May 1, 2019KR OnlineFiction

How Love Is Lived in Paradise

From The Kenyon Review, Autumn 1989, Vol. XI, No. 4

Though I am still called Bubba by some I do and do not like, my real name is Cecil Fitzgerald Toomer, and this adventure that’s happened to me starts with the idea, no doubt loony to ordinary citizens in the big world, that what I know about love comes not from falling in it once, but from watching, years and years ago now, nearly one thousand yards of Super 8 movie in the cinder block film room at the University of New Mexico and seeing something in football that, by the end of it, had me quietly, well, weeping over the 265 pounds I was.

This was 1970, a year that seems like “yore” to the private sentimentalist I am, and I was in my second year as the linebacker coach for the Lobos. I’d graduated three years before, played a season and a half with the St. Louis football Cardinals as a late round draft choice, blew up one knee then its partner, and spent a summer wondering what would become of me until my old head coach, Mr. Emery Ewing, called up and asked how I’d like to work for him—which meant finding and then teaching huge American youngsters to be semi-bloodthirsty and entirely reckless. I could have the linebackers, he said, and be as fierce with them as Baytagh was with his Tartars. He was always fond of me, he said, considered me prime this-and-that, claimed I possessed a first-rate mind—the flattery of which I was happy to agree with. “You think about it, Bubba,” he said, his voice perhaps the tenth human thing I’d heard since the previous May. “You’re a born teacher, boy. I can see you now—kicking tail, rousing passions, the works.” Coach Ewing had a colonel’s shaved head and an unlucky man’s violent temper, and he was enough like my own father, who was dead then and probably mayor of the shoot’em up afterlife he believed in, that I said yes too loud and drove eighteen miles to tell a girl I’d haphazardly courted that we ought to get married.

That August I stood around in the sunlight and yelled at muscular teenagers. “Hit that sumbitch,” I’d holler. “That pissant is insulting you, Ace.” They were named Ickey and Tongue and Herkie—nearly a hundred who thought nothing of mud and hurly-burly as the place to be distinguished in. They’d squat, heave, make mostly chest-derived noise, and afterwards hie themselves to me for more high decibel instruction. When they were good, I’d snatch up a bullhorn and say so to all of downwind Albuquerque; when they were not, as they often were, I’d invent belittling names for their male parts, plus urge them, then and forever, to contemplate their miserable inadequacies.

Once the season started though, I hit the road, recruiting high schoolers in those portions of Texas that Coach Ewing had given me. I tossed my bags in my Fairlane, said adios to my wife Stacy Jean, and spent the next four of every seven days driving Interstate-this and FM-that, knocking on the depressingly flimsy doors of folks who lived in Marble Falls—or De Leon or Jacksboro or Devine—any town, one horse or more, that had a kid playing football and dreaming he was a Cleveland Brown or a Ram from L.A. I preferred these boys to be big and quick, with eyes that didn’t roll much, and I’d sit in their living rooms, or at their coach’s house, and tell them what I and the University of New Mexico might offer—which was meals, books, and tuition waivers. Lordy, these were exceptional moments: Mudflap or Ricky T. or the Prince of Frigging Darkness sitting across from me, Ma and Pa Darkness gussied up as if for a job interview, and me saying how goddamned grand it was to be bushy-tailed and strong and unafraid of headlong contact.

