I certainly never dreamed for my son to turn into a sports star. Yet by the end of our first summer in Louisiana, he said that he actually would like to be a football player, not an artist. He was bewildered that I could imagine that anything was better than football. Oh, my God! He threatened my dreams of making him an artist of the future, a builder of new worlds! But then I dismissed his foolish idea. What can he say at his tender age? When I was like him I wanted to be a tractor driver. Children. Bubble heads.We had sportsmen all over in our country. Perhaps I didn’t like them because I liked books and our dictator didn’t. He liked medals. Let us show the world what our muscles can do! Sportsmen were pulled out of schools in order to get us medals. So they graduated automatically. You really didn’t want them to open their mouths and spoil the glamour of victory, so dumb they were! It doesn’t seem that different here. Just turn on your TV, as I briefly did, and get a local sample of brightness. An LSU football player’s declaration, “Man, I feel confident we’ve put a good game plan together, and if we go out there and play hard for 60 minutes, we’re gonna win. It’s fun to be in the hunt,” said Mr. Adrenaline Junky. “It’s fun to have success.”
When I moved on the LSU campus, we passed by the Tiger Stadium, a monster of a building. A gray wasps’ nest. My friend warned me that, “It will be madness when the football season starts. People drive thousands of miles to watch the football games. They come a day in advance and tailgate: settle down on sidewalks or in the parking lots, all around the campus, place their picnic tables, chairs, TV sets and barbecue grills, and talk about football with their friends while eating hot-dogs and fried chicken. The whole place will smell of mustard and barbecue sauce,” she said, smiling disgustedly. It seemed pitiful that one would entertain in such manner. Not much of a life... “Why would Frontiersmen stand a whole day under the hot sun or in foul weather on a gray dreary parking lot?! I thought Americans loved comfort and nature!” “Well, a long time ago they had picnics under the immense oak trees, but they harmed the tree roots, so they were cornered only on the paved areas.”
I saw the football players almost every week-day when I came from school. They were coming out through the stadium gate, inscribed: “THROUGH THIS GATE PASSES THE ALL-AMERICAN GOLDEN BAND FROM TIGERLAND.” Jingoistic.
The All-Americans were walking like cats with their paws glued in nutshells by bad kids. Their bumpy soles made a musical tin roof rain rap. Disheveled, their shoulder pads hanging topsy-turvy, their shoes with hanging tongues and shoe laces, sweaty and dead tired, dragging their helmets and sacks, almost tumbling towards their three TIGER buses, they made a funny sight. I was puzzled to see the mascot of LSU, lazy Mike the Tiger, across from them, always sleeping on his back and exposing his vulnerable white belly. Strange behavior for a predator. On weekends we crossed the campus to my office or to the library, we inched our way through the picturesquely purple and golden dressed crowd in front of the stadium. It was bizarre to bump into a stylish elderly lady in a faded purple silk suit, with a long scarf, smoking graciously in front of the stern English Department building, her aged companions cooking on a smoky barbecue. Perhaps their grandson was in the LSU team, and he fought for loads of money. Covered his tuition fee, perhaps, so they dressed up like that to show the young brave man some support! There were always face painters drawing Tiger Mike’s left or right paw, or his supposedly ferocious grin, plus a quaint “LSU” for two bucks. Once Alex got a paw for free from his teacher, who installed her painting shop in front of the stadium gates. I was embarrassed that a teacher was so underpaid that she worked part time as a paw painter. Faraway, or near us, spontaneous shouts of “LSU! LSU! LSU!” would gain momentum. Serious looking adults would rally and raise their tight fists into the air chanting, “Get Tough! Get Tough! Get Tough!” They would look excitedly into each other’s eyes and head towards the gates in compact platoons.
Some were holding placards asking for two, or four, even six tickets. Scalpers made a fortune, perhaps even $100 apiece. I was surprised to hear that it was illegal here. At home we always had scalpers and it was humiliating to buy from them, but what else could you do, if you wanted to get in?! They were hand in hand with the box office clerks and maybe policemen, so you were at their mercy. One Saturday morning I woke up not knowing where I was: a ubiquitous amplified voice, strong and calm, like a shrink’s or God’s in heavens, was saying rhythmically, “Ladies to the left... Men to the right... Ladies to the left... Men to the right... Ladies to the left...” “So this is how The Resurrection is run,” I thought. “Very methodical. But why would God separate us?! Maybe this is Auschwitz, and we are heading towards the furnaces. Where am I? Oh! No! This is the football game! In the evening cars visibly multiplied around our apartment complex, and tents mushroomed. There must be so many that they needed an organizer to get them in orderly lines in front of the loos!” I got up and asked my neighbor about it. She said that actually it was some warm up athletic contest, running or jumping… For the whole day the loudspeaker kept us informed of everything that happened on the stadium. It was funny to hear the announcer as if he was in my room while I was trying to read my Forms of Fiction theorists, about getting in and out of the story, signs of fictionality, the ontological gap, texture, linearity, periodicity, closure, and spatiality of the short story.
