The noise that memory makes sounds like the thunder of a broken pipe exhaust on a battered old station wagon -- a white Ford with a case of Quaker State motor oil on the back seat -- making its way through my hometown more than 10 years ago.
Slow dusk has descended upon Opelousas, La., as the car rounds a corner into Creswell Lane, heads through Park Vista with its emergency lights flashing, a cloud of blue smoke spewing from its rusted-out rear.
There is a GMC pickup truck following closely behind the disabled machine, working through the gears of its time clock. The driver is shouting through his rolled-down window, "You need some earl in your injun, Buzz. You need some earl." And the driver is me.
Buzz Andrus, a sophomore rover back for the public high school football team, is driving the sick Ford. He wears a muscle shirt that shows off the tan he worked hard for on the beach at Galveston, and a white shell necklace, which was the latest rage back then.
Ronald Dohmann, who was most famous around town for having once dated a TV talk show host ("She's old enough to be his mother," my mother had objected. "I mean to tell ya . . . "), is also in the car, riding shotgun with his right arm out the window, his hand pressed against and clutching hot summer air.
"You need earl," I keep crying into the wind. "Earl, Buzz. You need a quart 'a earl."
That was then, I often remind myself. That was three short weeks into my first year of high school football, 24 hours or so before my first varsity game. And this is now, an epoch or two later, if only in terms of places and ways to live.
The picture of my old friends -- the one I often call up from memory -- has turned sepia-toned and splotched white where my sisters have spilled beads of nail polish remover. The corners are as dog-eared as the pages of the family Bible, and the edges of this mental picture are serrated, with the date, SEPT, 1973, printed cleanly on the white border. On the back are words I can no longer make out, words I wrote so long ago.
But I remember.
I remember Buzz pulling up to the curb near his house, a white brick rambler across from the Avalon Bar and Grill, and flying out of the car without closing his door. The exhaust fumes continued to climb in a great, swelling cloud, and out of the smoke screen, with a face like dried mud, Ronald scrambled on all fours before collapsing a few feet from the concrete driveway.
He clutched his hamstrings and howled, then clutched his calves and groaned, looking very much like a bloodless corpse, one finally frozen in the latter and unforgiving stages of rigor mortis. I recognized his malady immediately, having experienced a similar seizure only days before.
"You got a Cholly hoss, Ronald," I said matter of factly. "You should've taken your salt tablets. Cramps hurt, don't they?"
I left then, laughing, left poor Ronald in his pain and ignominy, a heap of locked muscle on a grassy lawn, and drove home. But the next day in school, in home room, somebody announced that Buzz had called the Hope, Hook & Ladder Firehouse in a state of panic, crying into the receiver for an ambulance, an ocean liner, anything.
When the siren reported across town, and the rescue unit tore down Creswell with a blue rain of whirling lights, Ronald had found his limbs suddenly relaxed. He told Buzz, "You can take me home now. I'm good again."
But the vehicle, screaming like the brakes on a train of freight cars, was a short city block away when Ronald stood up and announced that they had better get going before he ended up on a gurney in the emergency room.
"I'm gonna pretend I don't know you," Ronald said, "and just happened to be walking down the street. I don't want no surgeon's knife."
Buzz (or so the story went) ordered Ronald to get "right back on that doggone ground and pretend, for heaven's sake. Pretend you're dying." And Ronald Dohmann complied.
The rest of the story has been obscured by time. Legend, at least for me, has made the day largely inaccessible, limited to the moment I walked away and went home for supper. I wonder if Ronald enjoyed the ride to the hospital, lying on crisp white sheets and staring at the ventilated walls of a meat wagon, with Buzz saying the Lord's Prayer at his side.
I do know both were suited up for the season opener the next day, which took place as scheduled on the natural turf at Donald Gardner Stadium and before a crowd that still roars in my ears. As hard as I try, I cannot remember whom we played that day -- Abbeville? Morgan City? Lake Charles Barbe? -- but I know we lost.
The final score was 7-6, and I played only on special teams, sprinting down the field in maniacal joy, convinced that I was sacrificing my body for the greater glory of the team.
"It ain't suicide," my coach had told me. "It's courage, my boy, courage . . . "
I suppose, if the truth be told, I was mesmerized and motivated strictly by the fear of failure, of running out of my designated lane on the kickoff team, and too proud of my new shoulder pads and helmet to understand their purpose.
After the game, during which I had missed a tackle that contributed to our loss, the offensive-line coach pulled me aside and said, "If you had brains, son, you'd be dangerous."
Devastated, I turned my eyes away and said, "You may be right, Coach. You may be right." And felt something clutch firmly at my throat, refusing to let go.
Later that night, I remember riding back home in the truck with my father, who had the radio tuned to a station out of Baton Rouge. Rock 'n roll music, of which he had little tolerance, shook the cab. He wore a V-neck T-shirt and looked dead tired in the green light of the dash. Undoubtedly, he was as upset about my pain as I was. And as disappointed in my failure. He said, "You hungry, John Ed?"
I said, "No, sir."
There was little traffic on the old high school road, and we were almost home when he said, "Me neither."
I am hearing those words now, and seeing the moon on my father's face as we walked side by side through a night that is lost and gone and will never be again. I am hearing myself say, "I'm going into my room and locking the door. I don't want to ever come out again."
And the sound that memory makes: "Me neither, John Ed. Me neither."