from Cybercorpse # 9)
by Kieth Abbott
Time: 1988. Setting: Northern California:
Beaux Roule continues his search for Mrs. Robineson's missing son Alcel, a college football player. At Whitcomb University, Beaux enlists Mrs. Robineson's help in interviewing some girlfriends of Alcel's. These interviews shatter her with news of interracial loony tunes and jealousies in the football program. Afterwards Beaux has an impromptu interview with Robineson's daughter, Rasheedi. She tells him about the money that the family has been getting under the table from Whitcomb for Alcel's career. Her mother Mrs. Robineson has not told Beaux about this. An old comrade of Roule's, John Dabroe, arrives, a loose cannon on any deck, with a drunk ex-pro football player named Bads Eye. Roule enlists Dabroe's help in the case. Dabroe and Bads Eye leave to infiltrate the Whitcomb football party that night and. Beaux has high hopes of getting the true story out of Mrs. Robineson that night.
A phone call to Mrs. Robineson's room okayed she was ready for dinner and, I hoped, a talk. When I got there Rasheedi was deep into a music awards show on cable. I left with her mother.
And I was back to the old problem of where to eat in a college town. Decided to try one near the professors' end of town, where all the nicer homes were located. Mancinci's. And we got lucky. Mancinci's was a place for someone adult to eat.
Mrs. Robineson was still shaky, I could tell, from her breakdown at the Whitcomb Sports Center, so we talked about our dinner, which was good. After I ordered some cappuccinos and over her protests three deserts, we ate them and moved onto how Rasheedi was having problems in school. Earning some money via her telemarketing gig made it hard to drop back down to buck private in the classroom. "Once you've been your own boss," she said letting her voice trail off.
Then I dropped in a casual lie about how one of the team said that Alcel liked sending Fedexes. Home, or so the teammate said.
That's when Mrs. Robineson admitted that Alcel was shipping one hundred dollars bills to her. "The payments increased once he moved onto first team defense in the last four games. He sent two thousand at the end of spring training. That was the most he ever sent."
"Did he say why?"
"No. Said he didn't need it, he'd be well-paid, 'in the 'Rib'," imitating his slang. "The hundreds came from alumni, after the games."
"Franklin Handshakes and Furpieces."
"What?" Mrs. Robineson looked offended.
"Player's code: handshake was a couple folded hundreds. Furpiece was for alumni putting lots of hundred dollar bills in their pockets. Keep their hands warm, so to speak. Did Alcel say how much he was going to get in the Caribbean?"
"Five thousand. For a month's work."
"Not taxable wages, I expect."
"Right. The deal was that Alcel was going to be exclusively driving around some highrollers from a convention. The other players said tips were large and five thousand was normal."
"Did he say what company?"
"Something to do with music."
"Really don't remember. All that rap, I sort of tune it out. Motown up to Donna Summer for me and--" she made a chopping motion, "that's my pull date."
"Same here. Only I used to be married to a rocknroll singer. My musical tastes stopped in 1983 when we divorced." We smiled at each other. "Alcel was sure of the amount?"
"The money was supposedly spending bonuses. So the employees knew in advance to hand it over to the players. They couldn't keep it."
That would fit Coondog's way of doing things. Bonuses come off the top of operating expenses, the trip's a tax write-off, and the players at the resort get greezed. "Makes sense. The alumni subsidize the team. No tax records for the players, all cash."
She nodded warily. In Mrs. Robineson's world nothing came free. Every time a hundred dollar bill showed up in the mail, she was more than likely worried sick about who'd come calling for a favor later. But she accepted the money from Alcel.
"Did all the players get paid for spring practice, then?"
She shook her head. "Not the spring before. Alcel only sent money during the regular football season his first year."
"Well, did he get more than two thousand? I mean, would he have been carrying more the day he left?"
"No, that was all he was given. I cautioned him about carrying cash. He traveled light, because there was an expense voucher at the resort when he got there. He knew later on he'd be paid off in tips."
