Driftwood, Ray Bentley's debut novel, is the first book published by Five Count Publishing. Below you can read the first chapter! The hardcover edition of Driftwood is coming soon, but if you can't wait, be sure to pick up the e-book, which is available on all e-book platforms (Nook, ibooks, Kindle, Redshelf, etc.). In the mean time, please enjoy this excerpt.
Through a frosted seventh-floor window of the Brylin Mental Hospital, Jack Driftwood gazed out at the tip of the iceberg of the furious blizzard ravaging the city of Buffalo, New York. It was the perfect Christmas Eve to be wrapped in a blanket sipping a totty in front of the fireplace. No doubt, that would have been Jack’s preference; anything was better than his current status as an involuntary inmate in a mental institution. The powerfully disruptive storm raging outside served as a fine metaphor for the awakening mind of the deeply troubled linebacker.
Jack pressed his broad, scarred nose through the bars and onto the icy-cold pane of security glass. He shivered as he peered into the night at the drifting sea of white which had once been the hospital parking lot. A fierce wind rocked the streetlights below, making them appear as lighted buoys bobbing on an angry surf of blowing snow. Jack closed his eyes to shut it all out, yet the storm continued to roil – outside the window, inside his skull.
What the hell happened, anyway? Why am I in this goddamn looney bin?
His memory was sketchy but his gray matter was heating up and the details of his ill-timed demise were sliding back into focus, albeit fuzzy around the edges. The ringing headache he’d endured since regaining consciousness an hour or so earlier was beginning to subside. He felt hungover, like he’d been on an old-school type of bender, like back in the day when he would play all day and run all night. But those days were long gone; at the ripe, old age of thirty-nine, he paid dearly for such sins.
What the hell day is it, anyways?
Jack shuffled slowly away from the window. Just looking out at the raging snowstorm had given him the chills. He stopped and bent at the waist, struggling to touch his toes which were covered in light-blue paper booties the hospital staff had issued him.
Stretching his stiff muscles, he tested his body by doing a quick inventory of the damage. He gingerly fingered the stitches above his right eye. Other than that he had a few bruises and sore spots, but there were no significant injuries. He wasn’t concerned; he always recovered quickly from a beating. That was his business. You don’t play pro football in the NAFA for eighteen years if you can’t deal with a good ass-whipping from time to time.
Jack knew his body would recover soon enough; his main issue was getting out of this damn cuckoo’s nest. After that, he would set things right, making whoever put him in this place pay dearly for it. He was confident it would happen soon enough. In fact, he was fairly certain the cavalry was already locked and loaded and would soon be on the way.
He shuffled to a nearby table, sat down, and picked up the deck of playing cards lying on the table. After giving them a quick shuffle, he dealt himself a hand of solitaire. Perhaps a little game would expedite the clearing of his mind. At the very least it would kill some time, because apparently time was one of the few things Jack Driftwood had left.
THE SEAGULLS FROM NEARBY Lake Erie circled the neatly lined practice fields at Fredonia State University like a squadron of B-52’s marshalling for a critical mission. The gulls were locked and loaded with a capacity payload of creamy shit-bombs manufactured from the feast they had culled during the previous day’s double-session. There was never a shortage of good seagull chow at a Buffalo Blizzard training camp; several concession stands pumped out hot dogs, popcorn, cotton candy, and other goodies at capacity the entire three weeks the team practiced on the small Western New York campus. Any seagull worth its salt knew the training camp fare was far better than a Burger King dumpster during lunch hour.
The team was orderly assembled across the field in formation for their pre-practice stretching routine. The offense, in white jerseys, had been assigned the near side; the defense, in blue, had taken the longer walk gathering on the far side. As usual, such arrangements catered to the offense.
Even though it was only 8:30 in the morning, the campus grounds were teaming with Blizzard fans jockeying for the best vantage points behind the temporary fencing enclosing the practice fields. They came from all over Western New York and beyond to watch their team prepare for the upcoming season. The place was always a carnival of energy, but things were especially amped up this particular morning, and with good reason: this was the first day of full pads. The Blizzard was going to play some real football again.
Jack Driftwood, in his eighteenth NAFA training camp, had seen more than his share of hotshot rookies and lowly free agents come and go. To this point he had survived on know-how, twenty-inch guns, and what he considered to be good looks. He maintained an even-keeled approach and was self-aware enough to know the primary reason he was back for yet another campaign was the high-priced, prima donna, pretty-boy rookie stretching in front of him. His primary role was to groom the lad and expedite the process of making him a pro, if not a Star-Bowler.
