Offside, Otherside Sarah Salcedo
Two teams meet in a head-on collision at the line of scrimmage. A chorus of grunts and growls grind against the crunch of crashing helmets and shoulder pads, like boots skidding to a halt in gravel. Our quarterback runs backwards, his eyes trained on Number 23 in the endzone. He throws the ball, his arm arching forward, his fingers fanning out like the feathers of a wing in flight.
The crowd screams. We’re rising to our feet, roaring to drown out the thoughts of the opposing team, everyone hoping that our cheers will motivate our players alone, our breath curling upwards in the cold November night.
My heart isn’t in the cheering. I’m gripping my father’s game ball, his disdain palpable through the pebbled leather. It’s been filigreed with decades of quarterbacks’ signatures so I don’t dare set it down. When I hold it, I remember years of lectures from Dad with it looming over us on the mantle. Despite that, I force myself to continue his tradition: getting name after name signed on the ball at the game on or after every Thanksgiving.
“You will carry on my traditions,” he had said from his deathbed, enough strength left to stick his finger in my face. “People expected me there. They’ll expect my son to be there too, even if you’re not where you’re supposed to be.”
Number 23 catches the ball but is immediately tackled by the defensive corner. A lady next to me, her face painted in cardinal red and ghost white, jumps up and screams, swinging her cup and covering me in beer. I glare and she turns to me, flexing, still screaming, but this time she’s aiming her mouth up at me. She’s eaten the chili dogs, I can tell.
I’m six foot and change and I don’t feel like yelling at someone half my height. I step around her without saying anything, game ball tucked securely under my armpit like I’m about to rush out of the pocket. She yells something after me that gets swallowed up by the crowd.
The line is unusually long for the men’s room tonight. Ten people are queued up past the door, partially blocking the wood-fired pizza stand next to it. I’m transfixed for a moment by the sight of the cheese bubbling inside the brick-lined oven. I look over the women’s bathroom. At least 40 people are lined up there. It could be worse, I tell myself while I get in line. Cleaning up can’t wait for home. I’m covered with beer and worse, the game ball is wet and sticky. The most recent name on it is smeared.
Dad’ll kill me, I catch myself thinking.
I shake my head and take a deep breath. I don’t need to worry about that any longer.
The lights in the concourse flicker.
“There a storm forecast tonight?” an old man says to his friend in front of me.
“I hope so. We’re great when there’s weather. This Arizona team can’t play for shit in the rain.”
The line moves forward. I hear the crowd booing. A man behind me who’s glued to his phone informs the rest of us that we fumbled the ball.
“Our O-line’s been shit ever since they traded Andrews. Shoulda just paid him what he asked for,” the old man says. “Man deserved to get paid.”
“We picked up two corners for our bench with that money,” his friend snorts. “You don’t know nothin’.”
The air gets colder as the lights flicker again.
“You know less than nothing, you little shit,” I hear my father hiss.
I look around as I take another step forward in line. There’s nothing there.
I switch the game ball to the other arm. It feels like it’s grown colder, so cold it freezes through my jacket, my sweater, and ices the skin beneath.
I shudder and tell myself to cut it out as I step forward again, passing out of the lit concourse into the dark, tiled entrance. A dim fluorescent bulb lights the bathroom in dying leaf green from the far end of the room. The smell of woodsmoke from the nearby pizza oven and the piss from the urinals clash as I head for the sinks. I grab rough paper towel and begin cleaning off the ball.
“Hey! You’re Randall’s boy!”
A man washing his hands next to me, his breath a refinery of ethanol, nudges me as I carefully blot off the leather with a barely damp towel.
I don’t look up.
“Yeah, he was my Dad.”
“Riiiiight,” the man drawls. He’s joined by an equally drunk friend of his.“Steve, this is Randall’s boy. You know, Randall Jones?”
“No shit. Yeah, I know Randall. Best QB of the 80s.”
The first drunk man laughs and shakes his head.
“Like hell he was. But he was still ours.”
He claps me on the back. My fingers tighten on the ball, spread apart like I’m about to throw it away. I clench my jaw.
“You were a QB too, right?” he continues. “At UW? Injured your senior year and then you left the game to… what? What’d you do with your life?”
I take a deep breath. I’m still covered in beer and a headache is spreading from my left temple towards my eye.
I draw my full length up over the men. “Excuse me.”
I wet down another towel and walk toward the nearest stall.
“He just quit? Was he shit?”
“Shhh, I don’t remember. But Randall never got over it. Gave a press conference disowning his own son.”
I slam the stall door behind me.
“Don’t worry, QB Junior. Your Dad was a dick off-field,” the drunk calls after me.
“And he wasn’t that great on field,” his friend mutters as their voices fall away into the mutter of other voices, the screams of the crowd in the stadium echoing in through the passage and ricocheting off the porcelain.
I lean against the closed door and hold the football out in front of me. My entire hand covers more than half the ball. When my Dad saw my handspan as a teen, he had told me there was no question as to what I was meant to do in life. When I got my first concussion, he never doubted. He told me he was toughening me up for the field. His fists always hit harder than any team member I’d face in the years that followed.
I am holding the ball over the toilet.
What if this is something I don’t hold onto anymore? What if I just let it go, leave it for some other asshole to find, leave the legacy and expectations swirling counter-clockwise away?
The lights flicker again before going out.
With the darkness, comes silence.
I open the door. The room is empty. The air has almost crystallized from the cold. I flex my hand out of instinct but the ball, instead of falling, is frozen to my hand.
“Should be you on that field,” Dad says, his image flickering gray-green in the mirror over the sinks. He’s wearing the suit he was buried in, his desiccated jaw hanging aslant.
The pain from the cold of the game ball radiates up my arm. I try to wave it off but it’s stuck.
Dad appears behind me, translucent, rotted, now wearing the vintage uniform from his glory days.
“Let it go, Dad.”
A guttural moan rumbles from deep in his chest. The worms have been at him already. Ice spider-webs over the mirrors. He squares off against me.
“You turned your back on your legacy,” he shrieks. He rushes me. I brace for impact but he passes through, the cold seizing up my lungs as I’m flung into the sinks and mirrors. Glass splinters and breaks off around me. I wheeze, gasping for air, and drop to the floor.
I crawl to my knees and scramble into a run out of the bathroom as shards of glass fly like daggers behind me.
The concourse is as dark and empty as the bathroom. I can hear the distant screams of the stadium, but there is no one in sight. I jump over the counter of the nearest concession stand, hiding behind it.
“You shamed me,” Dad growls, his voice echoing around me.
I’m not as surprised that he’s shown up as I should be. I’ve been running from him all my life. It makes sense he’d follow me beyond the grave.
“You were supposed to follow in my footsteps. Didn’t want to risk another blow to your head or your precious academic scholarship,” he sneers. “I didn’t raise you to be weak, boy.”
The flames from the oven in the pizza stand where I’m hiding make the dark around me sharper.
“I was afraid of injury. So what? I didn’t want to get hurt again doing something that mattered more to you than it did to me.” I take a breath. “Football wasn’t what I was meant for.”
A wail echoes around me. The air grows even colder, the flames from the pizza stand grow a bit dimmer.
“But somethings are worth getting hurt for,” I say. I kneel on my right leg, bracing myself with my extended left from behind, my foot tensed against the ground, my eyes on the fire in front of me.
I see him out of the corner of my eye, moving towards me wrapped in green light. I race for the oven, my arm outstretched.
He screams “no” as I push my arm into the fire, the game ball igniting as soon as it reaches the flame. My hand releases from it. I pull away and turn. My father burns, white flames devouring his spectral corpse until there’s nothing left but his eyes, still glaring at me until they vanish.
The lights flicker and come on.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a woman says, a flour-covered apron around her waist, as she motions to the game ball burning beside a sausage, mushroom, and olive pizza.
“I am so sorry,” I fumble, reaching for words, laughing from nerves. “You know how it goes, you come here, you get drunk, you throw a ball in a pizza oven…”
She uses the paddle to reach for the burnt husk of the ball and hands it back to me, muttering under her breath about not being paid enough to deal with drunks and that this isn’t the first time this has happened.
“Here you go, dumbass.”
“I don’t want this anymore,” I say, apologizing again and placing all the money from my wallet into her tip jar.
I put the ball in the trash next to the stand.
It smolders, a few embers still glowering in the stitches. The dying screams of a man who was disappointed even in the afterlife fade as I walk away.