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Eighty of us crowded behind a chalk line in the shade of huge evergreen oaks draped with a few dying wisps of Spanish moss. In a jumble of uniform colors-powder blue, puke yellow, rising-sun red, Orange Crush-all of us wore old-style basketball tops and bottoms, except for two runners from a New Orleans day school who looked girlish in green ultralight nylon minishorts. I overheard the starter tell the line judge, "Most of 'em white boys look like they come out of a concentration camp." The line judge laughed. A strong wind kept gusting off the lake and the damp air felt colder than the forty-four degrees on Father Callicot's key-chain thermometer. Short, balding, wearing a goatee, thin mustache, and a black suit with a clergy dog collar, Callicot stood on the line smiling like an evangelist at the six of us with Episcopal Knights in scroll across our gold jerseys. He put the thermometer in his pocket and placed his hand on my shoulder. "You're the next state champ. I don't need to tell you a thing."
"Gee, thanks." I rolled my eyes and stared down the fairway toward the lake.
"Circle up," Callicot said, and we formed a wheel, holding our right arms to the center and stacking our hands on top of the coach's. "Our Father, let us run like the wind ahead of thispack of heathens from across the state of Louisiana." "Amen," the other Knights said automatically as I shouted, "Hallelujah! Running for the Lord!" Everyone laughed except for Father Callicot. We broke the circle and the team formed two lines behind me and my brother Nick.
I smiled at Nick. "Don't let that coon ass from Point Coupe outkick you today."
Nick hated these moments before a race. At home, sitting on the roof of our house, he'd prayed it would storm, but the afternoon sky was clear except for columns of smoke rising over the river from the Exxon refinery. Nick said without conviction, "He's going to eat my dust."
I just held my fists out in front of me at the edge of the line. "Runners on your mark." The starter raised the gun over his head. A handful of students and parents yelled from the sidelines and then there was silence.
I'm going to win. I'm going to go faster than ever before. I'm going to push through the pain. I'm going to win. Nick looked queasy. His hands trembled. I gave him a fierce look and whispered, "You can take him."
"Set." Pikh! Lost in the wind: the firing of the blank, the muted cheers of the spectators. Barefoot, Ford led three other black runners from cane plantations to the head of the pack, which funneled from the chalk line into a narrow stream along the center of the fairway.
After the first quarter mile, on the rise of a tee, Ford and I were out front, running side by side. I glanced back. Nick was twenty runners behind. "Think you can beat me today, Ford?" I said his name like he did-Fode.
"Beat you here last year." Ford's head bobbed up and down, almost touching my shoulder.
"You're natur'ly more powerful than us. That's what I heard." I kept my voice from sounding too winded.
"Tell me sompin new." "No way any white boy could run barefoot." "Too much shag carpet." "And you've got a big dick and an extra tendon in your leg." Ford looked up and grinned. "Yo' mama knows about one of them things." "The dick or the tendon?"
"The tendon." Ford laughed, breaking his smooth stride. I accelerated a yard ahead before Ford realized I was pulling away.
Nick was back there watching me gradually shrink into the distance. Nick trained harder than anyone in the state, while I showed up hungover Saturday mornings and kicked his butt. Outclassed by big brother, who knew you so well, even what you were thinking.
At the half-mile mark Father Callicot squawked in his high voice, "Right on time!"
Rounding a corner coming out of magnolia trees, I looked over my shoulder and I was ten yards ahead of Ford and twenty ahead of the pack. Nick was idly picking off the competition, composing a poem for the school mag:
Hemmed by runners on every side, Pain ingrained on every face, I hurt more with every stride, I must increase the pace.
Breaux, the tall Cajun from Point Coupe, was loping along behind Nick, using him to break the icy headwind off the lake. Nick had never beaten the Cajun, though the last three races he'd been within seconds. Nick lacked the killer instinct-he didn't believe he could beat him and therefore he didn't. I led the first lap around the golf course with nobody pushing me. Ford was my only competition and I'd broken his spirit by beating him the last five races of the season. There was no one left but the clock.
By the third lap the pain had set in for even the strongest. This was the pain Nick dreaded from the night before. This was much worse than the pain of practice which Nick dreaded through every school day during fall cross-country and spring track season. Nick wanted to turn down the pain, slacken off just enough to secure fourth place, and ride out the last five minutes of agony. Nick distracted himself from the pain by reciting his poems. I burned it like gasoline, turned it into rage.
