The Bison of North Dakota State University beat the University of North Dakota Sioux 24-17 the last weekend of October in my junior year. It was a big upset. NDSU had suffered through a miserable 2-7 season, but we beat our biggest rival, the conference champion from Grand Forks, eighty miles north of Fargo.
The Bison defense had swarmed through UND’s backfield, trapping halfbacks and sacking their star quarterback six times. Our noodle-armed senior quarterback had surprised everyone and played the best game of his collegiate career—three touchdown passes, twenty-one completions, 289 yards passing, and no interceptions.
After the gun went off to end the fourth quarter, my date and I ran onto the field with other students, celebrating as if we’d won the Rose Bowl. The crowd pulled down the goalposts, tore chunks of the field as souvenirs, and surrounded our team in their mud- and grass-stained uniforms. It had rained in the morning, and the teams had chewed up the turf until the field looked like a World War I’s no-man’s-land by the end of the game.
The Bison marching band played the school fight song as it circled the team in the center of the field. The university president handed over the Nickel Trophy to our coach for winning the annual grudge match between NDSU and UND. The aluminum trophy, two inches thick and nearly two feet in diameter, is a replica of a nickel coin. We were ecstatic that "the slug" would be returned to the student union trophy case from which it had been absent for four years.
The stadium lights dimmed as our team, surrounded by cheering students and the marching band, headed for the locker room. Crowds shuffled toward the exits and into the jammed parking lots, where campus police were directing traffic into two lanes, one leading to the highway and the other downtown to University Avenue, where thirsty fans, voices raw from cheering, were pouring into bars to celebrate the upset.
My sexy freshman date, Tika, and I got stuck in traffic and didn’t get onto the highway until the stadium was dark. We joined a horn-honking caravan of trucks, cars, and minibuses headed to a postgame beer blast at the ranch of my fraternity brother Cliff Westbrook half an hour west of Fargo.
"Wish you were playing football, Max?" Tika asked as she nuzzled next to me in my truck, the back window of which was plastered with fraternity and NDSU stickers. "You were a football star in high school, weren’t you?" She put a hand on my thigh and squeezed.
"Yeah, I played quarterback. I love football, but I made a good choice to play baseball instead."
To be honest, I was envious of the football team, many of whom were friends from the athletic dorm where I lived. I'd been offered a football scholarship to NDSU after I’d quarterbacked my high school team in Williston, North Dakota, to the state championship my senior year. I'd also been offered a baseball scholarship, and I'd had to make a choice.
After talks with both coaches, I had chosen the baseball scholarship. My dream was to play professional sports, and I felt I was twenty pounds too light and two inches too short to get drafted into the NFL. But I was the right size and speed to play second base and make it into the major leagues.
"I can’t wait for baseball season, Max," Tika said. "My sorority sisters say you're the best player on the team."
"Aah, they’re just teasing you," I said. "We have a lot of good players on the team. We might make it to the College World Series. We almost made it last year, but our pitching staff fell apart at the end of the season, and our center fielder broke his shoulder slamming against a fence at the conference tournament."
"I can’t wait to see you in uniform," Tika said, running her fingers through my curly hair. "I’ll bet you’re the best-looking player on the team." Tika was a fun date but sometimes acted like she was still in high school, which she had been in May.
The caravan drove west from Fargo on I-90 to a turnoff that led to the Triple Rock ranch. We climbed a small hill and then descended to where we could see the lights of the Westbrook ranch house, barns, and corral. The ranch house was set back in a grove of oak trees and had a backyard swimming pool where we had partied after baseball games.
Paper sacks with burning candles inside lined the road to a parking lot by the barn, stable, and corrals across from the ranch house. Yard lights lit up the corral, where hay bales had been set up for the party. A bonfire blazed in the center. A small herd of Black Angus cattle in a neighboring corral stared at us, their large, sad eyes shining in the light of the flames.
Fraternity pledges collected ten dollars per person as we filed into the corral and headed to the beer kegs. A six-foot stack of logs blazed in the center of the corral, shooting glowing embers and smoky ropes into the cold October evening air. The chilly temperature accented the rural autumn aroma of freshly cut hay, cow manure, bonfire smoke, and beer flowing from kegs.
