Travis wouldn’t—or couldn’t—turn down a challenge, so he jogged toward the tower of the center-pivot irrigation system. The tower was on the north side of a tailwater pond dug thirty feet down into the western Kansas sand. A similar wheeled tower was on the south side, and between them was a six inch galvanized pipe meant to carry hundreds of gallons of water a minute for delivery to the corn in the field below. That much water is heavy, so the pipe was girded by a skeleton of galvanized steel brackets and rods. Those were Travis’s real destination. His soundtrack was the rustle of corn leaves and the wind’s harmonic hum through the cables and beams of the giant sprinkler. Unfortunately for Travis, who was nursing a bit of a hangover, the soundtrack also featured the juvenile prods of two lunatics who, along with Travis and not coincidentally dovetailing with their status as the starting backfield on the football team, counted themselves among the social elite of Sellers High School.
“I’m sooooo bored,” Jake, a brawny, red-faced kid in cutoff jeans and nothing else, had complained upon reaching the field. Travis’s mom had taught him that only boring people are bored.
“Chill,” Travis had said.
“That’s just the problem, broheim,” Jake had responded. “I’m so chill that I might as well go home and sleep it off. What are we doing out here?”
Travis’s stepdad, the owner of the field, had tasked him with checking the oil level in the tailwater pump motor, a relatively minor piece of routine maintenance that needed to be done before tonight’s forecast rain. Minor tasks were all his stepdad trusted him to complete with any degree of competency. “I’ve gotta check on the pump,” Travis had said. “It’s important.”
“I’ll tell you what’s important,” had responded Tanner, the starting fullback, who enthusiastically and unironically preferred to be called “Buck,” a piece of trivia that was no surprise to anyone privy to his wardrobe of Ed Hardy shirts with the sleeves cut off. Today’s ensemble featured a screenprint, stretched over his somewhat over-developed pectoral muscles, of a “Love Kills Slowly” banner pinned to a heart with a dagger. It would be similarly unsurprising to learn that Buck’s “pecs” were a frequent topic of conversation.
“It’s important that I lift today,” he’d said, stretching his shoulders. “It’s even more important that I get back into Leah’s pants tonight.”
Travis had quickly checked the oil and reinserted the dipstick. Buck’s dalliances with his father’s hired help were a source of some consternation for Travis, so he had worked his brain quickly for a change of subject. A ski rope hung from the center of the span of the irrigator. There was no reason for it to be a ski rope. It was bright red so you could see it. Orientation could be tough when walking in 12-foot tall corn. That, Travis had thought, would be a very suitable rope to swing from. And farming competency aside, the one discipline in which Travis had proven coldly proficient time and again was the ability to pull a good time out of thin air. Entertainment, usually at the expense of others, was practically the currency of Sellers High.
“See that rope?” he’d asked, pointing. “Dare me to swing into the pit from it?”
Jake and Buck had in fact thought that a swing from the center of the span on a frayed ski rope into the muddy water below would be a suitable diversion from the boredom of the day. Yes indeed.
So it was that Travis found himself stumbling hungover and barefoot through the subtropical heat of a western Kansas mid-summer afternoon toward an immense tubular steel structure resembling ten or eleven praying mantises stood head to tail, rubber tractor tires replacing their feet. The primary purpose of the giant sprinkler was the redistribution of 900 gallons per minute of fresh water from the Ogallala aquifer onto a 126-acre circular field of corn, but not today. Today it was to be repurposed as a launchpad.
Travis’s desire for unity in the group having won out over his instinct for self-preservation, Buck’s and Jake’s whoops and yelps prompted a nervous resolve. A Tarzan-style swing on a frayed ski rope into the shallow water would be legendary, after all.
He arrived at the tower and pressed his wet, muddy, bare left foot against the hot galvanized angle iron of the first rung of the irrigation system’s tower, grabbed the fifth rung with both hands, and clambered up the ladder ahead of the next insult.
“What’s the hold-up, Nancy?” Jake yelled.
