This is a novella, and we're just about to the end of it, so let me say 'thank you' to those who have read and made comments. I didn't post most of the comments since they were from folks I know and they felt personal. I did contact them directly and personally, and here I'm saying a public thank you.
Let me remind you of the disclaimer I posted very early in this process. If you don't remember it, scroll down to the foreword.
AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
WILLIAM NATHAN MCCASKILL
A novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 Chris Sherrill
I was still angry with God. It was a condition I would know at various times in my life, but it was helpful to get my feelings out even though I didn’t get an answer and it didn’t make the issue go away. Mom’s words were helpful; her acceptance was more helpful. The sharpest edge of the anger slowly began to be blunted.There were consequences I never could have foreseen. Word gets out and begins to be twisted from the first moment. Two weeks before school started, on the first day of football practice, Amy Gooden marched up to me with her posse and slapped my face.
“I can’t believe I was dating a boy who was screwing a nigger. You make me feel dirty.”
“You are dirty,” I said.
Her eyes got as big as saucers.
“You’re dirty if you believed a lie without even trying to learn the truth.”
“What is the truth?”
“The truth is I never had sex with that girl. We were friends.”
Her eyes narrowed. I never looked away. A little crowd was gathering around us.
“You think I’m stupid? Whites aren’t friends with niggers. You had to be screwing her.”
“You’re wrong, but you know what, I don’t even care.”
I turned to walk away.
“Don’t you turn your back and walk away from me, Billy McCaskill!”
I kept on walking. I heard whispered ‘nigger lover’ but I didn’t look to see who it was. I was turning the other cheek. Mama would be proud.
The first week of practice was conditioning. I was in better condition than most so it was a good tune-up. In the showers after practice, I found myself alone and still heard the whispers. It was getting harder and harder to turn the other cheek. The second week we put on pads and started running plays. I was tight end on offensive and right linebacker on defense. I figured it was my imagination that the coach was running all his plays at me. It wasn’t my imagination that the other boys were piling on, and I felt more than one unsigned punch in the pile.
I swallowed it. It was against my nature, but I had taxed my poor mama enough, so I swallowed it. But enough is enough. I was coming out of the shower when Buster McQuiston, the quarterback, looked at me with a stupid grin. Buster was solid but not the biggest boy on the squad. He was the biggest talker.
“Say, McCaskill, some of the boys were wondering what it’s like to split a black oak.”
“Couldn’t say,” I replied, drying my hair.
“Turn around here and let us see if that thing has turned black yet.”
“You might not want to be paying quite so much attention to my dick, Buster. You know how people talk.”
“You son of a bitch.”
I turned to see Buster and five others squaring up, six feet away.
“I’m going to say this one time just for the record,” I said. “I never had sex with that girl. Now, that can be the end of it, or we can dance, one at a time or all at once, your choice. Just keep in mind that if you gang up and beat my ass, you’d better kill me because I will find you and beat your asses one by one.”
Sometimes you get yourself into a mess of shit and don’t know how to step out of it. That’s what was going on with my teammates. They didn’t want to fight me but they didn’t want to let me back them down. It’s that pecking order thing again.
The coach busted through the door.
“What’s going on here?” he roared.
“Nothing, Coach,” Buster said.
The boys began to drift away to their lockers. The coach looked around.
“McCaskill, get dressed and come to my office.”
Five minutes later I was in front of his desk.
“Don’t need trouble makers on my team, McCaskill,” he announced.
“I haven’t caused trouble, Coach.”
“What was that in there a minute ago?”
“I don’t know, Coach. All I saw was a bunch of guys getting dressed to go home.”
“Don’t smart mouth me, McCaskill.”
“Didn’t intended it that way at all, Coach.”
He studied me with hard eyes.
“You think you’re some big shot because you’re screwing some nigger whore?”
I was suddenly so angry that it made me shake to hold it in.
“Your information is incorrect, sir,” I said through gritted teeth.
“I know what I’ve heard,” he grunted.
“What you heard was a lie, and frankly I’m tired of being falsely accused.”
“You’re a haughty bastard. Somebody’s liable to take you down a notch.”
“Yes, sir. Any time.”
He looked at me hard.
“Was that comment aimed at me?”
“No, sir. Was your comment aimed at me?”
“Get out of my office, McCaskill.”
I guess the coach decided the notch take down would be done by my teammates, but you get to be rough in football; that’s what I liked about it. The punch or knee you take in a pileup will be returned with interest in the next, and the next.
Buster McQuiston continued to make little snide comments. I let them pass. Early in our first game, he called a quarterback option to my side. The defensive lineman opposite me was a big guy. I let him beat me. He slammed Buster to the ground.
“Damn, McCaskill,” he spat. “Can’t you hold your damned block?”
“I’ll hold my damned block when you hold your damned tongue.”
The crap began to subside, and I didn’t even have to get in a fight.
