Five Autobiographies and a Fiction
Dust jacket by J. K. Potter
Five Autobiographies and a Fiction, the long-awaited new collection from master storyteller Lucius Shepard, is a significant publishing event, a volume equal in every way to such earlier Shepard classics as The Jaguar Hunter and The Dragon Griaule. Its six long stories offer narrative pleasures as diverse and profound as anything to be found in modern imaginative fiction.
“Ditch Witch,” set in rural Oregon, concerns a young man on the run in a stolen car, a hitchhiker who may or may not have witch-like powers, and the bizarre inhabitants of the seemingly innocuous Elfland Motel. “The Flock” is a tale of high school football and small town malaise set against an impossible intrusion from the natural world. A washed-up actor and a Malaysian “woman of power” stand at the center of “Vacancy,” the account of a man forced to confront the very real demons of his past. “Dog-eared Paperback of My Life” follows a writer (Thomas Cradle) on his erotically charged journey down the Mekong River, a journey enveloped in a maze of multiple, interpenetrating realities. “Halloween Town” tells the story of a small, extremely strange town and one of its denizens, Clyde Ormoloo, a man who sees too deeply into the “terrible incoherence” of human affairs. The final story, “Rose Street Attractors,” takes us into 19th century London and the heart of the steampunk era—in the richly atmospheric tale of a most unusual haunting. Rounding out this generous volume is an Introdution in which Shepard offers a startlingly frank assessment of his own troubled adolescence, identifying the “alternate versions” of himself that appear in these pages and illuminating those points at which fiction and “near-autobiography” converge.
Lyrical, brutal, and always powerfully composed, Five Autobiographies and a Fiction is something special. Each of these six novellas speaks in its own distinctive voice. Each one takes us into the heart of a thoroughly imagined world. Only Lucius Shepard could have created those worlds. Only Lucius Shepard could have given us this book.
Limited: 250 signed numbered copies, bound in leather
Trade: Fully cloth bound trade hardcover
Table of Contents
- Ditch Witch
- The Flock
- Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life
- Halloween Town
- Rose Street Attractors
From Publishers Weekly:
“Nebula winner Shepard (Life During Wartime) often steers his fiction toward faraway shores, but the bulk of this collection directly targets the American heartland. A painfully confessional introduction sets the stage for five ‘autobiographies’—might-have-been stories exploring facets of the author’s personal journey… This honestly titled collection deals well and satisfyingly with deep truths.”
“Lucius Shepard’s new collection Five Autobiographies and a Fiction is required reading for fans of the author. People who have never read anything by Shepard may love it too, but because of the specific nature of this set of stories, it’ll definitely have more impact on readers who are familiar with the author. If that's you, I’d go as far as saying that this is nothing less than a must-read, because it will dramatically change and enrich your understanding of the author and his works.”
Doyle Mixon and I were hanging out beneath the bleachers at the Crescent Creek High football field, passing a joint, zoning on the katydids and the soft Indian summer air, when a school bus carrying the Taunton Warriors pulled up at the curb. Doyle was holding in a toke, his eyes closed and face lifted to the sky; with his long sideburns, he looked like a hillbilly saint at prayer. When he caught sight of the team piling off the bus, he tried to suppress a chuckle and coughed up smoke. The cause of his amusement—Taunton had three monstrously fat linemen, and as their uniforms were purple with black stripes and numerals, they resembled giant plums with feet.
One lineman waddled over, his pod-brothers following close behind. “You guys got a problem?” he asked.
Doyle was too stoned to straighten out and he kind of laughed when he said, “We’re fine, dog.”
Standing in a row, staring down at us, they made a bulging purple fence that sealed us off from the rest of the world. Their hair had been buzzed down to stubble, and their faces were three lumpy helpings of sunburned vanilla pudding. Tiny round heads poked up between their shoulder pads. They might have been some weird fatboy rap act like that old MTV guy, Bubba Sparxxx.
“What’s so fucking funny?” a second one asked, and Doyle and I both said, “Nothing,” at about the same time.
“We got a couple of stoners, is what we got,” the first one said, showing Doyle a fist the size of a Monster Burger. “Want to trip on this, freak?”
I kept my mouth shut, but Doyle, I guess he figured we were safe on neutral ground or else he simply didn’t give a damn. “You guys,” he said. “If beer farts were people, they’d look like you guys. All bloated and purple and shit.”
The third lineman hadn’t said a thing—for all I knew, he might not have possessed the power of speech; but he could hear well enough. He yanked Doyle upright and slammed an elbow into the side of his jaw. All three of them went to beating on us. It couldn’t have been more than ten seconds before their coach dragged them off us; but they had done a job in that short time. Doyle’s eyelid was cut and his lip was bleeding. They hadn’t gotten me nearly as bad, but my cheekbone ached and my shirt was ripped.
The coach, Coach Cunliffe, was a dumpy little guy with a torso shaped like a frog’s and a weak comb-over hidden beneath a purple cap. “Son-of-a-buck!” he kept saying, and pounded on their chests. They didn’t even quiver when he hit them. One said something I was too groggy to catch and the coach calmed down all of a sudden. He took a stand over us, his hands on hips, and said, “You boys intend to make a report about this, I expect we got something to report on ourselves. Don’t we?”
Doyle was busy nursing his eye, and I didn’t have a clue what Cunliffe was going on about.
“I was to search your pockets, what you reckon I’d find?” Cunliffe asked. “Think it might be an illegal substance?”
“You lay a hand on me,” Doyle said, “I’ll tell the cops you grabbed my johnson.”
Cunliffe whipped out a cell phone. “No need for me to search. I’ll just call down to the sheriff and get him on the case. How about that?” When neither of us responded, he pocketed the phone. “Well, then. Supposing we call it even, all right?”
Doyle muttered something.
“Is that a no?” Cunliffe reached for his phone again.
“Naw, man. Just keep these fuckwits out of my face.”
The fuckwits surged forward. Cunliffe spread his arms to restrain them. “You’re number twenty-two for the Pirates,” he said to Doyle. “I remember you from last year. Cornerback, right?” He gave us both the eye. “You boys down here doing a little scouting?”
Doyle spat redly, and I said, “Uh-huh.”
