Old buildingTitle: Big Game
Author: Justin Thurman
Category: Fiction

A cabin means something to a guy like me. A fireplace. Antique firearms and crooked metal cookware. A simple bathroom with a simple toilet filled with murky well water that takes on a thin sheen of ice in the pre-dawn cold. I piss through that ice in a cabin. I hunt and huddle and miss my TV in a cabin. Almost every one of us—regardless of income and station—is equally barely adequate in a cabin.
What Fredrick called his cabin wasn’t a cabin. It was a private wilderness estate. A parking lot. A luxury shuttle. Horse stables. A ropes course. Ten separate furnished guest studios. The main lodge’s fixtures and comfort-assuring technologies were worth more than my place in the city. The room Big Game spoke in was a cylindrical chamber of exotic textiles, a room for extraterrestrial dignitaries to meet and decide the galaxy’s fate. He wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for me.

     There were about thirty of us at that year’s sales consultants retreat, all in tuxedos. Most attendees were the globetrotting ex-celebrities, politicos, and capitalist svengalis who motivated the world’s largest, most successful sales forces. They sat and sipped champagne. They were worth millions.
 Shortcake and I were not worth millions. We were secretaries who managed the accounts lists and contacts for the sales consultants. We stood in the back with the catering staff. We were sober. We expected a cabin.

     Every year, the sales consultants retreat bedeviled our CEO and founder of Fredrick Sales Motivators, Peter Fredrick. He obsessed about the catering, the activities schedule, transportation, and managing the various SC rivalries and peccadilloes. But the major obstacle was securing a guest speaker for the opening night reception. Enter local legend and playoff hero, Big Game Damon Rayburn. He played outside linebacker for three dominating years at Division II Central Valley State, where Shortcake and I went to college. Cleveland drafted Big Game in the fifth round. He went on to play thirteen seasons for six different teams, mostly as a backup and scout team veteran. In the final game of his final season while the world watched, he made a pivotal play, at a singular moment, subbing for an injured starter.

     He retired to the middling metropolis of his alma mater to raise his three boys with his college sweetheart, Isobel. Here’s where I come in. Isobel and my wife, Leslie, were casual acquaintances when we were all in school. I didn’t meet Big Game until a couple’s night after the Rayburns moved back into town. That’s when Big Game and I discovered our connection: He wanted to demand extravagant speaking fees and I wanted to be better than a secretary. We could help each other, I told him. Be partners. Couple’s nights seldom present these kinds of coincidences and opportunities. Fredrick had never invited sales list administrators to the cabin. If the illusion of equity weren’t so important, Shortcake Dave Pierce would have been at home that night.

     And Big Game could put on a show. His mighty black hands gesticulated through the fourth quarter of his defining Sunday. His championship ring, the diamonds in his ears, the polished gold of his chain, they all sparkled as he stalked the rostrum in the center of the seated audience. A three-point lead. Third down and inches. A minute left and the Jets on the fifty-yard line. Ten more yards for a long field goal attempt. And Big Game busts the line and flattens the halfback on a toss play. Big Game fired his clenched fist skyward to demonstrate how he shook the pulling guard. One of the SC’s yelled, “You wrecked him, Big Game!” The other SCs hollered in approval.

     I shouted, “And Damon still holds the D-II record for tackles behind the line of scrimmage!”

     The room went quiet. Some of the SCs spun around in their seats to see where Shortcake Dave and I were standing. Fredrick looked back, too. Shortcake nudged my arm and shook his head. That I had to carpool forty-five minutes with Shortcake in a rented tux, our overnight effects piled into the useless back seats of his tiny Miata, this should have been enough humiliation.

     But I had been disruptive. I can see that now.

     The audience turned back to Big Game. He launched into his conclusion:

     “Somebody’s always pushing you back. You got to let him push sometimes. But it gets to a point that he wins or you win. That’s when you have to reach deep, find that extra gear, that voice that says ‘Hell’ and says ‘No.’ You need an inch? You been taking whole yards! And some of that’s my fault.

