Don't Know Tough

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Trent Powers relocates his family from Anaheim to Arkansas to take over as head coach of the Denton Pirates, a high school football team powered by a volatile but talented running back named Billy Lowe. Billy comes from an extremely troubled home and takes out his anger on the field, and it’s not long before he crosses a line. Instead of punishing him, though, Trent takes Billy into his home, hoping to protect his star player. But when Billy’s abuser is found murdered, nothing can stop an explosive chain of violence that could tear the town apart.



Copyright © 2022 Eli Cranor

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Published by

Soho Press, Inc.

227 W 17th Street

New York, NY 10011

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Cranor, Eli, author.

Title: Don't know tough / Eli Cranor.

Description: New York, NY : Soho Crime, [2022]

Identifiers: LCCN 2021035665

ISBN 978-1-64129-345-7

eISBN 978-1-64129-346-4

Subjects: LCGFT: Sports fiction. | Detective and mystery fiction. | Novels.

Classification: LCC PS3603.R38565 D66 2022 | DDC 813'.6—dc23

LC record available at

Interior design by Janine Agro

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


for Mal, the toughest woman I know


There is no knowing what is in a man's heart.

—Charles Portis, True Grit


Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain't. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I's gonna let Him see me hurt. No way. Bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.

Tasted it while I sat in Ms. Miller's class. Woke up in Algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.

This my favorite drill.

I just been standing back here, watching the other boys go at it. The sound of pads popping like sheet metal flapping in a storm.

"Who want next?" holler Bull. Bull ain't the head coach. Bull coach the defense. He as mean as they come.

I tongue the hole in my cheek, finger the cigarette burn on my neck, and step into the crease. Coach hand me the ball and smile. He know what kind a power I got. Senior year, too. They got that sophomore linebacker lined up across from me. The one with the rich daddy that always paying for everything.

Coach blow his whistle.

I can see Him smiling as He stuck the hot tip in my neck, smiling when He put Little Brother out in the pen. I grip the ball tight, duck my head, and run at sophomore linebacker, hoping to kill him.

When we hit, there real lightning, thunder explode across the field. The back of sophomore linebacker head the first thing to hit the ground, arms out like Jesus on the cross. I step on his neck and run past him.

The other boys cheer.

Coach blow his whistle and already the linebacker getting up like I ain't nothing. He shaking his head, laughing, and standing again. Disrespecting me?

Disrespecting me?

This time I spear him with the top my helmet. Dive and go head to head. There's a cracking sound—not thunder, not lightning, and damn sure not sheet metal—this the sound of my heart breaking, the sound of violence pouring out.

Coach blow his whistle like somebody drowning. Sophomore linebacker scream cause he don't know what's on him. This boy a poser. He don't know tough. Don't know nothing. Bet his momma woke him up this morning with some milk and cookies. I try to bite his cheek off, but the facemask, the mouthpiece. I see only red, then black—a cigarette, a dog pen.

Sitting outside Principal office after practice when Coach call me in. Principal a big man, soft in places used to be hard. He look like a football coach, got a black mustache and everything. Coach look like he from California cause he is, hair all slick and parted. And skinny. Too damn skinny.

"Bill," say Coach. "What happened out there?"

Bill my daddy's name. Nobody call me Bill except Coach and my brother Jesse.

"You realize the kind a shit you in?" Principal say, cussing for me, trying to make me feel at home. "That boy you stomped? His daddy liable to sue the whole damn school."

Feel my jaw flexing, like if I could, I just grind my teeth down to the gums.

"You hear us talking, boy?" say Principal.

I raise one eyebrow, slow.

"Swear to God," say Principal. "Tell you what I ought to do. What I ought to do is call Sheriff Timmons. How about that? Let him charge your little ass with battery."

I nod. Know bullshit when I hear it. Then Coach say, "But he's not going to do that."

Principal grunt.

"Listen, Bill," say Coach. "I'm going to sit you for the game tomorrow night. Principal Bradshaw thinks that's best. Okay?"

I hear Coach but I don't. My ears ringing. That burn on my neck turn to fire.

"Call the cops then."

Principal laugh. Coach don't.

