Collisions

Michael Austin

 

Moon was six-foot-three, lanky, and pale-pink but he hit like a black lead wrecking ball filled with concrete, baked in the August sun. He coiled his torso and exploded on impact, flattening defenders and running over them—literally, cleats on numbers—or launching ball carriers backward to the turf. When he carried the ball he did not sidestep, he steamrolled. Moon’s pads snapped so loudly, so crisply, that his Mills Catholic coaches sometimes checked to see if he had broken them.

He routinely sent kids out of games, either limping or struggling to catch their wind. Collisions felt good to Moon, even before he heard his sophomore coach declare, “Gentlemen, contrary to what you have heard, football is not a contact sport. Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport.”

Collisions had bounce—a thump followed by a satisfying disappearance of resistance—and they had noise, the crack and drone of body-on-body. Moon loved being the force that set in motion a temporarily helpless body, retreating, falling. Next came the low growls and high-pitched howls of his teammates, which moved him as much as the collective gasp of onlookers at practice or the crowd at Monsignor Mills Field in Joliet.

As long as Moon was suited up for the Cardinals and anticipating his next collision, his head was clear. Details fell away, his heavy self-awareness disappeared. In Cardinal red he forgot that he was albino, forgot that his entire childhood had been lived in a long-sleeve T-shirt and dark eyeglasses. Friday night games allowed him to tuck his sleeves up under his pads and reveal the full length of his pale arms. He forgot that next year at the University of Wyoming he would be back to wearing a white long-sleeve T-shirt to Saturday day games.

The Mills Catholic darkroom was Moon’s favorite place beyond the green spaces of football. In the darkroom, with its solitary red light, being Moon was easy. The brightness of the world hurt his eyes, but when the red bulb of the darkroom was burning his glasses came off and everything came into view. Darkness helped Moon see. He shot photographs of everything he could, never tiring of changing lenses, setting aperture, adjusting the focus or holding his breath. He imagined that each click of the shutter was a huge hit in a tiny game of imaginary football: shoulder pads and shutters snapping with precision, always followed by exhaling awe.

When he stepped out of the darkroom, or off the field, he was aware of the horrible thing he had done. Everywhere he looked in Joliet, from the steel lift bridges spanning the canal to the limestone prison that looked like a medieval castle carved out of dirty butter, he saw Tim Spain. He saw Tim in defaced road signs, in broken garage windows and in the puffy patterns of clouds.

It had been during a midnight walk that Tim Spain gave Quincy Purchase his new name: Moon. Quincy’s skin glowed that night in the moonlight, and he and his best friend JW Spain willingly followed Tim, their teenage hero, through back yards and under hedges. In the next year, they followed Tim onto a lift bridge as it rose into the sky. They sledded off of roofs, held on and got dragged behind a motorcycle, took high-speed rides in Tim’s noxious Chevelle.

#

Moon signed a football scholarship with Wyoming, which put him on a big stage, gave him a new setting for his photographs, and got him out of Joliet. When he arrived in Laramie, they played him a song.

Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies

It’s your misfortune and none of my own

Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies

You know that Wyoming will be your new home

He needed a new home, and new people. But he wished he needed none of it, wished he could have lived in Joliet forever, faithful friend to the Spain brothers. His old neighborhood was compact and precise, unlike Wyoming where the edges of towns simply faded into nature. The only strict boundaries he saw in Laramie were the white lines of the Wyoming Cowboys practice field.

Moon did beautiful damage in between those lines his first season. He delivered snot-knockers (in which mucous involuntarily leaves one’s nose) and stingers (in which one’s arm becomes temporarily paralyzed). He sent upperclassmen to the ground, put blood and grass stains on their pants, left smudges on their helmets.

Moon was a tight end and he loved to block, loved to collide whenever he could, even though at two-hundred-and-twenty-three pounds he was much lighter than most of the defensive linemen and linebackers who set up in front of him. He could not believe how fast college balls traveled from quarterback to receiver, or how tightly they spun. He could actually hear them coming at him. They hissed. Moon relished the speed, the intensity of the collisions, his calloused hands, the ice baths after practice. He was ready to forget about what he had left in Joliet.

He arrived early at meetings and memorized the playbook. When the lights went out for films he pulled his tinted glasses off and felt that old darkroom feeling. Football and photography in the same place. He could not imagine anything better. He was not a starter, but he would be soon, especially if he stayed in Laramie over the summer. He could train, his coaches said, and take a class. He could earn some money at a work-study job. It all sounded perfect to Moon.

