“The ancient sport of Teams-Fighting-Over-
An-Inflated-Bladder dragged itself
up into some kind of Bronze Age
with the appearance of this odd game.”
W.D. (“Old Man”) Petersunn
“A Fan’s History of Drifterball” Seahawk Books, Seattle, WA. (1991)
Even some who hate the game might go so far as to admit that American Football is a hideously complex activity. It has many strict rules of behavior governing the heat of battle, a Byzantine tangle of rules which – despite appearances – is designed to make slower and safer an activity whose pursuit is mayhem. Several scholarly students of contemporary life have gone so far as to pronounce football – because of its complexity – the most advanced of sports. The average drifterball fan would tell you, although maybe not in these words, that an even better case can be made that American Drifterball is more complex and therefore more advanced. Chester knew the game and he knew that the men who played it were smarter than they looked and here before him was The Changer, The Man, he who had singlehandedly brought the Midden Ravens to the Ultra-Super in a pageant of municipal victories only equalled by much larger cities and then had won the Big One, had therefore set them all up in the pantheon of American sports history.
Oddly, there was a kind of woundedness about Jim Rook; he appeared to be a man older than his years – which had to be still under fifty – a man limping from the impacts of all the hits he had taken upon himself; a ragtag child of the Squilimuk Reservation and scarce alumnus of Beaverteeth Union High and a poor Indian kid who had made more than good, who had for a moment enfolded Midden (and therefore Beaverteeth) into the ample bosom of the Greater Nation. Chester would never forget the picture of Jim Rook on the cover of Sports Illustrated, blood streaming down his face, the groggy look in those eyes that even in pain signalled that the enemy was doomed, that now we were getting serious. Jim Rook was a hero, for better or worse. You’ve heard of Jim Rook whether you think you have or not. Who better to be the Grand Marshall of Chester’s parade than this massive figure of conflicting dreams and American hopes? His choice for Queen of the Parade, now that was different. There was no one for Chester but Rosie Everlasting.
“Rosie Everlasting,” he said confidentially, “has already agreed to be our Queen. And you know, big guy, she was the one who suggested that I approach you. Isn’t that something?”
It was something. In fact, it was a lie. But Chester felt he was in a fight for his life, given the twisted maze of Jim Rook’s eyes. And here was another surprise. Rook suddenly was interested. He threw back his scotch and another appeared from the hand of a watchful bartender.
“Fuck,” he stated carefully. “Rosie Everlasting? Do you know her?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, she used to be married to my little brother,” beamed Chester.
In fact, Mitchell and Rosie had been married but a few blocks away from the Ebb Tide, up on the hill above the city. Why Mitchell had married Rosie Everlasting at the Midden Club, instead of down in Hollywood where they both belonged, had always been a mystery to Chester. He remembered the wedding, the doomed ceremony. Mitchell had worn a complete tie-dye outfit with hair to his shoulders and the bride a fringed buckskin, mini-skirted outfit with very high boots and a drape of lace, mantilla-like, cascading down to the ground, through which her wonderful nipples showed. The minister was a guy from Tacoma with even longer hair who proclaimed during the ceremony that pieces of paper were only good for the toilet and he had pressed the wedding paperwork to his actual asshole in what had to be the most memorable part of the ceremony. Rosie Everlasting had sung and played her big old guitar – a specially composed song about, as Chester recalled, freeing the People from the Oppressive Pigs of Commerce – and he had thought his heart would break with happiness and distraction, he had loved Rosie so, even though she was marrying his little brother. The local swines of commerce and the other older friends of Honeyacres who had gathered in the musty old rooms overlooking the city and the bay had not been happy with any of it. He supposed that had been the point, actually. Mitchell had seldom been back up here since that long-ago idiot wedding and Rosie never.
“You know,” said Jim Rook meditatively, “I’ve always figured that it would be best to fuck Rosie Everlasting from behind.” He had a serious look on his face and addressed both the blonde babes as if discussing some shared technical knowledge. Chester was shocked, in spite of himself.
