Listen: I was a quarterback from the time I was twelve right up through my freshman year at college, the whole time living for that moment when you stroll up behind the center with the game on the line and the coaches watching and the spectators yelling and everybody waiting for you to set things in motion.
This was my life, n’est-ce pas?
But then I blow out a knee during summer practice. I’m done for the year and maybe for good, depending on how I recover from the surgery. I’m under the knife for a couple of hours, and they do a number that might let me play again, but if it doesn’t work I’ll need another and my playing days will be over.
Back at school, they take away my tutors because I’m inactive. And I’ve never been much with the books. I last a few weeks, crutching around campus, then quit because I can see what’s coming: I’ll flunk out for sure, which will make it harder to come back the next fall, when theoretically the knee will be recovered.
I load up the Belair and head home. The old jalopy doesn’t deal well with hills and when I get to the mountains it slows down to a crawl. It takes four hours and when I finally pull in the driveway beside the old man’s pickup my knee, just out of the cast, is aching like a son of a bitch.
The old lady comes out onto the porch. She stands there in her curlers and pink corduroys, wanting to hug and kiss, but I’m in no mood. I start lugging things into the house, limping you know, and after a while she swallows her disappointment and pitches in and then the old man tears himself away from the TV long enough to clap me on the back and help, too.
Pretty soon I’m re-installed in my room. I look around at the pictures of teams, footballs with dates and scores. There are trophies, a bookcase with more awards than books. On my desk is an album of clippings my mother saved over the years, and I open it to the two most recent articles waiting to be arranged inside the plastic.
One has the headline: JOEY CLOUTIER SUFFERS KNEE INJURY.
CLOUTIER LEAVES SCHOOL, says the other.
So I’m home. I do the rehab exercises in the morning with the river-side window open and the cool breeze blowing in. After lunch I have to get out of the house and I jump in the car and cruise the streets. The town seems smaller than before, the houses shabbier. It’s just a little Maine French town. I cross the steel bridge and ride around the countryside looking at the farms, and then come back. The Belair struggles along: there’s no compression left and it stalls a lot. I know it should be looked at but I’d have to take it to Jerry’s Sunoco out on Mast Road and sit around half the day, and it’s just too much to think about.
You know how it is.
Then one afternoon it won’t move out of the driveway. It starts all right, but stalls as soon as I put it in gear. I look out at the dead leaves blowing around the yard, afraid to try it again, because this could be it with the old wreck, and I don’t want to know that. But finally I turn the key.
I keep trying, lurching a few feet ahead each time. Finally I floor it until the engine is roaring. I beat on the steering wheel, daring it to stall again. Without letting up on the gas I throw it into drive, and there’s a metallic screech and a bang loud enough to bring Mrs. Rioux to her door across the street. She shakes her head, then goes back inside and shuts the door. I sit there in the dead car.
Smoke’s seeping up from the hood.
I’m fuming, too.
It was a stupid no-contact drill, the kind you have so you won’t get injuries. No helmets, pads, nothing. I was rolling out and Jimmy Evans – a tight end filling in on defense for this drill, pretending to be a bad-ass – thought he’d be cute and chase me. I can see him running after me, dirt flying up from his spikes. He laughed and grabbed my shirt like he was going to slam-dunk me: big joke. Only my foot was caught in a field drain. When I hollered Jimmy lowered me to the ground. I pulled my knee up tight. I could smell the turf and hear Coach’s feet thudding as he ran out.
He bent to look at me, then straightened and slapped Jimmy’s face. Jimmy took it, kept saying he was sorry. The trainer pushed him out of the way and knelt to pry my hands loose; he manipulated the joint until I let out another holler.
“Well?” Coach said.
“It’s not good.”
Coach swore and then he and the trainer carried me over to Coach’s Town and Country and took me to the hospital. We drove around the track and all the kids stood on the field, watching, holding their helmets by the faceguards.
Let me tell you about knee surgery: it’s to be avoided if at all possible.