“That’s gonna help!” one of the linemen said, and his buds laughed thickly.
Cunliffe shushed them and locked onto Doyle. “You played some damn good ball against us last year, Twenty-two. You figger marijuana’s gonna enhance your performance next month?”
“Not as much as the juice made these assholes’ nuts fall off,” said Doyle.
The linemen rumbled—Cunliffe pushed them toward the field, and they moved away through the purpling air. “Better get that eye took care of,” he said. “Get it all healed up by next month. My boys are like sharks once they get the smell of blood.”
“Those are some fat god damn sharks,” Doyle said.
The towns of Taunton, Crescent Creek, and Edenburg are laid out in a triangle in the northeast corner of Culliver County, none more than fifteen miles apart. My mama calls the area “the Bermuda Triangle of South Carolina,” because of the weird things that happened there, ghosts and mysterious lights in the sky and such. Now I’ve done some traveling, I understand weirdness is a vein that cuts all through the world, but I cling to the belief that it cuts deeper than normal through Culliver County, and I do so in large part because of the chain of events whose first link was forged that evening in Crescent Creek.
Doyle and I hadn’t gone to the game to scout Taunton—we knew we had no chance against them. Only ninety-six boys at Edenburg High were eligible for football. Most of our team were the sons of tobacco farmers, many of whom couldn’t make half the practices because of responsibilities at home. Taunton, on the other hand, drew its student body from a population of factory workers, and they were a machine. Every year they went to the regional finals, and they’d come close to winning State on a couple of occasions. It was considered a moral victory if we held them to thirty points or under, something we hadn’t managed to do for the better part of a decade. So what we were up to, Doyle and I, was looking for two girls we’d met at a party in Crescent Creek the week before. We were only halfheartedly looking—I had a girlfriend, and Doyle was unofficially engaged—and after what the linemen had done to us, with our clothes bloody and faces bruised, we decided to go drinking instead.
We picked up a couple of twelve-packs at Snade’s Corners, a general store out on State Road 271 where they never checked ID, and drove along a dead-end dirt road to Warnoch’s Pond, a scummy eye of water set among scrub pine and brush, with a leafless live oak that clawed up from the bank beside it like a skeletal three-fingered hand. There was a considerable patch of bare ground between the pond and the brush, littered with flattened beer cans and condom wrappers and busted bottles with sun-bleached labels. Half a dozen stained, chewed-up sofas and easy chairs lined the bank. The black sofa on the far left was a new addition, I thought—at least it looked in better shape than the others.
The pond was where a lot of Edenburg girls, not to mention girls from Taunton and Crescent Creek, lost their cherry, but it was too early for couples to be showing up, and we had the place to ourselves. We sat on the black sofa and drank Blue Ribbon and talked about women and football and getting the hell out of Edenburg, the things we always talked about, the only things there were to talk about if you were a teenager in that region, except maybe for tobacco and TV. Doyle fumed over the fight for a time, swearing vengeance, but didn’t dwell on it—we’d had our butts kicked before. I told him that big as those linemen were, vengeance might require an elephant gun.
“I hate they kill us every year,” Doyle said. “I’d like to win one, you know.”
I cracked a beer and chugged down half. “Not gonna happen.”
“What the hell do you care? Only reason you play so’s you can get a better class of woman.”
I belched. “You know I’d lay me down and die for the ol’ scarlet and silver.”
Annoyed, he gave me a shove. “Well, I would for real. Just one win. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m getting a special feeling here,” I said.
“I’m getting all tingly and shit…like God’s listening in. He’s heard your voice and even now…”
He chucked one of his empties at me.
“…universal forces are gathering, preparing to weave your heartfelt prayer into His Glorious Design.”
“I wish,” said Doyle.
Darkness folded down around us, hiding the scrub pine. Though it had been overcast all day, the stars were out in force. Doyle twisted up a joint and we smoked, we drank, we smoked some more, and by the time we’d finished the first twelve-pack, the dead live oak appeared more witchy than ever, the stars close enough to snatch down from the sky, and the pond, serene and shimmering with reflected light, might have been an illustration in a book of fairy tales. I thought about pointing this out to Doyle, but I restrained myself—he would have told me to quit talking like a homo.
Clouds blew in from the east, covering the stars, and we fell silent. All I could hear were dogs barking in the distance and that ambient hum that seems to run throughout the American night. I asked what he was thinking and he said, “Taunton.”
“Jesus, Doyle. Here.” I flipped him a fresh beer. “Get over it, okay?”
He turned the can over in his hands. “It ticks me off.”
“Look, man. The only way we’ll ever beat them is if their bus breaks down on the way to the game.”
“What do you mean?”
“If they show up late, they’ll have to forfeit.”
“Oh…yeah,” he said glumly, as if the notion didn’t satisfy him.
“So get over it.”
He started to respond but was cut off by a shrill jee-eep, a sound like a rusty gate opening; this was followed by a rustling, as of many wings.
I jumped up. “What was that?”
“Just a grackle,” Doyle said.
I peered into the darkness. Though it was likely my imagination, the night air looked to have taken on the glossiness of a grackle’s wing. I didn’t much like grackles. They were nest robbers and often ate fledglings. And there were stories…A droplet of ice formed at the tip of my spine.
“City boy,” said Doyle disparagingly, referring to the fact that I had spent my first decade in Aiken, which was a city compared to Edenburg. “Is Andy scared of the birdies?”
There came a series of jee-eeps, more rustling. I thought I detected almost invisible movement in every direction I turned.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“Want me to hold your hand?”
“Come on! We can drive over to Dawn’s and see if she wants to do something.”
Doyle made a disgusted noise and stood. “Something’s about to poke a hole in my ass, anyway.” He touched the back of his jeans and then inspected his finger. “Christ, I’m bleeding. I think something bit me.” He kicked at the sofa. “I could get an infection off this damn thing!”
“I bet you can get Dawn to suck out the poison,” I said, hurrying toward the car.
As I backed up, the headlights swept across the bank, revealing the row of thrown-away sofas and chairs. I could have sworn one of them was missing, and as I went fishtailing off along the dirt road, the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that it was the one we had been sitting on.
