The crowd roared, the band struck up the fight song, and the Farmville homecoming game ended in perfection. Dan Davis scored the winning touchdown in the final minute.
Dan didn’t have the same success in other areas as he had in athletics. Football came naturally to Dan. Social acceptance did not. His talent at football gained both his father’s love and his classmates respect. He knew his father’s love depended upon football and so did his classmates Because his classmates needed him to win ball games, they pretended loyalty. Even Dan, not acutely perceptive, knew the kids didn’t want him at their parties. He made lewd comments that drove the girls away, like the time he had loudly whispered, “Bea-vers!” at the cheerleaders during a pep rally.
Dan wanted to escape. He knew that if his football success faltered so would his father’s love; and he would end up like his father’s night watchman Chet, laughed at by the high school guys and bullied by his dad forever.
After the game, Dan hit the locker room with slamming bravado. His teammates snapped towels and boosted his fragile ego. “Way to go, champ! Beautiful TD, Dan!” But when everyone left for the dance, Dan was alone except for Lewis, who was gathering towels left around the showers. Lewis got straight A’s, had a chemistry set, and could use a slide rule in eighth grade. He spent Saturday nights tinkering with his short wave radio. He had never been out with the guys, never had a date, and never even had a friendly phone call from a classmate.
Dan watched Lewis do his damp work and said, “Lewis, my man, ya wanna drag Main?”
“With you? Uh, I gotta finish up here first.” Lewis tried to hide his surprise at the invitation.
“No sweat. I’ll wait for you in my car.” Dan went to his junker Plymouth and started drinking the Budweiser he’d stashed there. Shortly after, Lewis opened the passenger door and Dan tossed him a can. Being with Dan – with anyone – thrilled Lewis. He was scared to be drinking, but overrode his conscience and yielded to temptation.
They cruised Main a couple of times and then meandered through residential streets. Dan drank while he delivered a caustic soliloquy. “This town is full of losers and old ladies, hick farmers and their fat wives. I can’t stand this place.” He straightened, lowered the window, tossed out the beer can, and pressed the accelerator. The car bolted forward. Lewis clutched the door handle and tried not to look alarmed. They crossed Main in a shot and lurched into the alley behind the hardware store. The car careened back into the street by the grocery. Lewis felt and heard a thump.
* * *
At game’s end Gus Miller ran out of cigarettes. His neighbor dropped him off at the grocery store. As he crossed in front of the dark alley into the bright lights of the store, a speeding car knocked him down with a dull thud, squealed into the street, and raced away.
At the same moment Chet, with his belly jiggling and his change spilling all over the sidewalk, stepped out from the grocery. He saw the car race away. He knew it was Dan Davis, the mayor’s kid.
Chet trotted over and took charge of the emergency. Mr. Miller grimaced in pain. “Leg’s broke for sure.” Chet hoped if he dealt well with Mr. Miller’s plight, providence would excuse him for concealing the driver’s identity. If Chet exposed Dan, the mayor would make his life a misery. Chet knew he was a coward. The mayor employed him precisely because he could be controlled.
* * *
The next morning Lewis’s mom’s friend told her what happened as she had worked the checkout at the grocery store. She said no one saw the driver.
Lewis’s conscience kicked in. Guilt flooded him. He knew the driver. He wanted to do the right thing, face the consequences, and be free of his guilt. He told his parents who hit Gus Miller. His parents told Chet.
Now Chet could tell the mayor. After all, he hadn’t ratted. That kid had. The mayor didn’t even need to know that Chet had seen Dan hit the man.
By Sunday the whole town had heard some version of the story. When Dan didn’t appear at school on Monday, the students saw Lewis as the bad guy because his confession deprived the town of its football star. Before the accident, Lewis was invisible to his classmates. Now he had their attention, but attention pained him more than loneliness. They called him “tattle tale” and “rat” and gave him mean little punches on his upper arm. The injustice, the deliberate meanness emboldened him to get even in the way he knew best: with his head.
He talked to the school guidance counselor. “Do you think I have a chance?” Lewis asked him.
“I don’t know why not. You have all the qualifications,” the counselor said.
Lewis wrote several letters. Then he waited.
Meanwhile, Chet’s guilt worsened. Lewis did what Chet should have done: the right thing in spite of the consequences. That knowledge bedeviled Chet. In the days following the accident, the mayor suffered the loss of Dan’s reflected glory and turned meaner than usual. “Wash both cars before you start your shift. And tomorrow come by and cut the front yard.” These personal demands infuriated Chet, but he did them just the same. He longed for a way out.
Gus Miller recovered, but the farm work took him twice as long as it used to. Fences went unmended. Outlying grass grew long and ratty. Neighbors helped with critical things like the harvest, but some permanent help would be essential.
Chet considered the Millers’ situation and his own. They needed help. He needed a way out. He drove his car out to the Millers’ farm. He knocked on the door. “Come in, Chet,” Mrs. Miller said.
He stepped inside, took off his hat, and began. “I saw you git hit, Mr. Miller, and I never said nothin’ cuz I was chicken. Cuz I was afraid I’d lose my job. I knew that brat Dan Davis knocked you down. I’d like to make it up to you. I want to work for you. I don’t know farmin’, but you and Mrs. Miller can teach me. I don’t have no life, anyway.” With those few words Chet redeemed himself and rescued the Millers.
The mayor chafed over the loss of his malleable night watchman. When he discovered that Chet had become imperturbable, his fury ratcheted upward and, to everyone’s surprise but Dan’s, made his son his new toady.
In the spring Lewis got his revenge. At least it felt like revenge to him. He received a letter telling him he’d been accepted at Governor’s School in Iowa City. His picture appeared in the local paper. The Des Moines Register quoted him: “I’m honored and grateful to represent Farmville.”
Lewis felt he was giving a little bit of pride back to the town, a little bit of what they had lost when they lost Dan Davis. At the same time, he carved out a niche for himself in the town’s psyche. Of course nobody really understood what Governor’s School was, not like they understood football; but it sounded important and you had to be real smart to get in.
Further, when he returned to Farmville for his senior year he found that his summer experience had elevated him in the eyes of his classmates. He was now asked to parties. Lewis was sharp enough to see the hypocrisy in these invitations but not strong enough to resist their attraction.
Chet found contentment in farming. He liked the big primitive machines not unlike himself. He even liked the sweat, the itchy, musky-smelling hay, and the long hours of solitude. He was a slow learner. His furrows were crooked and details escaped him. “I left the damn gate open again,” he’d say in exasperation and Gus, Mrs. Miller, and Chet would round up wayward livestock, but at day’s end he was tired and his heart was at peace.
Eventually Dan enlisted in the Marines and escaped Farmville and his father. He enjoyed a few heady months of freedom at boot camp. Granted, he was at the mercy of even harder taskmasters than his father, but these were of his own choosing. Even so, Dan had been doomed from the start. He died in a firefight his first week in Viet Nam.
For a few brief months after Dan’s death, his dad felt pride akin to when he played football, but the pride was hollow. He would rather have his son in the flesh. Remorse consumed him. Both Chet and Dan were gone. He was alone in his miserable and puny world. He had been a hated man. Now he was a broken one. He drank too much and within months of Dan’s death, was dead himself.
Lewis discovered that social acceptance brought its own problems: saying the right thing to a girl; saying the wrong thing; saying “no” to a request to copy his homework. Sometimes he missed Saturday nights alone with his short wave. Those nights seemed a long time ago now. At least he no longer pined for companionship. At least now he knew what acceptance was like.
Repercussions from the wild homecoming night ride freed Dan, Lewis, and Chet from their isolation. They each gained some control in their lives and learned that self-determination carried its own burdens. Still, the three men embraced the new challenges and their consequences. Imperfect as it was, his classmates’ favor warmed Lewis in the way he hungered for. The hard country life gave birth to Chet’s self respect. The society of good and plain people like the Millers was a bonus. The consequence of the luckless Dan’s choice was the most final of all. Yet, he, too, had had a brief acquaintance with his heart’s desire: a life free from his dad’s dominance in a place far from the town he despised.