Yet it wasn’t football I was talking about, really; it was having a way in the world—somewhere to go and the means to go there. I was talking, as Coach Ewing and my father had once talked to me, about a point of view, sensible and righteous, to have, and how, as interested folks, we admired the self-reliance that Thoreau wrote of, plus what is underlined in such volumes as The Pathfinder and Huckleberry Finn. In living rooms in Crockett and Woodville and Baytown, anywhere plastic pads and Riddell headgear were common, I’d tell about weight rooms and adequate housing and the egghead tutors who could make Goonch or Elvis or Tattley know, and care about, Geoffrey Chaucer and, say, thermal transfer and what the kings and queens of England meant to freedom. Letters of Commitment in hand, I’d talk about—my voice scratchy and cracking from the effort—how physical prowess, the business of jumping high or running far, was just a chance to know the world by throwing your body at it; that what Jimmy Jeff or Poot or Del Ray might sweat on the gridiron was given in fair exchange for the delight it is to know the achievements of Hannibal and Hammurabi and Mr. Thomas Stearns Eliot, plus conflicting views of us as hollow men or reeds that cerebrate. That old flimflam, I’d say, of a football player being dumb was just plain wrong. A noseguard, I’d insist, was a psychology major with stump-size thighs, a Lambda Chi minus the body fat. “A linebacker,” I declared once, “is a scholar who learns his Trotsky on the scrimmage field.” Football, yes, was meaning too, just swifter and largely ignorant of please-and-thank-you.

Then there was the film, the miles and miles of it I studied when I was not driving one flatland or another. Shut up in the film room, deaf to the chatter of the antique Bell & Howell projector, I looked for those who were fleet or passably nimble witted, studying—in slow motion and backwards sometimes—a Tiger or a Rocket or a Red Raider who had girth and but one violent notion on his mind. I’d receive a half dozen cans a week, usually with a note attached from the high school coach: “Look at Morris,” it might read. “He’s pure-D remarkable. He wants nothing more than to whack the stuffings out of everybody on your schedule.” They had personalities, these boys from the hinterlands. Despite grainy film stock and no sound, they revealed themselves as bewitched, eccentric, often inspired sportsmen. Rained or hailed on, slogging in mud or red dust, they said, as one’s actions can, that they, in this heap or that, were vain or Republican or downright evil. R. C. “Gumball” Reed might be a lunatic with only six yellow teeth and the engaging disposition of a catfish, but he recognized a misdirection when one was tried and you could see the umbrage he suffered from it. Tall and short, black and white, thick through the middle or bottom heavy like bowling pins, they were what you and me are—a percentage wicked and childishly joyful when triumph calls.

Such was the boy, indeed, I was watching the night, years and years gone, when I ended up alone blubbering. A left outside linebacker for the Flowers, Texas, ISD Rebels, Boyce Fowler had speed that seemed inconceivable to the porky sort he was. He possessed great feet, which is coaching argot for the tiptoe that is necessary among twisting and toppling bodies, not to mention sufficient strength through the chest to pitch aside those dim-witted enough to take him on straight ahead and manlike. You needed to be sly with him, I thought once. You needed to trap block, leg whip when the back judge was blowing his nose. You needed to call him “Queerbait” or puke in his earhole—anything to make him leave you alone and go back to the wet hole he’d oozed from.

I don’t remember when I stopped watching him, only that at some point a sound burst from me—what the word “agog” suggests—and I put down a ham sandwich perhaps I’d taken one bite from. This wasn’t a large moment, I tell you, no bells or “ah-hah’s” of surprise—just a moment when I heard from, as we now and then do, that vigilant creature inside of us whose job it is, when we can’t, to look behind and above and afar. While the film rewound, I approached the window, eyed the way the Sandia Mountains were raised and how, north of us, the light at dusk had turned almost wintry and thoroughly depressing. For the last half hour, I had been watching not the virtually Marine-like Boyce Fowler and the savage services he performed; rather, I’d been watching—or that creature in the heart of me was watching—a youngster from the other team, a runty black wingback about the age then of my own son now. Eventually, I discovered his name, Purvis Watkins, and came to know how he wanted his steak cooked and what Motown records he sang along to best, but in 1970 he was mere arms and legs, a whir my Boyce Fowler collided with fifteen, twenty, twenty-five times one dry Friday in November umpteen umpteens ago. I was drawn to this Watkins kid not because he was so good, though good he was, but because, in ways romantics understand, he had chosen this night to be a hero, to lead his much overmatched, poorly outfitted team against the big and the pretty and the rich. It was the melodrama I was captivated by, a modern equivalent of the big-little set-to that was David and Goliath.

