What’s Wrong

“Fans who were once the models of loyalty, obstinacy, and humility have become the models of entitlement, self-centeredness, and brazenness.” A work of thoughtful fiction which offers, through a shrewd real-life sports comparison, profound insight into the roots of divisiveness prevalent in the United States today…

by: Stewart Michael Berg

As soon as the waitress left the table, Roger, without looking at James, said, “It better be just the one.”

“It is,” James answered.          

“It better be. We still have half the job to do.”

James nodded. He looked down at his right forearm and pinched away a strand of hay that was sticking to his skin. Both of his forearms had developed a redness and itchiness, and each joint of his fingers bore the painful impression of haywire.

“You have to wear sleeves,” Roger said. “It doesn’t matter how hot it gets, you just got to. That’s what I was always told.”

James nodded and noticed the waitress returning. The woman placed a beer and a glass of water on the table then quickly sped back to the kitchen. Not wanting to look at Roger while he sipped his beer, James shifted himself slightly in his seat so that his gaze was focused out upon the highway through the restaurant’s large, lone window.

“Gloves, too,” Roger said. “I’ll be sure to remember to bring along a pair for you next time.”

James nodded. The view through the window was proving itself to be a poor distraction. All he saw was a parking lot as empty as the restaurant they were in, an occasional blur of color on the highway, and Roger’s large truck and trailer parked along the back edge of the lot. From far enough away, the stacked hay bales on the trailer gave off the illusion of being a sole block, but James knew the existence of ninety-eight separate and heavy solids. The sight of the hay reminded James that his arms itched and his fingers begged to bleed.

“Unloading’s always easier than loading,” Roger said, following James’ gaze. “You’re going to have to be the one to climb up for the top ones though. My back doesn’t let me anymore.”

James nodded. He continued staring at the truck, trailer, and hay as if his focus was capable of making things explode.

Suddenly, the view outside the window changed. A large cloud of dust was being thrown up from the gravel parking lot and it obscured everything slightly. James saw a sleek, black form through the cloud, and the object pulled up and parked just in front of the restaurant’s window.

“Look at that,” Roger half-whistled.

James knew little about cars other than being able to recognize expensive ones. The midnight black sports car outside the window was undoubtedly costly, and it seemed all the more expensive to James because the model appeared to be one he had never seen. The vehicle’s wheels were chrome, and each of its windows looked to be tinted to a level that James thought sure to be illegal.

“There’s got to be at least seventy-five thousand dollars there,” Roger said. 

James nodded. The cloud of dust slowly settled itself and once it was fully gone the front doors of the sports car opened and from the driver’s side stepped out a man, and from the passenger’s side, a woman. Both the individuals appeared to be about James’ age, and the man raised up his arms and twisted his back in a stretch. The man was wearing golfing attire, sunglasses, and a New England Patriots hat. The woman was wearing a short sundress and sunglasses. The man put his hands on his hips and gave the restaurant a look over, as if evaluating its worth. He pointed to the building and looked to his companion. The woman shrugged, and then the two left the frame of the window.

James shifted his eyes to the restaurant’s entrance. Before long, he saw the woman come in and remove her sunglasses, and then the man did the same. The waitress emerged from the kitchen and greeted the couple. She led them to a table but the man stopped and pointed to the table nearest the restaurant’s largest window, and then she led them there.

Once the couple was seated, the waitress stood at their table for several moments while writing down their drink orders. 

“It’s nice to come to places like this,” James overheard the man say after the waitress left their side. “I’m not sure why, but there’s something about it.”

The woman nodded and then began blithely examining the room, forcing James’ attention away from her alluring figure.

“I’m not sure what it is,” the man continued. “Maybe the simplicity of it?”

The woman shrugged and James took stock of the man. He found himself staring at the man’s New England Patriots hat and thinking of the fact that the logo and all it stood for was a disgrace to the colors it used.

“You know what’s wrong?” James asked, addressing Roger, though not quietly.

“What’s that?” Roger asked.

“I said, you know what’s wrong?”

“With what?”

“With the country.”

“What is?”

“Boston.”

Roger gave James a look.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah,” James said. “Bostonians. Boston sports fans.”

