Chapter One: Game Night
I know some things. A guy can't grow up in Claude without not knowing something about the place. But what I understand best about my town is how it shuts down on game night, how dusk settles over the deserted Main Street with only the blinking of a single yellow light that sort of marks the center of Claude. And with the wind blowing dust and bits of trash along the sidewalks and gutters downtown, not a soul in sight, someone driving through on the interstate could just think a bunch of folks got tired of where they was at and decided to leave for good. Even the domino parlor gets dark and spooky and a fellow would have to strain to see all the posters and signs taped on the plate-glass window. Go by the Dairy Mart on the outskirts, all lit by fluorescent light inside showing it's open for business, but there ain't nobody eating and the parking lot is empty. That's game night. Don't want to see the game? Might as well drive to the stockyard to watch the cattle at the troughs. Might as well walk along the railroad tracks leading from town. Might as well try to learn Hindi from the new owners of the old Trail End Motel.
Not too long ago, when I was still a little kid, I used to climb the water tower on some game nights. I'd sit there with my legs sort of hanging into space, those peeling painted words over my head -- Claude, Home of the Fighting Tigers -- and I'd take in the WPA football field and park from where I was at. Way the hell up there, sometimes the wind was so dry and strong it'd get me tired, but I could see the bleachers on both sides of the field, the big lights glowing down on the grass. The cheering from below would come to me there. Sometimes I cheered too, even though I didn't know who was winning. But I could see the game. And on those Friday nights I knew everybody was there, all the old- timers and cowboys and housewives and kids and people I went to school with, all packed in and around the field, and me, no more than ten or eleven, so far above them that if I had drooled over the edge my spit would've disappeared before ever coming close to the ground.
And I know some other things too. These things I know from no books or teachers, but from the Domino Men with their spit cups and their beer guts and their rough faces, who'd buy me an Orange Crush or a jawbreaker and who'd talk about how Claude was when it was. Few others my age know that Claude once had almost ten thousand souls, though it's got less than half that these days, and that this little dusty West Texas city was a stopover for men trying to get elected as governors and senators. Once Teddy Roosevelt himself whistle-stopped through and made a big speech from the presidential train in front of the depot. Who'd have ever thought that? Another thing, those tracks that brought Roosevelt here was built by the Fort Worth and Denver Railroad when it pushed through in 1887. So this place used to be kind of important, I think. But on game night, like most nights really, Claude is nothing more than a scar widening that stretch of blacktop bypass known as U.S. 287. "The real ass of nowhere," says Coach Bud. But I know better than that.
Copyright © 1999 by Mitch Cullin