by Betty Moffett
My mother had promised that on my seventh birthday, I could go downtown by myself. Walking out our front door that afternoon in my brand-new sandals, I felt very grown-up, very brave. I could see Daddy pretending not to watch me while he trimmed the roses in our back yard, but as he and Mama both knew, I was unlikely to encounter any kind of danger. My journey would cover all of five blocks. And in our little town, everybody knew me, because everybody knew everybody. From the time I left home to the time I reached Adams’ Drug store, where the warm dime in my pocket would buy me a cone of chocolate ice cream, I would be watched, protected—and evaluated.
I waved at Miss Jeannie Grey, who made the best lemon meringue pies in town. I grinned at my always-neighbor, sometimes-friend Betty Ruth, who was sitting, almost hidden, on a low branch of her magnolia tree. And I summoned the courage to nod at gruff old Mr. Fields, wearing his bow tie and rocking in his squeaky chair, as usual, on his once-elegant front porch.
At the drugstore, Mr. Adams himself gave me an extra scoop of ice cream and wished me happy birthday. By the time I got home, mouth and hands sticky with chocolate, Mr. Fields had called my mother. “He wasn’t mean,” she assured me. “He just thinks you should hold your shoulders up and not be so shy.” My mother had, more than once, given me this very advice, but Mr. Fields spoke with the voice of the community, and, even then, I knew I would be wise to heed it.
That voice also spoke to Charlie Ross, who had the nerve to ignore it, and was punished for his courage.
By the time I turned 7, I’d been friends with Charlie for one year, since we both had had Mrs. Thompson for our first grade teacher. We were two of four students in the Red Bird reading group, so I knew that Charlie, unlike most other boys, didn’t hate books. I also knew that, unlike all other boys, Charlie did hate football. Had, I learned later, when we knew each other well, ever since his father, who’d taken time off painting houses to watch a neighborhood game of “flag,” had yelled at him, “You got to try, son. At least try.”
Try what? young Charlie wondered. Try to grab the dirty red bandana out of Jimmy Altman’s back pocket? Try to trip his friend Glenn Smith, who was the same age as Charlie, but half his size?
“Damn,” his father muttered, sticking his hands deep in the pockets of his paint-splattered overalls and shaking his head slowly.
That night at supper, Charlie’s mother, a dark-haired woman whose skin on her right jaw had been melted long-ago in a kitchen fire, tried to sooth her husband: “Ed, he’s a good boy, and he likes to do a lot of other things. He fixed the lawnmower and he helped Ronald with his spelling.”
“But he’s got potential for the game, Myra. He’s smart and he’s big—and football might get him out of this little bitty, stuck-up town and into college.”
“Well, it’s the little bitty town where you grew up,” his mother teased, “and you want bragging rights while he’s here.” She patted her husband’s arm.
They talked as if he’d left the table, but Charlie knew his father was speaking to him. Ronald, three years younger than his brother, happily
shook more catsup onto his meatloaf. It was already clear that Ronald would be neither big nor smart, and Charlie both loved and envied him.
By the time Charlie and I were in fifth grade, Ed Ross had pretty much given up on ever seeing his first-born in helmet and pads. When the men downtown said, “In a couple of years, that big old boy of yours will make a fine halfback. He is gonna try out, right?” Ed pulled his once-white cap down a notch and shrugged.
“’Course he will, ‘course he will,” said Roger Wooten, pleasantly. “His daddy played, didn’t you, Ed—not that you were ever real good. And you didn’t raise that boy soft or lazy—or yellow.” Glances were exchanged, and then somebody mentioned Raymond Pridgen’s fancy new Ford pickup and the talk mercifully moved on.
Charlie wasn’t lazy. He’d been working at Mozingo’s grocery since he turned 10. And he wasn’t soft—every week, he stacked cans of tuna and Campbell soup along the walls of the storeroom. And he wasn’t yellow: he’d tear the arms of anybody who picked on Ronald. He just didn’t like football.
