“Hey. Hey, y’all! It’s Jimmy Johnson.”
The first time Caleb said it, Mitch vaulted the arm of the couch and was on the telephone in an instant, faster even than he’d cut on the field. Cindy remembered when her son moved purely for the joy of movement. Not today. Today it was all about the draft. How high he would go, where he would go, and how much money he would get. Cindy watched him listening, bug-eyed, the receiver to his ear, and thought to herself, Dallas—okay, yes, I could live in Dallas. They’d just won the Super Bowl.
Washington, Houston, Green Bay. Niners, Steelers, Rams. The last few months, it was like some kind of hundred-year pollen had spread through town, making everyone sneeze out the names of cities and teams. Mitch was their first pro since Scooter Hartless had gotten the call from the Saints in ’82, the first ever who stood a fair chance of being a star. People were just obsessed, and the itch intensified, was practically hives, whenever Cindy was around. They crowded her pew in church and carried grocery bags to her car just for a clipping of the latest news. How was his forty, how was his bench, had he heard from the Cowboys, the Redskins, the Cowboys? “April 25,” she kept telling everyone. “That’s the draft. That’s when we’ll know.” She’d never repeated a date so many times in her life.
And now, at long last, the day was here, and the TV was on, and someone was on the phone. But it was not Jimmy Johnson, the shellacked Cowboys coach who’d led Miami before Mitch’s time. It wasn’t anyone, just some automated recording Caleb had dialed when no one was looking. Come to think of it, no one had heard the phone ring; they all just assumed that it had. Because this was one of those off-kilter, dream-come-true days when even unreasonable, vaguely magical things had to be taken seriously because everything that was happening was so different from anything that had ever happened before. And Mitch’s old high school buddy Caleb Campbell was preying on that; he was capitalizing on everyone’s innocence and hopes. He burst into hysterics—this was a boy who laughed like a little furry forest animal even though he was three hundred pounds and shorn—and Mitch slammed down the phone and hurled himself back on the couch.
“Not funny,” he said. He’d washed his chin-length hair with some fragrant, feminine product of Caryn’s, and as it dried, his whole dark mane had fanned out, soft as cat fur, a massive imitation of his wife. But it was too much hair, even for him, so he’d pulled it back with his usual elastic. All day he’d been patting the top of his head, trying to help it settle.
“You shoulda seen yourself,” Caleb gasped, clutching his turbo-tread gut, once a force to be reckoned with on the Warrior o-line, now an extra weight he lugged to construction jobsites. “Oh! Jimmy! They ain’t picking till the second round, dumb nut.”
“Think I don’t know that?” Mitch asked. Other people were laughing now, too, mostly out of relief. Cousins, supposed friends, even Caryn was smiling coquettishly.
“Cut it out, Caleb,” Caryn said. “I’m sure the Cowboys would love to have Mitch. It’s just too bad for them he’s not lasting that long.” She sat next to Mitch with her feet on an ottoman, perimeters of white on each toenail in a style she’d casually proclaimed was French. When Caryn had left for the salon that morning, Cindy promised herself she’d admire her daughter-in-law’s nails no matter what color she chose. She was prepared for something audacious—Miami orange with sparkles or Barbie pink with polka dots—so when this muted, European arrangement returned, a style so classy Cindy hadn’t even known it existed, she didn’t quite know what to say. “Matchy,” she’d finally managed, neutrally, looking from fingers to toes.
Caryn hadn’t cared. She had so much confidence, it didn’t matter what Cindy thought. Her daughter-in-law. Mitch’s nine-month-pregnant wife and hair twin, married in a hasty, family-only ceremony at Christmas, with talk of a real wedding to come. They were home in Virginia because of her, because her doctor had advised her not to travel at this stage and because Mitch had refused to go to New York without her. He would’ve gone without Cindy—she was pretty sure of that—but this was not the time to make comparisons. It was different with the wife, the mother of your child. It ought to be, anyway. In the end, they’d all go wherever they were going together. The only question was where that would be.
