Issue 213, Summer 2015
PROLOGUE: TODAY IN SPORTS HISTORY
November 18, 1985—Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, thirty-six, suffers a career-ending compound fracture of the right leg on a sack by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor during a telecast of ABC’s Monday Night Football. On first-and-ten from their own forty-six-yard line, early in the second quarter with the score tied 7–7, the Redskins attempt a trick play called a flea-flicker. Theismann hands the ball off to tailback John Riggins, who takes several steps forward and then pitches the ball back to Theismann. Theismann looks to throw a deep pass, but he immediately faces pressure from Giants linebacker Harry Carson. “Theismann’s in a lot of trouble,” says play-by-play commentator Frank Gifford. He steps forward into the pocket to avoid Carson, but Taylor, rushing from Theismann’s blind side, leaps onto his back. Theismann ducks, and as Taylor falls and spins, his thigh strikes Theismann in the calf with enough force to snap the bones of Theismann’s leg. “It sounded like two muzzled gunshots,” Theismann says later. Taylor stands quickly, waving to the Redskins sideline for medical help. ABC decides to show the reverse angle replay twice. “And I suggest,” Gifford says before the replay, “if your stomach is weak, you just don’t watch.” “When you see a competitor like Joe Theismann injured, especially this severely, I don’t think anyone feels good about it,” commentator O. J. Simpson says. Theismann receives an ovation as he is carried from the field at RFK Stadium on a stretcher. “I just hope it’s not his last play in football,” says commentator Joe Namath. Jay Schroeder replaces Theismann at quarterback, and the Redskins defeat the Giants 23–21. Theismann, a former league MVP who had played in 163 consecutive games, never plays again.
The woman at the front desk was squinting disapprovingly at her monitor. She touched her temple with her fingertips and blinked slowly, as if reluctant to resume eyesight. She did not look up.
“Is there any way that . . . ”
The woman twisted her thumb ring, grimaced at the data on the screen. She was not, she made clear, available for hospitality. The thumb ring, purchased from a street vendor, was vaguely Celtic in design.
“Would it be possible, at all, to check in?”
Robert’s voice was too high. He often had to remind himself to deepen his voice, but invariably it would rise again to a pitch that assured his auditor that he was nonthreatening. It was an animal signal; he might as well have had a shaggy tail tucked against his inseam. I submit to you, the pitch of his voice said. I acquiesce to the large desk, that brass pineapple. I would like another mint, but I will not take one. That clock behind me is immense, and though it appears to be slow, I will live by its decree.
“No,” the woman at the front desk said, without looking up from her monitor. “I’m sorry,” she added.
Robert nodded. “Thank you,” he said in a voice so deep that it hurt his larynx. The woman vacated her position, indicating that the interaction was complete. Robert watched her as she walked into a secret room behind the front desk. He felt abandoned.
Robert had been, characteristically, the first of the men to arrive at the hotel, a two-and-a-half-star chain off Interstate 95 recognized in online reviews for its exceptional service, atrocious service, pretty fountain, and bedbugs. He felt now the familiar burden of concern. It seemed, this and every year, profoundly unlikely that each of the other twenty-one men would show up. Standing alone by the fountain, holding a duffel bag and a football helmet, Robert had the anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious. He was dimly aware that his habit of arriving prematurely had more to do with apprehension than eagerness. He felt a need to count himself present.
The celebrated fountain in the center of the lobby was dry and quiet, cordoned off by yellow tape. A placard that partially obscured a notice from the department of health implored visitors to pardon the commitment to excellence. Scattered in the fountain’s arid basin was a constellation of coins, whitish and crusted. Robert gripped the yellow tape, stared at the desiccated wishes. There was nothing, he considered, more dry than an inoperative fountain.
Robert exited the lobby beneath an arbor of plastic vines. At the end of the hallway, the heavy door to the conference room was locked, but Robert peered through its small window. The carpet, a honeycomb design, was new, he thought. On the floor, propped against the lectern, was a framed poster of an icy summit that Robert could not recall from previous years. He tried the door again, but it was still locked. As he backed away, he nearly knocked over a wooden easel, which displayed, on a piece of creased foam board, the weekend schedule. The conference room, according to the schedule, was booked solid for a corporate retreat by a group called Prestige Vista Solutions. Robert double-checked the dates: November 17 and 18. Could he be, he wondered, in the wrong hotel? But no. There was the fountain, the huge clock, the weird brass pineapple, the dusty, waxen leaves of the arbor. He turned the foam board over, placing the schedule facedown against the easel. The reverse side displayed a bar-code sticker and an inexpert pencil sketch of a dolphin.
Back in the lobby, Robert chose a stuffed chair in the corner where he could see anyone who arrived or departed. The day outside was raw and gray, the low clouds bulging with cold rain. Robert unsnapped the chin strap from the helmet, and from his duffel bag he removed a sewing kit—a wicker box with a hinged lid—that had originally belonged to his first wife’s aunt. In the kit he found a faded and lumpy pincushion originally made to resemble either a tomato or an apple or a strawberry. Robert selected a needle from the pincushion, then a spool of white thread from the tidy spool boxes in the kit. He threaded the needle, realizing as he did so that he had become someone for whom threading a needle is difficult. Robert began to mend the chin strap, which had split longitudinally when he snapped it on last year. The white of the thread matched closely, though not exactly, the white of the chin strap.
When Charles passed through the automatic doors into the hotel lobby, he saw Robert sleeping in a chair so large and soft that it appeared to be slowly ingesting the unconscious man. Robert clutched a chin strap to his chest like a rag doll. A small wicker box with a hinged lid sat overturned by Robert’s feet, and a half dozen spools of thread, having emerged from the box, seemed to be making their perilous journey to the sea. Charles sat down on the edge of a soft chair, and Robert awoke, feeling embarrassed to be seen sleeping, then irritated for being made to feel embarrassed.
“Hello, Robert,” Charles said.
“I tried to check in,” Robert said, wiping the edges of his mouth with the collar of his shirt. He struggled to get out of the chair, reminding himself of his father. He knelt on the floor to pick up the errant spools of thread. Charles assisted by retrieving two spools, annoying Robert.
Charles asked Robert how his year had been.
“Not that great,” Robert said. “What time is it?”
The wicker sewing kit reminded Charles of his grandparents’ cabin on Lake Michigan. There had been a box there—though much larger, and not wicker—full of games and toys. While the adults talked and drank, he would sit on the floor, playing Barrel of Monkeys or Lincoln Logs. There had been another toy, a sketch of a bald man’s head encased in transparent plastic. With a magnetic stylus you dragged dirty iron filings to the man’s head, giving him hair, a mustache, a beard. The filings clung to the stylus like filthy moss. The man’s mood was entirely dependent, Charles had discovered, on the angle of the eyebrows.
“Twelve forty five,” Charles said.
Robert tidied his sewing kit, and Charles regarded the chin strap. Was it moths, he asked, that had damaged the strap?
“Not mine,” Robert said. “Wesley’s. Year before last.”
“Wesley, yes,” Charles said, with a scorn not linked to conviction. Wesley’s gear was often musty. Both men idly remembered the year that Vince’s Russ Grimm jersey ripped while he was pulling it over his shoulder pads.
“Where is everyone?” Robert said.
Charles, who counseled adolescent girls with eating disorders, wanted to tell Robert to put that thought in his worry box. “They’ll be here,” he said. “They always are.”