If it hadn’t been for football, I would have been an outsider in high school, angry and fucked-up, a loner whom everyone would have voted the Most Likely to Go Columbine. People said I took after my mama—I had her prominent cheekbones and straight black hair and hazel eyes. She was one-quarter Cherokee, still a beauty as she entered her forties, and she had a clever mind and a sharp tongue that could slice you down to size in no time flat. She was a lot quicker than my daddy (a stoic, uncommunicative sort), way too quick to be stuck in a backwater like Edenburg. Some nights she drank too much and Daddy would have to help her upstairs, and some afternoons she went out alone and didn’t return until I was in bed, and I would hear them fighting, arguments in which she always got the last word. When I was in the eighth grade I discovered that she had a reputation. According to gossip, she was often seen in the bars and had slept with half the men in Taunton. I got into a bunch of school-yard fights that usually were started by a comment about her. I felt betrayed, and for a while we didn’t have much of a relationship. Then Daddy sat me down and we had a talk, the only real talk we’d had to that point.
“I knew what I was getting when I married your mama,” he said. “She’s got a wild streak in her, and sometimes it’s bound to come out.”
“People laughing behind your back and calling her a slag…how do you put up with that?”
“Because she loves us,” he said. “She loves us more than anyone. People are gonna say what they gonna say. Your mama’s had a few flings, and it hurts—don’t get me wrong. But she has to put up with me and with the town, so it all evens out. She don’t belong in Edenburg. These women around here don’t have nothing to offer her, talking about county fairs and recipes. You’re the only person she can talk to, and that’s because she raised you to be her friend. The two of you can gab about books and art, stuff that goes right over my head. Now with you giving her the cold shoulder, she’s got no outlet for that side of things.”
I asked straight out if he had slept with other women, and he told me there was a time he did, but that was just vengeful behavior.
“I never wanted anybody but your mama,” he said solemnly, as if taking a vow. “She’s the only woman I ever gave a damn about. Took me a while to realize it, is all.”
I didn’t entirely understand him and kept on fighting until he pushed me into football at the beginning of the ninth grade; though it didn’t help me understand any better, the game provided a release for my aggression, and things gradually got easier between me and Mama.
By our senior year, Doyle and I were the best players on the team and football had become for me both a means of attracting girls and a way of distracting attention from the fact that I read poetry for fun and effortlessly received As, while the majority of my class watched American Idol and struggled with the concepts of basic algebra. My gangly frame had filled out, and I was a better than adequate wide receiver. Not good enough for college ball, probably not good enough to start for Taunton, but I didn’t care about that. I loved the feeling of leaping high, the ball settling into my hands, while faceless midgets clawed ineffectually at it, and then breaking free, running along the sideline—it didn’t happen all that often, yet when it did, it was the closest thing I knew to satori.
Doyle was undersized, but he was fast and a vicious tackler. Several colleges had shown interest in him, including the University of South Carolina. Steve Spurrier, the Old Ball Coach himself, had attended one of our games and shook Doyle’s hand afterward, saying he was going to keep an eye on him. For his part, Doyle wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college.
When he told me this, I said, “Are you insane?”
He shot me a bitter glance but said nothing.
“Damn, Doyle!” I said. “You got a chance to play in the SEC and you’re going to turn it down? Football’s your way out of this shithole.”
“I ain’t never getting out of here.”
He said this so matter-of-factly, for a moment I believed him; but I told him he was the best corner in our conference and to stop talking shit.
“You don’t know your ass!” He chested me, his face cinched into a scowl. “You think you do. You think all those books you read make you smart, but you don’t have a clue.”
I thought he was going to start throwing, but instead he walked away, shoulders hunched, head down, and his hands shoved in the pockets of his letterman’s jacket. The next day he was back to normal, grinning and offering sarcastic comments.
Doyle was a moody kid. He was ashamed of his family—everyone in town looked down on them, and whenever I went to pick him up I’d find him waiting at the end of the driveway, as if hoping I wouldn’t notice the meager particulars of his life: a dilapidated house with a tar paper roof; a pack of dogs running free across the untended property; one or another of his sisters pregnant by persons unknown; an old man whose breath reeked of fortified wine. I assumed that his defeatist attitude reflected this circumstance, but I didn’t realize how deep it cut, how important trivial victories were to him.
The big news in Culliver County that fall had to do with the disappearance of a three-week-old infant, Sally Carlysle. The police arrested the mother, Amy, for murder because the story she told made no sense—she claimed that grackles had carried off her child while she was hanging out the wash to dry, but she had also been reported as having said that she hadn’t wanted the baby. People shook their heads and blamed postpartum depression and said things like Amy had always been flighty and she should never have had kids in the first place and weren’t her two older kids lucky to survive? I saw her picture in the paper—a drab, pudgy little woman, handcuffed and shackled—but I couldn’t recall ever having seen her before, even though she lived a couple of miles outside of town.
During the following week, grackle stories of another sort surfaced. A Crescent Creek man told of seeing an enormous flock crossing the morning sky, taking four or five minutes to pass overhead; three teenage girls said grackles had surrounded their car, blanketing it so thickly that they’d been forced to use a flashlight to see each other.
There were other stories put forward by more unreliable witnesses, the most spectacular and unreliable of them being the testimony of a drunk who’d been sleeping it off in a ditch near Edenburg. He passed out near an old roofless barn, and when he woke, he discovered the barn had miraculously acquired a roof of shiny black shingles. As he scratched his head over this development, the roof disintegrated and went flapping up, separating into thousands upon thousands of black birds, with more coming all the time—the entire volume of the barn must have been filled with them, he said. They formed into a column, thick and dark as a tornado, that ascended into the sky and vanished. The farmer who owned the property testified to finding dozens of dead birds inside the barn, and some appeared to have been crushed; but he sneered at the notion that thousands of grackles had been packed into it. This made me think of the sofa at Warnoch’s Pond, but I dismissed what I had seen as the product of too much beer and dope. Other people, however, continued to speculate.
