The Former Quarterback’s Club

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The Former Quarterback’s Club

Stock photo credit: Dan Jaegar

Stock photo credit: Dan Jaegar

     On December 9th, 2011, the New People’s bank at the Norton Commons (a shopping center with stores like Maurice’s popular enough two years ago to bless Wise and Norton Virginia with their presence, a couple of gift shops, a Radio Shack, and a Burke’s outlet) was robbed by the father of two guys I used to ride the bus with. He walked in wearing a blue surgical mask, a black hoodie, black pants, and sunglasses, and pointed a gun at the cashier, who then proceeded to put a large sum of money in his duffel bag. He then escaped on a red bicycle. They found that bike in the neighborhood where I used to go to church and where my stepfather grew up and where his father had a sporting goods store called the Powder Keg, an area called Esserville that exists at the bottom of what seems to be every hill inside of Wise County, almost to the point it seems underground. He then left for Kentucky. He might have gotten away with if, like most criminals worth their salt, he had fled to Mexico. Instead, after a couple of days in the bluegrass state, he came back to Wise, Virginia, where, depending on the story, he was caught either in a K-Mart, a McDonald’s, or at a traffic stop, with a canvas bag full of 11-some grand. The official line is the traffic stop, but K-Mart and McDonald’s are what you hear in drinking parlors and living rooms, and the real truth.


     It’s always bugged me on the cop shows when they ask, “Why did you do it,” because the motivation’s obvious. You rob a bank for money. You kill people because of hatred. Blackmail’s a devil’s mix of both. When I heard that Goethe quote, he never heard of a crime he couldn’t commit, I knew I hadn’t either.


     When I was in high school, in stark opposition to my temperament, there was a teacher I couldn’t stand. So her considerable estate won’t turn me into mincemeat inside of a court of law, I’m going to call her Mrs. Riviera. Her husband is one of the bigger fish in the area, owning a successful engineering firm. She had a hand in five or six different extracurricular activities. Through my lovely luck, I ended up in about two or three of those. During one of these, Co-Ed Hi Y, she started to give us the what’s what of Wise, Virginia. She said most of the county was under the poverty line.

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     I remember sitting in the room, our auditorium, full of gum splattered chairs and the cheap red carpet on the seats, sitting in a room with my friends, volleyball girls I kept hoping would fall in my lap, and Mrs. Riviera, a ghost in polyester. I thought, “Everybody’s poor when you’re you.” But then I thought about it. I had friends wearing the same 3 or 4 shirts a week, knowing they weren’t gonna be able to go to UVA, grades or not.

     Around the December of last year, at the same McDonalds where the legend says the bicycle robber made his last stand, I ran into two friends and they told me about how a mutual acquaintance had gotten in deep to drug dealing, sitting in his car with cocaine he drove to Kentucky to pick up with a gun under the car seat. The heaviness of it hit me. He was a friend of mine: not a great friend one, but a good one nonetheless. Another story I heard, this one not direct from anybody, revolved around housesitting for a cocaine dealer who put cocaine and marijuana on a glass table and told you to go at it.

     I used to ride the bus with that dealer. I remember the house: cheap wood on cheaper dirt, one of those menacing cages for dogs out front. Four or five kids always got off there, all greasy headed, shirts over-sized. I got it from them plenty, and how couldn’t I? I was overweight, I used to have panic attacks at school that had me taking Paxil, and I held Stephen King and Don Corleone in equal respects. If I wasn’t asking for it, I simply requested it silently, the way some people assume girls who dress a certain way want to get laid. The man who later would be handing out weed and cocaine on glass tables was the nicest of the bunch. I had to visit that world once every day, and most of the time I read through it.

     Another memory comes on now. I’m at one of my best friend’s house, I’m in the backroom where they would smoke and I would watch. The joke -- and this isn’t far from the truth -- was that when they did whatever their business was, somebody would ask what I was doing, and the answer was, I was reading a book. I ran with it. This time, I wasn’t; instead, I just sat on the couch and watched silently. After a few minutes, somebody looked at me.

     “You know if you started hustling, you’d be unstoppable.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Nobody’d believe it was you selling, and you don’t smoke, so you’d never have to worry about getting high on your supply.”
It was casual and common as just getting a job, the way he said but more attractive.
Once I left town and I began slowly to understand the type of personality I was, the town became Gomorrah, all secret trails and scents for kids who grew up bloodhounds because they grew up bored. These temptations, all of them, the constant parties in fields and trailers, the odd spot of extraneous chemical pleasure beyond drinking, talking­ to girls who, left to their own devices, started scouting entertainments only to find the emptiest pleasures because they were simply there, all coming together to create an allure. The allure was simply this: entertain us.
The self-employment of that earlier fantasy all fell down. There wasn’t anybody who seemed to control their own destiny. Everybody served somebody, continues to. The Mammon was either getting something to eat or just simply finding something to do. The boredom held sway; the opposite of the allure, the allure the drug to boredom’s addiction.

     Driving home on New Year’s Day after the boredom got the best of me, as it does everybody from time to time, I thought about those kids on my bus. I thought about them and my immediate reaction was the one I wish I wouldn’t have had. I thought of them as white trash. Then I cringed. We got expelled from our Eden, but our sin was ownership. Now, it chokes us, feeling like we’re owned in other ways, far out roads and Oxycontin and other things.

     Nobody’s head ever leaves Eden. We fantasize about linen suits, big flowing dresses and debutante balls and our parents letting other rich boys know we’re ripe now, juicy fruit on trees. We don’t have to work, either. We just leave out why. It’s a contradiction. That’s why we let former quarterbacks run our towns.

     In all actuality, that’s probably the most apt metaphor for the town -- a former quarterback, not good enough to start in college but not bad enough to let that fact go. And the allure still shapes the way they do things, the allure simply being somebody. Living in the past is a good way to stay someone. It’s also a good way to get banks popped.

By my mind’s account; I’ve fell in about 10 or 20 different ways, between the commonplace, the things I’ve seen, like addiction, poverty, crime, to those things that are deep down so big yet ever present facts of life like death and sickness, to the casually ridiculous. I’ve lived equally many lives, been married at young ages, died in shootouts, been to jail, but now the most ever present I see is me on a red bicycle with the blue mask juxtaposing, hell-bent for Kentucky because it’s my last option, and coming back two or three days later because only in Southwest Virginia can a man rob a bank on a bicycle. Only the music in our heads while gears whir changes.

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