"We've already qualified for the playoffs," say Coach. "You'll be back next week, and then we'll be going for the real goal—the state championship."

"Senior Night," I say.

Coach breathe in deep through his nose. He ain't got no idea what it mean to my momma to walk across that field on Senior Night. What it mean to me. Have them call out my name, my momma name, and everybody in Denton ring them cowbells, stand and cheer? Something like that outside Momma's mind. And now they trying to take that from her, from me?

Coach look to Principal, but he already turned away, looking at something on his computer. "Bill," say Coach, "I think this is fair. It's as good as I can do."

I nod, waiting for Principal to say something, at least look up from that computer and see what he just took from me, but he don't. Whatever on that screen bigger than Billy Lowe. I'm out the door before he ever turn back, running with blood in my mouth.

"Aw, hell nah," say Momma.

Little Brother dangle from her arm like a monkey. Tiny fingers, white at the knuckles, holding on to her shirt like he know how it feel to be dropped. And Coach wonder why I ain't never fumbled, not once.

"Senior Night? And Coach Powers sitting you? For what, Billy? What'd you do?"


"Don't lie."

"Just a drill, at practice. Hit a boy hard, real hard. Just kept hitting him."

"Football practice?"


"Nah, hell nah," say Momma.

Momma already got the phone out, already dialing Coach when He walk in, smelling like beer-sweat and gouch.

"Who she calling?" He say to me.

I just stare at Him. Don't say nothing.



He make a jab for the phone. Momma jerk away. Little Brother hold strong.

"Calling Coach," say Momma. "Done kicked Billy off the team."

"He ain't kicked me off. Just—"

"Naw," He say, grabbing Momma by the shirt now, pawing for the phone. "No fucking way—"

"Yes, hello? Coach Powers?" Momma say, but it ain't her voice. It the voice she use when she talk to the water company, DHS, teachers, and Coach. She talking fancy and slow. Don't sound nothing like her. "This is Billy's momma."

The man who live in our trailer but ain't my daddy start pacing. He got a bottle of NyQuil in His hand. Drink NyQuil most the time, save His whiskey up. He pull from the bottle and wipe His mouth with the back a His sleeve.

"Billy say he ain't gonna play? On Senior Night?" Momma stop rocking Little Brother. Look at me. "Austin Murphy got a concussion? Was out cold for five minutes?"

He start to laugh. "Shit yeah. That's my boy."

"Alright," say Momma. "I understand, Coach."

She still got the phone to her ear when He take it. "Billy the only fucking chance you got. You hear me? Either let him play or we take his ass down the road to Taggard. How about that?"

He chug the NyQuil some more. Don't even know how stupid He is. Cain't change schools this late in the season.

"Yeah. That right, Coach. See you at the game, and if Billy don't play—Billy don't play." He jab the phone screen three time with His thumb then throw it at Momma. She try to get out the way. Little Brother hold tight, but the phone corner hit him in the back, a sad, hollow sound. Little Brother look like he about to cry, but he don't.

Kept my mouth shut when I left the trailer the next morning. Didn't say nothing to Him on my way out. Didn't have to. The NyQuil bottle empty. Everything empty when I left Shady Grove.

Now it game time, and Coach still letting me run through the tunnel and the paper the cheerleaders spent all day coloring. Even say he gonna let me walk out on the field at halftime for Senior Night. But I ain't told Momma. He'd wanna walk too, and I'll be damned if He get to walk out there like He my daddy. I stay in the back. The band blow they horns, but they ain't blowing them for me. Used to blow them loud and sing the fight song when Billy Lowe run across the goal line.

Sophomore linebacker here. In a wheelchair, God, a fucking wheelchair. Ain't nothing wrong with his legs. Wearing sunglasses too. I walk up behind that wheelchair, just stand there, while our team getting beat by Lutherville. Lutherville sorry as hell, but the Pirates ain't got shit without Billy Lowe. Still standing there behind that wheelchair, smelling sophomore linebacker hair—smell like girl hair—when I hear Him start hollering from the stands.

"Ain't got shit without Billy Lowe!"

I go to gnawing my cheek.

"Bes play ma Billy!"

Now Momma too, and I can tell by her slur, she gone. I look back quick to the bleachers, time enough to see Little Brother dangling from her arms with his Billy Lowe jersey on: number thirty-five.

