“I’ll tell you how he did it. I’ll tell you how he did it right now.”
Reese leaned forward and spread out his arms, batting at everyone’s knees where they sat in the deck chairs around him. Everyone giggled and held their drinks to their chests and pulled up their feet as Reese swatted their bug-bitten shins, slapping off a sandal with his waving hands.
“Give me space,” he said. “Give me some space if I’m going to get this right.”
“Reese!” Meg said, laughing like she didn’t want him to stop.
Dusk had turned into a heavy summer dark, and the four adults were still drinking on Jimmy’s back deck. The baby was finally asleep, and Reese and his wife Meg’s girls were chasing one another in the backyard, chirping about the lightening bugs they hadn’t yet seen. The kitchen was clean and the plates were away and the adults had begun to open new bottles, adding the drinks they believed they deserved to the drinks they’d needed to get through the day. Reese stood facing them all in the dark, the light from the neighbor’s porch tracing his shoulders in a burning white line.
“Back off me,” he said, still waving his arms. “Back off me now.”
“You don’t want to play with that old man,” shouted Jimmy, frantic but happy that Reese was here, happy that this scene was being played out on his back deck, happy to be the host and the participant or even patron of what was shaping up to be one of Reese’s vintage performances.
“You could see it in that old man’s eyes,” Reese said, and he got down into a crouch reminiscent enough of the object of his satire that the women squealed and Jimmy barked out a laugh of recognition. “That’s the first thing,” Reese said. “And that bastard’s got on—you remember this?—he’s got on those crotch-hugger shorts and the polo shirt tucked in nice. And. Tight.”
“Yes!” laughed Jimmy.
“And you’ve just got to stand there while he’s cussing a blue streak, and then he grabs your facemask like a goddamned bullring,” Reese reached up and yanked an imaginary kid to his imaginary knees.
“Yep,” Jimmy said quietly. He took a drink.
“And he’s got you,” Reese said, “and he just keeps walking. He’s dragging you after him over to that one single spot on the field. Because there is a six-inch by six-inch square down there in the dirt, down there where it all went to shit.” Reese stuck his forefinger at the wood planks of the deck. “The veins on the old man’s arms are standing a good quarter inch out of the skin and that finger says that your impropriety occurred right, fucking, here.”
“That’s right,” Jimmy said—louder now, because he wanted the women to know that he knew it, and he wanted Reese to know that he knew it, and he wanted to remind himself that this was the truth of it. This was how things had been.
“That son of a bitch is screaming in my face,” Reese said, “and he’s hoarse now, and he’s up so close on me that I can see that slug of mint Skoal stuck back down in his lip and with every word of his I’m getting tobacco juice sprayed all across my cheeks.”
Reese jumped back into a crouch and started to wave his hands in a pantomime of that long-gone coach on that chewed-up field. The women peeled out fresh laughter as Reese swiveled his head like a kabuki actor and stuck his tongue deep into his lip. “You’re getting sucked into the B gap,” he shouted, “and the pulling guard is coming down the line and he sees your fat ass just sitting there and he’s thinking nothing but fresh meat!” Reese smacked his hands together and the women jumped. “And you’ve got your thumb up your ass and your mind in Arkansas and to hell with the hospital son, you’re about to get put in the doggone morgue!”
Reese paused in the midst of the laughter, still deep in character, and he didn’t move a muscle until everyone was quiet again. His wide bug-eyes passed over all their silhouettes where they sat, cross-legged in their fold-out captain’s chairs. Then Reese stood all the way up. When he spoke again he did so with the old man’s voice, but now it was different; it was calm, and intimate. “Listen to me, son,” he said. “Right now. Right now is when I need you the most.” Reese opened his hands. “Now is when I need your help. Now is when we do this thing together. Now is when you help me be a better coach.”
Reese and Meg had stopped off for the night on their way up from Greensboro where they’d been visiting family. Jimmy had seen them planning the trip on Facebook and was anxious to reconnect with his old friend. The two men hadn’t seen one another in nearly ten years, but fantasy football and Instagram pics and quick texts about baseball teams had helped maintain the illusion of friendship, the impression that the two were intimately involved in one another’s lives. Jimmy had been so nervous about Reese and his family showing up that he had gotten drunk before they arrived in fear that they might not. But they did show, and Jimmy didn’t burn the burgers and the baby was in a good mood and the wives were getting along and the girls were giggling out below them in the dark. The night on the back deck was hot and thick and cloudless, the dim stars set far back in the sky.
