Black Mask

Double Fly Rocket 87

by Eli Cranor

 

“Three dollars for a Snickers bar. Five for a bottle of Coke. Nachos? Seven bucks. Seven-fifty with jalapeños. Damn, Naz, we’re about to make a killing.”

The concession line curled its way across “The Walk of Fame,” each brick stamped with a name and a year, all that remained of the Eagles from days gone past. Anton Burkhead and Naz Taylor’s names were etched down there somewhere, a less-than-average quarterback and a record-setting receiver from the class of 2006.

Anton adjusted the brim of his Stetson and said, “You brought it, right?” talking to Naz but keeping his eye on the line of hungry teenagers.

Naz looked like he could still suit up for the Enoch Eagles and high-step his way into the end zone. Except, Naz was thirty, Anton thirty-one, and the Eagles had just kept on soaring, leaving both of them behind.

“You ain’t got to keep asking me, Burk.”

Anton hated the way his one Black friend called him “Burk” in-stead of “Anton.” His proper name had a ring to it, a little swag, like maybe if you didn’t know him, just saw his name on paper, you’d think Anton Burkhead was a brother.

Both men stood a few feet back from the line, leaned up against the concession stand in the shadows of a Friday night, the lights shining down on halftime and the Mighty Eagle Marching Band. All across East Texas, West Texas—Texas in every direction—the same scene was playing out, the same tired characters showing up only to find their parts recast, former jocks and drum majors forced off the field and into the bleachers, the bad kids vaping instead of smoking down below.

Like how Anton Burkhead had been replaced by Matt Abernathy, the Eagles’ starting quarterback trotting past the concession stand now, cleats crunching as Naz said, “Got your old jersey on and everything, man.”

Anton sucked his teeth, wanting to get back to the play at hand. “Look at them, stuffing wads of it in that bank bag.”

A good-looking Mexican woman handled the money in the concession stand. A few heavier white ones clomped around behind her, squirting hot cheese into plastic trays, plucking giant dill pickles out of gallon jars with the same tongs they used to roll the Oscar Mayer Wieners.

The rest of the Eagles made their way out from the locker room and onto the field, Anton watching Naz watch the players, worried his go-to receiver was getting cold feet.

“Remember that time we played Lincoln in the playoffs? You scored seven touchdowns and didn’t drop a pass.”

Naz nodded.

“I’ll never forget that game,” Anton said, watching as the crowd migrated back to the stands. “But they will.”

“So that’s what this is about?”

Anton put two fingers to his eyes. “This is about the money, Naz. It’s simple.”

“Simple, huh? Like you said on the phone: ‘It’ll be like old times, baby. I’ll call the play and you get to score.’ My old quarterback trying to talk ball to me, but this,” Naz cut his eyes to the concession stand then back at Anton, “this ain’t no game.”

In the distance, the ball shot off the kicker’s foot, spinning end over end as fireworks exploded—blue and gold, Eagles colors—against the backdrop of an East Texas sky. Naz flinched a little and Anton sucked his teeth again, disappointed in his one Black friend, wondering if Naz had really brought the gun like he’d asked him to.

Both sets of bleachers were completely full now, the concession-stand line depleted, just a few pimple-faced boys hanging around, making funny faces every time the cheerleaders jumped up and touched their toes. Anton looked past them to the Mexican woman, trying to guess how much money she had in that bag.

Naz turned from the game and said, “Just being here makes me sick . . .”

Anton grinned as Naz went on about how Coach Harris and the rest of Enoch made him out to be “The Great Black Hope,” a chance to put the Eagles on the map, like what Dez Bryant, Adrian Peterson, and Earl “The Tyler Rose” Campbell had all done for their tiny oil-field towns.

Anton didn’t want to hear it. He’d never even had a chance to escape the East Texas Pine Curtain, never had the potential: a five-foot-nine, flat-footed white boy with one bad knee. Still, Anton made the most of what God had given him, riding all those touchdown passes to small-town celebrity, scoring with the pretty girls before they got smart and moved on.

