Out of Season

geeseRed, orange and gold leaves swirled in tight circles and the sky was dotted with low-flying water fowl and high-flying footballs on that cool fall Friday evening.  Thanks to a dry summer and even drier fall, there was very little turf left on the field, and Gray and his fellow officials toed at the dust and watched it spin high into the wind as they waited for the game to begin.

Gray was more pensive than usual about this game.  Since his crew had not been selected to work the upcoming playoffs, this was going to be their last game of the season.  That, coupled with the assumption that a blowout was imminent, made it difficult for Gray to get focused.

The home team, North Jefferson, hadn’t won a game in over two years.  Their opponent that night was their perennially obnoxious neighbor and defending 2A state champion, South Jefferson.  In the last decade and a half, this “rivalry” game had devolved into nothing more than an annual massacre of the beleaguered boys from the less-fortunate northern sections of the county.  For most of the ‘70s and ‘80s, North Jeff had been every bit the equal of South Jeff, and this game usually decided the conference championship and frequently eliminated the loser from playoff contention.  Fights were fought, bets were won and lost, and hard feelings were hardened even more over this annual contest among young men.

But a succession of misfortunes had crippled the economy and dampened the spirit of the folks in the north.  The closing of the appliance factory in nearby Springville, the estate sales of many of the long-time family farms, and the tornado that leveled almost half of Rock River, were the recent major events that convinced many residents to move to larger, more prosperous cities in the state.

The football team suffered most of all, and the once-mighty North Jeff Vikings had become a sad gridiron joke. Being a part of another chapter in this story was not the way Gray and his crew wanted to end their season.

Thirty minutes before kickoff, the South Jefferson fans had already arrived en masse and were filling their half of the small, sad stadium.  For many years they had complained about the rickety, splintered set of bleachers on the visiting side, but the North administration had neither the money nor the desire to do anything about them.  So the South fans made it an annual ritual to arrive early for this game and encircle the stands with caution tape and post huge homemade signs – clearly visible to the fans on the home side – with slogans like “Condemned,” “Hazard-ass,” and “Danger: Do Not Sit, Climb or Stand Here.”  North was powerless to do anything about this affront, since the Jefferson County sheriff and both of his deputies were former standouts at and current staunch supporters of the South Jeff juggernaut.

As head linesmen, Gray would be on that sideline packed tight with players and fans from end zone to end zone all night.  While South Jeff fans were legendary for their braggadocios chants and taunts aimed at their opponents’ players and fans, he felt – given how this game would surely transpire – that they would have very little reason to give him a hard time.  He was wrong.

As they received the opening kickoff, the much bigger, much faster South Jeff boys mowed down the oncoming Vikings and easily escorted the ball carrier into the end zone untouched.  But during the return, Gray saw something he couldn’t let go – a low, hard block by a South Jeff player aimed right at his opponent’s knees – and he tossed his penalty flag high into the air.  He reported the infraction to Stan, the referee, and as Stan signaled the penalty, the crowd erupted on Gray.  In his five years as an official, Gray had become used to the occasional verbal taunts, complaints and whining from fans and coaches, but nothing could have prepared him for the verbal assault the South Jeff contingent unleashed on him.  He couldn’t pick out complete phrases; it was more just an onslaught of individual harsh words and profanity hitting his ears one after the other.   Gray did his best to ignore the insults as he took his place on the sideline in front of the South Jeff bench, but he had to launch his flag again when an assistant coach suggested that his call had originated in the intestines of a horse.  As he reported the unsportsmanlike conduct foul to Stan, the rest of the crew joined them in the middle of the field.

“Nice job flagging that,” said Mack, the umpire.  “They’ll shut their holes now.”

But as Stan signaled the penalty and Mack started marching off another chunk of yardage against South Jeff, the crowd’s wails and howls made the reaction to the first penalty sound like a mild protest.

“Maybe not,” Mack smiled and said as he set the ball down at the five yard line.

Evan, the back judge, also chimed in with a light comment for some moral support.  “Hey, I think you brought rain with that flag!”

Gray was legendary – among his crew, anyway – for how high he threw his penalty flag.  This wasn’t a conscious attempt on his part, and most of the time he didn’t even realize how high a flag went until someone mentioned it. But Gray surmised it was just a combination of adrenaline and a strong snap of the wrist that sent his flag soaring on the occasions he had to throw one.

Sure enough, Gray noticed that it had begun raining as he took up his post again, and the crowd continued to pound him with a varying degree of slights and slurs even as they were carting the victim of the low block off the field on a stretcher. The assault only diminished when the first meager drops of rain quickly turned into a torrential downpour. As he looked over his shoulder and saw the South crowd getting drenched – some scurrying for what little cover there was – he was glad he had thrown his flag that high.

The field that had been covered in dust only minutes before was already slick with a thin layer of mud by the time South Jeff ran their first play. As their quarterback executed a perfect fake handoff and ran seemingly into the clear around the left end behind a mammoth blocker, they slipped simultaneously, went to the ground with sloppy thuds, and skidded about three yards – with no North players even in the vicinity. A sure touchdown was turned into a one-yard gain by the impenetrable defense known as Mother Nature.

The rest of the first half went much the same way as the condition of the field worsened with every play. The high-powered South Jeff offense was no match for the buckets of wind-whipped rain and the thick, slick mire that the field had become. The Vikings couldn’t move the ball either, but it was really no different for them than any other game. They botched a couple of punts and fumbled several times, like usual, but South Jeff was powerless to take advantage. The South Jeff frustration reached a pinnacle on the last play of the first half when, looking like they were finally going to punch in a touchdown, their star running back fumbled the grimy ball away on the Vikings’ one-yard line.

As Gray and his crew ran off the field into the locker room, they were pelted with still more abuse from the South side that hit them harder than the driving rain, even though they hadn’t thrown a flag since the opening kick.

“I guess they think you really did make it rain with that flag,” Evan joked with Gray.

As rainwater dripped steadily from the brims of their caps and mud oozed from their cleats onto the concrete floor, the crew conversed briefly in the locker room about what to do about the second half. Their knowledge of the rules regarding unplayable conditions once a game was under way was admittedly vague. They decided that they probably did have the power to postpone the game if there was a danger to players, but while conditions were certainly miserable, they determined that the second half should be played.

By the time everyone was on the field for the second half, the rain had diminished to a gentle shower, but the damage was done. The field was pocked with deep divots made by large young men smacking face- and backside-first into the muck, and spotted with small, brown pools of rainwater. Only a few splotchy, white remnants of the field markings were visible.

The South Jeff kicker slipped as he kicked off the second half and created a new crater as he splashed down on his back at the 40 yard line. The ball barely made it over the first line of Viking players and stuck nose down into the mud at a perfect 90 degree angle about five yards into North territory. A maelstrom of players and mud that resembled a pen full of hogs battling for their first breakfast after the apocalypse ensued. Gray and the crew moved in and surrounded the pile of flying mud and bodies, but, well-versed in the golden rule of officiating to never blow your whistle unless you see the ball – no one did. And this ball was going to take a while to find.

Gray, Mack, Stan and Evan all moved into the pile and started trying to pull players back. In the confusion, Gray happened to look up and saw that Dave, the line judge on the opposite side of the field, was slowly backing up and moving away from the pile. He briefly made eye contact with Dave and realized that he knew something that everyone – almost everyone – didn’t know. Gray then followed the direction of Dave’s eyes and saw what appeared to be the ball – or was it just a clump of mud? – sitting in a puddle about 35 feet away from the scrum toward the North bench.   The largest Viking on the field, number 77, slowly moved toward it, picked it up, and cleverly wedged it between his right arm and hip to shield it from the pile and from the South Jeff bench, and started walking toward the end zone. As he took his first few steps, only he, Dave, and Gray could see what was going on, but then a few players on the Viking sideline noticed and started whispering to other players and the coaches. Soon everyone on the that sideline, who had all been screaming just seconds before, were now completely silent watching the ball carrier, careful not to divulge the secret with any kind of cheering. A few people in the stands began to notice, and as word spread, the entire Viking contingent went eerily silent.

No one on the chaotic South side noticed as number 77 and Dave walked slowly toward their end zone. Coaches were screaming at their players to find the ball, players were screaming at themselves, “Where is it! Where is it!” and fans were screaming at the officials to “Blow your ‘blanking’ whistle!” A South Jeff player emerged from the pile screaming, “I got it! I got it!” and held aloft a large muddy object. Everyone on the South side started cheering, but as it became evident that the prize was only someone’s size 13 shoe, Dave’s shrill whistle pierced the night and he threw up his arms to signal a touchdown. Number 77 held up the ball in the South Jeff end zone and the North side erupted. Everyone on the South Jeff side went into stunned silence for a few seconds before the fans began their violent, vocal protest.

