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Sing and Spell and Chant
I get up at 4:30 a.m. and start lifting so I will be done with my workout by kickoff, and when I finally come up from the basement, the house smells like crabby snacks, three-meats pizza, and buffalo wings. “Smells good,” I say to my mom while I put on my trash bag, and then I’m out the door for a ten-mile run.
I am shocked to see that Tiffany is jogging up and down the block, because she did not run behind me yesterday, and also, I am running in the a.m., which is not my regular time to run.
I jog toward Knight’s Park, and when I look over my shoulder, I see she’s following me again. “How did you know that I would be running early?” I say, but she keeps her head down and only follows silently.
We run our ten miles, and when I return to my house, Tiffany runs on without saying anything, as if we had never even eaten raisin bran together at the diner and nothing has changed.
I see my brother’s silver BMW parked in front of my parents’ house, so I sneak in the back door, run up the stairs, and jump into the shower. When I finish showering, I put on my Hank Baskett jersey – which my mother has laundered, getting the makeup off the numbers – and then follow the sound of the pregame show to the family room, ready to root on the Birds.
My best friend, Ronnie, is seated next to my brother, which surprises me. Both of them are wearing green away jerseys with the number 18 and the name Stallworth on the back – Ronnie’s is a cheap replica jersey with iron-on numbers, but Jake’s is authentic. Dad is in his chair, wearing his number 5 McNabb replica jersey.
When I say, “Go Birds!” my brother stands, turns to face me, puts both hands in the air, and says “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!” until Ronnie and my dad also stand, face me, raise their hands in the air, and say “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” When I raise my hands in the air and say “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!” all four of us do the chant, rapidly spelling the letters with our arms and bodies – “E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!” – shooting out two arms and a leg to make an E, touching our fingertips high above our heads to make an A, and so forth.
When we finish, my brother makes his way around the couch, puts an arm around my shoulders, and starts to sing the fight song, which I remember and sing with him. “Fly, Eagles, fly! On the road to victory!” I’m so happy to be singing with my brother I do not even get mad at him for putting his arm around me. We walk around the couch as we sing, “Fight, Eagles, fight! Score a touchdown, one, two, three!” I look at my dad, and he does not look away, but only starts singing with more enthusiasm. Ronnie throws his arm around me, and then I am in between my brother and my best friend. “Hit ’em low. Hit ’em high. And watch our Eagles fly!” I see that my mom has come in to watch, and she has her hand over her mouth again like she does whenever she is about to laugh or cry – her eyes look happy, so I know she is laughing under her hands. “Fly, Eagles, fly! On the road to victory!” And then Ronnie and Jake remove their arms from my neck so they can make the letters again with their bodies. “E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!” We’re all red-faced, and my father is breathing heavy, but everyone is so happy, and for the first time I really feel like I am home.
My mom sets up the food on TV trays, and the game begins. “I’m not supposed to drink,” I say when Mom distributes the bottles of Budweiser, but my father says, “You can drink beer during Eagles games.” Mom shrugs and smiles as she hands me a cold beer. I ask my brother and Ronnie why they aren’t also wearing Baskett jerseys, since Baskett is the man, and they tell me the Eagles were able to trade for Donte Stallworth, and that Donte Stallworth is now the man. Because I am wearing my Baskett jersey, I insist that Baskett is the man, to which my father blows air through his teeth, and my cocky brother says, “We’ll see soon,” which is a weird thing for him to say, considering he was the one who gave me the Baskett jersey in the first place and just two weeks ago assured me that Baskett was really the man.
My mother watches the game nervously, like she always does, because she knows that if the Eagles lose, my father will be in a bad mood for an entire week and will yell at her a lot. Ronnie and Jake trade facts about different players and check the screens on their cell phones for updates on other games and players, because they both play fantasy football, which is a computer game that gives you points for picking players who score touchdowns and gain yardage. And I glance over at my father from time to time, making sure he sees me cheering, because I know he is only willing to sit in the same room with his mentally deranged son as long as I am rooting for the Birds with everything I got. I have to admit that it feels good to sit in the same room with my father, even though he hates me and I still have not forgiven him a hundred percent for kicking me in the attic and punching me in the face.
The Houston Texans score first, and Dad starts cursing pretty loudly, so much that my mother leaves the room, saying she will bring us new beers, and Ronnie stares at the television, pretending he has not heard what my father has said, which is, “Play some fucking defense, you piece-of-shit overpaid secondary! This is the Texans, not the Dallas Cowgirls. The fucking Texans! Jesus fucking Christ!”
“Relax, Dad,” Jake says. “We got this.”
