The linemen prepared, individually, in the following way:
"Baby, you ready?"
"Just another minute, OK."
"You said that eight minutes ago. C'mon now. You know I can't be late for this. Hell, game starts in forty minutes. What you doing up there anyway? C'mon now."
"I said I'm coming!"
"Don't get snappy now. Don't leash out on me, woman."
She came down the stairs looking as beautiful as when they first met. He knew she'd look like this, but it always surprised him just a little at first. Most of his friends' wives had started to show some signs of aging at this point in their lives, but this woman, his girl, had this rare, eternal beauty that forced him to put up with her constant delays such as this one.
"I just, damn... You're so beautiful, baby. How'd I ever get so lucky, ugly man like me?"
"Well, these muscles don't hurt," she smiled, squeezing his still formidable bicep.
They embraced, kissing at the bottom of the stairs. Time passed. Their dogs, both of them, rallied toward their feet. He pulled away from her, looked in her eyes, kissed her again, more passionately this time.
"I'm gonna have to do my lipstick all over again, Marcus."
"Forget it. Let's forget the whole deal. Let's just stay home. Watch the game naked in front of the fireplace."
"Heck no! This is your big day," and she started laughing as he tickled her, grabbed her butt, kissed her earlobe.
"Sometimes I think I've made you spend your whole life re-living my old life," he said with a sincerity that made her stop laughing, his deep voice somewhat muffled in the distinct line between her lobe and jaw.
"Sugar," she pulled him back, wrapping her hands around his face. "When you succeed, I succeed. When you grow old, I grow old. When you're remembered--" and he kissed her again, small tears beginning in the ducts of his eyes. He had always been an emotional man, a fact his teammates sometimes gave him guff for, and sometimes embraced him for.
"Don't forget you jersey now," she said.
"They've got a new one for me at the stadium. All done up in the new colors and stuff, I guess."
"I love you, Marcus," she wiped his face gently with the back of her hand.
"I love you, baby."
They walked into the garage, hands together, and he let her chose which of their cars to take to the stadium. It was a bright day, with an honest breeze, signs of fall coming into the air. Still, she chose the silver convertible.
"So we can ride home with the top down," she said.
As he guided her into the passenger seat, he looked around the garage at the series of memories hanging upon the walls: pictures mostly, a few banners and signs bearing his former likeness, and a large, life-size poster showing him in full celebration after a quarterback sack.
Her door closed, he walked around to the driver's side, but paused first in front of the poster, looking for the briefest moment at the look on his face. He studied the scowl, the rage, the passion. An anger swelled up inside his gut, but he quickly suppressed it by clenching both fists and his jaw. Walking back to the car, he spat on the ground, then calmly opened his own door.
"Crap all hell! Danny, you watchin this?! You gotta watch this crap sheet! Lookit this guy! This puss kid! Kint even tackle. Kint even wrap his skeeny puss arms round that Alstott boy, and here the givin this kid mor'n ten minutes on the pre-game show. Danny, you gotta check this out!"
"What's that, pop?" he walked into the living room from the kitchen, a White Castle cheeseburger in one hand, a Dr. Pepper in another.
"I said you gotta see--Aw sheet, Danny. It ain't even noon. Where the hell you get them Castle from?"
"They make 'em for take home now. For the microwave," his jaw working a moist pickle. "You want one? Only takes 'bout ninety seconds..."
"Danny!" and he stood from the couch, grabbing his elder son's gut. "The hell is this?! What the hell is this! You know? It's fat, boy! It's gut! The sheet I tell you last week bout eatin all the damn time? Member puss gut? Member? Member what I said bout all that eatin? Sheet gonna slow your ass down, boy. Gonna let them black boys run the fuck past you. They're runnin, and you're eatin!"
"Hell, pop. Jus' hungry, I guess. Coach says I need to git bigger."
"Well bigger ain't stronger. You need stronger. Strong. Lookit. Look here," and he grabbed a photo off the mantle, sticking it before his son's eyes. "Now do I look all fat and chubby here, boy? Hell no. Hell no. I look fit and men and gnarly as some junk yard dawg."
