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Ransom Stephens
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crystallinecertainty.jpg
Art by Jeff Fallow 2010

 

A Crystalline Certainty

Ransom Stephens

 

He doesn’t feel dread or panic or the horror of impending fear, no, he has just the one simple doubt. He accepts it as a necessary component of his design, like gaps between the ribs that protect his heart. Since the first time Jerry reached into the sky and pulled that oblong shape to his breast, through everything – every effort, every decision, every pursuit – this doubt has been present. One could argue that it got him here.

The goalposts’ shadows draw boundaries around the huddle. Four points behind with three seconds to go, the ball rests on the white painted grass of the left hash mark, seventeen yards from that thick yellow line. Winner goes to the big show, loser slinks home. The quarterback, Tino Mach, crouches in the circle of white helmets. As he calls the play, he stares at Jerry as though the intensity of his gaze could bind the will of the two men into a pipe that can guide the ball from one to the other without the possibility of failure.

The play is designed for Jerry Black, the man with perfect hands. Jerry’s hands are so big and sensitive that the sticky gloves other receivers use to assure their catches would be an impediment to him. Jerry needs to feel a pass, not just the ball, but the turbulence of the air before the ball arrives. When his hands feel the pass, he catches the ball. Always. His catches fill highlight reels and have sent him to the Pro Bowl each of his three years as a pro.

It’s a simple play that they practice at least twice a week. In tight situations all season long, Mach begged Coach to call it, but Coach would twist his face into that scowl of his and look away. This play appears on no video tape, the defense can’t expect it.

Jerry will burst straight up field ten yards, look back, and then jog two steps – as if he were a secondary receiver. This will cause the safety to ignore him and give the cornerback a false sense of security. Then, in an explosion of acceleration, he’ll cut straight for the goalpost. If the offensive line can give Mach four seconds of peace, the ball will be there.

Nodding once at Jerry before breaking his stare, Mach says, “…on two” and the eleven men turn to the task at hand. Eleven men dressed in white, most of them stained by grass and dirt and some with blood on their jerseys and mud stuck in the gaps between their helmets and facemasks, approach the line of scrimmage. Opposite that line, another eleven men, these dressed in perfect black with gleaming silver helmets, wait, taunting and arrogant.

Jerry steps over the goalpost’s shadow like he would a suspicious crack in the pavement where he learned this game – an East Detroit parking lot across the tracks from the apartment where his grandparents raised him. Gram used to watch from the window.  Jogging to the huddle, he looks up over the goalposts, beyond the scoreboard without noticing his own image on the screen, past the stadium’s upper deck, to the sky. He wonders if she could be watching right now.

The 70,000-strong crowd struggles for calm if not quiet. Jerry jogs wide right, rubbing his hands together, relishing every facet of his existence, the perfection, the purity – even the doubt.

He watches the defense on the other side of the line and makes eye contact with the safety, Dante McElroy, the man they call The Hammer. The Hammer raises his right fist, layered in filthy tape, and taps his left bicep. Jerry pats his left bicep in response; his fingers linger over the old scar tissue.

Across the line, the cornerback Jerry has faced all day coils into position, arms bent, fingers pointing, menacing. But Jerry knows the truth. After three surgeries, the cornerback’s knee is nothing but bone grinding on bone. Lidocaine prevented him from feeling it up to the last few plays and Jerry can see the pain in the asymmetry of his stance. The corner’s only hope is to knock Jerry down as the ball is snapped. But that’s not Jerry’s doubt. No, the cornerback isn’t a problem. The slightest hip-fake will leave him behind.

Tino Mach barks out signals, changing the blocking scheme but not the play. Waning sunlight flickers on the shiny white plastic helmets along the line.

It’s not the play. It’s not the four seconds Mach will need. It’s not the history Jerry will make in the next instant. No, when Jerry makes that cut, the ball will be there and when he catches it, more likely than not, he’ll either be leaping or diving – in either case, his body will be stretched out, fully exposed. It’s not that he minds getting hit, either. In fact, Jerry likes to take a good shot. There’s something obscenely satisfying about the blunt-force trauma of shoulder pads hitting his ribs or back or thighs. The pain is glorious, even a helmet to the solar plexus and the resultant breathless gagging leaves a certain residue of pleasure.

Mach yells, “Hut.” No one moves. Then again: “Hut.”

Helmets collide with shoulder pads and fists. Groans and grinding bones echo from the line of scrimmage.

Jerry jukes his hips ever so slightly to his right – like a dancer teasing her partner. The cornerback, wary of his vulnerability to the sideline, buys the fake. Jerry sprints straight ahead, the corner falls on his bad knee and, twenty yards away, The Hammer rushes in for support.

Jerry looks back at the line and slows to a jog, but for only two steps – as Coach wrote it up. Mach stares in the opposite direction at the other receiver. Jerry peeks up field. The Hammer has adjusted to Mach’s eyes – ignoring Jerry – again, just as Coach designed it. Jerry will be wide open at the post and, when the ball finally comes, The Hammer will readjust, but not in time to break up the play.

