Nic Fort ’16

He could pick me up and throw me like a goddamn football.

He played center, right in front of the quarterback. At age ten, he stopped fitting in my shoes, and by the time he lined up on the field, he barely fit in my car, or in the desks where he failed most of his tests. But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t the best football player I’d ever seen.

Every Friday, come fall, I couldn’t look away as he threw himself at everything in his path.

All week, I would look forward to those nights; I’d think about them at my desk when my co-workers were talking to me, and in the minutes before I fell asleep, and at dinner, I’d ask my son about that week’s matchup to the point where my wife would beg us to talk about anything but stupid football at the table. I’d shake her off with a chuckle. “She just doesn’t get it,” I’d say, and continue to ask about the opponent’s line.

28-27. The other team had just scored a touchdown, a little run into the end zone from about fifteen yards out, the back barely making it past our defense. Everyone gets lucky once in a while. Thirty-six seconds left, lining up for the extra point. We needed something big, or we’d go into overtime. More football, but more chances for screw-ups, a heartbreaking, last minute loss we couldn’t afford. I stretched my toes up and down on the metal bleacher, awaiting his next move. Out there, next to all of them in their line, he looked big. Every father wanted to have a son who looked like that, his wide shoulders above everyone else’s. His frame seemed to disagree with moving quickly, until the play let him loose like a racehorse, poised to win.

The extra point kick was decent, just as adequate as the most boring part of the most exciting game on earth can be, and it arched through the sky on its short trip to the uprights just as it should have.

Except, on that night, he knocked it down. My son, my strong boy, reached his long arm up to the sky and pushed off the ground and almost two hundred people watched as it brushed his ring finger and fell to the ground, spinning, spinning, spinning.

If I could take a picture of that moment and frame it, I would put it above my mantle, like those big photos of sailboats that a few of my friends have up there. In fact, I would commission a painting, because in that image of my son in his navy blue uniform, number 57, stretching to the sky after that football, the lights behind him, the other players looking up to him, a bright future shines.

I threw on a smug little smile as the other parents howled around me, jumping from their seats and pounding my back in joy, their children’s victories shining in their eyes exactly as I didn’t want mine to.

The only problem, really, was that when he came down, that lucky ring finger of his, the same one that won the game for his team, was sticking roughly perpendicular from the rest of his hand, pointing dumbly up at the black sky.

* * *

I always thought Bill Gates looked like a pussy. No one with glasses that big could be that happy. He wouldn’t stop smiling at me. As my eyes flicked from his left eye to my son, the metal chair disappearing beneath his frame, I simply could not picture the two of them in a room together.

My son sat silently. I saw his eyes brushing the ceiling and the floor, really, it seemed, anywhere other than his gruesomely swollen finger, which shone purple like one of my wife’s scarves. Hospital waiting rooms seem to have a way of seeming hushed even when the whole goddamn world’s running through. It was too quiet in there. It made me restless, sitting next to all those people, none of them doing anything, just waiting, waiting, waiting. I couldn’t stand it. I forced my face into the Time magazine, more pictures of the computer nerd. “Every young child in a science class across America, popularity eluding them, dreams of being Bill Gates, who has made geekdom cool.”

They had won the game, but my boy spent the celebration having three people separately try to bend his finger back into its proper orientation. Rather than adulating with the other parents, I was given the privilege of driving my surly son to the hospital. I loved to watch him play, but when he emerged from the field, he brought with him only anger.

“Hell of a block, son.”

The Jeep flew down the highway, the only car out there late on a Friday night. He stared out the window, his face visible only in the passenger-side mirror. His finger, wrapped in gauze, rested at his side.

“Yup.”

“I’m sure the team missed you celebrating out there.”

He didn’t respond. I turned to face him, asking, “What’s wrong with you?”

He flicked his eyes at me, a sneer pulled over his head. “Jesus Christ, dad, can we just get to the emergency room?!” He turned back towards the window, sighing over the sound of the engine. He didn’t speak again.

Inside the waiting room, identical nurses paraded around, although they never actually seemed to do anything. Outside: only darkness. Every few minutes, an ambulance lit up the black, and yelling EMTs would bring in some really crappy-looking people on gurneys, and all the nurses converged like there was a bagel platter at the door, and then they would wheel death past the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign, and that strangling silence would worm its way into my ears again.

