Eugene Marten

from FIREWORK

Jelonnek’s brother called and said, “It’s the end of the world.”
“How’s it going? Hey, what?”
“How’s it going. He doesn’t know how’s it going. You live in a cave or you just work in one? It’s on every channel.”
“Who are you talking to?”
“Not guilty, man. Not fucking guilty.”
“You mean L.A? I heard something.”
“Not just L.A.: San Francisco, Seattle, New York. I think I heard something about At- lanta.”
“What about it?”
“You didn’t know? You can’t drink beer and watch TV at the same time?”
“I’m watching a tape.”
“Not anymore you’re not. They just hit a car with a Marlboro sign. It’s your duty to
watch this shit.”
“Is it here?”
“Oh, man. They’re dragging him out of his car...beating the shit outta this guy.”
“White guy?”
“Yeah, no...Mexican...he’s getting away. Jesus, he left his old lady by the car.”
“Not here?”
“Not here. Nothing’s happening here yet, I haven’t heard anything. Probably just a matter of time. I mean we’re fifty-fifty here.”
“Where are the cops?”
“You know what Code 3 is?”
“Code 3?”
“Not guilty. You believe that?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“I know the guy’s a piece of shit but Jesus Christ.”
“Yeah, hey...congratulations.”
“Congratulations. Congratulations for?”
“On you and....”
“On me and.”
“Well goddamn.”
“You don’t even know her name.”
“I just met her the once. Jewish girl, right?”
“Asshole. Like you can tell.”
“Fuck you.”
“Fuck you first. Thanks anyway.”
“Do you know when?”
“Cop just drove right by. Code 3.”
“You set a date?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. We might have to postpone it if civilization comes to an end. Fuckin animals, right off his neck.”
“What?”
“They took this Jap’s camera…The old man’s supposed to be there.”
“What?”
“The old man.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Would I shit you? Mention was made.”
“What about Florida?”
“You believe that shit?”
“Why would he lie?”
“He lied about Disneyworld.”
“Let me call you back.”
“Birmingham. Las Vegas. Man, I gotta go. This is history.”
“Alright. So you don’t have a date.”
“Why don’t you give me a date?”
“For what?”
“For you know what. She’s a good woman.”
“Who said she wasn’t?”
“She stuck by you.”
“I didn’t ask her to.”
“Now that just makes me want to bend somebody up.”
“What? Let me get going.”
“They’re surrounding the station. Goddamn police chief’s away at a fundraiser.”
“Call me back.”
“I hope he raises a lot of funds. Didn’t ask her to.”

You could hear him shaking his head over the phone. Jelonnek hung up and took the quart out of the freezer. He’d have to start over. In the living room the girl he lived with was watching them surround the police station. They were yelling, “No peace, no justice!” Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Jelonnek rewound his tape. A car on it’s side, a guy trying to push it over the rest of the way. Finally he gave up and just set it on fire. The mob at the station looked angry, but everyone else seemed to be having the time of their lives. Jelonnek changed the channel. Dan Rather.Three’s Company. He changed the channel and a man with a bloody face was on all fours, next to a truck, carefully pawing the air like he couldn’t see.

The tape clicked.

“Let me finish this,” he said. He wore his jersey with Number Nineteen’s number on it.
“The Game?” she said, on the couch, making something.

The Game. The first half always a disaster. Kansas City going eighty yards on the opening drive, litter blowing across the field like they were playing in a ghost town. Then they’d recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and scored again. Nineteen got them within field goal range, but the Chiefs returned a punt for another TD in the second quarter and it was 21-3 at the half. Jelonnek loved watching them dig themselves a hole now, knowing what was going to happen, but back when the game was actually played he’d screamed and thrown things till the neighbors pounded and the girl he lived with had left and gone to her sister’s. He’d knocked over the TV, gouged his temples with his nails till they bled. Now he was entitled to enjoy it. He’d paid his dues.

AT&T, the answer people--he’d forgotten to take out the commercials.

By halftime the quart was empty and Jelonnek was that much braver. He switched off the tape and announced he was going to the store.

The anchorman says, “Three alarms per minute.” Frederick’s of Hollywood was on fire. She didn’t want him to go, they were dragging people out of cars. He had work tomorrow.

There’d been no reports. “They’re all on the east side anyway,” Jelonnek said. He said he’d take the tracks. You can’t live fear, he slurred.

Behind their building was a parking garage where you had to pay twenty-five dollars a month for a space, and behind the garage were the railroad tracks. Jelonnek didn’t walk much but he liked the tracks. They led in a long curve to the street that ran past 7-Eleven, and as you followed them everything turned; backyards, garages, clotheslines, the buckled ring of a three-foot swimming pool. Kids came here to sniff glue. Jelonnek didn’t see anyone now but once something big rustled the weeds at the edge of the gravel bed. The sun was behind and below him.