Another savior had arrived to lead the Buffalo Blizzard back to the Promised Land – the NAFA championship game known as the Mega Bowl. Steven Stark, Buffalo’s first-round draft pick, chosen fifth overall the previous spring, had inked a lucrative, five-year deal the night before and was in uniform. The team had traded up on draft day to select Stark, an inside linebacker by trade, and he had immediately been anointed as a franchise-type player by the media and fans alike, even though he had yet to take a single snap in professional football. The local media championed him as the defensive stopper Buffalo desperately needed to get over the hump and back to the playoffs. His acquisition had spurred open talk amongst the fan base of a realistic shot at a return to the playoffs after a sixteen-year hiatus. Praise God Almighty! The long drought was about to end and today was its genesis. A true Blizzard fan wouldn’t miss this occasion for all the chicken wings in the Southtowns.
Driftwood relished the thought of being Steven Stark’s mentor. The game had been passed down to him over the years and it was a matter of pride to return the favor. He hadn’t had a rookie prospect of Stark’s magnitude his entire career. It was time to unlock the vault of sacred knowledge and spoon feed the golden boy.
Anticipation of the season’s initial full-contact hitting session made patience no longer a virtue. An overzealous fan, barebacked with his face painted in the Blizzard team colors – red, white and powder blue – clung to the top of a fifteen-foot high fence separating the practice field from bleachers packed with Blizzard faithful. He cried out to his new hero.
“Steven Stark! Yer the best, man! Yer gonna kick ass all the way to the Mega Bowl!”
The crowd cheered and rocked the fence, nearly flinging the painted fan to the ground. A young, hot chick in a low-cut Blizzard tank top yelled, “We love you, Steve Stark!” which set off a round of high-pitched screams usually reserved for rock stars.
Driftwood hadn’t seen a training camp crowd this worked up since Ben Brady, the team’s quarterback, had arrived as a top draft pick three years earlier.
“What the hell, Stark,” Driftwood called out, “you bring your whole family of webbed-footers down here just to watch you practice?”
Stark turned and looked at Driftwood as if he were covered in fresh feces. “They sure as hell ain’t the Driftwoodies, no bikers, sleazebags, or druggies.”
The Driftwoodies were the Jack Driftwood Fan Club. And Stark was exactly right; they were one sorry-ass collection of humanity. Jack wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“You got that right, dickhead,” he shot back, “the real people appreciate Jack Driftwood.”
He laughed and snapped on his helmet as he headed for the linebacker’s drill area when the whistle blew. His rookie had a lot to learn but the kid definitely had some spite. Spite could be good, especially in this business, as long as you could back it up.
The team went through a strictly monitored fifteen-minute agility period, which was basically no more than a thorough warmup before the 9-on-7 segment started. This was where the fur would begin to fly.
The 9-on-7 drill was just that, nine guys on offense against seven on defense using only running plays. This drill was where the ground game was to be honed to perfection through live blocking against full-speed defenders. More importantly, it would separate the men from the boys. Only wide receivers and defensive backs were kept out of the action. Those faint-hearts worked on one-on-one pass coverage drills on the opposite field.
Howard Ivy, the octogenarian Buffalo head coach, brought the team up for his customary chat prior to the first live, physical contact of the season. Coach Ivy was a highly educated man and felt it was important his team understood why things were being done a certain way, believing this knowledge would maximize the results. That was his style and at the age of eighty-two he was too damn old to change it now.
“Alright, fellas,” the venerable coach began, “this is the initial full-contact drill of the year so be sure to protect yourselves at all times. No hitting the quarterbacks, no chop blocking, no live tackling. Just thud the ball carrier and then let him run on. We are working together. Any questions?”
“Yeah, how the hell are we supposed to have any fun?” Driftwood asked.
There was muffled, nervous laughter, but the coach’s only response was a quick smile displaying some expensive dental work and a chirp of his whistle.
Upon that whistle, Bo-Bo Karpinski, the Blizzard’s 345-pound nose tackle, held up both arms and screamed at the top of his lungs.
Instantly the defensive huddle formed around the mammoth hulk like an odd shapes and sizes puzzle. Driftwood stood with Steven Stark poised to call the defense in front of the assembled mass of humanity. But first, Lester Faber, the Blizzard’s defensive coordinator, had a few words for his troops.
