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Short Story

I MET THE MAN we chose to call Satan in Myrtle Beach in the spring of 1986, and my only direct dealings with him took place over a period of less than twenty-four hours. The last time I saw his face by light of day he was clutching a can of warm Meister Brau on an empty athletic field that had been carved out of a forest of loblolly pine somewhere between the Intracoastal Waterway and the open Atlantic. Since then I have many times heard his name invoked and on occasion had cause to speak it myself, but of the man himself I have heard less than rumor. He came like a hapless thief in the night and he left us like a browbeaten pauper. Yet now it seems that much of the lost decade to come belonged to him. I don’t begrudge it, but I’m just as glad it’s over myself, and if he’s still living like that I have to worry about his health.

Lost decade aside, and notwithstanding that we never knew his real name, Satan’s impact at the time was pretty direct. He was my teammate, for one thing, and—I’m not making this up—it was Satan who made me stand up my prom date. Sort of. Sort of, because truth is I had a hand in it myself, and actually she had stood me up already, and it wasn’t even prom weekend, and I can’t really say I’m sure that what we were supposed to have that night was a date in the first place.

I was seventeen years old. These things mattered then—girls and sports. Not necessarily in that order.

§

When I first laid eyes on Satan I was a senior at the best public high school in suburban Columbia, where I had led the proverbial sheltered life. I can’t entirely lay the blame for this on my parents. In matters of discipline they were liberal to a fault, imposing no curfew and giving me leave to go pretty much wherever I wanted, my father even handing me the occasional beer, saying, “Now son, you’re getting to the age where you’ll be going out with your friends and having a few cool ones and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just if you get somewhere and y’all’ve had too much don’t get in a car. You give me a call and I’ll come pick y’all up.” Despite this, or more likely because of it, I had turned out to be about as much of a goody-goody as any mama could hope for. I had only been drunk once, during Governor’s School in Charleston the summer before, and was helplessly shy in my dealings with females. But that fall I had been pursued by a cute tennis player named Muffet—no lie, that was her name—who was on the rebound after her tennis-star boyfriend went off to college and dumped her. I was a starting football player and in all the AP classes and had a reputation for being nice, so I guess I looked like an ideal replacement. As for myself, I was astonished at my good fortune, took Muffet to the homecoming dance and met her at her locker between classes and enjoyed having a girlfriend for a couple of months.

Then one fine blustery day in late November, I walked her to the parking lot after school and she leaned up against her car, looking great, pert and flush-cheeked in her new denim jacket with the bright leaves swirling around her, and said, “We need to talk.”

“Okay.”

“Oh.” She sighed and looked out into space and down at the pavement and then up at me soulfully. “This is hard.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve been so good to me. But I’m worried. I think things. I think things are maybe getting too serious.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s not you.” She put a hand on my chest. “It’s me. It’s been a busy six months. And it’s been distracting. Since this summer. Here it is almost Christmas and I’ve hardly picked up a racket. This is hard to say.”

“Yeah?”

“I just don’t think. Brady, I just don’t think I can have a boyfriend right now. I’ve got to work on my tennis game.”

This was not quite as absurd as it sounds—she was good, good enough to get a college scholarship and maybe go pro—but it was a lie. By the time I drove home and sat in my room alone for awhile and then again the next day and the day after, I knew it. Muffet, despite being blonde and a junior and wearing pink sweaters, was more worldly-wise than I was. She had dated an older guy for three years and done God knows what with him out there behind the tennis courts (I had heard rumors from a friend, Mark Barkley, and, chivalrous as I perceived myself to be, couldn’t stop my feverish imagination from conjuring scenes of purest Muffet in sensual abandon, tennis skirt thrown up around her hips and whatnot, inventing worries which I finally confided to Barkley in somewhat censored form until he advised in his best faux-redneck intonation, Bo, I’d quit thinkin’ on it and work on gittin’ sum of that myself). She had been around the block, more or less, and I hadn’t, and she knew better than I that maybe we were really getting serious and that she was on the rebound after all and not ready for anything like that again. Still she was a nice girl and had of course said that we should be good friends, and I clung to this hoping for more and in early spring asked her to the prom, and she said yes until a few weeks later when she got invited to a major tournament being held prom weekend and said Sorry I can’t but that we should go out this Friday, the two of us, together with her friend and the friend’s boyfriend, and I said, Yeah, that sounds great.

In short, I was whipped. I was whipped and thought I was in love, dreaming of Muffet and me and our dogs and three children settled down on a nice sub-suburban place in the woods not too far from the multiplex cinema, so high in the sky just talking to her that I had forgotten I was supposed to be going to Myrtle Beach on Friday. I was going there to play rugby.

