I checked my teeth and tie in the bathroom mirror, something I always do before a gig.
I next took a step backward from the row of white sinks in this hotel men’s room, I scoped the front of my pants. I always wanted to be sure there was no stain or something hanging out of them after using the john. After all, I am a professional.
Giving my zipper one last security tug, I stared intently, confidently, at the guy on the other side of the glass — the guy who the crowd in the ballroom across the hall came to hear. I give a wink big enough for the back row to see and say, “It’s Showtime, baby.”
Reflected in the mirror, I saw the fellow walking out of the stall directly behind me stop dead, blink, and return to the comforting warmth of the chamber he just left. I turned just in time to hear him slide of the lock and see him lift his feet from view of anyone outside the stall door.
“Whoooo,” I yell. That howl psyched me up every time, whether I turned it loose before one of these speaking engagements or walked out of the stadium tunnel when I played for the Gamecocks at the University of South Carolina.
I stepped out into the maroon-carpeted second floor hallway of the St. Elmo’s Inn. I could hear my audience-to-be’s hum of conversation and clinking of tableware behind the large double door across the hall.
Hmmm, that’s an awful lot of noise for fifty people, I thought. But they always were a talkative bunch.
This afternoon, I once again would be addressing the Low Country chapter of Goose & Gander: The Society for the Preservation of First Wives and First Husbands. Actually four out of every five of the attendees were first wives, a sad, Book of Lamentations-quoting, and often bitter lot of church ladies from up and down the Grand Strand. But when they got a few cocktails in them, they more often than not turned into a prowling, pawing mob of howler monkeys in heat.
“Larry, how are yoooooo-eww?” I had heard that greeting sing-sung to me by maybe ten different women in the bar the last time I addressed this group. One of them, Audrey Whiteapple of nearby Florence, found out how I was…better than her ex, Claude. Or so she claimed as she wept to me in the uncomfortably long, but fair’s-fair post-coital quid pro quo cuddle.
Claude told her she was less than he had expected after eight years of marriage.
“That’s eight years of mopping up his muddy floors after coming in drunk from hunting – he said–and eight years of scouring the skid marks out of his saggy-ass boxers and ten years of doing every vile, terrible thing he asked me to do, too, Larry,” Audrey said.
Yeah, vile, terrible things like what she next suggested we do. Next morning, those vile, terrible things required me to steal a set of sheets from a housekeeping cart and surreptitiously swap them for the percale Jackson Pollack she left behind.
I limped and my lips were numb for a week after that.
I wonder if Audrey’s here this afternoon.
I’m not in this business for any real money. That was what the NFL was supposed to be for. So I guess I don’t feel too badly about the perks of the speechifying business. Being Larry Jenkins–one-time Second Team All-Southeast Conference quarterback–and ONLY being Larry Jenkins, has left me with few career options. Especially after I wrecked my throwing shoulder my first training camp with the Browns. But I knew the truth. Five-foot-eleven free agent quarterbacks who can’t throw the deep out pattern, even before they blow out their labrum, aren’t going to make it in the NFL. Even in Cleveland. The injury gave me cover back here in the Carolinas.
I wasn’t too good at math—I had tutors and a couple of exam-taking stand-ins back in college—but even I could add two and two and come up with an answer to my post-athletic career. I decided to trade on my erstwhile fame and program-cover looks for a living. I learned to use words like “erstwhile” from the Dale Carnegie course my agent made me take while I was rehabbing my shoulder. He knew a loser when he saw one, too.
So here I am, twelve years after throwing my last ruptured duck incompletion in a meaningless scrimmage someplace called Berea, Ohio. I have become a Toyota/Chevy sales associate for my Uncle Lamar and a mid-rung, well lower mid-rung, motivational speaker for myself.
So if I can catch a little affection from some woman who used to kiss the image of my face inside her locker and in her teenaged dreams, well, maybe we both are getting what we need out of life. At least for that moment.
