Not the Man He Used to Be
Words By Emma Burcart, Art By Mclelun Lee
Forcing his chin down at a weird angle, Terrance can finally see his legs. The left looks pretty much the same as it did before surgery, but his right leg is wrapped in some sort of metal contraption—wires and bars come up and over like a medieval torture device and run down the length of his thigh, stopping just above his puffy ankle. Everything feels swollen, but his right leg looks it, and his brown skin still has the faint green tint of the last stage of bruising. He lets his head fall back against the pillow. He’s whole; that’s all that matters for now. Until he’s healed enough for rehab, the odds are just numbers. He’s better off against the house in Vegas than gambling with doctors.
“Look who’s awake.” A nurse walks into his room, clipboard in hand, and starts writing things down. She has a round face and wears her hair in a high pony tail, like the cheerleaders who stood over him crying while he lay on the field, waiting for the stretcher and praying for unconsciousness. She looks at his right leg and frowns, then wraps her fingers around his wrist. He reads the small nametag pinned above her right breast: Danielle.
“What’s the verdict, Danielle?” His voice is tight and scratchy, but it’s still him underneath and he knows it will work. It always works. Sweet devil tongue, his mama called it; he’s been able to get women and girls to do things for him since he was in diapers—homework, money, cooking meals. He never crosses the line and does something he’d be ashamed to admit in church, but he can’t help it if women want to take care of him.
Danielle pours water from a plastic pitcher and holds it to his mouth. “The verdict is you need some rest.” She reaches her free hand behind his head. “And you can call me Dani, Sugar.” She winks at him and tips the cup back.
Terrance parts his lips and lets the water trickle in. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was. Or tired. Danielle—Dani—tips the cup further and he forces himself to swallow. His mouth, throat, jaw—everything loosens and stretches out like “Grow Me” toys dropped in water. He hears a beeping sound he doesn’t recognize and turns his head. Dani did something, pushed a button that made the sound.
“Get some sleep,” she says and pats his shoulder. His eyelids become heavy; he can’t fight it.
“No,” he says, maybe out loud or maybe just inside his head. Nobody answers him. Dani’s voice is far off, like she’s talking to someone else. He can’t quite make out the words in the fuzz. Something about a mix-up. Someone’s family is pissed—there’s talk they might sue, he thinks he hears the other woman’s voice say. He’s too out of it to know for sure. But he doesn’t want to sleep. Every time he closes his eyes, he’s back on the field at Carter-Finley Stadium. He hears the smack of the helmet against his leg, feels the weight of the body on top of his, and the angle of his leg under him. He knew it was wrong before he felt the snap and tear or saw the faces of the guys on the other team.
“Oh, damn,” one of them had said, and another one shook his helmeted head back and forth as if that could undo what happened. No, he doesn’t want to sleep and go back there. He wants to move forward. Forward is the only way through.
Coach picks him up at the hospital. Despite Terrance’s protests, Coach says he couldn’t leave his star player hanging, even off the field. Even though Terrance isn’t exactly a star anymore and he may never play again. There is an unspoken tension in the car, thick in the air between them. Neither wants to say what they are thinking. Talking about the “what ifs” won’t get him off his crutches any sooner, and generic phrases of comfort can’t hide the truth.
“Jimmy’s gonna get his Friday Night Lights moment,” Terrance says, then laughs as if this isn’t more sad than funny. Coach just grunts and looks ahead, at the road in front of them.
To fit in the front seat with his leg straight in its brace, Terrance must sit with the seat pushed all the way back. The window, chilled by the air conditioning and dew from outside, is cool on his face as he leans against the glass. It offers him an odd side-angle view of buildings, parked cars, and trees colored the bright green and deep red of early fall. He doesn’t see the world the way he did before the hit. The few people moving on the sidewalks are crooked and lean heavily to the left. There is enough open space so that they don’t have to maneuver around each other, but their shadows cross paths, mingle, dance.
Coach makes a sharp turn and they head further downtown, where there are smaller sidewalks, fewer people, and less space between the buildings. Then a wide expanse of land opens outside his window and everything in his body screams, Stop! Here!
Terrance puts his hand on the dashboard and his mouth joins his body. “Stop the car,” he says, with the same tone he uses to call plays on the field, the tone that declares, I am in charge. But Coach keeps driving—though he turns momentarily to look at Terrance, his eyes narrowing as if searching for the player he recruited out of high school, the man he knows on the field.
