Kenny and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the stands can see Kenny’s chipped, ice-white helmet a full head above my own.
The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by the feet of victors and baked brick-hard by August, to the outer reaches of Davis-Wade Stadium, where the path leads out in the barren, dirty campus, worn so by feet marching victorious in fading precision, all the teams to have won here, all of them marching on to other wins in other places, and here us walking slow over the same ground, though all is different now.
The stadium is of concrete and new-construction, with the detritus of the old lacquered over by a new-money veneer. The high stands lean in empty now and shimmer dilapidation in the sunlight. When we reach the gate I turn and follow the path which circles the stadium. Kenny, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride out into the campus. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses to the bus in four strides with rigid gravity.
The bus stands beside the stadium, most of the team already aboard, engine idling. Kenny stands beside the bus’s door, takes a drink from a water bottle. I pass him and board the bus, beginning to hear Kevin’s saw.
I stand at the front of the bus, but he has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of chips beside the bus, he is fitting two of the boards together. Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good coach, Kevin is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good coach. The Aggie Defense could not want a better one, a better box to lie in. It will give them confidence and comfort. I go on into the bus, followed by the
Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
of the adze.
It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that damned box. Where they got to see him. Where every breath they draw is full of his knocking and sawing where they can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you.
And now the other West teams sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and their hands laying in their laps like them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. I said if you’d just let them alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on their faces that when you’re tired you can’t breathe it, and that damned adze going One tackle less. One tackle less. One tackle less until every Bulldog fan that passes the bus will have to stop and see it and say what a fine coach he is. If it had just been me when Kenny took that sack and if it had just been me when Kevin called that play and the Bulldog defense fell on him and if it had been my sure hands to have caught that ball and not my alligator arms to miss it, it would not be happening with every bastard in Oktibbeha county coming to stare at them because if there is a Defensive Coordinator what the hell is He for. It would just be me and them in a domed stadium in Atlanta and me catching rocks and running down hill at their faces, picking them up and carrying them in for touchdowns and all until they were quiet and not that damned adze going One tackle less. One tackle less and we could be quiet.
Durn that road. And the Rebels fixing to come to town, too. I can stand here and same as see it with second-sight, a shutting down behind them like a wall, shutting down betwixt them and my given promise. I do the best I can, much as I can get my mind on anything, but durn them boys.
The bus done took us from Starkville to the other city, Columbus, the one we slept in before, and now here on this bridge back to the airport midway between the two, the bus broke down and durn that road, durn them honking horns and maroon flags on passing cars, but not the maroon that’s ourn, some other maroon with some other letters locked on it, and out there aside the bus Kenny’s looking down from the bridge, watching some boys fish from the bank. I stood by him a minute, told him them Rebels won’t be no worsen what we seen today, but he just kept staring while them boys pulled a catfish from the water and left it flopping to die in the dirt, floundering, gasping for the water it won’t get, choking on the air it will, knowing that its not to swim again, not to feel its body move smooth and true in the cold water, not to be what it was meant to be, to only be this new thing, this dead thing, lying here in the dirt, waiting to be skinned and filleted and devoured by those stronger ones. I got back on the bus, knowing we’d be to moving soon, be to driving and then be on the airplane and then be in College Station, where we’d bury the durn box I built and all them with it and then we, those of us left to the work of the season, will look around for what might remain. Durn that road. Them Rebels coming.
My defense is a fish.