Run, Redneck, Run
Mama refused to sign the permission slip, but Daddy's skewed logic prevailed.
"Look at him, Thelma"—like most Cajuns, he had difficulty pronouncing "th." Thelma came out "Telma"—"Look at him, chere. Mais, yeah, he's in the eighth grade, but he's too small. He's gonna sit on the bench. Coach Trosclair ain't even gonna play him. Don't worry, he won't get hurt."
This argument made no sense to me, since Mama clearly wasn't worried about me getting hurt. The extension cord marks from last night’s whipping were still red.
But I got to play. So there I was, watching as the squad formed up in four columns on the field. "Side straddle hop," barked the exercise leader.
Jackson, another new boy, elbowed my shoulder. "What's a side saddy hop?"
He talked funny and smelled of nicotine.
Before I could answer, the captain shouted out, "OK, Tigers! Ready— HUT!" The team responded, "ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR..."
"Dang, ain't nothin' but jumping jacks. It's jumping jacks," Jackson hawed, elbowing my shoulder again.
I jerked away from him, annoyed. "I know that."
I didn't know everybody at St. Stanislaus — we had just moved to Vermilionville from Bayou Lafourche — but I had the chance to make a few friends before the school year. Jackson 's first day was the day before. Sister Monique assigned him the desk behind mine.
Everything about this hard-muscled kid was foreign. He was Baptist! I’d never met a Baptist before. His hair, parted severely on the left side of his head, was sandy blonde and slicked with Vitalis. He had blue eyes. And he had a steely, intense gaze that was harder than any bully's, or even the meanest teacher.
The exercise leader, a fat kid named Elmer, wore dingy, grass-stained football pants over his hip pads. The pants did little to contain Elmer's hanging gut. An SS fashioned from white tape was slapped on the side of his maroon helmet. The only new parts of the uniform were his rubber-cleated Pumas and white crew socks.
Coach reviewed the prospects with resignation. St. Stanislaus was not known for its football team. Then he hesitated, pointed to our group and said something to Mr. Castille, my fourth hour science teacher. Mr. Castille supervised the calisthenics while Coach walked over to the new recruits. He singled out Jackson , more than a head and half taller than anyone in the group. "What's your name, son?"
Some of the boys laughed. Coach sniffed the air. "You been smoking, boy?"
Jackson drew his shoulders back and met Coach's gaze. "Naw, sir."
"Any other seventh-eighth graders here?"
I raised my hand.
Coach ignored me and returned to Jackson .
"You in the eighth grade, boy? How old are you?"
Jackson 's piercing stare never wavered. "Fifteen."
"Fifteen," Jackson said again.
"You mean fifteen, sir?"
"Drop and give me ten."
Jackson hit the ground and effortlessly executed ten ramrod pushups. He sprang up like a weasel, his cheeks bright crimson, showing off a big toothy grin.
"Where you from, boy? Mississippi ?"
"Naw, sir. Pine Bluff , Arkansas .
Coach continued . "They held you back? Are you supposed to be in tenth grade?"
Jackson relished the attention. "Naw, sir. I flunked first grade twice. One time 'cause I was sick with the croup, Mamma said."
"So you're saying you're not dumb."
"I heard you were a smoker."
"Naw, sir. Not me."
Coach turned his attention to me. "Pierre Robichaux. Kind of small for an eighth grader, eh?" He emphasized the ‘air' of Pierre. You Bob's son?"
"Everybody calls me Pete," I said.
"Everybody calls me Pete what?"
"Uh, everybody calls me Pete, sir!"
Coach removed his sweat-stained cap and passed his hand over his bald head. "Drop and give me ten."
"Haw haw, Pee-aire," Jackson squealed. "Give Coach ten."
I dropped to the ground, grass-staining the knee of my new jeans. Mama's gonna whip me, but I don't care; I'm playing football.
"Snoddy," Coach shouted.
"Give me ten and no more bull."
"Sir! Yessir!" He hit the ground. "C'mon Pee-aire. Let's go. One, two, three…."
While I tried to imitate Jackson 's form, Coach pointed to the church community center. "You boys go to the locker room, find some gear, then come join the team for drills."
By the time Jackson and I got to the dressing room, the younger boys had already chosen the best of the shabby equipment left behind by the players already dressed out. Jackson poked around in the boxes looking for shoulder pads "Shee-it, ain't got nothing good in here."
A goofy sixth grader named Clarence was sporting a set of oversized shoulder pads on an undersized body. He struggled to pull a T-shirt over his head and pads.
"Lemme give you a hand with that, boy," Jackson said. "All right, hold your hands over your head." Clarence raised his arms. "On three," Jackson advised. "One, two, three." Jackson lifted the pads off Clarence's shirtless body and shrugged them over his own shoulders. "These fit purty good."
"Hey, man," Clarence complained. "That's not fair."
"Yeah, it ain't," Jackson said. "Now give me them pants you found. They look like my size." He stripped to his underwear revealing his muscled thighs and flat stomach.
He pointed to another kid. "Lemme borry that chin strap," he said as he helped himself to it. The boy, a fifth grader, began to cry.
"My daddy bought me that chin strap."
Jackson stuck the strap inside the back end of his underwear and farted. "Hey buddy. Don't worry. I'll give it back to you after practice."
I put together a mismatched pair of shoulder pads from the discards. The pads didn't look half bad but the only pants I could find reached down to the top of my Chuck Taylors. My helmet looked old-fashioned but at least it had a face mask. The only helmet that fit Jackson’s greasy head looked like it was last used in 1948.
We ran to join the team, Jackson barefoot, just as Mr. Castille was organizing the sprint drills.
"Don't you have any tenny shoes?" I puffed as we trotted to the field.
"Ain't got none.’Sides I run faster barefoot."
Mr. Castille pointed to a stripe of brown grass. "Line up ten across on this line—ready." He blew a short blast from a silver whistle—ten boys sprinted towards Coach, who was forty yards away.
"Next group," Mr. Castille shouted. Jackson took his mark on the line next to me.
Coach shrilled his whistle to halt the drill.
"Snoddy! What do you think you're doing with that helmet?" he bellowed.
"Running the race, sir," Jackson called back.
Coach trotted to our line. "Let me see that helmet." He took a quick look and sniffed inside. He crinkled his long nose in disgust. "Poo yai. Ça peu."
The team laughed, myself included, and Jackson 's face turned beet red.
"Where did you find that old relic?"
Jackson hitched a thumb over his shoulder. "Over yonder?"
Coach mimicked Jackson 's accent. "Over yonder?" More laughter.
Coach handed the helmet back to Jackson . "You won't be able to play with that. You'll get hurt."
"Not me." Jackson paused, then remembered to add a "sir."
"You think barefoot rednecks can't get hurt?" The team laughed again, but Jackson refused to cow.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Naw, sir. I won't get hurt."
"How you figure that?" Coach asked.
"'Cause ain't none of these coonasses fast enough to catch me — sir."
Everyone but me laughed again. Coonass was a serious word. The one and only time I ever used it, Mamma took a cane switch to my hide. Not that my mother ever needed a reason to whip me or my sisters. Anything — an unmade bed, a B minus grade, a dirty dish — could set her off.
"I don't ever want to hear that mot vilain come from your lips ever again, tu me comprend?" she said in French. "It's demeaning. You are descended from the French, not the rear end of a raccoon."
"No coonass can catch you?" Coach seemed amused. "Drop and give me fifty."
Jackson fell to the ground. "One – two – three – four – Jackson 's cracker cadence echoed across the playground. The team took interest when he reached thirty without slowing. "Go, Snoddy," Elmer encouraged. The team shouted the remaining count with the Arkansas boy – forty-eight – forty-nine – fifty. Jackson 's chest heaved as he bounced to his feet.
"Way to go, redneck," Elmer razzed.
"Ain't nothin' to it, coonass."
Coach glanced at his clipboard. "Boudreaux, Breaux, Bradley, Ledoux, Doucet – line up. Who else wants to see if Snoddy can run?" A couple of other boys took their mark next to Jackson. "Coach Castille, mark off forty." Mr. Castille trotted to a spot on the dusty field.
Coach held up his hand to start the sprint. "Ready – hut!"
Jackson won easily.
"Four eight, Coach," Mr. Castille called.
"Four point eight seconds. That's what I got on my stopwatch."
Coach pushed the bill of his cap back. "That can't be right. Run 'em back to me."
Jackson outpaced Boudreaux and company again.
"What did you get, Coach?" Mr. Castille asked.
Coach frowned. "Four-seven." Jackson trotted back to the group, a mulish grin peering out from the maskless helmet. "Not bad, Snoddy, you might make the team."
A kid my size named Canick squared off against me several times that first day in blocking drills. "Ready – set – hut!" Three times I got a good jump on the whistle, caught Canick off balance, and ran over him. "Way to go, Pete,” Jackson said.
The group remained silent on the one occasion when Canick bested me.
Etienne "Canick” (Cajun for "little turd") Lapstrapes smoked cigarettes with Bear Breaux. I feared the attention of Bear, the biggest kid on our street. I didn’t like him, and no one really did — he had a merciless wit that could shred flesh — but he ruled the St. Charles Street playground. You had to tolerate Bear or become a shut-in.
That first summer on St. Charles, Canick made the claim he had sex with a girl at the quarterhorse racetrack. I didn't believe him, and neither did Bear, Jules or T-Boy. Bear began teasing Canick about his hair, his small stature, his smoking and the size of his dick.
"Canick has to jack off with a pair of tweezers," he teased. Bear nodded at me. "Ain't that right, Pete?"
I laughed, but said nothing. Canick swore at me. "Goddamnit! What you know about it, you damn coonass?" I don't know why it set me off. I never got in a fight before, but I flew into Canick with a rage and crashed my nose into his forehead. I pinned him to the dusty playground. Bear pulled me off the little bastard as blood poured down my white T-shirt. They hustled off on their bikes and the other kids followed. Frightened from my anger, I sat underneath an old pecan tree and cried.
The next day we all gathered at the playground as though nothing had happened. Bear eased up on the taunting and for the rest of the summer and uneasy truce held between me and Canick. But football practice was a new field of battle with its own set of rules.
On the second day of tackle drills, Canick switched places in the line and forced me into a square-off with Bear. "Set – hut!" Bear took the handoff from Coach and waddled toward me. I stayed low, but his hard, meaty knee caught me in the jaw and knocked me stupid. I snagged a handful of jersey, exposing Bear's jiggling white belly and hung on. Coach blew the whistle to end the play, but Bear pretended to lose his balance and fell on top of me. As I flailed around the ground gasping for breath, Jackson, who had outdueled every opponent he faced, came flying through the air and landed a concrete shoulder into Bear's chest.
Jackson 's red face bulged angrily from the maskless helmet as he stood over the vomiting Bear. "Want to try somebody your own size, podnuh?"
He turned to me but didn't help me get up. "Get up, you little coonass." I wobbled to my feet and rejoined the line.
Mr. Castille gave Bear and Jackson twenty pushups. Jackson performed the pushups easily. I thought Bear was going to die.
After practice, I walked along the gravel road behind the school to Bridge Street. Jackson stood at the steps of the bayou bridge. His shabby dress pants hung tightly around his waist, a rat-tailed black comb protruding from the back pocket. A pair of scuffed, pointy black loafers seemed large on his feet. He was bare-chested, his cherry red Ban-Lon shirt draped over his shoulder.
"Pee-aire," he mocked. "Where yuh headed?"
"Home," I said as I walked past him.
Jackson followed me. "Where's home?"
"Across the bayou. Near the bakery."
His eyes brightened. "The bakery. I been there. They got some good vittles yonder."
“Yeah, we got lots of good stuff in Louisiana. Y’all got good stuff in Arkansas?”
“I cain’t say,” Jackson said, discouraged. “We been just about everywhere but Arkansas.”
Jackson continued to follow me as I crossed the bridge's iron grating and walked past the Ford dealership.
"Who you waiting for, Jackson ?"
"My Maw and Paw. They working a shift at the sugar mill."
"All right. See you at school tomorrow." Hoping he would follow me no further, I walked another block and risked a peek over my shoulder. Jackson leaned against the dealership brick wall and lit a cigarette.
The next day in class, Coach gave us a pop quiz on the state capitals. Jackson tried to cheat off my paper but I blocked his view. "C'mon, Pee-aire," he pleaded. I ignored him. After the test we exchanged papers for grading. I checked Jackson 's. He missed every answer except the Southern capitals, including Kentucky, the only one I missed.
"Hey, Pee-aire, how do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky?" he asked as he looked at my answers. “Louisville or Loo-ieville?"
"Loo-ieville," I said.
"No, retard. It's pronounced Frankfurt . Haw haw."
I scanned Jackson 's test answers. "All right, Einstein, what's the capital of California? And let me give you a hint, it's not Los Angeles."
Coach asked me to be Jackson 's study partner. “Pierre, help him. The team needs him. I t'ink we can beat Cat'lic Prep this year with Jackson." Coach looked so hopeful it was kind of pitiful.
I had no illusions that I would ever get playing time, but I spent my lunchtimes and thirty minutes after football practice tutoring Jackson. Nothing helped much — he could barely read, but he had a good mind. We did a lot of rote memorization and learning games. Jackson was likable enough and as long as he was my pal, Bear left me alone.
Coach got a proper helmet for Jackson from the high school team. He also devised a special play — a double reverse — for his new weapon. The play called for Jackson to line up behind the left end. As soon as the quarterback took the snap, he pitched the ball to the halfback. The back, running right, handed the ball to Jackson, who sprinted in the opposite direction. Jackson scored the very first time the team ran the play in practice.
"Run, redneck, run," Coach shouted from the sidelines as Jackson made the cut upfield. No one on the defense could lay a hand on our "Arkansas flash".
Jackson gave a horsy smirk as he trotted back to the huddle. "How y'all coonasses like that?"
The play was a guaranteed touchdown, at least in practice. Could Jackson repeat that kind of performance in a live game? He could and did — three carries equaled three touchdowns against Nina Middle in our first game. Jackson was right. No coonass could tackle him. “Run, redneck, run” became our war cry.
I didn't play in the game. Neither did Canick or the other little guys. And despite his size, Bear was too slow and saw no action.
The next school day Jackson failed to show up for the after-practice study session. After school, as I crossed the bridge, I saw him with Bear and Canick next to the Ford dealership. I started to cross the street but Jackson called after me, "Hey, Pee-aire. Where yuh headed?"
"Come over here, boy. I got something for you."
“I thought you were my friend?”
Canick and Bear hooted, but Jackson shushed them.
“Hell, son. I’m your friend, but these old boys here are my friends too.”
Denying the betrayal, I joined them. Canick blew a long puff of blue smoke into the air as I approached.
"OK, I'm here. What do have for me?"
Bear cupped a cigarette in his fat paw. "Ain't got nothin' for you 'cept a kick in the ass, Pierre." He punched me in the shoulder so hard I dropped my books. Jackson slapped Bear's head with an open palm, forcing the big boy to cower. He bent over and farted in Bear's direction. "I got this for yuh." Both Bear and Jackson exploded in laughter. "Give him a smoke, Canick."
"No thanks," I said.
"Whatsa matter, yuh chicken?"
I wasn't afraid to smoke. I had smoked with Bear and the gang on the bayou banks last summer. "No. I'm in training. I don't smoke when I'm in training."
Canick laughed. "In training? You're never going to get in the game, you little shrimp."
"Shut up, Canick. Give me the pack," Jackson said. He thrust the red box forward at me. "Take a smoke, you damn coonass."
I caught sight of Coach’s blue LTD turning the corner just as I was swinging my balled fist at Jackson’s head. Mindful of Coach, Bear and Canick dropped their cigarettes to the sidewalk. Jackson quickly got me in a headlock and put his fist gently against my face. “I could hurt you, boy.”
“You gonna quit if I let you go?”
My tears dripped to the pavement, wetting the white paper of the burning cigarettes below. “Yeah,” I said.
With Coach’s car safely in the distance, Canick retrieved his cigarette from the sidewalk and sucked in a big drag. "I hate wasting a good coffin nail."
"What's the matter with you, boy?” Jackson said.
My dark brown eyes met his cold blue gaze. “Everything,” I said.
He looked away. “Everything?” He put the cigarette pack in his shirt pocket. Something about his invincible aura evaporated. “Yeah, I know.”
I examined the rip in my pants knee. “My mamma’s going to whip me.”
"Go home, you tough little coonass," he said.
"Fuck you, redneck," I said as I walked off.
Coach waited for me at the cafeteria doors the next day. He already had Jackson, Bear and Canick sitting on the bench underneath the breezeway.
"I saw Canick and Bear smoking by the Ford place yesterday." Coach's dark eyes drilled into me. "I know those boys. I've caught them before. But I don't know you and I don't know Jackson. They say you and Jackson were smoking too. Jackson wasn’t smoking, was he?”
I looked past Coach’s shoulder and watched Canick and Bear glance nervously at each other while Jackson grinned a stupid grin. His glee made me giggle.
"No, sir. I didn't see him smoking yesterday." I bowed my head to keep from laughing in Coach's face.
"You think this is funny?"
"What about you? Were you smoking?"
I lifted my head and looked him straight in the eye. "No, sir. I wasn't smoking."
He looked away. "And neither was Jackson, because if he was smoking, I’d have to kick him off the team."
"No sir, yesterday, he wasn't smoking."
"Good. That’s settled." He gravely patted me on the shoulder. "I still want you to help Jackson with his school work, you hear? We can beat Cat’lic Prep with Jackson."
As promised, Coach kicked Bear and Canick off the team. I decided to quit too. Football looked fun, but it wasn't for me. I watched the day's practice from the sidelines.
"Why aren't you dressed out, Pete?" Coach asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. How could I tell him I hated him for using me and Jackson? I might as well tell him Mamma beat me. “I’m too small.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Too bad. You’re plenty smart, though. You can still be a waterboy if you want.”
“Thanks, Coach. I’ll think about it,” I lied.
Jackson dutifully showed up for his study session after practice and I worked with him for the next two weeks. When Coach gave us a follow-up on the state capitals Jackson made a 72. I made a 100.
We defeated Vermilionville Jr. High, the public school rival, that week by a score of 6-0. Jackson scored the lone touchdown on the double reverse.
The following Monday I sat on the exposed roots of the old oak tree that shaded the community center waiting for Jackson’s tutoring session. It was still funny to watch Elmer's flab jiggle as he led the team warm-ups. Mr. Snoddy drove up in his old rusty stationwagon and parked alongside the practice field. Jackson came out of the locker room. "Hey, Pee-aire. Whatcha doing?"
I kept my eyes on the field. "Nowhere. Just waiting for our study session."
"Ain't gonna be no more study hall wit' you."
I looked at Jackson. His smile was gone. "Why not? Coach said…"
“Don't matter what Coach said. Paw got him some oilfield job in Morgan City." Jackson’s voice quavered as tears rolled down his ruddy cheekbones. "Fucking bastard's moving us again."
I bowed my head and looked to the spot where the oak roots met the soil. Jackson wiped his face with his shirtsleeve.
"Well, see yuh around, yuh tough little …" I pretended I was going into my fury. Jackson jumped back in mock fright. The grin had returned. "See yuh, Pete."
I smiled too. "All right, Jackson . Bye."
He turned, his shoes clicking the pavement as he walked away. He reached for his rat-tail and ran the comb through his hair. He returned it to the back pocket of his too-tight dress pants and got in the station wagon.
After that, I lost interest in the team. I wasn't sad when I heard they lost to Catholic Prep.