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A View From the Fence
I carefully clamp my jaw into position and turn away from Kim's Yard, and walk resolutely onwards towards the Third Corner and Piergeron Stadium.
* * *
Piergeron Stadium. Just the thing I need. To forget everything that comes before or after this point in the story and bask, mindlessly, in the aura of this place. A bit of a rest before the _really_ difficult stuff starts.
It's locked, ostensibly. Not that that matters to someone who acquired an intimate familiarity with the place over the course of four years. The chainlink gate _still_ doesn't come all the way down to the ground on the rear southwestern entrance. It's a tighter fit than I remember. Or perhaps I'm just a bit out of shape. Regardless, after only a few moments of undignified wriggling across the freshly-tarred asphalt, I am inside and standing before the vast expanse of carefully-manicured grass that meant so much to me just a few short years ago. My shirt gets a bit dirty, but I'm on a roll now, and trivialities like the physical appearance of my wardrobe are starting to fade into the grey of unimportance. I gaze up into the bleachers, towards the media box; I couldn't see it from my first view of this place, but now it's quite apparent to me that the entire grandstand area has been rebuilt, from the inside out. That explains the new PA system on the towers. I have my suspicions that, given what I know about Edgerton High, the improvements were expensive ones. But necessary ones, of course. We wouldn't want the Team to have anything other than the best and most state-of-the-art facility that money could buy. Never mind that Mr. Pike is _still_ probably trying to get them to scrape together the funds to allow his purchase of a new distillation apparatus for the chemistry students. Education is one thing, but by God, Football is _quite_ another.
I never noticed these things when I was a part of the Team. It all seemed to make sense in the grand scheme of things that we were accorded the best and the highest. We were the Hawks. The Spirit of the School. The Pride of the Community. The goddamn Bourgeoisie. There wasn't a direct relationship between Football and overall social standing at the school (Case in point: Me.) but everywhere we went, we were at least accorded some measure of respect.
The chief example of this was the aforementioned Brian Stockmann, our Scandinavian Hercules of a quarterback. Doors were opened in his presence. Wheels were greased. Women were floored (or couched, or bedded...) The crowds parted like water. To him, there _were_ no barriers. Either on the field or off. To our dumbstruck and adolescence-dazed brains, Brian Stockmann appeared to be nothing less than than the absolute _proof_ of the existence of a benevolent God. There was something cosmic and primal about him, as though he were the master template from which all the rest of us _should_ have been stamped. In short, he was Adam, and Edgerton was his Garden.
We had no problem with this. As high-schoolers, such Darwinism is a way of life, and if Brian Stockmann was the pinnacle of his evolutionary niche, then so be it. The rest of us had two choices: to either sit there being pissed off or to find other ways to excel.
Mine, of course, was straight-up excellence in football. Sure, my only friend and social outlet in the greater metropolitan area had just vanished from the face of the earth, but that sure as hell didn't mean I couldn't be a good team player. And so I threw myself into my practices, after a few mandatory days spent off the field recovering from my impromptu surgery. I lied to everyone about the causes of my time in recovery, and even though the scar was (and still is, I might add) an ugly and jagged one, it happened to be in one of those embarrassing places that no-one ever asks to look at. So, all in all, I tried to say to myself, it could have been worse.
I was right. The worst was yet to come.
At any rate. Under the admittedly inferior guidance of Coach Garrick, I honed myself to a razor's edge. There was nothing else to do. All of my anger and rage and pain and sadness, which normally would have flickered wildly and uncontrollably from the mouth of the acetylene torch of my soul were trimmed down and starved away into a fierce blue cutting edge, suitable for metalwork. And the scouts from the colleges were suitably impressed.
My determination paid off in other ways, too. My grades improved. Turner reversed his opinion of me one-hundred-eighty degrees after a scathing and opinionated concept speech on the inadequacy of the current welfare system, and wouldn't you know it, my Rhetoric scores started becoming comparable to what my Dad used to earn. I could feel no pride in this accomplishment. No success was good enough, no victory satisfying enough, no _fait_ ever _accompli._
Of course, I knew why I was punishing myself. Because the one person I truly cared about in the entire school was dead to me. And as the weeks passed, I grew more and more despondent while all the while becoming more and more successful.
I was finally living up to my potential. And I was more miserable than I had ever been in my life.
It was a hell of a time.
And, of course, that's when my Dad gave me the lighter.
I remember him sitting me down one day on the comfy old sofa in our Family room and removing from his pocket a tiny mirrorplate-silver box with the figure of an eagle or a hawk or some other appropriately majestic-slash-patriotic raptor embossed upon it in gold. A Zippo. The Rolls-Royce of pocket combustion. This particular example obviously dated back to a point well before the turn of the century. Dad gives it to me to look over, and then waits, almost expectantly. I look at him and shrug.