Terrance pulls his hand back and rests it on his good knee. “Please.” His voice rises at the end—a pleading that is new to him but reflects the bubbles in his chest and the tingle in his fingertips. His voice used to drip deep and slow like molasses from the jar, scoring phone numbers and favors from cheerleaders and teachers alike, but now it must resort to begging.
Coach moves slowly; he flicks on the blinker and checks over his shoulder twice, before finally bringing the car to a stop along the curb. He looks at Terrance again. That same look, like he doesn’t know who is in the car with him. “Is everything okay, son?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” Terrance says.
They are parked in front of a cemetery. A black iron gate held in place by two short brick columns, the words Raleigh Hebrew Cemetery in stone on one side and numbers on the other—probably the address. Something is pulling at him from the other side of the chain-link fence, but the only thing there are headstones of people he never knew. He wants to get out of the car and walk along the concrete path that divides the grass and graves in half; he wants to go deep, far from the road, and he has no idea why.
Coach starts the car and music fills the air between them. “This is morbid, son,” he says and pulls back out onto the road.
When the pain pills stop working as well, he switches to Benadryl and bourbon, his mama’s special mix during the divorce. He likes to sleep deep, too deep for dreams—or at least for dreams he can remember. He doesn’t want to know what happens when he closes his eyes. His head moves back and forth, arms tangled among the sheets, and the healthy leg twitches and kicks like he’s still on the field. He often wakes on the opposite side of the bed, his head hanging off the mattress and his feet on his pillow. Even the weight of the brace can’t keep him still.
The school assigns him a tutor, a skinny kid with stick-straight hair and a large vocabulary, who knows more about Terrance’s classes than he does. He also knows Terrance’s stats, the details of the accident, and about the surgery—his only chance of ever stepping back out on the field.
“It has a very high recovery rate,” the boy says. His name is Matt, but Terrance just thinks of him as the boy. His boy. “The technique is pretty standard, replacing the damaged tendons with those from a donor body, although now they’re working on new procedures that don’t involve cadaver tendons.”
The boy is small—petite—and his pale skin is sprinkled with light brown freckles. More of a Matty than a Matt, and Terrance tells him so. The boy just smiles. He looks like the kind of kid who’d wear glasses, but his vision is twenty-twenty. He claims he can see the details of every play on the field. “You couldn’t have done anything to prevent it,” he says.
Terrance’s isn’t used to being still. To compensate, his thoughts take up the exercise, and soon his mind is running on overdrive. He does the daily crossword puzzle from the back of the newspaper and gets so excited when Matty brings him a book of Sudoku puzzles that he almost kisses the boy on the forehead. The newfound mental energy transfers to his school work. He’d never had an easy time completing assignments before, but now his speed and accuracy on tests and papers rise at the same rate that his passing yards once had.
Matty loves to hear stories from the field; he listens while he corrects and collates Terrance’s work, a master multitasker. He knows runs, turnovers, and plays—more than Terrance had guessed from looking at him. The kid was in the stands that day. He saw the hit play out from a different point of view, high up in the student section. He had been looking through binoculars.
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Terrance says.
Matty closes the history book in front of him and leans his elbows onto the cover. “They say talking about it helps.”
“Then you’ll work hard to get back.” Matty shrugs his shoulders like it’s simple, like all Terrance has to do is put on the jersey and step out on the field and it will all be okay.
“I like talking to you, kid,” Terrance says. “You remind me of my son.”
“You have a son?”
It isn’t the first strange slip he’s made since coming home from the hospital. He forgot about his lactose intolerance until he was halfway through a gallon of milk, and he called his mama to wish her a happy birthday three months too early. He talks to sales people on the phone as if they’re close friends, finds more comfort in a mystery novel than in watching his old game tapes, and has no interest in keeping up with the team. He was the alpha of the wolf pack—confident, in charge, always ready with a play. He can feel that part of him falling away like an old scab.
He’s puzzled by this memory he can’t shake: leaning over the side of a hospital bed and brushing the hair off a familiar forehead.
He backs off his pain pills in hopes that the swampiness in his brain will dry up, or that the pain in his leg will overshadow whatever is happening in his head. It doesn’t help. The visions get stronger, deeper, clearer. He sees the lined face of a man he doesn’t know and feels a strange pull, a longing that feels a lot like heartache. The man smiles and steps toward him, his hand outstretched. If Terrance listens closely enough, he can hear music in the background, feel his own body ready to dance. It isn’t just a flash like a picture—it’s a living memory, but it’s not his. He squeezes his eyes shut and the man and the music drop away, but the feeling stays with him like a shadow lingering just outside of his periphery.
