It occurs to me now that we never actually saw Linsky drinking. We saw him nearly every day out on Broad Street, talking out loud to no one, or slumped over in the park, all red-faced and drunk. From inside the school bus we would see him on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette, fifty years old and lean, not soft and rounding like our fathers and grandfathers, and he’d be on the wobbliest of legs. Yet for all the times we saw him slurring and stumbling around our town, I can’t remember any evidence, no half-empty bottle in his hand, no dull, silver flask sticking out from inside his jacket. It was as though Linsky was just inherently drunk, as if by no fault of his own he had fallen into a stupor and couldn’t get out.
Linsky wore a plain, white undershirt year-round without a coat, perhaps insulated by too much vodka, probably just indifferent toward his own health. I don’t recall ever seeing his hands in his pockets or up to his mouth, seeking warmth from his corrosive breath. The old man’s face was ugly, but somehow not unattractive. He had lousy, mismatched features that, when taken by themselves, were terrible the way any old drunk’s nose and eyes and lips might be if you found them on their own. But that’s not how you saw Linsky, as a collection of bad parts. To the contrary, he carried an appeal that made you want to look at him and see past his most apparent flaws. He impressed you as someone you’d want to know about, someone who must have once been going somewhere, somewhere big and boundless, and you wondered how he’d arrived in our narrow town. Sometimes in the evenings I would drive with my father to the drug store for my dad’s cigars and we would see Linsky picking up trash around the parking lot for the store’s owner, trying to make a buck, completely plastered. I can’t forget the way my father looked at him with curious, regretful eyes and a sagging face that made me think he wished better things for Linsky. "Let’s go," he’d say, ending the moment by wrapping his arm around my shoulder and leading me into the store.
But when my father wasn’t there, I joined my friends in making fun of the old man. We’d scrunch and contort and pull at our faces and wobble around and mumble in Polish-accented slush. If I held my breath for more than a minute I could turn my head the same color as his. The guys loved this.
We got the strongest shot of Linsky on Saturday mornings when we played tackle football in the park. He’d meander to the field always right as the game was beginning and he’d stay until we were finished, yelling a fiery mix of Polish and booze all the while. He’d hiss when one of us dropped an easy pass and growl when we missed a tackle. If the weather was cold and one of us wore a hat, he’d grumble and call that boy a "pusskie", sounding like Popeye emasculating his nephews. One winter day we all wore hats and gloves and Linsky waved his arms in disgust and called us all "a bunch ov goddamn pusskies", reminding us just how tough we really weren’t. Despite his accent, the old man had quite a handle on the most colorful words we’d ever heard. Our fathers could curse with the best of them, especially at us, but even they would have been impressed (and probably pissed) if they ever heard some of the beauties Linsky came out with. When it came to swearing, Linsky’s unsteady, vodka-English was actually an advantage, enabling him to rip off a line of curses none of us had ever heard in that particular order; his cursing was unorthodox and this paid great dividends when he got hot. Sometimes our games were delayed when Linsky exploded with a particularly drunk and profane tirade and one or more of us had to lie down in the grass to laugh. I remember the way it felt to lie there, looking up at the sky, laughing with cold, red cheeks, white breath billowing out of me. The Earth felt safe and fun and full of promise and our role in it, uncomplicated.
One Saturday morning there were six of us in the field at the south end of the park, on the other side of the river from the sand box courts where the Italian men played bocce at surprisingly high decibels. When Aaron and Roger arrived –they’d stopped to grab Gatorades – they said our only fan was on his way.
"We seen Linsky over by the river," said Aaron. "He’s freakin’ crushed."
"Yeah," Roger sang, "he’s totally piped."
It was always fun to invent new terms for how deep in the bag Linsky was. We didn’t know what half of the words meant, but almost any unusual description spoken with enough inflection was appreciated. I’d never heard the word "piped" before Roger said it, but I didn’t need a definition to find it hilarious.
"Cemented," said Mike, placing particular emphasis on the middle syllable.
"He’s on the fuckin’ Tilt-A-Whirl," I said, laughing.
Then Roger motioned toward me with his chin and said, "Let’s choose ‘em up. My turn. Danny."
