By Abe Margel
The sun came out just as the football game ended. Dan stood up; he turned and retrieved from the back of his seat his number 31 “Pinball” Clemons jersey. He had brought this same lucky jersey to every Argonauts game he had attended for the past nine years. “Pinball” had been the best player the team had ever had and it only made sense to bring that winning Clemons streak to every game. Owning season tickets and being able to attend every home game was something Dan had wanted since he was a boy growing up in Toronto.
It had been a great game. He smiled then patted his ten year-old-daughter on the head as the two moved toward the stadium exit.
“Thank you daddy for bringing me,” said the girl. It was the first time her father had ever taken her to a football game. She beamed every time her father jumped to his feet cheering on his team. The Argos defeated the Roughriders twenty-seven to nineteen and Dan was in a good mood.
Normally he would be at the game with his brother-in-law but Richard had a bad cold and decided to stay home. That left a ticket available for Dan’s little girl.
On the way home he stopped and bought his daughter a chocolate ice cream. The child was clearly happy to be with her father.
“I loved it daddy, I really did.” The girl was now wearing the too large lucky “Pinball” jersey with its sleeves rolled up and was careful not to get ice cream on it.
When Dan was a university football player he, like all the other members of his team, held many superstitions. Prior to every match Dan wore the same socks he had worn at his most successful game and ate the same breakfast he had had on that memorable day. He would play the same CD on the way to the game. Even later in life, if he believed he had a hard day ahead of him Dan would revert to the old superstitions.Eventually these habits fell by the wayside but listening to his lucky tune, My Friends, was a custom that remained with him. He found it relaxed him, pushed the troublesome present off into the distance and drew his thoughts to a youthful and mystical past; a time before he worried about keeping customers happy, before he met his wife, had kids, started going gray.
Dan was in his mid-forties. He was a man of above average height with square shoulders and a angular, masculine jaw. He still lifted weights in his home gym three times a week and regularly rode his bike to and from work.
Growing up, he had lived and breathed sports. Sports statistics, both significant and mundane, filled his brain. The friendships that still bound him to his old university buddies grew out of playing alongside them at university. They had practised and played football in good weather and bad. His usual position was slot-back. Dan remembered fondly the contests; struggling through rain and snow, sometimes succeeding, sometime failing. These shared experiences held group together even after graduating.
As a young man Dan liked challenges including earning money. From what he learned at university he felt certain he knew how to grow the family business. The sporting goods store was doing well but there was room to do more, increase profits. It was hard to convince his parents.
“Why stick our necks out?” said his father. “Look, I’ll talk to George, see what he thinks.”
George was Dan’s older brother. A surgeon living in Vancouver, he wanted nothing to do with the family business. He had made that clear numerous times.
“We’re not taking a chance,” said Dan to his parents. “I’ve researched it and it’ll work.”
They resisted his suggestions for years but finally agreed. Dan opened a second, much larger shop in North York. Things fell into place quickly and that first Christmas was a great success. Every year profits increased.
A few years after the new store opened Sandra the assistant manager having been trained by Dan, no longer needed his input. If anything, he realizedshe was better suited to running the place than he was. She was younger than him by a decade and very motivated. The other employees were younger still. Aside from the job he had little in common with them.
Dan made sure not to become chummy with any of the staff especially the women. The last thing he wanted was misunderstandings or worse, entanglements. Sandra ran the place and Dan rarely interfered. He ended up with time on his hands. He stayed busy out of habit and because he did not want to rush home to his sometimes resentful wife, Betty.
She wanted to return to school and study art history but was unwilling to have baby sitters or a nanny look after their two children.
“You don’t need to be at the store all the time,” she said. “It’s not fair that I’m stuck at home when I could be doing something more fulfilling. Stay home more and be with the girls.”
Both of them knew that if they had had boys Dan would have found the time to be with his children, yet neither would say out loud what was on their minds. Having boys would have involved Dan taking the kids to hockey, baseball and most importantly football practice. The house would have been filled with talk about how successful or unsuccessful the Blue Jays, Raptors and Argonauts were. An unnamed tension invaded the couple’s relationship and ate away at it.
The store doors opened at nine in the morning and closed at nine at night six days a week. Not that Dan was there all that time. Still he spent long hours serving customers, stocking shelves, and taking phone calls. Sandra usually handled the staff schedule, emailed suppliers and did most of the endless paper work.
When the North York shop opened it had been an adventure for Dan but after a few years things grew predictable and monotonous. It had become just a job, a way to make a living.