The town library was in what had been the parlors of Miss Burke’s many-windowed house. Miss Burke was, by default, the librarian. Charlie had first gone there to search for car repair manuals—he’d graduated from the lawn mower to his father’s dented truck, which had a chronic cough. He went back because Miss Burke made sugar cookies for young patrons on Tuesday afternoons, and just before Charlie became a teenager, she began to add books to his stack of magazines: The Three Musketeers, Huckleberry Finn, and, later, A Farewell to Arms, books she’d already sent home with me. My love of reading had earned me an undeserved reputation as a scholar: few people knew how pitiful I was at math and science.
Soon, Charlie and I discovered we liked the same books—partly because the selection was limited, and partly because otherwise gentle Miss Burke had definite ideas about what young people should and shouldn’t read. Charlie and I would sit on the library’s front steps (one did not talk in the library), and wonder if mosquitoes bothered Huck and Jim and if Frederick Henry left the army because he was a coward or because he was brave. Our rambling talk drew us together, and by eighth grade, we were regarded as a Couple. Our classmates teased us sometimes. “What do you two lovebirds talk about?” Jimmy Altman asked suspiciously. “Algebra?” I smiled, knowing that, although Charlie could keep up his end of such a conversation, I would have very little to say.
But the teasing from our school friends was not the same as the teasing that began for Charlie in the summer before we entered high school. It started at Mozingo’s grocery and it had nothing to do with algebra or me. It had everything to do with Charlie and football.
Charlie had always liked working at the grocery with its green and white awning, liked the friendly businessmen who stopped in to pick up a pack of Camels and often included him in their banter: “I expect Gerald keeps you around to read the hard words on the soup can, right, young Charlie?” Mr. Wooten might say. Mr. Mozingo was a soft-spoken man whose white apron splotched with red and brown reminded Charlie of his father’s overalls.
Like Ed Ross, Gerald Mozingo worked hard, keeping his store open early to late. He had to, he told Charlie, to keep his customers away from the big Winn-Dixie twenty miles down the road—and to keep the town’s citizens from remembering that “Mozingo” was a spick name, strange and foreign among the Fergusons and Suttons and Wrights. “These are good people, boy, but it don’t do to be different in this little town. Better for business to be one of the folks.”
And so, it didn’t surprise Charlie much when Mr. Mozingo began saying, “When does practice start, boy? You know we can change your schedule to suit Coach Corbin.” Charlie had explained to the grocer that football didn’t make sense to him, that he wouldn’t try out for the freshman team, wouldn’t be going to practice, but the man hadn’t believed him. “Tell Coach you got those muscles working here, boy. Maybe I’ll get the whole team unloading canned corn and pork and beans.”
Gradually, the easy, meaningless exchange that Charlie had always enjoyed with the customers reshaped itself into something more intense, less friendly. “Hey boy,” Mayor Sutton would say, “gonna be putting that brainy head inside a blue and white helmet next month, aren’t you? Got to pay your dues, you know.”
Even at home, Charlie told me, he couldn’t get away from football. His mother encouraged him to stick to his decision. She’d be so glad not to have to worry about him getting hurt or hurting someone else. But she, too, had been getting questions from neighbors and at church that she didn’t know how to answer. And Ronald—gentle, laughing Ronald—told him he’d punched a kid at school for saying that anybody who didn’t play football was a pussy.
His father, Charlie said, was worst of all because he was trying so hard to be on his son’s side—and doing such a rotten job of it.
The library, as always, was a refuge, and we’d meet there when Charlie got off work in the late afternoons.
Miss Burke, bless her, had never heard of football, or if she had, she refused to acknowledge it, and she’d found a corner for us where we could read and whisper “as long as you don’t disturb the other patrons”—of which there were few, or none. So we sat in our private space that smelled like sugar cookies and slightly mildewed books and Charlie felt safe, for a while. One day, in the near whisper Miss Burke allowed us, Charlie said, “I don’t like it that in all these stories, something big has to change. Huck and Jim get on the raft, and in Grapes or Wrath, the Judds go to California. There’s a lot of upheaval, a lot of leaving, and it’s all sad.”
“Yeah,” I said, “not like here where Mr. Fields always wears a bow tie and the drug store always has vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. And people live in the same house all their lives.”
“Like our folks,” Charlie said. “Like we will.” Would we? I wondered.
In fact, much of that summer was slow and easy and simple. The smell of fresh-cut grass added weight and sweetness to the air. Charlie worked most days, but the town had relaxed into warm weather pace. Mr. Mozingo’s customers were happy to lounge and chat about tomatoes, or fishing for blue gill at the river. It was too hot to think about football. In the long, late afternoons, Charlie and his neighbor Glenn Smith, the second smartest boy in our class, tinkered behind Glenn’s house on an old green and cream Chevy they’d soon be old enough to drive. Glenn’s girlfriend Carolyn and I sat in folding lawn chairs, tanning our legs and drinking Cokes with peanuts we dropped in the bottles. Some evenings, a few kids a year ahead of us would organize a trip to the drive-in movie, where we smuggled in an extra or two in the trunks of their cars. We felt very daring, though Mrs. Rose, who owned the Twilight Drive-In and knew all our parents, was completely aware of our mischief.
Then, on August 14th, two weeks before the first day of school, football practice began, and Charlie realized he’d been granted a stay of execution, not a pardon.
He knew first from Mr. Mozingo. Charlie noticed his subdued greeting that Monday morning, and the troubled stoop of the grocer’s shoulders. Finally: “Sit down, Charlie, I got something hard to say. Folks are asking questions. They want to know if something’s wrong with you. They think maybe you got no guts. They say I shouldn’t have no chicken working for me. Then they laugh, like they made a big joke. Now, I know you’re not scared. I like you, boy, you know I do. But you’re gettin’ bad for business. You can finish out the week, but I’m not going to be able to keep you on.”
In the next few days, Charlie realized that people got quiet when he walked down the street, that they turned slightly away—no nods, no two-fingered waves. When he stopped in the drugstore to pick up some aspirin for his mother, Mr. Adams made him wait ten minutes before acknowledging his presence, then took his money and slapped the bottle on the table without a word. At home, when Ronald asked innocently if they could throw the football in their shady backyard, Charlie laughed, then went to the room he shared with his brother and softly closed the door.
The library was stifling in August, so he and I met in the town’s little park, where two old oaks shaded the net-less tennis court, and sat in the swings, whose heavy chains were hot in our hands. Charlie told me some of what was happening, but I knew I didn’t hear the ugliest parts. “Let’s discuss movies,” he said, “or popcorn.”
“Or algebra,” I said, and we laughed, sort of.
But other kids were eager to tell me the darker stories—how someone had tied white handkerchiefs to the Moorings’ mailbox, how someone—someone with talent, so it had to be Cleve Creech, who was also captain of the football team—had painted pansies on the hood of the old Chevy in Glenn’s backyard.
It was Carolyn who told me about the car. “ I used to wish Glenn was as big and strong as Charlie,” she said, “but now I’m glad he’s a little scrawny thing. Nobody wants him on any sports team.”
And then she asked me, “Are you going to break up with him?”
“No,” I said. “It never crossed my mind,” which wasn’t absolutely true. I’d begun to feel the collateral damage of Charlie’s decision. “How’s it feel to be dating a fag?” was the worst so far. And I’m not proud to admit that I sometimes imagined how much fun I would have had as the girlfriend of a football star. But, no, I was Charlie’s friend as well as his girl, and I’d be loyal, for as long as I could.
When school started, Charlie’s situation got worse. The kids were irritating, but their comments usually took the form of clumsy teasing. The teachers were more direct, and completely serious.
Mr. Lewis, the high school principal, was an erect, stern man, a former
Marine. That first day of school he told Charlie to stay after class.
Waiting in the hall for Charlie to be released, I heard some of what Mr. Lewis had to say: “… talented academically and, I’m sure, athletically … should put your school and your community above your own preferences… may be acting selfishly. And four years of football… high school record… recommendations from teachers…something to think about. You can go now. I see your girlfriend’s waiting.”
“I think I’ve been complimented, lectured, and threatened, all in less that five minutes. He’s good,” Charlie said, when we were, we hoped, out of earshot.
“Still, that was pretty tough,” I said. But Mrs. Walker was tougher. We liked her. All the “smart” kids did. She was short, with cotton candy hair and a round face, but she was fierce, and passionate about English literature, particularly Shakespeare. Charlie told me, almost word for word I expect, what she kept him after school to say.
“Do you know what shunning is? Have you read about that practice? It’s what happens when a family or community shuts out one of its members. They will not speak to him, look at him, or acknowledge his presence. It’s worse, I think, than Romeo’s banishment because it’s carried out by people who once loved him. And that’s what’s happening to you, Charlie Ross.”
“We’re talking about two kinds of games here, you know. One is simple, brutal, and stupid, but it has rules and boundaries and you only have to play on weekends. The other is vague, complex, and all-inclusive, and everyone you know is playing all the time. The rules change, your teammates change. It’s called—sorry to be obvious—life. You may decide you have to play the simple game in order to play the big one. There’s no dishonor in that decision.”
We were sitting in the front seat of the old Chevy. The summer evenings were getting shorter but no cooler. The plastic seat covers stuck to the back of my legs.
Charlie scared me when he pushed back on the steering wheel and hit it with his fist till it trembled. Then he looked at me gently. “That’s what they do in novels. I wanted to see how it felt. Silly, is how.”
Then he said, “I’m going to play. I’m telling you first. I’ll tell my folks tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll tell Coach Corbin. What do you think?”
What I felt was relief—for him, for me. The community would let him back in, people would talk to him again. I imagined myself cheering for Charlie, as he made yet another tackle, caught yet another pass (and there my knowledge of football ended). I imagined being envied by the other girls. And, with what I knew was terrible unfairness, I blamed Charlie for backing down, for caving in.
I looked for words. “I know it’s hard,” I said. “I would have done it a long time ago. Seems to me you had to choose between moving away, cutting off your right arm at the shoulder, or playing football. You made the only possible choice.”
“Well, I never considered moving away,” he said. “Have you?” And though
I didn’t answer, he held my hand as we walked the two blocks to my house.
In the next weeks, I saw very little of Charlie. He’d call me after practice, exhausted, and we’d talk a few minutes. Mostly, I’d talk.
Me: How was it?
C.: Hard (The first time I asked, he said “Stupid,” but he never said that again.)
Me: Are the other guys nice to you?
C.: “Nice” is a funny word to use, but yeah, nice enough, most of them. Me: Is Coach Corbin “nice” to you? C.: No. But he’s an s.o.b.—sorry—to everybody, so it doesn’t matter. Me: Are you OK?
One blue and breezy Sunday afternoon, we walked to the park. I watched him settle himself gingerly on the hard seat of the swing. “Sore?” I asked.
“Let me count the ways.”
“Tell me what your folks said when you told them you were going to play.” “Mom cried. I don’t know if she was relieved or scared or disappointed.
But it didn’t last long. She said, ‘I expect it’s for the best, Charlie.”’ Ronald hugged me around the waist. Dad patted my shoulder, then shook his head, just like he did when I told him I wasn’t going to play.
“Tell me about the other people—if you feel like it,”
“Well, Coach Corbin said, ‘About God-damned time, Ross’—sorry. Coaches have the corner on cursing. Mr. Mozingo said, ‘Good, good. Your job’s waiting when the season’s over.’ He looked kind of embarrassed.
Folks downtown just pretend nothing happened.”
“Are you OK, Charlie?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said, as he hauled himself out of the swing. “Now that I’m not a leper anymore, let’s go to the drugstore and talk about great big chocolate ice cream cones.”
At the beginning of that season, I knew only this about football: the goal was the goal, the boys wore so much equipment that you couldn’t tell who was who, the opposing teams lined up facing each other and tried to hurt everybody with a different colored shirt on. Like Charlie, I couldn’t see
much sense in it, though I lacked the courage to say so. But I liked the cool evenings and the smell of leaf smoke and our not-very-good marching band. And I really liked hearing people cheer for Charlie, as I had known I would.
When the season ended, I hadn’t learned much more about the game. Charlie didn’t offer much information. Once, when I asked, he tried to explain a play, but the diagram he drew reminded me of math class and my brain shut off. Once, I asked him what the players said to each other when they were all piled up on the field. “You don’t want to know,” he said.