I took out the tape recorder and put it between us on the table. I had it cued to Voree, her comments on Tiffany Rounds. That bitch gave new meaning to taking one for the team. And it was always our men, not none of her owns.
I hit the pause button. "Both of the women mentioned this, the racial thing between the black women on campus and Tiffany."
Mrs. Robineson stared off for a long moment. "Some things just don't go away, do they, Tebeaux?" She gave a tired smile. "Like the way those white men in that booth over there are watching us. I bet if you went to the rest room, I'd get a visit from their pilot fish, see if I was shark or bait."
I turned in our booth, bringing my napkin up to my mouth, and she was right. There'd been three guys at lunch getting loud that way, but I tuned it out. We were the object of their curiosity. From the empty pitchers of beer and their grins, the Booze Brothers were definitely talking trash. The buzzcut guy was the pilot fish who nosed out trouble. A sandy-haired one was the bully of the bunch. I bet he kept trouble brewing with his mouth. The guy with sideburns was the hammer. He started fights. I shifted around so I could see if Pilot Fish, Bully or Hammer started our way. Pilot Fish was okay, Bully no problem, but if Hammer came over . . . .
"Did Alcel say anything about living here in whitebread Whitcomb?"
"Just that the county sheriff used to keep a football team program handy, open to their photographs, to use as a lineup for any victims of crimes."
"Sweet Jesus," I said. "No, really?"
"Yea, and the gentleman admitted it in print, too."
"In print? What an assho--. Uh, I mean, he could have had his ass sued six ways to Texas."
"Mr. Cooner started to organize a recall for the sheriff and he stopped harassing the young men. Agreement was, the players kept to well-defined places around town. They wouldn't stray into a place like this, for example."
"Sorry, I wasn't think-. . . ."
"No apologies. The tiramisu was wonderful. You were right, I needed that, and the shortcake, and the raspberry tort." She looked down at her body. "I've lost pounds before, so I can find them, too."
I thought for a long moment, then thought a little longer.
"Do you want to ask me something?"
"Yeah, I do." I popped the other cassette in, of Geneva and played her comments on Tiffany. Alcel'd never mess with that stuff. The sisters even hear a word of it, he'd be getting it from all sides, and I mean, all. He might be bumping uglies with those white beach bunnies down there, out of sight of everyone, but not here, uh-uh, not in his own backyard.
"Now this is not pleasant, but I got to ask it."
My eyes met Mrs. Robineson's. Once again it was as if she were looking through me to the other side.
"What if he was involved with Tiffany, even innocently? Would you see either of these women, say, getting mad enough. Or, you know your son, the situation getting out of hand enough, if either woman started talking to him about it, for them to mix it up, and," a shrug, "an accident happen?"
Mrs. Robineson looked away from me, down at her coffee cup. "In the first place, Alcel wouldn't be that stupid, like she said, not in this town." She looked around defiantly, stopping at the booth with the Booze Brothers. "On a beach, far away, well--young men are young men. But, secondly, even if he did get mixed up in that behavior, killing him would not make him suffer enough for those two. Voree and Geneva'd wouldn't be in a hurry to ruin him with any of the sisters, they'd do it slow, take their time, and make sure he was ruint up, down, inside-out and sideways. Then they'd move in on him themselves and take turns making his life miserable."
There were a few moments when I didn't know what to say. Then, to myself, Whew! Okay, glad I asked, though. I put the tape recorder away.
From Booze Brothers booth there were sniggers. Their waitress was standing in front of them, her right leg crossed over the other. From the rapid whap of her pencil on her order pad, I could see she was far from happy. The three Booze Brothers were looking up at her with grins as they ordered. Pilot Fish handed the waitress the menu last. The three watched her breasts as she tucked his plastic menu under her left arm. Bully and Hammer were already grinning about Pilot Fish's upcoming order.
"And you, sir?"
"Well, why doncha bring me your sizzling, hot FAH-GY-TAH." Big smile.
"That's pronounced FU-HEET-TAH," the waitress said, turning around and marching off to whoops and laughs.