From then on we had the same experience almost every weekend. Still, when friends would say sympathetically, “It must be horrible on game days,” I would answer them, “No, it’s not. It’s overwhelming to hear the roar of the crowd, the voice of the commentator, the music. I’m thrilled when they are elated! Their shouts are like a wave of warm, delicious excitement that engulfs you. At first you don’t want it, but then you regret it goes away.” The joy of the voice in the loudspeaker, trumpeting his well rounded “Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal!”s. Their savage happiness was ravishing! A friend said this is a marvelous country. He was referring to the football commentator I heard when the game started, saying, “L-S-UU! Are-you-reee-dy?” and the crowd yelled, “Yeeeees!” “L-S-UUU! Are-you-reeeea-dy?” and the crowd yelled, “Yeeeees!” and then he said, “Then let’s roooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool in!” This is all that this gentleman lives on. He patented these lines and intonation and he got rich. All he does now is to fly wherever LSU plays and simply say his, “L!…S!… UUUU!… Are-youuuu-reeeea-dy?”
My friend said I should look closer at myself, maybe patent something about me before it was too late. Because it was unbelievably how Americans see the hidden value, the potential, yes, the po-tential, and turn it into gold. “Maybe someone wants to copy your smile,” he said, “without paying the rights. Your accent. After you patent it you should work on it. Even from now in twenty years when you would have long forgotten Romanian, your cute accent should be brushed upon, because people love it.” “Yeah,” I smirked, “like Chinese girls who incarcerated their feet in tiny wooden shoes in order to keep them girlishly small forever, physically incapacitating themselves, becoming desirably weak.” Anyway, since everybody said that in order to understand America I had to go to a football game, and since my son would be a sports star, I tried to figure out how to get a football ticket honorably. I was told they were sold out one semester in advance. I would have used my Hungarian press pass in the end, hoping it would work, or put an ad at the laundry room billboard, when Alex, the future sports star, found a ticket on the lawn in front of our apartment. Mind you, it was the last home game of the season. Faced with this divine decision, I canceled a meeting and the laundry washing, and was ready to go to see the football game. Then Alex disappeared and came back beamingly with no ticket and one dollar bill in hand. He told me happily that he had sold the ticket for the huge sum of $1 to Mr. Jim. I told him furiously to take me to this cheap cheater, child exploiter.
Mr. Jim was watching TV in front of his apartment while preparing the obligatory barbecue. He was giggling and brought the ticket back under my silent eyes of wrath making cute baby talk with Alex, “I’ve asked you, haven’t I, if you really wanted to sell it, haven’t I?” “You could have offered him the official price, at least!” I said icily. Ticket and umbrella in hand we left him behind. It was almost the intermission. We were walking on the empty, so empty now street. Only a man in front of the stadium was calling loudly, “Tickets for sale! Tickets for sale!” But we already had ours. At the gate we saw there was a sign saying, “No umbrellas! No alcohol!” so we hid the umbrella, made a sheepish face when the ticket inspector told me, “Next time buy a ticket for your son!” and we headed through the long, winding corridors towards the yelling crowd.
When I entered the amphitheater I was stunned. I had reawakened into the Roman Empire! The immensity of the walls, the bustle of thousands of bodies, heads, the waves of shouting were amazing.
