Oh my God I’m exhausted after this part… The title’s changed to “Given the Circumstances,” which makes more sense than Situation; there’s a story called “Love, Life and Circumstances” out there now, so I wanted to avoid using the same word, I don’t know why. But I keep typing Circumstances instead of Situation, so there you go.
This part says Chapter Three, though I never marked Chapter Two earlier, but I realized Brian’s backstory is a chapter in itself.
CHAPTER THREE – THE DECEPTICON
Roger still had his first football, or at least, the pieces that were left of it unchewed by dogs or torn off by year of use. It was, had been, a Nerf football, a lurid orange foam rubber thing that he’d found in his dad’s old toy chest when he was six years old.
He’d picked it up and figured out how he was supposed to hold it, how he was supposed to throw it. He’d never seen a football game; his dad didn’t have a television. They read books, listened to the radio, rented movies.
Roger took it outside, onto the wide front lawn of the old Victorian, and started tossing it at the giant oak tree. He would miss the tree, run after the ball, run back to the same spot, and throw it again, missing on the other side of the tree the next time.
Jacob Ehrens had seen his son playing in the front yard out of the corner of his eye, the rest of his attention focused on his university library copy of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” to the detriment of more serious studies. But then, it was summer, he had no classes, nothing urgent to do. The days were mild and warm and he’d earned a mental rest this year, he thought. His son was a busy, active child, and there was nothing unusual about him entertaining himself.
But when the game that should have worn him out was still going on an hour later, Jacob stepped outside with a cup of water for his son.
“You doing okay out here, tiger?”
“Yeah.” His blue eyes closed as he gulped the water, his nearly black hair, his mother’s hair, flopping in his face. The pang was still there, four years later, Amanda’s face, her laugh, the way she flipped her long black hair in a perfect Cher imitation.
“You found my old Nerf football, I see.”
“Were you a foobaw player?”
“Oh, no. That was just for fun.”
“I’m a foobaw player.”
“Yes you are,” Jacob said matter-of-factly, never one to talk down to a child. And clearly, Roger was a football player today, since he was playing with a football.
“Okay, I’ll leave you to it.”
“You be the catcher,” his son said. “Please,” he remembered.
“Sure. In football he’s not called a catcher, though.” Jacob walked a respectable distance away.
“What’s he called?” Roger said, tossing the ball, frowning when it landed at Jacob’s feet. “No. Stay there,” he said when Jacob tried to close the distance.
“Okay. I don’t know what he’s called. We can ask the encyclopedia when we’re done.”
Roger threw the ball, and threw it, and threw it, until finally Jacob called a halt when he saw that Roger was fighting exhaustion, stubborn as always around nap time. “Sleepy time, I think.” He scooped his son up in his arms, and Roger was asleep before his father could get him to the couch.
The Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t have a lot of information about football. Jacob sighed, closing the book. No matter, when the boy woke up, he’d be on to dinosaurs or Power Rangers or something else.
Wrong. “What’s the catcher called?” Roger asked at dinner.
“The catcher?” It was Jacob whose mind had already moved on.
“The foobaw catcher. Did you ask the cyclapedia?”
“Oh. I don’t know. The encyclopedia didn’t know. We can go to the library tomorrow, though.”
The next day, he took his spot in the comfy chair, sworn to plow through a journal of historiography. There was Roger again, throwing the ball at the tree, missing left, right, low. But the boy didn’t give up. He could have moved in closer and hit it easily, but he’d somehow decided that wasn’t allowed under the rules of his game.
“Persistent little guy, isn’t he,” he asked the cat, who was sitting in the window, hypnotized by the action.
When he went out to check on him, his son looked up at him. “When do we go to the library.”
“How about now?”
“Okay.” Roger dropped the ball and headed for the car, before remembering to walk back and pick it up and put it on the porch.
The university library wouldn’t have any books for children about football, so they went to the Santa Vera County Library. Jacob sighed. Their sports section had lots of…childish books, or inspirational true story books.
“Do you like any of these?”
Roger paged through the cartoony books with large print, one simple sentence per page. “No. These are for babies.”
Jacob looked over at the librarian, who smiled at him. Nice looking lady. Never mind that. “Sorry,” he said.
“No apology needed,” she said. “We know Roger.” She spoke to Roger directly. “Do you want to go upstairs and look at the grown up books?”
Roger shook his head solemnly. “I can’t go up there till I’m a grown up.”
“That’s not true. You can go now, if you want.”
Roger’s eyes got huge. “I can?”
She nodded, wistfully. Not the first time a bright child had rocketed out of the “baby” books section, never looking back to visit or thank the women he’d never see again.
Jacob nodded his thanks, a blandly friendly smile and a wave. I have a son to raise. I can’t disrupt that with…all that. Someday. When he’s grown. Then, he thought with a smile that lit up his face, that the librarian caught just a glimpse of as he turned away, enough to break her heart, then when I’m too old for anyone to want me, I can meet a nice lady.