"Sure, pop. Yeah, you was lookin' real mean back then."
"And lookit me now. Here. Here, feel this gut. Feel this here shoulder, boy! Hard as Pittsburgh steel! Hard as they come! You gotta quit all that sheet food. Fuck that coach. How the hell he even became a Division 1 leader I'll never git. Must know someone's daddy. You listen to me. You wanna go pro. Wanna git there? Huh? Listen to me, boy. Now where's your brother? We gotta git."
"He's upstairs," a small burp from the Castle.
"I'll go git 'em."
"No. I will," and he brushed past his son.
"Naw, let me do it, pop," grabbing a chunk of the rock shoulder. "I'll do it. You chill, relax. Your big day and all. Don't go startin' with Hal this morning. I'll do it," and he displayed hustle up the stairs, moving up them in steps of twos and threes.
Dawg went back to the couch, turned back to the television.
"Still with this boy! Sheet! He a d-back! Show me some Goddamn tacklers, TV! The hell we wanna see these speed boys fer?"
The pre-game went to commercial, then came back on for a few minutes to let all five hosts give their predictions for the week. Dawg agreed silently with some, argued aloud about others, "The hell you pickin the Browns fer, Terry Bradshaw?" Another commercial came over the screen, causing Dawg to realize the passage of time. He look at his watch, the special commemorative, limited edition one he had placed on his wrist for this special day. He thought about the day it was given to him by the former league commissioner. He thought about who he stood with on that day, and how he would be standing with the small, elite faction of that group today.
He stood from the couch, and again went to the mantle and the photo of himself upon it. He looked at it for a moment, then spat into the fireplace.
"Boys!" a pause. "Boys!" and he stomped toward the stairs, then up the stairs, then past the bedroom that he now shared with no one. He found the door to his younger son's room closed, and opened it without knocking. He found his older son, a bag of chips in his lap, sitting before the computer. His younger son read from a small book on the desk, while buttoning up his shirt.
"The fuck is goin on in here?! We gotta git. Game starts in forty."
"You said your thing goes at halftime though," Danny said through a handful of Funions.
"Give me that!" and the father ripped the chips from his elder son's hand, opened the window behind the desk, and tossed them down the two floors leading to the driveway. "There. Let them birdies git all fat, stead of you. And this," picking up the pamphlet his second son Hal had been reading, "The fuck I tell you bout his boy? Speed the Plow," in a voice filled with years of anger and loss, rage and dissatisfaction. "By David Mamet. I'll show you how to speed the fuckin plow, boy. How many people git in shape in this fuckin play? How many people test their strength? Their endurance? I'll bet fuckin-A nobody," and the pamphlet went the way of the chips. Danny arched his head outside the window. Hal gave a look of familiarity.
"Shoot, it landed right next ta the chips..." Danny said.
"Now put down yer fuckin themes, and put down yer fuckin fat, and git yer asses in the Bronco fore I toss the two of you out there next!"
Hal started to say something, one of a thousand things he could've said, but instead took the moment to think. He knew he'd get the play back later, and he knew that if his father tore the script to pieces like he had done countless times before, he could get another copy from his college library. He'd simply have to pay that small fee again. "Sorry," he'd tell the cute psychology major who worked the fees desk in her down time, "guess I just left it somewhere by accident. Probably the park or something. What's the damage?"
The father ran his eyes over his two sons, then left the room abruptly, slamming the door behind him. The boys said nothing. Danny went back to checking his stats on his team's computer page, Hal began tying his tie. They stopped for a moment, and listened to their father shouting, cursing in the next room.
"You think mom will show up today?" Hal asked his older brother.
"Doubt it, dude. Would you support that asshole?"
"Well," checking his now-completed half-windsor in the mirror, "we are."
"I don't think she'll show."
"Boys!" the voice came from somewhere downstairs, but neither of them leapt, so used to the screams at this point in their lives. Instead, Danny gave out a short laugh.
"Sorry bout yer book, dude," the older brother said.
"Don't sweat it. Thanks though. C'mon, we better get going," placing a coat over his shoulders to complete the outfit. "Hey, does dad need to bring his jersey?"