Gray knew he’d have trouble explaining this one to the South coach, but he walked over and did his best. The ball was never dead; a North player picked it up unseen and walked it into the end zone; touchdown. To Gray’s surprise, the coach didn’t even offer an argument, but only stood silent for a moment and then asked, “Are you sure?” The South fans, however, continued in their vehement disagreement with the ruling, peppering Gray with a wide array of insults. Gray had had enough, so he tossed his flag high into the air and said to the coach, “I’m flagging your fans for unsportsmanlike conduct,” not even sure if he could legally do that. The coach shoved his way through his players and into the crowd that was now pushing their way even closer to the sideline. “Shut up!” he shouted. “Shut the hell up!” Some did; some didn’t; but Gray appreciated the effort.

The Vikings failed on their two-point conversion attempt, but with a 6-0 lead on an almost unplayable field, the undeniable underdogs suddenly had control of the game. With the benefit of the 15-yard penalty, they were able to pin South Jeff deep in their own end on the ensuing kickoff. The conditions thwarted the frustrated South Jeff team on that drive, and continued to do so for the rest of the third quarter. Switching sides for the fourth quarter did nothing to help. The entire second half was played in South Jeff territory. Punting was out of the question for either team, so both sides ran four sloppy, fruitless plays and turned the ball over to the other. That pattern, mixed with a few fumbles, repeated itself several times as the clock gradually wound down. With the ball carriers only able to take slow, choppy, unsure strides before being taken down in sloppy heaps, another score looked almost impossible, and what might be the biggest upset in state high school history was starting to look like a possibility.

The noise and tension on both sides of the field grew as the game wound down. The North side was screaming ecstatically as they sensed a true football miracle was about to occur. The South fans were aghast at the abomination that they were witnessing, while the players’ frustration was boiling over. The South head coach tried to calm them as best he could as he called his team over after their last time out with just 11 seconds to go in the game. Gray stood close to the huddle in order to hear the call so he would be prepared. The play was going to be a reverse toward his side of the field, so he would be sure to stay back on the sideline and not get in the way.

Gray never knew there could be so much noise from just a few hundred people, but the din that erupted as both teams came to the line for the last play was electrifying. Maybe his crew wouldn’t get a playoff game this year, but this was better.

The play developed perfectly for South Jeff. The quarterback pitched the ball to the tailback, who headed around the right side of the line. Most of the Viking defense followed him, and many of them slipped and fell as they tried to stop when they saw the handoff to the split end, number 11, who came trudging toward Grays’ side of the field with the ball. As he turned the corner around his left tackle, the ball carrier had nothing but 76 yards of thick mud and treacherous puddles between himself and a tie game.

He took short, quick and careful steps through the slop and kept his head forward and eyes focused on the end zone. The Viking defenders that were still standing began pursuit when they noticed the trickery, but almost all of them had slipped and fallen by the time number 11 had reached midfield. Only one Viking, number 6, had a chance to catch him, and mud was flying from his cleats in his desperate pursuit. Gray slogged along about ten yards behind the ball carrier along the eroded sideline, and watched as the gallant Viking player slowly gained ground on the ball carrier. Near the North 25 yard line, just as it looked like he was going to catch the runner, number 6 began to lose his footing. He made a desperate lunge, and as his left arm slid down the ball carrier’s back, his right hand briefly grabbed his face mask. By the time Gray lofted his flag for the offense, number 6 had gone face first into the muck and the South Jeff runner continued toward the end zone. The players were leaping and screaming with joy and the fans were unleashing their pent up frustration with excited howls of happiness and relief.

But the cheers quickly turned into a collective gasp, then painful groans as something very large came crashing out of the sky right in front of number 11. With no way to avoid the object, he tripped over it, splashed down at about the 10 yard line, and slid to about the three. There was no time left on the clock as Gray blew his whistle and waved his hands over his head. He stood at the spot where the ball carrier first hit the ground and looked back at the object that had fallen from the sky. There was a large, mangled Canadian goose twisted into the mud.

The North fans were screaming joyfully and the players started pouring onto the field and giving each other muddy hugs. Gray gave his whistle loud, short bursts to signal the crew that he had thrown a flag.

Mack had caught up to the play and was in the middle of the field looking toward Gray. Gray yelled over to him, “Spot the ball!” as he pointed to his feet. Evan retrieved the ball from a disgusted and perplexed number 11 and tossed it to Mack, who then set it down at the 10. The South Jeff coach yelled, “What is it? What’s the call?” as Gray carefully ran to the middle of the field to convene with the crew.

“What do you have?” Stan asked calmly.

“Well, I have a 5-yard facemask on the defense,” Gray explained, “and I have a goose over there that gave its life for a tackle!”

“That was a goose?” Mack asked. “I saw something, but – what the…”

Evan laughed as he blurted, “Gray, you hit it with your flag! There were five or six flying over and you took one out – hit it right in the head and, BAM – it came straight down!”

Everyone laughed except Gray, who merely shook his head and said, “Uh, uh. Couldn’t have.”

“Yes!” confirmed Evan.

“Well, I have seen it all now,” said Mack. “I thought that goat crapping in the end zone during the Cedar Junction game last year was it. But – killing a goose with a penalty flag?”

“Dropped it like a rock!” said Evan, who couldn’t quit laughing. “Gray and his mortar shell flag!”

Even Gray had to laugh.

“Maybe this is a bad time to ask this, Evan,” Stan interjected, “but what were you doing looking up in the air?”

“I fell on my ass! Didn’t you see me?”

Everyone laughed again, but then quickly tried to stifle the mirth when the South Jeff coach started marching toward them screaming, “What is the freaking call, guys?”

Stan held up his hand to halt him and said firmly, “Just a second, coach.”

The North players were still celebrating, but the coaching staff had noticed the flag and was trying to get them back on the sideline.

“Alright, so this game isn’t over,” said Stan, trying to get everyone re-focused. “The ball’s on the 10, so we’re going to assess the penalty and spot it on the five and play one untimed down.”

“We should probably flag North for excessive celebration,” said Dave, sounding like he didn’t really want to do it.

“Well, we’re not going to. They thought the game was over,” said Stan, and he turned to Gray and added, “If the coach gives you any crap about it, I’ll talk to him.”

As Stan signaled the penalty against North, the South side cheered wildly, yet still managed to mock the officiating with various sarcastic shouts like “’Bout time, zebra!” and “Hey, you finally got one right!” aimed at Gray. In contrast, the North fans offered no complaints, only groans of disappointment.

As Gray trotted sloppily back toward his position, he was a little stunned to see the Jefferson County sheriff and one of his deputies standing over and looking down at the expired goose. As Gray approached them, the sheriff said, “It ain’t huntin’ season yet.” Gray laughed at the apparent joke, but ceased immediately when the men raised their heads and sent icy stares right through him. Another deputy walked up to the scene with a large, plastic bag and started to stuff the bird in.

“Nope. Goose season starts tomorrow,” the first deputy said ominously.

“Well…thanks for picking up the bird,” was the only reply Gray could think of. The lawmen eyed Gray as they moved away from the field slowly and silently. Gray felt the six eyes burning on his back as he turned toward the field for the next – and hopefully last – play of the game.

The South Jeff quarterback conferred briefly with his coach, slogged to the huddle and called the play. As both teams approached the line of scrimmage, the din rose. The North fans had recovered from the call that extended the game and were screaming wildly for their boys to hold the line one more time. The South fans countered with even louder urgings for their side to push the ball across the goal line.

The center snapped the ball to the quarterback, perhaps earlier than he expected, because the ball hit his hands and dropped straight to the ground. Both lines smashed into each other with muddy thuds and the quarterback went to one knee, grabbed the ball off the ground, and quickly pitched it back to his tailback. The big runner moved faster than anyone had all game long around the right side of the line away from Gray. The North Jeff defenders went down in heaps from the force of the renewed South Jeff blockers and the tailback scored easily.

At first, only the North Jeff coach noticed Gray running toward the middle of the field and frantically waving his hands over his head, and he was pointing and yelling, “Wait! Wait!” As the South Jeff players celebrated the apparent tying score, Gray’s repeated whistle blasts were finally audible over the cheering, which then died down quickly.

Stan ran up to Gray and asked, “What do you have?”

“The quarterback’s knee was on the ground while he had possession of the ball,” Gray explained. “He was down. I killed the play but nobody heard my whistle.”

The rest of the crew had gathered around Stan and Gray.