“See? She looks like she wants it from behind,” he said. “All white bitches with big teeth and high heels like to get down on their hands and knees and take it up the rear.” Both blondes nodded sagely. Neither of them had any idea who was being talked of, although they certainly understood the direction of penetration. They were too young, these babes, to even know who Rosie Everlasting was.
“Geeze, Honeyacre,” said Jim Rook meditatively. “So you know Rosie Everlasting.”
Chester was not sure he liked any of this, but then Jim Rook cleared a barstool of one tough-looking blonde and in a decidedly friendly manner made Chester actually sit down and not hover and when, as if on command, the blonde draped herself over Chester’s knee, he suddenly knew that all was well. His amazing luck had held. It just showed how famous Rosie Everlasting was, because most people wouldn’t have expected that a man like Jim Rook would even know her name.
But then, a lot of people, even in this country, still don’t know what drifterball is. It is a sport largely derived from American Football, but that alone had not elevated it into the consciousness of the Nation. In football, the quarterback usually issues offensive instructions in a kind of code, shouting to his team or broadcasting to them with the new in-helmet microphones. Drifterball expands that simple technology into an entire sport in and of itself. However so, despite its recently lucrative TV contracts and growing popularity, it is still seen as a regional phenomenon throughout most of the nation, as stock car racing will probably be condemned forever as an eccentricity of the deep South. Drifterball is something Western and therefore new, unstable and suspect to people in the older parts of the country.
Nevertheless, drifterball presents the spectator with all of the considerable attractions of football – running, hitting, catching, throwing, falling down, pain, fear, courage and the like – with the addition of a spectacularly expanded use of language, basic acting and theatrical skills and – most important – the use of tools. The “rifles” of the defensive secondaries – which hurl projectiles as well as catch them – have their well-documented origins in lacrosse sticks and can certainly be classified as tools, much more so than hockey sticks, for instance. (This tie to lacrosse may help explain the rapid spread of the game through small colleges of the Northeast in the early ’70s, colleges such as Bowdoin, Amherst, LaGrange, Middlebury, Oberlin and even Princeton.) The Longbows carried by the “wideouts” (Right Old Woman and Left Old Woman) on offense are the same, although the impossibility these days of ever getting off a shot with the five yard no-bump rule in effect threatens to change the character of the passing game. Played at every educational level including colleges and universities, finding its most complex form at the professional level in the National Drifterball League, American Drifterball seems to have started as a kind of joke among small colleges of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970’s, perhaps as an academic response to a culture fast becoming inured to the various violences of the Vietnam War, the race riots of the late 1960’s and the peculiar psychological extremeties of the Watergate affair and the resulting resignation of Richard M. Nixon as President. At any rate, it is first seen played in a rowdy series of contests between Cormorant State College in Olympia, Washington and tiny Lutheran Academy College of Shakespeare, Oregon.
The Drifter is, of course, William Alfred Lord Petersunn’s classic novel of the American West. This epic of emigration and betrayal, beloved by generations of Westerners, is the story of the mysterious and noble Drifter and his tragic end, his friend, the Old Timer, Frypan the cook, Indian Jack, the Schoolmarm, The Old Woman, the Kid, the Angel, his disembodied Father, the evil Foreman and the Ghost Ranch that was “as big as the sky.” In print since 1888, “The Drifter” was now legend, a familiar tale etched into the consciousness of a nation. Its adaptation into a sport is a tale best told elsewhere, but it must have somehow seemed an obvious mutation in the little colleges of the West to a pot-smoking generation relatively free of the heebie-jeebies threatening today’s frightened young people, pursued as they are by sexual disease and a terror of failure that has largely replaced the old-fashioned fear of the military draft.
Drifterball was originally intended, in its professional form, to comprise a league of the dispossessed, those smaller cities that could not otherwise hope to acquire the franchises of the major football, basketball or baseball leagues. These are places such as Fresno and Stockton in California; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Burlington, Vermont; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Midden and Spokane in Washington State; Eugene in Oregon; Erie, Pennsylvania; Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada; Richmond, Virginia; Portland, Maine and so forth. Hitting – that is, blocking and tackling – are much the same as experienced in professional football. The average drifterball combatant, like his better-paid football equivalent, weighs well over two hundred and twenty pounds and can run the length of a football field (which is the same size exactly as a drifterball field) in under ten seconds in full gear. This in itself is quite a feat when you consider that a straight path is impossible in drifterball, the field being encumbered with the large movable “sets” that make up the eerie physical world of the Drifter.
The oddest thing about drifterball is, of course, the “skull.” It takes the place of the ball in football. It is the object of desire, the marker of place, of advance or of retreat, the status of life, the benchmark, the key element in The Drifter where it becomes the most powerful symbol in the piece:
“Where is the lips that smiled with that there joke? Gone now, as gone as the life that once was in this here old empty bone.”
(from The Drifter,
by William Alfred Petersunn,
authorized NDL competition
script (The Spalding Co., Lexington, KY)
It is, in fact, a reasonable representation of a human skull fashioned from plastic, weighted in its core, wrapped like a baseball in strands of rubber and covered with white leather. It can be thrown surprising distances accurately, as evidenced by the 1989 Ultra-Super when Jim Rook threw a still-standing record of four scoring over-sixty-yard tosses in under three minutes while at the same time negotiating the “Oh, What A Louse and Common Farmer I Am” sequence to bring the Ravens back to a tie with the Athens, (Ohio) Fighting Squatters in the game that no one in Midden will ever forget.
So it should have come as no real surprise to Chester that Jim Rook was a fan of Rosie Everlasting. There is a bond between show business and drifterball stronger than any between Hollywood and other sports, and although Jim Rook’s post-playing theatrics were limited to a couple of appearances on cop shows and one memorable lost weekend junket to host “Saturday Night Live” in New York, he had for some years been a fixture of dinner theaters and theaters-in-the-round, hacking his way through “Ring Around The Mattress” and “The Love Trap” all over the country. These had not been easy years for him, he was quick to let Chester know. Guys half his age were pretending to hit people with their fists on the big screen for money but the goddamn fairies in Hollywood couldn’t take a real Indian if he didn’t have a long wig and glycerin tears in his eyes.
One of the tough young blondes asked Jim a question about Hollywood. She was a sexy little bitch, this one. Her eyes were riveted on the big man’s scarred face, her little pink hand had been occasionally dropping down to feel the stunning collection of rings and diamonds on his big twisted fingers.
“They’re a bunch of goddamn assholes down there,” said Jim Rook pleasantly. “They’re race-prejudice assholes, too. They’ll take some Nazi with big pecs over anyone else. They wouldn’t hardly give nothing to Egypt Washington because he’s a coon. Hell, I’m part coon, too, when I think about it. I think that’s why my knees hurt so damn much.”
Someone asked him about how much he hurt.
“It’s not the hits, not the physical pain so much that gets me these days, although I still have a lot of pain just walking because of the knees. It’s the damn words.” He had changed, thought Chester. Now he spoke as if on a talk show. He seemed humble and nice even though there was a distinct air of sexual conquest about him.
“Gee,” said the littlest blonde. “I always thought you were the very best of the guys at the actin’ part,” she said. “You were sexy.”
He abruptly put one big hand between her legs, under her skirt, and, standing, picked her up by her vagina with the one hand and lifted her completely off the floor and with the other he palmed each of her breasts in turn, rubbing the suddenly erect nipples that poked through the thin material of her top as if to make them bigger and more electric. The blonde shrieked, whether with fear or genuine pleasure at being thus the center of attention, Chester could not be sure. Jim Rook widened his eyes and a Harpo-like look of bemused mischief enveloped his big face. The whole bar erupted with joy at this, the expected kind of behavior from Rook. He held the blonde for a moment like this, like a guitar.
“Ok, ok,” she said. “Put me DOWN, Jim,” she shrieked. He didn’t for a moment, just stared down at her. Then he set her on her high-heeled feet.
