Patron Saint of the Jumbotron

The seamstress shop is ill lit. That’s what he likes about it. He likes the tangled North End alleys he has to trace to get here. He likes the heavy curtains that obscure the shop window. In any modern shop you’d have a brightly lit display with samples on little mannequins. You’d be able to see the shopkeeper smiling through the window, just the same as the mannequins. Here, he goes through the door and a little bell jangles, tied to the handle with red yarn. He loves that. What was the point of those electronic sensors that made a little wee-ooo, when a bell did the job?

He likes things old-world, lo-fi. Doesn’t keep a smartphone. Doesn’t even keep a cell phone. He’s always astounded that nobody can see how unhappy these devices make them, when one look at the poor saps frowning into their black boxes made it the most obvious thing in the world. Then they want to fly to some rainy island to stay in a room without wifi or central air. Get a grip, mate, he wants to tell people. Live that way here and save on airfare.

No one’s at the counter.

“Down in a minute,” she shouts.

“Take your time.”

“That you, Duncan?”

“It is.”

“Then I’ll be down in three.”

He hears rattling and digging. Cabinet doors clanking. It’s hard to believe the upstairs could be as disorganized as the downstairs, but that’s what it sounds like. Slacks draped over old chairs. Piles of buttons. Hunter green wallpaper. Nobody would choose that. The corners where the light doesn’t stretch look nearly black. Her Irish accent from the floor above. The thump of her limp down the stairs. It’s wrong to romanticize that, but he likes it anyway. Life isn’t seamless. Nor does it have to be.

She’s pinching blue fabric between her ribs and elbow while her other hand navigates the rail. “I bought these cheap plastic snaps, trying to save a buck. You should have heard me swearing like an old sea captain when I was sewing pants together and they came undone at the slightest. Then I thought, I know just the client.”

Down the stairs now, she passes him the first sample. Two squares of polyester, buttoned together with four of the old metal snaps. He gives it a firm tug and the snaps give one by one. She hands him the other, the same but for the snaps.

He grips either corner and tenses his arms. She preempts him: “Gently as you want.”

Lightly as he can, he pulls back on either side. The squares slide apart like butter. There isn’t even a sound.

Oh, Mary,” he purrs.

“Now, what am I putting them on?”

He pulls the picture from his coat pocket: an NFL ref, signaling a field goal. She looks at it, then at her calendar. “The Superbowl?”

He nods.

“Security’ll be tight.”

“Hence the special outfit.”

“That’s not just an outfit. That’s a disguise.”

She smiling now, though she tries not to.

“They’ll call you a conspirator.”

“I’ll go to the gallows with my chin high.”

“Keep the photo. I fly out next Friday.”

“Well, Jesus, Duncan, thanks for the lead time.”

“I have nothing but faith in you.”

People always ask why he does it. This is almost enough of an answer. This little oddity, an Irish seamstress tucked into the maze of Italian bistros. Up here, it was easier to find a bar you’d never seen before than to find your way back to one you knew. That made it his heaven. A pint wouldn’t kill him. He spots a bar with a sign so inconspicuous the place might be out of business.

The bartender asks where he knows Duncan from. Duncan takes a long sip. He looks at the bartender like he’s appraising his character, deciding whether he deserves the secret.

“2004 World Series. Game three.”

“You score a hit or something?”

“I wasn’t in a uniform. Wasn’t in much of anything, to tell the truth.”

The wheels are turning now. You had to let them piece it together. Tell it straight out and you lose the effect to vanity. He’s been selling cars on these stories for years. He knows how to work the magic, and all the ways you can lose it. One beer’s enough to get into the list without broaching the deeper questions. Wimbledon, ‘98. World Cup, ‘09. The Preakness, ‘11—the most humorless crowd he’d ever seen. NBA playoffs at the Garden. College games during his college years. The bartender’s eyes are wet. The hook is sunk.

“Next one on the house?”

Duncan raises his empty glass in thanks.

“Cheers, but I’ll be in enough trouble as it is.”

He’s given up trying to hide his plans from Claire. She can sniff him out in a second. She used to pull bank records, phone records. She’d timed his commute. A good detective, she’d have been. But she gave it up when she figured out that she could get him to admit, to apologize, to reveal all his hidden maneuvering, but she could never get him to promise. Now he conceals it only well enough not to seem like he’s throwing it in her face.

She’s at the dining room table when he comes in. She glances at him without saying anything. He thinks he can see what she’s thinking: it would be easier if he were just sleeping around. A few years back, a friend of hers had found pictures of her husband cheating. We’re talking fully explicit—

What Claire had told her: “Could be worse.”

That was the end of that friendship.

