Day One: Dicks, Drawn in Rows on a Blackboard
by Tom Noonan
Wind moves in waves, breaking along the empty street and spilling through B.’s partially cracked car window. Summer nights in South Carolina are cold and worn. The old movie theater stands alone across the street, its marquee’s glow breaking up the night, as B. sits back, a new weight resting on his right thigh. The radio only gives him static.
Inside the old, converted theater, there is a man, and inside what B.’s pocket conceals, there are four bullets. He locates a familiar station on the radio that sings, “I was born beside a river that flows to a raging sea.” B. isn’t sure how many bullets it takes to kill a man, but he’s pretty sure it’s no more than four. A soft, ecstatic guitar lies hidden amongst the song’s bass drum narrative, slowly building on a muted riff that will eventually form its breathless finale. B. keeps his eyes fixed on the old theater’s entrance while the radio sings in the background, each song unaware of the one that follows.
When Sam Foles was arrested four months ago, the only thing B. could think about was Brett, Ms. Shannon, and the dicks. This thing with the dicks had all happened before B. knew Sam, but, for some reason, on the day the sirens came, B. couldn’t stop thinking about it. Ms. Shannon, an ex-curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, was a first year teacher when B. took her U.S. History class at Georgetown Public. She wore a baggy blouse on her first day that she only partially tucked in and glasses with frames that were two decades too big. She never stood a chance.
It only took Brett a few weeks to start drawing dicks on the blackboard. He was always drawing something. During his freshman year, Brett got called out for doodling during class. When the teacher asked him to present his work to everyone, he held up a picture of a stump with giant, twisted roots. “It’s a picture of my parent’s love life,” he said.
His dicks started off small and on the fringes of the blackboard. Brett would get to class 5 minutes early everyday and put one up there. When Ms. Shannon saw the dick, she would erase it silently, not making eye contact with anyone, the whole class laughing at the back of her head. Soon the dicks began to grow, each day taking up more and more of the blackboard, and each day, Ms. Shannon would slowly erase the dick while the class laughed to themselves. Then, one day, Brett came to class 30 minutes early and drew 50 dicks, ten rows of five, that stretched across the entire chalkboard. It was his masterpiece. When Ms. Shannon arrived and saw what he had done, she sat down at her desk and cried for the entire 40 minutes. The sky was overcast that day.
This image of Ms. Shannon crying at her desk with a sea of chalk-colored dicks behind her stayed with B. when he went to visit Sam in prison. A reporter from Sports Illustrated wanted an interview with him, but Sam wouldn’t agree to it unless B. was present. Since Sam was not being allowed visitors at the time, B. and the reporter had to walk along the prison fence to speak with him. The prison was built on an old plantation, but its fences stood sturdy with a barbed wire frame. The sun was blinding that day.
B. slept walked through the interview. The questions had begun to come and go easily even if he wasn’t the one being asked. There was the chair and the girl and, of course, the word. Sometimes they asked about the game, the one the night after everything happened, when Sam tagged four homeruns and threw a one-hitter. This time, B. just watched Sam walk. He seemed skinnier and noticeably pale. B. stumbled after a while and sat in the wild grass. Even with his eyes closed, everything was too bright.
Then Sam spoke to him, asking the reporter for five minutes after the interview was over. B. stood up to face him, struggling to keep his balance. Sam looked just as un-sturdy. “They’re taking it. They’re trying to take everything because they can’t have it. They can’t do what I can do, no one can play like me, so they want to kill me. It’s what they’re doing; it’s what all of this is. They’ll do it slowly, not all at once, but they won’t stop till I’m dead. They’re taking it away from me, but they’ll never have it. I won’t give it to them.”
B. blacked out in the car ride home and got his stomach pumped at Georgetown Memorial Hospital. The doctors found a bottle of Oxycotin in his jacket pocket that was prescribed to “Chuck Knoblauch”. The TV in B.’s room was showing a John Wayne movie when he came to. “Well, there are just some things a man can’t run away from.” B.’s head was pressurized that day.
The Oxy started when B. was playing at Virginia. His thumb tore away from its socket when he was sliding into second base, and the surgery that repaired it resulted in his first prescription. His life became a poorly edited film, each day being lost to the next, no transitions to mark a change. His world, all of it, was tilted.