The draft watch party was Cindy’s way of appeasing the masses, and of distracting herself from all the disaster scenarios that were too painful to contemplate. From Sam’s Club, she’d ordered fifteen gourmet hoagie platters with an assortment of roast beef, turkey and ham; ten party-sized chicken Caesar salads with dressing on the side; five party-sized seven-layer dips with accompanying Tostitos; five plastic gallons each of pretzels, Goldfish, Cheez Doodles, and Mitch’s favorite, Peanut M&Ms; two full-sized sheet cakes in the style of football fields; twenty-five two-liter soft drinks ranging from Coke and Dr. Pepper to A&W Root Beer and Sprite; and two full kegs of Bud Light for the yard. She’d puzzled over the cakes, thinking it might be nice to customize them the moment they learned where he would go, but that involved ordering plastic decals for all twenty-eight teams and, more frighteningly, invited Disaster Scenario #1: No One Picks Him At All. In the end, she decided it was safer to stick with a generic green frosting field sectioned off with fine white piping, and in the end zones, his good, proud name—MITCH—stenciled in his high school colors on one cake and in his college colors on the other. Whatever happened today, he’d played football all his life.
People came. Oh, they came. They brought jumbo pots of mac and cheese and bonus-sized bottles of champagne and Hennessy, cigars they tucked into the inside pockets of their windbreakers and kept flashing expectantly throughout the day. They brought Betty Crocker fudge brownies and confetti cakes they’d baked from boxes, plus extra Styrofoam cups and the stray bag of ice, in case she happened to run out. Mitch’s coach and teammates from Monacan, Donna from the hospital, people from church and the newspaper, even Pastor Ron dropped by, not to mention Caryn’s parents and sister and two of her big-haired friends. Mitch’s Uncle Tim was also there, his peewee coach who now oversaw JV. Absent, of course, was Tim’s brother Joe. These days, Cindy only talked to him a couple times a year, and she knew, vaguely, that the habit would only fade. Mitch was grown; she’d seen him off. It seemed less important to keep Joe in the loop.
Some thoughtful person had saved Cindy a seat in front of the TV next to Mitch, which was only right, but she was grateful anyway. As the clock ticked down to the first pick, she wiggled her fingers up against his leg. His thigh was swampy. Poor boy, he was sweating already in his big khaki shorts, and he all but knew he wouldn’t go first.
“The first selection will be made by the New England Patriots,” the commissioner was saying, a fatherly man who did his best to hide his obscene wealth beneath the front of a bland black suit. Camera flashes quicksilvered his face and the beige wall behind him, and the moment seemed to accelerate as the television sucked them all in.
Drew Bledsoe, quarterback, Washington State University.
There was a collective sigh as everyone flexed their knuckles and relaxed their shoulders and generally settled in. It was real, it was happening, and it wasn’t over yet. Though no one would’ve begrudged Mitch if he’d somehow gone first—on the contrary, that meant more money, which they probably hoped to share—she knew they’d been waiting for this moment too long. The speculation, and the sense of power and significance that came with it, had sustained them for so many months in their otherwise, let’s face it, slow and fallow lives, that it almost would’ve killed them to see it whiz by so soon.
“They been saying it’d be a QB first,” Ricky Davis said above the murmur. Ricky was another ex-Warrior—a wiry corner—and current shift man at Frito-Lay.
“Yeah.” Mitch was mashing his jaw in his hand. “I knew it’d be Drew.”
“Friend of yours?” someone hooted.
“He’ll know me soon enough.”
This drew a chorus of familiar hollers—“Yeah, Wilk!” “Look out, Drew!” “Gonna get Wilked!”—which Mitch just ducked and accepted. She wasn’t sure he even heard his own cheers anymore, not from these folks, whom he’d known his entire life. He was hungry for the unheard; she could sense the desire warming there in his muggy leg. He’d been on the biggest college stage in Miami. Where else to go but up? He wanted the cheers of New York, Chicago, San Diego. The nation, really, in all its countless anonymity. The people who knew you were no longer quite enough.
Cindy moved her hand to Mitch’s knee and gave it a squeeze. His left knee. The only part of him that had ever been seriously injured. When he was first becoming great at football, some long-ago time in high school now impossible to locate, she had feared all kinds of damage, yet found it ecstatic to watch him play. She’d been a volleyball captain herself, but had never cared much for his sport. Football boys were unreliable. That had been her experience, anyway. But then came her son and he was a natural, even better than his dad. He flexed his shoulders, he butterflied his arms, he seemed to grow an inch each game. She would stand in her lucky middle-aisle spot in the third row of the home-side bleachers and she would hold herself across the waist, wondering how on earth he could do these things with his body, things she herself had never done.