“Do you say that stuff?”
He hesitated, then said, “I’m quoting Mrs. Walker quoting Macbeth. ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest Chuck.’” And we laughed about a man calling his wife ‘Chuck.’”
Ed Ross had been right; Charlie was good. By junior year, he was starting every game; as a senior, he was co-captain and All-Conference. At the homecoming game that October, I watched with pleasure as he pulled passes out of the air and dodged tackles. By half-time, he’d scored two touchdowns.
It was one of those perfect fall nights—chilly enough for jackets, almost bright enough to play by moonlight. I loved the excitement, the colors, loved, as I had known I would, being the hero’s girlfriend. From where I sat in the bleachers with Glenn and Carolyn and a gaggle of classmates, I could see Charlie’s parents positioned right on the 50 yard line, stiff with pride and nerves. Ronald, I knew, was somewhere in the crowd, smiling, about to burst with happiness.
When I got up to get a Coke, many hands reached up to help me navigate the noisy metal steps. At the refreshment stand, I heard a group of men discussing the game. The mayor was talking while Mr. Adams and Mr. Wooten listened. I moved closer to them, certain they’d be praising Charlie. And they were. “He’s good, maybe the best we’ve had. He’s gonna win us the championship this year”
“You know we made that boy.” This from Mr. Wooten.
“‘Course we did,” agreed a man who worked at the hardware store.
“Without us, he’d never have found the gumption to play. God knows, his daddy was no help. Didn’t have the sense to push that boy.”
“Yeah, well, Ed never was much count. Didn’t have two dimes or two brains to rub together,” said Mr. Adams.
“Or two balls, either,” put in another man, and they all laughed behind their hands.
“Team won’t be much next year without Charlie. But, hey, hasn’t he got a younger brother—Robbie or Rudy?”
“Ronald, it’s Ronald, but naw, he’s a soft brain, he’s not normal. Not worth our trouble.”
I stood there. The shunning had been bad, the taunts of other students and pressure from teachers, hurtful. But I had just heard the town’s most respected men speak with the voice of the community, and what they said was venomous. I made myself move, carried my watery Coke back to the bleachersThis is the town that Charlie loves, I thought, And then, Do I tell Charlie? Do I tell him?
The team was just coming back on the field. I spotted Charlie, wearing number 42; I watched him bring the other players into a huddle, saw them put their hands together in the middle of the circle, heard their joyful “Go, Bulldogs.”
And I knew I wouldn’t—couldn’t—tell Charlie what I’d heard.
In mid-November, the football season ended, as it always did, and basketball became the new topic at Mozingo’s grocery. “That Thompson kid’s a pretty good shot, but Lord, he’s a skinny string bean. Better get him in here, Gerald, put some muscle on those toothpick arms and legs. Somebody needs to talk to his daddy.”
After Christmas, Charlie began to get recruiting letters and calls promising a variety of scholarships and financial aid. The university even offered him a chance to play for the fabled Rams. But Charlie turned down these glittering opportunities for a modestly good academic scholarship to a modestly good school about an hour’s drive from home.
Ed Ross was bewildered but proud. Charlie’s mother smiled and smiled. I couldn’t imagine how Ronald would survive without his brother.
I applied to one college—in the mountains of the western part of the state, as far away as I could get and still pay in-state tuition. I knew that, though I loved my parents and many things about the town where I had grown up, I would not live there again.
Charlie and I saw each other on occasional weekends, and at first, it was a deep, comfortable relief to be together. But gradually, we had less and less to talk about. He listened politely when I described my class on Romantic poetry. I tried to be interested in his philosophy and history studies. But soon, we just didn’t see each other anymore.
I took a job teaching high school English in a town near the college. I went home on holidays. After Charlie graduated from law school, he opened an office on Main Street two doors down from Mozingo’s grocery. I think he and Carolyn dated for a while, but then I heard that he had married Sylvia, who’d been two years behind us in school. I remembered her as a gentle, smiling girl. I wonder if they go to the football games. I hope they’re very happy.