It was seven forty-five on the evening of May 18, 1961. The light of a long Texas dusk lay across my backyard. The window was open, and the curtains fluttered in a mild breeze. On the radio, Troy Shondell was singing “This Time.” I was sitting in what had been the little house’s second bedroom and was now my study. The desk was a cast-off from the high school. It had one short leg, which I had shimmed. The typewriter was a Webster portable. I was revising the first hundred and fifty or so pages of my novel, The Murder Place, mostly because Mimi Corcoran kept pestering me to read it, and Mimi, I had discovered, was the sort of person you could put off with excuses for only so long. The work was actually going well. I’d had no problem turning Derry into the fictional town of Dawson in my first draft, and turning Dawson into Dallas was even easier. I had started making the changes only so the work-in-progress would support my cover story when I finally let Mimi read it, but now the changes seemed both vital and inevitable. It seemed the book had wanted to be about Dallas all along.
The doorbell rang. I put a paperweight on the manuscript pages so they wouldn’t blow around, and went to see who my visitor was. I remember all of this very clearly: the dancing curtains, the smooth river stone paperweight, “This Time” playing on the radio, the long light of Texas evening, which I had come to love. I should remember it. It was when I stopped living in the past and just starting living.
I opened the door and Michael Coslaw stood there. He was weeping. “I can’t, Mr. Amberson,” he said. “I just can’t.”
“Well, come in, Mike,” I said. “Let’s talk about it.”
I wasn’t surprised to see him. I had been in charge of Lisbon High’s little Drama Department for five years before running away to the Era of Universal Smoking, and I’d seen plenty of stage fright in those years. Directing teenage actors is like juggling jars of nitroglycerine: exhilarating and dangerous. I’ve seen girls who were quick studies and beautifully natural in rehearsal freeze up completely onstage; I’ve seen nerdy little guys blossom and seem to grow a foot taller the first time they utter a line that gets a laugh from an audience. I’ve directed dedicated plodders and the occasional kid who showed a spark of talent. But I’d never had a kid like Mike Coslaw. I suspect there are high school and college faculty who’ve been working dramatics all their lives and never had a kid like him.
Mimi Corcoran really did run Denholm Consolidated High School, and it was she who coaxed me into taking over the junior-senior play when Alfie Norton, the math teacher who had been doing it for years, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and moved to Houston for treatments. I tried to refuse on the grounds that I was still doing research in Dallas, but I wasn’t going there very much in the winter and early spring of 1961. Mimi knew it, because whenever Deke needed an English sub during that half of the school year, I was usually available. When it came to Dallas, I was basically marking time. Lee was still in Minsk, soon to marry Marina Prusakova, the girl in the red dress and white shoes.
“You’ve got plenty of time on your hands,” Mimi had said. Her own hands were fisted on her nonexistent hips: she was in full take-no-prisoners mode that day. “And it pays. ”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I checked that out with Deke. Fifty bucks. I’ll be living large in the hood.”
“In the what ?”
“Never mind, Mimi. For the time being, I’m doing all right for cash. Can’t we leave it at that?”
No. We couldn’t. Miz Mimi was a human bulldozer, and when she met a seemingly immovable object, she just lowered her blade and revved her engine higher. Without me, she said, there would be no junior-senior play for the first time in the high school’s history. The parents would be disappointed. The schoolboard would be disappointed. “And,” she added, drawing her brows together, “I will be bereft. ”
“God forbid you should be bereft, Miz Mimi,” I’d said. “Tell you what. If you let me pick the play — something not too controversial, I promise — I’ll do it.”
Her frown had disappeared into the brilliant Mimi Corcoran smile that always turned Deke Simmons into a simmering bowl of oatmeal (which, temperamentally speaking, was not a huge transformation). “Excellent! Who knows, you may find a brilliant thespian lurking in our halls.”
“Yes,” I said. “And pigs may whistle.”
But — life is such a joke — I had found a brilliant thesp. A natural. And now he sat in my living room on the night before our show opened for the first of four performances, taking up almost the entire couch (which bowed humbly beneath his two hundred and seventy pounds), bawling his freaking head off. Mike Coslaw. Also known as Lennie Small in George Amberson’s okay-for-high-school adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
If, that was, I could talk him into showing up tomorrow.
I thought about handing him some Kleenex and decided they weren’t up to the job. I fetched a dish wiper from the kitchen drawer instead. He scrubbed his face with it, got himself under some kind of control, then looked at me desolately. His eyes were red and raw. He hadn’t started crying as he approached my door; this looked like it had been going on all afternoon.
“Okay, Mike. Make me understand.”
“Everybody on the team’s makin fun of me, Mr. Amberson. Coach started callin me Clark Gable — this was at the Lion Pride Spring Picnic — and now everybody’s doin it. Even Jimmy’s doin it.” Meaning Jim LaDue, the team’s hot-rod quarterback and Mike’s best friend.
I wasn’t surprised about Coach Borman; he was a thud who preached the gospel of gung-ho and didn’t like anyone poaching on his territory either in season or out. And Mike had been called far worse; while hall-monitoring, I’d heard him called Bohunk Mike, George of the Jungle, and Godzilla. He laughed the nicknames off. That amused, even absentminded reaction to slurs and japes may be the greatest gift height and size conveys on large boys, and at six-seven and two-seventy, Mike made me look like Mickey Rooney.
There was only one star on the Lions’ football team, and that was Jim LaDue — didn’t he have his own billboard, at the intersection of Highway 77 and Route 109? But if there was any player who made it possible for Jim to star, it was Mike Coslaw, who planned to sign with Texas A&M as soon as his senior high school season was over. LaDue would be rolling with the ’Bama Crimson Tide (as both he and his father would be happy to tell you), but if someone had asked me to pick the one most likely to go pro, I would have put my money on Mike. I liked Jim, but to me he looked like a knee injury or shoulder separation waiting to happen. Mike, on the other hand, seemed built for the long haul.
“What does Bobbi Jill say?” Mike and Bobbi Jill Allnut were practically joined at the hip. Gorgeous girl? Check. Blonde? Check. Cheerleader? Why even ask?
He grinned. “Bobbi Jill’s behind me a thousand percent. Says to man up and stop letting those other guys get my goat.”
“Sounds like a sensible young lady.”
“Yeah, she’s the absolute best.”
“Anyway, I suspect a little name-calling isn’t what’s really on your mind.” And when he didn’t reply: “Mike? Talk to me.”
“I’m gonna get up there in front of all those people and make a fool of myself. Jimmy told me so.”
“Jimmy’s a helluva quarterback, and I know the two of you are pals, but when it comes to acting, he doesn’t know jack shit.” Mike blinked. In 1961 you usually didn’t hear the word shit from teachers, even if they had a mouthful. But of course I was only a substitute, and that freed me up some. “I think you know that. As they say in these parts, you may stagger, but you ain’t stupid.”
