Sack the Quarterback
“We’re getting married!”
I spin around on my bar stool. Debby beams at me, holding the arm of a guy I’ve never seen before.
“I thought tonight was your night off,” Artie says to her with a confused look. I’m sitting between Artie and Carl in My Mother’s Place where Debby works as a waitress.
“Congratulations,” I say, elbowing Artie as I extend my hand toward Debby’s fiancé.
“Joe, these are my friends Curt, Artie and Carl,” Debby rises up on her toes and shakes her auburn curls out of her soft brown eyes.
Joe is about my height but heavier. His unkempt dark hair frames a rugged, sagging face, blue eyes, and a dimpled jaw with a loose grin. He looks familiar. When he dips his head and says hello I make the connection. He looks like Joe Namath, the football star. Artie sees it too.
Joe tightens his grip, squeezing my hand until it hurts. I return his grin and clench my fist until his eyes glaze with pain and he lets go.
Debby doesn’t notice our contest. “We met last night at Pearl’s. We were pretty drunk, but we were still engaged when we woke up this morning!”
“Congratulations,” Artie and Carl stammer.
Joe nods his head. I don’t like him and I tell myself it’s not because he squeezed my hand or because he met Debby at Pearl’s like I did, dancing on peanut shells, and holding her tight body through the slow dances to close out the night. He studies Artie and Carl but avoids my eyes. Maybe she told him about our weeklong drunken romance.
Debby pivots toward the door. “We’re going out to dinner to celebrate.”
We watch them leave, their gray silhouettes framed in the dirty window as they pass by on the sidewalk.
“Our Debby’s going to marry Joe Namath” Artie shakes his head and smiles. “She always had a soft spot for him.”
Carl chuckles. “Joltin’ Joe.”
“Broadway Joe.” I laugh.
“Same difference.” Carl flicks his lighter over his pipe. “Those athletes are all mutants anyway.”
Sunday night I’m back at Mother’s with Artie and Carl, waiting for Hee Haw on the bar TV. Joe sits at a side table where Debby can drop him free beers and winks. But her shift hasn’t started yet.
Artie elbows me. “You should buy a TV.”
“You just want to come over and drink my beer.”
“You have a phone now.”
“That’s for work.”
Artie winks. He knows I’m trying to learn computer skills so I don’t spend the rest of my life driving a forklift at Crowley’s Dairy. My boss lets me enter shipping jobs on the computer, but he insists I have a phone in case the night computer operator has to call me. But Artie doesn’t believe in computers.
Carl clears his throat, staring at the old RCA hanging from the sooty ceiling. President Reagan’s sincere image flickers in and out. Carl holds his hands together and claps them like a duck beak. “Ronald Reagan is an ideologue without any ideas.”
Artie twists his head as the bar door opens from the sidewalk. “I didn’t know Mark was out of jail.”
“Trouble,” Carl mumbles.
We watch Mark, another of Debby’s old boyfriends, stride toward Joe’s table with a tall, dark-haired woman. She walks with perfect posture, her head erect like a model with red lipstick and short hair done in curls. She pulls her full length black fur coat tight around her.
Mike the bartender drops his towel and sidles over to me. He raises his head and tips his chin. I follow him to Joe’s table. Debby races out of the kitchen and slides into a chair next to Joe. Mark and the woman look down at Joe for a long second.
“Hi Honey,” the woman says. She slaps Joe in the face. Her coat falls open, her hands resting on the hem of a pink sweater circling her thin hips. “I was wondering when you were coming home.” She doubles her fists, keeping her eyes focused on Joe.
He flinches and gazes at Mark, who smiles.
“I was planning to call you, dear,” Joe grins.
Mark roars with laughter, his voice exploding in the silent room.
The woman’s face glows red. She takes several deep breaths and spins around. She raises her chin and walks slowly toward the door, her heels clicking. She waits for Mark to open it for her and steps out with Mark chuckling behind her. He pauses and blows a kiss to Debby as he pulls the door shut.
Debby frowns. “Who was that?”
“Some crazy woman I knew in Pittsburg.” Joe’s hand quivers as he reaches for his beer glass.
“We should call the cops.” Debby snarls.
Joe shakes his head. “She belongs in an institution, not jail.”
Debby rests her hand on his forearm and pecks him on the cheek. She’s still wearing her jacket, wet from the drizzle outside. She looks back toward the kitchen and her brother Daryl hovering by the door, and she gives him a quick shake of her head.
Feeling like an eavesdropper, I tap Mike on the shoulder. Back at the bar he pours me a free beer for backing him up.
The beer turns into a pitcher as we watch Hee Haw actors dressed like corn stalks repeat jokes from Saturday morning cartoons while Carl describes the decline and fall of the American Empire. He writes a column for the Binghamton Press. Artie says they print his mug shot black and white to disguise his permanent pink flush.