More than once, after I started the film anew, I found myself abandoning the high perch my disinterest was supposed to be—the one from which I was supposed to say, as scientists and the really wise do, this is this, that that; more than once I put aside analysis and dispassion to slip instead straight into the silent, black and white world Purvis L. Watkins, Cougar senior and piece of work, was being excellent in. Folks, I flat out identified with that sport-mad juvenile, dashed where he dashed, hopped when he did. I scooted hither with him, and thither, felt hostile flesh flatten me; and when he saw stars, as he did a couple of times, I saw them too—twinkling and liquid and not at all where they ought to be in high heaven.

Through the first and second quarters, when his Cougars were being crunched and made laughable to the five hundred farmland Texans who’d gathered to watch, I trudged with him to the huddle and regarded most sympathetically the beleaguered faces of his, and my, teammates. I wasn’t film-watching any longer; I was there, on a chewed-up playing field in Borger, Texas, eyeballing my skinned knuckles, picking clots of turf out of my face mask, and muttering to myself, as Purvis Louis Watkins was muttering to himself, “What’s going to become of us here?” A measure was being taken that had to do with the misconceived notions of distinction and honor and personal worth. A standard was at work here, a goofy code he’d absorbed from Marvel comic books or what grown men habitually yammer in locker rooms. A line was being drawn, as in epics lines are drawn and drawn again, and Purvis Watkins, not to mention the parts of him that were me, was saying that it—all the things in him and me and us that lines stand for and that are the butt of mean-spirited Hollywood humor—would not be crossed or violated. Purvis L. Watkins, I say to you, hauled himself back to the huddle after one disastrous play, and I knew, from his bobbing head and what finger-pointing signifies, that he was saying, “Boys, this shit’s got to stop.”

And, come the second half, it did. Stopped cold. Those Cougar boys, what eleven kinds of motley are, returned from halftime with only victory on their minds. They hit, they ran, they blocked, they tackled, and presently it became clear—even to the talented felon Boyce Fowler—that this wasn’t sport alone: it was evidence of what we aspire to without vanity or pettiness. Clearly, this was beauty, which is composed of all you love and cannot survive without, and time after time I found myself rocking back in my chair to holler the wildest words I knew about the bliss that warmed me. I pounded the table I leaned against and the wall that also kept me upright. I cried “shitfire!” and “holy moly!” and other things that are mostly the “oooohhh” and “aaaahhh” of our best nature, and then all that remained was my fist in the air, pumping like a piston, and the throaty strangled sound my joy was. There would come a moment, soon enough and terrible, when I would be absolutely goddamned hobbled by the void left behind when this joy vanished, but for twenty minutes yet, I got to climb up, as Purvis was doing, those mountains Coach Ewing said challenges were; and up there, jubilant and not at all mindful of what tragedy teaches us, I said, “Well, ain’t this something?”

I hooted, I hollered, and twice, swept up as in verse the radiant are, I laughed—from the deepest nooks of me and without regard for where my spit was going. Purvis scored. Dived over a feeble free safety and scored. Purvis threw a block, using everything but his toenails, which let another score. And there occurred that dancing now popular on every gridiron in America: that shameless grind the hips do when you are alone and mirthful—part humping and party hootchy-koo, the effect of it purely gratifying to the half of you that doesn’t think. I ran the film in slow motion: I wanted to see—and scribble down maybe—how his parts worked, what could be made language about the bones and muscle and wind he was. It was the creature in him, and me, I was attending to—the thing that in flight looks smooth and intent and imperturbable. The meat of us that turns toward light and sound and shrinks from an unfriendly touch. “Yes, indeed,” I remarked several times. “All right and Amen.”