It didn’t stop. Either everyone was yelling, or no one was saying anything at all. Would someone just kick the bucket already? It was the only way I could see out, for one of the people in that waiting room just to fall, splat, right on the floor

“Bill Gates, who has made geekdom cool.” That sentence again. I couldn’t get past it. Looking over the top of the magazine, I noticed a boy with floppy brown hair and a face covered in dirt. He looked less like a victim of medical emergency and more of a hygienic one. This boy, this creature, stared intently at my son, his eyes wide. His hands gripped the edge of the chair, and I tried my very best to ignore him. He wouldn’t stop, would he? His eyes just seemed to get bigger and bigger, his hands getting even tighter on the metal, like he was about to fall up and hit the ceiling or something.

I nudged my boy. His whole body jerked suddenly in his pads, letting off a light plastic click. Seeing the grubby boy’s dim eyes on his forehead, he said, perhaps a bit loudly, “Hey. Can I help you?”

The child, taken with surprise, appeared to swallow something large in his mouth, compose himself for several seconds, before a torrent of words slipped out of him, “Nononosorrynothingsorrysorry,” and he jerked his chin up at the ceiling.

A few seconds later, the boy’s eyes, peering out from his flat body, turned back to my son and his tight navy blue uniform. And there they stayed. My son, now rubbing his finger, looked up to find the same pair of gray eyes on him again. “Can I help you?” he said once more, even louder.

The boy bit his lips, obviously building to something, his eyes locking into what I can only imagine was a zen-like state of focus, before squeaking out more words, “Do you play football?”

My son, without moving his face into any recognizable expression, held up his unnaturally angled finger, smiled, and said, “No. I’m part of the cheerleading squad.”

The dirty little boy’s posture collapsed, his hands falling into his lap. “Oh, okay then.”

My son stared at me, a question in his eyes. I shrugged; I had no clue what to make of this kid, who belonged more in a bathtub than a hospital waiting room. My son’s features seemed to soften a bit, and he leaned towards the boy. “Yeah, dude, I play football.”

The boy’s face erupted into a smile. “Really? What position do you play? I watch football at home all the time, when Dan doesn’t need the TV. Sometimes, he sits next to me and talks about the spread and sometimes, when one of the teams scores a touchdown, he’ll smile really big and lift me up! I love football!”

I knew it was coming. My boy would say something stupid, or otherwise just plain mean, and the floppy-haired football fan, leaning across the aisle, his eyes turned eagerly towards my son, would either cry or stick his face into his shirt. Instead, my son said, “I play center, and sometimes coach puts me in at linebacker, in tough situations, you know?”

Enthusiasm poured out of the boy, who leaned in, as if all he wanted was to be next to my son. As he grew closer, I realized that what I had thought was dirt was a bumpy rash, climbing up his jaw, across his cheek, past his eye, and into his scalp. I recoiled in revulsion as his smile grew wider, the peeling redness contorting geometrically in the light. “What team do you play for? I watch the Broncos, and the Colts, and sometimes the Steelers.”

I tried to look at my boy, to jerk my head back and forth, but his eyes darted away from mine. He deadpanned, “I’m just about finished a four-year contract with the Denton School. I get paid pretty well.”

“Oh my god, oh my god! Can I have your autograph? Wait ‘til I tell my friends about this. They’ll be so jealous. I met an NFL player! A real NFL player! Right here in this hospital.”

I cleared my throat, trying my best to be as loud as possible. Truthfully, I just wanted to never have to stare at this boy’s face again. “Excuse me, but where are your parents? Where is anyone taking care of you? Why are you here?”

Regarding me with a blank stare, he said, “See, Dan was watching the TV, and mommy wasn’t being too nice, and then I think they went into the other room to talk about it, and then a bird broke the plate-glass door, and Mommy fell and cut her head on the glass on the ground, and Dan told me to wait outside the emergency room and not bother anyone. Please don’t tell him I bothered you.”

I froze, my Time magazine forgotten before me. I looked down at it for as second, trying to avoid his gaze. “Every young child in a science class across America.” The boy’s eyes darted back to my son, who didn’t miss a beat.

“Don’t worry. We won’t tell anyone. Come here, and I’ll sign this for you,” beckoning for my magazine and a pen. He signed his name and wrote “For My Biggest Fan” right across Bill Gates’ face and handed it back to the boy.

His biggest fan held Time magazine above him, his mouth wide open and eyebrows sliding up. For a second, his happiness seemed to break the awful fate he had been given. He touched only the edges, handling the stapled, glossy magazine like a collector’s item.

His grin had not diminished when a loud “What the hell are you doing?” erupted from a bald man with a goatee, stomping through the crowd of the waiting room, fists clenched at his sides.

Approaching me, his eyes darting accusingly between everyone there, he grabbed the boy by the wrist. His arms, tattooed with the wide-mouthed skulls, rippled as he jerked him into the air. “What did I tell you, kid? I told you not to talk to anyone, and what do I come out here to find you doing? Exactly what I told you not to! You can’t stop screwing up, can you?”

