State

Stephen Graham Jones

The first time I saw Slowpoke take somebody down in his particular fashion, it was the second to last weekend before our senior year got officially going. I was still in two-a-days, was still puking halfway through each one and cussing Borde, who should have been there with me. He’d got special permission to start in with the team the first day of class, though, because he was going to be roughnecking all summer with one of his uncles down towards Big Lake. As far as Coach knew, Borde—that’s short for ‘La Borde,’ my best friend since second grade—he was going to be on the rig until the very last Saturday before class, one day after our last two-a-day. What Coach had told him right before he left was not to get his thumbs pulled off, yeah? And then he’d mimed guiding a chain down into the hole.

Borde had turned around in the hall, kind of jogged backwards like he owned the world, and Fonzed his hands back at Coach, and then we’d exploded into summer.

This year, we were all returning, were going to make a run for Regionals, at least. Maybe all the way, if all the promises we’d made last November had been real.

Some of those promises included not drinking beer behind the Sonic and not driving our trucks through anybody’s fields at night and not sneaking into the community pool afterhours, with the girls, and Coach hadn’t been smiling when he laid all this down, but still, right?

You can always keep a promise later, I mean.

And, if Borde did manage to come back whole, a ‘man’ now, if everything his dad wanted to happen on the rig happened, then his tight-end hands, yeah, they might just carry us to Regionals, where the college scouts watched, clipboards in hand.

It was the dream.

I didn’t need the season to be good so much, had my grades to fall back on, but if Borde had to stay around Midland, he was one of those guys you could already see his life story: he’d bounce around from rig to rig, girl to girl, truck to truck, fight to fight, and then wake up one morning thirty-five years old, a warm beer in his hand, feeling cheated. He’d become his dad, I mean, and start glaring at his own son, a resentment building in them both that would poison each dinner, each game, each everything.

It wouldn’t be a bad life, don’t get me wrong. But I’d known Borde since we were nine, trying to save baby birds’ lives with eyedroppers, and what I wanted for him was for that nine-year-old to grow up, as stupid as that sounds.

Not that I’d ever tell him this.

His girlfriend, though?

Yeah, maybe. In not so many words.

With Borde gone the summer through, he’d told me to watch out for her. I’d told him sure, watch out, quadruple quote marks, and he’d tackled me and I’d slung him around into the fence and then he was gone in his uncle’s truck.

Lacy didn’t need watching out for, though. She hadn’t known Borde since elementary—hadn’t moved here from Rankin until freshman year—but she’d seen something in him, I guess. That nine-year-old, maybe. And she still saw it. So, sure, she’d hit the pool at three in the morning with the rest of us, but she’d have a bikini on under her shirt, too. And anyway, she was Borde’s. You’d have to be a walking suicide, right? The La Bordes were known throughout Midland County for taking crowbars and pipes to people in public places, then doing their thirty days in lock-up with a grin. Coach had kept Borde from this so far, but that was just because most of the cops wanted us to make it to Austin. That would all change once we graduated.

But, Slowpoke. Real name, Johnny Vasquez. He was a junior, just transferred over from Permian. Didn’t play ball, just had S L O W P O K E airbrushed on the tailgate of his truck. And, we’d never known him before, but we knew the truck, had seen it cocked at the corner of the Odessa drag, all of us just staring as we eased past. He wasn’t a football player, either. As near as I could pick up over the summer, the Vasquezes were the La Bordes of Odessa, pretty much. And, though we’d never say it out loud, never admit it, you never went to Odessa alone, at night. Even if your girl’d just dumped you and you were looking for a fight, somebody to take it out on, still—not Odessa. A friend of ours, Scott, he’d been trying to clamp a heater hose back onto his Trans-Am over there one night, on the way to pick up his cousin, and some Permian guys had pulled up, held him down against the hot intake manifold while they slammed his hood over and over.

Scott carries a gun under his seat now, yeah. And his dad does too. It’s not going to end well. Coach has advised us to stay clear, if we can.

Yes, sir.

As for why Slowpoke had to leave Odessa, that’s the mystery right there. And, none of us knowing, the reason he had to come here, to Midland, it gets worse and worse.

And, because Slowpoke didn’t play football, that second-to-last weekend before school started, it was the closest I’d been to him.

The guy he was fighting was Manuel Garcia, who, because of his twin brothers Raymond and Ramone, was pretty much off limits, untouchable. And Manuel knew it too, had probably been brushing shoulders with Slowpoke every weekend for the last two months. But Raymond and Ramone had probably always been sitting back in their lowslung Impala, watching this situation.

This weekend, though, it was just Manuel.

And I don’t have any idea what really started it, but I knew what it came down to: Slowpoke and Manuel looked too much like each other, had the same grown-out hair in back, wore the same clothes, walked the same way.

I was mostly there because I’d always kind of wanted to see what Manuel could do, having grown up with Raymond and Ramone, who maybe even the La Bordes would have thought twice about jumping.

Not much, it turned out.

Manuel was big, and strong from working on cars, and knew how to wrestle his brothers off, probably, but Slowpoke took him apart. And it wasn’t pretty, not even a little. Some fights, you watch because they’re exciting—exciting because you’re not in them, you’re not there, getting pounded, don’t have to deal with the consequences.

This wasn’t like that.

Slowpoke drove Manuel back into the cinderblock fence, chocked his left elbow up under Manuel’s chin, and slammed his fist into Manuel’s side over and over. Not wild playground swings either, but all in one place, until, when Manuel coughed, it was red, frothy.

Slowpoke nodded, and, when Manuel kind of staggered forward, Slowpoke stepped aside, as if to let him fall.

It was all part of the dance, though.

When Manuel brushed past, broken in some important way inside, Slowpoke stepped in, his left boot standing halfway on Manuel’s shoe, heel-to-toe.

Some girl in the crowd of us screamed then, knew somehow what was about to happen, but I didn’t. Could just watch.

The reason Slowpoke was holding Manuel’s foot in place like that, it was so the knee would really break when Slowpoke came down on it from the side.

Manuel folded, is going to be one of those old Mexican men with a wooden cane someday, and when Slowpoke looked up to us, to each one of us in turn it felt like, what he was asking was if we had any problems with this?

Nobody said anything.

 

That next morning, Borde knocked on my door. His dad had been right: “You, what, twenty-two now?” I asked, pushing his dumb ass off my porch.

Borde was brown with sun, and thicker than he had been. More raw.

“I mean, not counting the brain,” I added, and he tackled me and what we were saying was hey, hello, where you been.

In the garage I stole two of my dad’s beers—he knew, let it slide—and we sat in the shade and I sketched out the new defensive coach for him, all the drills and sets he was bringing in from Monahans.

Borde nodded, sipped. Watched the street, like Midland was too small for him now. After living out in an eight-by-twelve orange doghouse in a pasture with five other guys for three months, yeah. But still. I’d shagged parts in an air-conditioned truck all summer, yeah? Scraped gaskets and listened to the radio in the downtime. I knew every song this town had to offer, too.

“What about that sophomore, Melissa?” Borde asked then, doing his hands in front of his chest to show, and I kind of tongued my lower lip out and shrugged, and by lunch we had no choice but to leave the house, just because we’d drunk all my dad’s beer, might laugh too much through our noses if my mom offered us milk and cookies.

Out at Wallace’s in Greenwood, we bought more beer—my dad’s brand—then just kind of coasted around town, neither of us saying how good it was. How this last week, now, it was ours, so long as Borde could keep off Coach’s radar. Or, even if he couldn’t.

After we put the beer back, careful to make sure two were missing from the original count, we fell into our usual places in the street, spiraling the ball back and forth, going longer and longer, like a thousand Thanksgivings.

That night—because of something with his dad—Borde ate with us, and my mom announced to us all how I’d moped around all summer without my old running buddy.

“And what about Lacy?” my mom asked then, pouring us more tea.

Twenty minutes later we were gone, on the drag in the parts truck I still had the keys to. It was a mini, for the mileage, and had the stupid sticker on the door, but it had a tank I didn’t have to pay to fill, too.

“She know you’re back yet?” I asked, and, when Borde didn’t answer right away, just looking into the milling bodies at the Western Auto, I understood: we were on a spy mission.