Looking at them, I poignantly thought, “Maybe this is my country! How full of life they are! They are alive! They are not trampled upon! They shout! They shout up to the skies! I know why they shout! I lived this before! I’ve yearned for this every day! I miss the theater stage! I miss my Transylvanian hills and forests and wide horizons and valleys and the shouting of my childhood! Of yelling my joy to the huge blue sky! I know you are there! I know you can hear me! I know you love me! Don’t tease me! Show up! Oh! Show up, before I grab you from behind the clouds! Are you behind the sun? That’s not nice of you! Come play with me! Dance with me!” I have been in the crowd of a revolution and I won't ever forget it. It was strangely the same. People were exhilarated. We felt love for each other. We belonged to a community. We were powerful. We were one in all and all in one. I had never been to a Romanian football game. We had a stadium uphill in my hometown and its pagan celebrations on game days reverberated down to our busy home, but we never went because mother said only drunks go there and they always end up beating each other with empty beer bottles. Someone yelled my name, “Smaranda! Smaranda! What on earth are you doing here?!” Here was, unavoidably planted in front of us, my distinguished colleague in fiction writing, Amadeus McAmara, who driven by his sports enthusiasm felt inclined to do the honors of the house. “Damn it! The Fiction Writing Workshop is everywhere!” He insisted, “Stick with me, because up in the G sector,” where my seat was, “You’ll get your heads smashed with beer bottles and anyway the best seats are next to me because they are reserved,” he said conspiratorially. A plastic mug landed in front of me, luckily on an empty chair. “And,” he told me cockily, “You don’t sit at a football game!” “But which are your seats?” “I have none! We snuck in. We’ve been at every single game and we always sneak in from up there, see the top of the stadium? We always come in a hurry and tell the gate-keeper, ‘Oh! My cousin from Chicago arrived before us, and he has the tickets!’ This time we just ran,” and he moved his flexed arms like old train wheel pistons. Red and golden patches made of bodies were waving in front of my amazed eyes, while Amadeus was telling me hurriedly, and I wasn’t sure if not drunkenly, about his new “fucking” love for football, thanks to his moving to Louisiana. “This is what American people love! There are 80,545 people in this stadium! Can you imagine that?” “Okay.” Walls of human bodies. Trepidation. The vanguard brass band and the majorettes minimally dressed like golden gymnasts highlighting their curves. Finally when the musicians, a bunch of pimply kids really, left the field they passed by us, blocking the vendors' retreat, who were hanging their tired arms on the fences in front of us. The trombone funnel was large enough to swallow a fat majorette, head first, and while she would shake becomingly her naked legs in the rhythm of LSU march in the air, the trombonist pulling her out turned into purple and gold sausages through the trombone mouthpiece and rounding them up on a purple and golden tray as Majorette Sausage in Crisp Golden Crust, thus increasing the sale vendors, who instead of selling those dull LSU Tiger T-shirts—the aforementioned lazy Mike Tiger poking his head through a white bed sheet while his master is pulling his tail behind it—and Tiger Tongues sandwiches—made out of two unkempt tiger paws clamped on a sickly green tiger tongue—would make a bundle by selling Majorette Sausage in Crisp Golden Crust. Amadeus, rolling his eyes to the guy behind us, whispered in my ear, “He’s hollered like Tarzan all through the first part, the wilderness yell. During the intermission too!” I was half seated on the back of a chair for the last minutes. Alex was comfortable. Amadeus held him tightly while they made all kinds of male bonding gestures with their hands, like knitting or talking in sign language, together with the entire crowd. A big tough guy dressed in black overalls, displaying a shaved skull and radio reporting paraphernalia was sternly and solitarily measuring the crowd from his privileged spot on the green field.
Two sturdy men carrying huge plastic cups filled with ice cubes and a splash of coke walked by us. They had showy plastic tigers as helmets, something like upside down potties. They didn’t return my amused smile. They were tough. “Being a fool in public is serious business. Don't you forget it!” Never mind. Amadeus was eagerly revealing the secrets of American football rules, but I couldn’t concentrate. There was too much to take in. Airplanes dashed above the stadium, like in a computer game. They crazed Amadeus! He told me they were only four because one of the pilots died. Then the sky was abloom with red and orange and purple balloons advertising the Children's Miracle Network. “Call 1-800-MIRACLE!” The cheerleaders were right in front of us. They were unbelievable. They were chanting, “Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough!” and the stadium after them, “Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough!” Oh! The joy of professional enthusiasts. Oh, how those girls could smile erratically! Could they make their mouth ends stick up, up, up and the tiny chimpy eyes aglitter, aglitter, more glitter, as if they were amazed by the amazing, most stunning touchdown they ever witnessed and oh! The way they did their little dance of joy, thrusting their doll fingers up in the sky, lightly performing their risky and strenuous little clockwork ballet routine: their small heels were sustained solely by the right palm of their male cheerer who stood upright, arms raised, turned into a carefree smiling, energetic pedestal. “Enjoy our force and pride.” We love chimps and we love chimps! Cheer up!
“Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough!” The girls twirled in the air and landed on the ground with pinned up smiles.
I don’t know what was going on on the green playfield, because most of the time was spent changing their teams’ position, and when the game would warm up a bit, they would again split, and move about and then again a bit of tempo building up, but then again they rearranged their armies. And all thru it the loud advertising blasted in brief hiccup installments as if they feared that a long sequence would exhaust us, make our hearts explode, so they kept it to super short sentences. Don’t put strain on brains! Brains are not made for thinking! Brains are made for spending money. “Go to this restaurant after the game!” “Take this taxi company’s car back home!” “Donate money for the orphans!”
Then between the publicity bursts again, everybody would scream with the cheerleader’s chant coming from loudspeakers, “Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough!” and get all worked up by the acrobatics of the cheery-bees. There was no hesitation in their movements, so unlike the exhausted awkwardness of immigrant me. They were steady, strong, firm, self-contained, clean like a sharp etching. These people eat tough pears, apples, cabbage, crisp cereals, rocks, and razor blades. Functioning like perfect machines. They seemed to laugh at my undernourished, jittery, awkward deals with the world, What is that scared trembling? Worrying? Fuzziness? Fear? Say no to jittery jellies! The Tigers were running around amock.
