A teenage girl climbs into her coach's white Chevy Malibu. The heat lies on the land like the heel of a fat man's hand. The cicadas scream. The cattle chew the spear grass. The turkey buzzards wheel.
The car crunches the gravel leading away from the high school. The coach turns onto asphalt. They ride that black ribbon in silence.
Nothing stops the eye. Nothing bends the road. It's a blank slate, this land. Anything might be scrawled on it. Metropolises might emerge, as Dallas did 208 miles to the northeast and Houston 292 miles to the southeast. Armadillos or astronauts might arise, oil or bluebonnets, Janis Lyn Joplin or Dwight David Eisenhower.
It's as blank as the page upon which the teenage girl began a poem.
September 27, 2009
THEY'RE DRIVING to the Texas state track meet in Austin. It's May 2008. She's the only athlete in her school who qualified. But only two other girls are on her track team. Only 58 other students attend her high school. Only 162 other people live in her town.
A school. A Baptist church. A post office. A volunteer fire department. Linda's Hair Hut. Two water tanks. No stoplight. An hour-and-a-half drive to shop for clothes. How're your parents doin'? Didn't see you in church last week. That's her town.
Two hallways. Eight classrooms that double as junior high classrooms, some with old, defunct coal heaters and pipe vents. On the front steps, a pair of muddy boots belonging to Ty Shackelford, an eighth-grader who has killed nearly 400 feral hogs at night by leaping on their backs with his flashlight and knife. That's her high school.
SHE STEPS onto the University of Texas's Rekortan "energy return" polyurethane-system track. Her track, 111 miles back at Rochelle High, is made of dirt, grass, weeds, rocks, red-ant mounds and ruts from Friday nights when the pickups pull up and fans watch from lawn chairs in the truck beds with their headlights crisscrossing the field as the Hornets play six-man football. Her track has no lanes or borders, blurs into the football field and has puddles at one end that force her to cut into the end zone, a trench from an old water line that she must hurdle, goats and a llama grazing beside it, armadillos and deer pattering across it.
SHE'S THE water boy on the football team. She's president of the National Honor Society, a year from graduating as valedictorian. She can bench-press 180. She hunts deer with a bow and arrow. Anything might arise from this land. Something that never has in the history of U.S. sports is about to.
A freckle-faced ranch girl from the very heart of Texas is going to win the state track team championship.
All by herself.
THE CONTESTANTS in the 2008 Class 1A state championship long jump line up for introductions. They're the eight best female leapers in the 380 Texas high schools with enrollments of fewer than 200. The girl from Rochelle reluctantly peels the long, baggy, red-striped black shorts that cover her thighs and track shorts and black biker shorts and clash with her loose royal-blue-and-gold track jersey. "Dresses like she lives under a bridge," observes her sister Lee, older by 2½ years.
Her flat dark brown hair keeps spilling over her eyes. "It's parted wherever it's parted when she wakes up," says Lee.
She keeps pushing her bangs behind her ears because she won't wear bobby pins or a clip or a headband ... "because Mom wants her to," says Lee.
Bonnie Richardson, Rochelle High, blares the P.A. announcer, and the 5'11" junior—the one not wearing a ponytail or a trace of makeup—lowers her shy eyes, gives an I-don't-really-want-to wave and prepares for her first long jump.
SHE CAN'T practice the long jump at her school. The sand is packed too hard in the pit, and the runway's decayed rubber surface slopes too much at the launch point. She knows little of technique. Her left foot often drags and steals a half foot from her jump. Her coach, Jym Dennis, teaches history, geography, government and economics along with coaching the football team, the girls' basketball team, the junior high girls' basketball team ... and the junior high and high school track teams, because somebody has to.
Bonnie's the defending 1A state long jump champion.
On her first try she drags that left foot ... and still jumps 18 feet and seven inches. She flings the sand from her arms in disgust. A year ago, as a sophomore, she won the state title with a leap of 18'10", just an inch and a quarter shy of the 1A state record. A few weeks ago she jumped 19 feet. Anything beneath her personal best, till the day she dies, is beneath her.