§

The sport was new to me. I had only been playing since February, when Barkley and Sean Mahan, two guys always on the lookout for new adventures in manhood, had talked me into signing up.

I had been hanging around with Barkley and Mahan only since the start of senior year, but they’d long been best buddies. This was true even though they seemed polar opposites in temperament. Barkley was a big guy who could bench-press a truck but worried a lot about his reputation and had unfortunately gained the reputation of being a pussy during a baseball practice the previous year when a peal of thunder caused him to drop his bat and sprint for the dugout. He never got over it, quit the team a month later. Mahan was five foot four and a solid 150 pounds and couldn’t have cared less about his reputation. He was a wrestler who lived for intensity of experience and threw himself so much into his training that his parents made him quit the team when his grades took a dive. Confined to his room, he brought his grades back up, though even there he read mostly for himself. Robert E. Howard, Loren Eisley, Carlos Castaneda—a weird combo of macho fantasy, high-minded nature writing, and pop mysticism. But in Mahan’s case it all added up. He was perpetually restless, itching even more than the rest of us for contact with some life that went beyond the pages of his books and the bounds of the necessarily small world he had been born into.

On a cold wet day at the beginning of the spring semester these two had been shooting hoops down at the local rec center when they came across a flyer: Olde Grey Rugby Football Club. New members welcome. Keg & Nails Pub, Bluff Road across from Williams-Brice Stadium. They latched onto it, talked it over, asked me to come along. By now I was done with high school sports myself, football like Muffet over since Thanksgiving, and like Mahan and Barkley I had all my college applications in the mail and nothing much to do except cruise through the next six months or so. On the appointed night the two of them and I and another guy named Derek loaded into Barkley’s 1978 Impala that he called the Surf Bitch and drove into Columbia, found the place and then, jacketless, rolling up our sleeves and trying to look buff, walked into the back room and presented ourselves to the men waiting there.

“What do we have here?” A face smiled through a mustache.

“Fresh meat.”

Ju-veniles, I’d say.”

One huge guy had circled behind us and now reemerged with a leering expression. “Jailbait!” Jeers from the crowd. A wolf whistle.

“A’right, a’right.” A tall man with an accent and a mop of iron-gray hair. Standing alongside the bar. “Lads.” A nod, the flick of ash from a cigarette. “You’ve come to play rugby?”

“We have,” Mahan answered. With his arms crossed, standing at the front of our band, he looked like something out of Tolkien, a dwarf or war-hobbit come to slay dragons.

“You’ve not played before?”

“No.”

“None of ye?”

“Played baseball. Three years.” Barkley’s arms were crossed too, hands massaging his bare biceps as if to inflate them.

“Baseball.” The man fingered his chin and knit his brow dramatically. “The lot of ye?”

The rest of us chimed in with our athletic résumés.

“And do ye get pissed?”

Laughter. We grinned dumbly, not sure what the right answer was. Then the tall man leaned behind the bar and, it being a weeknight and he apparently in good with the owner and not worried about law enforcement, yelled, “Four more!”

Buds in hand we selected a table, sat down and drank, tried to look impassive. The men laid out the spring schedule and the roster and ordered another round of drinks while they looked us over. The fellow with the mustache asked Barkley and me how much we could bench, offered cigarettes; Derek accepted. Mahan challenged the jailbait guy to an arm wrestling match and lost. We were looking pretty lame, I thought, but finally the tall man stood, looked us over one last time, and said “A’right, pups. You’re in.” He directed us to show up at the rec center with soccer cleats on Tuesday and we left to the nods and smiles of our new teammates.

They were men in their twenties and early thirties, for the most part, guys who had first played rugby in college and were still trying to stretch college as far into adulthood as they could. Most of them were local but the coach was the tall chain-smoking Englishman, Jim Cross, and one of the star runners was a thick-muscled black man named Benny who wore his hair in cornrows and came from Trinidad or Barbados or Belize, somewhere in the Caribbean. He was indigo dark and might have been a South Carolinian too but his voice was faintly British—not Cross’s strong working class limey but something softer, melodic, vaguely aristocratic. We had heard it on TV commercials and reggae albums but in person it seemed altogether new and pleasantly confusing. Aside from our one friend Pradeep whose father had come from Punjab to teach geosciences at the university, we had all lived in a world that at least seemed ethnically bipolar, a world where white was white and black was black and that was that.

