by J.S. Kierland

"No two stars are as far apart as
two human souls." Bela Balazs

He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder and someone yelled, "Pass it, Pop...pass it!" Keeping his balance he cradled the ball in his arms, hit the ground hard, and then heard, "Parker. Last stop! Parker. Laaaast stop!" His shoulder had stiffened, but he struggled to his feet and lurched into the aisle. The driver pointed toward the luggage rack and he grabbed his suitcase and headed for the faded sign over the waiting room door, PARKER, PA.

Walking up the hill, he passed the Diner with a crude hand-written sign in the door that read "Thrift Shop." The Bookstore had closed too, but the Ice Cream Parlor next to it had survived. Further up the hill the old crimson awning stretched over the sidewalk with CHALMER'S FUNERAL HOME still scrawled along its edge. He opened the door, headed for the office and a startled Secretary looked up.

"Tell Mr. Chalmers that Casey's in the house," he said. She broke into a knowing smile and buzzed the office behind her.

"Mr. Molden's arrived," she said into the phone. There was a rustle of papers and the scrape of a chair, and Billy Chalmers appeared with a shocked look on his face and several extra pounds on his waist.

"I can't believe you really made it," he mumbled, embraced Casey, and led him back to his office. "No calls, Jill," he said over his shoulder.

"What about the Johnsons?" she asked.

"Try to squeeze them in later on this morning."

"That's got to be a rough one," Casey remarked.

"It'd be easier if you were there."

"I'm the last guy they want to see."

"No, I am."

"That must mean he's here."

Billy nodded and reached into a bottom drawer, pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey, a couple of glasses, and poured a healthy two fingers in each one. Casey raised his glass without waiting, and said, "To Merrell Johnson. Best goddamned Quarterback I ever knew." They gulped the bourbon, and Casey reached into his jacket and took out a vial of pills.

"Pain?" Billy asked.

"Yeah," Casey mumbled, and swallowed a pill with the bourbon. "My left shoulder refuses to go anywhere anymore."

Casey nodded, and stared into his bourbon. "How long you here?" he asked.

"I've got a broadcast from Pittsburgh on Thursday."

"Should be a good game," Billy said. "Need a place to crash?" Casey nodded, and drained his bourbon. "Another one?" Billy asked, but Casey waved him off. "Sure you won't come over to see the Johnsons with me this morning?"

"I don't think so."

Billy got up, shut the door, and said, "Do you know anything about this Merrell thing that's been going on?"

"I've been gone over fifteen years, Billy."

"Supposedly, that's when it started."

"Last I heard he was headed for Indiana on an athletic scholarship," Casey mumbled.

"That didn't last long. He got cut, came home, married Celia, and had to finish college in Philly. He just wasn't the same anymore. Know what I mean?" Casey shrugged, and Billy finally said, "You want to see him?"

"Can't believe he's gone," Casey mumbled, sipping what was left of the bourbon.

"Take the bottle...I've got phone calls to make," Billy said, opening a door at the back of his office. "Be careful going down those stairs."
Casey picked up the bottle of Wild Turkey, and Billy snapped on the basement lights. A musty odor hit him, shortened his breath, and he grabbed the bannister.

A dim light over a long table lit a bulky figure covered in a green sheet. Casey stopped to take another sip of the bourbon, and lifted the cloth. The face looked familiar but a lot older than the last time he saw him. He started to lower the flap and noticed the gunshot wound at the back of the temple.

"What the hell did you do, Merrell?" he asked, and sat heavily on a high stool next to the table. "Went so crazy fast," he snapped, and glanced around the empty room to see if anyone had heard him.

"Crazy fast," he repeated, and headed for the light coming in under the door at the top of the stairs. Billy was on the phone and laughing at something someone had said. "We're all so fucking detached," Casey muttered. "Except for you, Merrell. You were never detached," he said to the body on the table. "That's why you were the quarterback."


The large house sat on the corner lot facing a side street. It glowed in the sun and Casey thought of all the steel and coal money that had gone into it. Billy pulled the car into the driveway, waited for Casey to go in first, and said, "Thanks for coming. It makes this a lot easier."