"Nice." I say.
"I don't smoke." He replies.
"Yeah. I know."
"Curious as to why I carry a lighter around?"
I shrug again.
"That lighter, Jordan, was your great-grandfather's. He--"
"Yeah, okay. I already got the picture, Dad." I say, depriving him of an opportunity for a monologue. "Let's cut to the chase. It's been passed on from generation to generation and blah de fucking blah--"
My father seizes me by the arm. Hard. "Don't you use that language with me, Jordan."
Instantly, I submit. No thought is involved. I'm just salivating for the bell; non-compliance equals instant pain. The fundamental equation of my home. I look downward, abashed. "Sorry."
He relaxes his grip. "You're forgiven." He pauses. "Now. As you've obviously guessed, this lighter is a bit of an heirloom. Quite valuable, in fact. One of only a hundred of its kind produced by the company. It's seen six of the seven continents and every one of the oceans in its day. It's been through at least one war, possibly two. It's seen the collapse of Communism, the independence of Quebec, the fall of Belfast and the territorial annexation of the New Indochinese State. And, more recently, it's been with me throughout my own political career, all the way back to my chairmanship of the Public Works Committee. It was in my pocket when I took my first oath of office, and it's been there for every major election since."
"I never knew you believed in lucky charms, Dad."
"Luck has nothing to do with it, Jordan. When people believe in a physical token of luck, what they're really doing is putting their faith in an outside power, in randomness. When you start to turn Chaos into a religion, you have failed, Jordan." He pauses. "No, what you have there is the exact opposite. It is a token to remind you of your _control_ over your own destiny. What you have there is is a _symbol._ It is a symbol of the power that you have to win. To triumph over the odds. The lighter means nothing in and of itself. But your Great-Grandfather and your Grandfather and your Father before you have all used this simple token to recall the legacy that we all have borne as members of our line. A legacy that can be traced all the way back to the American Revolution. A legacy of pride, and of courage, and, most of all, success. And when you feel yourself, as you will from time to time, become weak and afraid and scared, you must never give in. Never." He taps the gleaming case that I hold in my hands. "That is what this means. It's somewhat like a string around your finger. Whenever you are aware of its presence, it will remind you of the name that you bear and the expectations that you must fulfil as bearer _of_ that name. My father gave it to me. And I give it to you."
I am silent. My mind is awhirl. Yes, my natural cynicism is having a field day with this. But there's something more...
"In these past few weeks, Jordan, I've seen an awakening in you. There's a spark in your eyes that I've never seen before. I _know_ that you've felt it, too. It's as plain as the sun. You've always been a good football player, Jordan, but I must say that your performance in this last game was, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely stunning. You don't know how it feels as a father to sit there in the stands, watching you, and hearing the crowds roar as you stop a breakaway receiver. Coach Garrick, in my hearing, called you his Last Line of Defense. You've impressed everyone, Jordan, myself included." He permits himself a small smile. "And you know very well that I'm a hard man to impress."
Jesus Christ! What's going on here? I'm searching and searching through my mental repository to find an appropriate response to being complimented by my Dad... and I'm just not finding one...
Eighteen Fucking Years.
I've finally done it. I've won. The struggle is over. At last.
My Dad is impressed. With me.
Frantically, my rational mind begins raising objections. Reminding me of all the bad blood that Dad and I have shared. Reminding me of the pain that he's caused me, caused all of us, mental and physical. Reminding me of a lifetime of lies and half-truths and betrayals.
My Dad is impressed. With me.
It's happening at exactly the wrong moment in my life. Right here, right now. The first semester of my Senior Year. When I'm feeling more alone and afraid and unnerved than I can ever remember feeling. An endless succession of painful choices and events. First Hyerson. Then Skippy. Then Stockmann. Then... Kim. I'm weak, beaten and woozy, and now, after all that, somebody is finally giving me a token to remind me of my fundamental worth. A pat on the back. The recognition that I've so sorely longed for my entire life. I know what I'm about to do, and I can't stop it for the world.
"Thanks." I whisper.
And, to the quiet horror of that one rational part of my mind that still remains, I find myself feeling _happy._ I can't help it. I try to struggle against it, but my consciousness has latched on to this, and latched on _hard._
The bastard _knew_ I was vulnerable, I desperately protest to myself. He could _sense_ it. This is just another carefully calculated move on his behalf to shape the world into his image.
My Dad is impressed. With me.
"You've earned it." He says.
And the struggle is over. Carefully, almost reverently, I place the lighter in my pocket. The mark of a favor that I've fought for so long to attain.