“People think I am,” he said in a low voice. “And I’m strictly a C student. Maybe you don’t know that, maybe subs don’t get to see the records, but I am.”
“I made it a point to see yours after the second week of rehearsals, when I saw what you could do onstage. You’re a C student because, as a football player, you’re supposed to be a C student. It’s part of the ethos.”
“Figure it out from the context and save the dumb act for your friends. Not to mention Coach Borman, who probably has to tie a string on his whistle so he can remember which end to blow.”
Mike snickered at that, red eyes and all.
“Listen to me. People automatically think anyone as big as you is stupid. Tell me different if you want to; according to what I hear, you’ve been walking around in that body since you were twelve, so you should know.”
He didn’t tell me different. What he said was, “Everybody on the team tried out for Lennie. It was a joke. A goof.” He added hastily. “Nothin against you, Mr. A. Everybody on the team likes you. Even Coach likes you.”
A bunch of players had crashed the tryouts, intimidating the more scholarly aspirants into silence and all claiming they wanted to read for the part of George Milton’s big dumb friend. Of course it had been a joke, but Mike’s reading of Lennie had been the farthest thing in the world from funny. What it had been was a goddam revelation. I would have used an electric cattle prod to keep him in the room, if that’s what it took, but of course there was no need of such extreme measures. Want to know the best thing about teaching? Seeing that moment when a kid discovers his or her gift. There’s no feeling on earth like it. Mike knew his teammates would make fun of him, but he took the part anyway.
And of course Coach Borman didn’t like it. The Coach Bormans of the world never do. In this case, however, there wasn’t much he could do about it, especially with Mimi Corcoran on my side. He certainly couldn’t claim he needed Mike for football practice in April and May. So he was reduced to calling his best lineman Clark Gable. There are guys who can’t rid themselves of the idea that acting is for girls and queers who sort of wish they were girls. Gavin Borman was that kind of guy. At Don Haggarty’s annual April Fool’s keg-party, he had whined to me about “putting ideas in that big galoot’s head.”
I told him he was certainly welcome to his opinion; like assholes, everybody had one. Then I walked away, leaving him with a paper cup in his hand and a perplexed look on his face. The Coach Bormans of the world are also used to getting their way through a kind of jocular intimidation, and he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working on the lowly sub who’d stepped into Alfie Norton’s director’s shoes at the last minute. I could hardly tell Borman that shooting a guy to keep him from killing his wife and kids has a way of changing a man.
Basically, Coach never had a chance. I cast some of the other football players as townspeople, but I meant to have Mike as Lennie from the moment he opened his mouth and said, “I remember about the rabbits, George!”
He became Lennie. He hijacked not just your eyes — because he was so damn big — but the heart in your chest. You forgot everything else, the way people forgot their everyday cares when Jim LaDue faded back to throw a pass. Mike might have been built to crash the opposing line in humble obscurity, but he had been made —by God, if there is such a deity; by a roll of the genetic dice if there is not — to stand on a stage and disappear into someone else.
“It was a goof for everyone but you,” I said.
“Me, too. At first.”
“Because at first you didn’t know.”
“No. I dint.” Husky. Almost whispering. He lowered his head because the tears were coming again and he didn’t want me to see them. The coach had called him Clark Gable, and if I called the man on it, he’d claim it was just a joke. A goof. A yuk. As if he didn’t know the rest of the squad would pick up on it and pile on. As if he didn’t know that shit would hurt Mike in a way being called Bohunk Mike never could. Why do people do that to gifted people? Is it jealousy? Fear? Both, maybe. But this kid had the advantage of knowing how good he was. And we both knew Coach Borman wasn’t really the problem. The only person who could stop Mike from going onstage tomorrow night was Mike.
“You’ve played football in front of crowds nine times bigger than the one that’ll be in that auditorium. Hell, when you boys went down to Dallas for the regionals last November, you played in front of ten or twelve thousand. And they were not friendly.”
“Football’s different. When we hit the field, we’re all wearing the same uniform and helmets. Folks can only tell us apart by our numbers. Everybody’s on the same side—”
“There are nine other people in this show with you, Mike, and that’s not counting the townspeople I wrote in to give your football buddies something to do. They’re a team, too.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Maybe not quite. But one thing is the same — if you let them down, the shit falls apart and everybody loses. The actors, the crew, the Pep Club girls who did the publicity, and all the people who are planning to come in for the show, some of them from ranches fifty miles out. Not to mention me. I lose, too.”
“I guess that’s so,” he said. He was looking at his feet, and mighty big feet they were.
“I could stand to lose Slim or Curley; I’d just send someone out with the book to read the part. I guess I could even stand to lose Curley’s Wife—”
“I wish Sandy was a little better,” Mike said. “She’s pretty as hell, but if she ever hits her mark, it’s an accident.”
I allowed myself a cautious inward smile. I was starting to think this was going to be all right. “What I couldn’t stand — what the show couldn’t stand — is to lose you or Vince Knowles.”
Vince was playing Lennie’s road-buddy George, and actually, we could have stood the loss if he’d gotten the flu or broken his neck in a road accident (always a possibility, given the way he drove his daddy’s farm truck). I would have gone on in Vince’s place, if push came to shove, even though I was much too big for the part, and I wouldn’t need just to read, either. After six weeks of rehearsals, I was as off-the-book as any of my actors. More than some. But I couldn’t replace Mike. No one could replace him, with his unique combination of size and actual talent. He was the linchpin.
“What if I fuck up?” he asked, then heard what he’d said and clapped a hand to his mouth.
I sat down beside him on the couch. There wasn’t much room, but I managed. Right then I wasn’t thinking of John Kennedy, Al Templeton, Frank Dunning, or the world I’d come from. Right then I was thinking of nothing but this big boy. . and my show. Because at some point it had become mine, just as this earlier time with its party-line telephones and cheap gas had become mine. At that moment I cared more about Of Mice and Men than I did about Lee Harvey Oswald.
But I cared even more about Mike.
I took his hand off his mouth. Put it on one huge thigh. Put my hands on his shoulders. Looked into his eyes. “Listen to me,” I said. “Are you listening?”
“You are not going to fuck up. Say it.”
“I’m not going to fuck up.”
“What you’re going to do is amaze them. I promise you that, Mike.” Gripping his shoulders tighter. It was like trying to sink my fingers into stones. He could have picked me up and broken me over his knee, but he only sat there looking at me from a pair of eyes that were humble, hopeful, and still rimmed with tears. “Do you hear me? I promise.”
The stage was a beachhead of light. Beyond it was a lake of darkness where the audience sat. George and Lennie stood on the bank of an imaginary river. The other men had been sent away, but they wouldn’t be gone long; if the big, vaguely smiling hulk of a man in the overalls were to die with any dignity, George would have to see to it himself.
