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About the Author
William’s work has appeared in numerous literary and scholarly journals, including his article "Learning to Surf the Sea of Conversation," which is forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing. Over an eleven year span of teaching and coaching, William worked with students ranging from grades six through twelve in the public schools of Indiana and North Carolina.
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By William J. Torgerson
Cherokee McGhee, L.L.C.Copyright © 2012 William J. Torgerson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSuicide Hill
A black Buick hearse moved west out of Horseshoe on Summit Street, a road that rose in elevation as it led to a rare Midwestern patch of land, hilly and wooded rather than flat and planted. Zach Hooper, "Coach Hoop" to the locals, rode in the passenger seat and stared through the rain-pebbled windows, over the gravestones, beyond the local recycling plant, to where muddy fields stretched out like an old man's history. Hoop's friend Russ, who'd recently taken over command of his father's mortuary, was driving.
"Kind of quiet over there, Partner," Russ observed.
"Ahh," Hoop said, a man with a lot to think about: mostly, that five weeks before, he'd called off his marriage right at the moment his fiancé Erica was about to put the invitations in the mail. "I was thinking that you owe me one."
"Wait a minute," Russ said. "Just who owes who for what?" Russ had just passed over a wad of fifty dollar bills—500 bones—to Hoop for payment for a few upcoming hours of work as a pall bearer for Bob King's funeral. It wasn't such a strange thing for a family to have to pay to get a couple younger folks to work a funeral, but for a local financial mogul such as Bob King, who'd made a grain elevator's worth of loot in the metal spinning business, it was a surprise. Bob's Company—Crown Metal—made everything from pizza pans to manhole covers. If it was round and made of metal, Bob King could get it for you, or at least it used to be that he could get it for you before he up and died right on the concrete floor of his factory.
As Russ eased the hearse to a crunchy stop on the edge of Maple Hill Cemetery, he rubbed the little nub of hair on his lower lip that he referred to as his soul patch. "Wait till you get a look at the coffin."
The two men got out of the hearse and walked toward the rear of the Buick where a crow-black Lincoln pulled up behind them. The rain was cold but light, like a continual squirt of hairspray, and there were four people in the Lincoln: Bob's son Chad was at the wheel, the widow Linda was in the passenger seat, and in the backseat were two more of Bob's kids, his son Camp and his daughter Chris who was the youngest of Bob and Linda's children.
Strange work, Hoop thought, but he certainly needed the money. For at least three months now, Hoop had roosted atop Horseshoe's gossip fence because of what he'd done to Erica. At the root of the problem, Hoop believed, was that he'd been married before, very young at twenty-two, a marriage which ended inside of three years when his ex had fallen for a lawyer and moved off with him to Indianapolis. Because of the late juncture at which Coach Hoop had called off his second marriage to Erica, there were a lot of things that needed to be paid for: the invitations, the deposit on the golf course club house, the bridesmaids' dresses, and the wedding gown. Hoop's finances were, as they say, sinking deeper into the red.
"Get Linda's door." Russ's order yanked Hoop from his thoughts of Erica, and he saw that Linda was already emerging from the car. Hoop couldn't ever remember actually speaking to the woman, but of course he'd seen her around town and her picture was often in area newspapers—once even in the Chicago Tribune—for all of the charity work she did. Linda's posture was as erect as a ripe stalk of corn, and she was in her mid-fifties, thin and pretty, and her shoulder-length blonde hair was turning a distinguished and lovely white.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Hoop told Linda. He had no idea of what to say, this even though it had been fairly recently that he'd been a pall bearer for his classmate's funeral, a young lady named Angel Boardman. Maybe, Zach thought, there are some situations for which experience cannot help.
"I think Bob got what he had coming," Linda said. "He had a temper like a tea kettle and the appetite of a garbage disposal." Linda smiled. "Too much country fried steak, too many glasses of bourbon."
