The back door opened slowly on its own, and Joe peered inside letting his eyes adjust. He lowered the handle on the suitcase and tossed the bag into the floor before climbing inside and sliding across the curving black, plush and rounded seat that spanned several feet. The door shut behind him. When he felt the limo begin to move he thought for a moment there might not even be anyone driving, which wouldn’t have been surprising after all that had happened so far. But a closer look revealed the outline of a driver’s head in the front. Soft music surrounded him.
Joe opened the door of a small refrigerator and found it stocked with all sorts of beverages.
“Take whatever you wish,” a voice from a speaker inside the limo said. Joe selected a bottle of water.
What would they think at the plant when he didn’t show up for work on Sunday? Who would start the presses? Joe tried to get comfortable inside the womb of the limo, but his sense of responsibility became a nagging buzz that wouldn’t stop. He hadn’t signed anything yet. He could go back, right now, and things would be as they were. He could still do it. Yet, it was only Friday. Maybe he would see how things progressed over the weekend.
Joe decided to have a look inside his bag. He leaned over and unzipped the side pocket where he found a billfold first. Taking it out and opening it, he found several one-hundred dollar bills inside. Now that was a booster. An image from the driver’s license inside a clear plastic covering caught his eye. It was the face he had seen in the mirror. It was him.
Joey Goodman. That was his name. He needed to remember it. 5’11”. 185 pounds. Blonde hair, blue eyes. He was 18 years old and would be 19 in late August. Kindergarten redshirt? He guessed so.
Inside the front pocket Joey found his housing information and Monday’s freshman orientation schedule. Suite 213. Fitting.
The limo stopped and this time the driver, a hunching man with a black hat pulled over the top of his face, came around and opened the door.
“If you need Mr. Appel, you need only look,” he said and then moved at once back to the front, climbed inside, and drove away leaving Joey standing on the curb in front of the Leamon Dorm. He took a deep breath and walked to the entrance.
Students bustled by in the sparse lobby, and Joey stood there not knowing quite what to do. He had a bag and nothing else, but all around him other students were carrying refrigerators, microwaves, and an odd assortment of all the things needed to make a home. His head spun.
“Can I help you?” a girl behind a table on the far side of the room asked.
“I’m in 213. Joey Goodman. Who do I need to see?”
The girl dug around in a box labeled with names sorted in alphabetical order. After she found his packet, she produced a key and explained how to get inside the dorm (until he could get an ID made, then he had to slide the card) and where everything was located. Clearly she had recited her script many times before.
“Take the elevator. Second floor, then go right. They’re labeled. Welcome to Vanderbilt.” The girl grinned so big that had she been a cartoon a twinkling spot of starlight would have sparkled on her teeth.
The elevator smelled of sweat and cologne, and as the door opened on the second floor he heard yells and laughter from down the hall. It looked as though his room was near the end.
Joe expected to see a barren room, or boxes and chaos in the midst of moving when he entered, but instead he found subdued light and a student reading at a table with a small light. The young man looked up from his book, his hair standing up on end from the back of his head like an antennae as if he might have been lying in bed in the recent past. He pushed a pair of black glasses up from the end of his nose.
“Hey,” he said. “You must be Joey.”
“Yeah, Joey Goodman. You must be my roommate?”
“Right.” He waved somewhat and then sat there, not resuming his reading but looking at Joey. “My stuff’s here. Been here all summer. I had to get an early start. My dad made me.”
“That’s good. Good,” Joey said surveying his new home.
“Name’s Tyler. Tyler Cobb. Your people came by and brought your stuff,” Tyler said. “It’s all in place. Nice TV by the way.”
“Yeah,” Joey said. He had no idea how to answer. He had never seen the television.
“Your room,” Tyler said pointing. He didn’t say anything else, but he didn’t turn around to read again. Tyler might have wanted to say more but didn’t know how, lost somewhere between books and learning and the real world.
“Right. Okay then. I’ll, uh, drop this bag,” Joey said. He left Tyler and walked into the room. The bed was made. Dark sheets and pillow cases. A lamp. A computer. A clock set to the correct time. Books, including a thesaurus, dictionary, handbook of allusions, Harbrace Handbook, and some reference volumes Joey wasn’t familiar with. He sat on the bed. Somewhere down the hall he could hear muted voices. What in the world was he doing? How could this be happening?
Joey fell back on the bed and looked to the ceiling in the dim light. He closed his eyes and thought of Michelle. The sounds faded and he slept.
Since there were no windows in Joey’s room, he didn’t have any way to know how late it was until he glanced at the clock and discovered it was past five. He was fiercely hungry though. Tyler wasn’t in the common area of the suite, so Joey went alone in search of food, preferably pizza from Joe Daily’s favorite joint on the other side of the campus. He had become Joey so recently he almost didn’t notice when two co-eds walking in the opposite direction smiled. One of them twirled a long lock of dishwater blonde hair as she did so. They were young enough to be his daughters, but here he was in a young, strong body. In his own opinion Al had made him considerably more attractive as well.