“Who’s Nancy?” Travis replied, his slippery, nervous feet now prehensile against a narrow piece of round steel extending over the water 30 feet below. “I’m up here and you’re down there. Maybe you can high-five me when I swing down, since watching me’s about the most extreme thing you’ll do today.”
“Maybe your mom will high five me after I make sweet, sweet love to her tonight.”
Travis’s face reddened. “Maybe your girlfriend will high-five me after I kick your ass,” Travis said. Then, mentally thumbing through his card-catalog of toilet humor and softly racist ethnic jokes and not finding an easy path forward in the conversation, he turned toward Jake and Buck, leaned against the heavy pipe, and unfurled his penis in their direction.
“Put that tiny thing away,” said Buck. “You’re embarassing yourself.
Travis coolly urinated toward them, but the wind prevented a satisfying parabola. So he redirected his urine toward the metal of the irrigator, its moisture turning the steel a satisfying gun-metal gray. He closed his eyes.
“Less pissing, more swinging, Tarzan,” said Jake.
“Did you say swinging?” said Travis as he opened his eyes. He theatrically twirled, then shook, his penis before pushing it back down into his decommissioned SHS Boys Basketball shorts. He smiled and felt the skin of his neck tighten. Ready or not, it was showtime.
As Travis pushed off and pivoted toward the rope, his left foot slipped on the wet urine stain. Both feet came off the rail in one astonishingly smooth and graceful arc, his head moving forward and his feet backward, inverting and momentarily suspending his body in the air. He reached for but missed the handle of the ski rope, and at that point he began to accelerate headfirst toward the geometric center of planet Earth.
Between Travis and the center of the earth lay several obstacles which, in combination with the trajectory of his fall, allowed for three distinct phases of recall and reflection: the almost ten meters through Earth’s atmosphere, which from his known rate of acceleration through space must have lasted approximately one second, and during which time Travis still had some involuntary control over his thoughts; then a fraction of a second of slow deceleration of his blonde fauxhawk, underlying scalp, and head through approximately 15 centimeters of shallow, muddy, sour water, during which the random execution of stored media in Travis’s mind began; and finally the abrupt deceleration of his head as it made contact with the hard clay that constituted the impermeable bottom of the man-made body of water. This would prove to be the most enlightening phase of the three. For as his head abruptly decelerated, his brain continued accelerating at 9.8 meters per second squared until it came into abrupt, violent contact with the dura mater covering the interior of the frontal bone of Travis’s skull, leaving a fingerprint of emotions and memories on the overlying bone. What with the teenage brain being quite resilient to mechanical deformation, much more rubbery and elastic than the brain of Travis’s middle-aged teachers, the physics of the situation dictated that the cerebrospinal fluid that had been displaced posteriorly by the sudden anterior movement of his brain should then rush forward into the contused interface between bone, dura, and frontal cortex, and the brain should rebound posteriorly toward similarly abrupt, violent contact with the dura overlying the parietal and occipital bones, imprinting the occipital lobe of his brain, the bundle of neurons through which every photon that had ever landed on Travis’s retinas had been processed into a clear picture, onto the posterior wall of his skull.
On the first and longest phase of his journey, Travis simply felt hatred. Uncomplicated, limbic hatred for the gape-mouthed buffoons at water’s edge whose undeserved judgement had led him to this.
On the second leg of his journey, though, as his brain and skull rattled through the water’s surface and time further compressed, he saw the bamboo-like corn plants rushing toward his feet. He thought of how they’d been introduced from the Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico into the American midwest for purposes of feeding cattle. He considered with remarkable detail and clarity the environmental and socioeconomic ramifications of the use of precious groundwater for the irrigation of an introduced species, and he considered the conditions in which the animals fed the corn were kept, and he considered the conditions in which the workers charged with slaughtering the animals were employed; all conditions over which neither the corn, nor the cattle, nor the workers exercised any control. So when his eyes were finally covered by the muddy water, dead catfish, denatured chemicals, and bloated frogs, his final corporeal vision of Buck and Jake dissolved his hate into pity. Pity that they were not going where he was, pity that their vision would not soon be obscured.
