An obelisk can be any object that when touched by two people can become a portal to their future together. author unknown
When Bernice and I met, we were both comfortable in our own skins, both avowedly single and free from any current romantic entanglements. Sparks flew from the first day we met and it was not long before we discovered that we were simpatico in all other ways we could measure. And yet we came from altogether different worlds. I had lived in a Detroit neighborhood pocked marked with the poverty and drug trafficking that had filled the gaps left by the massive “white flight” of the ’70s and ’80s. Bernice lived in the upscale community of neighboring Southfield. I had recently returned to teaching from one of my many artistic detours. Bernice was on the verge of retiring from a forty year medical career. Also, I was an admitted barfly. Bernice was not. It got down to this: Bernice was not about to hang out with a bunch of rounders, and I simply had no idea what Bernice’s world consisted of, let alone how I would fit into it.
In hindsight it’s obvious that a brand new world had to be created to include the new Bernice and Garry. I now know what the brand new world was like; I had the good fortune to live in it for twenty years. But how did the new world come about? And how did we transition into it? That’s where it gets dicey. Whenever I think on it I get the same vision (more like a phone camera video). Reality The setting: A roped-off section of street outside an East Detroit neighborhood bar called Sharon’s Place. The people: Bernice and Garry along with a sizable assortment of bar folk buzzing about the prospects of a) making a little money; b) watching me make a fool out of myself; c) catching a few drinks on the house just for coming out on a Sunday afternoon The Scene: The crowd lines a short segment of street in front of Sharon’s Place. The street itself is chalk marked in five yard increments ending at 50 yds. The 50 yd end mark represents the distance I have boasted I could throw a regulation football. It also matches the distance I once threw a football when I was sixteen years old on the varsity football team. The game, pick a distance and win some cash depending on how close I come to your mark. The Action: Like a skinny, aging Joe Montana I’m standing with the ball dangling from a relaxed arm. I focus on the end mark. I imagine the ball in flight, I imagine the roar of the crowd when the ball bounces a good ten inches past the end mark. I start my run-up, I cock my arm…
How far I actually threw the ball on that day and the party that followed belong to the bar lore of long ago. The only thing I carried forward from those days is this unshakable bit of amateur cinematography, courtesy of my imagination. Imaginary Wide angle shot: Same scene, same action, same run-up, same cocking of the arm, only now when I release the ball it arcs high above the city. Long Shot: moving like a space shuttle the ball disappears into the atmosphere. Switch frame: Bernice, alone on the grassy commons of her complex. She stands with arms reaching skyward and hands open to receive…what? Long Shot: Holy goat-cheese, it’s my football wreathed in fire as it re-enters the atmosphere. Wide angle: A rocket is headed toward Bernice and she is acting like she is going to catch the damned thing with her bare hands. I’m helpless, maybe not even in the picture, “Get out of the way,” I scream. Faster and faster comes the sphere. Closer and closer to Bernice. “Are you trying to kill yourself?” Close shot of Bernice’s arms and hands: The ball is on her…but wait, the flame has disappeared and I hear the plop of a well thrown football as it strikes a seasoned receivers hands? Cold leather on cool skin. Bernice makes a perfect catch… Wide angle to include me twenty yards from Bernice: …and only then does she acknowledge me, turning and firing a perfect spiral in my direction. I catch the ball and the game of our life is on.
That orange football was our obelisk, our portal into the new world of Bernice and Garry. And like any self-respecting obelisk, it was there from the very beginning.
The Back Story Very early in our relationship, before it became a foregone conclusion that I would be spending my Sundays with Bernice, I extended my barfly persona for a few more Sunday’s at Sharon’s Place, a watering hole for bikers, retirees, homies and Monday Night Football fans. It was there that I hatched a plan to bring purpose and joy into the lives of my fellow bar folk, mainly because I had great affection for them and wanted to leave them a piece of me. An appreciation thing I guess. For I knew I couldn’t keep them and still move forward with Bernice.