The old man hauls the Belair to his brother’s junkyard across the river and then gets me a job ironing shoes in the shoeshop. Just till I’m better, he says. I’ve never had to work there, unlike most of the people in town, but I know everyone: it’s Mike Cote, my best receiver during high school, who shows me how to iron.
“See these?” Mike holds out his arms. “The iron gets slippery. You got to watch yourself.”
I look out the grimy window at rows of old cars, windshields glinting in the sun. “I’ll be careful,” I say, but I’ve got welts, too, before the week is out. You have to concentrate, and I keep daydreaming. I think about my senior year, when they let the shoeshop out early for the trip north for the State Championship game. We had a caravan of townies following our bus. The cheerleaders rode with us and chanted the whole way. Debbie Wilkinson sat on my lap and the coaches just laughed about it. I remember the thick feel of her sweater. All the townies were drinking beer in their pickups, and by the time we got to Presque Isle half of them were snookered, and during the game there were fights in the stands. Afterwards there was a parade down Main Street under the elms with me in the high seat on the lead fire truck. There were guys from the shop all along the street cheering, some of them with black eyes.
After a while I start bringing a football to work, and at lunchtime Mike and I throw it back and forth. I can’t move well, but there’s nothing wrong with my arm. I throw one, and Mike runs and catches it. He takes a couple of hops and stretches back and throws it hard. It lands short and skips sideways and I limp over to the railroad berm and bend like a stork to pick it up. It’s dusty out there; the fall has been dry and warm this year.
“Remember what they called us?” Mike says.
“The French Connection.” I throw one as hard as I can. Mike sprints to make a nice snag of the ball. Then he runs in a leaning half-circle, nonchalant, dropping the football behind him, as if scoring yet another touchdown.
At quarter to one, we sit down in the shade of the south wing. Mike eats half his sandwich in one bite and chews with his cheek sticking out and his mouth open. I’m a little embarrassed to be back where people eat like that.
“Look at the old man,” I say. He’s playing volleyball and his gut is bouncing under the t-shirt that he always wears. Dust puffs up from his feet. He jumps and hits the ball with his fist; it goes into the net.
“They play evenings at the high school,” Mike says.
“I heard.” I make a furrow in the dirt with the heel of my sneaker.
“I’m thinking of joining in. They need some energy.”
I lean forward, stretch my knee. The clicking and rubbing has stopped, but it’s still stiff as hell and sometimes when I move just right there’s this tremendous pop. It’s taking a long time to come around.
“Christ, I couldn’t even play volleyball now.”
“Maybe when it’s all better.”
“I won’t want to then.”
“Well, I wish you luck.” Mike washes down his sandwich with coffee.
The whistle on the roof blows, and my old man walks over, his face red as an apple, drops of sweat popping out on his forehead. He wipes his face on his t-shirt and I look away from his sweaty old gut.
“If f’chaud!” he gasps. “Hoo!”
“It ain’t that hot.”
“Sure, not to stand there and throw-throw-throw. Why don’t you play with us?”
“For one thing,” I say, “I can’t jump.”
He can’t quite believe in knee injuries, and he snorts a little. The whistle blows again and we all head for the enclosed stairway that’s stuck to the side of the building. We climb up to the third floor where it’s hot as hell and the machines are just starting to clatter across the wide open room.
Mike and I head off for the irons and my old man waves and crosses the uneven floor to his tacker. He slips right into the old piece-work dance. There are five of them in a row in their t-shirts and jeans, walking in place, moving all over, grabbing shoes off the racks and slapping them into the holders, turning them this way and that, moving at the same time, like a good backfield.