The boy seemed ready to shrink, to turn to water and spill all over the floor, anything to escape the crushing grip, the eyes clamping smiles shut. Squeaking, wheezing, the words struggled their way out of him, fighting to find their way around the boundaries of this colossal man. “But Dan… Wait… Let me tell you… He’s a football player… A great one… A legend… I just wanted his autograph!”

He hissed the words, “He’s no football player,” and carried the boy away, moving towards the door. My son jumped up, his pen bouncing off the ground, but I grabbed his jersey, my arm straining as I pulled him back into the plastic chair.

“No,” I breathed. “There’s nothing you can do.” He recoiled at my touch, and collapsed into the seat.

The automatic door slid open, and the man carried him away. The boy’s cries barely made it past the crook of the man’s elbow, his legs paddling back and forth in the air.

The boy’s little fingers held to the magazine as it flapped in the wind and ripped under its own weight. He reached out for it, but the red border had already escaped him, dropping into a bush. For a second, it almost seemed like that stupid face would smile up at the stupid stars.

The door slid closed and the room dipped back into silence.

* * *

I watched the road. There was a heaviness in my foot, a burning weight holding it to the floor. I felt a strange, unstoppable urge to leave the white hospital far behind. He had reclined the seat and closed his eyes, his hand cradling the cast as we hit bumps in the road. I just watched the tar.

He spoke so quietly that I thought for a second it was just the wind, coming in through a gap in the window. He said, “What’s going to happen to that kid?”

“What?”

I watched the edge of the light, where my high beams met the night. “It was like thirty minutes ago,” he said, his voice starting to rise. “The kid? The one in the waiting room.”

I didn’t look at him, but I could feel his body, looming to my right. Looking at the asphalt, I said, “Oh. Yeah – what about him?”

I looked at him for a second. He leaned forward in his seat, his shoulders still in his pads. “Couldn’t we have, I don’t know, maybe, done something?”
“Nothing you can do, you know?”

“But – that guy! Couldn’t you…? Didn’t you?”

“Do I feel bad? Sure,” I cut him off, leaving him staring at me. I tried to look right into his eyes. “But you know what? You can’t worry about other people. We all have our own lives. Your only concern is you.”

I turned back to the road, noticing for a second that my foot had come off the gas. I pressed it down, and the car jolted beneath me. I eased off, and let it come back towards the posted speed.

He gave me silence, his good hand on his forehead. “You really don’t think we should do something?”

I loudly breathed in my nostrils, my reply ready. He banged the dashboard, hard, and I jumped in my seat. “Dad, what the hell? We could try to find him! Isn’t there someone we can call?”

I blinked, feeling a strange, electric feeling beneath my hair, at the base of my neck. “You can’t worry about this! You take your mind off that field for one second, you’ll get plowed down out there.” I slammed my fist on the door, next to the window. I couldn’t see anything, just darkness before me. I thought a hand hovered behind my neck, the edges of the fingers coming just short of pressing the skin. Fumbling blindly, I found the knob to turn the headlights back on, and they flickered, sputtering back into light.

Breathing in, I continued, “What’s all this about this kid you’ll never see again? Focus on football.”

He turned to me again, his cast smacking against his thigh, his eyes flicking back and forth between the road and me in the dim light. “But –“

“No. All you need to worry about? Plays. Hits. Routes. Lifting with the team. Do you think they want you off your game?”

My eyes traced the Jeep logo on the steering wheel as I spoke. “Look, I sucked at football. I just wasn’t strong enough! I remember my senior year, we almost made the state tournament. We were so close. It was all I wanted, all I ever wanted. And we lost. We lost because I didn’t have it. I remember how that felt, like I wasn’t worth anything. You have it! But you can’t let all this crap get to you. Keep your distance.”

He turned his back to me, 57 shifting in and out of the outside light with his movements. “Stay away from the stuff that doesn’t matter,” I said.

With a breath, he fell back into the seat. “Yeah,” he said.

Without looking, I said, “Let’s go get some reps in downstairs tomorrow. You’ll feel better.”

Lifting up his injured hand, he said, his voice toneless once more, “I don’t know… That doctor said…”

“You think that guy knows anything about you? He probably played the goddamn tuba in high school.” I tried to tap his shoulder and laugh, but I caught his pad, my hand hitting at a weird angle.

I turned into our driveway, pulling the car up to the garage door.

He unbuckled his seatbelt and slowly allowed it to slide across his jersey’s blue mesh. He said, “Okay. Tomorrow.”