She makes five more attempts, none better than that initial 18'7", and finishes second by a quarter of an inch. She glowers on the award stand as she receives the silver medal: second-best Class 1A long jumper in America's second-most populous state. She climbs into Coach's car to escape the heat, nearing 100°, gnaws on an energy bar and fumes. What a miserable way to start a day.
A LONG JUMPER ... entering the discus ring? Yep. Time to whirl and explode, unleashing all the power she's been building in that dungeon of a weight room, that cramped, dank socket that was left when the stage was torn out at one end of the basketball gym built by a Works Project Administration crew back in '38. That subterranean cell where the rain seeps through the sandstone, the puddles gather, the mud oozes and the rust corrodes the few sorry pieces of equipment.
Bonnie's favorite place in the whole school.
No one, till a month ago, taught her the correct technique for throwing the discus, got her to start turning 1½ circles in the ring before she let it fly, but that's no reason to feel good about that 121-footer arcing across the Texas sky, no justification for that eruption of hurrahs from her family and friends. Take a chill pill, people. Calm down. Geez, hyper people annoy her to no end.
She places third. That's six more points to go with the eight she got in the long jump in the 10-8-6-4-2-1 scoring format applied to the 14 individual events. God, she could just strangle her two older sisters, Lee and Adele, cooing at her to smile on the award stand while the winner and runner-up beam.
MAYBE IT'S too open, too blank, the land Bonnie arose from. Maybe the mind can't hold that much possibility and needs to erect fences, retract horizons, hem in what always has been. Now Bonnie's being introduced for the high jump, and the crowd starts to notice: Hey, isn't that the same girl we saw in the long jump and the discus? Now's when some folks, during her regular-season meets in little towns that pock the Texas rangeland, call out, "You think you're so good! Why don't you stop showing off?" Or, "Are you sure she's a girl? She doesn't look like a girl." Folks uncertain where, in the corrals they've created, to place a powerful and ferocious female, a warrior.
It's worse at her basketball games, where Bonnie—an all-state post player who just led the Hornets to the Texas semifinals—outleaps or outmuscles everyone for a rebound, steps over opponents who have fallen, outraces everyone the length of the court to score and outraces them all back to swat away their shots. "Having Bonnie in the paint," observes Lee, "is like having Shamu in your bathtub."
Monster, one opponent called her. Sasquatch, fans hollered. Bigfoot. It. "They're putting a man out there!" some people howled. "Can we get a cup check on that one?" She'd roll her eyes, respond under her breath with that bone-dry humor she picked up during all those years of apprenticing under Lee, the master, and then set her jaw and just play fiercer. But it had to hurt.
In elementary school she loved being the swiftest, strongest, tallest. Then came braces and big feet and puberty, the growing consciousness of self, the small minds and maybe even the stiletto tongue of Lee. Bonnie began to downplay everything she did, cut it down to size before anyone else could, stack it in neat cords to feed her raging furnace. Seemed to work.
She could make it in a tight-knit, high-standards family—all three daughters valedictorians—with parents who grounded her for a month for the one C in her life, eighth grade, Algebra I. She could make it in a low-expectations town dying ever since the railroad pulled out in '59, leaving, in poverty's wake, a rash of teen pregnancies and one-parent homes—a town where the youth are drifting away and the median age is 15 years older than in the rest of the state—and a teenage girl walking the wobbly tightrope between sky's-the-limit and know-yer-place.
She coasts over the bar at each height through 5'2", so much flex in her Fosbury Flop that she nearly kicks her head every time. She doesn't talk between jumps. She lies on the grass with her head on her backpack, arms crossed over her stomach and a towel over her eyes. Her school has no high jump pads; she's doing this on guts and will and focus and virtually no practice.