John’s at the table too, glowering. His wife won’t look at him. His son won’t look away.

“Good day at work?” Duncan asks.

“Just don’t talk to me until it’s over,” she says. “Maybe give it a month after that. And don’t expect bail.”

He meets his son’s gaze. Oh, that fifteen-year-old anger.

“How about a movie?”

John slides back his chair and stomps straight up the stairs. Duncan slides the chair back under the table, gives it a minute, and follows him up. Claire would treat John’s closed door like an impassable barrier. Duncan’s not game for that. It’s a door in his own house. Its function is to open. He’s half expecting John to launch up off the bed and throw a haymaker. If Duncan has one physical skill, it’s a juke. He stays light on his toes when he steps in the room.

John stays on the bed, scowling over his guitar. Guess he’s still got a healthy fear of Dad, Duncan thinks, not that he ever hit the boy. John hasn’t filled out. You can see he doesn’t have the man strength, a wise boy to realize it. He doesn’t know why it upsets John so much. John’s friends love it. They call it epic, a new word that is also an old world. The highest compliment he can imagine. They’d asked him do their homecoming game. He wasn’t about to get himself on the sex offender registry, but the request was flattering. John had loved it too. They used to record it on the TV.

“Batting cages?”

“Get out of my room.”

“New shoes? Celtics game?”

Nothing.

“Come on, take advantage. It’s a dad-guilt fire sale.”

“When you feel guilty about something, you stop doing it.”

“Well I feel bad that you feel bad, but I don’t know what I’ve got to feel guilty about. I’m not harming anyone.”

“Do you know mom hasn’t had a vacation since I was born? Fifteen years and no vacation. Never been to Paris. Never been to Rome. But there’s always money for airfare, always money for tickets. There’s always money for Marty’s fees—”

“Believe me, we’d be paying a lot more without Marty’s fees—”

“There’s always money for bail. Any time we build up some reserves—”

“Who makes that money?”

John props his guitar on the desk and lies back on the bed with his hands behind his head.

“Who drains all that money? Six thousand dollars to do the Preakness. Fifteen thousand for World Cup. Everything she tries to save just gets drained away, so that you can strip naked to get on TV.”

These were not sums a fifteen-year-old tracked. Building up reserves. Draining funds. What teenage boy laments his mom’s lost trip to Rome?

“I see someone’s poisoned the well.”

“The well’s dry, Dad.”

So is Duncan’s throat. Why not stay for second pint, when this is what you get at home. The well is dry. The well is dry. That’s quite a phrase. He’s paused. Off his footing, he realizes. It’s happened to him twice at the dealership. Twice in twenty years. He never gets thrown.

If there’s one thing you don’t do as a dad, as a husband, it’s let the well go dry.

He wants to promise not to do it. He wills himself three times to say the words.

“I promise—” he says. Then he falters. His throat is so dry.

“You promise not to go?” John’s voice has no faith in it.

“I promise to think about it.”

***

Pittsburgh is even colder than Boston. That doesn’t matter much. They blur out the important bits. The good thing is there’s no snow. No slush, no mud to slip in. It’s only a problem in the line, waiting to get in the stadium. Packing his thick coat would have used up a whole suitcase, so he’s just got his windbreaker. Under that, there’s only the ref’s uniform, and it’s not built for warmth. Next time, he’ll ask Mary to build him some tearaway long johns.

He feels the nerves bundle as he approaches the gate. They’re passing out pictures of him now. Have been since at least ‘08, when he was screened out of the NBA finals. He’d thought about wearing a disguise, changing his facial hair. That was the worst thing you could do—changing into something unfamiliar to yourself. People could see it. As is, he looked like any other sports fan. Same paunch. Same stubble. These guys were searching sixty-four thousand people. No way they could be alert to every face. Besides, they must have hundreds of mug shots they show to the guards. Every molester and sneakthief in the NFL fandom.

But he’s got to be calm. A second glance could ruin him. He looks out at the water in the distance, the wide Allegheny. Great damn name for a river. At the gate, he holds his ticket up absentmindedly. Just another sad sack living for the big game. A big hand on his chest stops him.

“Woah there.”

He looks up at the guy, a big white guy with clever eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses. Not the best sign.

“Gotta check your jacket.”

Duncan unzips it and holds it open. The guy leans back and squints at Duncan’s ref stripes.

“What’s all that about?”

“It’s luck, man. Wore this to every home game of the season. All except one. You can guess which one I missed.”

“You talking the Buccaneers?”

“October twenty-eighth, mate. Tampa fucking Bay.”

The big guy tears the stub off Duncan’s ticket.

“Who gets the luck today?”

“Broncos,” Duncan says.

“I’m sorry, then. I can’t let you in.”