The fact that our suburb was about ninety-percent white in a state that was over one-third black marked only one of the ways in which it had hidden the world away from us. Our parents had all come there with the best of intentions, mine from a small town down toward Augusta which had provided the perfect idyllic childhood but was surrounded by abysmally poor high schools. And if there was one thing my parents and those of my friends cared about deeply, it was education. Mahan’s dad was a doctor but my own and Barkley’s and many of the fathers of the boys we hung out with were themselves teachers of one sort or another. They were teachers who in settling where they did had, in an effort to provide their families with the best, sealed their children off from harsher realms of human experience, thereby failing to educate us fully, in the way that the best parents inevitably do.

We didn’t know all this yet but the following Tuesday we began to learn it. Football had been hard but always there were clear regulations in place, pads to protect you, adults in charge. Always you remained under the sway of the school and, ultimately, of your parents. The coaches professed to be Christians. Between bouts of screaming and verbal abuse, even the ones who only cared about winning at least made a pretense of seeking to teach larger life lessons. It all starts here. You quit on this field you’ll quit school, quit your job, quit your family. don’t be a quitter, son! Every game began with the Lord’s Prayer. Thursday practices were followed by meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes where girls like Muffet came to reflect on scripture and meet boys. At game time on Friday night, moms and cheerleaders watched from the sidelines.

Rugby was going to school us in something altogether different. Here we were on our own, men (we hoped) among men. There were no pads, no helmets, though we learned quickly that what hurt most was not so much the rapid intermittent contact as the continuous running. From the very first practice it was clear: rugby was going to be an endurance test. And you had to think on your feet. There were no timeouts, no plays coming in from the sidelines. You had to learn to feel the rhythm of the game and to read the movements of the men around you or risk getting run over by your own teammates. Lastly, no one pretended to be teaching morals. Cross and most of the players were proudly profane both on and off the field, and when they talked about winning it wasn’t for family or Jesus but for the sake of winning. You joined the team to have a good time and drank the night before and then after, but when game time itself came you were here to work, to fight and to endure and to beat the other man down.

At practice Cross stalked the edge of our drills, smoking and cursing and giving his pups no special attention but yelling mercilessly when we dropped the ball or slowed our pace, subjecting us to a barrage of the queen’s English so dominated by rugby-speak and profanity that it took us several weeks to determine which was which.

“Ballocks! Mahan, put your wee arse back at the head of the queue! If you pups don’t start rucking like your bums are a’fire we’ll scrum until this pitch looks like a bloody bog!”

“Mahan.” I was blowing wind alongside him and Barkley and Derek, all four of us bent double and clutching our knees. “Are ballocks. What I think they are?”

“I don’t. Rucking. Know. But I’m ready to go back. To getting pissed. Myself.”

Within a few weeks it was time for the first match. As expected, the older players filled the A side, but Cross assigned us spots on the B and put us in for a few minutes at the end. Afterward we all drank Busch beer out of a cooler. The A side players grabbed us around our necks, cuffed us on our backs. Cross briefly smiled and we knew that we were okay.

By the time the Myrtle Beach match showed up on the schedule we had six weeks’ experience, had played two or three matches in Columbia. Mahan and I had even secured permission from our parents to make one road trip down to Savannah for a Saint Patrick’s Day tournament. In fact we had gotten lost and showed up just as the match was ending, but we went to the team party afterward, then at twilight down to River Street where we drank green beer and met one of the Olde Grey players, a bank manager named Dave, actively recruiting a “rugby queen” on whom to hang the team colors. He ended up draping his arm around a lass with a pretty face on top and ample girth beneath whom he later claimed to have deflowered, if that is indeed the proper word for it, on the rugby pitch itself sometime after midnight. As for the two pups, we got back in Mahan’s jeep and, speculating on the years to come, drove around Savannah listening to the Eagles’ greatest hits over and over again—Take it to the limit one more time Take it to the limit one more time Take it to the limit one more time—then up Highway 17 and down the back roads to Hilton Head where we pulled the car to the far side of a beachfront hotel’s parking lot. There we slept fitfully for an hour before we heard the mutterings of passersby, stargazers come with telescope and camera to record the passing of Halley’s Comet, which we had forgotten was due this night. We rose to witness and saw the faint mark drawn as if by some unseen hand among the wheeling stars over the broad Atlantic. A horizon already bright with the coming dawn. Weary, we dozed in lounge chairs by the hotel pool, then bought breakfast and drove home unmindful of the portents of the night, though doubtless Satan himself watched beneath that common sky, already bound toward the place where we would rendezvous.

§

It had already been established that there would be no B side in Myrtle Beach. Many of the older members could not make the trip, and all the rest of us, even the pups, were needed just to make a full side of fifteen. I was whipped and had a date with Muffet the night before, but I knew I could not back out.

