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Fighting in the Shade

Fighting in the Shade

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Fighting in the Shade

Lunghezza:
364 pagine
4 ore
Pubblicato:
Jul 19, 2011
ISBN:
9781617750649
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

“A brilliant, fearless look at the savage rites of passage that exist in the fraternity of American sports . . . gripping and unforgettable.” —Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River
 
In 1964, seventeen-year-old Billy Dyer is a newcomer to Oleander, a Gulf Coast Florida town whose old guard define football as the ancient Spartans did their Agoge. It is a mode of brutal tutelage that forges the hearts and minds of the town’s elite youth for a future of power. Billy’s parents are recently divorced and he lives in a bad neighborhood with his secretive, alcoholic father.
 
Through the brutal and fiery days of summer practice, Billy fights for a starting spot on the team, the Spartans. He makes the team, but in a horrific hazing scene far from the town, he rebels and in the process badly injures his rival for the flanker position. The events that follow force Billy into exile from football, then later back into the game when powerful men realize that the Spartans cannot win without him.
 
Fighting in the Shade is less a sports novel than a coming-of-age story wound around a mystery, with football as symbol and symptom.” —St. Petersburg Times
 
“A powerful, beautifully written book about attitudes and practices that we want to believe are safely in the past. Instead, as Watson reminds us, corruption and cruelty survive through their uncanny ability to take on new shapes.” —Laura Lippman, New York Times–bestselling author
 
“High school football mixes with Faust in this blitz of a novel from Watson . . . a big Dennis Lehane-like story of society, opportunity, and consequences, revealing Watson as an accomplished storyteller.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
Pubblicato:
Jul 19, 2011
ISBN:
9781617750649
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Sterling Watson is the author of seven novels, including Deadly Sweet, Sweet Dream Baby, Fighting in the Shade, and Suitcase City. Watson's short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, the Georgia Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. He was director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College for twenty years and now teaches in the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Boston. Of his sixth novel, Suitcase City, Tom Franklin said, "If this taut literary crime novel doesn't center Sterling Watson on the map, we should change maps." Watson lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Anteprima del libro

Fighting in the Shade - Sterling Watson

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Akashic Books

©2011 Sterling Watson

ISBN-13: 978-1-936070-98-5

eISBN: 978-1-617750-64-9

Library of Congress Control Number: 2010939102

All rights reserved

First printing

Akashic Books

PO Box 1456

New York, NY 10009

info@akashicbooks.com

www.akashicbooks.com

This book is dedicated to my students.

I hope they have learned as much from me as I have from them.

Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Acknowledgments

Part I: August Summer Practice

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

Part II: September

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

Part III: September

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

Part IV: October

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

Part V: November

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

FORTY

FORTY-ONE

FORTY-TWO

FORTY-THREE

FORTY-FOUR

FORTY-FIVE

FORTY-SIX

FORTY-SEVEN

Acknowledgments

My thanks to the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, two serene places visited by the muse. Also to Jamie Gill, Helene Gold, and David Henderson for library research, and to Bob Fortosis and the incomparable John Feiber for guidance through the thickets and hard pathways of athletic administration and high school football. My thanks to Peter Frederick for help with the ancients; to Tom Bernardo, Jay Nicorvo, and Dean Jollay for generous and insightful criticism; and to Johnny Temple and all the wonderful folks at Akashic Books for the best trip I have ever had to publication. And, as always, a loving thank you to Kathy, the best reader of all.

PART I

AUGUST

SUMMER PRACTICE

THE AGOGE

In ancient Sparta, the agoge was the method by which male children were raised. After the age of seven, boys were removed from their families to live in herds. The agoge was intended to weaken family ties and strengthen individual identity. All adults were responsible for the actions of all children. Older boys supervised younger ones, teaching them to read and write and to devote most of their time to physical training and music.

When boys passed the agoge, they were voted into a mess, a group of fifteen men of all ages who ate and fought together throughout their lives. If a boy was not voted into a mess, he could not become a citizen.

ONE

Oleander, Florida, 1964

The huddle broke. Heaving, staggering boys, too tired for the touch of fists at the center of their ragged circle, scattered to their positions. Billy Dyer trotted to the slot between right tackle and split end. He rested scraped palms on thigh pads so hot they scabbed the blood that oozed from a ripped thumbnail. He set his feet at shoulder width and leaned to measure the daylight between his face and the tackle’s right heel. Ted Street, the quarterback, stepped into Billy’s vision of hot white space and socketed his hands between the center’s legs. He glanced left and right at the lines of cocked bodies, boys made into bombs about to go off. Street looked at Billy Dyer, seeing him first as one of twelve verses in a violent song, then seeing him differently. Street’s eyes told Billy the ball was coming to him.