In our corner of South Carolina, grackles were called the Devil’s Bird, and not simply because they were nest robbers. They were large birds, about a foot long, with glossy purplish black feathers, lemon-colored eyes, and cruel beaks, and were often mistaken at a distance for crows. A mighty flock was rumored to shelter on one of the Barrier Islands, biding their time until called to do the devil’s bidding, and it was said that they had been attracted to the region by Blackbeard and his pirates. According to the legend, Blackbeard himself, Satan’s earthly emissary, had controlled the flock, and when he died, they had been each infused with a scrap of his immortal spirit and thus embodied in diluted form his malicious ways. No longer under his direction, the mischief they did was erratic, appearing to follow no rational pattern of cause and effect.
Some claimed they had poison beaks and could imitate human speech and do even more arcane imitations. A librarian sent a letter to the paper citing an eighteenth-century account that spoke of a traveler who had come upon an ancient mill where none had stood before and watched it erode and disappear, dissolving into a flock of grackles that somehow “had contrived its likeness from the resource of their myriad bodies, as though shaped and given the hue of weathered wood by a Great Sculptor.” Her account was debunked by a college professor who presented evidence that the author of the piece had been a notorious opium addict.
Jason Coombs’s daddy—Jason was our strong-side tackle, a huge African-American kid almost as imposing as the Taunton linemen—preached at the stomp-and-shout church over near Nellie’s West Side Café, and each year he delivered a sermon using the Devil’s Bird as a metaphor, punctuating it with whoops and grunts, saying that evil was always lurking, waiting for its opportunity to strike, to swoop down like an avenging host and punish the innocent for the failures of the weak, suggesting that evil was a by-product of society’s moral laxity, a stratagem frequently employed by evangelists but given an inadvertent Marxist spin by the Reverend Coombs, who halfway through the sermon took to substituting the word “comrade” for “brother” and “sister.” He had a field day with the Carlysle murder. Jason broke us up after practice one afternoon with an imitation of his old man (“Satan’s got his flock, huh, and Jesus got his angels! Praise Jesus!”), an entertainment that caused Coach Tuttle, a gung-ho Christian fitness freak in his thirties, to rebuke us sharply for making fun of a God-fearing man such as the Reverend. He ordered us to run extra laps and generally worked us like mules thereafter.
“You boys better flush everything out of your heads but football,” he told us. “This team has a chance to achieve great things and I’m prepared to kick your tails six ways from Sunday to see that you get the job done.”
I wasn’t fool enough to believe that we could achieve great things, but it was a heady time for Pirate football. We were assured of having our first winning season in four years. Our record was 6-2 going into the Crescent Creek game, and if we won that, our game with Taunton would actually mean something: win that one and we’d play in the regionals up in Charleston.
I did my best to focus on football, but I was experiencing my first real dose of woman trouble. My girlfriend, Carol Ann Bechtol, was making me crazy, saying that she didn’t know anymore if we had a future and, to put it delicately, was withholding her affections. She wanted more of a commitment from me. I envied those city kids who had friends with benefits, who could hang out and have sex and stay commitment free, because in Edenburg we still did things the old-fashioned way—we dated, we went steady, we got all messed up over one girl or one boy. Mama warned me not to let myself get trapped.
“You know that’s what Carol Ann’s doing,” she said. “She knows you’ll be off to college next year, and she wants to catch onto your coattails and go with you.”
“That’s not such a bad thing,” I said.
“No, not if you love her. Do you?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighed. “You can’t tell anybody what to do, and I’m not going to try and tell you. You have to work it out on your own. But you should ask yourself how Carol Ann is going to fare away from Edenburg, and whether she’s going to be a burden or a partner. Will she try and pull you back home or will she be glad to put this sorry place behind her?”
I knew the answers to her questions but kept silent, not wanting to hear myself speak them. We were sitting at the kitchen table. A steady rain fell and the lights were on and the radio played quietly and I felt distant from the gray light and the barren town outside.
“She’s a sweet girl,” Mama said. “She loves you, and that’s why she’s manipulating you. It’s not just a matter of desperation. She’s convinced you’ll be better off here in the long run. Maybe she’s right. But you’re bound to try your wings and you have to decide if you can get off the ground with Carol Ann along.”
“Is that what happened to you?” I asked. “With Daddy, I mean.”
“It’s some of it. I’ve had regrets, but I’ve lived past them and learned to make do.”
She flattened her long-fingered hands on the table and stared down at them as if they were evidence of regret and love and something less definable, and I saw for an instant what a wild and lovely creature it was that my daddy had gentled. Then the radio crackled and she was just my mama once again.
“What I wonder, Andy,” she said, “is if making do’s a lesson you need to learn this early on.”
I broke up with Carol Ann the Wednesday before the Crescent Creek game, at lunchtime in a corner of the practice field. She accused me of using her for sex, of ruining her life. I didn’t trust myself to speak and stood with my head down, my face hot, taking her abuse, wanting to say something that would make her stop and throw her arms around me and draw me into a kiss that would set a seal on our lives; but I couldn’t pull the trigger. She ran off crying, looking for her friends, and I went off to American history, where I listened to Mrs. Kemp tell lies about South Carolina’s glorious past and doodled pictures of explosions in my notebook.
Friday night, I played the best game of my career. I played with hate and self-loathing in my heart, throwing my body around, slamming into the Crescent City corners with vicious abandon, screaming at them while they lay on the ground—I scored three times, twice on short passes and once on a fumbled kickoff, threading my way through tacklers and plowing under the last man between me and the goal with a lowered shoulder. In the locker room afterward, Coach Tuttle was inspired to curse, something he rarely did.
“Did you see Andy out there tonight?” he asked the gathered team. “That boy played some damn football! He wanted to win and he did something about it!”
The team roared their approval, sounding like dogs with their mouths full of meat, and pounded me on my pads, doing no good to my bruised and aching shoulder.
“You know what next week is?” he asked, and the team responded on cue, “Taunton Week!”
“If y’all play like Andy did tonight, and I know you can”—he paused for effect—“their mamas are gonna be wiping those Taunton boys’ asses for a month!”
Doyle and the others wanted me to party with them, but I begged off, saying I needed to ice my shoulder. At home, I told my parents that we’d won and I’d done all right.
Daddy gave me a funny look. “We listened to the game, son.”
“Okay,” I said angrily. “So I was the goddamn hero. So what?”
His face clouded, but Mama laid a hand on his arm and said I seemed tired and suggested I get some rest.