“You can’t get away with that shit anymore,” said Jimmy. “You can’t grab a kid by the facemask any more.”
“They’d throw your ass in prison,” said Reese. “No questions, just straight prison.”
After high school the men had attended different colleges, Reese going on to become a financial advisor while Jimmy had taken a job bartending in school that had lasted until he’d met and married Julie. He’d just started as the manager of the Outback up the road in Lynchburg. To Jimmy, Reese looked nearly the same—a bigger forehead maybe, a little jowly—but Reese’s hair was slick and combed, and his clothes were intentional and worn with an ease that suggested a wealth Jimmy couldn’t recognize in the Reese he knew. For these reasons as well as others he couldn’t quite place, Jimmy had decided to get Reese as drunk as possible. He’d brought out the high-test liquor, George T. Stagg, 141 proof, nearly impossible to find. If there was one good thing about working in the restaurant industry it was the ability to get quality booze, and the Stagg bordered on dangerous—heavy with nougat and rimmed in a blinding tinge of straight moonshine. The women weren’t interested, but Reese was on glass number three and, as a result, he had the whole group lit up, the whole night right on the edge.
Reese’s wife Meg turned to Jimmy. “Did you play football too, Jim?”
“Oh yeah,” Jimmy said, taking a sizzling gulp of the whiskey and pushing down the realization that she knew nothing at all about him. “Reese and I played together.”
Reese waved his glass at his wife. “Meg’s the real athlete,” he said. “All-state midfielder in high school. Started three years in college. D-1.”
“No shit,” said Jimmy.
“No shit,” Meg said. “I loved it until I blew my ACL senior year. But our coaches aren’t nearly as colorful as what you guys had.”
The monitor glowed into life with the crying of the three-month-old, Baby Jeb. Julie cursed and put her wine glass down and stood and walked back into the house. The three remaining sat and tried not to listen as Julie entered the baby’s room and held and hushed him. Jimmy leaned forward and clicked off the monitor.
“I think it’d be a disappointment,” Jimmy said, sitting back, “to have a colorless football coach.”
“But don’t you think it’s an act?” Meg said. “Something they just put on to get the kids riled up?”
“Oh totally,” said Reese.
“Well,” Jimmy said. “I don’t think all of it was an act.”
“You think someone honestly behaves like that all the time?” asked Meg.
“No,” Jimmy said. “Look—”
“I mean,” Meg said, “how much of that sort of rah-rah bullshit do you really need to get motivated to go out and compete? Doesn’t it just get in the way of your own preparation? I mean how are you supposed to execute if you’re scared to death of getting physically abused by your own coach?”
“I think,” Jimmy looked up at the sky. “Look, I think that kids—boys—of a certain age, really respond to a certain type of personality.”
“That sounds pretty fucking regressive, don’t you think?”
“Meg,” Reese said quietly.
“No,” Jimmy said. “Now, I can’t speak for girl’s soccer—”
“I like the way you say it,” Meg said.
“How do I say it?”
“You say it like it’s a completely different thing.”
“OK,” said Jimmy, feeling the blood rising in his face. “So, OK. In your. In your community, let’s say, what was the more popular game?”
“Oh come on.”
“No, no, hear me out. Who had to sit on a, a float in the parades and throw out candy to the kids? Who had their games on local TV? Was there a homecoming soccer game? What I’m saying is, what were the expectations around—”
“Careful, buddy,” Reese said. “We’re outclassed on this one.”
Jimmy looked at Meg where she sat with her legs crossed, the globe of her wineglass held high beside her face, the liquid black in the light of the neighbor’s porch. Jimmy laughed.
“What the fuck do I know,” he said. He held out his glass in a toast that wasn’t returned. “What the fuck do I know about it,” he said, taking a drink.
“Honey.” Julie was at the sliding door. “He’s still up.”
“Excuse me,” Jimmy said, putting down his glass and stepping inside the house.
It had only been three days since the baby had been sick. Three days since Julie had come into the living room where Jimmy had been flipping through his phone, looking at news, pictures, nothing.
“He’s burning up,” she’d said.
“Like a furnace.”
“Ok.” Jimmy had stood and followed his wife back into the darkness of the house and down the hallway, not knowing what a furnace felt like. Nor did he recognize the white pocket of fear that had begun to open up in his chest like water boiling in a pot.
When he’d held his son in his hands its wasn’t like he was holding his son but a small and child-shaped piece of iron pulled glowing from a forge. The baby was shaking with the effort of its screams and Jimmy was suddenly, senselessly furious at his wife. He looked at the child, at the silhouette of the child in the half-light of the room. His wife stood mutely beside him as though he knew what had to be done, and Jimmy knew that in truth she didn’t believe he knew what had to be done, but he also knew that she hoped against all hope that he would know or would pretend to know, and so he pretended to know.
“Let’s get him into the bath.”
“The bath,” she said.
“Run the water cold,” Jimmy said.
He had heard of this, or read about it or seen it in a headline from a website for an article he didn’t read. Suddenly he was sitting in the white light of the bathroom, a bathroom with its little plastic toys now worthless and hateful and the limp washrags on the side of the basin and all of it lit up like an operating room, his son screaming and purple in his hands, shaking in the clear cold water like a motor inside of him was knocking against his skin. The pealing screams sliced down into Jimmy’s brain and he held his boy in the white and churning water, cupping his hand in the cold and splashing it on the baby’s back while his wife knelt behind him on the bathmat, her back straight and her hands on her thighs as the water roared from the tap until eventually, finally, the child underneath Jimmy’s hands began to cool.
Tonight Jeb was just a little fussy—a few wheezes, a little rattle. It was as though the bathtub had never happened, and for the child perhaps it hadn’t, but for whatever reason Julie hadn’t been able to put the boy down since. She had lost her confidence somewhere and the odd kick or squeal dispirited her, preventing her from seeing the rituals through. Jimmy took the baby from her, still a little warm but nothing serious, and he sat back in the rocking chair.
Before the baby came, Jimmy thought he was pretty good with song lyrics. He thought he knew entire albums front to back, albums he had listened to for decades. What he discovered when he sat down to sing those songs was that he couldn’t remember how any of them began. They all seemed to start in the middle somewhere and peter out after the chorus. Most nights he’d settle on Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, side B, but could recall, at best, half of the melodies, only one of the bridges. He ended up humming the same sixteen bars over and over but, still imagining himself a musical savant, Jimmy began to jazz it up a bit. He’d lag behind the beat, he’d add a few notes. If he were feeling particularly confident he would, at times, build a new harmony overtop the first few he’d laid down. Tonight it was all of the above, the Stagg singing in his head until Jimmy convinced himself that he’d chosen the wrong career (such as it was), and was in fact a natural musician, his gift in total atrophy other than these nighttime performances that were, perhaps, of some real worth. And if that were so, then so was he—that is, a man of worth, of value, a man doing good and useful work. After about fifteen minutes the boy was snoring in his arms, and Jimmy laid him back into the crib.
“How’s the little man?” said Reese.
“Back down,” Jimmy said, easing into the chair, feeling for his glass with his hands.
“Is Julie still up?” Meg asked.
“Sure,” said Jimmy. Meg shifted her legs underneath her and stood and walked into the house.
Jimmy found his glass by the legs of the chair and he lifted it and took a burning gulp and looked out at the night that seemed as though it had pulled even further back into the sky. He tried not to notice that she had left as he had entered. He tried not to think that he had been a subject of discussion. He tried not to hate her already.
“I’m sorry if I sounded like an asshole earlier,” Jimmy said. “Girl’s soccer is no joke. The way they run those girls?” He pushed air out through his teeth. “I could never have handled that. No way.”
Jimmy let that sit for a few seconds and waited for Reese to say something. To say forget about it buddy. To say it’s nothing between friends. Reese didn’t say anything.
“You know what I read the other day?” Jimmy said, filling the silence. “Right up the road here, at Northside. Soccer coach, girl’s soccer coach. Sleeping with the players. Or one of them. It didn’t say.” Jimmy waited for a few seconds. “I mean it’s rape,” he said, tipping the now empty glass back for another swallow that wasn’t there. “Can you imagine?” Jimmy went on, his mouth full of air. He swallowed it and kept on. “I mean that’s the sort of shit you don’t have to worry about with football.”
Reese sat forward, the white of the porch-light in his hair. He looked at the glass in his hands. “You’re kidding, right?” he said.
Jimmy burped. “What,” he said.
Reese turned his glass around in the light. “This stuff is rocket fuel,” he whispered. “Alright,” Reese said. “I told myself I wouldn’t do this.” He sat back and exhaled loudly and he said, “You remember when you got beat down in the JV shower?”
Jimmy opened his mouth. He looked at Reese, and then Jimmy didn’t want to look at him anymore. He turned and looked down the long and empty deck, at the cooling grill at the end of it. Something weaponized about it. Something robotic. The squeal of the girls in the yard brought the moment back to him.
