There’s an apartment building I used to steal from when I was old enough to know better but young enough to be forgiven. The people who lived there were described as lower middle class, but bullshit aside they were poor people who owned a few small things like CD players and deep fryers. Often enough they hoarded comic books and sports memorabilia that they refused to part with. Mostly they just buried all their stuff in a pile somewhere and forgot about it.
In addition to the noises of the structure itself — broken gutters clattering against the side of the building, every hinge a rusty, symphonic mess — everyone drank and slept heavily. I’d sneak in during the middle of the night through the fire escape and leave through the front door with stuff to pawn a few towns over. I sold a six-pack of Billy Beer for $35, a 1970’s Aerosmith tour shirt for $50.
One night I crawled through the window of someone’s apartment at three in the morning and saw a man on the couch, an old football game on the television. I was startled at first, but he was definitely out, bottle of whiskey still in his hand and a glass of something spilled and pooled into a ballooned-out shape on the rug. I looked back at the television. Bills vs. Giants. Super Bowl XXV. The game was in its final moments: the Bills are down by one and placekicker Scott Norwood needs to make the 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left. He fucks it. The announcer yells No good! Wide right! The Giants are jumping up and down into each other’s arms, lifting Bill Parcells onto their shoulders and walking the sidelines. MVP Ottis Anderson grabs a mini American flag and dedicates the game to the Gulf War troops. The deep voiceover calls it the Wide Right Game. Scott Norwood walks off the field with his head up.
I began rooting through the man’s possessions and not finding much. His apartment was a two bedroom, but one room was empty except bottles of booze and beer, some of them half full with a film congealing on top, dead gnats stuck to it. I found nothing in there. In the room with a bed, there was a dresser that was empty, all the clothes in piles on the floor, almost sorted and leaking into one another like watercolors. His white shirts turned into his navy pants turned into his underwear and socks. I went back to the kitchen, and though I was usually nimble, quick and sharp with my hands, the bottom fell out of a box I lifted, scattering metal spatulas and beaters into a huddle and then out, like a wave.
When I looked into the living room, the man was still on the couch, unmoved, the current-day in-studio announce team talking about Scott Norwood’s career paralleling the decline and restructuring of the city of Buffalo itself. I had never seen a dead man up close before. His skin was yellowed and thin except around his nose and eyes where capillaries had burst like a rash.
I began cleaning his apartment, arranging his magazines and video tapes. I threw away the dirty ones. I moved back to his room and put the laundry into garbage bags to be cleaned and folded later. I went through his fridge and cupboards and threw out the junk food. I swept the floor, dusted his end-tables and television. In the spare bedroom I began placing the bottles into bags of their own, two at a time, not spilling or making a sound.
I grabbed a bowl and filled it with warm water and soap and began cleaning him. I used a bath towel and went all over his body, lifting up his belly and wiping off a moist, sun-colored layer of filth the consistency of paste. I put him in a fresh change of clothes and threw the stained shorts and shirt he was wearing into the garbage before twisting the top of the garbage itself and setting it by the front door. There were dozens of bags of trash. I took all the remaining alcohol in the house and dumped it down the sink, bottles of cheap Mr. Boston’s gun and vodka, shitty light beer from gas stations and convenience marts.
I went back into his room again to make his bed and saw a Polaroid of two women tucked into the mirror of the dresser. On the bottom it said Nancy and Jacqueline and a recent date, only the previous summer. Nancy was motioning toward the camera, trying to shake away whoever was taking the picture, but Jacqueline was beautiful, glowing sheepishly and looking to be my age, though incapable of thievery and probably on track to graduate high school. I grabbed the picture and shoved it too hard, too fast into my back pocket and crinkled it along the V-shaped bottom.
Jacqueline doesn’t ask me about her father often, and I don’t press my luck with it, either. I don’t look for sympathy or try to weasel my way out of an argument by saying It’s like your father told me once. I told her when I met her — the pretty Irish girl with bad eyes squinting back and forth between the preacher and the urn — that I had been helping her father get back on track for the past few months before he died. He was almost there, almost ready to call her and show him what he had accomplished.
We’re watching television one day and she’s flipping through the channels. The kids are sleeping and the sound’s down low. She pauses on a sports channel for a second and I recognize it, Bills vs. Giants, Super Bowl XXV. I reach out my hand like I’m warning a car to a halt. I say, It’s the game and then I stop. She flips back to it and then squints at me a bit, still pretty, still going blind. We finish watching until the end and she comments on poor Scott Norwood. I watch the replay closer this time. From one camera angle, the distance is long and painful. From another, the laces on the ball are clearly facing Norwood. He didn’t have a chance. I think of Jacqueline’s father, bloated and glorious.
“Wide Right Game” appears in Shake Away These Constant Days, a collection of short stories by Ryan Werner, forthcoming this fall from Jersey Devil Press.
RYAN WERNER has got a body built for sin and an appetite for passion. He practices shameless self-promotion at his blog, Ryan Werner Writes Stuff.