Whompyjawed : A Novel

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2001-04-10
  • Publisher: Scribner
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Whompyjawed: 1.Askew, out of place 2.Off-center or crooked3. (informal)a person of eccentric or questionable character; odd....................Football is Willy Keeler's ticket out of West Texas, but only if he can keep the explosive combination of his intellect and hormones from destroying his high-school career. Not an easy task as he also contends with the endless demands of his girlfriend, mother, coach, and college recruiters. When a startling sexual encounter with a classmate and a consuming infatuation with one of his mother's friends threaten to shatter his fragile balance, Willy discovers that simply figuring out who he is may be the greatest challenge of all.Reminiscent ofThe Catcher in the RyeandThe Last Picture Show,Mitch Cullin'sWhompyjawedis an unforgettable coming-of-age story, told with unparalleled humor and compassion.

Author Biography

<B>Mitch Cullin's</B> fiction has been published in <I>Christopher
Street</I> and other magazines. His work has been widely anthologized and he has won various awards for his writing. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.


Chapter One: Game Night

I know some things. A guy can't grow up in Claude without not knowing something about the place. But what I understand best about my town is how it shuts down on game night, how dusk settles over the deserted Main Street with only the blinking of a single yellow light that sort of marks the center of Claude. And with the wind blowing dust and bits of trash along the sidewalks and gutters downtown, not a soul in sight, someone driving through on the interstate could just think a bunch of folks got tired of where they was at and decided to leave for good. Even the domino parlor gets dark and spooky and a fellow would have to strain to see all the posters and signs taped on the plate-glass window. Go by the Dairy Mart on the outskirts, all lit by fluorescent light inside showing it's open for business, but there ain't nobody eating and the parking lot is empty. That's game night. Don't want to see the game? Might as well drive to the stockyard to watch the cattle at the troughs. Might as well walk along the railroad tracks leading from town. Might as well try to learn Hindi from the new owners of the old Trail End Motel.

Not too long ago, when I was still a little kid, I used to climb the water tower on some game nights. I'd sit there with my legs sort of hanging into space, those peeling painted words over my head --Claude, Home of the Fighting Tigers-- and I'd take in the WPA football field and park from where I was at. Way the hell up there, sometimes the wind was so dry and strong it'd get me tired, but I could see the bleachers on both sides of the field, the big lights glowing down on the grass. The cheering from below would come to me there. Sometimes I cheered too, even though I didn't know who was winning. But I could see the game. And on those Friday nights I knew everybody was there, all the old- timers and cowboys and housewives and kids and people I went to school with, all packed in and around the field, and me, no more than ten or eleven, so far above them that if I had drooled over the edge my spit would've disappeared before ever coming close to the ground.

And I know some other things too. These things I know from no books or teachers, but from the Domino Men with their spit cups and their beer guts and their rough faces, who'd buy me an Orange Crush or a jawbreaker and who'd talk about how Claude was when it was. Few others my age know that Claude once had almost ten thousand souls, though it's got less than half that these days, and that this little dusty West Texas city was a stopover for men trying to get elected as governors and senators. Once Teddy Roosevelt himself whistle-stopped through and made a big speech from the presidential train in front of the depot. Who'd have ever thought that? Another thing, those tracks that brought Roosevelt here was built by the Fort Worth and Denver Railroad when it pushed through in 1887. So this place used to be kind of important, I think. But on game night, like most nights really, Claude is nothing more than a scar widening that stretch of blacktop bypass known as U.S. 287. "The real ass of nowhere," says Coach Bud. But I know better than that.

Copyright © 1999 by Mitch Cullin

Chapter Two: Three-Finger Talk

Usually Doc Wallace says, "Everybody in one piece, huh?" And we're always quick to answer. He comes into the locker room just grinning, no matter if we've won or lost, with that old black leather medical bag in his hand. And all of us, all the team, we're scattered around old steel lockers or the wood benches. We're still sweaty from the game, geared up or let down, with all our pads and jerseys and personal stuff thrown around.

