Short story, contest entry
| Salt and Pepper
"Thomas Duncan, you get back inside and finish boxing up your clothes. Now!"
Tommy's gaze reluctantly moved away from the treehouse that he and his friend Jimmy had built together two years earlier and over to his mother who was standing on the patio with her left hand on her hip and her right one pointing at him. He had taken a break from his chore to remember why he really did not want to move halfway across the country.
"The moving van will be here in less than an hour, and you have barely started your work." Her tone was a little less forceful now that she had his attention.
'Ok, Mom," the thirteen-year-old said with resignation as he began to trudge slowly inside. He walked away from his mother to the front porch with his head down. As he passed through the living room he noticed that boxes of clothes from the girls' room were now sitting in front of the couch. When he arrived in his own room, he sighed. Only one drawer full of pants was in a box, and he had four left in his chest of drawers to unload. And then he would have to fold all of the shirts, sweaters, and jackets in his closet and put them in the boxes. Maybe he could just throw them all in there and only fold the shirts that would go on the tops of the boxes. She wouldn't notice.
After he had finished boxing the clothes in his chest of drawers, he started throwing crumpled shirts and sweaters into the largest empty box; but just as he was about to actually fold the final few, Mom walked in on him and saw what he was doing.
"Now come on, Tommy. You know better than this. These are freshly pressed shirts, and they will be wrinkled messes by the time they get to Boston." She dumped the contents of the box onto his bed and proceeded to remind Tommy how to fold a shirt.
"Alright, Mom," Tommy acquiesced.
"Do it right this time," she said firmly and went to check on the other children.
Tommy focused on his work a little better now, and he was finished within a few minutes. All the while the question wouldn't leave him: What am I going to do in Boston? His friend Darryl had posed the same question weeks before and proffered: "You'll be the best at everything, Tommy. The guys up there are sissies. You'll be like Alan Dale." Alan Dale Guthrie was the best athlete in Darryl's class, a year ahead of Tommy's. He was the fastest; he was the best at football, basketball, and baseball. Tommy could recite chapter and verse of his achievements, and those of the next two best behind him in that class as well: Terry and Ray. Darryl, the starting end on last year's Crockett Junior High football team, hovered somewhere around fifth or sixth best, not quite in the inner circle, but welcome to tag along. Darryl, who would be a freshman at Irving High in two weeks, mostly hung around with Tommy and Jimmy, mere eighth graders to be. Tommy had scored a touchdown in a pickup game at the Crockett practice field a few days before, and Alan Dale had congratulated him with a handshake. Ray had done the same and even given him an approving nod. Tommy was about to leave all of that. "It's a good move for the family," his father, whose corporate star was rising, had explained.
"Hey, let's go to the field," Darryl shouted from the front porch.
Tommy had just finished his work, and he ran from his bedroom to the front door. "I'll ask my mom," he answered excitedly, and ran to the backyard.
"Mom, can I go with Darryl to the football field?"
"Did you finish?"
"If you didn't do it right, you're in trouble."
"Then go." She was too busy to check up on him.
Tommy ran to the front of the house where Jimmy had joined Daryll. His spirits lifted. One more day with my friends! It was nine-thirty in the morning, and if they were going to play football, they had better get started. Nobody played football in Texas on torrid August afternoons, even two-a-day practices ended by eleven and started up again at five.
"Alan Dale, Terry, Gus, and Denny are playing." Darryl's voice was a somewhat higher pitch than normal and suggested the need to hurry so that the three of them would not get left out when sides were chosen. They jogged to Eighth Street, and when they turned the corner, they saw the older boys a couple of blocks away, almost to the field. They ran until they got close and knew they had made it in time, then slowed to a walk, not wanting to appear to be too eager.
As they reached the football field, the older boys stopped dead in their tracks. "What the..." big Gus Martinez, an Irving High starter exclaimed. Everybody stared in amazement. Tommy and his friends had been watching their idols and were the last to cast their eyes on the astounding scene.
"Come on, let's play some football," said the guy who was about to hike the ball as he looked at the newcomers.
"Yeah, come on," said the quarterback.
Others chimed in as well. They seemed to be genial enough, and they appeared to be about high school age. A couple, including a big guy called Bubba, seemed to sulk in the background. Tommy's group was frozen for a few seconds, and then they all looked at Gus and Alan Dale for guidance. They hadn't seen anything like this before. They must be from Bear Creek. Bear Creek was just outside of the Irving city limits; and in 1965, no black people lived in Irving proper, only in Bear Creek. There were no black students in Irving public schools.
"Don't be bashful, let's play football," said the one who had spoken first. His smile was genuine, and it relaxed the newcomers.