Coach Faber looked around ponderously and then pulled the signature, unlit, chewed-up, soggy cigar out of his mouth and spat on the ground.
“Men, this is our drill. Now, I don’t give a shit what they say on the other side of the ball. Never have, never will. We are on defense and they are on offense, you have to hate those communist cocksuckers! We are out here for one thing and one thing only…to win! So let’s kick us some asses and let them worry about taking the names.”
Coach Faber’s little speech achieved the desired effect as the grown men began screaming out profanities and pounding on one another. Indeed, they were ready for some football.
Driftwood made the defensive call and, after breaking the huddle, snagged Bo-Bo Karpinski by the face mask.
“Grab the Tank and don’t let that sumbitch off the line,” he growled.
Bo-Bo’s fat, red, freckled face was ablaze and spittle flecked the corners of his mouth. His face and eyes were bulging out of what appeared to be a two-sizes-too-small helmet. In short, Bo-Bo looked to be a small step from requiring the strict constraints of a straitjacket and the confines of a padded room, perhaps for an extended stay.
Bo-Bo didn’t like being told anything, but he trusted Jack Driftwood. The “Tank” was the Blizzard’s Star-Bowl left guard, Jeremy Patton, the man likely to block Driftwood on the first play. Bo-Bo finally comprehended the situation and nodded slowly. He smiled sickly and slapped Driftwood upside the helmet hard enough to make his ears ring.
Ben Brady took the NAFA's top-ranked offense from the previous year out of the huddle and to the line. The Buffalo attack, nicknamed the “BB-Gun Offense” after Brady’s initials, had kept many a NAFA defensive coordinator awake at night. Initially the term BB-Gun Offense was meant in a derogatory fashion, as the Blizzard attack had been about as lethal as a BB-gun Brady’s first two seasons. However, after last year’s explosive production, the joke was on Buffalo’s opponents and the nickname stuck. But this was a controlled drill with no tricks or hurry-up, no-huddle tempo, just straight-ahead, dick-in-the-dirt, smash-mouth football.
Brady cozied up under the center and called out the cadence. He took the snap, reversed out and handed the ball to Earl Johnson, the team’s Star-Bowl running back, on a simple zone play over the left guard. Upon the snap, Bo-Bo nimbly stepped to his right and grabbed the surprised Tank. Driftwood took advantage and shot through the resulting gap, smashing Earl Johnson in the backfield for a two-yard loss. The collision sounded like a train wreck with no survivors. The crowd loved it!
Earl Johnson, not so much. He jumped up and threw the ball at Jack.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, dickwood? This ain’t the goddamn Mega Bowl!”
“Golly gee, Earl, I am truly sorry,” Jack said. “I didn’t hurtcha did I, little fella?”
“Fuck you, wood-dick.”
Offensive line coach Mike Pelosi broke up the party. He went after the Tank like a howitzer for letting Bo-Bo grab him. The Blizzard’s season of destiny had officially begun.
Back in the defensive huddle, Stark was impressed. “Not bad for an old man.”
Driftwood limited his response to a grunt and made the next huddle call. He was all business. As the huddle broke he grabbed Stark by the arm.
“They are coming your way, asshole, outside,” he said and roughly pushed the rookie away.
Stark started to protest but Brady and the offense were already lined up. Earl Johnson took the pitch and headed around the end toward Stark’s side. Stark got there and stopped the play for no gain, riding Johnson out of bounds. The rowdy crowd went crazy and began chanting “Stee-ven Star-ark.”
Not bad, Driftwood thought. Maybe this kid is the real deal. Maybe the fucker can play.
Only time would tell.
THEY TOOK A BRIEF water break after the 9-on-7 period. Stark filled a cup with water and offered it up to Driftwood, flashing his big, goofy grin.
“You called every play out there,” he said.
Driftwood downed the water, crumpled the paper cup and threw it at Stark, beaning him in the forehead.
“They do the same shit every year, rook. Tomorrow they’ll install the trap and ol’ Bo-Bo will get ear-holed a few times, get madder than hell and start a fuckin’ fight. Same shit every year.” The simplicity of it made Jack smile.
Buffalo’s General Manager, Donald Allen Fegel Jr., appeared out of nowhere bearing a cup of water for Stark. “Great job out there, Steven.”