On the other side of Mitch, Caryn flexed her toes. Cindy saw why he liked her. She was tiny and well-made, like a very special doll. She could practically fit in his pocket, where he kept his wallet and keys and everything else he cared about most. Yet she had the bearing of a much larger person. When she made any kind of declaration, even something as harmless as “I want a milkshake,” Cindy often found herself feeling shrimpy—Cindy, who was six feet tall!—and truthfully, she didn’t like feeling that way around another woman. Truthfully, she didn’t like Caryn much at all. There was something about her shiny dark hair and her stacked little shoes that reminded Cindy of a China cabinet, as though she’d only allow herself to be set out for the finest occasions. Compared to Donald Trump, Caryn’s accountant father wasn’t rich, but compared to Cindy, he was, and Cindy was quickly discovering that the money of the person just a few steps above you was the only money that had any value.
Of course now all their fortunes would rise: Mitch’s and Caryn’s and Cindy’s together. She had to hand it to her: Caryn had played her cards exactly right. Nine months pregnant on draft day.
Bledsoe was done shaking hands with the commissioner and stiffly brandishing his new jersey, and now the Seattle Seahawks were making their pick. Rick Mirer, Notre Dame, another quarterback.
“Standard,” Mitch said, taking Caryn’s hand. “This is all standard.”
“How’re you feeling, Mitch?” Gary, the reporter from the local paper, shouted from the corner by the standing lamp. He wore a yellow paisley tie, even in summer, and a shirtfront pocket full of pens. Cindy had known him since high school; his kids were several years younger than Mitch.
“Like a million bucks,” Mitch said. “Maybe more than a million.” He gave a media-savvy wink as Caryn kissed his cheek.
The next few picks sped by slowly, like trains in dreams she couldn’t run fast enough to catch. Cardinals, Jets, Bengals, Bucs. One massive son after another, putting on a brand-new hat. The Jets had taken a linebacker; she’d talked to the coach of the Bucs herself. Now she was starting to worry.
“Y’all! It’s Jimmy Johnson!” Caleb cried, cupping the receiver of the phone.
“Man, shut up, Caleb,” Mitch said.
“Mitch.” She couldn’t help herself. “You don’t think they’ve forgotten about you?”
That was a mistake.
He shot his eyes at her. “How’s that?”
“Cause you’re not there? In New York.”
He gave a grunt. “They know where I am.”
“Yeah!” came the ever-ready choir. She’d forgotten everyone could hear. “They know him!” “Forget Mitch?” “Don’t you worry about it, Ms. Wilkins. Don’t you worry.” But their brio was escaping with every breath, and by the time the last voice died down, the room was unmistakably deflated, their collective confidence hanging back like a kid who can’t swim without his wings.
Cindy wanted to wring every one of their necks.
Whoever was sitting on her left had gotten up, but it wasn’t long before Pastor Ron came to take the empty place. He was pale, with wire-rimmed glasses and a chin as pillowy as any pastor’s, a mild, well-meaning man who relished his small-town authority.
“This must be hard on you,” he said.
“I’ll be glad when it’s over, that’s for sure.”
He nodded and gave a little moan of empathy. “What you have to remember is that this isn’t like kids picking teams. If all they wanted was the best, Mitch would be gone already. These are businessmen, and it’s about more than talent at this level. They’ve got budgets they have to consider, growth plans. Not to mention regulations.”
At one time, she thought he was probably the smartest man she’d ever meet. He’d gone to seminary at Duke and repaired cars as a hobby. He played the stock market, subscribed to The Wall Street Journal. He was too smart and probably too earthly for the ministry; their church had really lucked out. But now she was beginning to sense the limits of his knowledge, how far he’d gotten reading the newspaper in a town where everyone else watched TV. She was doing her own reading now, privately, and she’d spoken to all kinds of people she’d never had an opportunity to speak with before—agents, reporters, endless NFL representatives. She was starting to get a handle on the wider world: who had power, who didn’t. Very often it was the people who explained things who had the least influence—the lackies and doormen and cheerful tour guides who had the time to talk. The people you spoke to the least, the ones who grinned and clasped your hand and said a flattering thing or two—those were the people who were actually in charge. People like Mitch’s agent, Phil Holtzman, whose liquidy suits looked almost supernatural. Pastor Ron, on the other hand, had never not had time for her. He proffered advice eagerly, often before she asked, holding it up with boyish pride, like an A on a grade-school exam. She pitied him that he was about to shrink so much in her estimation.
The draft lurched on. More players were taken, every one of them clomping up on stage in person, just about all of them black.
