Tishomingo was a place I never had to lock my bike and I rode it all over town: to school, to Larry’s IGA, to Mill Pond, to King Theater, over the swinging bridge to Pennington Creek, or to Murray State College to watch basketball and play pinball at the student union. Pinball was the ‘70s craze, and Tony Morse and I were among just a few middle-school kids that knew there were a couple good machines at Murray State. Morse and I weren’t good friends or anything— not even friends, really—but we’d meet there just to play Disco Fever or Evel Knievel, leaving our bikes unlocked outside on their sides.
Except for the times I’d choose to ride my sunburst-colored GT skateboard down to Larry’s to get my mom’s Marlboro Light 100s in a box, I was usually on a bike. I got to know all quadrants of town, discovered where the rich folks resided, where the girls I liked from school lived, the shortcut to downtown, the fastest way to my friends’ houses, and where all the good fishing ponds were on the outskirts. After school I’d wait for the bus to fill and depart, then race it. Shooting through alleys and cutting through yards, darting through traffic, I always beat it home. Sometimes I’d wind up alongside it and see some of my classmates or my sister pointing at me and laughing, windbreaker fanning behind me like a cape.
I wasn’t what’d you call a bike freak: buying accessories, riding expensive Mongooses or Treks, bunny-hopping and reading all the mags. I just had a regular knobby-tired black Huffy and loved to ride it. It was a black kids “mountain” bike that my dad bought on credit at OTASCO (Oklahoma Tire & Supply Company) on Southwest Boulevard in Tulsa on our last one-sided visitation visit. One-sided because he never came to see us. Probably had no idea where Tishomingo was. We disassembled the bike so it’d stow in the trunk. I loved the way the new tires smelled and was sad to see after a few weeks of riding the whiskers on the new knobby tread wear away.
I had gotten my first bike at age five in Calera and had it stolen a year later in Muskogee right off our front porch on South 15th Street. That was flabbergasting to me as a kid, not understanding when my stepdad tried to explain that someone had simply taken my bike, which I had just learned to ride without training wheels. I went on to have several more stolen in my life: outside a sports bar on Montgomery in Albuquerque; outside Diablo’s Mexican Restaurant near Five Points in Denver; off the Stanford campus in the Bay Area; and from work in downtown Tulsa. Ironically, in all cases they were locked. I never even owned a lock in Tish.
Like many small towns in Oklahoma, the main highway leading into town soon became if not Main Street, then the main street with Dairy Queens, convenience stores, flower shops, insurance agencies, funeral homes, hardware stores, newspaper offices, bars, and old movie theaters lining both sides of the street on out of town before it became a highway again.
I rode my bike one summer night to the movies. After the IGA I could coast, the self-generated cooling breeze fluffing my hair. I jostled along the sidewalk that curled around the lumberyard, watching for the black-and-tan German Shepherd that barked from inside under the BEWARE OF DOG sign. I smelled the pine from stacks of yellowish lumber near the warehouse. Vehicles were beginning to turn their lights on as pairs of headlights began to pass me in the twilight. I was in no hurry. I passed the intersection that led to Lisa’s house. At that age, “dates” weren’t made specific, and not everyone had telephones. So when I “happened” to ride by, she and her older sister Angela let drop that they were going to the show Saturday night. Normally these exchanges would have been made at school, which was out for summer. Angela was a larger, older version of Lisa—cute face, pert nose, wavy amber hair, and golden tan skin that belonged on a beach in Southern California. Lisa was more reticent, however.
I met Mike Hart at the theater, racked my bike, and stood in line. Downtown Tish was at its busiest. Teenagers in Camaros or pickups cruised Main, stereos blaring; the nearby convenience stores did a brisk business, trucks towing boats were returning from the Blue River or Lake Texoma. Twilight was a surreal yellow-orange, street lights flickered on, signs at the Lickety Split flashed, and the red bulbs of the King’s old-fashioned marquee shone down, bathing everyone in an orange tint. Plain black block letters on the white marquee blared JAWS.
I saw Lisa nearing the ticket booth. She wore a red T-shirt, jean shorts, and little socks with a puff of maroon on the heel above white tennis shoes. She seemed so cool acting—not your typical giggly, goofy, awkward-acting fifth grader, yet not morose, either. We pretended not to see each other, which was our typical style, full well knowing we would meet there.