The doubt crystallizes into certainty.

* * *

Just over seven years before, on a summer day in Ohio – a day defined by a royal blue sky with bright puffy clouds that filled the air with humidity – Jerry Black’s grandfather said it again, the words that had nourished Jerry’s confidence and gotten him this far: “Son, I’m proud of you.” That’s all he needed to hear, but Gramps continued, “This is The Ohio State University and you’re a Buckeye now – you’ll be pasting a lot of stickers on your helmet, please think of me when you do.”

As Jerry Senior walked out, Jerry’s new roommate walked in.

The two men, boys really, stared at each other in the way of competitors. They were about the same height, Jerry’s arms were longer and the roommate’s shoulders broader. Jerry folded one of his almost freakishly large hands into a fist and held it out. Never losing eye contact, and without yielding a facial expression, the roommate bumped his fist against Jerry’s, but rather than retracting his fist, the roommate pressed harder, waiting for Jerry to yield.

“I’m Jerry Black, wide receiver from Detroit.” Jerry withdrew his fist just enough to continue the ritual: once the fists separated, Jerry raised his over the roommate’s and started to swing it down in a hammering motion.

“Dante MacElroy, defensive back from Oakland.” As Jerry’s fist came down, Dante pulled his away and extended one finger at Jerry. “No,” he said, “I am the hammer.”

An hour after meeting, they were laughing together. Sure, they’d arm-wrestled and Dante had won – he could have won legitimately, too, but instead, he’d cheated to show respect for Jerry. They then blasted their stereos at each other, successively louder, until they had to admit that they liked the same music.

The football dorm wasn’t the most luxurious on campus. It was ugly really, but it had its own pool, the second biggest weight room on campus, an in-house orthopedist, and a hundred-seat theater – of course the only movies that showed were game films. It offered the finest accommodations that either Jerry or Dante had ever experienced; it sheltered them from their brothers and neighbors and gangs and crime and destructive temptation.

An assistant coach knocked on the door and told them to come downstairs for freshman orientation. Jerry and Dante sat next to each other behind a bench packed with huge linemen. A tall woman who called herself “provost” or something – neither of them knew the word and both recognized that she wasn’t a coach – rambled on about their scholarships, the gift that The Ohio State University was granting them. Jerry and Dante played rock-paper-scissors while she spoke. Jerry won.

She handed out a folder with a list of classes they had to take and degree programs “appropriate for student athletes.” Then she walked around the room, giving each of them a thick paperback, The Norton Anthology of Literature, and recommended they start reading it immediately.

Dante tossed his paperback to the floor with a hint of repulsion. Jerry whispered, “No man, you gotta read this.” He reached down, picked the book up and set it on Dante’s knee. Then he opened it to the table of contents and, still whispering, said, “It will complete you.”

The hulking figures on the bench in front of them turned around as if choreographed and glared at Jerry. The one closest to him grinned and said, “Complete you?” The others guffawed.

The book still open on his knee, Dante indicated the linemen one-by-one with his fist, pausing to look each in the eyes. Most of them met Dante’s glare, but when they saw what lay behind those eyes, every one of them looked away. When he got to the one who had spoken, he said, “Yes, ‘complete you.’ That means you can read it and be a better man or I can ram it down your throat and you’ll be a dead man – see what I’m sayin’? Either way it will complete you.”

The room went quiet. The row of linemen, again as though choreographed, swiveled forward.

The woman introduced an old guy whose neck was wider than his head. He handed out books too, thick red and gray binders – the playbook. No one tossed this aside.

Jerry and Dante roomed together all four years at The Ohio State University. By the end of their junior year their helmets were covered in stickers. Jerry made a reputation for running precise pass routes, cutting corners at full speed and, of course, catching every ball that came near him and a few that didn’t. On the other side of the ball, Dante’s reputation was less elegant than Jerry’s, but every bit as refined.

In his freshman year, Dante brought the 102,000-strong crowd at Ohio Stadium to an abrupt silence. On a third and short play, a 250-pound Michigan fullback took a handoff in two arms, lowered his helmet and drove toward the line. Dante came at him from the other side at full speed and buried his shoulder into the fullback’s gut. Using the strength of his core and the leverage of his legs, he pushed up and back. The crack of plastic on bone carried over the venom of the crowd. The fullback’s body straightened and rose from the ground, his back arched and the inflicted torque caused his body to rotate about an axle aligned with his hips. The rotation, like a back flip, continued until his head slammed into the turf, then his neck, his back, and finally, his legs fell to the ground, limp. It was at this point that the crowd went silent. Dante rose, turning his head to the side. It appeared as though he was looking at the crowd, showboating, but he was really just cracking his neck. The fullback stayed where Dante put him, motionless for five minutes, but it was just a concussion.

