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Don't Know Tough

Don't Know Tough

by Eli Cranor
Don't Know Tough

Don't Know Tough

by Eli Cranor



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Notes From Your Bookseller

Eli Cranor knows writing. Eli Cranor knows football. Eli Cranor knows the south. This one-two-three knockout punch results in a tough and tender story. The novel is visceral, cerebral and emotional. A triple threat of literature like no other.

Friday Night Lights gone dark with Southern Gothic; Eli Cranor delivers a powerful noir that will appeal to fans of Wiley Cash and Megan Abbott.

In Denton, Arkansas, the fate of the high school football team rests on the shoulders of Billy Lowe, a volatile but talented running back. Billy comes from an extremely troubled home: a trailer park where he is terrorized by his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Billy takes out his anger on the field, but when his savagery crosses a line, he faces suspension.

Without Billy Lowe, the Denton Pirates can kiss their playoff bid goodbye. But the head coach, Trent Powers, who just moved from California with his wife and two children for this job, has more than just his paycheck riding on Billy’s bad behavior. As a born-again Christian, Trent feels a divine calling to save Billy—save him from his circumstances, and save his soul.

Then Billy’s abuser is found murdered in the Lowe family trailer, and all evidence points toward Billy. Now nothing can stop an explosive chain of violence that could tear the whole town apart on the eve of the playoffs.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641293464
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/22/2022
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 14,820
File size: 476 KB

About the Author

Eli Cranor played quarterback at every level: peewee to professional, and then coached high school football for five years. These days, he’s traded in the pigskin for a laptop, writing from Arkansas where he lives with his wife and kids. His work has won The Greensboro Review's Robert Watson Literary Prize and been featured in Missouri ReviewOxford American, Ellery QueenThe Strand and others. Eli also pens a weekly column, "Where I'm Writing From" for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and his craft column, "Shop Talk," appears monthly at CrimeReads. He is the author of Don't Know Tough, which won the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Contest, and Ozark Dogs. For more information visit