Mom distributes the beers, and Dad sips quietly for a while, but when McNabb throws an interception, my father starts pointing his finger at the television and cursing even louder, saying things about McNabb that would make my friend Danny go wild, because Danny says only black people can use the n-word.
Luckily, Donte Stallworth is indeed the man, because when McNabb starts throwing to him, the Eagles build a lead and Dad stops cursing and starts to smile again.
At halftime, Jake talks my dad into joining us outside for a catch, and then the four of us are throwing a football around on our street. One of our neighbors comes out with his son, and we let them join in. The kid is only maybe ten, and he cannot really reach us from his yard, but since he is wearing a green jersey, we throw it to him again and again. He drops every pass, but we cheer for him anyway; the kid smiles wildly, and his dad nods appreciatively at us whenever one of us catches his eye.
Jake and I are the farthest apart, and we send each other long passes down the street and often have to run even farther to catch the throws. Neither of us drops a single pass, because we are excellent athletes.
My dad mostly just stands around sipping his beer, but we throw him some easy balls, which he catches with one hand and then tosses the football underhand to Ronnie, who is standing closest to him. Ronnie has a weak arm, but neither Jake nor I point this out, because he is our friend and we are all wearing green and the sun is shining and the Eagles are winning and we are so full of good hot food and ice-cold beer it doesn’t really matter that Ronnie’s athletic ability is not equal to ours.
When Mom announces that halftime is almost over, Jake runs over to the little kid; my brother puts his hands in the air and yells “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” until the kid’s dad does the same thing. The little guy catches on after only a second, puts his hands in the air, yells “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” and then we all do the Eagles chant – spelling the letters out with our arms and legs – before running back into our respective family rooms.
Donte Stallworth continues to be the man in the second half, gaining almost 150 yards and a TD, while Baskett does not even get a decent ball thrown to him and fails to record a single catch. I’m not all that upset about this, because a funny thing happens at the end of the game.
When the Eagles win 24 – 10, we all stand to sing the Eagles fight song together like we always do whenever the Birds win a regular season game. My brother throws his arms around Ronnie and me and says, “Come on, Dad.” My dad is a little drunk from all the beer and so happy about the Eagles victory – and the fact that McNabb threw for more than 300 yards – that he lines up with us and throws his arm around my shoulders, which shocks me at first, not because I don’t like being touched, but because my father has not put his arm around me in many years. The weight and warmth of his arm makes me feel good, and as we sing the fight song and do the chant afterward, I catch my mother looking at us from the kitchen, where she is washing dishes. She smiles at me even though she is crying again, and I wonder why as I sing and spell and chant.
Jake asks Ronnie if he needs a ride home, and my best friend says, “No, thanks. Hank Baskett is walking me home.”
“I am?” I say, because Hank Baskett is the name Ronnie and Jake called me all throughout the game – so I know he really means me.
“Yep,” he says, and we grab the football on the way out.
When we get to Knight’s Park, we throw the football back and forth, standing only twenty feet away from each other because Ronnie has a weak arm, and after a few catches my best friend asks me what I think about Tiffany.
“Nothing,” I say. “I don’t think anything about her at all. Why?”
“Veronica told me that Tiffany follows you when you run. True?”
I catch a wobbly pass, say, “Yeah. It’s sort of weird. She knows my schedule and everything,” and throw a perfect spiral just over Ronnie’s right shoulder so he can catch it on the run.
He doesn’t turn.
He doesn’t run.
The ball goes over his head.
Ronnie retrieves the ball, jogs back into his range, and says, “Tiffany is a little odd. Do you understand what I mean by odd, Pat?”
I catch his even more wobbly pass just before it reaches my right kneecap, and say, “I guess.” I understand that Tiffany is different from most girls, but I also understand what it is like to be separated from your spouse, which is something Ronnie does not understand. So I ask, “Odd how? Odd like me?”
His face drops, and then he says, “No. I didn’t mean … It’s just that Tiffany is seeing a therapist – “
“So am I.”
“I know, but – “
“So seeing a therapist makes me odd?”
“No. Just listen to me for a second. I’m trying to be your friend. Okay?”
I look down at the grass as Ronnie walks over to me. I don’t really want to hear Ronnie talk his way out of this one, because Ronnie is the only friend I have, now that I am out of the bad place, and we have had such a great day, and the Eagles have won, and my father put his arm around me, and –
“I know Tiffany and you went out to dinner, which is great. You both could probably use a friend who understands loss.”
I don’t like the way he collectively uses the word “loss,” as if I have lost Nikki – as in forever – because I am still riding out apart time and I have not lost her yet. But I don’t say anything, and let him continue.
