain must process pain in singular ways, that the absence of touch can hurt as much as a burn.

On the lanai, they ate sliced cantaloupe and Cheerios from paper bowls, drank coffee that tasted like tin. Otto read the newspaper while Lacey sifted through brochures she’d collected at the front desk, Xeroxed paper in pinks and greens: local history about a sinkhole that opened on the PCH in the ’70s, Italian restaurants in Carpentaria, shopping in Santa Barbara. One was made by the woman who worked the front desk, a handwritten list: 50 Ways to Spend Your Days. Xeroxed so many times the letters were faded in certain places.

She’d pressed it into Lacey’s hands. “I made it myself. Done almost all of them too. You know my husband and I used to come here for vacation.” She wore seashell earrings. Her hands were thick and tan.

“I bet he loves that you work here.”

“Only started after he died. Suppose he does though.”

Lacey was going to say that she was sorry, but she only stood there, her hands filled with colored papers.

“Let me know how far you two get,” the woman said, and then offered her a plate of frosted pink seahorse-shaped cookies.

Otto cut his already cut cantaloupe with a plastic fork and knife.

“Let’s try and do all of them,” Lacey said and pushed the list to him across the table.

“Learn a new language? Start a seashell collection? Please.”

“Walk on the beach. Drink a bottle of wine. Make love,” she said.

“This is silly,” he said, and went back to his newspaper and cantaloupe.

“No, Otto. This. Is silly.” She left the table, locked herself in the motel room and turned on Jenny Jones so no one could hear her cry into the lilac pillow case. She cried about the list and she cried about the bees and she cried about how far away people get, even, or especially, when they are in the same room.

It was hours before Otto came to check on her, but when he did he had the list in his hand, had crossed out all of the things they’d inadvertently accomplished, and held a bottle of wine. It was an olive branch, a gesture, the first one he’d made in weeks.

“Number thirty-one,” she said.

By three in the afternoon the marine layer was gone, as was their wine. A weak spring sun made the water on the rocks glow like they’d been painted, and the tide dropped so waves crashed rather than rolled on the deep green sea. Lacey followed Otto down the beach, walking in his footprints, tossing glittering shells into a champagne bucket. Small birds with razor-like beaks ate crabs from beneath the wet sand. Otto ate a pomegranate, spitting the seeds on the ground, his lips dyed burgundy.

“Find a sand dollar,” Lacey said, “number nineteen.” She rubbed wet sand from between its grooves, so thin she wanted to crush it. It was an urge she’d had since childhood: break something delicate, crush the mandolin cookies between her fingertips, smear the perfectly finished painting. She tossed the sand dollar in the bucket, hooked her arm around Otto’s, and buried her face in his shoulder to hide from the ocean wind.

A few yards ahead, a small lump sat on the beach, just out of reach of the water. A bird. It moved its head left and right but as they got closer it didn’t leave. Lacey could see the rise and fall of its feathers, its breathing rapid, like it was confused how it ended up on a cold beach in California.

“It’s a loon,” Otto said.

“No. Those don’t live here,” she said.

“It is, look at its red eyes.”

“The feathers, though. They’re sad.”

Otto said, “They’re gray. They turn gray when they fly south. And they don’t make noises. And their bones are solid so they can dive for fish. And their legs aren’t strong enough to hold them so they never leave the water.” Otto was pressing his index finger into his beard. “It’s beached.”

“It’s cute. Kind of,” she said.

“It’s beached,” he repeated.

“It’s fine. It’s a bird.”

“We can’t just leave it. It’ll die,” Otto said, hands on his hips and eyes on the ground.

The word bounced around inside the empty parts of Lacey like the bees stuck between their bedroom walls.

“Okay,” she said, “take off your jacket.”

The bees were the first thing to come along that Lacey and Otto had to talk about, a problem they could wrap themselves around, a part of the new world they were living in. She was even thankful for the bees because of this.

Otto laid his jacket in the sand next to the beached loon. “Scoop it up and I’ll wrap it,” he said.

She hesitated, afraid it would bite her or fall apart or that she’d want to crush it between her hands.

“You can do it.”

Her hands shook, vein-lined and white. She slid them under the downy feathers of the loon, felt it twitch and try to wriggle from her grasp. She pressed her fingers through the layers of gray to where she could feel its body—a heartbeat so fast she could hardly feel the spaces between, a vibration.

“Okay, ready?” Otto said.

She lifted the bird and Otto wrapped his canvas jacket around it, tied the sleeves so it couldn’t escape, and cradled it against his chest. The bird bit at the air, reaching for something that wasn’t there, and then lay perfectly still and rested its head against the jacket. The three of them headed back toward the motel.

“Oh, he’s definitely a loon,” said the woman at the front desk. Her seashell earrings swung as she shook her head. “It’s been happening.”

“This has been happening?” Otto asked.

“Oh yes. It’s the algae bloom. The fish eat so much of it, and the loons eat the fish. It makes them go mental. They lose their way, attack surfers, beach themselves. We find a few dead every morning. Poor guy,” she said and pet the loon’s feathers.

Lacey ate one of the frosted pink cookies, still a bit buzzed from the bottle of wine.

“Okay, so does someone take it back out into the ocean?” she asked.

“No, I’m sorry, dear. It’s a whole process. Plus, it’s the weekend. He won’t survive here, so you’ve got to take him to the Loon Lady.”

Lacey started to laugh. “Of course we do, number forty-seven. We can’t.”

“You’re the one who wanted to do all of this,” said Otto, “and now I’m standing here holding a loon.” He cradled the bird against his chest. His words were supposed to be sharp she knew, but Lacey only heard softness. The room smelled of wet sea air and sweet, burnt popcorn. For the very first time, all the way down into the empty space, she let herself grieve what she had done. She allowed herself for just an instant to imagine a different narrative entirely.

Lacey came closer and rested her head on Otto’s shoulder. She pet the loon, its feathers so soft she could barely feel them. It closed its eyes. It seemed smaller now that they were inside.

“Where can we find her?” she asked.

“I’ll draw you a map,” said the woman. And on the back of the list she drew a map.