Later that night, over the big man’s meal of pot roast and carrots my wife had cooked, I tried to explain what happened. I said how I sat there, more in the action than out, while Purvis led his people. I mentioned the score, which grew closer and closer. I mentioned how those home fans—every Sadie and Edna Mae and Bucky-boy of them!—had suddenly gone church-quiet and wholly respectful, and how the light lay in that ticky-tacky stadium. I used the word “grace” to say the noises we eek when we see meaning moving this way and that. Stacy Jean was herself gracious during these minutes, encouraging and tolerant of my mumblings. She fetched me more Coors beer and sat across from me and did not go ha-ha-ha when I described how Purvis, for what would have been the tying touchdown, went flying for eight yards. I thought he had scored and was halfways out of my chair, a war whoop coming to me, before I realized that he’d fumbled; and in that moment—and the many moments afterwards, I told Stacy Jean—I broke, as Purvis L. Watkins never did, into a dozen widespread pieces. I could see it all: the ball there, Purvis yonder, that Fowler boy leaping in ecstasy. I could see what had befallen him, and me. We had done everything: been smart, been courageous, been hopeful; and then there we were, on our knees, not slumped yet, staring in the direction we had come so heroically. We—he in his time, me in mine—were dumbfounded: the object we loved and prized, a fifteen-dollar shape of leather and string and heavy thread that said who we were in the world and what could be done, was way gone and we were only stupid again, a thousand miles from the lights of wonderland.

He was cold, I think; I know I suddenly was. He was not sad yet, nor to my knowledge did he ever become sad. He was simply astonished that life had turned out this way. But if he was not sad, I, his distant confederate, was. I was thinking again, is what. I was being the history major I once was. I was recollecting the A’s I had and the dates I was graduated for repeating. Compare, I may have told myself. Contrast. But the brain in me—those folded pink tissues that could say this was only football after all—had just stopped sending what it conveys to the thing in us that is monkey or lizard or slop we eons ago crawled from. I couldn’t move. I had hands that weighed twenty pounds and would not close when I begged them to. I had a heart that went thump-thump and breathing that sounded far away and labored. And then I heard it, which is the pronoun for the me I was. It was crying, folks. It—with its flat tummy and its sportsman’s crew cut and its twice-broken nose and its weight lifter’s chest—was sobbing, silently but steadily. For itself and not. For Purvis and not. It wanted help, I tried to tell Stacy Jean. It wanted knowledge. It wanted to know, for example, why time couldn’t be turned back and suspended at the moment Purvis L. Watkins and his faraway fan were shining and smart and true.

• •

That year Purvis L. Watkins went off to East Carolina State University, and I went forward too—a man with a job, two babies, a wife who looked tasty in expensive South Seas swimwear, and a world view thought to be generous and informed. Yes: forward. And, I hold, generally upward, which is one metaphor I learned for those improvements we endeavor to make in ourselves and the world we crisscross. I am in a looking-back humor now, a state of mind which wonders how we come to this intersection of the here and now and not another. First, it is 1972 and your narrator resides in Ames, Iowa, the recruiting coordinator for the Iowa State Cyclones. He is happy, he believes, and learning to cook meals like Roti au Vol, Legumes Garnis; he is losing a little hair, watching his weight go, and learning how it is to live with snow and four months of falling temperatures. Then it is 1976, and he is in Fayetteville, Arkansas, one defensive coach for the Razorbacks, and he is watching his wife, blond as straw, walk toward him in a bias-cut Patou tea gown he has ordered from I. Magnin of California. It is another year, and he is doubled up with worry about government and the secret, dangerous deeds done to preserve it. His oldest boy, Bobby, has braces, and then he does not. His youngest, Samuel, breaks his arm, then it is healed. Next it is 1981 and Bubba Toomer lives in Dallas, recruiting for Southern Methodist University. He is drinking too much and not drinking at all. He is smart, then not. A TV watcher and not. A book reader and not. A Democrat and not. Looking back, I wonder who this Bubba Fitzgerald Toomer was. Is that his crooked smile? Is that his opinion about party etiquette and how anger is definitively expressed? And then it is 1986, and he is in Albuquerque again, the defensive coordinator, and, Lordy, Coach Toomer is in love.