Charles rose from his chair and walked through the lobby. He circled the dry fountain. The woman at the front desk did not look up from her monitor. The woman, like so many women, was formidably attractive to Charles, primarily because she was so unaware of him. A sense of his own insignificance often made him lustful. He gripped the yellow tape surrounding the fountain. The woman took a long strand of hair from the back of her head and pulled it over to the front. She stared at it cross-eyed for a moment, then yanked with grim determination. She frowned, dropped the hair to the carpet, stared at her screen. Her nudity was a fantastical premise, as speculative in its particulars as dark matter or quarks. Charles vaulted lust, arriving somehow in jealousy, which confused him. This seemed grounds for expulsion, and he left the lobby beneath the arbor of dusty vines. An easel outside the conference-room door displayed a rudimentary sketch of a porpoise. He peered in, observed the new carpet, the burnished lectern. He returned briskly through the lobby to the sitting area, but did not sit.
Robert asked if Charles had seen the conference-room schedule, and Charles shook his head.
“It’s booked for a retreat,” Robert said. “All weekend it’s booked. Premium Vantage Systems or something.” In Robert’s imagination the retreatists all looked like sinister Bible salesmen. They just do whatever they want, Robert thought. They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms. They don’t benefit society.
Charles stood looking out the window to the parking lot. If it was not already raining, it would be soon. The sky had descended, gray and gravid. The automatic doors of the lobby opened, admitting only the wind, then closed.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Charles said. “We always have the conference room.”
Gripping the mended chin strap with both hands, Robert pressed it into his chin, testing its strength. His anger abated. It was difficult to sustain one’s anger in a chair so large and soft. As it turned out, Robert needed to talk to Charles. There was something he had been worried about.
“I’m glad you’re here, Charles,” he said.
“Okay,” Charles said, wishing he were still sleeping in a rest area.
“It’s something that happened to my daughter.”
“How old is she?”
Robert hesitated, wanting to get the answer right. “Six,” he said.
Charles indicated that Robert should continue.
“Well,” Robert said, “she broke her arm a couple of months ago on the playground.”
Charles noticed all of the smudges on the glass of the plate window. It was a record of desire. People touch windows, he thought, for reassurance. Running counter to the narrative of expansion was an equally prominent narrative of containment. “Robert,” he said, “you know I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a psychologist.”
“I know. This isn’t about her arm. Her arm healed up fine. It’s somehow probably stronger now than it was before. Can you sit down?”
“I don’t work with young children.”
“No,” Robert said. “This is more about me.”
“I work with adolescents with eating disorders.”
“The mind is the mind, right?”
Charles said that no, that was not right at all.
“When it happened,” Robert said, “I was upset. When she broke her arm, I mean. I was upset.”
“Sure. Of course.”
“It was upsetting. Do not get me wrong. She fell off the monkey bars and landed on her elbow. I was standing right there. It wasn’t like I was being inattentive. I was right there. Look, this would be easier for me if you were sitting down.”
“It’s not your fault, Robert. These things happen. Monkey bars, trampolines, bikes. When my son was—”
“She insisted on doing it. Absolutely insisted.”
“So you feel guilty?” Charles asked. He felt both relieved and disappointed to have arrived at such conventional trouble. “Are you talking about feelings of guilt?”
“She was crying in a way that I could tell was not fake. She has a fake cry that makes me want to jump through a plate-glass window. Do you know that kind of fake cry I’m talking about?”
“Yes,” Charles said. “I do.”
“But this was real, I could tell. And I was upset. I wasn’t glad about it.”
“Why would you be?”
“Exactly,” Robert said, laughing. “No. What?”
“Exactly,” Charles said.
“It’s not like I was happy when my own daughter broke her arm.”
“Robert. The idea of normalcy in human thought is something of a controversial concept, but I can absolutely assure you that your response was normal.”
“But still, I felt something weird. A twinge.”
Charles closed his eyes, placed his forehead against the cool smudged glass. “A twinge?”
“A small one,” Robert said, flailing for comfort in the enormous chair. With a calm voice Charles asked once again about the nature of the twinge.
“Not gladness,” Robert said, pulling the chin strap hard against his chin. “Maybe, I don’t know, a kind of satisfaction?”
“Satisfaction at her broken arm?”
“Not satisfaction. Not that at all. Not satisfaction. Come on. She was really hurt. I felt terrible for her, and I was upset. She fell asleep in the car, Charles. Just passed out. Her body kind of shut down. I don’t know, a certain kind of pleasure. But not pleasure. Maybe a twinge of vindication? It’s hard to describe. Not joy. I wanted to talk to someone about it. That’s why I was glad you came early.”
“I always come early.”
“This is a kid who just assumes everything is going to go exactly the way she wants it to go. She just knows everything works out. Maybe all kids are like this. Are all kids like this? She gets taken from the pool to the playground to the large inflatable climbing structures. She gets ice cream at all hours of the day. She has a thousand stuffed animals. We don’t have a real pet, Charles, but the vacuum cleaner is clogged with hair. All day long I say no. No, no, no, but as I’m saying it, I’m reaching for my wallet.”
Charles scanned the parking lot. Where was Tommy? Where was Gil? Where were Vince, Derek, and Steven?
“I drive her around looking for rainbows. We listen to princess music. Her booster seat has all these features. She hands me trash. ‘Here,’ she says, handing me fruit strips and chewed straws. I wipe food off her forehead and her neck, and I’m the bad guy, the mean dad. She has an idea about the way the world works, and this accident—falling off the monkey bars—was kind of a small—I don’t know—corrective. I wasn’t pleased, and I certainly never would have intentionally—”
“—and I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have tried to catch her if I had been a step closer. But I did feel, for just a second, this awful sense of certainly not gladness but maybe approval. Because I thought that it would be a good lesson?—do you see, Charles?—about the way the world actually works. You know, gravity. The body. Force times velocity. There’s not always some soft fairy bed of moss to—”
Charles said that he wanted to make sure that he understood clearly.
“I thought it might challenge her worldview,” Robert said. “I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to talk to someone about it. I wanted someone to tell me that it was normal for me to feel not glad, but you know, satisfied. Not satisfied.”
Charles turned away from the window and sat in a chair across from Robert. He cleared his throat, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Listen,” he said. “What I do know about children is that it’s important—some experts believe it is quite important—for children to negotiate risk and danger on their own, or else they might later be—or so it is thought—inordinately risk averse and timid, too reliant upon parental intervention. Are you saying, Robert, that you felt satisfied that your daughter was negotiating risk in a developmentally healthy way?”
“Aren’t you saying that, Robert? Isn’t that the fairly normal thing you’re saying?”
Robert said that it wasn’t.
“Yes, it is,” Charles said. “You’re saying that, for your child’s sake, for her own happiness and success, you would like her sense of reality to correspond more accurately to—”
“It was a different kind of twinge, Charles. It was like a twinge of justice. It was nearly the same feeling you get when you see very powerful people get indicted for corruption. When you see them duck into the backseat of a police car with handcuffs on. With the officer’s hand on their head?”
