(a version of this story was originally published by P.Q. Leer)
a short story by James David Patrick
“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t have a bellboy,” the concierge said.
Westinghouse demanded that his bags be sent to his room. “My hands are my life,” he said. “They could cramp. The muscles could tear. I could be left with a claw! You’ve never seen a national champion with a distorted grotesquery like a claw, have you?” Westinghouse asked.
The concierge, who was really just an Art History major with a pregnant girlfriend named Kimmie, shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’ve never seen a dude with a claw. Let alone a rock, paper, scissors champion with a claw.” But he couldn’t leave the desk, he said, being the only one on duty. “At a bar in Philly, I did see a guy with a club foot, however.”
“First. The bag is heavy,” Westinghouse said. “It contains my clothes for an entire three month roadtrip and my best suit, my only suit, for when I’m the guest of honor at the Champion’s Dinner. And second. I think I speak for everyone when I say we prefer the term Rochambeau.”
The Art History major looked at the bag. “Hmm.” He pointed. “Use the shoulder strap there.”
Westinghouse laughed at his own oversight. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just so focused. I’m just so focused I can’t function. You might wonder how I can focus so entirely.” The Art History major didn’t wonder but Westinghouse told him anyway. “Every day I tell myself to ‘Shoot like you’re awesome,’ until I believe it,” he said.
The Art History major asked for a demonstration.
Westinghouse placed his bag on the floor and closed his eyes. With his fist pressed into his palm he repeated “Shoot like you’re awesome” until he believed it. Once he believed it, he opened his eyes to find a white-haired woman with nearly-transparent skin now sitting behind the desk. She flipped through a Redbook Magazine and looked like a blue-haired Valerie Bertinelli.
“Carl left,” she said.
“Wow,” Westinghouse said, “I’m just so focused, I didn’t notice.”
She flipped the page.
“You might wonder how I can focus so entirely.”
Blue-hair Valerie looked up from her Redbook. The corners of her mouth rose, but nobody could have called it a smile. “Honey,” she said, “I’ve been listening to that crap for nearly an hour. I think I got the picture. I even tried it myself for awhile.”
“How’d that go?”
“Well,” she said, “when I opened my eyes, I was still here, listening to you.”
The accommodations for the tournament were merely satisfactory. The room appeared on the other side of the door, like a boy uncomfortable in his own skin who grows to be a man uncomfortable with his own innate and unavoidable talents, like Marlon Brando. Westinghouse knew such a man. He was that man, and Westinghouse knew himself to be capable of awesome things. Certainly, the burden of expectation weighed heavily on his shoulders. He was the beast of burden pulling the ten-thousand pound plow, cultivating success with each new row.
Unlike the year prior, the GNRA wouldn’t be shuttling the competitors from the hotel to another venue for the championships – this hotel with merely satisfactory rooms contained a Grand Ballroom where the event would be held the following morning. The year before each room contained a complimentary can of cashew-heavy nut mix and raspberry-lime seltzer water.
Decorated in splashes of green, red and brown that ran together like saturated fingerpaints, this merely satisfactory room offered two double beds, a 20” television atop a squat armoire and a round table next to the window that overlooked the parking lot shared with the adjacent Applebees. The parking lot was sequestered by trees, blocking the view of Interstate 80. Westinghouse located the Camaro in the parking lot, the last row of cars by the highway. Sure, his aging steed had had problems of late – a new carburetor in Pottstown, the air conditioning had become merely air outside Hartford, patches of rust creeping out from inside the wheel wells – but it was his livelihood, his enabler.
Between the beds hung a painting, framed in gold, of a solitary plow cart resting in a half-sewn acre of farmland. Westinghouse could buy a print, unframed, for $47.50 to support local artisans. For $80 he could even have the gold frame that matched the glint of the plow blade, made of gold leaf paper, in the setting sun. Westinghouse quite liked the glint but forced himself to remove his eyes from the picture. Focus, he reminded himself. The painting; the lack of a quality nut mixture; the mothball and Windex smell of the green, red and brown comforter; the flickering lights of the cars on the highway as they passed behind the cluster of trees like fireflies – served only as distractions.
