The boy knew there would be more to come. There was always more, the helmets and the balls and the portraits, his own image spread out before him, waiting on his pen. It was the way of things, his father told him, the way of this world. "A man does the thing his family asks of him. A man obeys." So the boy dipped to the ink again, laid its blackness to the items, handed them to the men his father bartered with, watched and understood what was expected of him. The boy craved another thing, yearned not for this task but for another. There was music to be heard, there were distillations to be imbibed. This was what the boy knew of the world. The boy understood that there would always be men who desired a thing of him that he could not give. His father. The traders. The man his father entrusted him to in this squalid city where peace officers would lay a citation quicker than not.
The work of the afternoon done, all the items scrawled upon, the money stowed in his father’s pocket, the boy joined his compatriots for the journey east. They were to return to Jefferson. To return, to find victory in that city again, though the boy would have as soon found the company of some woman. A pleasant night, a pleasant occupation, to bury himself in the flesh of the eager. Given his druthers, he’d do little else. There would not be a chance for it this trip, though the women of that eastern city were tempting as any he’d seen, certainly a fair sight better than those he consorted with in College Station. There would be no time for such pursuits, no time for any of the things he had a desire for.
They arrived in Jefferson later than planned, and at the direction of their leader, took in a night of long rest to prepare themselves for the challenge to come. The knocking that roused him, he knew at once, was that of his father. A sack full of oblong leathery balls thrown over his shoulder, a pen in his hand, the old man set the boy to work. “Pa, I could stand a bit more shut eye.”
“You’ll not sass me, boy. Get to your labor.”
He wrote his name again and again, the letters blurring before his eyes, becoming a gibberish, shifting in his mind to represent not their true meaning, instead earning some new existence reliant solely upon the monetary exchanges that would engorge his father further. The man had no need for this folding money, had plenty in fact from years of swindles and cons, but if there was one thing the boy understood, it was the relentless need for more. To his father, more could only mean the thickening a wallet, but for the boy, he could think of little other than more oat sodas, more tangling of limbs with those women who desired him. More of such things would be fine indeed, and the boy knew that he’d have to continue to provide more for his father if he desired more for himself.
The boy took to the field, his eyes drifting ever to the stands, filled as they were with what he wanted. They were there in their dresses, their hair coiffed and teased, their lips painted a brilliant red. The boy threw the ball. The boy ran the ball. The boy slid to the ground to avoid collisions, but always, through all tasks asked of him by his leader, his eyes drifted up to them, to those that he yearned for more than anything. Points mounted on the scoreboard in flurries. His opponent was not what they thought them to be, not some team easily bested, and the boy knew that he should focus. Such things were difficult.
His leader urged him, hollered obscenities at him, told him that luck could not account for all, but the boy knew this to be a falsehood. He threw the ball from his rear foot, his arm windmilling, the ball fluttering like shot fowl. Still, it landed safely in the hands of his compatriots. Still the points mounted.
By the fourth period of play, his opponents were advanced of he and his compatriots. His leader wanted focus, and the boy tried to provide that focus. He took the field, his eyes on the backs of his linemen, his hands shaking from concentration. There were second left on the clock, dribbling away, the passage of time a steady, flowing thing, like the Brazos the boy had waded in as a child, its waters muddied with cattle excrement. Time moved away from him, and as it began to vanish from sight he called for the ball to be launched to him. It settled in his hands, and he stepped back two steps, three, pulled his arm back, but there, at his side, was an opposing player, angling toward him. He stepped to one side, the other boy sprawling at his feet, and he knew he needed to throw the ball far and hard and true, knew that his father, his leader would demand it of him, and so he pulled back again, set his mind to the task, let his body move through the motions that had been drilled into him again and again. As he completed the process, a sharp stabbing took hold of his hand, his fingers urging themselves into the pose he’d held more frequently, that of holding a pen to object. This shifting caused the ball to slip from his hand, its own purpose determined by fate or luck, he knew. His eyes followed its trajectory into the arms of an opposing player, and though he didn’t look, he knew the clock spoke the end of the game, the end of it all, and still, still his hand held its pose, still it gripped a phantom pen, still it bespoke the truth of his life.