The Sugar Bowl (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: FICTION)
In fiction, our winner is Memory Blake Peebles, for her story “The Sugar Bowl.”
“‘The Sugar Bowl,’” Ploughshares’ fiction editor Margot Livesey, writes, “is about one of those evenings when, for good or ill but surely irrevocably, the tectonic plates of a family shift: new alignments are formed, bridges between continents disappear. In a sense, nothing much happens at the New Year’s Eve party that the narrator so vividly evokes, and yet the events are huge. The reader senses the truth of the narrator’s feeling that everything has changed. As someone who knows nothing about football, I reveled in the details of this crucial match and watched with fascination as it played out on the screen of the television and in the narrator’s memory.”
Memory Blake Peebles grew up in the tiny north Alabama town of Mooresville, where the population hovers around sixty. She was a William Hunter Sharp fellow in creative writing at The University of Edinburgh and a Henry Hoyns fellow at the University of Virginia, where she received her MFA in fiction. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and when she’s not at work in one of the light-filled cubicles at the Writers’ Room of Boston, she’s on the lookout for barbecue and good biscuits. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review and she’s currently finishing her first novel.
“This story began as a scene,” Peebles writes. “Two inflexible brothers at dawn on New Year’s Eve, a dead goose, a verbal stand-off. When I discovered that the 1973 Sugar Bowl was played on New Year’s Eve, I realized that a grand defeat was already in the books, so I got to work uncovering the small victories.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1973, there was no cause for celebration at our annual party. No one reveled, no one spoke. Instead, the television that had displaced our Christmas tree glowed against a stunned swarm of faces as a long, risky pass arced across a measured field. Both teams were undefeated, the national title was on the line, and the score was 24 to 23 when the football fell into the arms of a sophomore tight end no one knew. His name was Robin Weber and he would never catch the football for Notre Dame again. But that night, at the last party my parents ever threw together, he ran out of bounds for a first down and secured an Irish victory over Alabama. Less than two minutes remained in the game; all they had to do was run out the clock.
In the photograph my mother took that morning, my father and my brother Andrew are smiling, each holding up an enormous Canada goose. “What do you reckon, Bryant?” I remember my father exclaiming. “One for your mother and one for you.”
“I reckon I would’ve preferred mine alive,” I’d said, because I was finished enduring his binary personality. My father was Archie Bunker during the workweek, his wildness harnessed by his necktie and the big presidential desk at his bank in downtown Decatur, and Davy Crockett on the weekends, setting traps for wild cats so he and my brother could drown them in the shallow water of Limestone Creek. My father called them vermin. Andrew called them a nuisance. He was always striving to be my father’s living synonym. Every New Year’s Eve, he’d get up before dawn and climb into my father’s old waders.
“Stop looking at us like that,” Andrew said that morning. When he shoved me, I shoved back.
“Hunting is cruel, Bryant,” my father said. “But sometimes cruel is the way life is.”
“Enough!” Mother shouted. Pushing her camera at me, she grabbed my father’s goose by its chinstrap. “I’ll have y’all remember that this is New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Eve I don’t have time to witness these stand-offs.” She was especially unhappy that morning because, for the first and only time, she was going to have to share our party with the Sugar Bowl, the Depression-born football game that has been played in New Orleans since the early thirties. The year before, the Sugar Bowl’s move to New Year’s Eve had jeopardized our party, but when Alabama didn’t make the Sugar Bowl, we were able to keep to our usual proceedings.
We were not so lucky in ’73. That afternoon, my mother would take down her meticulous Christmas tree, my father would move his cockroach-colored television into its place, and that night history would be made when the two legendary college teams met for the very first time. The game was set to kick off the hour that our party usually began. Mother could not have taken it more personally.
We watched her drag the goose toward the backyard. Halfway there, she turned and looked at all three of us. She was still in her bathrobe and her slippers were damp from the frost. “Well, it isn’t as if I’m the Little Red Hen,” she said, gesturing at the distance between the bird at our feet and the one in her hand. She routinely invoked that diligent character of fable whenever we presumed that our masculinity exempted us from the homely, domestic chores that made up her career. Andrew hoisted my goose onto his hip, my father shouldered his gun and, camera in hand, I followed after my family.