I burrowed into my room, clamped on the headphones, and listened to some of the new Green Day album, but it wasn’t mean enough to suit my mood, so I got on my computer, intending to check my e-mail—all I did was sit and stare at the blank screen. I understood that I hadn’t truly broken up with Carol Ann until that night, and the game, my show of ultra-violence, had been a severing act, a repudiation of sorts. If my shoulder hadn’t been sore, I might have hit something. I finally turned on the computer and played video games until the dregs of my anger were exhausted from splattering the blood of giant bugs across the walls of a ruined city.
The next morning I received a call from Dawn Cupertino, Doyle’s fiancée. She said she was worried about Doyle and wanted to talk. Could I come over? Dawn had been in the class ahead of ours and dropped out at sixteen to have a baby, which she lost during her first trimester. She had never returned to school, instead taking a waitress job at Frederick’s Lounge and an apartment in Crescent City, the second floor of an old frame house. She was thin and blue-eyed, a dirty blonde two years older than Doyle, almost three older than me, and had milky skin, nice legs, and a sharp mountain face that might remain pretty for three or four more years before starting to look dried-up and waspish. That would likely be fine with Dawn. Three or four good years would be about what she expected.
Though Doyle bragged on having an older woman with her own place, I thought the real reason he stuck with her was that she shared his low expectations of life but was cheerful about them. She was given to saying things like, “You better be enjoying this, babe, ’cause it’s all we’re gonna get,” and accompanying her comment with a grin, as if even the pleasure of having a beer or watching a movie was more than she could have hoped for.
That morning she met me at the door in jeans and an old sweatshirt three or four sizes too big; her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She sat on the living room sofa with her knees tucked under her, while I sat beside her, looking around at her collection of glass and porcelain trinkets, a display of old football pennants on the walls, pictures of cute kittens and cuddly dragons, her high school annual on the coffee table. It was a museum of her life up to the point that the baby had come along. Apparently nothing of note had happened since. I felt ungainly, like I was all elbows and knees, and any move I made would shatter the illusion.
Dawn put on a pot of coffee, we chatted about this and that. She said it was too bad about Carol Ann and asked how she was doing.
“She hates me,” I said. “I expect she’s finding some strength in that.”
Dawn giggled nervously, as if she didn’t get my meaning.
“What?” I said.
“It just was funny…the way you said it.” She brushed loose strands of hair back from her brow, then briefly rested her fingers on my arm and asked with exaggerated concern. “And how’re you doing?”
“Fine. What’s this about Doyle?”
She heaved a sigh. “I don’t know what’s got into him. He’s been acting all weird and…” Her chin quivered. “You think he’s getting ready to break up with me?”
“Why would you think that?”
“He don’t seem real interested anymore.” She knuckled one eye, wiping away a trace of moisture from beside it. “Seeing how you broke up with Carol Ann, I figured he might follow suit. Doyle loves you, Andy. Sometimes I think more than he ever loved me.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“It’s true. He’s always talking about Andy this and Andy that. If you started putting on lipstick and wearing a dress, I swear he’d do it, too.” She squared her shoulders. “Maybe we should break up. I’m almost twenty. It’s about time I stopped going out with a kid.”
“Is that how you see him?”
“Don’t you? In a lot of ways Doyle’s the same ten-year-old runt who was always trying to lift up my skirt with a stick. Even after he got it lifted up proper, he treated sex like it was something neat he found behind the barn and he’s just busting to tell his friends about.”
The coffee was ready, and Dawn brought in a tray with the pot and two cups, cream and sugar. When she bent to set it on the table, the neck of her sweatshirt belled and I could see her breasts. I’d seen them plenty of times before whenever a group of us would go skinny-dipping in Crescent Creek, but they hadn’t stirred me like they did now. It had been three weeks since I’d been with Carol Ann, and I was way past horny.
I asked Dawn to fill me in on how Doyle was acting weird. She said he’d been spacey, easy to anger, and I told her it had more to do with the Taunton game than her, how he had been obsessed with Taunton ever since the linemen kicked our butts, and how it had made him extra-depressed. That appeared to ease her mind, and she turned the conversation back to Carol Ann and me. I opened up to her and told her everything I’d been feeling. She took my hand and commiserated. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t allow myself to know it fully—I kept on talking and talking, confessing my fears and weaknesses, thinking about her breasts, her fresh smell, until she leaned over and kissed my cheek, at the same time guiding my hand up under her sweatshirt. She pulled back an inch or two, letting me decide, her eyes holding mine; but there was really no decision to be made.
Afterward, in her bed, she clung to me, not saying anything. I recalled Doyle’s stories about her ways. She was a talker, he said. Being with her, it was like making it with a radio play-by-play announcer. Oh, you’re doing that, she’d say, and now you’re doing this, as if she were describing things for a nationwide audience who couldn’t see the field. But with me Dawn had scarcely said a word—she was fiercely concentrated, and when we had done, there was no game summary, no mention of great moves or big plays. She caressed my face and kissed my neck. This made me feel guilty, but that didn’t stop us from compounding the felony and doing it a second time. Only after that, as I sat on the edge of the bed buttoning my shirt, did Dawn speak.
“I suppose you’re blaming me for this,” she said.
“What gives you that idea?”
“You just sitting there, not talking.”
“No,” I said. “It was mutual.”
“Well, that’s refreshing.”
She padded into the bathroom. I heard the toilet flush, and she came out belting a robe that bore a design of French words and phrases: Ooh La La and Vive la Difference and such.
“Don’t go whipping yourself for this. Okay?” she said, sitting beside me.
“Sure you are. You’re fretting about what Doyle’s gonna say. Don’t worry. I won’t tell him. Me and him are over…mostly, anyway.”
I glanced at her and began pulling on my socks. She looked neither happy nor sad, but stoic.
“It was my fault, kinda,” she said. “I needed to be close with someone. Doyle hardly ever lets me in close, but I thought you would…even though it’s a one-time thing.” She angled her eyes toward me, awaiting a response; then she nudged me in the ribs. “Cheer up, why don’tcha?”
“I’m all right. I was thinking about my mama. About how I used to scorn her when I was in junior high for sneaking around behind my daddy.”