Charles stood again, and returned to the window. He saw one of the Michaels—Fat Michael—get out of his car and stretch. The hem of his shirt slid up, exposing an inch of his toned and hairless abdomen. Fat Michael was in fact remarkably lean and muscular and well proportioned. His nickname was a typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker. Charles had shared the linebackers’ hotel room (the “Fracture Compound”) with Fat Michael two years ago, and he remembered that body with admiration and repulsion. Fat Michael’s level of fitness made Fat Michael a walking rebuke of everyone else’s lifestyle choices. He had those veins in his arms and the kind of torso that tapers from chest to waist. He was a beautiful affront. He had engineered himself, his physical being, in his forties, to make others feel rotten, and what kind of person would do that? Without knowing it, Charles pinched the fat above his belt buckle. In the parking lot, Vince jogged over to Fat Michael—Charles thought Vince’s strides seemed exaggerated—and the two men shook hands, then stared at the ground, talking, scuffing their shoes. Charles envied their inane pleasantries in the cold.
“Robert,” he said, without turning around. Like certain zoo animals, the adolescents he worked with often did not want to be looked at directly. “When your daughter fell to the ground and then began crying in an authentic way, what did you do?” Charles knew this line of questioning was a substantial risk, but in his professional opinion it was justified. Also, he wanted this conversation to be finished.
Robert said that he got down on the ground with his daughter and brushed the wood chips out of her sweaty hair.
“I see,” Charles said. “And did you hesitate?”
No, he did not hesitate. He tried to calm her down. He told her everything would be fine.
“And then what did you do?”
Robert said he asked his daughter if she could walk to the car, and she nodded. He said he told her she was a brave kid. He picked up the curtain sash that the child uses as her long imaginary braid. It had fallen off of her head. He dusted it off and tied it back around her head. Charles knew the curtain sash to be a warning sign, but he let it slide. Robert said he walked with his daughter for a while, and she was holding her arm completely still. She was trying not to cry. Her eyes were squeezed shut, and her lips were trembling. She was as white, Robert said, as a sheet. He said he carried her most of the way, as gently as he could. It was like carrying a horse. “You know,” he said, “a baby horse.”
“A foal, yes,” Charles said, nodding. “And then?”
Robert said he called a doctor to get advice about where to take the child. Then he took her to an emergency-care facility, where she got X-rays and a sling. The next day he took her to an orthopedist to get the cast.
“Yes,” Charles said. “Right. Do you see? Do you hear yourself?” Charles said he saw nothing to worry about. Nothing whatsoever. He said, with a hot wave of self-reproach, that ultimately Robert was responsible for his actions, not his thoughts. Charles, though, had recently begun to suspect that people might not even be responsible for their actions.
“Thank you, Charles,” Robert said, sinking farther into his chair. “I appreciate that.”
But Robert had not gotten what he wanted. What had he wanted? How could it possibly be true that he was not responsible for his thoughts? If he wasn’t, then who was? He rubbed his thumb across the velvety interior of the chin strap. The orthopedist, the nurses—they had looked at Robert as if he were abusive. He had taken a child to the playground without a net, without elbow pads. And the cast! It was pink and purple with glitter. The girl got to choose the colors and patterns, even the toppings. She had been scared before the orthopedic appointment, and Robert sat on the edge of her bed and talked to her soothingly about how it would be fine, even fun, to have a cast. Everyone could sign her cast and draw pictures on it. He told her they could put a bread bag on it so she could take a bath. Pretty neat, right? Then the next day she gets this pastel waterproof Disney arm accessory, and she swims and bathes and doesn’t let anyone else near the cast with a pen or marker. Girls on the street stare at her with that glazed envy that young girls stare at each other with. The cast glitter rains through the house, sparkling in nests of synthetic animal hair. Water flushes out the dead skin, so her arm doesn’t get itchy at all. She never once has to ram a fork or chopstick into the cast to try to reach the agonizing itch. And when they cut the cast off? It really tickled, a lot. The girl had laughed and laughed. Then she got some stickers. She got to keep the cast as a souvenir. It didn’t even smell bad. Robert took her out for ice cream with her curtain sash trailing down her back. She wanted to keep wearing the cast, so Robert taped the two pieces together with clear packing tape. Then he offered, for a reason he would never understand, to make a neat bedside lamp out of the cast. Would she like that? A lamp made from the cast? She answered affirmatively in a series of terrible, terrible baby noises.
Well, but at least he had not lied to her. He had told her the awful truth. He had said everything was going to be fine, and it was.
The hotel parking lot, in which there were no trees, was covered by a thick layer of leaves. The leaves had blown from afar to reach their final resting place. They decayed pungently in pulpy clumps the color of old pennies, impervious now to wind or leaf blower. Beneath this wet stratum of decomposing vegetative matter were the faded arrows, directing traffic flow circularly toward the check-in portico, primarily a nonfunctional architectural gesture of welcome, and only rarely utilized by old-world Europeans and those of very advanced age. The lot was divided by berms, mounded and sparsely coated with bark mulch and cigarette butts. Lights on poles defined the perimeter. Power lines transected the airspace above the lot. There were few cars in the large lot, and all seemed to have been parked to maximize the distance between them.
The rain had begun, its inaugural drops fat and hostile. Vince and Fat Michael stood on a berm, staring upward with attitudes of appraisal and discernment. Vince’s hand still ached from Fat Michael’s handshake. Vince, whose grip was moderate, had attempted, mid shake, to match Fat Michael’s firmness, and consequently his greeting had been, he knew, restive and undisciplined. At what point, Vince had occasionally wondered, would daily life cease to consist of a series of small threats? What age must he achieve before the large cucumber was stripped of its dark power? Vince and Fat Michael were comparing forecasts for the weekend. Each, as it turned out, had a favorite meteorological Web site—chosen by chance and maintained by habit—and neither could quite accept the validity of rival predictions. Ignoring the real weather, they squared off about the conjectural weather. Vince scaled the berm to get taller. He suspected Fat Michael’s site was dot gov. Their forecasts were similar—rain was virtually certain—but each man might as well have been talking to the other about acupuncture or St. John’s wort. Fat Michael rubbed his hands vigorously with antibacterial sanitizing gel.
Others by now had arrived. Tommy, Carl, Gil, Myron, Gary, Chad. Carl, in a galling violation of an unwritten but common-sense rule of the group, emerged from his extended-cab pickup wearing his jersey from last year, that of Giants noseguard Jim Burt. As always, Gary drove in slow circles around the lot, blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions. A small school of men darted away from Gary’s car, over two berms toward Derek’s green sedan. After parking, Derek had lifted the hood, and he stood bent at the waist, peering down. Andy, sitting far away in his car with the engine still running, saw the men converge on Derek and his raised hood. The men spread out on the perimeter of the engine, gripping the edge of the car, like zealous spectators at a dice table. There was just enough room for everyone around the warm and possibly defective motor. Their duffel bags lay at their feet. Andy, who may or may not have been hiding here in his running car, turned on his wipers to watch them. They all stared down, nodding. Oh, pistons, oh, hoses! Derek was of mixed race, which is to say he was black. He was the only black man in the group, though Andy had noted that Derek’s skin was a couple of shades lighter than the skin of Gil, the Floridian. So powerful was the allure of annual interracial acquaintanceship that Derek almost always had a cluster of men around him, even in foul weather. And now this black man’s car’s hood was raised, creating an irresistible synergistic force, the dream of multiculturalism fused with the dream of automotive expertise. The rain was nasty now, cold and slant. Carl’s Jim Burt jersey was obviously getting wet, forcing his cohorts to decide whether and to what extent Carl was an asshole. Other men arrived and attended to Derek’s engine: Jeff, Wesley, and Bald Michael, whose nickname, unlike Fat Michael’s, was more or less accurate and nonironic, though still unkind. Andy watched as the engine summit drew to a close. Derek, always so resourceful, closed the hood and guided the men through the rain toward the protection of the check-in portico. They bowed their heads like monks. Gary, still driving the lot in festive, hostile circles, passed these men, honking and brandishing a shiny blue helmet through his sunroof. “Gentlemen,” he yelled, “gird those puny loins!”