“Okay. So you have him down?” Stan confirmed. “Before he pitched it?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. He’s down at the six. No touchdown. Game over.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, or at least in moral support of the decision that was sure to unleash hell.

The entire congregation had gone silent in anticipation of the result of the official’s brief summit. Stan wisely decided to call the coaches together on the field to tell them what happened instead of making his announcement to the crowd. The South coach offered no argument; he had seen the same thing Gray had; while the young North coach tried to conceal his excitement for the moment. After the quick meeting, Stan suggested, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and the crew ran as quickly as conditions would allow toward their locker room. As they were just leaving the field, simultaneous screams of joy and fury erupted as both coaches announced the news to their respective sidelines. The officials quickened their pace to the locker room; stumbling; sliding; hopping their way to the door. They whipped it open and shoved their way in so fast that Gray and Mack slipped on the hard floor and went down.

None of the others had the energy to even laugh at them, but Dave asked, only half-joking, “Does that door lock?” Gray and Mack pulled themselves off the floor and joined the others on the long wooden bench in front of the green metal lockers, and everyone sat in dazed silence for a moment.

Stan confirmed what they were all thinking, “Well, that wasn’t pretty. But we got it right.”

Everyone nodded, and Mack added, “Yep. And I, for one, am glad that’s over.”

Then everyone looked toward the door as the North Jeff athletic director had burst in and said, “It’s not over yet, I’m afraid.”

“Steve. What’s up?” Stan asked.

Steve, the long-time coach of the Vikings in the glory days who was now “semi-retired” and the interim AD, was breathing hard, and had an expression on his face that was part exhilaration and part distress. “The sheriff…and his deputies. They’re looking for you,” he said as he pointed at Gray.

“Me? Why?” Gray laughed, just a little.

“They’re going to arrest you for killing that bird. Goose season starts tomorrow.”

“You mean, like in two more hours?” Mack asked sarcastically.

“Yes! I heard them down on the field. They’re coming this way.”

The crew looked at each other in disbelief for a moment, and then Gray laughed nervously and said, “Come on! They can’t do that. You’re kidding, right?”

“I’m not kidding – and those guys can do pretty much anything they want in this county,” said Steve. “They’re looking for you.”

Stan suggested, “Maybe we’d better just go.”

“Definitely!” Steve said. “Where are you parked?”

“The east lot,” said Mack.

“Grab your stuff and let’s go. We’ll take the shortcut.”

The crew grabbed their street clothes and shoes out of their lockers and stuffed them in their duffle bags, not even bothering to zip them as they threw them over their shoulders.

“Follow me,” said Steve.

“Gladly,” said Mack.

“Yeah, I didn’t bring enough cash for bail money,” Evan said as he elbowed Gray, who could only manage a fake laugh and a smile.

Dave tried to keep things light as well, and added, “Don’t worry. If they start gaining on us, Gray can just chuck that killer flag at them.”

They all laughed, quietly, and Stan said, “Hell, let’s all get our flags ready. We’ll hit them rapid fire!”

They chuckled again as Steve led them out a door on the opposite side from where they had entered the locker room into a long hallway. They took a right turn, then a quick left, occasionally looking over their shoulders, and made their way through a large, dark room that must have been the cafeteria. Steve pointed at a door that had a red “exit” light over it and said, “Right over here.” They went through the door and Mack’s minivan was right in front of them.

“Hey, that was a helluva shortcut,” said Mack as he opened the tailgate. As they threw their gear into the back, he added, “And this, boys, is why I always back into the parking space – to facilitate a quick getaway.”

“I never thought we’d actually need one,” said Gray.

“Yeah, Mack,” said Stan, “we’ll never give you crap about it again. Let’s go.”

“Just keep your heads low,” Steve suggested. “They may be right behind us.”

They waved at Steve and thanked him quietly as they piled in. Mack started the engine, stepped hard on the gas pedal, and pulled the minivan out of the parking lot onto a gravel road. At the end of the road, just as they were turning onto the highway, Mack said “Get down! There they are.” The passengers got below window level and Mack dipped as low as he could, eyes fixed on the rear view mirror. “They just walked out the door we came out of.” He hit the gas, but not too much to draw attention, and carefully looked back over his shoulder. “They don’t see us. We’re home free.”

“Yep. They’re clueless,” added Dave, who had been peeking out the back window the whole time.

“I’ll feel better when we hit that county line – what, about 15 miles?” asked Gray.

“What’s the matter?” said Stan as he slapped Gray on the back, “Don’t want to go to jail tonight?”

“Well, I am dressed for it, I guess,” said Gray, pulling on the collar of his striped shirt. “But – no.” Gray took one last look over his shoulder, and, satisfied that he was not going to jail, turned back around and pondered aloud, “Do you think if this would have happened tomorrow that I would have gotten to keep that goose?”

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The Day Madison Avenue Went Too Far

Madison Avenue

NOTE: This is a story from my vaults. A couple of the references will seem dated – like Hillary Clinton running for the U.S. Senate, for example.

The first indication for Chase that the world was inherently evil came in his teens. A television commercial featuring beautiful, tanned Californians smiling, surfing, playing volleyball and quaffing numerous soft drinks, all while the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” played in the background, struck him adversely.

“That’s a great song. A classic,” Chase bemused. “Why would they cheapen it in the name of orange soda?”

As he noticed such offenses to pop music becoming more frequent in advertising, Chase came to understand “why,” quit asking the question and merely shrugged off the transgressions in mild disgust. During a long, late night channel scan, he even learned that the phenomenon was not new, when he happened upon Frankie Avalon singing and shaking with a few bikini-clad hotties while Annette Funicello sat fuming behind a table of freshly consumed and well-placed bottles of Dr. Pepper.

“It’s just one small price to pay for life in a capitalist society,” Chase thought. “I bet they don’t even have Dr. Pepper in China.”

The marketing assaults on his musical senses during the ‘80’s were particularly offensive, but the strange and plastic times had made Chase immune to the likes of Whitney Houston vending herself for Coke or the Jacksons pimping for Pepsi. But Chase’s sadistic side dredged up a wicked chortle when he learned that some bad pyrotechnics had set Michael’s prodigious and highly-flammable gerry-curls ablaze in the filming of a commercial gone wrong.

The mindless attempts at selling high-dollar items to Baby Boomers with hits from the “Summer of Love” meant nothing to Chase. He expected no less from a generation that sold themselves faster than a $20 whore to be a part of the same establishment that they had “rebelled” against. If some formerly long-haired yuppie was moved to purchase a Buick by the strains of the Mamas and the Papas, what did Chase care?

Chase watched as mainstream country music got into the act after the Garthinazation of America, and everything from pickups to blue jeans were sold to the soundtrack of every Tom, Dick and Billy Bob who had a hit in Nashville. Chase was disgusted, but unfazed.

But everything changed that cold winter day during a time-out in some forgotten college basketball game. Chase had mis-timed the length of the break during his normally flawless channel flipping and arrived back at the game one commercial early. The beat was unmistakable. The drone of the bass, the buzzsaw guitar and the singular vocal chant were all too familiar. It was the Ramones. On a beer commercial.

The 30-second spot lasted for days. Chase couldn’t shake it. He laughed, he cried, he pondered the very meaning of life. And finally he reasoned, “Hey, I love the Ramones, and I love beer. I’ve consumed them both simultaneously many times. Why shouldn’t two great and powerful things be brought together in such a way?”

Deep down he knew he was merely justifying a terrible wrong, but he managed to let it go.

Chase’s nimble remote control zapping thumb helped him avoid the appalling spot over the remainder of basketball season. He had almost forgotten the incident completely until the day he had misplaced his remote and was sitting through an arduous springtime baseball game.

He was powerless to move from the seemingly harmless commercial as it began to roll, and when he heard the first few bars of music and watched the mixture of long- and short-haired new youth partying poolside, he was struck with the same petrified amazement he had experienced only months before. And as the tune became ominously familiar, he looked up at his stereo and hoped it had magically come on by itself. It hadn’t, and he realized that the omnipotent Meat Puppets were now selling beer also. One offense Chase could forget, but two such crimes of this proportion was more than he could stand. Madison Avenue had gone too far. Now they were into his record collection.

“Okay, okay,” he thought in panic. “I’ll protest. Yeah, I’ll show ‘em. I’ll quit listening to the Ramones, the Meat Puppets…hell, all punk rock! Yeah! And I’ll quit drinking beer. Forever!”

Even in his frenzied stupor, he quickly realized both things would be completely impossible.

So Chase decided there was no recourse but to visit Madison Avenue and find the people responsible. He wasn’t sure what he would do when he found them; scream them down, slap them around, drive stakes through their hearts, or a combination of all three things; but he knew he had to find them. He found Madison Avenue on a Des Moines street map and was surprised to see that it was in a part of town he knew fairly well.

