James fidgeted with his tie, beads of sweat breaking the surface of his forehead as he averted his eyes from the lights and the three cameras pointing at him. He sat perched atop a small stool, the seat a hard overstuffed mushroom cap, the wooden legs spindly like toothpicks. To make matters worse, it wobbled just enough to drive him to distraction. His trimmed-down two hundred forty pounds of rippling muscle and sinew suddenly felt like a real drawback.
“Why the fuck did I agree to do this?” he chastised himself aloud.
He glanced over the shoulder of the woman from makeup patting his face with a parchment tissue and caught Jean-Louis staring back at him from across the set, arms folded over his chest as he stood off to the side in a darkened corner, his expression one of bitterly furious regret. James accepted with despair that he was a dead man and wouldn’t get laid for at least a day or two, maybe even a week, God forbid. Things had been going so swimmingly after his injury and rehab had forced an early retirement almost a year ago. He thought he had broken free of the game but, like all addicts, he couldn’t forgo the adrenalin rush of fame revisited. What idiocy!
ESPN analyst Trevor Mayfield took his seat next to him. His stool was six inches taller so their heads would line up correctly on camera. James noticed that Trevor’s stool didn’t wobble.
“Hey, can I get a different stool?” James asked. “This one’s not—”
“You’re fine, kiddo,” Trevor interrupted with a smile, clapping him on the shoulder as if they were old O-line comrades. “We’re going to kill this one.”
Trevor was fifty-two going on twenty-five by the look of things. Clean-shaven his entire career, he had lately lost his mind and taken to maintaining a two-day’s growth of facial hair. Unfortunately for Trevor, his hair, already painfully thin on top and supplemented with a very obvious weave, came in on his cheeks and chin in a Rorschach pattern of uneven density. It reminded James of the flocked wallpaper in his grandmother’s bathroom with its meandering crazy-quilt texture. The makeup woman brushed some tinted gloss onto Trevor’s lips and then made an ominous move towards James.
“Please don’t,” James begged and defensively jerked his head back. He was uncomfortable enough wearing the suit and tie, not to mention the gel in his hair and the powder on his face like some emasculated, metrosexual wimp.
Trevor seemed disappointed in him, rolled his eyes as if to say, Duh, you fool. “The camera loves it,” he insisted, all basso profondo and smarmy grin. He leaned in close in mock conspiratorial friendliness, veneered teeth gleaming like peppermint Chiclets. “I’ll let you in on a secret: the ladies love to see a man show his more vulnerable side.” Then Trevor winked and it made James want to punch him in the face and send those ivory teeth flying.
Trevor was married with two kids, but everyone in the business knew he batted for the other team. If it were not for his deep radio-quality voice and the fact that his father had been the iconic announcer for a major league baseball team in the NL East during their heyday in the 1980s, it was unlikely he would have risen so far in the world of pro sports broadcasting. His hour-long segment for ESPN, A Look Back in the Life, drew steady and loyal viewership. There seemed to be an insatiable appetite for stories focusing on athletes who had fallen the farthest. The format was always the same: a gravitas laden studio interview with Trevor interspersed with archival photos and grainy video tracing a player’s meteoric rise from scrawny adolescent wannabe to the heights of pro glory in high definition followed by the inevitable plummet into abject failure of one kind or another, usually self-inflicted. Tearful confessions of drug abuse and wife-beating would be juxtaposed with charming scenes of the offender making pancakes at the stove for the kids, singing in church on a Sunday morning, or taking soul-searching walks with the family dog on the beach at dusk. Good stuff for sure.
They had already spent two days the previous week at James’s sprawling “cabin” in the Denver suburbs shooting faux-candid footage of him riding his ATV on the gravel paths crisscrossing his twenty acres of land, working out in his basement gym, shopping for diapers at the local Costco with his seventeen-month-old twins, Benjamin and Chloe. The children’s mother was represented by a photograph of Jean-Louis’s sister Charlotte posing in a bikini on the island of Capri taken before they had ever met. At one point they had James standing next to the wheelchair in the corner of the garage, a disgusting ploy aimed at tugging at any recalcitrant heartstrings. Even as they shot the footage, James knew it was going to take a miracle for Jean-Louis to forgive him this latest venture back into the public eye. Private and reticent by nature, his errant lover had initially balked at being filmed but relented when James’s mother insisted. Jean-Louis was always a sucker when it came to blond haired women. He was introduced as the children’s uncle, no lie there, and made to appear in a seemingly innocuous family gathering with James’s parents and the kids all huddled around the fire pit roasting marshmallows and acting as if it were just another day in Mayberry. The fact that the twins kept crawling into Jean-Louis’s lap, no mother in sight, made for a pitifully awkward scene.