     “But this time? No more inches. I’m a hunt you down and take some inches back. My inches!
“You get those inches back. And he look at you and says, ‘Next time.’ And you look at him and say, ‘Maybe. But not today.’”

     The room erupted. I whistled and yelled. Shortcake Dave admiringly clapped. Fredrick looked pleased. Big Game navigated the room to continued applause, leaned down to look into each set of eyes and thank them for their attention.

     We tried to hobnob with the SCs after his talk. Most crowded around Big Game, though. He regaled them with locker-room lore, let a few slip their undersized fingers into his heavy, oversized ring. How could I have ever believed any of this could happen in a cabin?

                                                                            *  *  *

Fredrick’s assistant, Jeremy, summoned us from the party. He led us to Fredrick’s upstairs office and instructed us to sit in two red leather chairs. Jeremy then stood at the right hand of Fredrick. His immense desk was centered in front of a solid glass wall that looked out over the room where the SCs drank and picked at hors devours. Proctor McClusky, one of Shortcake’s SCs, an ex-Broadway actor who left his teaching job at NYU after allegations from female students, slouched on a white leather couch behind us. He’d loosened his tie and collar, shed his cummerbund. His cuffs had lost their links and peeked from his jacket. I smelled brandy, cologne, and vomit.

     “Thank you again, Donny,” Fredrick said.

     “The pleasure is mine,” I said.

     “I remember that game,” McClusky said. “I like the fairy-tale version better. And he’s black. So we’re culturally sensitive.”

     “Fairy-tale version?” I asked.

     McClusky laughed. “Carry on, Pete.” He curled up with his back to us as if to go to sleep.

     Fredrick sighed. “I’m sorry to have to do this, but one of you needs to take Proctor back to the city.”

     “Gladly,” Shortcake said. He pulled it off without a note of despair or surprise.

     “Donny, you can drive the shuttle,” Fredrick said. “We reserved a suite at the Biltwater for Damon and his wife. We’ll need it back tomorrow by noon for an excursion. Dave can pick you up after you drop it off. I’ll reimburse him for the mileage and pad each of your bonuses.”

     “I’m an aggressive drunken egomaniac,” McClusky said, his back still to us. “And Rayburn can’t see the whores.”

     Fredrick and Jeremy forced a laugh. “Please don’t listen to him,” Fredrick said.

     “Be straight with these boys,” McClusky interrupted without moving. “I’m leaving tonight because Lance Timmerman is a conniving twat and I can’t stand to be around him. And I’ve nailed at least one whore every retreat since I added Boeing to my list. To know this is essential.”

     Timmerman and McClusky had quarreled for most of that year, primarily about one bird-dogging the other’s accounts. Timmerman was my SC, a retired gymnast whose pommel horse routine cost him a spot on the ‘84 Olympic team. I got an earful from him about once a week, mostly about McClusky.

     “Proctor, please,” Fredrick said.

     “No, Pete,” McClusky said. “Timmerman’s an amateur. He insulted me. I won’t stand for it.”
Fredrick continued, “In any event, Damon can’t see our top-flight consultants shedding their inhibitions or calling one another names.”

     “Sounds like a plan!” Shortcake said. He always said this.

     “There’s more,” Jeremy said.

     “Donny. We’ve expressed interest in bringing Damon on as an SC. The interest is mutual,” Fredrick said. I took a deep, muted breath and tried to contain my smile.

     “We cannot pull up the hook,” Fredrick continued. “And we cannot poison it.”

     McClusky sat up. “Wait. This doesn’t make any sense. Dave shouldn’t have to drive his car down the hill, back up the hill, and then down again. We’ll all go in the shuttle. Dave can drive up tomorrow and grab his car.”

     Fredrick shifted uncomfortably in his chair. If I could see that Fredrick was trying to keep McClusky away from Big Game, surely McClusky could see it. Now McClusky was going to force him to admit it. Because I had to deal with the SCs daily, I sympathized with Fredrick’s position. McClusky was a big earner and could take his accounts elsewhere. Fredrick had to be delicate, diplomatic. Sitting there, I tried to puzzle through some other solutions that would satisfy Fredrick’s many publics and purposes. I came up empty.