“I wonder why I’ve never seen any of those assholes over there before?” Chase thought.

He hopped into his trusty red and dented car and drove to Madison Avenue. He went up and down the street a few times and saw nothing unusual; nice houses, kids playing in well-kept yards and hail damage. Finally Chase pulled the car over, rolled down his window and asked a man who was taking his trash cans to the curb, “Isn’t this Madison Avenue?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where are all the advertising agencies?”

“Well, Ed over there in 1314 does some freelance work at home on his computer, but I believe you’re thinking of the Madison Avenue in New York City.”

With a wave of his hand and a quick “Thanks,” Chase was off. He pulled into the first gas station he saw, filled up his tank and drove to New York. The Madison Avenue in New York was a little tougher to find than the one in Des Moines, but once he got there, Chase was madder than ever. Twenty-two straight hours in the now smoking, hissing red car had not lessened his resolve for finding the people behind the commercials that had worked him into this agitation. The zipping yellow cars and darting bicyclists distracted Chase to the point that he could not look for signs on the tall buildings, so he pulled his car over and got out amidst the horns, shouts, profanity and middle fingers of the New York throng. A white t- shirt amidst a teeming mass of dark suits and briefcases, Chase did not know where to look first.

Then he had a flashback to an old job. Chase had sold newspaper advertising for a short time years before, and a superior had once told him that the first thing any business person ever notices about other business types is their shoes. Looking down at his own tattered, black high tops, he finally understood why he had never made it in the world of advertising sales.

So Chase decided to find the best looking pair of shoes on the street, follow them, and take the slim chance that they would lead him to an ad agency. It was a tough choice. The sidewalk was a bountiful sea of black and brown gleaming leather. Chase could hardly focus on any one pair as the hurried mass of humanity bustled in all directions. He was almost completely awash in soles, heels and laces when he caught sight of the most beautiful pair of shoes he’d ever seen. They were about ten feet ahead of him and moving away quickly, but Chase kept up with them by matching the hustle and rudeness of the mob.

As he gained ground on the shoes, he realized he had made the correct choice. The black wingtips were so clean and polished to such perfection that they seemed to reflect everything around them. The laces were tied tightly and neatly and did not move, despite the incredible pace of the owner. The 1/2″ heels gave off a rhythmic and sonorous clack each time they hit the pavement, and had no sign of even the slightest scuff. This had to be somebody wearing these shoes, though Chase did not even bother looking up past the neatly pressed cuff in the owner’s black, pinstriped wool pants to see who it was.

Chase was getting winded about five blocks into the chase when the shoes opened and walked briskly through some gleaming glass doors on a building so tall that Chase could barely see the top. Chase followed the shoes in and onto a crowded elevator. His eyes never wavered from the perfect shoes as the elevator ascended, and he followed them without thinking as they exited about four stops into the ride. The shoes took a sharp left turn out of the elevator and strode down a long, wide hallway at the same, swift pace they had been traveling on the sidewalk below. Somewhat fatigued, Chase followed them and watched as they went through a brown door at the end of the hall. As Chase approached the door he noticed a sign that said “Acme Advertising.”

“This is pretty lucky,” Chase thought to himself.

As Chase walked in, there was a nice-looking, middle aged woman seated behind a desk to greet him.

“Can I help you?” she smiled and said with a pleasant, perky tone.

Chase was slightly winded as he replied, “I’m looking for the guy who made the beer commercials that had the great music. You know, the Meat Puppets and the Ramones?” Chase was sure he hadn’t explained the situation completely and fully expected to have to try again.

“Oh, sure!” said the woman enthusiastically. “Those were very popular spots. Mr. Mulyar was in charge of those. He’s in the first office on the right.”

“This is very lucky,” Chase thought to himself. “Can I speak with him?” he asked.

“Sure! Go on in!”

Chase thanked the lady and walked toward Mr. Mulyar’s office. A million things raced through his mind. He had reached the end of his quest, but what was he going to do? What was he going to say? He had no answers, but knocked on the door anyway.

“Come in!” a voice inside beckoned enthusiastically.

Chase flung open the door, took one long step inside the office and stared long and hard at the tanned, slightly graying and impeccably-dressed 40-something executive.

“Hi! I’m Marty Mulyar. What can I do for you, son?” The man spoke to Chase as if he was trying to sell him a car, but Chase was at least pleased with his graciousness. Chase struggled for words but finally asked, “Can I see your shoes?”

Despite the strange request, Mr. Mulyar stepped from behind his desk to reveal shoes that were blacker, shinier and even more perfect than the pair he had followed. The hours and miles had taken their toll on Chase and his anger had given way to a subdued disillusionment. “How could you do it?” he asked earnestly while shaking his head.

“Do what, son?”

“The commercials – with the Ramones and the Meat Puppets. Why did you use those songs?”

“Did you like those spots?” Mr. Mulyar asked excitedly. “Man, that music! It’s not really my bag, but it really seemed to reach the kids.”
“Screw the kids. That’s my music,” uttered Chase with pained passion.

“Yeah, and it really moves the beer, baby!” Mr. Mulyar was unaffected by Chase’s emotion, and, sensing this, Chase got a little more irritated.

“Sure. Sure. But where does it end?” Chase asked rhetorically as he threw up his hands. “How much more great music gets abused? What song is next…” Chase hesitated a moment in hopes of coming up with something to appall the executive, and he finally blurted, “Too Drunk to F***?’”

Mr. Mulyar’s face lit up and he asked eagerly, “’Too Drunk to Fuck?’ Is that a real song?”

Chase was disappointed by Mr. Mulyar’s complete lack of umbrage at his suggestion, and said simply, “Yeah, by the Dead Kennedys.”

“Terrific! We’re working on some PSA’s for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Of course, we’d have to replace the f-word with “drive,” but that might be a perfect song!”

“You’re kidding,” Chase said, displeased and in disbelief.

“No, no! Sit down son! What’s your name and what other songs do you know?” Still stunned, Chase shook Mr. Mulyar’s hand, told him his name and sat down in the chair that Mr. Mulyar had just pulled up for him. He was disappointed that he had not offended the ad man, but he was undeterred in his attempt to make some deep, philosophical contention, although even Chase was becoming a little unclear on what this contention was.

“Well, there’s ‘Slip it In’ by Black Flag.”

“Great!” said Mr. Mulyar more excited than ever. “WD 40 is a product of one of our clients! What else? What else?”

Chase could see he was losing this battle, but thought hard for a moment and came up with the most offensive song title he knew.

“How about the classic by a little combo called Fang; ‘Destroy the Handicapped.’” He was sure he had finally made some kind of a point.

“Hmm,” Mr. Mulyar hesitated, then blurted out, “Hey, we do some work for the MDA! ‘Employ the Handicapped!’”

By the end of the week Chase was working for Mr. Mulyar at the rate of $150,000 a year. Over the next 11 months, Chase exploited, mangled and mutated a good portion of his record collection to sell everything from toothpaste to acne medicine. Chase was asked to handle the campaigns of all of the company’s clients that were looking to tap into the market of the young and hip, and his record collection was the key. Chase had always contended that these records, formerly reviled by the masses, would some day be appreciated and revered, but he never imagined it would be like this. Favorite bands that had never had a sniff of radio airplay were now being heard by millions, clients were selling as much product as they could make, and Chase was making a handsome living at a job that was as easy to him as dropping a needle on a turntable.

But it all ended for Chase as quickly as it had begun. Mr. Mulyar had been a college friend of Hillary Clinton, and she had asked him to brainstorm some ideas for her campaign for the presidency. When Chase suggested Motorhead’s “Love Me Like a Reptile” as a theme song, he was asked to leave and to never come back. Chase currently lives in Mesquite, TX, where he owns and operates a fish market, a place where he sells his sole every day without a guilty conscience.

Three Seconds

violations_3“Three seconds!”

The words rang off the hard walls of the small, musty gym and into Jerry’s ears. Several folks on the home-side bleachers had passionately demanded that he make a call for that particular violation most of the night. So had many fans of the visiting team, who were sitting on the opposite side of the gym. In fact, Jerry and his two officiating partners had been peppered with such “requests” and “suggestions” about quite a few other rules of basketball for last 31 minutes of the game. Travelling…blocking…charging…over the back…gouging of the eyes…et cetera…et cetera. By the amount of angry voices challenging their knowledge of the game, the crew had apparently let multiple egregious fouls and violations go unpunished. Conversely, when they had blown their whistles, at least half the crowd vehemently disagreed at those times as well.