“George? Where them guys goin?”
Mimi Corcoran was sitting on my right. At some point she had taken my hand and was gripping it. Hard, hard, hard. We were in the first row. Next to her on her other side, Deke Simmons was staring up at the stage with his mouth slightly hung open. It was the expression of a farmer who sees dinosaur cropping grass in his north forty.
“Huntin. They’re goin huntin. Siddown, Lennie.”
Vince Knowles was never going to be an actor — what he was going to be, most likely, was a salesman at Jodie Chrysler-Dodge, like his father — but a great performance can lift all the actors in a production, and that had happened tonight. Vince, who in rehearsals had only once or twice achieved even low levels of believability (mostly because his ratty, intelligent little face was Steinbeck’s George Milton), had caught something from Mike. All at once, about halfway through Act I, he finally seemed to realize what it meant to go rambling through life with a Lennie as your only friend, and he had fallen into the part. Now, watching him push an old felt hat from props back on his head, I thought that Vince looked like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath.
“Ain’t you gonna give me hell?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, George.” Smiling. The kind of smile that says Yeah, I know I’m a dope, but we both know I can’t help it. Sitting down beside George on the imaginary riverbank. Taking off his own hat, tossing it aside, rumpling his short blond hair. Imitating George’s voice. Mike had nailed this with eerie ease in the very first rehearsal, with no help from me. “‘If I was alone, I could live so easy. I could get a job and not have no more mess.’” Resuming his own voice. . or Lennie’s, rather. “I can go away. I can go right up in the hills and find a cave, if you don’t want me.”
Vince Knowles lowered his head, and when he raised it and spoke his next line, his voice was thick and hitching. It was a simulacrum of sorrow he’d never approached in even his best rehearsals. “No, Lennie, I want you to stay here with me.”
“Then tell me like you done before! Bout other guys, and about us!”
That was when I heard the first low sob from the audience. It was followed by another. Then a third. This I had not expected, not in my wildest dreams. A chill raced up my back, and I stole a glance at Mimi. She wasn’t crying yet, but the liquid sheen in her eyes told me that she soon would be. Yes, even her — hard old baby that she was.
George hesitated, then took hold of Lennie’s hand, a thing Vince never would have done in rehearsals. That’s queerboy stuff, he would have said.
“Guys like us. . Lennie, guys like us got no families. They got nobody that gives a hoot in hell about them.” Touching the prop gun hidden under his coat with his other hand. Taking it partway out. Putting it back. Then steeling himself and taking it all the way out. Laying it along his leg.
“But not us, George! Not us! Idn’t that right?”
Mike was gone. The stage was gone. Now it was only the two of them, and by the time Lennie was asking George to tell him about the little ranch, and the rabbits, and living off the fat of the land, half the audience was weeping audibly. Vince was crying so hard he could hardly deliver his final lines, telling poor stupid Lennie to look over there, the ranch they were going to live on was over there. If he looked hard enough, he could see it.
The stage lensed slowly to full dark, Cindy McComas for once running the lights perfectly. Birdie Jamieson, the school janitor, fired a blank cartridge. Some woman in the audience gave a little scream. That sort of reaction is usually followed by nervous laughter, but tonight there was only the sound of people weeping in their seats. Otherwise, silence. It went on for ten seconds. Or maybe it was only five. Whatever it was, to me it seemed forever. Then the applause broke. It was the best thunder I ever heard in my life. The house lights went up. The entire audience was on its feet. The front two rows were reserved for faculty, and I happened to glance at Coach Borman. Damned if he wasn’t crying, too.
Two rows back, where all the school jocks were sitting together, Jim LaDue leaped to his feet. “You rock, Coslaw!” he shouted. This elicited cheers and laughter.
The cast came out to take their bows: first the football-player townspeople, then Curley and Curley’s Wife, then Candy and Slim and the rest of the farmhands. The applause started to die a little and then Vince came out, flushed and happy, his own cheeks still wet. Mike Coslaw came last, shuffling as if embarrassed, then looking out in comical amazement as Mimi shouted “Bravo!”
Others echoed it, and soon the auditorium resounded with it: Bravo, Bravo, Bravo . Mike bowed, sweeping his hat so low it brushed the stage. When he stood again, he was smiling. But it was more than a smile; his face was transformed with the happiness that’s reserved for those who are finally allowed to reach all the way up.
Then he shouted, “Mr. Amberson! Come up here, Mr. Amberson!”
The cast took up the chant of “Director! Director!”
“Don’t kill the applause,” Mimi growled from beside me. “Get up there, you goof ball!”
So I did, and the applause swelled again. Mike grabbed me, hugged me, lifted me off my feet, then set me down and gave me a hearty smack on the cheek. Everyone laughed, including me. We all grabbed hands, lifted them to the audience, and bowed. As I listened to the applause, a thought occurred to me, one that darkened my heart. In Minsk, there were newlyweds. Lee and Marina had been man and wife for exactly nineteen days.
Three weeks later, just before school let out for the summer, I went to Dallas to take some photographs of the three apartments where Lee and Marina would live together. I used a small Minox, holding it in the palm of my hand and allowing the lens to peep out between two spread fingers. I felt ridiculous — more like the trench-coated caricatures in Mad magazine’s Spy vs Spy feature than James Bond — but I had learned to be careful about such things.
When I returned to my house, Mimi Corcoran’s sky-blue Nash Rambler was parked at the curb and Mimi was just sliding in behind the wheel. When she saw me, she got out again. A brief grimace tightened her face — pain or effort — but when she came up the drive, she was wearing her usual dry smile. As if I amused her, but in a good way. In her hands she was carrying a bulky manila envelope, which contained the hundred and fifty pages of The Murder Place. I’d finally given in to her pesterings. . but that had been only the day before.
“Either you liked it one hell of a lot, or you never got past page ten,” I said, taking the envelope. “Which was it?”
Her smile now looked enigmatic as well as amused. “Like most librarians, I’m a fast reader. Can we go inside and talk about it? It isn’t even the middle of June, and it’s already so hot.”
Yes, and she was sweating, something I’d never seen before. Also, she looked as if she’d lost weight. Not a good thing for a lady who had no pounds to give away.
Sitting in my living room with big glasses of iced coffee — me in the easy chair, she on the couch — Mimi gave her opinion. “I enjoyed the stuff about the killer dressed up as a clown. Call me twisted, but I found that deliciously creepy.”
“If you’re twisted, I am, too.”
She smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find a publisher for it. On the whole, I liked it very much.”
I felt a little hurt. The Murder Place might have begun as camouflage, but it had become more important to me as I got deeper into it. It was like a secret memoir. One of the nerves. “That ‘on the whole’ stuff reminds me of Alexander Pope — you know, damning with faint praise?”