The first time B. mixed Oxy and liquor was when he fucked Jamie Bray. Her room quivered around them while B. breathed in something warm. At first, everything was out of his control. The disorder above him made B. pull back, momentarily refreshed in the cool air above it all. It was a feeling that brought him back, something he wanted to chase down and hold onto. B. fell forward unconsciously, letting the scene perform itself. Below him, Jamie was getting consumed by the red comforter on her bed, eyes closed, chasing something on her own. Two stereos played somewhere in the background, each with a different song. Their narratives clashed, meeting midair and crashing in a puddle of audible dissonance on the floor.
“I want you to cum,” Jaime’s eyes were wide when she spoke, trying to will B. to finish. He was still wearing his jersey. There was a game that day, but he was already an hour late. Closing his eyes, holding Jamie down, and trying not to fall, he fixed his knees for better balance. Beads of sweat ran down his back, and the music cut out. The power had failed.
B. came on Jaime’s comforter and left her sighing in bed. His bags were already packed when she called him, “Why did you leave?” she asked.
“I thought I left my window open.” He didn’t realize until much later that he hadn’t been wearing a condom. The sky was full of rain clouds that day.
The bus ride was more of a vision, with people separated infinitely sitting next to each other. This Ramones shirt wore a kid across the aisle from B.. The girl a few rows up stared harshly at the road as if it were wrong for not staying with her, like it was leaving her rather than her moving across it. The lane lines outside the bus rose up, holding everything inside them.
The first few weeks at home could have been loud, but B. had set everything to mute. His parents moved around him like ghosts, and he allowed them to haunt. His life in Virginia faded like it belonged to someone else. He didn’t make a phone call until the day his pill bottle stopped rattling. He dialed Johnny’s home number.
“He’s at the field, honey,” Johnny’s mom told him gleefully. “He’s an assistant there.”
“Georgetown, honey, your field,” she said, a hint of concern buried beneath her delighted drawl.
“He’s coaching at Georgetown?”
“Yes, dear, been coaching there since February.”
B. hung up and headed to the varsity field. His hand shook on the wheel of his father’s car. It was partly cloudy that day with light humidity. Johnny was taking a piss behind the dugout when B. pulled up. The smell was horrible.
“Still can’t take that shit to the woods, Two-Four?” Johnny twisted his head, spotting B. immediately.
“Three-Five, what kind of shit are you on coming back here for?” B. held up his splinted hand, offering no further explanation. “Stay for practice, we’ll grab some beers after,” Johnny said and headed back towards the field.
B. sat in the bleachers with a group of old Georgetown Public alumni who lived by the field. He didn’t talk, just listened.
“Stay in on the pitch. Stop backing out like a pansy.”
“Keep your body behind that. Stop getting fancy.”
“They aren’t going anywhere with a catcher like that. Soft glove, no arm.”
Then Sam Foles took batting practice, and the bleachers were silent. His swing was smooth and flawless. Sam didn’t hit balls; he stung them, each one on a rope. “This colored boy,” B. heard a voice whisper behind him, “he’s the future of this program.”
After the practice finished up, B. signaled to Johnny to bring Sam over. “Do you have any seeds?” B. asked him.
“Yeah, you got any?”
“Yeah. In my bag. You want some?”
“Bring them here real quick, I want to see something.” B. walked toward the woods and found a long, thin branch and sat down in the dugout. The sun was setting. He handed Sam the stick. “Alright, I’m gonna toss up these seeds, and I want you to hit them with that stick.”
“Are you serious?”
“I just want to see something, here,” B. tossed the first seed, and Sam swung, missing everything. B. tossed another, and again Sam missed. Soon the entire pack was at Sam’s feet. B. stood up, “Bring a new pack tomorrow.”
That night, Johnny found B. a new prescription. The two of them drank on the beach with a couple of girls from town, and they all ended up naked and trying to make the stars fall. B. fucked one of the girls on a bench underneath a streetlight. Her body looked disfigured in his shadow. They left the other girl at Georgetown Memorial Hospital. Johnny said her fingers were broken and her eyes had capsized.
The next day B. went back to the field and threw seeds to Sam. Again, he missed them all. “You’ve never done this before?” B. asked him.
“I hit baseballs.”
B. kept coming back, everyday, sitting with the alumni during practice and throwing seeds to Sam after. Soon, when Sam started making contact, their drill wasn’t silent. B. told Sam his story, how he broke his hand, how he didn’t want to play anymore. It all seemed illogical to Sam because, without the parts B. chose to omit, it was. But Sam knew about the number 35 and what it meant to Georgetown. He knew about the legend, and the difference between that kid and the man who threw seeds to him everyday. They were two different stories.
