Chapter One: Crossroads
I was the first player in Coach Chuck Hurd’s office that Saturday morning. The air smelled like pine cleaner, thank God. There was no tub of chicken livers and hog guts, which he sometimes mixed to nauseate guys with hangovers. It was said the coach could breathe the foulest air without being affected, and that the only thing he had a nose for was victory.
I’d gained two hundred yards the night before, a personal best at the time. But the coach could always find something wrong. He criticized my blocking. That ticked me off because I liked to hit, and I prided myself on doing my part for other runners, especially my best friend. Lee Branch, the fullback who had opened holes for me since middle school. The coach gave me a grade of “B” for the game. I was Johnny Spink, his all-conference tailback, his stud-horse, as he often called me, and he raised his standards for my grade.
But he had trouble being harsh that morning. A strange, dreamy expression came over his face. He looked like a boy fantasizing about a girl. He got up, turned his back to me, and opened the drapes the Booster Club had given him for going 9-2 the season before. It was weird to see drapes in a high-school coach’s office, but these were special, featuring purple bulldogs with spiked collars around their necks and stubble all over their snouts. They were expensive. The Boosters, led by my father, had gone ape with appreciation because Coach Hurd’s nine wins last year had been the most in school history. Our team, of course, was the Purple Bulldogs. Every school in our conference had a canine of some breed for a mascot, except for Esmeraldo, whose teams were the Chipmunks, and Fort Kean, whose Red Raiders were perennial champions.
Coach Hurd looked out at the dew shining on the practice field. “Hear what happened against Esmeraldo last night?” he asked.
“That kid Dixon for Eagle Forge got him six hundred yards against the Chipmunks.” A wad of Red Man bulged in the coach’s cheek, and he spat into a wilting paper cup. “Now if Dixon got six hundred, what do you suppose Johnny Spink could git?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“How about a thousand?”
Last year I had gained a hundred and eighty yards in the first quarter against the Chipmunks. It was the fourth year of their football program, and they hadn’t won a game yet. Esmeraldo was a lost place, even by Ozark standards, and the school’s high drop-out rate cut their football squad to the bone. Esmeraldo’s top football prospects were in the Army or prison. In the second quarter of that same game, I’d sprained an ankle when I got tangled up with two of my own blockers and had to sit out the rest of the game. Coach Hurd tried to stick me back in there, but Dr. Wardle, our normally milk-blooded team physician, took a stand. I got a grade of “C” for that game and a dressing-down about learning to play through pain. Although we were winning 60-0, the coach had still poured it on at the end. He’d called a double reverse with six seconds on the clock. It was as if Coach Hurd were playing for the NCAA championship.
Now he spat again into the sickening paper cup. “Johnny,” he said, “no high-school back has ever gained a thousand yards in a game. The record right now is six hundred and nineteen yards, set by Ronney Jenkins in Oxnard, California.” He thumped a fat stats book on his desk.
“Why does it have to be a thousand, Coach?”
“’Cause a thousand’s a magic number. It commands attention, it’s likely to last a good while, and it’s doable. Now you could be the man, Johnny. You could be the stud! But, son, you need to work on a few things. You’re dadgum good when the game’s on the line, but you coast when you’ve got a lead. You got to go like hellfire every play, son. Life’s about kicking butt. You get in the habit of lettin’ up now, and you’ll let up later, I guaran-damn-tee! It’s the same on the field and off. They’ll eat your lunch if you don’t eat theirs first. You got to leave it all on the field. You can’t save nothin’ for later. What do you say?”
“I can’t hear you!”
“That’s more like it. Send in Lee.”
Lee was in the gym, practicing karate blows. He had the honed look of a dancer rather than the squat build of a fullback. His head was capped with golden curls, and honey-brown hair fit his torso like a vest. He agreed with one of his heroes, Henry David Thoreau, that most clothing was excessive; hence he liked to go bare-chested in winter and to defy the “no shirt, no service” signs in stores. Brutal power lay beneath his graceful exterior. When he hit you, the nerves went dead and the flesh purpled. As kids, we had been inseparable friends and competitors. He had often left his marks on me.
“You were great last night, man,” I said. “Flying around like a cannonball.”
“I’m still flying today,” he said. He lowered his voice so the coach couldn’t hear him. “Let’s drink some beer and smoke some ganja.”
“I’ve got plans.”
“Plans to do what Missy says.”
Coach Hurd summoned Lee, and I drove off to join my girlfriend at the car wash where she was spearheading the Pep Club’s drive for new band uniforms. On my home-made tape of blues favorites, Albert King bellowed “Angel of Mercy,” and I turned him up to the max. For the rest of the afternoon I wouldn’t hear any more blues, so I saturated myself now. I hoped to keep the beat in my bones because soon I’d be parading down Main Street, waving a sign that urged folks to get their cars washed. Doing chores for Missy wasn’t my favorite way to spend a Saturday morning. I was sore from the game last night, and it would have been nice to lounge around, listen to my music and read, or drink a forty with Lee. But whatever I did with Lee would disappoint him. I never went far enough for his satisfaction.