"Fuck this shit."

"Yeah. Fuuuuck this shit."

Ain't no telling them apart now.

Coach a true believer, though. He out near the twenty, fighting for a holding call. Don't see Principal wading through the stands like a linebacker on a backside blitz.

"Nah, hell nah. Don't touch me."

That's Momma. She see Principal coming for her.

"Swear to God," He say, like He the kind a man do something about it. He ain't. He all talk and shit and empty bottles. "Swear to God, you touch her and—"

"Boy, you listen," yell Principal at Him. "You touch me and I'll have the sheriff up here faster than greased lightning. You hear me?"

Sophomore linebacker stand and push them sunglasses up in his shampoo hair. Probably thinking they about to fight, but I know He won't do shit. Principal ain't a kid like Little Brother. And He know Principal would get the sheriff up there, and the sheriff got Tasers and clubs, and He don't want no part of that.

"We going, alright?" He say. "We gone."

Lutherville got to punt. Coach turn to the sideline to holler for the offense, and he finally see. I still got my back to them, but I know it ugly, embarrassing too. Feel them hot on my neck. I look to Coach to save me. Just put me in the game, send me to the locker room, take me by the facemask and beat the hell out me, anything, but don't leave me standing here on this sideline.

"Come on, Billy!"

It Momma.

"Take my boy down the road!" she holler. "Take Billy Lowe to run the ball at Taggard!"

Roll my neck. The burn cracks. Hot blood on my back. My mouth a open wound. I think about spitting on sophomore linebacker, covering his face with my crazy. But I'm watching him watch my people in the stands. Watching Momma and Little Brother just holding on. I look one more time to Coach, but it third and six and he got to call a play. Sophomore linebacker still watching Momma holler for me. Watching Him too. Everybody know they drunk now, and it embarrassing, fucking embarrassing.

Then sophomore linebacker save me. He elbow another sophomore in the ribs, kinda point up in the stands, point right over me like I ain't nothing. And now he laughing and pointing at my momma, at Little Brother.

"Come on, son, fuck this place," He yell, but He ain't my daddy, and that does it.

This time there more blood. My blood. His blood. Little Brother blood. The blood that connect us. I feel Bull tugging at my jersey. I seen a cop try and pull a pit bull off a Lab once. Had to pry the jaws loose with a billy club. I'm head-buttin the boy now. Got his arms nailed down, head-buttin him when Bull finally pull me loose.

As he dragging me away, I see Coach over there, kneeling beside sophomore linebacker. Look like he whispering something in his ear. Bet he saying, "Billy didn't mean it. Billy a good kid, heck of a running back too. Billy just got it tough. And his momma crazy and won't stop fucking. And the other day he got a cigarette stuck in his neck, and he took it like a man, and that was after his momma boyfriend put his little brother out in a dog pen, and he had to take that baby boy scraps for lunch and dinner, then breakfast the next day. Billy didn't mean nothing by it. He was just embarrassed, stuck on that sideline, right there close to them, close enough to feel the heat. Can you imagine? You imagine that, sophomore linebacker?"

No. You cain't.


Arkansas happened quickly, like a tornado. In just under twenty-four hours Trent Powers drove his family the sixteen hundred miles from California, interstates leading to highways, highways revealing the occasional town, the countryside, and eventually their journey ended at a single hanging traffic light. Beyond the light was Denton, Arkansas. When Trent arrived, the football field—a hundred yards, lined and marked with white paint—was the only thing he recognized.

That's how Trent had explained the trip to his only assistant coach, Butch Kennedy. Butch can still remember the starry look in the young coach's eyes his first day on the job, like Trent couldn't believe where he'd landed. Denton was a long-ass way from California.

Seventy-some-odd days later and the two coaches are lining the field, heat rising up from the grass, remnants of an Indian summer burning on through November. Butch has been an assistant for nearly his entire thirty-year career with the Denton Pirates, a man the boys refer to as Bull. He's short and wiry, bent from the grind of the gridiron, sunspots and moles marring his thin, pale skin. Bull helps Trent with the paint, the laundry, the defense. Everything. Bull knows football. Bull knows Denton.

