David Bellic had offered Bishop Clay a lifeline: eventually, whether it was a matter of weeks or months, the company would regain enough confidence to hire (or rehire) a second welder, and in the meantime, David could pay Clay a decent wage to be his personal chauffeur. It transpired that David had gotten his license suspended for three months on a “spurious” DUI charge.
“Why me?” Clay asked him.
“I want someone I know. You’ve always been a steady hand,” David said.
David told Clay to be there at 10:15 AM. It’s 10:39 when David finally steps out of his house. David hasn’t changed much in the twelve years since high school. Still tall and lean; still walking with a strut. He’s wearing designer jeans, silver-toed cowboy boots, a black Western shirt with a bolo tie, expensive sunglasses, and a goddamn Bluetooth headset jammed into his ear. Clay notices he’s holding a gift-wrapped box. When he comes into the truck, the contents of the box jingle.
“Thanks for being on time, bro,” David says, climbing into the passenger seat. Clay’s truck growls as the idled engine rouses itself.
“Where we going, bossman?” Clay asks.
“C’mon, call me Dave,” David says.
“I think I prefer ‘David,’” Clay says.
“Whatever you want, cowboy, just drive me.”
“To the plant?”
“No, not today,” David says. “We’re just running some errands.”
First they stop at a Waffle House, where David gets a cup of coffee. Next Clay drives him to David’s bank so he can deposit some checks. On the way to the bank, they drive past a public park where some kids are lining up to play a game of backyard ball. It looks a decent setup as pickup games go—seven or eight kids on each side, enough to establish real lines of scrimmage. Watching them line up, Clay remembers the pre-game nerves: the tension in his legs, the way his heart would bounce in his chest like a squirrel trapped in a cage, and the sudden, wonderful release when the first whistle blew.
“You ever think about it?” David asks. “About what could have been?”
“I try not to think about football,” Clay says.
Back in high school, Clay was one of the most fearsome nose tackles in his school’s division. It was Clay’s temper more than anything that kept him from greatness. Every team in Northwest Florida knew that the Bulldogs’ No. 7 Bishop Clay had a short fuse. He got the nickname “Color Guard” for all the flags thrown at him. David meanwhile was the quarterback for the cross-town rivals—the Eagles. He was the worst. He never said anything, but when he’d line up to take the snap, he’d give Clay a thumbs-up. That was some next-level mindgame shit.
Clay never once sacked him. If there wasn’t a penalty, the Eagles’ O-line would double-team Clay, and David would slip out of the pocket untouched. When high school ended, Florida State University recruited David as a QB, and while he was slinging passes in Tallahassee, Clay was getting his welding certification. David got hired by the plant five years after he did. It was David’s B.A. in business management from FSU that let him leapfrog Clay to the top in a matter of years.
After the bank, David gives Clay an address on a piece of paper. “Let’s get going,” David says, clapping a hand on Clay’s shoulder. Clay can’t help but compare the gesture to a man slapping a mule’s ass to send it running.
“You still with your wife?” David asks.
“Yeah. She’s seven months pregnant.”
“Boy or girl? Do you know?”
“We’re leaving it a surprise,” Clay says.
“Each time I’ve married, first thing I’ve said is ‘no kids,’” David says. “Too much hassle.”
“Mind if I turn up the radio?” Clay asks.
David says go ahead. On the radio, some fast-talker is summarizing last night’s football action, criticizing a certain quarterback for taking six sacks in a single game. Clay has always wondered what it’s like to be a skill player. To handle the ball and throw it across the field. He’d always had a good arm, but he’d been “too big” to play QB. Nowadays half the quarterbacks starting in college and pro teams are bigger than he is. Funny how football has a sense of humor like that.
“Lost good money on that game,” David says.
After about twenty minutes of driving past monotonous pine forests they come to the address. It’s in a dingy neighborhood between the regional airport and the exit to the interstate. The house is one of many nut-brown double trailer homes.
As Clay approaches the house, David puts a hand on the steering wheel. “Don’t pull into the driveway,” he says. “Park on the opposite curb.”
Clay does as asked. “The neighbor won’t mind?”
“The house is empty,” David says. “Old man who owned it died, I think. Just stay here in the truck.”
David steps out of the truck with the giftwrapped box in his hand. Between the gift and the way David rubbernecks a few times before knocking on the door, and the speed with which the door cracks half-open and a woman’s hand pulls David in by his sleeve, Clay figures out what’s happening. All he can do is groan.
The blinds of one of the house’s windows are only half drawn. Through the slits Clay can make out the rough shape of David as he strolls through the living room as if he were its rightful patriarch. A redheaded woman follows him around. David comes to the window and closes the blinds completely.
The radio has moved on to different sports, Clay listens and sweats in the heat of the afternoon. About twenty minutes have passed when a muddy truck twice the size of Clay’s roars into the neighborhood, its novelty horn blasting the tune of the Florida State Seminoles’ war chant. Clay can’t help but smile. There are two dead deer tied down in the truck bed—a doe and an eleven point buck. When the truck pulls into the driveway of the house where David is, Clay’s smile fades.
The man who gets out of the truck is broad and beefy and dressed all in camo. He takes a rifle from the truck bed and slings it on his shoulder. That this fellow doesn’t carry a rifle case or bag says a lot—and none of it good. Clay’s heart beats furiously against his rib cage. His throat goes dry. He imagines David and the woman hurrying to step back into their clothes after hearing the horn, tripping over each other and over themselves. Clay knows he could just drive off.