Focus defines the champion. It raids their mind and steals away with secrets even they’d forgotten. Focus knows your opponent better than you know yourself.
Westinghouse paced. He clenched his hands into fists then extended all five fingers, in synchronicity, one joint at a time. Then, still pacing, he clenched his fists and extended only his index finger, then both his index and middle finger, concentrating on the push and pull of the extensor digitorum and flexors digitorum profundus and superficialis. He’d studied the anatomy of the hand. While other shooters took pills – the drug-testing program had proved sadly ineffective in deterring the use of performance enhancers – he chose to consume knowledge.
Westinghouse ventured downstairs to find the Grand Ballroom. He counted the steps and timed his approach but discarded both figures once he realized he’d taken the elevator. An unpredictable variable, he thought—how careless! He rode the elevator back upstairs and walked down the hallway to the door of his room, where he turned around, proceeded past the elevator and descended through the stairwell to find, that ultimately, the door to the Grand Ballroom was locked. Westinghouse asked the concierge for the key. Old Valerie Bertinelli, now reading a romance novel called The Thrust of the Wind, said she couldn’t give that to him.
“Fair enough,” Westinghouse said, “I wouldn’t want you to give it to anyone else either.” He told her to keep up the good work and lingered in the lobby waiting for his competition to arrive, flipping through magazines—not reading, but doing something like reading. He wanted to gauge their focus and discern their temperaments. Were they chatty and careless with their time? Were they on edge, nervous? These were the things he needed to know. He most wanted to see the Texan. He wanted to measure his stride and the progression of his receding hairline. He asked the concierge if she’d seen him.
“How would I know the Texan?” she asked. “Does he wear a cowboy hat and spurs that go ching-ching, ching-ching?”
Westinghouse laughed. Everyone knew the Texan eschewed ten-gallon hats and boots with spurs and turquoise jewelry and all of those populist trappings. The Texan looked like anybody else, maybe a little shorter. And though he carried a silver Zippo lighter at all times, a kind of good luck charm, he doesn’t smoke Marlboros or any cigarette for that matter. Everyone just knew the Texan.
At the last competition, the Texan had claimed to have never seen a Western.
“Not even a John Wayne picture?” Westinghouse had asked. “Or Lee Marvin?”
“I don’t watch movies made before 1980,” the Texan had said before going on to win the entire tournament, because nobody rattled the Texan.
Westinghouse waited an hour, sitting in the big comfy chair, but only confirmed the arrival of tour rookies and Katie May, a twenty-something brunette Medusa that liked to wear tight V-neck t-shirts with no bra. If Westinghouse ever found her in his direct bracket to the championship he planned to request that the air conditioning be turned off an hour before the match. Westinghouse raised his magazine when she pushed through the door. Another tour rookie entered shortly after Katie May and stood behind her in line. He wore a slightly skewed baseball cap and a t-shirt with three semaphore flags. Westinghouse presumed the shirt to be ironic, though he didn’t get the joke. As Katie May turned with her room key in hand, she exchanged a smile with the kid. Westinghouse couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed. Katie May had stolen the kid’s focus right through his grazing eyes and taken it as her own, absorbing his power to be used against him at a later date. The poor kid didn’t stand a chance with this crowd, but Westinghouse didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was nothing but a lonely weed—his only purpose was to be mowed down by champions and vipers like Katie May.
The kid then noticed Westinghouse sitting in the big comfy chair and asked if he was here for the tournament. Westinghouse nodded. The kid asked if Westinghouse followed the Bassmasters. Why would someone ask such a question? Westinghouse politely said he didn’t. With training to do and all that untapped raw focus, when would he find the time to follow such a mindless, soulless competition? Then the kid left, never knowing that Katie May had harvested his focus like Iowans collected thimbles. Westinghouse replaced the magazine, which he only now realized to be a fishing publication—the cover image a flailing bass leaping from the water, hooked through its mouth and gills.
