Rusty sat behind the wheel of the bus and watched the sky turn sour. A year ago, when his father had coached the Lady Tigers, he’d been expected to serve as the team’s water boy in addition to his regular duties as their bus driver. But Coach Culpepper, bless him, had no such expectations. He told Rusty he could stay on board. After all, Rusty was a senior and probably had important tests to study for. He didn’t.
Last night, after her shift at the Piggly Wiggly, his mom had brought him home the latest Catwoman to help him pass the time during the ball game, but his attention had been sidetracked by the onslaught of sky bracketed within the bus’s windshield. Skies were bigger in the Delta than in the hilly country he was used to. He knew that — everyone did — and yet its bigness still surprised him. The sky pushed on and on. Great swaths of blue every which way. It was a marvel the Lady Tigers could hobble bases and throw balls with so much vastness bearing down on them. Eventually, he spotted in the distance a blue so deep it was purple. Only not purple, no. A sootiness inching toward the ballpark. An infection.
For two innings, the thundercloud spread, billowing out of itself like smoke, soaking up light as it grew. The bus didn’t face the diamond, but Rusty could make out the sounds of the game, the clink of metal bats, the random chants from the opposing team, the Lady Stars. Now hush, you don’t want none of us! Before he realized it, late morning looked more like early evening, and a vein of lightning cracked through the cloud mass. Fat raindrops followed, slapping hard against the windshield, warping the world liquid.
Then he heard them: the Lady Tigers, as they slammed against the side of the bus like blind cows, hollering to be let inside. He pulled the lever above the stick, and the accordion-like door squeezed open. In they hurtled, one by one, smelling of sweat and hair spray, popping Bubble Yum, clad in their black and gold uniforms. Number 12 lumbered up first. Eyeblack smeared down her rosy cheeks, her topknot all but destroyed. The bat bag strapped to her shoulders nearly clocked him in the side of the head as she plodded by. More of them were close behind, pushing to get in out of the rain: Numbers 45 and 62 and 33 and 8. They were yammering on about a female ref’s bad calls and possible “dykeyness.” “Licky, Licky,” said Number 16, the only black Lady Tiger, causing her teammates to squeal.
By the time the coach shoved on, he was soaked. His black polo clung to his torso, his nipples poking through. He held a clipboard in one hand and toted an orange Gatorade cooler with the other.
“Naw, your poor coach don’t need any help,” he said, fake mad and huffing.
The Lady Tigers tittered. “You’ll melt in the water, Coachie,” Number 36 said. “You so sweet.”
Rusty tried to grab the cooler, but the coach waved him away with his clipboard, dousing Rusty’s glasses with rain water.
“Crank us up.” The coach threw the clipboard onto the seat behind Rusty and slung the cooler down the aisle, colliding it with Number 8’s hindquarters.
“Hey!” she said. “That’s my caboose!”
He told her he knew good and goddamn well what it was and to shut up about it and set the cooler on top of the spare tire while she was at it.
Turning back to Rusty, he said, “Why ain’t we movin’?”
The bus door was still open, and rain spat in.
“Looks kind of bad, don’t it?” he said. “Shouldn’t we, um, wait it out?”
The coach leaned forward and removed Rusty’s glasses. He called over Number 2, who was somehow remarkably drier than the others, and used her jersey to wipe off the lenses. As he placed them back onto Rusty’s face, his fingers grazed Rusty’s ears, sending a shock of gooseflesh down his back.
“You get us on home now,” the coach said, using the same steady voice he’d used the week before when reciting a Miller Williams poem to Rusty’s AP English class.
“Well,” Rusty said. “Sure thing, Coach.”
He woke up the engine, balancing his feet between the clutch and brake. The bus roared alive, two parts diesel, one part magic. He could feel it in his groin, the energy all throttled up. Before he let off the brake, the coach yelled, “Hey, Rus, you may want to close the damn door.”
Door, yes. After it had been snapped shut, he shifted to first and guided the massive enterprise toward the road. The exhaust pipe popped off like a shotgun blast, the noise so deep he felt it in his molars. He was already on the interstate before he realized the sound had not been the bus backfiring at all, but thunder.