Trent admitted he'd never painted a field before Arkansas, only artificial green turf in California. It's tedious work, each line a representation of his patience, each line either crooked or straight.

"Young ball coaches always in a hurry."

This is Bull's only advice.

"Right," says Trent, hustling the paint carriage across the fifty-yard line.

"Going too fast, Hollywood."

"Please, don't call me that."

"Gonna have to get the green paint out."

Trent swings wide of the fifty, jerking like a distracted driver hitting a rumble strip. Bull shakes his head. He knows what—or better yet—who is troubling the young coach.

With an older brother who holds most of the school records for touchdowns and tackles, Billy Lowe has Pirate blood in his veins. He's a sawed-off white boy with tree-trunk thighs, built hard and low to the ground, trapezius muscles bulging up from his shoulders to his earlobes. No neck. A pit bull.

Bull knew there weren't kids like Billy in California. Bull doubted there were kids like Billy anywhere else in the world. Arkansas hills produce crazy like the Earth's mantle produces diamonds: enough heat and pressure to make all things hard.

Bull already has the green paint out, spraying over the crooked fifty-yard line, when Trent makes it across the field and turns to him.

"What are you doing?" says Trent.

"Crooked line."

"We have bigger concerns than this field."

"Ain't that the truth." Bull grunts, shaking his head. "Everything was fine until Blood Alley."

The Blood Alley drill is outlawed in most states. It's actually illegal in Arkansas, but in a place like Denton, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains where poultry farms and trailers outnumber any other signs of civilization, the law is bendy like a chicken's neck. Blood Alley is football at its most primitive: one boy with a ball, one boy without, the rest of the team lined up on either side, any hope of escape afforded only through violence. It's something you do early, back in August when the players don the pads for the first time. But Trent had pushed for it on a Thursday in November, the last practice before Senior Night. And though Bull liked the crack of a solid hit as much as the next man—probably more—he knew the drill was not a good idea, not that close to game time, not this late in the season. High school boys are quick to blow their load.

The drill was fine until Billy got involved. Bull could see it in his eyes. See it before the boy ever took the ball and flattened their sophomore linebacker, Austin Murphy.

"I'm not painting that line again," says Trent. "I can barely think straight."

"What's your plan for Billy?"

"I've scheduled some meetings for today."

Bull takes the paint carriage from Trent and starts back across the fifty, straight and slow, an old man feeling his way with a cane. "Meetings?"

"Yes, Bull. Principal Bradshaw wanted to talk about what happened last night. So I told him to stop by this afternoon. Billy and his mother are coming in after we finish up."

"Billy stomps a mud hole in Austin Murphy on Thursday, then does it again on Friday—on Senior Night—and you schedule some meetings?"

"So we can talk about it."

"Don't take Billy for the talking kind."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Means don't get in a hurry, Hollywood." Bull produces a buck knife from the back pocket of his jeans, flicks the blade open, and goes to picking his teeth.

"Is that necessary?" says Trent.

"Always thought it a fitting nickname."

"The knife, Bull. Is that even legal to have on school grounds?"

The old man studies the young coach, trying to make sense of him. The locals have had trouble drawing a bead on Trent Powers, too. In Denton, football is as big as it gets: pride and pageantry, parades on homecoming, all the shops closing down on Fridays, even the Walmart. Now the Pirates are in the playoffs for the first time in years. But when Trent Powers rolled into town driving that silver Toyota Prius, football was about the furthest thing from the townsfolk's minds. Ball coaches, at least in Arkansas, drive trucks—preferably Fords.

Bull walks on, painting the field one slow line at a time. Trent stays behind, gripping the ball tight, but Bull knows he's scared. All the years he's spent watching high school boys step onto the gridiron—the old man can smell fear. Bull reeked of it nearly thirty years ago when he had his one shot as head coach of the Pirates. He was younger than Trent but just as eager. He was in a hurry too, wanting the glory without having paid the price, the pain. And then he pushed those boys too far in the heat of an Arkansas summer.

"You ever think about why we do what we do?" Bull says as he walks.

Trent tosses the ball up. Catches it. "Of course."

"Busted knees, shattered shoulders, not to mention all them shots to the head—that sit right with you?"

