The other Tom Baxton

by Michael Ramberg

If you follow football maybe you know about Tom Baxton, the wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. His numbers are somewhere around three catches, fifteen yards a game, though in a pinch he'll come up with a big play. Last year, for instance, he scored a game-winning touchdown against San Francisco in the playoffs with no time left on the clock, the whole dramatic deal. Aside from that there's not much reason to know him unless you're a big football fan, which I'm not.

The reason I am aware of him, mostly, is that he has the same name as the brother of a girl I used to date. Her name was Lila, and she loved me for about twenty days during one summer between years of college. We'd meet at the corner and ride our bikes around the lakes, stopping for ice cream or peanuts sold from a cart. She was a much better rider than I was, riding faster and needing to rest less often. She could leave me far behind without a moment's notice, though she was polite enough to, for the most part, slow her pace to mine and not show her frustration at being held back by me. At night when we made love in run-down student housing I couldn't help but notice she was, again, the more athletic of us. And while she slept soundly, I awoke every half hour as if to make sure she was still there.

Her brother, the other Tom Baxton, was an epileptic, prone to savage fits and heavily medicated to prevent them. He couldn't drive because of the fits, and the medication he took made him sleepy and his hands shaky, so he spent most of his day around the house, ordering jazz records from catalogs and listening to them on a stereo in the basement. He had a large beard and large glasses, the effect being you never saw much of his real face except the tip of his nose, a round pink ball squeezed by the bridge of his plastic glasses. A couple of times Lila and I went out to her mother's, where Tom lived, to played canasta. He sat there with his cards in a trembling fan, peering intently to decide which to play next. Oh golly, he'd say after a clever play. He'd say, That's a corker. I smiled a little and so did Lila, then Tom looked up at us, bewildered at our amusement. Finally he smiled a little himself, or rather his beard rearranged itself, a tooth flashed from behind a lip, and he returned his attention to his cards.

On the last night we went out to play canasta with her brother, Lila and I drove home by way of the lakeshore, and sat parked for a while staring out at the lapping water. I leaned in and kissed her, and then we went back to my place and made love. Afterwards, lying there on my hand-me-down bed, she said she didn't want to see me any more. That school was starting and she had to concentrate on her studies. I figured that it was okay, at the time. We'd been talking all summer about that Sting song, how if you loved something, set it free. So I did, and she never came back.

A few weeks later, in East Lansing, Michigan, a wide receiver named Tom Baxton made a leaping catch at the back of the end zone to beat Wisconsin. I saw the replay and thought of Lila. I realized that if she'd have come back to me, I'd have probably wanted to marry her. Because she was beautiful and fun and easy-going. I'd been a fool to just give up the way I did. So I called her, and she told me she was too busy; classes had begun. When I pressed her, she said she was somehow involved with someone else. She was vague, evasive, distracted. He was a friend from a "while back," someone from another state who'd gone home for the summer. I got the impression that whatever she'd been doing with me, she'd always been thinking of him, waiting for his return. It was made clear to me without her saying it that he was a better biker than I was, that he was someone she didn't have to hold back for. Someone to whom she didn't have to apply her infinite patience. And in bed, well, you can imagine the inadequacies I considered.

There was a game against Iowa where Tom Baxton caught three touchdown passes but was overthrown in the end zone for the game winner. I decided to call Lila again. She was quiet again, even more distracted. When I mentioned the Tom Baxton at Michigan State, she told me that her brother Tom had died. Against medical advice, he'd mixed his medication with a glass of wine and had a bad reaction. Her mother found him in the basement, lying face up in a mess of CDs and jazz catalogs he'd knocked around during his final fit. Lila was distraught, couldn't think, and said she would call me back when her head was on straight. We'd have coffee. We'd take a ride around the lake. It was the last I heard from her.

After a forgettable rookie season with the Bills Tom Baxton was traded to Oakland, which released him. And that would have been all for Lila and me, too. I suspect she'd have sunk into that murky swamp of regrets we all carry around, from which there would have been only vague reawakenings. But next season Tom Baxton signed with the Falcons, where he's risen to the challenge. He's overcome whatever limitations he'd found in a higher league and made a name for himself this season as a go-to guy, the favorite clutch target of the team's hot new quarterback. And now, every time he makes the highlight show, he reminds me of Lila, who I might have been with even today, had circumstances been slightly different. I see the ball spiral in the replay and begin its slow descent to his waiting arms. I see the stunned defenders maneuver to cut him off as he turns upfield. It's in their eyes, their shame at not seeing him earlier for the threat he was. They wish they could turn back the clock about ten seconds to be in position. If they'd only known.

Copyright 2003 by Micahel Ramberg. All rights reserved.