Book Preview: 'The Fall'
INT./EXT. CAR. DAY.
A silver JEEP crosses the bridge to campus. Behind the wheel is IAN — good-looking, athletic, slightly taller than average — gazing warily up through the windshield as if he’s not sure he wants to be here.
Two roads diverge in a y-shaped fork beyond the bridge tethering River Bend to the university that supports it. You can see the town’s namesake, that abrupt kink in the river, curving out of view downstream. The channel narrows slightly at the bend, hurrying the currents and frustrating the crew teams who have been rowing the otherwise straight and gentle waters for the last fifty years. At the spot where the road splits, the well-maintained right fork sweeps up to the main gate, a stone and iron behemoth that loomed in my windshield as I faced my return to campus. The left fork—the road less traveled—makes a dash for the woods, disintegrating into a potholed strip of gravel as it enters the trees and narrows toward its terminus at the fire-gutted remains of a small church.
My name is Ian, and I have a secret. Something I have to confess. But I’ll get to that. It’s only a matter of time. So much is only a matter of time.
In the meantime, I’d driven all day. Driven and driven and now I was back here, back where things remained the way you left them. Students converged on campuses around the nation—a great autumn migration webbing out across the country like the route maps in airline magazines. Millions of students—most of us never meaningfully encountering one another, like planes that never collide in flight—living out more or less the same College Experience. Three years at Florence and I’ve learned, if nothing else, how hilariously arbitrary was my decision to come here. What’s here in this whitish-toned melting pot of formative youth that I couldn’t have found closer to home or farther away? The gate up ahead says only Est. 1950 in small engraved letters on a moss-covered stone. It ought to proclaim: Welcome to Florence University—not quite Ivy League, not quite New England, not quite what you thought you were getting.
But that’s life. That’s your education. A series of opportunities and missed opportunities. Exams and grades and blue books and blue balls and majors and minors and liberal arts and liberal minds. The scam of it is: no matter how much you paid or how far you traveled everybody’s receipt says pretty much the same damn thing. B.A. M.B.A. J.D. PhD. M.A. B.S.
B.S. That’s all it is, right?
I was thinking seriously of transferring. Not simply changing my major but transferring schools. The drive down Main Street, with its one coffee shop, gift shop, used bookstore, gas station, diner and sports bar, confirmed for me that I needed a bigger city. Main is the unnerving kind of street that put a great deal of effort into remaining quaint, as though that were some kind of virtue. I vowed to look immediately into the application deadlines for colleges that were located in an actual city. Something even farther away from home.
As I turned onto the quiet streets lined with off-campus housing my chest thumped wildly as if its most vital organ had slipped out of place, like a fish on land. I never should have agreed to live here. The house was on a cul-de-sac at one end of Oak Street. Somehow I’d passed the property many times before without retaining any specific memory of it. As I climbed the front lawn I saw that the two-story bungalow was larger than I’d imagined. I heard laughter and clinking bottles from the backyard. The smell of charcoal drifted on the breeze.
Casey met me on the front porch, grinning in his familiar way. The dilemma over whether a hug or a handshake was expected flooded me with panic. I’m telling you it was awkward. But Casey switched his beer to his left hand without hesitation, thrusting his right to meet mine. It seemed at the same time inevitable and unlikely that we’d be able to pick up where we’d left off. I spoke first.
“Your bedroom is upstairs. Did you come on the train?”
“No. My car was at my aunt’s in Boston.”
“Then you’ve been driving all day. You must be completely sober. Come on back, we’re barbequing.”
Woods bordered the backyard on three sides. The dark façade of the baseball stadium rose above the trees looming massive in the dusky light. The underside of the stadium’s upper deck sloped out like an overhanging cliff. Though the ballpark was dark you could imagine how it would transform the yard during a game, the banks of lights casting their artificial moonlight over the neighborhood and the sounds of a healthy crowd ebbing and flowing like waves crashing against rocks.
Casey introduced me around. A broad-framed guy named Jerrell rose from a lawn chair by the grill. At the end of thick forearms his hands seemed small and delicate. Tabular trapezoids raised the fabric of his tee shirt on either side of his neck. His grip was solid and steady and lacked any display of extra strength. No need to prove anything here. He called me man, as in how you doin’ man, and then he lowered himself back into the lawn chair, supporting both hands on the armrest in a way that activated ridges of triceps descending from his short sleeves. Case explained that Jerrell played tight end and was one of our housemates.
Next Case introduced me to Todd Fleming. The guys call him T-Smalls. He was shorter and white and didn’t live in the house. Two girls that had come with Todd were leaving for a party and I wasn’t introduced to them before they went. Todd dug a beer out of the cooler for me and you could tell from his first two attempts at the bottle cap that he was gone.
Case disappeared inside and Jerrell and Todd laughed about something that had happened at practice. I stood alone by the grill, picking at the label on my beer. When I turned to sit on the porch steps, where I hoped at least to appear less uncomfortable, I bumped into a girl in tiny pink shorts and an oversized sweatshirt coming out of the house. She looked me over and then sat down on the top step, hugging her knees to her chest.
“It’s you. You used to play football with Casey? And your dad is like some famous coach or something.”
Of course she was. You might have guessed Mandy or Brittany or Tara, but Krista definitely was one of the first names that sprung to mind. She was pretty, as in pretty average. You couldn’t have picked her out of a lineup of the sororityish girls I imagine she goes around with.
“I’m Ian,” I said, struggling in my mind to give Case the benefit of the doubt.
“So how long have you and Casey been friends?”
“Junior high, I guess. That’s when we started playing football together.”
“And then you quit.” She smiled—pure bitch.
“Yeah, I stopped playing ball after high school.”
“Why’d you switch to tennis?” Her tone left no doubt as to where my new sport fell in the hierarchy of acceptably cool activities.
“It’s just the way it worked out.”
“God, I was just asking.” Bitchbitchbitch. “Casey likes you a lot,” she added after a silence.
“We’re good friends.”
“Yeah, well, he talks about you all the time.”
If she was trying to make peace or flatter me or make me uncomfortable, it was working. I’d finished the beer I was holding and was prepared to use the need for another as an excuse to duck away. But suddenly I felt obligated to hold up my end of the conversation.
“What do you do here? I mean, why’d you come to Florence?”
“My parents thought it was a better school than OSU. They both teach there. I didn’t get into any of the Ivy League schools like I wanted. But Florence’s reputation is almost as good so I worked really hard on my application and I got in.”
“That’s really great.” This is really lame. “What are you studying?”
“Psychology. I started premed. That’s how I met Casey. But premed is really hard so I changed my mind. I want to be a psychologist.”
Krista was plainly boring and completely harmless except for her attachment to Case. She talked as if they’d be together forever. I was indiscreet about checking my watch but she got off another question before I had a chance to stand up. I’m telling you this girl will terrorize patients if she ever becomes a psychologist.
“What about you? You got a girlfriend back home or something?”
We were interrupted by singing. It was a male’s voice, clear and effortlessly in key. A giant man in a Hawaiian shirt filled the doorway behind the screen, and the first thing I thought was that his singing voice had seemed much too high for a man of his size. He was wearing sunglasses despite the hour and most of his deeply tanned arms and legs were marked with tattoos. Case followed him through the door.
“This is Afa.”
“Hey, man. Welcome,” Afa said. “Case told us everything about you.”
Afa picked up the plate of beef patties he’d set down on the railing and hummed to himself as he wandered to the grill. After we ate burgers it was dark enough to see stars. Case plunged a hand into the cooler’s watery bed of ice.
“Anyone wanna nother beer?”
“Oh yeah, baby.”
I felt a remote sense that I was drunk—did I just say Oh yeah baby?—but my self-consciousness paled in comparison to my emerging enjoyment of the evening.
“Let’s break into the stadium and steal the bases,” said Todd, the stocky safety everyone calls T-Smalls.
Everyone looked at Todd across the lawn.
“Dude,” Case said. “Don’t be gay.”
“I’m serious. Let’s do it. Who’s in?”
Todd had either had the most to drink or was the least capable of handling it. He was pissing at the edge of the woods, his body turned only slightly away from us. His head was back and tilted up at the rim of the baseball stadium. The moonlit upper decks were chalky white through the tops of the dark trees rising abruptly at the edge of our backyard.
“Come on. We can climb over the back gate.”
“You want to do it that way, you gotta go through the woods,” Afa said. “You’re on your own, man.”
“What are you afraid of?” Todd said. He finished pissing and zipped up, but he stood with his back to us, staring into the woods.
“I’m just sayin’,” Afa said. “Those woods are haunted. You wouldn’t be the first person to walk in there and not come back out.”
“Whatever. That happened once. One time, like ten years ago. And, for the record, he did come back out.”
“Yeah, on a gurney. Point is, his ghost is still in there.”
“The fuck are you talking about? He didn’t die in the woods.”
“How do you know? They beat him pretty near to killing him.”
“They didn’t kill him. He killed himself. Besides, that happened over in the old church that burned down.”
“Don’t matter,” Afa said.
“Casey? Jerrell?” Todd said. “Someone please tell Afa he’s a fucking fruitcake.”
“Why you always get so crazy when you’re drunk?” Jerrell said.
Jerrell didn’t speak much. I’d been looking for a way into a conversation with him but he spent most of the evening in the same chair drinking at his own pace and listening to Afa tell stories about crazy cousins back home on Oahu. Jerrell held himself close like a hand of cards. I didn’t know anything about him except that in this way we were alike.
Todd raised both arms triumphantly and a new intensity electrified his impaired gaze. He flashed us wild eyes.
“It’s not ’cause I’m drunk. It’s ’cause I’m invincible. And if I ain’t invincible I don’t want to be anything. Now, who’s with me? We’re going through the woods and over the back gate, we’re stealing the bases, and then we come back here. Okay? I got dibs on home plate. I’m gonna hang it in my room.”
“You want to sit and have another beer and think it over?” Casey said.
“Hey, I got a better idea,” Todd said. “We should do this for the Homecoming ritual.”
Everyone turned to Todd like he’d said something wrong.
“Dude, shut up,” Case said.
“What’s the Homecoming ritual?” Krista said.
“Shut up,” said Afa.
“Seriously,” Jerrell said. “What will take for you to shut up?”
Krista looked at Case. “What is it?”
“It’s nothing.” Case glared at Todd like now look what you’ve done. “It’s just something the team does. And we can’t talk about it. Sorry. It started with the very first Homecoming game and it’s continued as a secret that only the players know about.”
Krista turned to me. I shrugged like don’t look at me I don’t know what they’re talking about. She jabbed Casey in the side with a finger.
“Bullshit,” she said. “You’re telling me stupid football players have been able to keep a secret for a hundred years?”
“Sixty years,” Case said.
“I still think we should steal the bases tonight,” Todd said.
“Shut up,” everyone said.
Todd shrugged. “Okay, you’re right. I’m gonna sit and have one more beer first.”
He settled into the hammock on the porch. Nearby, Krista had cuddled up with Case, imposing her head in the crevice between his chest and shoulder so that he’d wrap his arm around her. Something occurred to her and she lifted her face to look at Casey.
“This place has only been around for sixty years? I thought it’d been around as long as Yale or Harvard.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
“I thought it was founded right after World War Two.”
“Nope. June twenty, 1950.”
Everyone looked at Case.
“Man, are you shittin’ me?” Jerrell said. “How the hell you remember something like that?”
Afa let out a loud high-pitched laugh and wrapped an arm around Case’s shoulders.
“I love this guy. Never doubt anything this guy says if it’s got anything to do with numbers.”
“Seriously,” Jerrell said. “He’s shitting us. How you know that?”
“I read it somewhere. I don’t remember where. Numbers just stick in my head if I can attach them to something important.”
“What’s so important about June twenty-five, 1950? Or whenever it was,” Krista said.
Case was quiet for a moment and then nodded as if confirming it for himself.
“June twenty. When DiMaggio got his two thousandth hit. Against the Indians.”
Jerrell shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
Krista kissed Case on the mouth. “You’re so weird. I’m going to bed.”
Case stood and looked down at Todd snoring on the hammock.
“I guess Mr. Invincible is staying the night. Let’s get him inside on the couch.”
Ryan Quinn grew up in Alaska. After graduating from the University of Utah, where he was an NCAA champion, he worked in book publishing for five years in New York City. He now lives in Los Angeles. “The Fall” is his first novel.