Hoop nodded his head sympathetically. What else could he do? Bob's death had been quite a scandal in Horseshoe. He'd thrown one of his infamous tantrums—something about the upkeep of a lathe—and he'd suffered a surprise heart attack and died right there on the concrete floor of his factory.
Chad, Camp, and Chris—the King's were an alliterative bunch—got out of the car and joined their mother. They had all chosen lives outside of the family business: Chad lived down in Indy and worked as a biology teacher. Camp, who was based in Florida, was paid to sail other people's boats, and finally Chris, a former classmate of Hoop's, was now some kind of poet who lived in New York City.
Zuke noticed Chris had herself a brand new persona from the long-ago days during which they'd taken high school Spanish together. She'd sculpted her brown hair into a sort of ridgeline that ran down the center of her head, not so drastic as a Mohawk or even a Fohawk, but somewhere close. She was dressed in a corduroy blazer with patches on the elbows, men's faded blue jeans, and a pair of dinged rawhide boots.
"You look great," Hoop said, and she did, as either a roundly attractive woman or a baby-faced hunk of a man. Chris smiled at Hoop's compliment, held out her arms for a hug, and Hoop embraced his old friend, wondering what she felt about her father's death, about her return to a place she'd seemed determined to never visit again.
A gold Lexus SUV pulled in behind Linda's Town Car. This was the King family lawyer, a man everyone called The Bull, and rumor had it that he was paid two thousand dollars a month just to have lunch with Bob on Mondays. Bull was on his cell phone and indicated that he'd be just a minute.
Hoop turned back to Chris. "Congratulations on your book." It had been about a year ago that Hoop had read in the once-a-week Horseshoe Sentinel that Chris had won a book prize. There'd been a release party in Manhattan at a bar called KGB, and the photograph of Chris had shown the old Soviet flag barely visible behind her hanging from the ceiling behind the bar. That, of course, had prompted some conversation in Horseshoe, where rumors often spread like the flu virus.
Chris's cheeks turned a deeper shade of crimson, and she looked down at the broken blacktop of the road. "Thanks," she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
The Bull swaggered out of his Lexus, tucking his phone into his suit pocket. "We ready?" He was a stocky man, a former state champ in wrestling, and he'd been a member of Indiana University's team before he'd gone on to graduate from its law school. Bull shook everyone's hand when he got to where the hearse was. Greetings were exchanged. Everybody knew everybody even if it had been awhile.
"If you could line up three to a side," Russ instructed.
Hoop was surprised that they were starting already. This was a very sparse crowd for a man as rich as Bob King, for a man who employed—what?—forty percent of the town. It was as if the people of Horseshoe had told Bob not to let the door hit him in the ass on his way out of this life.
Russ opened the rear door of the hearse, and although Hoop had been forewarned, he was shocked at what he saw. The casket was done up as if it were a stock car for the Brickyard, sponsored by Crown Metal. It was painted shiny white with purple and gold trim.
"Oh my God," Chris said at the sight of it. She and her father weren't close and since she'd skipped the wake, this was the first time she'd seen Bob's final gift to himself.
"Special ordered from New Mexico," Camp said. "Dad insisted I come see it as soon as it arrived."
"Where has he been keeping it?" Chris asked.
"Out at the airport," Linda said. Bob owned a small jet and hangar out at the air field that had been named for him.
Russ talked the pall bearers through their service. "Grab the side runners as the coffin comes out." Russ waited for everyone to catch sight of the polished wooden shafts that ran along the length of the casket. It had a purple royal crest just below where Bob's head rested. The crest on the lid of the coffin would have looked natural sashed across a knight's armor, and the words Crown Metal were emblazoned in gold letters. The casket seemed to float back into the rain like a cloud. Water beaded on its surface as if it were the hood of a freshly waxed car.
Everyone except for Linda acted as a pall bearer, and they all moved from the gravelly shoulder out onto the slick wet grass.