"Naw. They're given him a new one. With all the new colors'n stuff."
"You all set?"
"Aren't you going to put on a tie?"
"Nope," turning off the computer screen.
"Whatever," and they stood together, checking their hair, their skin, feeling the back of their pants, making sure wallets were in tow.
"Man, I'm hungry again."
"We'll get some dogs at the stadium."
The heart rate was just as he wanted it. With eyes on his specialty watch, and his right middle and index fingers lodged at the top of his neck, beneath his right jaw bone, he breathed slowly, happily.
He scooped up the Sunday paper before his driveway. In mid-bend his neighbors the Basils, Jack and Jean, drove by, likely coming back from church. He smiled at them, that famous smile, and thought he caught Jean, through the passenger-side window, catching a look at his butt. He sprinted up the driveway, a light sweat over his face as he added this flat burst to his usual, four-mile morning run. He checked the heart rate again, and satisfied, fingered the code to open his garage.
Inside the fridge were four or five different kinds of Gatorade. He looked at them, all nice and organized in rows of their respective color. Choosing the purple, he twisted the cap off carefully, being sure not to spill even a drop on his newly finished kitchen tile. He drank three-fourths of the contents in a single swallow, twisted the plastic bottle closed, then re-opened it as he stood before the paper. He looked at the picture of himself and the three other men he'd be recognized alongside with later in the day. He finished the purple drink, looked closely at the picture again, then spat in to the bottle before carefully closing it, then throwing it away in the compactor.
Standing in his bathroom, mirrors on all four walls and the ceiling above, he admired his right bicep, then his left, then smiled the same smile he'd been coached to contort for the shaving ads he'd done for the past twelve years.
The phone rang in his bedroom, but he let the machine get it. He now tested his triceps and forearms as a woman's voice came out of the small speaker.
"Jack? Jack are you there? Maybe you've left already hot stuff ... Hello ... It's Gwen. Anyway, I had a great time last night. Sorry you couldn't stay. I'm looking at my calendar right now. I've got trial on Wednesday and Thursday, so Tuesday and Wednesday night I'm going to be a good girl and stay in, but any other time, any other night, or lunch, or whenever, I'd love to spend some time with you this week. Call me when you can, or maybe I'll get you later tonight. Have fun at the stadium. I'll be watching..."
With the click of her phone he went to the shower and started the water. He then went into the bedroom, listened to the message again, then erased it.
He stood in the bathroom naked, running gel through his hair. The phone rang again.
"Jack? Jack are you there?" a husky man's voice coming through the speaker. "Jack it's Bill ... Maybe you already took off. Game starts in forty minutes, so maybe you're gone. Anyway, just wanted to remind you: No need to bring your jersey. We've got a new one here for ya. New color scheme and the whole deal. Just a reminder. Anyway--Oh, and, a heads up. Olsen told me to tell you that P.R. woman, the one who used to work with the Colts, can't remember her name ... Anyway, she will be there. Don't know what that means, Olsen said you'd want to know. Anyway, see you in the suite."
"Great," he whispered sarcastically to himself, moving the double-edged blade over his chiseled face, just like the commercial.
He stood in the closet and settled on a suit, a gray number he hadn't worn for some time. The phone rang, and although he heard the machine pick it up, he was unable to decipher the caller's voice from deep in the closet.
Dressed and ready, he went back downstairs, into the kitchen, and picked an orange from the bowl of fruit upon the counter, near the sink. He peeled it, then began reading the story about himself and the other men. He picked up these sports pages, and brought them outside to the porch, along with the orange. He read until he came to the end of the page, then tossed the paper on the shelf of his grill as he dug into the nectar. He closed his eyes, enjoying the nutrition. He kept them closed and thought about the day that was to be. Taking a final bite, he opened his lids and took a moment to ingest the wooded scene before him. Breathing deeply through his nose, he licked his fingers clean.
Back in the kitchen, he washed his hands. He thought about how he'd left the paper outside, and decided to let it be, he'd get it when he came home.
In the main floor bathroom he gave himself a quick look, re-checking his hair, adjusting his coat and tie. Satisfied, he headed toward the garage. As he opened the door, the phone rang. The machine picked up the call as his garage door ascended, revealing signs of a perfect fall day.
