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One of the boys.

The tube from the mask over my mouth and nose trails like an umbilical cord to a machine behind me. I can't see it. I can't hear it. But sixteen times minute it puffs oxygen into my lungs. The I.V. clicks and drips, and oxygen hisses through the humidifier. I push the button to raise the bed. The walls are bare. Two men are in the room, old men, with rounded shoulders, gnarled limbs, and shuffling feet. Wearing green and gold jackets with Green Bay emblazoned on the breast and carrying yellow triangles of plastic that look like Swiss cheese, they cough and wipe their rheumy eyes. One of them is my husband; the other has ruined my life. They are a comfort to me. They are a comfort to each other. They move toward me. One of them squeezes my hand, which hurts where the IV needle disappears into a yellowing bruise on my arm. Their lips move and noise drones into the room. One of them leans over--it's my husband--his eyebrows are long and unkempt and his eyes are red-rimmed.

My eyes are open as wide as I can manage. "What are you saying?" they say to him.

"Gloria," he says. "We'll be back soon. After the game."

The other man moves to stand beside him. Nodding, they retreat to the door, and as they walk away they place the yellow triangles on their heads and quicken their pace. They slap each others' shoulders and laugh as they leave, and I can picture John's Ford Fairmont blowing blue smoke all the way from Madison to Lambeau Field.

I close my eyes and we are young again.

John Oblinger was the blocker when my running-back husband rushed a thousand yards back in high school, when helmets were made of leather and Wisconsin stopped for Friday night football. I was a mere sophomore, a distant observer, when they signed up for the army together, crewcut to flat tops and shaved within an inch of their lives, ready to fly from Kenosha to Korea for the ultimate game. When they came back, terse and remote, with eyes like chips of ice, it was John who introduced Mikey Breward to me at the VFW, then retreated to the bar and watched as Mikey, his tongue thawed by Pabst, charmed me into dancing and walked me home, causing my heart to throw itself against my ribs with joy. It was John Oblinger who stood there when we married and who became godfather of the child swelling within me under that white dress and veil, a secret only we three shared. Once we were married, I was Gloria Breward, and Mikey went straight out and got my initials tattooed on his shoulder--in green and gold, of course.

Back when we were still in the glow of our Wisconsin Dells honeymoon, before Mikey Jr. was born, I thought that John would fade away as our own lives filled, as he married and our family grew. But he didn't marry and he certainly didn't fade away. When I brought up the subject, suggesting that maybe we didn't need to see him quite so much, Mikey lifted up his shirt and grabbed my hand. "Do you know what I owe him?" he said. And he turned, running my hand up and down the side of his body, where his chest tapered to the waist, so that my fingers ran over the raised edges of his scar. "If he hadn't pushed me, that sniper would have drilled me right through the heart." He pressed my palm against his chest, spreading my fingers among the matted black coils of hair. "You don't know what it was like." He squeezed my hand until I felt his heart beat louder and faster; his eyes opened wider and stared at me until I felt he didn't even see me, that he was looking at something else. "Do you? Do you know?" His grip on my hand tightened.

"No, Mikey." He shook his head, blinking twice. I pulled my hand free. "You're right. I don't know what it was like."

"Well he does. He was there. He saved my life." Mikey moved away from me, and I heard him pull on his boots and clump along the porch. From the kitchen counter I watched him trail over the hill that rose behind our house, scuffing his feet through long grass, shaking his head, until he disappeared into the stand of pine on the crest of the hill.

He knew what it was like. Who could compete with that?

I tried for a while. I styled my hair like Donna Reed and tried the new Max Factor lipstick. I made meatloaf with Mikey's mother's recipe and waxed the floors until they shimmered like glass. I even introduced John to my single friends--he took Angela Barsch bowling and Steph DeVito to see From Here to Eternity--but it never lasted. He'd always end up back at our house under my feet, offering to help, or crouched over a beer opposite Mikey, muttering, his shoulders rounded, his eyebrows pulled into a single dark line across his face. Together, they'd disappear into the marsh, hunting, to return with a brace of ducks for plucking, or cloister themselves by the fridge in the basement to watch the Green Bay Packers live at Lambeau Field, with the volume up high, the commentator's voice screaming. He'd yell when something happened and their voices would join in like a chorus, until the dark green shadow of the Packers crawled up the stairs and climbed the walls and filled every corner of the house, seeping into the fabric of our lives, filling the space between us.

Then, of course, my limbs thickened and legs bloated with the growing bundle of Mikey Jr.; my patience faded. I sat with my feet up and my hands over my ears most Sunday afternoons, but one day in late December, after I'd put the roast in the oven, I couldn't take it anymore. Standing at the top of the basement stairs, I yelled at them. "Turn that down, please." I could feel my muscles contract as I shouted; blood pulsed in my temples and my face turned red. But my voice was turned away by the rising tide of 50,000 fans and two men drumming empty cans on the table.

