Home > The Serpent King(10)

The Serpent King(10)
Jeff Zentner

“My house. I’ll damn well curse,” his father called back.

“Well I wish you wouldn’t. Travis, are you hungry for supper?”

“No ma’am.” Travis started for his room.

“Hang on. Ain’t done talking with you yet.”

Travis turned.

“First day of school,” his father said.

“Yep.”

“I ever tell you I was quarterback my senior year? Threw the winning pass against Athens High in the semis. Matt was quarterback too.”

“You had mentioned that before. Couple of times.” Travis felt a sharp pang at the mention of his deceased brother. Matt had always sat down with him the night before school started and given him a little pep talk. Told him how to talk to girls. To stick up for himself. To be a leader and not a follower. Travis already didn’t care for this new sort of pep talk.

“You plan on spending senior year with your dick in your hand?” his father asked.

“No sir. In my pants like normal.”

“You being cute?”

“No sir.” Travis inched toward his room.

His father wasn’t done. “What do you plan to do?”

“Shop classes. Try to get good grades. Graduate. Learn, I guess.”

His father smirked. “You gonna kick some beaner ass again this year?”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Travis said. “Alex’s left me alone.”

During junior year, Alex Jimenez cornered Dill in the cafeteria and began playing the “slapping game” with him. The game was simple: Alex slapped at Dill until hopefully he provoked Dill to retaliate, so that he had an excuse to beat Dill’s ass. As the only Latino in their class, Alex wasn’t much higher in the social hierarchy than Dill, but winning a fight usually moved you up a rung.

Travis walked up as Dill dodged another slap and told Alex to stop. Alex turned his attention to Travis. Winning a fight against someone much bigger than you? That would really cement his status. Travis didn’t do much to defend himself until Alex landed a hard slap across Travis’s eye.

Then Travis boiled over. He picked up Alex by his soccer jersey and half-pushed, half-threw him a solid seven or eight feet. When Alex landed, he turned his ankle, causing him to fall and crack his head against the edge of one of the cafeteria tables. Blood gushed. He went into seizures.

That was Travis’s make-or-break moment. Had he said something like “What now, bitch?” and spit on Alex, he would have advanced in the school hierarchy. Instead, he tried to go to Alex to help him, but the crowd kept him away. He paced and ran his fingers through his hair, sobbing and telling anyone who would listen that he was sorry. EMTs showed up. His clear remorse proved his salvation from a full twenty-day suspension. The school administrators knew that if someone could win a fight and still come out the loser, it was by revealing such gentleness. The contempt that earned him would be punishment enough. And when the video hit YouTube, captioned “BIG DUDE TAKES DOWN BULLY AND CRYS LIEK A LITTLE BITCH LOL,” it confirmed the administration’s suspicions.

But Travis’s father never saw the video (which school administrators got removed in a day by threatening to expel the poster). He didn’t see Travis begging Alex to forgive him as Alex convulsed, his eyes rolled back, blood pooling all over the white linoleum. He didn’t see when Travis, fresh off his suspension, took a container of his mom’s banana pudding—his favorite treat—and found Alex sitting alone in the cafeteria with his ankle cast resting on a chair. Travis offered him the banana pudding. Alex didn’t say anything; he wouldn’t even look at Travis. Slapped away the container as Travis tried to give it to him.

Travis’s father knew only that his son had kicked some Mexican ass and that the parents, who didn’t speak English, seemed to be afraid to go to the cops or even to ask him to pay their son’s medical bills. And so went one of the few times Travis had ever made him proud.

“Speaking of using your size for something worthwhile, I ran into Coach the other day at the Walmart,” his father said. “Said you don’t even have to have played the other years to go out for football.”

“Good to know.”

“I said you don’t run so fast or catch so good, but you’re a big piece of meat he could put in the defensive line.” His father took a gulp of beer and belched.

“That’s true. I am a big piece of meat.”

“You going to try out for the team? Make me proud? Maybe we’ll see you with a girl other than Denny Blankenship’s dyke daughter?”

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