It was Friday afternoon. We had been throwing around the Frisbee, but the collars of our Oxford-cloth shirts were already sweat-soaked, and we were tired of feeling out of shape. We lay on the back of Jon’s Toyota Corolla in our cheap aviators as the sun slowly started to go down on another day in Northern Virginia. It was September of my senior year and I tasted real freedom. I was seventeen and for the first time in my adult life I was almost content.
“It’ll be fall soon,” I said, putting my hands behind my head.
“Yeah, soon it’ll be too cold for Frisbee.”
“It’s never too cold for Frisbee…remember: we’re hardcore, man.” We had once played a three-hour game in the pouring forty-degree rain.
“All right, man, all right.”
So like I said it was Friday and tonight was a home football game. Friday night football at PVI (that’s Paul VI Catholic High School) was a weekly ritual like going to church or calling long-distance family. Everybody went. Even if you hated football you went to the game.
“Graham’s gonna get the kegs, right?”
Our friend, whose Dad owned a catering business, had gotten us two kegs of root beer for before and during the game.
“He’ll bring it, and Gary’ll bring the grill.”
“Cool, cool. Is Emily coming?”
Emily was Jon’s first long-term girlfriend. Good for him.
“She’ll be here,” he said with the assurance of a guy who’s made it through a six-month relationship and has had an easy time of it.
“I guarantee it,” I drawled out in an imitation hillbilly voice. This wasn’t the Deep South, but we were below the Mason-Dixon Line—so let’s just say I had some material to work with.
“Yassum,” Jon replied. “But I don’t think she’ll be here for the rally.”
The PVI Rally in the Alley was pre-game entertainment—chock full of free food, live bands, and moon bounces—strictly for the underclassmen. I mean, since we built our new gym (a financial disaster equivalent to the Big Dig, though on a smaller scale) it wasn’t even in an alley anymore. It was where the freshman football players wandered aimlessly after practice in their jerseys and the sophomores—too cool for school, too young to drive—stood in their huddled groups, never moving. We—the seniors and a few juniors—were in the back parking lot far away from the festivities having our own party.
Soon the grill was fired up, and we had burgers going, the kegs were tapped and the good times were rolling. I had the Stones’ Sticky Fingers playing on the stereo squeezed in between two solid blocks of Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Being a Bostonian by birth, I could never understand the strictly Southern phenomenon of listening to country music and actually enjoying it. I mean, I love my Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and have a soft spot for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, but I got limits, especially when it comes to women. Seemingly normal, smart, good-looking girls with no outstanding flaws to speak of getting the hots for tools with cowboy hats, over-enlarged belt buckles and plastic smiles—I couldn’t feature it. So, for the moment, things were going great. Once the sun went down, we made our way to the stands staking out seats on the far right of the stands while two willing juniors lugged the kegs behind us.
Friday night football games were for letting off steam, and the best way to do that was to hurl insults at the opposing teams and their fans. On our side, the fans filled all three sections of our gargantuan stands, thirty-six rows deep. As if that wasn’t enough, we had a huge pep band numbering about sixty members, buffalo drums and all. Add that to a stunningly acrobatic cheerleading squad, a drill team with a glittery halftime show, and section-long banners proclaiming glory and victory for the Panthers and doom and defeat for our opponents. We were a force to be reckoned with—and that was off the field.
The key to proper heckling was simple: Never Back Down. The scoreboard doesn’t matter, the threats of ejection from the tired, over-worked referees—notice the ironic likeness of referee jerseys to old-school prison uniforms—don’t matter. As long as they were on the field and there was time left, heckle away.
We were winning badly so we must have been playing Ireton—there are only two schools PVI was guaranteed to beat: Ireton and the School for the Blind. So our attitude was lax, we had done so many keg-stands that they were kicked before halftime. Everyone was still fuming off the caffeine rush and feelin’ fine. Little did we know it was all about to flame up again when a certain someone left the crowd and went into the announcer’s booth.
Mike Shosta, a senior hated by our class as much for his high GPA as for his Gonzo-like nose and penchant for being an asshole, began commenting on the game in the middle of third quarter. Not only did the kid have a voice to match his nose, but, as I said, and this bears repeating, he wasn’t really well liked. So we did the natural thing and began booing and throwing things at the announcer’s booth.
“SHOSTA SUCKS MORE THAN IRETON!”
“I’M GONNA EAT YOUR DOG FOR DINNER!”
The people had spoken. Anytime Shosta spoke into the mic, even if it was something positive, he was repaid with scorn and withering profanity against him, his life, his family and oddly enough his dog (did he have a dog? None of us knew).
Finally, the kid had enough. He tramped out of the announcer’s booth like a spoiled brat who didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas and jumped down into the stands, pushing aside freshman and wimpy upperclassmen as he went.
“Who was saying shit?” he demanded with a flustered tone in his voice and an angry gleam in his eye. “Who was it? Who was he?”
The fatal flaw with Sherlock Shosta and his detective work was simply the fact that over forty people were booing him. To seek out one guy would be stupid—the person next to him would be just as guilty. So here was Shosta, searching for answers in all the wrong places at the wrong time.
I said it!”
“Man, you suck!”
“I SAID IT, ASSHOLE!”
I sort of knew the kid who stood out among the confessors. He had these wild, sky-blue Irish eyes that could pierce your soul, and a head of massive, brown curly hair that hung all over like a horribly distorted, brunette Raggedy Andy. He was one of Jon’s friends, I think.
“So you’re the one who wants to party?” Shosta asked him, sizing up his opponent.
“Yeah, what it’s to ya, fucko?”
“I’ll show ya what it’s to— ”
It is strange when violence breaks out. Nobody knows who fired the first shot at Lexington and Concord, or who threw the bomb at the Haymarket riot, but we all know the consequences. I don’t know who pushed who, but with a flash of steel everything went too fast. Maybe it was because football is such a slow game, but it seemed to come out of nowhere like a summer thunderstorm and all you can do is run for shelter. Seeing a knife is pretty freaky, you really don’t see it, you just see the streaking of the blade through the air as it’s drawn back behind him like a steel-gray brushstroke against the background of a night sky. Suddenly, twenty voices at once:
“HEY! HEY MAN!”
“Don’t fuck with me!”
“Just go, man! Just go back to the booth!”
“Oh! Oh man!”
“Now he sees it! Now he’s scared!”
“Don’t m-mess with my friend, man!” Jon stammered. “Du-dude, put the piece away!”
A sea had parted around the two combatants and jumped into it to hold the people back. At first it was like being in a real sea, disorienting as the bubbles fly around your face and your eyes adjust to the stinging salt water. For the first time I realized how cold the night was—fall was coming sooner than I thought—and zipped my coat all the way up. I scratched my forehead—it was itchy as hell, I was sweating—under my Adidas beanie and slowly pushed and finally guided Shosta back to the announcer’s booth. Jon was already gone with Raggedy Andy; I lost him when I jumped in.
“He wasn’t really gonna do it…he wouldn’t have. I’ve seen him before, man, I’ve seen him. He wouldn’t have done it…I know it, he couldn’t…he wouldn’t…” Shosta kept repeating this to me or himself, or anyone who would listen over and over.
I remember just saying “Okay, man, okay. Just get in the booth, man.” We were both saying a lot and nothing to each other, having a sort of two-way monologue. I guess we were both a little spooked and dealing with it in the same way. It was the first time I really empathized with the kid. Reaching the booth, I guess I was still talking to him; he turned to me and said:
“Fuck you, Brennan,” and slammed the door. So much for empathy.
Flare-ups happen all the time. “It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt” and for a lot of people who were there it was just that. Shosta got shown up. Now I don’t want to make a big something out of a little nothing, but knives are scary things. If we hadn’t followed our instincts and gotten the hell out of there, who knows what would have happened? I guess when it happened everything we knew—or what we thought we knew—was thrown into the air, and when it all came crashing down it did not quite fit the same way. The rest of the season kind of went out like a wet fart, sort of “blah” like when all the water has run out of the tub.
So: you move on.
Patrick Brennan was born in Beverly, Massachusetts on November 3, 1985. He currently lives in Northern Virginia and is majoring in History at Saint Joseph’s University. He wants to be either a film director or a rock singer.