If Rock and Roll Were a Machine




Albert Bowden Gives His Word

Parting Ways

Bert Gives His Word Again

Too Chickenshit to Live

Everything Changes

Bert Keeps His Word

Scott Shepard Meets Bert's Father and Resolves to Return a Kindness

Bert Keeps His Word Again



Young Mr. Bowden

Gramp and Gram

Lucky Bert Bowden

“Though Much Is Taken, Much Abides”


The Most Important Thing to Do with Bert Bowden

Term of Endearment

Camille Shepard Embraces His Father

He Hath Borne Me on His Back a Thousand Times

Not a Harley Guy

The Second Best Thing

Bert Joins the Club

Bert Bashes His Head

It Ain't Magic

Waiver of Responsibility

Letting It Go

Phantom Pleasure, Phantom Pain

A Norton Guy

Bert Bowden Calling

Young Mr. Bowden Strikes Back

If Rock and Roll Were a Machine

About Terry Davis

To all the teachers and coaches who were kind to me

. . . I say live it out like a god

Sure of immortal life, though you are in doubt,

Is the way to live it.

If that doesn't make God proud of you

Then God is nothing but gravitation,

Or sleep is the golden goal.

—“David Matlock”

from Edgar Lee Master's,

Spoon River Anthology

“. . . Though much is taken, much abides . . .

Some work of noble note may yet be done.”

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson,

, 1842


I'm not exaggerating when I say the following teachers and coaches and the one neighborhood dad helped save my life. There's nothing in the world that lifts a kid's spirit like a smile on the face of an adult when he or she sees you coming. If these good people are happy to see you, you can't be as worthless as you feel.

My children and I owe the following people a debt of the heart. I was just another young human being to them, but to me they are the exceptions that shaped the man I try every day to become.

Everywhere Spirit, Bless these souls and the ones I've forgotten.

Mrs. Bockmeyer

Don Cobb

Pat Coontz

Gary Davis

Maxine Dicus

Joe Heslin

Dick Hoover

John Irving

Gene Kelly

Barry Livengood

Pat McManus

Barney Overlie

Cecil Robinette

Nick Scarpelli

Ted Solotaroff

Bill Via

Bill Waddington

Chapter 1
Albert Bowden Gives His Word

Bert Bowden is having trouble
with the essay. Class is already half over and he's gone through three introductory paragraphs on three different subjects. The topic Tanneran assigned was “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” and Bert said under his breath, “Oh, boy. Have I got material for this.” But that is turning out to be the problem: Bert can't choose from among all the shitty things that have happened to him in his sixteen, almost seventeen, years. And now he can't concentrate because his mind is full of the awareness that he's living through another one of those things right now.

It's the first day of Bert's junior year, he's got the guy everybody says is the best English teacher in school, English is the only class he likes, and now he's going to flunk the first in-class essay because he can't focus.

Bert dug into the assignment right away. His grandfather was placed in a rest home last spring, and the old man is always on his mind. Before he finished the introduction, though, Bert realized this wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to him. It hadn't happened to him. Bert wasn't the one who suffered the embarrassment of having to be cleaned up like a baby. Bert wasn't the one “living,”
as his parents referred to his grandfather's condition, in the “home,” as they called the place. This is not the worst thing that ever happened to you, Bert thought. This is the worst thing that ever happened to Gramp. And he flipped the sheet in his ring binder and started again.

When sincerity didn't work, Bert turned to sarcasm. He assumed the voice of an indignant teenager, which he is to a degree, and began describing the 1969 Harley-Davidson Sportster that sits in the window of Shepard's Classic and Custom Cycles. His parents won't let him buy it, even though he has the money in the bank. “Motorcycles are too dangerous” is what his father says, and “That money is for college” is his mother's response. Bert doesn't have the grades to get into any college worth going to. So since he can't get into a decent college and faces a bleak future, anyway, he might as well have fun and die young on a beautiful old Harley. But Bert is tired of being sarcastic. He got by on sarcasm and humor in his essays last year, and he doesn't want to be funny now. He wants to be serious. Don't be a wiseass, Bert told himself. Don't resort to that cheap crap anymore. And he flipped the sheet.

Bert thought and thought: What was the worst thing that ever happened to him?

Tanneran looked like he'd been an athlete when he was younger. Maybe he'd be impressed by Bert's bad luck in sports last year. So Bert began writing about getting mononucleosis and missing varsity baseball tryouts. He entitled it “Mononuked.”
But he scratched it out. It was just more of that cute shit he always resorted to. Besides, there wasn't a chance in the world he'd have made varsity his sophomore year. And this made him think that maybe the worst thing that ever happened to him was going to a high school with twenty-four hundred students where it was incredibly tough to make the teams, and how if he lived in a smaller town he'd not only make all the teams but probably be a star.