No one was granted exemption from chores on New Year’s Eve, but that wasn’t what was special about it. What was special was that exemption was something no one particularly wanted. The holiday transformed us into the specimens of a functioning nuclear family; Andrew and I, evolving into like-minded electrons, buzzed dutifully around the nucleus our parents briefly became.
While Mother attended the goose, Andrew took up his station at the ironing board, pressing our enormous collection of cocktail napkins. It was my job to polish our serving vessels: the punch bowl; the enormous galley trays that would hold celery boats, beet slices, and artichokes as fat and green as grenades; the carving knife and sterling meat fork that would deliver honey-baked ham and roasted goose onto awaiting cocktail plates. Mother was usually arranging flowers when my father returned from his pilgrimage to Birmingham. He’d come home carrying heavy paper bags full of Joy Young’s egg rolls, the only imported food item that Mother would allow on her table. After handing them off, my father would track through the house laying fires and sweeping up pine needles.
At seven, my father’s brother, Sully, arrived bearing heavy bottles of liquor and Aunt Patsy’s notoriously round pimento cheese sandwiches. She cut them out of store-bought white bread and garnished each one with a single bit of pimento. Mother relegated the sandwiches to the living room sideboard where they accompanied the gin and bourbon. When Andrew and I came downstairs, Uncle Sully would offer his condolences to our young age. “One day, I’ll be able to offer you a drink,” he’d say. “But until that day comes—” here he’d pause dramatically and proffer the cake plate of sandwiches, “—you’ll have to content yourself with a tit sandwich.”
Uncle Sully’s target might have been Aunt Patsy’s sandwiches, but his quip also spoke to the rare level of contentment that Andrew and I reached at our annual party. For that single evening every year, we put aside our differences and recognized each other as the brothers we were. Together, we’d pile coats and scarves beneath the canopy in the downstairs bedroom, smuggle hollow-stemmed glasses of champagne, and watch Mr. Percy scrape the sauce from his cocktail shrimp. My father was always making fun of Mr. Percy’s newspaper editorials and the wimpy George McGovern sign still staked in his yard, but my mother was kind to him because he was a widower and I was in love with his daughter, Julia.
That fall, Julia and I had been partnered up for vocabulary building in our tenth-grade English class. Sometimes she’d invite me to her house after school and we’d do homework during my brother’s football practice. She liked putting her favorite words in context. “Boy, that one’s your brother to a T,” she’d said, reading out the definition of pugnacious. The day she finally told me about her mother she used adjectives that didn’t show up in our workbook, words like metastasized, polypous, and palliative. When I wasn’t around Julia Percy, I was entertaining fantasies about her, fantasies that relied on our advanced knowledge of ravenous, fulsome, and nubile.
After months of failing to make these desires incarnate, I’d set myself a deadline. At our party, I would act. In the final seconds of 1973, while Bailey Summerson hammered out “Auld Lang Syne” and my father mounted the piano bench to initiate the countdown, I saw myself pushing through the crowd of hot bodies in pursuit of Julia Percy. When I found her, I would kiss her bow-shaped mouth and tell her how her skin was like milk. She’d laugh me off and tell me milk was for little boys. “And drinking it helps us grow into men. So we should drink it,” I would say, kissing her cheek. “Copiously.”
If I met my deadline, I could greet the New Year with optimism. It would be 1974 and Julia and I would have before us a whole glossary of latent terms and adjectives whose meaning we could anticipate. I’d have something to look forward to, something to replace or at the least accompany the postpartum gloom I always felt on New Year’s Day.
Usually, after our guests had departed, Andrew and I fell drunkenly into my bed or his, and when we awoke the next morning, thirsty and suffocated by the radiator one of us had inadvertently turned up too high, we’d fumble irritably out of the tangle of covers and into our old routine. While Mother and I took down the tree, Andrew and my father watched their little gods make touchdowns on the television.
I was born in the summer of ’58, the same year Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant returned to Alabama to restore respectability to his college team. The Tide hadn’t seen a bowl game in a decade and in their last three seasons they’d suffered a string of defeats. “Bryant wasn’t afraid to come back to the place that got him started,” my father often reminded us. “He jumped into the pit with us because he knew that was the only way he could get us out.”