"There's another thing. The game you have coming up. Against Montrose...?"
"Homecoming." I nod.
"I've made some... arrangements. With some friends of mine. Tell me, Jay... Do you remember when we toured the University of Alabama this summer?"
"Yeah." I say, carefully. "Pretty campus."
"What did you think of the _school?_"
"Not as good a law program as most of the Ivy League ones." I say, automatically.
"You're only saying that because of me."
Brilliant, Dad. You've never given me any options other _than_ your opinion before. Of _course_ I'm saying that because of you.
Dad takes me by the hands and looks me straight in the eyes. "Tell me what _you_ feel."
A whole evening full of firsts, now. Briefly I wonder if I might be dreaming.
Dad motions me on, encouraging me to continue. I take a deep breath.
"I liked it there. A lot."
"Remember that game you took me to while we were there?"
"Crimson Tide over the Seminoles. 44-10."
"That was a hell of a football game."
Dad gazes off into space for a moment. "Good football program there, Alabama."
"Jordan." He says, returning his gaze to me. "Would you like to go there? For college, I mean?"
"Well, yes... but... I thought... we were holding out... to see if, like, Harvard was interested..."
"I know I said that, Jordan. I know." He smiles. "But U.A. has a _decent_ law school. Fairly well ranked. And when it comes to football... well. There's just no comparison."
I actually glance around, with the strange thought that there might be a hidden camera around or something. That this is all some elaborate prank on the part of my Dad, just to spite me. But he's looking as genuine as I've ever seen him...
"There'll be people there at the Montrose game, Jordan. I've invited them. They're... shall we say... interested in your athletic performance. Unfortunately, your _academic_ performance up until the past few weeks has been a bit lackluster. _But..._" He grins. "_But..._ the people I've invited are willing to... overlook a little bit of youthful indiscretion in the academic fields... if they feel that your skills are sufficient..."
I swallow. "People from U.A.?"
He nods. Once again, everything that I thought I knew about the world has utterly changed. My Dad is _looking out for me._ Our desires have finally become unified. I _can_ please him and, _at the same time_, do what I've always dreamed.
Something inside me rejoices. I _knew_ it. I knew that if I worked hard enough, eventually I could win him over. He's not _really_ a merciless bastard. Sure, he has his problems... well, let's face it, a _lot_ of problems. But no more than yourself. Hell, Jay, you would have let Skippy Martens _die_ rather than touch him. You're not in any position to be making moral judgements, here...
My Dad is impressed. With me. I keep coming back to these words. Over and over. I can hardly believe it.
"That's partially why I gave you the lighter today, Jordan. You're at the last furlong before Homecoming. I just wanted to let you know... I'm pulling for you."
He hugs me once around the shoulders and chucks me underneath the chin. And then, he gets up and leaves the room.
And with that simple little gesture, the last remaining bit of everything that I thought I knew about the world vanishes without a trace.
I remove the lighter from my pocket and run my thumb over the figure of the Hawk embossed on the side.
Then, in one smooth motion, as though I'd been doing this all my life, I flick open the case and spin the sparkwheel. I am rewarded by an ambient yellow flame, shifting gently in the imperceptible air-currents of the room.
I stare into that single flame for what feels like an eternity. The same fire seen by my father and my father's father and my father's father's father before him.
Everything I thought that I knew about the world is now gone.
And perhaps it's high time for something new to begin...
* * *
Quietly, I wander towards the field proper of Piergeron Stadium, passing as I go the life-sized bronze statue of Nile Piergeron, for whom the facility was named. Nile was one of the greatest running backs in High School Athletics in his time. Judging by the artist's rendition of him, Ol' Nile was not the handsomest of chaps; even in memorandum, the artist couldn't bring himself to beautify that face. But there is a sort of bluff cheerfulness about his countenance that suggests that this was a truly great man, body and soul. According to the plaque, Nile Piergeron had a broad, bright future ahead of him, with possible NFL contracts and everything. But he turned it all down, electing instead to serve Mom, Apple Pie, Major General Hyden-Pierce and the Goddamn American Way in the somewhat questionably- important Indochinese War. Sorry. Indochinese _Police Action._ Gotta make sure we know exactly _why_ we're slaughtering each other, don't we. Anyway, when they finally calculated the final death tolls of the catastrophic battle of Mormon Hill, his name was amongst the (thousands of) fallen. Edgerton mourned, and in a sort of tribute, the school's sports facility was completely re-built (again) and named in his honor.
The plaque does not say so, but in my opinion, Nile Piergeron was an incredibly stupid young man.
But look who's talking, right?
