Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman's new book "Downtown Owl: A Novel", copyright 2008 by Chuck Klosterman. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.
October 29, 1983
People often recall their childhood school bus smelling like vomit, but this is a misremembered cliché. In reality, the smell people recall is vomit cleanser. This misremembrance is the second-most interesting fact about school buses. The first-most interesting fact is that school buses vibrate. Anytime a yellow busload of children exceeds forty miles per hour, the seats and windows vibrate in place like an air hockey table; it always feels like the vehicle is on the cusp of molecular disintegration. Mitch imagined this happening as he looked out his window at the darkening horizon and the prewinter sky. Bodies would fly everywhere, peppering the highway with blood and bone and fragments of clothing. It would be violent, but he would survive.
Purchase Chuck Klosterman's new novel, "Downtown Owl."
His bus was rolling toward Wishek, a Germanic community where the Owl Lobos were about to close out the '83 football campaign against the WHS Badgers. This was a big deal for two reasons. The first was that playing well in Wishek was always important, because Wishek High was populated by an inordinate number of attractive, disarmingly voluptuous girls; this had been the case for decades and was known throughout the region. The mothers of Wishek had hot-blooded bloodlines. The second reason was purely mathematic: The Lobos currently had a record of 4-4, so tonight's game would dictate the symbolic value of the entire season, along with the civic worth of every person on the roster. If the Owls won, they would finish the year as a winning team; everyone in town would be mildly satisfied and deeply relieved. A record of five wins and four losses was acceptable to all. However, if they lost, they would become the first Owl team in two decades to end the year below .500. Going 4-5 would be a disaster; in theory, Mr. Laidlaw could even lose his job. This struck Mitch as strangely arbitrary, but it probably made sense: Everything needed a cutoff. Tonight he would be fighting to save the job of a man he despised.
The season had gone precisely as Mitch had anticipated, which meant the season had been completely undramatic. The Owls had won the three games in which they were plainly the better team, they had lost the three games in which they were generally outclassed, and they had split the two contests that were genuine toss-ups. The squad never found a legitimate quarterback. Mitch had played sparingly, but consistently; Laidlaw often inserted him into ballgames whenever the team was floundering, almost as a way to publicly express his dismay with the other players. Mitch's lone highlight had been against the Napoleon Imperials in early October: After not playing a down throughout the first three quarters, he entered the game with the Lobos trailing 14-0. Laidlaw kept calling Flood Right 64; as promised, Weezie was open in the flat every time. Mitch threw ten desperate passes and completed six of them, including the only touchdown of his entire career. (The toss had even spiraled, partially.) Owl still lost the game, but everyone told Mitch he had played wonderfully and slapped his helmet with enthusiasm. "I bet you'll start next week," Weezie told him after the game. "You are the quarterback of the future." For most of the weekend, Mitch believed that. He spent Saturday afternoon throwing a football through a Firestone tire his father had hung from a tree. He spent Sunday afternoon watching Tommy Kramer take downfield gambles while looking foxy and hungover. Mitch could not sleep, and he did not want to. Things in his life were (possibly) about to change (completely). And they did, but not in the way he had hoped. When Mitch arrived at practice the following Monday, he immediately noticed something: Laidlaw liked him less. "Completing a few passes doesn't make you Johnny Unitas," he barked at Mitch during calisthenics, apropos of absolutely nothing. "I've seen a million kids heave a touchdown pass after the cows were already in the corn. That's not what I need to see, Vanna. I need to see leadership, Vanna. Be a leader. For once in your life, be a leader. Do you even understand what that means?" Mitch did not. In fact, he had no clue what that was supposed to mean in any context that wasn't theoretical. By Wednesday it was clear that Mitch was not the quarterback of the future, or even the present. The Lobos faced Cando High School on Friday, and Mitch didn't play at all. He spent most of the next three days pretending not to care about this, except when he was alone in his bedroom. Bedrooms are good places for crying.
Tonight Mitch sat at the back of the bus, adjacent to Zebra's ghetto blaster. They could not play the stereo before the game, but -- if they won -- they could play it on the ride home. (And if this happened, Mitch would sit near the front of the bus, away from all those stupidly deafening songs about legs and TV dinners and sharply dressed men.) Grendel sat across the aisle from him, staring blankly ahead; even without his shoulder pads, he seemed like a piece of machinery, wrapped in horseflesh and gorilla leather. Grendel was the undisputed star of the Lobos; his nineteen sacks had already shattered the school record and he would probably get three more tonight. There had been numerous newspaper articles written about his dominance, and it was rumored that he was being recruited by the University of Nebraska, a college he could not locate on a map. In the game against Cando, he had broken an opposing running back's femur; the bone sounded like a deer rifle when it snapped.
"Grendel," said Mitch. He received only silence in response. "Hey, Grendel," he said again. "Grendel. Grendel? Chris. Hey, Chris."
Grendel eventually turned his head. His eyes were piercing and vacant at the same time, which shouldn't be possible.
"What," said Grendel.
"Can I ask you a question?" said Mitch. He felt a little like Zebra when he asked this. He found himself trying to talk like Zebra, which almost worked.
"What do you think of Cubby Candy?"
"Cubby Candy," repeated Grendel.
"Yeah," said Mitch. "What do you think of Cubby Candy?"
"Sure," said Mitch, "but do you like him?"
"I've never thought about it," said Grendel.
"Do you think you could beat him in a fight?"
"Really," said Mitch. "That's interesting. That's really, really interesting. And I totally agree with you. Absolutely. But you know what's weird? What's weird is that a lot of people think he could beat you in a fight, simply because of that aforementioned craziness. Which, I think, makes for an intriguing hypothetical."
"Nobody thinks that," said Grendel. "Who thinks that?"
"Well, it's not like anyone specifically thinks he could kick your ass," said Mitch, not showing his sudden nervousness. "It's not like this is something people talk about, or anything like that. It's just that Candy gets in a lot of fights, and he is a decent fighter, and the only fight he's ever lost was with that cop, and that doesn't really count, because the cop cuffed him and hit him with a billy club, which I think we'd all agree was a total cheap shot. So I guess certain people just wonder if maybe Candy could fight anyone and possibly win, even if the person he was fighting happened to be you. Because -- like you said -- he is crazy. And, you know, unpredictable."
"I'd wreck him," said Grendel. "I would destroy."
"But what if he did something outrageous?" Mitch asked. "Like, what if he tried to bite your neck? Or what if he attacked you with a ball-peen hammer or a saber saw or a folding chair?"
"I would f------ wreck him worse for trying," said Grendel. "I'd rip out his heart and jam it into his f------ mouth. I wouldn't let some bastard hit me with a folding chair. You can't let people get away with s--- like that."
"True, true," said Mitch. "You're right about this, Chris. You're completely right. I was just curious about your opinion on this subject."
"You say a lot of bozo s---, Vanna." Grendel hated the fact that kids like Mitch could use so many different words whenever they spoke. Like, he knew what the word hypothetical meant when someone else used it in a sentence, but there was just no way he could talk like that during normal conversation. Every time he tried to use a complicated word, people looked at him like he was speaking Spanish. F--- them all. He resumed staring at the front of the bus and feeling unstoppable.
"Sorry, man," said Mitch. "I apologize for breaking your concentration. I was basically just talking to myself."
Owl beat Wishek by forty points. Grendel knocked their 130-pound quarterback into an eighteen-hour coma, but at least the dude lived.
Chuck Klosterman's previous book was "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas." He is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.