At the commercial break, the phone was ringing; she heard it this time for sure. Caleb backed away with his hands up. The Cowboys, went her brain. Let him be right, letimbe right, lettimbeeright.
“Uh-huh,” Mitch was saying. “Yeah.” She could hear the cheerful munching of Phil Holtzman on the line.
“Lotta teams still interested,” Mitch told the room when he sat down. “Washington, Niners, Bucs. He said Green Bay this time, too.”
Washington, a short move.
“I’m still rooting for Washington,” Caryn said, as though reading her mind. “I have always wanted to live there.”
Cindy got up from the couch and motioned for people to pass her their trash. She took the stack of plates and napkins to the plus-sized garbage bag she’d tied to the handle of her louvered pantry door, then stepped out back for a moment to get some air. She stood on the concrete step and watched the blue-green world recline under moving clouds and settle into its clothes, the fields and trees zipping up to the low, distant mountains, ringed at the base by their collar of trees. The insect orchestra was tuning a high drone. You couldn’t live in Virginia without smelling bugs and dirt. She was a Southern woman, used to Southern light and Southern smells. She did not want to live in Wisconsin.
The draft was back, and they were calling her inside, where the house reeked of salt—from the bodies, from the food. She fanned her nose, feeling a little salty herself, and squeezed into her spot on the couch, this time next to Donna from the NICU. The murky glow of Caryn’s engagement ring wafted from her hand like cigarette smoke.
“Cindy,” Caryn said, but Cindy just turned to Donna to remark about a patient, an adorable little caterpillar named Keyshawn who’d been admitted earlier that week.
“He’s just so beautiful,” she said.
“That’s how you know he’ll be fine,” Donna agreed. “They’re never that cute at twenty-eight weeks. But Keyshawn’s mom—have you seen her? Well, she could be a model, her skin’s so smooth and everything. You see where he gets it from.” Donna was a big-bodied woman who loved holding babies; she liked to joke that she was the backup generator, there to warm the preemies if the unit ever lost power. Cindy felt hot sitting beside her now, but grateful for the excuse to ignore to Caryn. Donna had worked the NICU forever and for some reason liked Cindy even more than Cindy liked herself.
“And how about you?” Donna was saying. “You keeping calm?”
“I’m surviving,” Cindy managed as another team selected another player.
“What round’re they on?” someone asked.
“Still the first!” people shouted, to which Pastor Ron, standing against the back wall, added serenely: “That was only number thirteen.”
“Dodged a bullet there, Mitch!”
“Fourteen, though,” Ricky said. “That’s lucky.” He tugged his shirt with pride.
Mitch expectorated a laugh. “I’d rather go last than be picked by your sorry-ass number.” High-fives were exchanged over the back of the couch.
“Hey, there’s always American Gladiators,” Ricky said, grinning toothily. “Juice it up and off you go.”
Fourteen came and went.
So did fifteen, the Green Bay Packers, who took a linebacker.
“Wayne who? I never even heard of that guy!” This was Caryn’s cousin Jeff, who’d kept his cool until now. Veins pulsed in his forehead below the box-top cut of his hair. “Where’d he play? Clemson? Never heard of him!” He punched himself on the thigh.
So the Wisconsin threat was over, but what did that leave? She tried to remember the selection order Phil had given them, but the names of all those distant cities kept running together in her mind. She tried not to think about the money, how much they were losing with every pick. She was watching a fantasy, no different from The Price Is Right. Win a car on TV, play football on TV. The odds were probably about the same.
The next hour passed with crushing slowness. Gary wrote in his little notebook with one of his many retractable pens. Caryn’s mother yawned. Time extended itself, unlooping hidden coils she hadn’t known she’d always skipped. The rest of the world was possibly racing into the future while they, in their little brick tract house, sat suspended, blinking, examining their cuticles and scabby elbows, adjusting their butts in their seats.
Caryn had stopped trying to get Cindy’s attention. She sank deeper under the cask of her pregnant belly, which only now had begun to look huge. Her painted toes gripped the edge of the ottoman. A rectangle shone on her forehead like a bike reflector, and she had taken to depositing Cheez Doodles one by one down the tubing of her mouth, a ring of atomic flavor dust glittering on her lips.
“Why don’t you boys go outside?” Cindy offered. “Shoot some hoops.”
Mitch’s friends looked at each other, reluctant to take the suggestion. “The minute we walk out that door’ll be the minute Mitch gets the call,” Caleb said. “You know how it is.”