Gus and Alan Dale looked at each other and shrugged. "I'm game," said Alan Dale.
"Count me in," said Gus.
Their leader offered his hand to Alan Dale. "Joe Kelly," he stated his name.
"Alan Guthrie," was the response. The two shook hands.
Gus shook hands with the quarterback; but Tommy and the rest hung back. Bubba and the black kid closest to him frowned and looked down.
"Let's choose sides," said Gus.
"Nah, let's play a salt and pepper," the quarterback suggested.
Tommy had never heard that expression before in that context, but he immediately understood it. A quick count revealed the newcomers had eight players and the Bear Creek guys had only seven.
"We'll play you seven on eight," said Bubba.
"Nah, we'll give you one guy," Denny countered.
"Play seven on seven, and we'll have a sub." Alan Dale had the solution. They agreed on the rules: four downs or less to score or the other team gets the ball, no first downs - standard sandlot rules. Sideline markers are out of bounds; no holding, no shots to the head. They would play tackle. Both sides expected that.
A coin toss gave the Irving boys the ball first. Alan Dale looked at Jimmy and Tommy as if he were considering which of the younger boys should start. It was no real choice, and Alan said: "Hey Jimmy, you sit out first, and we'll bring you in later." Jimmy silently accepted his fate.
They played the first set of downs tentatively. Tommy noticed that Alan Dale was not playing hard, and neither was Gus. The Bear Creek guys had reached across the racial divide in good faith. It seemed wrong to play aggressively right away. Irving turned the ball over on downs as a result. On their first play, the Bear Creek quarterback handed the ball off to Bubba's pal, and he hit the line pretty hard, knocking Darryl down. The mood changed, and on the next play Gus rushed the passer hard and tipped the ball as it left his hand. It floated slowly through the air, and to Tommy, who was covering the intended receiver, it looked like it was giftwrapped. He broke on it and intercepted the pass. He could have walked into the endzone, but he ran his fastest to make sure nobody caught him. The score was 6-0, Irving. The Bear Creek guys would need to answer.
The intensity level on both sides ramped up dramatically on the next set of downs, and it soon became clear that the Bear Creek players were overmatched. They were very surprised, but they had no way of knowing when they showed up that they would be playing against a future NFL player (Alan Dale) and five current or future starters for Irving High. They had expected to play against average guys. They were again unable to score. Irving got the ball back, and Denny quickly found the endzone on a sweep when Alan Dale lateraled him the ball. Again, Bear Creek could not move the ball; and when Alan Dale found Terry wide open for a touchdown pass, the blowout appeared to be on.
Wounded pride turned to shame, and shame to anger; and when Jimmy came in for Darryl, Bubba knocked him out cold with a hard block. All the Irving players stopped and stared down at him for about a minute. Everyone was relieved when he came to, shook his head, and said, "What happened?"
"You took a hard shot, Jimmy," Alan Dale explained. He and Terry helped him to the sideline and told him to rest.
"Is that it?" Gus asked.
"No way," Alan Dale replied. "Come back in Darryl. Play hard."
The Bear Creek offense was shut down again; and on the first play of Irving's possession, Alan Dale finally showed his full pace - and it would be 4.3 forty-yard dash speed in a few years. He faked a hand-off to Denny and rolled out to his left. By the time he was to the line of scrimmage, it was obvious that no one would catch him; but one of the defenders gave an unenthusiastic chase anyway. 24-0 Irving. Game over.
"He stepped out of bounds," the defender yelled.
"No way," Gus and all of the Irving players answered emphatically.
"Y'all white boys gotta cheat to win," Bubba exclaimed, but he walked away as he said it.
"I'm not white," said Gus. "Neither is he," and he pointed to Denny, a full-blooded Cherokee.
Alan Dale and the others walked towards Eighth Street without saying anything. Only Tommy hung back and took it all in. He couldn't understand why the blacks would want to play a game as a gesture of goodwill, and then be such poor sports when they lost. He would play in a few more salt and pepper games before he was through and would come to understand better. The Bear Creek guys had tried to reach out in friendship, true; but they also wanted to prove that they were good enough, that they could compete with the people they had watched from a distance for so long, when they alone were excluded. This just wasn't their day.
Tommy's family would move to an all-white suburb of Boston, and he wouldn't compete with black athletes again for three years. As a sophomore, Alan Dale would be the starting safety for the last all-white NCAA Championship team, the 1970 Texas Longhorns. As a senior, he would be their wishbone quarterback; and he would often hand the ball off to a black running back, the first in a long line of many to come. Forty years later he would retire from coaching in the NFL, and his black players would praise him. But no one could predict the future on that hot, August day in 1965.
Word count: 1994