“I didn’t quite mean it that way.” More qualification. “It’s just that. . goddammit, George, this isn’t what you were meant to do. You were meant to teach. And if you publish a book like this, no school department in the United States will hire you.” She paused. “Except maybe in Massachusetts.”
I didn’t reply. I was speechless.
“What you did with Mike Coslaw — what you did for Mike Coslaw — was the most amazing and wonderful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Mimi, it wasn’t me. He’s just naturally tal—”
“I know he’s naturally talented, that was obvious from the moment he walked onstage and opened his mouth, but I’ll tell you something, my friend. Something forty years in high schools and sixty years of living has taught me and taught me well. Artistic talent is far more common than the talent to nurture artistic talent. Any parent with a hard hand can crush it, but to nurture it is much more difficult. That’s a talent you have, and in much greater supply than the one that drove this.” She tapped the sheaf of pages on the coffee table in front of her.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say thank you, and compliment me on my acute judgment.”
“Thanks. And your insight is only exceeded by your good looks.”
That brought the smile back, dryer than ever. “Don’t exceed your brief, George.”
“Yes, Miz Mimi.”
The smile disappeared. She leaned forward. The blue eyes behind her glasses were too big, swimming in her face. The skin under her tan was yellowish, and her formerly taut cheeks were hollow. When had this happened? Had Deke noticed? But that was ridic, as the kids said. Deke wouldn’t notice that his socks were mismatched until he took them off at night. Probably not even then.
She said, “Phil Bateman is no longer just threatening to retire, he’s done pulled the pin and tossed the grenade, as our delightful Coach Borman would say. Which means there’s a vacancy on the English faculty. Come and teach full-time at DCHS, George. The kids like you, and after the junior-senior play, the community thinks you’re the second coming of Alfred Hitchcock. Deke is just waiting to see your application — he told me so just last night. Please. Publish this under a pseudonym, if you have to, but come and teach. That’s what you were meant to do.”
I wanted badly to say yes, because she was right. My job wasn’t writing books, and it certainly wasn’t killing people, no matter how much they deserved killing. And there was Jodie. I’d come to it as a stranger who had been displaced from his home era as well as his hometown, and the first words spoken to me here — by Al Stevens, at the diner — had been friendly words. If you’ve ever been homesick, or felt exiled from all the things and people that once defined you, you’ll know how important welcoming words and friendly smiles can be. Jodie was the anti-Dallas, and now one of its leading citizens was asking me to be a resident instead of a visitor. But the watershed moment was approaching. Only it wasn’t here yet. Maybe. .
“George? You have the most peculiar look on your face.”
“That’s called thinking. Will you let me do it, please?”
She put her hands to her cheeks and rounded her mouth in a comic O of apology. “Well braid my hair and call me Buckwheat.”
I paid no attention, because I was busy flicking through Al’s notes. I no longer had to look at them to do that. When the new school year started in September, Oswald was still going to be in Russia, although he had already started what would be a lengthy paperwork battle to get back to America with his wife and daughter, June, with whom Marina would be pregnant any day now. It was a battle Oswald would eventually win, playing one superpower bureaucracy off against the other with instinctive (if rudimentary) cleverness, but they wouldn’t step off the SS Maasdam and onto American soil until the middle of next year. And as for Texas. .
“Meems, the school year usually ends the first week in June, doesn’t it?”
“Always. The kids who need summer jobs have to nail them down.”
. . as for Texas, the Oswalds were going to arrive on the fourteenth of June, 1962.
“And any teaching contract I signed would be probationary, right? As in one year?”
“With an option to renew if all parties are satisfied, yes.”
“Then you’ve got yourself a probationary English teacher.”
She laughed, clapped her hands, got to her feet, and held her arms out. “Marvelous! Huggies for Miz Mimi!”
I hugged her, then released her quickly when I heard her gasp. “What the hell is wrong with you, ma’am?”
She went back to the couch, picked up her iced coffee, and sipped. “Let me give you two pieces of advice, George. The first is never call a Texas woman ma’am if you come from the northern climes. It sounds sarcastic. The second is never ask any woman what the hell is wrong with her. Try something slightly more delicate, like ‘Are you feeling quite all right?’”
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m getting married.”
At first I couldn’t match this particular zig with a corresponding zag. Except the grave look in her eyes suggested she wasn’t zigging at all. She was circling something. Probably not a nice something, either.
“Say ‘Congratulations, Miz Mimi.’”
“Congratulations, Miz Mimi.”
“Deke first popped the question almost a year ago. I put him off, saying it was too soon after his wife died, and it would cause talk. As time passes, that has become less effective as an argument. I doubt if there would have been all that much talk, anyway, given our ages. People in small towns realize that folks like Deke and me can’t afford the luxury of decorum quite so much once we reach a certain, shall we say, plateau of maturity. Truth is, I liked things fine just the way they were. The old fella loves me quite a lot more than I love him, but I like him plenty, and — at the risk of embarrassing you — even ladies who’ve reached a certain plateau of maturity aren’t averse to a nice boink on a Saturday night. Am I embarrassing you?”
“No,” I said. “Actually, you’re delighting me.”
The dry smile. “Lovely. Because when I swing my feet out of bed in the morning, my first thought as they hit the floor is, ‘Might there be a way I can delight George Amberson today? And if so, how shall I go about it?’”
“Don’t exceed your brief, Miz Mimi.”
“Spoken like a man.” She sipped her iced coffee. “I had two objectives when I came here today. I’ve accomplished the first. Now I’ll move on to the second so you can get on with your day. Deke and I are going to be married on July twenty-first, which is a Friday. The ceremony will be a small private affair in his home — just us, the preacher, and a few family members. His parents — they’re quite vigorous for dinosaurs — are coming from Alabama and my sister from San Diego. The reception will be a lawn party at my house the following day. Two P.M. until drunk o’clock. We’re inviting almost everyone in town. There’s going to be a piñata and lemonade for the little kiddies, barbecue and kegs of beer for the big kiddies, and even a band from San-Antone. Unlike most bands from San-Antone, I believe they are able to play ‘Louie Louie’ as well as ‘La Paloma.’ If you don’t favor us with your presence—”
“You’ll be bereft?”
“Indeed I will. Will you save the date?”
“Good. Deke and I will be leaving for Mexico on Sunday, by which time his hangover will have dissipated. We’re a little old for a honeymoon, but there are certain resources available south of the border that are not available in the Sixgun State. Certain experimental treatments. I doubt if they work, but Deke is hopeful. And hell, it’s worth a try. Life. .” She gave a rueful sigh. “Life is too sweet to give up without a fight, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes. So one holds on.” She looked at me closely. “Are you going to cry, George?”
“Good. Because that would embarrass me. I might even cry myself, and I don’t do it well. No one would ever write a poem about my tears. I croak. ”
“How bad is it? May I ask?”