The Claude Tigers. There's about twenty of us. We got red and black uniforms. Jesus, we're a mixed bag. Even though we got more white than most, we still got several black players and three Mexican brothers. No matter, though. There's no shit between any of us because, one, it's stupid, and, two, we don't win when we're not all together. I make sure that's clear. That's my role in a way. Make sure everyone's pumped. Make sure we're together like a swarm of ants or something like that, like a bunch of monkeys or something. When we win, we all just yell and laugh and stuff, but when we lose, we all feel it together and no one says anything for a long time.

Either way, Doc always wanders the locker room after a game kind of checking us over, looking in our eyes for a concussion or something, sometimes pressing on bones here and there. What I find funny about Doc is his long gray hair, which makes him appear like some old hippie or something. We kid him about that and he takes it fine because that's the kind of man he is, real lively. Some might say jovial, I guess. Sometimes I flash him the peace sign with my fingers and he just shakes his head and smiles.

Tonight Doc goes first to one of our linemen, Harvey, who's real big and round but not what I'd call fat. Harvey is undressed from the waist up. He's got sweat and dirt on his face because he hasn't showered yet. Sometimes he don't. Three fingers on one hand are taped together with some raggedy bandage, but with his other hand he's busy stuffing his jaw full of Red Man. Doc just stares at him for a bit, shaking his head at the amount of chew Harvey is putting in his mouth, then he points at Harvey's wrapped hand. "Bothering you any?"

Harvey lifts the three fingers so Doc can get a look at them. "Feels fine, Doc," he says.

Doc brings those fingers close to his face, squints his eyes to inspect, sort of bends Harvey's fingers one way and then another.

"Hell," Harvey says, "seventy-two was laying down for me during the second quarter just so he wouldn't have to tackle Willy no more."

"Harvey," Doc says, "you're a case for the books. Peel it and shower. Let me have a see before you leave."

And Harvey nods with that mouthful of chew. Doc pats him on the stomach and moves on. He moves past several of us, sometimes swatting butts, though there ain't nothing weird about how he does it, or touching heads. Then he comes to where me and Lee Haywood, the quarterback, and my black friend Sammy are standing together as we remove our gear. "Good game," he tells us, "all of you. Everybody here okay?"

We nod our heads that we're fine, so Doc repeats himself by saying, "Hell of a good game, boys. I'm proud of you."

"We could've hung thirty more on them, Doc, if Coach hadn't wanted to ease up," says Lee. Then Lee glances at me and Sammy. "Gutting them with Willy," he says, "they was trying to man Sammy. Even I could've hit him all night."

Sammy laughs, flashes a big smile, so me and Doc start to laugh a little too. "All Lee's got to do, Doc," says Sammy, "is get 'em up in the air. I'll be there when they come down."

"I tell you, Doc," says Lee, "it do make quarterbacking fun."

But before I can join in, I hear Coach Slick, our assistant football coach, call my name. So I lean forward some and see him standing outside Coach Bud's office, his thumb jerking toward the open door behind him, saying, "Hey, Willy, Coach wants to see you."

The thing about Coach Bud is that when he wants to see someone, no matter what that person is doing, he had best drop everything and go. Don't matter if he might be getting wrapped by Doc. Don't matter if he's taking a shit or is butt-naked in the shower. He ain't kept waiting by no one, especially us. That's just how it is.

So I go into Coach Bud's office wearing only my game pants and socks, and he's sitting behind his desk in that high-backed, tattered swivel chair. He's as sweaty as the rest of us, maybe more. His dress shirt is stained at the armpits, unbuttoned at the neck, with a wrinkled blue tie loose and dangling to one side. His cheek bulges with a wad of chew. He's got this half-pint wastebasket set on the lap of his baggy slacks for spitting. Thing about Coach Bud is that from looking at him it's easy to tell he was once a player. Even with his thin hair and that heavy hanging paunch, he still runs with us during practice. He's pretty good at showing the line how to block and all. Like if I was to blur my eyes a little, or sort of pinch my eyelids almost shut, he might not look much older than me.