Everyone is worried about him. There is a new cautiousness in the way Coach and the guys interact with him, their voices quiet and slow, hands still at their sides, eyes looking everywhere but at him. Ignore and outrun: it’s the most basic play on the field. The calls and drop-ins start out strong—he can’t go more than a few hours without an interruption from someone on the team—but as the weeks of boredom and recovery drag out, so does the time between visits. The team has to focus on the rest of the season, make his backup feel like he belongs on the starting lineup. Terrance understands. He even begins to enjoy the silence, the solitude, the fact that there is no one counting on him for anything.
When the doorbell rings, he worries that guilt and honor have gotten to Coach. He straightens up the pillows on the sofa and brushes the crumbs off the front of his bathrobe. But it’s Matty at the door, and Terrance’s heart does a back flip. “Your Offensive Coordinator asked me to come by,” the boy says, and flops into the chair across from Terrance. “That may have been the most exciting phone call of my life.”
He pulls a spiral notebook out of the messenger bag by his feet and sets it in his lap. “I got two of your professors to agree to give you an incomplete for the term,” he says. “Because of the, you know, trouble you’re having.” He looks down at the notebook and taps his finger like he’s searching for something, a name or class title, but Terrance is pretty sure the page is blank. He is used to people being uncomfortable around him, although it’s not awe or the desire to ask for an autograph anymore. No one wants to admit that the surgery might not turn him back into the man and player he used to be, that his new knee might change who he is completely.
“Thanks, Matty,” Terrance says. “You’re a real mensch.”
“I’m not sure.”
The evening news and Jeopardy become his favorite shows, the part of the day he looks forward to most. Local stories make him feel connected in a way he hasn’t since he was carried off the field. Family restaurants with a touching background story, teachers working hard despite many cutbacks, the city council member caught in an online romance with an escort—these are his people now that he isn’t a part of the football team. He rallies around them and cheers their victories, his bathrobe gaping open and his fork jabbing the air. Dinner is cooked in the microwave and eaten in front of the TV, instead of at a restaurant with the team, accepting free drinks and desserts, phone numbers and winks from the waitresses.
Alex Trebek smiles at Terrance from the TV, his closest friend aside from Matty these days. Alex reads a list of topics: history, literature, politics, and current culture, things Terrance has never bothered to pay attention to. He failed history on his first try and barely passed the second time, even with tutoring and plenty of face time at office hours to build goodwill with the teaching assistant. But somehow he knows the answers tonight—most before any of the contestants, and some before Alex even finishes reading the cards. Economic causes of the French Revolution, The Bay of Pigs, Barbara Jordon’s speech at Nixon’s impeachment hearings—the words float to the top of his head and shoot off his tongue. And he is right, every time, even when the contestants aren’t. If he’d been on the show instead of in his living room, he’d have won over twenty-one thousand dollars—and the respect of an audience, something he hasn’t known since that moment on the field.
He wants to be independent, show himself that he can be the same man he was, with or without the jersey. But when Matty offers to drive him to and from physical therapy, he doesn’t say no. It’s the company he can’t turn down. Something about Matty’s presence calms his nerves and slows the thoughts ping-ponging around his brain, gives him a familiar feeling of home. Matty talks for the entire drive; he’s such a smart boy. He explains the details of global warming, the history of the stock market, and the rationale for medical research on people. “Your knee is a prime example of the progress in the field,” he says, and points to Terrance’s leg. That’s when Terrance realizes that he isn’t really missing football, even when they’re talking about the game.
His physical therapist says his knee is improving. Walking without crutches is far off, but he can lean weight onto his right leg and bend his knee when he’s on his back. “Those are big milestones in healing,” the therapist says, but the words bounce off Terrance’s chest. He is getting better, and may even be able to play football again, yet he is so sad he wants to lock himself in the patient changing room and cry. He smiles and nods at the therapist’s cheery words, gives the guy a thumbs up, and fights back the glob of emotion working its way up his throat.
The sadness doesn’t leave him on the ride home. Verklempt, he thinks. Although he’s never used that word before, it just feels right. He looks back at the empty seat behind them and feels a loss similar to that which he felt the first winter break, when he went home to Florida and longed for Raleigh. Terrance is in mourning, he is sure of it. He rests his hand on the cold door handle and watches the world blur by.
“Turn left up here,” he says, leaning toward Matty.
“Where to?” Matty asks. He moves into the left lane—no objections, just curiosity.
“I want to take a detour.”