Because we were in eighth grade and we were the biggest, Roger and I were always the captains and we alternated the first pick each week. Danny was neither the fastest guy on the field nor the strongest, but Roger took Danny first every time because they lived across the street from each other and had been best friends since they could walk. If Lawrence Taylor had shown up and asked if he could join the game, Roger still would have picked Danny first.
"Timmy", I said.
Simple as that. Four on four.
And Linsky. He came from the same direction that Roger and Aaron had come, from over by the bridge, like they’d said. He was moving slowly and singing a song I didn’t recognize but it sounded proud and patriotic and also sad, and I wondered where he had learned it.
"The band’s here," said Timmy. As we took our respective sides, we kept an eye on the old man as he sang his way to the bleachers.
Roger’s team kicked off to us, which meant the guy with the best arm on their team got a running start and threw the ball as far as could in our general direction. Nobody ever actually kicked the ball in these games, probably because none of us could do it with any accuracy and we didn’t have a kicking tee. I’ve never played in – or heard of – a playground football game where the kickoff wasn’t really a throw.
We couldn’t remember a time when we didn’t know the rules – four on four, one point for a touchdown, no extra points, three completions for a first down, seven Mississippis before rushing the quarterback, one blitz every four downs, tackle as hard as you can, no penalties, someone-always-gets-his-shirt
Our games were like big, colorful swirls of action, each of us wearing the jersey of a different big-league player. I’ve never felt better than on those days when the air was crisp and fresh and the wind blew through my jersey. I wore Harry Carson, New York Giants, number 53. Most of us loved the Giants but more than that we admired and emulated individual players, linebackers and running backs and safeties we were sure we would someday replace. It never occurred to us that we might not all grow up and play pro football.
As the game began, Linsky stopped singing and sat down on the bottom bleacher where he most liked to sit, shouting out instructions like he was our coach and we weren’t performing up to his expectations.
After about two hours of trading touchdowns, Roger said, "I gotta go soon. Some stupid birthday party for my Aunt."
"That sucks," was the general consensus but nobody bitched. The games always ended like this; if somebody didn’t have to leave, we’d play all day.
"Next score wins," I said. It didn’t matter the score at that point; every game ended in sudden death, whether it was tied or not. It was just more fun that way.
Our team got the ball on an interception by Clinton. On the third play of sudden death, we gathered in a huddle, which we rarely did, and talked about what to do.
"Let’s go for it," I said. "Which one of you pansies can get open in the end zone?"
"Me," said Aaron.
"No," objected Timmy, "Roger’s playing me real loose. At the snap, I’ll step back. You throw it to me and then go long. Nobody will be covering you."
I smiled. "Don’t let Linsky see you soft-arm this pass, you pusskie."
We broke the huddle. Timmy split out wide right, Clinton and Aaron on the other side. I picked up the football, the weathered, brown ball we used every week unless Danny forgot it in his father’s car and his father accidentally took it to work. On those days we used one of the Nerf balls we got for Christmas, but we didn’t feel as good about using a toy. Danny’s ball was the real thing.
"Shotgun," I said and slowly stepped back. This is where my memory turns into a movie and I can watch everything that happened over and over again, always in the same detail, frame by frame. I looked toward Aaron and Clinton and, just beyond them, out of his seat and moving now along the sideline, was Linsky. I said "Hike!" and everyone was in motion. As I drifted to my left, Timmy faked like he was going deep and instead shuffled back behind the line of scrimmage. I turned, threw him the ball and took off toward the left sideline and the corner of the end zone. Aaron and Clinton had run their routes to the center of the field so no defenders were near me. Roger got caught in the traffic and Mike was still yelling Mississippis at the line of scrimmage. I was all alone, wide open for the winning touchdown. Timmy drew back his arm, in slow motion now I can see it, and threw the ball as far as he could in my direction. The ball wobbled in the air like a pigeon, like someone had it on a string and couldn’t keep it still. I was running wildly and, realizing the ball was behind me, I turned my shoulders to watch it and somehow stop myself to catch the under-thrown ball as I ran backwards. But momentum carried me forward. My feet couldn’t keep up with my hips and knees and as the ball tumbled out of the sky my ankles crossed and suddenly my shoulders were on the ground with the rest of my body still moving forward above me, ass-over-teakettle as they say. I came to rest on my belly. Roger’s team cheered.
