By: J. S. Kierland
He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder and someone yelled, “Pass it, Pop…pass it!” Trying to keep his balance he cradled the ball in his arms and started his fall. He hit the ground hard and when he looked up some guy was yelling, “Parker. Last stop! Parker. Last stop!” His shoulder had stiffened again, but he struggled to his feet and lurched into the aisle. The driver pointed him toward the luggage rack, and he grabbed his suitcase and headed for the faded sign over the waiting room door, PARKER, PA.
Walking up the hill, he passed the Diner with a crude hand-written sign on the door that had turned their old hangout into a “Thrift Shop.” The Bookstore had also closed, but the Ice Cream Parlor next to it had survived. Further up the hill a crimson awning stretched across the sidewalk with CHALMER’S FUNERAL HOME written on its edge. He opened the door, headed straight for the office, peeked in, and a startled Secretary looked up. “Tell Mr. Chalmers that Casey’s here,” he said. She broke into a knowing smile and buzzed the office behind her.
“Mr. Molden’s arrived,” she said into the phone. There was a rustle of papers and the scrape of a chair, and Billy Chalmers appeared with a shocked look on his face and several extra pounds on his waist.
“I can’t believe you really made it,” he mumbled, embraced Casey, and led him back to his office. “No calls, Jill,” he said over his shoulder.
“What about the Johnsons?” she asked.
“Try to squeeze them in later this afternoon.”
“That’s got to be a rough one,” Casey remarked.
“It’d be easier if you were there.”
“I’m the last guy they want to see.”
“No, I am.”
“He’s here, isn’t he?”
Billy nodded and reached into a bottom drawer, pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey, a couple of glasses, and poured a healthy two fingers in each one. Casey raised his glass without waiting, and said, “To Merrell Johnson. Best goddamned Quarterback I ever knew.” They gulped the bourbon, and Casey reached into his jacket and took out a vial of pills.
“Pain?” Billy asked.
“Yeah,” Casey mumbled, and swallowed a pill with the bourbon. “My shoulders don’t travel well anymore.”
Casey nodded, and stared into his bourbon. “How long you here for?” he asked.
“I’m broadcasting from Pittsburgh on Thursday.”
“Should be a good game,” Billy said. “Need a place to crash?” Casey nodded, and drained his bourbon. “Another one?” Billy asked, but Casey waved him off. “Sure you don’t want to come see the Johnsons with me this afternoon?”
“I don’t think so.”
Billy got up, shut the door, and said, “Do you know this whole Merrell thing’s been building since you left.”
Casey looked surprised. “I’ve been gone over fifteen years,” he said.
“I know, but that’s when it started.”
“Last I heard he was headed for Indiana on an athletic scholarship deal,” Casey mumbled.
“That didn’t last long. He got cut, came home, married Celia, and finished college in Philly. Just wasn’t the same anymore. Know what I mean?” Casey didn’t answer, and Billy finally said, “You want to see him?”
“May as well get it over with,” Casey mumbled, sipping what was left of the bourbon. “Can’t believe he’s gone.”
“Take the bottle…I’ve got phone calls to make,” Billy said, opening a door at the back of his office. “Just be careful going down the stairs.”
Casey picked up the bottle of Wild Turkey, and Billy snapped on the basement lights and held the door open for him. A musty odor shortened Casey’s breath, but he continued down the stairs holding the bannister.
A dim light over a long table lit a bulky figure covered in a green sheet. Casey stopped to take another sip of the bourbon, took in a deep breath and lifted the cloth. The face looked familiar but a lot older than the last time he saw him. He started to lower the flap and noticed the gunshot wound at the back end of the temple.
“What the hell did you do, Merrell?” he mumbled, and sat heavily on a high stool next to the table. “It all went so crazy fast,” he snapped, and glanced around the empty room to see if anyone had heard him. “Crazy fast,” he mumbled again, and headed back toward the light coming in under the door at the top of the stairs. Billy was laughing at something someone had said on the office phone. “We’re all so fucking detached,” Casey muttered. “Except for you, Merrell. You were never detached,” he said to the body on the table. “That’s why you were the quarterback.”
The large house sat on the corner lot facing a side street. Newly painted, it glowed in the sun and Casey thought of all the steel and coal money that had gone into it. Billy pulled the car into the driveway and they both got out. He waited for Casey to go in first, and said, “Thanks for coming. It makes this a lot easier.”