Mike and I punch in by the foreman’s office and walk past Denis Archambeau in his foul-weather gear, hobbling around and around the soaking tank, poking the shoes with a mop handle, rubbing his big hook nose. He’s got something wrong with him that makes him knock-kneed, but he gets around pretty well anyway. He’s my old man’s age, and I can remember him since I was a kid. He’s always been crazy. Nobody knows if it’s from breathing the fumes from the soaking tub or if he was born that way, but one sign of his craziness is you can’t leave anything lying around. He steals things and you never get them back. He stole Mike Cote’s letter jacket out of the pool hall once and Mike and I followed him home, but his mother answered the door and jabbered French at us until we gave up. She had bright red spots on her cheeks and seemed as crazy as Denis so maybe it ran in the family and wasn’t the soaking tank fumes.
When we get to the irons, Mike turns and throws a handful of tacks at Denis and the tacks rattle off his slicker onto the floor. Denis tips his head back and laughs. “Ha ha!”
“Listen to it.” Mike’s never forgiven him for stealing the jacket.
We take our places and I grab a left shoe off the slant-shelved rack and press it against the iron. The iron is shaped like an on-end prism. The shoe is just soaked leather attached to a wooden mold at this point, and as I lean on it steam rises and the wrinkles begin to vanish. I have to be careful not to sear the leather. Sweat drips off my nose and spatters on the iron.
I do the other shoe. When the rack is done I push it over to an embosser. It’s hard to push straight because the casters are bent. I get another rack from Denis Archambeau and work it past Mike to my station.
Denis laughs at me and Mike shakes his head. I’m thinking: What a strange place, and now here I am with them. But not for long, I hope. This is just a temporary situation. Meanwhile I try to hide how it makes me feel.
I try to hide it at home, too, because whenever the old lady thinks I’m down she wants me to pray with her.
“The hell with that,” I say finally.
“Don’t turn away from the Lord, Joey.” She’s just back from the hairdresser’s with a full, kinky perm, the kind you see on a diner waitress, which is what my mother is. She has to go to work and she’s wearing the blue uniform that makes her look like an aging cheerleader.
“Spare me,” I say. We’re in the living room. They’re televising the school’s games this year and every week I watch the kid who replaced me get better and better, which doesn’t improve my disposition. I’ve been bitching about my injury, which is why the old lady started in.
“The Lord will help you,” she says, “but first you have to ask Him.”
“I’ll help myself.”
“He’ll be fine when he’s back in school,” my old man says from the couch.
“You shut up,” the old lady says.
“Throw the ball!” The old man leans forward. He doesn’t mind rooting for the kid quarterback.
“He didn’t have anyone open,” I say.
“He coulda thrown it away, then!”
The old lady glares at both of us, then gives up and heads off to work.
We watch the whole game. It’s tough to sit still for that length of time, because I’m full of the old butterflies. Inside I still think I’m going to play, and I get all juiced up and then have nothing to do with it. I hit the rehab work extra hard on game days and that helps. But by game time I’m antsy. I’ve always been that way. In high school it would start the night before, and got to be a town joke: every Friday night Joey Cloutier would have to go out and walk. I’d walk all over the damn town, down Water Street past the shop, across the open stretch by the river, past Roland’s Bar and Grill, up the hill to the Catholic Church and the cemetery and down the other side to where the river comes around to the south and the downtown starts. There’d always be somebody in Roland’s or downtown who would yell at me: “Gonna beat ‘em tomorrow?”
“Gonna try!” I’d keep on walking. Somebody else would wish me luck. They all knew I was gearing myself up.
Everybody still goes to Roland’s after work on Fridays. Mike and I are usually the first ones there, because we don’t take part in the card games that run on each floor of the shop. Then when the gamblers show up we try to guess who’s won or lost by looking at their faces. It’s easy enough: the games are cut-throat and people lose big money. Denis Archambeau isn’t allowed to play any more, because one Friday he lost his whole paycheck and the next Monday his old Mémère marched in and raised hell with the foreman until he took up a collection to pay Denis back. But then they banned him. He still stands around watching, rubbing his nose, banging his knees together.
