Welcome to the NFL

“You gotta come to Philadelphia, man, you gotta come,” Howie said to me. I think he said it to me. At least he said it in my general direction.

“What’s in Philadelphia?”

“Absolutely nothing . . . nada . . . the Liberty Bowl’s there, ain’t it?”

“Liberty Bowl?” Jay was incredulous. “It’s the Liberty Bell, you fuckin’ moron. The Liberty Bell.”

Yeah, yeah, it’s cracked, right?”

“You’re cracked, man.”

“Damn straight.”

Sometimes lunacy pays off. Freida and I were backstage at the Beacon Theater. It had been arranged for the two of us to receive an award for our rescue efforts prior to the televised portion of the Rock for Animals benefit show, and thus be bestowed with laminated passes that allowed us to mill about and gawk at the mostly New York-based bands that were performing. My mother had a hand in securing these, a peace-offering of sorts, because she had been hard on me lately. We weren’t the only ones to be so honored, and this access—crumbs for the beggars—apparently was the chosen way to pay off debts, settle scores, and give out chits. But it was fine because Evan Dorenberg was headlining and I was a fan. I would swallow my pride to see him. Being backstage was unsatisfying, however, and I acutely felt my lack of occupation. Every outsider there wanted to be a rung higher, a shade cooler, except Dorenberg, who didn’t appear to want any part of this world, but was given it fully nonetheless. He did not hang around back stage, and I only saw him emerge from his green room, deeply drawing on his final cigarette, on way to stage, inwardly focused in that world of his.

But Jay and the rest of Yellowbird were there, so we hung around with them instead. We were more successful here. If you were young and female, no explanation was necessary for your presence, the more the merrier; you were considered part of the rider, you might say. I mentioned to Jay that I’d seen him before, and explained that I was my mother’s daughter. Recognition registered in his eyes; he smiled, looked me over up and down. “Nice clean up,” he said. He said that to me. I was only able to respond with some vague, jerky gesture, hugging my certificate of appreciation tighter.

While I did not end up traveling with Yellowbird to Philly (although Freida took up the invitation), I did start going to more and more of the band’s gigs when I could get to them, hanging out backstage and afterward with their bassist, Howie. Howie—Bobby Howard—was an exceptional bass player, a better musician than man. The open door to the rock scene he provided because he was not exclusive in any sense, and the fact that he was deeply unhappy, was a combination many women could not resist. He was wrecked a lot of the time, but when he smiled, which he did rarely, it was an artless thing, and, even though deep down you knew better, you felt as though you could be the one who healed this creature with the broken wing.

I myself fell into this trap, sitting with him on the hotel couch, both of us silent as he smoked and fingered the strings of an imaginary bass. Everyone called him Howie, except Freida, who called him Bobby. “Bobby!” she would say in that deep, husky voice of hers. “Bobby.” A single-word imperative. That “Bobby” was enough to raise apprehension in the hearts of the stoutest of men. Freida could not be said to be careful.

More and more I wandered through this world of strange strictures and borderlines. The band was working hard, the crew working harder; the only person not working hard was me. The truth was I should have stuck with walking my avenue, but I threw caution to the wind one weekend and flew with Howie and Yellowbird to Indianapolis, my desperation waxing. I didn’t want to end up like Dad, or like Uncle Henry, sitting day in and day out in that tin shack of his, staring at the cornfields, letting time have its way amid the rustling of the drying stalks.

* * *

That night in Indianapolis . . . I should not have been there. I’m not sure how it even happened: I had too much to drink; by the process of elimination we were the only two left. Later in bed, Howie struggled against me as if he were pulling on a rope to climb back out of the hole he had fallen into, and it was a nasty thing, being that rope. It was all over when he pulled me up by my shoulders to a sitting position so our faces were about an inch from each other’s and yelled, “Welcome to the NFL!” Then he let himself slide back down into the twisted sheets and fell asleep. I sat stunned for several moments, then went into the bathroom and got dressed. I tiptoed out of the darkened bedroom and opened the door to the glaringly bright hotel hallway. The harsh light sent waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I ducked my head and stepped softly over the threshold into the sunshine childhood days of my uncle’s farm—the simplicity of running down the hill, or lying flat on the ground, a blade of grass in my teeth—and I felt as if I would never be that unencumbered again, and I longed to return and now more fully understood its lure.