“Just them?”

“No, probably not. They’re the worst, though.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Remember the Red Sox?”

“‘Remember them?”

“Yeah. The way they used to be. Before they became what they are.”

“You mean before they won a bunch of championships?”

James nodded.

“That definitely has something to do with it,” he said. “Maybe it has everything to do with it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s unavoidable that every winning David starts thinking of himself as the new Goliath. Remember Red Sox Nation?

“Yeah.”

“It’s right there in the name. Red Sox Nation was all of us. They’ve turned it into only them now, but it was all of us. The whole country outside of New York became Red Sox fans the minute they walked off the field of Old Yankee Stadium in 2003, and the 2004 season was like a miracle too amazing even for the Bible. We all prayed for it, and we all rejoiced in it, but they’ve taken it from us. Fans who were once the models of loyalty, obstinacy and humility have become the models of entitlement, self-centeredness, and brazenness. They used to chase the ultimate prize, and now they expect it as their right. They had stadiums of fans join in the jubilation with them, and now they visit stadiums and drone out those same fans with chants for themselves. They used to believe their lot was to lose and be pitied. Now, they declare it to be to win and be shitty. I feel sorry for the Green Monster, I really do. Its famous flush used to be from righteous envy, but now it comes from queasiness over what it has been forced to witness. A Red Sox fan now is simply a Yankee fan wearing different colors.”

Roger shrugged and smiled.

“Who knows?” he said. “You might be right. They wouldn’t care, though.”

“I know they wouldn’t. Those who are embarrassing always develop a membrane to surround themselves. They would say I was jealous then move on.”

“The best defense is an insult.”

“It’s a good one, but the best defense is actually a punch. They’re not there yet, but give the whole thing another few years of incubation, and we’ll see.”

James was interrupted by the appearance of the waitress. She caught his eye and smiled. Carrying a tray with two sandwiches on it, she made her way to Roger and James.

“Here you both are,” she said as she set their plates before them. “Enjoy.”

“Thank you,” Roger said.

“Is there anything else I can get either of you?”

“I think we’re good,” Roger answered.

“Are you going to want another beer?” the waitress asked James.

“No, thanks,” he answered.

“Well, you two holler if you end up needing anything. And enjoy.”

The waitress made a quick pass of the table by the window then returned to the kitchen. James watched the couple at the table for some time, but neither of them looked in his direction. Roger started on his sandwich, and then James did as well.

“You know,” James said. “The Red Sox aren’t even the worst part of it.”

“Yeah?” Roger asked.

“Yeah. The Red Sox were just the start of the slide. It’s the Patriots too, more so even.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Remember Deflategate? I bet you can’t find a single Boston sports fan who believes that Tom Brady actually cheated. Isn’t that wild to think about? They claim that the NFL was going after Brady for some reason. In other breaths, those same fans call the NFL a profit-driven organization that cares about money over the lives of its players, yet they close their eyes to the fact that these two statements cannot both be true. As for why the NFL would frame Brady, they don’t even have the decency to put forward a theory. It’s enough for them to believe that an organization desiring nothing but money would inexplicably engineer an attack against its biggest moneymaker. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s enough for them.”

“Didn’t he destroy his cell phone, too?”

James nodded vigorously.

“He absolutely did,” he said. “The NFL requested to search his phone for keywords relating to the cheating, and he promptly destroyed the phone like a child who thinks his parents are stupid. That was always the funniest part about the whole thing to me. You can imagine him receiving that simple and reasonable request from the NFL and then running around his mansion like a chicken with its head cut off . He knew his phone would incriminate him, so he put it beneath his heel. The NFL doesn’t have the investigative power of the police, so he got away with it. It’s important to remember that this was Brady’s biggest weapon throughout the whole scandal. The NFL doesn’t have even a sliver of the investigative authority that the police do, so Brady simply asserted his innocence as if the whole thing was a criminal affair and then didn’t cooperate in the slightest, and the NFL had no power to force him to. In fact, that was the entire basis of Brady’s appeal to the United States courts. He appealed the NFL’s decision to suspend him based on the wages that he would be losing, not on his innocence. In an issue that surrounded the idea of whether Tom Brady had respect for the integrity of the sport, he literally took to court the argument that his personal salary was of higher importance than that integrity.”