Upstairs, they found the sports section. “That one,” Roger said, pointing up at a book. Jacob pulled down “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” and examined it before handing it to the waiting boy.
“That looks like some heavy lifting, son.”
Roger didn’t answer. He opened the book, turned the pages, frowning. Jacob left him to it, and picked out some picture books that looked like what he thought Roger would really want. But then, his son was full of surprises.
They bought a television. Roger’s eyes were glued to football games the way other children’s were to cartoons. It worried Jacob. Not because it was an unhealthy obsession, but because…well, there wasn’t really any sign that Roger would be any good at this. He threw that ball and now and again he hit the tree, but… Well, fine, maybe he’d become a sportswriter, right? Who knows?
There was only one way to find out.
“Do you want to play football?”
“Can’t,” he said, eyes not leaving the TV. “Chargers are on.” It was the last year for some time that the team’s games would be worth watching.
“I mean, for real. Pop Warner football.”
Roger’s eyes boggled as they had at the library. Other kids in school played football but it had not occurred to him that this was possible for him. “Can I?”
Jacob took the coach aside on Roger’s first day. “He’s not…I don’t want to say he’s not talented, physically. But he’s not a born athlete. But he has a lot of heart. He never gives up. I just…I just want him to have fun.”
They were lucky; Roger’s first coach, Mr. Jurvison, was the right kind of coach. He nodded. “That’s what I’m looking for.” By which he meant in both the son and the parent.
It broke Jacob’s heart to see the little guy get knocked over. And over. Kids fall down all the time, though, right? And it was like the toy of his youth, the absurd jingle in his head as he watch the games – Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down! Well, he fell down, but bounced right back up again.
It was weird, watching little kids play football. More like bumper cars than the crushing hits in the pro games he’d started watching along with Roger, fall Sundays now a total washout, no leaving the house all day long.
After games, he talked with Coach Jurvison, who told him one day, “I’m going to put Roger in at quarterback next week.” The coach was a firm believer in rotating positions, at least at that age. It kept egos in check. It taught everyone what was involved in playing every position, experience that would prove invaluable to Roger later on as he directed plays. And it let the coach see if a kid had a particular talent for a position, one in which he should be mentored and groomed for later success.
Jacob smiled, already familiar with the backyard politics involved. “Jeff Triga’s kid is the quarterback.” Triga was too classic, the pushy father who succeeded in the workplace by bullying others so relentlessly that they collapsed from exhaustion and just gave him what he wanted. And who thought that approach would, should, work everywhere. But Jurvison was made of sterner stuff.
Coach Jurvison looked around. The coast was clear. “Professor Ehrens, excuse my French, sir, but Jeff Triga can go fuck himself.”
Roger did not acquit himself well the next week, or so it seemed to the onlookers. He didn’t complete a pass, had a botched handoff, and was sacked twice.
“Are you okay?” Jacob asked Roger afterwards.
Roger nodded, his little head moving inside the helmet. “Yep.”
“You did great out there.”
“No I didn’t!” he said, in the scoffing tone only children can get away with. There was no self-mutilation in it, just a declaration of facts.
“Did you have a good time?”
Coach Jurvison put a hand on Roger’s head. “You know what happened out there today, son?”
“Yeah. I didn’t get any touchdowns.”
“We’re going to work on your handoff skills this week, okay?”
“Okay.” Roger trotted away to join the other kids for juice and cookies.
“Jeff Triga let him get sacked,” Jacob said. He was learning the game himself, how to watch it, how to read a play.
Coach Jurvison said nothing, but knew it was true. Jeff Jr. had his father’s competitive spirit, and had ever so casually stepped aside and let one of the other team’s defensive linemen plow his competition for the QB spot into the ground.
“Let me worry about Jeff Triga. Junior and senior.”
Roger worked. God did he ever. Jacob lost sleep because he had to grade papers late into the night, to work with Roger, to read up on football, to watch football on TV with Roger, to watch Roger play, to pick Roger up from and take Roger to practice.
Jeff Triga Jr. was relegated to the role of water boy. Everyone knew what he’d done. His father took him out of this league and forced his way into another. Good riddance was the general feeling among both parents and kids.
Roger got better. He started completing passes. Handoffs. Fakes! The pump fakes, the fake handoffs, the zig zag runs that left, um, less intelligent players going left when they should have gone right. His honest little guy was the most unbelievably devious bastard when he was on the field. There was no question who the QB was now.
But he was a sharer, the way his father had taught him. He nodded when Coach Jurvison told him to spread out his throws, not to favor one receiver over another, to help all the guys get better. It made perfect sense to him that this was what the game was about.
