That fall, the Franconia High School football team was winning all its games. And the entire town was going crazy. When the team played in another town, there were huge caravans of cars that assembled at the high school, then drove in a miles-long single file, lights flashing, horns blaring. Hours before the home games, the streets of all the neighborhoods would be jammed with cars, too. High school kids hanging out the windows, packed in the back of pick-up trucks, honking horns, playing loud music, screaming through the streets, streamers of green and white (Franconia’s colors) trailing behind them.
And every week, even at the junior high, there were required pep rallies in the afternoon. We missed classes so we could go down in the gym, pound our way up into the bleachers, and then scream and yell like idiots about our high school football team. The band played, coaches made speeches, the cheerleaders tried to see which grade could shriek the loudest.
Not that I ever screamed or yelled. I usually took a book along and sat in the top row in the corner and read. Yes, it was hard to concentrate with all the shouting and chanting and pounding of feet, but I never had any problems with concentration. Never. And other kids had long ago quit wondering about me. In their eyes, I was just plain weird. Insane. That’s all. And they pretty much just left me alone. To them, I was some creature from some other dimension, or time, who had somehow materialized among them.
The only minor annoyance about it all was this: Harriet was a middle school cheerleader, and she lectured me continually about school spirit. “Gosh, Vickie,” she would say, flipping her blond hair back with a saucy toss of her head, “you’ve just got to support the team!”
I hoped Harriet would come to her senses one day. In the meantime, I would treat this “cheerleader” thing as a phase of her life. A very unpleasant phase for me. For during the sports seasons, I no longer had a best friend.
The weekend of Homecoming in late October brought complete hysteria to Franconia—to the town, to the schools. We were playing our arch-rivals, Ingol City High School, also having a perfect season. The winner of this game would surely move on to the state playoffs, whatever they were.[i]
Not that I cared.
But everyone else in town did—except, of course, for my father. All the display windows in the stores were draped with green and white streamers. Every business with the capacity to do so had a sign in the window: “GO, BEARS!”[ii] Driving through the streets every evening were cars with loudspeakers attached to the roofs, blasting out loud music and sounds that I guess were supposed to be ferocious growling bears.
We had pep rallies every afternoon that week in school, a huge bonfire and rally on Thursday night, followed by a parade through the streets of Franconia. The marching band marched; the players, cheerleaders, and coaches rode in convertibles and limousines; and thousands of people lined the streets, cheering, wearing green and white, waving green and white.
I saw none of this, but Father, who had to write about it for the paper, told me. But I truly was not interested. Not even curious.
On Friday—the day of the game—school-as-usual stopped. In English we wrote compositions about football; in math we did problems about football (“If Bill Lee”—he was one of the actual players on our team, I later learned—“averages 7.6 yards per carry and carries the ball 26 times, how many yards does he gain against Ingol?”). In art we had to draw pictures of a football field. In science we calculated the air pressure contained in a football. And so on.
It was a warm, Indian summer day, and as soon as school was out, the streets were once again alive with honking horns, blaring speakers, screaming and hysterical students. Two hours before the game, an endless river of cars and pedestrians began flowing toward the high school football field.
Now this part, I did see, because I was out on the streets, heading in the opposite direction, toward the public library. I felt like a tiny bug, crawling along the bank of a swollen river—upstream, against the current. While a vast force of nature was carrying everything else the other way.
Most of the time I looked down as I walked, but sometimes people would yell things at me—or at least loud enough for me to hear: “Hey! The game’s this way, stupid!” Or: “Look at that idiot going the wrong way!” Or: “Mommy, look at that dumb girl! What’s wrong with her?”
Why was I going to the library? Well, I often went in the late afternoon, but this was no ordinary trip. Earlier in the week, our social studies teacher had assigned a local history project, so I was going to begin my research. I knew it would be a quiet time. Probably there would be only a single librarian there—some poor soul who lost when they flipped a coin or whatever they did to decide who would have to miss the game.
But as I turned a corner, and as the library came into view, I saw something surprising. Cutting across the huge library lawn and heading straight for the front door was another figure. From a distance I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, but whoever it was had a backpack slung over one shoulder and was walking briskly, like me, away from the flow of the rest of the world.