I drew my inspiration from two of my all-time favorite movies, Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Key plot points in both those movies was the uttering of an impossible boast designed to bring the other characters out of themselves long enough to engage in a communal activity. An activity that focused on the raw core of the human condition, chance and hope. Paul Newman (Luke) betting he could eat fifty hard boiled eggs. Jack Nicholson (McMurphy) betting he could escape the asylum by throwing a massive marble plumbing fixture through the window. Garry: I bet I could throw a football 50 yards! Barfly’s: (hoots of derision) Cuz: (Cuz was a good 280 pounds of bad-ass with a wry wit and a heart of gold) What-the-hell do any you guys know? Any you ever played football?
Barfly#1: Don’t have to play football to know a skinny runt when you see one. Barfly#2: What, you think we don’t know football? Fifty yards is half a football field. The pros can’t even do it half the time. No way he even comes close. No offense, ‘Teach’. (term of endearment reserved for anyone who had even walked through a classroom since puberty). Cuz: I think he can do it. He played high school ball. He runs all the time. He’s in shape. Barfly#3: He’s 40 years old if he’s a day. Get the (bleep) outta here. (I was 48 at the time) Barfly#4: (AKA bald-headed Jimmy) I don’t think he could throw a softball fifty yards.
We amble further down the bar out of earshot. Cuz is smiling. Cuz: I knew they’d take the bait. And nobody else would believe you could throw a ball that far either. Can you even throw a spiral? Garry: Thanks for the confidence dude. But yeah, I can throw. Don’t know how far but I fool around with my kids all the time. Even taught my daughter how to throw a perfect spiral. She’s got a rocket launcher for an arm. It’s in the genes. Cuz: Man, we need to get Sharon (proprietor) in on this. We could make an event out of you. Spread the word, get some bets down. We set the date for the big toss two, three Sundays from now and we push it. “The mighty Teach goes for fifty!” On the big Sunday we get folks in here drinkin’, get us a pool goin’. Sharon makes some money and me and you drink free for a while. We might even get a 50/50 raffle going. Whaddaya say pal, you up for this? Garry: Up like a sailor’s yard arm. One problem though Cuz: What? Garry: I don’t own a football. Cuz: So buy one. You can autograph it. We could probably raffle that puppy off too. (Pause for reflection) Cuz: Two things I can think of. One, you gotta have a team. You know, like the real jocks-a manager, a trainer, training partners. Garry: Well Bernice could be my manager. If I could talk her into spending a Sunday afternoon in a bar. You could be my trainer. Don’t know about training partners. (More pause for reflection) Cuz: Here’s what we do. It may cost you some beers, but we get two, three of the regulars to play catch with you out in the parking lot, say three times a week. I know bald-headed Jimmy still plays softball. Oh, here’s a good one, Dart Bitch (self induced nickname for one of Sharon’s bartenders) is tomboy as hell. Guys would love to watch her jumpin’ around in that tight skirt. Then I could work you out some. Talk shit about your technique if anybody’s watchin’. Garry: You said two. What’s the other thing? Cuz: A trophy, you need to receive a trophy. Garry: So go buy me a trophy. Cuz: I’m thinking I should steal you one. You know, like Marlon Brando’s boys did for him in the Wild Ones? (Did I mention Cuz rode a Harley Sportser?)
Bernice took it upon herself to buy me a football on her way home one evening. Why she bought an orange ball I’ll never know, but at least it was regulation size. She wrote our names on the ball and put the big event on her calendar. On the anointed Sunday she rode over to the bar with me and cheered me on. When she figured I’d had enough to drink at the after-party, she took the keys and drove us home. Neither of us ever looked back.
But our orange obelisk stayed with us like a member of the family. We played catch nearly every evening after work. We did hundreds of road races, playing catch before the starter’s horn blast. Any able bodied family member, sisters, kids, cousins had to have a catch whenever they came over. It was the first thing to be packed when we went on vacation. It helped me bond with Bernice’s grandchildren. Much later in Phoenix, Bernice and I would beat the summer heat by tossing the ball in our condo pool. To this day when I’m blue I’ll throw a football around, either with a friend or by myself. It keeps me connected to Bernice and helps me move forward with my life at the same time.
Post Script: I did receive a trophy for my effort, a softball encrypted with these words “to the Mighty Teach, U shouldda thrown a softball” and signed by a score of bar friends. I still have the trophy.