Bear Bryant exemplified all my father’s notions of manhood. He’d earned his nickname from an adolescent wrestle with a carnival bear and had worked his way up from a schoolboy in rural Arkansas to a star football player at the University of Alabama. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and rose to Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. In December of 1957, once he’d coached his way across the South, he announced his plans to return to the Tide. That first season, the team only won five games.
“Baby steps,” my father said to my mother. This was after the c-section, after my mother had barked at the nurse to “at least let me see her,” after Dr. Nabors, looking up from the incision he’d opened and was now stitching closed, told her, tentatively, “Martha, it’s a boy. Congratulations. You have another son.”
Mother had prayed for a girl, and something might have been preserved had her prayers been answered. A daughter could have offered ballast between my father and brother. She could have absorbed my mother’s careful attention to details and my father’s efficient, engaging sociability. And the things she might have learned: how to truss the ritual Canada goose my father killed on the last morning of every year; how to pick out “Auld Lang Syne” on the living-room piano; how to divest celery ribs of their stringy, tasteless floss—those things might not have been enough to save my parents, but they might have prolonged the idea of them. They might have prolonged their parties.
In fact, Mother had been so certain of God’s willingness to answer her prayers that she’d gambled her certainty away. When my father proposed a wager, she’d accepted. “If it’s a girl, you can name her whatever you like, but if it’s a boy, we name him Bryant.”
“Baby steps,” my father said while Mother regarded my birth certificate. “Bryant may not be a legend yet.” He patted my swaddled back. “But I swear to you, he’s going to be.”
By the time I turned eleven, Bear Bryant had led Alabama to four national championships and his rugged looks and trademark houndstooth hat had made it all the way to the cover of Sports Illustrated. My father and Andrew followed this ascent enthusiastically, but Mother and I were riveted by Alabama’s involvement in something even more compelling: the Space Race. In the neighboring city of Huntsville, engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center were building the Saturn V, a rocket designed to spiral us toward that faraway end zone on the sugar-white moon. We wanted to touch down there too.
And when we did, my personal failure coincided with our great national success. The July afternoon that my mother leaned out the patio door to call us in for the Apollo 11 newscast, my father was dropped to one knee with the front of my T-shirt in his hand. Andrew had been throwing the ball to me again and again and, at eleven, I was still boyishly round, still intimidated by the way the ball arced its nose in the air and hurtled toward me. I tried. I really did. Each time, I squared my body and held my arms as if they were stacked with firewood. And each time I attempted to trap the ball against my chest, it spun free.
“Use your hands,” my brother said, wiping his face with his sleeve. He was a natural.
“Don’t be so afraid of it, Bryant,” my father said.
The July sun had melted my T-shirt to my chest by the time Andrew released his final pass. I watched as it rose in the air and then readjusted its course to the center of my chest. Over two hundred thousand miles away, Neil Armstrong was piloting his lunar module down into the dry depths of the Sea of Tranquility, and while I was stepping away from the football without even attempting to catch it, he was settling the Eagle among the boulders and craters on the face of our moon. The three of us watched the ball skid to a stop in the grass. “Paul Bryant Mullins!” my father hollered. When he got me by my shirt, I stiffened.
“I’m not mad that you can’t catch. I’m mad about your goddamn attitude.” His look was stern and imperious. “Do you know where an attitude like this gets you?”
“Nowhere,” I said.
“And do you know how fast it gets you there?”
“No sir.” I heard Mother calling to us.
“As fast as a goddamn rocket, that’s how fast.” He saw my mother and let me go. “The very thought of you stepping away from that ball ought to be hateful to you, Bryant. You’ve got to take into account what that ball stands for.”
“What does it stand for?”
“What’s going on out here, Patterson?” Mother ordered us inside. She told us that the Eagle had landed.
“Touchdown!” My father shouted it straight into my face. “You figure out what that ball stands for yet, Bryant Mullins?” he said, getting up. Behind him, Andrew whooped and pumped his arm at the sky.