Andy turned off his wipers. He remained in his car with the engine running, pretending to inspect the bottom of his cleats. He held a shoe in one hand, and with the other he used a ballpoint pen to scrape at imaginary dirt around the studs. He had cleaned the cleats carefully earlier in the week, and of course he had cleaned them after the last time he had worn them, a year ago. They were very clean. He wasn’t ready to go inside yet, and he was trying to give the impression to any possible witnesses that he was busy and content here alone in his parked and running car. Through the curtain of rain on his windshield he thought he saw George, the public librarian, doing calisthenics on a berm. George was someone Andy did not want to see. George’s thin gray ponytail was just ridiculous, never more so than when trickling out of a football helmet. Whenever anyone asked George how he was doing or how his year had been, he always replied the same way: “Just doing my thing.” Then he would talk, in a slow and agonizingly thoughtful way, about budget cuts at both the state and local levels, the power of information, the marketplace of ideas, the future of the book, the public’s appetite for memoir, the digital divide, and, worst of all, the First Amendment. Andy hated talking to librarians, and he did not want to be hugged. He cut his engine, not unlike an animal playing dead. He worked earnestly and with renewed vigor at the pretend mud in his cleats. A sudden vaporous notion—he should not have come—dissipated before it could condense into conviction. He kept his head down, hoped George would menace someone else with his idealistic interpretations of devastating factual evidence.
There was a tap on the passenger-side window. Andy looked up to see George giving him what he believed to be the first peace sign he had ever seen outside of documentary footage. George’s face was so close to the window that he was fogging the glass.
“Hi, George,” Andy mumbled. He kept the doors shut, the windows raised.
“Andy!” George said.
“How’s it going?”
“Just doing my thing!” George yelled.
Andy pointed to his ear and shook his head, pretending he could not hear. He hoped these conditions would prove too difficult to support conversation.
“My thing!” George yelled.
“Our branch is closed on Tuesdays! Serious cuts!”
“Sorry to hear that,” Andy said into his cleats. The rain slid down the windshield and windows. Andy’s anxious breathing began to fog up the inside of the glass. George became a wet and indistinct blur, but Andy could still hear him speaking slowly through the window. He was disappointed about a tax referendum in his county, but he still had faith in the democratic process. The information was out there. The people could find it, make informed choices. Then something about either wetlands or weapons. Andy remained silent, hidden in his fortress of condensation. He was not, at this point in the weekend, having a good time, though he knew that good times were probably just for teenagers dancing around a big bonfire in a clearing in the woods with loud music playing from an open hatchback. After a few minutes, the talking stopped and the foggy blur disappeared from Andy’s passenger window. Andy had been inconsiderate, he knew. He thought of his wife, what she would say to him. She would say that he had been cruel to George. She would say that George wasn’t so bad. She would say he’s lonely. But Andy’s wife was the person who invariably, at any social gathering, ended up cornered by a gesticulating freak. The eccentrics preyed on her, sensing her weakness, her gentle open face, her listening skills. They had things they wanted to share—their health problems, their pets’ health problems, their unpublished fantasy novels, the fires that nearly destroyed their childhood homes, the recent spate of vandalism in their neighborhoods, their long estrangements from their felonious sons. Andy’s wife would stand for hours with her back to the artwork, so careful not to touch it, clutching an empty glass of wine, making eye contact, nodding at the lunatic. And then on the drive home she would brim with misanthropic rage. Why, she would want to know, had Andy not saved her? Could he not see that she was trapped by that woman with her fringed vest tucked into the elastic waist of her skirt? With those huge feather earrings? That woman talking for over an hour about chestnut blight? Andy recalled how strange it had been, in the first giddy months of marriage, to introduce her, to consider her, as his wife. And now it would be just as strange to think of her as his ex-wife.
Andy was startled by a loud knock on the driver’s-side window. The blur outside the car looked like it might be George. It knocked again with knuckles, rubbed the window with the wet sleeve of its jacket. “Andy?” It was George. “Are you still in there? What are you doing?”
Andy considered this question. What was he doing? Was he doing his thing? Was hiding from librarians his thing?
“Can I come in?” George yelled.
Andy didn’t answer. After a brief pause, George opened the back door, and got into the car behind Andy. Andy saw him in the rearview mirror. George was soaked and dripping onto the cloth seats. He shivered and said, “Almost Indian-summer weather here in mid-November,” imitating Frank Gifford’s commentary in the seconds before the ball was snapped on Theismann’s final play. George’s imitation was not bad. Not as good as Gil’s, but not bad.
“Anyway,” George said, continuing a conversation he had apparently initiated outside the car, “the Internet should belong to everyone. We’ve been too slow in bringing it to rural areas and the inner city. The very notion—”
“Why?” Andy said.
George wiped rainwater from his face. He lifted his eyebrows, perplexed, though not offended, by Andy’s undemocratic spirit.
“Why?” Andy said. “It’s just online shopping. It’s just pornography. It’s videos of two unlikely animals becoming friends. Why do the destitute require this? Who cares?”
Andy had meant to shut George up, but he realized his mistake immediately. There was nothing George relished more than the free exchange of ideas. What Andy had intended as a vicious, conversation-slaying remark was instead, he now understood by the look on George’s face in the mirror, a generous and provocative strand in the complex braid of their constitutionally protected discourse. Andy could feel George’s excitement emanating wetly from the backseat.
“I just read a fascinating study,” George said, with the methodical force of a snowplow.
“George,” Andy said.
“This lead researcher from the University of Illinois devised an ingenious study. What he did was— ”
“George, are you married?”
“Are you married?”
“Yes, by common law.”
“Well, okay,” Andy said. “I was married, see, and now I’m getting a divorce.”
George made an extended sympathetic noise in the backseat. In the mirror Andy could see George wincing. “Andy, I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“Hey, man,” George said, leaning forward and reaching his hands around the driver’s seat. His left wrist got tangled momentarily in the seat belt, but eventually he was able to grip the tops of Andy’s arms, and squeeze. Even if Andy had wanted to free himself from George’s grip, he wasn’t sure he could have. He could feel George’s knees in the small of his back. He risked a glance, but George had the crown of his head resting on the back of Andy’s seat, and he was no longer visible in the mirror. “Come here, man,” George said.
“I’m here,” Andy whispered.
“Tell me what happened.”
This was a good configuration for Andy. This could work. As long as the windows remained fogged, as long as the rain made that sound on the thin roof of the car, as long as George’s face was invisible in the mirror, as long as George gripped the tops of his arms and did not try to rub his shoulders, Andy felt that he could talk.
“One night last February—it was February twenty-third—we had dinner with some friends. There were two other couples there. We were having drinks before dinner. There was one of those uncomfortable lulls in the conversation, so I began to speak, just to end the silence. Another woman began speaking, too, at the same time, but then she laughed and said for me to please go ahead. I went ahead, George. I think about that now. I kept talking. I said that I had heard an interesting story on NPR. It was about these dinosaurs called oviraptors. The name means ‘egg thief’ or something.”
