Oct/Nov 2022  •   Fiction

The Shepherd

by Huntley Gibson Paton

Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton

Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton

Behold, a man for whom no one will stop.

There he is, along US 75 just past the bridge over the Red River in cold October rain in the Texas dark, semis rocketing by in a spray of light and noise and water. Denison is ahead somewhere, for all the good it does him. This is no place, and it is exactly here where he has the flat tire, and he is late.

No flashlight, years since he has changed a tire, and oh, his knees, what he asks of them now after all he did to them. They creak in rebellion. It hurts. One stubborn lug-nut takes all his strength. He nearly rocks the car off its jack. A pinched finger, blood blister forming. Wet as an old gun dog, his dark skin all gooseflesh beneath a jacket sold (deceptively, it appears) as waterproof. He is dripping all over the cab of the Torino, making soggy his map and his cigarillos and his notes stacked up by the console.

Crank up the heat, gospel on the radio—Do you see friend, do you truly see or are you still blind?—making some spray of his own at last down the highway past Sherman and Van Alstyne and Anna and Melissa, those little places where every few years there is one kid worth finding. Finally, into East Paw, where the cramped stadium lot is full and he has to park in a gravel ravine, ankle-deep in runoff. His notes and pencil and a half-used pack of gum go into a plastic Skaggs bag with the brochures and the souvenir caps.

The rain is letting up, but it is cold, and he feels colder still when he spies the dark blue Cadillac sitting in a prime parking spot, the little Mississippi flag dripping wet on its antenna. That would be the chariot of one Earl Grey, like the tea, but this Earl is more like light beer and Red Man, and he would be here for the same boy, he just knows it.

There are no secrets, really; every boy worth knowing is known. How pointless then to feel disappointed and panicked to see Earl's chariot, and yet he feels it, a tightening in his chest, a flutter of anxiety not unlike what he felt when he played, waiting for the kickoff, a stupid fear—until the first hit, the first crunch of contact, and then everything was all right. After that it was just competition and not dread.

The grandstands rattle like tin under stomping cowboy boots and sneakers, families and students doing what they can to conjure a little magic. He avoids the stands, shows a security guard his credentials, walks out onto the track, trying to hurry while not looking hurried, his knees acting like they have their own sentience and are still pissed off at him. He passes the cheerleaders, their legs all bare scissor-kicking horripilation, jumping and waving pompons. The scoreboard glows 0-0 and 11:54 no 11:53 and 1Q in the mist just as he reaches the chain link fence down by the south end zone.

He is just in time to see a boy—he quickly realizes it is his boy—in the red and silver helmet and the red jersey with No. 32 and white pants and red striped socks and black cleats racing toward him like some galloping Moses through a sea of adolescents, ball in the crook of his right arm. Red helmets and green helmets pinballing, bodies falling and splashing across the wet grass or trailing him until the boy is alone, muddy turf bits flying from his cleats, arms pumping and chin pointed upward with blonde locks sticking out from the helmet, and he reaches the end zone with one sock drooped down at his shoe exposing the powerful white calf muscle to the accompaniment of cheers and tubas and whooooos of adulation from the cheerleaders. This is the opening kickoff, and his boy has brought it all the way back for a score—there is the 6 flashing on the scoreboard—and now the boy bends over and vomits a ferocious stream of yellow liquid into the end zone turf, just as his teammates arrive to laud him.

Gasps and some laughter, but the boy is all right, and he straightens, smiling, puke dripping off his facemask. Amid the cheering, somewhere behind him in or near the stands, he hears someone say, Who is the spook? He does not and will not look back over his shoulder.

Midway through the first quarter after the boy has scored another touchdown on a 15-yard off-tackle run, dragging two opponents with him into the end zone, lanky Earl Grey in his damp slacks and blue blazer and pink balding head approaches, a wad of chew in his cheek, and says, Otis good to see you, how do you like our boy?

