by Salvatore Pane
Henry “Boot” Lobber watched his brothers arrive via two helicopters. They landed in the yard of their father’s sprawling estate at precisely the same moment, one red and plastered in Scranton Ghost Miner decals, the other painted blue for the Ithaca Polish Geniuses. Pigskin and Rodeo Lobber emerged from their copters wearing tuxedos and football helmets, their fingers sparkling with the combined might of twenty Super Bowl rings, quite the feat considering they were a full decade younger than Boot and had only played professionally for six seasons. They jogged forward, bowed their heads, and shoved Boot to the ground leaving grass stains up and down the back of his tan jacket. Boot panted and gasped for breath. He had high blood pressure, a heart condition, and had been instructed by his doctor to avoid all stressors and strenuous activity, that his ticker “was a faulty, sour bitch like the women in the movies”. Clearly, the brothers did not care. Pigskin spiked his helmet so hard it caused a minor explosion in the grass.
…..“Welcome to Thanksgiving, Lobber Family!” Pigskin said.
…..Boot stood, already humiliated within seconds of his brothers’ arrival, an alarming new record. He brushed himself off and watched their wives—twin supermodels from Dubai named Sex and Orgasm—step down from the helicopters. Their silver holiday bikinis shimmered in the fall sunlight. Pigskin caught Boot staring and shook him playfully by the neck.
…..“Boot.” Pigskin gave him a squeeze. “Where’s the old ball and chain, huh? Where’s Pop?”
…..Boot nodded toward Pop’s mansion. He avoided looking at it if he could. Of the three Lobber men, he was the only one who didn’t live in a mansion and he refused to let this fact shame him. There was nothing wrong with leasing an apartment in Seneca Falls. There was nothing wrong with being a vice accountant for the third largest rubber band company in the tri-state area. There was nothing inherently inferior in marrying a children’s librarian/failed poet instead of a Dubai supermodel.
…..“Pop and Audrey are inside.” Boot’s breathing had almost returned to normal. “But that can wait, boys. I got some big news. Some really neat news, you guys.”
…..Pigskin and Rodeo exchanged glances, then grabbed each other affectionately by the shoulders. They snapped their fingers at their wives and started toward the house.
…..“Let’s eat first,” Rodeo said. “We got some big news too, big bro. This is going to be pretty much the most awesome Thanksgiving in the history of time and space, brochacho.”
…..A goose hooted in the distance and Boot momentarily wondered why it was still on his father’s property, why that stupid animal hadn’t traded New York for warmer climates: South Carolina, Miami, Egypt. Then he remembered how his father artificially heated the pond and his property to prevent his animals from leaving. Boot stood there watching the helicopter pilots set up hibachi grills and their meager Thanksgiving bounties. He stood there watching his quarterback brothers and their supermodel wives walk into the blinding light of his father’s mansion. He stood there determined not to feel sub-human, not to feel cheated by the strange circumstances of his unpredictable life. He’d always dreamt of playing in the NFL, to start under center, to feel the grass beneath his cleats, to take a snap and launch that leather oblong like a jet into the clear blue sky of boyhood dreams. Maybe there was still time, he thought. And then, foolishly, Boot looked up, something he’d been trying not to do on account of the whole no stressors thing. There it was. The Asteroid that had now passed the Moon and, according to the authorities, would crash into Earth and smash it to smithereens later that day. The Asteroid shone blue, its edges surrounded by a trembling crimson wave. Boot stared at the Asteroid for awhile and then said, “Fuck. The Asteroid. I forgot about that.” He coughed into his checkered handkerchief and walked up to the veranda.
…..Inside, Boot joined his family at the dining room table. Pop and Boot’s wife sat on opposite sides, his brothers and sisters-in-law in the middle. Audrey was a cupcake of a woman, a touch of yolk in the eyes. She was sweet and intelligent and never much cared about success for which Boot was eternally grateful. He could trace back the root cause of his love years earlier, entering her apartment on an otherwise average night. He found her sitting on the couch, legs tucked beneath her, a stack of books at her side, so many books, more books than Boot had read in his entire lifetime. He picked one up. A collection of poems. Something intelligent sounding but he’d forgotten the title long ago. She’d told him she considered herself a failure, that her mind would never dream up the images of these other wonderful women, these other amazing women who could write, write, write. What stunned Boot was her inner life, the depths it reached, how less shallow she was compared to himself, her shining complexity.