They drove in silence, Lacey in the passenger seat with the loon in her lap, Otto with one hand on the wheel and the other on her thigh. Paul Simon played on the radio: hearts and bones, hearts and bones. The ocean stretched out behind them as they climbed into the hills, following the map with a shared attention.

When they pulled up to the house, there was a man outside filling pails of water with a hose, carrying them from one end of the yard to the other, to a fenced-in area with pink and blue kiddie pools. They parked in the dirt driveway and climbed from the car.

“She’s inside,” the man shouted across the yard. “Just knock. She’ll come.”

The metal screen door rattled and the Loon Lady appeared in the doorway, bottle-feeding a loon that looked like the one Otto held.

“Gracious,” she said through the mesh of the screen. “He doesn’t look so good. A moment please.”

She disappeared in the house and came back with a box filled with alfalfa, like the kind you stuff in a class pet’s cage. Otto carefully unwrapped the jacket and the woman scooped up the loon and set it inside the box. They followed her around the side of the house.

“Do you work for the state?” Otto asked.

“I don’t work for anyone anymore. I was a vet when I was young. When the birds started dying, I don’t know why, people started showing up here with them. Like someone told them who told someone else I could do something.”

“And you help them?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes I help them die. Depends on what they want. How far gone they are. Usually make up their minds to live or die before they even get here.”

Nearly twenty loons littered the yard, some floating in baby pools, others cradled in alfalfa. Otto went to one of the pools and softly pet the birds one by one. He told the woman all the same facts he’d told Lacey earlier about the birds. They both listened carefully. Otto pressed his finger into his beard.

They stood in the yard for some time, neither touching nor speaking, just watching the Loon Lady circle the kiddie pools. It was motherly, the way she tended to the birds, touched the tepid water, and refilled feed dishes. The ocean air made its way up the hills and into the yard, smelling of salt and sage brush.

“And what about the ones who die?” Lacey asked.

“What about them?” said the Loon Lady.

A loon flapped around in a pool, disturbing the eerie calm of the yard.

“I bury them at the edge of the property. Everything goes back to where it came from,” she said.

Lacey wanted to ask if she could bury one. Instead, she looked for their loon, the one they had found, but the birds were all the same. All gray in the feathers and red in the eyes, silent like they’d never once made a sound.

“Is it going to be okay?” Lacey asked.

Neither the Loon Lady nor Otto answered her.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THE DYBBUK

The first are those souls of the wicked who, after their death, do not merit to enter Gehinnom. They enter living people’s bodies due to our numerous transgressions, speaking and telling all that happens to them there, as is known, may the Merciful save us.
                                                                                                                                                 —Sha’ar HaGilgulim

Dina’s eating breakfast the Monday after Trav’s death when she hears a buzzing noise. She worries another yellow jacket has made its way inside through the tears in the kitchen window screens, then she asks her dad, Ronnie, if she’s adopted. She’s told him Trav was just some boy she never spoke to, the same way she doesn’t speak to any of her classmates, pretty much ever.

“I saw you come out of your mother,” says Ronnie. “So no, you’re not adopted. Sorry.”

“Dad, that’s disgusting.” She fixes her scowl on him for a moment, then looks at the table, her own hands. She cracks her knuckles one by one and rubs her eyes, which are bruised from lack of sleep.

Ronnie hands her a plate of French toast made from stale Whole Foods challah, and she drenches the stuff in agave nectar. He reminds her he’s out late tonight to teach the elder yoga class at Beth Achim. But Ronnie’s not just a yoga instructor; he also runs the synagogue’s adult ed programs and the Sunday Hebrew school. He soothes the Hebrew school kids’ tantrums, tutors the occasional nervous convert, and runs a weekly kollel for twentysomethings. Dina likes to sit on the couch in his synagogue office and observe his effect on people, the way they lean in when he talks.

“I have a thing this morning,” she says, just as Ronnie adds oil to the pan in which he’s making their breakfast. It smokes and sizzles and drowns out her voice.

So Dina gnaws at her rubbery toast, her head still buzzing. Strange, but in that buzzing she could swear she hears Trav, the groaning noises he used to make when they fooled around in his Aerostar. She can’t see a yellow jacket anywhere. Maybe it’s trapped between a screen and a closed windowpane.

She knows she’s not adopted. Why did she ask that?

When they’re done with breakfast, she and Ronnie go to the living room for sun salutations. There is no buzzing here. Side by side, Dina and her father stand with feet planted on the carpet, backs arched and hands taut toward the ceiling, like the elastic limb of a bow. They fold forward and touch their feet. Work back one foot then another in order to stretch their legs. Return to the standing position.

Ronnie prepares for a second salutation, the next step in a routine they’ve carried out faithfully since he started working on his teaching license at East Side Hatha seven years ago. But Dina’s running late. “I have to leave. There’s a special assembly,” she says.

“Have a good day, sweetheart.” He frowns for a moment before easing back into his beatific sun-saluting face. As he lifts his arms to the ceiling again, Dina puts on her backpack and sandals, and ducks out the front door.

On her walk to school, she wonders again why she brought up the adoption thing. How weird of her.

The special assembly in Kathleen Williams Collegiate Academy’s gym is about Trav. Principal Anders leads the Pledge of Allegiance, then Counselor Lewis gets up and invites everybody to discuss it: how they miss their classmate, how disturbing it is when a young person chooses to end his life. Only when Counselor Lewis holds out the mic and asks, “Who wants to speak first?” all anybody can think to do is rock their fold-out chairs back and forth, or tighten, then loosen, the straps of the backpacks in their laps, or squeak their shoes on the wooden floor.

The gym windows are open. A dog yips in the distance, and the buzzing returns to Dina, as if the giant fluorescent bulbs overhead are preparing to burn out again. But didn’t the janitor replace one of the bulbs last Friday? Dina remembers him dragging his rickety ladder out of storage and marching it through the long halls of Kathleen Williams.

She finds herself standing. “It’s cool,” she says, loud enough to cut through the buzzing, though she doesn’t mean to talk in the first place. “He doesn’t miss any of you pussies either.”

The shoe-squeaking stops; a hundred curious teenage faces turn her way. Mortified, Dina claps a hand over her mouth and makes for the double doors that lead out into her school’s hallway, except Counselor Lewis is too fast. He hands the mic to Principal Anders, hops off the stage, and grabs Dina’s arm.