He directs Matty as if led by an internal GPS. The new tendons in his knee twitch and tingle, sending a signal down his leg that makes his second toe wiggle in his sock. The car turns down a familiar street—he’s been here before, even if he doesn’t know where here is. Sidewalks thin out and trees tower higher, congregating closer together. It’s an older part of the city, where things have had more time to grow.
“Pull over,” he says when he sees the gates. The Jewish cemetery, again. His knee twitches like a jolt from jumper cables then settles against the seat. “I just want to sit here a minute,” he says. Matty twists his mouth up in the concerned way Terrance recognizes from people in the crowd during a close game, but he turns the engine off and leaves the air running. Such a sweet boy. Terrance resists the urge to muss his hair or pinch his cheek.
He traces an irregular circle around his knee cap and stares out the window like he’s waiting for someone who is late. The sidewalk is empty and nobody passes in or out through the gates. It must be lonely in there, cold. His mind tunnels underground, into the dark, dry dirt where he can picture coffins—metal and wood that shined before becoming dulled by time and rain and air. He squeezes his eyes shut, stopping himself before he can picture what’s inside the boxes. He doesn’t want to see. He doesn’t want to see any of it. A light breeze blows through the open window—more like summer than the end of autumn—and sunlight warms his arm through the glass. He scans wider, farther back, as though looking for an open receiver down the field, but the cemetery stands empty and solemn.
“Let’s go,” he says, disappointed.
The cemetery is a permanent part of his thoughts. He can’t let go. There is something there, he can feel it. He writes the street address at the top of a piece of paper in the unused spiral notebook he bought for biology—somewhere no one would think to look. Not that anyone other than Matty really remains in his life. He has changed, is still changing, so he can’t really blame anyone. He isn’t the same guy who was carried off the field. That guy loved barbeque, macaroni and cheese, and French fries in ketchup and mayonnaise, which made his mama turn up her nose. Now he eats beef brisket, roast beef, meatloaf, hamburgers without the bun, and he likes his potatoes plain.
The doctor assures him that some changes are bound to occur after a concussion, and are most likely temporary. “You’ll be eating pork chops again in no time,” he says and scribbles something on the clipboard. Then he offers Terrance another prescription for pain pills and muscle relaxers, to help with the transition, before he nods and walks out the door.
Terrance doesn’t need more pills. He isn’t in pain and he spends all day relaxing—there’s a new dip in the sofa to prove it. But the word transition feels right. Like he’s stuck in this place between who he used to be and whoever he’s going to become.
“That’s called life, hon,” the customer service woman at the cable company says when he tries to explain. “The only constant is change.”
He can’t fathom how he got to this place where he’s relying on advice from strangers on the phone. The pictures on the wall and the game videos show him who he was, but he can’t remember the feeling inside. His body isn’t the same.
School work is the only distraction that helps keep him focused on something outside himself. It holds the sadness at bay like a dam. If he isn’t thinking, he’s feeling, and he doesn’t like where that leads. The smiling man comes back to him, in pieces, whenever there is a space in his thoughts, and he is a constant in his dreams. The memories don’t remain with him in the morning, but that face and the accompanying feeling hover over him throughout the day. Sadness and a flash of desire from deep in his gut that he doesn’t understand. So he adopts new study habits, does the required and recommended reading, and adds in some background research of his own.
“You’re a machine, man,” Matty says when they meet for the third day in a row, and he doesn’t blink when Terrance calls it a study date.
“Maybe a machine would be an improvement.” Terrance shrugs, then leans toward Matty. He licks his thumb and wipes at the side of the boy’s face, near his ear. Matty just looks at him and blinks. “You had some schmutz,” Terrance says and slides a notebook across the table. “I’ve been writing things down, memories, to see if they make sense.”
Matty traces his finger over the numbers scrawled in apparent random order all over the page, in groups of ten, four, and six, mostly. “You do have part of a dead person inside you.” He taps the sketch in the middle—a face like a character from a children’s book, clownish and features out of proportion, but definitely a man. “Maybe this is him.”
“They won’t tell me the man’s name—privacy laws,” Terrance says.
Matty leans back and folds his arms over his thin chest. “How do you even know the donor was a man?”
The numbers won’t stop coming and they don’t add up to anything that makes sense. They could be years or birthdays—but none that mean anything to him. He checks the calendar and datebook to be sure. Nothing. The notebook lies on his lap, the numbers taunting him like an overconfident linebacker from an opposing team. He can almost see a smug expression in the lines of the paper. Then his phone vibrates on the coffee table in front of him. Unknown caller. He ignores it—that’s what voicemail is for—but as he watches the screen flash, it hits him.
