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Every Pointed Star
By David Booth
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 David Booth
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUp to that point in my life about the worst thing I'd ever had to face was getting hog-tied, blindfolded, and hauled off some night with the rest of the freshman football team by a bunch of half-drunk varsity players and then God-knows-what.
I figured there was no getting out of that hazing; it was some kind of ancient sicko ritual that they kept secret from the freshmen until after midterm grades came out. And from then right up to the second it started I told myself that if I'd known about it, I never would've accepted my scholarship and come five hundred miles from home to Sun Bright, Oklahoma to Western State. So what if it was my only scholarship offer?
Right now I can tell all of this needs some explaining. I grew up in Placitas, New Mexico. You probably never heard of my Placitas; there must be at least three or four towns in New Mexico by that name. My hometown is a drab place on a back road south of Albuquerque so far removed from what's happening in the rest of the state that it might as well be on another planet. I mean, it's not mysterious like the high plains of northeastern New Mexico, where ancient volcano cones rise up big and black out of a sea of pale yellow grass, and the wind blows all the time, and you half expect to see the ghosts of Comanche warriors riding out of the horizon. And it's not dangerous like White Sands, where you can get permanently lost in a nanosecond in the blinding whiteness of the dunes, or surreal like the deep, twisting caverns over at Carlsbad with giant stalactites and stalagmites all lit up in rainbow colors.
No, Placitas isn't like any of that. About all you can say about Placitas is that way off to the east of town, out near I-25, what's left of the Rio Grande is quietly choking to death in more plain old desert than you could ever imagine unless you've driven from Albuquerque to El Paso.
Placitas does have one claim to fame, though, and that's Mt. Baldy. It's directly west of town, and at 10,873 feet it towers over Placitas by more than a mile. Back behind it the rest of the Magdalenas and other mountains chip-chop off toward Arizona. Mt. Baldy is kind of important in this story, a story I wouldn't be telling if I didn't have a gun to my head.
I'm an only child, and if you knew what went on in our house (or maybe what didn't go on), you'd know why. My real name is Joe Don Johnson. I figure at first my parents must've been kind of proud of themselves and me too, otherwise they wouldn't have named me after each other, my father being Joe and my mother, Donna. But something must have changed because I got turned into just plain J.D. That's the only name I remember them ever calling me.
My mother worked as a secretary for the school board. She was sort of deaf; by that I mean she must've heard well enough at work to keep her job, but at home she didn't seem to hear all that well. I never got to have much more than sporadic conversations of about four exchanges with her. Like when I was a little kid and she'd say something to me like, "Here's some money; run down to the store and get a half-gallon of milk," well, I'd fall all over myself trying to say something interesting or helpful like, "Want me to get somethin' else, too?" and then she'd nod her head to me like she understood, and she'd say something like, "Umm hmm" or "Is that right" in that way of hers that wasn't really a question or a statement but was sort of both. And then I'd rush to say something else; but by that time, even though she was still right there in front of me, she was already gone from the conversation just like I knew she would be when she first turned to me and started talking. Hey, what did I know? I was just a kid hoping like crazy she'd talk to me and hear what I had to say.
My mother was pretty much the same way with my father except maybe she was farther removed from him than she was from me. She hardly ever started one of those four-exchange conversations with him.
We lived in a two-bedroom, fake adobe house. Her bedroom was off limits to him and me; he and I slept in separate beds in our bedroom at the back of the house. He talked to me even less than she did; I mean, I don't think he ever once said "goodnight" to me even though we were in the same room. I always figured that I must've done something to disappoint him, and her too, but I couldn't remember what it was. Maybe it was something so bad I wouldn't let myself remember it. Or something that happened so long ago I couldn't remember it.
I do remember a couple of things though. There was this one time when I was like four or five, and I was goofing around in this little closet in my mother's room, and I found these red patent leather high- heeled shoes. Of course I didn't know words like "patent leather" or anything like that. But they were real pretty and shiny, and I thought they were like Wizard of Oz shoes, you know, like maybe they were magic or something.
And back behind those shoes on the shelf I found this faded photograph of a young man and woman dancing around in the desert. Desert? It looked like every place I knew anything about-I mean, as far as I knew, everything was the desert. Anyhow, this couple was laughing and dancing away right in the middle of these other people who were whooping it up and clapping. He was big, and he was wearing a clean white shirt and a cowboy hat, and he was rocked forward on one foot, and the toe of his other foot was behind him coming up off the ground, and he was reaching out with one hand. And the woman had on a full skirt that flared out as she twirled near him, and her outstretched fingers barely touched the palm of his hand. She flew on her toes in those shiny red shoes.
"What are you doing?!" I heard my mother shriek as she yanked the closet door open. Without waiting for my stupid "P ... pluh ... playing" she snatched the shoes and the picture away from me and left me crying on the floor of the closet.