The phone rang, and again it was Phil. This conference consisted largely of Phil talking while Mitch nodded and offered the occasional “Okay.”
When he sat down, they had to pry it out of him. “He says sit tight. He says it’s almost over.” But she could tell he had his doubts.
Time had been rough enough with her already—the wiry grays, the baby seals swimming permanently on the undersides of her arms—but this was an utter clobbering. The excitement and glamour of being chosen had eroded to a state of captivity. All around the living room, people wore the surly, arrogant expressions of kids in detention after school.
“Lighten up, y’all,” Mitch’s Uncle Tim said. He’d grown into a classic coach: hoarse, yet loud, face pocked like pigskin from years of afternoon practice. “It’s not contagious.”
“He’s getting drafted,” Caryn snapped.
“I know he is,” Tim said.
“It’s still the first round.”
“That’s what I’m saying: people need to have some faith.”
“You said ‘contagious,’ like maybe he wasn’t getting picked.” No one ever spoke to Tim this way. He was the testy one, the one who talked. Everyone else was supposed to listen and then go out and embody his words.
Cindy looked at Caryn’s parents, who just sat there like figurines.
“Look, I hate waiting as much as the next guy,” Tim was saying. “I hate it more. Tracy does everything involving lines. I don’t have the patience. But this is the NFL. You do it their way. You don’t question.”
“I’m not questioning,” Caryn said.
Cindy evacuated to her room, where she lay on the bed, watching the broad brown planks of the ceiling fan as they made their fragile rounds. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a machine move so slowly without finally coming to a stop. The window shades were up, and if she tilted her head, she could see Gary taking a cigarette break in the yard. He single-handedly ran a weekly paper that rarely had much news. She wondered if he was disappointed he never got to leave; he’d been valedictorian, talked of excitedly, a scholarship to UVA. If only he were a Methodist and not a Baptist, he might’ve befriended Pastor Ron. He stooped to see inside and gave her a tentative wave, which she ignored, pretending she was resting her eyes. In the living room she could hear Tim booming hoarsely about the 3–4 defense, which teams had it, which teams should.
She didn’t know what to do. She called Phil Holtzman. She couldn’t believe it when he picked up the phone. “Cindy Wilkins. What a day, huh?”
She collected herself. “You said it would be exceptional.”
“And it will be,” he said. “It will.” She heard the murmurs of nearby rooms and pictured him in a corridor somewhere, outside a wild party of agents, coaches, and journalists, tonguing cigars, playing dice with people’s lives. “We’ve been talking to people all day, and I think we’re zeroing in on a good opportunity. A couple, actually. But one I think you’ll really like.”
“I thought he was supposed to go top ten. This is killing him, Phil. I can tell it’s just killing him.”
Phil sighed. “I said top ten was a possibility. But by no means guaranteed. Hell, nothing’s guaranteed. What I’ve always thought was really reasonable was sometime in the mid-to-late first round. And—off the record here—I think we’ll get that yet.”
“First round’s almost over.”
“Like I said, mid-to-late.”
She was feeling emboldened. “Do you think it’s because he’s not there? I told him he should go, but he wouldn’t listen. Had to stay down here with her.”
“Wouldn’t’ve made a difference,” Phil said. “If you want to know the truth—and I just told this to Mitch myself—it’s mostly about his knee.”
“His knee?” She couldn’t believe her ears.
“Left knee, sophomore year?”
“But he was fine after that. He played his entire junior season. Big East sack leader. All-American, Phil! He could’ve played at Miami another year!”
“I know, I know, but there’s still some scar tissue, and these are big bucks. Teams figure they can get him for less. They still want him. You’d better believe whoever ends up with him will be weeping tears of joy. They’re just trying to hedge the best they can, maximize their draft.”
“You’re telling me this is all over some little scar tissue? He’s strong, Phil. You’ve seen him.”
“I know he is. You’ll be hearing from me soon.”
She sat holding the dead call in her hand and saw that Mitch and his friends had stepped outside. After a pop to the chest that sent Caleb to the ground, Mitch took off. She leaped to the grimy window to see him approach the fence line in a full sprint, then slalom back at a ferocious angle, as if he were riding skis. She rarely saw him run without his helmet and uniform, and she’d forgotten how miraculous he was as himself, just an exotic animal in shorts and a T-shirt, his calves bulging like sacks of flour, his rump an engine, his brown hair streaming behind him like a tail. Charging back toward the house, he seemed to have discarded his stigmatized scar tissue, ripped it out and transplanted it somewhere beyond the yard.