They hadn’t quite gotten to the end of the path when Celia Johnson rushed out the door, ran down the front steps, and hugged Casey. “I knew you’d come. Mother will be so happy to see you,” she said.
“Sorry about all this,” he mumbled.
They trudged into the house and Mrs. Johnson came in from the kitchen with a frosty pitcher of lemonade and her famous peanut butter cookies. She smiled and Casey took the tray from her and placed it on a small table in front of the fireplace where he and Merrell used to sit and plan ways to win their next High School football game together.
“It’s good seeing you again, son,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Been a long time.”
“Too long, Ma’am,” Casey answered.
“You’re broadcasting the Steeler game on Thursday,” Celia piped. “Should be a good one.” Casey smiled in agreement but continued staring at Mrs. Johnson.
“Only thing we have to settle,” Billy interjected, “is whether the casket will be closed or open?”
Mrs. Johnson glanced back at Casey and asked, “Have you seen him Casey?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.
“What do you think?”
They waited for his answer, and then he finally said, “I think Billy’s right.”
The open casket choice really belonged to Celia. She was Merrell’s wife but it was clear she didn’t run things and never did. He remembered how upset Mrs. Johnson would get whenever he and Merrell did some dumb thing to make her angry, and how she’d try to protect whatever dignity her family had left after Merrell had tried to destroy it. Casey had always believed that Merrell played football just to annoy her. The town wrote it off as “High School boys doing their thing,” but it was all done to test her. To this day, he didn’t know her first name. It was just “Yes, Mrs. Johnson. No, Mrs. Johnson,” and every time Merrell did something crazy she’d disappear behind her “imaginary wall.” Then it’d start all over again and Merrell would think up something else to rip that “wall” down again. Merrell’s favorites were decorating the town Christmas tree with raw chicken parts or just driving through town, opening and closing garage doors with a rheostat.
But this was Merrell’s last stand. He’d checked-out early and smeared GOODBYE MOTHER across her “wall,” and Casey watched as Mrs. Johnson’s dark guilt-ridden eyes stared right through him and had he got the feeling that Merrell was going to lose this one too.
“I suppose it’s old fashioned but I think the casket should be open,” she said.
“We’ve got nothing to hide.”
“If that’s what you want,” Billy mumbled.
Casey smiled, and Celia piped, “Thought you guys might like to stay for lunch.”
“Lunches and I separated a long time ago,” Casey said.
“I have to get back to the office,” Billy added quickly, and both men drifted toward the front door.
Casey hugged Celia and nodded at Mrs. Johnson, who hadn’t moved from the spot near the fireplace.
“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about,” Celia whispered, as Billy opened the door.
“I only came back to see him one last time,” Casey said, glancing over at Mrs. Johnson.
“I know,” Celia said. “But I thought-“
“I’ll call you from Billy’s office,” Casey said.
“All right,” she agreed, and closed the door.
Billy had already started down the path and they met at the car. “Can I buy you lunch?” Casey asked.
“Yeah, and a hard-assed drink with it,” Billy said.
The Secretary dialed the number for him and he took the phone when Celia got on.
“Thanks for calling,” she said. “It’s appreciated.”
“Wanted to call before I got on the road,” he said, taking another sip of the bourbon. “Looks like thing’s got mean,” he slurred, “I’m just trying to make sense out of it like everybody else.”
He listened to her short breathing on the other end and she finally said, “He got so strange. I’d even asked for a divorce. All those letters and unanswered phone calls,” she blurted. “It went on for years.”
“What letters?” he asked.
“The one’s he wrote to you,” she said.
“I never got any letters,” he said, and listened to her breathing on the other end. “It was tough getting me during football season,” he finally added.
“He wrote you in the middle of summer, Casey.”
“His letters must’ve come in with the fan mail. I was never interested in that stuff. Autographing pictures and footballs were never my thing.” She started to cry end he wanted to hang up, but he took another slug of the bourbon and changed the subject. “My football jerseys are still selling though,” he mumbled.
“I’m sorry I bothered you,” she said, and hung up.
The dial tone hummed in his ear and he lowered the phone and then set the bottle of bourbon next to it. He should have never come back. It was the wrong play at the wrong time. Merrell didn’t exist anymore and neither did his letters because he’d burned each one as they arrived. The terrible fear of finding another one still haunted him every time he went near a mailbox.
He picked up the bottle and knew he had to get out before the funeral. It was more than just the wrong play. He’d fallen into the wrong game. The last thing he needed before a broadcast was another football player’s funeral.