He replies, I'm here to see the Rowlett quarterback, he's got a cannon. Earl laughs, spits, says, You fuckin liar, I love you, always did, there is only one boy here and you know it and you know as well as me he is a Southern boy and he belongs in a good Southern program not in some half-assed Podunk school in Iowa. He says it like Eye-oh-way.

We will see, Otis says, not offended at all, and adds, I see you still drive the Caddy, and Earl says, Fuckin-A, and puts his arm around Otis' shoulder like they are brothers. Do you still got that Pinto? Earl asks, and Otis says with a smile, I never had a Pinto, and that is all they need to say to each other for now. Earl is all right, he was a decent receiver for Arkansas in his day, not so fast but tall with hands like flypaper. He knows talent, but that's a given in this business. Earl's real secret weapon is he can sell, and that is what makes him such a problem.

After a little while Earl needles him, Why do you ever come south of Nebraska, Otis? The good boys here don't want your pickled herring and snow, they want barbecue and sweet Southern trim and why did you ever leave? He still has his arm draped over Otis' shoulder, the friendliest fellow in the world, to a point. Otis says to him, So you are bribing them with pussy now? and Earl laughs and says, I would never do that and I don't need to. After the East Paw defense gets a sack, Earl smiles and says, Well, good luck with that quarterback, and pats Otis on the shoulder friendly like and walks away, spitting.

Alone again, Otis can focus. He takes out his notepad, like an art curator scrutinizing a warehouse of collectibles. When he was a boy in Tyler and played both ways, or when he was a linebacker at Prairie View, or special-teams meat in Boston, the game and all that came with it overwhelmed his senses. He loved to drink it all in, but now he shuts it all out. There might as well be no music or cheerleaders or coaches or spectators, once his eyes narrow. He is looking for strength, collegiate speed, stamina, some brains, nimble feet, smart hands, God-given exuberant cruelty. That had been Otis' gift—the cruelty. Everyone who lined up against him was sorry he did. Oh, he dealt out contusions and ruptured spleens and broken face masks and shattered collarbones like coupons in the Sunday paper, but in the end, he was ruptured and broken and shattered, too. Two years in the pros knocked him to pieces, and with the cumulative damage of all the years, the pieces never really come back together right. Fingers like twisted scrub roots and hips setting off metal detectors and to this day migraines and fugue interludes to go with all the surgical scars on the knees and the one missing little toe from that snow game in Denver. And now a life devoted to asking, Who's next?

Perhaps fortunately for these small-town Texas boys, there is very little talent on this field so far as he can see. Otis hopes they all study hard or have rich daddies.

He takes some notes early on, but after the first quarter or so, he puts the notes away in the plastic bag because the boy is better than his film suggested. There is nothing else needs to be written, and the last words he scribbles are simply, This Kid. When the game is over, the boy—the boy he and Earl both want—has rushed for 330 yards and four touchdowns, plus the kickoff return.

East Paw wins by 20 and Earl is right, Otis doesn't even know the Rowlett quarterback's name, nor does he wish to. The visitors head for their bus dejectedly, but the East Paw team takes a knee on the ravaged wet turf midfield, while their coach puts it all in perspective for them and a photographer from the local paper burns one more roll of film, autowinder chirping. The Good Lord gave you one tonight men, we were sloppy, the coach says. He wears a school-logoed trucker cap and a wet shiny logoed pullover, silver polyester slacks, and black cleats. He is fat in the face, stomach, and ass, but his shoulders and legs look muscled. Otis waits for the coach to finish, then he approaches, lightly touching the elbows of both coach and player, says Good to meet you, we spoke on the phone, what a game you had, son, and offers them both their souvenir caps. The coach is ebullient, tells the boy, This man played for the Boston Patriots.

The muddy prospect whose name is Trey is called Trigger by everyone and has shaggy blonde hair, matted to his head, helmet marks across his acne-covered forehead, and he is polite and underwhelmed. You can tell he's been talking to recruiters all season. Otis tells him, You have wonderful speed and God-given power, you would love our offense, we live and die by the run, going on like that, and the coach is nodding, smiling. The boy is flattered now, happy to accept the cap, looking at it in a daydreaming kind of way Otis recognizes with satisfaction.

