Kentucky was awful. Before the first quarter ended Vandy and all its fans knew the team would go to 7-0. The Commodores could have left Willy and Joey on the bench, and the outcome would have been the same.
Kentucky fumbled the opening kickoff, and Vandy scooped it up and went into the end zone. Then, Vandy picked off a pass on the first play from scrimmage and scored again. Before Joey even touched the ball, the score was 14-0. Of course, Kentucky made the mistake of punting to him after going three and out, and after Joey scored on the play his team led 21-0.
There was an even more curious stat though. Vanderbilt was now starting four walk-ons. Downtown on the offensive line, his brother on the defensive line, and of course Willy and Joey. All four of them were making an impact, the Brown brothers would have been the surprise of the SEC had it not been for Joey and Willy.
The Kentucky final was 70-0.
It would be a lie though to say that because he had Al’s help the game was easy for Joey. This was big time college football, and grown men hurled their massive frames into each other like crashing freight trains. The bumps and bruises and even tonight’s mild headache confirmed the reality of the collisions for Joey, and even if the score had been lopsided the violence wasn’t.
Joey could hear his footfalls in the hall of the quiet dorm as he strode to his room. He opened his door and called “Tyler!”, but even his reclusive roommate was nowhere to be found. Strange. The dorm was deserted.
Joey crossed the hall and entered the community room, with its omnipresent, vague aroma of urine and vomit, that lingered in the air no matter how often the room was cleaned. The sad, stained couch sat askew in front of the dark TV.
Joey rolled a yellow number 9 billiard ball on the pool table, bouncing it from the far end back to him close to his own rail. Where was everyone?
He recognized the voice at once, as automatic as breathing, engrained from his first breath. A quickening of pulse, somewhat, a feeling of fullness and safety and love, and yet the expectation of correction or admonishment. Most certainly. That tone meant trouble.
When Joey turned he found not only his mother, but his father, inside the doorway, his father standing with hands on hips, his mother with her arms folded across her chest in her guarded, feminine way. Her head was cocked to the side and slumped over her right shoulder, a look that spoke disappointment as certainly as if she had audibly scolded Joe – for he was Joe now – and a pang of regret gripped his heart as he realized he had somehow disappointed his mother. He did not want to displease his father either, but failing his mother hurt worse. While his father might be angry, his mother was more likely to cry. Joe’s transgressions caused his mother physical pain.
“What have you done, Joe?”
This had to be a dream. His parents had been gone more than five years now, dying within a month of each other, his mother of cancer and as far as anyone could tell his father from a broken heart. In his dreams, though, something always appeared to tip the hand of his slumbering mind. This seemed more real, other than the appearance of his long-dead parents.
“Nothing mom,” Joe answered. Looking down now, to his hands, he noticed the difference at once. Age spots. Freckles. Below his hands his slightly protruding belly squeezed against his t-shirt. For now, he was no longer Joey.
His mother, in slacks and a collared button-up, brown blouse, looking fashionable even if it was in a last decade sort of manner, turned to look at her husband, deferring a continuation of the questioning as she always did.
“You really think you can beat him? Really?”
Joe was speechless. He didn’t know what he thought, like so many other times he had made mistakes his parents uncovered, Joe wasn’t quite sure what he planned to do nor why his situation had gotten this far off track in the first place. Why did he do anything? Like the time he found the billfold on the side of the road and kept it. He held on to it for several months, thinking he might be able to use the older boy’s driver’s license, even though he left three dollars inside. He never used the license, but his mother found the wallet while cleaning. There was no difference, and Joe knew he had done wrong and began down that path anyway. Looking at it from his mother and father’s perspective, Joey wondered how he could have gone this far.
Then, he thought of Michelle. The pain of guilt was replaced at once by the twisting agony of loss he felt, still, after her death. Then anger, hopelessness, frustration.
“Dad, Michelle,” was all he could say in response and grief engulfed him, wrenching his face from the emotion.
His parents, as if by magic, appeared beside him, his father’s sandpaper chin against Joey forehead and his mother’s soft arms and shoulders, bathed in the aroma of soap and perfume, against his other cheek.
“She can’t return,” Joe’s father said. “She would if she could, even though I can’t imagine why you might want her to do so.”
“She can,” Joe said. He began to back away, the tears flowing freely. “She can! You don’t understand! She can!”
“I do understand,” his father said, almost under his breath and as if he wasn’t even arguing. “I do…”
Joe turned his back, wracked in sobs. She could return. He knew it. Al could make it happen, and Joe didn’t care how or what had to take place he wanted Michelle.
Spinning to face his parents, Joe’s breath caught in his throat. He wanted to scream, yet he couldn’t move. He couldn’t look away.
Their clothing hung limp, dirty, and ragged. Their skin hung loose and rotten, their cheeks sunken, their hair lifeless and brittle. They wore no expression, even though his mother’s head still tilted to the right, albeit now at an almost impossible angle as if it might tumble off and fall away at any moment.
Joe backed away and found himself sprinting down the long hallway that seemed to telescope away from him. His strength returned, his skin cleared, and he was Joey once more, young and vital. Joey found himself at the end of the hall, looking down from the second story window into the side parking lot. The cars sat amid a boiling river of molten rock. The sky lit at once with the flash of lightning and he swayed back and forth as the rumbling and shrieks of millions of lost souls bombarded his senses. Then laugher, the wicked cackling taunts, the cynical howling and hooting of witches from some long forgotten Halloween.