One Sunday around mid-season, Sam invited B., who had been out the night before with a girl named Charlemagne, to church. Charlemagne’s smell covered him when he put on his coat. She had laid on it when the two of them watched the moon sway across the sky. “My dad used to say the moon was his heart,” Charlemagne had said. “He said my heart was the sun, always shining on his, letting it glow. He’d say, ‘The sun gives us life. It is life. And you are mine.’ But I always knew the moon and sun were never together, always apart.”
The churches in Georgetown had survived de-segregation, and B. hadn’t considered this before meeting Sam and his uncle for mass. He was underdressed, wearing a collar and no tie. Sam’s uncle joked, “The Lord doesn’t deserve a little more effort?”
“Where’s the bathroom?” B. responded. He took his last four pills in there, splashing cold water on his face. The fringes of his hair were wet when he joined Sam and Sam’s uncle in their fifth row pew.
“A little holy water will do ya just fine,” Sam’s uncle said, smiling, his spotless white teeth matching his tie. An organ played somewhere behind them, a melody treading carefully over the sunny conversations of the early Sunday crowd. B. took off his splint and tried moving his thumb. It was stiff and weak, barely rotating at all. He left the splint off for the entire service.
Church, B. found, was an easy thing to fake. Everything was simply, and obviously, choreographed. He followed Sam and never fell out of place. The preacher was almost out of breath when he began the homily.
“On this Sunday,” he began, “on this holiest of holy days, I can finally say, thank God, that an empire of evil and of hate, will fall. I can tell you with full faith in the Lord that it was this congregation, each one of you, through contributions and prayer, that brought this empire to its just and deserved end. As you may know, and I hope those who don’t will rejoice with us who do, this Church has purchased the deed to the ugly heart this town has concealed for years. Last Sunday, with only one hundred dollars in my pocket and Jesus’ love at my side, I bought the deed to the Elwin Thomas Movie Theater.
“Now, for those who do not know this building, who are unfamiliar with its history, should know that it has not shown a film for quite some years. Instead, it has become the world famous center of the Confederate movement, which most people wrongfully presumed dead at the end of the Civil War. Well, for anyone who has walked by that old theater, we can tell you that it is still alive and well in this town. It still moves. They call this place ‘The Southern Post’, a name that carries with it the violent hopes of the Confederate movement’s founders. Within its walls lie the costumes and symbols that hold every bit of hate that has ever existed in this country. But now, with this deed, we control the fate of the store, the one that sits at the center of town, its light reaching out, touching everything. Soon, it will no longer have to be our ugly heart.
“And the story, the history of how we got here, as God has shown us, is just as important as what lies ahead of us. Because when the store opened, when the theater became something else entirely, there were two men behind it, a Mr. Hagar and a Mr. Bram. The two were both sons of God, faulted with anger, and raised in Georgetown. Their anger was cultivated, methodically, in the Silent Cirlce Knights of the Klan. They stood anonymous, hidden beneath that same white cloth that forever has swallowed anger and spit forth hate. It grew inside them until they found a way to spread it further. Thus, borne on hate, came ‘The Southern Post’.
“Now, their monument still stands, but there’s a timeline, with an endpoint approaching, as death will meet all those who work in evil. This is what we must wait for, patiently, never forgetting what approaches. But this story has brought one of those men here with us today. Mr. Bram sits among you now, a changed man, repentant for the hate he once carried. The Lord’s love, given to him through Ms. Chee, has done this, and his hate will soon be absolved. I sat down with them, when they came to me with the deed, and I asked what had caused this, such a change in Mr. Bram’s heart. He looked at me and said, ‘There’s anger and there’s hate, we have to figure out which one we can afford to live with.’
“That day he offered me the deed to the theater, saying Mr. Hagar had sold his share to him years ago. Mr. Bram had offered Mr. Hagar the land first, on the condition that he change the store’s image, but Mr. Hagar spit on his old partner for falling in love with the Native American woman he sits with today. I bought that deed, we bought that deed, for a hundred dollars that same day. And now we sit here, waiting, because the law has ruled to let Mr. Hagar keep his store until he faces God. I will wait for that day, as I am sure you will too, with the Lord’s name in my mouth, as well as my heart. I will never pray for death, but I will always pray for life, and the destruction of hate. So together, let us pray.”
This wasn’t a new story, it had been accumulating and spreading over time, like the strands in a web. It stretched itself across the city, strung between lampposts, never escaping any listening ears. The Klan Empire of Georgetown was coming to ruin and there was a Native American woman at the center of it. The story B. had heard, the one that was most told, was about Mr. Bram and Ms. Chee’s first meeting. It was in the store, back a while, when Mr. Bram looked her over and said, “You shouldn’t be in here.”