The seconds limped past and she said, “I don’t reckon we’re much smarter than when we were in junior high, but we’re for sure less likely to be judging folks.”
She offered to fix me lunch, and not being urged in any direction, I accepted. We sat in her kitchen and ate. It was dead gray out the window. Four or five grackles were perched in a leafless myrtle at the corner of her front yard, flying up and resettling. No pedestrians passed. No cars. It was like after an apocalypse that only grackles had survived. I polished off two BLTs and Dawn fixed me another, humming as she turned the strips of bacon, like a young wife doing for her man. I suddenly, desperately wished that I could fit into her life, that we could sustain the fantasy that had failed my parents.
She slipped the sandwich onto the table and handed me a clean napkin, and sat watching me eat and swill down Coke, smiling in pretty reflex when I glanced up. I asked what she was thinking and she said, “Oh, you know. Stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
I half-hoped she would mention what was in the air and we could embark on a deluded romance that would of course be a major mistake. I was for the moment in love with the idea of making such a mistake. Getting involved with Dawn was the easy way out. Not the easy way out of Edenburg, not out of anywhere, really; but with Dawn and a couple of squalling kids in a double-wide parked on my folks’ acreage, at least my problems would be completely defined. Dawn, however, was too smart for that.
She flashed her cheesy waitress grin, the same one she served with an order of chicken-fried steak and biscuits at Frederick’s, and said, “Can’t a girl keep none of her thoughts private?”
Sundays in Edenburg were deader than Saturday mornings. There was one car in the Piggly Wiggly lot that must have been left overnight, and the store windows gave back dull reflections of parking meters and empty sidewalks. Kids had managed to sling several pairs of sneakers over the cable supporting the traffic light at the corner of Ash and Main—a stiff wind blew, and the shoes kicked and heeled in a spooky gallows dance. It reminded me of a zombie movie where things looked normal, but half-eaten citizens lay on the floors inside the feed store and Walgreens.
Somebody with a strong arm could have heaved a baseball from one end of town to the other in maybe three throws, but it took me a long time to drive from my house on the east side to Doyle’s, which lay to the west, a mile beyond the city limits sign. I sat idling at the light by the Sunoco station. Wind snapped the blue-and-yellow flags strung between the pumps, scattering paper trash and grit across the concrete apron. I tried once again to resolve the problem I’d wrestled with most of the night. Sooner or later Dawn or one of her friends would tell Doyle, I figured. If I didn’t beat them to the punch, I’d lose his friendship. Yet telling him would be a betrayal of Dawn. The whole mess was so fucking high school, it made me want to puke. The light changed. I gunned the engine but didn’t put the car in gear and let it drop back down to an idle, resting my head on the seat and closing my eyes. Screw Doyle, I thought. I wasn’t going to tell him. We’d drive on over to Snade’s and sit on the front stoop with a couple of Buds and talk football.
A dairy van pulled up behind me and I rolled down the window and motioned for it to go around; but it just sat there. I peered back at the van. Its windshield was streaked with bird mess. I couldn’t make out the driver, though I detected movement inside the cab. I motioned again, and the van didn’t stir. It began to piss me off. I climbed out of the car and gestured like one of those guys who guide planes up to the terminal. Nothing. I was inclined to walk back and pound on the door, but the van looked to have acquired an air of menace. Beneath the streaks and gobs of bird shit, its windows were dark, as if they had been blacked out, and I had again a sense of agitated movement within. Horror movies about haunted vehicles flickered through my head. I got back into the car and peeled out, leaving the van stuck at a red light.
Doyle was standing atop a hillock in the field that adjoined his father’s property, wearing his letterman jacket, waist deep in brown weeds and grasses; grackles were circling above his head, a half dozen or so. I pulled onto the shoulder and got out and called to him, but he was facing in the opposite direction from me and the wind snatched my words away. I was about to cross the highway when the dairy van came whispering over the hill, going at a fair rate of speed. I flattened against the car, my heart doing a jab-step, and it rolled past me, continuing toward Taunton, disappearing over the next rise. Shaken, I walked to the edge of the field and called to Doyle again. One by one, the grackles dropped from the leaden sky, secreting themselves among the tall grasses, but Doyle gave no sign of having heard. I found a gap in the rusty wire fencing and went twenty or thirty feet into the field. There I stopped, made uneasy by the birds.
“Doyle!” I yelled.
He turned, his face expressionless and pale, and stared—it was like he didn’t recognize me for a second or two. Then he signaled me to come up to where he stood. I took pains to avoid places where I thought the grackles had gone to ground.
“Let’s go,” I said.
He surveyed the empty field with what seemed a measure of satisfaction, like a man contemplating the big house and swimming pool that he planned to build thereon. “Ain’t no rush,” he said. “Snade’s ain’t going nowhere.”
We stood for nearly a minute without speaking and then he said, “Think we might get some rain?”
“Who the fuck cares? Let’s go!”
“We can go. I just thought you might have something you wanted to get off your chest.”
I wasn’t afraid of Doyle—I had five inches and thirty pounds on him—but I expected he’d come at me hard. I backed off a pace and set myself. He chuckled and looked out over the field.
Perplexed by this behavior, I said, “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
He smiled thinly. “That’s a fine question, coming from a guy who poked my girlfriend.”
“Did she tell you?”
“It don’t matter who told me. You got other business to worry about.”
He aimed a punch at my head but pulled it back the last second and laughed as, in avoiding the blow, I tripped on the uneven ground and went sprawling. He bent down, hands on his knees, grinning in my face.
“She’s a slut, man,” he said. “She puts on a real sweet act, but I’m surprised she hasn’t jumped you before now.”
I stared at him.
“Seriously,” he said.
“I thought you two were getting married?”
He snorted. “I’d sooner marry a toilet seat. All she’s ever been to me is a hump.”
A storm of grackles whirled above the hill behind which the dairy van had vanished, and that confusion in the sky reflected the confusion in my mind. I remembered how needy and tender Dawn had been. After what Doyle had said, I wanted to doubt her, to accept his view of her…and I did doubt her on and off for a while; but his lack of regard for her rubbed me the wrong way. For the first time I realized that we might not be friends forever, and I wondered if all my relationships would be so fragile.