When Alabama finished the 1973 season undefeated, Bear Bryant once again graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The day the December issue arrived, my father beamed at the noble profile and the flashy crimson number one. Success loomed over us.
“I guess we’ll be having a different kind of party this year,” he announced at dinner that evening.
Mother was plopping creamed chicken onto her plate. “If you think I’m going to let some kind of football exhibition—” she reached across the table and snapped at Andrew’s elbows— “replace our party you’ve got another thing coming.”
“Tell you what, Martha. Go on and throw your party. Send out the invitations and see how many people show up when we tell them we don’t plan on showing this game.” He blew at his steamy bite. “I know one damn thing, you’ll be getting your own goose.”
“Oh my,” Mother said, drawing her fork out of her mouth. “My own goose. From the supermarket? Already plucked and everything?” Leaning on her elbows, she regarded my father over the glass in her hands. She picked out the olive and popped it into her mouth. “Well, if you aren’t going to go out in the predawn and hunt me a goose…” She put down her glass. “Well, by all means…” She waved her napkin at him. “I surrender.”
“But let’s think this through. How about you wear your houndstooth hat? Joyce and Denise and, who’s that other teller? The one who needs to cut her hair?”
“Jo Rain,” Andrew said.
“Right, Jo Rain. They’ll have a heyday over you in that hat. And I can ask Mrs. Summerson to make her red velvet cake, and since they already tie in with the red-and-white theme, I’ll have Patsy make a whole load of tit sandwiches this year. What would the New Year be without a good football game and mouthful of Patsy’s tit sandwiches?”
“Mom!” Andrew feigned a gag.
I couldn’t help but think of Julia Percy.
“Martha, that word is—” My father pushed his chair back from the table.
“—Exactly what those things look like. Don’t think I’m not on to you and Sully. Bryant what are you blushing about? I’m the only one who’s got them and I’m not allowed to say it, Andrew? Tits! Goddamn it. Tits. Tits. Tits.”
When Andrew made to get up, Mother cocked her finger at him. “Not yet, my son.” She always said “my son” when she was angry with someone other than us. “You think it’s stupid to argue this point, Pat, and I agree that it is on the grounds that the point—the very notion that you want to muddy a family ritual so you can watch a football game—is asinine.”
“Asinine?” My father shook his head. “Really, Martha. And why would it be asinine?”
Mother tilted her chin at me and then nodded at my father. She grew impatient when I didn’t respond.
My mother may not have given birth to a girl in June of ’58, but she’d given birth to a child she’d prayed for and, girl or not, this child was going to be hers. And we were comrades about most things. She interceded every time my father teased me for opting out of the manly adventures he and Andrew pursued. “Men do things besides hunting and gathering these days, Patterson,” she would say, while he tightened the cord laces on his boots or zipped up his heavy camouflage coat.
Irreconcilable differences did not threaten my parents’ marriage. What threatened my parents’ marriage was their similarity. They were both physically and mentally unyielding. They were also sociable and assertive. My father’s exuberance met its rival in my mother’s agile mind and her exquisite, eclectic taste. To get ahead they raced us—their little toy cars—against each other, refusing to regard the hazard: the parallel lines prohibited passing, but passing was the only way to get the lead.
“Well, by all means, Bryant, enlighten us,” my father said.
I shook my head and picked up my plate.
“May I be excused now?” Andrew said.
Mother spelled it loudly. “A-S-S-i-n-i-n-e.”
“Please?” Andrew said.
“Tits and ass all in one meal, Martha,” my father said. “Quite the feast you’ve prepared for us tonight.”
Andrew pushed back his chair. When Mother didn’t say anything, he took his plate and glass to the sink. I did the same, only I let my plate and glass fall onto his matching pair. The heavy bottom of my glass shattered the rim of his. My plate broke his into several pieces. When I turned around, my father’s look said Nice try. He looked on amused while smoke spilled out from under the hood of her little wrecked car. Mother pointed to the stairs. “Your room,” she said. “Now.”
“Yes ma’am.” Before I left the kitchen, I spoke to the back of my father’s head. “She thinks you’re being inane,” I said. I met my mother’s eyes. “And actually there’s only one S in asinine.” I spelled it out for her: “A-S-I-N-I-N-E.”