“Listen,” Ronnie says. “I want to tell you why Tiffany was fired from her job.”
“That’s none of my business.”
“It is if you are going to have dinners with her. Listen, you need to know that …”
Ronnie tells me what he believes is the story of how Tiffany lost her job, but the way he tells it proves he is biased. He tells it just like Dr. Timbers would, stating what he would call “facts,” with no regard for what was going on in Tiffany’s head. He tells me what coworkers wrote in their reports, he tells me what her boss told her parents and what the therapist has since said to Veronica – who is Tiffany’s designated support buddy and therefore has weekly phone conversations with Tiffany’s therapist – but he never once tells me what Tiffany thinks or what is going on in her heart: the awful feelings, the conflicting impulses, the needs, the desperation, everything that makes her different from Ronnie and Veronica, who have each other and their daughter, Emily, and a good income and a house and everything else that keeps people from calling them “odd.” What amazes me is that Ronnie is telling me all this in a friendly manner, as if he is trying to save me from Tiffany’s ways, as if he knows more about these sorts of things than I do, as if I had not spent the last few months in a mental institution. He does not understand Tiffany, and he sure as hell doesn’t understand me, but I do not hold it against Ronnie, because I am practicing being kind rather than right, so Nikki will be able to love me again when apart time is over.
“So I’m not telling you to be mean or to gossip about her – just protect yourself, okay?” Ronnie says, and I nod. “Well, I better be getting home to Veronica. Maybe I’ll drop in this week for a lifting session? Cool?”
I nod again and watch him jog away from me, the bouncy steps suggesting that he thinks his mission is accomplished. It is obvious he was only allowed to watch the game because Veronica wanted him to talk to me about Tiffany, probably because Veronica thought I might take advantage of her nymphomaniac sister, which makes me very mad, and before I know it, I’m ringing the Websters’ doorbell.
“Hello?” Tiffany’s mom says to me when the door opens. She is older-looking, with gray hair and a heavy sweater-coat, even though it is only September and she is inside.
“May I speak with Tiffany?”
“You’re Ronnie’s friend, right? Pat Peoples?”
I only nod, because I know Mrs. Webster knows who I am.
“Do you mind if I ask what you want with our daughter?”
“Who’s there?” I hear Tiffany’s father call from the other room.
“It’s just Ronnie’s friend, Pat Peoples!” Mrs. Webster yells. To me she says, “So what do you want with our Tiffany?”
I look down at the football in my hand and say, “I want to have a catch. It’s a beautiful afternoon. Maybe she would like to get some fresh air in the park?”
“Just a catch?” Mrs. Webster says.
I hold up my wedding ring to prove I do not want to have sex with her daughter, and say, “Listen, I’m married. I just want to be Tiffany’s friend, okay?”
Mrs. Webster looks a little surprised by my answer, which is odd because I was sure that was the answer she wanted to hear. But after a moment she says, “Go around back and knock on the door.”
So I knock on the back door, but no one answers.
I knock three more times and then leave.
I’m halfway through the park when I hear a swishy sound behind me. When I turn around, Tiffany is speed walking toward me, wearing a pink tracksuit made from a material that swishes when one pant leg rubs against the other. When she is about five feet away, I throw her a light, girly pass, but she steps aside and the football falls to the ground.
“What do you want?” she says.
“Want to have a catch?”
“I hate football. I told you this, no?”
Since she doesn’t want to have a catch, I decide I’ll just ask her my question: “Why do you follow me when I run?”
“Yeah,” I say.
She squints her eyes and makes her face look mean. “I’m scouting you.”
“I said I’m scouting you.”
“To see if you are fit enough.”
“Fit enough for what?”
But instead of answering my question, she says, “I’m also scouting your work ethic, your endurance, the way you deal with mental strain, your ability to persevere when you are unsure of what is happening around you, and – “
“I can’t tell you yet,” she says.
“Because I haven’t finished scouting you.”
When she walks away, I follow her past the pond, over the footbridge, and out of the park. But neither of us speaks again.
She leads me to Haddon Avenue, and we walk by the new stores and swanky restaurants, passing lots of other pedestrians, kids on skateboards, and men who raise their fists in the air and say, “Go Eagles!” when they see my Hank Baskett jersey.
Tiffany turns off Haddon Avenue and weaves through residential blocks until we are in front of my parents’ house, where she stops, looks at me, and – after almost an hour of silence – says, “Did your team win?”
I nod. “Twenty-four to ten.”
“Lucky you,” Tiffany says, and then walks away.
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