I was the last of our party to get off the plane when it arrived back at LaGuardia the next day, the last to get to the van waiting to take us back into the city. When I got there, every seat was taken, the entire band jammed in, plus Eric, their manager; the drummer’s sister and two friends; and Freida, who must have met the van at the VIP gate, crushed in next to Howie, his arm around her shoulder. The vehicle was overcapacity and there was no room for me. “Can’t take any more,” the driver said. All eyes were on me.

“It’s okay.” I said. “I can take a cab.”

Jay said, “Just cram in,” but the others were silent.

“Really, it’s okay. I can take a cab.” Howie did not speak up for me. I stared at everyone seated inside as if in a daze. “I’ll take a cab,” I repeated, waiting for the spell to break, holding up everyone. “I’ll . . .”

“Take a cab,” Howie said, looking out the window, not at me.

“Stop being an ass,” Freida told me.

“Jesus Christ,” Jay said, hauling himself up out of his seat. He ducked out of the van, straightened up, grabbed my hand and pulled me down the sidewalk. Later,” he called over his shoulder. The driver pulled the van door shut and drove off. “Bunch of fuckers,” he muttered, not for the first time. We waited in the taxi line for a cab into the city, and though I suppose it should have been a coup of sorts to be standing there with Jay Burton of Yellowbird as a companion, I looked with envy at every traveler, no matter how weary, every terminal employee, all of them seemingly possessed of an agency and grace I at that moment lacked.

We headed to my mother’s office, where I was to be deposited, but first ducked into the little deli on the corner and picked up sandwiches and beer. At the checkout counter, I grabbed a tub of olives as well. Thankfully Mom was not in, and we brought everything to an empty lounge I knew no one ever used, closed the door, and collapsed on the couch, pushing the papers and books off the coffee table onto the floor, taking the food out of the paper bag, spreading it out like a picnic.

Jay could see I was shaken. “If you met him at a different time and place, you’d like him better.”

“He yelled at me,” I told him. Why I would confess something like this to his bandmate, I’m not sure; it broke all rules of propriety, as did my being with Jay now, if one was bent on being particular, but that boat had long sailed. Jay responded by telling me about Howie’s long-time girlfriend, Ivy, a woman almost ten years older. She ran away with another man, leaving a note taped to the dressing room mirror one night an hour before the show. The stunt stung him badly.

“Was he serious about her?”

“I don’t know; he liked her. He liked to get her drunk . . . she’d dance around to old music. He liked to watch her.”

“Because nothing was required of him?”

A pause and a sip. “Right. Just wanted to drink beer and have his . . .”

“Oh, crap. Crap.”

“What?”

“These olives have pits in them.” I said, holding up the container.

“So?” Jay asked, collapsing back against the couch. His hair was in a tangle, some of it caught inside the collar of his black shirt, some of it outside; his eyelashes dark against his pale skin.

“I don’t want a bowl of chewed-over pits; it’s gross.” Tears started in my eyes, my body began to tremble, as the self-imposed embargo on acknowledging the humiliation of last night finally broke, sending an overwhelming sadness flooding though me.

Jay leaned forward and touched my face. He brushed his thumb across my cheek, wiping away the tears. The sudden intimacy was deliverance from a world of letdowns and fiascoes. After the rough and tumble vulgarities of Indy, it felt sweet and warm and kind. And that was all I wanted.

Jay collapsed once again against the back of the sofa.  He was exhausted. He became solemn and turned his head to look at me. “I ain’t gonna yell at you,” he said softly, eyes half-shut. “I ain’t gonna yell . . .”

I rested my head on Jay’s chest; he laid his hand on my hair. We stayed in this position, silent, until one of the interns knocked on the door, sticking her head in and saying they needed the room.

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