It had been nearly three months, after all.

We followed Lacy from the Sonic to the Whataburger three times, other cars and trucks screaming past, slowing down, shirts hanging out windows, beer spilling into defrosters, but the windows of our tiny little truck were up, and dark, the air conditioner on because this gas was free.

“Uh-oh,” I finally said, at a light.

We were right behind them.

“She know this truck?” Borde said.
           
Before I could shrug a maybe out, Christine Gentry’s passenger door opened, Lacy spilled out, and Borde stepped down, right into the street, the light turning green and everything. And then they both just stood there, like waiting for the director to yell cut.

All the cars behind us were honking, of course, but Borde just smiled, that involuntary kind of smile, like he was caught, he was here, here I am, and then Lacy was shrieking across the distance between them, launching up onto him, and, because Lacy’s parents were moving one of their parents into a nursing home in San Angelo all week, that was the last time I saw him for four days.

The next morning at practice, I threw up again, but was able to make it off the field this time, so nobody would slip in it.

“Well?” Coach said to me when I was done.

I pulled my helmet back down, leaned back into it.

 

Friday, the call came in to the shop: the guys down at the Avis needed a D40 filter, stat. That was the way Gerald always said it: ‘stat.’

He tossed me the dusty filter and a case of belts they had on order and I was gone, the air conditioner on against the hundred and ten degrees Coach had even said was ridiculous. Not that getting lectured to in the locker room about grades and behavior and life after school was any less ridiculous, but still.

When I showed at Avis, though, Borde ambled up from the pit, tossed a broken wrench into the rag drum.

“You’re not dehydrated?” I said.

“Ask her,” he said back, and shouldered into me, walked out into the sun.

Neither of us were saying anything about his dad. He’d called us once, on Tuesday, but my mom had managed to answer all his questions with questions, her eyes asking me more questions across the kitchen. Now Lacy’s parents were probably coming back, though, meaning that Borde's camping trip in her bedroom was over. She was probably already checking all the trashcans and laundry piles for rubbers.
           
“Davy?” I said, tilting my head down into the pit, and Borde chewed his cheek. Of course Davy. Our quarterback, learning the family business in case he tore his shoulder out some Friday night, or tweaked his elbow slinging the ball sideways like Coach was always telling him not to.

Borde leaned over, spit into a grate and wiped his mouth.

“She’s different,” he said. “Lacy. Somehow, I don’t know.”

“You just haven’t seen her,” I told him. “What?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing. You were watching out for her, I know.”

“And Melissa Stephens,” I said, lifting one shoulder to punctuate it. “And Mandy Watson.”

“She graduated, right?”

“Missy too,” I added, having to smile to say it.

Borde looked to me, raised his eyebrows.

The Missy?”

“One and only.”

Borde nodded into the Avis, said, “Davy know?”

Missy was Davy’s twin. We were a town of twins on every block. Something in the brown, brown water.

“Was it like, you know, was it like . . . ” Borde had to lean in, whisper the next part: “Like you and Davy? You got a crush on him you need to tell me about, man?”

“Exactly,” I said back, right up against Borde’s ear, and he pushed me away, and, after hitting the tackle dummies all week—we’d started full pads, Monday—it gave me a gauge for how much muscle the rig had put on Borde. He’d always been bigger than me, even in second grade, but the few times we’d had to really fight each other, he’d always held back, I thought. In seventh grade in the cafeteria, everybody chanting in a circle around us, and that time in ninth, when Lacy was still the new girl.

Now, though, it would be one of those two-hit fights, and neither of them would be mine.

Not that I didn’t push him back with everything I had, here.

It threw him a few steps back, right into the grille of a truck neither of us had seen ease up.

The trunk honked, just a short blast, and Borde turned around, his teeth set, hands balled, and then he smiled.

It was Coach.

He stepped down laboriously, like he was barefoot, and felt Borde’s arms, looked at his head from each side then knocked on it with his middle knuckle.

“Shit,” he said. “Was hoping you’d got some brains while you were gone.”