“Didn’t he have a reason for destroying his cell phone, though?”

“No. He said it was his habit to destroy his personal cell phones for security reasons. That actually may be the funniest part of the whole thing to me. Can you imagine a lawyer ever advising his client that for security reasons he should destroy his own copies of things? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what a lawyer would tell you? Were we supposed to believe that a rich, powerful, and apparently paranoid man makes it regular practice to put himself in situations where sensitive information sent by him could be available in the world without his own record to potentially dispute it? It’s like he wasn’t even trying to truly convince anyone but instead was confident that the public would acquit him based on his personality alone. Did he really expect the public to not know the fact that text messages are stored on both the sending and receiving devices? What about the fact that his cell phone carrier would have records of his sent and received messages? He also claimed to always destroy his cell phones whenever he got a new one but then offered NFL investigators two other old phones of his that he knew they wouldn’t be interested in, so he obviously wasn’t ever as committed to this idea of security as he claimed to be. At every step of the way, Tom Brady behaved like a petulant child who both knows that he’s guilty and that his parents know he’s guilty but who, nevertheless, with a complete lack of shame, cries that he’s actually the one being mistreated.”

James was again interrupted by the appearance of the waitress from the kitchen, and he instantly cut short his speech. The waitress smiled as she approached Roger and James’ table.

“Everything tasting alright?” she asked.

“Wonderful,” Roger answered. “Thank you.”

The waitress laid the check down on the table.

“I’m just going to leave this here. There’s no rush, though, of course. We’ll take care of you up front whenever you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” Roger said, and the waitress gave a final smile then left.

James took several large bites from his sandwich to make up for the ones he had been missing while talking. While chewing, he thought he noticed the man in the Patriots hat looking at him, but he couldn’t be sure. The woman at the table was itching the back of her right shoulder with her left hand.

“So,” James asked, turning back to Roger, “what do you think?”

Roger shrugged.

“Brady would get an asterisk from me,” he answered. “That’s for sure.”

“Not just him. The team as a whole requires an asterisk. It’s important to remember just how much Brady’s cheating helped his team win. Boston sports fans scoff at the very idea that his potential cheating could have been something that helped his team. They have no argument to go along with this scoffing, but would anyone ever think that this would stop them? They’ll say things like ‘Why would he cheat if it didn’t help?’ even though a reciprocating question of ‘Why didn’t he cooperate if he wasn’t guilty?’ will receive only a scoff. The whole advantage from the cheating can be summed up in one word: fumbles. A fumble is the most impactful, most random, and hardest to predict part of a football game. All a person need do is watch a game to learn this. Unlike an interception, a fumble isn’t the result of a particular type of play, meaning there is no true way to even attempt to avoid them. Fumbles affect plays of all type, players of all ability, and playmakers of all cunning. Fumbles are the forces of nature that remove the game from simply being plans on paper. They are what make the games really real. Fumbles in football can be compared to disease in war; if one army is immune to disease then it will always battle other armies under this unwavering advantage.”

“If you can control your fumbles, you can control every game you play in.”

“Exactly. It was right there in front of everyone for the longest time, too. Remember trying to play fantasy football with a New England Patriots’ running back? Remember how Bill Belichick became famous for not playing any running back after he fumbled, even if it was his star player? It sure makes one think that coach Belichick knew that there was a reason his guys shouldn’t be fumbling. If you deflate the football, a ball carrier has that much easier of a time securing it away from defenders. It’s a similar concept to the way that a basketball becomes easier to palm if you let a little air out of it. The statistics show the obviousness of the issue as well. Given the randomness and unpredictability of fumbles, you would naturally expect every season’s fumbles leaderboard to be different from the season before. For instance, you would expect a team that had the fewest fumbles one season to almost certainly not having the fewest fumbles the following season. This is, of course, not true of the Patriots. The Patriots cheating didn’t give them gains as much as it keep them from pitfalls, and once you understand this as well as the nature of football, it’s becomes incredibly easy to understand how they won more than ten games a year for so long. A random thing favoring no one apparently for a long time favored them. Lightning struck the same place again and again. I guess the Patriots were just telling their players to not fumble while all the other teams in the league were neglecting to do so.”

