FINAL INSTALLMENT . . .
Each November for the past sixteen years, a group of twenty-two men has convened at a hotel off Interstate 95 to reenact a gruesome milestone in football history: the 1985 play (known in the Washington Redskins playbook as the Throwback Special) in which New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, shattering his leg and ending his career.
After conducting their traditional lottery to determine who will take the part of which player the following evening, the men spend a restless night in the hotel, which they share with employees of a company called Prestige Vista Solutions. Now it’s game day—a chance, perhaps the last they’ll ever have, to transform catastrophe into collaborative art.
It would be difficult to overstate the men’s enthusiasm for continental breakfast. To be clear, their zeal had little or nothing to do with this particular hotel’s version of the standard spread. As petulant online reviewers made very clear, the hotel’s breakfast was not in any way exceptional or distinctive. It was a completely average continental breakfast, and this was why the men loved it. The breakfast involved no surprises and no risks. It involved no deliberation and no ordering, no indecision or regret. With plastic tongs they heaped large quantities of known sweet rations onto their Styrofoam plates. Everything tasted like it looked. There were no interesting spices or herbs, no local flavors, no subtle variations on classics. It was a bounty of carbohydrates, and the items never ran out. There was always more, and it was always free. Continental breakfast made them feel—made many of them feel—as if they were getting away with something. And at the same time they felt it was a form of recognition, and at the same time they felt it was but a tiny portion of what they were owed. And so it was that the long table of processed food and crop-dusted fruit was for the men simultaneously gift, reward, and restitution. Their appetites were severe.
Wearing their jerseys, the men arrived in the dining area early, but they discovered that the buffet had been set upon by dozens of employees of Prestige Vista Solutions. The men lurked at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources. They watched the employees scoop and tong and toast. The female employees decimated the fruit. The male employees leaned close to inspect the plates of pastries, their ties grazing the glaze. There was good-natured joking about PowerPoint, about the taking of minutes. Those in line for the waffle maker shared wedding photos, baby photos, house photos, injury photos. Someone had adopted three more dogs. Everyone was eager to talk to Jim—Cyber Jim, not Khakis Jim—about their computer problems. When the employees of Prestige Vista Solutions had filled their plates and cups, they filed out of the dining area and disappeared into the conference room like a line of ants. The men in their jerseys watched, and when they turned back to the continental banquet, the serving platters had been replenished, the yogurt pyramids reconstructed. They descended on the simple sugars, ravenous but with a clear and disheartening sense that there was no real connection between breakfast and merit.
Fat Michael stirred gray powder into each of the three plastic cups in front of him. The powder did not dissolve. In wet, floating clumps it spun inside the rims of the cups, suggesting, somehow, the passage of time. Fat Michael drank all of the cups rapidly, one after another, his eyes pinched shut. He did not look good. He looked incredible, but he did not look good. Also, he was itchy, and he raked his legs with his fingernails. Myron and Tommy sat across from Fat Michael, eating silently. It was the one time during the year they used flavored coffee creamer. Their presence at the table somehow made Fat Michael seem more alone than he would have seemed if he had actually been alone.
“This muffin is all right,” Myron said in a low voice. Tommy’s face looked weird because he was doing exercises to strengthen his pelvic floor.
A hotel employee named Nick walked into the dining area wearing Chad’s shoes. The shoes were too small, and very wet, but he liked them. They made him feel like a lucky person, though he knew himself to be an unlucky person. He wrapped a bagel in a napkin, filled a cup with orange juice. He remembered the time when Lawrence Taylor snapped Joe Theismann’s leg on Monday Night Football. He remembered exactly where he was and what he was doing. He clearly remembered Howard Cosell’s anguished reaction, though he remembered it incorrectly, because Cosell’s last season on Monday Night Football had been 1983. He moved toward the men in the jerseys. He had a burden he was eager to set down.