It had been years since he could eat the way he did at the pizzeria. He devoured an entire small pizza and still felt as if he could eat more. But as he thought about his first day of school on Monday and maybe his only shot at making an impression with the coach, he decided he had eaten enough. The thought of his situation made his appetite vanish anyway.
The evening was already cooling somewhat and his stroll back in the direction of the dorm was pleasant. Students sat in the shade talking. Some passed Frisbees. A football game had begun at Marler Field, and Joey decided to stop and watch. He didn’t watch long until he was invited to play. Okay, Al, let’s see what this body is all about.
Joey’s team didn’t seem nearly as talented as the opposition, if looking at the players was any indication. Most of the guys knew each other though, so maybe they had been divided equally. His team got the ball first. Two hands below the waist. Some things never changed.
After one of his chubby, slow teammates was tagged on the return, Joey split out wide. It was time to see what kind of speed he had. He ran a fly on the first play, and his man fell behind at once, but the quarterback threw an incomplete pass into the flat. Obviously Joey was too far away and too deep for any pass attempt. He did have speed, spectacular speed in fact, but after he was ignored on two more plays, the ball got punted out of bounds.
Pairing off to cover different men, the defensive series went much like offense had. Passes went in different directions and ball carriers were tagged near the line. The game so far was boring by anyone’s standards. Then things took an interesting turn.
“Mikey, you can’t even throw the ball,” the captain said.
“The rush is so fast no one’s open,” Mikey argued. “None of you block.”
“Who can quarterback? You ever quarterback?” captain asked Joey.
“I can give it a whirl,” Joey said.
Routes were designed and players flanked out wide and close. Joey’s first actual play had arrived.
The snap came back to him in the shotgun and two defenders rushed and were on him in an instant. Joey turned and dodged then sprinted away easily as he looked downfield for an open man. Players streaked right and left. One man ran a post, angling far across the field to the left as Joey moved right. He planted, reached back, and as if by instinct fired his pass. The ball was a rocket, whizzing with an audible buzz, and hit the receiver literally in the middle of the chest. He dropped it then rubbed where the ball had struck him.
“Catch the ball!” captain screamed. “What a pass.”
In the huddle players struggled to catch their breath, sweat pouring in the warm evening. Joey seemed to have little or no ill effects from the weather or the exertion.
“Do it again,” Joey said. “Same patterns.”
Instead of looking downfield so much, Joey had an idea. Greatest player ever, huh? He would see for himself.
Joey took the snap, and this time evaded easily to the left. He pumped a pass to a receiver, feigned looking downfield, and began to sprint. The players close to him fell behind at once. Defenders left the receivers and pursued. He juked and another player fell to his side. Another move and two remained between him and the open field and end zone. Instead of making another move, he planted and sprinted in the opposite direction. Five yards and then ten. No one was even close. He raced to the end zone. His team was in the lead.
“Great run!” captain screamed. “No extra points. You scored. You kick off.”
As it has been done for years in the sandlot, the kick off was actually a punt. Joey held the ball, surveyed his defenders, and punted with all his might. The ball arced high in the air in a perfect spiral, far over everyone’s head and through the end zone.
“Do you play for the team?” someone said.
Joey shook his head. He might not now but it sure looked like he would be in the near future.
Joey made two “tackles” on the next defensive set, and then the other team’s best player caught a pass far away on the other side of the field. Joey tracked him down and caught him around what would have been the ten yard line. Two hands below the waist.
“I scored. You didn’t get me,” the player said. “The tag was high.”
“Not even close!” captain said. “He got you.”
“Now, you’re going to cheat,” the player said.
The score was tied. Joey said nothing, but retreated and waited on the kickoff, which Joey took on the fly. He weaved in and out of the defense and went into the end zone again untouched. On the ensuing kickoff, Joey kicked the ball through the end zone as he had before.
In almost the exact same situation as the time before, the other team’s scoring player caught a pass once more, this time not quite so far away but behind the defense nonetheless. Joey unleashed his speed, but deciding on a different tactic ran ahead at a slightly different angle. He wouldn’t come in from behind this time. He circled in front. And instead of tagging below the waist, Joey broke down and scooped the player into the air and set him down softly on his back. Then he tagged him, two hands, one on each leg.
“This isn’t tackle,” the player screamed, scrambling to his feet. He came nose to nose with Joey who held his ground. As if he sensed Joey wouldn’t back down and clearly outmuscled, he froze. “I’m through, man.” He began walking away.
“You baby!” the captain of Joey’s team screamed.
But the game was over.
“Where did you learn to play?”
“It’s kind of a gift,” Joey said. No truer words had ever been spoken. It wasn’t a gift however. This talent came at a price.
“You should try out for the team.”
“You think so?” Joey asked. “Maybe I will.”
His first foray into college competition had been on a small scale, but it proved much to Joey. He did have skills. Major skills. If he decided to go through with this, things were going to get very interesting.