The flash again, so bright this time as if it was right on top of him. What if he were to be struck by lightning? Could Al save him? Of course he could.
Down below the window Joey saw him. The reporter. His flash bulb illuminated the building. Joey’s head swam. Joey’s field of vision narrowed, growing smaller and darker, like a closing aperture ending a scene in a movie, until everything was black and silent.
Joey opened his eyes. Only later would he consider that the sensation must be what it feels like to die – longing for the heaviness to pull him down into the darkness. The first thing he saw was Willy’s face as it peered down into his, upside down, and his friend’s lips moving. At first there was only silence, and then as he regained consciousness the sounds reverberated as if he and Willy were in the bottom of a steel barrel.
Even after he could hear Willy and understand what was being said, he could not move. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes once more.
“Wake up! Don’t close your eyes. Look at me.”
Joey smelled Willy’s breath. Cinnamon. Willy’s breath always smelled of cinnamon. Joey tried to stand and Willy held him in place.
“Just stay down a second. You don’t smell like booze. What happened? Can you tell me?”
“No,” Joey said and then reconsidered. “I mean, I, I don’t think I want to talk about it.”
“Did you pass out? Faint?”
“I think I did. Let me sit up at least.”
Willy relented, and Joey sat up and leaned on his right hand.
“There was a,” Joey started, and then realized he couldn’t find the word. He could see the image in his mind of the reporter from Sports Illustrated, but he couldn’t remember what to call him. “The guy that talked to me after the pictures. That-“
“Yeah. Him. He was outside the window taking pictures of the building.”
Willy stood and looked out the window and down to the parking lot. He saw no one.
“If he was there, he’s gone now. Can you stand?”
“I think I can. I’m okay. I feel better now.”
“Let’s get you to your room,” Willy said. He put Joey’s arm around his shoulder, and they walked down the hall and entered the dorm room. Tyler sat on the couch reading.
“Hey,” Tyler said as he stood. “Is he okay? Joey, you all right?” Tyler moved pillows off the couch and guided his roommate to sit.
“I’m okay. I got a little light headed.”
“Let me get a wet rag,” Tyler said. As he went to fetch it, Willy sat down by Joey.
“You feel sick or anything?” Willy asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. I think I did.” Joey thought back to what he had seen and did feel nauseous. How could he tell Willy?
“We need to go see the trainer. You might have a concussion. Do you remember getting hit or anything? You have a headache?”
“I did have a headache,” Joey said. He couldn’t remember a specific hit that might have brought on a concussion, but he wasn’t sure if he would remember a hit that caused one.
“We need to see the trainer.”
“Willy, no. I don’t want to go to the trainer.” Joey thought about what he might tell the trainer, and knew he couldn’t possibly begin to explain the conversation he had with his parents. Joey could hear Tyler rummaging through the bathroom closet. “Willy, is it possible to-,“ Joey began and stopped.
What if Willy was in the same boat he was? What if he had connections with Al? What if Willy was working with some other “person” like Al? Joey wondered if he could trust Willy. If he couldn’t trust Willy, he might be sunk anyway. Should he tell him anything?
“Possible to what?”
Joey heard water begin to hiss from the faucet in the bathroom.
“Would it be possible to cheat the devil?” Joey whispered. He glanced around the room.
“Man, you’re delirious.”
“No, listen to me,” Joey said. He held Willy’s shoulder and pulled his friend closer to his face. “We have to talk.”
“Okay, okay,” Willy said.
Tyler returned and gave the wet rag to Willy who pushed Joey back and placed it on his forehead. He stood and faced Tyler.
“I need to talk him into going over to see the trainer. Can you give us a second?”
“Sure. Sure thing, Willy,” Tyler said. “You be okay?”
“I’m fine, Tyler. Thanks. Thanks.”
Tyler left the room and shut his bedroom door behind him. Willy sat beside Joey and looked into his face without speaking.
“Willy, have you always been this good at sports? Were you always gifted?”
“Man, I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“Don’t be modest. It’s just us here. Were you always the best?”
“I’m not the best now. These guys we play against, they’re all good. I’m not even the best on the team.” Willy grew quiet and seemed to be considering his talent. He finally looked back to Joey and said, “Yeah, I’ve always been good. I was always the biggest and fastest. When I was a kid I was always the first one picked for a team. My team always won. We won the state championship in football and basketball my junior and senior year of high school.”
Joey had to take a chance and confide somewhat in Willy. He couldn’t tell him everything, but he needed to talk.
“Can you cheat the devil?”
“Why are you saying that?” Willy asked. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t know, Willy. I mean, I guess, could you trick the devil?”
“Gra-ma always said ‘you don’t mess around with the devil’. She said you stay away from that stuff, and you don’t have to worry.”
“I feel like I’m living on borrowed time, Willy. I feel like I’m going to wake up one day and not be able to play anymore. Or else I’ll be gone for good.”
“We need to get you over to see the trainer.”
Joey consented to see the trainer in the morning if he didn’t feel any better. He also allowed Willy to sleep on the lounger while he slept on the couch.