He had friends now, friends who were over all the time. He’d been a solitary kid but not anymore. Jacob was so relieved, and to be honest, it was good for him too, to have more voices, more footsteps in the house, more dirty cups and plates in the sink, more bodies blurring by his window in frantic motion as they laughed and jumped and ran and shouted in the huge front yard that had just been waiting for them to find it.
Time’s arrow flew. Roger got bigger, stronger. He got to high school and that’s when he hit his first wall.
Coach Walters called him into his office. “Roger, I’m putting Jayce in as starting QB.”
“Okay,” Roger said. But his heart sank, not out of jealousy but out of dismay that he hadn’t been good enough for the job. He should have been happy for his friend, tried to be, but there were so many feelings involved there already…
“Thanks for understanding. I know you’re ready to do whatever it takes for the team to win.”
“Yes, sir, absolutely,” Roger said, meaning it.
Jacob fumed. Jayce Hartfield had talent. But he was a bad kid. He’d nodded to Jacob one day when Jacob had picked Roger up from his house, a nod that was more knowing smirk than anything else, an “I’m in on the joke and you are it” look. He would burn out, flame out spectacularly, Jacob could see the headlines already. And in the meantime Roger would have to sit on the bench and wait for it to happen. Win, win, win, that was all Walters cared about. Whatever it took, whoever it took.
But Jayce was Roger’s friend, for some reason. “I smelled pot back there,” he said in the car after picking Roger up. His sixteen year old son was in more danger now than he’d ever been on the field, in Jacob’s opinion. “Are you smoking pot?’
“No, Dad,” Roger said. He grinned. “You could totally smell it, huh?”
“I am familiar with the scent,” Jacob said, unable to repress his own smile. But he clamped it down. “I could give you about a thousand reasons you shouldn’t smoke pot.”
“You want me to list ‘em for you?” Jacob looked over; Roger’s smile was easy, happy, guilt-free. He breathed a sigh of relief, his son was fine. He had his mother’s looks, thank God, her fine profile, her dark, swooping, tapered eyebrows, her strong chin, her cheekbones, her long dark eyelashes. None of Jacob’s own self described “dorky-duck” looks had made it past her guardian genes.
“Yeah, do that.”
“One, it’ll impair my breathing, I won’t run as fast. Two, it’ll slow down my thinking, I won’t be The Decepticon anymore.” Roger already had a nickname that would stick with him for life, thanks to the further refinement of his brilliant faking skills. “Three, my reflexes won’t follow my brain as quickly. Four, it’ll mess up my blood sugar and I’ll eat junk food…”
“Five, it’ll interfere with your schoolwork.”
“Right, that too.” He acted like schoolwork wasn’t that important, but they both knew that unlike athletics, there was something that did come naturally to Roger, and that was learning. It was his intelligence, and of course his mule-like persistence, that had brought him this far in football.
“I don’t know what you see in that kid anyway,” Jacob said, blind to what was in his son’s heart for the first time.
Roger sat on the floor the next night, looking up at Jayce, who was sitting on his bed, shirtless, his face scrunched up as he toked on the joint, shaking his head as he held in the cough, holding the joint out like a bug he’d picked up as if that would help him hold the smoke in longer. Then he blew out a huge cloud, his head nodding to the blaring, hammering beat of the metal band Roger didn’t know the name of, didn’t want to know…but kind of did because Jayce liked them so that meant they were good, right?
“Come on, man,” he said, extending the joint to Roger. “Sack up.”
“No, thanks, I don’t want it.”
Jayce looked at him contemptuously. “You’re a fucking pussy, dude.”
Roger shrugged, hurt but accepting it, accepting anything the bigger, older boy wanted to say, to do. Something had struck him hard in the back of his head the first day he’d seen Jayce, the first day of practice that year, Jayce laughing as he stood there in a towel in the locker room, his feral foxy face, his narrow glittering eyes, the heat of him, drops of shower water still dappling his big golden body, taller and heavier than Roger by more than you’d imagine a year’s difference in age could make between the two of them. Having never known longing before, Roger was unable to identify it.
“That’s why I’m the starter, man. I’m not afraid to take that ball and, whooooshh…” He cocked his throwing arm back and lazily, slo mo, threw an imaginary ball.
Roger watched his arm in motion, the articulated muscle beneath his perfect skin, and he ached inside. Jayce’s hands were bigger than his, so big. He couldn’t take his eyes off his friend, watched his lips curl in a sneer of satisfaction as he completed the motion that only made him more…
Jayce looked at him. Older, yeah, more experienced, oh yeah. He smirked. He’d seen that look on enough girls to know it on a guy. “Holy shit!” he laughed. “You’re queer for me!”
Roger panicked. “No way, man,” he said, the lie, maybe his first real, true lie, coming easily to his lips.
Jayce snorted. He touched his perfect bare chest with his hand, saw Roger’s eyes move of their own accord, away from his own eyes and down.