“Hey, there goes Lisa,” Mike said, slapping me on the ribs.
“I know, I know.”
“I think she likes you, man.”
Mike was behind the times on that account. He was there to meet Denise Tyson, a tall, slim Chickasaw with long jet-black hair. A girl I loved before Lisa drew my eye. King Theater was one of the main social gathering points for all ages in Tishomingo. There was no bowling alley or roller-skating rink—you had to go to Ardmore, Ada, or Durant for that. Friday night home football games were another meeting spot. Kids played “cup ball” under the stands in slatted stadium lights and to the drumbeats and trombones of the “Pride of Little Dixie” marching band. Pads popped, whistles blew, fans yelled, car horns blared. We also met at Tuesday or Friday night high school basketball games. We’d congregate at Mill Pond or Pennington Creek, or at Pizza Hut, which was a block from my house. I’d walk there with a pocketful of quarters and my portable cassette player and record favorite songs like “My Sharona,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Heart of Glass.” We’d collect at Tastee Freeze down the street from the theater for slawburgers and ice cream. There wasn’t a game room, but the diner down the hill from the old middle school had a pool table, Defender, and two pinball machines, one with banana-style flippers. Pizza Hut had Asteroids, and Space Invaders was tucked in a corner at Larry’s. There was a small bar that catered to the older dominoes- or Wahoo!-playing set, so for livelier action like bands, music, or dancing the partiers went to Ardmore, Durant, or Ada—some even hightailing it to Sherman-Denison, on down to Dallas or up to Norman and OKC.
Lisa disappeared into the theater, so I cut in line to get my ticket while Mike waited for Denise. The color scheme was red: red upholstered velvet-backed and bottom seats, red neon lights along the walls, and huge red drapes that spread open vertically from the middle at showtime. A pair of industrial-size water coolers rumbled in the rear and aimed their vents right up the two aisles bordering the middle main section. The breeze whistled in my ear as I scanned for Lisa. I was just in time to see her stepping into the middle rows, glancing back, looking for me, I hoped. The place was as crowded as I’d ever seen. There was giddy anticipation of blood and gore, of limbs being chomped off, sharks getting speared, boats being T-boned by colossal hammerheads. Peering around, I saw Mike and Denise in the opposite aisle. I sat in the magical vacant seat next to Lisa; Mike and Denise were over a few. Lisa’s face flickered with previews for Love Bug, Freaky Friday, and The Goodbye Girl. I moved my hand onto her leg as was expected from both of us.
I coasted along in school, top in my class with my best friend Gary in English and basic math; above average or average in science, geography, and civics. In woodshop, we put screws in the bottoms of legs to balance the coffee tables we built for class projects. In music, during a spelling test on terms and instruments, I blurted out, “It can also be bass!” (as in the fish) when the teacher asked us to spell bass, as in the note. I’d never seen a teacher look so exasperated as he’d warned us about giving away clues to this exact same question prior to the test—I just couldn’t help myself. My only problem at school came in athletics, which was odd because I lived and breathed sports. I was an all-star in summer baseball, shot hoops in our backyard goal year-round ’til midnight, and was a safety, running back, and kickoff returner in football. The problem was Coach Hyatt: the sawed-off jackass terrified me.
He seemed about 80, not much taller than I was, always wearing a black baseball cap with a white “T” jammed down on his forehead. He wore a whistle, thick black-framed glasses, and a perpetual scowl like someone had just egged his car—which someone probably had. He wore a red pullover warm-up jacket and was a screaming machine. I wasn’t accustomed to being screamed at in that fashion, face-to-face. Yelled at by my mom, maybe, but not with spit flying from her mouth, veins popping, and rancid coffee breath. During basketball at three o’clock we were to get dressed in the locker room and get on the bus for a 40-minute trip to Madill. I didn’t want to go to Madill and sit on the bench and watch us lose.
I was hot stuff in the backyard, hitting 20 free throws in a row in the dark, practicing, at 5-foot-1, my sky hook, my finger roll, my over-the-backboard trick shots. But put me on a team with an organized offense and defense and I was lost. Trapping, switching, box-and-one, triangle-and-two, weak side help, setting screens, sagging the zone, fighting through picks, crossing over, hands! hands! hands! The game was played beyond my hands and above my head. I really had no business out there, so I hid from the screaming coach in the locker room.