At school the next day I convened a hasty conference with the pups, and a plan was made. Mahan and Derek would drive down Friday evening with the team to the house they had rented a block or two from the ocean. Barkley, who likewise had sudden romantic commitments, would wait and depart Columbia with me shortly after midnight (Muffet’s curfew). He, like the rest of us no lady’s man, had recently acquired a hot little number and in this glorious senior springtime was trying to keep his luck running, to strike while the iron is hot, if you will, as he put it. She was a ninth-grader, though you wouldn’t have known it from looking at her.

So come Friday evening Barkley and I met for tepid Schaefer Lights—these were bad beer days—confirmed our plan, and went on our respective dates, I chastely with Muffet and her friend-chaperones and Barkley somewhat less so with his nubile and presumably naïve youngling. Thinking of him with mild envy (All right, bo, he’d smirked as we split up, let’s git sum!) and expecting a hearty handshake myself, I delivered Muffet to her door at 11:50 and was surprised when she turned and gave me a long slow hug.

“Brady.”

“Yes.”

“You’re such a good friend.”

“Huh.”

“Loyal. Reliable. Gentle.”

I was looking over her shoulder at the huge cat primping itself in her window. The beast was fat, neutered, a piece of fluff.

“I’m so sorry about the prom. Things are just so busy now. Tournaments start up next week. Last home match tomorrow.”

“Yeah.”

“Right here in town,” she said, leaning back now and smiling at me and stating the obvious. “Open to the public. Five o’clock. My dad’ll take us all out for dinner after.”

“Yeah?” Was this an invitation? I hadn’t been to any of her spring matches.

“Will you call me tomorrow?”

“Sure.” I paused. “Late. After four.”

“I’ll be just sitting around getting nervous. A friendly voice would help!” A peck on the cheek. “Or a friendly face.” Walking in the door, looking back, beaming. “Thanks for everything!” The cat jumped down to greet her. As she picked it up and waved through the window, I raised a hand and the cat looked at me and suddenly I knew that I hated it.

Muffet had no idea what I was about to do. I had never told her, had never even told my parents, much about Olde Grey at all. Initially it had half-occurred to me that the rugby thing might impress her, but over the intervening months the game and the team had become something else, something all my own, an opening onto a future world of freedom in which she had no place. And the truth is, whipped as I was, at least part of me was already tired of waiting for her to come around, tired even of the thought of having her. I had felt it that night on the date. Watching her friend and the longtime boyfriend who accompanied us, he opening doors for her and she not noticing and the two of them anticipating one another’s thoughts at the dinner table—it all looked pretty dull. The truth is, hug and all, that night leaving Muffet’s door I was glad to walk back down the tree-lined drive alone and look up at the cold white moon and put the keys in the ignition.

I drove to Barkley’s and threw my backpack into the Surf Bitch and we were off.

§

Up I-20 with its sparse midnight truckers past lightless fields and exit ramps, terse signs for Lugoff and Boykin and other dying farm towns pulsing silver-green as we pass. An hour or more to the lights of Florence. Wheeling north onto 95, traffic thicker now even at this hour, past the neon Waffle House signs and truck stops and billboards every five miles for South of the Border with its cartoon Mexican promising siesta and fiesta for all. Southeast of nowhere we mount a dim overpass and turn right toward the sea. An alleged shortcut. Two hours more down the back roads, pine forest and swamp, bugs innumerable conjured out of the gloom and riding the beam of our headlights down to their doom, smacking and begoring the glass before us. The true darkness here regnant these past three hundred years as in eons previous, save for the solitary streetlights at now untrodden junctions and alongside boarded roadside stands that in the summers sell fireworks. I drive, a weedy knot of Red Man tucked jaw-side to fend off sleep, Barkley sipping Schaefer and a little drunk, hinting at various indiscretions with his paramour and asking me to stop every half hour along these ill-lit Horry County byways so that he might piss from low bridges and into assorted swamps and creeks and rivulets, the Waccamaw and the Lynches and the Black, shallow serpent-ridden streams and fetid log-choked ditches and sundry other tributaries whose confluence marks the Great Pee Dee River on its course down to the sea.

The near-circled moon is low in the sky when, joining the main road through Conway and passing the final run of billboards along 17, we navigate the last miles of oceanside sprawl, an asphalted littoral strewn with salt-worn eateries and gas stations and strip malls, putt-putt and arcades and beachwear shops, the detritus of profit-minded human endeavor. On a quiet street of low-slung houses a stone’s throw from the line of high hotels that marks the sea, we park the car and open a door and he is there.

He half stands, half crouches above the table, shirtless and long-haired and dog-wet at the reeking center of a circle of onlookers. He is slim and bleeding slightly at the temple and at his waist. Atop a pile of mangled aluminum cans lies the heap of tattered rags that was once his shirt. He sways easily from left to right and through broken brown-stained teeth he says:

“Break a fuckin’ bottle over my haid.”