As we are told in that old song that birds gotta fly, so was I meant, I think, to fall in love. It was in my nature, I believe. Maybe it was my nature itself, the huffing and puffing and going to and fro I am, the blue eyes I have and the way, not becoming, that my arms hang and swing too far like a march. Corny it might be, but I may have fallen in love with Mary Louise Tipton the instant she entered my office to announce that though she was a tutor, a Ph.D. in literature, she had only the most meager respect for the teaching coaches did. It was a corrupt and demeaning undertaking, this football thing. One class, an underkind, that served another. It was stupid as recreation and retrograde as ideology—words which, as they came from what is a beautiful mouth, seemed alien as chatter from space. My hand, I remember, shot up, and again, as if to say “Wait” or “Hold on a minute,” but she was eight places at once in my office—picking at the knickknacks I’d lugged with me through the years, trophies and goodies and inspirational speeches, plus a pile of news clippings that confirmed, more or less, what purpose and direction I could give youngsters—and then, settled at last in an easy chair, she said, “I hear you’re smart. Let’s have lunch.”

She had a smile that involved the whole of her face, plus a bent-forward posture that said she could be lively on a million other subjects, and before another second went past, I said, “Hell, yes.”

Maybe I fell in love with her on another day in a different restaurant when she said, almost clinically, that she liked the way I attacked my food, which was like the way her dogs—a boxer named Lucy and a foundling Danelike monster named Luther—went at theirs. I was de-light-ed, a word it takes both mouth and heart to say correctly. I was delighted to learn that she was from Shreveport and that her daddy, with whom she was still enthralled (though he’d been dead for five years), was the sort of man who climbed into his pajamas at six-thirty in the evening, a man who liked Ivanhoe, a quarter horse named Nellie First, and the happy company of fellow millionaires. I was delighted by her age, 36, and the years she’d worked as a waitress, or as a bartender, or as a public relations gofer in Herman Hospital at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. I was, as well, delighted by the tragedies which had struck her, age-old troubles like alcoholism and a passel of brothers and sisters as swamp infected and highfalutin as any creation from William Faulkner. I was charmed by her drawl and the singsong my whole name became when she thrust open my door to declare that one player I had was, regrettably, dense as igneous rock. I took delight, which is mental pleasure that does not lessen over time, in how damned intelligent she was, in the way she could just stand up and say, “This is shit, this Shinola.” She knew, and I let her teach me, what texts were and how we are better for losing ourselves in them. In lunch after lunch, Bubba, who was Cecil to her, learned what slips of the tongue meant and how, through manner and word, we act out the horrors and miseries of our youth. In one hour, I learned the two words we have from Old High German; in another, what politics have to do with the art we consume; in another, how pride is related to sloth, gluttony to greed, and the several things that goeth before a fall.

On one day, in addition to the palaver and eye-looks that are part of love, came the actual making of love. We had gone to her house, a ranch-style stucco on Bennet off Menaul, a house she cherished as if it, too, knew about fear and failure and human wishes, and in the middle of looking for something—a book, I think, whose thesis concerned the personality sloppy handwriting reveals—she said, “Cecil, it’s time we had sex.” Miss Mary Louise Tipton was serious and laughing at the same time. She had done all the thinking, I realize now, as she always did the thinking for the two of us: in her mind, where there was already so much about males and females and what they’ve done to each other, she had seized the subject of us, debated the pros and cons we were. She had the facts, among them old prohibitions against sin, and she had shaped the pain, or happiness, they might foretell: she had decided, of a Thursday afternoon, that Cecil Fitzgerald Toomer, sometime lunkhead, was the man she could best mean love with by making it to.