Instead, he leans his head out the window of the truck and calls out to the husband. “That’s a hell of a buck!”
The husband turns around and walks back to the street to get a better look at Clay. He’s got a big nose and a thick black mustache. “You sound like a man of discernment.”
Clay extends a hand out the window of his truck. “Heard it’s good luck to shake the hand of someone who bagged himself a buck.”
The husband puts the rifle back in the truck bed and crosses the street to accept Clay’s hand. “I ain’t heard the same, but it sounds more true than wrong.”
The man’s grip is crushing.
“You don’t live here, do you?” the husband says.
Clay gestures to the house behind him. “Paying my friend a visit,” he says. “He doesn’t seem to be home though.”
“When’s the last time you seen him?” the husband asks.
“Oh, a good while. Why do you ask?”
“I ask because he died,” the husband says. “Stroke, a few weeks ago.”
“Oh shit,” Clay says. “No wonder he ain’t called me.”
“Sorry to be the one to tell you,” the husband says. “You take care now.”
He turns around and starts heading back toward the house. Clay starts thinking of some other excuse to distract him, but the man stops and turns around on his own accord.
“Say, you look familiar. Did you play football? You did, didn’t you?”
“Hold on, you’re the Color Guard,” the husband says, showing a mouth of tobacco-yellow teeth. “You’re Bishop Clay.” The husband then pumps his fist and mimics a dog’s bark—a standard chant at any Bulldogs game.
Clay only nods. “Yeah. That’s me.”
“Holy shit,” the husband says, laughing. “You were a riot on the field.” As he laughs, the side window of the house behind him opens and a long, skinny blue jeans-clad leg slips out. The rest of the body doesn’t follow. The son of a bitch is stuck on something.
“I had some decent games,” Clay says, doing his best not to stare at the now thrashing leg in the window.
“Some great hits is more like it!” the husband says, coming up to take Clay’s hand from inside the truck and shake it again. “It didn’t matter if we lost the game by ten touchdowns s’long as you put someone on they ass.”
“I appreciate that,” Clay says. “Really. Been a while since anyone’s remembered those days.”
David’s leg disappears, yanked back into the house. A moment later David vaults face-first through the open window and hits the grass with a roll. He sprints to the back of the house.
“Where’d you end up playing?” the husband asks. “College, I mean.”
“I didn’t play college,” Clay says.
“Oh,” the husband says. “Jesus. I thought, well, you were so damn good.”
“Yeah,” Clay says. “It happens.”
The husband nods and turns around. “Hey, you have a good one,” he says, over his shoulder.
The husband crosses the street, gets the rifle from his truck, and heads inside. David appears from behind a house three lots down and runs for the truck. He slams the passenger door shut once inside.
“Drive,” he says.
“You got it, cowboy,” Clay says, and puts the car into drive.
Neither man talks while they drive out of the neighborhood. They don’t talk until they’re on the state highway.
“What do you reckon would happen if your wife found out?” Clay asks.
“That’s just it,” David says, slumping into his seat. “She doesn’t give a shit. She probably knows already.”
“Sounds like you got this life thing figured out,” Clay says.
David glares at him. “I’m paying you to drive, not judge.”
“Way I figure, I’ve already done something you ain’t paying me for.”
David considers this in silence. “What do you want, Clay?” he asks after a while.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” Clay says. “Unless you’d prefer working something out with the big fella with the big rifle.”
“No, I think we can come to some arrangement, you and me,” David says.
“Good,” Clay says.
“Son of a bitch,” David mutters.
Funny—that’s the first time Clay can remember David not talking down to him.
On the way to David’s house, they pass the park again. The same kids as before are still there, knocking each other around and tossing the ball while the afternoon sun beads like molten gold on the leaves of the oak trees.
Clay nudges David. “Hey, let’s see if they’ll let us play with them.”
“You kidding me?”
Clay pulls up on the side of the road. “I ain’t joking,” he says. “It could be fun.”
“You’re talking crazy.”
“C’mon, how long has it been?” Clay asks. “Don’t you want to see if you still have it?”
“I know I still have it,” David answers, quickly.
The two men walk to where the kids are playing. As they approach, Clay murmurs to David, “Don’t worry, they only look like they’re three times as fast as us.”
The kids are skeptical at first. They’re from the local junior college, and they seem to think that Clay and David are in their 40s, not 30s. One team takes Clay quickly owing to his size, while the other team is swayed by David pulling up on his phone an old photo of himself in Seminole gear.
The two teams line up, Clay back in his familiar place at the nose, David behind center to take the snap. David, having seemingly never missed a beat in all the years, executes a perfect draw through the passing lane. A few snaps later, he throws a clean spiral into the endzone (the space between a public water fountain and a pine tree) and the kids on his team line up to clap his back while Clay sweeps the grass from his shirt.
“Just like old times, eh amigo?” David says.
“There’s always next drive,” Clay says.
The ball’s snapped. Clay sheds a blocker and drives right for David. Here’s No. 7 Bishop Clay with his arms around the dynamic and electric David Bellic. Here’s Clay throwing Bellic down.
And the ball comes loose. No. 7 Clay scoops it up. Now the big man’s got the ball high and tight. By God, the big man’s marching. Look at him go. His knees feel like they’re about to pop from their sockets, but Bishop Clay’s marching with nothing but green grass in front of him.