She didn’t look at him, just responded, “No, it is this place that shouldn’t be.” The rest of the story is left to legend. Their relationship mostly happened outside of town, so no one knew much about it. Everyone did know that Ms. Chee started wearing a diamond ring a few days before the deed changed hands. Everyone could see that Ms. Chee was carrying extra weight along her beltline.
Even as he sat withdrawn from the service, B. felt the story strengthen its grasp on the congregation and the town. It lived among them, walking the streets of Georgetown, carrying, always, purpose and possibility.
B. declined an invitation to breakfast with Sam and his uncle and drove to Laurens Public where he had played for a state championship just a year before. The field was empty, and B. sat in the visiting dugout, running his hand over the faded Swastika that had been carved into the bench. He remembered seeing the carving before the game, wondering if the Laurens players had done it as a prank or if it had been another team out of boredom or if it had just always been there. He thought about getting something to sand it down, to erase it, but he couldn’t take his eye off it. B. remembered what he had done that day, the first time he saw the carving. He remembered the four homeruns, the feeling of the ball popping off the bat, the sound it made against the wood, the way, for a second, everything felt weightless, like he was holding air. He remembered jogging around the bases, making sure to touch each of them, and giving the shortstop a smile. And a wink.
That night B. got high with Johnny in a McDonalds bathroom. They met up with two high school girls, and Johnny tried to hit one of them with a beer bottle. B. doesn’t remember laughing at all that night. The sky was full of hidden stars.
Then something new spread, starting at the bowling alley and swelling till it tore down all that came before. It was a story about Sam and a chair and a girl. The girl was on the cover of the Georgetown Local, her jaw dislodged and an eye shut behind an expanding purple eyelid. B. got a call from Sam’s uncle asking if Sam had stayed with him. His nephew hadn’t come home after the incident.
“What incident?” B. asked, his eyes still mostly shut.
“There was a fight last night, at the bowling alley. They’re saying Sam was there, that he threw a chair at this little white girl. Two police officers have already been by my house. I need to find him.”
“I’ll find him.”
B. found his flask in his right jacket pocket and finished what was left. It didn’t even sting. He was having a hard time tasting anything. His car couldn’t move fast enough, moving through town and driving by every face that wasn’t Sam’s. He wondered if Sam had left, like he had, and gone somewhere to let things heal.
B. found Sam sitting on the pavement across the street from the Southern Post. He sat beside him. After a while, Sam talked, “You see those mannequins in the window? The ones in the confederate uniforms?”
“Yeah, I see them.”
“I can’t decide whether they were built to fit the uniforms of if the uniforms were made to fit them.”
B. considered it for a while, not letting the silence devour his thoughts. Sam got up and walked towards B.’s car, “I’m ready.”
Sam was the only one charged in the fight, but he was able to live at home until his trial. His first night home, B. threw him seeds. Sam didn’t miss one.
Georgetown let him play in his last game before the trial, the conference championship. He threw a one-hitter and hit four home-runs. The town was divided that night. A lot of people held words in their mouths, but very few were said.
The trial started on a Tuesday, and B. was sober. The witnesses claimed a dispute had started between Sam and a white kid, and each had been backed up by their respective group of friends. Some claimed Sam threw the first punch, but most agreed that it wasn’t Sam or the white kid who threw the punch. They said it was someone else, someone who was there looking for a reason to throw a punch. A fight had broken out, and Sam was the name that the other side kept mentioning. He was the only one they identified by name.
Sam’s teammate claimed he had ushered Sam out an emergency exit knowing what something like this could do to his future. “He’s a freshman and the best player in the state,” the kid had said. “I wasn’t going to let him get mixed up in something like that.” Another kid said the word “nigger” had been used but then recanted. B. felt his legs tighten and recede.
Then they brought in the girl, the one from the papers, and she pointed to Sam when asked to identify who threw the chair that disfigured her face. “I’m very sure it was him. I remember he was black, and he was angry, and he just threw it into the crowd. He just wanted to hurt someone.”
B. got high again the night after the girl testified. He knew the trial had ended that day. A new story was in the streets, familiar rumblings spreading from the town’s ancient heart. B. recognized this particular story. It had been there, sticking to everything, an opportunistic force relentlessly breathing and expanding. That night, B. slept in the sky.
Now he’s sitting in his father’s car, hands steady, the radio singing about dying in a river. The lights are turning down under the marquee, and B. thinks about Sam’s verdict and the crowd that wept for him. Three years, for a chair no one could even prove was thrown, and he was taken right from the courthouse, into an armored van. Sam disappeared, and most of the town let him. And the heart kept beating.