…..Boot squeezed her thigh beneath the table and tried not to make eye contact with Pop. He focused on the fireplace at the far end of the room, the walls decorated with dinosaur heads Pop claimed to have hunted and bagged in a mystical place he referred to only as the “Savage Land”. Pop wore his traditional safari garb—tan slacks with pouches for his blades, tan vest with pouches for his blades, tan hat with pouches for his blades. Sex leaned toward him and licked his left ear up and down, left and right. Pop hooted. Pop hollered. They all had a good laugh about that raunchy mishap you can be sure!
…..Pop kicked his pouch-laden boots onto the table and pointed in Audrey’s direction. “What do you think about that, Boot? I bet Apple Dumpling over there wouldn’t try that on her old father-in-law, eh? Eh?”
…..The Lobbers—minus Boot and Audrey—snickered. The quarterbacks even high fived. Boot picked up his butter knife then awkwardly set it back on the white linen. “Her name is Audrey, Pop, you know that.”
…..“Don’t give me no back talk.” He spat on the hardwood floor. “Apple Dumpling!”
…..Boot stood, but Audrey touched his leg and whispered for him to sit down, reminded him about his heart condition. He looked into her eyes and saw so much empathy, so much love, and wondered why Pop never looked at him that way. He sat down and silently counted backwards from ten and thought about his big Thanksgiving announcement: the promotion. The Promotion! Unbeknownst to everyone but himself and Audrey, he’d just been promoted from vice accountant to Vice Accountant. This meant prestige and respect. This meant major moolah. This meant two additional capital letters. This meant trading their leased apartment for a starter home only a stone’s throw away from the upper-middle-lower class suburbs. This would change everything.
…..“I have an announcement to make.” Boot tapped his knife against his empty wine glass.
…..Pop slid a serrated blade out from the brim of his hat and flipped it in Boot’s direction. It sliced straight through Boot’s butter knife and flew an inch deep into the wall.
…..“Not before dinner, you schmuck.” He whistled. And just like that, a dozen tuxedoed servants poured out from the kitchen with trays upon trays of food. A midget darted across the room and pried Pop’s blade loose from the wall. Boot knew enough not to speak while there was food on the table. His brothers and father tore through one turkey leg after another, stacking the bones in a race to see who could consume the most in honor of this American holiday. Sex and Orgasm nibbled on wheat thins and sipped from wet naps, occasionally clapping whenever one of the men slammed down a particularly nasty looking bone. Boot ate a slice of white meat with no-fat gravy.
…..After an hour of listening to the alpha males chew and tear, gnaw and mash, the servants returned and carted the remains away, tossed the excess food into the incinerator located in sub-basement five. Pop and the boys unbuttoned their flies and took a nice, casual tip in their mahogany chairs.
…..“Those redskin bastards got what’s coming to them, am I right?” Pop winked at no one in particular with an awful menace. “Manifest motherfucking destiny.”
…..Boot cleared his throat. “My announcement, everyone?”
…..The QBs stood. “Brochacho, can you hold that thought just a second longer?” Rodeo checked his watch. “We have to show you something right this second. Pop, can you get the TV?”
…..The old man produced a remote control from his shin pouch. He pressed a button causing curtains to sweep across the windows. The lights dimmed. A movie theatre screen rolled across the far wall. A video of seven women dressed as cave people appeared. They were fellating a man in a dinosaur outfit with a hole cut out around his penis. Boot couldn’t be sure, but two of the women looked suspiciously like Orgasm and Sex Lobber.
…..“MTV, Dad.” Pigskin shook his head and let loose with a hearty guffaw. “Not ABC.”