Billy looked downfield, measuring the eight yards he would sprint before cutting left at a forty-five-degree angle between the cornerback and the linebacker. His calculations clear, he drew a deep breath of molten August air and stared off at the horizon. The haze. This time of year it hung above the city, smelling of orange peels burning at the juice plant east of town. Billy moved his gaze from the shimmering yellow sky and felt a moment of dizziness, of cold under the hot breastplate of his shoulder pads. His legs threatened to turn to water under him, so he did what the coaches told him to do. Shake it off! Shake it off, boy! Billy Dyer shook his head, sucked another chestful of scalding air through the cage of his helmet, and heard Ted Street call the snap count, Hut! Hut-hut! Hut! And everything was motion.

The hard, metallic slap of the football into Ted Street’s hands. The inches of daylight between the lines violently ripped away, helmets striking with sharp reports, shoulder and thigh pads clashing with a deeper, more living sound, like slabs of meat colliding, and all of this to the song of the gasping, groaning, grunting throats of exhausted, straining boys. Billy Dyer loved these boys and what they did more than anything else in the world.

Billy counted eight yards in strides he would bet against any yardstick and faked the cornerback outside, leaving the boy stumbling and cursing. Then, knowing he had wasted precious time on the fake to make the coaches notice, he cut inside, watching Charlie Rentz, the linebacker, change smoothly from high-kneed backpedaling to a sprint toward him. Billy glanced back at the scrimmage just as Ted Street disappeared into a collapsing pocket, taken down with a sickening smack by a fleet cornerback slicing in on a red dog. And then in the middle distance he saw it, rising and falling in the yellow haze, bouncing with each of his strides, a brown oval spiraling perfectly. He and the ball would converge somewhere in a terrain of danger. His only duty was to watch it, never them.

He sprinted on, feeling the cold at his chest which was, he knew, an early warning of heat stroke. And now the first urging of fear in his belly. The voice of fear said, Stop running. It told his hands to protect his belly, his thighs to drop him to earth before the hit came. But Billy begged his failing strength for one last long leap, dug his left foot into the churned sand of the practice field, and lanced into the air, right arm leading for a one-handed catch. He took the spinning nose of the ball in his palm, killed the spin with twisting fingers, teased and begged the ball back to him. His body still rising, he cradled the hot leather into his right armpit and covered it with his left hand.

CRACK!

The hot yellow sky shrank to a black dot in Billy’s eyes, then groaned wide again.

Head Coach Prosser was standing between the two formations, lecturing the offensive line. Keep your feet under you! Keep ’em wide! Move your man to the outside! OUTSIDE!

Billy had lost time. He pushed himself up and let go of the ball. He had gone to sleep for thirty seconds, maybe a minute. To his right, the defensive backs chewed their mouth guards and waited for him to leave their turf. Their faces, shadowed inside helmets, were striped with a weird war paint, gray dust streaked white by sweat. Charlie Rentz watched Billy with nothing in his eyes, neither challenge nor concern. Billy gave back the same empty gaze, then let himself look at Coach Prosser, hoping for a good word. He wanted Prosser to say, Nice catch, son, or Way to take a lick, bud, but he didn’t expect it. Prosser was sizing him up. Maybe thinking of playing him this fall ahead of Sim Sizemore, the senior who never would have made that catch, who would have folded like a yellow flower at the sound of Charlie Rentz’s cleats cutting the ground.

Prosser called to the sideline, Sizemore, get in here.

Clean and fresh, Sim Sizemore trotted onto the field. He didn’t look at Billy.

On his way to the bench, Billy passed Mr. Leone, the math teacher and line coach, olive-skinned, hawk-nosed, and serious, and Mr. Rolt, the drivers ed teacher. Leone was all right, an army vet who had played pulling guard at Syracuse, but all the guys called Rolt a phony.

Rolt said to the hot yellow sky above the field, You all right, son? We don’t want your mommer saying we didn’t take care of you out here. He said it quietly so that no one in the bleachers would hear.

There was always a sneer in Rolt’s mouth, even when he said something kind. He was a fat jock-sniffer who had never played football, but he knew what coaches knew: They were making boys into men their own way. They wanted no tales told about what happened on this field.

Billy smiled at the pain inside his helmet. Fuck you, he said to the pain. To Rolt, he said, Yes sir, Coach Rolt. I’m all right.

Billy fell to his knees at a tub of lemonade. Oak leaves, fruit flies, and a single cockroach floated on the yellow surface. He sank his face into the cold, drank what he craved, then lifted his head with a growling gasp. He wiped his mouth on his forearm and stole a glance at the bleachers.

This Friday-morning scrimmage was the last chance for some boys to make the team and for others to secure starting positions. A small crowd had turned out, braving the blazing August sun. Men in white shirts and ties with black or gray suit coats folded across their laps sat at the top of the bleachers; with them, Doc Runkle, the team physician. Further down, students clustered by clan—jocks or fans. The jocks were baseball players, track men, and basketball players. They watched with a detached professional interest. The fans were girlfriends of boys on the field, student government, and cheerleaders who had just finished their own practice in the gym. Billy searched for his father in the small crowd, did not see him. Then, before his eyes swung back to the field, he noticed a girl. She was watching him. Not the scrimmage, but him. Billy Dyer. Dressed in black, she sat by herself, and now, sure that he had seen her, she lifted a pale, languid hand from the book in her lap and waved to him. He did not wave back—it was forbidden. He smiled in the dark cage of his helmet and turned back to the field.

Ted Street broke the huddle, and Sim Sizemore trotted to the gap between tackle and split end. The position Billy wanted. Sim Sizemore was tall, lean, fast, and so handsome the sophomore girls blushed and whispered when he passed them in the hallways. They called him Dreamboat. Ted Street, cool, aloof, with the hooded gray eyes of a thug, from a family of grove workers who lived in a trailer park south of town, was a different dream. Sizemore looked timid taking Billy’s place in the formation, lost inside that gift of a body, at least Billy thought so. He was taller and faster than Billy, but cutting across the middle where linebackers hurtled like trucks, his body begged for safety. The boys talked about him. They called his pass routes Chicken Shit Right and Chicken Shit Left. Billy wondered why the coaches couldn’t see it.

Hut! Hut! Hut!

The ball slapped Ted Street’s hands, and Sim Sizemore’s cleats sprayed earth as he cut across the middle too fast to bother faking, caught Street’s perfect strike on his number 19, and turned upfield. Chris Meeks, the free safety, arrived a step too late with a flying miss at Sim’s chopping feet. Sizemore sprinted to the end zone, spiked the ball, then turned and shook his fists at the yellow heavens. The crowd in the bleachers yelled, Go Spartans! A businessman at the top shouted, Atta boy, Sim! A sub near Billy muttered, Fucking hot dog.

Sim Sizemore trotted back to the huddle and paused before leaning into the circle that Billy longed to join. Sim looked over at the bench, pushed back his helmet, drew a finger across his forehead, and flicked sweat at Billy Dyer.

A tall man in a white shirt and black suit trousers stood up, stretched, and groaned, looking behind him at a bleached pine plank. On these boards, my ole ass bones are pushing right through the flesh.

Another man, not as tall, on the far side of handsome, with blond hair fading to white, smiled and said, Like the bench you used to ride, eh, Blake?

The tall man slapped the seat of his trousers twice. I had my time on the field. What’d you do after you quit football, Cam, play tennis? Some sissy thing like that?

Cameron Sizemore’s cheeks colored. It was cross-country, Blake. I ran cross-country… after I got hurt. They called us harriers, God knows why. I didn’t think your ass was so sensitive.

This ole ass has spent more time on a horse, pushing beef cattle, than yours has in a swivel chair. So don’t be making fun of my ass.

The two men stood together watching the field and the brief celebration that followed Sim Sizemore’s catch and run. The team looks good, don’t you think? Cam Sizemore asked.

Blake Rainey smiled and stretched his long neck in the sunlight. Say what you mean, Cam. You mean your boy Sim looks good, don’t you?

I meant what I said. It could be a good year. A very good year.

I have to agree, said Rainey. You think Billy Dyer can give your Sim a run for the starting position?

Billy can play, Cam replied, "but he can’t run with Sim. Nobody out there can."