I, on the other hand, was not thinking at all. Like a schoolboy asked to cha-cha-cha at cotillion, my hands were stuffed in my pockets, and I was doing well not to shuffle my feet nor hem-haw too loud. “When?” I said, a question so pathetic I am still embarrassed to have uttered it. “Now,” she said. I thought of her room, which she had said was upstairs, and the black lacquer bed she claimed was the biggest in Bernallio County. I wondered, too, about the amused looks her dogs were giving me. “Where?” I said, the last of my clever responses. I considered her kitchen, which was small, and its cold tile floor, and her dining room whose every flat surface seemed covered with papers related to the inheritance she was pointedly indifferent to. I saw the corner of a rug that appeared now tattered and certainly too scratchy. And then I came back to her eyes and the irresistible invitation they were. “Here,” she said.

Neither was I thinking when Miss Mary Louise unzipped my Levi’s and urged me down on top of her, a cane chair shoved sidelong to make space for us. It is only now—in this summer two years later when I am divorced, when Coach Ewing is dead, when my former family has moved back to Deming in Luna County to live with its faithful relations, and when Mary Louise and I are planning the honeymoon Paris, France, is supposed to be—it is only now, thousands of hours removed from the events herein, that I am thinking, really thinking; and what I see, in the film I close my eyes to watch, is a man unaware but wholehearted—a man a bit like Purvis L. Watkins before he fumbled. Silly as it sounds, this man I was, whose body always seemed too big for the indoors, was giving her, like a model sportsman, all the things and conditions and states of mind he was: he was muscle and grit, the greasy foods he hated but gobbled down anyway, the dreams he half-remembered, the shit kicker music his boots tapped to, the marvels (good and bad) he was always shocked by, the real and made-up histories he was, the Catholic growing-up he’d had. He, the me I used to be, was giving her, in the square yards of floor they lay on, all he knew: his first kiss and the winter he’d run his fastest, the drunk he’d been too often, the only fist he’d thrown in a fight that had blood in it.

Then we were finished, sweaty and sore and altogether light-headed. Time had started again. The walls went straight again, the roof clamped down like a box. “Oooohhh-weeee,” Miss Mary Louise said, like a cowgirl.

Lordy, those next months were weird—those months before Bubba woke to Cecil the way, years and years before, Purvis L. Watkins had awakened to his own peculiar world of woe. Your hero, I say, had two lives. In one I could be seen, say, in Eckerd’s drugstore, in tow the versions of myself that are Bobby and Samuel, buying Crest toothpaste or Mennen deodorant, paying from the sixth-grade shop project in leather that is my wallet; in the other, by twilight or noon itself, I could be seen in Vincent’s Blue Moon Lounge or Butera’s Cafe, the hairier part of a snuggle or the louder half of a ho-ho-ho. In one life, itself not craven or deprived or ruined, I paid a mortgage and bills from Southwestern Bell and Dillard’s; in the other, I held a tumbler of Jack Daniel’s and lounged most agreeably in a green deck chair constructed by the best hammer and nail socialists in Sweden. In one life, itself fine enough and honest, I got to grab an undergraduate by the face mask and announce what it is rover backs are obliged to do on weekends—which is to sunder and to render and generally to stuff an opponent into the foul middle of last month; in the other life, I was myself snatched by the cheeks or ears and told where the self sits and how meaning is refracted—that was Mary Louise’s word, indeed—through the lens of our limited perception. Peculiar to say—yes: strange, strange, strange—I passed nimbly life to life. I want to add, if I can be only 60 percent sappy about it, that in one life I was a fish; in the other, a bird. A rock in one; a tree in the other. And then, because of the way insight works, particularly that which (as my father used to say) smites us hard and quick, I was nothing.