“Sinking Water! Get your ass on the bus!”
I saw him coming. I hid in the toilet, standing on the commode.
“Sinking Water! Goddammit! If you make us late!”
Patton or MacArthur never barked like this.
He caught me sneaking out the emergency exit.
“Where the hell are you going? Bus is out here!”
“I forgot my gym shoes.”
“Get your ass on this goddamn bus!”
I slunk out and got on carrying an almost-empty black gym bag embossed with the official red Tishomingo Indian brave. It was true. I had left my leather Converse Dr. J All-Stars at home. I was in some program that day where we sang a bunch of Easter songs in an all-school assembly and I had worn my only pair of dress shoes: hard, blocky, black Naugahyde things with heels like cubes of steel. Generic navy blue socks midway up the shin. But it was the wrong thing to tell Coach Hyatt. If I had been quiet I may have gotten away with languishing all game at the end of the bench. Instead, he started me at point guard. To really rub it in he had me jump the ball to start the game.
“Look at the shoes that kid’s got on!” I heard someone scream as soon as I clomped onto the shiny maple floor, which was followed by shouts and laughter. I of course lost the jump and spent the next couple of minutes clomping along like a Clydesdale, sliding with no traction, balls bouncing off my head, dribbling balls off my foot. Laughter filled my cranium and echoed off the gym rafters. Even school officials and referees had smirks on their faces, pointing and shaking their heads.
Finally Hyatt called timeout and without even looking at me subbed me out with Glen Lafayette, the starting point guard and my secondary mate in football. We already trailed 10–0 thanks to that stunt. That was my last game of organized basketball. I would have left town if the game had been in Tishomingo because Denise, as cheerleader, and Lisa would have definitely been there. That night, though, I was back in my backyard, draining free throws and sticking imaginary buzzer-beating jumpers.
Lisa took out her gum and stuck it on the lid of her drink to share popcorn with me as Jaws started. I looked at her in profile: blond hair feathered back along the temples and French-braided in back, Roman nose, blue light flickering off her face and sparkling her ocean-blue eyes. I looked over at Mike and Denise jabbering away, pinching or tickling each other, popping candy in each other’s mouths, pointing and giggling. On screen, a fin was snaking its way toward a crowd of swimmers, but after all the panic it was only a pair of kids with snorkels and a cardboard cutout. Lisa yawned suddenly, arching her back with her hands into little fists over her head, and her breasts jutted out, making me blush and look away before she caught me staring. We sat as close together as the armrest would allow. I slipped my arm behind her back, sliding my hand over her taut flesh. No shark yet, but the police chief was throwing chum from the stern.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving break when my best friend and I destroyed the athletic offices at THS. The new high school was across the street and beyond a field from my house. We were bused over from the middle school for basketball practice. Although I was no longer on the team I had to ride over to join the nerdy band types, wienies, and video-gamer weirdos who played kickball or dodgeball for their PE requirement. And since I lived so close I was allowed to walk home instead of taking the bus back to town or having someone pick me up. My mom worked in Sherman at Texas Instruments, and Roman was often out of town working construction. As usual, I left out the side door to Coach Hyatt’s office, but this time I stuck a piece of chewed pink bubblegum where the lock shut, invisible to anyone walking by. With the school on the edge of town, and the building and gym entirely vacant with no events scheduled, no one would be walking by. After I ate dinner and it grew dark, I walked back over to the school and let myself in. Without Hyatt bellowing orders, or the band practicing, or gym shoes chirping, or players yelling and laughing, it seemed you could hear yourself breathe and every step you took echoed loudly. The silence enveloped you and hummed in your ears. You were insulated from any outside sounds had there been any—the highway to town was a quarter mile away.
I took a few seconds to calm down. The only thing I heard was my heart thudding in my ears and the second hand on a big wall clock clicking: 7:10. Through a pair of open double doors the court shone yellow under a pair of low-hued auxiliary lights. I smelled Pine-Sol as if a janitor had just finished cleaning.
Coach Hyatt’s office was left open. I rifled through his desk and took a copy of the basketball rules and a referee’s manual. In our locker room I observed the gold nameplates above each locker Hyatt had the senior shop class engrave for us: Driver, Lafayette, Hunter, Mayfield, Wiseman, Dodd, Lofton, and the blank spot where my own, Sinkingwater, was formerly sandwiched between Braxton and Tupelo. I walked through the locker room and into a hallway that led to the gym floor. There was a two-level rack of basketballs near the equipment room. I took the newest, most pebbly-grained Wilson, smelling the fresh leather on the way home after I dug the gum out of the deadbolt and threw it in the field.