Only about five feet of road showed itself to Rusty at a time even with the headlights on bright. The rest was coated in murk. They were going along at forty, sometimes slower when approaching pockets of muddy water pooled in dips in the road. It was a solid two hours from home at a normal pace, but at this rate, it would be dinnertime before they rolled up to the high school.
Not that anyone on board seemed to mind. The Lady Tigers he eyed in the big circle mirror had donned headphones. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s latest CD E. 1999 Eternal had been making the rounds on some of their Walkmans. To Rusty, their music was softer than what the girls normally listened to. Eerie lullabies more spirit than music, as if the singers were performing their melodies somewhere between the here and the hereafter. Two seats back, Numbers 12 and 8 sang along to parts of “Tha Crossroads,” their voices not as ethereal as the original but just as mournful and loud enough for him to make out over the kerplunking rain and almost, almost, enjoy.
The coach lay on the seat behind him. Prime viewing in the rectangular mirror directly above Rusty when he leaned forward a little and cocked his head. A dangerous position, he knew, since it took his focus off the road, but he allowed himself a few glances anyhow. Not likely to have another chance like this one anytime soon: The coach had stripped down to his khaki shorts. He was dozing with his legs bridged across the aisle, his bare feet resting on the seat where his polo and socks had been draped to dry. He’d peeled his clothes from his pink and hairless body with a slowness Rusty had thought impossible in real time.
Lord, he said to himself, remembering it, and put his eyes back on the road. Wind was batting harder against the bus now. An invisible hand nudging them sideways. The coach had claimed the rain would slack up once they’d put some distance between themselves and the Delta. The god-awful Delta, he called it. Like with so many things, the coach had been wrong. The bus seemed bound for perdition, not away from it. Rusty believed in two versions of the coach: the one who taught literature to seniors and wrote poems for the school newspaper, The Growl, and the other one who was desperately over his head and had led the Lady Tigers to the end of a thankless season with no wins. During the era of Rusty’s dad as coach, there had been trophies, special segments devoted to him and “his rowdy girls” on the local news channel, interested recruiters from as far away as Nashville and Hattiesburg. The Lady Tigers had been unbeatable their last season, state champions.
Rusty didn’t like to wallow in thoughts about what went on last year, so he was glad when the coach came to and asked about their location. When he told him, the coach said, “My god, the Delta — it just goes on, don’t it?” Before Rusty could respond, the coach nestled back into his napping position and closed his eyes.
Rusty tilted forward and stole another glance. The coach was not much older than he was. Twenty-three or twenty-four. Fresh out of a nearby regional university with a teaching license. Rusty had been prepared to hate him out of some lingering loyalty to his dad. But his dislike evaporated during his first class with the coach, who came in reciting the famous soliloquy from Macbeth: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Forney Culpepper — the name stuck in your throat. But otherwise he was beautiful. A boyish face, sandy hair he kept pushed behind his ears. According to The Growl, the coach was from the Delta, which maybe explained why he hated it so much, and a poet, which was what first drew Rusty’s attention. According to Rusty’s mom, who’d seen the coach milling about the Piggly Wiggly, he was also a lover of garbanzo beans and tofu. “Hippy-dippy shit,” she called it, but not unkindly, for she wished him well, thank you very much, and didn’t care who knew it.
Around the end of the first nine weeks of school, The Growl published one of the coach’s poems. A sestina called “Hooch” about a dog killed by a couple’s willful neglect of the animal. After reading it, Rusty bolted from study hall for the bathroom to wipe the wet from his face. He decided not to look at it a second time, though he could recite the repeating end words without even trying: muscle, map, song, touch, trap, break. Rusty mumbled them now as he plunged the bus deeper into a storm that showed no signs of letting up. He noticed the coach was changing positions, sitting up. He was scrutinizing the goings-on outside, and Rusty thought he was about to tell him to pull over. Instead, he placed a foot on the running handrail that separated the driver’s seat from the passenger’s. The foot was not in range of any of Rusty’s mirrors, but he could picture it regardless. The smooth sole, the color of sunrise, relaxing against the chrome bar. The neat toenails, the instep, the delicate wrinkling of skin at the knuckles.