From across the room Charles saw Nick approaching the defensive backs’ breakfast table with an expression of fullness, and he stood quickly, placing his napkin on the table. “Excuse me, guys,” he said. He walked through the dining area, into the lobby. For a moment he stood before the fountain, which was once again dry. Each year in this hotel lobby he was forced to recall that as a child he had stolen quarters from a mall fountain (soaking the cuffs of his sweatshirt) so that he could purchase, in the filthy bathroom of a gas station near his house, an erotic puzzle entitled “Boobs Galore.” The small puzzle box contained twelve cardboard squares that could be arranged, on a floor behind a locked bedroom door, to form a picture of a sad, shirtless woman with enormous breasts. Charles remembered that the woman, when reconstituted, was sitting on what he now knew to be a Windsor chair, and that any adolescent lust he could gin up at the sight of her demoralizingly large breasts was almost immediately dowsed by the way she looked back at Charles. The puzzle piece with her face (top row, middle column) countervailed all of the other eleven pieces. Her face was more nude by far than her body. The look on her face implicated Charles. It suggested that she was forced to share Charles’s shame and disappointment, and she was resentful. Or perhaps Charles was forced to share her shame and disappointment, and he was resentful. In either case, Charles and this twelve-piece shirtless woman in a Windsor chair had been trapped together in a sticky web of shame, disappointment, and resentment. Charles had stolen coins for this experience. In his backyard, he had dug a small hole. He had put the puzzle in the hole, and then lit it with a long wooden match. It burned in blues and greens.
The young woman at the front desk was likely not aware of Charles’s memory of the puzzle, though she had grown up with two older brothers. She smiled and nodded at Charles—or at a spot just above his shoulder—as he walked past the desk. “Good morning, sir,” she said. Charles walked outside to verify briefly the wetness and coldness of the rain. He walked back through the automatic doors into the lobby, into the men’s restroom. The restroom was empty and glistening. A stalactiform mass depended from the ceiling, dripping slowly. Charles selected a corner stall beneath a flickering fluorescent light, and he saw at once the work of the diligent vandal. Someone (Carl) had traced his left hand dozens of times. The hands filled the wall. Charles placed his left hand inside the outline of the vandal’s hand. He reached high for another. The effect of the multiplicity of hands was not of many people, but of a single person amplified by trouble. Charles worked with adolescents with eating disorders, and so he knew very well the forms of desperate assertion.
Through the windows of the dining area, the hotel parking lot shone darkly in the cold rain. The lights above the lot were on, casting a weak yellow glow in the mist. At the offensive linemen’s table, Gil spoke of the tiny hinges of a dollhouse roof. His Mark May jersey was radiant against the dun breads of breakfast. At a nearby table, the conversation drifted inevitably toward vasectomy and time-share. Wesley said they could now cauterize the vas deferens in a scalpel-free procedure. Gary was adamant about an A-frame chalet in the Smokies. Vince heard the men out, nodding, but he said he was just not ready. “Suit yourself,” Gary said, leaving the table for more instant oatmeal.
Later, full, the men pulled their chairs away from their breakfast tables. They had nowhere to be until ten o’clock. They sat, leaned back, crossed their legs at the ankles, at the knees. They drank coffee, picked at pastries. They talked, read complimentary newspapers, played games on phones, took photographs of themselves, stared at the mute television. One man worked a crossword, another put new laces in his cleats, another used the sharp edge of a business card to remove food from his teeth. Another performed a magic trick with a quarter and upside-down cups. George did chair yoga. Like the dog that licks its testicles, they refilled their coffee cups because they could. The coffee was bad, but its poor quality served to strengthen the community. The day was in front of them. The dining area, seen as a whole, appeared to be a site both of great torpor and great vitality, as the sheer variety of indolence manifested as an energetic bustle.
If asked to specify the best part of the weekend, not one of the men would think to name this languorous interlude in the dining area, and yet there was no time better than this. This was the best time, this brief span of Saturday morning. It was not an event, could not be named or considered. Consequently, the men could enjoy it without pressure, anxiety, or self-consciousness. Indeed, without awareness. They could enjoy it without enjoying it. If they were aware of it as a potentially enjoyable event—Post-Breakfast Relaxation, 9:15–10:00, Dining Area—then it would almost certainly cease to be such an enjoyable event. Disappointment was the freight of expectation. Unbeknownst to the men, this was what they came here for, every year. They were enjoying their morning, but they did not realize it. The good moments, it is true, were always this way: interstitial and unacknowledged. They craved occasion, but did not understand it. Halfway through their lives—considerably more than halfway, in several cases—the men knew nothing of their own vast contentment.