When he was in the office late he sometimes Skyped old university friends.
“Listen, Arlo, if it wasn’t for these talks I have with you I think I’d go crazy. I like being in business but this job sometimes gets to me.”
“Not to worry. I’m glad we still keep in touch. I love talking football with you.”
You can’t put a price on friendship, that was Dan’s feeling and his wife should have been able to understand that, but she did not.
“What are you doing running off in this weather?” said Betty. “Have you lost your mind?”
“You know Joe is counting on me. I’m going to be his kid’s godfather. I’ve got to be there.”
“No, you don’t. Send them a card and a cheque. They’ll be just as happy, maybe even more happy.” She took a deep breath. “This time it’s Joe’s daughter’s baptism, a year ago it was Arlo’s wedding in Slovenia. You were at his first wedding too!” Betty’s face was red with anger. She got up from the dining room table and paced the floor. “How many more of his weddings will you be attending?” Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “Next month you’ll be driving up to Cornwall to hold Rick’s hand when he turns forty-five, right? Or is it for his wife’s birthday party you’ll be driving through fog and sleet?
“And what about your own two children? Don’t they count for anything? Our kids hardly see you. You’re either at the store or you’re spending time and money on all these old university friends.”
“Please be reasonable. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
“What’s wrong with these people?” The cabbie pointed to his left where an SUV had hit the railing and now was spinning into the centre lane. “They think all they need is four-wheel-drive. Snow tires, why won’t they put on snow tires?” The driver gripped the steering wheel a little harder. “It’s Toronto for God’s sake not Miami.”
The early morning ride to the airport had been harrowing. It was dark, snow was still falling and Highway 401 was a mess. The taxi driver cursed the whole way. Dan got to the airport later than he’d planned. He hurried into the terminal, made it through security and rushed to his departure gate.
“Flight UB6981 to Dallas now boarding at Gate C 41.”
Dan found his place on the plane. He held his carry-on suitcase close to his chest, then lifted it into the overhead bin. It was a narrow plane with rows of two seats on either side of the aisle. The early flight was only half full and the chair next to his empty. Having woken up at four in the morning Dan felt terrible. The airplane remained on the ground as everyone on board waited for it to be de-iced for a second time. Finally, an hour late, it took off.
He could not decide whether to drink the coffee the steward was offering him. Should he try and stay awake or close his eyes and hope he might drift off.
“Yes, with cream please.” The steward placed the white plastic cup on the fold-out table attached to the seat in front of Dan. Two thin concrete crackers wrapped in cellophane were put on the table next to the coffee.
Exhausted but pleased not to have missed his flight he began feeling optimistic. It was, after all, a pleasure trip, one where he would get to meet old buddies. Dan’s calloused hands picked up the cup. The coffee was strong and delicious. That was of some comfort. He put on his ear buds and listened to his favourite song, My Friends, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to drift.
It was early afternoon when his plane landed in Texas. Making his way through Dallas Airport Dan spotted a woman he thought he knew from somewhere but he was so weary he could not be sure. His tired mind seemed to be on the lookout for old friends, any old friends.
Outside, the Dallas sun was out; it was 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Four years had passed since he’d seen Joe. After graduating, seven of them had stayed close, phoning, exchanging emails, and once a year they would meet at one of their homes. Those happy occasions ceased the last time it was Arlo’s turn. At the last minute he canceled the get-together. He had lost his job and as if that wasn’t bad enough he had broken his leg in two places falling from a ladder. The annual gatherings stopped. But today Dan would be reunited with some of those old buddies.
“Christ the King Catholic Church, corner of Preston and Colgate,” he said to the Yellow Cab driver. “Do you know it?”
The cabbie looked in his mirror. “Sure I know it. It’s near University Park.” And took off like a shot down Highway I-635.
“Gee, man, would mind slowing down a bit?”
“Sure, no problem.”
And for a couple of minutes the smudge Dan saw out his side window was transformed into strip malls and industrial parks. But it didn’t last. The driver sped up again. Dan tugged at his seatbelt to make sure it was secure then began listening through his ear buds to his favourite tune My Friends. He felt his shoulders relax as the scenery around him once again became a blur.
The church was located in an upscale part of town. Fashionable stores lined the street between low-rise office towers and hotels. A huge modernistic crucifix adorned the church entrance. Dan was early. The place was empty. He sat in one of the pews and was tempted to lie down. The building did not appeal to Dan. A lapsed Catholic, the product of a long line of lapsed Catholics, it was just a strange edifice to him, belonging to another time and place. Not his time and not his place. The Stations of the Cross, the stain glass windows, Jesusand His suffering did not move him. He pulled himself together, slowly stood up and headed for the exit. Behind him he dragged his carry-on.
