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North Dallas Forty
By Peter Gent
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Peter Gent
All rights reserved.
I was freezing my ass in the back of the pickup when O.W. Meadows finally turned off the blacktop and pulled to a stop alongside an oat field. We had been driving west about forty-five minutes from Fort Worth on the old Weatherford Highway. Meadows, Seth Maxwell, and Jo Bob Williams were crowded in the cab. I had been elected to ride in the back, owing more to my smaller size, milder demeanor, and lesser status than to my desire to do so. Occasionally Seth passed me the bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon and it helped cut the cold some, but mostly I just huddled behind the back of the cab against the damp wind.
As the truck bounced to a halt, Jo Bob stumbled out laughing and fell in the ditch. He was clutching the bottle of Wild Turkey. There was about an inch of the amber fluid left. He tossed it at me.
"Here, motherfucker," he growled. "Finish off the bird-bigger and let's unload them guns."
I complied, grimacing as the heat burned my throat and boiled up into my sinuses.
It was a drizzling, cold autumn day. Everything was either gray or yellow brown. It was the kind of day I like to watch from the warmth and security of my bed. Instead, I was with three drunken madmen on a Texas dove hunt. I told myself it was for the good of the team.
"Goddam, lookit that." O.W. Meadows had scrambled from behind the wheel. He was standing in the road pissing and pointing at several mourning doves coasting lazily into the oat patch. "Jeeeeesus. Gimme my gun."
"They're out of range," I protested.
"Gimme my gun!" he screamed.
I handed him his square-backed Browning 12-gauge automatic with the gold trigger. He blazed away, the shot raining into the oats about halfway between the pickup and the doves.
"Jesus Christ," I yelled. "That fucking gun was loaded!"
Several more doves flew out of the field and away from us.
The three men scrambled to the back of the truck for their shotguns and shells and then headed into the low brown oats. I grabbed my Sears 20-gauge and followed a few yards behind, trying to load and walk at the same time.
"The wet'll keep 'em down," Jo Bob said. "All we gotta do is put the phantom stalk on 'em and they'll start comin' in with their hands up."
"As soon as they know we're here," Meadows added, "I 'spect they'll just surrender."
A field lark jumped about ten yards in front and headed away from us. Meadows' Browning and Jo Bob's Winchester over-and-under roared simultaneously, and the tiny speckled bird exploded into feathers.
"Still got the ol' eye," Jo Bob laughed. Meadows slid another shell into the bottom of the Browning.
Seth Maxwell looked back at me and grinned. I had come on the hunt at Maxwell's insistence. He thought it would be good therapy. I had been on the same football team with Jo Bob and Meadows for several years and, at best, we had reached an uneasy truce. They disliked me and I was terrified of them. Naked in the locker room they were awesome enough, but drunk and armed, walking through a Parker County oat field, they were specters. I was depending on Maxwell to protect me from severe physical harm. There was no protection against emotional damage. That was an occupational hazard.
Jo Bob and Meadows moved a few yards ahead of Maxwell. Jo Bob picked up the shambles that had been the field lark and threw it back in my direction. I ducked; the gore fell several feet short. The two giant linemen, walking side by side, shotguns over their arms, were an anxious sight and I wanted only to please them. The problem was to figure out how. Maxwell dropped back and fell in step with me.
"Hey poot," he asked, "what's the trouble?"
I eyed him curiously. "This is like a long weekend in the DMZ."
"Relax." Maxwell soothed with the manner that made him one of professional football's better leaders. "Ain't nobody gonna get hurt."
"Mention that to the scalp hunters," I suggested.
"Just stay behind 'em," he instructed. "That's what I always do."
Our conversation was cut off by the roar of shotguns. Jo Bob and Meadows had brought down three doves between them.
"I got a double," Jo Bob hollered.
"Double my ass," Meadows argued. "I shot two of them birds myself. That leaves you only one. And I think he died of fright." Meadows howled with laughter.
"Bullshit," Jo Bob argued, breaking his gun and jamming in two more shells. He reached down and picked up the first bird, which was still flopping, its wing shattered. Jo Bob caught the bird's head between his thumb and forefinger and jerked it off. The wings flapped spasmodically and then the beheaded dove went limp. Jo Bob tossed the head back at me. I caught it and threw it back at him; it left my hand covered with blood. I wiped my palm on my Levi's but the blood had quickly coagulated and I couldn't rub it all off. When I clenched my fist the skin stuck together.
Meadows moved ahead and picked up another of the birds. It too was still alive.
"Here," Meadows said, tossing the cripple at Jo Bob. "Pop its head. I'll find the other." The wounded bird sailed through the air like a baseball. At the top of the arc it suddenly came alive and began to fly toward us.
"Son of a bitch," Meadows screamed, raising his gun, aiming at the bird.
"Hold it, O.W.," Maxwell yelled, already ducking.
We hit the ground as the Browning roared twice more and the bird fell out of the sky, dropping next to me. I pounced on the dove like a loose fumble for fear it would start to crawl toward me and Meadows would open up again.
We continued on through the oat field, getting five doves. Maxwell and I scored one apiece. Jo Bob shot two more doves and demolished an owl asleep in a tree along the fence line. Meadows hit two doves, finding only one, and produced another bottle of Wild Turkey. When we reached the opposite edge of the field we stood around taking pulls out of the bottle and considering our next move. Finally we decided to hike about a mile to a cattle tank, where Meadows said there were some duck blinds. At least we could sit and drink out of the wind.
At the tank, we slipped up on five careless mallards. Jo Bob and Meadows killed four before the ducks got off the water. Maxwell brought down the fifth when it circled back over the tank, looking for its pals.
"Did you see that?" Meadows laughed. "I got two with one shot."
"Shit," Maxwell argued. "You shot 'em on the water."
"Did not," Meadows said, grinning and holding his arms askew, his left foot off the ground.
"They had one foot up." He broke into peals of laughter.
"How do we get 'em?" I asked.
"You can swim after 'em for all I care," Jo Bob said. "I don't want 'em. Just have to clean 'em. Besides, I don't have a duck stamp."
The pond was about five acres in all, with small blinds on each side. Maxwell and I positioned on one side, Jo Bob and Meadows on the other.
"What am I doing here?" I said, after a cold, silent wait. The lonesome sounds of the wind picking up and the water lapping against the side of the blind were depressing.
"Calm down," Maxwell said. "It'll do you good."
I watched a hawk drift overhead, its wings outstretched, soaring on the currents of the barren west Texas sky.
The two shotguns on the other side roared. I scanned the sky. It was empty. The guns boomed again and something rattled on the outside of our blind.
"Jesus Christ," I yelled. "They're shooting at us."
We dropped to the floor of the blind as the two men blazed away from the other side of the tank. Pellets rained off the side of the blind. After every shot, I could hear Jo Bob laughing like a loon.
"Goddammit, Jo Bob," Maxwell screamed. "You two cocksuckers better cut the shit or I swear to God I'll have your asses." The shooting stopped, but Meadows and Jo Bob continued to giggle.
I peered over the side of the blind. The ambushed mallards floated limply in the water. A dying green head flapped weakly. Jo Bob and Meadows both shot it again. After a half hour of empty sky, we moved back through the oat field to the truck. I got two more doves as we reached the road. Maxwell had bagged one just as we left the tank. That made a total of eleven.
The second bottle of Wild Turkey was dead. We stood at the truck again trying to decide what to do next.
"Look out, Jo Bob." Meadows had slipped two dead doves from his pocket and had thrown them into the air. "Shoot 'em quick.... shoot 'em."
Jo Bob quickly shouldered his gun and fired twice, hitting one of the birds. When they struck the ground Meadows emptied his shotgun into them, blowing the birds to shreds. Jo Bob and Meadows left them where they fell and clambered onto the fenders of the truck.
The decision was made to road hunt. I was elected to drive. Maxwell sat next to me. The two assassins remained on the fenders.
As we drove slowly along the gravel road, Maxwell ferreted another bottle of bourbon from beneath the seat. We passed it back and forth. The warmth of the liquor was relaxing me. I tried to settle back and enjoy the day. It was Monday, our day off. The day before we had beaten St. Louis—through no small effort on my part. There was no reason why I shouldn't be having fun.
As I reached for the hundred-proof bourbon the booming shotguns turned my attention back to the road.
"You got him, O.W.," Jo Bob laughed, barely keeping his balance on the fender. "Right in the ass."
"Goddammit," Meadows howled, "I spoiled the meat." They both laughed insanely, beating their thighs with open hands.
A gray-striped cat was trying to pull itself off the road with its forepaws, its hindquarters shredded by a double load of number six shot. I stopped the truck and Maxwell grabbed his shotgun.
"Jesus Christ, you two." Maxwell was angry. He raised his gun and shot the tortured animal again. The force of the shot slammed the cat limply into the ground and made it skid several feet. A hind foot kicked out twice, stiffly. The animal twisted its head up and died. Maxwell looked at the dead cat, then back at his smirking teammates. He shook his head and crawled back into the cab.
"They're fucking crazy," I said.
"Naw," Maxwell disagreed. "Just tryin' to relax and have a good time."
I grabbed the bottle and took a long, stinging swig.
"Well, I can't relax as long as they got the guns."
"We'll head back to Fort Worth in a bit."
"Do I have to ride in the back again?"
Maxwell looked at me and shrugged.
I had to and by the time we reached the Big Boy Restaurant where we had left our cars, I was numb. We returned cold, tired, drunk, and empty-handed. Jo Bob had thrown the remaining doves at passing cars.
"Jo Bob, you take my car," Maxwell ordered. "I'll ride with Phil. We'll catch you at Crawford's place."
Jo Bob and Meadows looked quizzically at each other. They didn't understand Maxwell's desire to hunt or drink with me. His riding all the way back to Dallas in my car was pure bedevilment. I enjoyed their confusion.
It was late afternoon. In a last gasp the sun had burned away the gray sky and had disappeared into the Panhandle. The air had warmed some and the best part of the day remained. Being in Texas is a skin feeling, strongest this time of day. There is a softness to the twilight. The days could be overpowering in their sun-soaked brightness, not so much now since the smog, but still incredibly vibrant. This afternoon, it was the predark peace that I needed, a quiet power I had never felt in the changing gray of the Midwest or the choking paranoia of New York.
I love Texas, but she drives her people crazy. I've wondered whether it's the heat, or the money, or maybe both. A republic of outlaws loosely allied with the United States, Texas survives, and survives quite well by breaking the rules. Now there is a new generation of Texans who want to do away with the rules. The old resist violently, unable to conceive of that dream of wealth, devoid of any rules to break.
I took out my keys and bent to unlock my car, a brand-new honey-beige Buick Riviera with all the extras, an embarrassing car. Maxwell had sent me to the Buick dealer who sponsors his television show. He swore the guy would give me a great deal. I had wanted a used Opel.
In one hour, the sales manager (the dealer had been too busy to talk to me) showed me how "for practically the same money" I could own a new Riviera and all the accompanying good feelings.
A good salesman knows the purchaser is totally without sense—why else would anyone ask a salesman anything? Once you speak to a salesman you have shown your hole card. I not only spoke, but shook his head and hoped deeply that we could become friends.
On the other side of the lot Jo Bob was getting into Maxwell's blue-on-blue Cadillac convertible.
"Say er ah babee." Maxwell fell into a black dialect, which he often did when asking for or talking about drugs. "Ah, let's have some of what you call your grassss." He hissed out the last word purposely.
"Hey man, just say grass."
"Can't babee. Gots to get in de mood. Now where's dat killer weed?"
"There's some in the glove compartment."
I picked through the cartridge tapes scattered on the floor beneath my feet. I pushed the Sir Douglas Quintet Together After Five into the deck, adjusted the eight-position steering wheel, and pulled out of the lot. Doug Sahm sang about the ill-fated love of two kids in Dallas.
"Seems her father didn't approve Of his long hair and far-out groove ..."
Maxwell lit the joint and took a long drag, making the familiar hissing sound that could only come from someone inhaling cannabis.
"So ... that there is what you call yer killer weed." Maxwell held the joint up for inspection. "Well, it ain't Cutty and water, but it'll do." He passed me the joint, and I sucked on it in short soft puffs, a habit acquired from turning on in airplanes, public restrooms, and dark back yards at straight parties. All getting pretty risky what with the current dope publicity and universal vigilance for peculiar smells.
Three years ago, on the team plane from Washington, Maxwell and I had kept sneaking to the john to smoke dope. The stewardess noticed the smell and thought the galley wiring was smoldering. There was a five-minute panic, both for those who were scared the plane was afire, and for Maxwell and me, who were terrified that it wasn't. We weren't caught but we swore a blood oath to never smoke on the team plane again. It was a promise we kept until the next road game.
The lights from the toll plaza appeared up ahead. I eased off the gas and rolled down my window. A fat man, about forty-five, in a sweat-stained gray uniform, stood at the door of the booth. One hand held out the toll ticket, the other was stuffing what appeared to be a peanut butter and lizard sandwich into his face. I slowly coasted the car through the gate, neatly picking the ticket from the outstretched hand. A name tag stenciled Billy Wayne Robinson hung from his shirt-pocket flap.
"Hey, Billy Wayne." Maxwell leaned toward the open window. "How's yer mom and them?"
The attendant looked startled, then confused, then, recognized the famous smiling face. Like a true Texas football fan he went completely berserk. Waving and trying to speak as we glided through, he spat half his sandwich on the trunk.
"Did you know that guy?"
"Naw, just a little of the ol' instant humble. I shoulda offered him some of this here maryjawana."
"Show 'em you can straddle the old generation gap," I said.
I accelerated into the main lanes of the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, heading for Dallas at about ninety miles an hour, a high-speed island of increased awareness and stereophonic sound heading back to the future. The turnpike was twenty-eight straight miles of concrete laid on rolling hills, connecting the two cities for anyone with sixty cents and a Class A automobile. Factories, warehouses, and two medium cities smother the land the length of the highway. Back in the early sixties, five minutes past the toll gate, heading for either end, you were out in the West. That was when Braniffs planes were gray. Jack Ruby ran a burlesque house. And the School Book Depository was a place they kept schoolbooks.
"Smoke will rise
In the Dallas skies
Coming back to you
Dallas Alice ..."
"Here!" Maxwell was thrusting the joint at me. His eyes and cheeks and neck were bulging. He was trying to stifle a cough. His face was crimson. I took the joint. Maxwell exhaled, coughing and clearing his throat. He looked and sounded like a four-pack-a-day man getting out of bed in the morning.
"B.A. wants me in his office at ten tomorrow morning," I said, remembering
Excerpted from North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent. Copyright © 2003 Peter Gent. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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