Dante was surprised by the result, “Why didn’t he fumble? He should have fumbled. Next time I hit someone like that, he will fumble.” The first game of the next season, Dante knocked three receivers out in one game, his scorecard: five broken ribs, a separated shoulder, and a broken collar bone. From that game on, he was known as The Hammer and opposing teams stopped throwing passes over the middle.

At the end of their junior year, Jerry and Dante were both first-team All Americans and being not-so-subtly coerced by NFL agents to go pro a year early. But The Ohio State University hadn’t won the national championship in their three years and the alumni, the boosters, the coaches, and even NFL players whose careers had started right there at The Ohio State University, convinced Jerry and Dante to stay for one more year.

The doubt had been planted the first time Jerry was tackled but it didn’t sprout until that summer.

There was a six-week gap between their last drug test of the academic year and the start of football camp, so Jerry and Dante assembled every intoxicant they could find for one week of decadence. The five weeks that followed would be sufficient to drain the evidence and they’d be ready to pee in a cup the first day of football camp.

They took ecstasy and spent a day jumping off a bridge into the Ohio River, swimming upstream, floating back and jumping again. They basked in the Ohio sunshine and, in the glow of the hallucinogen, talked about Descartes and Camus and proclaimed themselves friends-for-life. The next day they smoked enough pot to store laughter for two lifetimes, the following days included beer, whiskey and speed, and, on the last night of the week, the night before their livers would start scrubbing their blood of the tell-tale signs of debauchery, they got one hotel room, an eighth of an ounce of cocaine and four hookers – the latter sponsored by an unofficial alumni association that hungered for a National Championship.

They treated the hookers like teammates, taking care not to hurt them but demanding peak performance. They challenged each other, measured each other: who could thrust harder, who could pump longer, who could come more, and who could come back faster. They tossed the women in and out of position, under and over, in this hole and then that, as though it were a three-on-three training drill.

When the prostitutes left, Jerry and Dante sat opposite each other, a mirror decorated with white lines between them. They stared into each other’s eyes and called each other Brother. They used the razor blade to carve their initials in each others left bicep, mixed the resulting blood with the blow and set it aside to dry. They argued some more about Camus – Jerry insisting that Sisyphus had to keep pushing that rock or his dreams would never come true and Dante saying Camus had it all wrong: “Bitch shoulda hit the rock with The Hammer.”

They laughed and snorted the crimson cocaine. Wide awake, but calm and restful, the euphoria seemed to open the window to their futures. Jerry lay on the couch and Dante lay on the floor, both of them staring at the ceiling as they talked about the streets where they grew up, the stadiums where they would find greatness and glory, and what they were gonna do with all that money.

Dante one-upped Jerry’s Ferrari with a Bentley. Jerry asked Dante what a Bentley looked like and, since neither had ever seen one, they burst into laughter. Then they went quiet, alone in their thoughts.

That’s when Jerry told Dante about his dream – last play of the game, four points down, a post pattern for the touchdown. Dante started to say that this was every football player’s dream, he was even going to use the word “trite” but he stopped himself and thought about it for a second. Then he sat up and waited for Jerry to look at him. As he waited, he grew more impatient.

Finally, Jerry sat up on the couch, leaned forward and said, “What’s your dream play?”

Staring in Jerry’s eyes, Dante said, “I want to hit someone so hard it kills them.” He laughed, but not a laugh of mirth, or a laugh that conveyed he was kidding, laughter that cooled blood. When Dante finished laughing, he said, “A dead man would have to fumble.”

* * *

Four years later, they’re on opposing teams at the Conference Championship game: winner goes to the Superbowl, loser goes home – a situation as black and white as their respective jerseys. In white, Jerry’s team is four points behind with three seconds to play.

The cornerback who’d been covering Jerry is five yards behind him – not a factor. The quarterback, Tino Mach, slips to the side of a lineman, buying enough time to execute his responsibility. Jerry Black cuts toward the center of the field. In that cut, his signature burst of speed vaults him toward the exact spot where Mach would throw the ball.

As Jerry heads for that bright yellow goalpost, all he hears is the sound of his own heartbeat, all he feels is the mix of air and anticipation flowing between his fingers. His eyes move from the post ahead to Mach behind. And as his eyes cross the field, he sees his blood-brother Dante read the play. Dante’s huge shoulders rotate toward Jerry. Dante hasn’t read the play in time. He’ll be in position a split second too late.

The play is unfolding just as Coach designed it. Jerry will be open, the ball will be there and Jerry will catch it. He knows that he will catch it and he knows that Dante will be closing on him at full speed.

 

 

Ransom Stephens is the author of The God Patent (Numina Press, TheGodPatent.com , a novel set in the science-religion culture war. He hopes that you never experience conflict between ambition and friendship, but if you do, just win, baby.

In Association with Fossil Publications