“I know you and Travis were close,” he says, which is his way of acknowledging that Dina dated the dead guy, the suicide. “You shouldn’t lash out.”

Dina opens her mouth to apologize. She wants to tell the truth, that she and Trav had stopped being close when she broke up with him two weeks ago, that a part of her is relieved he’s offed himself with his father’s Glock. Instead, she yells out in a voice deeper than her own: “White power!”

Counselor Lewis drags her into the office and tells her he’s worried about the white power thing because of what he calls “your heritage.” He says Trav was a troubled boy, which Dina understands is another euphemism, a way of referring to all those Confederate battle flag stickers on the bumper of Trav’s van. Then he says it would be a shame for Dina to hate herself, because everybody knows the proponents of white power aren’t too fond of what he calls “your people.” It’s uncomfortable how this man struggles to avoid the words Jew and Jewish, the way Ronnie can never call anybody black or Mexican. And speaking of Ronnie, he’s been contacted. He’s on his way.

Dina feels a headache coming on, hears the bell ring for the end of assembly. She says, “Don’t tell her what to think. You want to talk about her heritage, the camps weren’t even real.” Dina concentrates on her mouth, on not saying anything else terrible, but it happens anyway, pours out in a jumble, the words she intends and the ones she doesn’t: “Sorry, I don’t believe this stuff, and I don’t know why I’m saying it. FEMA’s building real concentration camps all over the country, and they’ve got my mom.”

“Dina, we both know that’s not what happened to your mom. Right?”

“Is my dad here yet?” she asks.

Counselor Lewis tells Dina she can’t come back to school until she finds a good therapist, because she’s clearly struggling with Trav’s death in ways her teachers are not equipped to handle.

This at least Dina agrees with. Every night after the breakup, Trav would call her cell phone and stay silent, just listen to her say, “Who’s there? Stop it Trav, this is creepy.” This past Wednesday, he walked up to her desk as everybody was sitting down for precalc and he grinned, sheepish, and she thought maybe things would be okay, maybe he’d decided to be her friend.

Then he put his hands on her desk, held himself up that way, so close she could taste his breath. “I want to die because of you, Dina. If I die, it’s your fault.” He said it quietly, so no one else could hear. Then the bell rang one last time, and the teacher urged Trav to find a seat. He turned on his heels and went to a desk in the opposite corner.

So now she wonders if it really is her fault. Not just that her ex-boyfriend shot himself, but the other thing. That he’s in her somehow, speaking through her, making her mouth off. Dina should be scared of ghosts, scared of possession, but instead she’s overwhelmed with guilt. If some piece of Trav’s soul is lodged in her, if his spirit is that stuck on her, then what did she do wrong? How did she hook him?

If she were anyone else, she’d have friends to tell her she’s not responsible for a boy’s decisions. But Dina’s a pariah. In third grade the other students would sit next to her at lunch and draw swastikas on the table—Ronnie said it wasn’t their fault, they probably picked it up from their parents. In fourth and fifth grades she won the class spelling bees, and both times everybody booed. In middle school, as if being one of the handful of Jews were not enough, she was the first to grow breasts. Boys and girls took to cornering her in hallways, snapping her bra straps so hard they left red welts on both shoulders. If Ronnie asked, Dina would blame the welts on bug bites, claim some mysterious insect got her when she wasn’t paying attention, and then Ronnie would go buy her Benadryl cream.

When her class moved up to Kathleen Williams, the bullying tapered off. Now nobody bothers her, but nobody talks to her either, unless it’s for a group project or they’re playing in Strategic Games Club, which is where she met Trav. He showed up in a mist of Axe body spray, sat at her table, and beat her at chess. He and his dad had just moved to town from Abilene.

“My mom ran out on us,” he said, “so it’s just me and him.”

“Me too,” Dina said. “I live with my dad. My mom died.” She turned up the corners of her mouth in a strained smile, so he knew she was okay with her dead parent. That she was fine.

But Trav seemed not to see her smile. “Sorry. Shit,” he said. “Now I feel stupid.” He hadn’t been around long enough, Dina guessed, to know who she was, to know she wasn’t worth his feeling sorry or stupid or anything at all.

“It’s really okay,” she told him. “I was a baby. My dad talks about her like she just stepped out.” She smiled again, and this time he nodded.

They played four games that day, and Trav won them all. He was gracious about it too, apologizing after each victory. He asked Dina about her life, and she found herself talking about how she was going to UT Austin in the fall, having been turned down cold by Harvard, early decision, her long shot.

“That’s so far away,” Trav said. “Would you’ve really gone? My dad says I can hit up Cedar Valley in a couple years, but first I have to apprentice him. He’s a plumber.”

Dina wasn’t sure why Trav, who looked like he might already be eighteen, would need his father’s permission to go to community college, but she made some listening noises, and he kept talking. The other Strategic Games people went home, and the janitor came by because it was time to shut down the building. Dina picked up her backpack and told Trav she’d see him tomorrow.

“Don’t walk home in the dark,” he said. “I can give you a ride. My mom left her van. It’s mine now.” So Dina got into his Aerostar and had him leave her on the corner. She didn’t want Ronnie to see the stickers on his rear bumper, the battle flags.

When he dropped her off, Trav looked into her eyes and said, “Dina, you’re a good listener. Can I tell you something?”

“Well, sure.” She chewed the inside of her cheek.

“We think my mom was taken. Because the feds don’t like some stuff my dad believes. She left a note and all, but we think it’s fake.” He was blinking rapidly now, like maybe he wanted to cry but he wasn’t going to let himself.

Dina was skeptical. But she wanted Trav to feel listened to, the way he’d been making her feel listened to all afternoon. She did her best to look attentive while he talked about all the places his mother could be—labor camps, secret prisons, a mental hospital where she’d be force-fed LSD every morning—then he stopped short, kissed Dina’s cheek, and drove off.