Anyway. Those last weeks before Homecoming saw a certain fierceness or intensity in me that I do not believe I had ever, or have since, seen. It was that old acetylene-torch feeling again, except for this time, I wasn't making random cuts. I was working for a purpose here. I was, in fact, fashioning a new world for myself out of the dregs and scraps of the old. Garrick ceased coaching me altogether, saying that I was obviously doing something right and he'd be damned if he was going to change it. People stopped wanting to scrimmage against me. The Mighty Brian Stockmann himself alone was willing to lead the fight, and I daresay I provided him with some of the most hideously frustrating defensive challenges that he'd ever faced. Practice after practice literally flew by, and I rapidly became disappointed at how frigging _short_ they all were. So I put in overtime, informing my family quite calmly that I had breezed through all of my Higher Maths homework over the lunch hour and would consequently be spending the evening "away." Drilling myself, of course. Weights. The Ropes. Sprints. Footwork Routines. Careful Stretches. And at each and every step, I was striking a blow towards the New World Order. Towards my goal and towards my dream.
And before every new practice, I would sit there in the locker room, flicking my father's beautiful antique-silver lighter over and over again, gazing meditatively into the warm yellow flame. I must have gone through a whole bottle of fluid. People would come up to me and ask me, jokingly, what the fuck I was doing. Without ever taking my eyes off that flame, I would quietly and simply inform them that I was Concentrating. This usually tended to make them uneasy, and they would mutter a few more half-hearted jokes and wander off. It didn't matter. By that time I had already forgotten about them. Day after day after day. Clearing a path for a changed world.
I only realize now how much like my father I was.
Not that I was the only one interested in changing the world, either. Principal Mandley was forced to resign after some rather nasty sexual-assault charges were brought against him. This came as a bit of a shock to everyone; frankly, from what I gather of the situation, this included Principal Mandley himself, who protested his innocence until the end. But the parents of the girl in question had tapes--albeit fuzzy and somewhat distorted ones. The case was thrown out of criminal court for lack of evidence, but it was still left up to the ethics committees and the school board to decide Mandley's future as Principal of Edgerton High. Some of the more cynical and / or enlightened members of the faculty pointed to Principal Mandley's strong Pro-SCABS stance and wondered if there might be something amiss here. But all doubts were removed by the persuasive testimony of my loving father during the countless ethics hearings that followed the accusation. The Board went so far as to laud my father for his "invaluable assistance in gleaning the truth of these sordid matters," and subsequently relied heavily on his advice in the selection of a "temporary" successor to Principal Mandley.
None of this mattered to me in the slightest. You could have told me that the entire teaching staff had been obliterated in a freak lightning storm during Inservice and I would have hardly batted an eye. I had other concerns.
All the week's festivities were lost on me. I think there might have been a dance. I didn't attend. I idly found myself wondering why somebody had strung crepe paper ribbons all over the cafeteria. One night, while I was doing five-part sprints on the jogging track, I noticed an unusual amount of sound and light coming from the direction of the Gymnasium. Upon investigating, I realized that I was in the process of missing my own school's Pep Rally. I actually shrugged, turned right around, and went back to my sprints. I wasn't interested in "Pep." I had something far deeper going.
And throughout it all, even though not technically conscious of anything but my training, I was still somehow dimly aware that all of this hoopla was leading up to something vast and wonderful. All of it, each and every bit, down to the individual streamer, was part and parcel of the real culmination of Homecoming week.
Where everyone who was anyone, students, faculty, local telecasters and agents from U.A. alike, would see me, in my glory, help Edgerton to claim that prize for which I had struggled so hard.
A win for the Home Team.
Incidentally, approximately a year later, one of my college roommates asked me what the word "hubris" meant in conjunction with the classical Greek tragedies. Something about that struck me as incredibly funny at the time, because I simply laughed and laughed and laughed, until he got pissed off and asked someone else.
I wouldn't have found it funny one year before.
Cautiously, I step forwards onto the carefully-manicured grass. There is complete and total silence, save for the odd cricket here and there. The grass feels soft under the soles of my shoes, and, without really thinking about it, I promptly kick them off and wiggle my toes in the well-tended lawn of the field.
And then, I walk to the center. And peer in all directions at this flat plane of grass that surrounds me, stretching off into the near distance on all sides.
There is an audible mechanico-electrical clunk as the fading sun finally stimulates a photocell somewhere to action, and as the evening grows more complete, the blindingly white Stadium Lamps on the towers above me hum into existence, one by one.
And as the lights come up and the world outside fades into darkness, pale and ghost-like wraiths of memory begin intruding upon my consciousness. Noises, sounds, carried to me across time by the crisp Autumn air. I can hear distant echoes of the Band. The faint, far-off roar of the crowds. And... the voice of Coach Garrick... calling my name...