Later on that day I snuck toward the kitchen about the time my father was due to show up. Sure enough, he was stepping in from the carport just as I eased around the corner. My mother had her back to the refrigerator, and her arms were folded across her chest.
My father stopped in mid-stride. He looked at her and then at me, and then he glanced over at the open-top trash can. My eyes followed his. Those magic red shoes were crammed down in there, covered with cigarette butts and ashes she must've dumped out of his ashtray. I could see torn scraps of that photograph in there too. My eyes must have popped wide open, but he shot me this look and shook his head so slightly that you could hardly tell, and I knew to keep my mouth shut. He just walked off to that back bedroom, and I crept outside.
Then there was this other time, maybe six months or a year later. I know it was the weekend because my mother was at home. My father had gone someplace in the car. I was out in the front yard playing, and when I came back inside, no one was there.
The house was so quiet that you couldn't hear anything.
Where was she? She couldn't have gone any place without me seeing her leave.
There weren't many places to look. Kitchen? No. The front room? Not there either. Back bedroom? Nope. Not in the bathroom. I knew I wasn't supposed to go into her room any more, but I went to the open doorway and looked in. She wasn't there. I went out in the back yard. She wasn't there either.
I went back into the house and just stood outside her room for I don't know how long. Finally I walked over and opened the door to that tiny, forbidden closet.
There in the dark was the padded stool that was supposed to be at her dressing table. She was sitting on it, her face cupped in her hands. After many long moments I realized she was crying. She didn't make a sound, and she didn't look up.
I closed the door as carefully as I could and just stood there for a while and then left the room.
Chapter TwoWe didn't have a photo album in our house or any family pictures on the walls, but that didn't keep me from having a mental picture of my parents when they were young. They were good-looking then, my mother small and trim, and my father tall and sort of husky. But she'd gotten real thin; her lips were hardly there. Plus she was pale; she stayed out of the sun as much as possible. But if you looked real close, you could see these little freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose. She must've gotten them when she was a kid, and they wouldn't budge, not even now. The main thing about my mother, though, was how she passed through the house like she was barely there and how it made you feel like you weren't exactly there either, like maybe you were watching from someplace else.
My father's broad face and high forehead were dark and blotchy from spending way too much time out in the sun; it was kind of like he was daring it to hit him with its best shot, and he wouldn't even bother to try to fight it off. As for the rest of him, he looked like a brawny guy who'd let himself go; but I had this feeling that there was something deep down inside of him that wouldn't let him go too far, not even if he wanted to.
Look, I know all of this may seem sort of disjointed so I'll get on with the story as quick as I can; but if you're going to understand what happened, I think you ought to know as much as I think I know about it.
It's fair to say that to most folks Placitas is pretty boring, except for the permanent golf tee that's built into the edge of the cliff at the top of Mt. Baldy. That's where my father spent most of his time when he wasn't sleeping at home or working at his real estate agency trying to figure out how to lure the tourists in their Winnebagoes off of the Interstate and convince them to "invest" in a barren stretch of ten-acre "ranchitos" outside of Placitas, which he called "The Next Tucson."
Whenever he had time, which was about every day, he'd drive over to the country club, park his car, climb onto the beat-up fat-tired Honda ATV he kept in the shed for golf carts, and bounce his way up the dusty abandoned logging road to the top of Mt. Baldy. He always kept his ATV loaded with a bucket of dinged-up golf balls he bought in the pro shop and a driver he called "Long Ball Sally." From that tee at the peak he'd slam golf balls as far as he could out into the high, thin desert air. Any ball that the wind happened to whip off of the tee before he could get to it would escape, bounding and caroming for more than a mile, pretty much straight down. Just imagine how far you could knock a ball from that tee if you got a good lick in on it. You get the idea.
Every year on the first of August there's a tournament on Mt. Baldy to see who can hit a ball the longest lateral distance from that tee. If you knock it more than a mile, you win a million dollars. The prize might as well be a billion dollars or even a trillion because no one will ever do it. If you were standing on top of Mt. Baldy for the first time looking off into the forever of that dry mountain sky, you'd probably feel for certain you could do it; but you couldn't. It's just one of those things that can't happen.
On the few times I went to the tournament, I could see that my father was the best player up there. He's a big guy, and his full swing and that solid "THA WACK!!" when he hit the ball were like something on TV. But there was something about the way he played that made me real uneasy, kind of embarrassed to be there watching. See, it seemed like everyone else in the tournament was playing for the money, but you could tell from the way my father's normally distant expression crimped down to a sharp, hard point at the instant his club hit the ball that all he really wanted to do was to knock the hell out of it. Oh sure, he talked about the prize money and the distance like they were real important to him, but I think the deal with the tournament and the constant practicing was just an excuse to go up on Mt. Baldy and get away from the house and I felt like from me, too.
Chapter ThreeI went out for football in middle school and high school, and because of my size I was pretty good. During football season my father paid more attention to me than usual; by that I mean he ragged at me about why didn't I try harder and why didn't I at least try out for some position where I could carry the ball.
Well, I just couldn't play offense-my mind jumped around too much for me to really get the offensive plays when they were called in the heat of a game. Maybe I have some kind of a short circuit or something in my brain. But even though I didn't catch onto the offensive plays worth a damn, when I was a sophomore we got a new head coach, and he said that I had two qualities that would make me a good player in a certain defensive position.
Every coach I'd ever had before him I just called "Coach," but Coach Givens was so different from the others that it just didn't seem right to call him what I'd called them. He was fresh out of college; he'd been an offensive lineman at Western State. He was kind of fat, but so what? The guy really knew his football. And he paid close attention to every guy on the team. Sometimes he drove some of us home when we stayed late after practice, and every now and then he and his wife would invite the whole team over to their house for a picnic. Plus he joked around with all of us and called us "little peckerwoods." You just have to like a guy like that. Anyhow, I started calling him "Coach Givens" even though everyone else just called him "Coach."
Coach Givens told me that I had a great sense of balance and really quick hands. When I got hit hard enough to get knocked down, even without thinking I usually stayed on my feet, wobbling around like a drunk about to fall down, and just when everyone was sure I was a goner, I'd pop back up like one of those big, inflatable bop bag toys, you know, those things that won't stay down no matter how hard you punch them.
And my so-called quick hands? Coach Givens was a pretty honest guy, but he put them to a slightly shady use in our three-man defensive line. See, he had me play directly across from the offensive center, almost nose to nose with him, and sometimes I'd try to reach across the line of scrimmage quick as a cat and slap the ball and screw up the snap to the quarterback. Of course I didn't do it very often, just enough to mess up the hike from time to time and keep the center on edge all of the time. If I was too obvious and got caught, I'd get penalized; but if I was careful, I'd get away with it way more often than I got caught.
No matter whether or not I drew a penalty, the center would get really pissed every time I tried for the ball, and on the next few plays he and the offensive guards on either side of him would really tear in after me, but they'd never knock me down. No matter how hard I got hit, I'd still be on my feet even if I was sort of dazed and staggering around in the middle of play. And then I'd usually get hit again, this time by a runner trying to go straight up the middle because the center had sworn to him that he was going to knock the living shit out of me so he didn't have to worry about me. But there I'd be, stumbling around in the runner's way, and he'd get slowed down enough by crashing into me for some of our guys to jump all over him and bring him down just in time for me to flop on top of them. I ended up getting credit for assisting on a lot of tackles, but my "assists" really just happened from me being in the way.
First chance Coach Givens got, and this was fairly often if I do say so myself, he'd laugh and compliment me for slapping the ball or just being in the way. "You're real good at messin' things up, J.D.! Yessiree, that's what you're best at, messin' things up."
I guess Coach Givens must've heard himself say that so many times that he'd come to believe it, because after our senior season he started making phone calls to try to get me a college scholarship. I have to admit I hadn't thought much about going to college. I wasn't sure I could make it. I knew I'd been babied all the way through school at Placitas, maybe because of my mother's job, plus I did pretty good at football so I always got passing grades even though I hardly ever studied. But with Coach Givens talking up the possibility of a scholarship, suddenly I couldn't imagine my life without football.
So while my last semester dragged by, I hung out in his office a lot trying to will the phone to ring with some good news; but whenever it rang, the call was never about me. And every time Coach Givens gave me a report on where things stood, he said pretty much the same thing: "I don't know what's wrong with that durned school," or even worse, "I'm still waitin' for 'em to call me back."
One day in the spring we were sitting around in his office when the phone rang. He looked at me, then at the phone. He shrugged his shoulders like "what the hell" and picked up the receiver. "Yeh- low," he said.
"Hey, Coach Keller!" It was his college coach. I moved forward in my seat. For a while they just shot the shit like they had nothing better to do, stuff like, "Oh yeah, it's drier'n a bone here," and "You still got that no-account snake Coach Hodge with you?"
I kept hoping I'd hear the word "scholarship," but no such luck. So I had to just sit there and keep quiet while Coach Givens chuckled into the phone, "Yessiree, I'm a New Mexico gringo now. You know what that is, don'cha? Why, that's just a dumb Okie who never made it to California!" and he and Coach Keller yukked it up and kept on b.s.ing. I was going completely nuts.
Then it got so quiet on Coach Givens' end of the conversation that I could hear the sounds of words clacking around inside of the receiver, but I couldn't make out what was being said.
Excerpted from Every Pointed Star by David Booth Copyright © 2010 by David Booth. Excerpted by permission.
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