Within the week he’d kissed her on the mouth. He’d asked permission to put a hand under her shirt, and she’d been charmed because nobody ever asked before, and then he’d invited her to be his girlfriend and she’d said yes. He told her things that couldn’t be true, like the president was a secret Kenyan or the Israelis blew up the World Trade Center. And Dina’s no idiot. She knew the very first time Trav went off on the Israelis he meant Jews, meant her, but then he brushed her cheek with the tips of his fingers and said maybe she wasn’t even Jewish. Maybe her dad stole her from a Christian family. Then he smirked like he wasn’t serious and she felt the urge to bite his neck, to eat that Axe spray off his skin, and the whole conversation slid off the rails as they fumblingly removed each other’s pants in the back seat of the Aerostar.

It was the first time she’d ever seen a boy’s private parts. She slid Trav’s intact foreskin up and down with her fingers, sucked experimentally, and came home to Ronnie with a lie about losing track of time during a game of Risk. She knew she was making a catastrophically bad call, but she liked Trav’s company, the stream of conversation directed at her and nobody else.

Ronnie’s at Kathleen Williams in fifteen minutes. In the car they talk about Trav. “Principal Anders says you’re upset about the death,” Ronnie says. “You told me you didn’t know that boy.”

“I didn’t want you to worry.”

They stop at a red light. “Was he a friend, or . . . ?” Ronnie arches an eyebrow, but Dina won’t respond. “I am, in fact, worried about you. You don’t really think FEMA’s got concentration camps?”

“No, I keep blurting stuff out.”

“You sure scared your principal. Just know I love you no matter what.” He takes one hand off the wheel and squeezes Dina’s shoulder.

“You ever miss someone who was terrible?” she asks.

He says something back that sounds like “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz,” only that can’t be right because his lips are moving. That’s when she loses control again.

“Trav wasn’t terrible, I was terrible,” Dina says. “No I wasn’t. Yes I was. I shouldn’t have led him on.”

Ronnie eyes her as he drives. She hopes to show him she’s fine, so she says, “Not really, I know I wasn’t leading anybody on,” but then she adds, “Wrong, I’m a huge bitch, Dad. The hugest.”

“Oh, honey.” By now Ronnie’s turning into the synagogue parking lot. “I can tell you feel conflicted, but it’s got nothing to do with you. I can promise that much.” He squeezes her shoulder again. “There’s no knowing how some boys get so unhappy.”

A week after they started dating, Trav drove the Aerostar up 71, pulled onto a dirt road, and stopped in a field by a barbed-wire fence short enough to step over. He swore his dad knew the guy who owned the place, and then he opened up his trunk, where he kept two guns in a plastic bin.

Dina froze, and Trav explained these were Ruger Mark IIs. His dad took him out for target practice every weekend so they’d be prepared if the UN sent in troops to conquer Texas. There was a place along the back end of the barbed-wire fence where his dad’s friend had strung up a straight line of targets made to look like the president, and now Trav wanted to show Dina how to shoot those targets in the center of mass, the chest.

“There are rapists crawling across the border every day,” he said. “I just want my girl to know how to protect herself.” He raised his arm to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Dina could see the edge of his farmer’s tan poking out from inside the sleeve of his T-shirt, the stringy muscles of his arms drawn taut.

It took her a minute to unfreeze because she felt so horrible for the president, but Dina followed Trav out into the field and shot at a target, so far off the mark she couldn’t tell where the bullet went. Trav said to just forget about it, and then he came up behind her in a bear hug and moved her body around so her form was better. “Exhale,” he said. “Pull.” This time she got the president in the hip.

Trav said she was a natural. They started going to the field each day instead of Strategic Games Club, kept it up the rest of the time they were dating, except the one Friday after the dog. On the way home from target practice, she’d rub baby wipes on her hands to get rid of the ammonia smell of spent gunpowder. Ronnie would ask about her day, and she’d talk about a Spanish test, how fue sounded nothing like the past tense of es, or she’d tell him she’d run a nine-minute mile in gym, and the whole time, in her mind’s eye, she’d replay the impact of bullet on paper, the meditation of aim, the satisfaction of her accurate shot.

The day she and Trav broke up Dina figured target practice was over for good, so she walked home from Kathleen Williams alone, went into Ronnie’s study, and used his new widescreen computer to download a bootleg copy of Call of Duty. The bright explosion of the Russian broadband jammer over Wall Street filled the whole display, Ronnie’s fancy speakers playing back the intricate death cries of Russian infantrymen. She’d finished the first three missions when Ronnie poked his head in and said, “Isn’t that violent?”

Dina paused the game. “Yeah, but it’s a skill. It’s soothing. I have to concentrate to get it right.”

Ronnie sniffed. “Well,” he said. But he didn’t make her stop.

The day she gets sent home from Kathleen Williams, Ronnie takes Dina to his office at Beth Achim and pulls out his laptop. “You can use the big computer.” He points to the boxy Mac that sits on his desk. “Are you really into those shooting games? You can play one if you want. Just keep the volume down.” The rabbi, a too-thin, too-serious man who Ronnie likes to joke is barely older than Dina, works in his own office down the hall. The rabbi wouldn’t appreciate Call of Duty or anything like it.

So Dina promises to be quiet, and Ronnie lets her borrow his credit card to buy the latest Tomb Raider. Then he gets on the laptop to design fliers for the Purim picnic. It’s one of those rare moments when Dina’s sincerely frustrated about her family situation, being raised by a chronically relaxed man. He shouldn’t be pawning her off on a computer game, getting back to his own work. He should notice her crisis.

She goes to say something along the lines of “It’s possible I’m being controlled by my dead ex-boyfriend,” but then a painful force slams her teeth together, her jaw sprung like a mousetrap. An invisible leash pulls her face to the Mac’s screen, her fingers to the keyboard and mouse, which she uses to fire up the game. Lara Croft becomes curious about Kitezh and sets out for Syria. An hour after that, she’s in Siberia, stranded by an avalanche.

Dina as Lara is shooting her way toward an abandoned Soviet mine when Ronnie taps her on the shoulder. “How’s it going?”

At that exact moment the building’s ancient central air kicks into gear. The vents make a sound like someone playing kazoo one room over. Is it just Dina, or is the room vibrating? “This is some penny-pinching Rothschild shit,” says a voice that Dina can’t, at first, identify as her own. “Cheap fucking building. It has to be some sort of disguise, like you people keep gold bricks in the basement, right? Or did you Texas kikes do something to piss off the Elders?”