Early in the evening of December 31, we welcomed the first arrivals to the only Sugar Bowl party we ever threw. My mother changed her tune after that night at the dinner table. She became determined to host a tasteful, football-themed party, and on New Year’s Eve, 1973, she nearly pulled it off. No one came in football gear. Uncle Sully arrived with no unusual quantity of sandwiches. Mother’s touches were subtle: red and white roses in a crystal vase with the food; a crystal pitcher of cranberry juice for a crimson gimlet she’d created; a string of pennants hanging along the living-room entryway.
Andrew and I were piling three more coats on the guestroom bed when we heard Jo Rain Carlton screech with delight, “Oh, Mrs. Mullins, you look so gorgeous!” We heard Mother’s heels on the stairs, heard the cheer in her voice as she welcomed the tellers. My father was arranging the antennas on the television that had replaced her tree.
And when Mother descended the stairs at our party, her Christmas tree was the first thing I thought of. At the sideboard, Uncle Sully was pouring Tanqueray over ice while he gaped at my mother. Her dress was the exact color of the green bottle in his hands. She started taking drink orders and ushering guests toward the food, and every time she laughed, she pulled at the collar on the crinkly gold jacket she wore over her dress. “My God, boys,” Uncle Sully said. He beckoned my father. “Brother of mine, you lucky devil, turn around and witness this bonanza you’re married to.” But my father only stared at the television.
“Oh my God,” Andrew whispered. “She’s wearing green and gold.”
My father was watching a news anchor talk about tapes in a steady, feminine voice. He adjusted the antennas until the words Rose Mary Woods Testimony became visible in a block of text by her head. More revelers arrived, and when the news anchor said things like implausible and fraudulent, my uncle sighed. “We’re always tearing a good thing down before we can finish putting it up.”
“How can we put anything up if no one wants to fight for it?” my father said.
“I thought we were watching football tonight.” I recognized Mr. Percy’s voice. The news had cut to a clip of the President and his wife.
“Hello, Walter,” my father said without looking up.
“Drink, Waltergate?” Uncle Sully picked up the pewter tongs.
“How’s that book of yours coming along?” Uncle Sully was a sports editor at the Decatur Daily. He’d told us how Mr. Percy was planning a Nixon exposé.
Mr. Percy took the martini and sipped the drink that had earned my uncle his reputation. He puckered his lips. “Beautiful, Sully,” he said. “Beautifully dirty.”
By then my father had found the right channel and Mr. Percy waved his glass toward the screen. “So you’re really going to let a bunch of Reds hijack the New Year, Patterson?”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” Uncle Sully said.
“Where is Senator McCarthy when you need him?”
“Do we need him, Walter?” my father asked. “Do we need him?” He looked up at Mr. Percy and held his eyes on him for a long moment, then he redirected his attention to the living room so he could gauge how many guests had arrived. In the middle of this calculating, he saw my mother for the first time that night. She was disappearing through the crowd with someone’s empty glass. When I turned back to the television, my father had a fist around each antenna and the picture was as clear as I’d ever seen it.
Julia’s hand on my shoulder startled me. “Why’s your face so red?” she said. She patted my chest, feeling for my heart. “You got Secretariat in there? What’s going on?” When she leaned across me and waved to my brother, I watched her long blond hair fall around her lovely face. “Good evening, Andrew Mullins,” she said, sweeping it back with her wrist.
“Hello, Julia Percy.”
Mr. Percy nodded to my brother and asked me where he could find my mother. “She’s where she always is,” I said, pointing to the dining room, which was blocked by the flock of guests coming toward us. My father had announced that kick-off was imminent.
“Get her to make you one of her crimson gimlets,” I told Mr. Percy. “And tell her how tasteful they are. She’d like that.”
When Mr. Percy saluted me, my father pointed to him. “And while you’re at it, Walter, tell her you like her dress. Tell her she looks as glorious as a sunrise over Vietnam.”
“That’s a message I’ll let you convey, Patterson.”
“But you’d convey it so much better,” my father said, pulling on the lapels of his jacket and then pointing to Mr. Percy’s. Mr. Percy’s blazer was bright velveteen green, but he’d worn that blazer every year he’d attended our party.
My father had been right to say that our guests would want to watch the Sugar Bowl. Their loyalty to the game was evident in the way they arrived in tasteful reds and whites. Joyce Randolph was wearing a red wool skirt. Mr. Parks, the vice president at my father’s bank, wore a crimson tie under a white v-neck sweater. Aunt Patsy arrived in red leather pants. And even pristine Helen Dodd, my mother’s colleague on the Junior League, had turned up in a letter sweater from her days at the university.
As soon as I noticed Mother weaving through the living room with a bowl of ham biscuits, I worked the crowd in the opposite direction. When I heard my father’s voice above the din, I picked up a chair from the kitchen table and used it to retrieve the bourbon he kept in the cabinet above the refrigerator. He was hollering my mother’s name. Finally, he whistled and the room grew silent. “Come here Martha Mullins! Let’s get this thing started.”
“I’d like to thank everyone for coming back to Jackson Street to help us ring in 1974. I think we all know this New Year’s Eve is going to be unlike any other…” While my father went on about his team, I poured myself a generous glass and gulped it down. “…And Martha, because this wasn’t exactly your idea of a classy New Year’s Party,” he continued, “I want to thank you for the sacrifice you made.” I imagined him pulling her close and tapping the top of his television. “Ain’t no woman like the one I got!” When the room broke out into applause, I rinsed my glass and put it back. My father whistled again. “I love her to death, y’all,” he said. “Even if she is dressed up like a leprechaun.”
Laughter filled our living room. I thought I heard a note of recovery in my mother’s voice when she said, “Don’t let this Sugar Bowl keep y’all from enjoying yourselves. Make sure Sully keeps his hands on that shaker. Happy New Year!”
“And Rolllllll Tiiiiiiiiiide!” my father yelled.
I was putting the bottle back, replacing the chair, covering my tracks, when I heard Mr. Percy in the dining room. “That man’s so puffed up you could fly him in the Macy’s parade.” He was standing at the back of the room near the doorway to the kitchen. Aunt Patsy muffled her laugh.
“And how about her?”
“Is Martha proud?” Mr. Percy said. The crowd must have been breaking up because his voice dropped. I inched closer to the doorway. “Or is she just plain starving?”
“With a feast like this?” Aunt Patsy said. “You’re too generous, Walter Percy. Pat’s full of himself but he’s no match for…” Aunt Patsy paused. I heard some of our guests reenter the dining room. “I’ll put it this way. Sully and I have had a bet going for a while now,” she said at regular volume. “Lots of us are in on it.” I could imagine the gummy smile stretching across her face. “Big purse.”
Everyone knows the rest of the story. Or at least every Alabama fan does. The 1973 Sugar Bowl has been called the greatest game in college football history. It was also the first game I watched from beginning to end. How this happened—how the plans for Julia I’d made, how the carnal deadlines I’d set, how anything and everything dissolved around me when my attention turned to something I had a long history of despising—is more difficult to explain. I could say that the conversation I’d overheard made me eager for an excuse to stand still and stare into some world other than our own. Or I could say that, with time, the bourbon I’d gulped helped me understand what my father and brother saw in this game. Standing in a room packed with loyal fans, I began to recognize what a victory could mean for us: I imagined our allegiance extending beyond New Year Eve’s into our backyard; I imagined my parents watching Andrew’s football fall securely into my open arms.
“Come on ’Bama!” Mr. Summerson yelled when we finished the first quarter without scoring a single point. When we finally took the lead in the second quarter, Helen Dodd asked Uncle Sully to pour her a martini. Mrs. Dodd was known for having only one drink at our party and she usually asked to mix it herself. Just before halftime, when Notre Dame regained the lead with a ninety-three-yard kick-off return that finished in a touchdown, she asked for another one.
In the third quarter, the two teams again traded the lead, and then, early in the fourth, a trick play landed Alabama a touchdown. The score was 23 to 21, but we missed the extra point, and five minutes and fifteen seconds later, the Irish kicked the ball through the goal posts, earning Notre Dame their infamous, one-point advantage: 24 to 23.