…..Pop switched channels and President Abs appeared in the Oval Office. He looked orange, a level of tanning never before achieved by human skin, his hair gelled back in impossible black spikes that grazed the ceiling. He lifted his shirt and showed his famous abdominal muscles, those golden nuggets that had won the country’s hearts so many decades earlier on reality television, those powerful muscles that had propelled him to the tippy top of the free world. Behind him, through the Oval Office windows, lurked that sinister Asteroid. Hurtling closer, closer, closer. Not so far from our atmosphere now. Already closer than the wreckage of Skylab and the recently abandoned Satellite Graveyards.
…..“My fellow Americans.” He pulled up his shirt and reassured his countrymen with those friendly abs. “It’s time for the Thanksgiving Day Asteroid Plan. Our crack team of American scientists have come up with the best solution possible. They’ve outfitted two footballs with bombs, and we’ve asked the two best quarterbacks in the country to hurl these balls at the Asteroid at the same time. And guess what?” He smiled, another display of abs. “It’s going to be televised. Live on the internet. Ballin’.”
…..Boot couldn’t hear anything else the President said, as another round of helicopters was arriving outside, the spin of their blades deafening. He sat in the near darkness of his father’s dining room and held fast to his trembling leg, could feel the jack hammering pulse beneath. He’d looked forward to this day for a whole month, an entire thirty days of his life, toward the moment when he would finally win the respect of the men he felt more inferior to than anyone in the world, when he would finally reveal his transformation from vice accountant to Vice Accountant. And of course, his brothers just had to trump him. He’d prepared himself for the obvious: some football heroics the Sunday before, a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Trojan Magnum, the announcement of miniature monster babies festering inside Sex and Orgasm’s pornographic wombs. But this: the salvation of the entire planet? No. Boot had not mentally prepared himself for this.
…..The veranda doors swung open. Illuminated by sunlight stood President Abs and two identical generals, gruff with thick necks chewing unlit cigars, a crack team of scientists and military men behind them.
…..“Pigskin, Rodeo.” The President saluted. “It is time to destroy the Asteroid with your humongous muscles and the awesome power of your fantastic willpower.”
…..Boot followed the crowd outside where there were six new helicopters—red, white, and blue, decked out in fifty stars—and a host of military personnel hustling to and fro with big metal boxes and bazookas. A dozen scientists stood in a half-circle by the copters. Boot could tell them apart by their lab coats, the way they inspected long sheets of paper that spewed out from complicated machines that looked nothing like the computers his colleagues in the rubber band business used. The President led the Lobbers to a lone metal case set apart from the rest of the g-men. Inside were two footballs with antennas, flashing red lights on the laces.
…..The President showed them his abs for luck. “Today you go from being ordinary gridiron heroes to immortal saviors. Today you become gods among men.” He shook his head at Boot. “Far more important than a rubber band salesman you can all be sure.”
…..President Abs grabbed Pigskin’s hand and pulled him in for a hug, then did the same with Rodeo. “Brochacho,” Rodeo said tenderly, his eyes moistening with fat tears of patriotism.
…..The brothers fondled their balls and marched off to a nearby stretch of yard unmarked by trees. The scientists and military men joined the President and the Lobbers, lined up to get a better glimpse at their potential heroes. Two new helicopters cut through the sky and hovered above, jaunty men in suspenders hanging out from the open doors aiming cameras at the QBs below. And of course, who could forget the Asteroid, that ball of rock and flame poised to destroy them all? That brick sent from beyond this world, from another dimension, from an angry god, from the decline of reality itself. Boot hung back behind his father. Audrey took his arm and put it around her shoulders.
…..“Are you ok?” she whispered.
…..“Their accomplishment doesn’t diminish yours, Henry. Being a Vice Accountant instead of a vice accountant is a really big deal.”
…..“You’re a good person. You’re a good husband. You’ve always believed in me, and I’ve always believed in you. That’s what makes us work. We’re better than this.”
…..Boot hugged his wife. He loved a woman of complexity. A woman of complexity loved him despite his lack of anything inherently extraordinary. Wasn’t that enough to make up for everything? Didn’t that tip the scales when weighing his family’s successes against his own?
…..“Are you ready for some football?” Rodeo called to the crowd while stretching his legs.
…..“A Thanksgiving Day party!” Pigskin cracked his elbows behind his head.