After strolling for a block Dan stopped at a coffee shop. Over an espresso and a slice of cheese cake he reflected on Joe. Of all his friends Dan felt closest to this man. They had not only been on the football team together, they had both majored in business and during their last year at university lived in the same house off campus with other students.
After graduation Joe and his girlfriend moved to Edmonton where she had family but their relationship crumbled and when his company offered him a job in Texas he took it. That is where he had been introduced to his future wife. Dan had never met her and as he stared into his coffee cup he realized that he knew nothing about her.
He checked his cell phone, replied to a text from his wife and for a couple of minutes checked a news app. He looked over his emails. There was disappointing news. The other two friends from university who were to attend this event backed out at the last minute. How could they do that? It’s not nice, not right. Still he looked forward to seeing Joe. It would be fun, he reassured himself. Exhausted as he was, he stood up and hurried back to Christ the King.
A baby’s cries filled the church. Dan made his way to the baptismal font. It took a minute but he finally realized that the man in the sky-blue suit and trim beard was his old pal Joe. As they waited for the last guests to arrive Joe introduced Dan to the small knot of people standing about. Everyone was speaking Spanish. Dan’s ears began to buzz and he felt disoriented. What is going on here, he asked himself.
Joe put his arm around his friend. “Dan let me introduce you to my wife Margareta, her son Ernesto and daughter Maria.” Dan was surprised to find out that Margareta already had two kids.
Switching to Spanish, Joe introduced Dan to his parents-in-law. The priest came in from a side door and then two of Margareta’s sisters showed up in flowery dresses.
The ceremony was formal and brief. Dan was named as the godfather and was offered congratulations and thanks for travelling all the way from Canada.
“Come back to our place,” said Joe. “We’ll go in my car. There’ll be a party, lots of good food, beer and the best tequila.”
After spending several hours at his friend’s home, a sprawling ranch style house in a nice part of town, Dan took his leave. He had fulfilled his duty to Joe, had put up with an uncomfortable situation at the church and party. He now wanted to gather his thoughts, try to better understand what was going on.
Something was off, something felt wrong to Dan but he struggled to put a name to it. Slowly it formed like a blister on his soul. An unpleasant idea emerged, a sense of betrayal. Was he being irrational? He wasn’t sure. Who was Joe now? Certainly not the man he knew in university or even the man he had last met four years ago.
And this godfather business. It meant Dan would be expected to send gifts to the child every birthday, Christmas, wedding, etc. And perhaps even help out with paying for her schooling. Was that what all this was about? He shook his head. You’re overtired. Settle down he told himself.
“Why stay in a hotel when we have plenty of room here?”
“I have a flight to catch early in the morning. It’s better to be closer to the airport.”
Joe waited with Dan outside for the Uber to show up.
“You know I think your wife and her parents are wonderful people. After all, they’re willing to put up with you.” Dan gave his friend a light slap on the back. “But I’m a little confused. You never mentioned this part of your life. I had no idea that you’d learned Spanish, that your new wife already had a couple of kids, that you had Mexican in-laws.”
“True but you never asked.” Joe shrugged his shoulders. “We have a shared history and sports in common, so that’s what we talk about. How the Dallas Cowboys are doing, who the Texas Rangers new shortstop is. I’m okay with that. I like those conversations.” There was a long pause. “But yeah, maybe we can talk about other stuff sometimes. That would be good.” He gave his pal a big smile.
Dan’s mind was on fire, ‘maybe we can talk about other stuff’? Only maybe!
At the airport hotel bar Dan had a double scotch and headed to his room. He relaxed on the king-size bed and turned on the TV but turned off the volume. He began to search for the ear buds in his pocket but changed his mind.
It had been an interesting party although most of the conversation was in Spanish. He had expected none of this when he left Toronto earlier in the day. But it was not just the Spanish that was surprising; it was Joe, and maybe not just Joe. He was amazed at his naiveté. How stupid I am.
For a few bitter minutes he condemned all his old buddies for having been unfaithful to him, having discounted his efforts to stay connected with them.
No, he decided, that notion could not be right. What was right was that they had changed. They weren’t the people they once were. His friends had moved on and he had not noticed.
From his bed Dan murmured to the ceiling, “I’m an idiot!”
He had misunderstood everything but now it was clear. He just was not as important to his friends as he thought he was.
Dan closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.