Father Callicot yelled my time at the two-and-a-half-mile mark. Dad was dressed just like Callicot. Mom wore a plaid wool coat. Little Harper had on my letter jacket, which hung to his knees and hid his hands in the sleeves. Dad cupped his hands, yelled, "You're breaking the record!" My girlfriend, Robin, was hopping up and down in her cheerleader getup. Long rolling strides glided me along the fairway. A half minute back Nick and Breaux were crossing the creek. Ford had gained a yard, so I turned, fixed my eyes on the fluttering plastic ribbons of the chute, and switched into overdrive. The kick was the consummation of the pain, a purity beyond thought. I gave a rebel yell and leaned forward, my mind filled by an imaginary sheet of liquid flame racing before me across the grass. The tape broke across my chest, the judge shouted a new state record, and I raised my arm in the Black Power salute like the brothers who lost their medals in the '68 Mexico City Olympics, then careened through the chute, tripped, and almost knocked down one of the cane poles at the end. I picked myself up, turned around.
Ford was decelerating down the chute, hadn't even bothered to kick. Smiling as he reached me, I stuck out my palm for a soul slap but he looked away and jogged off toward a couple of black coaches from Ascension.
I limped along the edge of the fairway toward the long string of runners. Nick and Breaux were shoulder-to-shoulder coming down the homestretch. Nick was drowning in the pain of his lungs and arms and legs all shrieking, begging him to slow down. Breaux broke away, doubled the length of his stride, gained a yard.
"Kick, Nick! Kick! Kick! Kick!" I shouted, sprinting toward him, just out of bounds. "You can take him! Take him! Kick!" Nick screamed a lame-ass version of my rebel yell and pulled even with Breaux, who was wavering, flapping his arms like broken wings, while Nick's were pumping smoothly like pistons. Both their faces were twisted, their tortured breathing audible across the fairway.
"You've got him, Nick." I was running flat out trying to stay with him.
Neck and neck, twenty yards from the chute with Breaux not slowing, Nick's pain fused into a sense of inevitable defeat. He just couldn't outkick Breaux. He never could. Black spots floated before him in the gray air. He felt faint. My voice was hoarse from shouting. "You can take him, dammit! Don't give up!"
"Go, Nick!" Mom yelled from the finish line. "Come on, son!" Dad yelled. "Go, dammit, go!" Little Harper squealed, and Mom did a shocked double take.
Nick heard the cheering as from a long distance and forced his knees higher. The black spots bloomed bigger, obscuring the mouth of the chute. We were all out of focus. He heard me yell, "Breaux's fading. Now, brother! Now!" Suddenly believing he could take him, clawing deeper than ever before into the primal instinct, Nick broke through the pain and edged past Breaux into the chute. His momentum carried him a few feet more, then he nearly tumbled but caught himself and moved along like a blind drunk. I grabbed him before he fell coming out of the chute.
"I took him out!" Nick gasped. "Yeah. You dusted him." I slapped him on the back. "I been telling you all season you could beat him." I opened my hand wide the way Dad used to when we were tiny, and said, the way he used to, "Put 'er there, pal." Nick smiled and clasped my hand.
Coach Callicot scurried over to congratulate us, and Nick, copying me as usual, said, "Thanks be to Jesus." Breaux passed us, heading for an underfed, bony-faced girl with puffed-up blonde hair, and I called out, "Hey, coon-ass boy, best you get used to staring at the back of Nick's jersey." "Fuck you, rich boys. Wait for track season." Breaux's chest was all bowed up.
"Hell, we ain't rich," Nick, the diplomat, said. "Just go to a rich school's all."
"That's right, Breaux. We're all bros," I called out. "Bonjour, Monsieur Breaux," Dad said, coming up from the side. He was as tall and slender as the muscular Cajun runner whom he patted on the back. In the twenty-five years since he was a quarter-miler at Sewanee, he had run five miles at first light while saying his daily prayers.
Breaux's chest fell and he humbly shook Dad's hand. "Bonjour, Pere Rutledge."
"Coon-ass Catholics have an inbred respect for clergy," I whispered to Nick as Dad inquired after Breaux's family, and I suddenly felt bad about being mean.
"My boys." Mom, a foot shorter and ten years younger than Dad, bobbed up and down, beaming like a lighthouse. "My champions. Where are your warm-ups? You'll get pneumonia." The other runners were crowding through the chute. "Come on, Nick, let's go congratulate the losers. I'm going to miss Ford."