As she passed us, she said, under her breath, "Assholes."
I glanced over at Mrs. Robineson. "Perhaps we ought to leave and take our conversation elsewhere. Things are reaching a critical mass in the booth."
We collected our things. I stood with my back to the Booze Brothers' booth as Mrs. Robineson got out and then escorted her into the lobby where she ducked into the restroom hallway. I stopped the restaurant manager as he was coming out of the kitchen. "Need the check. Air's getting a little blue back there."
"I know. Sorry. I'll take care of it."
"Our table was that one," I pointed, "just the check is fine."
He nodded and hurried past. I watched as he leaned on the table of the Booze Brothers and read them their rights. Pilot Fish, Bully and Hammer weren't buying it. The manager's arm went up towards the front door, inviting them to leave, but he didn't turn his head away. He kept his eye on all three, especially Hammer. Maybe they'd had this discussion before.
I waited, and the manager caught our waitress on his way back and she looked up at me, surprised. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"With you, yes. Just the check."
I'd signed the credit slip when Hammer heaved himself out of the booth. I had my briefcase open on the counter and my coat slung over a chair. I closed the brief case as Hammer approached me, put one hand on my coat.
"I got a complaint. These people can't take a joke here." Hammer looked from me to the waitress who had rung me up. She hmmed as if she hadn't heard him and quickly retreated into the kitchen. That made two people who were scared of him.
I didn't say anything. He leaned a little closer, trying to move me back, so he'd have an angle on the hallway.
Just then Mrs. Robineson came out. Hammer grinned at her and then turned back to me, leisurely, but shifting his left foot forward, trying to get me to move back.
"I'd say you need some fuh-fuh-funning in your life."
Mrs. Robineson hesitated.
"See now," Hammer paused to eye Mrs. Robineson again, and then, leisurely, said to me, his weight shifting to his back foot, "See, Old Rastus was coming . . . ."
My briefcase was in my left hand. I raised that hand to lay my coat across my left arm with my right hand.
". . . back from his girlfriend, and man, did he ever stuh--"
With my coat and case blocking the other Booze Brothers' line of sight, I jammed three fingers into Hammer below his Adam's apple.
" . . .stu-inck! Uck!"
In that same motion I turned around and crossed to Mrs. Robineson. Behind me I could hear the short gag, then his first try for a cough. I held Mrs. Robineson by the arm when he went over. Not a heavy fall, more like a bag.
"I saw that," her eyes big.
"You were the only one. Keep walking." I smiled and reached for the front door.
Hammer, both hands at his throat, on the floor, vomited hard.
Good, his throat'll be too sore to talk.
I turned to look down at him as Mrs. Robineson went outside. Hammer wasn't funning any more; it was real puke.
The manager hustled out of the kitchen. "Call the cops," I said. "That guy's drunk."
Nothing was said on the drive across town. We stopped over by the Whitcomb River where there was a park across from the bluff with the University dorms. There was a picnic table about on a grassy bank and we used it to watch the river.
Mrs. Robineson was quiet for a long time, then she said, more to the water, than me: "Did you have to do that?"
"Yup. Here's how it was going to go. Hammer was going to start that racist joke with me. Then turn and give the punchline to you. When he turned back to me, the second I said something, he was going to suckerpunch me."
The water in the river seemed louder and louder. It was ripping along.
"How do I know this, Mrs. Robineson? I was stationed at Army bases down South for my Ranger training. We'd get liberty, go around to bars. That routine I saw over and over. The good Lord must give out the same script at birth to some people."
"But, did you need to do that?"
"Okay, you need a demo? Stand up, come over here."
I took her right hand and she resisted for a moment, then got up. We moved away from the picnic table.
"Put your left foot forward, hand like this," I took her left hand and moved it into position. "Now turn away from me. See how you shifted a little of your weight to your right foot?"
"Now bring this hand up here, and drop your right hand about waist high, about here." I let go of her right hand.
She did what I said. I leaned in close to her face.
"Now tell me a racist joke."
Her weight shifted so fast to her back foot that it might have surprised her, and her left hand pulled on my hand. "You feel how you shifted your weight all the way back? You were getting ready to defend yourself or whomp me. You understand? That's what he did. But he never got to whomping part."
Her eyes got real hard, and for the first time I didn't let them go through me. We stood that way for a long minute. I let go of her left hand. She moved over slowly to the picnic table, and we sat down.
A lot more water flowed past. The air was getting colder. Mrs. Robineson looked up at the bluff across the river and the banks of dormitory lights in the mist above.
"Thing you got to understand, Tebeaux, is that Coach Baumgarten has a reputation in the black community. He was out front with it, too. Our young men come up to Whitcomb, play hard, keep their noses clean, the coach'd have our young men protected. They'd be in proper homes or dorms, with food, with places to play, places in town where they'd be treated with respect. I guess that restaurant wasn't one of them. And," she sighed, "he'd teach them to handle themselves in public. He guaranteed that even a fourth string player, even an injured player, would have their scholarship guaranteed for four years. Now, he didn't say this next thing, couldn't say it, but others connected to the team did say that if our young men did good, they'd have maybe twenty thousand in the bank when they were done playing. That is, if they saved what they earned on their jobs here, if they didn't have to send their wages home." Her head ducked as she looked away. "He didn't say anything about these Franklin Handshakes or whatever. None of that was in writing, either. Because it's illegal. But that was his word. And Coach Baumgarten's a Christian, so he keeps his word. Didn't know about his family troubles. That's a shame about his daughter. The Bible says, likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance."
"I don't know what that means. I have no Bible study."
"It's from the parable of the Prodigal Son. It's what people say in the Christian church when fingers get pointed at other people's sins. When too much righteousness flares up, people get critical of others. It appears that Coach Baumgarten's lot in life is going to be waiting for his daughter's repentance. And he seems to have some connection to those actions of hers."
Mrs. Robineson head drooped a little. "I don't know any parent who doesn't in some way contribute to their children's problems. I pushed Alcel to go here, for instance, and maybe he wasn't ready."
"I never met him, but so far, everyone says he was handling himself, Mrs. Robineson. There's no use beating yourself up. Everyone says Alcel was coping."
"Thank you for saying that." She tilted her head back and looked up across the river at the bright dorm lights. "Whatever hell Coach Baumgarten's going through with his daughter is probably nothing compared to the one his wife is in. But Coach Baumgarten kept his word to others. He was keeping his word to Alcel, as far as I know."
On our drive back to the motel, I explained to Mrs. Robineson how I was thinking of attending Wilbur Nock's funeral in Kansas City. There might be some info there about his jealousy with Tiffany and why he left or was forced off the team. Judging from the team guides, the staff turnover had been heavy that spring, but Nock was the only coach who hadn't gone to another, better, job.
As we came into the motel room, Rasheedi was sitting in a nest of pizza cartons, watching some pelvic thrusts on MTV, and without looking up, she asked if we'd brought back any desert.
"We didn't have any," I lied for both of us.
"Looks like you had enough carbos for a growing girl," Mrs. Robineson joined in critically. "Two?"
Rasheedi gave her mother a curt smile. "I invited the janitor in."
Mrs. Robineson froze, and her eyes turned that stony brown, and suddenly the air smelt like a thunder storm. I decided to back out of this one, and quick.
I returned to my room and disassembled Dabroe's gun, which he had thoughtfully left draining from a towel hook in the bathroom. On the lowered toilet seat was his cleaning kit, another gentle reminder of his requirements for our continued friendship. I cleaned and oiled the 9 mm. I hoped this nine was legal or at least not hot, but the hope verged on the ludicrous, knowing Dabroe.
While I was at it, I thought about the patch of hair that was missing on his head. It'd been bothering me all evening. I realized what was bothering me about it. It looked like someone, or thing, had taken a bite out of Dabroe's head.
My phone rang. Speak of the Devil.