I told Gary the next day how easy it was to get into the basketball offices. He didn’t like the coach either because Hyatt had cut him from the team the previous season. But in all fairness Gary couldn’t hit the ocean with a basketball from the shore. I stuck another chewed up pink Bubblicious in the lock hole on the way home from school and waited for Gary to come over after his mom got off work. After sunset we walked through the field, scanning the parking lot for vehicles, but there were none except for the small fleet of yellow buses at the bus barn near the football field.
“Works like a charm,” I said. After I let Gary try the door first, I followed him inside. He froze after seeing his reflection in the big mirror the gymnasts used to check their form.
“Fuck this shit, I’m out,” Gary said, turning around.
“There’s no one, trust me,” I told him, pushing him back. “It’s a weekend, there’s no games and no one will be back here ’til Monday.”
The place was just as eerie as before. Silence hung in the air while jerseys hung slack on hooks in empty lockers like effigies to headless athletes. We snuck into the girls’ dressing room, again reading nameplates above lockers. Gary took a Sharpie he had snatched off Hyatt’s desk and began writing on the strips of masking tape stuck under each name. Tidwell was a WHORE, Tarkington became a CUNT, and Reeder, in Gary’s estimation, was a NICE PIECE. Baldridge I FUCKED, Butterfield was a BUTTERBALL, Nottingham was an EXCELLENT LAY, and Richards gave OUTSTANDING HEAD.
In the boys’ locker room, Hunter became a NIGGER, Driver was COOL, Lafayette was a PUSSY, Dodd was a DICK, Paiz a FAT SPICK, Lofton a LOSER, Braxton a FAG, and Wiseman became a DUMBASS.
We had to go through the band room on the way out. The bass drum looked so inviting there right in stride so I tried to punt it through imaginary uprights and my shoe went through it with a thunderous crash. That seemed to ignite Gary, who picked up a tuba and body-slammed it. We went through the room crushing horns against walls, stomping on xylophones, smashing guitars against overhead lights, and didn’t fail to leave a hole in any drum, slinging cymbals like Frisbees, punctuating a mindless symphony. Our ears rang as we panted, out of breath, through darkness on the way home.
The crowd screamed and both Lisa and Richard Dreyfuss jumped when the pale face of the dead boatman—a Jaws victim—drifted into the porthole, and popcorn flew in the air. I was also startled, but tried to hide it in front of Lisa. I munched on Milk Duds and put my arm around her, as if to protect her from the shark. She surprised me by leaning her head against my shoulder, and I brushed her hair back along her temple with my fingers.
I was following my mom around IGA a few days later when the newspaper headline “VANDALS WRECK LITTLE DIXIE BAND ROOM, DEFECATE IN COACHES’ OFFICES” stared back at me. I picked up a copy and, holding it outspread, felt like every eye in the store was on me. There was a picture of the blob of bubblegum I had spit onto a crash cymbal. I felt my face flush and redden. There was a mangled French horn and a nice shot of the drum with my shoe hole in it. The topper was the milky-white script I had written with Elmer’s onto the wall near the exit, shown with a grim-visaged cop pointing at it: “Looking for who’s to blame? Blame Coach Hyatt, he left the door open.”
All the talk in the hallways was who destroyed the band room. Even teachers joined the discussion in classrooms. Finally after about a week everyone in their homeroom was asked to write down what they knew about the incident, what they’d heard. Even though Thanksgiving was over, the room was full of orange construction-paper turkeys made by tracing the outline of your hand and putting an eye at the tip of your thumb and turning the fingers into feathers. I looked up at Mr. Miller at the head of the class then looked down. I was trying to figure out how best to deceive him. I wrote:
I was riding my bike down by the school that day and heard a lot of noise that sounded like the band practicing. I saw Hotshot riding his bike around the school. Me and Gary were shooting baskets. It’s a crying shame is what my mom says.
Mr. Miller collected the papers and left with instructions for us to read from “The Red Pony.” Ten minutes later he stuck his head into the room and said, with a beckoning index finger, “Mister Sinkingwater, can you come with me, please?”