I waddled down the stairs. "I said could you turn that down." But all I saw was their identical chairs either side of a football-shaped ashtray clogged with cigarette butts, the table in front of them covered with crumpled cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the backs of their heads as they craned their necks and held their breath.

I leaned on Mikey's chair. "Mikey, hon. Could you turn it down?"

He didn't take his eyes from the black and white screen, which was filled with a close up of a square-jawed man with no front teeth; instead, he turned the palm of his hand toward me.

"Not now," he said. "It's fourth and goal."

John glared at me from the corner of one eye and pulled his seat closer to the television.

"Mikey. Turn it down," I cupped my hands around my mouth like a megaphone. "Just a little?"

Vince Lombardi called a time out and a commercial flickered onto the screen; the Marlboro Man squinted at the three of us from the saddle of his horse, smoke trailing from a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

Mikey jumped from his seat, pivoting, so that he faced me, showing me a man I'd never seen before, his face clenched in fury.

"Jesus, Gloria. Not now." He took a step toward me. "The game's nearly over."

I stepped away from him. Neither of us said anything. It was awkward, with his emotions hanging out like that for everyone to see.

Just as the commercials ended, as he was turning back to his seat, my water broke, gushing from me, pooling at my feet. I said nothing, but his eyes opened wide and he ran to me, stuffing a towel he'd grabbed from the bar between my legs. I crumpled, but he swept my feet from under me, my knight in shining armor once more, and carried me to the stairs, only pausing once to look back over his shoulder to see the winning Green Bay touchdown drive.

"Yes!" he said, and I'd really like to think it was because he was going to be a father.

Things calmed down when I brought the baby home. John brought over a football-shaped rattle and a Green Bay sweater for the baby, but the season was over; we only saw him on Sundays for dinner, after Mikey and he had spent the day ice fishing. Forty below and the wind sweeping snow across the ice, but they erected a tent and drilled through the ice. Beats me. But each Sunday they'd do it, coming home afterwards, eyebrows frozen, rosy-cheeked from the cold, slapping their hands together, and pull up to the table for food, chewing, talking with their mouths full, pointing silverware at each other to reinforce their points.

That spring, with Eisenhower newly appointed in the White House and Vince Lombardi at the helm in Green Bay, John and Mikey went into business chopping down trees. They bought a truck and painted M&J's Tree and Snow Removal on the side, and out they'd go each day, work-booted, chainsaws hefted on shoulders like bazookas, to trim and fell trees that had become a nuisance. Piles of firewood blossomed in our back yard, and the pair of them trailed sawdust through the house, falling from their hair, their pockets, even from their ears and nostrils. Mikey's hands hardened, developing calluses and skin like bark, and sap embedded itself into the whorls and swirls on his hands, becoming as much a part of him as his fingerprints. Still, in the quiet of the night, when the rasp of the chainsaws died and John went home and the baby slept, he'd scrape those coarse hands across my flesh, and by the time Mikey Jr. could stand like a young sapling between the two men as they worked, Becky was on her way.

When fall came, in the quiet times between work seasons, every week assumed a rhythm. I'd hoist Becky on my hip and watch them work on the machines, squeaking oil cans, screeching files across the saws in long, slow caresses that sharpened the teeth. Then they'd clamp a plow on the front of the truck, ready to clear snow, the days tattooed with the sounds of their boots on the porch and slamming doors. By the week's end, they both carried an edge as they rustled the newspaper and analyzed the game ahead. Come Sunday, they were fixed in the basement, young Mikey grafted onto his father's knee, as the week built to a crescendo orchestrated by maestro Lombardi.

And so, as the months blurred by into years, the world stopped on Sundays and John and Mikey did their Siamese twin act in the basement. They both thickened, the notches on their belts tracking the passing years like rings on a tree. I always thought it would get better, but it didn't. Mikey Jr. started school and Janet was born the year Hornung and Lombardi led the Packers to the conference title. JFK was killed in '63, but the Pack missing out on a championship was the real cause of grief in our house. Though the country mired itself in Vietnam, John and Mikey rode a green and gold wave of glory to victories in the new Super Bowl competitions. Young Mikey left school the year Coach Lombardi died, in 1970, the same year I gave up smoking and went on pills for my blood pressure. Five years later, Mikey Jr. moved to Chicago, and Becky married Olaf Janssen from Minneapolis.

For a while, things went quiet. Green Bay slumped. They both agreed things had started to slip when electric wiring was installed under Lambeau Field, and John muttered about the "spandexed robots" now playing the game. But they still watched.