She clears 5'4" on her second try. Only three girls remain. The sun's setting. She's been on the track since 10:30 this morning, running and leaping and throwing in this heat. But this is her life. At school she spends an hour lifting weights with the football team, then bolts to tennis practice—she twice makes regionals—then starts her hour-and-a-half track workout. On Saturdays and during the summer she works all day on a neighbor's ranch, saddling up to herd the cattle, clearing grazing land with an ax and a chain saw, digging water lines, mending fences, feeding livestock in 100° heat till 5:30 ... then rings the superintendent's doorbell next to her school and asks for the key to the weight room. Her teachers, coaches and administrators don't call her the hardest-working kid they've ever laid eyes on. They call her the hardest-working person.
She clears 5'5". "Yeah! That's my girl!" hollers her dad, Jack, a tall, mannerly ranch foreman who's capturing every moment on videotape. "Well done, darlin'!" Now it's down to just Bonnie and tall, lithe Jamie Hope of Cayuga High.
Neither girl makes 5'6". Bonnie, with fewer misses overall, wins the gold and 10 more points. Fool's gold, she mutters to herself, another medal going from her neck to her backpack in record time, to be smuggled into a cardboard box in her closet. Shouldn't even count as a win, she mutters, no idea that her 24 points are more than any other team's at the end of Day One.
"What were you thinking about when you were lying down between jumps?" asks her mother, Madelynn.
"You wouldn't want to know," says Bonnie.
SHE WAS supposed to be a boy. That's what the obstetrician who studied the sonogram assured her father he was getting. That's what Dad craved after two daughters, eight years of marriage and God knew how many offhand reminders from his own family that he was the last male in the Richardson line. Bonnie knew. "She used to say that she wished she was a boy," says her mother. "Then she decided, well, she'd just be better than any boy he'd ever have." How many males would Jack have had to sire to have finalists in five events at a state championship meet?
Bonnie coils into the starting blocks for the 100-meter dash at 1:34 p.m. the next day. She hates how she runs, arms and legs all wide and wild. She was pigeon-toed and gangly as a tyke, stumbling and plopping on the ground in tears whenever her two big sisters ditched her on the ranch they lived on. She didn't find much sympathy down there in the dust, not in that clan. Dad was foreman of three ranches, overseeing 32,000 acres, and on the side he taught the 4-H club his crackerjack skills with a shotgun. Lee discovered sarcasm before she found puberty, deadly from any range. Mom homeschooled her three daughters during their early years, having them run laps around the house for phys ed. "We can say our phonics charts in our nightmares," says Lee.
Jack and Madelynn were determined to give Adele, Lee and Bonnie the same gift they'd grown up with—the great wide open—without conceding an inch of education or opportunity to suburban or city kids. Jack's duties: scoreboard and school board; running the clock on Tuesday nights and the school district on Wednesdays. Madelynn would man the trenches, grinding herself to dust with a year and a half of daily three-hour commutes to Angelo State for her teaching certification so she could roam her daughters' hallways and classrooms. Lucky Bonnie! Mom for ninth-grade integrated physics and chemistry, Mom for 10th-grade biology, Mom for 11th-grade chemistry, Mom for 12th-grade physics, Mom at the concession stands at every basketball game, Mom at every car wash and fish fry as class sponsor, Mom at the front door at curfew.
Yep, lucky Bonnie, because OmniMom let her be who she was: the four-year-old girl shooting a Remington at prickly pear cactus with Dad. The five-year-old climbing on a bucket to mount Snip and trot off with Dad to run the ranch. The seven-year-old scaling bluffs and building forts and diving into Onion Creek till the horn from Dad's pickup called her to dinner. The eight-year-old rising at 4 a.m. to spend all day separating the cattle for weighing and shipping, and swallowing so much dust that she'd spit brown till tomorrow. The 10-year-old sobbing when the family moved from the 12,000-acre ranch where Dad worked to an 85-acre homestead that the Richardsons could call their own. The 12-year-old praying out loud with Lee when monster hailstones drummed their sports banquet and tornado sirens screamed—"Please, Lord, don't let them find my dead body in a dress!" The 17-year-old in bulky camouflage shorts, pockets bulging with snacks and energy bars, who'd gone to school with the same six boys for so many years that she'd decided to defer romance till college and focus meanwhile on clamping them in headlocks in the hallways and flattening their right arms on the school's picnic table during lunchtime arm wrestling.
All those years Madelynn turned a deaf ear to the clucks over her tomboy. To the chain saw that buzzed off the lower branches of their church's magnolia tree so Bonnieand Lee couldn't hang upside down from them in gashed panty hose anymore. To the Presbyterian minister's twinkle-eyed remark that "Adele got all the ladylike—and she left with it." Madelynn herself had grown up preferring slingshots to dresses and working cattle on her grandpa's ranch, and she still regretted small-town modesties that left her with a flute in her fist instead of a relay baton.
Some life energies pool up for a generation before they burst. That's Bonnie in lane 6, fixating on her sprint archrival, defending 100-meter state champ Kendra Coleman of Santa Anna High. Bonnie can't afford one of her typical starts. "Like a newborn colt getting to its feet for the first time," says Lee.
Bang! Hey, not bad, more like the colt's third or fourth time up. There they gallop, stride for stride, Kendra all silk and swish, Bonnie all slash and burn. Her spike—a man's size 12—seems to hit the finish line first, but Kendra gets her by a leaning eyelash, 12.18 to 12.19: Bonnie's fastest 100 ever! Eight more points. Thirty-two total. Still atop the team standings.
"Smile!" demands Dad as he videotapes the medals ceremony. Kendra does. Bonnie doesn't. Coach Dennis peels away to call home on his cellphone and send the fingers of his pregnant wife, Marci, flying across their computer keyboard. He needs her to check the website that tallies the totals after each event, because he's too modest to poke around here asking the question he's dying to: If Bonnie takes the 200, is any school left in the relays close enough to stop her from doing the unthinkable?
THE LAST EVENT. Her best event. Less about reflex and form than the 100, more about grit and raw power. More about the strength and ferocity that the small minds begrudge her and that even one of her best friends at school, Jason Valiant, began caricaturing in the ninth grade, sketching cartoons of a Michelin-muscled Bonnieengaged in Herculean feats while fans watched agog.
THE BEAST, he scribbled beneath the cartoons, and the nickname caught on with the boys at school. No matter how many times she'd conquered them on the playground since grade school, they'd never seemed threatened, because she'd never rubbed their faces in it. They became her pals, the strongest ones happy to hoist her and turn her upside down when she headlocked them in school or at the Sonic Drive-In, 10 miles away in Brady, a consequence far preferable to the drama and gossip of the girls.Bonnie boycotted their locker-room silliness before her basketball games, lying in her stall—one of six small shower and changing cubicles claimed by upperclassmen—with her big feet protruding, her earphones clamped and metal rock howling, readying herself for the challenge while teammates danced, chatted and squealed. If the girls got louder than Avenged Sevenfold at full blast, she'd let 'em have it. Otherwise she remained an island, and they'd roll a ball at those big feet to rouse her when it was time to hit the court.
It was one thing to go through that locker-room door and be called a monster by an opponent or a fan, another for a shy girl to have her best buddies begin calling her the Beast. Bonnie absorbed that, mulling her options ... and then pulled out her markers. She wrote da beast in large letters on homemade capes to wear on her Homecoming float and on Class Color Day, and started signing her yearbook inscriptions that way. She took her other dubious nickname, Canoe Shoe—the one Lee laid on her in eighth grade—gave it a funky spelling and had it etched on the breast of her letter jacket: KANU SHU. In a place where folks tucked their differences away, she wore hers. She let the Beast off the leash, and everyone else could run for cover.