She looked up to see Tim at the door, scratching his chest in his coachy way. He’d grown that coach’s belly, married the music teacher from the elementary school, had a daughter they dressed in pink.
“It’ll be over soon,” Cindy told him, as though he were the one who needed reassurance.
“You know what’s nice about the second round?”
“It still gets you to the NFL. I’m serious! Lots of greats came from the second round—or, Christ, later. I wouldn’t make too much of it.”
“Well, he wants to go in the first, and I want him to have what he wants.”
“Sure you do. But these people have their own agendas.”
She had no idea why he still condescended to her, even now, after all these years. Did he assume she was suffering because she didn’t have a man to tell her things? He knew the choices she’d made: Mitch above herself, Mitch above all.
“Sorry, Tim, but what do you know about their agendas?”
He gritted his teeth, seized up in the neck. She knew it stung him to have been excluded from the negotiations, but she didn’t care. She’d wanted to make a point of doing this part herself.
She tilted her head back and shut her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m being mean. It’s just that I’ve talked to these people and I know they have agendas and I hate them and I’m just so damn tired.” She peered at him over the ghost of her nose. “You hear me, Tim? I’m sorry.”
He settled back into his stolid body. He’d coach JV until he retired, and when he was finished, JV would probably be finished, too. The county was losing people every year. There was no sense in spiting a man who lived in so narrow a world. “I hear you,” he said. “I’m sorry, too. I was just trying to help.”
But before the sentence was even out of his mouth, the phone had rung again. Just once.
Cindy froze, straining to hear. First there was silence, then a murmur of movement, and then all the voices in the house came jouncing alive at once. These were happy noises, victory cheers, the kind she was used to hearing for Mitch. “New England!” Caryn squealed, and in that instant every one of them was free. The hours of waiting dispersed, the old uncertainty now unimaginable. Cindy pushed past Tim to the living room, where arms were alternately raised to the ceiling and clasping bodies together. The Warriors were jumping in a huddle. Even Caryn’s parents were exhibiting some emotion, her mother crying, her father securing her tight around the shoulder as they crouched in closer to the television.
In the center of it all, Mitch stood with his hair down, having for some reason shaken out his ponytail. He was holding one hand to the sky, in a fist, and offering Caryn his other. Grinning madly, she gripped him like a branch across white water, and hauled herself to her feet. It was the first time Cindy had seen her upright since the telecast began, and she was almost as wide across as she was tall, a beach ball on balsa wood stakes. Still Mitch devoured her. He lifted her onto the couch, her knees lightly bouncing like a child’s, and kissed her, two shaggy brown-haired trees meshing into a canopy.
“New England,” Caryn’s dad repeated, approvingly, and Cindy looked at the television where Mitch’s name, face, and measurements were emblazoned on the screen. They had footage of him clawing for a tackle for Miami, dragging down quarterbacks as if they were meat. Then back to his face, neck wide as his jaw, fox eyes smiling though his mouth was not. His mouth meant business. She didn’t know when she’d started to cry.
“I just love this pick for the Patriots,” the jumpy commentator was saying, barely able to stay in his chair. “First and last picks of the first round, offense and defense, both of them All-Americans. You can’t do much better than that.”
The first round was over. He had made it just under the wire.
She stood watching as everyone had someone to hold, aware of Tim and Tracy and little Megan behind her; Tim, who she definitely didn’t want to hug. A minute sooner and she might’ve been by Mitch’s side. She couldn’t have stopped them from kissing, a big man and his little wife celebrating their future, but she might’ve at least received a kiss of her own. She picked her way around the coffee table, tears streaming, and still they went on necking, fully curtained by their hair. She stood by. She waited, and when she could stand and wait no more, she lurched into them, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders, making a huddle of their hug.
“Come here,” Mitch laughed, adjusting his arm to include her.
The phone was ringing, and she felt someone answer it, felt a buzzing in Caryn’s belly, and fronds of hair—she didn’t know whose—swishing at her eye.
“I’m so proud of you,” she cried into her son’s concrete neck.
“Hey, Mitch!” shouted Gary. “Jimmy Johnson’s on the phone!”
“Tell him, fuck him!” Mitch said.
“Yeah, FUCK HIM!” Caryn echoed with the venom of victory.
“Language!” Cindy said, reflexively.