“Quite bad.” She said it offhandedly. “I might have eight months. Possibly a year. Assuming the herbal treatments or peach pits or whatever down Mexico way don’t effect a magical cure, that is.”
“I’m very sorry to hear it.”
“Thank you, George. Expressed to a nicety. Any more would be sloppy.”
“I have another reason for inviting you to our reception, although it goes without saying that your charming company and sparkling repartee would be enough. Phil Bateman isn’t the only one who’s retiring.”
“Mimi, don’t do that. Take a leave of absence if you have to, but—”
She shook her head decisively. “Sick or well, forty years is enough. It’s time for younger hands, younger eyes, and a younger mind. On my recommendation, Deke has hired a well-qualified young lady from Georgia. Her name is Sadie Clayton. She’ll be at the reception, she’ll know absolutely no one, and I expect you to be especially nice to her.”
“I wouldn’t quite say that.” Mimi looked at me guilelessly. “I believe she intends to reclaim her maiden name at some point in the near future. Following certain legal formalities.”
“Mimi, are you matchmaking?”
“Not at all,” she said. . then snickered. “Hardly at all. Although you will be the only teacher on the English faculty who’s currently unattached, and that makes you a natural to act as her mentor.”
I thought that a gigantic leap into illogic, especially for such an ordered mind, but I accompanied her to the door without saying so. What I said was, “If it’s as serious as you say, you should be seeking treatment now. And not from some quack doctor in Juaréz, either. You should be at the Cleveland Clinic.” I didn’t know if the Cleveland Clinc even existed yet, but just then I didn’t care.
“I think not. Given the choice between dying in a hospital room somewhere, stuck full of tubes and wires, and dying in a seaside Mexican hacienda. . that is, as you like to say, a no-brainer. And there’s something else, as well.” She looked at me unflinchingly. “The pain isn’t too bad yet, but I’m told it will be. In Mexico, they are far less apt to strike moral poses about large doses of morphine. Or Nembutal, if it comes to that. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
Based on what had happened to Al Templeton, I guessed that was true. I put my arms around her, this time hugging very gently. I kissed one leathery cheek.
She bore it with a smile, then slipped away. Her eyes searched my face. “I’d like to know your story, my friend.”
I shrugged. “I’m an open book, Miz Mimi.”
She laughed. “What a crock of shit. You say you’re from Wisconsin, but you showed up in Jodie with a New England drawl in your mouth and Florida plates on your auto. You say you’re commuting to Dallas for research purposes, and your manuscript purports to be about Dallas, but the people in it speak like New Englanders. In fact, there are a couple of places where characters actually say ayuh. You might want to change those.”
And I thought my rewrite had been so clever.
“Actually, Mimi, New Englanders say it a-yuh, not i-yuh. ”
“Noted.” She continued to search my face. It was a struggle not to drop my eyes, but I managed. “Sometimes I’ve actually caught myself wondering if you might not be a space alien, like Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here to analyze the natives and report back to Alpha Centauri on whether there’s still hope for us as a species or if we should be exploded by plasma rays before we can spread our germs to the rest of the galaxy.”
“That’s very fanciful,” I said, smiling.
“Good. I’d hate to think our whole planet was being judged by Texas.”
“If Jodie were used as a sample, I’m sure Earth would get a passing grade.”
“You like it here, don’t you?”
“Is George Amberson your real name?”
“No. I changed it for reasons that are important to me but wouldn’t be to anyone else. I’d prefer you kept that to yourself. For obvious reasons.”
She nodded. “I can do that. I’ll see you around, George. The diner, the library. . and at the party, of course. You’ll be nice to Sadie Clayton, won’t you?”
“Nice as pie,” I said, giving it the Texas twist: pah. That made her laugh.
When she was gone, I sat in my living room for a long time, not reading, not watching TV. And working on either of my manuscripts was the farthest thing from my mind. I thought about the job I’d just agreed to: a year of teaching full-time English at Denholm Consolidated High School, home of the Lions. I decided I had no regrets. I could roar at halftime with the best of them.
Well, I did have one regret, but it wasn’t for me. When I thought about Mimi and her current situation, I had regrets aplenty.
On the subject of love at first sight, I’m with the Beatles: I believe that it happens all the time. But it didn’t happen that way for me and Sadie, although I held her the first time I met her, and with my right hand cupping her left breast. So I guess I’m also with Mickey and Sylvia, who said love is strange.
South-central Texas can be savagely hot in mid-July, but the Saturday of the post-wedding party was damned near perfect, with temperatures in the upper seventies and lots of fat white clouds hustling across a sky the color of faded overalls. Long shutters of sun and shadow slipped down Mimi’s backyard, which was on a mild slope ending at a muddy trickle of water she called Nameless Crick.
There were streamers of yellow and silver — Denholm High’s colors — strung from the trees, and there was indeed a piñata, hung temptingly low from the jutting branch of a sugar pine. No child passed near it without giving it a longing glance.
“After dinner, the kids’ll get sticks and beat away on it,” someone said from just behind my left shoulder. “Candy and toys for all the niños. ”
I turned and beheld Mike Coslaw, resplendent (and a little hallucinatory) in tight black jeans and a white open-throated shirt. A sombrero on a tug-string hung down on his back, and he wore a multicolored sash around his waist. I saw a number of other football players, including Jim LaDue, dressed in the same semi-ridiculous manner, circulating with trays. Mike held his out with a slightly crooked smile. “Canapé, Señor Amberson?”
I took a baby shrimp on a toothpick, and dipped it in the sauce. “Nice getup. Kind of a Speedy Gonzales thing.”
“Don’t start. If you want to see a real getup, check Vince Knowles.” He pointed beyond the net to where a group of teachers was playing a clumsy but enthusiastic game of volleyball. I beheld Vince dressed up in tails and a top hat. He was surrounded by fascinated children who were watching him pull scarves out of thin air. It worked well, if you were still young enough to miss the one poking out of his sleeve. His shoe-polish mustache gleamed in the sun.
“On the whole, I prefer the Cisco Kid look,” Mike said.
“I’m sure you all make terrific waiters, but who in God’s name persuaded you to dress up? And does Coach know?”
“He ought to, he’s here.”
“Oh? I haven’t seen him.”
“He’s over by the barbecue pit, gettin hammered with the Boosters Club. As for the outfit. . Miz Mimi can be pretty persuasive.”
I thought of the contract I’d signed. “I know.”
Mike lowered his voice. “We all know she’s sick. Besides. . I think of this as acting.” He struck a bullfighter pose — not easy when you’re carrying a tray of canapés. “¡Arriba!”
“Not bad, but—”
“I know, I’m not really inside the part yet. Gotta submerge myself, right?”
“It works for Brando. How are you guys gonna be this fall, Mike?”
“Senior year? Jim in the pocket? Me, Hank Alvarez, Chip Wiggins, and Carl Crockett on the line? We’re going to State, and that gold ball’s going into the trophy case.”
“I like your attitude.”
“Are you going to do a play this fall, Mr. Amberson?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Good. Great. Save me a part. . but with football, it’ll have to be a small one. Check out the band, they’re not bad.”
The band was a lot better than not bad. The logo on the snare drum proclaimed them The Knights. The teenage lead singer counted off, and the band launched into a hot version of “Ooh, My Head,” the old Ritchie Valens song — and not really so old in the summer of ’61, although Valens had been dead for almost two years.
I got my beer in a paper cup and walked closer to the bandstand. The kid’s voice was familiar. So was the keyboard, which sounded like it desperately wanted to be an accordion. And suddenly it clicked. The kid was Doug Sahm, and not so many years from now he would have hits of his own: “She’s About a Mover” for one, “Mendocino” for another. That would be during the British Invasion, so the band, which basically played Tejano rock, would take a pseudo-British name: The Sir Douglas Quintet.
“George? Come here and meet someone, would you?”
I turned. Mimi was coming down the slope of the lawn with a woman in tow. My first impression of Sadie — everyone’s first impression, I have no doubt — was her height. She was wearing flats, as were most of the women here, knowing that they’d be spending the afternoon and evening traipsing around outside, but this was a woman who had probably last worn heels to her own wedding, and even for that occasion she might have picked a dress that would hide just one more pair of low-or no-heels, chosen so she wouldn’t tower comically over the groom as they stood at the altar. She was six feet at least, maybe a little more. I still had her by at least three inches, but other than Coach Borman and Greg Underwood of the History Department, I was probably the only man at the party who did. And Greg was a beanpole. Sadie had, in the argot of the day, a really good built. She knew it and was self-conscious about it rather than proud. I could tell that from the way she walked.
I know I’m a little too big to be considered normal, that walk said. The set of her shoulders said more: It’s not my fault, I just growed that way. Like Topsy. She was wearing a sleeveless dress printed over with roses. Her arms were tanned. She had dashed on a little pink lipstick, but no other makeup.
Not love at first sight, I’m pretty sure of it, but I remember that first sight with surprising clarity. If I told you I remember with similar clarity the first time I saw the former Christy Epping, I’d be lying. Of course, it was at a dance club and we were both toasted, so maybe I get a pass on that.
Sadie was good-looking in an artless what-you-see-is-what-you-get American-girl way. She was something else, as well. On the day of the party I thought that something else was plain old big-person clumsiness. Later I found out she wasn’t clumsy at all. Was, in fact, the farthest thing from it.
Mimi looked good — or at least no worse than she had on the day she’d come to my house and convinced me to teach full-time — but she was wearing makeup, which was unusual. It didn’t quite conceal the hollows under her eyes, probably caused by a combination of sleeplessness and pain, or the new lines at the corners of her mouth. But she was smiling, and why not? She had married her fella, she had thrown a party that was obviously a roaring success, and she had brought a pretty girl in a pretty summer dress to meet the school’s only eligible English teacher.
“Hey, Mimi,” I said, starting up the mild slope toward her, weaving my way around the card tables (borrowed from the Amvets Hall) where people would later sit to eat barbecue and watch the sunset. “Congratulations. I guess now I’ll have to get used to calling you Miz Simmons.”
She smiled her dry smile. “Please stick to Mimi, it’s what I’m used to. I have a new faculty member I want you to meet. This is—”
Someone had neglected to push one of the folding chairs all the way back in, and the big blonde girl, already holding her hand out to me and composing her how-nice-to-meet-you smile, tripped over it and went spilling forward. The chair came with her, tipping up, and I saw the potential for a nasty accident if one of the legs speared her in the stomach.
I dropped my cup of beer in the grass, took a giant step forward, and grabbed her as she fell. My left arm went around her waist. My right hand landed higher, grabbing something warm and round and slightly yielding. Between my hand and her breast, the cotton of her dress slipped over the smooth nylon or silk of whatever she was wearing beneath. It was an intimate introduction, but we had the banging angles of the chair for a chaperone, and although I staggered a little against the momentum of her hundred and fifty or so pounds, I kept my feet and she kept hers.
I took my hand away from the part of her that is rarely grasped when strangers are introduced and said: “Hello, I’m—” Jake. I came within a hair of giving my twenty-first-century name, but caught it at the very last moment. “I’m George. How nice to make your acquaintance.”
She was blushing to the roots of her hair. I probably was, too. But she had the good grace to laugh.
“Nice to make yours. I think you just saved me from a very nasty accident.”
Probably I had. Because that was it, you see? Sadie wasn’t clumsy, she was accident-prone. It was amusing until you realized what it really was: a kind of haunting. She was the girl, she told me later, who got the hem of her dress caught in a car door when she and her date arrived at the senior prom, and managed to tear her skirt right off as they headed for the gym. She was the woman around whom water fountains malfunctioned, giving her a faceful; the woman who was apt to set an entire book of matches on fire when she lit a cigarette, burning her fingers or singeing her hair; the woman whose bra strap broke during Parents’ Night or who discovered huge runs in her stockings before school assemblies at which she was scheduled to speak.
She was careful to mind her head going through doors (as all sensible tall folks learn to be), but people had a tendency to open them incautiously in her face, just as she was approaching them. She had been stuck in elevators on three occasions, once for two hours, and the year before, in a Savannah department store, the recently installed escalator had gobbled one of her shoes. Of course I knew none of this then; all I knew on that July afternoon was that a good-looking woman with blonde hair and blue eyes had fallen into my arms.
“I see you and Miss Dunhill are already getting along famously, ” Mimi said. “I’ll leave you to get to know one another.”
So, I thought, the change from Mrs. Clayton to Miss Dunhill had already been effected, legal formalities or not. Meanwhile, the chair was stuck into the sod by one leg. When Sadie tried to tug it free, it wouldn’t come at first. When it did, the back of the chair ran nimbly up her thigh, hiking her skirt and revealing one stocking-top all the way to the garter. Which was as pink as the roses on her dress. She gave a little cry of exasperation. Her blush darkened to an alarming shade of firebrick.
I took the chair and set it firmly aside. “Miss Dunhill. . Sadie. . if I ever saw a woman who could use a cold beer, that woman is you. Come with me.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m so sorry. My mother told me never to throw myself at men, but I’ve never learned.”
As I led her toward the line of kegs, pointing out various faculty members along the way (and taking her arm to steer her around a volleyball player who looked like he was going to collide with her as he backpedaled to return a high lob), I felt sure of one thing: we could be colleagues and we could be friends, maybe good friends, but we’d never be any more than that, no matter what Mimi might hope for. In a comedy starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, our introduction would have undoubtedly qualified as “meet cute,” but in real life, in front of an audience that was still grinning, it was just awkward and embarrassing. Yes, she was pretty. Yes, it was very nice to be walking with such a tall girl and still be taller. And sure, I had enjoyed the yielding firmness of that breast, cupped inside its thin double layer of proper cotton and sexy nylon. But unless you’re fifteen, an accidental grope at a lawn party does not qualify as love at first sight.
I got the newly minted (or reminted) Miss Dunhill a beer, and we stood conversing near the makeshift bar for the requisite amount of time. We laughed when the dove Vince Knowles had rented for the occasion poked its head out of his top hat and pecked his finger. I pointed out more Denholm educators (many already leaving Sobriety City on the Alcohol Express). She said she would never get to know them all and I assured her she would. I asked her to call on me if she needed help with anything. The requisite number of minutes, the expected conversational gambits. Then she thanked me again for saving her from a nasty fall, and went to see if she could help gather the kids into the piñata-bashing mob they would soon become. I watched her go, not in love but a little in lust; I’ll admit I mused briefly on the stocking-top and the pink garter.
My thoughts returned to her that night as I got ready for bed. She filled a large amount of space in a very nice way, and my eye hadn’t been the only one following the pleasant sway of her progress in the print dress, but really, that was it. What more could there be? I’d read a book called A Reliable Wife not too long before leaving on the world’s strangest trip, and as I climbed into bed, a line from the novel crossed my mind: “He had lost the habit of romance.”
That’s me, I thought as I turned out the light. Totally out of the habit. And then, as the crickets sang me to sleep: But it wasn’t just the breast that was nice. It was the weight of her. The weight of her in my arms.
As it turned out, I hadn’t lost the habit of romance at all.
August in Jodie was an oven, with temperatures at least in the nineties every day and often breaking a hundred. The air-conditioning in my rented house on Mesa Lane was good, but not good enough to withstand that sort of sustained assault. Sometimes — if there was a cooling shower — the nights were a little better, but not by much.
I was at my desk on the morning of August 27, working away at The Murder Place in a pair of basketball shorts and nothing else, when the doorbell rang. I frowned. It was Sunday, I’d heard the sound of competing church bells not too long previous, and most of the people I knew attended one of the town’s four or five places of worship.
I pulled on a tee-shirt, and went to the door. Coach Borman was standing there with Ellen Dockerty, the former head of the Home Ec Department and DCHS’s acting principal for the coming year; to no one’s surprise, Deke had tendered his resignation on the same day Mimi tendered hers. Coach was stuffed into a dark blue suit and a loud tie that looked like it was strangling his plug of a neck. Ellen was wearing a prim gray outfit relieved by a spray of lace at her throat. They looked solemn. My first thought, as persuasive as it was wild: They know. Somehow they know who I am and where I came from. They’re here to tell me.
Coach Borman’s lips were trembling, and although Ellen didn’t sob, tears filled her eyes. Then I knew.
“Is it Mimi?”
Coach nodded. “Deke called me. I got Ellie — I usually take her to church — and we’re letting people know. The ones she liked the best first.”
“I’m sorry to hear,” I said. “How’s Deke?”
“He seems to be bearing up,” Ellen said, then glanced at Coach with some asperity. “According to him, at least.”
“Yeah, he’s okay,” Coach said. “Broken up, accourse.”
“Sure he is,” I said.
“He’s going to have her cremated.” Ellen’s lips thinned in disapproval. “Said it was what she wanted.”
I thought about it. “We should have some sort of special assembly once school’s back in. Can we do that? People can speak. Maybe we could put together a slide show? People must have lots of pictures of her.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” Ellen said. “Could you organize it, George?”
“I’d be happy to try.”
“Get Miss Dunhill to help you.” And before the suspicion of more matchmaking could even begin to cross my mind, she added: “I think it will help the boys and girls who loved Meems to know her hand-picked replacement helped plan the memorial assembly. It will help Sadie, too.”
Of course it would. As a newcomer, she could use a little banked goodwill to start the year with.
“Okay, I’ll talk to her. Thank you both. Are you going to be okay?”
“Sure,” Coach said stoutly, but his lips were still trembling. I liked him for that. They went slowly down to his car, which was parked at the curb. Coach had his hand on Ellen’s elbow. I liked him for that, too.
I closed the door, sat down on the bench in the little dab of front hall, and thought about Mimi saying she would be bereft if I didn’t take over the junior-senior play. And if I didn’t sign on to teach full-time for at least a year. Also if I didn’t come to her wedding party. Mimi, who thought Catcher in the Rye belonged in the school library, and who wasn’t averse to a nice boink on Saturday night. She was one of those faculty members the kids remember long after graduation, and sometimes come back to visit when they are no longer kids. The kind who sometimes shows up in a troubled student’s life at a critical moment and makes a critical difference.
Who can find a virtuous woman? the proverb asks. For her price is above rubies. She seeketh wool and flax and worketh willingly with her hands. She is like the merchants’ ships, that bringeth food from afar.
There are more clothes than the ones you put on your body, every teacher knows that, and food isn’t just what you put in your mouth. Miz Mimi had fed and clothed many. Including me. I sat there on a bench I’d bought at a Fort Worth flea market with my head lowered and my face in my hands. I thought about her, and I was very sad, but my eyes remained dry.
I have never been what you’d call a crying man.
Sadie immediately agreed to help me put together a memorial assembly. We worked on it for the last two weeks of that hot August, driving around town to line up speakers. I tapped Mike Coslaw to read Proverbs 31, which describes the virtuous woman, and Al Stevens volunteered to tell the story — which I had never heard from Mimi herself — about how she had named the Prongburger, his spécialité de la maison. We also collected over two hundred photographs. My favorite showed Mimi and Deke doing the twist at a school dance. She looked like she was having fun; he looked like a man with a fair-sized stick up his ass. We culled the photos in the school library, where the nameplate on the desk now read MISS DUNHILL instead of MIZ MIMI.
During that time Sadie and I never kissed, never held hands, never even looked into each other’s eyes for longer than a passing glance. She didn’t talk about her busted marriage or her reasons for coming to Texas from Georgia. I didn’t talk about my novel or tell her about my largely made-up past. We talked about books. We talked about Kennedy, whose foreign policy she considered jingoistic. We discussed the nascent civil rights movement. I told her about the board across the creek at the bottom of the path behind the Humble Oil station in North Carolina. She said she’d seen similar toilet facilities for colored people in Georgia, but believed their days were numbered. She thought school integration would come, but probably not until the mid-seventies. I told her I thought it would be sooner, driven by the new president and his attorney-general kid brother.
She snorted. “You have more respect for that grinning Irishman than I do. Tell me, does he ever get his hair cut?”
We didn’t become lovers, but we became friends. Sometimes she tripped over things (including her own feet, which were large), and on two occasions I steadied her, but there were no catches as memorable as the first one. Sometimes she’d declare she just had to have a cigarette, and I’d accompany her out to the student smoking area behind the metal shop.