The faces surrounding him have become those of our teammates—yes, we are at the right place—and from their ranks slowly rises Dave the deflowerer. From a grocery bag he produces a gallon can of V8. The figure on whom all eyes are turned lays his torso on the table as upon an altar, and Dave gingerly places one end of the can on the prostrate man’s head then, clasping his hands together, begins to bear down until the victim emits a low steady groan that becomes a sudden roar. Lurching upright, he slaps the can away not in self-defense but in enraged frustration, standing now and gripping the table so that the veins pop out on his mottled brow and white-scarred forearms and across his tattooed blue chest. The voice that issues forth is now a harrowing shriek.

“Ah told you to break a fuckin’ bottle over my haaaid!”

I turn to Barkley. I see a warier version of that same stupefaction which marks the faces of those around us, their cigars extinguished and beer cans half-empty and flap-brimmed outback hats askew, as though the common night’s drinking they had anticipated has been interrupted by a gunshot or knifing or some larger calamity. But there is only the figure now before them, and, looking at the bone-thin stranger where he seethes and spits and laughs like a jackal amid the wet tangles of his dirty yellow and now mildly blood-flecked hair, Gregg Allman after a riot or a car wreck, I feel in myself the onset of the awe that I see on their faces. I’ve just been handed a whiskey, but otherwise sober I also feel something else. Contemplating these sudden strangers, I wonder where in their midst I might find a place to rest, or whether such a place waits for me at all. Wanting some solace, I know where it waits, and I turn up my drink and drain it.

§

“Dude,” Barkley said, his eyes mirroring and magnifying the muted unease that likely marked mine, “where did Satan here come from?”

“Hell if I know.”

“Hell if I’m staying with him. Let’s get out of here.”

The others had hardly taken notice of us and were in fact seeking a likely bottle—“thin glass, something thin”—when Barkley and I did a quick tour of the house and found Mahan and Derek passed out in a walk-in closet. We tried to drag them awake, but reeking of tequila they moaned and fought us back, and with the sounds of glass shattering in the main room now we had to go somewhere, and Barkley said, “Let’s surf.”

He and Derek and Mahan were on some kind of surf kick, surfing having taken twenty years to reach South Carolina, and I wasn’t, but if we were going to be awake, a swim sounded pretty good to me. The waning night was still warm when Barkley got his board off the Bitch and we trotted down the hard-surfaced street. Crossing the wide strand we dove into the bath-cool sea and, bobbing heads up, surveyed the moonlit water, the tall dark hotels and condos of Ocean Boulevard behind us and a great wooden pier stretching toward the horizon alongside. Barkley straddled his board and did dull battle with the paltry South Atlantic waves, then finally ditched it and joined me riding them in without accoutrement, the two of us waiting where they crested, then swimming full-blown until the sudden rush of the breaking sea caught us up under our chests, carried us in its final surge to land where we lay beached, washed clean and wide awake now, in the soft wet sand.

Barkley was on some kind of high. He ran circles on the beach and jumped in and out of the surf and was near howling at the moon, feeling a sudden rush of predawn energy. I felt it too. He was going on about his girl and what might happen with her, and I guess that was all testosterone but finally there was more to it than that, more to it for both of us. We felt free. It was as simple as that. Here on our own with our parental schooling near an end, the glorious summer and distant college years before us—even Muffet and whatever half-articulated chance I might have of seeing her tomorrow forgotten—we felt free as we never had in our young lives before. Here and now with the open ocean before us and morning not yet begun, we felt that anything might happen.

§

When morning began, we hadn’t gotten any sleep. We had brought towels down to doze on the beach but found we couldn’t. The wind gradually picked up and with it the sand, and then from the far edge of the sea came a dim glow. Strings of pelicans passed overhead. Finally I sat up and the leading edge of the sun faced me, half emerged from the ocean deep.

We went to a small restaurant on the pier for breakfast. Eggs, grits, bacon, cold iced tea. There was sand in my crotch and ears. My eggs trembled at the end of my fork and I said, “Maybe we should have tried to crash at the house.”

“What, so Satan could break a fucking bottle over our heads?” Barkley said. “Or maybe just knife us in the back.” He took a long swig of tea. “I mean, did you see his arms? Needle marks. Tracks, whatever. Junkie. Serious drugs, I’m saying. And all the tattoos?”

“Yeah.”

“Skulls. Snakes. Swastika. Did I see a swastika?” He wolfed down a heaping spoonful of grits. “Satan. I don’t know what name he’s going by but that’s who he is.”

