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Blake's Biggest Fan - A Short Story
Trent Mathis shuffled to the counter, his mind faraway in thought as he hoisted a case of Milwaukee’s Best onto the black rubber belt at the checkout and began counting the wrinkled bills in his pocket.
“Hey Trent,” Glenda said without looking up. She stopped the conveyor, pulling a sanatize wipe to tidy up the smear of stickiness left behind by a bag overripe grapes. Finshing her wiping and head shaking, she clicked the conveyor back to life before turning to the teenage boy tapping the silver railing of the bagging area. “D, I need a pack of Marlboro Reds." She looked to Trent for confirmation. “The reds, right Trent?
The kid--with his narrow shoulders and shaggy bangs--loafed towards the front desk, his pants drooping at the void of his backside. Glenda ran the beer over the scanner. “Big game tonight.”
"Your boy's playing well. This could be the year."
The teenager retruned with the reds, handing them over to Glenda as she mechanically scanned the box and hit a button. “18.03.”
Trent handed over a twenty, a tip from the day’s work. Stuffing the box of cigarettes into his shirt pocket, he collected his change, nodded his thanks, and gripped the box of beer as he went on his way.
"Take care Trent." ,
Unwrapping the cigarettes, Trent assessed tonight’s opponent as the Fairmont High pregame came to life in the truck. Stewart High was good, with a great defensive line, but their secondary was suspect. Blake shouldn't have any problems picking them apart.
He cranked the engine, the fan belt screeched to life as he shoved the truck into reverse and backed out. Pulling out onto the road, Trent drove between the mounds of leaves on Maple Avenue, slowing as he approached the school.
At the stoplight, he rolled down the window to absorb the glow of lights behind the brick buildings of Fairmont High. It was 7:06 pm. The cannons clapped faithfully, releasing a brilliant plume of smoke that hovered over the stands, perfuming the evening air with the sharp scent of gunpowder. Trent heard the reverberation from the loudspeaker as Gus Tillman announced the starters taking the field. He tried to imagine Blake zipping the ball to a teammate during warm-ups. But that was all he could do. He had never seen him play.
Trent tossed his head back, closing his eyes and gripping the wheel to steady his hands, remembering the day Blake came into his life.
It was summer, and Jill wasn’t due for two more weeks. Trent still remembered waking up to her calling him from the bathroom, the controlled panic in her voice, the commotion of that momentous early dawn. The trembling drive to the hospital, the whirlwind of tests, doctors, nurses. The waiting. And then, 23 hours later, Blake arrived. Tiny and purple, he announced his presence with a deafening wail.
Later that night, when all was still and Jill was asleep, he stared at his son in disbelief, unable to fathom how he had any part in creating the little miracle swathed in towels and asleep in the plastic tub.
A beep of the horn alerted him to the green light. Trent started up the road, glancing back in his rear view at the brilliant halo floating over the stadium.
Ten minutes later, he slowed on route 38, passing a row of faded mailboxes as he pulled onto the unmaintained gravel rumples of Songbird Road where he tore into the box. The first crack of the beer sent a wave of relief down his spine. He had held off until 7 o’clock on a Friday evening, a personal best for him, as the game had occupied his thoughts throughout the day. Two swollen, fulfilling gulps washed his mind of the days labor. His back screamed from the lifting. And the steps. Moving people wasn’t what he envisioned when he signed up with the labor service in town, but it seemed to be the only assignments coming his way. He crushed the empty can and tossed it to the floorboard.
His dented trailer sat on a dusty acre of forgotten land near the railroad tracks. He parked beside a parted-out riding lawn mower sitting amongst the browning pigweed and thistle and occasional clump of grass. He sat in the truck, soaking in the roar of the crowd mixing with the winding crickets in the dusk. It was game time.
Well this is the one we’ve all been waiting for folks….Blake Benson, the sensational senior quarterback leads the Fairmont offense tonight as they take on the Knights of Stewart County…
Fairmont wins the toss and elects to receive. Pat, what do you see as the key to stopping Blake Benson?
Trent chuckled to himself, plunging into the second beer. “They can’t stop you Blakey. Just play smart.”
Trent recalled bringing his son home—then a small brick ranch in town. He was working at the paper mill then, and his memory cast a pleasant hue of those early days of parenthood. Blake was a perfectly healthy 8lb bouncing boy. He and Jill stared at him for hours at a time, as though afraid to miss a breath.
His thoughts shifted to the paralyzing fear when Blake came down with his first fever. At 103 they paced, gave him a cool bath. His face was so hot, he moaned and writhed in pain. When the temperature reached 104 they called the doctor, who recommended Tylenol. Trent drove to the grocery store, found the baby Tylenol, and then stopped at the bar for a drink to calm his nerves. He needed to take the edge off, so he ordered another. And then one more.
When he arrived home, the house was dark save for the bedroom. He wasn’t drunk, yet tripping over Blake’s saucer didn’t help his case. Jill, cradling their son, glared at him with tight lipped fury.
“Where the hell have you been?”
He shook these thoughts from his mind as Blake was on a roll, picking the Stewart defense apart with precision. On second and goal from the 4, he took a bootleg around the end in for the first score of the game. Trent pumped his fist as he stoked the fire in the makeshift cinderblock fire pit in the driveway.
“Thataboy Blake. You play your game.” It may have looked odd if anyone watched these fireside chats between father and invisible son. Trent had listened to every Fairmont game for the past 3 years, without so much as missing a play. He pored over the newspaper clippings, cutting out the colorful pictures of Blake, with his arm cocked, poised to throw a strike down the field. He stared into the grainy pixels, at the eyes that were familiar to him. He saw them in the mirror everyday when he woke up.