“Yes,” George said slowly. “Egg seizer.”
“The scientist who discovered and named the oviraptor had found its bones on top of a nest of eggs. He surmised that the dinosaur was snatching these eggs, raiding the nest for food. But now scientists are taking another look at these creatures, and they think maybe this male oviraptor was not stealing the eggs, but maybe he was guarding them, being a good dad. Maybe he was taking care of the nest. And all this time, you know, he’s been getting a bad rap.
“The other couples nodded and seemed interested. Not interested, maybe, but tolerant, and relieved at least that someone was speaking. Squeeze harder. But my wife was not happy at all. Julie. Her eyes kind of flashed, and she was just grinding cashews in her teeth, just grinding them to dust. She was drunk when we came. I was, too, I guess. She stands up, George. She stands up, puts her empty glass on the mantel, and says to the group that she had also heard an interesting story on NPR.”
“Oh, no,” George said softly into the fabric of Andy’s seat.
“Yes, that’s right. She said it was fascinating. It was a story, she said, about a recent ice storm in the Northeast. And they interviewed a tree expert who said that some of these big old trees—these majestic oaks and elms and pines—these trees, the expert said, could sometimes have up to fifty thousand pounds of ice in them. Fifty thousand. She kept repeating that number. Fifty thousand. And she kind of pursed her lips the way she does, and she tucked her hair behind her ear, and that was it. We had dinner, we went home and had sex in the bathtub, and the next day she said she thought it would be best if I would leave.”
George groaned into the seat, and Andy could feel it in his chest. George kept a tight grip on the tops of Andy’s arms. “That is rough, man,” he said.
Andy nodded. With the windows fogged, he could not see cars or men or hotel.
“But hey, listen, I think you probably know,” George said, “that the problems had been building up for a long, long time before that night in February.”
Andy stared at the dust on his dashboard. How does a car get so dusty?
“That is true,” he said. He put his hand on top of the Redskins helmet, which was sitting obediently in the passenger seat. It seemed like a pet, an animate thing, stolid and content and loyal. He wished he were wearing it on his head.
“Andy, I’ve got some of my homemade stuff in a flask,” George said. “You want some firewater?”
Andy said yes, realizing too late that George would have to release his grip on Andy’s upper arms to retrieve his flask. Ungripped, Andy felt suddenly insubstantial, incoherent. He took a big drink from the flask. Whatever it was, was horrible, but he was grateful for it. When he handed the flask to the backseat, he looked into the mirror and watched George drink. Andy noticed that George’s thin gray hair, wet from the rain, was short and spiky on top. It was not pulled back.
“Hey,” Andy said, “did you get your ponytail cut off?”
George nodded while drinking. Then he coughed into the back of his hand. “A couple of months ago, I saw a picture of myself on the library blog,” he said. “It was taken from behind. And the next day I cut that thing off myself. It was time, man.”
Peter typically parked in the small lot at the side of the hotel. He had done it once as a mistake years ago, and now he maintained the practice out of his unarticulated sense that continuity was of a higher priority than convenience. A yellow sports car crouched dormant at one end of the nearly empty lot, far from the side entrance. The car was parked directly over a painted line, so as to take two full spots, proving once again to Peter that there are basically two types of people in the world. Though stationary and driverless, the car seemed contemptuous and reckless, with a wide, powerful backside. It seemed to want to break laws. It somehow gleamed without sunlight. In much the same way that he worried that his legs would fling his body from observation decks or scenic overlooks, Peter worried now that he would accelerate his Accord into the lean flank of the yellow sports car. He parked on the opposite side of the lot, pulling the emergency brake.
Since Peter used a side entrance, the men who had entered the lobby—even Robert in his stuffed chair—did not notice him. The woman at the front desk looked up and smiled at Peter as he passed, but he did not acknowledge her. He walked to the dining area, where he filled a cup with water at the juice dispenser. Upon opening the microwave, he was momentarily stunned by the miasma of irradiated popcorn. He blinked his eyes against the vapors, steadied his legs. The interior of the microwave, like the interiors of all public microwaves, resembled the scene of a double homicide. He put the cup inside, closed the door, and programmed the oven to heat the water on high for a minute and fifty-six seconds. The start button was concave with history, like the stone steps of an ancient cathedral. The microwave rattled and popped. A dim interior bulb cast a faint yellow glow on the revolving cup and the spattered walls. A sign on top of the microwave, framed like a photograph of a family pet, asked that microwave users please demonstrate a respectful attitude toward fellow users. The clip-art image on the sign, inexplicably, was of a guitar. Peter paced as the green digital numbers descended toward zero. He touched the new mouth guard in his pocket. On his phone he checked the weather, sent a text, renewed a prescription. He stood on his left leg, flexing his right knee. He had reached an age when a sore knee might mean either that the knee was sore or that the knee was shot. He frequently had occasion to consider the phrase bone on bone. The microwave oven rattled along like some world’s-fair exhibit. Could this really be, in our age, the fastest method for heating things up? Peter looked around, but there was nobody else in the dining area. A long banner above the continental buffet station welcomed Prestige Vista Solutions. On television, heavy wind pushed a car across a tennis court, eliciting nervous laughter and censored profanity from the amateur videographer. Peter ran his hand through his hair, which he had allowed to grow long in anticipation of a Saturday afternoon haircut from Carl. He did not particularly like Carl’s haircuts, but he got one every year, and he worried that he would hurt Carl’s feelings if he did not sign up. Peter stopped the microwave with two seconds remaining and removed the hot cup of water. Then, following directions he knew very well, he dropped the new mouth guard into the slow boil. It floated there like a translucent semisessile annelid, the kind of tubular aquatic worm that is capable of regeneration. He left the guard in the water for slightly longer than directed, and instead of rinsing it quickly in cold water, as the instructions exhorted in bold font, he placed it directly into his mouth. He bit down hard, sucked vigorously to remove the air and water. He looked around, but there was nobody else in the dining area. The plastic was soft, and it tasted like synthetic butter. With his finger Peter pressed the scalding plastic into his gums; with his tongue he pushed the guard into the back of his top and bottom teeth. He sculpted the guard, made it his own. It was now unique. After a minute, which he counted more or less accurately in his head, he extracted the mouth guard and rinsed it in cold water from the juice dispenser. He put the mouth guard back into his mouth and looked around. If the fit was not good, he could boil the mouth guard again. The fit was good, but he decided to boil the mouth guard again.