Oh! My God! They’re coming towards us! Oh! My Gooooood! Here they come! They've lost their minds! They forgot where they have to run and now come towards us! Loook! They are coming closer and closer! They will break down the fences! My God! How huge they are! Immense flesh in metallic shining shorts, coming, coming, coming nearer, the others stampeding after them! They don’t know what they are doing! They’ve lost control! Now they’ll tumble on us! They’ll tumble on us! These guys are beasts! The one living in the apartment above us one day will push his woman through the ceiling, tumbling their bed, themselves, ceiling plaster, bricks, cement on me! Earthquake! My God! Earthquake! Gnashing! Gnashing! Cracking! Cracking! Booof! Red broad shoulders fall down in a pile, on the edge of the stadium running tracks. More shoulders! Golden! Red! A huddle of them! Pushing! Crashing the enraged buffalo beneath them! Glad they stopped there. What a relief! “Excuse me,” said one of the plastic mask pot-heads, ready to kill me. “This chair is my girlfriend’s!” So I go two chairs further on.
Alex is having a male bonding experience.
I look at the photographers and TV reporter squads, clad in heavy jackets with several pockets containing cameras, mikes, lenses. They flock from one part of the field to the other, following the lumpy football warriors. Poor beggars… I was like them five years before running around on journalistic gigs… “The beauty of it is that these college kids are doing it for fun!” said Amadeus. “They don’t get paid a penny!” “That is strange! These giants are killing each other for our enjoyment?!” The leader of the cheerleaders had a headset, which I always found sexy like a rock star, like Madonna. His voice boomed happy and steady, “Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough! Get tough, Ti- ger! Get tough!” From time to time everybody looked at the electronic board and when the score red figures appeared they would boo or cheer. One of the cheerleaders ran further away and started waving the enormous LSU flag. Others slung T-shirts into the crowd. Mike the Tiger puppet man whacked the Alabama Elephant mascot with a stick until white lumps of cotton littered the tracks. “Get tough! Deeee-fense! Get tough! Get tough! Deeee-fense! Get tough! Get tough! Deeee-fense! Get tough!” LSU was way ahead of Alabama. Yet it wasn’t that spectacular... The Tarzan yeller was indefatigable! My skull was cracking when he yelled again, “Wha-la-la-la-laaaaaaaa! Yah! Yah! Yah!”
It was getting dark, and we were both cold, so I said good-bye to Amadeus and extricated ourselves from the crowd. We trotted home, chanting, “Get tough! Dee-fense! Get tough! Get tough! Dee-fense! Get tough! Get tough! Dee-fense! Get tough!” Alex told Jade, our block bully, that, “I had a ticket to the football game. I will be a defense player!” Some disappointed mooing came from the stadium, but I wasn’t interested in the football game anymore. Some time after, Amadeus passed by our house to make a phone call, have someone pick him up to a writers’ party to discuss over shrimp étouffée, the problems of getting in and out of the story, signs of fictionality, the ontological gap, texture, linearity, periodicity, closure, and spatiality. And above all how to get published. He told me that surprisingly, LSU lost, playing lamely at the end. “Supporters were disappointed to the extreme. They had no reason to lose! ‘LSU Sssssucks!’ moaned the whole stadium!’ ” “This seems very unsportsmanlike to me. They dump you cruelly if you don’t get them their medal!” “Tarzan was foaming! ‘I'll go and beat someone!’ he yelled! ‘Let's go into town and beat someone. Beat the shit out of them!’ It was scary! My God, I never get worked up enough to beat someone up after a game!” Amadeus said, annoyed and intrigued, with sorrowful and indignant round eyes like a chicken whose neck feathers had been plucked. I called my friend and she told me this was the way they were. “Romans. The crowd wants victory. If not, wants blood. Wants to see the lion eating the prisoner. That’s all they want. “My nephew went dressed up as an LSU fan to New Orleans on Halloween last year: he painted half of his face and chest in purple, the other half in golden yellow and wrote 'LSU' across it in large print. He is not an LSU fan. In fact he hates football. It so happened that that day LSU lost. People came to him and booed him, ‘LSU sssucks!’ Then a weirdo came and beat him black-and-blue! The blood thirsty crowd…” We watched TV with Alex later on. They interviewed an LSU player. He was crying. A mere boy. Such a young face. A very unhappy boy. The reporter asked him, not that sympathetically, “But you did all you could do, didn’t you?” and the boy said sobbing, “I didn’t... We lost. If I didn’t lose, I could say I did all I could. But I lost…” Somehow Alex didn’t mention any football career anymore.
He produces his charming drawings assiduously.
Touch down, Smaranda, touch down.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana