The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story DON’T KNOW TOUGH

Spring 2018 / Issue 103

Eli Cranor

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.