“Sweetheart, you’re scaring me,” says Ronnie. His expression is level as ever, but the skin of his cheeks is pale and a quiver has snuck into his bottom lip. He’s finally noticed something wrong. “Why are you talking like this? What’s happened to you?”

Dina can hear the voice that is and isn’t hers, is and isn’t Trav’s. “I loved your daughter like you would not believe. She didn’t judge. I loved to kiss her and I loved her tits and everything. Did you make her break things off, you old shit? You tell her she has to marry one of your Christ-Killer buddies to propagate the race? The kids would only be half-breeds. I know she’s not really yours. You should have let her go, half-dick. I’m here to haunt you, you kosher fuck.”

The worst day, the dog day, they went out shooting and Trav said they should get the president in the dick, or about where his dick would be, low on the middle of the torso. Dina thought he was just being an idiot, just being Trav, but at the same time she was tired of always aiming dead center. Shooting the president in his gonads was a way to mix things up. She shot, and a hole appeared in the crotch of the president’s black suit.

“Let me try to get his foot.” She shot again, low to the ground, and missed. Another hole, this one at the bottom edge of the target paper where it was blank and white, equidistant from each of the president’s dress shoes. That’s when she heard a shriek on the other side of the fence. She dropped the Ruger and ran toward the noise. It was a chocolate Lab, chained tight behind the targets to the other side of the barbed-wire fence, and the poor thing was foaming around the corners of its mouth, each rib jutting from a too-narrow chest, but with a swollen belly. At first Dina thought it must be pregnant, a girl dog, but then she saw where its hot pink dog penis was sticking out.

The Lab looked Dina in the eye and stopped shrieking. There was thick blood oozing out from its back, but more distressingly, there were masses of earlier cuts and scrapes all along its legs and up its sides. Flies buzzed around the open wounds.

“Trav,” Dina said.

“Yeah.” He was already standing next to her. She hadn’t noticed.

“Trav, this is just beyond . . . We should call someone.” She took her phone out, but Trav grabbed it and put it in his own pocket.

“I’m sorry, Dina, but we’re not really allowed to be here, not like I told you. My dad’s friend would be pissed,” Trav said.

“You mean we’ve been trespassing all along?” She recognized that her voice sounded whiny, uncool, even babyish. She thought, for the first time, about all the reasons someone might own a field in the middle of nowhere. “Is that—does this dog belong to your dad’s friend? Did you know it was here?”

“I didn’t know, but . . . ” Trav stared at the ground, at the unmown grass that swished around their feet. “I can’t say I’m surprised. You just head back.”

Dina still can’t say why she turned and walked toward the road, but she did. A few seconds later she heard a gunshot. She knows even now that was the right thing for Trav to do, a mercy killing, not unlike what a veterinarian would do in the same situation. She knows her single shot meant the dog had to die, and it was her fault for aiming at the president’s foot, Trav’s fault for taking her out there, her fault for enjoying herself. Both their faults. But she mostly blames him.

Trav caught up to her back at the car. “I apologize,” he said. “This is complicated. My dad’s friend—he doesn’t spend a lot of time here, but he wouldn’t like it if he knew I was coming without my dad. And I’m not allowed to talk about it. Not with you, not with anybody.” He handed her phone over.

“Then why bring me out here, Trav?”

“I apologized, Dina. It’s all I can do.” He opened the door for her to jump in the Aerostar, then he drove her to the corner near her house. Neither of them spoke for the whole drive. She walked inside and told Ronnie she was sick and skipped dinner.

The next day at Kathleen Williams, Trav smiled at her during assembly, and they sat together at lunch, and he picked her up after school in his Aerostar like she’d only imagined the last twenty-four hours. Only she knew she hadn’t, because they didn’t go back to the field. He bought her enchiladas at Torchy’s, and it turned out he had a pack of cold Dr Peppers and a checkered blanket in the trunk. They picnicked at the Arboretum, watched a Little League football team practice tackles on the grass.

And then it was the weekend. Not just any weekend, but her mother’s yahrzeit, which she hadn’t told Trav about, because what could he do? He couldn’t roll the Aerostar, flags and all, into Beth Achim’s parking lot. He couldn’t make conversation with Ronnie’s friends: people like Rich and Cindy Kirbaum, a dentist and divorce lawyer respectively. Or grouchy Mr. Kaplan’s granddaughter Julie, who was a medievalist, a postdoc at UT. Sometimes Julie would carpool with her professor friend, who studied illuminated manuscripts. Rather than kiss the torah, the professor would put down his siddur and bring his face close, scanning the polished handles, the velveteen mantle for some clue.

Dina struggled at times to talk to these eccentric grownups, could barely answer their yes and no questions, and Trav? Trav would be lost. So she did him the favor, when they were together, of pretending Beth Achim didn’t exist.

That Saturday she rose with Ronnie for the Mourner’s Kaddish, and everybody looked at them—Ronnie’s friends and the stern young rabbi and the hyper children and their parents and the old folks who made up the bulk of Saturday worshippers, the ones who came into the office after yoga to pinch Dina’s cheeks—and all of them knew Ronnie, and therefore knew her, and swathed them both in pity.

She knew when she went back to the field on Monday, the dog would be gone. Trav would handle it. What she’s most ashamed of is how she played along, let him pretend things were normal.

Trav taught Dina to like herself—only then she understood how liking herself meant she should stop dating him. He might not be all bad, but something bad was in his life, leaking into hers. So after three months of skipping Strategic Games Club to cruise around in the Aerostar, of letting Trav lick her breasts in secluded parking lots, of lying to Ronnie, she managed a separation. When he sat down next to her at lunch, she handed him a typed note, got up, and went to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face.

She didn’t know how to bring up the dog, so Dina settled on college as her excuse for hurting Trav’s feelings. College, which was just around the corner. Any day now, she wrote, she’d be into biochem or polisci or computers, pre-med or pre-law. She’d live in the dorms at UT, only a short drive away but at the same time another universe, a cocoon of young adulthood, a place where he couldn’t follow and would never be at home.