…..It began in earnest when one of the scientists held a gun to the sky and fired. That bang was all it took, the men dropping back one, two, three steps just like on Sunday, their eyes on the target above—the Asteroid—now partially burning up in the atmosphere. Boot pulled away from his wife as his brothers cocked their arms back—an effortless gesture he’d seen thousands of times during lonely Sundays in his basement watching Pigskin and Rodeo on TV—then the sweet freedom of release. And boy, did those puppies ever soar. Not horizontally like usual. They weren’t aimed at middle of the field tight ends or pumping slot receivers, no, these ticking footballs were aimed above, at the Asteroid, toward salvation.
…..Boot shielded his eyes from the sun and watched those brilliant brown oblongs arc into the sky and up to the atmosphere, the inverse of shooting stars. The footballs careened into the Asteroid at the same time. It exploded in a million brown specs that rained radiance all over the planet, global fireworks, brown dots tailed by pink fire.
…..The President showed his abs. Pigskin and Rodeo leapt into the air and high fived one another. Boot rubbed the back of his neck and said, “Aw, raspberries” but nobody paid him any attention. Everyone—even his dear wife Audrey—was clapping, putting their whole hearts into it as if they’d just borne witness to an act of unfathomable beauty.
…..They disappeared as quickly as they arrived—the President, the military men, the scientists, the red, white and blue helicopters. And once again the Lobbers were alone. Pigskin and Rodeo walked in step, big goofy grins on their faces. They threw their arms around Pop and embraced.
…..“Hey, wait a tic.” Pigskin pulled away and frowned. “Boot. Didn’t you have something real important to tell us?”
…..Pop removed a seventy-five inch blade from his crotch pouch and scraped a strand of turkey from between his front two teeth. “Yeah. What is it, boy?”
…..Boot put his hands into his pockets. He rocked back and forth on his loafers. They somehow managed to squeak even in the grass. “Oh? Huh? What?”
…..Pop pointed the knife in his direction. “Out with it, yellow belly.”
…..Another one of those geese hollered. Boot stood there, trembling very lightly, and closed his eyes and tried to imagine the winter when his father first paid to have the estate’s climate artificially controlled. Pigskin and Lobber were only babies then. Boot wasn’t Boot but Henry. They were in the kitchen when Pop made the announcement. He was frying up steaks. Steaks for little boys! And cooking all by himself. Boot couldn’t remember him ever doing that except for this one time maybe a month, maybe two months after his mother’s death. And even then Henry was already beginning to forget all kinds of stuff about her: the milk of her voice, the potpourri odor of her perfume, the way her presence filled the house with a kind of thoughtful glow that in many ways tempered and calmed Pop. Pop served them all bloody steaks and removed a salt shaker from one of his pouches to season the meat. “Henry,” he said. “I know this is a difficult time for you, boy. I lost my mother as a lad too. And well, you know she’ll be proud of you no matter what. Me too. Of Pigskin and Rodeo too. We’re all part of Team Lobber here, right? We share our successes.” He sniffed, then took a big old bite from his steak. “Oh, and how about those geese? You like those jaunty bastards? I was thinking of artificially altering the temperature on the grounds to keep them here year round. What say you, boy?” Over the years, Boot tried to figure out why that moment, that ordinary moment culled from a lifetime of ordinary moments, so embedded itself into his memory. And although he never quite figured it out, he thought maybe, that maybe it had to do with potential. The potential all four of them had sitting there eating a quiet dinner in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy. That all four of them could become something good, that all four of them could evolve into talented people.
…..“Well,” Boot stammered. He looked at his family, their telling eyes, how little they expected of him, how they already knew that nothing he—old, dependable, boring Boot Lobber—could do would ever compare to the mystical miracle managed by his brothers. How desperately he wanted to prove them wrong. How desperately Boot wanted to show them the hidden contours of his heart and soul. “I recently tried out for the Cleveland Mecha Goblins,” he said, “and they’re taking me on. I’m the starting QB next fall.”
…..“Henry.” Audrey moved for his arm but he waved her off.
…..“I’ll be in your division, guys.” He smiled as hard as he could. His teeth shook with equal parts fear and joy. “Division rivals.”
