Oct/Nov 2023  •   Fiction


by Michael W. Cox

Public domain image

In the coaches' room two boys sat on hard wooden chairs. Coach Ray sat behind his desk, old trophies and sports books scattered across it in peaks and valleys.

"When I was growing up, I had a brother," Coach said. "He was a good boy, but when he got to be 12, he got this funny idea. He told our mother he was in love with a neighbor boy, and she told our father, who took him out to the barn and whipped him. Not with a belt, but with the whip he used on the horses. He was just a boy, understand. You two are older. You should know better."

James couldn't look at him. He couldn't look at Lonnie, either, but he could hear him breathing.

"Your fathers fought in the war. Came home. Got married. They're fine men. How do you think they'd feel if they saw you like I saw you today?"

Neither boy said anything.

"What were you thinking?"

Again, neither said a word.

"When my brother turned 15, he left home. We don't know where he went. He could be dead, for all I know. Is that what you want? Having to leave home and not come back?"

"Do you think he's better off?" Lonnie asked.

Coach Ray looked at him.

"I don't know if he is or isn't. But I'm ashamed of him."

"Your own brother?"


"What do you think God would say about that?"

"Do you want me to cut you from the team, young man?"

Lonnie looked down.


"We're your two best shots," James said. "He handles the ball and brings it up the court. Nobody else is that good."

"That's true. But the boys I'd be left with would be good enough. And decent."

They said nothing.


"What if we stopped?"

"You mean that? You were going at it pretty good in there."


James looked at Lonnie, but Lonnie kept his eyes on Coach.

"You swear to God?"


"So if I pulled a Bible out right now, you'd put your hand on it and say what you said?"

"Yes. Where is it?"

"My Bible?"


"At home, where it belongs."

"Bring it tomorrow. We'll swear on it."

He let them go. Said he wouldn't tell their parents. Told them to talk to their ministers.

They left the school gym and started walking the dark road to their homes two miles away. It was 38 degrees. The other boys had left long before, but James and Lonnie had stayed to help the managers pack up and then saw them off. They thought Coach had gone, too, but it's just that he had walked to school that day, his car in the shop. He'd been in the coaches' room, mapping out some plays for the next game. That's how he heard them. And then he saw.

"Is it wrong?" James asked.

"What we do? No."

"Why does everyone say it is?"

"It frightens them. It frightens him." He meant Coach.

"What do you mean?"

"He liked what he saw."


"I saw the look on his face. He liked it. That's what has him worked up."


"Lots of men like it."

James had to think about that. He thought it doubtful, but Lonnie had secrets. He always had.

They were walking past the long driveway leading up to Mr. Rucker's house, at the top of a high hill off the highest road on this side of town. They could see lights burning up there. "Old man Rucker," Lonnie said. There was something in how he said it. Then it was down the other side of the hill, both boys stepping through mud in their boots. On their back they had strung their duffel bags, their street shoes and gym shoes and practice uniform inside. Their books. Some unshelled peanuts from the bag Coach always brought because it was 6:30 or 7:00 when practice was done. James took out his handful of peanuts—he was hungry and he didn't think he could go without food till he got home.

Lonnie got his out, too, just before they stepped onto the bridge. Not a car had passed in all this time, and then one moved by them and the horn honked merrily, and they waved and watched it cross over the bridge to the other side, where the ice plant was.

"Who was that?"

"No idea," Lonnie said.

Then they listened, heard no other cars, and walked onto the bridge, stopping halfway to drop the peanut shells, one by one, into the water. The boys were chewing quietly; there was just enough light from the ice plant to see the shells fall 25 feet to the surface.

"Slow tonight."

"Not much rain or snow this winter."

Then they made it across, walking past the ice plant and then over the train tracks. When they got to Main Street, Lonnie said, "We could set him up."



"You mean trick him? Get him to play his hand?"

"Get him to play something."

James laughed. "You're full of shit," he said, and Lonnie laughed, too.

They walked past all the closed stores on Main Street and across the grooved, red-brick road to start up the concrete stairway, zigging and zagging along the hillside, back and forth till it finally reached the top. The Methodist Church, Lonnie's, was up there, and then farther on, a few streets away, was the Baptist Church, James's.

When they got to the top of the long stairway, Lonnie said come on. He walked down the sidewalk to the door of his church and stepped inside. James followed. Then across the hall and into the dim sanctuary, where Jesus was nailed to a cross.

"Lord," James said.

"Exactly," Lonnie said. "Wait here."

James watched Lonnie walk down the aisle to kneel before the cross. He sat that way for a good five minutes, looking down at Jesus's feet. Then he got up and went to the lectern, reached inside, pulled out a box of saltines and took two. He walked back down the aisle and handed one to James.

"Let's go."

The cracker was dry, but James chewed it and didn't ask how Lonnie knew it was there. They walked across the road and past the gas station and took a shortcut up the hillside to a gravel path, which led, finally, to another road where a row of dim houses stood and then, way up at the end of it, in the distance, the Baptist Church, faintly lit and hulking.

"What'd you pray for?"

"For Coach not to tell my father. Or yours."

"Did you promise Him you would stop?"

Lonnie shook his head. "I might lie to Coach, but I wouldn't lie to Him."

"What about putting your hand on the Bible?"

"That's just for Coach, too."

On the dark street they stood outside Lonnie's house. A light was on in the living room.

"Well, there it is," Lonnie said. "The abode."

James grinned at his choice of words. Then he leaned in, but Lonnie stepped back, saying, quietly, "Not here." He glanced up at the second story, the dark window, and Lonnie thumped him on the back the way boys did.

"See you tomorrow," he said.

"Yep," James said.

He watched him disappear inside. Then he found his footing and made his way up the street. When he got to his own house, he just stood there for the longest time looking at the brightly lit parlor. They'd be listening to the radio. There'd be a cold plate on the kitchen table, a cloth covering his food.

The front door opened and his father stood there.

"You coming inside, boy?" he asked.

He never came to the door like this. He filled the doorway with his bulk.

"Come on, son. It's cold out here. Get inside."