Linda called out to them. "You all be careful." The freshly dug grave was fifteen yards or so away, work that had been done by Horseshoe's Mr. Do Everything, Tom Boardman. Among one of many jobs Tom had was that he was the head janitor at Horseshoe High where Coach Hoop worked.
As the crew moved along, the weight of the casket jerked a little harder on Hoop's shoulder socket than he'd expected, and it wasn't until he angled in the direction of King Bob's grave, that he realized he was going to walk right past Angel Hulbert's stone. Angel was Tom Boardman's daughter, a former high school classmate of Hoop's, and after marrying a little late and having her first child, she'd died before her daughter Lilly had even reached her first birthday.
As Hoop drew closer to where Angel's body was buried, the gravitational pull of her headstone seemed to draw Hoop into another dimension, a solar system in which his classmate's tombstone was the sun. From Hoop's first days of kindergarten all the way into early high school, Angel Boardman had shined on him as a nearly constant source of cheerfulness, eternally smiling and friendly, very sweet to him when he was just a skinny and acne-plagued middle school student. Back then, while Hoop had still been afraid to talk to girls, his bolder classmates had been copping their first feels of bottoms and breasts. Hoop had always liked Angel, always had some degree of crush on her, and when as a freshman he'd confessed his admiration, Angel had been so sweet in her refusal that it took Hoop several days to realize he'd been artfully rejected. But now Angel was dead, and Hoop found himself unexpectedly caught up in the emotion having had a crush on someone who was no longer of this world. The sorrow of a death can sneak up that way: nothing at first, and then striking like a tornado tearing through the woods.
Hoop no longer felt the light rain falling on his face; no longer felt the way his feet wiggled a little more loosely than normal on the wet grass, and maybe most precariously of all, Hoop failed to notice that he was coming upon the edge of Horseshoe's fastest sledding run, a bowl of land in the middle of the cemetery left free and clear of graves probably due to the steepness of its incline. Most folks in Horseshoe knew the place as Suicide Hill.
Bob's son Chad was the first to go, slipping on the grass, rising in grandiose style, his right leg whipping up first, an instinctual maneuver meant to help him stay balanced. Chad's left foot came out from under him too, and he pirouetted up into the air, his legs spreading wide, almost as if he were a ballet dancer at the peak of his jump. One corner of the coffin fell sharply into the muddy ground, and it was nearly a miracle, that in unison, as if they were players on one of Hoop's finely tuned starting fives, that the pall bearers pivoted toward their freight and grabbed the side runners with both hands.
"And down," Russ said, using a voice as if he were a trainer at some gym, talking a person down from one of many sets of repetitions. Russ glanced over to Linda who only seemed a bit worried and possibly slightly bemused at her son's fall.
Chad lay flat on his back and grasped his crotch as if he were readying to make some sort of grotesque mud angel. "I just tore the hell out of my groin."
Russ hurried around to the other side of the coffin, slipping a little as he went, putting his hand down on the casket to steady himself. "Jesus," he said. "This is dangerous." When he reached Chad, he knelt down and offered his hand, expecting to help him up.
"Give me a second." Chad pushed Russ's hand away and shook his head. "I'm out, Ma," he said to his mother, meaning that he would not be able to help carry the casket. Chad grimaced, tried to sit up, but failed.
"Take your time," Linda said and moved over to where her son lay in the mud. Everyone except for Hoop gathered near Chad and waited for him to try and get up. Angel's gravestone tugged at Hoop's consciousness again, and he read the inscription etched into the limestone above Angel's name: Death, The Golden Key to the Gates of Heaven. Off to the side, right there on the stone, was a photograph of Angel, her husband Lance, and their little girl Lilly, all of them dressed in winter hats and kneeling down in front of the steps of their rental home on Riverside. There was a Border Collie in the photo too, stretched out in front of them lying in the snow.
The point of an emotional spade sank down into Hoop's heart and turned up a cleft of anger. A month or so before Angel died, the family had held a ceremony at the church, a ceremony during which hundreds of people called on God and asked for Angel to be healed. Hoop had gone and sat in the back, right next to where an artist he'd never seen before worked to sketch Angel at the altar. Hoop remembered how she'd knelt up there at the front of the church for the better part of an hour, pouring out prayers and tears, begging God for her life, begging for the chance to be a good mother. Hoop had brushed quite a few tears from his own cheeks that night as he sat in a back pew sipping Jack Daniels from a small silver flask he'd started to keep tucked in his coat. It was a shameful memory for Hoop, a shameful thing for a man to have done who was supposed to be leading the town's young people as a teacher and the boys' basketball coach. Angel's funeral had come at the height of Hoop's drinking, about halfway between the present day and the day he'd told Erica Carr he wasn't going to marry her. How could God exist if He didn't listen to Angel Boardman? If not Angel, then who?
"Zach. Earth to Zach." Russ's use of Hoop's given name yanked him back to King Bob's funeral. Chad was on his feet and limping over to where his mother stood. Russ shook his head at Hoop and then looked to Linda. "I don't know," he said, "maybe this isn't the day for it?"
Linda smiled and brought her hands together right in front of her lips, almost as if she were going to deliver an open-eyed prayer. She looked up at the gray heavens again, and then, as if she were exercising a great deal of patience, she explained: "I was married to Bob King for nearly thirty years." Linda surveyed the group, not unlike the way Hoop looked over his team when it was halftime and they were behind. "I really need to put my life with Bob behind me as soon as I can. Let's be as respectful as possible and get him into the ground." Linda paused to let that sink in for a moment and then she added, "Today." A crease of a smile tickled the corners of Linda's mouth. Sometimes a smile helps a person not to cry. "Sound okay to you, Mr. Russell?"
"Sure." Russ repositioned everyone, asking Hoop to take his spot, sliding Camp to a corner, and then moving himself to a place diagonally opposite Hoop.
Once again, minus a teammate, the casket-carrying squad began to proceed oh-so-carefully. Hoop noticed how close they were to Suicide Hill. He'd sledded there many a time from the ages of six to twenty, and remembering this, he touched a wormy scar on his Adam's apple from where once on his sled he'd missed the center of the little earthen ramp at the bottom of the hill and scraped dangerously close to the trunk of a giant maple tree. A low-hanging branch had pierced the skin of Hoop's throat requiring six stitches.
The pall bearers were now approaching the very spot someone on a sled should embark if they hoped to catch the center of the ramp at the bottom of the hill, launch into the air, safely miss the maple, and go skittering across the well of land and up a quarter of the other side.
The pall bearers had carried the casket about ten yards when Camp and Russ slipped, not quite at the same time. They were on the Suicide Hill side of the coffin, and it was Russ who went down slightly first, gripping the casket runner as he fell, an action that yanked Camp back and to his right, a few steps closer to the sledding run. Rather than pivot and grip the runner as Camp had done before, for some reason this time he let go of his hold and hopped back as if he'd encountered a skunk rummaging through his trash.
Hoop, now holding all of the weight, was jerked toward the ground and his chin bounced on the silver lid of the coffin, his skin splitting like that of a grape's. A peppering of stars razzed into his vision. A few red droplets of Hoop's blood dotted the front side of Bob's shiny white coffin. The side runners slammed down and because Hoop had never released his grip, the fabric of his sleeve worked its way into the little hinge that connected the runners to their load. Hoop went to one knee still attached to the coffin.
Excerpted from Horseshoe by William J. Torgerson Copyright © 2012 by William J. Torgerson. Excerpted by permission of Cherokee McGhee, L.L.C.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Ye Olde Trading Post....................29
Aloe For The Burn....................51
The Bloody Bucket....................119
Every Word I Said....................131
Nobody's a Rat....................153
Friends at the Table....................175
Book Discussion Questions....................211