At two years old, Blake was already hoisting a football over his head. Trent would sit on the floor and they would toss the ball back and forth. Trent marveled at his son’s knack for sports, and had promised to quit drinking after his arrest. Jill had been livid, screaming at him at the police station for drinking and driving with their son in the car. After a 30 day jail stint, probation, and a year’s suspension of his driver’s permit, he was released where he arrived home to find his clothes and other sparse belongings in water-logged boxes along the curb of the house. In the end Jill showed mercy, allowing him to see Blake every weekend under her supervision.
With the score knotted up at 7 apeice, Blake Beckman barks the signals at the line…He drops back, looks, rifles a pass over the middle to Jefferson! He’s at the 40…the 35…he’s pushed out of bounds at the 32. A pick up of 24 on the play. What an arm on this kid!
Trent hopped up and down until he was tackled by the pain shooting down his leg. He grimaced, grabbing his lower back and slugging down the beer. He lit a cigarette to calm down. He knew without being told that Blake was 5-6 with 75 yards at the end of the first quarter. Another log on the fire, another beer. His eyes danced with the flames, the crowd cheered with excitement, echoing into the night.
Blake drops back again, tosses a screen to Randolph, who has some room, he shakes a defender, there he goes….touchdown Fairmont!
"Way to read the defense boy.” As the beers took hold, Blake materialized beside him, sitting around the fire, asking questions about the game. Trent's mood alternated between self-reflection and blame, where circumstances, judges, and mostly Jill were the causes of his alienation. She had remarried years ago, and his visits with Blake dwindled from there. But he would see him tomorrow morning.
At halftime, Trent stumbled up the stairs into the trailer, ignoring the past rent notice stuck to the flimsy storm door as he flicked on the light, found his jacket and poured the last of the bourbon. If Fairmont held on, they would be in the regional playoffs, and Trent saw no need to delay the celebration.
Stoking the fire, Trent pulled on the liquor. With each sip, his son’s future climbed higher towards the twinkling stars above his head. He had committed to North Carolina, where the papers declared he could compete for the back-up quarterback position as a freshman. Trent stared into the flames, dreaming of glory and greatness, and maybe the NFL.
He couldn’t help but feel he had a hand in his son’s success. It was he who put the miniature football in his chubby hands as a toddler. And it was he who had watched the games with him on the weekend visits. He drained his glass as the announcers gabbed about the magical air swirling in the stadium. His chest warm and thumping as the second half got underway. That was his boy out there.
Fairmont will start the drive at the 23, leading 17-7 as we start the third quarter. Blake Benson has been excellent tonight…”
Trent felt a stab of jealousy at the name Benson. It should be Blake Mathis. Jill’s marriage to the asshole doctor ten years ago still stung. It wasn’t right to him that the doctor got to play dad to his son while he was a forgotten sperm donor. The doctor had swooped in and stolen his family. And now some stranger was the one to take his son camping and fishing while he broke his back while waiting by the phone for a phone call.
And the call had finally come last week. He had spent every minute thinking about his son's visit. Blake had agreed to stop by at 9 on Saturday morning before attending the UNC football game. He would only have a few minutes he had said, but Trent had counted down the days.
The November night brought a biting chill to the air as the fourth quarter waned. A train rumbled past in the distance, the metal tracks whistling under the weight of the freight. Blake and the offense were running the clock as Fairmont was in control with a 12 point lead. Trent tossed his empty can into the burning carcasses of the others in the fire.
Trent's voice was raspy and weak. He pitched the empty box into the fire, the last two beers rolling to his feet. He fell into his lawn chair, wobbly and tired yet proud and retrospective. His body was reeling but his memory was alive, flickering with images of the past. He closed his eyes under the cool blanket of the autumn sky.
Trent woke up Saturday in this bed cold and alone. His pilled sheets reeked of campfire. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, coughing as he took in the room. The small windows did little to bring daylight to the drab, wood paneled room. He stood, his stiff back and aching head fighting to a draw for his attention. Licking his cracked, chapped lips he looked in the mirror, and then to the clock. It was 11:04.
Swallowing hard, he stumbled towards the front door, looking out to the yard where is truck sat, the driver side door still flung open. Stuck to the door, beside the rent notice, a torn envelope flapped in the wind. He opened the door,snatched it from the cold, and headed for the kitchen.
He gulped down two full glasses of water, his head pounding with each swallow. Sifting through the trash on the counter for a smoke, he uncovered a crumpled pack containing a curved cigarette beneath the sports section. He took a shaky drag and then unfolded the note.
Mom always tells me that you are my father and that I should find a place in my heart to forgive you. But every time I try you give me another reason not to.
Have a good life.
He reread the note until the letters blurred through the tears, squeezing his jaw to keep his chin from quivering. And then he gasped without control, the glimpse into his miserable life brought with it gushing sobs of pain that ruptured in his chest and fell from his opened mouth. He pounded the small counter untl his fist throbbed, falling to his knees, his head pulsing and punishing him for the sudden movement. He held the phone, staring at his son's name, the name he had chosen.. Thoughts of ammends surfaced, with the work and effort such changes would require. He cursed himself for being a coward.
After a moment, he picked himself up, wiped his face with his hand, and trekked across the musty carpet of his trailer towards the dark. He fell into the safety of his bed, where nothing was expected of him, where he wouldn't have to face reality and consequence. Where he could sleep and hide and dream about the past