“Hey, scrub,” Sloat Tatum grunted at the squat junior varsity player. “Gimme a bite of that,” he growled, snatching a hot dog from the boy’s plate, which was piled high with chili and slaw.
Sloat crammed almost the entire thing into his mouth and bit down, returning an inch-long stub to the underclassman. He wasn’t hungry, just hell-bent on poisoning the festive atmosphere at the Rattler Pride weenie roast, an annual Aurora High School event to kick off homecoming week.
Landon and I tried to watch the varsity cheerleaders, but Sloat’s presence made it impossible to focus. He leached bitterness, stepped on our buzz.
“Let’s enjoy this moment while his mouth is full,” Landon said to me.
Sloat’s misery had multiple sources. All last week, Coach Farnsworth had ridden his ass for his minimal effort at practice and threatened to bench him for Friday’s game. His ego took another hit this morning when he realized none of the homecoming queen contestants wanted him for an escort. Now, he was about to lose a bet with Greg Mwamba, our varsity quarterback. Sloat was supposed to eat 25 hot dogs at tonight’s gathering, but after consuming 15, he was about to concede—a blow that might obliterate what remained of his pride.
Greg wandered over. “There’s plenty of food here, Sloat. You don’t have to steal from the jayvees.”
Sloat’s cheeks bulged. He wore a deadpan expression.
“That one doesn’t count,” Greg added. “You didn’t finish it.”
The thing is, Sloat could’ve won the wager if he hadn’t loaded each bun with fixings. But without the condiments, those wieners had a pungent petroleum taste. Coach Farnsworth, the grill master, had a habit of repeatedly spraying starter fluid on the coals, even after they had grayed over.
Sloat swallowed, handed his friend a $20 bill. “Le Mamba wins,” he grumbled. “Consider it a late payment for getting me through Mrs. Alligood’s class.”
“Twenty bucks won’t cover that,” Greg replied.
Greg Mwamba was a native of Aurora County. His parents were from Zaire and spoke only French at home. Last semester, Greg’s tutoring assistance enabled Sloat to pass beginning French and maintain his athletic eligibility.
“Let’s grab some brews,” Landon suggested. “Mamba just got paid.”
Greg shrugged. He crumpled up the cash, threw it at Landon. “You’re buying. You’re the one with the credentials.”
On our way out, we slipped by Coach Farnsworth as he doused the coals with another blast of Gulf Life fluid. There was a burst of flame, a stench of scorched hair.
“Lord have mercy!” Coach exclaimed, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. “I reckon I’ve singed my brows!”
And he would’ve vaporized his comb-over, too, if he hadn’t worn his Cat Diesel cap to the picnic.
“Hey, Mamba!” Landon shouted from the railing of Duck Creek Bridge. “Hope you ain’t afraid of ghosts. The spirit of Sloat’s grandma has been seen at that very spot where you’re standing. Maybe she’ll show up tonight to check on her naughty grandson.”
Greg laughed. “We need her at Friday’s game,” he hollered back. “Sloat’s been sleeping on the snap. Maybe Grandma could keep him awake.”
No one could lay a hand on Greg at practice. But we all knew our season would end abruptly if Le Mamba was ever injured. Greg was the savviest quarterback in the Pamlico Conference, and a damn fine kicker. “You better watch that kinda talk,” Sloat said, opening a beer. “Maw Maw will haunt you motherfuckers.”
Landon chucked. “You’re the one haunting everybody, Sloat. On homecoming week, you’ve managed to scare away all the women and horrify your teammates.”
Sloat snorted. “At least I ain’t kissin’ Farnsworth’s ass so I can play. It’s pitiful how you mowed his lawn to stay in the starting lineup.”
“That’s bullshit,” Landon shot back. “Coach’s back was hurt. I wanted to help him.”
Sloat guffawed. “An ass-kisser and a prima donna, that’s what we got here.” He gulped beer, set his sights on Greg. “Mamba, your pants don’t even get dirty at practice. All you do is sip Gatorade and fuss at us linemen. Maybe I’ll bring tea and crumpets tomorrow so you can whine in style.”
No one could lay a hand on Greg at practice. But we all knew our season would end abruptly if Le Mamba was ever injured. Greg was the savviest quarterback in the Pamlico Conference, and a damn fine kicker. Coach Farnsworth even let him call his own plays—a privilege unheard of in the high school game.
Fog rolled in, obscuring the water’s surface in a translucent haze. Something splashed—a mullet, probably.
“Enough talk, time for a dip,” Sloat said.