The knocking ... then knocking ... then more knocking. Finally, he let his eyes drift from the hotel window, and the stadium beyond it, and responded to the hails.
A single knock.
"Hold on," and he half-walked, half-stumbled to the door, nearly tripping over a bed corner on his way there. He opened the door a sliver, showing half his face to a young man in a classic bellhop ensemble.
"I think it's cool you guys still wear that."
"Sorry about all the knocks, sir. It's just that the, um, the people next door said they heard some, some banging, and--"
"It's all right now. Everything's good," he covered his mouth slightly when he spoke.
"Yes, sir. OK, then. Just wanted to make sure everything was fine because we placed several wake up calls as well, as you requested, and--"
"Got up all by myself. All me."
"Very good, sir," and he stared for moment at the half-face on the other side of the door. "Hey, aren't you Barry Ellerton?"
"J-Joel. Joel Pepper," and he arched his chest in to the door crack, showing the man behind it his name tag.
"Who sent you here?"
"Sent? No, nobody sent, well, like I said, the people next to you thought that--"
"Come in here," and he opened the door fully, hiding behind it, and gestured the boy in with a flailing hand motion. The boy looked to his left in the hallway, then to his right, and again to his left as if crossing the street before breaking the threshold of the room.
The stench was unforgiving, and the young bellhop covered his nose to block out the multiple stenches: booze, filth, some kind of burnt attempt at food in the open microwave, and more booze.
"I see you've made use of our microwave feature, sir," turning behind him to address the man as he closed, then locked the door.
"The microwave. Our kitchenette feature, sir."
"Oh. Yeah. Burrito. Got it at the gas station sometime last night. Didn't take," and he picked up the concoction still inside it's now-melted sheath, examined it with his nose. "Hhhmnnn. You want this?"
"Oh, that's OK, sir. Had myself a continental breakfast ..." and he looked at the digital clock on the night stand, "just and hour ago. You know, it's a little late for it, we stop serving it after eleven, but I could probably arrange for someone to send one up here. You get toast, and fruit, and some cereal. Should I do that, sir? Should I make a call?"
"Don't touch that phone," and the man walked back to the window, where he picked up a bottle of something clear and brought it to his lips.
"Sir," used to the smell now, bringing his hand away from his mouth, "and this is likely none of my business. But aren't you due at the stadium today? I think the game starts in forty."
"Here," and he walked to the boy. "Help me finish this. Can't go until it's all gone. C'mon now, take yourself a good swig."
"Sir, I really shouldn't. I mean I can't. I could get fired."
"And you call yourself a bellhop," in a grim, defeated tone. "It's easy, you just go like this," and the man tilted back the bottle, then his head, then fell backwards on the bed, the clear liquid gurgling its way down his throat.
"Wow, um, that's ... Hey, I read in the paper this morning that you, you and those other guys will be wearing the new jerseys, with the new colors and stuff. That's, that's really great."
"Oooowww!!!" and he leapt up from the bed, ran to the window and spat on it, gobbing his once-clear view of the stadium. "C'mon Joel Pepper. C'mon now. Don't make me finish this by my lonesome. Teammate. Teammate. Here we go, take 'er back," and he jammed the bottle inside the boy's hand.
"Sir, really, I mean if it was off-hours then--"
"Tilt it back. Can't leave until she's gone. C'mon kiddo!"
And the bellhop succumbed to the pressure, and took a small, sloppy drink, clear liquid dripping down his chin.
"Yeah! Yeah, there she goes! My man!" and the boy took another loose tilt. "This is how we do it!" he sang with an edgy rise. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, this is how we do it!"
There was a knock at the door, and the bellhop dropped the bottle in a panic. Not knowing what to do, he scrambled atop one of the room's two beds, located a mint somewhere between the pillows, and quickly crunched it around his mouth.
Another knock, and the young bellhop threw an already disheveled sheet over both his antiquated uniform and his head.
He walked to the door as another knock rapped the other side.
"Yeah, I'm comin'!" and he caught his breath as he reached out and grabbed onto the handle. He opened the door in a flash to find an authority figure of some kind waiting in the hall.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Mr. Ocosta, Assistant Manager of the hotel," and with a smile that was overused he produced a business card from inside his jacket.
"What do you want?"
"Well, just following through on a request you made, sir. A request, let me see ..." and from the opposite inside jacket pocket he removed a small, neatly folded sheet of paper. "Ah yes, you requested a white limousine for eleven-thirty. The order was placed," and he examined the sheet again, "last week."
"So I was asked to come up to tell you the car is here. I'm afraid that's all I was told. Is there something else, sir?" and the stench of the room began to drift into the hall, into his nostrils, and his eyes. He brought his cuff before his face, half-faking a sneeze to account for the mannerism. "Pardon me. But, really, is there anything else?"
"Do you know who Joel Pepper is?"
"Joel, yes, of course. Funny you should mention it. Seem to have lost track of him. Not uncommon in the hotel business, you understand. I believe," and he looked at the door behind him to re-establish the floor number, "yes, I believe he was said to have been sent to this floor, actually, for some purpose. Why do you ask, sir? Is there a problem?"
"Joel ... is a good man. A great man," he could feel the sauce properly taking its place within his head and body now. Everything was just fine. Everything would be allright. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be who I am, what I am, today. When you find him, shower that boy with affection. Give him a damn raise. Tell him 'ole Barry says hi," and he slammed the door with the same velocity with which he had opened it, before flinging it open again.
"And tell the car I'm running a wee bit late. I'll be down in twenty."
"Yes si--" and another slam. He walked back into his room, that old confidence rediscovered. A wry smile over his face, he took a moment to peek at the stadium through the now-distorted window, before jumping on the bed, leading with his right shoulder.
"Rest easy, little buddy. Everything's cool now."
"Was that Mr. Ocosta? It sounded like him."
"I don't know. Some guy in a suit," and Joel Pepper got out of the bed and patted down his uniform.
"I heard what you said, sir. Geez, that was pretty nice stuff."
"You see a tie with a bunch of footballs on it around here anywhere? I believe I'll wear that today."
"No, but I'll help you look," and the two of them shuffled through lumpy piles of clothes, and half-filled suitcases, as a white limousine waited downstairs in the valet lot. It's driver leaned against the hood of the car, smoking a cigarette, looking up at the massive hotel, wondering which person, in which of the hundreds of rooms, was keeping him off schedule.
They stood as they used to, four in a line, in formation, sans the pads, cleats, and helmets. The tunnel felt good, familiar, they had each mentioned it at some point during the early afternoon.
The first half had gone by quickly, with the home team, their former team, having scored an early touchdown, and added a late field goal. Their opposition managed only a long kick.
Olsen stood before them, a clipboard in hand, and he checked its contents diligently, running a pencil over whatever numbers, figures, names, and statistics covered the sequence of pages. His assistant, a young woman named June, who Olsen often referred to as "Juney," checked and re-checked their uniforms, looking for loose threads, small stains, anything that might disrupt the look of the halftime event. She offered each of them a bottle of water, or a comb, or a mirror.
Jack took the small piece of glass, and the others gave him crap for it. Barry took the water bottle, finished it, then asked for another and downed half of that one. Marcus arched his neck just outside the tunnel, looked up at the suite they had just left, and waved to his wife. Dawg started at Juney's curvy butt as she went to throw away Barry's first bottle of water.
Olsen said something, then something else, then something else, then completed his spiel with, " ... Showtime."
And then a swell through the foursome as they walked onto the field.
Everything left behind, the good and the bad, the successes and the downers, the wives and the children, the phone calls and the plans. Everything, all of it, replaced by the raw boom of the crowd. It filled them, assumed all the space reserved for life, and made them whole.
They reached midfield, looking good in their new jerseys, as Olsen took a cordless microphone and brought his voice through the stadium. They listened closely, each of them lowering their raised chins for a moment, at some point, to unknowingly spit onto the turf below them, then cover up their respective markings with the bottoms of uncleated dress shoes.
Copyright 2003 by Judd Spicer. All rights reserved.