His voice killed Roger when he said, “You can have it if you want it.” It was low, intimate, contemptuous, daring…horny.
“Fuck you,” Roger said, bolting to his feet. “I’m not queer.”
Jayce laughed, high as a kite, free of every inhibition. “I need my dick sucked man, it’s been a long day. Go for it.”
Roger wanted it to be true, that it could be so easy, couldn’t believe it, it had to be a trap…
He jumped to his feet. “I gotta go.”
“Okay,” Jayce jumped up. “Let’s go to Terilynn’s.”
“Cuz I wanna see you fuck her, that’s what for. If you’re not queer, she’s fucking hot, right?”
“Yeah…” Roger said, knowing that she was what other guys considered hot, for sure.
“Then let me watch you fuck her,” he hissed. Roger was in tumult. Jayce was…turned on by the idea of watching Roger fuck a girl. Why? Did he…could it…
“No. I’m not fucking anyone.”
“Yeah, we know. We all know that, everyone on the team. What’s that about, you’re not some Jesus freak.”
“So why are you still a virgin, then, if you’re not queer?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Ha. Try me.”
“I want it to be…real. The first time. Special.”
Jayce doubled over, howling with laughter. He fell on the floor, the joint still in his hand, though. “Special! You’re fucking hilarious!”
Roger smiled, the tension broken. “Yeah, I’m hilarious. Laugh it up, fuzzball.”
Jacob couldn’t fathom it. Okay, right, teenagers. How had he thought he’d get a free pass, that Roger would just slip into adulthood without any of that, the mood swings, the isolation, the sulking?
But Roger. It didn’t make sense how quickly it had happened. Like from one day to the next. “Do you want to talk about it?” he’d asked his son in the car one night, picking him up from that damn Jayce’s house again.
Roger shrugged. “Nothing to talk about.”
“Ouch,” Jacob said involuntarily. Then, regretting it, he looked at his son. But Roger’s face was turned away, looking out the window at nothing.
Then he got the call one night. All he could think about was Roger, was ashamed at the relief when he learned he hadn’t been in the car. He paced the floor till ten, eleven, calling his son over and over on the cell phone he’d given him for emergencies. No answer. Roger went out for runs at night more and more often now, longer and longer runs, coming home spent, exhausted, refusing to eat, losing weight, grades slipping, what the hell was going on.
This is going to be bad. He just knew it. It was supposed to be an arrest, or drugs, or a scandal, later, that took that boy down. Not this, not now, so soon. Roger came home dripping wet from the rain, the rain that had cause the accident.
“Roger, sit down.”
Roger’s face bent inward, turning away from his father. “Can’t, gotta shower.”
“Please,” he said. Roger looked at him. Something was wrong, this wasn’t a lecture.
“It’s Jayce. There’s been an accident.” Accident my ass, he’d thought earlier, the kid had been doing 80 on a rainy night on a suburban street.
“I’m sorry. He didn’t make it.”
His son collapsed to the floor. Jacob wasn’t fast like Roger, couldn’t stop it, couldn’t break his fall. The howl of anguish was unbearable.
“No….no. No, he can’t be. No…”
He held his son’s head, stroked his hair, his raven hair, and the key turned.
This wasn’t a boy who’d lost a friend. He held his head and it was his wife’s head, bald, cold, her beautiful hair stolen by the chemo and the radiation and it was his voice howling just like that, he remembered the sound, the cause, and he joined his son’s tears and knew what it was, oh God he’s gay, he loved that boy, I know this sound. His wife had died when Roger was two, too young to remember, to know the pain, this here tonight was his first real loss.
He got Roger to bed, gave him a Valium, forced it on him. Didn’t ask questions, just sat with him as he cried, sobbed, reached for a hug, got it, fell away into a curled up ball, finally, finally slept.
Downstairs with a very large glass of the Laphroiag he rarely touched, his cool intellect refused to stop working. He mourned his son’s loss, his love, but there was relief, too – now I know what’s going on. Now I know why he’s been so dark.
And the worst part of it, the thing he was ashamed of really, was that he couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to Roger’s future. They would get through this, mourn the boy, move on somehow, but…that wasn’t the only loss. There was something else.
The voice that said practically, truthfully, this is it, it’s over. You can beat a dog or a wife or a man in a bar but kiss another man and they’ll never let you play football. The presidential election of 2004, just concluded, had revolved almost entirely around whether or not God would destroy the United States of America with fire and brimstone if two men married each other. And the NFL, my God, forget it. He’d be killed. He’d be sacked to death, the defense would crush him and the offensive line would let him die, a whole team of Jeff Trigas…
Oh my God, he thought, as lost as his son, as shocked at the realization of what football had come to mean to him as much as it had to Roger. What is going to become of us, how will we manage, what are we going to do without football?