His eyes stayed ahead of him on the road, but he might as well have been turned around, ogling the foot, the naked foot, with his tongue hanging out like that woebegone dog in the coach’s poem. Because he never saw it coming. Whatever it was — a chunk of asphalt, hail, god’s own right fist? A diagonal crack slicing from the bottom left to the top right of the windshield was the only evidence it left behind of itself. After it ricocheted off, Rusty lost control and sent them careering off the road.
The week after he had told his mom he liked boys, his dad confessed to inappropriate behavior with one of the Lady Tigers.
Rusty was stunned.
Not because it had happened, but because he had been around his dad and the Lady Tigers for years and hadn’t suspected a thing. After he showed no talent for sports, Rusty was tasked with being his dad’s lackey, going with him to all the games, keeping stats, pretending to care. His parents were worried about him, the way he did things like a girl, though that’s not exactly how they put it. “Curious,” they called it. When Rusty turned seventeen, his dad insisted he try earning a commercial driver’s license and add chauffeur to his list of duties for the Lady Tiger’s ball club. To his surprise, he passed both the written and driving portions of the test. So he spent his junior year carting the Lady Tigers around the state all while his dad had been sparking with one of them right under his nose.
Rusty had been distracted by his own secrets that year. His name was Robert, but everybody called him Sparse because he was so thin. He was black and wore glasses and had a tongue as red as a canary. When Sparse’s parents found out about them, they sent him to live with an aunt in Memphis, and Rusty had been so depressed he confided in his mom, telling her everything. His mom said at first that she didn’t believe in homosexuals. Rusty told her he was real enough all right, but they both knew what she meant. She suggested that they keep this between them.
So when Rusty’s parents had called him into the living room one evening for a conversation, he assumed he knew the reason. His mom had caved. His dad knew. But no: He was all wrong. In fact, he probably couldn’t be more wrong. His mom did most of the talking. Very factual. The details: His dad had done this and this, and now this was going to happen. Rusty recognized the words but couldn’t comprehend the language.
Rusty’s dad wouldn’t say at first, and when he finally told him, the name meant little to Rusty. Because they were more pack than team and more team than individual people, he never bothered to learn their names.
Rusty’s dad said, “The pitcher.”
“Oh.” He knew then. “Double zero.”
“What?” His mom said. “What did you say?”
“It’s not important.”
She grabbed her purse and stormed outside. They heard the car pull out of the driveway into the street.
“She’ll be back,” Rusty’s dad said.
Rusty had his doubts.
“Dad, right, so I’m gay.”
“What? No. What?”
“You sure?” Rusty nodded.
“Hmmm.” His dad walked into the kitchen and poured himself three fingers of Crown Royal.
The next morning Rusty found his mom on the couch, dipping the ashes of her Virginia Slim into an empty can of Tab. “Your father,” she said. “He’s skedaddled.”
She didn’t know, or if she did, she wasn’t telling.
His glasses had been knocked off, his shirt torn. His nose had taken the worst of it, smashing against the wheel. He remained semiconscious throughout. Conscious enough to realize the coach had been thrown into the stairwell. At first, the coach appeared more flustered than hurt. He clambered out of the entranceway and proceeded to call the Lady Tigers a bunch of bitches and Rusty a shit for a driver. Then his eyes rolled. His feet came out from under him, and he tumbled back down into the stairwell. The Lady Tigers rushed toward him, Number 12 barking orders to everyone else.
Meanwhile, Rusty tasted copper. Blood was eking from his nostrils into his lips. Without asking, Number 45 plugged his nose with tampons. When he tried to stand, Number 8 pushed him back down. She shined a small flashlight into his pupils and declared him to be concussed. He felt okay and tried to say so, but Number 8 said for him not to waste his breath — her mom was a nurse and she knew things, okay? His arms and legs worked. No cuts or bruises. Slowly, surely, the world settled down around him, and he began to understand a few things. For one, the bus rested at a slight angle, its grille buried in the gully of a ditch, the whole front end leaking smoke. For another, the Lady Tigers had divided into two groups. One to see about him, and the other to tend to the coach.