“Larry! Larry! Oh good, I caught you before you went into the ballroom. ”
Vern Tarwater, the Brigantine’s events director, trots down the hall toward me from his office next to the hotel’s business center. One of those chubby guys whose pants always looked too short and too tight whether he stood up or sat down, Vern’s a good egg who always takes good care of me when I visit his hotel.
“Look, Larry, um, we realized during set-up this morning there’s been a teeny, tiny infinitesimally minor oversight on our part. We weren’t able to get hold of you until just now,” he wheezed.
I put my hands out to ease Vern to a rolling stop in front of me.
“C’mon, Vern, you know me. I’m usually prepared for any speaking emergency. What is it? Brought my own microphone, extra batteries, three different projection bulb sizes and makes, a MacBook, a laptop running both Windows and Linux, an extra tie in case I’m too matchy-matchy with the emcee…..”
“We double-booked the ballroom,” Vern said.
He tucked his head down and looked like a little sea turtle in his green uniform blazer.
“What do you mean, ‘double-booked’?”
“I mean I booked the GGSPFWFH. But Felicia Flores, my former assistant as of this morning, booked a different group for the room at the same time. And they paid cash,” Vern said.
“What’s the other group,” I asked.
“Oh, they’re a terrific group of ladies and…um, some gentlemen. The NGWTWCS. All those Gs and Ws you can see how we had this little slip-up,” he said.
“NGWTWCS. The New Gone With The Wind Collectors Society,” Vern recited, his eyes rolling back in his head as if reading the letters and words off his eyebrows.
“New Gone With The…”
“Wind Collectors Society. Yes, they’re getting very big here in South Carolina after catching fire in Georgia and Florida. Ooh, ‘catching fire,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘catching fire,’ did say that? Anyway, we can’t have Georgia and Florida steal potential business from the Grand Strand now, can we, Larry?”
My mind suddenly a scene in Technicolor of Audrey Whiteapple in a big picture-frame straw hat and pantaloons. Shaking my head, I tried to process all Vern had told me.
“Okay, give me a few minutes to make a few notes and I’ll do the best I can. You know me, Vern. I’m a professional,” I said.
Vern took my hand in his sweaty paws and pumped it vigorously. The pulled a soggy flyer from inside his jacket and pushed it against my chest.
“Here’s the background on the NGWW…”
“Oh, who knows? Thank you so much, Larry. You’ve got maybe ten minutes. They’re in the middle of the dessert service right now.”
Vern turned and trundled away.
“Whoa, Vernon,” I called.
“Yes, Larry? I’ve got to reset the Magnolia Room for something called a bris tonight and it’s still wearing all its ribbons and crosses from this morning’s Young Republican prayer breakfast.”
“And, Vern,” I called, “two audiences equals two fees, right?”
He stopped, turned and giggled.
“Of course, Larry. You’re a professional.”
Goose, gander and Gone With the Wind. Now how can I massage one of my standard speeches to satisfy the interests of that audience?
Actually, I had a clip of maybe eight speeches, all drawn from literature and coaches’ talks I’d heard in my career as an athlete. And coaches themselves stole from literature, history and literature professors, or each other.
But suddenly I felt so tired of it all. I didn’t want to have to weave a potholder of stretchy insincerity. I needed quiet and privacy to figure out what I was going to do. I reentered my tile-walled office suite across the hall.
As I swung open the door, I saw the man who I’d scared into hiding not three minutes before. He had just finished washing his hands and he was staring into the mirror, not too much unlike I had been. He saw me enter and straightened up with a snap.
“Relax, friend,” I said. “I didn’t mean to startle you, even before. Just a bad habit of mine, how I cope with the job, with life sometimes.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s okay, you just startled me. I was just kinda deep in thought there. Seems like a funny place to think, but…”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I do it all the time myself. In fact, I was just about to take a seat and work out a problem I’ve got right now. And yeah, that sounds weird out loud, doesn’t it?”
“‘That’s okay, really.”
“Not to sound too, well, queer, but you look familiar. You somebody?”
