Wednesday, July 12, 2006

 

The Game

They came in slowly, their heads bent low. Some with their helmets in their hands or under their arms. Others still wore them.

They came in quietly, in single file, sitting down and letting their bodies fall heavy on the long benches that lined the wall of the dressing room. They let their helmets fall, the noise loud in the small room.

He was one of them, yet conspicuous, for he was clean. His uniform not mud and grass stained like the others. A towel shoved under his arms that he had taken from the clothes hanger where his street clothes were draped and a forced look of sadness on his face.

He also slumped down on the bench and joined the others when they dropped their helmets, though he had waited until others dropped theirs first. He moved the towel and draped it over his shoulders. He had gotten the towel and his clothes from his locker as they returned from the playing field, when the last beats of the drums died out and the noise of the crowd was beginning to disappear. He had stopped at the locker and smiled, thinking of the naiveté of the rest of them who were sad. He could not feel the sense of sadness they were feeling over the loss of the game. They had been beaten, yet he could not feel sad. And now slumped on the bench, he tried to appear sad, bending his head and remaining silent like the others.

The silence seemed loud to him, his eyes screwed up to watch the others. Waiting for a signal to begin taking a shower and to dress to go home.

"We could have won," the player next to him said.

"Yeah," he answered. " We could have."

"We would have only for that last pass."

Someone got up and began pulling their jersey off. It was a signal. The room burst into activity. All the players began undressing. He joined them , standing up and helping the player next to him with his jersey. The player helped him and he dropped the jersey on the floor. He remembered all the effort that had gone into getting dressed and now he was undressing and he regretted joining the team. Still he had tried and this was the last game. The last time he would ever wear the jersey that now lay in a heap on the floor next to his legs. And somehow he was glad that it was over.

"Never should have lost," the player next to him repeated, throwing his jersey angrily on the floor. It's mud and grass stains blurring the number.

He had no answer, though he wished he could think of something to say.

He untied the strings that held the shoulder pads and removed them, placing the pads inside the jersey.

The manager came in the locker room. He was young and carried a wooden box partially filled with tape and sterile gauze.

"That was a tough loss," the manager said.

"Yes," he answered.

"I thought we won, but that last touchdown did it."

"I should have had that ball," the player next to him said.

"It wasn't your fault," the manager said.

"How is the coach taking it?" someone asked.

"Bad. He'll be in soon," the manager said.

The tape was still on his wrist. It had been put on before he dressed and it was still there and clean, except for a dullness because he had rubbed it with his hands. He began unwinding it. Pulling it off in quick jerks, except for the gauze underneath which he also took off and after rolling them into wads, he threw them into the trash container across the room. He flexed his hands and rubbed the wrists, enjoying the freedom from the binding tape.

The activity in the shower room had increased. Now most of the players were partly undressed. Some were getting out of their pads and others taking shoes off while others were already stripped and heading for the shower. The room was quiet, except for some occasional bits of words and the noise of spikes scraping on the cement floor and pads dropping.

The manager had gone to all the players and asked if anyone was hurt and checking for bruises. "How about you, Joe," he asked him. "You okay?"

"Yes," he answered.

"You didn't get in did you?"

"No," he said.

He took off his T-shirt and hung it on the peg under his towel. It was still clean and dry. He would wear it home. He bent down and untied the shoe laces and pulled the shoes off. Then the socks and under the socks, the tape around his ankle. He pulled the tape off along with the gauze underneath. He was now nude, except for the pants.

Mostly he had been watching the other players. They seemed sad and were quiet. Across the locker room a big heavy tackle was crying. This had been his last game, he was a senior now. The tears were hardly noticeable except for the slight wetness on his cheek that made funny little lines in the dirty face.

The silence was still there. Some players were beginning to talk about the game, but only to their neighbors and only in quiet tones. No one had completely undressed and no one had showered yet.

He pulled his trousers off and stuffed his pads and uniform inside the legs. He hung them on the peg. He was now nude except for the athletic supporter. His street clothes were hanging on another peg above him and his shoes were under the bench. He hoped someone would start showering. He was waiting for the signal. Taking his cues from the other players, all except the one for sadness. He could not feel sad, it was only a game, he thought, they would all live. Tomorrow it would be forgotten. Forgotten as old rain.

It felt good being rid of the last piece of his uniform. His body was clean and white. Not dirty from sweat, or red from scrapes and bruises like the other players. The manager was busy cleaning and bandaging a cut on the big tackles arm. He almost wished he had a cut, perhaps then he cold feel sad.

Tomorrow, he knew, the game would be replayed by the next-day quarterbacks. They would, in their arguments, discuss not how the game was played, but where the mistakes were made and what could have been done.

Suddenly, the door opened. Everyone turned. The coach was standing in the open doorway. He said nothing, slamming the door angrily and entering the room. The players turned away and bent their heads, not looking at him. The bits of whispering stopped. The room was quiet.

The coach hesitated for a moment a few feet from the door and waited. Joe kept his eyes screwed up, so he could see the coach who had an angry look on his face. The coach kicked at a helmet, sending it the length of the room and banging against the far wall in a rush of noise before it stopped and bobbled back and forth. All the players jerked their heads. The coach waited for the helmet to stop rocking and then began slowly walking the length of the room, glaring at each player as he went. At the end of the room, he turned and walked back to the center. He stopped and glared at each player slowly turning as his eyes moved around the room.

"What happened?" he asked leaning over and facing the quarterback.

"I don't know," the quarterback said in a low voice, not looking up.

"You're supposed to know, damnit. That's why I put you there."

He turned and faced the big tackle. "What happened?"

"I don't know."

"Nobody knows. I know. We lost. You know why, because you didn't play well. You didn't play like I told you to play. No passes at that stage in the game."

Then the coaches eyes were on him. The coach stopped talking and shook his head.

"No passes," he repeated.

"I told you," he glared at the tackle who did not look up. "That was your last game. Win it. But you lost. You all lost. I had faith in you guys, but you lost."

He turned and walked to the door and stopped. He did not turn, but with his back to the team, he said slowly, "thanks fellas." And he was gone.

No one spoke. No one moved. They had their heads bent in silence. Then the big tackle began crying, aloud but not loud, except for the first gasp that broken the silence.

He watched a player walk to the showers and heard the water run. He got up and slipped off the supporter and went to the shower. He smiled as he entered the shower stall and turned on a shower. He washed slowly, not really needing to wash, he was still clean, except for the lingering smell of the uniform and pads that he wanted to be rid of.

Another player came in and began showering. There were tears in his red and inflamed eyes. His back was turned to Joe.

"The coach was really mad," Joe said.

"Yes," the first player said.

"I wonder if he'll come back?"

"I don't know."

"We lost," Joe said. "Why does he get so mad at us?"

"We shouldn't have lost," the player with the red eyes said.

Soon all the showers were being used. He could feel the intimacy of it. The warm water and the smell of soap.

"The last pass," someone said. "That did it."

"I knew we should have run the ball."

"The coach was sure mad."

"Bet he'll get drunk tonight at Rizzo's bar and redo the game."

That was it, Joe thought, he'll go to the bar tonight and relive the game. Old alumni will be there who will egg him on to replay the game highlights. There will be a football for him, kept behind the bar. He will dramatize the game with action and drink his beer, while the alumni laugh and drink along with him.

The player next to him on the bench had not showered yet. He was just sitting there, his pants and socks on and holding his head in his hands.

"The water's warm," Joe said.

"Yes."

"Feels good to be clean."

The player got up and undressed and then sat down again. The big tackle was still crying and still completely dressed. The player next to him stirred again. "I sure lost the game, didn't I?" It was more a question than a statement.

"No, Jim. We all lost the game."

"But I should have gotten the ball."

"So you missed. That's all. You missed."

"I can't understand how you can take it so easy. It hurts me to lose that way."

"I do care," he tried to be sincere. "But it's over now."

"Fred is taking it hard," Joe pointed to the big tackle.

The big tackle had not moved yet, still dressed in the wet dirty uniform, his helmet hanging from his fingers. He had only spoken to the coach and then, only in a low voice. Another player had tried to talk to him, but he had not answered.

I wish I was like him, Joe thought, I wish I were cut and bruised and dirty from the playing field. I want to play and feel the roughness of the game and feel the strength surge through me. I want to be in the game.

Joe shook his head and finished drying. Some players were beginning to leave. The manager had finished dressing all the cuts and bruises and stopped by him.

"Sure is tough to lose the last game like that," he said.

"Yes."

"I wish we'd have won, don't you?"

"We'll win it tomorrow," he said with a smile.

The manager laughed. He had not been in the game either. He had only tended to the players.

Joe finished dressing. The room was damp from all the showers. Beads of moisture showed on the walls and ceiling. The old cement walls and ceiling were warm and damp and he avoided contact with it. He finished dressing and rolled his socks and support in the wet towel and walked to the door. He stepped out into the hall. The cool air was refreshing. He hesitated for a moment, then turned and looked at the nearly empty shower room. I wish I could cry he thought. He walked away and started down the long hallway wondering over and over what the rest of his life would be like.

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