“Feel better?” Anton said, cutting Naz off, still going on about how his grandma always wanted him to be a Longhorn.

Naz said, “I feel fine,” and the scoreboard buzzed in the distance.

Anton lifted four fingers to the sky.

“How many times I got to tell you this ain’t no game.”

“It’s the fourth quarter,” Anton said, arm still raised like the players on the field, fingers flexed, feeling better about Naz bringing the pistol but still not sure. “We’ll run it just like old times. Double Fly Rocket 87. I’ll give a little fake, some play action, while you get behind them, and bam, we’re back in the end zone—Eagles score!”

“But we wait till after the game. Wait till all those booster-club mommas are cleaning up, emptying out the popcorn machine, sweeping the floors and shit.”

“That’s the plan,” Anton said, looking past Naz to the boys jogging back from the sideline now. “Double Fly Rocket 87. They’ll never see it coming.”

*   *   *

Gabriela Menchaca had stayed close to the money all night, trying not to think about how much she’d crammed down in the blue bank bag. Enough to fix the dent in her Nissan Altima, the new one on the bumper that just happened the other day. The white woman with the pretty eyes coming in the cell-phone store, asking everyone, “Do you drive a black Altima?” Gabby nodding, saying, “Yes,” but thinking, . The woman said the dent was small, didn’t even crack the paint, but she would still call her insurance company if it was necessary. Gabby asked about the dent again, the size of it, the woman’s pretty eyes hopeful, then relieved when Gabby told her, “No, no. Is just a small one.”

Except it wasn’t.

And it was more than just a dented back bumper. It was the system, this country that she called her home. Everything bought and paid for in cash. No records. No paper trails. The Menchacas like ghosts in the East Texas pines. But for her boys, Gabby prayed, life could be different.

Gustavo and Chuy played offensive line for the Eagles. Seniors. Big boys. Drank eight gallons of whole milk every five days. Ate ten pounds of ground beef, the meat she used to make all those burritos, tacos, and chimichangas. Gabby loved them in a way she’d once loved Javier, their father, lost to the oil fields now for months at a time. The bastard rarely sent money and drank what was left of it when he came home. Still, the boys remained, her whole world, and the best part? They were legal. Born over in Beaumont, Texas, a hospital with a sliding-glass door. The Menchaca boys—Gabby grinned just thinking it—were birthright citizens.

A grade-school kid bellied up to the concession stand and asked for a red Powerade as he pushed a five Gabby’s way. She lifted the lid and looked down, seeing only blue drinks floating in the water.

Her fingers were cold when she put the drink on the counter and the kid said, “Red.”

“This all we have.”

Gabby had the five in her hand, thinking of Gustavo and Chuy again, how there might be nine, maybe ten thousand bucks in that blue bank bag. Her boys could eat like kings, and Gabby wouldn’t have to clean houses on the weekends, after cleaning the La Quinta Inn all week. She was sick of cleaning up other people’s messes.

“I want a red one.”

Gabby wanted to call the boy a mocoso, but she didn’t.

“I want a—”

“Game’s almost over,” the largest woman in the concession stand said, the president of the Booster Club, the one they all called Rhonda. “If you’ll just take this here blue one, little buddy, I’ll let you have it for free.”

The boy’s eyes went to the Powerade then crawled up slow to Gabby, standing there with her dark hair pulled back in a bun, a few strands dangling down past her eyes to her mouth, a beautiful girl at seventeen, pretty enough at forty to get away with silly things. Like how she still had the five wadded up in her hand, giving the boy a look like, Is your parents’ money, hijito.

The kid said, “Blue ones make my stomach hurt,” but took it anyway.

Gabby pocketed the crumpled five.

The scoreboard buzzed and the game was over. President Rhonda said, “Okay, girls, now for the fun part,” telling each woman exactly what to do and how she wanted it done. The popcorn machine needed vinegar boiled in the kettle and the glass door wiped clean. Check the pressure gauge on the fire extinguisher. We want that arrow on green. Rhonda was full of these helpful but direct commands, sweat stains blossoming out from beneath her arms as she barked her orders.