“The Seahawks? Come on, man. Have some self respect.”

Duncan walks on by.

“Bad luck to you,” the guy calls after him.

Whew. Duncan’s breathing in the cold. That could have gone south any number of ways. He’s already exhilarated. He walks longer than he needs to, not eager to put his balls on that cold plastic seat. There’s an energy you want in a big game, and this one has it. Everybody has at least one hot dog. Some have three. Hopefully the pitch holds up. You don’t just run on the field willy nilly. Too early and it’s wasted. Too late and it’s irrelevant. A lull in the game and you’re a passing joke. In a blowout, there’s no good time to run. You had to see a wave of rising enthusiasm and jump on the crest of it.

Someone’s looking out for him, because it’s a perfect game. Seahawks up by eighteen at the half. Broncos keep trying to chip away at the lead, not quite getting there. Then a field goal and touchdown on consecutive drives bring it within eight. What could turn up hopeful anticipation more than that? Needing just one touchdown, but the two-point conversion as well—the heart of every fan shouting lay your chips on the table.

He sneaks down to the lower deck. It’s like diving underwater. The pressure’s greater down here, the atmosphere richer. Not a lot of empty seats at a moment like this. He sheds the windbreaker and drops it next to a column. It doesn’t make any sense for a ref to be watching from the stands, but it doesn’t matter. He looks official. Might as well be wearing a pitch perfect police uniform. No one’s going to ask him a question.

At the bottom of the stairs, he leans against the rail. A security guard in the front corner looks at him, gives him a nod. Duncan has to stifle a laugh. The secret knowledge of the universe was that no one knew what they were doing. The difference between a uniform and a costume was always in the imagination.

Man, does that wind bite, out here at the front of it all. It ices the flats of his hips and shoulders. It blows an icicle up his dick. He won’t feel it when he’s running, but there’s no guard against it now. Mary, he thinks, next time add a lining.

Broncos in the red zone. Surprise time out. The guard in the corner, he’s looking up at the jumbotron.

At the rail, Duncan pauses. He had promised to think about it, so think about it he does. He thinks of his son sulking on his bed in his room, like so many other sons sulking on their beds in other rooms that look just like his. He thinks of his wife furrowing her brow at the dining room table, stressing about money. He thinks about his own father, coming home from the plant, eating pot roast then taking his shoes off to read the paper in his recliner. That’s the closest thing he has to a story about the old man: pot roast; shoes; recliner. The worn groove into which his father’s whole life fell.

You don’t have to live the same life as everyone else, he thinks. You just don’t have to.

He slithers over the rail. No one stops as him he walks toward the field. No one pauses at the sight of a referee slipping off his sneakers. The costume tears off like a paper gown, and he’s a bull out of the gate, the big flaccid hide of him loping near the thirty yard line. Near the hash marks he hears the sound change. You don’t hear a hush, you don’t hear the laughter, maybe a whistle or two, but the real change in the sound is more like some extra sense, the scent a deer catches on the wind.

It means they’re watching.

Which means that security will be charging the field by now. Which means the show has really started. Principles for keeping the crowd on your side: (1) never muck up the gameplay (2) try to make a big guy fall down (3) work in a little Riverdance—but only after you’ve made a dodge or two. Above all, have fun. Feel the joy.

Ahead of him, three dots are getting bigger. He checks his six, but they’re off to a slower start from that side. He makes the call to veer right, to drive the action closer to midfield. He runs straight toward the rightmost guard. Better to juke than be chased, both for the crowd and for the lungs. Come on, you big baldy, he thinks. You big-necked baby-looking goof. They hired security guards who were big and looked scary. Speed and agility didn’t factor into it. He’s not the springiest chicken himself, but he’s got adrenaline on his side.

Plant the foot. Spin move. The big guy stumbles. The crowd roars, and Duncan high-steps it to the forty.

Now they’re tangling him up. Four are in range. They charge like the bulls they are. He breaks out the fancy footwork, dodges one. Another dives. Duncan feels the oily fingers on his thighs. He shakes his legs free. He’s got the moment. He’s got ten seconds.

Riverdance!

The crowd, the whistles, the flashes.

He looks at jumbotron, sees himself there, and points up at his magnified reflection.

Then he’s flat, smashed between the frigid turf and something very warm.

Principle (4): If you make a big guy fall down, don’t Riverdance with your back to him.

“I’m gonna find your house,” the big guy whispers, still smothering him. Pulling a breath into his lungs takes every muscle in his body, even down to his toes.

“Gonna eat your sandwich.”

Duncan wishes he had the breath to ask what the hell the guy was talking about.

“Gonna rifle through your closet.”

