He wasn’t a hero, and I wasn’t looking for bad guys.
July 7, 2014
I HAD SEEN HIS KIND before and knew it as soon as he walked into the room.
Not as old as he looked.
Not as tall as he thought he was.
Black hair slicked back with grooming cream.
He could have been a boxer.
Or maybe he walked a beat behind a badge.
In either case, he hadn’t won many fights.
In the ring.
In the back alleys.
His face had taken a pounding.
Neither eye ever quite looked in the same direction at the same time.
His nose had been broken more times than put back together.
And his voice was a hoarse whisper when he spoke.
Too many cigarettes.
Too much whiskey.
To many late nights with too many cheap women.
They were a deadly combination.
He said he was looking for a job.
Well, what he said was he was looking for a story.
He had experience.
“I can play the hero,” he said.
“When I need to be.”
“How about the love scenes?” I asked.
“I’m pretty good when I knock somebody around,” he said.
“I already have a hero,” I said.
“You need a bad guy?”
“Every good story needs one.”
“Look at me,” he said.
“This face was made for a bad guy,” he said.
I nodded. I was in full agreement.
“What’s your experience?” I wanted to know.
“I’ve run a few card games,” he said. “None of them legal.”
“You a pretty good cheat?”
“I’ve buried a few that caught me cheating.”
“I run what you want me to run,” he said.
“Girls. Booze. Numbers. Drugs.”
“I’m a survivor,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been mugged, pistol whipped, shot, stabbed at least twice, and thrown into the river with concrete blocks tied around my legs,” he said. “And I’m still here. I’ve had the best and the worst of them try to get rid of me, and I’m not done yet.”
It was a crooked grin.
One tooth was missing.
One was filled with gold.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid you won’t do.”
“It’s not that kind of story.”
He crossed one eye.
“What kind of story is it?” he asked.
“It’s about football,” I said.
“Need a coach?” he asked.
“Can you play one?”
“Only if the game is crooked,” he said.
“Give me you best half-time speech,” I said.
He squared his shoulders, cocked his head, leaned forward and said in that harsh, gruff, whispered voice of his:
“Boys, I once heard the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant say that finding the price of success is simple. You’ve just got to use all of your courage to force yourself to concentrate on the problem at hand, to study it from all angles and play the best you can. He said that nothing worthwhile had ever been achieved without constant strain, pain, and stress.”
He stepped back.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I have absolutely no freaking idea,” he said.
“You’ll make a damn fine coach,” I said.
“Do we win?” he asked.
“Do we cheat?”
“That’s your problem,” he said.
“If you let me cheat, we can win the damn game.”
“It’s not about the game.”
“That’s your trouble,” he said.
“If it’s not about the game, it’s not about football.”
Maybe he was right.
But this time, I hoped he wasn’t.