Fegel made a grand gesture of lightly delivering the water with his pinky flared out wide and a slight bow in posture.
“Old habits die hard, huh, Feegs,” Driftwood said, smiling wide. “Don’t forget to pick up the kid’s shitty jock after practice and give it a good wash.”
Fegel’s ears turned crimson with anger and resentment. “Very funny, Driftwood – by the way, you look a step or two slower. Is it old age or are you just carrying a little extra weight for camp?”
“If it’s the weight, it sure as hell ain’t in my back pocket, your bean counters gave all the dough to this here blue-chipper.” Jack poked Stark in the ribs, making him spill the cup of water. “But don’t worry, Feegs. I’ll make sure you get your money’s worth.”
“See that you do, Mr. Driftwood, or you won’t be here long enough to cry about it.” Fegel turned his focus back to Stark, beaming up at him. “You just keep up the good work, Steven. If you need anything, and I mean anything, just let me know.”
Fegel left but not before shooting one last menacing look at Driftwood. They had both been with the franchise the previous seventeen years, and that entire time there had been nothing but animosity between them. Yet here they were, fighting like hell for the same thing: to bring a NAFA title to the Queen City on the Niagara. So far, somehow, they had managed to coexist.
“Hey, rook,” Jack called after Fegel slunk away. “Don’t listen to that douche. You got a stupid question, ask me. I love stupid questions.”
“No! So quit asking stupid-ass questions. But seriously, we are heading out for a few pops in the metropolis of Dunkirk tonight after the meetings. Prepare to be dazzled.”
“Ooh! I can hardly wait!”
Jack wasn’t sure if the kid was serious or just being a smart ass – probably both. He didn’t have time to mull it over, though. Coach Ivy blew his trusty whistle and they were off and running to the next drill.
THE HOT BLONDE SPINNER folded her arms around her large bodice and pouted. Ben Brady leaned in and mashed his face into her cleavage and blew like you would on a baby’s tummy. The resulting sound was akin to Bo-Bo Karpinski breaking wind, which he did with an alarming frequency. Everybody laughed and Brady came up for air, shouting to the bartender to fetch another round before turning his attention back to the doubly-blessed lass. He whispered something into her ear and she pretended to take offense, slapping his arm lightly before giggling like a little school girl.
Jack smirked at the wide-eyed expression on Steven Stark’s face and handed his rookie another ice-cold draft from the bar.
“Brady gets more ass than a toilet seat,” he told Stark. “Hang around long enough and you might be in line for some sloppy seconds or a runner-up or two. I’ve been down that dirt road of regret a few times myself, pards. It ain’t worth it, but I can see you’re gonna have to learn that lesson the hard way.”
“Nothing wrong with a little trial and error,” Stark replied. His eyes were glued to the blonde’s chest. Apparently several tall drafts from Coughlin’s Olde Irish Pub in downtown Dunkirk were beginning to have an effect on Stark’s gonads. “Damn! Those are some Tig ol’ Bitties”
“No denying that. Ol’ girl is rackin’ it out. You want to meet that little monster?” Jack asked.
“I’d like to meet ‘em both,” Stark laughed, swilling down the rest of his draft.
Jack slid off his barstool and pushed through the crowd to where Brady was holding court. He leaned in and shouted over the din into the quarterback’s ear.
“My rookie over there has taken a profound liking to your well-endowed friend. The kid’s got a taste for tots.”
Brady broke into his best backwoods grin as he spotted Stark making his way over. He held up his hand for a high-five to which Jack obliged.
“No problem, bro,” Brady replied. “The kid looks like he could use a serious spit shine.”
Brady put his arm around the blonde and pointed toward the approaching Steven Stark and whispered into her ear again, eliciting another round of giggles.
Jack smiled contentedly as he scoped out Coughlin’s from his usual seat at the end of the bar. Not much had changed in this place over the years; there were dartboards hanging on the back wall, cheap beer signs randomly hung about, and Christmas lights strung limply around the etched mirror behind the long, oak bar. It also appeared the same collage of patrons packed the place.
Locals made up nearly half of the sizable crowd crammed into the main room. Then there were the Blizzard fans who stayed in town long after practice to quench their thirsts and hopefully rub elbows with some Blizzard players. The main attraction was the various women that come from every nook and cranny of the surrounding area dressed for battle in the dive bar. It was as if Prince Charming was holding a ball and every ugly step-sister from the countryside had received an invitation. There was always plenty of slop at the trough and hay in the loft at Coughlin’s during the annual Blizzard Training Camp, but seldom was there any princess material.