In 1980 the doctors made me go on medication to help my heart work, to open up the vessels or something, and they told me not to go out on the cold if I could avoid it. Business boomed for M&J's Tree and Snow Removal, but the roar of heavy machinery robbed the men of their hearing. Of course, neither of them would get a hearing aid, so the voice of Howard Cosell screamed through the house, coming at me through the floorboards, through the closed basement door. Yet, they weren't really happy. It might have been good times for Ronald Reagan, but it was a lean time for the Green Bay Packers.

Then in 1994, Brett Favre came to Green Bay; John and Mikey smiled again on Sundays, and I had my first angioplasty. That's when I started getting really short of breath, and my legs swelled up--edema, they called it. They said I was holding water, so they put me on diuretics. It was tough, and I had to slow down, but Mikey had cable now, and he'd retired, so he spent a lot of time in that basement watching football, giving me free run of the house.

Then, one day, things changed. At first I thought it was just irritation with the noise. I felt weak, tired. My breathing came thick and clotted, rasping in my chest. I puffed and wheezed my way through the dishes and dusting. By late afternoon my energy was spent and my legs were swollen, as if all the fluids in my body were pooling there; I curled up on the sofa. I felt pressure in my chest, like my lungs were swelling with water, pushing in on my heart, not allowing it to beat.

When Mikey came up, he stood in the archway, peering into the gloom, until he saw me, washed in the flickering glow of "Wheel of Fortune." I tried to call out, but the energy wasn't there. I waved one hand at him and pointed the other one at my chest, tapping the fingertips against my sternum.

His jaw dropped and he raised his arms to his side, as if he had to fight, then he ran at me, his socks sliding on the hardwood floor.

"What's wrong?" His voice croaked. He squeezed my hand harder, as if that would make me well. It hurt. "What's wrong?"

"Can't breathe," I wheezed, the words coming out in a whisper. I fluttered the fingers of the other hand over my chest, like the wings of some frozen bird, then ran them over my mouth and nose. Shifting on the sofa made me fight for breath, and I coughed, a rasping rattle that scraped the inside of my lungs and sprayed frothy pink phlegm on my tissue.

"What?" Finding his voice, he shouted, as if I were deaf rather than winded, and placed his callused hand on my forehead. "You're clammy." Drawing his eyebrows together, which meant he was thinking, he paused, then slid his hands under me like a forklift, picked me up, blanket and all, and headed for the car. "I'm taking you to the hospital. This isn't right."

And I closed my eyes as he slipped and slithered the Rambler to Kenosha General Hospital, where they clamped an oxygen mask over my face, put me in an ambulance, and whisked me up to Madison. A week passed in a blur of tests and examinations; they poked and prodded every part of me, putting dye in, draining fluid out, measuring, analyzing. Mikey stayed in a local motel, but he spent most of the days with me, football muted on the screen as I dozed, waiting for word from the cardiologists. The only excitement came with the sudden roar of helicopters, and the violent chop and whirr of their blades outside my window. Mikey jumped the first time it happened, saying it reminded him of the war, but we found out they were flying in organs for transplants. I pictured livers and kidneys steaming in the cold air, and hearts still beating on their own, waiting to pump life into a new owner.

After two weeks they told me my heart was dying, and that 4,000 people were ahead of me in line for a transplant. They'd try to think of something else, they said. Which is how I ended up here as the days rolled by, with a mask over my mouth trailing a cord to a machine behind me.

I propped myself up on the bed and watched the game on TV. They showed lots of crowd shots, and plenty of people who looked like John and Mikey, but I made no confirmed sightings. Sleet fell, dusting the field in white and coating the crowd in a sheath of ice. No one left. I hit the remote, and the picture collapsed into a thin white line, which looked to me like a EKG, then a dot, then nothing.

I lay back on the bed, my leaden body poured into the mold of my mattress. The sky outside, gray and raw, threw sleet against the window. Darkness came early. Wind roared down from Canada and sliced across the lake, whistling as it searched for a way through the window seals. The relentless slash of helicopter blades continued, though, and I felt sorry for the pilots as they hovered in the air, carrying coolers with hearts and lungs and livers buried like treasure in mounds of ice.

When the nurse came in to check on me, I knew something wasn't right. She was usually all cheery, wearing funny badges, running her hands over me and laughing. This time she stood there, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and wringing a cloth in her hands.

I pushed the button to raise the bed and watch her. She gave one little nervous smile, more like a twitch.

"What is it?" I said. But all she did was flatten herself against the wall as a doctor swirled in, his lab coat trailing behind him like a cape. He walked straight up to me. "Mrs. Breward," he said." First, I want you to know your husband is all right."