I suppose you’re right about that, Cam. But Billy can hit. He can stick. And it seems to my powers of observation that your boy Sim don’t like to hit. He don’t like contact. And we both know you can’t play football without the love of violence.

Speed beats brute force any day.

Maybe it does… among the harriers, said Blake Rainey. We’ll see. We surely will.

TWO

Billy sat on the bench with a dozen boys in sweat-sodden uniforms weighted with mud, steam rising from their shoulders. The offense was running sweeps, and Joey Olsen, a scrub fullback, was getting his last chance to make the team. Olsen was small, slow, and clumsy. His assignment was to lead Tommy Bierstadt, a fast, tough tailback, around end, throw his hundred and thirty pounds at Charlie Rentz, and free Bierstadt into the secondary. Olsen only confused Bierstadt, and Rentz was making a meal of him with forearms to the throat and a vicious spearing helmet that threw him like chaff under Bierstadt’s churning cleats. As Billy and the other subs looked on, Rentz plowed Joey Olsen, threw Bierstadt for a loss, and casually stepped on the back of Olsen’s hand as the boy tried to get up. Olsen shrieked, hopped from one foot to the other, cradling his hand to his chest. Rentz walked back to him and apologized elaborately, grinning inside the cage of his helmet. Behind Billy, one of the businessmen shouted, Man up, Joey!

Coach Rolt walked to the sideline. How you doing, Dyer? That empty head of yours ready to take a lick?

Through the cottony phlegm in his throat and the cold dizziness that had not abated in twenty minutes of rest, Billy answered, Yes sir, Coach Rolt.

Coach Prosser slapped his clipboard against his thigh. Without looking at Billy, he said, Get in there and give Size-more a rest.

Sim Sizemore trotted insolently toward the sideline, his knees rising too high, forearms swaying, wrists angled downward in a way that Billy thought girlish. As he passed, cocking his helmet onto the crown of his head and breathing steam at the low, hazy sky, he muttered, Give ’em hell, Billy boy.

For a half hour they ran sweeps, draws, and off-tackle slants. It was a long, grinding thing, with no rest except the getting up, dusting off, and trotting back to the huddle. Billy’s job was to block linebackers and cornerbacks. He was a better blocker than Sim Sizemore. He loved the wild, fearful moment when you pulled everything you had into the point of your helmet or the length of your rib cage and threw it at the other man. Billy made a game of grading his blocks good, fair, or poor. Sometimes he looked over at the sideline. Sim Sizemore stood there among the subs and scrubs, his helmet under his arm, the patches of muddy sweat on his jersey drying, getting smaller. Billy measured his success by the size of those patches. The wetter he got and the drier Sim Sizemore, the better Billy’s chances of starting in September.

When the noon whistle blew at the Honey Bear Orange Juice plant, Billy had graded twenty blocks good, five fair, and three poor. Charlie Rentz, who had taken Billy’s efforts at his knees and shins, hated the performance. Billy’s head burned with pain from Rentz’s knees and shoulders. It gave him strange cold spells and brief episodes of pipeline vision wrapped in warped, melting shapes.

The play was a sweep to the opposite sideline, and Billy could steal some rest. At the snap, he fired out, then drifted toward the spot where Rentz battered Joey Olsen. After the whistle, Olsen staggered dazed in the no-man’s-land between the reforming lines. Charlie Rentz shoved him to the ground, muttered, Get out of my world, Olsen. You don’t belong here.

Billy stood in front of Rentz. Leave him alone, Charlie. After the whistle, leave him alone. When he thought his words got through, he turned away.

Something hit the side of his helmet just above the earhole. He dropped and took another scything forearm on his face-guard with a shock that snapped his head against the yoke of his shoulder pads. Rentz came at him so lost in rage that he flailed bare fists at Billy’s armored head. Billy took the blows on his forearms and shoulders. Rentz grunted with each swing, God! Damn! Pussy! Trash!

Boys milled and yelled. Some looked about to join the fight. Coach Leone blew his whistle and Prosser bellowed, STOP! Billy stepped inside the circle of Rentz’s windmilling arms and slipped his right fist up hard under Rentz’s chin. His knuckles thudded chin bone, and Rentz’s teeth cracked together. Blood burst from Rentz’s chinstrap, spraying Billy’s face.

