Beamer saw him during warm ups. While the Sycamores did military-style jumping jacks, the Butler Bulldogs trotted onto the field from the visitors locker room, huffing and grunting. One of them said, “Ugly old Beamer Ronin!”
It was Jay Campbell. Peewee. His nickname from grade school. He had picked on Beamer the moment he heard his accent—“Your family sneak over after the war?”
Young Beamer had taken the question seriously. “We crossed legally,” he said. “From Croatia. Sat on Ellis Island for three days while they changed our names and gave my dad the third degree.”
Peewee had said, “What’s the third degree?”
He explained it, slowly. Peewee gave him a black eye. “I don’t care where you’re from,” he said. “You ain’t no American.”
Not long after, Peewee forced Beamer to join the other boys on the playground at least once a week for a game of Snotknockers. Peewee had flunked twice, so he stood taller and wider than the other sixth graders. He lined them up and then, one by one, punched them in the nose to see if he could loosen any fluids. Most boys walked away with crimson goatees. If they flinched, they got bonus licks, the exact number determined by Peewee on a case-by-case basis.
Beamer protested the first time he was forced to play. After school that day, Peewee gave him two black eyes. The vice-principal took Beamer aside and explained, “Peewee’s making D’s for the first time in three years. Give him a break.”
His father, a drunk atheist, would tell him to “be Jesus” about it.
Coach Hoskins called Beamer over. “That monster knows you?”
“We grew up on the same street,” he said. “Went to the same middle and high school. For a while. He was a couple of years older than me and I graduated before him. I don’t know how the heck he got into Butler.”
“So, he’s a ringer?” said the coach. “Nothing we can do about that. But he’s a bruiser. He put Wabash’s quarterback in the hospital. That boy ain’t ever going to walk again.”
Beamer kicked at the grass, cutting blades with the aggressive cleats on his shoes. “Doesn’t surprise me.”
His coach put his hands on his shoulders. “Listen,” he said, “needle him. See if we can’t get him to start a ruckus, get him tossed.”
“What if they toss me, coach?”
“We can win without you, Beamer.” He nodded toward Wally Cork, their field general. The guy looked like Robert Mitchum. Used his status as quarterback to molest high school girls at parties. “Frankenstein over there takes out Wally, we’re in for a thrashing.”
“I don’t know, coach.” He watched the Butler team do push-ups.
“You want me to move Porkchops to fullback?” He glanced at Mack Hughes, a second-string tackle who took Beamer’s position in practice any time coach wanted to motivate him to hit harder. He shouldn’t have felt threatened. Porkchops couldn’t carry the ball five yards without spitting up his lunch.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
“Do. Don’t think,” said the coach. “Get back out there and stretch, just in case that monster is smart enough to ignore you.”
No chance of that. The only thing Peewee ever enjoyed more than starting fights was answering a challenge. Supposedly, he’d dropped out of Bloomington South to join the army. He played Snotknockers with a soldier who couldn’t take it and the army cut him. He did time in jail for clocking a social worker. Lena Mills, a girl Beamer had a crush on in middle school, told him that the social worker lost his cool and called Peewee a brainless baboon.
“He never liked hearing the truth,” Beamer had said. He did not know Lena was carrying Peewee’s second child.
“You were always a dork,” she’d said.
He jogged onto the field and joined his teammates. The offense and defense split up and rehearsed plays they had no intention of running during the game. Beamer stood in the huddle between Wally Cork and Tyrell Cole, the tailback.
“Ready to blast a path to the promised land?” Tyrell said to him.
Wally said, “Green, 31, on two.”
The linemen broke huddle. As the backs and receivers brought the circle closer together, the quarterback repeated the play. Then they clapped their hands once and made their way to the line.
“Red, 42,” said Wally. “Red, 42!”
Beamer dug his fingers in the dirt, curled grass around his fingers, much tighter than he should have for a run-through. Then he heard Peewee, standing near the back of the defense.
“Ugly old Beamer Ronin!” he said. “You know why they got you playing fullback?”
He ignored him. Listened for the second hut!
“You too slow to run and too weak to block.”
“Timeout.” Beamer stood. “Are you still this stupid?” he said to Peewee.
The rest of the team relaxed. Wally turned around. “The hell you doing, Ronin?”
Under his breath, he said, “Coach wants me to mess with this guy’s head.”
“Yeah, well,” said Wally, “seems to me he’s the one messing with your head. Focus.”
“It’s just a run through,” said Beamer.