"Yeah, Coach?" I say.

His face is hard, very thoughtful, in a way to where it's impossible to tell if he's happy or mad. He just might break into a funny story or give me some hell about something I done wrong in the game, though he'd be pressed to say what. He tells me, "Shut the door." So I do. Then I turn around again to face him, and he's waving me toward a metal chair in front of his desk. So I go and sit.

I watch as he works that chew a little, spits, then gives me a wink in kind of an admiring way. I've seen him do this before, but it always makes me feel strange. I can't help but shift some in the chair. I glance at the taping table along one wall. Glance at the folding chairs set close to his all-purpose wooden desk. He spits again. I notice the stand-free photo of his wife on the corner of the desk, the old circular-dial telephone, the nameplate made years ago by a shop student that Coach Bud now uses for a paperweight, with uneven carved letters -- coach bud warfield.

"That was pure-dee football you played out there tonight, son," he finally says. "Pure-dee football."

"Thanks, Coach."

"Know who was up in them stands tonight?"

I shake my head like I don't know, but I got a pretty good idea.

He leans forward over the desk. "Two more recruiters," he almost whispers.

"Where from?"

"TCU," he tells me, "but that don't matter. That's chickenshit as far as I'm concerned. Point is -- they're all starting to come in now. And everybody knows what everybody else is doing. That means the big boys are going to be getting serious about you real soon, and that's when I'm going to start sorting the wheat from the chaff. I got eighteen colleges asking about you, Willy -- eighteen!"

And now Coach Bud is all excited. His eyes are lit up and I ain't sure what to say or what I'm supposed to say, so I sigh and grin at the same time. I sigh like I can't believe it, like a guy who's worked real hard and gotten the reward, like a guy who knows it was only a matter of time, knows it's bound to happen, whatever it is, and still can't understand it when it does. Sort of like dying, I guess, except in a good way.

"Yessir," Coach Bud is saying, "pretty soon now, we going to start getting down to the nut cuttin'." Then he settles back in his chair, spits once, and stares real seriously at me for several seconds.

My grin becomes odd in my mind. It's forced but honest, and I'm self-conscious of my lips and the muscles or whatever holding them in place that way.

"Willy, it's God-given what you got, son. God-given. I've seen a ton of them over the years -- good ones. But not a one that's got it all like you."

I still don't know what to say, I really don't. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. But Coach Bud understands. He gives me another wink. "Well, I'll keep my thumb on the recruiters. You go on now and have some fun."

So I stand. And right as I start to leave, he goes, "One more thing -- "

"Yes, sir -- ?"

"You ain't going in bareback with Waylon's daughter, are you?"

That'd really scare some guys, but it don't me. I know Coach Bud well enough, know how he feels about me, so I just tell him, "Nah, Coach, I ain't going in at all." And that makes him chuckle real hard for a second.

He says, "Well, I ain't so damn sure I believe that, but -- "

"I'm not. Not yet anyhow."

"You remember what I've always told you -- they's three things that ruin a good ball player quicker than anything else."

Then out comes his three fingers and Coach Bud starts counting them off like he does once or twice a month to me. "There's drugs -- " he says and pauses. "There's injury -- " he says and pauses. "And there's marriage," he says and pauses. His fingers roll into a fist and he shakes it at me. "So you be careful, huh?"

"Okay, Coach," I tell him.

And as I walk from his office, he mumbles something all soft but I don't catch it, and I'm not sure if it was meant for me to hear anyway. Then I come into the horseplay and noise of the locker room and get slaps on my back and handshakes and good game, Willy, good game, from my team.

Copyright © 1999 by Mitch Cullin

Excerpted from Whompyjawed: A Novel by Mitch Cullin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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