So I know this is the best thing for both of us, she wrote. Please don’t get the wrong impression. I’m really glad I met you, Trav. I really want you to be happy and have a good life. I really want us to stay in touch, if that’s okay.

After her outburst in Ronnie’s office, Dina faints. When she comes to, she’s supine on the couch with one of Ronnie’s thick Kosher Sutra books tucked under her head. Ronnie crouches over her, holding a mug of water. Dina gulps the whole thing down, spilling some on her face.

“Sorry,” she says, wiping her mouth with the back of her sleeve. “I feel strange today.” She sits up.

Ronnie opens his mouth, inhales, closes his mouth. Opens again and starts to say something. Gives up. Opens one last time and closes. Dina knows they’re in a serious situation here, but can’t help thinking her father looks like a fish, gulping.

“Let’s go to the studio,” Ronnie says. “My class won’t start for hours.” What he calls his yoga studio is just a converted attic. It used to be accessible only via trapdoor, but when he started training at East Side Hatha, when he started talking about yoga classes on the synagogue property, Beth Achim’s board agreed to install stairs.

He reaches out a hand and pulls Dina so she’s standing, so she’s hugging him. Her father smells like peppermint Dr. Bronner’s. “Thanks, Dad,” she says, then she hears a noise like gears grinding. “I hate you.”

He sucks in his breath with a hiss but does not stop hugging her. “I know this isn’t you,” Ronnie tells her, which Dina appreciates. She knows this isn’t her either. He gives her one last squeeze and takes his arms away. “So, upstairs.”

They march past the rabbi’s office, and as luck would have it, the rabbi does not poke his head out into the hall. They go upstairs, and on the way up Dina keeps talking, or rather, Trav does. “Where is your Jew gold?” he asks. “Where are your horns? Dad, I’m so sorry. Don’t you hear that whining? It’s like someone brought a Chihuahua in here.”

Ronnie’s face is stony, like he’s girding himself for battle, and he says nothing. They get to the top of the steps and enter the empty attic room with its sloped walls. He motions her over to the mats. They unroll two, facing each other, and he tells her to lie down with limbs loose. Eyes shut. The sound is so loud now, like a running chainsaw inches from her nose.

“The FEMA camps,” Dina says as she gets into position, “are totally real. I think my mom got sent there.”

“Feel your spine straightening out against the floor,” Ronnie says, and then he sniffs like he’s crying, only his eyes are still and unblinking, and a person can’t cry that way. “Feel it stretch and release tension, savasana. Breathe deeply. Feel your energy rise and fall with that breath.”

Dina breathes deeply. The windows of this studio are open, and car brakes squeal in the street below. Her energy rises and falls. The brakes squeal and squeal. She says, “Sitting congressmen have spoken about the camps. Glenn Beck on his show. Those places are where they take the dissidents and the true Patriots. And the true Patriots’ mothers.”

Ronnie talks over Trav. “Raise your right knee and bring it to your chest,” he says. She stays there for several moments, releases, does the same with her left knee. “Feel your legs relaxing. Feel how they’re longer now.” The cars stop squealing their brakes and start honking. Someone pounds on a horn for ten seconds, twenty.

“It’s for the New World Order,” Dina continues. “They have to crush the Patriots to keep the American population compliant when the UN reveals itself as the one-world government.” In her head, in the part of her brain that’s still her own, Dina enjoys the poses. They stretch out the achy place where her back meets her hips. Only she can’t relax too much, because a fire alarm is going off somewhere, or is that a chorus of baying wolves? “When they’ve cleared out all the dissenters it’ll be time for population control. Random executions, only not really random. They want to destroy the white race. They’ll start by killing Aryan babies.”

Ronnie’s jaw is clenched tighter than Dina thought possible, but to hear him, you’d think he was unfazed. “Sit up on the center of your mat with your legs straight in front of you. Support yourself by placing your hands behind your back on each side. Now raise your hips and lean your head backwards. Try to form a straight line with your body.”

Dina does what he says, and the blood rushes to her brain, blotting out the noises, blotting out Trav. A whelming. “This is working?” she says. “It’s working, I think, Dad.” She stays in the pose for a long time, for minutes, until she’s shaking.

“Back to asana,” Ronnie says.

There’s a pause while Dina moves to a sitting position. She’s trying to hold on to that whelming feeling, the head rush. She’s trying to make Trav pliable, make him shut up.

Ronnie stands. He does the fish thing again with his mouth: open and shut, open and shut. He asks, “Let’s say, in theory, the person I’m speaking to right now is Travis. What does Travis want?”

And the piece of Trav that cleaves to Dina says something almost reasonable: “I’d be happy with an apology.”

“Trav, I’m truly sorry,” Dina says. “I liked you, I did, but I was so lonely, maybe I would have liked anyone.”

It must not be what he wanted to hear, because he reaches out from inside her, curls her fingers into a ball against her will. Next thing Dina knows she’s punched herself in the eye. She sees blotches like she’s just had her picture taken, like she’s been staring into the sun, and her lips form the words: “I don’t accept her apology.” The blotches take over her field of vision, and the head rush comes back full force.

“Take it easy, Travis,” Ronnie says.

Dina gets up. She’s aware of dust motes floating in the studio, the humming fluorescent lights above her head, the creaking noises a building makes as it settles, and she’s still saying it, “I’m sorry,” over and over like a chant. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”

But it’s not helping. There is an anvil on her forehead, a hammer pounding away at her hairline. Her legs are on fire, and she’s kicking her yoga mat to the side, arms extended, fingers reaching out, twitching, for Ronnie. He doesn’t move, even when she wraps her hands around his neck and tightens her grip.

“I’m going to kill this hippie cliptip,” she says. “Trav, don’t.”

Ronnie doesn’t try to escape. Dina’s thumbs are bearing down on the space just above his Adam’s apple. “Stop me please,” she says.

“Dina, you have to stop. You,” Ronnie sputters. He’s turning red, but his arms hang by his sides even as Trav, as Dina, tries to throttle him. “If Travis is in your head, kick him out.”

Dina turns inward, examines the topography of her brain. There is blackness and a keening that might be her own voice. She’s still in the studio, still assaulting her father, but she’s also chained tight to a barbed-wire fence. She’s trapped in a body that won’t do what she tells it. Ronnie’s wheezing under her thumbs.

