By Stephen O’Connor

Just before noon, the cloud bank that had hunched over the city like a great gray cat skulked off to the west, giving way to light. Lowell always looked beautiful to me in the sun: red brick and gray stone under blue. Along the cobbled streets of the old center there are a few sidewalk cafes where the lunch crowd was beginning to gather. The day was heating up fast, and the interior of the café in what had once been a fire station looked cool and inviting. I ambled in and took a seat at the bar. Sports Center news was on; there was some big celebration in Boston for Tom Brady’s 40th birthday. The bartender came up, a curly-haired blonde with a tattoo of a keyhole between her breasts. I ordered a pint of lager, idly wishing I was much younger, and had the key.

“How much longer you think he can go?”

I turned and looked at the guy on the next stool, who was gazing up at the TV, and copped on to his question. “He takes damn good care of himself. I’ll say, barring injuries, three more years.”

He considered my opinion, nodding as if it might be plausible. “Did you ever play?” he asked. I took him for a laboring man. His build was bullish, and while his clothes were clean, there were stains of tar, paint and caulking here and there. He was about my age, maybe a little older, fifty or so, hair thinning and graying, but blue eyes that were clear and intelligent.

“I played in high school, you know, small Catholic school.”

The bartender stole my attention as she set my beer down and flashed a warm smile that was certainly worth a hefty tip.

“We had a pretty good high school team,” my new barstool neighbor continued, “in Pepperell in 89, 90.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Except we had a crap quarterback. Dan Huffmam. The kid had an arm, too. He could throw the ball sixty yards, but it took him five minutes to throw the damned thing! And he was always bitchin’ at the line. ‘Mac,’ he’d say, ‘you don’t block for Chrissakes!’

“Well, how much time do you need? I can’t hold ‘em forever!” It all came to a head during the Thanksgiving game. I was tired of his whining, and I said to the defensive lineman across from me, ‘It’s a passing play, and he’s all yours.’ On the second hut! I sidestepped, and the fuckin’ guy charged in and demolished Huffman before he could take two steps back. Huffmam got up with grass stickin’ out of his faceguard, and I said to him, ‘That’s what it feels like when I don’t block.’

“Then, at half time, just before we’re headed back out to the field, the coach runs up and grabs my faceguard and says, ‘Mac! Huffmam said you let that sonofabitch nail him!’ The coach had one stub instead of a finger, and he would hold your faceguard and let the stub poke through in front of your eyes.

I said, ‘Coach, I would never do that!’ Then I got in the huddle and said, ‘You ran to the coach, you little pussy?’

‘Fuck you, Mac!’ he says.

Then, of course, the coach says to me later, ‘Did you call Huffmam a pussy?’

‘He is a pussy.’”

I could see that my new acquaintance, Mac, was getting angry remembering all this. His eyes narrowed as he sipped his beer. After all these years, he was still brooding over forgotten contests, and I had the feeling that I was not the first guy at a bar who had heard about Huffman, the whining quarterback. Still, I figured I’d let him get it off his chest. “So, what happened? How did it turn out?”

“I’ll tell you how it turned out. That was the last game of the year. We lost by a touchdown, and the coach remembered. The next year I went out, my senior year, he sat my ass on the bench. First two games, I played about ten minutes combined, and the kid who took my place sucked. The coach wanted me back in, but his pride wouldn’t let him. Finally, he says, ‘Mac, I tell you what, you go apologize to Huffman for that Thanksgiving game, and you’re back starting at left tackle.’”

He seemed to be staring down some long hallway of time where that scene was forever playing out, and his mouth turned down as if he tasted something sour.

“What did you do?”

“Couldn’t do it. I quit. And do you know, that was over thirty years ago, and I still think about it all the time. We—they—almost won the championship that year, and I wonder if I could have made a difference. A solid left tackle makes a difference.”

“Sure does,” I said.

“But I’ll never know. And sometimes I think if I could go back there, I’d eat the humble pie and apologize to that dink. Maybe I should have. Other times, I think I was right. I don’t know. Everyone was just doing what their pride dictated, but I feel like I lost something that fall that I can never get back.”

“Like Sinatra said, we all have a few regrets. But hey, you did it your way. The way that seemed right to you at the time.”

He took a deep breath, like he was trying to pull himself out of a reverie, shrugging it off. “The coach died about ten years later. Had a heart attack during practice one afternoon. As for Huffman, I saw him getting out of his car one day at Home Depot in Nashua. Something welled up in me. I’m not normally a violent man, but I suddenly wanted to kick his ass. I walked over, ready to slam his head against the hood of his car, but as I come up, I see he’s reaching into the back seat, and he pulls out his little girl. And I have to say, I was ashamed of myself.”

“Yeah, you gotta let it go, my friend.”

“Hey Mac,” he says to me, “all friendly. ‘How are you doin’?’ You know, like he cared. And he put his hand out, and I shook it. I shook his hand. After all that.”

“You did the right thing. You were kids back then.”

“I don’t know. I suppose.”

“Sure.” I thought it best to leave the subject there. I’m no therapist anyway, and nothing I could say would change the movie, or send him back to a time, maybe the last time, he felt the camaraderie of a team, and a place of honor within it. Gone, and like he said, you can never get it back.

I looked up at the sports highlights on the big screen. “Hey, did you catch the Sox last night?” I asked. “They were absolutely crushing the baseball.”

He made no answer, and turning, I saw that he was staring intently into his glass of beer.

7 Responses to Wormwood

  1. David Daniel says:

    Beautifully woven stuff: the various strands … a city afternoon, a cafe, Tom Brady, and the very human bittersweet meeting of past and present over a drink. A lot of skill in the simple weaving.

  2. Malcolm Sharps says:

    Reading a piece by the great O’is like the days when I used to eat my mum’s pies. I make them myself, but how do get them as good as that? I scratch my head and wonder.

  3. Jack Dacey says:

    Quiet, subtle, expertly written, moves at its own pace. Very real, in a place we have all visited. Who hasn’t tormented himself over something that happened long ago, and what he could have said or should have said? Yet, at no time is the reader smacked upside the head with a point that the author wanted to make. It was not necessary, for the story stands on its own legs. Very well done!