Borde turned away, embarrassed, and while Coach’s truck was getting serviced, he bought us barbecue sandwiches next door, and ate without talking, and then afterwards, using the sugar packets and the salt shakers, Coach laid out some of the new plays on the booth’s table, and the way he would strike a Sweet ‘n Low forward all at once, breaking through the line into open field, we could see it too, the whole season before us.

We were supposed to go out that night, our second-to-last night of summer, but Coach managed to mention Borde to Lacy’s dad somehow, so we wound up over there for a napkin-in-your-lap dinner, Borde editing his roughneck stories on the fly, me playing some made-up card game with Lacy’s little brother, their dog barking in the backyard, Lacy’s rotary-club dad shaking each of our hands when we left, looking us in the eye.

After that we just wound up at the pool with my dad’s beer, but nobody even showed up, so we just sat there in the plastic chairs and listened to the pump and tossed our empties into the water, waited for them to sink.

 

The next night, Lacy sitting between us in the cramped parts truck—my dad still hadn’t asked for the keys back, but hadn’t really given me run of the truck either—we made the loop around the drag like everybody else, Borde a star now, especially with one of my white t-shirts on, so you could tell he’d worked in the sun all summer, not hid under hat brims and awnings like the rest of us.

Because the truck was a stick, I had to keep my hand down on Lacy’s knee practically, but she was clamped onto Borde, and it’s not like we hadn’t done this a thousand-million times before.

We hit the Whataburger, stopped to shoot the bull at Western Auto, made the slow U around Sonic twice, looking for a slot, then wound up in a game of catch with a nerf football in the Furr’s parking lot, Davy barking out plays, Borde rising up to snag that red and yellow ball out of the sky, me on the bench like always, my beer going warm in the floorboard.

Missy?” Lacy asked me, then, from Borde’s part of the seat.

I let my shoulders kind of chuckle up. Reached down for the beer I didn’t want.

That fight me and Borde had had in ninth grade? Lacy hadn’t not been a part of it, anyway, even if she hadn’t been in the gym that afternoon.

“I told him you checked up on me every day,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

She shrugged, ashed out the window after checking to see if her dad was binoculared in on her, or maybe dressed up like a federal mail box.

“He say anything about me?” she said.

“I know about that birth mark.”

She hit me with the heel of her hand, flared her eyes out.

“Who would be the male equivalent of Missy anyway?” she said, taking another long drag.

“Equivi-what?” I faked, watching Davy rainbow one up, a real hail mary, the kind Coach would crucify him for.

“I know, I know,” she said, leaning forward, breathing smoke right into my face, looking past me where I was already looking: Davy.

I pushed her back and she grabbed my pushing hand, and we wrestled like that, my beer doing its usual spill thing, so we didn’t even hear the deep growl of the Trans-Am when it pulled up, nosing into the parking lot that was a football field now.

Scott cocked his door open.

Borde looked to Davy about it and they just shrugged, but then somebody from the other group of cars said something.

“What?” Scott asked, standing up.

It was Slowpoke.

He wasn’t in his truck, was riding with somebody else tonight.
           
He stood up and up from the hood he’d been leaned against. Smiled.

“I was enjoying the game,” he called across in his way, where the words were kind of clipped.

Scott just stared, stared some more, his face still scarred up from his own intake manifold, and my breath kind of caught: would Slowpoke have been one of the guys crashing that hood down on him that night? Was just being from Odessa enough to make that not matter?

Yes, and yes.

Scott sat back down into his captain’s seat, kept his left foot out the door, and gunned his Trans-Am out a length farther. Chirped to a stop then just idled, his racing cam loping in place, that two-inch exhaust throaty.

Slowpoke shook his head like he couldn’t believe this, and nodded to himself, stepped out onto the field as well.

“Hey, hey,” Davy said then, always the quarterback, the ball back in his hands somehow.

He patted it against his other hand for attention, looking from Scott to Slowpoke, but this wasn’t his game anymore.

“Just going to sit there, punk?” Slowpoke said across the field, his eyes boring through the Trans-Am’s windshield. “I have to dragass all the way over there, you’re not going to like it, I promise you that.”

 

In response, Scott fired his big 455 up, buried his foot in it and dropped down into first, his other foot on those front disc brakes, so just smoke and sound welled up, like he wanted the cops here now, not later.