Otis has outmaneuvered Earl. He is there first. Earl stands off a little way, hands folded behind his back patiently. Otis sees Earl's bemused, cocky smile but also a hint of fear in his eyes, rain mist dripping down his bald head into his smug face. Otis wishes he could tell Earl, I don't have any pickled herring in this bag good buddy. In the booth above the stands, someone shuts off half the stadium lights as is routine, a succession of loud clicks and electric sighs along the light towers, and the night rushes in around them, instant gloom like food coloring poured into the air.


Now it is said, Get the parents, get the boy. That is the eternal truth of the recruiting game, and Otis is devoted to it. In this case it requires separate visits, the father first. East part of town, a trailer park ringed by live oaks and gravel lanes. They arrive in a three-car caravan, the father's sorry-looking Dodge Aspen and Trigger's little pickup truck leading the way, Otis in the Torino, working a cigarillo, the gospel man saying You must avail yourself of the blood friends. There are dogs barking, but Otis cannot see any. The rain has stopped, and he spies some night sky and stars through weakening clouds. He does not lock his car door. Doing so and being seen doing so would be a sign of distrust, and he must cultivate trust and ease.

This is nice, he calls out, stretches his stiff legs and snuffs the cigarillo under his expensive athletic shoe. He sees white faces looking at him through backlit windows of neighboring trailers, arranged around the little gravel cul-de-sac backstopped by a dark green dumpster and dead crepe myrtles.

Inside there is an old couch and a coffee table and a lime green telephone with the cord reaching back into the kitchen, where there is a Formica eating table crowded with cereal bowls and beer cans and an ash tray, boxed in by two folding chairs like you would keep around for card games. The father hangs his sheepskin coat on a hook. You will have to forgive my spartan accommodations, the father says in a sarcastic drawl Otis pegs for West Texas somewhere. I've only been here six months, and the wife got most everything, the ex-wife.

Been there, Otis says.

You want a beer? the father asks. He looks like he is in his early 40s, younger than Otis, tall and thin except for a generous stomach pushing out from a clean white pearl-snap shirt untucked and hanging over his jeans. He wears nice alligator boots. Otis says no thank you and stands politely. Trigger is standing, too, his letter jacket buttoned all the way up, his hands in the pockets, his beater cowboy boots a little pigeon-toed. You take the couch, the father tells Otis. The father drags the two folding chairs over, directs Trigger to sit in one of them, settles into the other, lights a cigarette. Otis takes one end of the couch, says, We are very impressed by Trey here.

I didn't always live like this, the father says, I got an engineering degree. That was a long time ago. I do oil-field equipment, but there's no work.

Tough times, Otis says. The father says, Three savings-and-loans in this county tanked last month alone. He draws on the cigarette and says, Crooks.

Otis nods and says, We have an excellent engineering school if Trey takes after you in that regard.

The father ignores this and says, You're from Texas right? I can tell.

Otis nods. Tyler, he says.

Piney woods, the father says in an elongated pitch, like he is mocking a chamber of commerce slogan, and Otis laughs, says, That's right, piney woods. The father sucks hard on the cigarette and says, I thought Otis Taylor was the famous Prairie View Otis, but I guess there was two. Otis says, I was there before him, but he's the one to remember for sure.

So why are you up north? There is some distaste in the father's voice.

Otis launches right in: It's a fine school, wonderful people, rabid fan base, national television twice last year not counting the bowl game. He says, We are on the rise in a big way, and we would very much like for Trey to make a campus visit and see it for himself.

Lots of folks after him, the father says. He can have his pick.

The boy has not spoken. Otis asks him, What are you looking for in a school, Trey?

I wanna play, the boy says, I wanna go somewhere where they play me.