With under a minute to go in a game in which the home team was losing by 20 points, the fans of the visitors had quit complaining, for the most part, and some had started getting up to put on their coats. But the fans on the home side were not content yet.

“Three seconds! 54 has been standing in the lane all night!” another angry spectator shouted. As Jerry handed the ball to a short, eager young man just into the game for the first time, he noticed the boy who was wearing number 54 sitting on the visitors’ bench with his sweats on, talking and laughing with a couple of teammates. He remembered charging him with his fifth foul—the one that sent him to the bench—about four minutes ago, and how an older gentleman on the visitors’ side stood up, shook his fist at him and shouted, “That was a clean block! All ball! All ball!”

“You guys are killing us!” someone else from the home side said as play resumed. Jerry thought about that for a moment as the clocked ticked down a little closer to zero. Too many turnovers, poor shooting, and a general lack of hustle had probably done the team in; but the gentleman in the stands was entitled to his opinion.

The buzzer sounded to the end the game and Jerry made his way around the line of players forming for handshakes and met Shirley and Joe outside the door that lead to their locker room. One more fan got in an epithet as they opened it and headed in.
“I hope you guys can sleep good tonight!”

Jerry looked up and saw the man’s twisted, angry face; just one in a sea of twisted, angry faces all staring at him.

“Well, I tell you what,” said Shirley, laughing a little as he moved slowly down the stairs with the aid of the handrail, “I will sleep good tonight. My feet are killing me!”

“Perhaps that gentleman in the stands meant ‘sleep well,’ don’t you think, Shirl? said Joe.

“Yeah! The English usage in this town ain’t so good, huh? Or maybe, it’s ‘ain’t so well!’” Shirley said, and both he and Joe laughed hard.

Shirley was the only man named “Shirley” that Jerry had ever known. When he and Joe teased him about it for the first time when they were just getting to know him many years prior, Shirley snapped back, “Haven’t you ever heard of Shirley Povich, you morons! The sportswriter. Shirley was a popular boy’s name back then.”

“Yeah, well, gas was 23 cents a gallon when you were born, too!” Joe joked.

Joe and Jerry loved to get Shirley going with the jokes about his age and his name, but they both had to take their turn as the butt of sometimes merciless jokes. Joe’s prodigious belly and Jerry’s bum knee and bad back, and even the fact that he had only one kidney, were frequent topics of the good-natured but pointed mockery. But it was all in fun; and it was the fun that the three had shared over the years—on and off the court—that kept them together for so long.

Shirley sat on a bench across from his locker and leaned over to untie his shoes with his right hand while he smoothed his comb-over with his left hand, then took off his glasses and set them next to him. Joe stood in front of his locker and struggled a little to remove his striped shirt—originally purchased several years ago when an ‘XL’ still fit. Jerry sat quietly on the bench down a few lockers from Shirley and Joe and guzzled what was left of the drink he had opened at halftime. After letting out a deep but nearly silent belch, he sighed loud and long enough for his partners to hear.

“What’s the matter, Jerry? Sciatica acting up again?” Shirley asked. “Hope it’s not your kidney.”

Jerry shook his head and said, “No. I just didn’t enjoy the game much tonight.”

“Well, don’t sweat it,” Joe said. “You missed just as many calls for the home team as you did the visitors.” He and Shirley laughed. When they the joke got no reaction from Jerry, Joe and Shirley looked at each other and shrugged.

Jerry’s subdued mood continued through the first round of drinks. A couple of beers at Spanky’s Pub after their Friday games had been a tradition since the crew had gotten together. Conversation sometimes revolved around the game that night, but generally veered toward anything but basketball. This night, though, Jerry didn’t seem to want to talk about anything.

“OK, Jer, what’s up?” Joe asked.

“Yeah. You’ve been quiet all night,” Shirley added. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Oh…yeah, I’m fine,” Jerry said, and then he downed what was left of his first beer. He waived at their waitress and made the signal for another round. Joe and Shirley gave each other puzzled looks—Jerry was never the first one finished with his beer. “I’m just a little down. Man, that stupid crowd just got to me a little tonight, I guess.”

“Really? Why?” asked Shirley. “They didn’t seem any worse than any other night—in any other gym.” He looked at Joe for his opinion and he gave it by merely shrugging and shaking his head.

“No, I guess they weren’t,” said Jerry. “Maybe I’m just getting old. All the whining and yelling…I mean, it just never stops.”

Joe said, “Yeah, I hear you. But I guess I’m just used to people hating me.”

“On the court, maybe,” Shirley said. “Everybody loves you off the court, Joe.”

“Well, I know that!” Joe said, and he and Shirley laughed.

Jerry even managed a smile and said, “None of us got into this for fame and fortune—or to be praised every night. I get it. I’m not sensitive. It comes with the territory. I’d just like to make one trip down the floor without someone screaming in my ear how blind I am.”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “Every other trip down the floor would be fine with me!” Everybody laughed as the waitress set three fresh bottles on the table.

Shirley leaned forward and said, smiling, “Imagine, if you will, if they handed out whistles at the door. To everybody in the stands. And anybody could blow their whistle any time they thought there was a foul. What do you think that would be like?”

“Everybody with a whistle?” said Joe. “It would be 32 minutes of constant shrilling. That’s what Hell is probably like for evil officials.”

“Or even if they could only call three-second violations,” Shirley continued. “Geez, if I had a nickel for every time someone yelled, ‘Three seconds!’; I’d be a rich man! I mean, I can count to three! I don’t need help.”

“Forget giving whistles to the crowd,” said Joe. “What if, just for fun, we called something every time somebody complained in the crowd? Man, it would be hard to even blow the whistle that many times!”

Joe and Shirley laughed, but Jerry went completely stone-faced and said, “Yeah, what if we did.”

“Did what?” Shirley asked.

“Did what Joe said. Every time somebody yells something from the crowd, we blow our whistles.”

“Well, we’d be blowing our whistles all night!” Joe and Shirley laughed.

“Yeah, I know. That’s what I’m saying.”

Joe and Shirley glanced at each other again, and then Joe said, “You’re serious?”

“Sure I’m serious. Let’s give them what they want. Let’s call everything.”

“What…why?” Shirley said.

“Why not?”

Nobody was laughing anymore or even smiling—the seriousness of their faces matched the intensity of their conviction. After a brief silence, the three made their plan.

The following Tuesday, the small, hot gym in Ackerville was jammed and noisy during the warm-up for the boys’ game. Ackerville was hosting their long-time rival Fillmore, a town just 15 miles away. Neither team was very good this season, which wasn’t unusual for this rivalry. No one in either town could quite remember the last time their teams had a winning season. Still, the towns and schools had built up a slightly unhealthy aversion for each other over the years and their annual basketball game in mid-winter was always a highlight—or a disappointment, depending on the outcome—for players, students and fans.

Jerry and his crew had been working games in Ackerville for years and were accustomed to contests that usually ended up in blow-out losses for the home team and weren’t offended by the parents and fans that took out their frustrations on them. The last time they were here, someone shouted, “You’re the worst crew ever!” late in a game. Jerry figured the folks in this town felt this way about every crew that came through and surmised that they weren’t inherently evil. Just like fans in almost every town they went to, they merely saw the game with their hearts more than their eyes. So when someone in the stands said, somewhat playfully, “Oh, no. Not these guys again,” Jerry—who normally would have just ignored the comment—locked eyes with the gentleman, winked, and creased a sly grin.

Ackerville controlled the jump ball, their point guard corralled it, rushed into the front court, and tossed up a long, ill-advised jumper. A Fillmore forward jumped high for the rebound while an Ackerville player contested from behind. While the Fillmore player mishandled the ball and it fell out of bounds, someone from the visitors’ side shouted, “Over the back!” Shirley was standing in front of the bleachers filled with Fillmore fans and quickly blew his whistle. He had a good view of the play and knew there was no foul committed; but tonight, he was going to call it. He walked over to the scorer’s table and said while he signaled, “Foul. Number 44. White. On the back.” The visitors’ side cheered while the Ackerville fans disapproved in unison with loud jeers.

“What?!” “That was clean!” “He never touched him!”

Fillmore inbounded the ball and their point guard dribbled the ball up the floor under slight pressure from an Ackerville defender. He mishandled the ball and stumbled slightly as he brought it over the half-court line, but managed to bat the ball over to his teammate on the wing. The wing man eyed the defense momentarily, then made a strong dribble move around his defender and headed toward the basket.
Someone from the home side shouted, “Travelling! He lifted his pivot foot!” Joe, positioned near the home bleachers, saw that the move was completely legal. But he blew his whistle anyway, rolled his arms around each other and shouted, “Travelling! White ball.”