Against my better judgment, I got caught up in the frenzy of Taunton Week. It was hard not to, what with the entire population of Edenburg telling us that we could win and offering tactical advice. go pirates go signs were in every shop window. Pep rallies were exercises in hysteria—one cheerleader broke an ankle going for an unprecedented triple somersault and was carted from the gym, still shaking her pompoms and exhorting the crowd. Even Carol, who’d been spreading lies about me all over school, kissed me on the mouth and told me to kill ’em. But along about midweek, reality set in when I watched a tape on Taunton’s All-State outside linebacker, a kid named Simpkins, number fifty-five. Coach Tuttle planned to use me on pass patterns going across the middle of the field, where Fifty-five would be waiting to saw me in half. My shoulder hadn’t completely healed, and I actually gave consideration to ramming it into a wall or a door, and knocking myself out of the game. On Thursday, after practice, I took a nap and dreamed about Fifty-five. He was standing over me, wearing a black uniform (Taunton wore special black unis for the Edenburg game), and was holding aloft my bloody left shoulder, arm attached, like a trophy.
After my nap I went downtown, trying to walk off the effects of the dream, and ran into Justin Mayhew, our quarterback, a compact, muscular kid with shoulder-length brown hair. He was sitting on the curb out front of the Tastee-Freeze, looking glum. I joined him and he told me that he was worried about the offensive line holding up.
“That number eighty-seven liked to have killed me last year,” he said.
“Tell me about it,” I said, and mentioned my concerns about Fifty-five. “If you see him lining me up, throw the ball away…because I’m going to protect myself first and think about catching it second.”
“If I can see around those fat bastards they got on defense, I will.” He hawked and spat. “Tuttle’s a damn idiot. He can’t game plan for shit.”
Conversation lagged and Justin was making noises about going out to Snade’s, when Mr. Pepper, the ancient school janitor, came shuffling along. He was moving slower than usual and looked somewhat ragged around the edges. We said, “Hey, how you doing?” Normally a garrulous sort, he kept walking. “Hey!” I said, louder this time. Without turning, in a small, raspy voice, he said, “Go to blazes.”
We watched him round the corner.
“Did he say, ‘Go to blazes?’” I asked.
“He must be drinking again.” Justin got to his feet. “Want to run out to Snade’s with me?”
“What the hell,” I said.
The arc lights were on and the bleachers at Pirate Field were half-full when I arrived for the game. The crowd was mainly Taunton boosters, and they were celebrating early, hooting and carrying on; they were cordoned off from Edenburg supporters by a chain that didn’t serve much purpose when passions started to run high. They always brought more people than the bleachers could hold, the overflow spilling onto the sideline behind the Warrior bench. It was like a home game for them. The image of a black-bearded pirate brandishing a saber adorned the scoreboard, and following each victory, they would paint over his jolly grin with an expression of comical fright.
We dressed in a bunkerlike structure in back of the bleachers and the atmosphere inside it was similar, I imagined, to the mood on death row prior to an execution: guys sitting in front of their lockers, wearing doomed expressions. Only Doyle seemed in good spirits, whistling under his breath and briskly strapping on his pads. His locker was next to mine, and when I asked what made him so cheerful, he leaned over and whispered, “I did what you said to.”
I looked at him, bewildered, “Huh?”
He glanced around the room, as if checking for eavesdroppers, and said, “I fixed their bus.”
I had a vision of bodies scattered across a highway and Doyle in handcuffs telling the police, “I just did what Andy told me.” I pushed him against the locker and asked what exactly he had done.
“Ease off, dog!” He barred his elbow under my chin and slipped away. “I nicked their fuel line, okay?”
“They’ll just call for another bus.”
“They can call,” he said. “But all their backups got their tires slashed…or so I hear.” He winked broadly. “Relax, man. It’s in the bag.”
It was like someone spiked my paranoia with relief, and I began to feel pretty good. We went out for warm-ups. Taunton had not yet arrived, and an uneasy buzz issued from the bleachers. Coach Tuttle conferred with the game officials while we did our stretches. I ran a few patterns, caught some of Justin’s wobbly passes. The field was a brilliant green under the lights; the grass was soft and smelled new mown, the chalked lines glowed white and precise; the specter of Number Fifty-five diminished. The chirpy voices of our cheerleaders sounded distant:…the Edenburg Pirates are hard to beat. They got pads on their shoulders and wings on their feet. Tuttle sent us back inside and went to talk more with the officials.
In the locker room guys were asking, What happened? They gonna forfeit? Doyle just smiled. An air of hopeful expectation possessed the team as it dawned on everyone that we might be going to regionals. Then Tuttle came back in, put his hands on his hips, and said, “They’re here.” That let the air out of things.
“They’re here,” Tuttle repeated grimly. “And they don’t want no warm-up. Do you hear that? They think they can beat us without even warming up.” He searched our faces. “Prove ’em wrong.”
I suppose he was going for a General Patton effect, trying to motivate with a few well-chosen words in place of his typical rant; but it fell flat. Everybody was stunned—Doyle, in particular—and we could have used some exhortation. The locker room prayer was especially fervent. As we jogged onto the field, Taunton jeers drowned out the Edenburg cheers and dominated the puny sound of our pep band. The Taunton bus was parked behind the west end zone, and their tri-captains waited at midfield with the referee. In their black uniforms and helmets, they looked like massive chunks of shadow. Justin Coombs and I walked out to meet them for the coin toss. Number Fifty-five centered the Taunton quarterback and one of the linemen, Eighty-seven, who had jumped us in Crescent Creek. He appeared to have grown uglier since last year.
“Gentlemen,” the ref said to the tri-captains. “You’re the visitors. Call it in the air.”
He flipped the silver dollar and Fifty-five said in a feeble, raspy voice, “Tails.”
“Tails it is,” said the ref, scooping up the coin.
“We’ll kii-iick.” Fifty-five barely got the words out.
They didn’t shake our hands—Edenburg and Taunton never shook hands.
“Did Fifty-five seem weird to you?” I asked Jason as we headed to the sideline.
“I don’t know,” Jason said, absorbed in his own thoughts.