Duncan tries to say get off me and it comes out like a balloon deflating.

The other guards have gathered around, and stare down at the two of them. Duncan feels the heat of a broken rib pulsing against the icy ground. He doesn’t bother asking the other guards to get the guy off of him. He’s got no wind for it, and they’re all standing around Duncan and his paperweight with their arms crossed, like they’re at a damn campfire.

“Ted,” one of them finally says.

“Gonna try on your shoes,” Ted whispers.

“Ted, it looks like you’re making love to that man on the jumbotron.”

The big guy gets up and dusts himself off. He looks for himself on the screen, and throws up victory arms. No one cheers. Some guys are always on the wrong side of life, and they never know why.

Duncan gets to his knees. The air rushes into him. Ice crowds his veins. That’s more than one rib. The crowd’s quiet as he falters, like he’s a star receiver headed for the injured list. He staggers a few steps in their silence. It’s not long before the medic cart is out for him. Someone wraps him in a mylar blanket. He looks and sees a whole motley crowd around him now. Medics, guards, refs. Light one up, boys, he thinks. You look like you’re on a smoke break.

Even a few of the players. A Seahawk with long braids hanging out of his helmet extends his hand, palm out to the side for a slap. Duncan swings into it. Oof. That one’s talking to the ribs. But it’s worth it. The crowd erupts. The Seahawk does the dab thing. Does a little dance, swinging his braids back and forth. A man after my own heart, Duncan thinks. I’m rooting Seahawks now. The roar keeps up as the med cart rolls him away off the field. It follows him into the tunnels as they take him under the stadium. What a day.

***

“You want to know who won the game?”

The guard at the Allegheny County Jail is a little guy with a big head and a neck like a pelican’s. The noggin bobbles around. He’s a guy who likes to joke.

“Don’t tell me. Until I know, I get to feel like I won it.”

“Okay.” The guard tapped his toes against the bar a few times. “It was the Seahawks, though.”

Fucking jailers. The most bored people in the world.

“Sorry. You’re still a winner in my book.”

The original Allegheny County Jail looked like a castle. He’d Googled it. All made of stone. It had a tower. It had an arched bridge that went over the avenue below. That was a museum now. The place they had him looked more like a cheap condo building. The climate control was certainly better, but the atmosphere could be improved.

He called after the guard, who was starting to move on: “Hey! Can I get my call?”

Duncan figures the guy’s looking for anything to do. He’s right. The guard opens the holding cell and walks him down to the pay phones.

“Guy like you probably has his lawyer’s number memorized.”

Duncan taps his temple. “For about two decades.”

But he’s not calling his lawyer. Marty would figure it out from the news. He’s not calling Claire either. That one’s too far gone. He calls his son. His son’s cell phone. Yes, he has the number memorized. He’s reaching across the gulf to the new world. He’s not above it.

The phone rings and rings. Voicemail. The guard isn’t watching, so he tries again. The answer. The wait while a recording tells John where the call’s coming from. Then his voice. John’s voice shocks him. Through the line it sounds so much like his own. No scrawny body to draw the difference.

“Don’t waste your calls,” he says.

“It’s not a waste.”

“I wasn’t even surprised, Dad. It’s never going to be a surprise.”

“You want me to say I’ll retire?”

“It doesn’t matter if you say it. Your answer’s the same either way.”

“Just going to throw your old man in the trash, since he likes to have a little fun?”

“Who’s throwing whom?”

“I don’t know what that means, but—”

“I wondered why for so long. Wondered why getting naked on TV mattered more than me and mom. I finally get it. I get it. It doesn’t matter why.”

“It’s the story of my life, John. Not everyone gets one. It may not be the best story, but if you’re given one, you take it.”

The line’s dead.

“Take me back to the cell,” he tells the guard.

“Family trouble?”

“Sure. Whatever.”

They put him back in. He sits there a short while, knowing he has a long while to go.

Jails are old places too, he thinks. Even the new ones. And not so bad as people imagine them. A place where the cage bars of the world were at least made visible. If you didn’t expect too much it gave all you needed. Four cold walls. A bed. A meal coming, who cared what it was. Comfort.

Ethan Chatagnier

Ethan Chatagnier

Ethan Chatagnier is the author of a novel, Singer Distance (Tin House, 2022), and a story collection, Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, New England Review, Story, and other journals, and have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Best American Short Stories. He lives in Fresno, California with his family.
Ethan Chatagnier

Latest posts by Ethan Chatagnier (see all)

Author: Ethan Chatagnier

Ethan Chatagnier is the author of a novel, Singer Distance (Tin House, 2022), and a story collection, Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, New England Review, Story, and other journals, and have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Best American Short Stories. He lives in Fresno, California with his family.