Then on the third and final phase of Travis’s transition out of the physical realm, it being his head’s contact with the clay at the bottom of the pond, with its recoiling avalanche of blunt flesh, bone, and bleeding neural tissue--a crumple zone traveling and rebounding at 9.8 meters per second--that the final, random pattern of neurotransmission within the trillions of synapses connecting the billions of neurons composing Travis’s brain began. By sheer randomness, this brought to his frontal lobe, stamped against his forehead (coup), the thoughts and emotions associated with an obscure, long-forgotten scene from more than a decade prior, then the scene itself stamped onto the occipital bone, just above his neck’s hairline (contrecoup). And though 9.8 meters per second was a velocity at which the amount of energy transmitted to Travis’s brain was certainly going to prove fatal, it represented a plodding pace compared to the sizzling synaptic activity of the brain inside Travis’s head, marijuana- and alcohol-addled as it were. Time had collapsed at first contact, giving Travis ample time to consider, recall, and reflect upon the events leading to the rapid cycling of the first two phases of his fall.
He did not think of his relationship with his biological father, with whom he had regarded with anodyne but sincere affection until his parents’ divorce at age 5. He did not recall the casual cruelty with which is stepfather would adopt a Tonto-like voice and describe him to neighbors as “Strong like bear, smart like tractor.” He did not consider his revulsion at his mother’s habit of chewing food, remarking on its good taste, then spitting it into a napkin at the dining room table. He did not recall the eye-watering sting of psychic pain and regret he had felt at the sound of his friends’ laughter at their sight of the crumpled, red, moist face of the freshman to whom he had administered a wedgie last year, a wedgie applied with sufficient force to have caused superficial bleeding. He did not recall the hundreds of broken promises he’d made to God during endless sessions of hungover vomiting: promises to abstain from alcohol and sex, to attend church, to be a better person, to be a better student, to be nicer to his mother. He did not recall the warm blush of blood in his cheeks as a classmate easily answered questions in a biology lab for which Travis had not bothered to study. He did not remember the secret envy he’d felt at an upperclassman’s letter of acceptance to a prestigious college. He did not remember the admiration he’d felt for the local nurse who competently cleared Travis for participation in sports year upon year. He did not remember the state championship football game or the disorienting, concussed buzz and echo of the crowd chanting his name as he plunged headfirst into the guard-tackle gap over and over. He did not reflect on the lump in his throat at the sound of the alcohol-muffled voice of a junior varsity cheerleader, her father inconveniently one of the hired hands of Travis’s stepfather, whispering, “Buck, wait...Buck.” He did not remember when he started to fear the future.
This is what he remembered: August morning sunshine, red bricks, crayons. A new backpack. The yawning door of a kindergarten classroom. Travis stands before it and beholds a room of screaming, beanbag-throwing boys, Jake and Tanner among them. He retreats, terrified, to his mom’s skirt. He yearns to return home, to play with Lego, and to watch Sesame Street and Wild Kingdom. He longs to have time to himself with his thoughts. His vision is obscured by pleated navy polyester, but he overhears the tonal shift in the casual conversation between his mom and his teacher, then feels the grasp of his mother’s hand on his wrist, pulling him around to look at her son one last time. As she turns him back toward the door, she says in a voice that is somehow more forceful, higher, harder, more impatient than what he has known before this day: “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be shy. Make friends. Make sure everyone knows your name.”
The laws of motion are already acting on his brain, reflecting it off the surfaces of his cranium, shearing blood vessels and activating cascades of inflammatory chemicals. They will do their irreversible damage before the kinetic energy in his brain is entropically degraded to a lower, less organized form. But there is still plenty of time for Travis to walk slowly ahead and hang his backpack on the wall. He hears the soft thump of a beanbag falling at his feet and turns to see a smiling boy with glasses. He picks up the beanbag and throws it back, accidentally knocking the boy’s glasses off. The boy falls to the floor and begins to scan the carpet with his hands. Travis kneels to help, but then hears the safe approval of Jake and Tanner laughing, and the sound washes over him.