A woman entered the dining area with a boy. She paid no attention to the men in their jerseys. She briefly surveyed the continental breakfast. Then she filled two cups with orange juice and put lids on the cups. She wrapped food in napkins and began to arrange the food in her large purse. The boy, eight or nine, shuffled away from her, peered into the fruit bowl. He withdrew two apples and an orange. “Don’t touch anything,” his mother said, without looking up from the buffet. The boy turned toward the dining area and began to juggle the fruit. The men tapped each other on the shoulders, shifted in their chairs to watch with amusement and anxiety. They knew too well how it would end, the bruised fruit rolling beneath tables, the boy scolded once more. His face glowed with concentration. He had taught himself to juggle in his bedroom, and he was good. He would not drop the fruit. The men began to relax. They began to miss their own children. It was the best kind of missing, without pang or ache. They did not actually want to be with their children. They had fond thoughts and were grateful for the distance that generated those thoughts. “Let’s go, Brian,” the woman said. “Right now.” She zipped her bulging purse and walked toward the lobby. As abruptly as he had begun, the boy stopped juggling. He gently caught an apple with a hand that held an apple. He wiped each piece of fruit with a napkin, placed them into the bowl, and then jogged after the woman. “We’re late,” the woman said. Gary, tugging at the neck of his Lawrence Taylor jersey, muttered an unkind word about the woman, and Jeff laughed. The more thoughtful among the men considered the ways in which they, too, may have become inured to the remarkable.
“Just imagine that,” Bald Michael said. “Imagine that you’re seventy-eight years old, living in Florida, reading your military-history books, doing physical therapy, minding your own business. And then your daughter shows up with her new boyfriend. She’s so excited for you to meet him. This guy is fifty years old. He walks with a limp. Just imagine that. It’s humiliating for everyone. It’s like putting a sweater on a dog.”
Peter nodded, though at the mention of Florida his mind wandered to his worries about retirement income, and then to his irritation about the rapidly increasing annual dues.
The men were convened again in 324, waiting for film study. On the back of the door Carl had taped a sign-up sheet for optional afternoon haircuts, and a half-dozen men clustered there with a dull pencil. Another six or seven men had gathered by the television. There was some trouble connecting the laptop to the television. What was needed, apparently, was an HDMI cable. None of the men had one, but several of the men thought simultaneously of Cyber Jim, the computer maven at Prestige Vista Solutions. According to the schedule posted outside of the conference room, Jim would be in meetings until noon.
Really, any container would have worked just fine. By holding the ends of a damp towel, Trent made a kind of sack, into which he poured all of the Ping-Pong balls from a green duffel bag. He shook the balls ceremoniously, and the sad and merry sound of their jostling quieted the room. Trent reached into the damp towel and removed a ball. He squinted to ascertain Randy’s name. There was no way Trent was sending Randy into that conference room. The job required some charisma. “Derek!” Trent shouted, tossing the ball quickly back into the sack.
The men clapped and cheered, chanting the name. Derek was the right guy for this. Those who were close enough to Derek reached out to touch him, slapping him on the back or punching him not forcefully on the arms. Derek was not happy to be chosen. He sat on the edge of a queen bed, jiggling his legs. Not fair, he thought.
“What’s it called again?” he said.
“And who’s the guy?”
“Cyber Jim. There’s a Khakis Jim, too, but it’s not him.”
“Careful, Derek, though, because Cyber Jim is wearing khakis.”
“You really think he’ll have it?” Derek said.
Derek made his way through the men toward the door. The journey across the room was long and complicated.
“With your shield or on it, Derek,” Gary yelled, and Steven moved in close to mitigate the historical damage.
Derek took the elevator from the third floor to the fourth floor. In room 440 he replaced his Clint Didier jersey with a crew-neck sweater from L.L.Bean. He washed his hands and face. He stared out the window at a wet dumpster. He rode the elevator down toward the lobby. Derek thought the ball that Trent had selected from the wet towel had not looked like his ball. Of course, it was difficult to see, but Derek felt pretty sure that his ball was not as yellow as the ball Trent held aloft. Why would Trent single him out for this unpleasant task? What had he done to Trent?
Derek walked slowly through the lobby to the conference room. Here he was, looking for handouts. Hey, brother, can you spare an AV interface? He passed by the conference room but did not stop. He walked a circle through the lobby, then another. Television, clock, fountain, pineapple, arbor. It was possible—yes, it was entirely possible—that Derek just did not need this anymore.