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Its eleven-thirty when the bus pulls up in front of the school. The parking lot is three-quarters filled with cars of kids attending the aftergame dance, and I decide to check out the action, or, more specifically, to check out Carly. Coach Benson is among the chaperones and meets me at the door.

Benson says, Howd you guys do?

Good, I tell him.

Everybody hit a personal best? There is a hint of sarcasm, which I ignore.

All the way around, I say. Chris Coughlin took almost fifteen seconds off his four hundred free. Three more meets and we invade Cutters Crystal Cathedral.

Coach nods and smiles. Pretty clever how you pulled that off, he says. Who figured it out, you or your coach?

What do you mean?

Which one of you figured out everyone would improve this much?

Why cant you accept that we gave ourselves a really hard job to do, and did it?

Im going to have a talk with Coach Simet about this, he says. I have a lot of respect for the athletic program here at Cutter and the excellence of the athletes who succeed.

I know, I say. Me, too.

I wish I thought that were true, Jones. He changes the subject. So did you take the sprints?


Well, I suppose thats the up side to all this. You place high at State and that will put us up in the standings.

Yeah. Thats the problem with sprints, though. No matter how fast you are, some unknown guy hits a perfect dive and turn and takes you out.

You best concentrate on hitting all your dives and turns, he says. Things are pretty even around the conference this year, and were going to need those points. You dont want to be putting the Athletic Council through all this and then come up empty.

I make a mental note to call Simet over the weekend to make sure he knows theyre on to us. Benson wields a lot of power around here.

Ill bust my butt, Coach. I really will. And you have to admit, thats a pretty good trade-off for the rest of these guys earning their jackets. They may not be racking up the points, but Id die of boredom if they werent there with me, so theyre pulling their weight.

Carly motions to me from across the gym, and I tell Coach Ill catch up with him later.

She says, I was beginning to think you werent going to make it.

Icy roads and a zoo full of swimmers couldnt have kept me away.

She touches my hand, switching on the electricity that has been building between us, and we move onto the dance floor and get lost in the beat of a long slow Celine Dion song. Carlys dark eyes and half smile tease me, and I think how lucky I am to have this uncomplicated relationship with somebody smart to talk to, and hot to the touch. We move closer, eyes closed, feet barely moving, swaying more than dancing. This girl gives me a hummingbirds heart palpitations. I feel her entire body against me, her forehead touching the crook of my neck, the pressure of her hips.

A commotion by the entrance plummets me back to earth, and we look over to see Kristen Sweetwater jerking her wrist out of Mike Barbours grip, yelling, Leave me alone, you asshole! Kristen is the head varsity cheerleader and one of Carlys good friends.

Carly drops my hand, and I follow her toward them. She says, I told her to stay away from him.

Barbour glances at the staring crowd and releases Kristen. Come on, goddamn it, lets talk about it.

You bastard, Mike Barbour! Look at my arm! Get away from me! That is not language you hear out of Kristen Sweetwater.

Coach Benson hustles toward them, but Barbour sees him and storms out.

Kristen drops to her butt on the bleachers, face in her hands, sobbing. Carly sits beside her and puts an arm around her shoulders, waving Benson away and firing threatening looks at anyone who approaches. What happened?

Kristen doesnt answer, just shakes her head and cries harder.

Kristen, what happened? Did he hurt you?

She pulls the loose sleeve of her blouse up to her shoulder. Her entire arm is red, beginning to darken.

That son of a bitch, Carly says.

He said he had some beer stashed out by the river, she said. He and some friends were supposed to have a little party out there.

Only you got out there and no one else was there. Shit, Kristen, whats the matter with you? I told you what Mike Barbour is like.

Kristen looks up, wiping her eyes. I havent said anything because I cant take my eyes off her arm. Yeah, well, she says, thats what got me in trouble. When I saw we were alone, I told him you said he was like that, and he started getting mad. He said if I was going to listen to some bitch whos fu-going out with a ni-whos going out with T. J., he didnt want anything to do with me.

Carly massages Kristens neck. That would have been a good time to tell him to take you home.

Kristens head drops. I know.

But you didnt say that, did you?

Kristen is defeated. No. I told him I didnt necessarily believe it, just that youd said it. Then he said I could make it up to him by having sex. I thought he was kidding-I mean, Ive only been out with him a couple of times-but all of a sudden he was unbuttoning my coat, and I was trying to get out and accidentally scratched his face. God, he went crazy. He kept telling me to strip, and Id say no and hed punch my arm. She starts crying again, hard. And he had me trapped, and he said, Strip again, and I said no and he punched my arm again, then he just kept saying it faster and faster and hitting me before I could answer. Her voice trails away into sobs.

I am pulling my coat on.

Carly says, Wait, T. J.

Kristen is gasping for breath. I finally jerked loose and started running. He started his pickup and came after me, but Don Abemathy and Marcy Caldwell saw me and stopped. I had them bring me back here, but Mike followed us.

She catches her breath. God, I am so stupid! He stopped me after I got out of their car and said he was sorry, that hes really been under a lot of pressure and would I at least get back in the pickup with him and talk about it.

Carlys eyes harden. And you did it. Jesus, Kristen.

I know, but he sounded really sorry. And he was. When I first got in, he looked at my arm and apologized again and said hed never lay another hand on me, that hed do anything not to have done that. He sounded like he was going to cry and so I was kind of holding him and all of a sudden he was feeling me up again. I jumped out, and thats when he followed me in.

I tap Carlys shoulder. Okay, I waited. Now Im going to find Barbour.

T. J., dont do something stupid.

I wont. Im going to kick his ass, I say and head for the door.

T. J.!

You guys wait here for me. Ill be right back. I am through the exit, ignoring the sophomore money taker reminding me I need a chaperones permission to leave if I want back in.

I dont see Barbours pickup in the lot, which is packed now, and I jog up one aisle and down the next, working myself up. If I find him, that pickup is scrap metal. Barbour! Come out, big man! Lets see how tough you are! Heres your chance, tough guy! You been saying someday! Well, its here! Barbour!

Headlights flash on as I pass cars-Ill probably have to issue a class-action apology for all the near misses I caused-and then I hear an engine roar and look up to see Barbour fishtailing out the entrance. If somebody clocked me, I might have the new school record for the hundred meters between me and my car.

I hit the parking-lot exit at top speed for a Chevy Corvair in second gear, which barely approaches the speed limit, and gun it down the street, only slowing enough at intersections to look for him. I will run that son of a bitch off the road if necessary; we are going to deal before I go to sleep tonight.

The speeding/failure-to-stop citation is going to cost me $273 even though I pass the Breathalyzer. The cop says if I get another one tonight he will see that I spend the rest of it in jail, because I am so pissed I cant keep my mouth shut while hes writing it out. I suggest you go home and cool off, he tells me.

That asshole punches out a girl, and Im the one going to jail.

Tell her to report it, he says. If it happened like you say, its assault.

It happened like I say.

Well, if there are bruises, shes got a case.

She wont report it.

Hey, buddy. If she wont report it, as far as the laws concerned, it didnt happen.

I take the ticket and thank him through clenched teeth.

Look, Mr. Jones, he says, reading my drivers license as he hands it back. Go home. The guy who throws the first punch never gets the foul. Its the guy the ref sees retaliate. Youre close enough to eighteen to go straight to the slammer.

As I pull back onto the street, he follows me: my designated escort. I can forget evasive action; my address is on the ticket. Fine. Barbour will live an extra day. This shit will get cleaned up.

I pull over and, when the cop stops behind me, get out to ask if I can go back to the dance to hook up with Kristen and Carly. He points straight ahead. Home.

Its quarter to one when I find Mom in her study going over papers for a case she has to try Monday morning. I show her the ticket.

Were you running from Carlys dad? My mom can be a smartass, too.

I tell her about Kristens shoulder; that I was going after Barbour.

So what were you going to do if you found him?

You mean, what am I going to do.

In the voice she reserves for hostile witnesses, she says, No, I mean what were you going to do-before you let your temper get you a ticket equal to a semesters tuition.

Mom, somebodys got to teach that asshole he cant be doing that. He gets some bullshit in his head and takes it out on some girl maybe half his size? What kind of ignorant shit is that?

Just that, she says. Ignorant shit.

Yeah, well, he needs a lesson.

And youre going to teach it?

Damn right. If Id have found him tonight it would be in the record books.

If you had found him tonight, theres a good chance your dad would be down at the county jail right now, bailing you out. Jail, T. J., not juvy; because youre that close to eighteen, just like the officer told you. And then who would pay your brand-new giant-sized car insurance premium?

You think the law wouldnt give me a flyer on this one? He hit a girl so hard her shoulder is going to be black. What about that? Isnt that evidence?

She pushes her chair back from the desk, closes the folder, and sighs, which means Im about to get hit with lawyer shit. Yes, T. J., it is evidence. Its evidence against Mike Barbour for an assault hell never be charged with, because the person he hit will say it was accidental after he apologizes and swears never to do it again, which-and she glances at her watch-he probably has already done, and she wont go through with it because it will prove to her, in some perverse way, that she isnt good enough to keep him. She leans forward to make her point. It wont even come up in your assault trial.

So I just let it happen?

No. Kristen Sweetwater lets it happen.

What the hell is she supposed to do? She weighs maybe a hundred-ten pounds.

What would Carly do?

Shed kick his ass.

No, shed stay away from him.

I slam my fist into my open hand so hard it almost goes numb. Somethings got to be done, and if no one else will do it, I will. I start to walk out of the den, but Moms firm hand grips my shoulder and guides me back to the chair. She says, Sit.

I sit.

As long as were going down this road, lets go all the way. What is it you think youre going to teach Mike Barbour by beating him up?

To pick on somebody his own size.

It seems to me that if you beat him up youll be teaching him not to pick on somebody his own size.

You know what I mean.

I know what you think you mean.

Are you going to do this lawyer thing with me?

This lawyer thing is common sense. How do you think Mike Barbour got like he is? Or Rich Marshall for that matter? It sounds like Mom has been talking to Dad.

I dont care how they got that way. Im just tired of them thinking theyre big men because they can beat up on girls and little kids.

Do you really believe they think theyre big men because they do that?

Why else would they do it?

She places a hand on my knee. Youre not going to like this, but for the same reason you break things in your room sometimes, or punch your hand so hard it sounds like you broke your fingers. Because when rage takes you over, you do what the rage tells you.

Hey, I might break stuff, but I sure dont hit women and kids.

And dont think Im not grateful, she says, only half kidding. I know shes right about my rage, but Im not giving that asshole Barbour even an inch.

What do you think Mike Barbour does when he goes home after doing something like he did tonight? Do you really think he goes into the bathroom and looks in the mirror and flexes his biceps and says, Well, I really kicked her ass?

I dont know what he does.

So Ill tell you. He feels out of control. He promises himself he wont do it again, worries what will happen to him. He worries somebody will find out and humiliate him. He wishes he knew why he doesnt stop himself, why he didnt see it coming. None of that lasts long, because he has to find some way to justify it, so he starts telling himself what a bitch Kristen is, that its her job to keep him from getting mad. And Ill tell you what, I dont even know Kristen Sweetwater, but Ill bet you the price of that ticket that she was brought up by a father who believes exactly what Mike Barbour believes.

This is probably why my mother is such a hell of a lawyer; she actually makes me stop and think, when all I wanted a few minutes ago was blood.

You dont remember, T. J., but if you dont believe this, ask Georgia: When you came to us, you were inconsolable. Your mother had left you alone for days. You had diaper rash so bad your butt looked like a crater. And thrush, my God. Youd been left unattended for hours on end, sometimes days. You ate when your mother felt hungry, which was the only time she was reminded that you might be hungry, too, and she was eating darn little, because she was launched on meth.

Your dad and I fed you and cleaned you up and held you and walked the floor till we were both blind with exhaustion, and nothing quieted you. The day your mother came to say good-bye, she walked through the door, and you stopped crying the instant you saw her. She held you and cried, and you didnt utter a peep. Not a peep. Within seconds of her leaving, you cranked up again.

The point being- Id heard that story before.

That you didnt respond to what was good for you, you responded to what you knew, what was familiar. Thats what Mike Barbour does, and Rich. Thats what Kristen Sweetwater does. And if you think youre going to teach anyone a lesson, get ready to learn one yourself.

Georgia came and let you rage; let you play out every trauma. One day youd be the helpless, thumb-sucking victim, the next youd kick the hell out of anything that got in your way. Over and over and over you played out your life, until finally you had done it all enough to feel at some primitive level like you had it under control. Im not kidding, T. J.; it went on for nine months. Thats how you learned. You played it out and played it out. If we hadnt had Georgia, I wouldnt have known what to do. But I know this: Id have decided enough was enough long before it was enough for you, and I would have put a stop to it. And according to Georgia, that would have set the fear and rage so deep in you it might not ever have come out.

Im drifting off in my room, maybe a half hour later, visions of punching Mike Barbours chest so hard his heart stops dancing in my head, when the light comes on.

Hey, big boy. Its Dad.

I squint into the light. Is there a fire?

He laughs. No fire. Ive been talking with your mom.

So you know about Barbour.

Guess we shouldnt be surprised, he says, as much as he hangs out with Rich Marshall.

Yeah, theyve got a real mentoring system going there.

Your mom says you were so mad you were getting ready to commit a crime.

I was just going to kick his ass.

Yeah, thats what I meant.

I do not get what is such a big deal about a fight, I tell him. I mean, if someone were threatening Mom, youd do whatever you had to do to stop him.

Youre right. And if you had been there when Rich was hurting that girl, Id have expected you to do whatever you had to do to stop it.

Ah, so this is about timing.

This is about whats done is done. Look, the Mike Barbours and Rich Marshalls of the world have just as much right to exist as you do. They have just as much purpose. You think its your job to teach them a lesson, but theyre not going to learn any lesson youre going to teach, so I have a feeling its the other way around. You kick Mike Barbours ass, and it just cranks him up to be more like he already is. Hell immediately turn it racial and respond by hurting somebody else. He and Marshall both have that amazing capacity to believe that other people make us do things.

Dad, thats great philosophy, but what about Kristen Sweetwater?

What is Kristen Sweetwater going to get out of you wasting Barbour?


Exactly. Shes not going to learn one thing about standing on her own two feet. Shell learn she has power only when you or Carly is around.

So I just let guys like Barbour do their thing.

You cant keep guys like Barbour from doing their thing. Look, T. J., if you were going to teach Heidi to stay away from mean dogs, would you go out and find one mean dog and teach her all about him? Or would you show her as many mean dogs as you could find, and tell her about the ones you couldnt find?

Yeah, but-

And if a mean dog attacked her, would you beat hell out of it and let her around it again?

No, Dad, but somebody would put it down.

Right. Somebody would kill it. But were not going to kill Mike Barbour, and nothing short of that is going to change the way he treats people.

I am so goddamned exasperated.

Look, T. J. Your mother and I have been in court on these kinds of cases almost as long as youve been alive. Me as a Guardian ad Litem and her as a lawyer. We see it over and over. You know what Mike Barbours like. No way is this the first time he tried to strong-arm that girl. And Ill bet you the price of any of my classic cycles you want that shes been in this same spot with other guys. Now, you protect people in the moment they need protection, or ahead of time. But not after. After, you work with them.

He watches me, and I watch the ceiling.

What can I do to help, son?

I dont know. Rich Marshall and Barbour or guys like them have been in my life as long as I can remember. I dont invite them in, but theyre always there. Im sick of em.

Theyre there for a reason, he says. When you figure out what it is, you wont even notice them anymore.

I guess I did invite Barbour in when I entered the war over the letter jackets.

Focus on that, then-the jock stuff. At least youre taking Barbour on in your own life instead of someone elses. Those swimmers, theyre your friends. You guys are into something together there. You can do the letter jacket thing without even talking to Barbour or Marshall. Do your best, win the letter, and wear it with pride.

Its not bad advice, and Im so tired I think my eyes are going to bleed, so I say good night to Dad and banish him from my room. As he steps through the door to leave, I say, Dad?


You should have been a whale.

CHAPTER 10 | Whale Talk | CHAPTER 12