The home side clapped and voiced their approval, while the visitors’ side—content with the previous call—now erupted in displeasure.

“You gotta be kidding me?!” “Travelling? Are you crazy?!”

Ackerville’s point guard brought the ball into the front court and looked over the Fillmore defense, a 2-3 zone, for a moment before passing the ball to the right wing. The ball went to a player in the corner, back to the wing, back to the point guard and then over to the other wing and then the corner on that side. Fillmore’s zone was very passive and packed into the lane. As Ackerville cycled the ball around one more time, two Fillmore fans shouted simultaneously, “Three seconds!” while another added, “Four, five! He’s standing in the lane!”

Jerry, working the baseline, had been watching the lane carefully and was sure the Ackerville center had not been in the lane for more than a couple seconds at any time, but whistled the play dead.

“Three seconds. 54 white. Red ball.”

More cheers from one side; more jeers from the other.

Ackerville was playing a somewhat lazy man-to-man defense, but Fillmore was still having trouble getting a good look at the basket for a shot. They moved the ball around the perimeter; made two passes to their center, who quickly and clumsily passed the ball back out of the lane both times, and then their point guard dribbled aimlessly into the corner and then back out to the point.

“Hey! Three seconds!” a fan in the home stands bellowed. “Call it both ways!”

Jerry blew his whistle. “Three seconds. Number 41. White ball.”

The crowd on both sides buzzed once again with opposite, ever rising emotions.

The teams made two more trips down the floor and they were whistled for two more violations—as suggested by people in the crowd; a five-second count and another three seconds. After the latest whistle, the Fillmore coach stood up, took a half step onto the floor and calmly asked Jerry as he passed by the bench, “You guys calling it a little tight, tonight?”

A man in the Ackerville stands witnessed the exchange and yelled, “He’s on the floor! T him up!”

Jerry blew his whistle and said, “Technical foul” and made a T with his hands as he faced the official scorer.

The Fillmore coach screamed, “What?!” among a shower of boos from the irate visiting fans, while it was the Ackerville fans’ turn to cheer wildly again. A Fillmore assistant coach jumped up and ushered the furious head coach back to the bench before he could say anything else.

The Ackerville player missed both technical foul shots and was subsequently whistled for travelling, on a suggestion from the Fillmore side, after the ball was put back in play.

The first quarter continued to be a flood of violations and fouls; some legitimate and others not; but all whistled because of demands from the folks in the stands. Toward the end of the quarter, the Fillmore point guard tripped as he was bringing the ball up the floor and it went right into the hands of the defender. The Ackerville player grabbed it, went to the basket, missed the wide open layup, got the rebound, and was fouled (maybe) when he attempted another shot. He made one of the two free throws and the first quarter ended shortly thereafter (after a couple more whistles) with the home team leading 1-0.

The second quarter resembled the first. The teams would come down and try to run a play, someone in the crowd from either side would point out to Shirley, Jerry and Joe some real or perceived rule violation perpetrated by the other team, and a whistle would follow. The crowd got steadily more unruly every time calls went against them and more pleased when calls went their way. With each blow of the whistle, there were equal waves of taunts and cheering, cat-calls and claps, and boos and affirmations. Both coaches and all the players had gotten thoroughly frustrated, but seeing how quick Jerry was to call that first technical, they managed to keep their emotions under control. Several of the players on both sides were in foul trouble.

In the middle of the second quarter, Fillmore managed to get a basket on a breakaway layup after an Ackerville turnover. An Ackerville player made one more free throw late in the quarter and at halftime the score was tied at 2.
Both coaches carefully approached the crew as everyone started off the court and into their respective locker rooms, but the Fillmore coach spoke first.

“Umm. Fellas. I’m not complaining or anything, but that seemed to be a lot of whistles in the first half.”

“Yeah,” the Ackerville coach said. “We can’t get anything going with this many whistles.”

Shirley said, “We’re just calling what we hear…I mean, what we see, guys.” Then he said to Jerry and Joe, “C’mon, fellas,” and the three jogged away to the door that led to their locker room amidst a cascade of boos and jeers from both sides of the gym. The two aggravated coaches looked at each other in disbelief momentarily before joining their teams.

“Well how do you like that?” said Shirley as he grabbed a drink out of the cooler on the floor. “We’ve called everything the crowd has asked for and they still hate us.”

Joe nearly choked on his drink when he laughed in the middle of a swallow and he walked over to a sink and spit it out, and then he managed to say, “That’s gratitude for you. What the heck do they want? Damned if we do…damned if we don’t, I guess.”

“That was one heckuva half of basketball,” said Shirley.

“One for the record books, that’s for sure,” said Joe.

“It was fun; it was fun. Quite a statement indeed,” Shirley said. “But maybe we should just call the second half straight up.”

“Yeah, that’s probably right,” said Joe. “I think everyone has learned their lesson. Jerry, this was your idea. What say you?”

Jerry was content with their efforts in the first half but he wasn’t as jovial as the other two. He was shaking his head before Joe’s question was even completely out of his mouth. “They’re going to keep yelling at us no matter what we call; or don’t call. Let’s just stay the course and see what happens.”

Shirley and Joe sat silently pondering for a few seconds while Jerry finished his bottle in one long drink.

“Okay then,” Shirley finally said. “We started this thing; let’s finish it.” Jerry nodded.

Shirley, Jerry and Joe walked out onto the court right after the Ackerville and Fillmore boys had run out, so the wild cheers quickly turned to boos when the fans on both sides noticed them. Business as usual. They took their positions for the rest of the warm-ups and then for the initial inbounding of the ball to start the second half.

Ackerville inbounded the ball and may not have even had possession for three seconds when someone from the Fillmore crowd shouted, “Three seconds!” Jerry whistled the play dead. Fillmore ball.

“Fellas! We just talked about this!” the Ackerville coach yelled. “Stay out of the lane! They’re calling it close tonight!”

The Fillmore point guard dribbled the ball into the front court, guarded lightly. A teammate came up the lane and set a pick on the defender and barely nudged him as the point guard made a dribble drive to the basket.

“Illegal screen!” came the call from one of the Ackerville faithful. Joe diligently blew his whistle.

“Omygosh! The second half, too?” the Fillmore coach indirectly asked Shirley as he passed the bench.

Another trip down the floor—another foul called. And the rest of the third quarter went similarly. There were 14 total fouls called—seven on each side, and each by the behest of someone in the stands. Jerry and the boys also whistled several non-contact violations: more travelling, more double dribbles, and, of course, three seconds. Both teams only managed a couple of shot attempts, none of which went in. The score was still 2-2.

The crowd was exasperated and even a little worn out, but during the break between the quarters, they still managed to pepper the officials with insults and beseeched them to call the game correctly. They still didn’t realize that the game had been called exactly to their specifications.

Joe stood near the Ackerville bench and overheard their coach instructing his players.

“Okay. Okay. No more fouls. Don’t touch anybody! No matter what! Play way off your man. And on offense, set up Carolina. Spread the floor. We’re going to hold the ball for one shot.” When his players all looked at him strangely, he shrugged and responded, “I know! I know! But it’s the only thing that’s going to work tonight.”

Shirley was near the Fillmore bench and he overheard a similar conversation. Both teams were going to play passive defense and an even more passive offense in hopes that the officials couldn’t blow their whistles.

Ackerville inbounded the ball and set up with a player in each of the four corners of the front court and one near the top of the key. The guards tossed the ball back and forth near the half court line a few times, and then down to the players in the corners only when they were challenged somewhat by wary defenders. Pass—hold the ball—pass—pass—hold the ball. Pass—hold the ball—stay out of the lane. Ackerville cycled the ball around again and again and Fillmore was content to play only enough defense to prevent a layup. Seconds ticked and minutes clicked monotonously by.

Despite the lack of action on the court, the crescendo from the crowd grew. Their displeasure was not limited to the officials anymore, but spilled over to the coaches and players. Both sides were equally annoyed, borderline apoplectic and bewildered at what was going on, and they shouted for their teams to do something other than what they were doing. There was nothing, apparently, that would make them happy this night.

With about two minutes left in the game, the Ackerville forward in the corner closest to the home stands lost his concentration, mishandled a pass, and the ball went out of bounds. Mortified, he dropped his head and looked at his hands, while the home crowd moaned in unison and the visitors celebrated wildly.

Fillmore inbounded the ball with no challenge from Ackerville. The opposing coaches shouted simultaneously, “No fouls! No fouls!” “Hold it for one shot!”