Until Cinderella walked in, that is.
Driftwood saw her coming through the door. She was an earth-angel, a vision of beauty. Her dark hair glistened, even in the dim light, as it framed her aristocratic face. Her skin glowed, highlighting her high cheek bones that shone despite the fact she wasn’t caked in make-up like the other lady warriors battle-clad in the dingy bar. She was dressed conservatively in a blue jacket and pants with a white lacy blouse that ruffled at the collar. She was obviously a damsel in distress, dangerously out of her element at Coughlin’s Pub.
Jack wove through the crowd to the rescue without taking his eyes off of her. She spotted him coming a mile away and flashed a faint smile before looking around as if plotting an escape.
Too late, princess. Jack Driftwood’s in the house.
“EXCUSE ME, CINDEREALLA, but aren’t you a little late for the ball?”
“I like to make an entrance,” she said. She gazed around the crowded saloon looking for somebody – anybody – to rescue her from what was bound to be a lame come on from the quintessential meathead. Then she stared Driftwood straight in the eyes and said with unmistakable disdain, “I can see Prince Charming isn’t here yet, either.” It sounded like eye-thur.
Driftwood’s hearty laugh was drowned out by the louder roar that filled the room. Steven Stark was dancing up on the bar with the blonde bombshell and Brady had reached up and torn her buttoned blouse wide open. Her lacy, black bra was losing the battle of the bulges and the crowd was hungry for the kill. Stark’s hands were in search of the Holy Grail as he ran them all over the writhing girl.
“Ah, but you are mistaken, that’s Prince Charming right there,” Driftwood said. “You’ll have to forgive his youthful protuberance.”
“Um, no. Exuberance. I’m pretty sure I said exuberance,” Driftwood said. “Anyways, what brings her Highness to such a humble establishment?”
She pulled back and looked more carefully at Jack Driftwood. He looked like a cowboy from an old cigarette commercial, ruggedly handsome with a deeply tanned face. She saw a broad nose, scarred at the bridge, and a strong jawline. His big, light-blue eyes carried a hint of laughter. His smile was disarming and showed dimples on both cheeks. His neck was massive and his shoulders incredibly thick. His hair was full and the color of gold but too long for her tastes, although she was instantly jealous of his natural curls. He’d have to lose the Fu Man Chu, but overall he looked pretty much like his photo in the 2015 Buffalo Blizzard Media Guide.
“I’m here on royal business,” she said, slightly flustered by the intensity of his gaze.
Jack nodded. “I see. Well, Miss Cinderella, I’d love to buy you a drink and hear all about it.” He paused to tap his watch. “But I’m about to turn into a pumpkin. Curfew. But maybe I can get your number and, I don’t know, maybe give you the royal business some other time?”
“I’m afraid that’s not a good idea,” she said. “There is always trouble when royalty mixes with commoners.”
“What about protuberances?” he asked, but he was drowned out as the bar crowd erupted again.
The blonde’s bra had lost the battle and Brady was swinging it around like an old fashioned slingshot. He let it go and it sailed across the room right at them. Driftwood instinctively reached up and snatched it out of the air. He started to bring it to his nose but saw she was mortified. Maybe it was the look on her face, maybe not, but something made him stop. He turned the garment around to read the tag.
“Excuse me?” She asked.
“Frederick’s of Hollywood, quality stuff,” he said holding it out for her inspection.
She recoiled in utter disgust, totally grossed out and not wanting it to touch her skin anywhere. She was ready to just turn around and walk out of the place when he took a step back, almost as if in retreat, and flashed a sheepish look. Without a word he slightly bowed, turned, and began to work his way back through the crowd. She watched as he threw the bra back at Brady who immediately brought it to his face and inhaled deeply. Thoroughly disgusted, she headed for the door but couldn’t resist taking one last gander at Jack Driftwood. He had grabbed Prince Charming off the bar by the legs, thrown him over his shoulder, and was heading for the back door.
But then he stopped and turned to look at her one last time. When they locked eyes he smiled wide and held her gaze. Then he winked at her and turned and headed out the door with his drunken buddy hanging over one shoulder. She couldn’t help but smile, if only at the absurdity of such a scene.