Read an Excerpt

Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I’s gonna let Him see me hurt. No way. Bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.
     Tasted it while I sat in Ms. Miller’s class. Woke up in Algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.
     This my favorite drill.
     I just been standing back here, watching the other boys go at it. The sound of pads popping like sheet metal flapping in a storm.
      “Who want next?” holler Bull. Bull ain’t the head coach. Bull coach the defense. He as mean as they come.
     I tongue the hole in my cheek, finger the cigarette burn on my neck, and step into the crease. Coach hand me the ball and smile. He know what kind a power I got. Senior year, too. They got that sophomore linebacker lined up across from me. The one with the rich daddy that always paying for everything.
     Coach blow his whistle.
     I can see Him smiling as He stuck the hot tip in my neck, smiling when He put Little Brother out in the pen. I grip the ball tight, duck my head, and run at sophomore linebacker, hoping to kill him.
     When we hit, there real lightning, thunder explode across the field. The back of sophomore linebacker head the first thing to hit the ground, arms out like Jesus on the cross. I step on his neck and run past him.
     The other boys cheer.
     Coach blow his whistle and already the linebacker getting up like I ain’t nothing. He shaking his head, laughing, and standing again. Disrespecting me?
     Disrespecting me?
     This time I spear him with the top my helmet. Dive and go head to head. There’s a cracking sound—not thunder, not lightning, and damn sure not sheet metal—this the sound of my heart breaking, the sound of violence pouring out.
     Coach blow his whistle like somebody drowning. Sophomore linebacker scream cause he don’t know what’s on him. This boy a poser. He don’t know tough. Don’t know nothing. Bet his momma woke him up this morning with some milk and cookies. I try to bite his cheek off, but the facemask, the mouthpiece. I see only red, then black—a cigarette, a dog pen.
Sitting outside Principal office after practice when Coach call me in. Principal a big man, soft in places used to be hard. He look like a football coach, got a black mustache and everything. Coach look like he from California cause he is, hair all slick and parted. And skinny. Too damn skinny.
     “Bill,” say Coach. “What happened out there?”
     Bill my daddy’s name. Nobody call me Bill except Coach and my brother Jesse.
     “You realize the kind a shit you in?” Principal say, cussing for me, trying to make me feel at home. “That boy you stomped? His daddy liable to sue the whole damn school.”
     Feel my jaw flexing, like if I could, I just grind my teeth down to the gums.
     “You hear us talking, boy?” say Principal.
     I raise one eyebrow, slow.
     “Swear to God,” say Principal. “Tell you what I ought to do. What I ought to do is call Sheriff Timmons. How about that? Let him charge your little ass with battery.”
     I nod. Know bullshit when I hear it. Then Coach say, “But he’s not going to do that.”
     Principal grunt.
     “Listen, Bill,” say Coach. “I’m going to sit you for the game tomorrow night. Principal Bradshaw thinks that’s best. Okay?”
     I hear Coach but I don’t. My ears ringing. That burn on my neck turn to fire.
     “Call the cops then.”
     Principal laugh. Coach don’t.
     “We’ve already qualified for the playoffs,” say Coach. “You’ll be back next week, and then we’ll be going for the real goal—the state championship.”
     “Senior Night,” I say.
     Coach breathe in deep through his nose. He ain’t got no idea what it mean to my momma to walk across that field on Senior Night. What it mean to me. Have them call out my name, my momma name, and everybody in Denton ring them cowbells, stand and cheer? Something like that outside Momma’s mind. And now they trying to take that from her, from me?
     Coach look to Principal, but he already turned away, looking at something on his computer. “Bill,” say Coach, “I think this is fair. It’s as good as I can do.”
     I nod, waiting for Principal to say something, at least look up from that computer and see what he just took from me, but he don’t. Whatever on that screen bigger than Billy Lowe. I’m out the door before he ever turn back, running with blood in my mouth.
“Aw, hell nah,” say Momma.
     Little Brother dangle from her arm like a monkey. Tiny fingers, white at the knuckles, holding on to her shirt like he know how it feel to be dropped. And Coach wonder why I ain’t never fumbled, not once.
     “Senior Night? And Coach Powers sitting you? For what, Billy? What’d you do?”
     “Don’t lie.”
     “Just a drill, at practice. Hit a boy hard, real hard. Just kept hitting him.”
     “Football practice?”
     “Nah, hell nah,” say Momma.
     Momma already got the phone out, already dialing Coach when He walk in, smelling like beer-sweat and gouch.
     “Who she calling?” He say to me.
     I just stare at Him. Don’t say nothing.
     He make a jab for the phone. Momma jerk away. Little Brother hold strong.
     “Calling Coach,” say Momma. “Done kicked Billy off the team.”
     “He ain’t kicked me off. Just—”
     “Naw,” He say, grabbing Momma by the shirt now, pawing for the phone. “No fucking way—”
     “Yes, hello? Coach Powers?” Momma say, but it ain’t her voice. It the voice she use when she talk to the water company, DHS, teachers, and Coach. She talking fancy and slow. Don’t sound nothing like her. “This is Billy’s momma.”
     The man who live in our trailer but ain’t my daddy start pacing. He got a bottle of NyQuil in His hand. Drink NyQuil most the time, save His whiskey up. He pull from the bottle and wipe His mouth with the back a His sleeve.
     “Billy say he ain’t gonna play? On Senior Night?” Momma stop rocking Little Brother. Look at me. “Austin Murphy got a concussion? Was out cold for five minutes?”
     He start to laugh. “Shit yeah. That’s my boy.”
     “Alright,” say Momma. “I understand, Coach.”
     She still got the phone to her ear when He take it. “Billy the only fucking chance you got. You hear me? Either let him play or we take his ass down the road to Taggard. How about that?”
     He chug the NyQuil some more. Don’t even know how stupid He is. Cain’t change schools this late in the season.
     “Yeah. That right, Coach. See you at the game, and if Billy don’t play—Billy don’t play.” He jab the phone screen three time with His thumb then throw it at Momma. She try to get out the way. Little Brother hold tight, but the phone corner hit him in the back, a sad, hollow sound. Little Brother look like he about to cry, but he don’t.
Kept my mouth shut when I left the trailer the next morning. Didn’t say nothing to Him on my way out. Didn’t have to. The NyQuil bottle empty. Everything empty when I left Shady Grove.
     Now it game time, and Coach still letting me run through the tunnel and the paper the cheerleaders spent all day coloring. Even say he gonna let me walk out on the field at halftime for Senior Night. But I ain’t told Momma. He’d wanna walk too, and I’ll be damned if He get to walk out there like He my daddy. I stay in the back. The band blow they horns, but they ain’t blowing them for me. Used to blow them loud and sing the fight song when Billy Lowe run across the goal line.
     Sophomore linebacker here. In a wheelchair, God, a fucking wheelchair. Ain’t nothing wrong with his legs. Wearing sunglasses too. I walk up behind that wheelchair, just stand there, while our team getting beat by Lutherville. Lutherville sorry as hell, but the Pirates ain’t got shit without Billy Lowe. Still standing there behind that wheelchair, smelling sophomore linebacker hair—smell like girl hair—when I hear Him start hollering from the stands.
     “Ain’t got shit without Billy Lowe!”
     I go to gnawing my cheek.
     “Bes play ma Billy!”
     Now Momma too, and I can tell by her slur, she gone. I look back quick to the bleachers, time enough to see Little Brother dangling from her arms with his Billy Lowe jersey on: number thirty-five.
     “Fuck this shit.”
     “Yeah. Fuuuuck this shit.”
     Ain’t no telling them apart now.
     Coach a true believer, though. He out near the twenty, fighting for a holding call. Don’t see Principal wading through the stands like a linebacker on a backside blitz.
     “Nah, hell nah. Don’t touch me.”
     That’s Momma. She see Principal coming for her.
     “Swear to God,” He say, like He the kind a man do something about it. He ain’t. He all talk and shit and empty bottles. “Swear to God, you touch her and—”
     “Boy, you listen,” yell Principal at Him. “You touch me and I’ll have the sheriff up here faster than greased lightning. You hear me?”
     Sophomore linebacker stand and push them sunglasses up in his shampoo hair. Probably thinking they about to fight, but I know He won’t do shit. Principal ain’t a kid like Little Brother. And He know Principal would get the sheriff up there, and the sheriff got Tasers and clubs, and He don’t want no part of that.
     “We going, alright?” He say. “We gone.”
     Lutherville got to punt. Coach turn to the sideline to holler for the offense, and he finally see. I still got my back to them, but I know it ugly, embarrassing too. Feel them hot on my neck. I look to Coach to save me. Just put me in the game, send me to the locker room, take me by the facemask and beat the hell out me, anything, but don’t leave me standing here on this sideline.
     “Come on, Billy!”
     It Momma.
     “Take my boy down the road!” she holler. “Take Billy Lowe to run the ball at Taggard!”
     Roll my neck. The burn cracks. Hot blood on my back. My mouth a open wound. I think about spitting on sophomore linebacker, covering his face with my crazy. But I’m watching him watch my people in the stands. Watching Momma and Little Brother just holding on. I look one more time to Coach, but it third and six and he got to call a play. Sophomore linebacker still watching Momma holler for me. Watching Him too. Everybody know they drunk now, and it embarrassing, fucking embarrassing.
     Then sophomore linebacker save me. He elbow another sophomore in the ribs, kinda point up in the stands, point right over me like I ain’t nothing. And now he laughing and pointing at my momma, at Little Brother.
     “Come on, son, fuck this place,” He yell, but He ain’t my daddy, and that does it.
     This time there more blood. My blood. His blood. Little Brother blood. The blood that connect us. I feel Bull tugging at my jersey. I seen a cop try and pull a pit bull off a Lab once. Had to pry the jaws loose with a billy club. I’m head-buttin the boy now. Got his arms nailed down, head-buttin him when Bull finally pull me loose.
     As he dragging me away, I see Coach over there, kneeling beside sophomore linebacker. Look like he whispering something in his ear. Bet he saying, “Billy didn’t mean it. Billy a good kid, heck of a running back too. Billy just got it tough. And his momma crazy and won’t stop fucking. And the other day he got a cigarette stuck in his neck, and he took it like a man, and that was after his momma boyfriend put his little brother out in a dog pen, and he had to take that baby boy scraps for lunch and dinner, then breakfast the next day. Billy didn’t mean nothing by it. He was just embarrassed, stuck on that sideline, right there close to them, close enough to feel the heat. Can you imagine? You imagine that, sophomore linebacker?”
     No. You cain’t.

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