Editor’s Note: This is the first of two flash fiction pieces by Joe Mills. Look for the next one Aug. 12.

Sometimes after Payton was tackled, he’d end up on his back, waiting for the defenders to get off him, and once they finally had, he’d swing the ball over his head, tipping it forward another foot or two before bouncing up to join the huddle. I used to practice that move in my bed.  With a baseball.  A shoe.  A book.  Lying there, arcing anything that came to hand over my head, then flipping it farther, and doing this, of course, after I had fought for an extra yard because I never ran out of bounds to avoid being hit. Sometimes having been stopped temporarily, I would allow myself a moment to relax, to be still, under the hundreds of pounds of flesh that had brought me down, the several tacklers it always took. I felt an odd peace as I waited for the bodies to sort themselves out, and when I was finally uncovered, I would rise like Lazarus, nonchalantly spinning the ball forward, always forward, then jogging back to my waiting teammates where McMahon would call another play for me, until eventually I would score, but even then I would be coolly casual, never celebrating, pounding my chest, or making a show, because after all it was expected.  It’s what I did.

And now, now it aches to swing anything above my head, to get up from the ground or couch, to even think about jogging or about Walter Payton dead at 45 and how I should still be following him as he moves into the open field of retirement or new careers, always driving ahead, always getting up, and yet, this too is a familiar feeling, one I had after each playoff loss, the nausea, the irrational conviction, this is not how it’s supposed to be.

Sometimes I imagine him after the memorial at Soldier Field, opening his eyes, flipping a ball a little further ahead of him, then springing up, unbothered even by this takedown. It’s a ridiculous vision, I know. Trivial.  Callow.  Perhaps insensitive to those who knew and loved him. The fantasy of a fan rather than a friend. And yet, it offers a kind of solace as I lie in bed at night, waiting, flat on my back, my hands balled on my chest, buried again in the darkness.


Joe Mills teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He has published four collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet. More information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com"