Every Friday Mike and I walk past the gamblers and go down the stairway and out into the sunshine, feeling virtuous, and we scuff through the chestnut leaves along the river, tossing the football back and forth, walking through the shadows of the frame houses and then across the open stretch beside the river where it’s always windy. I’m walking better, although I still can’t run. Mike does all the running. He makes one last cut and I hit him by the door to the bar and he ducks through the doorway with both arms around the ball, like he’s pounding it in from the one yard line.
So fall slips by. The days get colder, and as December comes the snow holds off, but I can feel it in the breeze that whips down off the hills and across the river. I can feel it in my knee, too. It’s cold enough that they stop playing volleyball, but Mike and I still throw the football in the lee of the south wing. It gets too cold finally on Water Street though, and one Friday on the way to Roland’s Mike says he’s had enough, and we walk over without throwing the ball, with our collars up and shoulders hunched against the wind. We’re the first to arrive as usual.
Rollie Pelletier comes over, looking sleepy. He likes to doze in a chair by the woodstove when it’s slow. I toss him the ball, he catches it easily and flips it back: at the high school there’s a whole shelf of trophies from his era.
“What’ll it be, boys?”
We sit at the bar and I set the football on the floor. Mike tells Rollie two draft beers, and he walks down to the taps, moving under the wall-mounted TV. He brings the beers back. I take a nice, cold drink, set the beer down and look at Mike.
“Good stuff.” Mike pulls out his cigarettes and offers the pack.
I take one and lean toward him for a light. I’ve begun smoking a little but haven’t taken up buying them yet.
Pop wipes down the bar and dries his hands on his apron. He asks how things are going at the shop. Then he says, “How’s that Archambeau?”
“Loony as ever,” Mike says.
“His mother,” Rollie says. “She was a good looking woman.” He says it in French: “Sa Mère, elle etait une femme jolie.” He gets this dreamy look on his face and keeps wiping his hands.
“Ever put the old boots to her, Rollie?”
“I don’t like that kind of talk.” Rollie frowns at Mike and stalks off to the other end of the bar and looks up at the TV. We snicker, drink our beers, wait for the rest of them to show, which they do an hour or so later: some happy, others trying to figure how much money they have left to drink on.
My old man waves a fistful of cash. “Joey, you want a drink? Mikey?”
“Sure, if you’re buying,” Mike says.
“Give the boys one,” the old man tells Rollie. Then he puts his arm around me and kisses my cheek. He’s been drinking already, and Rollie squints at him before he starts pouring. The old man’s wearing a t-shirt under his biker’s jacket and when he lifts his arm a smell comes off of him.
“For Chrissake, Pa.” I wipe my cheek with a sleeve.
The old man laughs, looks at Rollie. “Ça va bien?”
“Pas mal,” Rollie grumps. He gives Mike and me a refill.
The old man slaps our backs and goes to join the rest of them around the pool table. Somebody pushes the coin slot in and the numbered balls roll through the machine, down to the vent and are plucked out and racked.
“Your old man was a winner, looks like.”
We take a few turns at the table, losing every time to the older guys who, like my father, keep their own two-piece cues in cases behind the bar. Denis Archambeau tries to play, and when they won’t let him he bangs on a pinball machine and Rollie has to yell at him. Then Denis sits down at the bar to sulk.
Later on my old man asks Rollie to put the game on.
Rollie walks down to the channel control and clicks through the stations. He’d forgotten it was a Friday night game or he would have already had it on. He turns up the sound and you can hear the crowd noise. The announcer is talking rapid-fire, pretending he knows about football, although he looks more like a golfer. Anyway he tells about all the scoring in the first half, how our little school is threatening to upset these guys that we haven’t beaten in a decade.
Then the second half starts. The teams trade touchdowns. My replacement, this kid, is scrambling around, somehow keeping up with the other team’s offense, which is smooth and efficient. Everybody in Roland’s is watching. Every time we score there’s a big cheer.
It all comes down to a fourth and goal, and the kid walks up to the center like he knows he’s going to make it happen, and then he does, skipping away from a couple of tacklers and rifling a pass to a diving Jimmy Evans in the end zone. Jimmy scrambles up, looks at the ref, holds the football high. His teammates swarm over him. The kid quarterback jumps up and down, pumps his fist and sprints past the other team’s players, who are trudging off the field with their heads down.
In Roland’s everybody is going crazy.
The old man comes over, pats me on the back and says something about it being my turn after my leg’s all better – he talks fast and in French so I don’t catch it all – and I just nod.
“You ain’t had any luck!” he says.
“C’est la vie.” I drink off my beer.
On the screen, they’re interviewing the kid. He’s got black smudges under his eyes. Jimmy Evans is grinning beside him, still holding the football. I slide off my stool and limp to the men’s room. The old knee gives a pop when I step up to the urinal, and I say, “Enough out of you,” and laugh, but I’m down. I know I’ll never be able to run around like that again.
The rehab’s not working.
I’m going to need that second operation.
I come out to see everybody gathered around the pool table watching the old man run out a rack. I step up beside Mike to watch too. He looks at me and says, “He’s in the zone.”
The old man runs a hand through his hair, sights along the stick and banks the six into a corner pocket, leaving the cue ball close to the eight. He taps it in and cheers, punching the air.
Mike and I go back to the bar. I look at the floor and say, “Hey!”
Mike leans sideways. “It was right there a minute ago.”
Rollie nods toward the door. “I saw that Archambeau sneaking out.”
I move as fast as I can to the door. It’s dark out, windy, stiff leaves rattling over the ground. A car rolls by and turns toward the bridge and its lights fall on Denis Archambeau, knock-kneed as hell, hustling along with my football tucked up against his chest.
“Look at it go!” Mike says.
The car passes Denis and its tires hum as it crosses the river. Something snaps in me and I take off after him, so angry my knee doesn’t even hurt at first, although it’s clicking and popping like mad after the first couple of strides. By the time I reach the bridge it hurts all right, but I just push harder. The more it hurts the more I force out of it. I’ve had it. I can hear Denis’s feet making the metal of the bridge ring, and I start across after him.
What a sight we must be: Denis lurching along with his knees banging together, me following in a strange, one-sided gallop. I almost catch him, too. But then there’s one last pop and my knee locks up tight and I can’t go on, I have to stop.
Denis keeps hobbling, crosses the river and heads off for home.
“Get back here!” I yell after him.
He ignores me. Pretty soon he’s gone.
So all right.
I lean on the metal railing, look down at the water. The railing is icy cold. The water runs swiftly under the bridge and boils through a narrows to the curve that takes it out of town. I still can’t move, and I stand there holding onto the railing until the old man’s pickup rolls up and stops. He pushes the door open, and I hop over and climb in, my bad leg stuck straight out.
We sit there while a car goes by across the bridge. Then the old man looks down at my leg and grunts. For a moment, I’m afraid that he’s going to try to say something. But he knows better, I guess. He just looks over his shoulder, then puts it in gear and drives across the river toward home.
Jim Nichols grew interested in fiction writing while working as a ticket agent for a commuter airline in Rockland. Born in Brunswick and raised in Freeport, Maine, Nichols has worked variously as a bartender, pilot, skycap, taxi driver, fence builder, orange picker, travel agent, and dispatcher for an air taxi service. His writing, which draws from his many experiences, has appeared in numerous regional and national magazines including Esquire, Narrative, From the Ashes (BR), The Clackamas Review, American Fiction, River City, and Night Train. He has been nominated several times for Pushcart Prizes, and his first novel, Hull Creek, was the runner-up for the 2012 Maine Book Award for Fiction. His novels Closer All the Time and Blue Summer Won that same award in 2016 and 2021. Nichols retired from his day job with Penobscot Island Air, and now splits time between Warren, Maine, and Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife Anne, and their rescue dog, Jesse. They have two grown sons, Aaron and Andrew.