Green Hills Literary Lantern

Seat 9

 

In the best of times, we see each other six, seven, eight times a year. Nine at most. I look forward to the meetings. Next year is almost here.

I know a lot about him, but I don’t know his name, first or last. I should know it by now after nine years of being side by side. After a while you reach a point where you can’t ask. That is all right though, because he doesn’t know my name either.   

It’s not a problem; we are of one mind. When we are together, there is only one thing that is important. On those occasions, we exult, curse, sing, complain. Together. We mostly suffer, and only those who have endured the slings and arrows in the same way can appreciate the moments of exhilaration.

There probably would be no intersection in our lives at all, were it not for the misery that has annealed our passion over the decades.

He is a construction worker, from what I gather. High school education at best. Tattoos snake down his muscular arms, even outdistancing the sleeves of the hooded green sweatshirt he wears when summer turns November. He bartends for more money. His squat appearance, closely shaven head, faint blond beard, and a laugh that punctuates every sentence says Southwest Philly. Or the near-suburbs.

The type of neighborhood where you don’t want to make eye contact if someone is staring at you.

Wonder what he would say if he knew I was an English teacher. No tats.

Even though we did not physically meet until September 8, 2003, we knew each other. I don’t remember much about the night; I’m sure it was awkward. I am not an aggressive mingler, and the only people I knew were the three I came with. Everyone else around us seemed to know each other.  

That night was a downer. No surprise there. Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed. It always hurts though. The day after is a gray, gauzy hangover, and the week is a depressing grind. We don’t want to talk about it.

But by Friday, we are ready to beat on, optimistic boats against the current.

So it goes. 

Something has changed in the last couple of years, though. He’s rarely there. My guess is money. And getting hit by a train.           

Legitimate reasons, because God knows these rendezvous are expensive, and there was a rehab period and disability, not that he shows any effects. Just mentions them in passing.

“Yeah, I was parked on the track at the job site, and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. Heh-heh-heh.”

Something on the field took my slack-jawed attention away from his story, and I never followed up for detail. And he didn’t offer any more.

I know his mother is still alive because he goes to visit her in the Midwest somewhere for a weekend. I know he is not married, but was he? Lately, he’s brought along some thirty-ish females who are running out of time to get to their Super Bowls.

It’s September again.

The I-95 endzone is filling with the usual veteran fans. Some are proud émigrés from the upper reaches of the notorious 700 level. This is no place for the easily offended or children.

The guy two rows down and off to my left knows that every Eagles cheerleader gives oral sex and are dying to do him.

Painted Face, behind me, comes drunk, challenges every enemy uniform to a fight, and falls asleep by halftime.     

Big Bearded Guy, two rows in front, likes to stand up all the time. At least he hasn’t tried to lead any cheers since he misspelled Eagles: E-A-L-G-E-S.

Then there is The Ambassador. Always makes a big show of hugging people on the way in, and he has to stand up and talk to people all the time. Five minutes later he’s making his way out of the row, and he’s not coming back until the second half starts so he can make another grand entrance.

It is a ritual that Seat 9 is always the last one into our row. He is the last to leave his tailgating spot in the parking lot. He shakes hands with everyone he knows in the row on his way to his seat, flashing his ear-to-ear grin.

Our bond in aisle 32 is narrow, definitive, emphatic, and clear.

For three hours our lives are merged, focused on the game, the fate of our mental health hanging in the precious balance.

Former loyalists have been selling out on us. Must be the economy and the fact that the Eagles have been bad lately. There always seems to be an enemy jersey in our section these days. Never happened before.

Last year two Giants fans sat meekly in front of us until the Eagles started gakking up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter on the way to an overtime loss. Osi Umenyiora Jersey and Eli Manning Jersey got a little too demonstrative, and when they started addressing Eagles fans directly, as in, “How d’ya like that?” and “The Eagles suck,” my seatmate had had enough.

“You say one more word and I’ll kick your fucking ass. Now sit down.”

And he was not smiling.

At that moment there were at least 20 fans in the immediate vicinity who would have risked their season tickets to kick the snot out of Osi Umenyiora Jersey and Eli Manning Jersey.

But Osi and Eli sensed the danger and sat down, shut up, and exited the section shortly afterward.

I loved Seat 9 for doing that—because I wish I could.

Seat 9 talks a lot when we sit side by side. I usually like reticent people. I’m not a good conversationalist, and I prefer to suffer in silence, build up a good anger, and snap at people who disturb my inner purgatory. But what he says makes Eagles sense and I don’t mind. I am eager to get his reassurance that everything is going to be all right with this team. Even if we disagree, I respected his opinion.

Then he dropped the n-word three years ago.

“Run, you nigger!” he screamed as Donovan McNabb hesitated and took a sack.

I winced, shocked.

“I don’t think race had anything to do with that sack,” I said to him in a reproving manner.

In my head.

During the nine months of separation that followed that game, I worried a good deal about a person I barely knew. I don’t want him to be a racist.

To my relief, I never heard the n-word again. Last season, Seat 9 even revealed his long-standing love for the legendary Wilbert Montgomery, thus making his outburst seem even stranger.

“How do you like this?” he asked pointing at his green, white, and silver, number-31 retro jersey.

“Two hundred bucks. I figured, what the hell. Heh-heh-heh. I’ll never forget that run he had against Dallas…”

And we both lapse into the sacred reverie: an icy, frigid January 11, 1981, at the Vet. Second play of the day going right to left on your radio dial. Huge hole, 42 yards off-tackle untouched through the blue-clad Dallas Doomsday defense. Delirium in the stands.

I was there. He was there.            

The glory of God is man fully alive.

Wilbert Montgomery was a religious experience for us.

Wilbert Montgomery is a black man. A bigot wouldn’t have a black man for a hero, would he?

The next season began with McNabb in Washington. Seat 9 was there for the opener against Green Bay. The Eagles had a white guy at quarterback, and they lost.

“See you at Dallas,” said Seat 9, and we wordlessly turned and shuffled down the row toward another long week.

But for the rest of the year, two strangers, naive teenagers, occupied the two seats to my left. I didn’t get Seat 9’s view on Michael Vick until the following year.

Seat 9 is a dog lover. But he didn’t use the n-word. 

I worry about my buddy’s loss of enthusiasm for the common cause. If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. I don’t want it to because being here ties me to my long-ago. I wonder if his father took him to football games too.

I wonder if he misses the intangibles of a life-long devotion searching for the green-and-silver linings.

Time grows short.

There is not always going to be a next year.

 

 

Ernie Quatrani taught in the Upper Perkiomen School District for thirty-three years, working with the school newspaper, radio, TV and baseball. After coaching for thirty-two years, he was inducted into the school’s hall of fame. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Apalachee Review, North Dakota Quarterly and r.kv.r.y.