“Do you have something to tell me?” Stacy Jean asked that week in October my marriage was to stop and I was to find myself blubbering again like an infant. We sat in our family room, Stacy Jean reading one of the good-versus-evil spy novels she liked and me making the X’s and O’s and arrows and lines that illustrate what piling on and crackback blocks can do. I had lines scrawled here and lines wriggled there and, until Stacy Jean directed me to tell her what was going on and why I was as distant from her as the moon is from Miami, I was completely beguiled by a vision of football as precious and tidy as college philosophy. “Something’s bothering you,” she said. My head snapped up as if I’d been clobbered and found myself, as if awakened by a siren, in the real world again. I would like to report that she asked me if there was another woman or if I loved her still, but she didn’t. I looked ill, she said. Maybe I needed a checkup? I was tossing and turning in bed, I was stumbling into furniture, I was babbling—facts I was totally ignorant of. “I’m fine,” your hero told her, mostly not an untruth.

Here it was that I took her in, this longtime wife of mine. I thought of the sixteen years we’d been together, the presents I’d given her and how rough I could sometimes be. I thought of the fancy underwear she looked appealing in and the eight cuss words she used as effectively as teachers use chalk. I thought of her folks, Winona and Bill, and how, as ranchers, they were wholesome as milk. She was good, I thought. She liked to garden. She had patience with the lamebrained and foolhardy. That was Monday. On Tuesday, as she is now someone you are reading about, so she seemed to me to be a person I had only read of, a character out of Hardy or Charles Dickens or Leon Uris. She ate spaghetti with a fork, forsook dancing when the Watusi came in, could make a fist the littleness of which could make you gasp. She was a heroine about whom I knew many things—her birth weight at the Mimbres Valley Hospital in 1948, her green and white Wildcat cheerleader outfit, the Yamaha motorcycle she once liked to ride, the enduring contempt she had for Richard Nixon, the ups and downs she suffered; but except for the final chapter, those pages having to do with her dumbstruck, wayward husband and his bye-bye to her, I had, Lordy, finished my reading of Stacy Jean Richards Toomer.

On Wednesday, so it has been reported to me, I assembled my players on the practice field to harangue them about love. Our opponent that Saturday was Colorado State, so there were many, I gather, who were befuddled by a speech that never once mentioned valor or the digging down victory comes from. I don’t recall any of this, I confess. Not a blessed word. But even now, from boys who are juniors and seniors, I hear how I climbed the tower to holler down at them, how I used a bullhorn and appeared deeply angry. There was fall sunlight and a bell ringing and New Mexico noises elsewhere, and there was, I am told, this crazy man shouting about affection and what a withered landscape we wander in. There were linebackers and nose tackles and defensive ends, and there was this fellow dressed in Bike shorts and a UNM Department of Athletics T-shirt bellowing about the swell and warp love could be in those, the bushwhacked victims of it. This exhausted an hour, I hear. Coach Toomer, I hear, talked about sapsuckers and dipsticks and those who are mollycoddled overmuch. I hear that Coach Toomer, wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap that looked slept on, made fists and pointed in the high and low directions wisdom comes from. He called for reason and its antithesis. He called for a breaking apart and a putting together again. Geez, he called for sowing and reaping.

These were boys from Alpine and DeWitt and Forest City, boys who majored in poly sci and bio and comp lit, and they were urged to consider all that stood apart from elections and paramecia and foreign gobbledygook. They were introduced, instead, to creatures named Stacy Jean and Mary Louise. They got to hear about Little Leaguers named Robert William and Samuel Beck. These players, students big as refrigerators and violent as hailstorms, heard about dreams, which are the waste of you; and actions, which are not. They heard how much greater they were than the sum of their no-account parts. The word “spirit” was used, as were the gestures said to be occasioned by it. A cloud whisked by. And a second. You could hear raspy, shallow breathing and watch athlete eyeballs shift round and round nervously. The bullhorn clicked off, clicked on. Then it went tumbling in the direction of section H, rows 9 through 15. Coach Toomer called for a glass of Gatorade, I understand, and one was brought him.