Opening the house door with mild trepidation we found not a murder scene but something close to it, Olde Grey players passed out everywhere, on couches and chairs and floors, in various poses of pain. A stench of alcohol and smoke. I thought I saw Satan’s golden locks protruding from the bathroom door, but we quickly found Mahan and Derek, already stirring, and retreated to the pier to confer. Over his own breakfast Mahan, fortified now, flashed a grin and in high style told us what we needed to know.

It had come to pass that caravanning up I-20 the afternoon previous, some thoughtful rucker, perhaps trained in accountancy, had done the simple arithmetic and realized that, pups and all, the Olde Grey contingent would number only fourteen at Myrtle Beach and thus fall one short of a full side. Said mathematician, riding in the lead car where distilled spirits were already flowing in abundance, had just begun to mull over this predicament with his cohort when providentially, as it were, a barefoot figure appeared roadside with ratty knapsack in one hand and thumb extended from the other. The caravan stopped and communications were established, conditions laid down: the mysterious stranger to receive a ride beachward in exchange for services rendered on the field the day following. The newcomer, clambering in between two oversized forwards, graciously accepted this offer and the beverage proffered with it, and the festivities of the evening had commenced.

Barkley and I sat dumbfounded. Satan was a hitchhiker who had been drafted to play rugby. And what we had walked in on last night was the tail end of his rigorous and largely self-designed orientation session.

We laughed until it hurt, but when we stopped laughing it still hurt. All four of us. Mahan and Derek hadn’t had much more sleep than Barkley and I, and they’d had a lot more to drink. We all looked at the clock. It was just after nine, and the match was scheduled to begin at eleven.

Outside it was warming already. The breeze felt good, and we sat down on the beach until, after Mahan had fetched their boards and a cooler, Derek decided to make a makeshift Bloody Mary and an announcement: “Guys, I’m going to puke all over that field today.” There was a surf show down toward Litchfield this afternoon, he said. “Maybe we should just pack up and head there.” He took a drink. “Or maybe just head back home.” Mahan resisted, and Barkley and I were silent, thinking about the girls waiting for us in Columbia now, and Derek kept on. “There just isn’t any sense in playing. We won’t be any good to anybody anyhow.”

An hour later we had the Surf Bitch down by the beach and were milling about it somewhat shamefaced, contemplating our possible getaway, when a carload of our elders pulled up. “Pups!” It was Jim Cross, cold sober, just come in this morning from Columbia with Benny. “Where the bloody hell ha’ you been? Queue up an’ follow us!”

And now we had to pay.

§

Our opponents were waiting for us on the pitch, kicking balls, strapping on cleats, stretching their legs in the near-noon sun. The day was hot and the place without wind, a dry field of sand and dust held down by a thin layer of ragged crabgrass and encircled by a low wall of scrub pine. It was allegedly some kind of city park, and in fact not far from the asphalt and kitsch of Ocean Boulevard, but it felt like another world altogether.

Our teammates, too, seemed somehow transformed. They were young accountants and bank managers and lawyers, the men who might soon be our bosses, and though they had to have hurt as badly as we did, they had lived on their own for a time and knew something about self-discipline and knew what it would take to win. Last night they had been all fun and games but now they were deadly serious, taskmasters dragging us off to work. And it was going to be work. The other team was from Knoxville and had foregone a team party the night before to drive down at four this morning, not the easiest schedule but one that made them much better-rested than we. Looking at them, fresh and ready and already sensing our weakness, I knew it. This match was going to be hell.

With the Prince of Darkness on our side, hell might not have seemed the worst predicament, but Satan, still shirtless, was in the last car to arrive, showing up when the rest of us were already on the pitch and the match about to commence. I hardly had time to glance at him donning a gray jersey and cleats from the team duffel before the ball was in motion, and soon after I began to suspect that Satan struck no fear in the hearts of our opponents because they were in fact his minions. They were mean sons of bitches come down from Appalachia to put a whooping on us, and with our fatigue and dehydration in evidence and the sun itself showing no sign of mercy, they smelled blood and piled it on all the more.