"It's part of the game."

"But there's the problem," says Bull. "It's just a game."

Trent stops, staring at the ball in his hands. "Football is a tool, Bull. We should use it to teach our boys how to be better husbands and fathers—better men." He runs his fingers along the ball's white laces. "We should use the game to sharpen them. It's all part of God's plan."

"You're in the Bible Belt now, Hollywood," Bull says, throwing up his free hand but still keeping a steady line. "Everybody's on the same team down here. God's team."

"It's one thing to be on the team, and another thing entirely to truly believe," Trent says, still standing with the ball at midfield. "Back when I was a boy—back when I was lost—a coach saved me. And that's exactly what I plan to do for Bill Lowe."

Bull grunts and walks on, already halfway across the field again. He pushes the carriage slower, barely moving at all. Paint hisses from the can. A plume of white rises in the morning sun. Bull hopes Trent is watching, hopes the young coach will at least understand the field before he puts eleven boys on it and sets them in motion.

Bull stops. His chin goes to his shoulder. The field stands half lined and empty behind him.

Before Trent opens the door to his office, he pauses, hand on the knob, and offers up a quick prayer asking for wisdom. Trent prays with his eyes open, just as he'd been taught: Pray without ceasing. Memories from California clash with the words in his head, recollections of a meeting that feels eerily similar to the one he's about to have with Denton High's principal. Trent whispers, "Amen," and turns the knob.

As the door opens, a thick waft of Stetson cologne rushes out. Don Bradshaw's just sitting there, wearing Wrangler jeans, Tony Lama boots, and a pearl snap shirt. The top three buttons are undone, exposing a thick patch of curly black hair. He has the same rawhide looks as Bull, but there's something different about Bradshaw, more flare, more style, or maybe it's just his mustache. Jet-black. Like it's been drawn on with a permanent marker.

Jesus hangs from a cross above Trent's head as he positions himself behind his ergonomic metal desk—better suited for a tech company in Silicon Valley—and takes a seat in the oversized leather chair. Trent bought all new furniture over the summer; he couldn't stomach the ratty stuff he'd inherited. The air is thick with cowboy cologne, a leathery floral aroma that burns Trent's nostrils.

Bradshaw gets right to it: "We need to talk."

"What's up?"

"What's up?" Bradshaw says, running two fingers down the length of his mustache. "What's up is a shit-storm, and you're sitting in the eye of it."

Trent leans back in his chair, shaken by the principal's tone. It reminds him of his father-in-law, Larry Dommers, who also happened to be Trent's former athletic director back in California.

"You don't know the Lowes like I do," Bradshaw says. "They moved in from Eastern Arkansas about ten years ago, a whole horde of them. You ever noticed how Billy kinda talks funny?"

"I've noticed his dialect is different from our other players."

Bradshaw wrinkles his nose. "Yeah, he talks Black, Coach, and it's because all the Lowes come from the Delta side of Arkansas, over close to Memphis. And that's dark, dark country."

"Mr. Bradshaw, I don't see what this has to do with anything."

"It's different over there. Don't know how to put it, but I know one thing—you got to know how to handle a Lowe."

"Handle them? Come on. I believe God—"

"Wait till you meet Jesse Lowe," Bradshaw says, popping a can of tobacco, "then tell me what you think about God." The principal licks at the snuff, great heaps of it sticking to his tongue. "Jesse was the first. Came through here about ten years ago and was as good a quarterback as I've ever seen."

Trent sits forward at the mention of a quarterback.

"Jesse's dumb as shit too. I'm talking dumb, dumb, dumb. And you know a quarterback got to be kinda smart, right? Not Jesse. He was that damn good. Fast, strong, and could throw a ball a quarter mile."

Bradshaw pauses, working the wad of tobacco around with his tongue.

"Jesse's senior year we're playing Taggard. Only takes Jess three plays to score. Runs the ball twice himself. Then on the third play, he throws a pass. It gets tipped up—and I shit you not—he runs under the thing, catches it, and goes on to score a touchdown. Jesse Lowe threw Jesse Lowe a touchdown pass. I shit you not."

On Sale
Mar 22, 2022
Page Count
336 pages