The crowd was mostly athletes and members of NDSU fraternities and sororities. They crowded into the corral and sat on hay bales, drinking beer, waving school banners, and singing off-key to Queen’s "We Are the Champions" blasting from a boom box.
After getting beer from a keg, Tika and I joined my fraternity brothers at the grill, where bowls of chili were being spooned from cooking pots and cheeseburgers were being dished up.
We drenched our cheeseburgers with ketchup, mustard, and relish and headed to the hay bales to knock back our beers and wolf down the food.
While we were celebrating, Cliff’s parents came out of their ranch house to mingle with the crowd, slapping backs, shaking hands, and joining the fun. One of the brothers handed them foaming beer cups, which they raised, to the cheers of the noisy crowd . When there was a break in the music, someone yelled, "Let’s hear it for Hank and Louise! Thanks for letting us shake up the ranch!"
"Whoo . . . whoo . . . whoo," the crowd chanted, spilling beer from cups as they weaved around the roaring bonfire.
"Hank! Hank! Louise! Louise! You’re the greatest! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!"
Hank looked like you’d expect a North Dakota rancher to look on a cold October evening. He wore a red deer hunter’s vest over a flannel shirt, jeans with a horseshoe-shaped belt buckle, cowboy boots, and a Stetson creased and soiled from years of ranching.
Louise was attractively thin and dressed stylishly in a tan pantsuit. Gaudy silver bracelets decorated her wrists, and she wore rings the size of gumballs.
Hank got up on a hay bale and held up his beer. "Have fun, kids. Just be safe. If you can’t drive home tonight, we’ve got plenty of room in the old bunkhouse."
"Whoo . . . whoo . . . whoo! Hank and Louise! We beat the Sioux!"
After Hank got down from the hay bale, he and Louise made their way around the corral, chatting and reminiscing about their good times at NDSU. Nice folks. Good Midwestern stock.
The party rolled on. The Rolling Stones blasted out "Satisfaction" and "Brown Sugar" from the boom box, beer flowed, the crowd celebrated, and everyone was getting a little drunk.
The autumn sky was ablaze with a million stars. It was a night when you believed you would live forever and catch every break in life.
Everyone was your best friend. Every sorority girl wanted to jump in the sack with you. Fraternity brothers would be your friends for life.
Your body would never fail you. Nothing could ever go wrong. Our dreams, good looks, health, fortune, luck, and popularity would last forever. The callowness of youth.
Tika was the hottest new bauble on campus. She had been homecoming queen at her high school and had dated the football star. She was a model of Midwestern purity, with long Scandinavian blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a pinup’s body. She was as feisty as a den of puppies. She didn’t walk; she bounced.
Every guy had been hot on Tika’s trail when she showed up on campus in September. She went through sorority rush and told the sisters she was going to be faithful to her football star boyfriend, who was a freshman at Northwestern. She bragged that they would be getting engaged the following summer and would marry after their sophomore years, when she would transfer to Northwestern.
Tika told the sisters that she would date but just wanted to be "friends" with fraternity guys. She went out with a different one almost every night; all they got at the end of the evening was a kiss on the cheek or a handshake.
Tika told me this on our first date. I smiled and said, "It’s nice to know who you are going to marry when you’re eighteen, Tika. I hope it works out for you."
We slept together after our third date, and Tika never mentioned her Northwestern boyfriend again. So much for a freshman coed’s convictions.
Whenever I took Tika to fraternity parties, guys rolled their eyes and gave me an envious look. "Man, how did you get lucky with Tika? I took her out three times and only got a peck on the cheek! Whaddaya got that I don’t, Max?"
I’d smile, shrug my shoulders, and say, "No idea. Don’t have a clue."
Cupcakes like Tika had been dropping into my lap since I was sixteen. I had been a jock, lettering in football, basketball, and baseball at Williston High School. My grades were good, and I was decent looking. But nothing thrilled teenage girls more than when they saw me throw a touchdown pass, sink a jump shot, or hit a home run. I suppose you could say I took advantage of that.
When I’d arrived at NDSU, I’d stumbled into paradise, bumping into drop-dead-gorgeous coeds in class, at parties, in bars, and especially at the library. That’s where the smartest coeds hung out. Beauty and brains—my favorite type.
But after a few tumbles in the sack, my fickle eye would wander. I’d spot another delicious treat and move on. Rejection and doubt never clouded my psyche. That would come later.
The night air was getting chillier, and the crowd inched closer to the bonfire. I stepped away from Tika and headed over to the kegs to get more beer. Tika was back by the corral fence, talking to a brother and his date, scanning the crowd for me. I raised my foaming beer cup to signal where I was. She waved and turned back to continue talking. She looked delicious, her ample breasts bulging in a tight green and gold sweater, our team colors.
The bonfire was roaring, its flames licking higher into the cold, black night sky and disappearing in the flicker of twinkling stars. After I’d refilled our beer cups, I was making my way through the crowd when I bumped into someone wearing a blue sweatshirt.
"Oh—sorry. Sorry," I muttered as she turned around.
"Max! Howya doin’, guy? Great game! Whoo! Whoo!"
It was Debra Marcum, a classmate who’d been subtly hitting on me in marketing class.
"Hey, Debra, great to see you!" I shouted above the raucous laughter.
Debra stood on her toes and yelled in my ear. "We beat the Sioux! Yeah!" she slurred, her eyes glazed.
"Wasn’t it great?" I shouted back, balancing my beers . Debra snuggled closer, pressing against my arm.
I’d bantered with Debra in class, but she wasn’t my type. She was on a golf scholarship, a sport that didn’t appeal to me. She was from Chicago and wore jerseys and sweatshirts of the Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks. I like a woman to dress like a woman: tight slacks, an attractive blouse, and makeup to accent her feminine features. Debra was wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. The ties from its hood dangled on her breasts, which were buried in the bulky sweatshirt. Almost everyone on campus knew Debra, but I hadn’t seen her with a date before. She was like one of the guys, not someone you’d take to a party. Between classes you’d find her in the memorial union coffee shop, where jocks gathered, talking sports trash or telling dirty jokes. When everyone got up to go to class, she’d be left alone. Debra was decent looking but wore glasses with red frames like a comedian would wear. However, I liked her. She was sassy to professors when she thought they were being lazy or patronizing. She debated with them in class and often made her point, to the delight of the other students.
"You alone tonight, hot stuff?" she asked, giving me "that look." She wanted a roll in the hay, and I was in her sights.
"Naw, I’ve got a date, Debra. Sorry."
"Damn!" she said, wrinkling her puppy nose. "You with that blonde freshman with melon boobs and stork legs?"
"Yeah, I’m with Tika."
She rolled her eyes. "Where on God’s earth did Tika get that flaky name? What the hell does it mean?"
The Talking Heads started up with "Burning Down the House." The drunken crowd shouted the lyrics off-key.
"It was the first word she said when she was a baby," I shouted above the singing. "She called everything ‘Tika’—her parents, a cup, a spoon, her dog. She’d crawl around the house saying ‘Tika . . . Tika . . . Tika.’ Kinda cute, isn’t it?"
Debra groaned and squeezed my arm, almost making me spill a beer. "Max, that’s sooo lame! Damn, you ballplayers are all the same. All testosterone, crotch-grabbing, and chest-thumping."
"Come on, Debra. You know that’s not me."
"Yeah, I know. I like you because you’ve got a brain behind those killer eyes and wavy hair."
"Tika’s a wholesome girl. Goes to church. Calls her parents every Sunday," I drawled in my faux country boy dialect. "Daddy’s a lawyer and mom’s a nurse. Salt of the earth."
Debra tipped back her head and laughed. "Max! You’re not interested in Tika’s bloodlines. You like her bedroom gymnastics! She’s your latest conquest. By the time the snow flies, you’ll find another star-struck freshman to drag into your cave."
"Debra, baby," I drawled, "you make me sound like a cad."
"Aah, don’t worry. I still love ya, Max," she slurred, planting a wet kiss on my cheek. "Can I give you a tip?"
"You’re a real catch. Don’t waste your time with guppies. Tika’s just a plaything. You need a real woman—someone who can stimulate you intellectually, not just tickle your toy. Contrary to what you think, your brain is your most attractive organ," she said, giving me a lascivious grin and looking down at my crotch.
A coed weaving through the crowd came up and greeted Debra. "Hey, Deb, great to see you here. How ya been?" She was wearing an NDSU varsity jacket over a V-neck sweater showing delicious cleavage. My blood pressure spiked.
I’d seen her around campus and been intrigued by her distinguished features; honey-blonde hair brushed back over her head, almond-shaped eyes, a creamy complexion, and high cheekbones. Her smile would melt steel.
"Hey, Amanda," Debra said. "You look great tonight, honey. You with Karl?" They exchanged a perfunctory hug.
Amanda pointed toward the corral gate, where the basketball team was in a circle. "Sure thing. Karl’s with the basketball team. They’re initiating a transfer student. This is the last weekend before practice starts Monday. Then it’s curfew every night and no beer."
"Can they have sex before curfew?" Debra asked, poking Amanda in the side with her elbow.
Amanda winked. "Well, the coach says they need to save their strength to win games. But, you know, some rules are made to be broken."
Debra and Amanda hooted, high-fived with bare hands, and sipped their beers. Debra looked at me. "Max, you know Amanda Foxx? She’s dating Karl Helmken, our star forward. Karl averaged eighteen points a game last year. Made second all-conference team."
Fitting. Amanda Foxx. She was a fox. I reached out with my free hand to Amanda. She laid hers in mine and gave me a gentle squeeze. Her hand was warm and soft like a kitten’s paw. I didn’t want to let it go.
"Hi, Amanda. I’m Max," I said, trying to sound relaxed. "Karl’s the best player on the team. He has a great close-in jump shot and hits the board like a pro. He’s going to have a great season."
"That ain’t all the talent Karl has, from what I hear. He’s prime stud," Debra said, leering at Amanda.
Amanda didn’t respond. Debra recognized her social faux pas and shifted gears, putting a hand on my arm. "Max’s my marketing class buddy."
"Pleasure to meet you, Max." She was taller than Debra, an inch or two shorter than I was. I like tall women. Especially tall, sexy ones.
Amanda was more than beautiful; she had the distinctive appearance of a classic movie actress from a bygone era. Lauren Bacall. Sophia Loren. Deborah Kerr. A presence. An air of mystery. An allure that made you want to know everything about her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
"Max is one of the smart jocks," Debra said. "He plays second base and gets good grades. He’ll play in the majors one day and become a professor when he retires."
Amanda looked at me and said in a sexy drawl, "You date Tika, right, Max? I remember her from rush. Cute girl." Her deep-set eyes were pale green, the color of a leaf in spring.
When she smiled at me, I felt glowing coals warming my heart. I wanted to hear her talk so I could continue to look into her eyes.
"I’ve heard about you," she said in an intimate tone, almost as if we were at a sidewalk cafe and not at a college beer bash. "You dated Rochelle last spring during baseball season."
"She’s in my drama class. She said you’re a fun guy, great at parties, and a good dancer."
"Funny and smart," Debra chimed in, sensing she was being left out. "He knows how to pitch products. He gave a PowerPoint presentation on marketing toiletries with sports themes and made a commercial with his fraternity brothers as actors."
"Really? That sounds creative," Amanda said, raising her eyebrows. "Pitch me, Max. Show me your stuff."
Tika could wait. Amanda had my attention. "I’m not a pitcher. I play second base."
"Come on now, you know what I mean," she said wrinkling her nose. "Pitch me a line tonight, Max. You up for it?"
"What do you want me to pitch?"
She sipped her beer, looking over the rim at me. "Pitch yourself." Our eyes were locked like we were the only people on the planet. "I want to hear how you charmed Debra."
I was challenged by her directness; with a challenge comes the chance for a reward. What was mine going to be?
"I can do that," I said, inching closer to Amanda until I could smell the beer on her breath and a whiff of an intoxicating perfume. I hoped she couldn’t hear my heart thumping against my chest.
"I’m all ears," she teased in a sultry drawl. We’d met a minute ago, but I wanted to grab her and drive off into the dark night.
"Whoa . . . it’s getting hot here," Debra teased, fanning a hand in front of her face. "Could it be the bonfire? Or is something else going on?"
This was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss. The bonfire was blazing nearby. Fraternity brothers and their dates were singing bawdy songs and pouring down beers. But none of that mattered; Amanda and I were two planets speeding toward each other, destined to collide in an explosion of fire, hot gases, and molten metal. We both knew it.
I needed to be on my "A" game. I wasn’t going for a single; I wanted a home run.
"Baseball is the greatest sport in the world," I started, wondering where the hell I was going with this.
A corner of Amanda’s mouth curled in a sly grin, her teeth sparkling in the glow of the bonfire. "Ooh, I like baseball, Max. You’ve got my attention. Why is baseball the greatest sport?"
I sipped my beer, building the suspense. "Baseball appeals to our animal brain, where we have our deepest emotions."
"Tell me more . . . about our animal brain," she said, cocking her head in a playful gesture.
Her voice had dropped to a sultry whisper. She had me right where she wanted, a toy to play with. I was being seduced by a master.
I waited for a lull in the drunken singing. I was winging it and had to think fast. "Our animal brain is where our spirit lives." Oh, God, did that sound as weak as I thought?
"I’m into the spirit thing," she said, wrinkling her nose again. "Tell me more."
Maybe it wasn’t such a weak opening after all.
"Our animal brain is linked to survival, whether we’re in the jungle or flying a supersonic fighter."
"Ooh, Max," Debra groaned, "it’s getting high and deep!" her eyes darted back and forth between Amanda and me.
Amanda gave me a beery smile. "I’m with you. . . . Keep talking, Max." A tease, a delicious tease. I loved it. We were playing games at a kegger, a little drunk, full of mischief. I shifted gears.
"A baseball diamond is a thing of beauty and symmetry. Three bases and home plate equal distance from each other, laid out in a diamond. A pitcher’s mound sixty feet from home plate, a circular dirt pulpit surrounded by emerald green grass. Beyond the infield, the outfield is bordered by arrow-straight white chalk lines separating fair territory from foul. The brain likes that beauty and precision.
Amanda smiled. "I see a baseball diamond as an outdoor theater. The team on the field is onstage; the team in the dugout is waiting to go onstage. You could say baseball is a drama. Or even a ballet, with all the graceful, athletic moves each player displays."
Debra and I were momentarily speechless from Amanda’s interpretation. "Interesting," I said, wondering if I could run with Amanda’s analogy. "Baseball . . . is a drama. When the batter hits a long fly ball . . . and the outfielder catches it . . . the crowd roars like an audience cheering an actor."
Amanda raised a fist in affirmation. "True. But if the outfielder doesn’t catch the ball, the crowd moans like when an actor on stage reveals a shocking line that twists the plot." Touché.
This was fun. I had to think fast to keep our word game going. "And if the batter hits a long fly ball, the crowd is standing, cheering and hoping that it will be a home run."
"Yes!" Amanda said, pumping her fist. "And if it is, they give the batter a standing ovation. Like a curtain call at the end of a play."
"Exactly!" I emphasized, clenching my fist and bumping hers. "And each play on the diamond . . . or on stage . . . only lasts seconds."
"A few seconds is all it takes to change the game," she said, sipping her beer, our eyes locked. "Like life, isn’t it, Max?"
"It is. A few seconds can change everything."
We were all quiet for a moment, as if we had finished a scene in a play but the audience hadn’t yet moved on.
"Wow. . . . It’s not Shakespeare, but you two click!" Debra said, clenching her fist and bumping ours. "A mini sports drama in a corral . . . with the ripe odor of fresh horse manure, keg beer, and a bonfire to make it memorable."
We all sipped silently from our beers, not wanting to spoil the moment, a moment we’d remember far beyond that evening. I knew I’d fall asleep that night remembering Amanda’s face glowing in the light of the bonfire, our spontaneous verbal match, our not taking our eyes off each other.
Amanda said, "Thanks for introducing us, Debra."
She turned to me and put her hand on my arm. "You’re funny—and cute, Max." Shivers ran all over my body. "A jock with brains. My favorite type."