Slowpoke laughed, rubbed his mouth with the side of his wrist, and didn’t step aside even a little. Just kept coming.

Finally Scott rose to meet him, Davy still calling something out, Borde just watching, trying to track this, almost missing the ball when Davy underhanded it over, like he was about to need both his hands, here.

But, because Davy was the quarterback, had been since elementary, none of his fights ever went all the way. Somebody always stepped in, between, wanted to save him.

It’s what happened this time, too. Borde snagged the ball Davy had lobbed and hooked a hand on Davy just as Davy was about to step out, try to be the peacemaker.

Davy had been counting on that, of course.

By then Scott was to the sharp front of his still-idling Trans-Am, the parking lights on, and, when Slowpoke still had maybe three steps to go, Scott’s arm came up, the elbow never bending.

In his hand, that pistol from under his seat.

This time, Slowpoke did stop.

He looked around to all of us, so we could each see that Scott was asking for this. That it was out of Slowpoke’s hands, now.

“This really the way you want it?” he said to Scott. “Baby can’t take his medicine, that it?”

Scott’s lips were writhing, his chest heaving, and he was crying too. I could even tell from back in the crowd where me and Lacy were, her left hand digging into my right wrist, leaving a line of blue half moons.

“Hey, hey!” Davy said then. But louder, deeper, with more authority.

And not Davy at all.

Borde.

Like this happened every day on the rig, he stepped in, palmed Scott’s gun down like the legend he was already becoming, tossing it back to Davy without looking, Davy catching it with the flat parts of his hands, where there were no fingerprints.

Then Borde, with the football, pushed Scott back so he almost tripped over his car, and kept pushing him, got him all the way into the seat and reached in, dropping it into reverse. Or, trying.

Finally, Scott lit the asphalt up with his brakes and the engine growled lower, the transmission engaging, and Scott was still crying and trying to suck it in, and if I could write a check from Scott’s dad to Borde, it would be for everything in the world.

When Scott backed up, the crowd kind of relaxed, looked to each other and nodded.

Except Slowpoke.

When Borde turned around, Slowpoke was right there in his face. Johnny Vasquez in the flesh.

“Whoah, whoah,” Borde said, holding his hands up, sidestepping.

Slowpoke stepped with him, never breaking eye contact.

They were the same height, the same build. Same everything.

Borde narrowed his eyes, changed the football to his left hand.

“What?” he said.

“You,” Slowpoke said.

Me,” Borde said back, smiling for the crowd, holding his arms to the side, and Slowpoke slammed both his hands into Borde’s chest then.

It caught Borde unexpected, drove him back onto his ass, the ball tucked into his ribs like he’d had drilled into him.

“No,” Lacy said, and I looked across to her, realized it could have been her who yelled that No out last weekend, for Manuel Garcia.

I creaked my head back over to Borde, the night coming at me in frames now, in pictures all stacked on top of each other, a stack I was never going to be able to climb, never going to be able to get over.

“No,” I said too, and stepped forward, to the front edge of things.

Borde was the one shaking his head from side to side now. Smiling to himself.

Slowpoke just waiting for him to stand.

He did, coming to a three-point stance first to collect himself.

Lacy tried to fight past me but I held her, knew better.

Knew better for her, anyway.

But I’d known since the second grade.

La Borde!” I called out, using his full name so he’d know this was serious.

Borde looked over, his jaw already set the way I’d seen it set before in the fourth quarter, when some defensive end had had him targeted all game.

I shook my head no, my most serious no, that he didn’t want to do this. That this was a mistake, and it was going to stay a mistake for the rest of his life.

Slowpoke was looking over at me too.

“Need to ask permission from your bitch?” he said to Borde, about me.

In reply, Borde tossed the football away. To nobody, to the ground.

What we needed here were cops, and dads, and coaches.

What we had was just us.

I broke from the ring of people, stepped in.

“Don’t do this,” I said again to Borde.

“Get back,” he said to me, not breaking eye contact with Slowpoke.

Slowpoke smiled, limbered his shoulders up, did that thing with his neck that killers always do.

“Good,” he said, his voice deep.