You'd play for us, Otis says with conviction. You'd redshirt of course but I'm telling you right now you'd have every opportunity to start when your time comes. What I saw tonight, I have no doubt.

The father leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling. All y'all say that, he says. Tell us something we don't know. Trigger can start anywhere.

Maybe, Otis says, maybe, but some of these giant programs you're talking to I don't know. Texas has six redshirt freshmen this year who are just like Trey and Mississippi, I know you're talking to Mississippi, even they have three or four who have very similar skills. All the boys in major college programs ours included are special, and the defenders are built like houses. You won't be playing Rowlett.

Right away, Otis knows he said the wrong thing.

He leaves a brochure. Outside the sky is clear now, and Otis shakes Trigger's hand, standing by his pickup truck. The kid is still wearing the cap Otis gave him, a good sign. Are you sure you wouldn't like to come? he asks the boy.

No, Trigger says, you go ahead, Mom has heard everything from me already, I'm gonna meet some buddies.

Otis gives the boy's hand one more pull, looks him hard in the eye. Breakfast tomorrow, right? 8:00. All four of us?

Sure the boy says, if you can get my folks at the same table, I'll be surprised but I'll be there.

I have one question, Otis says, maybe you won't like this one.

Trigger looks confused, says, Go ahead, sir, ask me anything.

Otis says, Son that puke in the end zone tonight was beer wasn't it?

The boy's eyes widen, his feet kick at the gravel. He looks down and runs a finger through his hair. I ran for 330, he says, scored five times, he says.

I know, Otis says, I know, at your age it feels like you can do anything. I was the same. I know boys like to shoot a few cans before games—do you shoot your beers son, punch a hole in the bottom of the can with a car key and suck on it real hard and then pop the tab and just shoot that beer right down your throat?

The boy says, Sometimes.

Otis sees the father looking at them through the trailer window. He puts his hands on the boy's shoulder. I'm all for fun, he says, but son, in college you can get killed out there on that field, do you understand? It's like getting in a car wreck every play.

I'm sorry, the boy says.

Don't be sorry but listen to me, Otis says, please listen, the gift you have, it doesn't last long. Not everyone will tell you that, but I will. Some schools will be happy to have you reckless they just use you up and flush you like toilet paper, but I want you smart and safe do you understand?

The boy just looks at him chagrined and Otis says, Will you trust me son?


East Paw has an old town square, the courthouse and some of the brick buildings dating to the 1890s. There across from the entrance of the court house is a little diner that on Fridays serves food until 11:00. Otis finds Trigger's mother in a booth near the front. She stands, smiling and extending her hand, a pretty lady—the boy got her hair color and her eyes. She is a little overweight but attractive in a blue blouse and matching skirt to the knees. I hope it is all right to meet here she says, her smile a little crooked at the left corner, a lovely quirk, Otis thinks. I didn't have time to clean the house, she says, and I'm meeting a gentleman from church here in half an hour.

They order pecan pie and coffee from a waitress who seems afraid to look at him. The tabletops are red, school colors. The diner is half full, and people are looking at them and whispering. It makes Otis angry—they are gossiping as if this nice woman in their midst is scandalizing the town. So he speaks loudly, more loudly than appropriate, just so everyone can hear. Your son is gifted, he says. Our university is among the very finest in the Midwest, he says. After 15 minutes or so, the woman pats his hand. Trigger can go anywhere he wants, she says, and I'd be pleased if he went with you, I would like to see him get away and experience someplace different, but his father may have different ideas.

The boy needs to decide for himself, of course, Otis says, but tomorrow at breakfast maybe you can help me persuade him and his father to at least visit the campus.

She takes a deep breath, purses her lips. I'm sorry, she says, but I won't join you for breakfast. Things are still very tense. He's angry about the hard times, she says. Last winter the hot water heater went out, and when the plumber said we needed a new one, he just got so angry and wouldn't do it and he made us heat up water on the stove, would not pay one penny for a new one. After a couple ice storms with no hot water, well, I just couldn't.