The year passed without another incident. The boys, coaches and teachers interacted with me as necessary. The girls barely acknowledged me. I was pushed to the bottom of the social ladder. I survived. I still had their respect. People still moved out of my way in the hall. And after awhile, I didn’t care anymore because I started dating a girl from another school.Amanda Talmadge lived in the next county over, across the river. In late autumn, her family began to attend Ebenezer and she sent me signals and before Christmas, we were dating. Mom and dad liked the fact that I was dating a girl from church. Amanda was a paradox. In public she was the modest, obedient daughter. In private she was hungry for physical contact. We made out for hours at a time in my car. I never got past third base, or second. I get confused. I never hit a home run with her, but there was a lot of heavy petting.
After dropping her off about midnight, I got into the habit of stopping at Smith’s Truck Stop on 65 on my way home. I think it was the only 24 hour establishment in the county at the time. Highway 65 was a busy north/south corridor, and it was the only truck stop for twenty-five miles in either direction, so there were always truckers there gassing up their rigs, eating and drinking coffee. There was also this good looking waitress who had a really nice smile and very nice body. All the truckers hit on her.
I remember the first time we met. She came to my table and smiled.
“What can I get you? Oh, my name’s Kate.”
She pointed at the little name tag above her right breast.
“Hello, Kate.” I pointed at the same spot on my chest. “My name’s… Oh my god. I’ve lost my name.”
She laughed. She had a nice laugh.
“Well, ohmygod, what can I get you?”
The next time I stopped by, she smiled and said, “ohmygod is back.”
The men at the counter looked quizzically between us while we laughed.
“What’ll you have, Billy?”
“How did you know my name?”
“I asked,” she said. “Carl, the owner, knows your family. Seems like everybody around here knows everybody else.”
I came to look forward to stopping and seeing Kate. She always smiled when I came in and asked about school and things. I came to find out that her husband had been killed in Korea in 1952 and that she had a ten year old son.
“You don’t look old enough to have a ten year old,” I said.
She blushed just a little. “Flattery will get you everywhere, young sir.”
“Thank you. What’ll you have?”
In February Amanda’s folks decided they didn’t like Ebenezer and went elsewhere. I kept dating Amanda and stopping at the diner to see Kate. In early March I was there when a guy came in and started hassling Kate. I didn’t like it, but she wasn’t my girlfriend or anything so I just sat at the counter and drank my Coke.“Leave me alone, Mark.”
“You can’t break up with me, Kate. I won’t let you.”
Carl, the owner came around the corner.
“I’ve told you not to bring your domestic problems in here!”
“Back off, fat man,” Mark barked.
Carl stopped and looked defeated.
“You’re going to get me fired. Get out of here and leave me alone. I told you I don’t want to see you again, and that’s that.”
“Bitch!” he said and slapped her.
“I’m calling the cops,” Carl said hurrying to the phone.
I was up by that point.
“It don’t take much of a man to hit a woman, Mark.”
He looked at me hard. “Do I know you, punk? I don’t know you. Stay outta this unless you want me to teach you to respect your elders.”
“Mark, he didn’t mean anything. He’s just a kid. Leave him out of it.”
“Why’re you taking up for him? He the one you leaving me for? You leaving me for a snotty nosed punk?”
He raised his hand to slap her. I stepped between them.
“Take it outside!” Carl called coming around the counter with a baseball bat. “I won’t have you brawling in my place!”
Sometimes you have to fight. I followed him out. Two other guys who were standing up against a car saw us and came forward. Shit. Now I had three.
“Billy, walk away. It’s not your fight,” Kate said.
As I turned to say something to her Mark cold-cocked me, flush on the jaw, made me bite my tongue. My knees wobbled for a moment. Mark had already started crowing but he stopped when I didn’t go down. The calm cold took over me.
“You beat up women and hit men when they aren’t looking. You’re a real man, Mark. Step on up and let’s dance. You fellows can come on in any time.”
Mark rushed me, a tackling move. I danced back and snapped his head back with a solid left jab then got in a quick right to the side of his head and another left to his face. The man on my right rushed me. I got in a solid left that snapped his head to the side then shunted him aside and turned in time to address the more timid advance of the third man. I quick cut of his eyes alerted me that Mark was back in the game. He caught me with two glancing blows, but his swing pulled him into me and I knocked his arms down and battered his face with a quick combination. He stepped back spitting blood. The second guy grabbed me from behind and pinned my arms. If he’d had enough sense to get me in a full Nelson I would’ve been in serious trouble.
“Hold him,” said the third guy.
He came toward me with a self-satisfied grin. When he was close enough I kicked him in the balls. When you’re fighting for your life there’s only one rule: win.
Mark was back now but standing out of my kicking range. His eyes flicked to the side. In another instant I heard a ‘twack’ and the guy holding me grunted and let go. I glanced back to see Kate standing over him with Carl’s baseball bat. Mark started backing up.
“I know where you live, bitch.”
“We’re not quite done here, Mark,” I said.
I took a quick look at the man Kate had hit. He was half-sitting on the ground holding his back and looking up at Kate who stood over him and held the bat like she was waiting for the next pitch. I approached the third man who was still holding his balls.
“Are you in or out?” I asked.
I pushed him out of the way. Mark stopped retreating.
“Okay, look, man, you win, okay?”
His eyes said he was lying; he had another trick. When I was just outside arm’s reach, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a switch blade. But his eyes were uncertain. The cold calm made me take another step closer.