The sight of the shirtless coach being toted out of the stairwell by Numbers 12 and 2 reminded him of a painting. Christ being carried down from the cross. The artist and title of the work escaped him though it was a favorite of his. Just zipped out of his ear into the ether. Maybe he was concussed. They took the coach to the back of the bus and propped him up on the last seat. Because of the incline, they had trouble with his head — it kept drooping forward. Number 62 tried slapping him. When nothing happened, she did it again. Rusty got to his feet and lunged toward them. “What are y’all doing?” he wanted to know. Numbers 45 and 8 blocked the aisle. So he took to the seats, monkey-climbing from one to the other. The whole team swarmed him. Hands grasped at his clothes, and he twisted his body through the melee, pushing against the tangle of arms.
“Coach!” he cried, as Number 45 tackled him, knocking the tampons from his nose. After a mild struggle, she pinned him to the floor.
“I cannot breathe.” Number 45’s heft muffled the edge in his voice.
Number 12 said, “That’s the point.”
A slap of thunder rattled the window latches, and they all seemed to remember the storm outside. Number 2 wondered aloud if they’d ever see a sunny day again. Both Number 8 and 16 remembered passing a gas station a few miles back. One of them even recalled its name: the SpaceWay. “Sounds like salvation to me,” Number 12 said. A plan began to form. They’d wait out the weather, and as soon as it was clear, they’d backtrack to the Space-Way and phone for help. “911 and no fooling,” Number 12 added. Number 62 worried about the coach looking so puny. She suggested another slap to rouse him. Number 8 disagreed, claimed she’d seen something on 20/20 about how violent people got if you woke them up from being knocked out. “That’s sleepwalkers, dummy,” Number 45 said, before asking Number 12 if she thought it was all right if she got up off the sissy. “My ass,” she said, “is falling asleep.”
“I second her proposal,” Rusty said from beneath her.
Number 12 squatted and wanted to know if he was prepared to behave himself. He replied that he didn’t see how he had much of a choice, being outnumbered and all. Which seemed good enough for her. She nodded, and Number 45 pushed off. He leaned up, the blood rushing back to his skull. He yawned so big that his jaws popped. Now closer to the coach, he noticed the knot on the man’s forehead. The Lady Tigers regarded Rusty warily, as if he were a wild animal they weren’t sure would bite or not, as he made his way over to the coach. Rusty rubbed his fingers across the swollen skin. The coach felt warm. Feverish.
“He looks so peaked,” he said. “And we could be here a while.”
“I’m open to suggestions.” Number 12 crossed her arms.
He shook his head. “I’m fresh out.”
“So did you just run us off the road for fun or what?” Number 45 asked.
“Or what,” he told her.
Something like a smirk fixed itself on Number 12’s face, and she told him to call her DeDe.
Thirty minutes later, Number 45 spotted a funnel cloud and screeched. The other Lady Tigers scrambled up and pressed their faces to the windows, looking. Rusty and the coach remained where they were, the very last seats in the back of the bus, Rusty on the right seat and the coach on the left. The coach’s head had tilted against his window, his breath fogging the glass, a dewdrop of spittle in the corner of his mouth. Rusty didn’t like the look of the knot. All shiny, it seemed to grow bigger each time he eyed it. He looked away. He imagined they are still on the road, bound for home. He’s driving and the coach is talking. Not the way he does around the Lady Tigers, but in that quiet, hungry way that falls over him when he considers poetry. “A genuine word eater,” he once described himself, and Rusty tells the coach about Sparse. The time in the park, the time at his house after school. The way it burned the first time he touched himself after Sparse had been sent away. Eat these words. The coach, he understands. All too well, he says. The coach has known heartache too. Their eyes meet in the bus mirror — let’s say the circular one. A hand finds Rusty’s shoulder, squeezes.