Fillmore set up an offense similar to what Ackerville was running and began passing the ball around slowly and carefully. Ackerville offered only token defense as the clock ticked down. Pass, pass—hold. Pass—hold. Jerry and his crewmates had officiated dozens of tight games and buzzer beaters so they were cool, calm and focused, but the thought went through Jerry’s mind that he may not have ever worked in a gym that was this loud with a crowd so close to the edge of insanity. Especially for a game as ugly as this one.

With ten seconds left, the Ackerville coach yelled and motioned for his players to come out and defend more tightly, but warned, “Careful! Careful!”

Fillmore cycled the ball out to their point guard, who was about 35 feet away from the basket. He made a strong dribble move toward the lane but was cut off by his Ackerville counterpart near the elbow of the lane. He stopped, picked up his dribble and passed the ball back toward a teammate about two feet behind the three-point line. Another Ackerville defender dashed out and deflected the pass. He and the intended receiver raced after the loose ball and one of the two batted it out to the mid-court line. Several other players from both sides had joined the chase and, as the clocked ticked down— 3, 2, 1—everyone dove into a huge pile that spilled over to the other side of the floor; the ball somewhere under the mass of bodies. Just as the buzzer sounded, barely audible amidst the roars of the crowd, Shirley, Jerry and Joe all blew their whistles at the same time. With the sound of the whistles, the crowd went completely quiet, everyone anxious to see what the call was. The officials all looked at each other briefly, then gathered together as far away from the players and coaches as possible. The coaches pleaded, “What is it” “What’s the call?” Jerry looked in their direction and held up an open hand to tell them without words, wait a second.

Jerry asked his partners, “Well what did you guys see? Or, hear? Well, both, I guess.”

“I’m not sure what I just saw,” Joe said, snickering, but trying not to laugh.

“Yeah. That was a whole bunch of everything,” said Shirley. “I blew my whistle, but I’m not really sure why. Any number of things!”
“I know,” said Jerry. “In keeping with the spirit of the evening, we should let the crowd decide. I could barely hear anything, but I did pick out a few things from the crowd.”

“Me, too,” said Joe. “But I have conflicting opinions on my side.”

“Same here,” said Shirley.

“Like what?” Jerry asked.

Joe said, “Well, over-and-back; double dribble; foul, of course. Those were the most popular suggestions.”

“Yeah. Foul, for sure,” said Shirley. “Travelling. Somebody even shouted three seconds again.”

“Geez! We can’t call that again,” said Jerry as he laughed. “Well, there had to be a foul or two in there somewhere. How about this…let’s call a double foul. We’ll call it on the two kids that were chasing the ball first—they ended up on the bottom of the pile. That should make both sides happy…I mean, mad.” Shirley and Joe nodded in agreement.

With the crowd still silent, Joe went to the scorer’s table. When he announced the decision, fans on both sides erupted with equal parts displeasure and celebration, while many didn’t know how to feel or react and just stood in dumfounded silence. Jerry gathered with the frazzled coaches and they reluctantly accepted his explanation and decision. Number 10 would shoot a 1-and-1 for Ackerville, and number 13 would do the same for Fillmore.

With no time remaining, the floor was cleared for the shooters. Jerry wasn’t sure who, by rule, should go first, but he sent the young man from Fillmore out and nobody complained. As obnoxious as the fans had been throughout the game to the officials, at least they demonstrated some decorum for the first shooter. The Fillmore side went completely quiet, and besides a few random cat calls from the student section while number 13 toed the line, the Ackerville fans were courteous. He was just a freshman, and he looked very tense as he wiped his hands on his shorts and took the ball when Shirley handed it to him. Three dribbles, deep breath. He held the ball in cocked position at his shoulder for a moment, bent his knees, and let it go. It was short and hit with a thump on the front of the rim, bounced straight up once—not very high—hit the front of rim again, and then fell to the floor. The Fillmore fans groaned in unison while the Ackerville side celebrated.

Devastated, number 13 covered his face with his hands and bent over at the waist. Three of his teammates jogged on the floor to console him and led him off as number 10 for Ackerville strode to the other side. He was a confident senior who was their leading scorer and team captain. The Ackerville fans rose up and started cheering wildly, feeling secure that the game would soon be theirs. The cheerleaders and several in the student section started “sshhing” the crowd as Shirley was handing him the ball and everyone on that side went quiet. The Fillmore fans, devoid of energy and not feeling good at their chances of surviving, stood and watched silently. One Fillmore student, however, taunted, “Don’t mess it up,” very matter-of-factly, and just loud enough for the shooter to hear. Number 10 seemed to scoff at the suggestion as he bounced the ball hard five times. But as he brought the ball to his waist, eyed the hoop and exhaled deeply, the ball inexplicably slipped out of his hands, bounced off his left foot and rolled straight to Joe at the baseline.
“Lane violation,” Shirley said quietly, and almost apologetically, to number 10, and he went up to him and patted him on the back twice.
The crowd murmured, not sure what was happening, and somebody finally shouted, “What is it?” Both coaches already knew, and they were gathering their players.

“Lane violation,” Shirley repeated, this time loud enough for everyone to hear. “Overtime.”

The stunned fans didn’t react much on either side. The Ackerville fans felt terrible for number 10 and that the victory had slipped away. The Fillmore fans could hardly celebrate the terrible misfortune of the Ackerville shooter. Neither side was eager to watch anymore of the basketball that they had witnessed for four quarters.

Then…the lights went out. Except for a few exit signs over doors and some emergency lighting bleeding in from adjoining hallways, the gym was completely dark. The murmuring in the crowd grew to a louder hum as folks tried to figure out was happening. After a few minutes of general confusion, a voice boomed from one end of the gym.

“It’s alright! It’s alright folks.” It was Dutch, the custodian that had worked at the Ackerville school for 42 years. “The main fuse for the gym blew. No harm done.”

Dutch walked over to the scorer’s table, where the coaches and officials were talking. The Ackerville coach asked Dutch, “Can you fix it?”

“Nope. Not tonight. It’s fried. I’ll have to call the electrician tomorrow.”

“Well, I guess we’re done here,” said the Fillmore coach.

“Yeah. Not a moment too soon,” the depleted Ackerville coach said.

“So what’s going to happen with this game?” the Fillmore coach asked Jerry.

Jerry said, “Well, the rule book says it has to be resumed at some point—starting with the overtime period.”

Both coaches groaned a little.

“Oh, man. It’s getting kind of late in the season for that,” said the Ackerville coach.

“Yeah. District play starts next week,” the Fillmore coach concurred.

“It’s up to you guys. And your ADs,” Jerry said. “It’s out of our hands. You can call it a tie if you want to. Makes no difference to us.”

“Well, I’m not a big fan of ties,” said the Ackerville coach, addressing the Fillmore coach. “But in this case, I’m willing to accept one.”

“Yeah. A tie it is,” said the Fillmore coach. “Let’s just move on with our seasons.” The two shook hands and went to their respective benches to tell their players. None of them cared about the tie, either. One of the Fillmore players even said, “Good. Let’s get out of here.”

While Dutch led Shirley, Jerry and Joe with a flashlight toward their locker room, the Ackerville coach announced to the crowd what was happening. The murmuring among the fans intensified only slightly upon hearing the news. Some grumbled, some approved with sarcastic cheering; but most just started filing out quietly, not sure what to think of what they had just witnessed.

Dutch shined the beam into the locker room and then flipped a switch near the door that illuminated the whole room.

“Ahh, let there be light. Thanks,” said Shirley. “So it was just the gym lights that blew?”

Dutch scratched his head and turned off the flashlight. “Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret fellas,” he said. “But you have to promise not tell a soul.”

The boys all looked at each other, and then Joe shrugged and said, “Cross our hearts.”

“Okay. I trust you guys. Thing is, there was no problem with the fuse box. I through the breaker for the gym myself. I couldn’t watch anymore of that, so I just shut off the lights. I had to end it.”

The officials all looked at each other again, no one knowing quite what to say. Finally, Jerry said, “Yeah, that wasn’t a very good game, was it?”

“No, not at all!” Dutch laughed, and then said, “Listen, I figured out what you guys were doing. It took me a while, but I caught on about the second quarter.”

More glances between the boys. “What? What are you talking about?” said Shirley.

“Listen, I don’t blame you a bit,” said Dutch. “I’ve been watching you guys for years. You’re a pretty good crew. Not the best that comes through here, mind you, but pretty good.”

Joe laughed a nervous laugh while Shirley and Jerry quietly started to undress.

“I get pretty tired of all the parents and fans and students yelling and screaming about everything all the time, too,” Dutch continued. “When you started calling everything, I thought, ‘Well, they’re just calling it close tonight.’ But then I figured out that you were calling everything that somebody yelled from the stands. Pretty funny; and funny how nobody picked up on it.”