But then he realized this was just more shit. I have to be who I am, he thought, but I don't have to lie to myself or other people to make me feel better about it. So he flipped the sheet.

And now he looks up at the clock and sees that junior English is over for today. He sees that Tanneran is looking too. The man turns to face the class. “Time's up,” he says. “That's all, folks. Make sure your names are on 'em.”

The bell rings, kids rise, voices rise, the youth of America stride forward into the circular flow of another school year.

But Bert Bowden remains seated, writing his name slowly. He will submit this blank sheet. He will add a paper to the pile like everyone else.

Tanneran is sitting on his desk, the pile of papers in his hand, as Bert slides his on top. “I wrote three different introductory paragraphs, but nothing worked,” Bert says. “I want to do the assignment. Can I bring it in tomorrow, Mr. Tanneran?”

Tanneran looks back down at the paper. “Albert Bowden,” he says.

“Actually, I go by Bert,” Bert says. “I just thought I'd present myself formally since myself was all I had to present.”

Tanneran smiles. “Not a bad move in desperation.” He stands and walks toward the door. Bert follows.

“Tell you what, Bert,” Tanneran says in the doorway. “You give me your word you'll submit an essay tomorrow at the start of class?”

“I give you my word,” Bert replies.

Chapter 2
Parting Ways

It's only the first week
of school, but it's the third week of football practice. Two-a-days are over, the timed miles are over. The coaches are pretty sure by now who the real players are, but there's still the final cut to be made. They don't spend a lot of time conditioning. They warm up, drill, and scrimmage.

Warm-ups are over now and the team has broken down by position. Linemen work at one end of the field, backs and ends at the other. Bert is one of four quarterbacks throwing passes to a line of receivers. He crouches with the ball in his hands over the imaginary center, listens as backfield coach Joe Heslin says “Post” in a conversational tone, scans the imaginary defense, does not look at the receiver, calls out in his most commanding voice “Hut! Hut! Hut!,” and on that third sound turns and drops back deep into the imaginary pocket where he sets up and throws to Camille Shepard, who has head-faked the imaginary defender and cut toward the goalpost. The ball floats out fat and sweet, revolving slowly enough for Shepard to count the laces. It's a little short, though. But Shepard reaches back with his left hand and pulls it in.

Bert doesn't
look too bad. Until you see the other quarterbacks, that is.

Sean Christman, a junior who played a little on the varsity team last year, is next to take the ball from Coach Heslin. Christman is six feet two inches tall, five inches taller than Bert, and weighs two hundred pounds to Bert's one-sixty. Christman calls out the count in a voice like the drill sergeant from
Full Metal Jacket
, drops back and bullets the ball to a sophomore running a hook. The kid turns and the ball is there. It hits him in the numbers before he can get his hands up. The kid rubs his chest as he trots back to the receiver line. Bad move, Bert thinks. Dropping the ball is no big deal, but rubbing the hurt is a bad, bad move.

Compared to Sean Christman, Bert sounds and looks like a little boy. But Christman is only the number two quarterback.

As Bert watches Mike Jackson, Thompson's first-team QB for the past two years, step up to throw, he wonders if Christman ever wishes he went to another school. He must. He'd be first-team at any other school in the city. But his dad is Thompson's head football coach and they live in the Thompson district. It wouldn't look good for the coach's son to transfer out of district so he could be starting quarterback at another school.

Bert thinks how lame it is for him to wish he went to a smaller school so he could make first team in everything and have a chance to stand out, when a really excellent athlete
like Christman is stuck behind a great athlete like Jackson.

Bert thinks about Camille Shepard. He's heard that Shepard came to the States from France to spend the year with his father, the owner of Shepard's Classic and Custom. He pronounces his name “Cam-ee,” but a lot of the guys and all the coaches except Heslin still call him “Cam-eel,” which is how Coach Christman pronounced it when he read it off the list on the first day of practice. His black hair comes down past his shoulders, and he rides a Harley. He's bigger than Sean Christman and he's not effeminate, so calling him a girl's name rings particularly stupid to Bert.

Camille's dad, who also rides a Harley, had been watching the practices until one day another biker, an outlaw-looking guy on a louder bike, showed up with him. Coach Christman turned to look when he heard the roar. Practice stopped as he watched the two men pull into the parking lot, shut off their bikes, and amble toward the field. He met them at the edge of the running track, spoke something Bert couldn't hear, and pointed back toward the bikes.

The outlaw, who was the same height as both Shepards but slimmer and whose arm muscles reminded Bert of those rawhide knots people buy for their dogs to chew on, got right in Christman's face. Everybody sprinted in around them.

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