“You know, Mark, if I kill you now, it’ll be self-defense.”
I lunged forward quickly and put a solid left against his mouth. He lunged with the knife but I was already out of his reach. He lunged again. I skipped back out of the way.
“Your timing is all off, Mark.”
He lunged. I moved.
I feinted forward, drawing another wild slash, then stepped in and put another left in his mouth. He staggered back. I put a hard right to his jaw. I was about to step in for the kill but caught myself. Don’t get over eager, I told myself, and about that time he slashed wildly. But those hadn’t been my words. Those had been Bob Smith’s words; Bob Smith who was another of God’s neglected lambs. I became instantly furious and flew into Mark with vicious combinations. He waved the knife and nicked my left forearm, but he had no strength or will. I knocked the knife out of his hand and beat him, beat him. I followed him to the ground, straddling him and beating him.
Hands on my shoulders and a frightened cry brought me back. A police siren was coming up the road.
“Billy! Billy! Stop, Billy, you’ll kill him. Stop, Billy.”
I stopped. Mark lay under me utterly defeated. The cold calm left. I leaned forward.
“Can you hear me, Mark?”
There was a weak nod.
“Never, ever bother this woman again. Do you understand?”
When I stood, Kate was right there, hands on my waist, looking into my face with a look of mixed awe and fear. I checked the other two; they were both sitting.
The police car slid to a halt on the gravel. Another siren was coming from the other direction. Sheriff Hooper stepped out, his hand on his sidearm.
“What’s going on here? McCaskill, is that you?”
“Yes, sir, Sheriff.”
“Damn, son, I’m getting to know you better than some of my deputies. What’ve you gotten yourself into this time?”
His tone was almost of amusement. Kate looked at up me quizzically. The other car, a Highway Patrol car, came up and the trooper checked the casualties. Carl hurried to the Sheriff and was telling him what had happened. The entire diner had emptied to watch the brawl, and others were confirming that I had stepped in to defend Kate and had been assaulted by three. I sat on the bottom step of the diner. Kate sat beside me and washed my face and the cut on my arm.
“My mama’s gonna whip my ass,” I mused.
Kate threw her head back laughing.
She put her hand on my forearm while she regained control of herself.
“You just beat the shit out of three men, one with a knife, and you’re worried about your mama whipping your ass. That’s hilarious.”
“It wouldn’t be so funny if it was your ass.”
She laughed again and hugged me.
“Oh. Sorry. I got carried away. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“No. No, I, uh, I liked it.”
She smiled. “That’s good to know.”
“And I didn’t whip three men. You took care of one. Thank you.”
She smiled widely.
When the Sheriff had finished questioning me, he looked at my injuries.
“Might want to get those tended to,” he said.
“Actually, I’m being tended to now.
He gave a ‘humph’ and walked away. He arrested the three. It was two in the morning when they finished up.
“Can I drive you home?” Kate said. “Carl gave me the rest of the night off.”
“I’m okay. I can drive home.”
She looked down.
“I actually meant, uh, my home.”
She put her hand on my chest.
“I could rinse the blood out of your shirt, and someone should bandage those cuts.”
“Why don’t I follow you?”
Twenty minutes later I was inside the kitchen of her clean, tidy little house.
“My son’s asleep. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Why should I?”
She smiled uncertainly.
“If we’re quiet, we won’t wake him.”
I was pretty sure of the message but this was a first for me so I wasn’t positive.
I sat on the kitchen table. Kate unbuttoned my bloody shirt, took it off and put it in water to soak, then got a basin of warm water and, moving up between my knees, washed my face again, very tenderly. She put bandages on my arm and a little cut on the side of my cheek. She moved in close to me, her face in front of mine, her hand resting softly on my stomach. She smelled like the diner, but that wasn’t disagreeable.
“You, tonight, that was so…gallant.”
I put my hands on her waist. She didn’t pull away. She rested her forehead against mine.
“I’ve never been rescued by a knight in shining armor.”
She laughed out loud then caught herself.
“I mustn’t wake Tim.”
She turned to see her tousle-haired boy in the doorway rubbing his eyes.
“Go back to bed, Tim. Everything’s fine.”
“Let me see to him, okay. It won’t take a minute. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
She was back in only a few minutes, stepped up to me, put her arms over my shoulders and her hands on the back of my head.
“We’ll have to be quiet, okay? What?”
She took my face in her hands and lifted it.
“This is harder than squaring off against those men. You are really, really sexy, and I… My hands are in my lap for a reason.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I can’t, not with your son in the next room.”
She sighed and pursed her lips.
“I’m really screwing up, aren’t I?”
She kissed me on the forehead and stepped back. I stood.
“I’ve screwed up everything else, but could I have one hug?”
She seemed tentative as I took her in my arms. I do love the feel of a female body against me. She relaxed and pressed herself up against me.
“Are you sure?” she whispered.
I nodded, got my shirt and she walked me to the door. I sighed and went out to my car. I started it up and turned on the headlights. Kate came at a fast walk down from her house. She opened the door and got in.
“He’s fast asleep. Take me somewhere…private.”