“Not really, maybe once, in a small little world. Name’s Larry Jenkins,” I said. I reached out my hand, but realizing his were still a little wet and we were standing in a public men’s room, I pulled it back.
“Now why do I know that name.”
“Well, I was a football player of some renown, once,” I said.
“No, that’s not it. I don’t follow football,” he said.
“I give speeches now, maybe you’ve heard me give a presentation,” I said.
“No, I don’t think so. Haven’t seen anything like that. Nope,” he said.
“Ever buy a used Toyota?”. I laughed.
He gave me a quizzical look, nervously laughed and shook his head No.
“Guess I’m mistaken,” he said. “By the way, my name’s Whiteapple, Claude Whiteapple. Work for the beverage distributorship out of Florence. Used to own my own, but I got messed up in a nasty divorce and had to sell out. Ex-wife, backstabbing girlfriend and all. But I get by now. Found Jesus, you might say.”
“Uh, pleased to meet you, Claude,” I said. I tried not to look too startled, like I was looking off a safety to hit a post pattern. “I hang out in a lot of hotel bars in my travels. Maybe we crossed paths in one of them.”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it,” Claude said.
“Well, anyway, I’m sorry I startled you. I should think more about disturbing people when I do that.”
“That’s okay. By the way, what was it you said you do again?” He asked.
“Well, all those things. At least one time or another. These days, mostly I give little talks. Try to help people make sense of their lives. Feel better about themselves,” I said.
“Maybe I should catch one of your speeches. I sure as hell would like to feel better about myself, too,” Claude said.
“You know, Claude, maybe I should listen to myself once in a while, too,” I said.
“Well, I got to get to work. Offload some kegs and such. Put the empties back on board. Looks like I’ll even have time to have lunch today,” he said.
It was then that I figured out my speech. I kinda knew what I was going to do.
“Say, Claude, if you don’t mind, once you get done with your delivery, I’d appreciate it if you’d let an old quarterback sit down and buy you lunch,” I said. “Really, it’s the least I can do.”
“Oh, that’s okay. you’ve got your own business to take care of,” he said.
“Yeah, I do. And that’s one of the reasons I’d like to buy you lunch. It really, really is the least I can do. I’d feel a lot better if you’d say yes,” I said.
“Well, okay. Sure, where you want to eat? There’s a Shonee’s down the road,” he said.
“I was thinking the hotel restaurant,” I said.
“But I’m all sweaty and in my uniform and all,” he said.
“Don’t worry about that. They like me here and you’re my special guest today. Helped me make my presentation, figure out something,” I said.
“Okay, gimme about 30 minutes,” Claude said. “Appreciate it, uh, Larry.”
This time he extended his hand. I gripped it and gave it a good shake.
“Great. What I have to do won’t take all that long. Meet you outside the restaurant,” I said.
Claude left and then it was my turn to look in the mirror. I gave that guy in there a weak smile.
“Curtain down, curtain up,” I said, tugging my zipper.
I walked across the hall and stood in the back of the hall. I spotted Audrey Whiteapple and a couple of other familiar faces in the audience. I found this kind of interesting because they had all begun to look alike. Mostly white faces looking for someone to tell them they’re okay and everything’s going to all right. I never really believed that, but I had to do something to make a living. To stay in the arena, too.
Clarissa Beauregard, the woman who booked me for today, waved from the front of the room. I smiled, waved back, and walked up the side and stood while she introduced me. Old friend Larry Jenkins, blah-blah, University of South Carolina, blah-blah, same old same old.
Amid clinking teaspoons splattering terrible hotel coffee on white tablecloths and a smattering of indifferent applause, I approached the microphone, put on my confident face and took a deep breath. It felt just like it would in a huddle when everything could fall apart if I did. Confidence, smarts and BS, my stock in trade.
“Thank you for that lovely intro and greeting,” I said.
“You know, I was prepared to give a different talk today when I arrived here. Well, not too different since I only have a few that I give. Been giving them for years now. Gotten pretty tired of them, actually. Whatever.”
