CW: police aggression, bad language
“Where are you from?” is Jason’s favorite question at these business functions. With his height and his perfect charcoal suit, the dust of gray at the temples of his fifty-dollar haircut, “Mississippi” always catches them off guard and produces just the effect he wants. Now he’s not just a commanding presence. He has also overcome.
He was never ashamed of where he was from, but when he said it on family vacations, people loved to answer “oh, do you guys wear shoes there?” which he found annoying. Apparently so did everyone else because there was an ad campaign a decade later that showed Walter Peyon, Jerry Rice, and Bret Favre in their uniforms and read “Yes, we wear shoes in Mississippi. Some of us even wear cleats.” Now it’s a badge of honor.
“What was it like, growing up there?” The early-thirties midwesterner in a suit that looks polyester wants to know. “Was it as racist as you hear?”
Jason chuckles, eyes closed, head swaying back on his neck as he raises his near-empty glass in signal to the waiter. “Well, if you want to know the truth….” He loves this question, too. Loves to mention that the most integrated part of the country is the South, that his school district was majority Black, that he’s still in touch with so many of his Black classmates and workmates from back then. It’s the leaned-in fascination from these smug suburbanites who would never have guessed never! that a guy like Jason would be from Mississippi.
He wraps it up with the lightest drawl entering his voice with his second old-fashioned and the topic of his home state, “but I’m not that on-board when we start talking about White privilege, you know what I mean?”
The younger man’s eyes dart left, trying to add up if he’s about to have to take a stand against something offensive or, more likely, spend the rest of the evening berating himself for going along with it just because Jason is more senior. But it swerves more to the palatable when Jason continues, “I mean privilege, yeah, for most White people, but let me tell you about the kind of privilege I had.”
It’s biting cold in football season, especially before dawn, and most especially when you can’t wear the coat you need for church in five hours because you’ll get spilled beer and tobacco spit on it. The stadium is unfathomably huge: big enough for the whole county to attend, but they mostly don’t. The locals are the locals and the university is the university. The people who go to the game are the students and the alumni who made it, coming back to show their friends.
The first few times they did this, Jason’s mom came with them, getting just as grime-covered as Jason and his two brothers. She showed them how to designate one giant drink cup for the filth where they empty the others. She wouldn’t allow them to dump cokes and cigarette butts drowning in beer backwash down the stadium steps for somebody else to clean.
They’ll drink from the commemorative plastic cups all summer, the only ones they’re allowed to take outside, and they’re not allowed back inside in the summer--not that they need a rule to tell them; there’s no air-conditioning. They need big cups they’re allowed to lose. Cans go in the garbage bags. No matter how well Jason thinks he’s drained them, the bag always leaks beer stink on him. But that’s for the best really because once he’s committed to a shower before church, he doesn’t hesitate to dig in the trash for more cans and cups, or the best prize, deposit bottles.
Before cities had regular recycling programs, you had to drive collected cans out to the edge of town to the recycle center, where they were weighed and paid about one cent apiece. Printed right on the cans it said that some states charged a deposit upon purchase and the cans could be returned for five cents each. As they flattened the cans with a sledge hammer in the driveway, Jason would imagine the riches kids in Connecticut amassed after their football games.
“Nah. Yankees don’t care about football,” Danny said.
But printed on the side of glass bottles was the notice of a ten-cent deposit, and one of the states listed there was Mississippi. On the walk home from school, if one of the boys spotted a discarded deposit bottle, he kept totally mum about it while he maneuvered himself closer. When proximity and surprise were sufficiently on his side, he would bolt for the bottle. If one of the other boys got there first, it was his. That was the law of the jungle, or whatever ecosystem thrived at the edges of the railroad tracks when it was so hot the ties bled sap. It was the law in the pre-dawn stadium, too, but they mostly divvied up sections and kept far apart.
It’s an eerie kind of quiet when this place built for roaring crowds stands empty: cans on their sides, discarded paper baskets smeared with ketchup or nacho cheese, confetti littering the seats, birds pecking at a remnant hogdog bun. They found other things, too, some valuable, like the pocketknife he kept for years and the wallet Jason’s mom immediately confiscated to return to someone in charge. Other things, horrifying. Pools of vomit were fairly regular. The one plastic cup unmistakably filled with piss told Jason an amazingly detailed story as he swallowed his gag reflex. A young man, too drunk to wait a second longer, but unable to step away from the game because the equalizing touchdown that seemed just on the horizon was so far past entertainment it had become his whole identity. Friends, shielding him from view once they realized what he was doing, must have whooped laughter and shouted “hard core,” only the one on the end who’d brought a date mortified by the spectacle. In years afterward the friends would retell that story and the cup-pisser would say “that’s right, bitch. Ride or die,” until he got married and wouldn’t see those friends anymore.
Jason gets into a rhythm of checking under the seats, eventually quits picking up cups as he has so many already. He hauls his full garbage bag down to where he can drop it over the wall into the grass and pulls another from his back pocket, deciding this time to start high and make his way down.
The sun crests the wall while he looks down from the quad-burning heights of the bleachers, mist shrouding the field like the surface of Jupiter, goal posts floating at the ends. The sunrise paints the fog pink, with a hardline shadow of stadium rim receding within: it’s time to go. The real clean-up crew will be here soon.
The boys drop the remaining bags over the wall and run down one more flight to squeeze through the bars and run to their dad’s truck.
“Did a cop talk to you boys?” their dad asks.
“Naw. We just came cause it got light,” Danny answers.
Jason and Ted ride in the back with the bags; Danny is up front. They stash the bags in the garage and clean up for church.
“We did all that for like 40 bucks worth of aluminum and glass bottles, split three ways. Four home games a year. And that was all the spending money we had in football season.” Jason shrugs. “So yeah, not all White kids had privilege.”
“Were you the only kids out there doing that?”
“Yeah. Just my family.” His accent is really pronounced now as he touches his dew-cold glass with the palm of his empty hand. “And I told my Black friend to come too, cause he needed cash.”
He spends a second thinking about long ago. “Roby, his name was. Every year the teacher called it out like it was Robbie, and he’d tell ‘em ‘Row-B, like the one behind Row A.’” He slaps his thigh.
Roby stashes the bike behind a bush and slides along the stadium wall looking for the entrance where Jason told him he could slip through the bars. He doesn’t like leaving the bike there, since there are still drunks around howling at the moon or whatever drunk White boys do, which he’s afraid might include joyriding on found child-sized bikes. If the bike disappears, he doesn’t know which will be worse: Damon finding out that he took it, or his mama finding out he is out of the house at 5AM.
The bike ride kept his core warm with the pedaling but about cut his fingers and ears off with the November wind. What he’s going to do with his trashbags full of cans is another question, but since he’s here, he’ll probably meet up with Jason and his dad will ride him back. Maybe he’ll also let him keep the cans in his garage and drive them to the recycle center, but that might be asking a lot of the family his mother works for just once a week, to give Jason’s mom a break.
“How come you ain’t get no break, Mama?” he asked the first time he heard her say this.
“Boy, hush your mouth. Go on outside and play with Jason on the swing.” She took a playful swat at him with the wooden spoon in her hand.
That was a couple of years ago. But it was after the last home football game that Jason told him about going to collect the cans. He didn’t exactly invite him or offer him a ride or anything, which made it hard because who would drive him way before sunup? It would be weird to ask Jason’s dad to come pick him up. They weren’t really friends; they just played together when Roby’s mom had to work at their house. Roby doubted Jason’s dad had ever driven through his side of town, or if he did, he’d be one of those guys who locks the doors when they get to streets where Black people walk and then try to hold their face real casual like they didn’t.
But he could really use the money. 40 bucks they made in one morning. Even splitting that up three ways, it put more money in his hands than he ever had outside his birthday. He doesn’t have to buy his own shoes or anything, but he’d like to be able to go to the movies once in a while.
He walks past Jason’s dad’s white pickup while he’s still sliding along the wall. He’s got his face down in a book with the interior light on. Roby sees a cop approach and tap on his window. Jason’s dad looks up with a start, but Roby knows better than to linger. He keeps following the wall around while the older man cranks the window down.
“Morning…Greg, right?” Mr. Devens asks, putting his hand out to the uniformed officer and splaying his book on his lap.
The officer looks hesitant. “Yes?”
“Tom Devens. I’m a friend of John’s,” he says, name checking another officer he went to high school with and bouncing the empty hand to emphasize that he hasn’t shaken it yet.
The officer takes his hand. “Sorry, I was expecting somebody passed out or some kids making out.”
“Well better than having them driving.”
“That’s why we wait ‘til almost morning to check this parking lot. What are you doing here?”
“I’m a tech at the USDA lab over in Clemins Hall.”
“No, I mean what are you doing here.” He indicates the stadium parking lot and the night in general.
“Oh, well. My boys are inside cleaning up after the game. Collecting the cans for pocket money.” The officer doesn’t exactly frown, but he doesn’t make the indulgent faces Mr. Devens expects. He’s too young to have boys who need pocket money. “My wife, she’s got ideas about giving them a work ethic. I told her I’d pay 40 dollars to stay in bed, but she wants them to know the value of hard work.” Now he gets a hint of the smile he expected, so he goes on. “They had to sneak in through the bars, but they’re not up to any mischief.”
“Well, I go in for a scan of the stadium before the employees get here. I’ll have to run ‘em off then.”
“Gotta do your job. Don’t scare ‘em too bad.” They both chuckle.
Greg’s partner, who took the other route around the stadium did have to clear out two drunks from an illegally parked car. These ones couldn’t drive themselves and one got very belligerent about having to get out and take a walk to the payphone to get a friend to come for them instead of being left in peace in his car.
Officer Whitman de-escalated the situation, promising to drive them back to their hotel if they were still in the car when he came around the stadium. But he didn’t like it. He didn’t like these out-of-towners descending on his town and behaving like hooligans, harassing the waitresses, including now his own daughter, and driving around drunk. There were more emergency room visits in this town on home game football nights than any night of the year, including New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July.
And he especially didn’t like swallowing it when a grown man smelling of puke and passed out in a car nicer than he could ever buy his wife muttered shit like “why can’t these pigs mind their own fucking business.” But his orders were clear. Don’t stir up trouble with the out-of-town rich guys. The whole town’s economy thrives on these weekends. They have an extra tax on hospitality businesses to pay for the schools, which are the best in the state, and the mayor is a proud host.
Now as Whitman walks away from the men going back to sleep in the Audi, he crushes a red Solo cup under his heel to listen to it crack. Something moves against the wall in front of him, a small man slinking behind the bushes. He can see his partner in the distance talking to someone through the window of a white pickup. Greg doesn’t look stressed and the radio is quiet, so he tracks the shadow sneaking along the wall until it comes to the iron barred gate.
“Hold up there buddy,” he calls out, breaking into a trot as the figure hesitates to take in whether he should shimmy over the gate or squeeze through. The person, now clearly a preteen, freezes and shows his hands immediately.
“Turn around!” Whitman demands.
Roby, struggling to hold in mind what his mother told him to do when this moment came, slowly turns. He comes up with the phrase “Yes, sir, I’m complying,” but his hands quiver.
“What the hell you doing out here at this hour?” Whitman demands.
“I’m… my friends are inside.”
It dawns on Whitman. Of course. Four nights a year the concession stands are full of money and products. He sees the bulge in Roby’s pockets. “What you got in your pockets? Something to jimmy open the concession doors?”
“No…” Roby stammers, sweat trickles from his hairline despite the cold. He reaches for his pocket to show the officer the garbage bags. “We were…”
But Whitman’s gun is already up and pointed before he can unfurl the black cylinder he takes out. “Freeze!” he shouts. “Drop it!” At the sound of his partner’s commands, Greg simultaneously picks up the pace he’s been making in Whitman’s direction and speaks into his radio. When Roby’s shaking hands let fall the rolled up garbage bags, the clatter of metal Whitman is expecting does not follow, and at the same moment his partner jogs up, immediately recognizing what the slightly blow-open object is.
“Stand down, Whitman. He’s a kid.” Roby sees the attention of the officer whose weapon was trained on him pull toward the approaching man, the one he’d just seen tapping on Jason’s dad’s window, and bolts. He doesn’t know where or why. It wasn’t in his mama’s police talk; this comes from some primal survival instinct deep inside somewhere that feels like it’s behind his eyes. Even though it’s three miles home. Even though the piss on his jeans is getting cold now and will rub a raw spot on the inside of his leg before he gets there.
He can hear the second officer yelling at the one with the gun, “You just pulled your weapon on kid!”
Even though the bike is back there and Damon will probably for real give him a split lip over it. Even though his mama will give him that tight-lipped look of bottomless patience that says “Jesus knows I love you, but, fool, I done told you.”
Whitman says “He was fixin’ to rob the concessions. He said his friends are still in there.” Greg blocks his partner from chasing after the child. He picks up the bag to show him.
“Those kids are just collecting cans. Put your weapon away.” Whitman spends one more hesitating second wondering if he’ll come out looking better if he doubles down, when Greg goes on, “I’ll call off the backup, just tell them it was a misunderstanding. That kid is not going to report you.”
By the time he’s able to worry about Damon and his mother, it has become clear that at least Roby will get home to his mother tonight. He’s still running when the tears start streaming down his face.
“So, I’m not saying there’s a problem with the culture, but you know, Roby never came.” Jason shrugs. He’s drunk now and his young colleague clears his throat and makes a point of spotting someone he needs to excuse himself to speak to.