B. held the weight in his hand, the gun. He fired off two rounds earlier that day just to get used to the blowback. The door hasn’t opened yet. The mannequins stare at him, their expressions fixed beneath Confederate hats. The moon is full in the sky, glowing.
The Southern Post’s front door opens and a faint figure appears, obscured behind the glow of the marquee. B. remembers the last thing Sam said to him when he visited the prison. “Remember those mannequins at the Southern Post? I don’t think any of it was ever their decision.”
Walking towards the figure, B,’s hand grips the gun, firm. He hears a voice as he approaches. “I’m closing up now… Don’t worry about it. I can heat it up… I’ll be in bed before you can fall asleep… Love you too.” B. looks at the moon as he walks by Mr. Hagar, leaving the gun hidden inside his jacket. Four bullets aren’t enough to kill a man. The marquee casts shadows around him as he falters down the block.
B. circles the theater, which stands alone on its own block. When he reaches the front door, Mr. Hagar is gone. The whole town is empty and quiet. He tries the door, rattling the glass in its frame, but its locked. B. wraps his coat around his hand and punches through the glass. Shards stick into his coat, and one reaches his skin, carefully digging inside. B. pulls it out easily. A thin trail of blood rushes down his arm.
The mannequins seem taller inside the store. A collection of Confederate pins, flags, posters, pencil sharpeners, erasers, and other collectibles fill the showcases below them. There is a rifle mounted on the far wall behind the register with an engraved plaque below it that reads, “You can have my country when you take it out of my cold, dead hands.” B. picks up a wooden Klan doll from the counter, pulling back its hood to find that there is no face painted on underneath. He sees a collection of books, and a painting of Robert E. Lee, and a few gas grills with the Confederate flag painted on.
Last night, B. met up with an old high school teammate named Brendan at the field. They drank from brown paper bags and shot up some dope in the visiting dugout. B. slept at a girl named Leah’s house. They fucked in her shower, and B. fell asleep under the water before she finished. Earlier she had told him that she loved flying, seeing the orange lights from high above the city. “You know, they look like embers, like somebody burned down the whole city while you weren’t looking. It feels good, for that split second, when you believe it.”
B. has broken off the safety valves on the three propane tanks, and the gas is filling the store. This wasn’t his plan, but he can’t help but acknowledge the fate of it all, the karmic placement of the grills. The heart still beats. The moon still glows. And the gas talks to him,
What are you doing?
Destroying it. The store, the story, everything.
Advice on these matters shouldn’t come from girls in heat.
B. turns to recognize BRETT, a hallucination, standing behind him.
This is your fault, you know. You’re in here too. I’m destroying you too.
You need to stop using. Look at yourself, look at how skinny you are. You were gonna murder someone.
But I didn’t.
Right, but you didn’t, but you’re here now, still here, trying to drown this place in propane. It’ll just be fireworks, something for people to look at.
Maybe for you. It’s more important than you know, this place, and I need to do this. For this town. For Sam.
So that’s what it is, guilt? You’re going to burn a landmark to the ground out of guilt? You care about Sam? Stop getting high. You believe in the words of other people too much, give them too many chances. Don’t. You mistake addicts for prophets. Leave them behind. Leave this place behind.
I’m sorry, I can’t.
B. walks towards the broken glass door.
Are you coming outside?
No, I’m in here now. I need to see this up close.
B. walks out to his car, grabbing his jersey and a mostly full bottle of Jameson from his trunk. He rips the sleeve from his jersey and rolls it up. He pours a bit of liquor on it and sticks it into the spout so it touches the contents of the bottle and hangs free. He takes a few steps back, brandishes a lighter from his pocket, and lights the sleeve. He takes a crow hop and throws the bottle through the broken glass door. It ignites.
Mr. Hagar didn’t show up until the Georgetown Fire Squad had mostly stopped the blaze. Someone pointed him in the direction of the local kid who had started it, a college dropout, an all-state baseball player. He found the kid sitting on the pavement surrounded by police officers, wrists cuffed, watching the smoke rise in a smooth pillar above the town. Their eyes finally met, and the young kid sat up tall. Mr. Hagar tried to charge at him, but two officers held him back. “Do you know what you destroyed?” he yelled. “Do you know what this place was?”
The kid stood to face Mr. Hagar, “There’s anger, sir, and then there’s me.” When the cops moved the kid to the armored van, he looked back at Mr. Hagar, who was still being restrained, one more time, and gave him a smile. And a wink.