In the men’s restroom off the lobby—frequently the subject of online reviews—the countertop and floor were wet, not as if an employee had recently cleaned them but as if firefighters had recently managed a blaze. A light above a corner stall was flickering dimly, reinforcing for Carl the correlation between luminance and civilization. In a brightly lit stall with the door closed, Carl pinched pills from his pocket and swallowed them without water. He reached beneath his damp Jim Burt jersey to touch the strange, tender bump that had recently appeared in his armpit, gently at first and then with painful pressure. The bump was hard, and it would not flatten or disperse with the force of his fingers. It seemed not to contain fluid. Perhaps he could show it to Charles, whom he knew to be a doctor of some kind. Hanging from a hook on the back of the door was the sort of brown canvas shoulder bag used by practitioners of the soft sciences. Carl removed the bag from the hook and looked inside. He found two books, one called A Better Mirror, and the other titled A Clinical Guide to Anorexia, Fourth Edition. He dropped the books loudly on the wet floor, along with a thick three-ring binder, a day planner, and a manila envelope labeled “Protocols.” In the front pocket of the leather bag, Carl found a DVD with the handwritten title “Marla Sessions.” He put the DVD into his coat pocket. He also took a large, pungent rubber band and a black Sharpie. He removed the top of the Sharpie and turned to face the broad blue partition of the stall. The surface was clean, though its gloss had been scuffed and dulled by solvents and abrasives. There was nothing on the wall to which to respond, no lewd conversational thread he could join with arrow and riposte. He didn’t want to draw a dirty picture. He didn’t want to insult someone’s penis or testicles. He didn’t want to scribble song lyrics or to extol marijuana. The wall was so blank, so clean. He was committed to writing on it, but he didn’t want to misquote Nietzsche or Camus. He didn’t want to request a sexual act or to offer sexual services or to say anything at all about gays, blacks, Muslims, Jews, or God. He didn’t want to post a threat. He didn’t want to compose or transcribe a limerick about constipation. His shoulder began to ache from holding the pen aloft. The light above the corner stall flickered. The beginning was the most difficult part.
The men congregated in the lobby, within the formidable purview of the enormous clock. Many held shoulder pads and helmets. Many had tied the laces of their cleats together, draped the laces over their shoulders. Gil demonstrated, with his hands, the size of the kitten he had found beneath his gazebo. Chad nodded, far more troubled by Gil’s gazebo than by his kitten. Myron, with that startled look on his face, sought out Charles. Jeff tried to discern what seemed different about Trent, this year’s commissioner. Trent had gained a lot of weight, perhaps thirty pounds, but the change was not remarkable. The men had reached an age when they gained and lost significant things in relatively short periods of time, and it was not unusual for someone to show up in November having acquired or divested weight, God, alcohol, sideburns, blog, pontoon boat, jewelry, stepchildren, potency, fertility, cyst, tattoo, medical devices that clipped to the belt and beeped, or huge radio-controlled model airplanes. The added weight seemed to coincide with Trent’s leadership role, and it contributed to his authority as commissioner.
An aerial view of the lobby would have revealed more or less concentric arcs around the dry fountain, or perhaps around Derek, who was sitting, in flagrant contravention of a handwritten sign, on the fountain’s edge. The general effect was not unlike the standard model of the atom. Randy, sitting glumly on a bench upholstered with a pattern of Eiffel Towers and poodles, was a distant outlier, as was the woman at the front desk, who was conducting Internet research on a bartending school called Highball Academy. (“We should totally do it,” her friend had recently told her.) The men looked frequently at the clock, like pupils at a teacher. They looked occasionally at the woman, who so powerfully ignored them all. And they looked only rarely at Randy, who merely by sitting there unhappily collected from the beholder a kind of tax or levy in the form of an automatic withdrawal of sentiment. Randy was a figure who demanded the viewer’s sympathy or disdain, and the other men resented having to make that choice, with all of its implications. To look at Randy was to have an aggressive confrontation with oneself, which was not what the men wanted this weekend, or ever. Randy’s socks had lost their elasticity, of course, and they pooled lugubriously around black shoes whose heels had been wrecked by pronation. His herniated duffel bag lay at his feet. He had been unable to zip it completely, and in the unzipped bulge the men could have seen, had they been looking toward Randy, a small piece of the new and astonishingly white Jeff Bostic jersey. What most of the men had learned by now was that Randy’s Bostic gear from the previous year had been stolen, according to Randy, from a self-storage unit outside of Wilmington, Delaware, and that Trent, using the discretion of the commissioner, had spent the dues money to replace the equipment rather than to rent out the conference room, which had been reserved by a baleful organization called Prestige Vista Solutions. What many of the men would suspect—and they would be correct—was that Randy, having lost his eyewear business, had sold the equipment in an online auction.
Jeff’s check-in attempt had been rebuffed, and the other men thought it wise not to risk further attempts. The woman at the front desk skimmed the FAQs at the Highball Academy site, and strands of her hair fell over her face like an out-of-office sign. She did not want to talk to the men about check-in. She disliked the notion that check-in time was flexible or negotiable, and she was strongly opposed to the men’s duffel bags. She did not consider herself picky about men, but a duffel bag—she was sorry, that was just a deal breaker. Her job, perhaps, had made her overly sensitive to luggage. She needed a man with a suitcase. No pleated pants, no exotic pets, no duffel bags—certainly there remained a sizable pool.
Wesley occupied the third arc with Bald Michael, Steven, and Nate. A very large canvas sack sat like a heeling dog beside Steven. The sack contained the lottery drum, enormous even when disassembled, that the men
would use later that night to select players. Wesley had hoped to get a nap before the lottery. He had been having trouble sleeping for the past several months, and he typically felt exhausted in the afternoon. His entire life
he had never had trouble sleeping, but all of a sudden he just couldn’t do it. The insomnia made Wesley feel, biologically, like a failure. The family’s pet cat slept twenty hours a day and made it look easy. And now, granted many extra waking hours each night, Wesley had time to consider, for
the first time, his other failures and shortcomings. Bald Michael was talking, Wesley realized, about his son, who just last week, Bald Michael said,
“What?” Wesley said.
Bald Michael said that the kid already had a shiner and a big scratch on his nose. “He’s banging into everything,” he said.
Wesley tried to conduct a quick audit of his discomfort. Steven and Nate did not seem troubled. Why did Steven and Nate not seem troubled? Why was Nate doing that strange crouched shuffling? One time, at a party, Wesley had overheard someone on a crowded patio explaining the customs of Fire Island, and it had made his toes curl. Then Steven did a pigeon-toed walk, and fell over. Why did Steven do that?
“No, like this,” Bald Michael said, gripping the back of a chair and doing his own version of the walk of someone who was significantly injured or perhaps disabled. Nate and Steven laughed, so Wesley tried to laugh, too. Was Bald Michael making fun of the apparently serious erotic injuries sustained by his homosexual son?
“Hell, but what can I do?” Bald Michael said. “It’s just a natural step. He has to go through it.”
“And at least he’s got a lot of padding,” Steven said, slapping his backside.
Wesley studied them. He realized that if this was what it meant to be accepting, then he was not accepting. Bald Michael pulled a photograph from his wallet, and passed it to the men.
“Cute little guy,” Nate said, passing the photo to Steven, who grunted his appreciation, and passed it to Wesley. The photo showed a toddler with a sweater vest and a chin rash. Wesley stared at the photo, and felt the sting of tears. He was so very tired.
“Wesley,” Bald Michael said, “don’t you have a boy, too?”
Wesley’s boy was nineteen years old and three inches taller than Wesley. He was a remarkable kid. He had not had a girlfriend since the eighth grade. Wesley felt that he and his son had not been close in many years.
“He’s in college,” Wesley said, though that fact sounded preposterous to him. “He’s a predentistry major, but he likes philosophy. He plays Ultimate Frisbee, which apparently is a serious sport. And he’s probably gay. I think he probably is, though he hasn’t said anything to me or to Barbara.”
The third arc grew quiet. Bald Michael and Nate made sounds and faces that were intended to be supportive of Wesley’s son’s sexuality.
“It just seems like more and more people are,” Nate offered. Bald Michael nodded. Steven’s face did not look supportive at all, but in fact Steven had stopped listening. He had overheard a conversation about Redskins receiver Gary Clark in the fourth arc, on the far outskirts of the fountain.