"They're burning black candles around this place. This Coach Baumgarten deal is a death in the family. The team's out of control to the max, and not just from booze."
Over the phone I could hear something like a big fire crackling away, screams, bottles crashing and party lunacies.
"There's even some of these animals who are furious with this guy Ranny T. They blame his affair with Tiffany for the loss of the coach. Forming up sides, chawing at each other, things are getting ugly. Ranny T, Tiffany and Ranny's posse are holed up in this house while shit circulates in the crowd. This scudder Cooner you hooked me up with is going around trying to calm things down, but the rumor's started that he's out of power, what with this Baumgarten dude's fall, and that means the end of sugar tit. Cooner's been handing out bucks and jobs and promises, like some doomed fucking politician."
"Is it working?"
"Hell, no, it's not. These jocks are like a herd of buffalo, spooking at the first quiver in the grass. I've never seen anything like it. Fuck, Beaux, our old platoon could take this entire team apart in about twenty minutes. Some of these guys are crying 'cause their Coach is gone."
"Where are you?"
He told me. Wilbur Nock's house at the lake.
The bonfire was the first thing I saw. The party audible for a half-mile away. The bonfire beside the house was so big it lit up the tree trunks down the drive almost all the way out to the road. The ditches on either roadside were littered with cars or SUVs that looked abandoned, they were parked so haphazardly.
If things were random out on the county road, they were beyond random along the walk in. Among the trees, in the turnouts for parking, cars had their lights on, their doors open, and shadowy figures flashed in and out of the glare. Different tunes blasted out from the cars, and there was the sound of aluminum cans being crushed, emptied or opened. The smell of beer was everywhere, and sixer cartons littered the side of the driveway and hung in the bushes.
Behind the house among the sparse fir trees, some maniac was roaring around in a Bobcat, ripping up bushes and small trees with his shovel blade. As the Bobcat tore up the lot, its spotlight on top of his cage lit up the scene, and guys were riding, hands hooked in the cage wire, slopping beer on whoever they passed. A big white plastic punch bowl full of pills was being handed around by another group at the edge of the driveway and the pills washed down with beer.
Under the floodlights mounted on the front of the house, the deck was alive with bodies, dancing and yelling. On the north end of the deck were two metal barbecues, both made out of halved 50 gallon steel drums, sending up clouds of smoke and steam and the smell of roasting meat. Big waxy boxes for burger patties and chicken were stacked up, filled with debris.
At the lakefront there was a half-circle of cars with their lights on down at the edge of the gravel beach and all their players were booming out the same song. On the beach and in the water were drunk jocks and drunk women, naked or clothed, all trying to dance, swim or walk, and there was an air of desperation about the whole scene that was sticky, it was so thick.
I dialed Dabroe's number and cruised south over toward a clearing down the beach, where two cars were parked with their lights on, facing each other. When he answered, I asked him where he was and told him where I was and where I was heading.
"Keep on coming. We're on the south side of the perimeter."
Cars were parked on a sandy mound, surrounded by small pines and saplings. In the center of the mound, lit by the headlights, were two monsters, guys so big and grotesque caricatures of human bodies, stripped to the waist, and holding bunches of pine branches in their fists. They seemed to be waiting for something. Dabroe sidled up to me. He was holding a Smirnoff vodka fifth in one hand.
"Howdy boss, the guy on the left is Bads Eye."
Bads Eye had a round head, thick eyebrows and deep-set eyes (so deep I couldn't tell which eye was the missing one or if he had a glass eye), plus he had a big, wide, long and meaty wedge for a jaw that only human growth hormones can deliver.
"What are they waiting for? They gonna switch each other to the death?"
"Naw, waiting for a stopwatch and a tape measure." Dabroe passed me the vodka bottle. "It's water."
"Drank too much beer earlier, got dehydrated at this altitude trying to keep up with these boys. This here's a contest."