But now, unbeknownst to her, the Beast is about to sweep her away from the herd forever. She wobbles briefly coming out of the blocks in the 200, finds her stride and accelerates. "C'monBonnieC'monBonnieC'monBonnie," urges her father. Heavenly days!—that's Dad's favorite expression—she just ran the 200 in 25.03, nearly a second faster than she has in her life! "Forty-two points!" Jack crows, still no idea what that might mean.
Coach Dennis redials his wife. Only one other person in the 105-year history of Rochelle High has won a state title in anything—Willie Myers, in the mile in 1956—and now Coach Dennis is almost sure that his girl has just won a state team championship. But he can't utter a peep till he's certain. The only event left to worry about is the 1,600-meter relay, because relays are worth double the points of the individual events, awarding 20 to the winner, but no school, his wife assures him, is within 20 points ofBonnie.
"When're we leaving?" Bonnie presses. She's got no clue. All her friends and relatives, except for Lee, Mom and Dad, have hit the road. She's weary, starving, and all she wants is to return to the dirt road she lives on—slowing down just enough not to raise a plume of dust that'll rankle Miz Beam, her teacher for seven years and her nearest neighbor—and catch sight of the family's three grazing horses and the corrugated metal ranch house that the Richardsons admit could double for a barn, scratch the belly of her chocolate lab and hunting partner, Skeeter, then shower off and sink into the sofa....
"We're just going to wait a little longer," says Coach Dennis. He knows she'll hate the hoo-ha that's about to occur. "We're waiting for something," he waffles.
"C'mon, I want to go," she insists.
"You're doing pretty well in the team standings," he soft-soaps. "We need to hang around a little longer."
"Funny, funny, ha. Whatever." She has watched other schools arrive with two busloads of athletes. She has never, as a member of a track squad of three, even considered track a team sport.
"Rochelle, Seymour and Chilton, please report to the award stand!" the P.A. man booms after the 1,600-meter relay. Coach Dennis can't help himself: He laughs.
"What?" she demands.
"I think you just won the whole meet."
She blinks. "Are you kidding?"
Her legs follow him toward the award stand as if caught by an undertow. What, her mind asks, have you got yourself into? "The 2008 state champion, with a total of 42 points, now approaching the award stand," proclaims the announcer. "The Lady Hornets of Rochelle High School consists of a total of one individual." There's no crowd roar. There's no crowd left. The presenter hands her the team trophy. She thrusts it twice into Coach Dennis's hands. He thrusts it back twice.
Her family's hugging her, clapping, whooping. "Unbelievable, baby!" gasps her dad, who's afraid he's going to cry. The media surround her. Coach Dennis is calling every Rochellian who departed 40 minutes ago, and they're all saying, "What?"
She turns to her coach. "I'd like to crawl under a rock and hide," she says.
A YEAR PASSES. A teenage girl climbs into her coach's white Chevy Malibu. The heat. The cicadas. The cattle. The buzzards.
The one that fell on her as they were driving home from last year's state meet: Oh, my God. Next year. Again. She'd have to repeat what she'd just done. Everyone would expect it. Her coach looked over, saw her sag and tried to talk away the anvil, but it enlarged with each jangle of her cellphone, each unknown number's flash.
They ride that black ribbon back to Austin in silence. It's June 2009. She stares out the window. Which of it was worst? The media that called her for weeks, inflating her feat to legend? The pep rally two days afterward at which she sat on a platform in the center of the basketball court, head hung in silence as the town and school speechified her to the moon? All the Division I college coaches she'd never heard of, writing and calling every day? Or all those strangers creeping her out at restaurants and games, asking her to autograph their sneakers and T-shirts? What about that agonizing hour and a half of princess-waving as grand marshal of Brady's July 4 parade? Or that ruse at the McCulloch County annual banquet, where she was hoodwinked into busing tables only to hear herself being summoned to the podium and anointed the county's Citizen of the Year?
Nope. The hands-down, barrel-bottom worst was that Sunday at church when the preacher made her stand while the choir crooned, to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean:
Our Bonnie resides in Rochelle
Academically she does excel
Our Bonnie flies over the racetrack
And her jumps are both long and high
In discus our Bonnie throws long ones
Our Bonnie is our shining star ...