…..Rodeo scratched behind his ear, then spat in the grass. His spit caused a minor explosion. “That so? How about a little game then? Right now, brochacho.”
…..“Shit yeah,” Pigskin said.
…..Boot looked at his father, the way he bent down in the grass and sharpened one of his knives with an even larger knife. Then his wife, a pleading look in her eyes. He knew she only tolerated the extended Lobber family on his account, that she’d suggested going on a cruise for the holidays, maybe even visiting a bed and breakfast on the coast where the two of them could be buried in sensual mud. Boot stroked the small of her back, his favorite part of her body.
…..“That sounds fine,” he said to his brothers. “That sounds just bonkers.”
…..The Super Bowl MVPs lined up on either side of dowdy Boot. Rodeo twenty yards on his left. Pigskin the same distance on his right. Pop a few feet directly in front of him. The idea, Boot gathered, was that Pop would snap him the ball and he’d have a few seconds to step back and chuck it in the old man’s direction, that Pop would play both center and receiver. His brothers were the tacklers, and Boot thought maybe he could outrun them, outspin them, maybe even out-maneuver them. Sure. He felt his heart beating wildly and placed his hand under the give of his chest. There it was drumming faster, faster, faster. He took a deep breath. He took another. He counted backwards from ten. Little black dots appeared on the periphery of his vision. In many ways, they were really quite beautiful.
…..Audrey and the Dubai wives stood off by the veranda. Sex and Orgasm weren’t even watching and instead focused their attention on a reality television show unfolding on their mobile phones. A cast member yelled, “Oh no she didn’t!” Audrey ran her hands nervously up and down her thighs. “Henry!” she called. “Henry! You don’t have to do this. Please don’t do this!”
…..Boot grinned at her. He flashed a thumbs up. “Come next fall, I’ll be doing this all the time, sweetheart. We’ll be so beautiful and brilliant next fall!”
…..Pop jammed two fingers into his mouth and whistled. “Enough of this pansy ass nonsense. My mark. On three.” He counted down. One. Two. Three. Then the snap. How pretty it was, that oblong shooting towards Boot. He knew it a cliché even as it was happening, but time seemed to slow down, his entire life stuttering and jerking like a feisty running back one defender away from a dazzling open field. Boot caught the ball smack in the chest and dropped back three steps like he’d seen Pigskin and Rodeo do during their Asteroid demolition. He watched his father sprint then turn back to face him, his tongue wagging wild, his hands squeezing open, shut, then open again. He saw his brothers, one on either side, closing in on him, their powerful legs pumping, pumping. How fast could they run, Boot wondered. Twenty miles per hour? A hundred? A thousand? Coming faster and faster. What would being crushed feel like, he wondered. Probably like nothing at all. Probably like turning into nothing. And then he saw his wife. Sweet, intelligent Audrey. Audrey who read poetry. Audrey who tried to write poetry. Audrey who believed in him. He wished that she’d been enough, that he’d been a better person, that he could allow himself to let things go.
…..Boot pulled the ball back and chucked it. It spiraled in the blue sky, in the still shimmering dust of the dead Asteroid. He’d never been able to achieve a perfect spiral growing up—had it really been that long since he’d thrown a football—but there it was: a boyhood gratification decades delayed. Laces, leather, laces, leather. It spun in the air. Something straight out of Sundays on TV. And the best part, the very best part, was his father’s reaction. The big grin on his face. The way he put out his hands, his pupils tracing the ball. How it looked like he’d waited all his life for this moment, to receive this one holy sacrament from above. But they were almost upon Boot now. His brothers. Just inches away. Unstoppable forces of destruction. Boot closed his eyes. He couldn’t stop thinking about that pass. He couldn’t stop thinking about his family.
Salvatore Pane’s fiction has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Dzanc‘s Best of the Web anthology and has appeared, or is forthcoming, in PANK, Hobart, Flatmancrooked, Quick Fiction, Annalemma and others. He blogs forThe Rumpus, BOMB, PANK and Dark Sky, teaches fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, and can be found online at www.salvatore-pane.com.