All-American

The third bottle of six dents the sheet aluminum before exploding into a sharp, verdant rain. Fractured pieces of glass, tinted green with iron oxide and still wet with suds, fall to the scrub grass at the base of the sign and settle among the ruins of the first two beers. Nestled within the seam between the hood of the car and the windshield, the remaining bottles wait propped upright. Each bottle sweats with the dampness of the late afternoon – a nervous Death Row if there ever was one.

Arn wipes the corners of his mouth with thumb and forefinger and leans back on his heels, pleased with the zip he got on that last one. Even from thirty feet away, the dent is noticeable – a  ridged half-moon pressed deeply into the metal just above the crook of the letter “Y.” He’d been aiming for the “E” in “Welcome,” a full two feet to the left of the nascent crater. Still, given the dying light and dull pain in his shoulder, the reverberating ring hits a fine note. The alcohol is settling deep within him now, worming its way behind his eyes and warming the backs of his hands. He manages a smile and twists the top off another condemned lager.

“Here’s to you, boys – 1957!” he shouts into the night.

He raises the beer to the sign and tips back a short, foamy swig. The taste is far from complex – a flat rush of bubbles followed by a vaguely metallic tang. He swishes is back and forth and presses it through his incisors with the flat of his tongue.

‘57 had been a hell of a basketball team – one of the best Abernathy ever put together. Those were war babies – their fathers had raised them up strong, sliding beef and whole milk in front of them as soon as they could chew so they’d be a force to be reckoned with when the next wave of Hun came knocking. Arn’s uncle, Clinton, had run with some of them back in the day. They’d set the mark for scoring that year by an even 100 points. That record stood until 1975 when Plainview torched it on the back of a seven-foot center with a Russki last name. Some of them turned up back in town after college, twenty pounds heavier and still wearing their State rings. One of their bench players – a tall, blonde kid named Rutledge – married Becca’s mom. He always wanted her to play for the women’s team, but she thought only lesbians played basketball. Maybe she was right, but Arn had dated a couple of them before her and they seemed to like him alright.

He works through half of the beer before his hands start to get restless. Pushing off the car, he squints in the twilight to find a suitable missile around his feet. The effort is in vain – it’s all pea gravel and candy wrappers this far out of town. Arn digs in his pockets and finds a quarter, but the aerodynamics are iffy and he sends it sailing a foot overtop the sign.

“Fuck you, 1968!”

His howl breaks the night a second time, but it lacks heart; he has a soft spot for ’68.

On paper, they should have lost every game they played. Not one of them weighed more than 200 pounds, dripping wet, and their quarterback couldn’t read a defense to save his life. But the poor kid was blessed with enough speed to be dangerous and a cannon for an arm and Abernathy cruised to the title game. Arn’s folks made the trip to Austin for it, sandwiched in the back of an Oldsmobile for six hours each way. It had been a barnburner to hear them tell, without a whiff of defense on either side of the ball. In the press box, idle speculation broke out sometime in the third quarter wondering how the scoreboard operator would manage triple-digits. But by some miracle, Sam Houston ran out of steam first and Abernathy held on. Becca’s old man calls it an embarrassing win, but Arn isn’t so sure such a thing exists.

1974 – Women’s tennis takes home a title and earns three individual scholarships to College Station.

1980 – The year of his birth and of A.H.S.’s second football triumph.

1985 – Golf. The first, last, and forevermore, only title the dead program would ever win.

1989 – Baseball limps to the finish line.

1991 – The Berlin wall falls while Abernathy Basketball hits the buzzer-beater in Fort Worth.

Arn drinks to them all, and his sixer runs dry. The sun has made a full retreat, leaving only the warm purple embrace of evening. He feels the weight of the beer in his arms that have grown heavy and in his legs that totter in the grass alongside the road. In the distance, the city twinkles across a flat plane. He braces a foot against his bumper and slides his weight to the center of the hood, reclining until the back of his head makes a flat spot against the glass.

He’d thrown seven strong innings that day in the first of three games, then spent the afternoon chattering attaboys from a spot atop the back of the bench. While his teammates dripped sweat and steamed in the early summer night, Arn wrapped himself in the leather sleeves of his varsity jacket and shivered until the final out. Afterward, they’d been too young and too stupid to do it right – to raise a glass of champagne or maybe a dark, aged whiskey and touch glasses with one another in serious appreciation of the battle won. Instead, they’d gotten drunk in a basement off skunked beer, still wearing uniforms stained with red clay and neon streaks of grass. Becca clung to him all night, her champion, as his voice went hoarse and his eye black began to streak down his cheeks.

A different perch, a different body, but again he sits shivering. Arn thinks of the duffle bag tucked underneath the passenger’s side airbag. He wishes he would have packed something special for the final toast. Instead, it’s stuffed with all the things he knew would hurt Becca most – his toothbrush, a razor, the book from his nightstand – stupid things that seemed important only when they went missing.

The cool air fills his lungs, competing for real estate with hot, drunk breath. He fights the sleep that is working its way north from his limbs. Two cars pass in quick succession and their headlights glitter across reflective lettering.

 

WELCOME TO ABERNATHY

HOME OF CHAMPIONS

1948, 1957, 1968, 1974, 1980,

1985, 1989, 1991, 1998

 

 

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