The air was cool, late October, and Gabby was trying not to think about the five she’d pocketed, how it was so easy and the boy hadn’t even noticed, when Rhonda turned to her and said, “Gabs, you got the money tonight,” calling her “Gabs” like a real American girl, like they played softball together or something, whatever it was big white women did on the weekends.

“You are sure?”

“Know I usually do it,” Rhonda said, fanning her pit stains, “but I got to get John David washed up and in bed early tonight. Going on a official visit to UT in the morning. Longhorns might finally be offering my boy a full ride.”

Gabby said, “You bathe him?”

Rhonda’s thin eyebrows, darker than her blond curls, narrowed. “I tuck him in at night, that’s all. Got to make sure he gets his eight hours.”

Gabby waited, not wanting to say the wrong thing again.

“Stack the bills up by denomination. You know, like twenties and tens.” Rhonda talked over her shoulder as she opened the popcorn machine’s glass door. “Tally them all up, put the paper in the bag, along with the pen—can’t tell you how many times we’ve been stuck here on a Friday night hunting up a damn ink pen—and then you lock the bag. That’s all there is to it.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“And don’t let Coach Harris come sniffing around,” Rhonda said, speaking to all the women now. “I mean it. Not even for some cold nachos.”

Gabby already had the zipper undone, deciding she’d start with the big bills and work her way down, still thinking about the five in her pocket, how easy it would be to take more, stuff some napkins in the bag, hide the money in the popcorn machine, or maybe the drink cooler, when Rhonda said, “Hey, Gabs?”

Gabby looked up at the woman.

“You remember where I keep the key?”

Gabby Menchaca did not know where Rhonda, president of the Booster Club, kept the bank bag’s key. She didn’t get to tell the lady president that either. Not before the two men entered the concession stand through the back door, walked right past all those women tending to the pickles and popcorn, over to the plywood swing-down door propped open above the front window, and closed it.

The men worked together, locking the latches on both sides. The cowboy finished first. Gabby noticed a small knife in his hand as he turned, thick with different blades and other tools. Gabby thinking, Cuchillo de bolsillo? Just standing there, waiting for the English word to come when the cowboy said:

“All we want’s the money, ladies.” Paused, looked to his partner, the Black man with the sad but thoughtful eyes, and added: “Might take me one of them big-ass pickles too.”

*   *   *

Naz didn’t trust Burk, always confused about what to call the short quarterback with the broke-dick arm and the Black-boy name—Anton—shot-putting dead-duck passes all across the field. Naz already ten yards past the defender and he’d have to stop, come back, jump up real high and snag the ball out of the air. Over and over. Naz could still hear that one Longhorn coach saying, “Sure, you can catch a jump ball, but what about a slant?” Dumbass Burk always changing the play in the huddle, calling Double Fly Rocket 87 like Naz never got tired.

He did.

Got so tired of Anton Burkhead’s bullshit he wouldn’t even return the man’s calls. Had to send him a text the other day that read: “Got a plan, Naz. A new play. Holler at me if you’re looking to score.”

Naz called him back because he needed money, but all Burk kept talking about was getting a gun. Calling it a “piece” or a “nine,” like they were on the streets talking in code. Except there weren’t any “streets” in Enoch, Texas. There were roads and highways. Sure. Oil fields and pine trees, redbrick Baptist churches, one Walmart . . . Naz got the picture anyway, telling Burk, “I’ll see what I can find,” doubting if they’d really need a gun to rob the concession stand. But now Naz was starting to question his own judgment, especially when the big woman said, “Naz Taylor? Ain’t seen you around in a dog’s age. How’s your grandmamma? She still a big Longhorns fan?”

Burk hadn’t said anything about disguises—hockey masks or even pantyhose. When he’d shown up wearing that cowboy hat, Naz just pulled the hood up on his hoodie and cinched it down tight. Not a single person had spoken to them while they were outside watching the game.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2021. Double Fly Rocket 87 by Eli Cranor

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