Terrance clears the missed call notification and dials the numbers from the side of the page, the ones that float above the man’s large left ear. First there’s a clicking sound that makes his heart drop, then the ring picks up midstream. His heart moves back up to his chest and beats at double time. He has no idea what he’ll say if someone answers.
Someone does answer. A man. He sounds older than Terrance, but not what he’d classify as old or even middle aged. “Hello,” the man says—like a statement, not a question.
Terrance breathes into the phone, heavy enough to hear the echo off the mouthpiece, but no words come.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” The man asks, a definite question this time in the lilt of his voice.
Terrance is suddenly a conflicting storm of extreme emotions. He’s so happy he wants to jump up and dance around the room, yet he’s consumed by a sadness he’s never felt before, and it pours down over him like concrete mix. In a rush of wanting to cry and sing and scream, he blurts out something he never thought he’d say.
“My sweet boy.”
There is silence for what seems like minutes. Terrance’s words hang in the air like a Hail Mary pass.
“I’m hanging up,” the man says finally. There is a hint of hesitation in his voice. But then he does, he hangs up.
Terrance is left with the hollow hum of the open line and the heavy crackle of his breath in the room. He holds the phone to his ear until he hears the connection drop away and all he is left with is the silence.
Sleep evades him. His head spins with thoughts and questions; his insides quiver as if his blood is laced with lightning. He wants to make sense of what he’s feeling, wants to pull each individual emotion out, name it, and put it in a jar. He likes clear categories and everything in its place. He isn’t used to crying, whether or not he’s in physical pain, and he can’t let go of the voice on the phone. There was love in that voice. He pushes back the covers and scoots to the end of the bed. He glances over at the clock, but there is no point in lying awake.
Matty is tired, sleep still stuck in the corners of his mouth, but he shows up anyway. Friends don’t let friends take taxis to the cemetery in the middle of the night, he says with a croak in his voice.
Terrance knows what he wants and he won’t let anyone stop him; he’s following his body’s lead. He is an expert with crutches, his movements quick and light, as if he were still on the field with a football in his hands. The quivering inside separates and moves down to his leg and up to his heart. His knee vibrates, the skin almost bouncing in the open center of the brace like some sort of instrument tracking the movement of the car. His body knows they are getting closer.
The cemetery is deserted, as are the sidewalks outside, and the lights are on throughout the grounds as if to keep the departed safe and secure. The gates are closed, a giant lock in the center, but the space between the final bar of the gate and the brick column is larger than the rest. Terrance turns sideways and the damaged half of his body fits—leg brace and all. Matty slides through easily at the other column. He tosses Matty a crutch then leans on the other while he brings his strong half through. His heart beats loud in his chest and his knee seems to pull him onto the path. He is in the right place.
It’s an easy stroll with the crutches; the cement path is flat and lined with lights, his body knows when to turn and which way. He has been here before. The din of crickets and bullfrogs like a stadium crowd just after the ball has sailed from his hands and into those of a receiver down the field. Matty remains silent at his side. Terrance’s breath is warm in his body. The night is the reason he’s always loved fall—second to football season; the air is cool, only a hint of humidity left from the day. He thinks he could stay here all night.
Finally, he reaches a sort of cul-de-sac, a section of burial sites in a U shape with a bench to the side of the path. Moving to the edge of the concrete, he uses the bench as leverage to transfer his weight to the grass. At the end of the row, he sees it—the large headstone he remembers as if from a dream. It stands tall, casting a shadow over the new grave beside it. It’s connected to him. He understands that now. He hobbles to the headstone, moving slow over the grass until he is standing directly in front of it. The smooth square border almost shines, but it is the name that his eyes settle on: Benjamin Cohen. He rests on his crutches and leans toward the stone, running his hand over the name. Benjamin. Beloved Husband and Father.
Husband. The face in the notepad, the man in the memories that aren’t his. Terrance uses the crutches to lower himself to the ground then lets them crash awkwardly next to him. He stretches out between the graves. The grass tickles the backs of his bare calves and forearms, and he turns his head to look at the plot on his left—the dirt still fresh, the headstone a missing piece not yet arrived from the engraver. He grabs a handful of dirt and rubs it between his fingers. He spreads his arms wide, so that one hand is touching each grave. The tingling in his knee stops and his whole body calms. He stays that way for a while before noticing Matty standing above him with his arms folded. Terrance reaches a hand up to him and smiles.
“Let’s get out of here.”