“I’ll be sorry not to be able to come out here and sprawl on the bench in my old blue jeans,” she said one day. This was less than a week before school was scheduled to start. “There’s always such a fug in teachers’ rooms.”
“Someday that’ll all change. Smoking will be banned on school grounds. For teachers as well as students.”
She smiled. It was a good one, because her lips were rich and full. And the jeans, I must say, looked good on her. She had long, long legs. Not to mention just enough junk in her trunk. “A cigarette-free society. . Negro children and white children studying side by side in perfect harmony. . no wonder you’re writing a novel, you’ve got one hell of an imagination. What else do you see in your crystal ball, George? Rockets to the moon?”
“Sure, but it’ll probably take a little longer than integration. Who told you I was writing a novel?”
“Miz Mimi,” she said, and butted her cigarette in one of the half a dozen sand-urn ashtrays. “She said it was good. And speaking of Miz Mimi, I suppose we ought to get back to work. I think we’re almost there with the photographs, don’t you?”
“And are you sure playing that West Side Story song over the slide show isn’t going to be too corny?”
I thought “Somewhere” was cornier than Iowa and Nebraska put together, but according to Ellen Dockerty it had been Mimi’s favorite song.
I told Sadie this, and she laughed doubtfully. “I didn’t know her all that well, but it sure doesn’t seem like her. Maybe it’s Ellie’s favorite song.”
“Now that I think about it, that seems all too likely. Listen, Sadie, do you want to go to the football game with me on Friday? Kind of show the kids that you’re here before school starts on Monday?”
“I’d love to.” Then she paused, looking a little uncomfortable. “As long as you don’t, you know, get any ideas. I’m not ready to date just yet. Maybe not for a long time.”
“Neither am I.” She was probably thinking about her ex, but I was thinking about Lee Oswald. Soon he’d have his American passport back. Then it would only be a matter of wangling a Soviet exit visa for his wife. “But friends sometimes go to the game together.”
“That’s right, they do. And I like going places with you, George.”
“Because I’m taller.”
She punched my arm playfully — a big-sister kind of punch. “That’s right, podna. You’re the kind of man I can look up to.”
At the game, practically everybody looked up to us, and with faint awe — as though we were representatives of a slightly different race of humans. I thought it was kind of nice, and for once Sadie didn’t have to slouch to fit in. She wore a Lion Pride sweater and her faded jeans. With her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked like a high school senior herself. A tall one, probably the center on the girls’ basketball team.
We sat in Faculty Row and cheered as Jim LaDue riddled the Arnette Bears’ defense with half a dozen short passes and then a sixty-yard bomb that brought the crowd to its feet. At halftime the score was Denholm 31, Arnette 6. As the players ran off the field and the Denholm band marched onto it with their tubas and trombones wagging, I asked Sadie if she wanted a hotdog and a Coke.
“You bet I do, but right now the line’ll be all the way out to the parking lot. Wait until there’s a time-out in the third quarter or something. We have to roar like lions and do the Jim Cheer.”
“I think you can manage those things on your own.”
She smiled at me and gripped my arm. “No, I need you to help me. I’m new here, remember?”
At her touch, I felt a warm little shiver I did not associate with friendship. And why not? Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were sparkling; under the lights and the greeny-blue sky of a deepening Texas dusk, she was way beyond pretty. Things between us might have progressed faster than they did, except for what happened during that halftime.
The band marched around the way high school bands do, in step but not completely in tune, blaring a medley you couldn’t quite figure out. When they finished, the cheerleaders trotted to the fifty-yard line, dropped their pompoms in front of their feet, and put their hands on their hips. “Give us an L!”
We gave them what they required, and when further importuned, we obliged with an I, an O, an N, and an S.
“What’s that spell?”
“LIONS!” Everybody on the home bleachers up and clapping.
“Who’s gonna win?”
“LIONS!” Given the halftime score, there wasn’t much doubt about it.
“Then let us hear you roar!”
We roared in the traditional manner, turning first to the left and then to the right. Sadie gave it her all, cupping her hands around her mouth, her ponytail flying from one shoulder to the other.
What came next was the Jim Cheer. In the previous three years — yes, our Mr. LaDue had started at QB even as a freshman — this had been pretty simple. The cheerleaders would yell something like, “Let us hear your Lion Pride! Name the man who leads our side!” And the hometown crowd would bellow “JIM! JIM! JIM!” After that the cheerleaders would do a few more cartwheels and then run off the field so the other team’s band could march out and tootle a tune or two. But this year, possibly in honor of Jim’s valedictory season, the chant had changed.
Each time the crowd yelled “JIM,” the cheerleaders responded with the first syllable of his last name, drawing it out like a teasing musical note. It was new, but it wasn’t complicated, and the crowd caught on in a hurry. Sadie was doing the chant with the best of them, until she realized I wasn’t. I was just standing there with my mouth open.
“George? Are you okay?”
I couldn’t answer. In fact, I barely heard her. Because most of me was back in Lisbon Falls. I had just come through the rabbit-hole. I had just walked along the side of the drying shed and ducked under the chain. I had been prepared to meet the Yellow Card Man, but not to be attacked by him. Which I was. Only he was no longer the Yellow Card Man; now he was the Orange Card Man. You’re not supposed to be here, he had said. Who are you? What are you doing here? And when I’d started to ask him if he’d tried AA for his drinking problem, he’d said—
“George?” Now she sounded worried as well as concerned. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
The fans had totally gotten into the call-and-response thing. The cheerleaders shouted “JIM” and the bleacher-creatures shouted back “LA.”
Fuck off, Jimla! That was what the Yellow Card Man who’d become the Orange Card Man (although not yet the dead-by-his-own-hand Black Card Man) had snarled at me, and that was what I was hearing now, tossed back and forth like a medicine ball between the cheerleaders and the twenty-five hundred fans watching them:
“JIMLA, JIMLA, JIMLA!”
Sadie grabbed my arm and shook me. “Talk to me, mister! Talk to me, because I’m getting scared!”
I turned to her and managed a smile. It did not come easy, believe me. “Just crashing for sugar, I guess. I’m going to grab those Cokes.”
“You aren’t going to faint, are you? I can walk you to the aid station if—”
“I’m fine,” I said, and then, without thinking about what I was doing, I kissed the tip of her nose. Some kid shouted, “Way to go, Mr. A!”
Rather than looking irritated, she wriggled her nose like a rabbit, then smiled. “Get out of here, then. Before you damage my reputation. And bring me a chili dog. Lots of cheese.”
The past harmonizes with itself, that much I already understood. But what song was this? I didn’t know, and it worried me plenty. In the concrete runway leading to the refreshment stand, the chant was magnified, making me want to put my hands over my ears to block it out.
“JIMLA, JIMLA, JIMLA.”