He struggled to stay awake through his early-morning Geology of the West class, and in the still and quiet of the Laramie summer he suffered relentless dreams of Tim Spain. Most often Tim Spain sat in a chair across from Moon’s bed. Tim smiled as he talked, but Moon could never hear the words. Other times Tim walked ahead of Moon, urging him to keep up. The next day, Moon sometimes forgot that he had dreamed of Tim the night before, and then, later in the day, it would come to him. Oh yes, that is what this feeling is…not even the high glory of the Wyoming sun can stave off my melancholy…Tim is dead and I was reminded of that deep in my sleep last night. Tim is dead because of me.

Moon turned his guilt into energy. He spat on the weight room floor, slapped his legs and face, pointed at himself in the mirrors. “Don’t kill yourself,” his strength coach said as Moon let out a desperate scream in the squat racks. “Just train.”

By July, Moon dreaded sleep, fought it nightly, eventually surrendering to sheer exhaustion and waking ragged the next morning to start the cycle again. After such a vigorous three months, he entered his sophomore football season almost sedated, like the survivor of a recent airplane crash. He was relaxed but aggressive when he needed to be. He punished the freshmen scouts in practice, which the coaches loved, and he logged junk time in the closing minutes of the first three games of the season. Junk time or not, he played. In one game he knocked down an Air Force Cadet the way he used to knock down junior subs at Mills Catholic—swiftly, decisively. Violently. More of this and he might see real time before the end of the year, he thought. He could picture himself in the NFL, maybe not as a star but on a roster, suited up on Sundays. As Moon’s playing improved and the fall air cooled, Tim Spain no longer disturbed his sleep.

#

The week the Cowboys were prepping for Hawaii, Moon’s tibia snapped like the dry branch of a dead tree. Helmet to shin, it was a perfect accidental strike by a falling freshman scout. They call it “hardship” when you get injured so badly that you will never play again. You keep your scholarship but give up your jersey. For the rest of your life you will limp, especially in the morning and when it is damp, and you will experience the NFL from the stands, or your living room. You will watch future Cowboy home games from the sidelines, in street clothes, and you will watch away games on TV. You will be allowed to join the photography club while you make your way toward graduation but you will never again wear the iconic Cowboy logo.

When Moon tried to focus on something else—his camera, a book, the staggering vistas of southeastern Wyoming—it was not long before Tim Spain resurfaced.

It was so cold that day, the snow squeaked under Moon’s feet. He felt a strange euphoria as he walked—further evidence, he told himself, that what he was doing was big. It was important. It was honorable, selfless and loyal. Tim had not asked his brother JW to deliver this message for him; he had asked Moon. Moon could not say no, not to Tim. Moon and JW would have followed Tim into a burning cave. Moon could not imagine anything greater than proving his loyalty to Tim, even a day after he was dead.

Moon could see the steps up to the Spains’ front stoop, the railing and the doorbell button, glowing yellow and round. He could see the door swinging open, and the dark living room behind Mrs. Spain. She looked smaller than normal, as if she had shrunk and lost weight since Moon had seen her a few days earlier. Her movements were stiff, like someone getting out of bed for the first time in weeks.

It was all she could do to open the storm door. Moon pulled as she pushed. She stood rigid but droopy, like an old mop, oblivious to the cold. Moon held the door and handed her the envelope, SPAINS handwritten on the front. She looked at it longer than she needed to and then lifted her head.

“Is this from your mom?” she said, barely able to speak.

“No,” Moon said.

“From you?” she said.

“Not exactly,” Moon said. “You should just open it.”

Mrs. Spain dug her fingernail underneath the flap. One small rip and then another. She pulled the note from the envelope. Color returned to her face and the corners of her mouth dropped. Her nostrils flared, her eyes widened. She looked as if she were ready to throw her arms into the air and sing. Moon could not imagine what she was about to say or do, and his entire body buzzed even more than it had on the walk.

In that moment Moon wondered, Is this another Tim Spain stunt? Is he actually alive? Nothing would have made Moon happier. All evidence of Mrs. Spain’s sadness was gone. She was excited, manic, eyes clear and intense. Her posture improved. Mrs. Spain lifted her hand slowly and brought it down on Moon with an impact he had never felt. A thump echoed in his head. Everything stopped. The world went still and quiet, and Moon felt the sting, the pinpricks, the heat on his face.

Mrs. Spain leaned into him as he adjusted his feet and reached back for the railing. She slapped him again harder. Moon fell off of the stoop and onto the hard peaks of trampled snow in the yard. A burn rose from his tailbone to his throat. He struggled to breathe, red toenails stomping toward him in the snow. He gasped, dragging himself on his elbows, until he picked himself up and ran, her handprints burning on his cheek.

“What were you waiting for!” Mrs. Spain screamed.

Moon slowed to a walk in the middle of the street and checked his ear for blood.

“What were you waiting for!” She lifted the note and envelope to her face, dropped her face between her knees and sobbed in the snow.

#

In his hardship days in college Moon also called up visions of Tim standing defiantly in front of that December train—scenes he could only imagine. He had never cried for Tim but for years Moon prayed that he would not wake up in the morning—that as he slept something would take him down through his mattress, or up through his ceiling, and never let him return. Moon had tried to forgive himself and then again had tried to convince himself that he did not need forgiving. He repeated what he had heard so many times: You were just a boy. You didn’t know any better. He tried to believe it and hoped that someday he could. He never imagined following Tim’s lead but wished he could feel the pain Tim felt in his final moment just once.

Moon stayed in Laramie for the second straight summer. This time, instead of living in the weight room with barbells and mirrors, he lived outdoors with his camera and photography students. Driving out of town for a matter of minutes placed them in wide-open nature. Arbitrary fence lines, keeping nothing out of anywhere, caused them to stop, load film and shoot. An eyesore not worth a landowner’s trouble to demolish was an object of beauty to a carload of college photographers. Steel-colored mountains rose up to blue and white skies. Pine trees, thick on slopes and impossibly green, looked like a thousand pipe cleaners carefully placed in a miniature diorama.

It seemed Wyoming had opened up like a flower that summer. He experimented wildly with aperture, and used every kind of filter he could find. The more he could alter reality, the better he felt—the deeper his escape. Nonetheless, Tim Spain returned, some nights only seconds after Moon fell asleep. He often woke with a start, expecting to see Tim standing at his bedside. Or sitting on a shelf. Moon had the feeling in his half-sleep that maybe Tim Spain was dead in Joliet but somehow alive in Laramie.

At the end of summer, as his teammates returned to practice, Moon returned to the gym, training easily, not knowing what he was training for except that lifting weights and sweating and struggling were part of his life and he hoped they always would be. Even though his Cowboy days were over, he was not sure his football days were. Maybe he could play semi-pro; that was one step below major college anyway, he thought. How great it would be to suit up again, to do some damage. All he could do was keep training and keep his mind right.

The Cowboys won the Western Athletic Conference, filling Moon with regret but also pride because the greatest gift football had given him was the feeling of being part of a team. Even as he toiled on a stationary bicycle, alone in a vast, deserted weight room, glinting chrome and the ubiquitous Cowboy logo there for no one but him to admire, Moon told himself he was part of something bigger. He told himself he had people. He lifted, studied and shot, and he ran thousands of Joliet scenes through his head hoping they would someday run themselves out.

#

The following spring, the doughy, walk-on tight end Chris Whatling invited Moon to the rodeo. Whatling’s cousin—Moon was convinced that everyone in Wyoming was related—would be riding at the State Fair in Douglas, and it was going to be a “sum’bitch,” Whatling said. Spending a few hours in the weight room or darkroom would be better than battling the dust and odor of rodeo, Moon thought. But the idea of shooting bulls intrigued him enough to pack his camera bag and roll film. On the ride to Douglas, Moon shot with his usual intensity.

“Is this where Converse come from?” he said, focusing on a sign at the border of Converse County.

“The shoes?” Whatling said. “Naw.”

Moon snapped a picture of the sign anyway.

When Whatling turned his truck onto the wide main street in Douglas, they rolled through town like outlaws, slow and confident, windows down, elbows out. They parked, slammed doors and walked eagerly, anywhere, like dogs let out of a cage. The air was different in Douglas.

“Check this,” Whatling said. He lifted his hands to his head and extended three fingers on both sides, antler-like. He motioned to a store window with his eyes. Someone had painted HUGE JACKALOPE SALE! On the window.

“What’s a jackalope?” Moon said.

“It’s from here,” Whatling said. “They live here.”

“That’s not real,” Moon said.

“Tell me that after you see them in the next fifty shop windows,” Whatling said. “Go spend a night out there and tell me they’re not real.” He lowered one set of antlers and used it to point to the Wyoming wilderness beyond town. Moon stepped closer to the jackalope. It was a stuffed rabbit with a miniature set of thorny antlers rising from its skull. They were as sharp as fondue spears at the tips. Next to the freakish animal was a small sign on an easel.

JACKALOPES

Also known as Wyoming thistle hares, jackalopes are part jackrabbit, part antelope. They are nocturnal and deadly fierce when provoked. When left alone they are quite gentle and have been known to mimic the human singing voice in the tenor range.

“What?” Moon said, laughing. It was the first time he had laughed in months.

“Cowboys used to hear them singing along to their songs all the time back in the old days,” Whatling said. “They’d be sitting around a campfire singing and next thing you know, there’d be a beautiful chorus of backing vocals.”

Moon said, “Backing vocals?”

“Keep an eye peeled,” Whatling said. “You catch one of those things in the calf, you won’t be laughing.”

Whatling looked up and down the main drag of Douglas, detached but also alert. Moon started to believe him. Why not? It was not that much of a stretch. Wyoming was a raw and mysterious place to Moon, even after two years.

“Seriously?” Moon said. He looked at the jackalope in the window. Deeper inside the store there were dozens of them. They looked awfully real.

“Have you ever seen a live one?” Moon said.

“You don’t just see them,” Whatling said. “You see jackrabbits, you see antelopes. You never see a jackalope until it’s too late. That’s why they’re so dangerous. The first time you see one is when it’s already stuck in you.”

“Oh, come on,” Moon said. “An animal wouldn’t stab you just to inflict pain and then leave itself hanging there.”

“A jackalope would,” Whatling said. “Believe whatever you want, man. Make it the truth, make it yours.”

“Oh, you’re a philosopher now?” Moon said.

“My grandfather used to tell me that,” Whatling said, his face losing some of its light. “Make it the truth.”

At that moment, absurd as it would have seemed five minutes earlier, Moon thought that Whatling’s grandfather may have been injured by a jackalope. Moon took a last look at the stiff creature. It was gray and brown and fluffy and innocent looking. It had good seated posture. It was composed and proud. But its taxidermy eyes were dark and vacant. If Moon looked closely enough he could see himself in those dark little convex mirrors.

“We gotta fly,” Whatling said.

On the way to the rodeo Moon saw stuffed jackalopes everywhere, and a large statue of one in the center of town. Signs declared Douglas the “Home of the Jackalope.” By the time they arrived at the fair, Moon did not know what to believe.

The fairgrounds hummed with the white noise of generators pushing power into food wagons and carnival rides. Live animal stink overtook the sweet fragrance of corn dogs. Moon shot Stetson hats. Hay. Trucks wrapped in chrome. Cotton dresses, dark blue jeans, shirts with snaps. Whatling and Moon got looks as much for how big they were as for how pale Moon was. In a set of baggy denims, with red grease paint around his mouth, Moon could have passed for a giant rodeo clown, he thought.

#

“Step up, son,” Whatling said. Moon placed a foot on the bottom rail of a chute and pulled himself up. They were not more than a foot from bull and rider.

“Aw’ight, Sully boy, you gonna git this one now,” Whatling said to his cousin. Whatling’s natural cowboy drawl nearly doubled in the presence of livestock. Moon shuffled on the rail, getting as close as he could to the bull’s face. He focused, held his breath, snapped and wound, snapped and wound, exhaled.

“Hell, yeah,” Whatling said. “That’s some good photographs.”

Even as Moon stood behind the bull’s ear the enormous beast appeared to be glaring at him.

“This thing is freaking me out,” Moon said. “He’s looking right at me and he’s mad.”

“He’s looking at all of us,” Whatling said. “He hates everybody.”

Black nostrils flared with every angry breath, and mucous bubbled at times or shot out like a windsock catching a breeze. Whatling’s cousin jammed his hand underneath a rope on the bull’s back and punched at the rope, flattening it in his palm. He punched it eight or ten times, as if he were fighting for his life. Moon thought, Well, that’s pretty cool.

When the gate swung open, the bull jumped. An involuntary “uuuhhnng” rose in the rider’s throat as they lifted off together. They floated, and when the bull’s hoofs landed, the beast lunged forward, whipping the rider like a skeleton strapped to a missile.

“Oh, dayymn,” Whatling said. His cousin flailed, barely able to hold on as the bull kicked and torqued. Clowns ran toward the animal, arms stretched out wide. Little clouds of dust rose behind their shoes. Whatling’s cousin was thrown from the bull like wet clay from a potter’s wheel. He landed on his side, and when he returned to the chute, barely dirty or sweaty, he was received like a war hero. Apparently it is the effort that counts in rodeo, Moon thought. Just being on the bull when the gate swings open is enough.

They watched more rides. Moon snapped and wound. Whatling regaled his high school friends with tales from Wyo spring practice, and they called him “city boy” when he said he needed to get back to Laramie. On the way to the truck Whatling held up a finger, pointing to a cinder block restroom outside the rodeo ring.

“I’ll be right here,” Moon said.

Moon looked in all directions to see if there was a scene he had not yet shot. Got it, got it, got it, he told himself. A rider walked toward him, all flapping gear and tall hat. Moon thought about pulling his camera from his bag but something made him stop and just look. When the rider was close, he nodded, then passed. On his back was Moon’s Wyo number: 43.

“Hey, Forty-three,” Moon said. “Nice ride.”

“Thanks,” he said, raising a hand without breaking stride.

Moon had not seen him ride. “That used to be my number in high school,” he continued, his second lie.

“That right?” the rider said in a curly cowboy twang. “Football?”

The rider was now facing Moon, shoulders square, ten yards away.

“Yeah,” Moon said.

“I played a little high school football,” the rider said, smiling. He looked like a kid in a cowboy costume with a giant Erector set behind him, the underside of the bleachers.

“Oh, yeah?” Moon said. A mix of competitiveness and anger brewed inside of him. “What position?”

“Linebacker,” he said.

Linebacker, Moon thought. Where? At Skinny Boy High?

“Linebacker, huh?” Moon said. “I played fullback.”

It was not a total lie. Moon had led Mills Catholic tailbacks into the end zone on short yardage a dozen times.

“All right, boss,” the rider said, turning to walk away.

“What do you say we do a little one-on-one right here?” Moon said.

“Seriously? Right here?” the rider said, his face unable to conceal his approval of such an interesting idea.

Moon planted his heel into the dirt and scraped a line ten feet wide.

“Here’s your goal line,” Moon said.

“Okay,” the rider said. “Goal-line stand. Go easy on me, now. You’ve got thirty pounds on me.”

Thirty? Moon thought. More like fifty but you already agreed to this.

The rider reached down to remove one of his chaps.

“You know what?” Moon said. “You can leave all of that stuff on. Like you said, I’ve got thirty pounds on you. And I’m about to go jackalope on your ass.”

The rider’s expression said, What are you, in third grade?

Moon had trouble concealing his contempt, which was building by the second. The rider now looked like he was on a high dive with second thoughts and a ladder full of kids behind him. Moon took ten steps away from the rider and turned to face him like a gunslinger. Moon’s camera bag strap cut across his chest like an ammunition belt. He lifted the strap over his head and set the bag down, careful not to stir dust.

“Ready?” Moon said. “Step in front of the goal line. I’ll come at you.”

“All right,” the rider said, tossing his hat behind him.
Moon was wearing brown Wyo shorts, a long sleeve T-shirt and flip-flops. He kicked off his flip-flops and thought about peeling off his shirt.

“You ready? Nothing below the waist, okay?” Moon said. “We don’t want anyone blowing out a knee. Shoulder to shoulder.” Moon knew the rider could do no harm to his knees but he also wanted to prevent a lame attempt at an ankle tackle. Keeping the hit above the waist would guarantee a beautiful collision.

“Set…hit,” Moon said. He dug the toes of his right foot into the Wyoming dirt and pushed. The pageantry of Western rodeo was just out of sight but not out of earshot. A muffled roar rose from inside the ring as Moon took his second step. He gritted his teeth so hard he could feel it in his gums. His hands became fists. Tight fists.

The rider started late and dropped his head, struggling to build momentum. His rodeo gear made his natural slowness even more pronounced. Moon was moving toward him, eyes on the target, and the rider was battling his own weight. Moon’s shin felt perfect, as if it had never even been scraped let alone cracked in half. His leg muscles fired, doing everything he asked them to do. Moon could not wait to feel that satisfying concussion once again, a pure collision, two people with no intention other than ramming shoulders and chests. Moon was going to teach this jockey not to tangle with a Division I college football player. Who did he think he was? First he had the guts to wear 43 and then he thought he was in the same league?

By the time the rider reached the goal line his head was up and he saw Moon bearing down on him. In the rider’s eyes was the look of someone who had just dropped a dish, and it was halfway to the floor. He was bracing for the crash. Two more steps and Moon would lay him out. Moon was going to make him regret ever walking onto a high school football field. Moon bent his right arm and cocked it near his hip. When his right foot landed he pulled his right arm back even more, and when his left foot landed he coiled, ready to explode. The impact was shocking every time but it always felt good. It felt good this time, even after all of that time away.

Moon’s growl gave way to a “nnnnah” when his shoulder and L-shaped arm landed on the rider’s bony chest. It sounded like a bat hitting a watermelon. The rider took flight, his chaps spreading out like wings. He flew away from Moon even as Moon soared above him, right arm extended, like a sheriff throwing a villain through the swinging doors of a saloon. They landed at the same time—Moon on his chest, the rider on his shoulder blades.

Dust filled Moon’s mouth. He wanted to stand up and spit at the sky, screaming like he had just won the Fiesta Bowl with a last-second touchdown—or cleaned up a wicked town once and for all. But as Moon rose to his knees, he noticed that the rider was curled up and holding his head.

“You okay?” Moon said, expecting to see a pool of blood soaking the dirt.

The rider made no sound, just rocked in the fetal position.

“You okay?” Moon said again.

“Hit my head,” he said hurriedly. He rocked even faster.

“You okay?” Moon said. He could not think of anything else to say.

“Stop talking, man,” the rider said.

“You need some ice?” Moon said. That was how everything was solved at practice. Ice. Numb it. Don’t let it swell out of control.

“Just shut up!” the rider said. He straightened his legs and moaned. “Aw, shit, man, what is your problem?”

My problem?” Moon said. “You called for the goal-line stand.”

The rider pushed himself up to a seated position, keeping one hand on the back of his head. “Like hell,” he said. “And I told you to take it easy, you outweigh me by forty pounds.”

“Oh, now it’s forty,” Moon said. The rider lifted his hand from the back of his head and looked at his fingers.

“I’m bleeding, you asshole,” he said.

This is when Moon began to feel guilty, but not a moment earlier. He looked up for Whatling, but his friend was gone. “Oh, man,” Moon said. “Damn…are you okay?”

“I’m bleeding from the head,” he said. “Obviously I’m not okay!”

He was not bleeding that bad, Moon thought. “I mean, are you going to be all right?” Moon said. “Do you…is it serious?”

“You’re a jerk, man,” he said as calm as anyone could be. “A real jerk.”

A girl’s scream cut the air and pulled Moon’s attention to the distance where carnival rides were flashing and spinning. He let his focus go soft until all of the lights bled together.

“Put me on a bull, man,” Moon said.

“What?”

“Let me ride your bull,” Moon said. “It’ll kick my ass, you’ll see.”

“First of all, I don’t have a bull,” he said, cradling his head. “You don’t bring your own bull to a rodeo, dumbass. Secondly, do you even know how to ride?” Evidently a cowboy could spot a non-cowboy as easily as a college football player could spot a high school second-stringer.

“No!” Moon said. “That’s the point. I’ve never even ridden a horse. I just knocked you down and that wasn’t fair. Let me get on a bull and get my ass kicked.”

“No, man, no…”

“Put me on a bull!” Moon said in a voice that told the rider, Put me on a bull or get your ass kicked again—the choice is yours.

“No, man, you can’t ride a bull,” he said. He stood up and staggered.

“That’s the point, man!” Moon said. “I can’t ride a bull. That’s why I want to ride a bull.”

Without turning around, the rider waved his hand at Moon. He did not have to say the words: Go away.

A voice came over the public address system but Moon could not make out what it said, except for a name: “Cody Johnson.”

The rider turned to Moon.

“I gotta go,” he said. “I’m riding again soon.”

“Is that you?” Moon said. “Cody?”

“Yeah,” he said, touching his head and looking at his fingers.

“Seriously,” Moon said in a calm, bargaining voice. “Cody. Just put me on a bull and we’ll be even.”

Cody waved Moon off and kept walking. There was a bloodstain between the 4 and 3 on his back. Behind Moon, more teenage voices floated down from whirling rides.

“Cody,” Moon said.

Cody came to a slow stop, walking a few more steps than he needed to before turning and facing Moon. Moon knew what he wanted to say but could not think of how to begin. He could not decide which word to say first.

“What?” Cody said, nodding toward the rodeo ring as if to say, I have to be someplace.

Moon looked away, above the bleachers and into the uncluttered Wyoming sky. He knew at that moment that he had just had thrown his last block, plowed into the end zone one last time. Never again would he coil, explode and concuss. His collisions were over. Cody got called again over the P.A. and he began to walk away.

“There was this kid,” Moon said, to stop him. “There was this kid in our neighborhood.”

Cody stopped and faced Moon.

“Hold on, man,” Moon said. “Thirty seconds. Just give me thirty seconds and I’ll be out of your life forever.”

Cody shifted his weight onto one leg and dusted off his jeans.

“There was this kid,” Moon said. “He killed himself.”

The annoyed look on Cody’s face fell away.

“Okay,” Cody said in a gentle tone, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“He told me he was going to do it and he gave me a note to give to his mom the next day,” Moon said. “His brother was my age but this kid picked me for the note. He said I couldn’t tell anyone and I just did what he told me. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Cody looked Moon in the eyes, like an adult about to comfort a child.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. But, I mean…”

“He picked me,” Moon said.

Cody nodded.

“That’s all,” Moon said. “I just wanted to say that I knew this kid and he picked me. And I’m sorry about what just happened.”

The voice came over the loudspeakers again.

“I really have to go,” Cody said, glancing at the bleachers.

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Moon said. “Kick some ass. Stay on the bull, man.”

“I’ll try,” Cody said, forcing up a weak laugh. “You’re all right, boss. You’re going to be all right. You’re on your way.”

“Okay,” Moon said, lifting his hand to the back of his own head. “I’m sorry about the…”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” Cody said. “I’m a cowboy.”

Cody walked toward the ring, and Moon watched him go. Cody lumbered, chaps flapping, cowboy hat in his hand. The farther Cody got, the more he looked like the Tim Spain of Moon’s dreams, the Tim who walks ahead and urges Moon to keep up. This time, though, he just kept walking.

For the first time since Tim had died, hot tears welled in Moon’s eyes. They slid down his cheeks and dripped off his jaw. Moon took his glasses off and the whole world went white. He bent over and wept, and eventually he could no longer stand. Kneeling in Wyoming dirt, nine-hundred miles and nine years from the spot where Tim Spain met his end, Moon quaked, hearing the involuntary groans of his own crying for the first time since he was a boy. He cried for Tim and for himself, for Mrs. Spain and JW, and when he finished he tried to cry more. He stood up. He dragged his forearm across both eyes. He exhaled, stepped into his flip-flops, and returned his glasses to his face.

Whatling was fixing his belt as he walked toward Moon.

“What the hell?” Whatling said.

“Nothing,” Moon said. “Let’s get out of here.”

Moon would watch football games for years to come, admiring the violence and thinking of football as his game. He would relate to players’ emotional highs and lows in a way that almost made them his own. He would think of Tim Spain as his brother. He would think of himself as loyal. Football would always be in him but it would leave him, too, the way younger versions of yourself are always in you but no longer you.

He would pull a helmet on a few times in the next decade, surprised at how much it burned his ears, ripped at his hair and crushed his forehead. Twice at a sports store he would do this, and once at a party, for laughs. Even then he would not realize that there would be a last time he would pull a helmet off of his head. He would miss the game and all that came with it. He would miss being young and strong, aggressive and elated.

He would think of his life before he heard whistles of any kind, before any of that possibility, a boy carrying a football in and out of every room in the house and locating it the moment he awoke in the morning. He would think of the boy who learned to catch a spiral and later throw one, and still later collide.

At the end of his life he would think back on all of it, and then he would think about the perfect moment that never happened. It is dusk and the lights are just starting to blink on. The stands are empty and sliding away. Moon is split right. He is running a post route, straight to the middle of the end zone. He has passed his defender without even the slightest contact and everyone on the field is sliding behind him, to his sides. There is nothing in front of him but green grass and white lines and here comes the ball, soft as a baby being handed from mother to father. It is in his hands and he is on his way.