The Lady Tigers hadn’t moved for some time. Their faces were turned from him, on alert for cyclones outside. He tried speaking, I am in a dream!, but the words wouldn’t come. The Lady Tigers turned as if they had heard him anyway. They turned and their mouths dropped open and they spoke with thunder.
He jumped awake.
Number 8 sat beside him, cussing. “You have a concussion, dumbass,” she was saying. “No sleepy time for you.”
“What about the coach?”
She told him the coach was a different matter but didn’t bother to elaborate.
A greasy jar of peanut butter was making the rounds. The Lady Tigers used the same spoon to dig out a fat dollop and eat. Number 45 had opened the cooler and was passing out paper cups of whatever liquid was inside it — something purple. Seeing her reminded Rusty of the funnel cloud and he asked Number 8 about it.
“False alarm,” she said, whispering. “She sometimes says things for attention.”
DeDe, who was lounging in the seat in front of them, leaned over and told Number 8 she had an idea for how to keep the sissy awake. They’d tell stories, like around a campfire.
Number 45 trotted back down the aisle. “What kind of stories?”
“The kind with words,” DeDe said, and everyone groaned.
Patting Rusty on the knee, Number 8 proclaimed she had one. “A real doozy,” she said. “And it relates to our current predicament.” She went on to describe this girl she knew in the first grade. “She had brown hair and was tiny, tiny. She rode horses and her parents were veterinarians.” She snatched the jar of peanut butter and shoveled some brown goop in her mouth.
Number 16 gawked. “That ain’t no story.”
DeDe said, “And?”
Number 8 finished chewing and offered Rusty the jar. He declined.
Number 45 said, “What the fuck is even happening right now?”
As if that were her cue, Number 8 said, “Oh, yeah, a tornado killed her.” She paused, and when nobody said anything, she continued. “Well, not the tornado itself. See, she slept with her mouth open.” She paused, and again, when nobody spoke, she added more. “So when the tornado ripped off her bedroom wall, her mouth filled up with all this, what do you call it, debris?”
DeDe interrupted her to ask the point of the story.
Rusty clarified: “Why are you telling us this?”
“I guess — I don’t know — bad things can happen? Shit.”
Number 16 grabbed the coach’s limp hand and waved it at Number 8. “Hello, I think we know that already.”
Even Rusty laughed while Number 8 waved her middle finger for all to see.
Number 62 said, “Coach Culpepper is the storyteller.”
Rusty said, “He’s a poet.”
DeDe told them to hush. She had one.
“Your nosebleed,” she said, looking at Rusty. “Reminds me of Carrie-Anne.”
Number 45 said, “Oh, jeez: the nosebleeds.”
Rusty remembered. Nosebleeds had been her trademark. As she warmed up her throwing arm before a game, she sometimes got them. “Nerves,” his father had called it. But they became the stuff of superstition. She was a force on the pitcher’s mound anyway, lobbing balls past hitters twice her size. But during the games her nose oozed blood, she pitched perfect shutouts, not allowing a single player from the opposing team even a base hit.
Rusty said, “Double zero.”
DeDe’s eyes narrowed. “I saw her mama last month.”
Number 16 said, “Thought they moved.”
“Just to have the baby.”
Rusty thought about the time he’d found them alone in the field house before a home game. His dad and Double Zero. He was holding a bag of ice to the bridge of her nose, trying to clot the bleed. He was up to his elbows in red, and the sight made Rusty feel sick. His dad should be more careful, he remembered thinking, letting her bleed all over him like that.
“I didn’t know,” he blurted out.
No one heard him: They were listening to DeDe. How she was in the Sunflower. How she was minding her own business, looking at crochet needles for her mom, when who rounded the corner? Carrie-Anne’s mom, that’s who. For a moment, a split second, DeDe considered hiding. “But I thought to myself: No. We didn’t do nothing to be ashamed of, did we?” So they spoke. First about the weather. Then Carrie-Anne’s mom said her girl was doing “just fine.” Had earned her GED. Was taking classes at the community college. “And the shit of it is — she just pushed her cart on, went to the next aisle. Pretty as you please.”