“I can’t,” she says, so her father says, “Forgive me,” and that’s when he slaps Dina across her cheek, not as hard as he can but hard enough.

Her head snaps to the side and bounces back in a jerky, lightning-fast motion, and she relinquishes Ronnie. She feels the painful rip of two souls separating, for real this time, as Trav flees. Then she crumples onto the floor. She hears cars honking as her consciousness contracts, the central air whirring and her classmates reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. She hears the cries of Patriots in FEMA camps, the savage howls of UN Peacekeeping troops as they land on the beaches of Galveston in the dead of night. Every dog on the planet whining for release. Shots fired, the low chant of a Mourner’s Kaddish, and on top of it all the known universe roaring apart, flipping inside out for her benefit.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story DON’T KNOW TOUGH

Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I was gonna let Him see me hurt, no way. Bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.

Tasted it while I sat in Ms. Miller’s class, woke up in algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.

This my favorite drill.

I just been standing back here, watching the other boys go at it. The sound of pads popping like sheet metal flapping in a storm.

“Who want next?” holler Coach.

I tongue the hole in my cheek, finger the cigarette burn on my neck, and step into the crease. Coach hand me the ball and smile. He know what kind of power I got. Senior year, too. They got that sophomore linebacker lined up cross from me. The one they hoping can make the starting team. He thick in the neck and thighs, but he don’t know.

Coach blow his whistle.

I can see Him smiling as He stuck the hot tip in my neck, smiling when He put Little Brother out in the pen. I grip the ball tight, duck my head, and run at sophomore linebacker, hoping to kill him.

When we hit, there real lightning, thunder explode ’cross the field. The back of sophomore linebacker head the first thing to hit the ground, arms out like Jesus on the cross. I step on his neck as I run past him.

The other boys cheer. Coach blow his whistle and already the linebacker getting up, like I ain’t nothing. He shaking his head, laughing, and standing again. Disrespecting me?

Disrespecting me?

This time I spear him with the top of my helmet. I dive and go head to head with him. There’s a cracking sound—not thunder, not lightning, and damn sure not sheet metal—this the sound of my heart breaking, the sound of violence pouring out.

Coach blow his whistle like somebody drowning. Sophomore linebacker scream because he don’t know what’s on him. This boy a poser. He don’t know tough. Don’t know nothing. Bet his momma woke him up this morning with goddamn milk and cookies. I try to bite his cheek off, but the facemask, the mouthpiece. I see only red, then black—a cigarette, a dog pen.

I’m sitting outside Principal office, still got my pads on, when Coach call me in.

“Billy,” he say, “What got into you?”

I look straight at him, nod.

“You realize the kind of shit you in?” say Principal.

Cuss for me, old man. Make me feel at home. I raise my chin to him.

“Boy, I swear,” say Principal.

“What got into you out there, Bill?” say Coach.

I feel my jaw flexing, feel like, if I could, I’d just grind my teeth down to the gum, spit blood and teeth in Principal face. Not Coach though. Coach alright.

“You hear us talking, boy?” say Principal.

I nod and raise one eyebrow, slow.

“Swear to God,” say Principal. “Tell you what I ought to do. What I ought to do is call the Sheriff. How about that? Let him charge you little ass with battery.”

I keep nodding, knowing bullshit when I hear it. We was on the field, old man. It called football.

“But he ain’t gonna do that,” say Coach.

“You lucky you got Coach,” say Principal. “Damn lucky.”

“Listen, Bill. I’m gonna sit you for the first game. Principal think that best. Okay?”

I hear Coach but don’t. My ears ringing. The burn on my neck turn to fire. “Call the cops then,” I say.

Principal laugh. Coach don’t. He know I’m serious.

“Come on, Bill, it’s just the first game,” say Coach. “Lutherville bad this year too. We’ll beat ‘em a hundred.”

“Senior year,” I say.

Coach breathe in deep through his nose. Look at Principal, who already turned back to his computer. “Billy, I know, but damn son,” say Coach, “Austin got a concussion. Was out cold for ten minutes.”

I nod, waiting for Principal to say something, at least turn from his computer and see what he just took from me. But he don’t. Whatever on that screen bigger than Billy Lowe. I’m out the door before he ever turn back, running with blood in my mouth. I swallow.

“Aw, hell nah,” say Momma.

Little Brother dangle from her arm like a monkey. I see tiny fingers, white at the knuckles, holding onto her shirt like he know how it feel to be dropped. And Coach wonder why I ain’t never fumbled, not once.

“First game senior year? And Coach sittin’ you? For what, Billy? What’d you do?”

“Nothin’.”

“Don’t lie.”

“Just a drill, at practice. Hit a boy hard, real hard. Just kept hittin’ him.”

Football practice?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Nah, hell nah,” say Momma.

She already got the phone out, already dialing Coach when He walk in, smelling like beer sweat and gouch.

“Who she talking to?” He say to me.

I don’t say nothing back.

Boy.”

“Coach.”

He make a jab for the phone in Momma hand. Momma jerk away. Little Brother hold strong.

“Calling Coach,” say Momma. “Done kicked Billy off the team.”

“He ain’t kicked me off. Just—”

“Nah,” He say, grabbing Momma by the shirt now, pawing for the phone, “no goddamn fuckin’ way.”

“Yes, hello,” say Momma, but it ain’t her voice. It the voice she use when she talk to the light company, DHS, teachers, and Coach. She talking fancy, slow. Don’t sound nothing like her. “This Billy’s Momma.”

The man who live in our trailer but ain’t my daddy start pacing. He got a bottle of Nyquil in his hand. Probably all He could find. He pull from it and wipe His mouth with His sleeve.

“Billy say he ain’t gonna play the first game?” say Momma. “That right?” She stop rocking Little Brother. Look at me. “Austin in the hospital?”

He start to laugh. “Shit yeah, that my boy.”

“Alright,” say Momma. “I understand, Coach.”

She still got the phone to her ear when He take it. “Billy the only fuckin’ chance you got. You hear me? Either let him play or we take his ass down the road to Chillerton. How ‘bout that?”

He pause. Chugs the Nyquil.   

