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.”