"Shouldn't you wait for your warm-ups?" "Robin'll bring 'em, Mom," I said over my shoulder, placing my arm around Nick's back. "It's going to be just you and Breaux next year. You saw you can beat him today. Don't ever let him beat you again. Drive him down. That's what I did to Fode. Hell, his kick used to be twice as fast. I just beat the spirit out of him."
"The Machiavellian approach." Rubbing his arms, Nick shivered and looked around for Robin. "Where's your girlfriend? I'm freezing to death."
After a race I never felt the cold. "You're my wingman, Nick. Couldn't have a better wingman."
"I've got a better one." Nick looked straight at me. "I got the best wingman in Baton Rouge."
I struggle not to see, not to hear, to hold on to the vision which melts away into red darkness. Then I open my eyes. Black water slowly swallows the sun. The beach is bathed in faint pink light and the ocean breeze combs the tall sea grass like invisible fingers through thick fur. I'm not sure how long I've been dreaming on this dune. Waves roll in endlessly, rushing back and rolling in again. Silently I pray, Where are you, Nick? Are you with me? Don't abandon me now out here on the edge of night. I'm not the boy I used to be. Can you forgive me? A falling star streaks across the paling sky. I tell him, "Little Harper's coming tomorrow, but he's all grown-up now. Bigger than you and me. He's the only one of us who's as big as Dad."
"Harper?" a soft voice whispers in the wind. "Who's Harper?" I turn and watch as her hair darkens, the lines across her forehead disappear, and the flesh beneath her chin draws taut until she's the age when she brought me into this world. "Cage, do you hear me?" the girl asks, smiling like she's about to burst out laughing.
I realize that she is the girl who gave me the acid and I cast around my head for her name. "Do you hear me?" She laughs. "Where were you?"
"Tripping," I say. "No shit, Sherlock. You were gone." "Time tripping." It's too difficult to explain. "Did I tell you you look like my mother? She's very beautiful." "That's a line."
"That's the gospel truth. Same raven hair and angelic face. Just like my mama in the full bloom of youth." "There is something very, very wrong with you."
"And you are very, very intuitive. Where are you in school again?" "Sarah Lawrence."
"I forgot. I'm very, very impressed." "Let's go." She lifts a half-empty bottle of Rolling Rock, stands up, and reaches her hand down to me. "We're out." "I like your spirit." I rise and brush the sand from my pants, then brush off her small, flat ass. She laughs and pushes my hand away. I pick her up by the waist and she tilts forward, kicking her feet and giggling as I carry her over the dune. "Were you ever a cheerleader?"
"Hell, no." She twists free. "I dated a cheerleader in high school. A homecoming queen. I was just thinking of those provocative uniforms. Imagine dressing up the prettiest girls in tight sweaters and tiny miniskirts and having them jump up and down, bouncing their boobs and flashing their crotches at all the middle-aged dads in the crowd. It's perverse." "Are all southern boys as crazy as you?" she asks, smiling. I stop walking. "What do you think?" "I hope not."
In late May after my freshman year at Tulane, I leave the South for the first time. I'm worn-out from exams and partying but too excited to sleep, since I've never been so far north and never been to an East Coast resort island. I'm nervous about going someplace full of rich Yankees who might take me for a hick but I'm also thrilled to spend time with Cage. It's just like him to get me a cool summer job. He's ten years older and has always been the ideal big brother. On the long flight from New Orleans to Boston, I remember times he took me fishing and hunting and how when I was in high school he would come to Baton Rouge nine hours from Vanderbilt in his ancient Oldsmobile just to cheer me on during championship meets, the way he would run along the field beside me, urging me to run faster. And I did. Broke the freshman half-mile record when he was driving me on. Cage is a very cool brother.
Indirectly Cage was responsible for my first sexual experience. When I was fourteen, I met him over Mardi Gras in Pensacola, where we stayed in a house with some of his college friends. We were deep-sea fishing on his friend's boat. One night a girl named Katy took me to a bar and we shot tequila. She had long curly hair and huge breasts and a really sweet smile and I could hardly believe it when she started kissing me at the bar after last call. We got in her car and she stuck her hand down my pants, the first time a girl had touched me there. I gathered up courage and unzipped her jeans and in a matter of seconds I was looking right at that object of long speculation. I'd only seen them in magazines. I didn't know what to do, so I started lapping it, my head bobbing up and down like a puppy. Suddenly she came to her senses and pushed me away. She hardly said a word to me for the rest of the week. Remembering Katy always makes me wince with humiliation and lust.
