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The Transcendence of Speedy Joe Kinnard

by Theron Montgomery



On a fall night in Fermata Bend, Alabama, on worn turf and under blazing field lights, junior tailback Speedy Joe Kinnard of the Fermata Bend High Raiders took his last and eighteenth handoff over left guard, breaking one tackle, colliding full speed and head down into two Burnsfield High linebackers, and into an oblivion of unconsciousness from which he never returned.

The resounding crack of the three helmets and the ensuing stillness of the fallen players stopped everyone. The other players in the play rose and looked on, the cheerleaders forgot their cheer, the home band forgot to play the fight song, and the referees began motioning for assistance even as the trainers were running across the field. The spectators stood and went into a pall and Josiah "Tee" Reed, play-by-play announcer of local radio WXFBR in the press box, above and behind the pine seedlings and bleachers, was the first to say something for the record.

"Hold up, folks," he said into the mike. "Kinnard still down on the play... on the seventeen of Burnsfield... two Eagle tacklers down, too... now being helped up real slow." Tee Reed stalled, reiterated the score and the time: Fermata Bend leading Burnsfield twenty-six to nineteen in Raider Stadium on this Thursday night, with what appeared to be a first down and three fifty-one left to go in the fourth quarter. Tee Reed ran off Speedy's stats: 113 yards in 18 carries, two touchdowns, catching two of three passes for 19 yards; three punt receptions for 23 yards and one lost fumble.

"And that was a whale of a hit, ladies and gentlemen," Tee Reed added. "This is what you hate to see," he said, realizing that line had been used countless times as the ambulance went flashing its lights across the field and the people still standing in the bleachers shifted their feet and craned their necks for a better view. Some gasped. And some made utterances like, "Oh, my God."

* * *

Reverend Paul Stephenson, head pastor of the First Baptist Church, a team booster and a regular sideline guest of the coaching staff, felt compelled to run across the field with head coach Jackie Gibbs after the trainer. The two white, middle-aged men in blue "Raider" jackets reached the other side as the trainer jumped up, yelling for the ambulance. The minister and coach stopped and stared upon the lanky, supine form of a mahogany football player in royal blue helmet, pants and jersey bearing the bold white numbers "32" and stretched out with hands clapped to his sides as if prepared for the casket.

The chin in its strap was jutted up to the night sky and a thin, eery, beatific smile spread the smooth mahogany face in a catatonic stare of half-closed, unblinking green eyes that seemed to be taking in something beyond the field lights, the night or even the world. Reverend Stephenson couldn't find words. "Sweet Jesus," Coach Gibbs whispered.

The paramedics out of the ambulance were too absorbed in their urgent work to take note, kneeling over the limp figure, cutting off the blue jersey, the shoulder pads and the face mask and administering CPR; but the rigid face in the tilted helmet froze everyone else: the onlooking football players, the reverend, the coach, the officials, the trainers, the people nearby in the Visitors' Stands. The upturned and transfixed face of the football player seemed larger than life, radiant and transmundane against the thin turf. His face was, as three Burnsfield mothers later observed, so compelling, eery and serene, so alluring that one could not turn away.

"I thought he became an angel," said a little girl. "He was seeing heaven," said another. "It was a face like he'd had his first lay," a referee commented. "Man, what a way to go," a teammate shook his head.

"What a way to go." Coach Gibbs wanted to believe the look was from an ideal team player, elated to have made a first down. He tried to calculate the time remaining, who the backup would be and what play to run--until the expression on the face so captivated him that he forgot. To Reverend Stephenson, who continued staring on the face of a boy he had not thought of or looked at more than three times among the throng of Fermata Bend High football players, "It was the look of divinity," he confessed three days later with slow and careful emphasis to the rapt attention of his congregation, having gone since the incident without sleep, standing pallid and solemn at the pulpit, and after giving a moving and melodious sermon about a particular black boy, a Speedy Joe Kinnard from Fermata Bend, whom he had never known, would never know, but whom he would never forget, nor hope to, "and," the reverend paused with a brave smile, "in whose face God revealed to me the transcendence of the self towards heaven."