Seconds ticked off the clock.
Ginned-up and dry-mouthed, we watched the quarterback fade into his own end zone and lob the ball to the sophomore Weber, who completed for that notorious first down.
I grabbed my brother’s arm.
My father struck his palm with his fist. “Goddamn them!” he yelled. “Goddamn them! Goddamn them!”
Over the noise of the television, I heard my mother’s laugh.
When I searched the faces staring at the screen, I didn’t see hers. My father was on his knees. Uncle Sully had his hands clasped together. He was shaking them at the ceiling. On the screen, the Irish quarterback broke out into a run and gained another first down. After that, I made use of the radiator I’d been standing beside and scanned the crowd for my mother. But she wasn’t in the living room. She was seated in a ladder back chair she’d pulled up to the dining room table. In one hand she held a fan of playing cards, in the other, a crimson drink.
I heard Julia cry, “Rummy!” and watched her pick up a card and add it to the spread in front of her. I’d been hot for hours, but that was when I realized I was sweating.
I watched it end from the top of that radiator. With only three seconds left, the teams lined up for their last confrontation and after the snap, Notre Dame took a knee to finish the game. Fans stormed Tulane Stadium. My father put his face in his hands and, rocking back and forth on his knees, wept like I’d never before seen.
Andrew went and put his hand on my father’s back.
I called for my mother but she did not hear me.
Uncle Sully started tweezing for cubes in his pewter ice bucket. “Drinks,” he said frantically. “Good Lord, we are going to need some drinks.”
When Mother didn’t hear me the second time, I jumped down and maneuvered through the throng. Jo Rain Carlton was wiping her eyes. Harold Blunt, a mortgage officer with an eye patch, had his arm around her.
“Father is having a fit,” I said when I reached the dining room.
Julia waved her cards. “I asked you to come play but you acted like you didn’t even hear me.” She looked surprised. “Are you crying?”
Mother frowned. “Did you forget what he said this morning?” She stuck out her bottom lip and assumed his deeper voice. “Sometimes cruel is the way life is.”
“How many cards to do you have left there, Martha?” Mr. Percy sighed. “Talk about being dressed to win.”
“So what now, Bryant?” she said. “I’m supposed to sweep in, like the second string, and save the day?”
“You aren’t dressed up like the second string.”
Mother unfolded her cards. “You really think I give a flip about these teams? I thought I was dressed up like a Christmas tree.”
“You hate football,” Julia said, discarding. “What’s gotten into you tonight?”
Mother regarded me as she picked up Julia’s card. “Congratulations, son,” she said. “Why don’t you tell us how it feels?”
“How what feels?”
“You’re finally becoming the Bryant your father has always wanted you to be.”
She looked away to lay a spread of Jacks on the tabletop, then placed her only card in line with the other discards. “Well look at this,” she said. “Rummy.”
A lot of boys cried themselves to sleep that New Year’s Eve in Alabama. Some of those boys were men like my father, men who were unwieldy and ambitious, who believed in their team’s capacity to win and keep winning. Some of them were like my brother, boys who swore allegiance to whatever flags their fathers upheld.
If there was anything I believed in, it was the way my family could form an allegiance around New Year’s Eve. And when I heard my mother’s cavalier laugh and saw her sitting with the Percys, I felt the way my father must have felt the afternoon we landed on the moon. My brother had passed the football to me and, in stepping away from his pass, I severed my allegiance to the thing my father believed in most. That night, at the party, Mother thought the betrayal was mine. But the game was over by then.
No one stayed to celebrate the New Year. Once my father had collected himself, he escaped through the den and went upstairs. Andrew followed after him and I heard him slam the door to his room.
It was almost eleven when I went to say goodnight to Mother. She was sitting among the dirty cocktail plates and empty martini glasses in the living room, watching Dick Clark count down to midnight in New York. I didn’t interrupt her, but I stood in the doorway and watched over her shoulder as the great bright ball slid through the dark sky and touched down in 1974. I went to bed after that, and when our own New Year arrived, I wasn’t awake to welcome it.