Wally walked up on him. He had to hoist himself a half inch in order to look down his facemask. “Get serious,” he said, “or tell coach to put Porkchops in your place.”
“All right, all right.”
“Red, 42!” the quarterback barked. “Hut! Hut!”
Beamer speared forward through a gap created by the center and left guard. Sure enough, the outside linebacker was shocked to see him. He grabbed his teammate by the shoulder pads. “Got you,” he said.
“Sure you did,” said the linebacker.
“Why didn’t you hit him?” said Peewee, close enough for Beamer to see his scars—the gash down the right side of his face, the one that seemed to speak whenever Peewee drew back and rammed his fist into his nose during a game of Snotknockers; the cavern in his forehead, where some college kid, frustrated Peewee had been balling his girlfriend, smashed a brick into his skull; the half-moon torn into his neck by a knife during a race riot in Bloomington. Peewee had been fighting for the coloreds. A redneck from Martinsville cut him. Peewee swatted the blade from his hand, punched him hard enough to knock him out, and then kneeled on the guy’s chest and pummeled his unconscious body until six cops subdued him.
Tracing a finger down a ridge on his own face, Beamer remembered the most egregious thing Peewee did when they were kids. They’d found a dismantled go cart behind the Sigma Chi house. Peewee repaired the wooden axles and secured the frame propping up the seat. He attached a new rope to the front axle for steering. Then they pushed it to a paved hill by the limestone quarry. The steep, twisting and turning road generally went unused by cars. The only traffic Beamer had ever seen was trucks, carrying slabs to the big city to build houses for the rich. “I put this son of a bitch together,” said Peewee, insisting he take the first run. “Head to the bottom, make sure the coast is clear.”
Beamer marched down the hill, studied a few trucks parked near uncut chunks of limestone. Satisfied they wouldn’t be moving any time soon, he called back up, “All clear!” Then he started toward the top, stepping aside as Peewee and the go cart flew by. The grin on the bully’s face suggested they’d stumbled onto the best thing since girls, root beer, and comic books. Beamer ran to the bottom again to watch him bring the go cart to a stop. They hadn’t put brakes on it, so Peewee rolled in circles until the wheels lost momentum. Then he got off and said, “Your turn.” The bully expected him to push the go cart back up on his own. “Let me know when you’re ready,” he said. “I’ll give you the all clear.”
Getting the damn thing up the hill just about wore out Beamer. He picked it up by the front wheels and turned it around. “Look good?” he shouted. There were too many curves to see for himself.
“Hop to it, Ronin!” said Peewee. “I want another run in before the sun sets.”
Beamer sat on the go cart, leaned on the frame, and took his feet off the ground. He clutched the ropes tight enough to soak them with sweat as he picked up speed. It was like a roller coaster. Wind whipped his face, rattled in his ears. If his father had seen him right then, he would have had a heart attack. The old man had become a safety junkie.
A diesel engine rumbled ahead. Beamer panicked and pulled on the steering rope. His feet slammed into the front axle, looking for non-existent brakes. He swerved around a bend and a dump truck roared in front of him. He yanked the wheels to the left and flipped into the brush on the side of the road. Along the way, concrete ripped open his cheek. As the truck passed, the driver blasted his horn. It sounded like a dinosaur in pain.
Peewee ran behind it. Beamer held his face together. The bully laughed. “Ugly old Beamer Ronin!” he said. “You failed the test, drip.” He examined the overturned go cart. Shaking a fist at him, he said, “Dumbass.” The front axle crackled. He bent it until it snapped. “You’re first in line the next time we play Snotknockers.”
Just before the game, Coach Hoskins fed the Sycamores his usual working class nonsense—“It’s Butler,” he said. “Those rich pricks have handed us our asses three years straight. They laugh at us. Mock us. Remind us how we come from the shitholes of Indiana. Rub it in our goddamn faces every goddamn year.”
Beamer felt like explaining any school letting a thug like Peewee Campbell play football for them couldn’t have been that fancy. They were like any other program—the general student population might have been drawn from wealthy neighborhoods, but when it came to sports, they admitted anyone who’d help them win.
On the way back to the field, the coach stopped him. “Let’s put that ghoul on the sidelines before the end of the first quarter.”
What if Peewee got a shot or two in before the refs pulled him away? Beamer wanted to remind him that he’d come to Indiana State to get his grades up, to prove to the snobs at Purdue he could handle the math, get his degree in engineering, and someday work for the space program. He did not know that by the end of the season, during a close contest with Ball State, a teammate would land on his leg and break it. That Indiana State University would revoke his scholarship. That he would be fighting for his life in a jungle across the planet in five years. But he did what his father would have done—he said, “Yes, coach.”
He sat on the bench and tightened the laces on his cleats during kick off. The coach called the offense over for one last speech—“I want their defensive line plugging up bloody noses all day, you hear me?” He was telling Beamer to ram linemen and linebackers out of the way, to plow lanes for Tyrell Cole. Any time they scored, the tailback got the glory while Beamer and the linemen limped back to the bench for water.
The offense huddled on the field. Wally Cork said, “Green, 45, first sound.” The linemen broke, the huddle closed in, and the quarterback repeated the play. The 45 meant Beamer would scamper left, away from Peewee. After baiting the defensive end, he would snake around him and smack the outside linebacker hard enough to make his brain swim in his skull. Almost every time they ran that play, Tyrell scored. Only teams that thoroughly studied game film could diagnose it. According to the coach, Butler players were too arrogant to take that part of preparation seriously.
When Beamer lowered into his stance, he saw movement behind the defensive line. All three linebackers shifted in the direction the play would go. Goddammit. He leaned forward and tapped the quarterback’s ankle. “Cork,” he said.
The quarterback ignored him.
“Change the play,” said Beamer.
The quarterback tapped the center on his thigh. “See anything rotten?”
The center didn’t even look up. “All clear,” he said.
“Cork!” Beamer said again.
“Shut up, Ronin,” said the quarterback. He got under center. “Hut!”
The linemen sprang forward, shocked their counterparts on the defense. Beamer shot out of his stance late. As he rounded the corner, Peewee Campbell angled for him. He saw the bully’s round, stupid eyes. Thought about how unfair it was that Peewee got into Butler while he had to settle for a state school, jumping through hoops to prove he could ace calculus and physics classes. He thought about all the time he’d spent in the bathroom in grade school stuffing toilet paper up his nose. He thought about Lena Mills, how she’d refused to go out with him, and then gave herself to Peewee Campbell, the dumbest goddamn sonofabitch in Bloomington. He lowered his head to spear the bully in the chest, maybe knock him out of the game without the help of the refs. He imagined himself a rocket, charging through the cosmos. The moment his head made contact with Peewee, he realized why bullies always got what they wanted. Beamer flew backward. His head bounced off the ground. An electrical current zig-zagged across his brain. He blacked out. When he came to, Peewee Campbell stood over him.
“Ugly old Beamer Ronin,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re weak, Beamer. Always have been, always will be.”
Butler’s coach clapped his hands. “That’s it, Peewee,” he said. “Show him what’s what.”
The bully said, “That’s why Lena spread for me, and not you.”
At that point, Beamer forgot his own name. Tyrell Cole said, “You good?”
Beamer shook himself loose of Tyrell’s grip. Took off his helmet. “Hey, dummy,” he said to Peewee.
The bully turned around. “You ain’t finished?”
Beamer gripped the facemask on his helmet the way he gripped the steering rope on the go cart. He stopped thinking. His arm moved in slow motion as he slammed his helmet into Peewee’s face mask. He beat him until his helmet flew off. Once he could see Peewee’s disgusting face, he slammed his helmet into his nose until it burst and splattered. He heard bones cracking in the bully’s skull. He couldn’t stop.
The other players stepped away.
Every ref tossed flags into the air. Three of them rushed Beamer, knocking him to the ground. He saw Peewee raise his hands, an innocent who just happened to attract the rage of a madman. The lower half of his face shone with fresh blood spilling from his nostrils. A nice, catsup-colored goatee.
The head ref stepped away from the brawl and announced, “Ejection, offense, number thirty-four.”
Beamer’s teammates escorted him to the sidelines. The coach refused to look at him. A graduate assistant gathered his equipment and led him to the locker room. He listened to the rest of the game on a radio in the janitor’s closet. The sportscaster said Butler linebacker Jay “Peewee” Campbell had plugged his nose with toilet paper and returned to the game by the second quarter. The Sycamores lost, 20-13. When the team filed into the locker room afterward, coach Hoskins told Beamer to leave. As he pushed through his exhausted teammates toward the door, his coach said, “Porkchops will start at fullback next week.”
He just said, “I understand.” If his dad asked, he would tell him how Jesus-like he had been. “Just took it,” he would say, “just turned that other cheek and took it.”