Bonnie, oh Bonnie, we are so proud of you—of youu-ooo-ooo
SHE STARES down the long jump runway. Nothing has changed. Everything has changed. Her stomach clenches at the contradictions: Each time you rise, your hole grows deeper. The world's turning her into a feel-good story; she needs to feel bad. Insufficient. Capable of even more than something no girl has ever done before. But now her conditioning peak has come and gone, swine-flu fears having shoved the state meet back three weeks, till after her graduation, making this her first competition in a month. Her head aches. Her left calf's sheathed in a black sleeve because of shin splints. Her skin feels the eyes of Texas upon her—all the spectators and athletes she heard murmuring as she slipped through them to reach the track, That's the girl who won it all by herself last year. The little kids whispering, I just touched her uniform. She's supposed to outrun, outjump and outthrow Texas with an anvil on her back?
She pushes the hair from her eyes, rocks from front foot to back. She's the lone star more than ever, the only girl on her track team this entire season. Her foot hits the takeoff board, scratching her first jump. Her second one, 16'11¼", infuriates her. Her legs are cramping. Her steps are off, and she's overstriding on the last one to compensate, dissipating her launch energy. The best she can muster in six attempts is 17'4½", more than a foot and a half shorter than her best ... and that still wins the event. She sits slumped on a bench for 10 minutes. "Shake it off, baby!" Dad implores. More history: first father ever to utter those words to a daughter who just won a state crown.
DISCUS NEXT. The Tylenol's not working. Her head's banging. Now she'll need every scrap of the stubbornness and single-mindedness that sent her up that oak tree every Sunday evening for two autumns to sit in camouflage clothing with her bow and arrow for hours awaiting that one clean shot at that one eight-point buck she'd targeted on a ranch that Dad managed. Nope, not any of the other white-tailed deer that came within kill range; only him. Nope, not with a gun; too easy. "I started this with a bow, and I'll finish it with a bow," she vowed, insulted when her father offered her the rifle. And she did finish it, last October, piercing both lungs with one arrow; the buck's head is stuffed and mounted on the Richardsons' living-room wall, her graduation gift.
She moves into first in the discus on her fifth throw and extends her lead on her last attempt with a heave of 127'3", two inches off her best. But Tara Riley of Quanah High surpasses her by nearly a foot on her last throw, leaving Bonnie with silver ... 18 team points ... and two sisters begging for just one photograph on a medal stand in which she doesn't look like a convict.
TWO GIRLS left in the high jump. Same two as last year: Bonnie and Cayuga's Jamie Hope. Jamie clears her first try when the bar reaches 5'6". Bonnie misses. Pitiful! She jumped 5'10" two months ago. The anvil moves from her back to her chest.
She clears 5'6" on her second go, but Jamie immediately leaps 5'7". Bonnie misses once, her liftoff too close to the bar. She misses twice. Pathetic!
One more chance. She's taking forever between jumps. She walks over to her coach, her top lip trembling, her voice shaking; he's never seen her like this. "Get your speed up, get some air, and then just hold your form a split second longer," he says softly.
Bonnie's family and friends are gagging on the tension. Even Jamie, knowing what's at stake for Bonnie, can't watch her jump. "I hope she clears it," she murmurs as she turns away. At last Bonnie takes off and seems to clear the bar but clips it on the descent and lands on her back, frozen, watching the bar bobble ... and stay!
It's raised to 5'8". Pressure's still on Bonnie because if neither girl can clear the bar, Jamie wins on fewer misses. They both fail twice. It's 8:05 p.m. Bonnie's fried. It has been an hour and a half since the event began, 7½ hours since her first event, 9½ since she walked on the track. Jamie misses her final attempt, but it's still Bonnie's back against the wall. For once she doesn't lie down and cover her eyes. She sits on a bench, forearms propped on her knees, and stares at the ground longer than her loved ones can bear.