Borde nodded yes about this too, licked his lips to step in, and then, because I had to, I said it, just loud enough for him to hear: “You said she was different somehow, right?”

Every person in that parking lot looked to me. Every person in Midland, Texas.

I nodded, held my hands up, to count down: “Melissa, Mandy, Missy,” I said, dropping a finger for each one. “But what comes before M, La Borde? They still teach that in remedial?”

Borde was just staring at me now, his hands fists.

L,” I spat out, smiling behind it to make it true.

Now Slowpoke looked from me to Borde, and back again.

“His woman?” he said.

“He thought,” I told him, “yeah,” and stepped in, right up against Borde, chest to chest. “You were right about that birthmark, too.”

Borde pushed me away, hard. Right into Slowpoke.

Slowpoke pushed me back into Borde, and Borde grabbed me by the shoulders, was going to slam his head into my nose, I knew—I’d seen him do it, seen the results, was ready—but then he guided me to the side, said, “I know what you’re doing here.”

The one fight of his my dad ever told me about, the part I never understood until now was how he said he never remembered the first punch, that he only really knew about it because he felt the shock in his hand, coming up his arm. But it’s true. I know that now. You can kind of just wake up, find yourself already swinging, already committed, already putting your whole entire life square against somebody else’s jaw, and praying it’ll be enough.

Borde fell back, to the side a bit, but caught himself on his fingertips. Stood again.

“Thanks,” he said, looking around me to Slowpoke, “but my dance card’s full tonight, I think.”

And then Slowpoke planted his meaty hand on my shoulder, pushed me out of the way.

“Been hearing about you,” he said to Borde.

“Likewise,” Borde said, turning to the side to spit, keeping his eyes on Slowpoke, random hands clamping onto me, keeping my narrow ass out of this, for my own sake, but also because they were embarrassed for me, I think. Knew that that punch, it had been the most tender, obvious thing I’d ever tried.

No!” I screamed anyway, still fighting, my own saliva a mist in front of me, and Slowpoke reached out slow like, just one hand, and pushed Borde in the shoulder.

“Oops,” he said, and Borde did that movie thing, kind of dusted his shoulder where Slowpoke had smudged it, and then he breathed in deep to swing, to kick, to head-butt, to wrestle and bite and tear, to do whatever he needed to tonight, never mind tomorrow, or the rest of his life, which was when Lacy’s voice split the night.

What she said at a volume I didn’t even know she had in her was "Three months!"

Borde looked over to her, then to me.

“Three months,” she said again, lower. More real.

“Shit,” Slowpoke said, and pushed Borde again, but Borde walked through it, his eyes narrow on Lacy.

“That’s right,” she said, stepping up beside me, “you were gone, what? Three months? Know how many times my mom had to go to San Angelo? Left me alone at the house? Want to take a guess?”

“No,” Borde said.

“Fuck you, Derek La Borde,” she said, then turned, took my face in both her hands, and kissed me long and deep, my mouth pushing her away at first but then not, then getting it. I brought my hands up to cup her head, pull her deeper into me, and, no lie, it was good. Lacy was Lacy, God.

“You wouldn’t,” Borde said when we were done. “This is—”

“Except that birthmark, man, it’s not really shaped like a —” I started, never got to finish.

It was the night I lost two teeth, the night I still carry in three faded lines around my left eye, the night my best friend sat on my chest and pounded my face to pulp, his girlfriend hanging off his back, trying to take it all back. It was the night my mom could never understand, the night Coach just shook his head about all season, but it was also the night the Garcia Twins eased up alongside Johnny Vasquez in their primered black Impala, stepped out onto the asphalt as one person. And, sure, it was the last night Lacy and Borde were really together and good, and it was the last night for me and him as well, but when I see him now at the hardware store or at the games on Friday night, where the announcer still introduces him sometimes, the way Borde keeps his hand on his son’s shoulder, trying to guide him here, or there—last Friday I saw Lacy watching him too, her second husband right beside her, still new to all this small town stuff, and she kind of smiled and pulled her lips into her mouth at the same time, nodded once across the stands to me, and I had to turn back to the game again, focus in on these seniors, my lips just like hers.