They hadn't quite gotten to the end of the path when Celia Johnson rushed out the door, ran down the front steps, and hugged Casey. "I knew you'd come. Mother will be so happy to see you," she said.

"Sorry about all this," he mumbled.

They trudged into the house and Mrs. Johnson came in from the kitchen with a frosty pitcher of lemonade and her famous peanut butter cookies. She smiled and Casey took the tray from her and placed it on a small table in front of the fireplace where he and Merrell used to sit and plan how to win their next High School football game.

"It's good seeing you again, son," Mrs. Johnson said. "Been a long time."

"You're broadcasting the Steeler game on Thursday," Celia piped.

"Should be a good one." Casey smiled in agreement but continued staring at Mrs. Johnson.

"Only thing we have to settle," Billy interjected, "is whether the casket will be closed or open?"

Mrs. Johnson glanced back at Casey and asked, "Have you seen him Casey?"

"Yes, I have," he said.

"What do you think about an open casket?"

They waited for his answer, and he finally said, "In this case, I think Billy's right. It'd be better closed."

The open casket choice really belonged to Celia. She was Merrell's wife but it was clear she didn't run things and never did. He remembered how upset Mrs. Johnson would get whenever he and Merrell did some dumb thing to make her angry, and how she'd try to regain whatever dignity her family had after Merrell tried to destroy it. Casey always believed Merrell played football just to annoy her. The town wrote it off as "High School boys doing their thing," but it was all done to test her. To this day, he didn't know her first name. It was just "Yes, Mrs. Johnson. No, Mrs. Johnson," and every time Merrell did something crazy she'd disappear behind her "imaginary wall." Then it'd start all over again and Merrell would think up something else to rip the "wall" down again. Merrell's favorites were decorating the town Christmas tree with raw chicken parts or just driving through the neighborhood, wildly opening and closing garage doors with a rheostat.

But now it had come to Merrell's last stand. He'd checked-out early and smeared GOODBYE MOMMY across his mother's "mental wall." Casey watched as Mrs. Johnson's dark guilt-ridden eyes stared at him and had the sinking feeling Merrell was going to lose this one too.

"I suppose it's old fashioned but I think the casket should be open," she said. "We've got nothing to hide."

"If that's what you want," Billy mumbled.

Casey smiled, and Celia piped, "Thought you guys might like to stay for lunch."

"Lunches and I separated a long time ago," Casey said.

"I have to get back to the office," Billy added quickly, and both men drifted toward the front door.

Casey hugged Celia and nodded at Mrs. Johnson, who hadn't moved from the spot at the fireplace.

"There's something I wanted to talk to you about," Celia whispered, when Billy opened the door.

"I just came back to see him this one last time," Casey said, glancing over at Mrs. Johnson.

"I know," Celia said. "But I thought-"

"Can I call you from Billy's office?" Casey asked.

"All right," she agreed, and closed the door.

Billy had already started down the path and they met at the car.

"Let's get some lunch," Casey said.

"Yeah, and a hard-assed drink with it," Billy said.


The Secretary dialed the number for him and he took the phone when Celia got on.

"Thanks for calling," she said. "It's appreciated."

"Wanted to call before I left," he said, taking another sip of the bourbon. "Looks like thing's got kind of mean," he slurred, "I'm just trying to make sense of it like everybody else."

He listened to her short breathing on the other end and she finally said, "He got so strange. I'd even asked for a divorce. All those letters and unanswered phone calls," she blurted. "It went on for years."

"What letters?" he asked.

"The one's he wrote to you," she said.

"I never got any letters," he said, and listened to her breathing on the other end. "It was always tough getting me during football season," he added.

"He wrote to you in the middle of summer, Casey."

"It probably came in with the piles of fan mail then. Autographing pictures and footballs just wasn't my thing." She started to cry and he took another slug of the bourbon. "My football jerseys still sell though," he mumbled. "Whatever that means-"

"I'm sorry I bothered you," she said, and hung up.

The dial tone hummed in his ear and he lowered the phone and set the bottle of bourbon down next to it. He should have never come back. It was the wrong play at the wrong time. Merrell didn't exist anymore and neither did his letters because he'd burned each one as they arrived. He hated those letters, and the fear of finding another one haunted him whenever he went near a mailbox.