Dabroe wasn't lying. Two guys came back from somewhere with the stop watch and the tape measure and then someone said, Get ready set go! Then both those hulks started eating bark off the limbs. The guy with a stop watch timed them as Bads Eye and this other hulk slobbered and chawed bark for three minute rounds. Apparently they didn't have to eat the bark, some could fall, but they had to keep chewing on it. When their round was up, another football player measured the limbs for inches consumed. Money changed hands.
"Betting on this?" I asked as we moved away. "How'd that get started?"
"Bads Eye was talking about how bears up here in the mountains get through early spring when there's not much to eat and gave a demonstration to broaden the student perspectives. Things got competitive, and the next thing you know there's money being exchanged."
Just then a drunk football player about the size of a small closet caught up with us and hugged Dabroe.
"You're a hit, too, I see."
"Yeah, while we were leaving the Pink Elephant, some dope came up and hassled a player in the parking lot and I threw him over the top of a SUV. It made a favorable impression."
We looked back as the bark eating contest started again.
"Gonna be tough to get that pine pitch off their lips without gasoline or turpentine."
"Well, for the rest of the night, I'd advise you," Dabroe allowed, "when among these football types, to confine yourself to dancing, no kissing."
We headed north up the beach for the house.
Things were not friendly there. There was one crowd milling around the bonfire in the parking lot and another up on the deck. Arguments were breaking out all over. Some were saying they were going to transfer schools, quit the Program and others were harping on them, calling them pussies and quitters. Oblivious to it all, a couple danced nude on the top of a large tree stump next to the deck steps.
Over at the edge of the deck I saw Cooner and a crony obviously trying to quell one dustup. One group of players had dumped a garbage can full of garbage over another and a trash fight started. Greasy wrappers and napkins from the barbecue swirled around them in the gusts of wind. There was lots of shouting and finger pointing. It was clear that the evening had reached meltdown.
The shadows of the long wide porch over the house's front door and picture windows, Ranny T and his posse were staring out at the arguments going on with Cooner, frozen-faced and sullen. Sitting on the deck chairs behind them, arranged in front of the picture window, was Tiffany, surrounded by a group of players, obviously part of T's outfit.
"One gang's saying it's all the coach's daughter's fault for the resignation, that her playing has wrecked the team. T's posse's is defending their main man, and things got ugly once or twice already," Dabroe told me. "That scudder Cooner's been trying to put out those fires all night."
All of T's posse had the same oversize black dusters on I'd seen in the cafeteria. In the flickering light now their floor lengths made them seem like some Spaghetti Western outlaws.
"Coach Bum's resignation upset them. Ranny T's guys wanted to be reassured. At the bar Cooner had to come across, and I mean right now! That upset the some of the team, saying T's homeboys were exploiting the situation."
"And Cooner came across?"
"Maybe at first, then he realized the error of his ways, that gesture was fucking up the team spirit, so to speak, because some guys were bragging they got more than the others. Some of the players say Cooner's day is done. He'll be out with the coach. None of the black players like this new guy, Graycar. They're afraid the gravy train's gonna stop, no more boats on the sly, no more expense account clothes, no more free CDs and cushy jobs."
"What a mess."
"And a third group's claiming there's gonna be an investigation. That Coach's resignation is to get out from under the hammer, take his money and run, and so that bunch's getting ready to sit out the season and transfer to another football program, to preserve an extra year of their eligibility--so that's the stink."
"Then it is nuts."
"You give me the best fuckin' jobs, Tebeaux. I love you man, pure fucking anarchy. Showtime! Contents under pressure, my man."
"Coach's in retreat, but I think he's gonna have to come out of hiding. His family's here in the house, I guess."
"Yeah, what the hell are they doing here?"
"One jock at the restaurant said they wanted a wake, for some guy who used to be on the team or something so they came to his house here. Baumgarten's wife and daughter and kids were here and maybe they're too scared to try to get away. I dunno."
We heard the chopper coming in low over the trees before we saw its light. Both Dabroe and I flinched, turning toward its spotlight.