At last she rises, moves her mark a foot closer and stares for another eternity at the bar. Cayuga's a threat to win the title; a four-point swing hinges on this jump. She lopes toward the bar, launches, flinches as her rump strikes it yet again, glimpses it bouncing, lands knowing that it's coming off, then hears her friends and family shriek—what? ... it didn't???!!! She flings up both fists, swoons onto her back, clasps her head, the most emotion she has ever displayed on a track, the most pride she has ever felt. Then she returns to her hotel room and begins dreading tomorrow.
SHE RISES from a second gutted night's sleep. Her headache's waiting. Her stomach hurts. A banana's all she can push down. It's the final day of her high school life, and she longs to feel that exhilaration that exploded from her classmates at last week's graduation but that she couldn't let herself feel. All she feels instead is, Please, just let these two footraces be over and let me go home.
It's public knowledge: The Rochelle High Hornets, a.k.a. Bonnie Richardson, lead all schools with 28 points, four more than at this juncture a year ago. She crouches in lane 3 for the 100, taut, distant, ornery. How did it happen? The thing inside her that longed for liberation from common society had achieved it so completely that common society, expecting it of her now, has her locked up once more. Or maybe this is her own prison, deep inside theirs, the one she bolts herself into when she doesn't measure up to her own standards.
Runners, to your mark ... She plants her hands, lifts her tail. If only she were in this stance on a football field. If only she could've done the one thing she really wanted to do. All her basketball glory, all these medals, even the state team track championship, she'd trade right now for the chance to play high school football, to come out of this stance on a Friday night ... and explode. To turn the Beast around, the one gnashing at her now, and sic it on someone else, discharge it, let it wallop somebody, level him. Defense, she'd say, her eyes glinting. She could let her anger out there.
The nine boys on Rochelle's six-man team were dying to have her. They'd fought over whose side she'd be on when teachers weren't watching and they played tackle. They'd done gassers and sprints and sit-ups with her for four years, watched her pound out the same 60 push-ups that they did to remember the 60 that Zephyr High scored against them. They knew she'd be a star on their sorry team ... if only Mr. and Mrs. Richardson would let her.
Get set ... But they wouldn't. Not when she poured her heart into that long, wrenching letter to them in her sophomore year, not when she pleaded with them to make their permission her only Christmas gift, not when she threatened to sit out basketball season, not even when she—who never cried, who hated scenes—burst from the dinner table in tears and ran to her room. It was the one line they wouldn't let her cross, not because they didn't think she could do it or because small-town eyebrows would arch, but because they knew she'd become the lightning rod for every volt of male electricity crackling on that field: the target. Especially of the males she pancaked.
Team manager, she'd had to settle for, donning the Hornets jersey to run water and towels to the boys. Even that was temporarily forbidden in her sophomore year by a since-departed principal, who decreed that Bonnie—in her bulky shorts and jersey—might distract the boys, a decree he might've regretted after Mama Richardson finally got out of his face.
Bang! Bonnie breaks late from the blocks. That's nothing new, but the quicksand she's still running in 50 meters later ... that is. Three sprinters are pulling away, a fourth is closing on her; she's panicking! She clocks in at 12.51, clinging to fourth place—four team points—by a hundredth of a second.
Coach Dennis tiptoes up as she gathers her sweats. "Are you O.K.?" he asks.
"No," she growls.
"Do you want to warm up for the 200?"
"No," she snaps. He leaves her to loathe in peace.
THE FINAL ACT. The silence before the gun. She has just fallen into second place overall, four points behind Cayuga, but none of her opponents' regional times in the 200 match hers.