That was the straw? Otis asks.

She replies, That and other things.

He says, I know the pain of divorce myself, and I know the pain Trey might feel. We can support him. We are very supportive and nurturing.

She gives him a small smile, says I believe you, but it is not up to me.

I thought the boy lives with you, Otis says.

She says, Yes, but the father holds sway. She says, I have never been to Iowa, and, Do you miss Texas?

He replies, Iowa is much lovelier than people think, and such good people there, too, but of course I miss Texas. It's always special to come back.

Is it easier in Iowa? she asks.

Easier how?

Being black.

At that moment a blue-eyed man with gray hair and a nice leather ranch coat approaches their booth, leans down, and gives her a soft kiss on the cheek, says Hello darlin. Blood rushes into her cheeks, a warm blush like spring color, and she smiles as if coming to life all over again. Otis tries to remember a time when he made a woman smile like that.


His motel is just north of the town square off the service road of 75. The sign flashes Vacant and HBO. He hoists his duffle, locks the car, a little bell on the door rings when he goes in. The young white woman behind the counter has only one arm and a broken face, remnants of some old calamity. Something worse than football got to her. He scribbles his license plate number and hands her cash. She hands him a key, says, Have a blessed stay. The room has a double bed with red covers, school colors again, and a small TV. The bathroom is clean and has plastic cups wrapped in plastic. He pours two fingers of Jack from the bottle in his duffle, drinks half of it and undresses, leaves the television off. Red neon glows through the curtains. Lying on his back in his boxers with the lights off, he watches his belly rise and fall in the quiet and feels the ache of all his joints settling like syrup—not easing, only shifting.

Otis frets about the boy. Maybe mentioning the beer was a mistake. On the other hand, the boy listened, or seemed to. The boy heard him, looked him in the eye. He liked the cap, seemed interested. The father might be a problem. The mother was nice.

She had asked him, Is it easier? He was on the road most the time, so it was hard to say. On campus aside from the athletes there wasn't much black skin, maybe more yellow and brown than black, all those international students, but in any case, mostly white. His Iowa church was all black, all 12 members. So no, not easier. In Tyler his entire neighborhood was black, and the same at Prairie View of course. When he got to Boston, it was the first time, really the first time he had heard white people say things on the street that shocked him. You have to watch out for those Northerners, his mother had said. At least in the South black folks and white folks have learned how to deal with one another, but in the North there is an arrogance. The Italians hate the Irish hate the Poles hate the Jews—they all pretend to be enlightened, they all pretend they loved Martin, but they don't love his children.

His mother grew up in New Jersey, only came to Texas after marriage. She had an oft-told story about her grandfather, how, when he was only a boy of 12, he helped lay train tracks for James Garfield, working through the night with other black volunteers so the mortally wounded president could die with an ocean breeze on his face. Otis sometimes thinks of his great grandfather, swinging that pickax in the New Jersey moonlight just to extend a track for a dying white man, and is not sure he ever met a white for whom he would do that, wonders whether he would do that for anyone no matter the color. He thinks of Trigger's mother, kind and sad—he liked her, maybe he would do it for her. And then he considers he is doing it for all the boys, black, white and brown, laying tracks for them, taking them forward, trying to help them, and this thought lets him sleep.


His room faces west, so when dawn comes, the pink light does not pierce his window even as sharply as the neon but only mimics it, a muddle of man and God. He urinates but feels a headache coming on and lies back down, pillow over his eyes. After a time, the throbbing is no better but no worse, either, so he showers and drives to the McDonald's a mile south in the direction of Dallas and sits with the truckers and soccer families, waiting, a bright day taking shape.

Trey and his father do not show up. After a half hour, he goes to the phone booth in the parking lot and dials the boy's house. The mother answers. I'm waiting for Trey, he says.

She replies, I heard him leave early this morning. There is a note here from him says your meeting was cancelled.