When the show ends I slide my change across the bar and stand up.
Artie elbows me. “Watch this.” He tips his forehead toward Carl.
Carl sways back on his stool, his eyes closed. He leans forward and sways back again. He reaches his hand up to his black horn-rimmed glasses, and in one motion he pulls the glasses away from his bushy white eyebrows as his forehead clomps down on the bar.
“He always takes off his glasses when he passes out,” Artie chuckles.
I nudge Carl and raise him up, fixing his glasses on his drooping head. “I’ll walk him home; it’s on my way.”
When we get to his apartment, Carl fishes out his key and turns the lock, muttering about Reaganomics.
I take a long way home, passing by Mark’s building on Henry Street. His lights are on.
My one-week romance with Debby came when Mark was in jail, though I didn’t know it at the time. Debby forgot me once he came home and then she dumped him a couple weeks later.
He swings open the door on my first knock. “My old friend Curt.”
I lift the steel toe of my work boot up on the threshold to block the door in case he tries to slam it in my face. We were never friends. “Hey Mark, it’s been awhile.”
He looks down at my foot and grimaces, waving me in. “I wanted to talk to you.”
I tighten my lips and stare at him.
“You think I want to talk about Debby.” He laughs. “You can’t let her go, can you?”
“She made her choice.”
He shakes his head but his eyes lock mine. He flips his hand toward two old stuffed chairs. We sit down, still eyeing each other.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“You work with Freddy, right?”
“I helped him a couple times.” When Freddy was sick I collected his weekly football bets and paid off winners.
“I heard he runs the construction unions.”
I crack a smile.
“Can you help me get a job? Talk to Freddy for me?”
No one’s ever asked me about a job before. Mark looks sober and I haven’t seen him at Mother’s lately.
“I’m serious,” Mark persists.
“Freddy would want something.”
“Is that why you don’t ask him for a job?” Mark scans the white tee shirt under my unbuttoned jean jacket. “You look like you could work construction.”
“I got a job.”
“The dairy doesn’t pay much.”
“I want to learn computers.”
Mark snickers. “What does Freddy want?”
“He’ll want you to work hard and not fuck up. Not make him look bad.” I pause. “That’s if he decides to help you.”
“Sounds like you talking.”
“You asked me.”
“So you’ll talk to him?”
I catch Mark’s eyes. “Maybe I’ll see Freddy this week.”
“Who was the woman you brought to
“Is she married to Joe?”
Mark fumes. “How could Debby hook up with someone like him? I can understand a loser like you or me. But we wouldn’t rip her off.”
I study his dark expression. “What do you mean?”
“I met him in the joint. He’s a pro.” Mark shifts forward in his chair. “He told me about Mary. She was smarter than most and caught him draining her account before they were married. She got him busted.”
I stare at the scuffed wooden floor. “Aren’t you worried about Joe?”
Mark sneers. “Joe’s soft. I ain’t worried about Debby either. She can take care of herself.” He stares at me. “But you still care about her.”
“Maybe I never liked Joe Namath.”
“Maybe he’s changed and this one’s for real.”
The next night I stop by Mother’s for Monday Night Football. Carl remembers me taking him home and stands me a beer, and Artie offers to drink it if I’m not thirsty enough.
Joe stops by our stools during half time, wearing a sheepish grin, avoiding my eyes. I wonder if he wants to apologize for Mary’s outburst, but his thoughts are elsewhere.
Debby saunters over with her tray. She nods toward me and winks at Joe. I stare into my beer to give them space but I hear her say, “Did you get a chance to talk to the bank?”
“They said they would investigate.”
“I know I had more money in my checking account, our checking account.”
“Must be a bank mistake. I’ll make sure they get it right.”
I glance back as Debby leans around Joe’s shoulder and kisses him on his chin dimple. She catches my eye and gives me a troubled look. Our brief romance is long over, but her brown eyes draw me like an SOS signal. She breaks the spell and sways off to a table.
Joe looks at me and shrugs his shoulders. I drop a tip on the bar and head home.
The next day when I spear pallets with my forklift, I imagine them with chin dimples and lazy blue eyes. When I’m not sacking the quarterback I wonder what I will say to Freddy. No one ever outsmarts him. He acts like a poor man, wearing a tattered gray jacket, straining to carry his large gut when he collects his bets on Wednesday nights, rasping as he inhales his cigars. Each step is a struggle. But I’ve seen him in his silk robe gliding across the pegged oak floor of his mansion on Front Street.
I stop my forklift and gaze at a pallet stacked with crates of sour cream. What would Freddy do about Joe Namath?
After my shift I head down to the computer room, also known as the morgue, to drop my punch cards in the mailbox. The door opens with a gush of cold air, and a small woman in black emerges. The vampire.