Prosser shoved between them, a hot wind of man sweat and sour breath, swatting them apart as though wasps beset his angry red face. He flung Billy like a rag to the ground. Took Rentz by the cage of his helmet and forced him to his knees like a hobbled bull. YOU! YOU! Fighting on my practice field! Goddamn you two. Prosser pushed Rentz’s face all the way to the dirt, put his foot on the back of the helmet, and leaned, thigh muscles bulging.

A few seniors, scared, wanted to step in, stop this. Coach Leone moved up behind Prosser, then stopped. Coach Rolt watched Prosser, smiling. The silence of held breath in the bleachers pressed down onto the field. Prosser stepped back, releasing Rentz. You two shake hands in front of me right now. His voice was menace.

Billy got up on unsteady legs and offered his hand. Rentz took it, glaring his grudge at Billy through the mud-caked cage of his helmet.

Prosser looked around at the boys relaxing now, some of them grinning. Charlie Rentz stood trembling, shamed. Billy could see that some boys sided with him. Admiration for the punch he had thrown glittered in their eyes. He picked at the bloody knuckles of his right hand. Was the blood his or Rentz’s or both? He held the smarting hand against his belly and watched Prosser.

Now Prosser would have to save the moment, turn it into a lesson. His cursing and manhandling the boys would get around, Billy knew that. Not that it would matter much to people in Oleander. What mattered was winning football games and teaching virtue to boys who would later run the town. Prosser said, "All of you listen to me. We don’t fight amongst ourselves. We save our anger for the people we meet on the field. And there, on the field of honor, in a measured and certain way, we deliver to them… destruction."

Yes. Yes, it sounded like what Billy heard from the pulpit at the First Baptist Church. A preacher’s tongue, the music of Amos and Isaiah. And it worked. Billy knew that. The whole town knew it. Prosser was a spellbinder, they said. Could talk the very lightning down from the storm.

Prosser shoved both hands onto hips still slim under an engine-block chest and gazed around him, inviting every man and boy to say yea or nay. All eyes earnestly learned the hot sand of the field. Prosser turned on raking cleats and strode to the edge of the scrimmage, punched the whistle into his mouth, and blew a long, burring bleat.

Dyer! Get back to the huddle. Let’s go. We’re burning daylight.

The crowd in the bleachers exhaled audibly, clapped, and cheered.

Legs astride, forearms folded, cold sneer restored, Prosser watched Billy.

Billy stared at the huddle. The offense waited for him in their circle. He grinned at Prosser, shook his head, spit grit from his teeth, observed the blood weeping from under Rentz’s chin strap.

Don’t move him! Damnit, I said don’t move him! Give him air. You boys get back to your formations. Huddle up, offense!

Billy Dyer woke up blinking into the yellow sky, his helmet pulled off and lying on the sand. Doc Runkle held a bag of ice to the side of his head.

Who hit me? Billy asked.

Huge, ginger haired, and close, Prosser chuckled deep in his chest. Billy’s vision widened to a circle of faces that shaded his own. There was Coach Leone. There was fat Coach Rolt. The other face in the circle was pimpled Eddie Doerner, the student manager. Billy shook his head and felt the pain above his left ear. It lit his nerves so hot they seared channels of blackened flesh through his face and neck. It hurt, but he wasn’t hurt. At least he didn’t think so.

Who hit me? he asked again.

Never mind that, son. Prosser pushed himself up, taking the shade from Billy’s eyes. The other two coaches stood when Prosser did. Doc Runkle stayed on the ground, holding ice to Billy’s skull. Doc Runkle, tall, sallow, a chain-smoker, his shirts always dusted with cigarette ashes. Billy pushed the ice away. He had heard impatience, not care, in Prosser’s voice.

Doc Runkle said, Can you get up? Can you walk?

Bracing on Runkle’s shoulder, Billy dragged his legs under him. Twenty-one statues made of armor and mud, vaguely human forms, waited for him to rejoin them or go to the bench. Or worse, their aggrieved and glassy eyes said, be a pussy and stumble off to the locker room. He shut his eyes to think about it and found the cold dizziness there in the dark. He didn’t think he could take another hit, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to the locker room. He gagged, retched reeking strings of bile. He lifted a hand to his mouth to hide the shameful substance.

Doc Runkle said, He’s through.

Behind him, Coach Prosser said, Coach Rolt, Coach Leone, get that boy off the field. I don’t want him back here until Doc tells me he can play football.