“Umm, yeah,” said Jerry as he gave pensive looks to Shirley and Joe. “I guess you got us.”

“Oh, I don’t got nothing on you,” Dutch said as he smiled broadly and waved his hand at Jerry. “You’re secret’s safe with me. You gave them just what they asked for. Funny how they didn’t ever figure it out and just shut up.” Dutch laughed and the boys joined in.

“We’re not thin-skinned or anything,” Joe explained, “but we get kind of tired of being yelled at every night, you know?”

“I know. I know,” said Dutch. “You don’t have to explain it to me.”

“Yeah. Hard to believe that we do this for fun,” said Jerry, and everyone laughed again. “And it is fun for us…most of the time. But sometimes…well, tonight we just wanted to—I don’t know…”

“Teach everybody lesson?” Dutch suggested.

“Yeah, I guess,” said Jerry.

Dutch shook his head and said, “It was a good try, but I’m sure it didn’t work. They don’t get it. I’ve been around for…phew, longer than I really want to remember. I’ve seen more football games, baseball games, basketball games—you name it—than anybody in the state, I would guess. Most folks in the stands don’t want to believe that the kids are fault. It’s your fault when things go wrong. You’re an easy target.”

The boys looked at each other in a brief silence again, and Joe said, “I guess I never really thought of it that way before.”

“Well, that’s what I think anyway. It’s hard to change things,” Dutch said, and then laughed. “You guys played one heckuva joke on everyone tonight and they were the butt of it. But they don’t even know it.” Everyone laughed. “That’s the best kind of joke, I think. You guys got them good, boy.” Dutch picked up an empty juice bottle from the floor, threw it in the trash can and said, “Well, I’ll let you guys get dressed and get out of here. See you next time.”

The boys gave Dutch simultaneous farewells and after he walked out, Shirley laughed and said, “Next time. Do you think they’ll invite us back here again?”

“Of course,” said Jerry. “Who else are they going to get to do this job?”

Domino Effect

Domino EffectAfter cancer had finally taken his wife, Max hoped it wouldn’t be long before something would take him, too. He made an off-hand comment to her the day before she died that he thought his own time was about up, and she calmly but firmly told him he wasn’t going anywhere until he finished his chores. He attributed this odd remark to her medication or maybe as a sign that her previously razor sharp mind was finally dulling. But who was he to judge that? Even during her year-and-a-half long illness, May had remained the stronger of the two and was the rock of their little household. In recent years he had grown more aware of his own limitations, but he still always managed to quip that although he knew the better part of his body was strewn over his 120 acres of farmland, he wasn’t sure where his mind had gone. Facing life without May for the first time in 68 years, his little joke didn’t seem so funny anymore.

The couple had three sons together. None of them wanted anything to do with the family farm (Max had often sardonically lamented that he wished he could have had a son stupid enough to want to take over), and they had all moved out of state. They got together after May’s funeral to discuss what to do with their dad, and the eldest son Barry invited Max to come live with his family in Indiana. Max politely declined that offer and rejected his second suggestion of the retirement home in Des Moines even more quickly than Barry imagined he would. But Max eventually saw the wisdom of the boys’ final idea of selling the farm ten miles north of Greene Center and moving to town.

Max liked the little two-bedroom house two blocks from downtown more than he thought he would. His main loop from the bedroom to the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom could be covered with minimal pain and effort on most days. Barry had purchased a new television and a satellite dish for Max so he could watch the farm programming on RFD and the Cubs on WGN. Barry had arranged for the grocery store to deliver every other week, so Max didn’t really need to get out of the house much if he couldn’t or didn’t want to. While he had settled into a tolerable existence, life was gray and spiritless without May.

The scattered, thin strips of tall grass between rows was evidence that Ed was paying more attention to his nine-year-old son Kenny than he was the mowing. Kenny was whipping tennis balls against the side of the brick house and fielding the rebounds. Kenny had just come to live with Ed a few weeks earlier when Ed’s ex-wife had to leave the country unexpectedly. Living the vagabond lifestyle of his ne’er-do-well mom had made Kenny cynical and withdrawn. He didn’t make friends easily and had gotten into a lot of trouble at the many schools to which his mom had dragged him. Ed was having trouble connecting with Kenny since he arrived, but he knew it would take some time to crack the veneer Kenny had manufactured to deflect the pain caused by his mother’s inadequate tutelage.
Ed had noticed that Max had been sitting out on his stoop in a lawn chair turned toward Kenny, seemingly enjoying the action. Ed was glad to see Max out of the house. He had met him a few weeks earlier, and, after talking to Barry right after he had moved his dad in, had been checking in with him occasionally just to see if everything was okay.

When one of Kenny’s errant throws went bounding into Max’s yard, Ed hoped the old man would not try to retrieve it. Ed was amazed when instead of trying to field the grounder, the old man reached out his cane with one hand, took a short, choppy swing at the bouncing ball, and whacked it on a hard line back toward Kenny. Kenny moved quickly to his left, lunged, and snagged the ball just before it hit the ground. Ed was pleased with Kenny’s fine play, and saw that Max was, too. He smiled broadly, raised his cane over his head and shook it in triumph, and said something that Kenny must have liked. Kenny laughed, then looked over his shoulder smiling at Ed as if to ask permission to go talk to Max. Ed nodded as he made a 90-degree turn with the mower and watched out of the corner of his eye as Max and Kenny talked. Just a few days earlier, Ed had spoken to Kenny’s teacher about his poor schoolwork and also his lack of friends, so he was amazed when Kenny kept talking to a total stranger.

Ed was pushing the mower into the garage when Kenny ran up to him excitedly and said that Max wanted to teach him to play dominoes and asked if he could go inside his house. Ed looked over at Max, who waved and said, smiling, “I’ll take good care of the boy!” Ed gave Kenny permission and raced back over to Max’s.
The two played dominoes until suppertime that day, and that began a ritual that both of them came to cherish. Almost every day after school, and at least a half a day on the weekends, the two got together for dominoes, Parcheesi, cards, short walks around the neighborhood or just sitting around watching TV. Ed would have preferred that Kenny had found a friend his age, or even shown more interest in doing things with him, but was glad to see his introverted son coming out of his shell a bit. Ed did not dismiss Kenny’s subsequent improved schoolwork, positive reports from his teacher and his generally improved mood as coincidence. And he was glad to see the brightness in Max’s previously sullen eyes on the occasions he dropped in on the pair, and enjoyed all the fine compliments that Max always had for his son.

Kenny was walking through a swirling, foggy brightness when he noticed the shape of a man moving toward him. His best judgement was that he should be scared, but he just wasn’t. Then he recognized Max’s wry, wrinkled grin and bony, stubbly chin, ran up to him, and hugged him hard around the waist.

“Hi, Max! Do you want to play some dominoes?”

“We can’t right now, Kenny. We need to go home now.”

Normally Kenny protested mildly when his time with Max was up, but not today. He just smiled, grabbed his thin hand, looked up at Max and started walking with him. But Max stopped, pointed in the opposite direction and said, “No, Kenny. You live that way, remember.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Kenny watched as Max walked away. Just as he was about to fade from view, he stopped and held up his right hand. Kenny waved, turned, and walked the other way.
The warmth of that brief time with Max gave way to a dull throbbing in his head. And his left arm felt like someone had tried to twist it off. As he opened his eyes, he was still in a foggy brightness, but this was much more unpleasant. And a little frightening. But when he saw his dad’s face above his, he felt much safer even as the pain intensified.

“Dad. Wh…wh…?” He couldn’t finish the question.

“You’re in the hospital. You fell off the monkey bars at school a couple of days ago. You don’t remember?”

Kenny could only mouth the word “no.”

As he did, he glanced to the table to the right of his bed and noticed the old box of dominoes that he and Max had used for those many games at Max’s house. It was wrapped with a clumsy red ribbon and had an index card on the top.

“What’s that?” Kenny whispered.

Ed had placed the box near Kenny’s bed so it would be one of the first things he would see when he woke up, but wasn’t going to tell him that Max had suffered a stroke the day before and was lying in the room next door.

“Max wanted you to have it. He thought it would cheer you up.”

Max was right. Kenny creased a smile through the pain and then asked about the card. Ed picked it up and read it aloud.

“It says, ‘You’re the best chore I ever had.’”

That sounded strange to Ed, but he figured it meant something to Kenny. For Kenny, it just meant that Max was thinking about him.

“Max – he went home, Dad,” Kenny mumbled groggily. “Max went home.”

Ed didn’t understand that either, but was just glad that Kenny was saying anything at all.

And Kenny could hardly wait for that next game.

“Dad?” he strained. “Do you know how to play dominoes?”