From where I was lying, I could see the ball roll end-over-end away from me. My eyes followed it and for a brief moment I could see only the ball and the grass. And then Linsky’s feet. The ball rolled dead right in front of him, the old brown football next to Linsky’s old brown shoes.
We’d played an awful lot of football in that park and Linsky had been there all the time. He was as much a part of those games as Roger or me or any of the guys. But never once in all those Saturdays did any part of the game get that close to Linsky. None of us ever saw him up close and never had the ball rolled his way. He was part of the game for sure, but still only a spectator. I got to my feet and brushed off some of the dirt and grass that clung to me. Linsky was mere feet away and the air around him was drunk with his breath. It was suddenly quiet in the park and I remember thinking it was like refrigerator noise, how you only notice it when it stops. No one knew what to say.
The ball was too close to Linsky for me to go for it. I don’t mean that I was afraid - I wasn’t - but I confess to being fully aware of how close I was to him for the first time. My hesitation wasn’t caused by fear; maybe I just felt like it would be rude to trespass on his space, that to pick up the ball that was so close to him would be to assume he didn’t have the courtesy to pick it up and give it to me. I wasn’t sure.
Then Linsky bent slowly at the knees, lowering himself to the ground and taking an athletic position on the balls of his feet that surprised me. He looked like a baseball catcher. But he waited a moment before reaching out for the ball, unsure, it seemed, of whether he really wanted to pick it up. When he finally reached out and put his hand on the ball, for the first time I got a feeling like he was afraid of something, an emotion of which I had previously not imagined him capable. He picked up the ball and held it close to his face like he was smelling it. He closed his eyes. I stared at him.
The memory of Linsky’s wine-red face contrasted against that leather football never left me. I was reminded of that day years later, when I was twenty-seven years old and a lifetime removed from our days playing roughhouse football in the park, and I read a faded, yellow newspaper article about a once-mighty football player named Jerry Linsky. I’m a small-time sports writer now, covering the local scene, occasionally researching topics of historical significance to local athletics. While at the library one afternoon, sitting amongst dusty binders of journalism and cobwebs, I discovered that our old drunk fan played one year of high school football during which he captured a conference title and apparently more than a few hearts. Incredulous, I read as Linsky’s name jumped out of headlines and cover stories and articles speculating on which big-time college program would land the young Polish star. Quotes from players and coaches and fans sung the praises of this kid who, at the age of 17, could already throw a football farther and better than any college player in the country and whose smile on and off the field made him the area’s favorite non-American all-American. One quote was attributed to a then-young assistant coach whose name, it turned out, also appeared in my local white pages. We met for lunch recently. I’d guess this gentleman to be pushing about 70.
"That kid," he said, "was the best football player I ever saw. I’m telling you, God gave things to Jerry Linsky he never gave anyone else."
"The same guy," I interrupted, "who used to be drunk all the time down on Broad Street and in the park?"
"The same one," he said and then, reconsidering, "but he really wasn’t the same, if you can understand that. I imagine at your age, by the time you saw him, there wasn’t much left of the kid I knew. But that boy was special. He was on his way. Picked up the game so fast you couldn’t believe he never played it before. His family survived the war and came here to work. His father didn’t understand football, didn’t believe in it. But he let him play that one year while he finished high school and it was like the kid was made to throw the football. We didn’t lose a game and Linsky got offers from every major college in the country. Couldn’t keep the scouts away. Then the summer came and nobody knew what happened. We figured we’d read about him out at Michigan or West Point or somewhere big. Next thing we heard, he’s working long hours in his father’s butcher shop. I never saw the kid sober after that."
Back in the park, standing in front of the bleachers, holding the football, Linsky opened his eyes and I could see in them a look of recognition, like something warm and welcome returning. He didn’t smile, but somehow I understood that a kind of pleasure, like so many fingers of vodka, was slowly soaking through him.