“I was about to message you.” Angie the computer operator squints up at me, tilting her head to the side, her black lipstick reflecting the fluorescent light of the hallway. The cold never bothers her. She wears a tight black tee shirt with a deep neckline stretched over her ample breasts.
“My shipping job ran okay last night,” I stammer, trying not to stare at her cleavage.
She smiles. “You’d hear from me if it didn’t.”
We go out together sometimes, but she’s made it clear she’s not looking for a boyfriend. I told her she’s safe with me.
She says, “I’m taking the rest of the night off and I feel like dancing. Why don’t you take me to Pearl’s?”
I haven’t been inside Pearl’s since I met Debby there. The country western bar is a favorite of the college crowd. Scanning Angie’s macabre outfit, I grin.
She makes a horse riding motion, one hand on her hip and the other circling her head as she leers up at me. “I can transform into a country girl.”
My cheeks grow warm. “You can go the way you are, keep them off balance.”
She laughs. “You remembered.”
“How can I forget your plan for world domination?” I nod my head. “But I have to do something first.”
I make one stop before pulling into the gravel parking lot behind Swat Sullivan’s. The Irish bar is more of a dive than Mother’s but it’s another college hot spot. The students and professors like the dark wood and dim light for Guinness pints and poetry readings. Their map of Binghamton has two destinations, Pearl’s and Swat’s.
I thought the second floor rooms were abandoned until I gave Joe a ride home in a rainstorm Saturday night. A black wooden staircase leads upstairs from the bar, but I take the rickety back stairway, stepping over the rotted planks.
I rap and rap louder. I’m about to give up when Joe cracks open the door.
He smirks at me and glances back into the room.
“I brought you an engagement gift.” I lean on the door but he holds it firm.
His chin drops into the loose grin that makes him look like the real Joe Namath. He takes a step back.
I push through the door. The dim aluminum lamp casts a yellow tint on the worn white bedspread. Dusty gray curtains block most of the late afternoon sunlight. The brown carpet is matted and pressed flat like compost. “Nice place. Do you pay by the hour?”
“Very funny, you should go on tour.”
“I thought you were moving in with Debby.”
“Why do you care?” His eyes shift to the side table by the bed. A shopping bag from Ritz Camera and a scattering of money lie next to the lamp. He recovers his grin. “You want her back.”
“Everyone says that but me.” I glare at him. “How do you know Mark?”
“You and Mark,” he laughs. “Debby’s exes.”
“Yeah, she likes to pick up strays. Like you.”
He stands up straight. “I’ve had enough. Get out of here.”
“Don’t you want your gift?”
“Mark and I used to work together.”
“He told me about Mary.”
“She’s crazy. We dated twice and she’s been trying to get money out of me ever since.”
“What happened to Debby’s bank account?”
“Bank error.” He scowls. “That’s none of your business.”
“She never had much.”
He sneers. “She brags about buying the bar with her brother and turning it into a restaurant.” He shakes his head. “She had to borrow money from me to make the deposit on her apartment.”
“Did Mary have a bank error, too?”
“I told you to get out of here,” he fumes. “We’re finished.”
“Maybe I should talk to Mary’s lawyer.”
He steps back and doubles his fists, his face flaring red. His eyes dart toward the side table, but they avoid contact with me.
I walk over to the table, my soles slipping on the carpet. I throw an envelope next to the lamp. “Here’s your engagement gift.”
His eyes shift between the table and me, and back again.
I turn to face him. “It’s a Greyhound ticket to Pittsburg.”
“I ain’t going nowhere.”
“You should use it. Go see Mary.”
He heaves with anger. I keep my eye on him as my hand hovers over the envelope. “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it back. Maybe I’ll go see Mary.”
Joe sucks in a deep breath and stares at the cracked ceiling. He leans forward and snatches the envelope. “I’m through with this shit town anyway.”
I pick up the Ritz bag. Inside are a brand new Nikon camera and the receipt. I shift it to my left hand and take a twenty from the pile of money. “This should cover the ticket,” I smile as I shove it in my pocket.
“The camera’s a gift for Debby,” he yells. “You can’t just steal it.”
“I’ll give it to her and say it’s from you.” I head toward the door.
He spews, “Who the Hell do you think you are?”
“I’m Curt.” I shove him away and reach for the door handle.
Joe grabs my shoulder from behind and I whip around, knocking his hand off. But he swings his right fist in a wide arc, catching my jaw hard. My head snaps back and I fall, bouncing off the end of the bed and landing on the floor, dazed.
I should have expected his sucker punch. I take a deep breath. The carpet smells worse than it looks. The scent of mildew and ammonia mask the sour odor of dried beer and puke. I want to stand up more than anything, but I can’t.
Joe leans over me, his triumphant grin burning through my fuzzy eyesight. If he was smart he would kick me now and end it. Roll me into the hallway, shove me down the stairs. But he reaches for the Ritz Camera bag lying where it fell next to my right hand, cushioned by my thigh.
I clutch his wrist, focusing all my strength on that one spot. His arm stops cold, his hand grabbing air. I raise my head and tighten my fingers, my grip tempered by wrestling thousands of milk crates. I never dropped one. My head clears as I twist his wrist and use it to lever myself up. He takes a wild swing with his left hand but I lean back and his fist grazes my shoulder.
Still holding his wrist, I gather myself in a low stance. He starts another swing, leaving himself off balance. I pull him down and knee him in the stomach. He grunts and launches his himself toward me like a linebacker. I lean back and hook the side of his head with my left fist as he caroms sideways off the wall.
He coughs and rolls to his side, shaking his head. I stare at him, waiting for him to stand up, breathing hard and stretching my jaw where he caught me by surprise. He wipes the back of his hand on his mouth, sees a smear of blood and drops his head down on the floor.
I wait a long moment while my pulse slows, watching Joe breathe. His eyes simmer with anger, but he shows no sign of getting up. I hold his eyes as I walk toward the door, retrieving the shopping bag.
“You’re an asshole, Curt,” he says to my back.
I glance back. “You’re just being nice.” I slam the door and stride down the stairway, inhaling the fresh air.
Back home, the weak shower drains off my day of wrestling milk crates and quarterbacks. I stand in the water longer than usual, the hot steam soothing my jaw and shoulder. After Joe’s room at Sullivan’s, my sparse apartment feels like the Waldorf Astoria.
When I pick up Angie I don’t tell her about my errand, preferring to forget about it. By her soapy scent I know she also washed off her day at the dairy. She replaced her black lipstick with deep red for our trip to Pearl’s, but otherwise she retains her dark vampire appearance.
At the honky-tonk bar I stomp on peanut shells with my steel-soled work boots as Angie glides across the dance floor, shocking the college crowd with her steps and her deathly pallor. They give us plenty of space.
“I want to ride that horse.” I point toward the full-sized plaster cast of a bronco bucking up from the top of the bar, the tips of its hooves inches from the hanging lights.
“You’re too heavy.” She pokes me in the arm.
“You want me to toss you up there?”
She laughs. “You know the legend?”
“That says the horse will fly away when a virgin graduates from the university?”
“No, the one that says a vampire doesn’t any need help, especially from her prey.”
“I never heard that one.”
She leans into me. “I just made it up.”
We leave Pearl’s soon after, but we don’t stop at Mother’s. Angie won’t go near the bar. She takes me back to her apartment where I’m a willing victim.
The next night is Wednesday, and I know I’ll see Freddy picking up bets and paying off winners at Mother’s. I take my stool between Artie and Carl. They don’t notice the Ritz Camera bag when I set it down at my feet.
“You missed the action last night,” Artie says.
“I had to work.”
“Ha. I heard you were out hunting with the vampire.” He smiles, a wad of tobacco bulging in his cheek. “Glad you’re still alive.”
“Not like Joe Namath.” Carl peers at me over his horn-rimmed glasses. “Debby released him and now he’s a free agent.”
Artie chuckles into his beer glass. I turn away when he takes a swig without spitting out his plug. “She came in crying and she said Joe left her. But by the end of the night her story changed. Now she says she threw him out.”
I shake my head. “She has to maintain her perfect record.”
Artie gazes at me for a second. “She says he stole her money.”
“Those athletes always need cash,” Carl grumbles. “That big contract and now he’s broke.”
Debby emerges from the kitchen. She doesn’t look like a woman in mourning. Her eyes gleam in a special way when she’s ready for a new boyfriend. I wave her over, hoping Angie’s bite has given me immunity, but I shiver when she touches my shoulder.
“You had Joe figured from the beginning,” she says.
“You know I never liked the Jets.” I lift up the shopping bag and hand it to her.
She smiles with surprise. “Thank you, but what do I want with a camera?”
“It’s a gift from Joe. The receipt’s in the bag.”
“You can get your money back,” Carl says in his professional tone. “Ritz is good about that. The Press buys all their camera equipment there.”
She reads the amount and her face reddens. “How did you get this?”
I study the bag, avoiding her glare.
She darkens into a scowl. “I don’t want to know.”
She takes the bag and strides back to the kitchen, the door gaping and swinging in her wake.
“You’re welcome,” I say. Artie slaps me on the back.
Terry Tierney writes stories and poems while rewriting a sixties novel. “Sack the Quarterback” is one of his Beer River stories, which include a story coming in Fictive Dreams and one previously appearing in Big Bridge. He also published a story recently in Literally Stories, and he has poems coming or appearing in Third Wednesday and Cold Creek Review and other publications.
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