“Excuse me, guys,” Steven said, jumping like an electron to an outer shell. The men in the third arc assumed the worst about Steven. He was from Arkansas. Some people weren’t quite ready for change.
“He wasn’t a Smurf,” Steven said to the men in the fourth arc—Trent, Peter, and Jeff.
“Who?” Jeff said.
“Cahk,” Peter said. “Guhh Cahk.”
“I clearly heard someone say that Gary Clark was a Smurf,” Steven said. “And he wasn’t.”
“He had to be,” Trent said. “He was tiny.”
“Fumbudge den,” Peter said.
“He was small, but he wasn’t one of the Smurfs,” Steven said. “The Smurfs were Virgil Seay, Alvin Garrett, and Charlie Brown. And that was before Clark was drafted out of James Madison.”
“Cahk uz pot uv fumbudge,” Peter said.
“Take out your mouth guard,” Jeff said.
Peter removed his mouth guard, which remained umbilically connected to his mouth by a thin strand of saliva. “Clark was part of the Fun Bunch,” he said.
“Wrong again,” Steven said with gleeful exasperation. “The Fun Bunch dissolved after the ’84 season. The league made the rule about excessive celebration, and that all but wiped out the Fun Bunch. Excessive celebration, you may recall, was pretty much the Fun Bunch’s reason for being.”
“I think the key term here is orchestrated,” Trent said.
“Ready?” Jeff said. He bent his knees and swung his arms, counting to three. It appeared that he wanted to reenact the Fun Bunch’s group high five, but the other men ignored him, and Jeff did not leave the carpet.
“Wait,” said Gil, who had leaped two levels to join the conversation. “Did the Smurfs and the Fun Bunch exist at the same time?”
“The Smurfs were basically a subset of the Fun Bunch,” Steven said, drawing circles in the air. “Contained within the superset of the Fun Bunch were the Smurfs, who were the Fun Bunch’s smallest receivers. Think of it like this: all Smurfs belonged to the Bunch, but not every member of the Bunch was a Smurf.”
“Was that thunder?” Jeff said, looking toward the parking lot.
“Gary Clark was part of the Posse,” said Myron, materializing out of some unknown arc with a startled look on his face.
“Correct,” Steven said. “But not in ’85. Clark, Art Monk, and Ricky Sanders were the members of the Posse, but Sanders wasn’t a Redskin until ’86. There was no Posse in ’85. It didn’t exist. Guys, I explain this every year.”
“So what group was Clark in in ’85?” Trent said.
Jeff stared at the woman at the front desk.
“Nothing,” Steven said. “No group. That’s what you have to keep in mind.”
In the men’s restroom off the lobby there were six urinals across from three stalls. Vince entered the restroom, regarded the six unoccupied urinals, and selected, for reasons ultimately too complex to comprehend, the second urinal from the left. He placed his free hand high above his head, palm against the tile, in the manner of one being frisked for weapons. Though alone, he suppressed a sigh. Fat Michael then entered the restroom, and he chose a urinal, the fifth, at a suitable but not gratuitous distance from Vince’s. He made this calculation instantaneously, without conscious thought, while whistling the “Coventry Carol.” This spatial arrangement was conventional and propitious, provided a third man did not enter. Gary entered, and he discerned the dreaded 2-5 split, by which means two men in essence had occupied an entire wall of urinals. With reluctance he chose the third urinal, to the right of Vince, and immediately began talking.
“My wife would like me to piss sitting down,” he said.
Fat Michael nodded, staring at a piece of blue gum in his urinal that resembled a brain. His wife, too, had asked him to sit down. It was not an unreasonable request. The validity of the request, in fact, was what had made Fat Michael so angrily opposed. Danish men sit down, she had told him, which only made him more recalcitrant.
“She doesn’t like the mess I make,” Gary said. “She says men in other countries sit down.”
“Do they?” Fat Michael said.
“I don’t know,” Gary said.
On several occasions through the years, when afternoon sun was illuminating the bathroom in a soft and golden light, Vince had seen his urine splattering out of the toilet while he stood. Honestly, it was like a fireworks show. There was no denying it. His wife, too, had asked him to sit. She had read something about Sweden. When he finished at the urinal, Vince turned and saw, on the glistening floor of the middle stall, a brown canvas bag and two books.
“I tried sitting once,” Gary said. “I did. I was trying to be considerate. Because one time, when the sun was slanting into the bathroom just right, I could see the piss shooting out of the bowl. Have you ever seen those salmon when they return to their spawning grounds?”
Of course, of course the other men had seen the salmon.
“It does make a mess,” Gary said. “But the one time I tried sitting, the only time, my dog came into the bathroom. He’s this old, handsome black Lab with a grizzled snout. You know what I mean?”
Fat Michael and Vince nodded, solemnly affirming the way that old handsome Labs become grizzled in their snouts.
“He just looked at me,” Gary said. “And I honestly think he was judging me. I was down at his level, sitting on the toilet, and I just think he totally lost respect for me. I could see it.”
“I don’t think your dog was judging you,” Fat Michael said. He turned from the urinal, eliciting the ferocious automatic flush. On his way to the sink he noticed, beneath the door of the stall, the brown canvas bag and the books.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Gary said.
“You really should,” Vince said, though he did not.
“What do you think, Charles?” Fat Michael said at the sink, scrubbing his hands like a surgeon.
“Hey, Charles,” Vince said, knocking on the door of the stall.
“Doesn’t he work with young girls?” Gary said.
“Settle this one, Charles,” Fat Michael said. “Was Gary’s dog judging him?”
“Charles, do Danish men sit?” Vince said. He knocked again, harder, pushing the door open and revealing an empty stall and a comprehensively vandalized partition. Vince entered the stall, followed by Gary and Fat Michael.
“Holy crap,” Gary said, facing the wall.
“Wow,” Vince said.
THIS HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO. IN HIGH SCHOOL I USED TO GO OUT DRINKING WITH MY FRIENDS AND THEN LATE AT NIGHT I WOULD SNEAK OVER TO THIS GIRL’S HOUSE TO HAVE SEX. SHE WASN’T EVEN MY GIRLFRIEND. I WOULD THROW GRAVEL AT HER WINDOW TO WAKE HER UP THEN SHE WOULD COME DOWNSTAIRS TO LET ME IN. SHE WOULD CLOSE THE DOOR AND THEN LIE DOWN ON THE RUG IN THE FOYER. SHE WAS SO TIRED. WHY WOULD SHE LET ME IN? DO NOT WRITE SLUT. IMAGINE BEING WOKEN UP FOR SEX BY A DRUNK BOY WHO DOESN’T LOVE YOU. WHAT I’M TRYING TO ONE NIGHT I WAS THROWING ROCKS AT THE WINDOW AND THEN ANOTHER WINDOW OPENED IN THE BACK OF THE HOUSE AND HER FATHER STUCK HIS FACE OUT AND SAID OH FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST COME IN! I WENT BACK HOME INSTEAD. THE NIGHT WAS RUINED. DO NOT WRITE FAGGOT. I TOLD MYSELF I WOULD NEVER GO BACK THERE AGAIN BUT I WENT BACK SEVERAL MORE TIMES. DO NOT WRITE HELL YES. DO NOT DRAW A VULVA. SOMEONE SHOULD HAVE PUT ME IN A KENNEL. ALL OF US. HER NAME WAS STACY DEMPS AND I’M SORRY. DO NOT WRITE PUSSY.
