Halfway to Lafayette, where the highway cuts through the Atchafalaya Basin, a vast swamp of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, my younger brother, Jonathan, finally breaks the long silence in the car.
"The worst thing you can do is think about what's coming. That only leads to one place—chickening out." He pauses. "I can't help wishing every car would veer into us."
"I remember sitting on our roof one time before a meet praying for a hurricane," I say.
"What brave men I've sired," Papa says with a smile that is more good-natured than sardonic. Driving us to a cross-country meet, he looks happy, recollecting, perhaps, his own competitive running career when he was in the seminary at the University of the South in Suwanee, Tenn.
Every ex-high school jock dreams of going back for one more game, one more race. Seven years have passed since I last awaited the gun with a gang of revved-up adolescents. At the end of my senior season I had been a 132-pound running machine. Three months into college I had put on 45 pounds of beer. But since college, studying mountain bicycle racing out west, I've dropped back down to 150. I'm home now for a month in the Louisiana delta, and Coach Claney Duplechin has obtained permission for me to run in this meet with his Episcopal High team. Coach Duplechin is Jonathan's coach and he had been mine, but it's too bad he just missed our older brother, Jamie, who won the state championship in 1976. I figure that after a couple of weeks' training with the Knights, I'll have an outside chance of breaking my personal best. It's probably the last chance I'll ever have.
"I hate to whup you this morning," I tell Jonathan.
"I'd have killed you last year," he replies.
Jonathan has been deep in a running slump, otherwise I wouldn't have a prayer. When I left Baton Rouge for college, Jonathan was a tiny hellion who had just broken the nose of a bigger nine-year-old. Now he's 16 and taller than both Jamie and myself. Computer literate, he seems to belong to a more scientific generation. He has even applied science to cross-country. Caffeine and ginseng helped fuel his personal best the year before—16:20 for three miles, a solid 10 seconds faster than my own PB. Only a sophomore, he was No. 2 for the Knights until he tore a hamstring. The injury kept him from running the next spring and seemed eventually to have extinguished his will to win.
Jonathan had missed five of eight meets when I began my training sessions with the Knights. And his best race of the cross-country season was three minutes slower than his PB. But now, suddenly, he started putting out. "Where's that been, Jon?" Coach Duplechin yelled over to him during my first workout with the team.
In practice, the Knights alternated between distance and speed work. One day we would jog 10 miles on the levees, watching the sun set behind freighters on the Mississippi. The next, we would run intervals on Episcopal's Reslite track—in my time an oval of mud. Toward the end of the first week, I felt I had rediscovered my gliding stride of seven years earlier.