The chopper swung wide above the lake, its lead spot blazing a path across the water, as it hovered, taking up an offensive position as if getting ready to deliver firepower to the beach. Its spot moved closer, probing the night.
Dabroe laughed as we both instinctually faded back beside a tree. "Never gonna lose that, will we?" Peeking around the trunk, Dabroe said, "No thrill like an old thrill."
The spotlight shifted up the beach to the deck of the house. The crowd cringed, staring into its beam as the chopper started to move closer.
I could feel Dabroe stiffen, even though he was a good three feet away from me. My mouth turned dry. Friendly fire. How many times did that happen?
"Who the hell is this? The cops?" I looked back at the bonfire. "The forest service? Why don't they do something?"
Just then the crew on the Bobcat came careening around the corner to see what was up, their shovel raised high, a bush flopping out of it.
"Hail Caesar!" one of players shouted, and they raised the shovel as high as it would go into the spotlight's glare. "Haaaaaaaail Caesar!" the scream went up. Then, a few "Hail Coppers!" And others laughed. Still the chopper didn't move.
Slowly the chopper rose up, its spotlight training down on the beach front. Then it flew over us and banked to the left. Dabroe and I listened. The chopper was putting down somewhere down the access road, probably at the intersection a half-mile away or at the public boat landing parking lot.
"Buuuuuusted. SWAT team's coming." Dabroe shrugged. "Fun while it lasted, buddy."
"No, if it were the cops, they'd use a bullhorn."
Coach Baumgarten came down the driveway and silence fell over the players, the party animals using the Bobcat for a seesaw stopped and stood there, looking shamefaced. Coach didn't even glance at them. He walked past the bonfire, along the gravel path around the house, nodding at the guys arranged along the way, some half-naked smeared with mud and others with beer cans welded in their hands.
Up on the deck, a couple drunks were squirting the two barbecue pits with charcoal lighter, trying to see how high the flames would go, putting on a light show in the house's picture windows.
When Coach mounted the steps of the deck, the firebugs stopped blasting the barbecues and faded against the deck railing over to the front of the house. Silence traveled outward, down to the lakefront, back into the woods, along the beach as Coach stepped up under the deck's floodlights. He strolled around the deck, looking out over the railing at the figures scurrying around, some trying to find their clothes, others booking out of there. Boomboxes snapped off and the screaming and shouting along the beach faded.
Dabroe and I slid over toward the house and climbed up on a big fir stump next to the deck steps, abandoned by the two nude dancers.
All we could see was the back of Baumgarten. He stood there looking out as if he were about to review the troops.
Then he turned and walked into the house.
Ranny T and his posse, Tiffany and her mother, were watching in a picture window. The bonfire crackled and the Bobcat engine still sputtered and the wind drove the greasy debris this way and that across the deck.
Then the door opened and out came Coach. The deck floodlights above the picture windows dimmed. Ranny T and his posse in their black dusters came out, followed by Tiffany Rounds, holding one of her children, and they arranged themselves along the front of the house. As Coach got halfway across the deck, he paused, and the whispers and commands circled around,
"Huddle up front!"
A crowd began to form around the deck, even as the engines of some cars fired up and drove off.
Coach still stood there, hands down to his side, head tilted up, regarding the stars out over the lake. Then his wife Deb came out of the house, bearing a bright Coleman lantern, turned up as high as it would go. Coach turned, putting his right hand out to his wife with a smile.
As the Coach waited to receive the lantern, players started to climb up through the deck railing and get in a line behind Coach, moving in and around and in front of Ranny T and his posse, who held their ground.
Deb handed off the Coleman lantern. Coach smiled his thanks, and she returned to stand with her daughter behind Ranny T and his posse by the picture windows.
Coach proceeded to the edge of the deck and put the lantern on the top railing. Where he stood was littered with beer cans, fast food bags, and pizza cartons driven by the wind up against the deck railing there.
Coach was standing on one end of a butcher paper poster with words spray painted on it about Wilbur Nock's wake and signed with player's names. The end flipped and flapped in the breeze.