“Coach was loco,” was what I heard later; is what, in fact, I still hear from time to time. Coach was off his rocker, his marbles spilled, the inside of him fractured and collapsed. Coach, in his tower and wobbling, was most out of touch, as cut loose and moil-minded a human as is possible in sunlight. He mentioned rain and related elements from the sky, and screamed down at one huh-faced boy to say, “See?” And that boy, who was from Española in the north and was no smarter at football than was Daffy Duck at dancing, went “yes” with his head in a fashion that made you fear what muscles “no” used. In the next minute, Coach talked about the body, which was vehicle and medium and incarnate, the goo your mind invented. “Do you dingleberries see?” Coach asked, clearly displeased they did not. “You understand, Bigmouth?” And Bigmouth, a spoon-faced safety with feet the size of pontoons and a three-speed brain shaped, it was believed, like a loaf of bread, said, “Hell, yes, Coach!”

And so commenced another paragraph, the sharpest points of which were Coach’s opinions about dress-wearing and the miracle hips are, plus what we are inclined to feel when spring rolls around. “I am trying to account for things here,” Coach said, now using a second bullhorn so those still asleep in North Dakota could hear. Another hour had gone by, in the drip-drip way time can, and nobody had moved a lick. Even in the silent seconds, when Coach seemed especially cockeyed and heaven-sent, his players, all ninety-six of them, were paralyzed, a contraption he had built, dismantled, and flung the makings of all around. “Love,” Coach Toomer said, giving the word eight syllables and half the color wheel. Why not call it hair, he wondered. Or teeth? Or the food you had for breakfast? What was wanted was a new word, one shook free of the la-la-la Romeos swoon over. For that purpose, he said, football was a fine word too, and a fairer approximation of what havoc happens between boys and girls. Foot-goddam-ball. Love needed some rules, he declared, along with impartial folks in stripes whose job it was to say when, and how badly, you screwed up. Hell, some structure was called for, some cheek-popping whistle-blowing that signaled you had a half-minute to conjure up new plans for going headlong at it. “Ha,” Coach said, in what may or may not have been a laugh. “Ha-goddam-ha.”

Later that evening, much as I had on another evening in the “yore” I earlier spoke of, I tried to explain to Stacy Jean what had happened to me. I said how I climbed down from my tower, the climbing up an exercise I did not remember at all. I mentioned how I’d suddenly whipped into wakefulness, finding myself walking through a clot of my players, theirs the faces you see on those who’ve witnessed car wrecks or similar calamities. I used the word “goggle-eyed” to describe my own expression and mentioned the roundabout path I’d taken to my Toyota in the parking lot. I used the word “tired” to say how I’d felt; “nothing” to say what I knew. I had regarded the sun, which had been orange as a flagman’s vest, and wondered how love is lived in paradise. Stacy Jean was being herself solicitous, asking if I wanted a drink and what would I say to a visit from Doctor Richards, our GP. I had her one hand in mine, and in my mind three-quarters of a sentence in regard to the bags I’d pack in a few minutes, and then—about the moment, I think, when Stacy Jean plainly understood what I had not yet said—I heard it: that blubbering me.

As I had been years ago, I was again cold. And cogitating, too. I was wondering about the rattling insides of me, the clatter my hooks and hasps made breaking loose. Wait, I told myself. Consider. I had a “why” question, and a “how” and a “when.” “Bubba?” Stacy Jean said, letters I could not for the life of me make sensible. As before, the “it” in me was crying: a tear on one cheek, a second on the other. Its mouth dropped open and its face, I suppose, was like Purvis L. Watkins’s own, wonder filled and baffled, the victim of ten or ten thousand ideas at once. As before, “it,” the me I was, desired answers. To questions about the forward movement of living life. About what to do with weakness. About why it is we have the hearts we do, and why it is they fail.

Lee K. Abbott was the author of Love is the Crooked Thing, Living After Midnight, Wet Places at Noon, and, most recently, All Things, All at Once: New & Selected Stories. In addition to KR, his fiction and articles appeared in Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Book Review, and Southern Review. His work was included in Best American Short Stories and The O'Henry Awards.