It didn’t take long for me to learn that Coach Chuck Hurd’s vision of the thousand-yard game expressed a communal need. Spinkville craved a victory. The town had not benefited from Arkansas’s Golden Age. Yes, Bill Clinton was president, the Razorbacks had recently beaten Duke to win the NCAA basketball championship, and there were Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs outside most American cities, as well as Ozark chicken in most refrigerators. But it was the same old same-old in Spinkville. Our only employers of note were the poultry plant, where the jobs were almost hereditary, and Niemann Construction, owned by my girlfriend’s father, which did almost all of its business outside the town. Otherwise, the major product was obesity, or what we call “table muscles,” cultivated by the diners, drive-ins, and sweet shops catering to the local taste for corn dogs, biscuits and white gravy, chili pies, honeybuns, and soft ice-cream sundaes, all served pronto by folks who knew you.
As I drove through the town to keep my appointment with Missy, everything seemed right. But now that I’m older and looking back at things, I see the disorder. Among the eateries on Route 6, the town featured abandoned homes and scorched-looking trailer parks smack up against cinder-block churches, old-timey log-cabin gas stations, and mom-and-pop businesses with pot-holed parking lots and drooping gutters. Nurseries sat next to junkyards.
There was, however, one unifying symbol. A razorback hog snorted from every building except the houses of God, although some preachers prayed for the Hogs before big games. So many depictions of the razorback lined the streets that I could have been driving in a hog stampede. Except for those hogs, everything was peeled, faded, or rusted, and many of the signs on the outskirts of town were bullet-riddled.
A Razorback football coach once said that northwest Arkansas isn’t exactly nowhere, but you can see nowhere from here. The Ozarks are the far west of the South and the far east of the West. Sometimes Spinkville seemed more western than southern because most folks didn’t care two twitches of a dog’s tail about the family tree. People there cherished their independence, often against their own interests. And we all prized the times when lights glimmered on the ridges at night and stars sparkled above the bowl of town. For better and for worse, mountain life can be hypnotic.
Beneath a flagpole bearing Old Glory, the state flag, and a razorback banner, the We The People Laser Wash swarmed with kids snapping cloths, wiping and polishing gleaming machines. A line of drivers awaited service. Missy always raised a crowd. She carried a clipboard and gave instructions. In the Indian Summer heat, she looked good in her tight, white shorts. We had been together since seventh grade (people often said we might as well be married), and when you’ve been with a person for five years, you don’t often see the particulars. Sometimes she became a bright blur to me. I wondered how anyone could go through a day at a car wash and keep her shorts spotless, but I knew she would.
“Business is jumping,” I said.
“It’ll jump a lot more with you out front,” she answered, giving me a sign and guiding me toward the street.
I paraded, clowning when friends passed and looking serious for adults. It seemed like the most beautiful day of the year—the air felt like mountain-lake water, hot on top but with a coolness below that soothed your spine. The soreness from last night’s game seemed to ooze out of me and evaporate in the sun. I could have played another game right then. It was one of those moments of wholeness when I felt strong and clean and grateful for my blessings. I had a fine girlfriend, and I had gained two hundred yards against a good team, fighting for every blade of grass. It wasn’t a bogus achievement like the six hundred yards that the Dixon kid had totaled against the Esmeraldo Chipmunks.
Off in the distance beyond the town, autumn quilted the hills in apple and grain shades. I thought of the university up there and how next fall I hoped to carry the ball before the multitudes at Razorback Stadium and the thousands more in front of their TVs. With all the competition, that dream was the longest of long-shots. No Spinkville boy had ever played for the Razorbacks. But there had never been a local boy who could run like me. I would have my chance, and that was all I could ask.
That stretch of sign-bearing in the sun was in some ways the peak of my high-school days. When I looked back at the car wash, everything was shining. The people weren’t people anymore but bright rhythms, as natural as bushes swaying in the wind. In my imagination, the sign I held said “Thanks!” and I raised it high above my head.
Then a big, silver Lincoln carrying two black people rolled by me into the car wash. You never saw a car like that in town unless it was driven by a poultry king, and you almost never saw a black person in our vicinity except at a gas station on Route 6. It wasn’t that Spinkville was segregated; it was that the town had never had cause to integrate. There had never been a black resident. Blacks in Arkansas stayed out of the hills unless they attended the university. Seventy or eighty years ago, some towns in the mountains still had signs saying, “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in ____________!!!” The stories of such hospitality passed from one generation of black people to the next.
I knew from a summer history course I had taken at the university, and from my books about the blues, that Arkansas had a heart-breaking record of race relations. In the east, when the levees were built along the Mississippi, a mule had more value than a black man. If you worked the animal to death, you got fined and beaten; if you killed a black man, you washed up for dinner. The cotton plantations extended slavery far into the twentieth century. Arkansans mounted such poisonous resistance to the desegregation of schools that President Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect black students integrating at Little Rock Central High School.
The racial hatred and violence throughout our history haunted me. After I took that class up in Fayetteville, our savagery was never far from my thoughts. Listening to Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Nighthawk, and Luther Allison, I thought about the trials these former residents had endured in their home state, which had once marketed itself as “The Land of Opportunity.”
The Lincoln with Michigan tags contained a man with skin the tan of a brand-new baseball mitt and a teenage girl with a wide, handsome face and haughty eyes. She deserved a gardenia in her hair like the ones Billie Holiday had worn. I soon learned that the man and girl were Mr. Charles Futrelle, the new plant manager of Intercontinental Poultry, and his daughter, Rae, the coming genius of the senior class at Spinkville High. Maybe the Futrelles had come to the car wash to measure up the town, because the Lincoln didn’t look dirty. In fact, during my entire experience with the Futrelles, they maintained everything at such a high degree of order that you couldn’t have found an unsharpened pencil in their house, and I once heard a minor executive at the plant complain that Mr. Futrelle probably polished the change in his pockets.
When the Lincoln took its place in line, it seemed to disturb the other machines. A pick-up truck looked anxious, did some chuffing, then pulled out of line and drove away. The grille of a station wagon seemed to glare, and then the wagon also left. The Futrelles reached the entrance fast.
Nothing ugly happened. There was no racial incident. It was just that everything became unnatural. As Missy explained the washing options to Mr. Futrelle, she sounded like an actress straining for lines. She looked tense as he drove up on the chocks and the Lincoln was drawn through the laser wash. When the car emerged, the sight of one black man and his daughter turned the kids with chamois cloths into robots. They all did their jobs; the Futrelles’ car received the same attention as the vehicles owned by Caucasians. But the day had changed.
Leaving the car wash, Mr. Futrelle turned left toward me. It was my time to redeem the town, my time to recover the fumble. I had the urge to wave. That’s what you’d do for white strangers, I thought. That’s what you’d do without even thinking. As the car approached, I felt a tremor in my wrist, but my hand never left my side. Rae gazed beyond me as if I, like the rest of the scene, were beneath her notice. But Mr. Futrelle looked right at me, and I must have been a sorry sight. The sign trailed on the pavement. I was frozen in my guilt.
Although both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had been dead for a long time, I had often fantasized about the welcome I would have bestowed on my heroes if they visited Spinkville. It’s always easier to know what’s wrong than to do what’s right. I guess I had learned something about my role as a pioneer in race relations. But there were heavier lessons to come.
Some years after completing this novel, during a troubled time in my life, I became aggrieved by the fiction I had written and pitched the manuscript into the back of my study closet. Only now and then, over the next decade, did A Postcard from the Delta surface in my thoughts. I had started writing poems, and I felt better about my poetry than I ever had about my fiction. Last spring, however, a friend asked me to critique a novel of his; in return I dug out Postcard, which upon re-reading no longer felt like a lost cause.
The novel merges my interests in race relations, the blues, and football. Johnny Spink, the conscience-stricken narrator, is an exceptional high-school running back in Spinkville, an isolated Ozark town in Arkansas named after his ancestors. His dream is to star at the University of Arkansas. As a boy, he becomes fascinated by blues music during the demise of his parents’ marriage. The time is the late 1990s, when Arkansas rose in national stature as a result of the Clinton presidency and the success of Walmart. Spinkville, however, has not profited from the new image. Driven by Johnny’s scheming football coach, Chuck Hurd, Spinkvilleans become obsessed with the possibility of Johnny’s setting a national rushing record in a game against a feeble team.
In addition, the town has never had a black resident. That changes, however, when Mr. Charles Futrelle and his daughter, Rae, move to Spinkville. Johnny falls in love with Rae while at the same time agonizing over what he knows will be a phony football record. To escape from the pressure, he drives to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a blues shrine, where he will be transformed by the Delta’s raw life.
The novel explores a region and racial complexities that have gone largely unexamined, despite the many powerful and provocative novels dealing with inequality. My dream is that Postcard will deepen the discussion of racial division in America.
Michael Gaspeny is a novelist and poet who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has had two chapbooks published: Re-Write Men by Finishing Line Press in 2017 and Vocation by Main Street Rag Publishing Company in 2013. He has been a hospice volunteer for seventeen years.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019