The clinking stopped and there was silence in the room.
“And when Vern Tarwater told me I’d be speaking to two different groups at once today–two way different groups–I figured I could slide something past you all. It’s what I do. Been doing it since college.”
I could hear whispers.
“So, what can I tell you all that fits this wacky combination of organizations? That was a real quandary for me. By the way, Rhett over there, if you were straight, there’s a real Scarlet over here just made for you and you for her,” I said, gesturing in Audrey’s general direction.
Murmurs. And some indignant gasps. One from the guy in the Rhett Butler costume.
“Now where the was I? Oh, yeah. Something you all can bring home today and give some thought and meaning to your day. Maybe even your lives.”
“Okay, let’s make this short and sweet. I got some things I really got to do today and for my tomorrows and I don’t want to waste our time gassing about beating Florida or self-reliance or lying to you or ourselves. That’s what I’ve been doing for something like ten or so years. The years as empty as the message,” I said.
Clarrisa stood up and began walking over toward me, a concerned look on her face. I put up my hand like a traffic cop and mouthed “It’s okay, hon.”
“So, what can old Larry say to you all? What can I say to you the divorcee and your sometimes sad colleagues? And how about you, the dude with the shiny hair, and all your antebellum loving friends? Is there something to be said even for the washed up football player who never grew up feel like life is worth the effort of getting up in the morning, facing all those slings and arrows that may be huge but probably are just little annoyance piled one on top of the other?”
“Get with it, Larry,” I heard from the back.
“Right, once again I’ve put off the big decision, the big moment, until it’s almost too late. And that’s today’s message, boys and girls. No matter how bad or stupid or upsetting your life is, life goes on. More than likely, you’ll get over it. You may not see that now, because you’ve got your head up in some clouds or down on your chest. I know that because I’ve had my head in both places. Up my ass, too, I guess.
“There’s an old football coach over in Dalzell who taught me everything I know about the game and about life. He’s forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know. I just forgot all of that other stuff because I thought I knew it all already. I’ve been pretty sad about most of the decisions I’ve made and the way I thought life had shit all over me. Loser, huh? But he’s never given up on me because he knows that tomorrow’s always gonna be there. There’s always gonna be another chance to get off the turf, to make things right, to feel better if you want to, make someone happy, maybe even yourself.”
Things got quiet again.
“So, kind people, this will be my last little speech of this type. And it will probably be the first one I actually believed, myself. Um, what’s the thing I want you to think about when you leave here? Hmmm, thought about that and couldn’t come up with anything too profound. Most profound people and their profound statements are just more bullshit,” I said.
I was losing it for sure. Rambling but learning something with every crazy word. It was like I was looking in that mirror and seeing myself as something more than a fallen jock and loser car seller and a gas bag salesman of Larry Jenkins, defective product. A different guy but the same one at the same time.
“So what thought can ol’ Larry leave you with today? I wish I had more time to think of something really cool, but, like I said, I got some things I gotta do. I owe it to you nice folks who had to put up with my silliness. You’re an interesting crowd, my last one. So he goes,” I said.
Shamelessly, I smiled at the combined groups and said, “Tomorrow is another day.” And then I walked out of the room. I thought I heard some applause when I reached the hallway.
I pulled my cellphone from my pocket as I squinted across the street at the big hotel where the restaurant was. Claude was standing outside, looking a little nervous, not knowing what to expect next. That made two of us.
I punched in the numbers and after four rings I heard, “Hello, Coach Jenkins.”
“Hi, Dad, it’s Larry. You still looking for an offensive coordinator/QB coach? I can be there tomorrow.”
Okay, here’s story #9 of the Story-A-Day slog. Today’s was supposed to be an Ugly Duckling story, which this may be if you squint really hard. But not really completing the Cinderella Story job yesterday bothered me. So here’s the story of a guy who was a swan/prince, tried and failed a few times and ended up a loser and ugly duckling in his own mind, only to eventually figure out he was supposed to be a different bird, but still a prince, all the time.