“Yeah. That right, Coach. See you at the game tomorrow, and if Billy don’t play—Billy don’t play.” He jab the phone screen three time with his thumb then throw it at Momma. Momma lunge for it. Little Brother hold tight but the phone corner hit him in the back, a sad, hollow sound. Little Brother don’t cry, though. He know.

Coach let me go through everything but say he still ain’t gonna let me play. Gave me my jersey to wear at school. Even let me dress out. I ain’t said one word all day, not one. Didn’t say nothing to Him on my way to the bus. Didn’t have to. The Nyquil bottle empty. Everything empty when I left the house.

Now it game time and Coach still letting me run out through the tunnel and the paper the cheerleaders spent all day coloring. I stay in the back. The band blow they horns, but they ain’t blowing them for me. Used to blow them loud and sing the alma mater when Billy Lowe run cross the goal line. Not tonight though.

Sophomore linebacker here. In a wheelchair, God, a fuckin’ wheelchair. Ain’t nothing wrong with his legs. Wearing sunglasses too. I walk up behind that wheelchair three time, just stand there, while our team beat the hell out of Lutherville. Lutherville sorry as shit. Coach knew. And as I’m standing there behind that wheelchair, smelling sophomore linebacker hair—smell like girl hair—I hear Him start hollering from the stands.

“Ain’t got shit without Billy Lowe!”

I start gnawing at my cheek because He so stupid. It a stupid thing to yell when we beating Lutherville by three touchdown already.

“Bes’ play my Billy!”

And now Momma too. I can tell by her slur, she gone. I look back quick to the bleachers, time enough to see Little Brother dangling from her arm, Billy Lowe jersey on: number thirty-five.

“Fuck this shit.”

“Yeah. Fuuuuck this shit.”

Ain’t no telling them apart now.

Coach a true believer, though. He out near the twenty, fighting for a holding call. Don’t matter we up three touchdown. He know what it mean to fight. He still ain’t heard them yelling, either. Got his headset on, talking to them other coaches, talking about that holding call. Don’t see Principal wading through the stands like a linebacker on a backside blitz.

“Nah, hell nah. Don’t touch me.”

It Momma. She know Principal coming for her.

“Swear to God,” He say, like He the kind a man do something ‘bout it. He ain’t. He all talk and shit and empty bottles. “Swear to God, you touch her, old man—”

Little Brother crying now. Get it out, boy. Get it out because you cain’t cry much after this. Got a year left for crying, maybe less.

“Sue this place for every fuckin’ penny,” shout Momma over Little Brother cries. “Have you ass on channel seven news, tomorrow.”

I ain’t looking. Not no more. Got my back to them, watching Coach fight for that holding call even though we up so big. He laying into the ref, calling the man by name.

“Steve, that boy had a fistful of my nose-tackle’s jersey. Damn near ripped it off.”

Sophomore linebacker stand from his wheelchair. He got the sunglasses pushed up in his shampoo hair. He ain’t hurt.

“Don’t touch her, don’t you touch her.”

Principal must really be getting at Momma.

“Boy, you listen,” yell Principal at Him. “You touch me and I’ll have the Sheriff up here faster than greased lightning. You hear me?”

Sophomore linebacker eyes go wide, but I ain’t got to turn to know He won’t do shit. He’ll bark some. “Ought to whoop you ass, old man.” Something like that. But He won’t do nothing, ‘cause Principal a grown-ass man. Principal ain’t a kid like Little Brother. Principal ain’t living in the trailer hungry. And He know Principal would get the Sheriff up there, and the Sheriff got Tasers and clubs, and He don’t want no part of that. He ain’t tough.

“We going, alright? We gone,” I hear Him say.

“Don’t you touch me,” say Momma, and I ain’t looking but I can just see her jerking free of Principal. Little Brother hanging on, not even crying no more ‘cause at some point you ain’t got the tears.

Coach finally see. Lutherville got to punt so he turn to the sideline, hollering for the offense, and he see. I still got my back to them, but I know it ugly, embarrassing too. Feel them hot on my neck. I look to Coach to save me. Just put me in the game, send me to the locker room, take me by the facemask and beat the fuck out of me, anything, but don’t leave me standing here on this sideline.

“Come on, Billy.”

It Momma.

“Fuck this place. We take his ass down the road,” she scream. “We take Billy Lowe to run the ball at Chillerton.”

But I don’t want to run the ball at Chillerton.

I roll my neck. The burn crack open. Hot blood on my back. My mouth an open wound. I think about spitting on sophomore linebacker, covering his face with my crazy. But I’m watching him watch my people in the stands. Watching Momma. Watching Him. Little Brother holding on. I look one more time to Coach. But it third and six and he got to call a play. Sophomore linebacker still watching Momma holler for me. Watching Him too. Now it obvious He drunk and it embarrassing, fuckin’ embarrassing.

And then sophomore linebacker save me. He elbow another sophomore in the ribs, kinda point up in the stands, point right over me like I ain’t nothing. And now he laughing and pointing at my Momma, at Little Brother.

“Come on, son, fuck this place,” He yell. But He ain’t my daddy, and that does it.

This time there more blood. My blood. His blood. Little Brother blood. The blood that connect us. I feel Coach tugging my pads. I seen a cop try and pull a pit bull off a lab once. I’m headbuttin’ the boy now. Got his arms nailed down, headbuttin’ him when they get the Taser in me.

Principal won’t even touch me on account of the blood. Ambulance light go red and blue as they drag me away. I ain’t fighting, though. Let them do what they got to do. Coach over there, kneeling beside sophomore linebacker. Look like he whispering something in his ear. Bet he’s saying, “Billy didn’t mean it. Billy a good kid, heck of a running back too. Billy just got it tough. And his momma crazy and won’t stop fucking. And yesterday he got a cigarette stuck in his neck, and he took it like a man, and that was after his momma boyfriend put his little brother out in a dog pen, and he had to take that baby boy scraps for lunch and dinner, then breakfast the next day. Billy didn’t mean nothing by it, but he was embarrassed, stuck on that sideline, right there close to them, close enough to feel the heat. Can you imagine? You imagine that, sophomore linebacker?”

No. You cain’t.