* * *

Speedy Joe Kinnard was airlifted post haste by Air Ambulance from the Escatawpa County Hospital to the Emergency Medical Center in Birmingham, but he arrived DOA. The Coroner's Report later stated that the cause of death was a result of "traumatic impact and hemorrhaging to the front cranial area, possibly over a former injury... and an injury as severe as those found in car crashes." The report detailed a "rather bizarre and fixed expression on the victim's face" as could only be explained by the "severe contortions of locked facial muscles and nerves...the complexion being somewhat lightened from loss of blood upon the exertion and trauma," and despite everything the medical team attempted to save the boy's life, "the face had remained fixed and constant."

* * *

In the early hours of Friday morning, the Escatawpha County Hospital desk nurse telephoned and awakened Police Chief Edwin Casey at his home, asking him to locate the football player's family with the grim news. The nurse explained that Miss Kinnard had arrived at the hospital after the Air Lift in rubber boots, a warm-up suit, and a threadbare poncho, but then had abruptly left, after revealing that she had no telephone, and leaving an inadequate address. The nurse had called Coach Gibbs, the high school counselor, as well as every black minister in town, but no one knew where the Kinnard's stayed.

Chief Casey told the desk nurse he would take care of it. He rose from bed and dressed in his uniform. He called and awakened the head of Fermata Bend Sanitation, Steve Holland, at his home, who, yes, thought he knew where a Miss Kinnard was on the edge of the Needmore side of town, having seen number "32" jerseys on a clothesline. He recalled an iron washtub in the yard and a mean, three-legged dog. Chief Casey jotted down the directions, thanked him, and then telephoned Coach Jackie Gibbs.

"I was at the hospital," Coach Gibbs said to the Chief.

"I know, Coach," the Chief said, "I know. But I thought you and I should go tell the family in person."

The line went silent. "Coach?" Chief Casey said. "Coach?"

"Oh, God," Coach Gibbs said.

Chief Casey picked up Coach Gibbs in his coach's cap and blue Raider jacket at the curb in front of his house. The two men rode in a heavy silence through the dark morning in the patrol car to a small, paneled shack on the Needmore side of town. The car's headlights revealed burnt trash in the yard and a barking, three-legged dog tied to a tree. Leaving the headlights on, Chief Casey and Coach Gibbs got out of the car, shut doors, and walked up the front steps. The chief paused and glanced at Coach Gibbs. He knocked on the door for some minutes and called Miss Kinnard's name over the barking of the dog. A single light came on from inside, through the plastic covered windows. "Yes?" a woman whined.

"Miss Kinnard, ma'am? This is Chief Casey."

The door opened. The coach and the chief removed their caps. "Miss Kinnard--" Chief Casey began and stopped before the wide-eyed stare of the older, plump woman in the doorway, in a hair net, cheap cotton sweats and a short bathrobe. "Miss Kinnard," the Chief said. "It's my sad duty to tell you... ."

The Chief had to repeat the news three times. "But they only knocked Joey down," the woman stared in a daze at the white men, each one kneading a cap in his hands. "They only knocked Joey down," her voice grew shrill. Then Miss Kinnard wanted to be certain which son it was.

"Speedy," both men answered.

"Er, no. Joe," Coach Gibbs said. "Joe."

"Joey?" the woman cried, her mouth remaining open. "Joey!"

They helped her onto a tattered love seat in the otherwise bare front room of the house that reeked of cooking grease, bleach and marijuana. Under the lone lightbulb in the ceiling, the men stood above the woman as she sobbed and covered her face in her hands. Three young women, all in cotton sweats, too; and one of them pregnant, came blinking into the dim room from the back of the house, eyes glazed and pink-shot, kinky hair knotted in conditioner. They blinked in bewilderment at the men and then to their mother weeping on the sofa. The Chief cleared his throat and told them what had happened. The young women stared at him. One screamed. They began to cry, going to their mother.

The coach and the chief remained standing. The screaming, weeping women looked up now and then from the sofa with baleful faces at the intruding men. Chief Casey's mouth bent into a sad slant. Coach Gibbs winced and squeezed his eyes. The men could only talk, repeating over and over what had happened, what had been done, and how sorry they were. Chief Casey praised Speedy as being a leader and a model young man, who had never given him any trouble, unlike his friends who were now in reform school. Coach Gibbs nodded and he reminded them he had coached Speedy for three years, had advised that Speedy repeat the 10th grade so he could get more growth, and had taken Speedy home with him after football practices so his best running back could get enough to eat--knowing how Speedy had brothers and sisters, Miss Kinnard was on welfare, and that there was no real father to speak of. Chief Casey nodded.

Before the crying women, Coach Gibbs got carried away. Speedy had been destined for greatness, he told them. He had loved Speedy like a son and no one had carried the ball better for Fermata Bend. The women now and then stared up at him as the night turned gray outside and the coach finally exhausted himself with words, repeating how sorry he was, and Chief Casey nodded Coach Gibbs handed Miss Kinnard his pocket cellular phone, showed her how to use it and told her not to hesitate to contact him. "Miss Kinnard, don't feel you are alone," he said. "Speedy is not just your loss. He's everyone's loss. He's Fermata Bend's loss." Chief Casey nodded.

"He was Joey," Miss Kinnard told him. "He was Joey."

* * *

Friday morning, the story, "Football Death in Fermata Bend" ran on the front page of the Mobile Register, with continued coverage and an over-exposed black and white photograph on the sports page that, nevertheless, showed the long, thin smile and fixed, beatific stare of Speedy Joe Kinnard through the facemask as he lay rigid and supine upon the ground. In Fermata Bend, those who saw the newspaper photo could not turn their eyes from it, but stared on it, after reading the name of their town, their high school and the tragic story of their star running back--virtually everyone surprising him or herself with a tear or a sigh, captivated by the face and suddenly feeling an identity with it, as if he or she knew him, like he was a lost relative or an unclaimed child, a feeling that hadn't been shared in Fermata Bend since the media projection of the death of Princess Diana.

By mid-morning, every state radio station was carrying the news. By evening, every TV station in the state was broadcasting the story. Before a death certificate and a coroner's report could be filed and a hearse dispatched from Birmingham to Fermata Bend, bearing the football player's body to the Needmore Funeral Home, the death of Speedy Joe Kinnard was already a national fringe item on ESPN, the Fox Network and CNN. In Fermata Bend, people cut out the newspaper photo of Speedy Joe Kinnard and taped it onto their refrigerators, shop windows, bulletin boards, dressing mirrors, and even onto mailboxes and roadside telephone poles with thin, trailing black ribbons; every flag was lowered to half-mast; every school, barber shop and beauty salon was closed for the rest of the day and Monday; Mayor Beau Eddins called for an emergency town hall meeting and the local cable channel began continuous re-runs of Speedy's last game Thursday night, while the Athletic Booster Club placed a black wreath over the entrance to the high school locker room and the Fermata Bend Monday Morning Quarterback Club met at the CO-OP warehouse to begin a Speedy Memorial Fund to help with funeral expenses and a permanent monument in Speedy's honor and to purchase and display bold, blue on white Speedy banners all over the town.

Coach Jackie Gibbs and high school principal, Jonathan Richards, began receiving telephone calls from state media, the Today, Nightline and Dateline shows, and lawyers for the NAACP; and the mayor, Beau Eddins, was besieged with calls from all over the United States--people wanting facts, wanting to help, wanting to express their condolences to Miss Kinnard--whom they could not reach--and people wanting to give Fermata Bend, Alabama, a piece of their minds. One call to Mayor Eddins came from the governor, himself, who wept over the phone, saying that the face of Speedy Joe Kinnard was the "noblest young face" he had ever seen. Other calls came from Southern U.S. Senators and Congressmen, scores of state legislators, every college recruiting coach and alumni association in the Southeast, TV sports personalities like Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Bo Jackson, and Peyton Manning; the President of the Christian Athletes Association, The Touchdown Prayer Club, and even the President of the United States, who wanted to know what Speedy Joe Kinnard was really like and where the hell was Fermata Bend, Alabama?

By the time the dead boy's body arrived at the Needmore Funeral Home, the media blitz and rumors had acquired a life of its own. Principally among the rumors was that Auburn University, the University of Alabama and all ten other college football programs in the state each would have given Speedy an athletic scholarship; another was that Speedy's real father was a prominent white man in Fermata Bend who had played for The Bear. Still another and more persistent rumor was that the Burnsfield High football team had plotted to injure Speedy to try and win the football game and save the coach's job, as any team might do. And that evening, Escatawpa County Deputies pulled over and arrested three pickup truck loads of intoxicated and unruly Fermata Bend boys en route to Burnsfield to fight the entire town.

Dozens of Fermata Bend girls claimed Speedy was their boyfriend, unwed mothers insisted he could be the father of their child, and even proper girls from the east side of town, like Lisa Pinochet, the pharmacist's daughter and the Homecoming Queen, or girls like Jennie Lou Howard, the lawyer's daughter, paled at and quickly dismissed the close association and the dark terror of death. They created fantasies that they could have had relationships with Speedy, nursed feelings of chagrin for having not considered him worthy of their time and for not seeing the football player as perhaps he actually was. Such proper girls cut short their afternoon drive dates with such boyfriends as Bobby Ingram, the banker's son, or Jeff Sesset of old, landed Fermata Bend family, and they went home to mull upon their convoluted feelings, to ponder "what if?" and similar such questions, later calling up their friends on the telephone in order to talk and feel better.

* * *

"But Joey ain't there," Miss Kinnard cried to the hovering crowd of casually dressed reporters outside the Needmore Funeral Home, standing and sitting among complimentary, sports promotional cords of Osmose-treated lumber that had been delivered to the funeral home because the shipper could not find a permanent Kinnard address. Miss Kinnard's eyes were pink-shot and her face was gaunt with grief. She swayed and glared at the reporters, looking disheveled and uncomfortable in a deep red tunic dress with matching pumps, a black leather string purse and belt, and a high bouffant hairdo held in a crescendo of colorful, butterfly hairpins--all made gratuitously possible by the Fermata Bend Women's Club, along with their boxes of canned foods and Wal-mart gift certificates and additional sports promotional, complimentary crates of Coca-cola and Golden Flake Potato Chips and a new pair of Nikes for every member of her family.

"It ain't Joey in the picture," she tried to tell them. "It ain't Joey nowhere."

The reporters smiled and nodded, writing down or recording whatever she said, and knowing not everything she said would make good copy. They would write stories like "A Mother's Grief," "Death on the Gridiron," or "A Small Town in Shock"--what people wanted to read--while each of the Mobile nightly news channels would show a well-dressed reporter standing in the dirt yard of the house, summarizing in a solemn face and demeanor what tragedy had happened Thursday night, then a cutaway to a close-up of Miss Kinnard weeping in a rusted garden rocker in drab sweats and a sweater before the Fermata Bend Women's Club got to her, being comforted by her indigent children and neighbors; then a cut away to the co-captains of the football team, Guy Jacobs and Macon Williams, wearing new jeans and blue Raider t-shirts in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen after the private team meeting. Both boys squared their shoulders and placed their hands on their hips, standing akimbo as they were questioned. They cocked their heads, shrugged and sighed. "We'd give up the win if we could have Speedy back," each one said, not in unison, but as if remembering what someone else had said, and pressing their lips together with emphatic nods. They described how the coaches and the team had cried and prayed together and voted to wear white crosses on the back of their helmets and to dedicate themselves and the rest of the season to Speedy Joe.

"Don't know how we're going to win without him," each one said with a shake of his head, one echoing the other. "But, hey. We gotta try."

* * *

"That boy... was one of ours," Mayor Beau Eddins stated behind the podium to a packed emergency town hall meeting of mostly white Fermata Bend citizens and town council members seated in rows of folding chairs. The newspaper photo of Speedy was taped to the front of the podium. Reporters and cameramen stood along the back wall. Mayor Eddins was obese, white-haired. He ran the Western Auto Store. His slow, sweeping gaze took in everyone and he stopped and nodded to Miss Kinnard in an honorary front row seat, wearing a shiny black princess dress with a pillbox hat and cheap sunglasses, seated with her children in their mismatched Goodwill Sunday clothes and new Nikes. "No one," the mayor said, looking around the room. "No one," he emphasized, "feels the tragic loss of Speedy Joe Kinnard more than his family and this town.

"Speedy Joe," he struck the podium, "was born in Fermata Bend... he grew up in Fermata Bend... he carried the ball for Fermata Bend... and, by God," the mayor swelled, becoming teary-eyed, "in Fermata Bend... we will honor our own." The room erupted in standing applause and spontaneous tears, except for Miss Kinnard and her children who bowed their heads, crying into paper tissues. The cameras whirled and the reporters scribbled in their notepads. Mayor Eddins nodded to everyone, held his hands up for silence and for everyone to be seated.

He called the meeting to order. An instant motion from the back to grant a town funeral procession through Fermata Bend for "one Speedy Joe Kinnard," was seconded and it carried without opposition, making Speedy the first black football player to be so honored. An immediate second motion that the procession be opened to anyone who "knew and cared" about Speedy Joe was seconded and it carried, and a third motion to grant an honorary burial plot on town property at the crest of the old cemetery was seconded and it carried as well. With no further motions, the mayor formed a Funeral Procession Committee of those dutiful citizens of Fermata Bend who had experience and time to serve, and business was over in thirty minutes. The cameras whirled, the reporters wrote. Miss Kinnard and her family remained speechless, heads bowed and weeping.

Reverend Stephenson rose and requested permission to speak. He turned, his look sought out everyone in the room, also. "I have been changed forever," he finally said in a soft and assured voice. "Like you ... and you," he pointed to others, "everyone," he paused, spreading his hands out to include them as faces nodded.

"I saw salvation in the face of Speedy Joe Kinnard," the reverend said, lowering his hands. "Seeing as Miss Kinnard is not an active member of any church or denomination...that I know of," he turned and faced Miss Kinnard, "I would be most willing... indeed honored, if she would let me be the minister for the town procession."

Miss Kinnard raised her pillboxed head and tear-stained sunglasses from her tissues to the silence and still, waiting eyes turned on her: waiting and expectant faces as when one is called upon at a revival to be saved--if one wants to be saved. She looked up to the still eyes and small smile of the reverend. She swallowed and managed to nod.

"Feels like being saved," the mayor described it later, outside to the press, after he had adjourned the meeting and everyone had stood while the Kinnards were escorted out by Chief Casey to the patrol car, and after everyone in the hall had had a good cry and even begun to smile and hug one another. "We all feel better," the mayor said with a sigh. "We've reached out and we're part of it now."

* * *

Saturday morning, in a joint released statement to the press, both the head coaches of Alabama and Auburn expressed their sincere condolences to the Kinnard family, concluding that Speedy Joe Kinnard had been "a fine football player and prospect," but they had no doubt, they stressed, "that he had been an even finer individual." The Mobile Register, the Birmingham News, the Tuscaloosa News, and other area newspapers, ran editorials on such topics as "The Promise of Speedy Unfulfilled," "Speedy Joe Kinnard Loved Football more than Life," and "Except for the Army, Another Window of Opportunity out of Poverty Closed Forever," some newspapers and talk shows arguing again that despite the awful tragedy and a national perception of over-emphasis on football in Alabama, the sport was still worth it, a means of state identity and pride, a single emblem of excellence and achievement for Alabama youth to look up to.

Saturday afternoon, Coach Gibbs received a cellular phone call from Miss Kinnard.

"Oh, yes, ma'am," Coach Gibbs said. "Yes, ma'am. What can I do for you?"

Miss Kinnard hesitated before asking the coach in a slow whine if her Joey could be buried in a clean football uniform. "It's the way he would have wanted it," she said. "They took the dirty one off of him and he's lying here at the funeral parlor, just staring up at the ceiling as pretty as a mannequin with a jock strap on." In the coach's sudden silence, Miss Kinnard went on to say that she was beginning to see how it just might could be her Joey, after all.

Coach Gibbs stammered, but in the end, said yes because he could not say no. He told her he would call back and telephoned Principal Hunt Richards, who was of old, landed Fermata Bend family and had never heard of a Miss Kinnard until Friday. Principal Richards couldn't believe what he was being told, but responded that it was the least they could do, after all, for a boy who had died in a Fermata Bend uniform. "Yes, of course," the principal said, and suggested the coach have an assistant deliver a clean uniform, helmet, tube socks, and a new pair of cleats to the funeral home.

Within the hour, Miss Kinnard called the Principal, too, thanking him profusely in her slow whine, and pausing to let the principal fill the voids with "Yes, ma'ams" until she could pose another favor. "Yes, ma'am?" Principal Richards said. Could her Joey lie in state in Raider Gym until the procession and burial on Monday?

"It's what he would have wanted," her voice quickly went shrill and she began to cry. "And after all, he was your football player."

Principal Richards swallowed several times, but in the end, he could not refuse, either. "Ma'am," he said, "you go right ahead." The principal called the Superintendent, Edmond Stuart, who was not of old, landed Fermata Bend family, but worse, was married to it, and who also had never heard of Miss Kinnard until Friday. The Superintendent went silent when he was told, but he too could not say no. "Never, never let it be said," he told the Principal, "that in Fermata Bend, a man can refuse the grieving mother of an athlete."

* * *

Sunday morning, students and various citizens of Fermata Bend filed into Raider Gym in their Sunday clothes before and after church, following a rope-cordoned and paper-rolled walkway in mutual silence, under the steel cross beams and humming florescent ceiling lights, and staring on the eery presence of a clean, uniformed, and dead maghonony football player laid out in an opened casket bordered with white floral arrangements at center basketball court. The corpse's rigid body was sunk into the cushion and a shiny blue, number 32 helmet rested atop the blue jerseyed chest and shoulder-padded torso, and from within the flowers came the sound of the high school band's rendition of "Serenade for Winds" played on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. To everyone's surprise, the head was covered with a white silk cloth that blended against the pillow and coffin lining so well that the initial impression was of a headless football player.

The face had been covered at the last moment before the opening of the doors on the frantic insistence of Miss Kinnard as she discovered, after the casket had been wheeled in through the back doors of the basketball court and opened for display among the floral arrangement, that Mr. George Albright, the elderly and nearly blind Needmore undertaker had prepared the body per instructions on the uniform, but having no other instructions, had prepared the face by his accustomed habit, observing nothing at all unique about the face and sewing with unusual difficulty and some two hundred-pound thread, the lips and eyes shut and into the expression of a sad grimace. Miss Kinnard, in a black coat dress, pumps, silver hematite jewelry and the high bouffant hairdo, gasped, stepping back in horror, at first thinking the expression had somehow grotesquely changed by itself, until Mr. Albright told her the truth.

"You--you turned him into a clown," she said.

Mr. Albright peered through his thick lenses at her and then at the body. He apologized profusely, offering to snip and pull the threadings out of the corpse's lips and eyes then and there; although, he warned her, he could not guarantee the result or that embalming fluid would not leak out. Miss Kinnard stared at him even more aghast. "Well, it was not his face before," she finally conceded with tears. "It is not his face now."

With the help of his assistant, Mr. Albright produced a matching piece of silk cloth from his tool case for Miss Kinnard to inspect and spread over the player's face before the front doors of the gym opened. But Miss Kinnard need not have worried. Everyone who filed by the uniformed corpse of Speedy Joe Kinnard esconced in silk, nodded or stared on in awe-- some in grief--but everyone was, in truth, secretly relieved, assuming the concealment of the face to be a wish for privacy from a grieving mother, and only too glad to remain confident in his or her committed memory of the face from the newspaper photo, and the way he or she wanted to know him.

Throughout the day, traffic jammed the streets and the queue of mourners to the gym was four blocks long. A Key to the City was placed in the casket by the mayor, a bronze plaque proclaiming Speedy Joe Kinnard "Honorary Alabama High School Athlete of the Year" was inserted into the casket by an Assistant Sports Editor of The Birmingham News, a high school diploma was propped next to the helmet by Principal Richards, and the middle-aged and still hippie editor of the Fermata Bend Bugler recited at the casket his ballad, "The Night Speedy Ran," which was to run in the next issue along with black and white photos of Speedy's last night in action.

The entire football team trooped in with the coaches, weeping in blue coats and ties. The co-captains made tearful speeches on behalf of the team and presented an athletic letter to the corpse. The cheerleaders gave a special, teary-eyed Speedy Cheer under their breaths; and girls like Lisa Pinochet, the pharmacist's daughter and the Homecoming Queen, went through the line three times before she could slip, unnoticed, something like an anemone or a begonia from her mother's greenhouse into the casket, and then turn away, feeling better about herself and what never was and what never would be.

By afternoon, the black football player was covered in mementos: folded letters, photos, poems, trinkets, crosses and even candy bars from the flow of those paying their final respects, the casket's overflowing appearance beginning to look more like the spectacle of a Hindu or pagan rite. Reverend Stephenson had to remind those concerned in the parking lot that this was an outpouring of public grief, the soul had already gone on, and the expressions now taking place were for the needs of the living.

Late afternoon, the governor came, along with scores of state legislators, candidates running for office, athletic suppliers and sales representatives; and the suited men's presence was also accompanied with a sudden and surprising stream of beauty queens from all over the state: smiling, prim and petite young girls in the latest hairdos, tight dresses or suits, each one wanting to be the next Miss Alabama and looking as if she had just stepped off the glossy cover of a magazine. Among these was Miss Gardenia Bloom, Little Miss Peanut, The School Pod Queen, Miss Winston 500, Miss Blue and Gray, The Sorghum Queen, The Bible Belt Queen, Miss Cotton Ball, The Chitling Queen, The Soybean Queen, and Miss Free At Last. The girls filed before the men into the gym and they all cried at the corpse of the football player, dabbing their eyes quickly so as not to streak their makeup. Every beauty made a similar and melodic statement to the press upon leaving that she felt, like the entire state of Alabama, that she had known Speedy all her life.

"Well, it's a tragedy," the governor drawled to the press when he came out of the gym. "It's a sad, sad day for the people of Alabama." Everyone around him nodded, and the cameras whirled and the reporters wrote. "We all have sons and daughters, " the governor stated. "When something like this happens in a good town like Fermata Bend--it strikes a nerve in all of us."

People nodded and the governor paused. "Say," he wondered after a moment, "why did they cover that boy's face?"

The question hung unanswered. No one replied, not the press, the politicians, the athletic suppliers and their representatives; not the mayor, the principal, the coach, nor even the ever-smiling and poised beauty queens. Someone asked about Tort Reform. Someone else asked about The Board of Regents Bill. The press coverage went on.

No one from Fermata Bend knew the answer, either. Or yet, why the next day, as a community, they would follow in a procession, without the beauty queens or the governor and the athletic suppliers, behind the body of Speedy Joe Kinnard in a closed, wreathed casket on the slow bed of the local American Legion horse tram, pulled and flanked by the entire Fermata Bend High football team in their blue coats and ties; followed by Reverend Stephenson, head high and solemn in his minister's robe, and Speedy's mother beside him in another black dress, hat, veil, shoes and full-length gloves, arm-in-arm between Police Chief Casey and Coach Gibbs in dark suits; followed by most of her children and a few neighbors wearing mismatched Goodwill Sunday clothes and new Nikes, the local American Legion Honor Guard, then the Fermata Bend High School Marching Band playing "Stairway to Heaven," the cheerleaders in black shorts and shirts, followed by every person in Escatawpa County who wanted to wear a cap and drive a custom hot rod bearing an Alabama or Auburn sticker, and after that, every person who wanted to wear a hat and ride a horse, followed up by a few stray dogs and the town's only street sweeper--the procession of the people of Fermata Bend, Alabama, that wound past the town square and the ever-waiting press, toward the corroded iron gates, johnson grass and dull, leaning tombstones of the small town cemetery--each person marching, looking stoicly ahead, not behind, and not knowing why they loved him more dead than when he was alive; but carrying an image of Speedy Joe Kinnard as somehow ageless, pure and to be remembered forever and ever.


Theron Montgomery teaches creative writing at Troy State University in
Alabama. He has served as founding editor of the Alabama Literary
Review, editor of the Alabama English journal, and as a member of the Southern
Literary Task Force for the National Endowment for the Arts. He
resides in Troy, Al., with his wife, Diana, and twin sons, Taylor and Ethan.

 

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