     “That’s more logistically feasible, I suppose,” Fredrick admitted.

     “Damn right it is,” McClusky said.

     “Can you handle that?” Fredrick asked me and Shortcake.

     “Of course we can handle it,” Shortcake said. “Keeps miles off the old Dave-mobile, too.”

     “We’ll figure it out,” I said.

     “And we’re stopping for a drink,” McClusky said. “I’m buying Big Game Rayburn a goddamn drink.”

     “Sounds like a plan!” Shortcake repeated.

                                                                            *  *  *

A word about Shortcake’s nickname: About her favorite Strawberry Shortcake doll, my niece once told me, “She’s always happy and polite to her friends. Grumps get sad and run away from her deliciousness.”

     The characteristics that made me resent Shortcake Dave—his deliciousness, if you will—suited him to that night’s circumstances. Without discussion, I took the driver’s seat and he sat in the back with McClusky and Big Game. I hadn’t the gift to kiss two asses at once in the back of a moving vehicle.  
About halfway between Fredrick’s and the city, McClusky spotted a dive with some welcoming neon. 

     He and Shortcake harangued me to stop. Big Game didn’t appear to mind. “Isobel and the boys probably sawing logs,” he said. Big Game laughed, clasped hands with McClusky, and yanked him close for a ragged hug across the aisle of the shuttle.

     Despite this display of brotherhood, I couldn’t decipher how McClusky and Big Game were getting along. In the cold and empty parking lot, I pulled Shortcake aside while McClusky and Big Game entered the bar.

     “You worry too much,” Shortcake said.

     “Do I? Cultural sensitivity? Whores?”

     “Proctor is a professional.” Shortcake said. “He and Fredrick were just sparring back there. One drink and I’ll shepherd us back to the shuttle.”

     “So you admit he’s spoiling for a fight,” I said.

     “I’ll admit he likes to show people like you and me what’s what. But Rayburn’s different. He’s good for Peter and the company. Proctor sees that.”

     “He doesn’t care,” I said.

     “Of course he cares,” Shortcake said. “But be prepared to take full responsibility if I’m wrong.”

     “Me?” I said.

     “I’m here for optics.” Shortcake said. “You brought us this relationship. We’re running your play.”

     Shortcake was right. Unwritten but understood in our job descriptions was that discord among the big-money stars lived and died with us. And the nuclear option for resolving conflicts? Own them. The fault was always with us. Or an intern. Or the database. Or technical support. The only question was whose turn it was. Shortcake wasn’t going to cut in line. It was my turn. My play. My time.

                                                                            *  *  *

The place smelled of old smoke, mold, and a single functioning lavatory. McClusky and Big Game sat at the bar on either side of a damaged regular. She and McClusky shared a cigarette. They hunched and stared at one another. Big Game entertained the bartender. The rest of the place was empty.

     McClusky called to the door, “David Pierce and Donald Boyd. Come over and meet Midge.” We walked over and introduced ourselves. Shortcake shook off the bartender after he delivered McClusky’s neat scotch and Big Game’s cranberry juice. I tried to signal for him to settle the tab.

     Midge wore a sleeveless flannel shirt, gray cotton stretch pants, and a pair of laceless, muddy tennis shoes. Her face sagged from her skull. She flashed a jagged smile and handed her cigarette to McClusky, surveyed our tuxedos. She asked, “You guys coming back from a wedding?”

     “More like a funeral,” McClusky said. For as drunk as I estimated him to be, he had a growling lucidity. He finished his scotch and called for another. “You see that gentleman behind you?” he said to Midge. “The big black fellow? He gave a speech tonight.”

     Midge turned to look at Big Game. “Is that right?”

     Big Game nodded and smiled.

     McClusky continued, “It is.” He smashed the cigarette in the overflowing ashtray next to Midge. 
     “He had the whole room by the shorthairs.”

     Big Game said, “I don’t know about that. But everyone was real nice.”

     “What’d you talk about?” Midge asked.

     “That’s the best part,” McClusky said. “A real gladiator, this one.”