“And…we are go!”
Trevor’s sonorous voice filled the now quiet studio as he effortlessly read the teleprompter sitting just off-camera. It took a moment for James to hear what he was saying over the roar of the tsunami in his brain. All he could think about was losing Jean-Louis’s favor for good this time, completely blowing it and for what? To sit across from a pair of obscenely glossy lips under the hot lights of media scrutiny? I’m so sorry, baby, so very, very sorry.
“Here you are, coming off of a stellar season where you set team records for total receptions, yards and touchdowns for your position, you have four Pro Bowls under your belt, you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the third time, you’re in the sixth year of an exceptionally lucrative contract, still at the top of your game and then (insert pregnant pause) disaster strikes. Take me through it.” Trevor stared earnestly into James’s face, eyes like laser beams slicing through the fog of memory, Adam’s apple bobbing at his throat in pensive anticipation.
James followed his lead like one of Pavlov’s dogs and gulped a few times himself before answering. “It was the third game of the season. We were in Seattle playing the Seahawks. Ten minutes into the second quarter I went up and caught a fifteen-yard pass. As I came down, I got hit on two sides, in the ribs and in the legs. Then someone landed on my back when I was down. I remember feeling a weird popping sensation. That was it.”
“Let’s take a look at that,” Trevor panted breathlessly. “I’m sure you’ve watched this replay over and over and wondered what if?”
“No, actually, I haven’t watched it.”
“Too painful to revisit? I should warn the audience that this footage might not be suitable for everyone.” After a brief pause, Trevor continued, reading directly off of a sheet of paper. “You suffered fractures in two lower vertebrae accompanied by compression and partial rupture of the sacral nerves, a very serious and scary injury but, thankfully, not life-threatening.”
James nodded, suddenly taken with religious fervor. “Thank God,” he intoned gravely.
“But it left you partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair for how long?”
“After the surgery, I was in a wheelchair for three months, and then on crutches and braces for another four months, all in all, nine months of intensive physical therapy. The people who worked with me at the spinal treatment center in Denver were amazing. They pushed me pretty much every day for nearly a year to get me back to where I can walk on my own and live a normal life again.” He looked gratefully into one of the cameras.
“But your career in pro football is over. All that you’d worked so hard for cut short in an instant. Do you bear ill will towards the sport? The men who inflicted the damage? Do you have regrets?”
“No, no, not at all. First, you have to understand: no one made me play football except me. It’s what I’ve always wanted and I’m grateful to have had the kind of career and success that I’ve had. Second, the guys who hit me were just doing their job. I don’t believe anyone set out to put me in a wheelchair. It’s just the risk you take when you play this game. If you can’t live and play with that risk, then you better get out of the game.”
“Would you feel this way if you were still in a wheelchair, paralyzed for the rest of your life? Would you be so forgiving?”
“You know, Trevor, I don’t go down that road. I look back and I can’t see how I would have done anything differently. If it came to this, then so be it. All I know is I gave it my all. I didn’t cheat the game, my teammates, or the fans. I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish and at this point in my life, I can only look forward to the future and move on from here.”
“Speaking of moving forward, you have kids now.”
“Yep.” The room suddenly felt ten degrees hotter. James was hoping it wouldn’t get personal, but what else could he expect? He would have to tread carefully.
Like a dog on a bone, Trevor went for the marrow. “Two years ago, you met a woman and fell madly in love.”
Here it comes. James had been raised by hardworking, middle class parents who stressed decency and honesty to their sons. He had never had any difficulty upholding their standards until fate dictated that he cross paths again with one of his college tutors, an inveterate stoner and boy genius who proceeded to tear his guts out with no mercy. The lies and appalling actions that came afterward effectively wiped out his previously pristine record. It made him question his sanity and judgment, the things he did for love and lust, especially on a day like this when he had no one to blame but himself.