“Look,” Jimmy said. “I was dumb. It was a dumb prank, and I paid for it. Because look,” he said, surprised at the intensity rising in him. “I stole. I stole somebody’s wallet. Out of a locker. Marty’s wallet out of his locker and I got beat down in the shower for it. Probably just like I should have.”
“That’s right,” said Reese. “And the varsity heard about it, and they came in to help. It must’ve been twenty guys in that shower.”
“I mean,” Jimmy laughed. He looked away again, and—“No,” he said. “No, now, wait a minute. You don’t steal, okay?” He was struggling to control his voice. “You damn sure don’t steal from your teammates. Those are your fucking brothers and there’s a trust there. There’s a trust that if it’s broken—”
“I’m talking about what happened.”
“What happened after, Jim.”
“Right.” Jimmy put his glass back in his lap. He looked back down the deck. Out at the trees in the yard. The night around him hadn’t changed. Nothing had changed.
“What did you hear?” Jimmy said.
Reese’s didn’t say anything for a few moments. Then he rubbed his palm quickly across his forehead and said “I mean you weren’t a buck twenty then. Nobody.” Reese dropped his hand to his lap. “Look, what I’m saying is…”
Jimmy stood and turned and he walked into the house. He opened the fridge and popped two cans out of the plastic (one. two. simple.) and he stood with the beers in his hands in front of the refrigerator. He watched the door swing shut. He listened to the icemaker cut on, then off. After a minute he turned and walked back across his kitchen and slid open the door and walked back out onto his deck.
Reese had shifted his chair. He sat in it looking out at the long backyard and the black mass of trees at the end of it. Jimmy sat down beside him and handed him a beer.
“You know who I grew up watching?” Reese said. “As a little kid? Tom Landry. This was way back. Coach of the Cowboys, sure, but I mean he helped conceive the game of football, from the beginning. When you’re talking about Landry you’re talking about the…the fountainhead. It all springs from him. And what was he?” He turned to Jimmy. “What was Tom Landry?”
“Landry,” said Jimmy, confused and relieved. “Landry. Stoic. I think he cut a guy one time for laughing on the sidelines.”
“I see those kids playing now,” said Reese. “Especially the college kids. Pounding their chests and screaming. Slashing their thumbs across their throats. It upsets people. The schools get fined and the networks cut away from it, but the fact of the matter is they’d cut our nuts off if they really knew what it took to play football,” Reese said. “And back there at the beginning of it all, there’s Landry. Walking the sidelines with the fedora and the sport jacket. Watching boys go after each other like he’s watching waves on a beach.”
“I remember Landry,” Jimmy said. “I remember Landry and Gibbs and Parcells and Buddy Ryan and the whole thing.”
Reese gestured at the trees with his beer can. “They came after. They were the children of the beast. They were human and they prayed, but Landry? Do you think Landry prayed? To whom, exactly, would Landry pray?”
“You’ve lost me buddy,” Jimmy said. “Lost me completely.”
“It’s this,” Reese said. “It’s: who would let it happen? Who would start something like that? It’s someone who knows what it is,” Reese said, “and does it anyway. There’s something evil at the bottom of it, Jimmy. Haven’t you ever thought about that?”
Reese picked at the tab of the beer can. He looked at his feet and then out at the treeline. “Look,” he said. “I know we were never close, you and I. But when I think about that…” Reese turned his head to Jimmy. And he kept looking as though he were waiting for some sort of acknowledgement, some nod or cry or something Reese thought he would or should see. After a few moments he sat back. “Have it your way,” Reese said.
Jimmy stood up again and walked back into the house. When he heard Meg and Julie talking in the den he stopped in the darkened kitchen and stood and listened. Not to what they were saying but to the quiet way in which they spoke. He imagined that they were talking about normal things. He imagined that they agreed on those things. Jimmy imagined that they would continue to do so, and he felt himself hope that the two women could be friends as well, and that their friendship would hold these two families together as everyone grew older.
He put the beer down on the counter and walked down the hallway to the baby’s room. He turned the knob and opened the door.
Julie’s rough whisper came down the hall after him. “If you wake him up so help me—” Jimmy stepped in and closed the door.