Landon sighed. “Nobody’s swimming tonight. We’re gonna sip these brews, enjoy the evening, and turn in at a reasonable hour. Tomorrow, we’re gonna stay after practice to cheer on our jayvees. They’re doing good, you know?”
“They ain’t played nobody,” Sloat scoffed.
“And neither have we,” Landon replied. “But keep up your half-assed effort, and we’ll start losing to some shitty teams.”
“Oubliez la mouche!” Greg shouted before the snap. “Le cercle rouge, soixante-neuf!”
Sometimes fake audibles befuddled opponents. On homecoming night, they only confused Sloat. During the first half, he jumped offsides four times, costing us 20 yards in penalties. On an evening with perfect football weather, our team resembled a rusty engine with a worn timing belt and a broken piston named Sloat Tatum. Greg got sacked three times and intercepted once for a touchdown, all because Sloat missed crucial blocks.
We were down 13-7 when we took a knee in the locker room at halftime. A crisp breeze carried in the aroma of fresh-cut grass, eclipsing the vinegary stench of sweaty shoulder pads. Out on the field, the marching band played “Duke of Earl,” a cheerful accompaniment to Farnsworth’s rant.
“Those collard-eatin’ country boys are kickin’ your tails!” he hollered. “You boys don’t wanna play football! You wanna play lovey-dovey with your sweethearts in the stands! Well, I’ll tell you this—those Shelton Point shitkickers just plowed our field with your dicks and fertilized it with your innards.”
Coach removed his cap, rubbed his bald eyes. He spat into a nearby trash can.
“Sloat Tatum!” he yelled.
“For two weeks you’ve slept through practice, but now, I’d swear you’re legally dead, son. You smell death, boy?”
“You know why? Because you’re a corpse out there, and a dead guy can’t smell himself rottin’ away!”
Farnsworth wheezed, paused a moment to catch his breath. “I take that back—at least a goddamn corpse would be visible on the field, but this is first time I’ve seen your dead ass all evening!”
“Yessir,” Sloat muttered.
I glanced over at Landon’s lowered head gently bobbing. He had his mouthguard in, his jaw clenched tight. As disgusted as I was, I also had to bite down hard to keep from laughing out loud.
What had happened to Sloat? He rarely performed well at practice, but was always an asset at game time. The best I could figure, Sarah Swindell ruined him. Yesterday, the lovely freshman had asked Sloat to be her escort, and he was smitten about it. Because of her age, Sarah wasn’t eligible to be homecoming queen or maid of honor, but she was a shoo-in for an attendant spot. After tonight’s game, she and Sloat planned to attend the dance—an event shunned by upperclassmen, or at least the cool ones.
Sloat had himself a head full of Sarah, I supposed.
We spent the second half trading the ball with our opponents on fourth downs. Sloat’s blocking was abysmal. Desperate to bring him back from the grave, Coach threw him in on defense.
Sloat Tatum needed a pretty good reason for missing a night out with his buddies. Tonight, his reason was wearing three-inch silver heels and a wrist corsage. It worked. With two minutes remaining, Shelton Point snapped the pigskin over their punter’s head. Soon as the player recovered the ball, Sloat stripped it from his hands and high-stepped into the end zone. Greg’s extra-point kick sealed a 14-13 homecoming victory.
After the game, Sloat spoke to a reporter from the Goose Creek Sentinel. “Until tonight, I never touched the football,” he scowled. “All I ever do is rack heads. But that’s gonna change. I’m a running back now.”
Sarah Swindell swooned. Sloat posed for pictures. Hand in hand, they headed to the dance.
The rest of us had more important things to do.
“He’s insufferable,” Greg said as we piled into Landon’s van. “There’s no way Farnsworth would make him a running back.”
“I hear you, brother,” Landon replied. “Sloat can’t hold onto his pecker when he’s taking a leak. How’s he gonna hang onto a football? You think I’m kidding, look at his sneakers sometime.”
“If he’s quoted in the Sentinel, he’ll run the gantlet on Monday,” I said.
“The other linemen will flatten him,” Greg added.
“I miss him already,” Landon chortled. “Think how much fun we could have convincing Sloat that he’s a running back. We could set him up good for Monday’s practice.”
“There’s still hope,” I reminded them. “Sarah’s got a curfew. He’ll meet us at the bridge soon enough.”
But Sloat didn’t show. And Sloat Tatum needed a pretty good reason for missing a night out with his buddies. Tonight, his reason was wearing three-inch silver heels and a wrist corsage.
Not much was said the rest of the evening. Everyone seemed preoccupied. About what, I wasn’t sure. But I’m certain at some point we all pondered Sloat’s absence that night, along with his impending presence at Monday’s practice, revitalized and ready to carry the football.