Otis heads for the trailer park. He passes through the nice neighborhoods with brick houses, where the mowed Bermuda is dormant, almost white, and the red oaks, spaced evenly as if a regiment of giants standing at attention, are skeletal. This tranquil enclave gives way to a pocked, narrow road framed by wild grass like golden wheat and tattooed with barbed wire, power lines, crooked phone poles, rusted cars, and burst trash bags. Then the pavement ends. The gravel cul-de-sac of trailers this morning looks bereft of life but for a mottled dog crouched near one of the porches, tied to a rope, baring its teeth. He fully expects to see Earl's Cadillac there, but no.

The father answers the door dripping wet, bare-chested, a thin white towel wrapped around his waist. Prairie View Otis, he says, come in, I got coffee. Otis lowers his head through the doorway and stands in the entry, the opposite wall so close he could kick it. I was expecting you and Trey at McDonald's, he says.

Yeah, I think that one slipped by us, the father says. You want coffee? You caught me dressin', but I ain't in any hurry.

Otis sits down on the coach, looking at empty Budweiser longnecks and a full ashtray on the coffee table. I'll take some coffee, he says.

The father pours two cups, hands one to Otis, goes into the bedroom, comes back pulling a T-shirt over his head. I got milk, he says, if you want it.

Where is Trey? Otis asks. The father is looking in the refrigerator. All Otis can see from the couch is a jar of mayonnaise and some Budweisers.

The father says, Got milk somewhere here. While he bends, his towel comes loose and falls off and he is showing his bare ass as he says, Trigger is on his way to Mississippi.

I beg your pardon? Otis says.

The father bends down, picks up the towel, throws it down the hall, bank-shotting it through the bedroom doorway. He comes back, dick swinging, holding a quart carton of milk, the spout crusted open. Yeah, he says, the fella in the Cadillac came by last night, said they had a little plane at the airfield. I told Trigger he could go, dropped him off there this morning. Coolest little twin-prop plane. Trigger was so excited. He'll be back tomorrow night. You're welcome to hang around. He's holding the carton out, but Otis cannot speak. What's the matter, the father says, I thought you athletes was used to locker rooms.

He is still holding out the milk, but when Otis doesn't take it, the father walks back and returns it to the refrigerator. You got no cause to be upset, he says. Maybe you should get a plane. He comes back wiping his hands on his T-shirt, says Hell, you don't even call the boy right, he goes by Trigger and you keep sayin Trey. Otis feels lightheaded, feels a fugue misery creeping in, some kind of death. The father looks at him, his hips pointed forward.

What? he says. You want this?

Otis stammers. I came to speak with Trey.

The father, swelling half erect, looks Otis up and down. That ain't what I asked, he says.


He drives the Torino to the airfield, which is northeast of town, and sees the blue Cadillac in the gravel lot. The lone runway is empty, a few small planes idled, no sign of life in the small cinderblock building with a windsock flapping in the wind. The Mississippi flag on Earl's antenna snaps lively. A good thing to do would be to deflate Earl's tires, but Otis feels no games in him now. The sky is empty blue, and he senses a migraine threatening, the bright sunlight painful. At the motel the woman with one arm is on duty again, and she says, Checking out? Otis says I was going to, but I don't feel well. You poor man, she says, what is the matter? He tries to explain what happens with the migraines, and she leads him back to his room, makes him lie down, puts a wet cloth over his eyes. You just stay there as long as you need, she says, I won't charge you. She prays over him and then leaves.

At dark, he throws the duffle into the backseat of the Torino and begins to drive. The mile markers fly by. He glances at the stack of notes on the passenger seat, trying to remember which town is supposed to be next. Ahead is Oklahoma unless it's Arkansas. Gospel on the radio, the same program from last night, as if on a loop—Do you see friend, do you truly see or are you still blind? The stars crazy bright like a concussion, and he accelerates faster and faster over the asphalt, to where he cannot say, marveling anyone might follow.