Missed Epiphanies

On a warm evening in Archer City the Wildcats dig their grubby cleats into evenly cut grass and play their game under streams of moth-infested light. They perform in front of a stadium pressed and stacked with fans, all neighbors. These overgrown high school boys block, tackle, evade, and intimidate the Dragons from down south, bussed up from Chico, arriving an hour late. Their stretched bodies fill black and yellow uniforms milling around an arena hemmed in by white lines and anxious parents. “Buuuuullshit,” one elderly neighbor opines from the upper bleachers when the fat man in black and white stripes tosses a yellow flag at the Wildcats’ offensive line. The neighbors know the dreadful truth immediately. It hits them just as the flag lands on the close-cropped grass and, even worse, just as the quarterback arches a perfect spiral pass into the long hands of Wildcat #12.

Holding. Ten-yard penalty. Pass incomplete. Loss of down. They know the truth because they all saw #52 desperately clutching that Dragon leg as the quarterback was making the pass. And they know the truth because they all saw the coach throw his headset to the ground in disgust, just like they do on TV, focusing his glare like a scud missile on the guilty Wildcat. The poor beholder of the Dragon leg lowers his head in shame. Everyone knows that the crime had occurred. But everyone also knows that #52 is out there doing nothing more than trying. So it’s still bullshit.

My friend and I had spent the afternoon searching for truth in a bookstore. The boom of marching drums vibrated down Center Street and shook the dust off our clothes as we left Booked Up #3. We had gingerly tip-toed our way out of Mr. McMurtry’s shop because crickets, scores of them, had decided to die on the floor among the books. We felt it somehow impolite to disturb their impromptu mass grave. My friend, a poet visiting from New England, pointed out that most of the bugs had come to die in the poetry section. This in fact was true. She even found one dead bug up on the second shelf, a few feet off the ground, right in front of an Elizabeth Browning volume.

“It hurled itself into the book and crunched itself to death,” she said.

The neighbors roared and the light from the arena pulled us inexorably to my car, a compact foreign thing with a sticker defaming television. There was no question about our next move. Without a word of discussion, we drove toward the glow marking the stadium as the genuine epicenter of Archer City’s cultural existence. It looked as if the moon had dropped smack into the pitch-black plains. We arrived in about three minutes and parked amid a sea of multi-ton pick-up trucks adorned with their own pithy imperatives.

“Let’s roll,” I suggested. “United we stand,” my poetry friend responded. And we walked towards a North Texas football game, not sure what we were getting into. The wind kicked up dust devils around us and our legs were still stiff from the drive that we had made that day from Austin–a drive to find meaning between the covers of books.

I’d bought a thin volume of Wendell Berry poems that afternoon and stuck it in my back pocket as a sort of miniature life preserver. I watched and listened to boys clash and clang into each other, plastic crunching into plastic, grunts echoing off grunts, fists punching the air, cheerleaders kicking with insane and ludicrous persistence. It all seemed so foreign and provincial. The neighbors were dressed as if the game was a church service, which in a way it was. A little boy with glasses kept coming up to me and staring and his dad kept apologizing and I kept saying “no problem at all, really.”

But there were problems. I was hungry and the crowd around the concession stand wasn’t moving. Plus, everyone was walking around with a big wet pickle. Plus, it was Friday the 13th. Plus, I was tired, and this damn kid kept staring at me from three inches away. Plus, what the hell were we doing here? I couldn’t get my mind off those tallboys I’d bought back in Hico and packed in a Styrofoam cooler of ice, sitting in my trunk. Halftime was approaching and I pulled out my life preserver and started to read.

“The longer we are together, death grows around us.”

Well that’s just terrific. Just what I needed to hear. Something was really off. I was restless. I wanted beer. I had a stack of magazines and a book waiting back at the hotel, and I was hoping to catch up on some reading. As I turned to my friend to suggest a timely departure, though, I realized that we were into this evening for the long haul.

She sat frozen, staring at the band that had just straggled onto the field. She was a red-headed zombie, sitting totally upright, her mouth slack and open. She leaned forward and studied the field. I thought she might start drooling. But instead she cried. Nothing too melodramatic. Tears simply welled up and then dribbled down her face silently. They came immediately and without warning, a flash flood from her large head. I looked back and forth between her and the field, searching for a hint of an answer in the florescent glow illuminating this very strange night.

What I saw at first seemed mundane enough. Boys and girls completely de-sexed and swallowed by their ill fitting, tent-like band uniforms and ridiculous short-brimmed hats were performing a set of songs. Elbows and knees occasionally poked into their rayon clothes as they marched. The conductor happened to be the team’s left guard, and he stood atop his perch and directed the rag-tag troupe in his sweaty pads. The mascot, dressed in a furry Wildcat suit, blew into a horn. A cheerleader played a clarinet.

These boys and girls were a team, but their soft faces were etched with expressions of vulnerable individuality. They were trying. The drummers rattled the skins and furrowed their brows. The horn players fixed their gazes in the distance and puffed their cheeks. The mascot kept stepping over her tail. The football player/conductor’s tight pants were riding up his ass, a problem he addressed with conspicuous failure several times during a cacophonous rendition of “Mr. Touchdown.” There was, I realized, nothing mundane about this fine tableaux of innocence. This was the essence of striving, the antithesis of death.

And now suddenly I was the one sitting in the bleachers of an Archer City football game with a lump the size of a Texas grapefruit in my throat. I was once out there. Not literally, mind you, but in so many other awkward and stupid ways. And so was my poet friend. As will be my son. As we all have been and will be so long as “death grows around us.” And I remembered the feeling of being there, wiggling around on that metaphorical stage, seeking approval on the precarious cusp of something bigger. And I remembered that it meant nothing and everything. It was absurd and profound. Inspiring and dull. Heart breaking and orgasmic. A milestone and a dead end. It was a leap into something more important. It was the start of a sad decline. It was that rare and insoluble kind of confusion that only adulthood can dull and death bring to an end.

The boys come out for the second half, running through a cheering gauntlet of fans, and they dig their heels back into the grass. They grab each other, and crunch heads, and high-five, and try, try, try, try. As my friend’s tears finally settle down, I jump up, say what the hell, and–not knowing what the outcome would be, or where I would land, or what I would fall onto, or who I would hurt–I hurl myself. With reckless abandon, with arms wide open, with utter contempt for something I can’t identify, I leap–headlong and gutlessly–into the yellowed pages of my tiny book.

The landing, as far as I can judge, is painless.

Jimmy McWilliams is a writer in Austin.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST