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