Wright’s father, a sportswriter and a hack and a shill for the university team, was sitting next to Milton, who was actually blind but nevertheless a rabid fan, and Loomis Orange, the dwarf who was one of the team’s managers. The bar was out of their brand of beer, and they were a little drunk, though they had come to that hard place together where there seemed nothing, absolutely nothing to say.
The waitress was young. Normally, they would have commented on her and gone on to pursue the topic of women, the perils of booze, or the like. But not now. Of course it was the morning of the big game in Oxford, Mississippi.
Someone opened the door of the bar, and you could see the bright wonderful football morning pouring in with the green trees, the Greek-front buildings, and the yelling frat boys. Wright’s father and Loomis Orange looked up and saw the morning. Loomis Orange smiled, as did Milton, hearing the shouts of the college men. The father did not smile. His son had come in the door, swaying and rolling, with one hand to his chest and his walking stick in the other.
Wright’s father turned to Loomis and said, “Loomis, you are an ugly distorted little toad.”
Loomis dropped his glass of beer.
“What?” the dwarf said.
“I said that you are ugly,” Wright said.
“How could you have said that?” Milton broke in.
Wright’s father said, “Aw, shut up, Milton. You’re just as ugly as he is.”
“What’ve I ever did to you?” cried Milton.
Wright’s father said, “Leave me alone! I’m a writer.”
“You ain’t any kind of writer. You an alcoholic. And your wife is ugly. She’s so skinny she almost ain’t even there!” shouted the dwarf.
People in the bar—seven or eight—looked over as the three men spread, preparing to fight. Wright hesitated at a far table, not comprehending.
His father was standing up.
“Don’t, don’t, don’t,” Wright said. He swayed over toward their table, hitting the floor with his stick, moving tables aside.
The waitress shouted over, “I’m calling the cops!”
Wright pleaded with her: “Don’t, don’t, don’t!”
“Now, please, sit down everybody!” somebody said.
They sat down. Wright’s father looked with hatred at Loomis. Milton was trembling. Wright made his way slowly over to them. The small bar crowd settled back to their drinks and conversation on the weather, the game, traffic, etc. Many of the people talked about J. Edward Toole, whom all of them called simply Jet. The name went with him. He was in the Ole Miss defensive secondary, a handsome figure who was everywhere on the field, the star of the team.
Wright found a seat at the table. He could half see and he looked calmly at all of them. His voice was extremely soft, almost ladylike, very Southern. Wright was born-again, just like Jet, who led the team in prayer before every game.
“Let’s talk about Jet. I know him well,” Wright began.
His father shifted, embarrassed. “We know that, Son.”
“I grew up with that boy,” he went on.
“Wright, we know . . .”
“We shared the normal boyhood things together. We were little strangers on this earth together. We gamboled in the young pastures. We took our first forbidden pleasures together”—he winked—“our first cigarette, our first beer.” Wright paused, shyly. “I shared my poetry with him.”
“God,” said Wright’s father.
“We met when he and the other boys chased me down the beach with air rifles, shooting me repeatedly on my bare back, legs, and ears until they had run me to earth. He was always large and swift. He used to pinch me in the hall and pull out my T-shirt so that it looked as if I had breasts. He used to flatulate at his desk and point at me. In point of the fair sex, there was always a gag from this merry lad. He took my poems and revised them into pornographic verse, complete with sketches, mind you, and sent them to my sweetheart—”
“Son,” pleaded Wright’s father.
“Oh, I even tried the field with him myself, though thin of leg. He was a champion already, only a sophomore at Bay High. I will say that he, ha ha, taught me very well how to fumble on return of punts and kickoffs. For such was I used—as swift fodder for the others.”
Loomis and Milton were entranced. Wright’s father was breathing very heavy and looking at the floor.
“Wright.” This time he was almost demanding.
“Those smashes of his! I certainly, ha ha, coughed up the ball and often limped into the showers. One afternoon while no one was looking, he clipped me from behind, right on the concrete floor.”
Wright was smiling meekly as his voice trailed off. And when he went on, it was quieter but very even.
“We won all the games. I say we, though I stood on the sidelines or played in the band—French horn. I remember his beautiful mother watching from the stands, but what I mainly remember was Jet, with all his tackles and interceptions. He was All-State his junior year, then went on to duplicate that his senior, ultimately receiving, as you know, a full scholarship to the university here, where fate—or most likely God—brought my family and me to this fair city, my father finding employment and I a convenient although irregular education.”
Wright’s father’s hands were over his face.
“It’s back to the night of our senior graduation from Bay High, that night you are familiar with—”
“Yes, Goddamn it, we are familiar!” said his father.
“Wait. I want to hear the story again,” said Loomis Orange.
ain,” said Milton.
“That night, knowing I had my new Vespa motor scooter as a present from my father and mother, Jet and some of the boys waited at the end of the drive out from the auditorium. Still wearing my robe, my mortarboard under my arm, I cranked up that lovely red Vespa for all it could rip. I was in a hurry to change and join Jet and the others out at the lake party. They were in the bushes on either side of the road with a rope lying hidden between them. Well, they ‘clotheslined’ me. The rest is history.”
“Yes, Son! We know about that and your condition, bless your heart. Let’s—”
Wright’s father rose as if to go.
“Then . . .”
“Then?” said Loomis. He put his short arms on the table. He wore a bulky child’s-size Izod shirt.
“Then? Then?” said the father. He sat back down.
“The best, I suppose, in a way, ha ha. At the end of the summer, when I was out of the hospital and all was said and done, Jet and I made a private trip to the Biloxi Yacht Club. We were interested in a boat. Or rather, as I usually did, I followed his interests. It was late in the afternoon and there had been a bumper crop of shrimp—so many they were falling off the boat. The sharks had followed the boats in and they’d called off swimming.
“A man on the dock was balling up hamburger meat full of razor blades, in chunks about the size of horse apples, and throwing them in the water. The water would churn and a fan of blood would rush out of the shark’s head. This brought the others to it. The water was white and thrashing. Heads and half bodies floated up and snapped back down. Then the alligator gars got into it and it was bleeding paradise. That was Jet’s phrase. Oh, he could do the smart phrase now and then, using a British term or some such.
“It was bleeding paradise, he said. After he finished saying this over and over again, he asked me what I thought. Thought about what? I said. And Jet got very sad and looked out over the water at the red sun. Then he pushed me in.”
“He pushed you in? In the water?” said Milton, who was the only one at the table who could respond in words.
“Yes,” said Wright. There was a bit of hurt in his eyes, but they retained an even, soft gleam. “But there is the further beautiful thing.”
“He pushed you in the water, Son?”
“Yes. But last year I saw him on campus. I knew that he’d been born-again and I wanted to congratulate him. You know what he said to me as he rubbed that big Sugar Bowl ring on those great sun-browned fingers of his? He put his arm on my shoulder and said to me, ‘Wright, I’m sorry.’”
There was business to do, the game to see, or feel, so the four of them slowly left the bar, tapping, wobbling, huffing, and met Wright’s mother on the corner, then went up to the stadium to wait for Jet to kill them.