Her parents swallow hard. Here it is, the final half minute of high school life for their third and last child. She has to win this, they're thinking, to repeat. Madelynn's blaming herself for the knot in her daughter's gut, wishing she'd never uttered a word to her about Texas A&M assistant coach Jim VanHootegem's being here to watch her. She just knows that Bonnie's down there feeling she has to prove to him that she deserves the partial scholarship that A&M has given her to join its juggernaut, the track program that will win the NCAA women's outdoor title one week later. Just knows that Bonnie's comparing her times and distances to those of the girls in the biggest high schools and worrying that Coach V's thinking she'll never stack up in college, when in truth he's rubbing his hands over the prospect of Bonnie in the heptathlon and what he might do with a girl that raw, that strong, that hungry ... and that pissed off.
Crummy luck. Lane 7. Just one girl in front of her to run against, whom she quickly passes, and then she's running blind—no, swimming blind, that's what it feels like, against a tide, against herself, thrashing as three girls inside her blur by. Guts alone drive her to lean past one of them at the finish and stagger away with six third-place points ... and her first loss in the 200 in two years.
Bonnie's had it. She can't bear to wait around for the 1,600-meter relay. She's done, she's leaving; she doesn't deserve another state team championship, she's convinced, not after her worst day ever on a track.
"We've got to wait to see about something else," murmurs Coach Dennis, speaking in code again. If Cayuga, trailing Bonnie's 38 points by two, places sixth in the relay, it ties her for first. Fifth place or better, Cayuga wins.
Bonnie dagger-eyes him and walks away, tugging on her camouflage cap, hoping to blend with the landscape as she sits on a curb that offers no view of the deciding race. "You know, baby, history is fixing to be made right here," her father calls to her. "You might want to watch it." Daggers again. She doesn't budge.
Her family, friends and coach come to an ethics consensus: They can't cheer against Cayuga's relay team, but they sure can cheer for those seven other teams. The race starts. Bonnie hears her supporters whooping. Cayuga's in seventh place! She remains on the curb, a fiercer battle occurring inside her: the girl who wants only to be the modest, small-town kid neck and neck with the one who will not, must not, cannot go backward.
Cayuga's still in seventh place, far from sixth, when its last runner—hey, it's Bonnie's high jump nemesis, Jamie Hope—gets the baton. Jamie's long legs begin tearing into the gap. Bonnie's backers freeze. Jamie catches the sixth-place runner on the final curve; now she's just a few strides out of fifth. Bonnie's legs can't help themselves. With 200 meters left, she rises to look and begins cheering ...
I hope that one day my shackles are unlocked and thrown to the far reaches of space and time
... cheering for Jamie to pass 'em all and take the damn thing off her once and for all, the thorny crown.
But Jamie's legs and lungs must pay the debt for her heart. She fades in the home stretch, Cayuga finishes seventh, and Bonnie's tribe, clapping and screaming, leaps on her. "Thanks, guys! Now get off me!" she yelps.
"You did it again!" cries Coach Dennis.
"Great! I am so pumped!" she says, dripping sarcasm.
Coach Dennis hands her the team championship trophy. She hands it back. "I took it last year," she says. "It's your turn."
The media engulf her. Unknown numbers begin flashing on her cellphone. No, thank you, she won't do the segment on CBS News, and she won't fly to New York City to do Good Morning America. She'll graciously yes-sir and no-ma'am them all, keep insisting it's no big deal, this could happen to anyone.
She knows what's coming. Another round of stories about the dirt track and dirt roads, about the quaintness of Rochelle and the odds stacked against her, no matter how much she protests, You don't need facilities. You can run the 100 on a dirt road. You don't need a fancy weight room. You can do squats anywhere. It keeps you honest.
Another wave of stories making her out to be some hybrid Cinderella Huck Finn, regardless of her truth: I was considered a freak. I still am. The negative comments make me mad. They make me go harder. I'm not a girlie girl. I don't put on makeup to run circles around a track and sweat. Why? Because society expects you to?
She climbs into her coach's white Chevy Malibu. They ride that black ribbon across the Texas range, to the pool party and ice cream and cake and soda and watermelon and the applause of all the coaches, teachers, friends and family awaiting her in the land where anything might arise.
Even Bonnie Richardson, a freckle-faced kid again, leaping into the water and grinning ear to ear.