Billy felt himself lifted by the two coaches as though he were nothing, a piece of flotsam they were about to toss from a pitching boat. They walked him, knees buckling, not to the sideline but toward the field house.

Wait a minute, he muttered. I can. I can…

No you can’t, said Coach Leone in his quiet, serious way. Not today, anyway. Billy liked him.

Coach Rolt chuckled. You got your bell rung, Billy boy.

Billy did not like Coach Rolt. If he could get his legs under him, get a good firm grip on the earth and sky, he would tell the man about this feeling, invite him somewhere close by for a discussion of their differences.

They walked him through the runway between the bleachers, into the shade of a tall eucalyptus tree, to an old wrought-iron arch. Atop the arch stood the fierce wooden effigy of a Spartan warrior, bronze shield and lance in phalanx order. A plaque at the soldier’s feet, painted to resemble a pedestal of stone, read, Dienekes was told that the Persian archers were so numerous their arrows would blot out the sun. He replied, So much the better. We shall fight them in the shade!

The coaches let go of Billy’s arms. Tradition held that only players passed under the arch. Others walked around it. Even coaches.

Coach Leone said, Go on to the locker room.

Then Billy remembered something. Thought he did.

Pussy.

Had he really heard it, muttered, not shouted? Had someone really hissed the word as he was taken away? Who? Whose voice? Rentz? Sizemore? Maybe he had imagined it. Maybe he was imagining each slow step that took him toward the Spartan arch. Angry, he stopped and glanced back, searching the blurry formation for the mouth that had stained him. No one looked at him. To them he was gone. He lifted his gaze to the bleachers. The small crowd had thinned, but the men in suits still lounged at the top. One of them, tall, gaunt, casual, lifted his gaze from the clutch of struggling boys, settled it on Billy, and nodded once.

THREE

Blake Rainey said, Gentlemen, I think we’ve seen enough for one day. Three rows down, two men rose from the bleachers and smiled carefully at Rainey and Cam Sizemore.

They waited to see what Rainey would do. Out on the field, in the heat that would not abate until sundown, the boys had run the last play of the scrimmage. They were lining up for the final exercise of Prosser’s brutal practice. Wind sprints. Some wobbled on gone legs, their sucking mouths appealing to the yellow sky. Most supported heaving chests with hands on knees. A few crouched on all fours waiting to run when the whistle blew.

A man appeared in the shadowed runway between the banks of bleachers, peered up at the men standing in the sun at the top, and raised a hand to hood his eyes.

Rainey called, Don’t come up, David. We’re coming down. Wait by the car.

With a loping stride, Rainey descended two rows at a time, and the others followed, a line of men in dark suits or carrying suit coats, watching their steps on the sagging planks.

At the bottom, the men clustered in the shade of the runway, pulling white handkerchiefs from coat pockets and mopping their brows.

Rainey said, The boys look good this year. Sure do.

His men nodded, muttered, Real good. They gave one another the grave glances of enthusiasts.

One said, That Billy Dyer’s a talent.

Another said, Don’t seem to know it, though. Talent hides in him. Needs to let it go, give it life.

Rainey said, You see that lick he gave Ray Rentz’s boy? That’s life, you ask me. We need boys like that in Oleander.

David Dyer approached the group.

Rainey said, David, you missed it. Where you been?

Doing your bidding. The newcomer was tall like Rainey, slender with black hair and dark, sunken eyes. He looked toward the playing field where the pounding feet of fifty boys raised a cloud of gray dust.

Your boy got hurt, Dave, one of the men said. Got into a scrap with Ray Rentz’s boy, then got hurt. Took him in early.

Hurt? David Dyer said. Billy? He squinted as though a strong beam of light had been shot at his eyes.

Don’t worry, David, Rainey said, Your boy’s all right. He’s a tough little nut, your Billy.

The men walked to Dyer’s old car. He reached into the front seat, removed a worn leather satchel, took from it a sheaf of documents, selected one, and spread it on the hood. The men gathered around.

Judge Billingsly will sign the order condemning the land. Dyer’s forefinger traced a line drawn in blue pencil from a point north of the city, down a corridor of empty country, through the city, and out again to the south, into what the men knew was scrubland, forty miles of green that led to Sarasota. And the judge’s man in Tallahassee will see to it that the state pays our price. David Dyer tapped the map with a forefinger. It’ll run through Carver Heights, just like you planned, Blake.

"I planned? We all planned, gentlemen. And a

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