In the dark he saw the green light of the monitor clamped on the edge of the crib. The artificial ocean on the sound machine hissed out and back, out and back. Underneath it, faint but persistent, Jimmy could hear the breathing of the baby in the crib. One breath, and then another. And each one of those breaths fell and rose into the next, still just a little ragged but strong and natural and completely inevitable. Jimmy stood in the darkness of the room and in those breaths he heard an insistence that stretched into a time that lay on the other side of his own. He put his hand down in the dark and it found the chest of the child where it lay in the crib. Jimmy felt the body rise and fall underneath his palm, rise and fall like a thin machine, and full in each of those risings of a thing he did not in truth sense otherwise.
Meg pulled her leg up underneath herself in the captain’s chair, the stem of her wineglass caught up in her fingers. “I mean,” she said, “I dated football players.”
“Damn straight you did!” shouted Reese, too loudly.
“I dated football players and lacrosse guys and whatever.”
“Not me,” Julie said. “I liked the artists. The painted fingernails and the absinthe.”
“Well I mean I was a jock and so were they and whatever,” Meg said. “And they were rough guys.”
“Really?” Julie laughed. “Oh, you like the rough ones.”
“Rowdy,” Meg corrected herself with a smile in her voice as the two young girls walked up from the backyard. The girls were both tall and bony, their limp straw-blonde hair nearly glowing in the dark. “The guys were rowdy,” Meg said, putting her arm around the one that came nearest. “And they were fun and whatever, but what I always saw was this. What I always saw was that the meaner the coach, the worse the team. If the coach was calm and focused and, just a fucking adult. You know what I’m saying? If the coach was an adult, the teams always seemed to win. If the coach was an overgrown child, well…”
“We had great teams,” Jimmy said evenly.
“Why do you think that was?” Meg said.
“We had the talent,” said Jimmy, batting at Reese’s leg. “Am I right?”
“Ok,” Meg said.
“But look,” Jimmy said. “That old man was a motivator. He understood how we worked.”
“See, that’s what I don’t get.” Meg sat back. “Who’s we?”
Jimmy stood up, could feel himself standing before he realized he was doing so. He stood and he waved his hand out at Reese. “You remember his great advice? You remember his words of wisdom? How to be a better man?”
“Get meaner!” Reese shouted.
And now Jimmy himself was down in the crouch, his tongue stuck deep in his lip. The two girls began to squeal as he shuffled around the porch until he was standing in front of Reese’s chair.
“You want to get your dick knocked in the dirt in front of all those hot little pieces of tail up in the stands?” Jimmy said.
“No sir!” shouted Reese.
“You think you can play for this team with your ass full of candy and your head full of buttermilk?”
“I’ll tell you what the problem is. The problem is that everybody’s gone soft! It’s getting so we’re all just willing to sit here and take it. Just take it like we’ve got a big, red, bullseye on our chests.” Jimmy stuck his finger into Reese’s chest. “Do you have a bullseye on your chest?”
He pointed at one of the girls. “Do you?”
“No sir!” she called out.
Jimmy stood up. “And now,” he said. “Now’s when the old man changes it up. Now’s when he gets personal. Now’s when he homes in.” Jimmy walked back around to Meg where she sat. He leaned down in front of her to look at her in the dark. “What he does is he finds your eyes,” Jimmy said. “And he’s looking deep down, searching for a key down there that he can turn. You know what I’m talking about?”
“Ok Jim,” Julie said.
“That key that’ll get you to get it. And he gets in close. Close enough for you to smell him.” Jimmy began to thump his finger lightly on Meg’s knee. “He’s got his eyes locked up with yours and he says—and he says it quiet—he says Son, he says, You. Are not. The target. He says Son. You, are the missile.
Jimmy stood back up. He opened his arms.
“What was that?” Meg said.
“That was it,” said Jimmy.
“What was it?”
“That was it for me.”
“But you know how stupid that sounds,” she said. The girls started to giggle and shuffle their flip-flops on the deck. “You know, right?”
Jimmy dropped his arms. Everything was up in his ears. The people and the night and the booze. “Yeah,” he said. Jimmy took another step back. He tried to hold her eyes where he imagined them to be. “I guess,” he said.
The monitor clicked back on, the baby’s cries raw and fierce and scratchy in the dark.
“Honey,” Julie said.
“I guess it was stupid,” Jimmy said.
“Honey, I’m sorry, but could you?”
“I guess I was stupid but—” On the blue screen beside her the baby kicked out his white legs once and hard and held them there, suspended in the air, his eyes open and black to the dark of the room.
“But what,” Meg said. Her head hadn’t moved, nor had her wineglass or the hand that held it.