Roger shrugged.

“It’s just a game, though,” he said. “It’s not something that’s important.”

James nodded.

“It’s not something that’s important,” he said, “but it’s something that’s indicative. You can learn a lot about people through what they care about the most, and a Boston sports fan cares most deeply about Boston sports. How people relate to the things they care about reveals a lot about them, and it’s also the best way to project how they will react to similar situations in the future. Boston sports fans, since the millennium, are the perfect example of a mass group that has shed its personal integrity in favor of the thrill of victory. Think of the Deflategate again. It’s so readily obvious that Tom Brady and the Patriots were guilty, but even if you spread out all the pieces of evidence on a table, they’ll still deny the very existence of a puzzle. You can even hold up a corner that you’ve been working on and that’s made of several individual pieces, and they’ll still maintain the puzzle’s inexistence. This is a group of people who can see things one way while proclaiming them another. I have no idea how they do it, I can only suspect that they don’t have mirrors in their homes. Confronted by the fact that reality does not conform to them, they’ve decided to reject reality. The scary thing to think about is that if they are so willing to forgo integrity in their personal lives, in what sphere are they not willing to forgo it? What starts in the personal bleeds into the professional, which in turn bleeds into the political. If Tom Brady was smart, he would run for office after his retirement. He could be a candidate who did whatever he wants, and his supporters wouldn’t care. He could openly lie to them, and they would rationalize his lies. Without integrity to hold them back, there’s no telling what his supporters would be capable of foregoing in their own favor, and even they would not be able to give you a clue as to themselves because they’ll always first require their leader to tell them what to do. In all honesty, Tom Brady should run for office, he’d probably win in a massive landslide of historic proportions. I know that it seems both odd and terrifying to think of an outsider sweeping his way into office on a platform directly opposing integrity, but people have primed themselves for it.”

Roger nodded several times then sighed.

“You ready?” he asked. “We should get back on the road.”

James nodded, and then the two pushed back from the table and made their way to the front of the restaurant. While waiting at the register for the waitress to appear, Roger began chuckling under his breath.

“What is it?” James asked.

“Nothing,” Roger answered. “I’m just a little relieved that we’re about to be on our way. I was worried I was going to have to break up a fight.”

“Do you think they heard me?”

Roger shrugged.

“I’m pretty sure of it,” he said. “They would have had a hard time not hearing, I’d guess, considering the way you were almost yelling at times. Weren’t you wanting them to hear you?”

James shrugged then nodded.

“Well,” Roger said, “in any event, lunch is on me. You’ve earned it today. I’ll wait and take care of this, if you want to head out and get the AC running.”  

“Sure,” James said, and he held out his hand for Roger’s keys.

“Just don’t steal it,” Roger smiled.

James started for the door then stopped and turned back.

“I’d jackknife it just trying to pull out of the parking lot,” he smiled.

Outside, James stood on the pavement and, for a moment, closed his eyes in the sun, feeling the warmth about him. He opened his eyes to the view of Roger’s truck, trailer, and hay. He sighed but then imagined the Boston couple sitting by the window. They were likely bitter from their lashing and not looking or speaking to each other. The black sport scar was parked only a few feet to James’ right, and he decided the perfect ending would be to spit on its windshield. He smiled then took a step toward the vehicle.  

However, as soon as James had taken the step than he pulled it back, and he realized the couple would be able to see their car through the restaurant’s window the same way he had. In the next moment, he was hit by the ensuing realization that they would likewise be able to watch him whenever he decided to cross the parking lot to Roger’s truck, and this second fact seemed to crumble everything he had done. He thought of trying to walk a long circuit to the truck, but he knew the couple would be able to see him no matter what.    

With no other choice, James began the walk across the parking lot, his arms itched, his fingers ached, and his pride burned. He refused to stop, slow down, or look over his shoulder, though he knew that the couple must be watching him. He imagined them at their table, previously cowed but now buoyed and maybe even laughing. He knew they would see the simple scene of a laborer returning to his work, and his condition would be taken up by them as its own form of counterargument.

 

Stewart Michael Berg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.

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