Billy’s Secretary offered him a cup of coffee. He winked at her, took another sip from the bottle, and said, “Tell your Boss I’ll sleep on the bus tonight.”
She nodded and headed for the office. “He’s taking this really hard,” she said as Billy got off the phone.
“Yeah, I better get him out of here,” he mumbled. “He’s even beginning to depress me.”
“Spoken like a true linebacker,” she said.
He rolled his eyes and got up from behind the desk. “Hey, Champ…let’s you and me take a ride,” he said, and the office door closed behind them.
Parker, PA looked a lot grayer in the evening glow. Downtown stores were closing and people headed home. Billy saluted a police car and the Officer in it waved back. Casey noticed, and said, “You got this town covered.”
“It’s a living,” Billy acknowledged.
“Too bad it’s so dull.”
“Drab is the word…heading for dull. Steel plant’s gone, coal mine closed, and the rest is just rotting.”
“I wonder if anyone even notices anymore,” Casey said, staring at the passing scene of people loading groceries, and rounding up kids.
“What’d you tell Celia?” Billy asked.
“She thought you’d be able to clear up that stuff about the letters. What was in them that was so-”
“She mentioned letters but I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about…so she hung up on me.”
“Hard to believe Celia would hang up on anybody.”
“Well she did…Goddammit!”
“I believe you, Casey…it’s just that this whole thing seems to start and end with those damn letters.“
“I thought you said he was the one falling apart?”
“It’s this town that’s falling apart.”
“Yeah, an I get to bury them…one at a time.”
“Where we going, Billy?”
“Want to show you the old football field.”
“I’ve had enough of the past.”
“But this past just got a brand new electric scoreboard, artificial turf, and a new plaque.”
Casey laughed and Billy hit the gas, caught the light, and headed up the hill to the High School.
They walked past the empty dressing rooms and up through the midfield player’s entrance where Billy stopped and pointed at the wall below the stands. A brass plaque had been placed on it with Casey’s name across the top and his image in classic stiff-arm pose, with professional statistics below.
“Been up for a couple of years now,” Billy said. “Merrell pulled the string for the unveiling.”
“It should be his plaque, not mine.”
“I’ll tell the School Board you said that.”
“Tell them you’ve got an anonymous donor for Merrell’s plaque that will remind everyone about that championship season.”
“Actually, they wanted me to tell you that you’ve got a coaching job in this town whenever you want.”
“Yeah, any day now those network suits will start looking for fresh blood and better statistics than mine.”
“You’ll always be welcome back here in Parker, Casey.”
Casey looked around at the empty stands in the fading light. “Trouble is, my heart isn’t here anymore,” he said. “Merrell’s heart is…and it always was. He belongs here and not over in that cold-ass cemetery you drop people in.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This was the only place she couldn’t get at him!”
“Oh, that again.“
“Why don’t we and bury him here where he belongs?”
“Either those pills are getting to you, Big Guy, or the bourbon is. Be careful, that shit sneaks up on you. Besides, I’ll announce Merrell’s new plaque at the funeral and it’ll ease everyone’s pain a little.”
“Not Merrell’s pain! Let’s bury him right here!”
“Merrell doesn’t have anymore pain!” Billy snapped. “But I do,” Casey mumbled, and staggering out onto the field in the growing darkness with Billy trailing after him. “It happened out here, didn’t it?”
“He shot himself just about where you’re standing.”
Billy’s remark staggered Casey. He looked down at the spot and tried to hold back his cry and anger, than began to sob. “We were just kids,” he said.
“Didn’t mean a thing. He took it all so serious…as if…it was REAL…but it wasn’t REAL!”
“What wasn’t real?”
“He never let up…just kept sending those damn letters with all that crap in them!” Casey’s cry hung in the silence and Billy tried to hold him while the years rushed out in a torrent of broken words and body fluids that finally faded into pathetic whimpers in the night air.
The red-eye to Pittsburgh was late and the two men sat on the bench in silence. It finally turned the corner in a squeal of breaks and a roar. Casey got up, waited at the curb, and the door opened in a gush of air. “Thanks,” he muttered. Then the door closed and he was gone.
A few weeks later, Billy’s Secretary handed him an envelope with Chalmer’s Funeral Home, Parker, PA, scrawled across its front. There was no return address, and just a blank check in it.
“What’s that?” she asked, staring down at it.
“A check for another football plaque,” Billy said. “Anonymous donor.”