“I didn’t know,” Rusty repeated. “Promise.”
Numbers 16 and 45 glanced his way. He couldn’t make out their expressions. Something between pity and contempt. He didn’t have the word for it, but he knew it well. It was the same look his mother gave him when he told her about Sparse.
“I used to drive by y’all’s house after I found out.” This was Number 8. She looked at her lap. “I used to think about driving my car into his bedroom.”
“I used to think worse,” said Number 45.
“Me too,” said Number 16.
“I promise, I promise,” Rusty was saying. He saw his mom dipping ashes in the soda can. She was telling him they’d be better off. With his dad gone. “It never happened,” she’d said. “And I refuse to speak on it anymore.”
Number 45 spoke up. “What I can’t understand is why you kept driving us?”
Rusty nodded to the coach across the aisle, still unconscious. He wasn’t sure if they understood what he meant until Number 8 said, “Figures.”
“Her mom had the baby with her.” DeDe was wiping her face. “Looks like you too. Same eyes.”
“I promise,” Rusty said again. “I promise, I promise.”
DeDe reached toward him, and he violently jerked back. She was only placing a sweat rag against his nose. “Here,” she said. “You’re bleeding again.”
The Lady Tigers stuck to their plan. As soon as the weather cleared, some two hours after the wreck, they were trailing down the interstate toward the Space-Way. None of them wanted to stay behind with Rusty and the coach. Number 8 assured him they were both out of danger. Her mom was a doctor after all. When Rusty said he thought she was a nurse, Number 8 squinted. “Nurse practitioner,” she said. He doubted very much that he was ever in danger, but the coach was a question mark. His knot still looked nasty. He came to when the girls were out of earshot and stumbled outside to puke in the ditch.
Rusty searched the front of the bus until he found the Catwoman comic wedged under the gas pedal. He looked it over: The raven-haired Selina Kyle had found herself in the jungles of South America, fighting drug lords with her usual mix of stealth, sass, and double-jointedness. The coach had put on his polo and was shoving his feet into his New Balances when Rusty stepped off the bus.
The weedy ditch felt soggy beneath Rusty’s feet, a loud sucking sound with each step.
“I think they may try to fire me over this,” the coach said. He stumbled to his knees when he tried to walk over to Rusty. The ground made more ugly noises as he straightened back up. “Second thought, I think I may just quit.”
Rusty climbed the small bank and stood on the edge of the interstate. Bits of sunlight burned through the remaining overcast. Birds wheeled around in the big sky, crazed by the stillness left after the storm. Not a single car coming in either direction. That was the Delta for you: so empty it could convince you it was big. He rolled up the Catwoman and peered through it. The Lady Tigers were about half a mile away, toting their bats in case of trouble. But Rusty knew there wouldn’t be any. They would probably confuse the hell out of whoever was working the Space-Way until DeDe explained everything. First to the Space-Way attendant, then to whomever she got on the pay phone. When Rusty got home tonight after being checked out by the hospital, he wouldn’t begin with the wreck. He would cut to the quick: the baby. Why didn’t anybody tell me? he would ask his mom. He tried imagining her answer, but none came.
“Rus?” The coach had managed to make it up the ditch somehow and stood beside him. “We got to think about what we’re gonna tell them. What we’re going to say.”
Rusty kept looking at the Lady Tigers. The Delta was flat enough that he could watch them walking away for a long time. He dropped the comic and stretched out his palm. Like this, in forced perspective, he held the Lady Tigers in his hand.
“You wrecked us, but my ass is the one on the line, you see.” The coach picked up the comic and swatted at Rusty’s hip. “We need to be friends on this. Stick together. You know what I mean?”
Little by little, the Lady Tigers shrank. He regretted not learning all their names. Maybe there was still time. At school, around town. But he couldn’t exactly picture them hanging out with him after this. Carrie-Anne. He knew that name. Sister. Well, he knew that one too. The coach kept on talking, and Rusty didn’t listen to a word of it. He wanted to hold the team, all of them, in his palm for as long as he could, as they continued to get smaller and smaller until, at last, they were no more.