The canary yellow three-by-five card fell to the floor, face down. Retrieving the card and turning it face up, he stared at it curiously. It was a single sentence, consisting of only four words in all-caps pica type. A waitress wiped the table next to him and happened to glance over just as a look of startled unbelief overtook him. She watched his eyes widen and hands shake, and wondered what could possibly be on that card to trigger such a reaction.
Chilled to the bone, he was forced to begin a radical reinterpretation of the flurried trauma of his past eight days. He slowly mouthed the four words, as if doing so would make them less menacing and bizarre.
Three pairs of eyes focused together on the twenty-seven-inch screen. Kansas City’s placekicker
planted his left foot and swung his right into the football. His teammates’ focused energy seemed to lift it that extra six inches above the bar. The fifty-four-yard field goal was good, the first half over.
“All right!” Doc and Finney reached across Jake, slapping their hands over him in symbolic victory.
“No way. Gimme a break.” Jake’s buddies’ celebration added insult to injury. His Seahawks headed for the locker room ten points down.
The three childhood friends—now doctor, businessman, and journalist—slouched back on the recliner-couch. Doc occupied the recliner on one end, Finney the other. As usual, Jake Woods sat between them, feet propped up on a stool and pillow. All three wore blue jeans, Finney a navy blue Microsoft Windows sweatshirt, Doc a snazzy maroon polo shirt, and Jake a torn and faded gray sweatshirt with an indecipherable message.
It began for the three men like almost every Sunday afternoon the last twenty years. None of them had a clue this one would end so differently.
“Okay guys,” Finney announced, “it’s pizza time—let’s flip.” The routine was automatic, a no-brainer. They’d done it since childhood a thousand times, to decide who got to bat first or who had to buy popcorn at the matinee. In the adult version, at half time they staged two coin flips and a tie-breaker if necessary. Loser drove, loser bought the pizza. No home deliveries. While the winners gloated and kicked back, the loser raced to and from Gino’s in an attempt to miss as little of the third quarter as possible.
Shoulders squared and back straight, Doc looked like a career military officer, though he hadn’t been in uniform for twenty-five years. “Tell you what, Finn,” he jabbed. “Let’s just send Woody now and flip later.”
Jake Woods, having lost the flip three weeks in a row, flashed a “shut up and flip the coin” glare. His sturdy jaw jutted out in mock insult, as if to say an award-winning syndicated columnist shouldn’t have to endure this kind of abuse. Despite his tough no-holds-barred reputation in this city, it was difficult to imagine fit but frumpy Jake being able to intimidate the dapper and ever-confident Doc. Standing there in his misshapen fur-lined sheepskin slippers, with disheveled hair, stray eyebrows veering out, and a two-day beard, Jake was in weekend gear.“
Hang on,” Jake said, pulling a quarter from his pocket. “This time I’ll flip. I think you guys have been rigging this. Let’s see how you do against an honest two bits. Okay, this is between you two—I’ll take on the loser. Call it, Finn.”
“Finney’s face screwed up in feigned tension as if he’d been called on to kick a fifty-four yarder. “I can’t take the pressure.”
“Shut up and call it,” Doc said. “I’m hungry. You can pray about it later.”
As the coin reached the top of its flight, Finney called “Tails.” It landed on the coffee table, which from a distance appeared smooth and shiny, but up close showed countless tiny dents from years of half time coin tosses. The quarter hit on its edge and rolled around like a rim shot, seemingly taking forever to settle.
“Son of a . . . ” Doc said under his breath, staring at the coffee table. The quarter had stopped rolling around the middle of the coffee table. But it hadn’t fallen flat. Balancing precariously, it stayed right on its edge. No heads, no tails.
“What are the chances of that happening?”
“Girls, look at this.”
The “girls,” each in their upper forties, were fast friends. It came with the package. Married to the three musketeers—or the three stooges, as they sometimes called them—the girls were destined to spend a lot of time together. They might as well like it, and they did. Janet wasn’t around as often now, since her divorce from Jake three years ago. But the relationship was amiable—it was a good modern divorce—and Sue and Betsy often persuaded Janet to keep them company during the Sunday afternoon ritual.
Sue, Finney’s wife, marched into the living room first, followed by Janet and Betsy. “Oh, did we miss the coin toss? Too bad—it’s always so exciting.” Noting the look on Jake’s face she added, “Lose again, Jake? Hope the Tribune
pays you well. We appreciate you keeping us fed.”
“I didn’t lose. No one lost. Look.”
Sue followed Jake’s gaze to the coin on the coffee table. “You’re kidding. Don’t anyone breathe or it’ll fall.”
“So what are you going to do, boys? Toss again?”
“Nah,” Doc replied. “Let’s leave it right there. No one wins, no one loses.” He looked at Jake and Finney. “Let’s just all go together.”
“Together.” A familiar thought. Forty years ago the three had played army, hunted lions, dug up treasures and discovered aliens together in the fields and hillsides and forests of Benton County. Together they’d exasperated their mothers, annoyed their brothers, harassed their sisters, confounded their teachers and principals, though not nearly as much as they remembered. Together they’d spiffied up and swaggered into Kathy Bates’s eighth-grade party, and trembled wide-eyed later that night when the police showed up. In high school they each earned letters in three sports, fought side by side in the state championship football game, and took their dates to the prom together. They’d gone off to college, joined ROTC, and graduated together. They’d entered the Army, traveled off to three different parts of the world, then shipped out to Vietnam as greenhorn lieutenants within three months of each other. In the almost quarter century since the war, they’d been best man in each other’s weddings, and seen their children grow up together. And together they’d gone off on more hunting and camping trips than they could count, the kind where it was miserably cold and you hunched in close to the fire and the smoke stung your eyes and permeated your coats and flannel shirts, and you never got off a good shot at anything but an empty chili can, and you told stories you’d told a hundred times and laughed harder than you ever remembered laughing before. This was just Sunday pizza, but “together” sounded good.
“I’ll drive,” Doc said. Finney saluted good naturedly. Jake kicked off his slippers, which he brought to Finney’s every Sunday, and slipped into his Nikes, not bothering to lace them. The guys all grabbed their coats.
“We’ve got twenty minutes till the third quarter.” Doc was half way out the door when he turned. “You made the call, Betsy?”
“Have I ever fumbled the ball, Doc? Of course I made the call. One giant Hula Lula and a deep dish heart-attack-on-a-crust.” This was the girls’ nickname for the Meat Eater’s special, full of the cholesterol their used-to-be-jock husbands’ arteries didn’t need but especially craved during football season.
“And, guys, don’t slam the—” The loud crash toppled a photograph from the mantle. “Door,” Sue added weakly, as Janet and Betsy giggled. Nobody noticed the coin fall on its side.
“Bulls in a china shop,” Sue said, with more fondness than exasperation.
“Yeah, and there’s no china left,” Betsy added. “Not in my house. But the bull’s still charging!” All three flashed a what-can-you-do expression, laughing together.
As the three bulls made the brisk walk to the car, Jake glanced up at the swirling gray of the Oregon sky. It looked as if it had been rubbed hard with a dirty eraser. No rain yet, but the sky felt heavy, and to someone born and raised here even the air’s smell and taste signaled the threat of long heavy rain. A storm’s coming
, Jake felt certain.