At the Thirty-Yard Line of the Endless Field
Although the scoreboard lights expired long ago, the coach assures the quarterback their team is winning. “Listen to me,” says the coach, whose commanding voice makes him seem huge, a titan. “Don’t listen to any other voices—even your own. Don’t believe what you see. You aren’t seeing everything.”
“What am I missing?” the quarterback asks.
“You don’t know what’s happening behind you. Or on the sidelines. Or beneath the stands. You don’t know what’s happening up in the press box or in the stadium across town.”
The quarterback can’t dispute this. “OK, Coach.”
Is it the third quarter now? Or the fourth? The quarterback is certain halftime has passed. He remembers retreating to the locker room and listening to his coach’s rousing speech. He remembers leaving the locker room, storming past his girlfriend, a cheerleader, as she was about to become the apex of a human pyramid, and rushing back onto the field. This was sometime between his third and fourth concussions.
The quarterback cannot remember calling a timeout in order to talk to his coach on the sidelines, but here he is.
“We want to keep taking the fight to the enemy,” his coach says. “Make no mistake: Victory is at hand.”
The quarterback wonders if his coach could be lying about the score in order to keep up morale. He also thinks it’s possible that his coach doesn’t know the score but is either guessing or is confident his team is winning because coaches, as a rule, are confident, otherwise they become something else, like sportswriters or poets.
Or are these doubts merely the voices in the quarterback’s head, the voices he has been instructed to ignore?
“And don’t worry about the prime minister,” the coach says. “We’ll bring him in line.”
“What prime mister?” asks the quarterback.
“I was only testing you,” says the coach, smiling, “to see if you had your head in the game.”
His coach slams his fists on the quarterback’s shoulder pads. Despite the pain, the quarterback refrains from wincing. “Onward to victory!” his coach exhorts.
As the quarterback jogs toward his huddle, he hears his coach say, “Don’t believe those who want to characterize this as a civil war. It’s a series of discrete ethnic skirmishes, gang tussles without, alas, the great dance numbers of ‘West Side Story.’”
The quarterback stops and turns around. “Excuse me?” he says.
His coach’s grin is as wide as his wide face. “Remember: Head in the game!”
“Oh,” says the quarterback. “Right!”
The quarterback resumes jogging toward the huddle. Before he reaches his teammates, he looks up into the stands. In the imperfect glow of the stadium’s lights, people in the crowd seem at once close and distant, as if he is seeing them on a computer monitor or TV screen. Or perhaps they exist only in his imagination, adjuncts to the voices he hears.
He sees his mother knitting; his father is either sleeping or talking on his cell phone. The quarterback’s sister, who has never been a football fan and was furious when the quarterback signed up to play, appears to be arguing with a white-haired woman sitting next to her. The white-haired woman is wearing a blue blouse with a yellow ribbon pinned to her chest. The quarterback remembers, or thinks he does, that his team’s nickname is the Yellow Ribbons. Or is it the Be-All-You-Can Bees?
The ball is at the thirty-yard line, but the end zone seems farther away than it did before the timeout. In the mist, the quarterback can barely see the goalpost. He wonders if, during the timeout, the groundskeeper altered the field’s length so that now instead of 100 yards long it is 200 or even 300.
A hump-backed boy carrying a tray of water bottles shuffles past, whispering, “First down and forever to go.” A second later, the boy’s hump explodes in a rainbow of colors, and the quarterback knows who stole the halftime fireworks. A sizzling blue flame sears a snake-like pattern onto the quarterback’s right forearm. He can smell burning flesh—his own, the boy’s, or someone else’s, he isn’t sure.
Dropping to one knee, the quarterback calls the play, hoping the field hasn’t grown any longer. Quickly, he breaks the huddle and steps behind his center.
This is his fourth or fifth center. The others have been carted off the field at various times during the game. His first center didn’t move a muscle, or even a strand of hair, after he was hit. Nor did he move as the trainers or medics (the quarterback has forgotten the correct terminology) attended to him. The quarterback knows, or had known (this, sadly, seems the more appropriate verb tense), his first center well. They attended summer scrimmages together. In the locker room, they told each other jokes. He can’t remember any of the jokes now, but he remembers the way his first center laughed—like a volcano erupting.
He doesn’t know anything about his latest center. He seems young, as if he’s been recruited from the junior high. All of the new players on his team seem like they should be in the eighth grade.
Before he barks his signals, the quarterback looks at his coach, who is now standing behind glass so thick it must be bulletproof. Has the coach always been walled off like this? The quarterback can’t remember. What he does remember: During summer scrimmages, one of his wide receivers told him their coach had never played the game. “You’d never know it,” the wide receiver said. “He loves the game so much.”
Now the quarterback wonders if loving the game and playing the game are incompatible. Or are these his voices speaking again?
He glances again at the crowd. His sister is holding up a sign: “Play Footsie, Not Football.” Before he decided to play football, he had long conversations with his sister about the virtues of the sport; he recited its ancient and honorable traditions. He tries to remember what he told her but this voice, at least, has fallen silent.
It is his coach, however, who provides a retort to his sister’s protest. Bellowing from behind glass, he says, “If you don’t support the game, you don’t support the players in the game. And if you don’t support the players in the game, you don’t support the field they’re playing on. And if you don’t support the field they’re playing on, you don’t support the earth itself. So move to Mars!”
The quarterback cannot remember the play he called in the huddle, so he decides to audible. He shouts signals, a series of numbers that will send his receivers and running backs in a certain pattern. If he shouts a different series of numbers, the pattern will change, but he wonders whether the result will. (No! Doubt is a voice and a voice is unwelcome.) He can no longer see the goalpost. Has the groundskeeper moved it even deeper into the mist?
Just as troubling, it now looks as if there are more defenders on the field—maybe fourteen of them. Or twenty. (Some appear to be hiding behind others.) Two of them are clearly off-sides. In fact, they are standing five yards behind the quarterback. So his coach was right. There are things he doesn’t see.
But now that he does see these defenders, what play should he call to counteract their threat? Is there even a play in the playbook designed for this contingency? (The quarterback tries to take comfort in how enormous the playbook is. All the same, he knows the playbook was designed for a different game, one his team was supposed to win easily.) At a minimum, the quarterback decides, the coach should have provided his team with better equipment. The quarterback’s shoulder pads are as thin as wafers, and there is a crack in the middle of his helmet, which makes it look like an egg about to break open.
As he continues to scan the field, the quarterback sees that his own players are aligned in an unrecognizable formation. Ten yards to his right, his left tackle has pinned a member of the opposing team to the ground. His right guard is jumping on the player’s exposed lower leg, his cleats puncturing holes in the skin above his ankle. His fullback, a woman whose blond hair spills from the ear holes in her helmet, is asking the downed player questions, something about the other team’s offensive strategy, although why a defensive player would be familiar with what the offense is planning, the quarterback doesn’t know.
The quarterback wonders whether he should pull his teammates off the player. Or would this be disloyal, would this be to give in to the voices in his head?
Most of the time, he doesn’t hear voices, only a long, loud ringing like a telephone he can’t answer.
“There are some things we know for sure,” says his coach from the sideline, addressing, it appears, the people in the stands or the reporters in the press box. “And there are other things we know we don’t know. And there are other things we don’t know we don’t know, what we call unknown unknowns. Multiply that last equation by ten and you have a semblance of what we’re facing in the area of the thirty-yard line. But make no mistake, victory is just around the corner.”
But there is no corner, the quarterback thinks. There’s only one dark, endless field.
His voices again!
With growing panic, the quarterback shouts new signals, hoping, praying, that the right combination of numbers will end the game and send them all, happily, miraculously, home.
He steals a last look at his girlfriend, the cheerleader, who is no longer cheering. She is kneeling on the dried, brown grass; once as bright and joyful as the dress she wore to homecoming, her pom-poms look like severed heads. (His voices again! There is no correlation between what she is holding and the decapitated heads he has seen sometimes rolling around the field—and seen more than sometimes in his dreams!)
His girlfriend is, of course, beautiful, and she has become more beautiful the longer the game has gone on. Yet if the game goes on much longer, the quarterback is worried she will consider him less-than-desirable because of his concussions and—if he could only control them!—his voices.
He’ll make it up to her. When the game is over, he’ll surprise her with a gift, although he wonders what gift could compensate her for what he can no longer give her.
He wishes she would look at him, but she is looking at the black night sky. And now he must finish calling the play. What was the last number he shouted? He can’t remember. With an awful certainty, he knows it doesn’t matter.
About the Author: Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. Brazaitis’ writing has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show as well as on public radio in Cleveland, Iowa City, New York City, and Pittsburgh.