It wasn’t Jimmy Johnson, of course. But it was Phil, and he was ecstatic. “Best,” she heard him say through the phone. Mitch smiled with every muscle, and Cindy stood there and watched.
“Contract… result… deal…” Phil went on, longer than anyone expected, and the strangest thing happened: the moment became difficult to hold. People’s arms drooped off each other’s shoulders. Their eyes began to wander around the room. Cindy listened to him listen to his value and, on subsequent calls, thank his general manager, his owner, his coach. He was still Mitch standing there before them, still dressed in his own casual clothes. But he was doing business now, which was vaguely embarrassing. For the first time it seemed possible to intrude.
Cindy brought out the first cake and cut it in mismatched blocks, her hand unregulated with nerves, her motions light and loose. The cake itself was airy and yellow, the green color from the frosting faintly seeping into its pores. Soon everyone had green lips, reviving the festive mood.
“FUCK JIMMY JOHNSON!” Caryn shouted again, semi-deranged.
More people came by to offer their congratulations, and before Cindy knew it, the house was packed. Tracy took over the food service, so Cindy could try to enjoy the moment, which was her moment, too, everyone insisted. Champagne was uncorked, the phone rang and rang. Other Miami teammates were getting drafted. Plans were forming for a massive convergence. The talk in every room was of money. How good it felt, how much it could do for them.
At some point, Joe called, and she watched Mitch talk to his father, unfazed.
Around six o’clock, after everyone had gone home, Cindy stood in her living room amid all the evidence of feeding and felt that her life had changed. She was living in a redundant moment, the first of her lame-duck days. Her current surroundings, so unremarkable and inevitable to her now, would soon be memory, or not even memory. Forgotten.
She went back into the bedroom, and this time, she dialed Joe.
“What a day,” he said. “What a pleasure.”
“How’d he sound to you?”
“Relieved,” he said, from his house in Montana she’d never seen. “Content. But don’t ask me. You know him best.”
In one of life’s cruel ironies, Joe seemed to have gotten better with age. He was reasonable. Better yet, he was thoughtful; he actually seemed to enjoy thinking about the world. She half-admired him, though she hadn’t seen his face in years. She wouldn’t allow herself that. But every now and then, she had these calls, and in a way they were better. People were always at arm’s length in the flesh. On the phone, she had his voice in her head.
“You ready for Boston?” he asked her. “You’ll have to buy a better coat.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m scared. He’s got his little woman now. What’s he need me for?”
“Help with the baby, for starters. From everything you’ve told me about Caryn, she’s not up to the task.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine. Women always are.”
“You were. That’s not the same thing.”
It was true. On the day he’d basically proposed, which was how she’d come to think of that day—the basic proposal, the pretty-much promise, since he then immediately left town—she’d told him she was pregnant. She hadn’t wanted to tell him. She hadn’t wanted the baby to be the reason he did anything; she wanted it to be her. But she was an honest person, and she couldn’t help but confess. She felt he deserved to have all the information, even if it chased him away. Now twenty years had passed, and he was living a meaningful life, not too different from the life they might have had. He was married. Her name was Tammy. He was a landscaper at Montana State.
Joe and Tammy. Tim and Tracy. But no one had married her. It felt so unfair sometimes when she thought about it.
“You know you don’t have to go with him,” he said, when she failed to respond. “You can live your own life now.”
She didn’t have to go with him. She’d thought of that. There were plenty of things to hate about moving for the NFL. But with her parents gone, the truth was that there was nothing left for her in Virginia. Just the things she’d been biding her time with. And wherever Mitch was, there was excitement: a baby, tickets to every home game, a better place to live. She looked around at her shabby little bedroom, so much cleaner now that Mitch was grown, but still with the water-damaged ceiling, the old phone receiver in her hand, and she knew she wouldn’t miss it. The keys to her rusted Ford, which she drove ticking to work each day, sat on the dresser—a car she’d no longer have to keep for a job she’d no longer need. She would miss the dim hum of the NICU, all those separate transparent cylinders jump-starting precious lives. But she wouldn’t miss her own isolation; that, she could leave behind.
Months later, when Mitch was basically living in his locker at the practice facility, she knew she’d made the right choice. For herself, but also for Caryn, whose pain suddenly reached her in New England, overwhelming and all too familiar.
Radiant in pregnancy, Caryn grew tattered in the postpartum gale, her lustrous hair diminishing and falling out, a loge of darkness filling in beneath each eye. She wore her nursing bra like a harness, her jeans like surgical scrubs.
