GROWING UP ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE OF MANHATTAN, Cooper Benjamin learned to use his unusual foot speed to run away from the bullies that tormented him in and out of school. But when he wound up in the emergency room, unconscious and with a broken orbital bone from an encounter with a player of the knockout game, his parents, Melvin and Millie Benjamin, packed up and moved the family South, with a "Florida or Bust" sign in the back window of their minivan.
They were heading for the panhandle when their car broke down in Crockett County, Alabama, a place Melvin thought was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get east of the Mississippi. But they found a local man named Lamar Hawk to fix their car, and while he was working on it, Lamar's son Charlie invited "Coop" on a jaunt with him and his friends, AJ Crockett and Horace King.
Lamar had fixed the Benjamins' car by the time the boys got back that evening. But when Melvin said, "OK, hop in, let's go," Coop just stood there. He looked at his new friends and back at his mom and dad, and he said, "Y'all go. I'm gonna stay here." It just happened to be Coop's thirteenth birthday, and it was the first time in his entire life that he had used the word "y'all."
It didn't take more than that to convince Melvin and Millie to give Crockett County a try. At that time they were, as far as anyone knew, the only Jews in the county. But the way Charlie, AJ, and Horace welcomed him into their little tribe gave Coop a sense of belonging and camaraderie that turned his anxiety into confidence better and faster than any of his therapists back in New York ever came close to doing. Coop never missed a chance to gig frogs or shoot a rifle or eat grits and bacon or do anything that would burnish his country boy bonafides. But when the boys found how fast a runner he was, the die was cast. He was what they had been looking for: the fourth piece of the 4x400 relay team they had long dreamed of being.
But there was another reason Coop wanted to stay in Crockett County that day their car broke down.
Her name was Lizzie Crockett. She was AJ's 200-proof redneck big sister, and she was the most beautiful, sensual, beguiling creature he had ever laid eyes on. And when she gave him that wicked grin and winked at him, he thought it was the best bar mitzvah gift any Jew had ever gotten in the whole history of the world.