§

The match itself is a blur, a nightmare of relentless pain. Mahan, who always came at opponents like an angry fire hydrant and inevitably pissed off large people, receives a mild concussion and has to be carried from the field so that, Satan and all, we are down to fourteen again. Somebody has to replace Sean as hooker and I don’t want the job but get it. This means I am the lead player fighting for the ball every time there is a scrum. To form a scrum, the hooker locks his arms around two teammates who in turn lock their arms around other forwards who are backed and sided by others, eight men altogether, who, half-kneeling, ram themselves into the opposing team’s mirror formation so that from above the whole thing probably looks like two crabs mating if crabs mate face to face which they probably don’t. The opposing hookers stand shoulder to shoulder, their heads jammed facedown into a small cave of other heads and knees and cleats, waiting for the scrum-half to toss the ball in so they can scramble for it with their feet. So I find myself locked cheek to cheek in dubious battle with the Tennessee captain, a man who looks like Mahan’s evil twin, but older, a slightly taller and leaner redheaded troll who has about three days’ thickness of beard—a beard he has grown intentionally, I soon realize, because jammed alongside me in the scrum’s dark middle he steadily rakes his sharp whiskers all along the naked sweating skin of my cheek and ear.

I play my hardest but still the match seems less a matter of winning or losing than of surviving or not. We win a scrum or two, not so much on my abilities as on the strength of my teammates, unseen presences urging me forward in the darkness, moving my feet atop the ball. Then we are loose and on the run again, exhausted but somehow still in motion. In the midst of all this pain our elder taskmasters have dragged us into, I catch a glimpse of Satan. He is a figure much diminished. He hugs the edge of the pitch and avoids the scrum and other players and the ball itself. His forehead is blotched red from the impact of glass and aluminum, and by light of day he looks smaller and older and much less frightening, a figure perhaps worthy of pity. At last the ball is kicked straight to where he stands alone and, game enough now or embarrassed not to, the lean figure stoops to the ball and runs with it, lank yellow hair trailing in his wake. A chorus of howls rises up across the pitch and a swarm of bodies converges on him and he is buried. When everyone else gets up to run again, he stays down.

§

Somehow we won. Even as Satan was carried from the pitch, Mahan returned and, emerging from a scrum, tossed the ball to Benny, one of the few sober among us, who ran in the final try, plowing through a line of Tennesseans and their flame-haired captain with Barkley blocking alongside. And suddenly, inexplicably, it seemed we had been vindicated. We still felt like hell but somehow we had won and it was over.

It was over, and when the team party began pitch-side, Satan sat bruised and bleeding and stooped in the shadow of big Jim Cross, bumming cigarettes and clutching his ribs and saying Hail. Thet was pritticool and Yeah, mebbe ah could play serious sometime. But there was a note of muted sadness in his voice, as if he knew that his usefulness was at an end, and in fact after the team fed him beers from their coolers for an hour and presented him with a bottle of cheap scotch, Dave and two others suddenly rose and stripped the jersey from his back and the shoes from his feet and piled into their car and left. Soon other cars were starting up too, and as we watched Satan hoist his one bag and his last smoke and limp toward the brick restrooms at the edge of the field, we realized we were the last ones there.

Mothers and children had gathered at a swing set in the distance, eyeing us warily. Still we lingered another half hour, enjoying the high that the victory and the drink were giving us, but Barkley had already started talking about the girl waiting for him and I recalled Muffet for the first time in what seemed like a week and my body was already beginning to clamor for bed. It was time to go.

Trashing our last empty beer cans we walked together to the men’s room, and it wasn’t until after Mahan and Derek had finished and gone that Barkley and I heard someone cough.

Moving toward the sinks I saw a stall door listing half open. There Satan sat not on but alongside the toilet, one arm curled tight and fingers dug into his ribcage, the other dragging the floor and clutching at the half-empty bottle that stood there. His bruised forehead rested against the wall, and as I turned on the cold water I saw in the mirror the eyes flutter red and the lips move.

“He’p me.”

Barkley stood alongside me and washed his hands and did not look up.

“He’p me. Jesus. He’p me.”

We walked out into the hazy afternoon heat, turning our eyes from the bright sun, and halfway to the car Barkley paused to kick the dirt. “Least he’s got something left to kill the pain,” he said, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “Wish I did. Fucking-A. It’s high time we got back home.”

When we did, after three hours not sleeping in the hot car and the drink wearing off and the hurt setting in, I collapsed into bed at four-thirty in the afternoon. There, Muffetless and without having even picked up the phone, I slept until the next morning and in dreams and half-waking saw, not Satan, but her and that damned cat, leading me on. When I opened my eyes in the morning light somehow I knew all at once that I had been used. For months now. Loyal. Reliable. Gentle. What a load of shit.

But I had not called her, after all, and lying there alone with my family gone to church now I felt a sudden rush of pride. Because I’d learned something. When you’re an adult, you really don’t have to worry too much about other people. You don’t have to commit yourself to looking after them. You can just use them when it’s convenient for you and be done. Yes, I’ve learned something, it seemed, something they hadn’t taught me in school.

§

Like I said before: Satan’s appearance in the spring of our senior year was no accident, for it seems now that much of the decade to come belonged to him. But I don’t want to break a bottle over the man’s head, figuratively speaking. Truth is, I can’t draw a lesson here quite so clear as the one my football coaches might have preferred. For I’ve since come to realize that, things being what they are, our fifteenth man was himself surely in thrall to something within or beyond that bent him not so much to seek our destruction as to invite us to participate in his own—some force that likewise made us give him, a poor homeless guy, a name better suited to Itself, he less its avatar than mere harbinger or whipping boy. Some force that, given leave, would break us worse than we had him.

Not long after Satan’s appearance Barkley finally got his ninth grader fully undressed, and was immediately caught with her on the couch by his dad peering in at the door. She bolted out a window, naked, Barkley cursing his progenitor and scooping up a pair of shorts, sprinting out the back door and chasing his prize deep into the April night. Mahan, vaguely dissatisfied with the world as he found it and therefore already something of a habitual drunkard, developed a latent vandalistic bent involving timely discharge of bodily fluids. I myself gave up on Muffet and after graduation returned to Myrtle Beach and drank too much and rolled around in the sand with some other girl there and then another time back home with Derek’s estranged girlfriend behind the local Methodist church and I knew damn well that I did not love either one of them. That was the beginning of a decade that now seems spent half in an alcoholic haze and half learning how to navigate the new world around us, having a good time at first but also getting the crap knocked out of us by young manhood with its jobs and its women and its self-absorbed indignities, working among strangers and sometimes shacking up with them, using and being used but gradually figuring out how not to live and at least some of us, through little merit of our own and maybe even in spite of ourselves, coming out of it better than before.

It was the decade when we all went to college and into our twenties. A decade spent on the road and marked with little lasting succor until some of us, giving it, received it, too. Muffet won a scholarship but never made it as a pro, got hooked on antidepressants for a while back before they got popular, ended up a paralegal and is happily married now in Spartanburg or so I have heard. Derek went to Atlanta and developed a coke habit before he finished college, worked as a stockbroker and bought a BMW and almost proposed to an older, richer woman before he was diagnosed with bone cancer, lost a leg and a hip, almost died gripping a morphine pump with his mother beside him, somehow recovered, and moved in with his mom to stay. Barkley went to school in Maryland, didn’t make the baseball team, subbed as a male cheerleader, followed some girl to New York hoping to find work as a model (Barkley! not the girl), got a job in a gym, found another girl, dropped a dumbbell on his face while lifting under the influence, ended up with a glass eye and a nasty scar, broke up and came back south and worked as a security guard and was busted selling steroids to school kids before being released on probation and moving into an apartment a few blocks from his parents, started college again, working nights as a bouncer now, overweight, just entered alcohol counseling at his father’s behest. Mahan went to Alabama and in those college years was twice arrested for public drunkenness and once thrown out of a bar in New Orleans for biting a patron on the ass, worked landscaping on the Gulf Coast and later with a crew of Mexican immigrants in Utah, went to Dublin and did construction work and played rugby and shared a room with a recovering heroin addict, joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, moved to Alaska running a homeless shelter, some kind of spiritual quest, lived with the wrong woman and broke up and moved to Seattle and found the right one and married her and has two sons now and works for a church, no joke, in Maine. I went off to the Midwest and drank too much and was told that Evil is the privation of Good and then did four lonely years in the military and drank too much in Hawaii and ports abroad and three years in journalism school and drank a little less, penniless, covering weddings and funerals and high-school sports and teaching summer school at a medium-security youth correctional facility in San Saba County Texas where at least a few of them, I like to think, came out with more than they had going in, and despite my ignorance and worst intentions find myself well wed now—my wife an ER nurse accustomed to dealing with wrecks—and a father to three, apparently respectable, in Virginia.

We are all at home now, in one way or another. I wish I could say the same for Satan but I’m not sure I can. The only place I know to look for him is where I saw him last, and now and then when the years come upon me unawares I do catch a glimpse of him there—early in the morning when I’m shaving or, more often, late on a weekend night, when I’ve had just a drink or two and my wife’s already gone to bed. As I climb in beside her sometimes she wakes and asks what I’m thinking and having heard the story before still she asks me to tell it again, not altogether glad to hear of old girlfriends and the like but laughing at the right places and then when the telling is done sits up in bed and looking straight at me, bright-eyed, puts a hand on my chest and says, “You just left him there?”

And then together—parental, concerned, feeling somehow responsible now—we turn to the figure who’s shown back up at our door. There he stands, hungover and beaten and alone, much diminished by the years, and, unsure what to do with him now that he’s been called to mind, we walk, half-smiling, to the threshold, where we greet him and wish him well.


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