Through the bloody November twilight, aftermath of a 1-2 October slate, Sumlin looks out the bus window onto the pine forests bracketing the old highway and thinks, “I have come from Texas: a fur piece.” Thinking although I have not been quite a year on the hotseat I am already to the Ole Miss game, further from beating Alabama in 2012 than I have ever been before. I am now further from the Cotton Bowl than I have been since I was a sought-after coach on the carousel.
He had never been to Oxford until he took over the Aggies, though since starting there he’d ventured to the hamlet three times before. The first two he’d taken the long drive back to College Station with a victory sitting dull and fat in his stomach, but those had been earned on the heroics of the Boy and the Boy was no longer on the bus, the Boy gone off now first to Cleveland and then to Thailand. The last time, two years prior, Sumlin had seen the Aggies routed, run off the field there in Oxford, and then it had been the same as it ever was, ever seemed to be, that the wins he’d mounted in September and the early leavening of October ceded to losses in the bleak autumnal darkening of November. They made a joke of it, the Aggie partisans, made a joke of his November worsening each year, and though he grew manic with preparation, he’d not been able to stave it off the year prior. The Ole Miss team came to College Station with a second string quarterback, but damn if the boy hadn’t looked like the Boy, hadn’t scrambled from Garrett’s clutching fingers, hadn’t looked like a little bug skittering across the still-surface of a lake, a lake that had once yielded fish to eat and fish to catch such a bug, though now the water stagnated and the bug skittered and the fish were gone, away and gone to the depths where their corpses could not even stink for they were so buried beneath water and silt and the deepening ebb of history.
The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of the bus tires crushing pinecones is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports carrying for a half mile across the cold still pinewiney silence of the November afternoon. Though the driver pushes the pedal in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal in its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild blacktop of the highway. Sumlin thinks, “It’ll be dif’rent this time. It’ll be a dif’rent outcome, though the situation is the same ag’in.” Ole Miss is without its starting quarterback. The new one should not be so good as the old, should not be good at all, but here in these last weeks Sumlin has watched tape of the boy running and throwing, and he has grown agitated seeing the smooth stride. If the boy last year was a waterbug, shifting and flitting, this one appears to be something else entirely, a boar charging, confident in the sharpness of its tusks, the ferocity it has sewn into its heart in the long hours of its life. It could kill a man, Sumlin thinks. Kill him dead as a doorpost and none his kin able to save him.
There was no November collapse this year, no build of wins before the letdown of November, and perhaps, Sumlin thinks, that could break this spell that’s held him. If there’s a glimmer of light in this dark, brutal month, it is there: in the knowledge that a win might be prized from the stony grip of fate. A man can determine such things for himself. Sumlin has believed this the whole of his life, has believed that desire can not necessarily defeat the whims of the world but that it can distract destiny for a moment, can edge a gap in the door of possibility so that a man, a man with desire in his heart might squeeze through, might buck the reality of his existence. Sumlin has, until these last years, believed that he is such a man. Now, doubt taps his shoulder, reminds him of last year and of the year before, reminds him that a victory once earned cannot be guaranteed.
In the distance the light narrows and slants through the pine trees, sending shafts and beams flickering across the bus windows. It will be down soon, and they will be arrived, and Sumlin knows that in a month such as this, a man must not lose himself. He looks to the faces around him, lit in the glowing burn of their phones and tablets. He knows the Boy is not among them, though for a moment he allows himself to hope, to imagine that dull smile, the half-lidded eyes. What he sees instead are the sharp, intense faces of these others. They are dedicated, driven to succeed as he is, and he is proud of them, proud of the desire at their cores, of the thundering urgency with which they take the field, but he knows, too, that among them there is not another Boy, not another who, simple and vain though he was, could harness some vitality in the playing, some visceral elongation of his own ability. The bus rolls on. Sumlin begins very quietly to weep. It is November, and his history cannot be denied.