Nobody had believed in Number Nineteen at first, least of all Jelonnek. A thirteenth-round pick, rangy, slow-footed—a sitting duck in the pocket, they said. No deep ball, and that awkward sidearm! His first year he was third-string, his second year League MVP. He’d proven them wrong, though Jelonnek didn’t remember being wrong. Number Nineteen was a chessplayer, magician, surgeon. Could read coverages like reading minds, change a play at the line as if he would alter the future. Who needed muscle when you had eyes that saw the entire field in an instant, where everyone was and would be? Just find the holes in space and the ball would reappear where the receiver was headed all along, his entire life leading to that moment. He’d set an all-time record for completions without a pick his third year--the year he’d taken them to the conference final. The Game. Not that Jelonnek fully appreciated the nuances of the sport; in truth he wasn’t sure of the difference between a cornerback and a safety, a nickel defense and a dime. He only knew that Number Nineteen had taken them to Kansas City, one step from New Orleans. That everything was different forever afterwards.

Jelonnek left the tracks.

When he pushed through the door at 7-Eleven, he didn’t at first know he’d hit anyone. Then he saw a kid who might have been seven years old standing by the comic book rack, holding his head. “That’s right,” a man said. “I told him not to stand there.” Big guy, long hair and a beard, leather jacket, standing at the counter. “Fool me once, shame on you.”

The kid trembled, struggled with himself, you could already see the bump between his fingers. Jelonnek went to the cooler. A guy with a copy ofHustlerstood there watching and said, “Told me the same thing.”

Jelonnek grabbed a forty. It slipped out of his hand and shattered on the floor. Nobody seemed to notice. He took this as a sign and took a twelve-pack to the checkout.

“Any trouble?” the biker asked the clerk.
“Quiet as a rat pissin on cotton.”
“Closing up early?”
“Not a chance,” the clerk said. He glanced behind the counter like he was making sure something was still there. “I knew this was coming.”
“I hear that,” the biker said.

Jelonnek mentioned the broken bottle but the clerk waved it off. “Probably not the last one I’ll see.”

The kid still wasn’t crying. Jelonnek opened the door carefully. He hurried back along the tracks, didn’t want to miss the second-half kickoff. Then he stumbled and realized he wasn’t going to miss anything, that the game wouldn’t start till he pushed the button. He slowed and pulled a can out of the carton, opened it one-handed. Now he liked the tracks that much more. Close to where he lived they straightened and you could see to the vanish- ing point, beyond the smoke and fire. Jelonnek belched. The distance felt like a promise. The sun was gone but its light remained; he wanted to keep it there. He dropped the empty can and opened another, opened his throat and emptied another one into it, arching his back, as if he would dissolve whatever it was that kept him from getting together with that light.

The girl he lived with wrapped her arms around him as soon as he got in the kitchen. She was crying, they’d dropped a brick on someone’s head, kicked him while they danc- ed...it was hard to make her out.

“Let me put this away,” he said.

In the living room Los Angeles was burning in fifteen hundred places. A man ran out of a store so laden with furs he looked like some huge misshapen bear. Again they showed the man on his hands and knees, next to his truck on his hands and knees, blind with his own blood, groping the air. This time they showed it from a helicopter, as if to make it new. Jelonnek pushed the button.

In the living room it is January again, the comeback is on. The front four finally show up, and the ground game, muscling the ball inside, but mostly it is Number Nineteen. Number Nineteen, just twenty-four in good-guy white, crossing himself on the sideline, rangy, slow, taking the snap with one leg splayed out so as not to trip over his own linemen, freezing the deep men and even the camera with play action (how could he still have the ball?), spreading the field, beating the crowd noise with a silent count. Twelve for twelve in the third quarter,Hewlett-Packard: the people who never stop asking what if. Then the pocket starts to collapse, Number Nineteen takes hit after hit, hobbles back to the line with a separated shoulder, hairline fracture, three cracked ribs, his whites dirty but pure with grace, shouting his colors and numbers into the late sun, setting a playoff record for yardage--not that he ever cared about records, and because he didn’t. Finally, one last posession, down by a score, no timeouts, no huddle (On the ball! On the ball!), throwing for the long shadows--corners, fades, and outs--driving into night at the end of the field, to fourth and goal, last play in regulation, hitting Eighty-eight on a slant for the tie and getting hit one more time, blindsided just as he released the ball, going down and staying down, the sound of bone snapping through the crowd roar of national television, the sound of the announcer on national television saying, “The game becomes unkind,” and it was that piece of magnetic ribbon, that stretch of history that Jelonnek replayed over and over, click and whir, click and again, till the tears came and the girl he lived with would roll her eyes and sigh.

But tonight she was the one crying. Into the phone. In the kitchen.

Number Nineteen would not join them in the afterlife of overtime, would not return to the game. They would say he never did. The voices he’d proven wrong spoke again, sayingGun-shy, sayingDiminishing skills, but this time Jelonnek would not be one of them. He’d erased that final portion of the tape, the toss of the coin and sudden death. He’d erased the end. Everything would still be possible, the past is never past. You just rewind it while you get another beer, then start all over again.