“Big nipples,” he said cheerfully. “Wet pussy.” Everyone laughed. He sat back down.
“The goddamn words go through my head still,” he continued. He ignored the women now and talked to the other men in the group as if this were a meeting of men, with something almost official about it. Chester, in particular, seemed to be his locutor.
“Sometimes in the middle of the night, Honeyacre, I’ll bolt straight upright and I’ll be yelling in my fucking sleep, swear to God.” He looked at Chester with a spiritual and thoughtful cast to his huge eyes. He seemed to be the sort of person whom Oprah might ask out for a drink after the show.
“Yelling what?” said Chester.
“Oh, you know. Like, oh, you know, the famous part where the Drifter yells “Old man, get away from me! I ain’t as dead as you!”
For a moment, although he was barely talking above a whisper in a voice whose larynx had been shattered repeatedly, (it having been the strategy in his playing days for defensive players to target the organs of speech of drifterbacks, who can be removed from a game by the officials if they cannot fulfill all the requirements of the infamous Rule 15, the so-called “Acting Rule.”) Chester could feel the power of those words as they are heard over the huge stadium sound systems that are such an integral part of pro drifterball. The blonde had melted against Rook again, she put her arm around his massive thigh.
“And shit,” he said, “at the same time I’d be seeing Egypt Washington or Big Jim Thork from the Outside Foreman spot in the trading post rolling out ready to knee-chop me with the longbows or trap-tackle me on the blindside like they used to do in the Midwest division in the early Eighties. The words, though. They give me the fuckin’ cold chills still.”
Men who were listening nodded sagely. This was the inside stuff. Also, this kind of talk seemed to have its desired effect. Both blondes were now caressing Jim Rook’s broken hands, long pink nails occasionally clicking against each other’s. Chester’s blonde had short hair, butched on top, and several odd skin problems, but he was excited anyway because she kept her rump on his lap even though she was obviously only interested in Rook.
Later, as part of what would be a memorably drunken evening, Chester thought to buy the four of them – the two tough little blondes and Jim Rook and himself – several rounds of drinks as well as, remembering Witchy Jim, a gram of cocaine. The coke was obtained thanks to the opportune appearance of an old high school friend who dealt still although he now confessed at two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, went to work at Harbor Opportunity Realty in a suit and tie, greying and portlying and hoping like hell that his estranged kids weren’t doing drugs, even marijuana, and Chester believed him and he said he knew Chester was good for the money. The cocaine was moderately priced and probably excellent, if Chester’s memory of younger days served, since Big Jim did it all up and didn’t even offer Chester or the girls any. In the men’s room with Chester, he leaned against the door and took the little folded paper packet delicately with his twisted fingers and, staring Chester right in the eyes, held it twice to each nostril and so inhaled its entire contents. Chester didn’t bat an eye. He smiled and said that he was high on life, which was more or less true although it made Jim laugh. A man with an entire gram of cocaine speeding to his brain had better laugh, thought Chester.
“I’m gonna fuck both those blonde bitches, Honeyacre. So I’ll tell you when to go away.” The big man fell out the door.
He stuck his head back in.
“Honeyacre, you and me are going to Hollywood to see your big-shot brother,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “You buy the tickets and you make it happen tomorrow or I won’t be in your fucking parade. Besides, there is no fucking parade.” He stared into Chester’s eyes. Chester couldn’t tell if he really knew anything or not.
He disappeared again. Chester leaned against one of the wash basins. His hand hurt, but he was drunk and moving toward his goals, whatever they were. Every once in a while a rush of inside wind would sweep across his mind and he would see, for a second, somewhere inside his head, a world of luminous neon dots and mystery trains and little cowboys. In front of him, the door to one of the battered toilets opened. Sitting on the toilet inside was Baxter, fully clothed and seething and he was holding a pistol and pointing it at Chester. There was a ring of dried blood, like lipstick, lined around his lips.
“Hah. I’ve got you now, Honeyacre you son of a bitch. Cocaine. I recorded it on my little thin little cellphone.” With his other hand he gleefully showed Chester the little video eye.