Adrenaline punched through me, overpowering my medication, and I tried to sit up, which brought the nurse running, but then Mikey came in, squirming in a wheelchair, his leg in a cast clearing the way before him like a battering ram, accompanied by four figures swathed in sky blue surgical scrubs and shower caps, as if they'd arrived for a sleepover. The cheese hat was gone, his eyes looked puffy, and his green and gold warpaint was smudged away except for around his neck and his ears. He started talking as they grabbed my bed and wheeled it down the hall, with an orderly wheeling him alongside me. "It was a patch of ice," he said. "He was showing me Brett Favre's passing action. There was no way we could have known. I'm okay though, Gloria ..." He turned to face me, eyes open wide, skin ashen. "But John ... the car spun off the road and hit a tree--a silver birch, he's always hated those--right on the driver's side." Reaching across, he clasped his fingers on my shoulder. "He's not going to make it, Gloria. They told him. His insides are all messed up."

We bounced and rattled down the halls of the hospital, around corners, into elevators, sending people scrambling out of our way.

His lower lip quivered as he spoke, so he pressed his lips together and breathed through his nose, his chest heaving, until he regained control. "He wants you to have his heart." He raised one hand in front of him and made a fist, then wrapped the other hand around it, squeezing so that both hands turned white. "You're going to get his heart." Then the passageway narrowed to a door, and they told Mikey he'd have to wait outside.

Mikey called after me. "John said, 'Give Gloria my heart. She's always had my heart.'" I looked back over my shoulder to see his face turning red as he shouted. "I love you, too, Gloria." Then the doors flapped shut behind me and I looked up to see six masked people bent over me, concentration painted on their faces, and above them vast yellow discs of light.

One of them leaned over me. "Everything's going to be fine." He must have smiled under his mask because his eyes softened and the skin around them puckered. Then another one placed a cone over my face and all those faces wavered, dissolving into the pool of golden light above, until that became all that I could see, and I felt myself floating, free of pain, toward the light. So this is heaven, I thought.

Sound came back first--Mikey's voice talking to a nurse crackled into the black world behind my eyelids--then smells, the scent of flowers struggling against tobacco and wood. Next, a crater of agony erupted in my chest, as if it lay open, raw and bleeding. Pain coursed through my veins instead of blood.

When I opened my eyes a fraction, letting in a gray slit of light, Mikey's voice stopped and he wheeled himself to the side of the bed.

"Gloria. You're back. You made it."

"It hurts," I said. My lips were dry and cracked.

"What?" He leaned over me, turning his good ear toward my lips. His breath smelled of nicotine.

"It hurts."


"Everywhere. It hurts everywhere."

Reaching into the tangled tubes draped over me like plastic vines, the nurse adjusted a valve. Gritting my teeth, I forced my eyes open farther, taking in the room filled with flowers. My body thawed and melted as the nurse's magic worked.

"So many flowers," I said.

Mikey took my hand in his, covering the red glow of the oxygen monitor on my fingertip. "Do you like them? Look at them." I looked at them--almost all of them were green or gold. "You missed John's funeral. I brought the flowers up here."

I heard his voice drone on, but I disappeared as the crater in my chest vanished and the medication welded my eyelids together in sleep.

The next few months were hard for everyone. Mikey was caught in a twilight world where his mourning for John entwined itself around his celebration of my survival--one thing reminding him of the other, creating a bittersweet joy. My life dissolved into a fog of medication, masks, and measurements--blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, blood urea--you name it, we had a number for it. And I slept. There wasn't a part of my body they didn't jab something into. My jewelry consisted of a Medic Alert bracelet, and I learned the new language of arrhythmia and oliguria, Capoten and Zaroxolyn. And I slept.

By spring, I marveled at the blossoms I never thought I'd see again and watched Mikey trudge around the yard, busying himself in retirement, cutting grass, cleaning the car. He visited John's grave most days. Summer passed in a slow recovery, but the fall allergies drove me back to bed, under a mask once more, each breath a chore I had to think about. And it was there I languished, with gray face and leaden limbs, as the days shortened, temperatures fell, and the first hint of bronze burned in the trees, feeling very much like it wouldn't be too long before I joined John Oblinger in the ground.

I woke one Sunday afternoon to hear the drone of distant voices, animated voices, raised in discussion. My eyes flashed open and I looked around the room while a wave of energy pulsed through me, like my heart was waking my body, sending out oxygen, raising me from my torpor. Placing my fingertips on my chest, I felt life surge within me. I sat up in bed, swung my feet onto the floor, and stood up for the first time in weeks. My feet moved, slowly at first, but surely to the door, and I felt my body warm--like it was coming back to life. My heart thumped, as if announcing its return to the world, and marched me toward the sound of the voices, to the basement, where I found Mikey sitting alone, watching the first Packers game of the new season. Open-mouthed, he rose from his seat, but I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down. Energy coursed through my body; my limbs came back to life, and when I sat beside Mikey to watch the game, my new heart surged and thumped in my chest like a bird straining to fly.

Smiling, his eyes sparkling, Mikey pulled his chair closer to mine. "Look at you," he said, placing his hand gently on my shoulder. "You're back."
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Author:Brennan, Tom
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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