Without turning his head, Linsky looked at me with his suddenly lively but unrelentingly glassy, bloodshot eyes. He didn’t dart his eyes at me, just gently turned them, almost inquisitively, in my direction. I never thought him capable of appearing so human, so real. He made a motion to me that any boy who has ever played a down of playground football would understand- he held the ball with two hands, elbows outward, and lifted it slightly while simultaneously nodding his head upward toward me. The drunkest guy in town was telling me to go long, standing in the park in his tan slacks and white undershirt, barely able to keep his balance, sending me out for a pass. I didn’t hear a thing from the guys; the field was quiet except for the birds adding commentary high in the chestnut trees above the bleachers.
I walked a few steps away from him at first, keeping my eyes on his face, awaiting some confirmation that I’d read him correctly. With both hands Linsky raised the ball a little further, using it to point in the direction I was to go. I hurried up, only slightly, then a little more, jogging now, and when I turned my head back to him, he again had the ball to his shoulder and I never knew a man to appear so filled with the wonder I saw in him then. When I reached what I deemed to be a spot far enough for him to throw me the ball, I stopped and checked back with him again. I looked, too, at Roger and Danny and the guys. They were all watching Linsky.
He motioned me on and to hell with it, I said, I’m gonna give this a run. I broke into a sprint, feeling the wind against my face, feeling the muscles in my legs work, my feet trying to keep pace with my heart. I kept running, halfway across the field now, abandoning thoughts of what I was doing, just enjoying the feeling of running in our park, full to the brim with childhood recklessness and loving it. Finally, lungs starting to ache, I craned my neck and saw Linsky spread his feet, raise the ball to his ear and, with unexpected grace, loft it toward me, a streaking fourteen year old boy with big football dreams.
We never saw Linsky again after that day. The ball landed in my hands with greater softness than any pair of balled up socks I’d ever thrown to myself and then caught as I dove onto the bed. He disappeared after throwing the most amazing pass each of us will ever see. By the time I slowed down, football tucked under my left arm, my other arm extended in the air triumphantly, seemingly miles away from the ball’s launch, the old drunk man was walking out of the park. Roger told me Linsky stayed just long enough to see the reception before turning his head and making his way away off the field. "Nice throw!" I hollered, not knowing what else to do.
If any of the guys ever heard anything about Linsky after that, they never shared it with me. Roger is the head coach of our high school team now and sometimes he and I meet up for a beer on a Saturday night after a game. Sometimes we remember the old man and sometimes we talk and smile about the pass he threw to me, the kind of stuff that stays forever important to childhood friends.
I went to the park recently after a long time away. The trees are taller now and the bleachers have been removed, but the place where they stood is still marked with the steel posts that once gave them stability. I had with me a long measuring tape borrowed from the track coach at the high school. It took me a few minutes to find the spot where I caught the ball, just a few feet in front of the concrete drinking fountain on the opposite end of the field. I measured the distance of the pass – 63 yards, give or take a few for an aging memory.
Roger says Linsky must have gone on a vicious bender, probably ended up drinking himself into an obituary we were too young to take notice of. But I like to think the old man cleaned himself up after that day, perhaps having somehow shed the anger and frustration that pushed him to the bottle, or at least having made peace with a life that couldn’t be relived. I imagine him sometimes on a football field somewhere upstate, or out west maybe, a whistle around his neck, trying in earnest but in vain to coax from some young quarterback the magic he knows is possible. I’ve checked the rosters of high schools and colleges in most states, but my fantasy ending for Linsky never checks out. Foolish optimism, maybe. Maybe he did die a lifelong boozer, hanging on to all of his habits but one – coming to watch us play on Saturday mornings in the park. Maybe he’s still drunk somewhere. I don’t know. But I know that he completed a pass to me once. The great Jerry Linsky, the old man with the ugly red face, hit me in stride with a spiral at 63 yards and then walked out of the park. Pusskie.
Matthew Fredericks grew up in tiny Hamburg, New Jersey and now resides in Bloomfield, NJ with his wife, Jeanne. He practices law and plays golf when he isn't writing.
About this story, Matthew writes: When I was young I played a lot of tackle football in the ballfield down the street from our house. That's what we called it - the "ballfield". That part of the story is rooted in truth. Linsky, on the other hand, grew from a collection of memories involving angry school teachers and empty beer cans in the woods near the ballfield. If Linsky did exist, he'd have been invited to my wedding last October.