“Come on,” Cindy found herself cajoling her. “Let’s go out.”
She’d drive her to the mall, where Caryn would creep among racks of onesies with diamonds in her ears and Alyssa strapped to her chest like a bomb. Under a skylight in the brand-new café, they’d order smoothies, because Caryn’s teeth had grown sensitive and Cindy wanted to show her support.
“People here are pretty awful,” Caryn said one time, watching a woman in pearls and a quilted jacket cup her tea in two papery hands.
“Amen,” Cindy said, happily bouncing Alyssa.
“They just aren’t—nice,” she said, finally.
“They say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ don’t they?”
“I’ve heard it.”
“I’m with you. I’m just trying to put my finger on it.”
“Eye contact,” Caryn said, looking at her own hands. “They don’t make it.”
“That’s it. You’re right. Eye contact.”
They had become friends. Which, for some reason, was thrilling.
“You’ve met nice people, though,” Cindy mused. “The other wives?” For a moment, she felt like she was back at her job, that trippy, long-ago thing, like a half-forgotten bender, counseling a NICU mom.
Caryn shrugged. “They’re not from here, though. They’re all, like, Pennsylvania and California and Georgia. And Vicki’s the only one who likes me.”
“Who wouldn’t like you?” Cindy balked, but Caryn just narrowed her eyes. “I mean, once they got to know you.” Cindy kissed the hot cap of Alyssa’s head.
Without warning, Caryn’s eyes filled, and she blinked furiously, tossing her thinned-out hair from her face, the youngest and most dangerous she’d looked in months. “I’m not really that good at keeping people.”
“Sure you are,” Cindy protested feebly. It was hard to look tears in the eye, but she made herself. She was not one of these Yankee bitches.
“People always have other things that are more important. And they are important. I mean, the NFL is important!”
“It’ll be different after the first year,” Cindy insisted, not even believing it herself. “Once he learns the ropes.”
“But my parents,” Caryn said, “what’re they doing? What’s their excuse? They just call every now and then to say how great they think my life is. They’re so nice, but I feel like they’re done with me. Sometimes I feel like I’m done.”
For years Cindy had wanted to deface Caryn, and now here the girl was, under a skylight in Massachusetts, doing all the vandalism herself. Well. People changed. Cindy certainly had. In the years since Joe had left, she’d trained herself to hold back the heavy, complicated sea of herself, and not just with men. But something told her she no longer had to do that with Caryn. She sat there with her a moment longer, letting her not-cry, letting her regain her composure, before asking her, “Caryn? Do you want to know something about me?”
And then she told her about Joe. How they’d collided after their senior year, a desperate time, when she’d felt ready to topple off a cliff. How he’d wander over every other night or so—she left the sliding door unlocked—but they otherwise had separate routines. Life had gone from public—school, games, bonfires—to something so private she didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it. Boyfriend was a sugar candy word, a lollipop for little girls. She was in nursing school, stacking her brain with information. Cold hard facts, a great contrast to the jellyfish she felt like with him. He came to her smelling of earth and pine mulch, marked by the loss of a mother, and in another way, a father—wounds he could not put into words. It wasn’t clear they had a future, but it was clear he felt safe in her bedroom, with the portable record player and the poster of Robert Redford over the bed. Sometimes, Joe was so physically present, she thought she might explode, the boundaries that held her together releasing themselves into him. Sometimes, she thought he was just another Redford, because she never saw either one of them anywhere else but in her room.
The erotic confession embarrassed neither of them. Caryn nodded and scratched her neck.
She hadn’t been able to keep him, but she loved him; Cindy wanted Caryn to know. She loved him in a way you can love only one person, the one you’re with when you discover you are boundless, that however you look standing around a bonfire and whatever name you happen to go by, you contain within you all your past and future selves, your current phase, and all your potential. He’d taken a lot from her, but he’d also given her something, more than just a son she adored.
“You are not done,” she told Caryn. “You are just starting. You are taking off right this very minute.”
Caryn snorted at Cindy’s hyperbole, but then something remade her face. She understood. She grasped the use of it. She wiped her eyes and met Cindy’s gaze dead-on.
Katherine Hill is the author of the novel The Violet Hour and co-author of The Ferrante Letters: An Experimentin Collective Criticism. “Draft Day” is excerpted from her forthcoming novel, A Short Move. She is an assistant professor of English at Adelphi University in New York.