Excerpted from Cage's Bend by Carter Coleman Copyright © 2005 by Carter Coleman. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 9, 2008
Southern Episcopal Minister Franklin Rutledge and his wife, Margaret raise three sons, born in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. Though he once dreamed of a Ph.D. in Divinity Studies instead of father to three rambunctious boys, Franklin is pleased with what God has given him. He worries about the rivalry between his two oldest, Cage and Nick, born less than one year apart, but believes that is God¿s way. He thanks God that Harper was born a decade later. Cage is a terrific athlete, intelligent, charming and a hunk. Nick, except when competing against Cage, is reticent though he is as smart and handsome as his older brother. Harper worships his brothers and wants to be with them all the time. --- In 1987 Nick dies in a car accident. His surviving family struggles to cope with the loss. Cage blames himself as he was the last to speak with Nick his mood swings soon are diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Harper makes it at Wall St. but hides his loss and his fear that Cage is next with alcohol and drugs. Franklin believes he has failed as a Bishop because he has unsuccessfully brought any comfort to his family. Margaret, though grieving her loss, knows she must help her dysfunctional family heal. --- Rotating perspective between the four Rutledges, readers obtain a powerfully poignant family drama that looks deep at interactions and interrelationships when the dynamics change due to the death of the fifth participant leading to new conflicts arising. The key to CAGE¿S BEND is that the characters seem real especially as members of a competitive family. Carter Coleman provides a fabulous complex tale of people struggling to cope with loss often by destructive behavior. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 6, 2005
Carter Coleman continues to prove that he is a fine writer who is gaining well-deserved wider attention. He understands the great Gothic style of the important writers of the South with all the jasmine-scented niceties that wrap the subdermal tragedies and secrets and yet he can move his characters out of their Southern atmosphere into the madness of the outer world and mold them into fully formed contemporary people. He seems to have the best of both worlds at his fingertips.The Rutledge family goes back many generations in the humid atmosphere of Tennessee (Cage's Bend is a town at the bend of a river), a family with as many odd characters as solid ones. The Rutledges of this novel include Franklin, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, his strongly supportive wife Margaret, and three sons - Cage is the eldest followed by the year younger Nick and the ten years younger Harper. This ecclesiastically peripatetic family is a solid unit, each growing into parents and young men successful at their levels until a tragic car crash in 1987 kills Nick: the events leading to this crisis and the resultant sequelae on each of the members' lives make the substance of this story.Idiosyncrasies are unveiled in a flashback flash/forward manner with 'chapters' of bold type history interspersed with first person accounts by Cage, Harper, Margaret and Franklin - a method of writing that allows us a more intimate vantage of each of the characters' perspectives. The tragedy affects Cage the most strongly: he feels responsible for the death of his beloved brother for reasons that unfold later in the book. Cage being the eldest carries the gene for bipolar personality disorder and the death of Nick triggers his first manic manifestation, followed by the seesaw manic/depressive episodes that change him from the successful athlete and businessman to a drug and alcohol besotted failure wandering the country seeking meaning and refuge from his soulful agonies. Harper as the youngest feels ignored by his father and less desirable than the departed 'holy Nick' to his mother and while he manages to become a successful stock broker, he is also plagued by being a sex addict, always seeking the mother that he felt eluded him.The novel is spiced by that peculiar brand of Southern stoicism ('Cage will be fine, Mars. Don't you worry. Every good southern family has a manic-depressive....Fine old families often have more. They all learn to get by. They often distinguish themselves.'), bandaids for problems that eventually peel away when the realities of the depth of the illnesses become blatant. Cage's words say a lot: 'I don't see why everyone doesn't commit suicide. Life is like an all-night party with rivers of blow and naked playmates, but to get to the party you have to pass through a filthy hole, slathering yourself with excrement, and buy a ticket by prostituting yourself, and at the end of the night you have to squeeze back out through the fetid crack into nothingness.' Reflecting on his past Cage muses he was 'a child who smiled long before most, as if my happiness which began prematurely would spend itself prematurely and plunge the family into more sadness than anyone had ever dreamed, bearing the legacy of violence which the Cages brought to Tennessee, a curse of blood which would reach forward through time and seven generations to haunt the innocent soul of the first born and the last to carry the family name.' And later strong Margaret adds 'I read that manic-depressives have a better recovery rate in the third world countries because all the members of the extended family are close by and supportive. Surely that's the healthiest way to live.'So it is the return to the nuclear family unit that ultimately provides healing of the slings and arrows that take each member on a Rake's Progress. Coleman gives us wholly credible characters who never lose our interest or compassion. If at times he meanders through the myriad love affairs of the brothers or
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