He picked up the bottle again and realized he had to get out of town. It was more than just the wrong play. He'd fallen into the wrong game. And the last thing he needed before a broadcast was another football player's funeral.

Billy's Secretary offered him a cup of coffee. He winked at her, took another sip from the bottle, and said, "Tell your Boss I'll sleep on the Pittsburgh bus tonight."

She nodded and headed for the office. "He's taking this really hard," she said, as Billy got off the phone.

"Yeah, I better get him out of here," he mumbled. "He's even beginning to depress me."

"Spoken like a true linebacker," she said.

He rolled his eyes and got up from behind the desk. "Hey, Champ...let's you and me take a ride," he said, and the office door closed behind them.


Parker, PA looked a lot grayer in the evening glow. Downtown stores were closing and people were heading home. Billy saluted a police car and the Officer in it waved back. Casey noticed, and said, "You got this town covered."

"It's a living," Billy acknowledged.

"Too bad it's so goddamn dull."

"Drab is the word...heading for dull. Steel plant's gone, coal mine closed, and the rest is rotting."

"I wonder if anyone notices," Casey said, staring out at the people loading groceries, and rounding up kids.

"What'd you tell Celia?" Billy asked.

"Nothing really."

"What was in those letters that was so-"

"She mentioned letters but I didn't know what the hell she was talking about...so she hung up on me."

"Hard to believe Celia would hang up on anybody."

"Well she did...Goddammit!"

"I believe you, Casey...it's just that this whole thing seems to start and end with those damn letters."

"I thought you said he was the one falling apart?"

"Yeah...I did."

"It's this town that's falling apart."

"Yeah, an I get to bury them...one at a time."

"Where the hell are we going?"

"Might as well see the old football field."

"I don't need anymore of the past, Billy."

"But this past just got a brand new electric scoreboard, artificial turf, and a new plaque."

Casey laughed and Billy hit the gas, caught the light, and headed up the hill to the High School.


They walked past the empty dressing rooms and through the player's entrance where Billy pointed at a brass plaque on the wall with Casey's name on it, and his image in a stiff-armed pose and his professional statistics below.

"Been up for a couple of years now," Billy said. "Merrell pulled the string for the unveiling."

"It should be his plaque up there, not mine."

"I'll tell the Board you said that."

"Tell them you've got an anonymous donor for Merrell's plaque and that whole championship season."

"Actually, they wanted me to tell you that you've got a coaching job in this town whenever you want."

Casey looked around at the empty stands in the fading light.

"Trouble is, my heart isn't here anymore," he said. "Merrell's heart is...and always will be. He belongs here and not in that cold-ass cemetery you drop them in."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Out here is the only place she didn't get to him!"

"Oh, that again."

"Why don't you bury him out here where he belongs?"

"There'd be a flag on the play," Billy yelled at him. "Either those pills are getting to you or the bourbon is. I'll announce Merrell's new plaque before the services begin and that'll ease them through the rest of it." Casey staggered further out onto the field in the growing darkness and Billy tried to keep up with him. "This where he did it?" Casey yelled.

"There," Billy said, pointing at the fifty yard line.

Casey stopped, and looked down. "We were just kids," he shouted.

"Nothing was REAL!"

"What wasn't real?" Billy shouted back.

"He kept sending those crazy fucking letters!" Casey said, and the years began to pour out in a torrent of broken words and whimpers that faded into the cold crisp air and across the open football field.


The red-eye to Pittsburgh was late and the two men sat on the bench in silence. It finally turned the corner in a squeal of breaks and a roar. They got up, waited at the curb, and the door opened in a gush of air and Casey stepped up into it. "Thanks," he muttered, and was gone.

At the end of the football season, Billy's Secretary handed him an envelope with Chalmer's Funeral Home, Parker, PA, scrawled across its front. There was no return address, and a cashier's check fell out when he opened it. "Anonymous donor," Billy said, shoving the check into his pocket. "For a football plaque," he said, and went back into his office and closed the door behind him.