Harv Brewster rubbed at the grizzled whiskers dotting his withered chin. He spat tobacco juice into the dry dirt at his feet. A cloud of dust rose in response, like a miniature nuclear explosion. He looked at the horizon, saw the setting sun. Nodded to himself in confirmation of a fact that everyone in town knew without saying: The football game was due to start in about twenty minutes. He may as well head down. Nothing else to do, except sit here and spit in the dirt.
He paid his admission: three bucks and a dented can of baked beans for the local food pantry. He’d bought the entire inventory of the scratch and dent cans from the Shop-N-Save last winter. Hadn’t opened a single can of them beans. Delia didn’t care for him all that much when he ate baked beans.
Harv walked up the metal stairs; sat himself on the bleachers, still warm. The grass was thick and green and inviting. Pristine, and made that way by hordes of parents who had to believe in something. And when there was nothing left to believe in, you put your faith in high school football. By playoffs, the field would be covered in snow. Them prissy band members would be wearing plastic bags, of all things, on their feet to keep them warm and dry, high stepping across the field with cold metal instruments pressed against their lips; locked in a passionate kiss. But Harv Brewster didn’t want to turn his mind to winter and darkness and lips
of ice. Not now. Not yet.
There was a smattering of applause for the visiting team. Across the field, their band took up two rows of bleachers. Behind them, scattered here and there like flakes of red pepper on Delia’s fried chicken were a few spectators: die hard parents. He smirked and crossed his arms.
Two cheerleaders, encased in spandex and glitter and bright red smiles, pranced across the field carrying a paper banner affixed to two long poles. They reached the field house doors and unfurled that banner; held it up so the entire crowed could take a gander at it. It was a slap-dash job—blue and green background with each boy’s name painted in black. Harv imagined the paint was still tacky to the touch. But nobody cared.
The sign would be destroyed momentarily and that, really, was the best part.
The home team was introduced and the crowd leapt to its feet. Quarterback Stump Stephens burst through the paper. The cheerleaders smiled and stumbled a bit and stood there uncertainly, holding two signs now, not one, while the rest of the team passed between them.
And then the cry began. The crowd turned Stump’s name into a two syllable affair; decorated it up a bit to show off to the opposing team’s fans: “Stu-ump! Stu-ump! Stu-ump!” They pumped their arms in the air for emphasis; punctuating their joy and elation. And Harv joined in, too.
Every town needed its hero, he supposed. Especially a dying town. A dead town. A town spinning lazily upon its axis of oblivion like a late fall fly, spinning half dead upon the flaking window sill.
Every town needed its hero. And Stump Stevens was theirs. Stump’s arm was legendary. As a freshman he’d taken the team to the state finals. As a sophomore, he’d won it. When Stump was a junior, the scouts started sniffing around. This year, Harv knew, this year Stump would be picked up by the NFL. This was the year Stump Stephens would put this old dead town on the map.
And everything would change.
Walter Dean had already started printing up commemorative Stump Stephens tee shirts. Mayor Jaffries had ordered brochures and tourist materials. Hell, he was even making up a web site. Right now, all it had was local weather and a few feeds from the newspaper. But soon enough, the tours would begin. Stump Stevens Industries was about go public.
Harv grinned. He saw Delia approaching, probably just off work at the beauty parlor. Well, Harv, corrected himself, parlor wasn’t the correct term for it, seeing as Delia worked out of Kristi Lee’s kitchen, clipping and washing and setting curls, while Kristi Lee chewed the fat with her customers. Homecoming season was approaching. Delia would be busier than normal. She’d tuck that money aside, and Harv would tuck aside what money he made changing oil and sharpening blades and painting weathered houses.
And then, come November, he and Delia would get hitched.
It’d taken the two of them long enough, people said. They’d been together twenty-two, on-again; off-again.
And then one day, when Mrs. Nattie Nelson had a heart attack under the hair dryer and died right then and there, Delia came home and said she wanted to get married the next day.
Harv told her to wait a bit; let them save up enough money to take a little vacation. They decided on November. A Thanksgiving wedding.
The visiting team kicked off. Harv watched Stump settle himself on the bench and lean forward to watch the game. Stump was the kind of kid who studied every aspect of the game; every nuance; every detail. Stump was…Well, Stump was Stump.
“Hey, Harv?” He felt a nudge.
“You seen Delia?”
“She’s just down there…” Stump looked at the track, where he’d last seen her. There was a crowd of people; an ominous circle. “Where isshe?”
Walt took his arm and together the two rushed down the metal bleachers, Harv barely resisting the urge to shove people out of his way. The whistle blew. The football teams gathered at the sideline, staring at the widening circle. Harv shoved his way to the center. Delia lay slumped upon the ground.
Stump, Harv knew, had just becomea volunteer paramedic. “Stump,” he shouted, waving his arms. “Hey Stump!”
Stump met his eyes.
“Help her!” Harv knelt on the cinder track. Took Delia’s hand. “You’ve got to help her, Stump!”
People began echoing his cries. “Help her out, Stump…Come on, Stump, you can do it…You’re the hero, so act like one.”
Stump’s eyes widened. He shook his head. He backed away.
Late that night, Harv said goodbye to Delia. He touched her hands. He touched her face. He touched her lips of ice.
Two weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, the game was replayed. Stump Stevens passed for two yards.
The team didn’t made it to the playoffs.
Stump Stevens ran the Dollar Store for three years before sneaking out of town in the dead of night.
A year later, in early spring, a new family moved to town.
Walt and Harv watched the father and his boy tossing the football around in the front yard. Walt nudged Harv. “He ain’t bad.”
Harv spat in the dirt; watched a little cloud of dust rise up. He stood and walked into his little house. He opened a can of baked beans and ate them, cold, from the can.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Stefan challenged me with “You’re a hero, so act like one. ” and I challenged Jake Durkin with “To remain anonymous among strangers or to reveal oneself among friends?”