     “Midge doesn’t care about all this,” I said. “Let’s finish our drinks and get to bed.”

     McClusky winked at me. “What Big Game doesn’t say? What all the hero worshipers around these parts leave out? The Jets had one more down. And they imploded. Two procedural penalties and a fumble. Big Game didn’t take any inches. They gave them to him. With or without him, the world spins. That’s not so sexy, though, is it? That’s not as good as ‘irrelevant old man redeems himself in the final act of his miserable career.’ And now he needs a gig. So here we are.”

     Damon rose out of his stool. I stepped over and put my hand on his shoulder. Shortcake chuckled nervously and said, “Proctor is very competitive.”

     “These two clowns,” McClusky looked at me and Shortcake, “have no discernible value other than how gleefully they accept commands. They answer phones all day.”

     “What about you?” Midge asked.

     “Me? I inspire people. What do you want to sell, Midge?”

     The bartender delivered McClusky’s scotch.

     “I don’t know,” Midge said. She produced another cigarette and lit it. “Avon?”

     “Avon,” McClusky said. He took a judicious sip. “After a week with me, you’d be selling body butter and cold cream to coal miners.” He called over to Big Game, “What can you do?”

     “I could bust your head wide open,” Big Game snapped.

     “Bingo!” McClusky shouted to the empty bar. “You see, I am a vapor. Big Game is a battering ram. 
     And because most people who need us are weak, white, and mediocre and feel they’ve achieved something simply by being in the same room with a millionaire, you’d probably get your dick wet.

     “But you can’t make people buy you. You have a history. You’re huge. You’re black. People like all that. But you don’t have the temperament to do what I do. You don’t have the restraint.”
Big Game scowled. Each fist clenched. My hand on his shoulder couldn’t contain him, only remind him that other people existed outside of his cloud of rage.

     McClusky gulped down the rest of his scotch. “And you certainly don’t have the brains.”
I took my right hand off Big Game. I swung it hard and slapped the side of McClusky’s head. He tipped back off his barstool. One of his legs kicked up and hit Midge in the mouth and nose, flicking her lit cigarette into her left eye. The back of McClusky’s head smashed against the corner of the barroom’s pool table.

     Midge cursed and screamed for water. The bartender revealed a baseball bat from under the bar. 
     “Sweet Jesus,” Shortcake said and went down to help McClusky to his feet.

     McClusky felt the back of his head, came back with a palm full of blood, and wiped it down the front of his tuxedo shirt. He laughed. “You see Midge?” he said. “Weak, white, and mediocre.”

     Big Game shot off of his barstool for the door. The whole bar shook with each step. He turned to me and said, “You think I need that? You think that matters to anybody but you? Now what you going to do?”

     Own the crisis, I thought.

     “Weak, white, and mediocre,” McClusky said again and laughed. He reached into his tuxedo jacket and pulled out five hundred-dollar bills. He placed them on the bar in a thoughtful row, one by one, grabbed Midge’s hand, and staggered out to the parking lot.

                                                                            *  *  *

McClusky held a bar rag to his head and emitted sporadic bursts of laughter the rest of the way into town. Midge kept a cold compress over her eye and nestled into him. Big Game kept silent the entire trip. We delivered him to the Biltwater’s VIP valet window framed in gold and tiny lights. He stormed through the glass double doors and didn’t look back.

     “I think you poisoned the hook,” McClusky said. He laughed and laughed.

     I left him, Midge, and Shortcake with the keys to the shuttle at the emergency room. McClusky was going to need stitches and Midge some antibiotic and an eyepatch. Shortcake could control the damage for the both of us. For the first and only time, I felt a kinship with him, that in another place we could have been—perhaps even should have been—better friends.

     “What about Midge?” Shortcake called to me as I walked out of the emergency room. “What’s the plan?”

     I couldn’t give him an answer. I asked him to drop off my luggage in the morning. I then stuffed my hands into my rented tuxedo and shuffled back home through the dark.

Justin Thurman teaches writing at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and two children. He received his PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ekleksographia, Petrichor Machine, and WOE: Writing on the Edge, among others.