Things moved quickly after that, the way they always did in the last minutes before the game whistle blew. I knew Daddy and Mama would be home listening to the game—watching me play made Mama anxious—but I searched the crowd for them anyway. Noise and color blurred together. I smelled an odd sourness on the heavy air. Tuttle ran up and down the sideline, slapping us on the ass; then he gathered the return team, yelling, “Right return! Right return!” They trotted out to their positions.
Taunton was already lined up along the forty-yard line, a string of eleven black monsters. I expected them to operate with their characteristic machinelike efficiency, but the kicker approached the tee with a herky-jerky step and the ball dribbled off his foot; the others just stood there. One of our guys recovered the onside kick at the Taunton forty-six.
“They’re pissing in our faces!” Coach Tuttle said, incensed. “Disrespecting us!”
He told Justin to run a short-passing series, but when Justin got us huddled up, he called for a long pass to me off a flea-flicker.
“That ain’t what Coach called,” said Tick Robbins, our tailback.
“Fuck him!” Justin said. “This is my last game and I’m calling what I want. That retard’s done telling me what to do.”
Tick complained and Justin said, “We throw short passes over the middle, it’s gonna get Andy dead. Now run the damn play! On two.”
We broke the huddle and I lined up opposite a Taunton cornerback. He was looking up into the sky, like he was receiving instruction from God. On two, I faked toward the center of the field and then took off along the sideline. Nobody covered me, and as the ball descended out of the lights, I thought this might be a satori moment. I made the catch, but the pass was a little overthrown and my momentum carried me stumbling out of bounds inside the twenty, where I fell.
That didn’t stop the Taunton defenders. They had scarcely moved a muscle when the ball was snapped, yet now they came at what seemed an impossibly fast clip. Their outlines blurred, and it looked as if they weren’t running but were skimming over the grass. Three of them piled onto me, but the impact didn’t have much effect. I felt something jabbing at me and fought to get clear. As I did, I thought I saw a lemony eye open in the chest of the guy lying atop me—just a flicker, then it was gone—and heard above the noise of the crowd a single, unmistakable jee-eep. I scrambled up, confused and frightened. My jersey was covered with tiny rips.
The ref had thrown a flag for unnecessary roughness, and he was chewing out the Taunton players, threatening ejections. They appeared unconcerned, picking themselves up and walking stiffly, laboriously away. I showed the ref my jersey, but he was mad at the world and told me to shut up and play football. In the huddle I said that something funny was going on, but Justin was all afire to score and paid no attention. After the penalty, we had possession on the Taunton nine-yard line—he dismissed the play Tuttle had sent in and called a quarterback draw. And then Tony Budgen, our right tackle, said “Holy shit!”
The Taunton Warriors, the players on the field and on the sideline, were disintegrating, dissolving into flights of grackles. Their uniforms, their bodies…their every particular had been composed of birds, compressed into ungainly shapes, and now those shapes were breaking apart. A helmet appeared to open into a bloom of glossy wings; the numbers 3 and 6 lifted from a jersey, assuming plumper forms, becoming two birds that flew at me, creating a gap from which others emerged; a headless Warrior winnowed to nothing, deconstructing from the neck down like one of those speeded-up time-lapse films detailing the building of a skyscraper, only this one ran backward; the defensive front four exploded into a shrapnel of birds.
Alarmed yet fascinated by the display, we backed toward midfield as the grackles flapped up from the last remaining relics of our opponents, some to perch on the Taunton bus, lining its fenders and roof, a row of hunched, silent spectators, while the rest ascended beyond the lights to join a vast, indistinct disturbance in the sky. Screams issued from the bleachers. Portions of the crowd were disintegrating, too, leaving patches of empty seats, and people pushed and clawed at one another, desperately trying to flee. I had in mind to do the same but was rooted to the spot, staring up into the toiling darkness above the field. It began to get close, stuffy, like when you pull a blanket over your head, and the reason for this soon came clear.
The disturbance above the field was a host of grackles, an unthinkable tonnage of feathers and hollow bones and stringy flesh—as they descended to the level of the lights, the air thickened with their sour smell. They descended farther, whirling and whirling, obscuring the lights so that they showed as dim, flickering suns through a water of black wings.
I could no longer see the sign on the Toddle House beyond the east end of the field, and this led me to believe that the flock had sealed us off from the world. Everyone in the bleachers had poured onto the grass. The pep band’s instruments were scattered about. Somebody had stepped on a French horn, crushing the bell. A cheerleader, Beth Pugh, crawled past, black hair striping her face, encaging her demented eyes—when I tried to help her, she slapped my arm away and screamed. People were on their knees, weeping and praying; some shielded their eyes and mouths against the droppings that fell, intermittently peeking at the grackles.
There must have been millions. They must have been stacked to the top of the sky in order to bring such a stench, such an oppressive presence. The great seething of their wings and the rusty chaos of their cries reduced the sounds of human terror to barely audible interruptions in an ocean of white noise. They descended lower yet, roofing the field with their swarming, swirling bodies, darkening the light, and I lay flat, my face buried in the grass, certain that I would be torn apart or crushed or carried off like Amy Carlysle’s daughter and dropped from a height.
But when I looked again—after no more than a minute or two, I think—the flock had retreated beyond the tops of the light poles, and they continued their retreat, going beyond the range of sight and hearing until a mere handful were left swooping and curvetting overhead, and those few still perched atop the Taunton bus. Then the bus itself exploded, vanishing in a flurry of the purplish black wings and lemony eyes and cruel beaks that had composed its shape, and we were alone, less than a thousand of us, splattered with bird shit, terrified, wandering the field and searching for our loved ones. I had no one to look for other than Doyle, but I could find him nowhere.
We won the game by way of forfeit and lost in the regionals the week after by the same means. No one wanted to play, and despite some blah blah blah spouted by Coach Tuttle about how the dead would want us to soldier on in the face of tragedy, how events like this could define our lives, the team voted unanimously to accept a painless defeat.
Actually, our losses were not so severe as they had been at first assessed. Coach Cunliffe and the entire Taunton team were found unharmed, albeit bewildered, in a field three miles from Edenburg, their bus intact, and those missing—fourteen, when all was said and done—were peripheral figures like Mr. Pepper and Sally Carlysle, the aged and the unwanted.