“And we’ve got attempted murder. You tried to kill me because you went crazy at how bad I kicked the shit out of you in the divorce settlement. I’ve made notes on my portable recorder and I dubbed off a copy on the dubbing unit in my car and I dropped one copy off with someone who knows who to email if I don’t show up or if I’m found floating face down in Naked Lake tomorrow.”
“Oh, God,” moaned Chester.
“That’s right, pal. Also, if you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a gun.”
“So what?” snarled Baxter. “Would I be any less dead? Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes, I get what you’re saying. Listen, I’m sorry I hit you.”
“You’re going to get a whole lot sorrier. Was that really Jim Rook?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Gee,” said Baxter. “Wow. He’s meant a lot to me. So. Are you really going to Hollywood with Jim Rook to see your brother?”
“If you don’t shoot me.”
“Listen, I won’t shoot you – how’s that? – if you take me down there tomorrow too. You see, I’ve written a screenplay.”
He’d written a screenplay.
“You’ve written a screenplay,” Chester said it not as a question. He had a feeling of completeness about him suddenly. He was back in charge.
“You’re kidding,” he said. “Why don’t you put the gun away and let’s go meet Jim and have a drink and we’ll talk about your screenplay which I’d guess is damn good, if you can write as well as you can lawyer and track and hunt and threaten and ruin other people’s lives.” Chester felt a whole lot better, especially when Baxter put the little pistol in his windbreaker pocket. Baxter was sort of giggling now.
“Yeah, yeah!” he chanted to himself, encouraging himself in the horrible mirror, cheering himself on. He pulled out a toothbrush from another pocket and hurriedly scrubbed at his teeth and the red ring around his mouth.
The door was pushed open and Chester recognized one of the greaseball kids from the Hiball Tavern, the one he could have guessed owned the terrifying Blazer.
“Hey,” the kid said. “Ok?”
“Ok, ok, fine, fine,” muttered Baxter, waving him out, straightening up, wiping the blood from his lips. “Yeah, yeah!” he repeated to himself.
And that’s when the mysterious fire started next door out on the old abandoned Petersunn Timber Company dock. Everyone had to rush out of the Ebb Tide and in the confusion Chester lost track of Jim Rook but got away from Baxter and – most unfortunately – never saw the one of the two tough blondes who was holding onto his gaze a little longer than was necessary for a girl who was ostensibly going to fuck Jim Rook as well as her girlfriend all night long. Chester got his little car out first, moving at a dead run as the flames licked at the piles of stacked lumber and quickly consumed the old buildings. Down below, the sea seemed to boil around the hot pilings. The fireboats were there in a flash and every fire unit in the area, but everything was gone by the next morning except the pilings themselves. The town smelled of wet charcoal for a year.
It was hardly noticed by the area newspapers the next day that the Stick Mountain had suffered a brief explosion of superheated steam and hydrogen sulphide from above the Elk Potato Meadow campground resulting in no damage but disturbing the fitful sleep of the volcanologists. Later, Chester noticed that the Hiball Tavern had also suffered a conflagration in its greasy little kitchen that same night. According to the Beaverteeth Register – a weekly paper – there was no one near the grease cookers which had seemed to explode and burn by themselves. There were no reported customers in the place and no mention of trouble beyond the fire. Chester was relieved but mystified as well. Had he acquired some kind of incendiary attachment in Baxter? Or were all these conflagrations – as Shirley Anne had seemed to predict – some harmonic ringing of the Mountain itself, seething inside, burning up, ready to melt its glaciers and send its muds plowing and burning down into a valley whose tinder was already dry and whose arsonists worked unconsciously, out in the dark fields of the mind? Chester did not dare to think too much about it. Besides, he had bigger troubles, immediate troubles. As he drove carefully back to Beaverteeth that night, he wondered briefly if the Blazer was following him. When he stopped the car and switched off his lights and waited, the head-lights that were some distance behind him disappeared and did not overtake. He got scared then. He fired up the car and didn’t turn on his lights and sped as fast as he could toward home, such as it was.