In 1964, seventeen-year-old Billy Dyer is a newcomer to Oleander, a Gulf Coast Florida town whose old guard define football as the ancient Spartans did their Agoge. It is a mode of brutal tutelage that forges the hearts and minds of the town’s elite youth for a future of power. Billy’s parents are recently divorced and he lives in a bad neighborhood with his secretive, alcoholic father.
Through the brutal and fiery days of summer practice, Billy fights for a starting spot on the team, the Spartans. He makes the team, but in a horrific hazing scene far from the town, he rebels and in the process badly injures his rival for the flanker position. The events that follow force Billy into exile from football, then later back into the game when powerful men realize that the Spartans cannot win without him.
“Fighting in the Shade is less a sports novel than a coming-of-age story wound around a mystery, with football as symbol and symptom.” —St. Petersburg Times
“A powerful, beautifully written book about attitudes and practices that we want to believe are safely in the past. Instead, as Watson reminds us, corruption and cruelty survive through their uncanny ability to take on new shapes.” —Laura Lippman, New York Times–bestselling author
“High school football mixes with Faust in this blitz of a novel from Watson . . . a big Dennis Lehane-like story of society, opportunity, and consequences, revealing Watson as an accomplished storyteller.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
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Fighting in the shade
By Sterling Watson
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2011 Sterling Watson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOleander, Florida, 1964 The huddle broke. Heaving, staggering boys, too tired for the touch of fists at the center of their ragged circle, scattered to their positions. Billy Dyer trotted to the slot between right tackle and split end. He rested scraped palms on thigh pads so hot they scabbed the blood that oozed from a ripped thumbnail. He set his feet at shoulder width and leaned to measure the daylight between his face and the tackle's right heel. Ted Street, the quarterback, stepped into Billy's vision of hot white space and socketed his hands between the center's legs. He glanced left and right at the lines of cocked bodies, boys made into bombs about to go off. Street looked at Billy Dyer, seeing him first as one of twelve verses in a violent song, then seeing him differently. Street's eyes told Billy the ball was coming to him.
Billy looked downfield, measuring the eight yards he would sprint before cutting left at a forty-five-degree angle between the cornerback and the linebacker. His calculations clear, he drew a deep breath of molten August air and stared off at the horizon. The haze. This time of year it hung above the city, smelling of orange peels burning at the juice plant east of town. Billy moved his gaze from the shimmering yellow sky and felt a moment of dizziness, of cold under the hot breastplate of his shoulder pads. His legs threatened to turn to water under him, so he did what the coaches told him to do. Shake it off! Shake it off, boy! Billy Dyer shook his head, sucked another chestful of scalding air through the cage of his helmet, and heard Ted Street call the snap count, "Hut! Hut-hut! Hut!" And everything was motion.
The hard, metallic slap of the football into Ted Street's hands. The inches of daylight between the lines violently ripped away, helmets striking with sharp reports, shoulder and thigh pads clashing with a deeper, more living sound, like slabs of meat colliding, and all of this to the song of the gasping, groaning, grunting throats of exhausted, straining boys. Billy Dyer loved these boys and what they did more than anything else in the world.
Billy counted eight yards in strides he would bet against any yardstick and faked the cornerback outside, leaving the boy stumbling and cursing. Then, knowing he had wasted precious time on the fake to make the coaches notice, he cut inside, watching Charlie Rentz, the linebacker, change smoothly from high-kneed backpedaling to a sprint toward him. Billy glanced back at the scrimmage just as Ted Street disappeared into a collapsing pocket, taken down with a sickening smack by a fleet cornerback slicing in on a red dog. And then in the middle distance he saw it, rising and falling in the yellow haze, bouncing with each of his strides, a brown oval spiraling perfectly. He and the ball would converge somewhere in a terrain of danger. His only duty was to watch it, never them.
He sprinted on, feeling the cold at his chest which was, he knew, an early warning of heat stroke. And now the first urging of fear in his belly. The voice of fear said, Stop running. It told his hands to protect his belly, his thighs to drop him to earth before the hit came. But Billy begged his failing strength for one last long leap, dug his left foot into the churned sand of the practice field, and lanced into the air, right arm leading for a one-handed catch. He took the spinning nose of the ball in his palm, killed the spin with twisting fingers, teased and begged the ball back to him. His body still rising, he cradled the hot leather into his right armpit and covered it with his left hand.
The hot yellow sky shrank to a black dot in Billy's eyes, then groaned wide again.
Head Coach Prosser was standing between the two formations, lecturing the offensive line. "Keep your feet under you! Keep 'em wide! Move your man to the outside! OUTSIDE!"
Billy had lost time. He pushed himself up and let go of the ball. He had gone to sleep for thirty seconds, maybe a minute. To his right, the defensive backs chewed their mouth guards and waited for him to leave their turf. Their faces, shadowed inside helmets, were striped with a weird war paint, gray dust streaked white by sweat. Charlie Rentz watched Billy with nothing in his eyes, neither challenge nor concern. Billy gave back the same empty gaze, then let himself look at Coach Prosser, hoping for a good word. He wanted Prosser to say, Nice catch, son, or Way to take a lick, bud, but he didn't expect it. Prosser was sizing him up. Maybe thinking of playing him this fall ahead of Sim Sizemore, the senior who never would have made that catch, who would have folded like a yellow flower at the sound of Charlie Rentz's cleats cutting the ground.
Prosser called to the sideline, "Sizemore, get in here."
Clean and fresh, Sim Sizemore trotted onto the field. He didn't look at Billy.
On his way to the bench, Billy passed Mr. Leone, the math teacher and line coach, olive-skinned, hawk-nosed, and serious, and Mr. Rolt, the drivers ed teacher. Leone was all right, an army vet who had played pulling guard at Syracuse, but all the guys called Rolt a phony.
Rolt said to the hot yellow sky above the field, "You all right, son? We don't want your mommer saying we didn't take care of you out here." He said it quietly so that no one in the bleachers would hear.
There was always a sneer in Rolt's mouth, even when he said something kind. He was a fat jock-sniffer who had never played football, but he knew what coaches knew: They were making boys into men their own way. They wanted no tales told about what happened on this field.
Billy smiled at the pain inside his helmet. Fuck you, he said to the pain. To Rolt, he said, "Yes sir, Coach Rolt. I'm all right."
Billy fell to his knees at a tub of lemonade. Oak leaves, fruit flies, and a single cockroach floated on the yellow surface. He sank his face into the cold, drank what he craved, then lifted his head with a growling gasp. He wiped his mouth on his forearm and stole a glance at the bleachers.
This Friday-morning scrimmage was the last chance for some boys to make the team and for others to secure starting positions. A small crowd had turned out, braving the blazing August sun. Men in white shirts and ties with black or gray suit coats folded across their laps sat at the top of the bleachers; with them, Doc Runkle, the team physician. Further down, students clustered by clan—jocks or fans. The jocks were baseball players, track men, and basketball players. They watched with a detached professional interest. The fans were girlfriends of boys on the field, student government, and cheerleaders who had just finished their own practice in the gym. Billy searched for his father in the small crowd, did not see him. Then, before his eyes swung back to the field, he noticed a girl. She was watching him. Not the scrimmage, but him. Billy Dyer. Dressed in black, she sat by herself, and now, sure that he had seen her, she lifted a pale, languid hand from the book in her lap and waved to him. He did not wave back— it was forbidden. He smiled in the dark cage of his helmet and turned back to the field.
Ted Street broke the huddle, and Sim Sizemore trotted to the gap between tackle and split end. The position Billy wanted. Sim Sizemore was tall, lean, fast, and so handsome the sophomore girls blushed and whispered when he passed them in the hallways. They called him Dreamboat. Ted Street, cool, aloof, with the hooded gray eyes of a thug, from a family of grove workers who lived in a trailer park south of town, was a different dream. Sizemore looked timid taking Billy's place in the formation, lost inside that gift of a body, at least Billy thought so. He was taller and faster than Billy, but cutting across the middle where linebackers hurtled like trucks, his body begged for safety. The boys talked about him. They called his pass routes Chicken Shit Right and Chicken Shit Left. Billy wondered why the coaches couldn't see it.
"Hut! Hut! Hut!"
The ball slapped Ted Street's hands, and Sim Sizemore's cleats sprayed earth as he cut across the middle too fast to bother faking, caught Street's perfect strike on his number 19, and turned upfield. Chris Meeks, the free safety, arrived a step too late with a flying miss at Sim's chopping feet. Sizemore sprinted to the end zone, spiked the ball, then turned and shook his fists at the yellow heavens. The crowd in the bleachers yelled, "Go Spartans!" A businessman at the top shouted, "Atta boy, Sim!" A sub near Billy muttered, "Fucking hot dog."
Sim Sizemore trotted back to the huddle and paused before leaning into the circle that Billy longed to join. Sim looked over at the bench, pushed back his helmet, drew a finger across his forehead, and flicked sweat at Billy Dyer.
A tall man in a white shirt and black suit trousers stood up, stretched, and groaned, looking behind him at a bleached pine plank. "On these boards, my ole ass bones are pushing right through the flesh."
Another man, not as tall, on the far side of handsome, with blond hair fading to white, smiled and said, "Like the bench you used to ride, eh, Blake?"
The tall man slapped the seat of his trousers twice. "I had my time on the field. What'd you do after you quit football, Cam, play tennis? Some sissy thing like that?"
Cameron Sizemore's cheeks colored. "It was cross-country, Blake. I ran cross-country ... after I got hurt. They called us harriers, God knows why. I didn't think your ass was so sensitive."
"This ole ass has spent more time on a horse, pushing beef cattle, than yours has in a swivel chair. So don't be making fun of my ass."
The two men stood together watching the field and the brief celebration that followed Sim Sizemore's catch and run. "The team looks good, don't you think?" Cam Sizemore asked.
Blake Rainey smiled and stretched his long neck in the sunlight. "Say what you mean, Cam. You mean your boy Sim looks good, don't you?"
"I meant what I said. It could be a good year. A very good year."
"I have to agree," said Rainey. "You think Billy Dyer can give your Sim a run for the starting position?"
"Billy can play," Cam replied, "but he can't run with Sim. Nobody out there can."
"I suppose you're right about that, Cam. But Billy can hit. He can stick. And it seems to my powers of observation that your boy Sim don't like to hit. He don't like contact. And we both know you can't play football without the love of violence."
"Speed beats brute force any day."
"Maybe it does ... among the harriers," said Blake Rainey. "We'll see. We surely will."
Excerpted from Fighting in the shade by Sterling Watson Copyright © 2011 by Sterling Watson. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A good story that gets better as it goes along. Somewhat predictable and done before, but not bad.