“I fell in love and I have two beautiful kids to show for it,” James stated. Score a point for honesty. “Unfortunately, things didn’t work out between me and their mother. It happens.” He shot Trevor a threatening look, but Trevor wasn’t giving up so easily.
“She’s a French restaurateur from what I understand. And you met her on a visit to New York, am I correct?”
“Yes.” Fine. You wanna play that game, asshole? I’m giving you the bare minimum.
“Do you still maintain contact…for the sake of the children?”
“But you are on good terms with her brother, her fraternal twin, I might add. You’re very close to him, as are the kids, wouldn’t you say?”
What the hell was that son of a bitch getting at? Fucking hypocrite. “Yes, I’d say my kids are close to their uncle.” James cleared his throat and hoped against hope that he sounded cool and collected. “I’m sure your kids are close to their own relatives. Having family to fall back on is always a good thing. But it’s also our job as people in the public eye to protect the privacy of our family members.”
Trevor tried a different approach. “Have you thought about marriage in the future? After all, you are known as one of the most eligible bachelors in pro sports.”
James was getting exasperated. He wanted badly to plaster Trevor’s rouged and lip-glossed face all over the floor, slap that rug off his head. But he did some fancy footwork instead. Suck on this, you goddamn prick!
“Marriage? Hell, yeah!” James enthused. “When I meet the right person, I’ll know it. Try and stop me then!” He smiled into the camera, eyes twinkling.
“Well I’m sure your myriad fans who follow you on Facebook and Twitter would love to know: what would be your ideal woman? It’s a fact that you receive hundreds, if not thousands, of marriage proposals from women, not all of them single, by the way.” Then Trevor added with a salacious smirk, “You even receive proposals from men, too, from what I can gather on social media.”
It was true, and those sadly hilarious proposals always seemed to open with the caveat, “I’m not gay, but…” Whatever. He wasn’t gay either as far as he was concerned. He was just a man hopelessly in love. James shot the camera a corn-fed, aw-shucks, abashed grin, ignoring Trevor’s last comment.
“Well, let’s see.” James made it a point to gaze soulfully off into the distance. “She’d have to be someone who’d be happy to spend a Friday evening at home with me and the kids, a bowl of popcorn and a movie on TV—maybe Aliens or Predator or Tremors—someone real down-to-earth who’s not about money and fame and fancy this and that, and…what else…oh, I know, someone who really enjoys cooking, ‘cause I love to eat.” He figured that should turn off just about everybody on the planet and it put a genuine smile on his lips.
“Whoa there, big guy,” Trevor chuckled. “That doesn’t exactly register high on the excitement meter.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a pretty boring guy, what can I say? I live a very simple life.”
“So, to all you single ladies out there, and all you interested men, be forewarned,” Trevor advised with a wink. “Expect a snooze fest on Friday nights.”
James stood up, being careful to duck under the microphone floating above his head, and wordlessly left the set, not daring to look in Jean-Louis’s direction. Inside he was a seething ball of rage. Nothing would have given him more satisfaction than to rip a new hole into Trevor right then and there, but that would only have ended up on YouTube and gone embarrassingly viral. He made a beeline for the green room where he could calm himself before proceeding with this charade. The room was blissfully cool compared to the hot lights of the set. He considered putting a fist through a wall but thought better of it and cracked open a bottle of water instead, emptied it in four gulps. This was all too soon. He should have waited another year, when all the details of his life wouldn’t matter to a public that would have largely forgotten about him anyway. He had let his ego lead him off the cliff and now, like hapless Wyle E. Coyote, he hung mid-air for the few excruciating moments before the humiliating faceplant in the dirt. After a few minutes a pimply-faced intern approached and stood nervously in the doorway.
“Excuse me, Mr. Miller. They’re waiting for you on set.”
James took a deep breath and followed the kid back out. As he balanced himself atop the rickety stool, he whispered to Trevor in pseudo-friendly fashion, “So sorry about that, just a little upset stomach. You know, I’d really like to talk about my charity work. Why don’t we get into that, keep it all positive?”
Trevor blinked a few times and then smiled warmly. “Not a chance.”