One lone boombox was still cranking out rap somewhere in the dark along the south end of the beach, and word was relayed to cut if off.
There was the sound of someone running.
Then the boombox was punched shut.
"It's . . ." Coach Baumgarten paused. "It's a . . . ."
He looked down. "It's a painful . . .hard . . . task to admit wrong. To say, I made a mistake, that's the . . . .That's only the start."
He bowed. Then he looked up, swinging his head sideways in a guilty jerk, as if ashamed to look down at the faces of the players around the desk below him. "A mistake, we've all made those. Mistakes. What day goes by when we don't?"
It was so quiet around the house that the creek water burbling over the spillway underneath the north end of deck seemed loud.
I looked over to see how the crew by the front door was taking it. I saw some guy in the doorway, dressed in a suit, reach inside, and then the floodlights dimmed just a scootch more, dialed down.
Show biz. Got a guy working the light board. Where'd he come from? The chopper?
Then Arlie Inman shouldered the suit out of the way and stepped out on the deck. He seemed to be eager to hear what Baumgarten had to say, but Ranny T and the others in front wouldn't move. Inman moved back and seemed to stand on something, his face popping up over the crowd.
"What day doesn't come with its burden of mistakes? I turn, I look back, I search, . . ." Coach shifted to his right, and the players on the deck froze.
"And . . .I see a path, my journey, and there are mistakes.
"But there are wrongs, too.
"And I've wronged you."
Stirrings in the mob around the desk, nervous coughs.
I glanced over at the house, again, a crowd had moved in on either side of Ranny T and his guys squeezing them a little further forward. Ranny T's crew resisted, holding their territory under the front porch. With their dusters they looked weird, a crowd of spaghetti western extras.
"And wrongs, well, wrongs're a little harder to see because we don't want to see them.
"We'll take mistakes any day, over truly seeing our wrongs.
"But the wrongs are there."
Coach lifted the lantern above his head and simultaneously the deck lights were dimmed down a little further.
Dabroe leaned into me, his mouth to my ear, "We're gonna have church."
Coach looked down, searching among the faces below him, now illuminated in the Coleman lantern's bright circle.
"Wronged and I acknowledge it.
"I have done it.
"Wronged those around me.
"I have let the situation . . . this situation get the best of me and turn me from the path, the journey, the . . . ."
And he let the lantern droop, as if it were too heavy to hold up any longer, "The pro-. . . ."
And the lantern slid a little farther down, putting the side of him to us in darkness, his face half-shadow and half-light.
"Turned me from my journey and our . . .OUR! procession . . . .and our co- . . . ."
And here he let the lantern lower below his shoulders, so his entire face was lit from below the railing height.
". . . our procession!
"our procession and our. . .
At that moment there was an explosion behind Baumgarten.
Ranny T, his duster trailing a roostertail of bright yellow flames, launched himself across the desk, twisting and turning and screaming.
Baumgarten dropped the Coleman, and the lantern hit the deck and broke, fire fanning out in the paper debris at his feet.
Dabroe leapt off the stump, vaulting over the railing onto the deck. He rushed toward the screaming Ranny T as the deck emptied, people fleeing.
Dabroe ran straight at the blazing man, raised his vodka bottle and clubbed Ranny T across his head. Ranny T fell to the deck as if shot. Dabroe danced around him, yanking at his collar and cuffs, pulled his flaming duster off, and flung it up away from him.
The duster went sailing up into the night air, sparks and flames whirling off it.
For a frozen moment it was as if twirling had turned into a fireworks display.
And his duster came down beside one of the barbecue pits, in a pile of long cardboard boxes from a butcher, filled with paper garbage.
Apparently, one of the firebugs had dropped a can of his charcoal lighter there when the Coach showed up, and this was officially the reason given for destruction of the deck and the fire-damage to the north side of the house.
The wind was blamed for the forest fire that drove the fire down the north side of the lake until the concrete boat ramp and parking lot at the public landing acted as a firebreak, containing its spread.
Without that, the woods would have been on fire for a long time.
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