Gary laughed, patting his front pockets, his back pockets.
In the lobby, the model of the atom had collapsed into a tight cluster of men that moved gradually, and without the volition of its constituents, toward the front desk. Tommy’s mustache made Robert uncomfortable—it was a statement in a language that he did not understand—and so Robert broke from the cluster and retreated to the locked door of the conference room. There was, he recalled, the year that Chad tried to break-dance atop the long, gleaming table. Once again Robert checked the foam-board schedule on the easel beside the door. The room was still booked for the entire weekend. The repaired chin strap dangled from his long flannel cuff like a chrysalis. He did not like change, which he experienced nearly always as loss. He felt forlorn about the conference room and exasperated at Randy and bitterly envious of Prestige Vista Solutions.
Jerry, the director of transportation for Prestige Vista Solutions, checked the schedule on the easel beside the door, but he saw only a scribbled sketch of a fish. He asked Robert if Robert was one of the football players that he had seen in the lobby. Yes, Robert said quietly. He did not want to talk, or to explain, particularly to this man with a laminated name tag. The name the Redskins had given the flea-flicker play was the Throwback Special, and thus some of the men, never Robert, referred to the group as “specialists.” Neither did Robert care for the term reenactor, which made him think of the freaks with hardtack and muskets running through the woods and endeavoring to keep their powder dry. There was not a good way to talk about what he was doing here.
“It’s an annual thing,” Robert offered. Jerry stood beside him, facing the locked conference room. From the lobby behind them came the waves of masculine sound, the toneless song of regret and exclamation. Then, like a child handling an item he has been forbidden to touch, Robert said, “But this is the last year.” He rubbed the inside of the chin strap with his thumb, stared at the honeycomb carpet in the conference room. “Last year,” he repeated, rubbing the strap. There, he had said it, though he did not know why. He had no idea if his claim was true. Its truthfulness was somehow beside the point, as he had not intended to disclose or predict. He had intended something else, some reckless spell or counterspell, he did not know. Robert suddenly felt dangerous to himself, and he glanced at Jerry to gauge the potency of his remark. It was something of a relief and a disappointment to observe that Jerry seemed undisturbed.
Jerry had seen the jerseys and helmets in the lobby, but had no idea what the men were here to do. He asked Robert if Robert remembered when Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg on Monday Night Football. Robert said yes, he remembered. Compound fracture, Jerry said, wincing. A comminuted fracture as well, Robert said. His voice was too high, and honestly, why was he talking at all? A comminuted fracture is when the bone breaks into several pieces, Robert explained. The men stood side by side, staring through the small window of the door of the conference room. Now Robert worried that Jerry was going to tell a story about the night it happened. Strangers who saw the helmets and uniforms always wanted to tell a story about how a friend’s mom fainted and the bowl of popcorn just went everywhere and you could see up her skirt. Or about the friend, now serving time, who laughed when Theismann’s leg broke in two. Or about how they were doing geometry homework and the sound was down so they didn’t hear Frank Gifford say, “Theismann’s in a lot of trouble,” and they didn’t hear Gifford say, “We’ll look at it with the reverse angle, one more time, and I suggest, if your stomach is weak, you just don’t watch,” and they didn’t hear Monday Night Football color commentator O. J. Simpson groaning at the violence, and they happened to look up and see the reverse angle, and they either threw up or they very nearly threw up. Jerry told Robert he would always remember Lawrence Taylor’s reaction. Yes, of course, Robert said, hoping to curtail Jerry’s memories. After having snapped Theismann’s fibula and tibia, Taylor frantically waved for the medical personnel on the Redskins sideline to come onto the field. And then he stood with his hands on his helmet. Did Robert remember? Robert did. And there was something about that gesture, that very human gesture, an archetypal sign of despair or disbelief, holding one’s own head. For comfort, or perhaps for protection or containment. Except that Taylor still had his helmet on, Jerry said, staring through the small window of the door of the conference room. He would never forget it, Jerry said. So his hands, Taylor’s hands, rested not on his forehead or scalp, but on his helmet. The circuit of anguish could not be completed. The very equipment of his profession was an impediment to his humanity, to the proper expression of shock. Jerry from Prestige Vista Solutions did not say circuit of his anguish, but it’s precisely what he meant. Robert understood. He nodded. He did not want Jerry to have the conference room this weekend, and he didn’t particularly want to be standing here talking to Jerry about Theismann, but nevertheless, everything Jerry had said was correct.
Trent had come home to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream.
“Yeah, whippets,” said George, the public librarian.
Tommy had come home to find that his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat. Whenever Peter comes home now, his daughter is reading. He was so anxious for her to learn to read, so worried when she showed little interest, but now that’s all she does. She doesn’t even talk to Peter anymore. She just sits in corners, knobby knees pulled up to her chin, the book held over her face like this, like a veil. The other men knew about books over the faces of girls.
Carl came home to find his son building something with a lot of wires. Wesley came home to find that his twins had built twin snowmen. The picture was on his phone if he could only find it. Fat Michael had a friend who came home to find that the rags he had used to apply linseed oil to his furniture had spontaneously combusted, causing sixty thousand dollars of property damage. When Steven had come home, everyone in the house was just gone.
“My mother is living with us now,” Gil said. “One day I came home and I didn’t see her anywhere. I checked the backyard, but she wasn’t there. I came back in, looked in the guest room, in the den, in the basement. She wasn’t there. I was calling out for her, but there was no answer. Then upstairs I find her in the bathroom. We have those sliding-glass shower doors. You know what I’m talking about?”
“They slide like this?” Steven asked.
“No, like this,” Gil said, though Steven looked skeptical. “And the doors had broken. They had just shattered. Later I looked online. Apparently, this happens. They sometimes just explode into thousands of pieces of glass. On their own. It was nothing my mother did.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Andy said.
“The glass was inches thick in the shower and all through the bathroom. It seriously looked like a beach in there. My mother was in the shower when the glass broke, and she couldn’t move. She couldn’t go anywhere. She would have sliced her feet up. So she just stood there wrapped in her towel, trapped in the shower for I don’t know how many hours. She wouldn’t really say.”
Charles, who typically did not care for Gil’s unseemly stories about his mother, began to look around the lobby for his brown canvas bag.
“Her voice was hoarse,” Gil said, “presumably from calling out to nobody. She looked like she was shivering, but she said it was just her palsy. You know what she said? She said it really wasn’t that bad because it gave her some time to think. That’s what she said. Time to think. I tried to clear a path through the glass. I swept the shards into a dustpan. I filled a garbage bag with glass. I cut my hands and knees. I was bleeding and sweating into the glittering pieces of glass. I said, Mom, goddamn it, just say it was a bad day! I said, Mom, this is bad! Just say it!”
The woman at the front desk held a wince against the drone and pulse, the loud achievement of assembly. Soon the men would disperse, leaving behind in the lobby their scent and those curvilinear bits of dried mud that had fallen from their silly football shoes. She said it looked like the rooms were now ready. “Five total, is that correct?”
“Six,” Andy said.
“Oh, yes, six,” she said, squinting at her computer screen. “And have you gentlemen stayed with us before?” she asked.
Andy stared at the mole on the woman’s cheek. He knew there was another one on her abdomen, just below her right breast. He felt incorporeal.
“Yes,” he said. “Every year for the past sixteen years.”