The Homecoming Dance
Semi-rural/semi-urban. Deindustrialized north. African-American? Mixed-race, maybe. The casual mixing of races that occurs in the American Lower Middle Class, circa 1998.
It begins in the fields, the broken down fields. High school kids playing football in a dying town. A couch who drinks too much, who never played, has the cliche calf injury that lost him his scholarship. Factory shut down twenty years ago. There is addiction, and there is crime, and there are gangs, and each block belongs to one. Still. When it begins, the war at home has not yet begun. Bill Clinton is the President. He is a man from Hope. The world is at peace.
Still. Even back then, with the promise of the future day still unwritten, the decay is self-evident, the tensions straining at everybody and every thing.
Still. They have the field. And though most of these kids will not go to college, at least not straight out — a number have joined the military, including the quarterback, August, and his running back and half-brother, Emmanuel — they still have hope, and their senior year, they triumph on that field, in a run that takes them to and wins them the state championship.
The spring and summer of their senior years, they become heroes. Immortalized in gold.
It is after that, after the end of school, that Time starts in earnest, that those who will have to work go and have to work, that those few who will go to college, go and go to college, and that Gus and Manny and a few others take buses down to basic training and join the U.S. Army.
They are in basic training when the Twin Towers fall. Gus and Manny will both survive the war, though many of their friends will not. They will return to Carrock eventually, to find that Carrock is as ravaged by Time as they are. Women left behind have not stayed faithful. The War over there is equalled in savagery by the War at home, with boys on corners with guns, grudges, and imperious wills.
Their friend and comrade Eddie, deserter, coward, fuck-up, will take the long road home, across the landscape of a broken America, a drifter, trying to find some safe place, trying to find the dream that was lost.
Others will not return from the war: Patrick Walsh, and the gangbanger AK ‘Ills, dead on the side of a desert highway. Others come back maimed, if not at all.
And their women. Gus’ old flame, Kly, and their three kids, Ray and Ella and Jeanie. Kly’s sister Lainey, who beat out her sister for Homecoming Queen in that golden summer their last year in high school, and made it out of Carrock, and became a nurse, and lives in Pittsburgh now, and is in love with a married man, a doctor.
And Eddie’s old girlfriend, Penny, who maybe loved him most of any of them, and raises his son, Lem, alone, as best she can.
When we are young, Time is endless, and the days to come dwarf by orders of magnitude the cloudy days that have already been. And our youth is a coming into our own power, our own glory.
It is only after this coming to ourselves that our glory is questioned, that our power is put to the test, that we begin to live in the world. Time speeds up. Plans become past. The days come, ceaselessly, and the future narrows, and it is the past, the past that assumes a great and horrific monstrosity. What once was nothing to think of, a few hundred days, a few thousand, becomes a myriad, a history, unmovable stones.
And a life of hope becomes a life of disappointment. Regret is an old man’s game, but in the towns and cities like Carrock, children age faster than most.
But inside men like Gus and Manny, women like Kly and Laine, some memory of that young light exists. Perhaps it is hidden, perhaps it is forgotten, but it’s there.
And in the living of days, each one as inexplicable and as without cause or reason as the one before and the one to come, the light waits, ready.
Memory is as inexplicable as thought. A man looks out at an empty field in winter. Ten years prior, it was his field. The memory of the ball in the air, floating for a moment before it drops, is there, within his field of vision, as if it were now. It is not now. But the ball was in the air once. That happened, just like everything that happened after, happened.
He sits. He waits. The days continue. As the night comes in, and spreads its darkness, the lights of the town begin to appear, new stars, maybe, to replace the ones we’ve made invisible to our eyes.