Westinghouse showered, shaved and slid beneath the covers in his competition boxers, plain white, fresh from the shelf. He preferred these starched hotel sheets that pinned his body to the mattress like a vacuum-sealed deli product. The darkness enhanced his focus. “Shoot like you’re awesome,” Westinghouse said. “Shoot like you’re awesome.” He repeated this mantra, as he did the night before every tournament, until his speech slurred and he drifted into sleep.
Waking early, he dressed and headed down to the lobby to partake of the continental breakfast.
A woman collecting the plates asked if he’d like some coffee.
“No coffee,” he said. “Coffee gives me the jitters. No caffeine of any kind. I get amped and I can’t focus straight. It always goes off at an angle.” Westinghouse demonstrated the angle by slapping his hands and thrusting his arm out at a forty-five degree angle. The woman nodded and left.
On his way out the door, Westinghouse spotted a familiar face and recognized him as someone he’d beaten a time or two before. He didn’t know his name or his primary tactics because the man had never been a threat. Maybe he had been, sometime in his youth when he was still naïve and full of hope—before Westinghouse’s time. Now the older man’s frown lines had just become badges of mediocrity.
“Nice to see you again, Westinghouse,” he said.
“Have you seen the Texan?” Westinghouse asked.
The man he’d beaten a time or two before said he hadn’t.
Westinghouse promptly excused himself, displeased with all this secrecy, to pace the hallway outside the Grand Ballroom and wait for the first-round pairings to be posted. Someone had seen the Texan. Someone must have seen the Texan because the Texan was not a man to hide in the shadows.
Table assignments were posted at 8:00 am. Westinghouse drew table 27. That number elicited no visceral objection. At least it wasn’t unlucky 15. His opponent: T.D. Cooper. This name also meant nothing. Another rookie, he thought. An easy passage to a second round pairing against… Bart Christian. The Texan. The Texan! What disrespect! Within seconds Westinghouse had composed a thoughtful letter to the commissioner detailing his record, including wins at the St. Paul Open and the Mississippi Rib and River Fest and questioning the seeding process that set up a second round match-up between himself and the Texan. He couldn’t write the letter, though, because he couldn’t find a piece of paper large enough to detail the ways in which he disagreed with the seeding process, only a three-by-five hotel pad on a coffee table in the hallway.
By now a crowd had gathered and the Commissioner stepped forward to open the doors. Westinghouse pushed through the queue of shooters. Angela from Vermont accused him of being rude. She was a ten-year vet with three kids that were probably off pumping quarters into the arcade unsupervised. Westinghouse smiled and apologized. “I’m sorry. I’m just so focused. By the way, how’s your husband?” he asked, knowing that she’d been divorced for years, even though she’d never actually admitted it to anyone on tour.
Westinghouse found table 27. He found the opposite chair already occupied by the kid, still wearing his semaphore shirt, his meager talents locked away in Katie May’s chest of thimbles. The kid said he was glad to see a semi-familiar face across the table for his first match. He shook Westinghouse’s hand like a teenager crammed for the SAT, fast and mindless but with misdirected intensity.
Westinghouse closed his eyes. Westinghouse breathed.
“Didn’t see you at the bar,” the kid said after a moment then adjusted his baseball hat. “Met most everyone at the bar,” he continued. “Katie May invited me. Quint, Sinclair, Udo the Butcher, Saul…”
Westinghouse breathed. The names and vagaries glanced off his shield of focus like a midnight drizzle. Udo the Butcher told new opponents that he got his name because he’d knifed a man in Dublin, Ohio where he was actually a taxidermist and had never knifed anything that wasn’t already dead. Shoot like you’re awesome. Shoot like you’re—
“And what’s up with a Texan that doesn’t drive a truck? That never played high school football? That’s never seen The Wild Bunch?”
Westinghouse opened his eyes, woken by a thunderclap.
“You saw the Texan?”
The kid nodded. “Sure. He was at the bar.”
“Did he look steady? Did he look cocky or focused? How focused did he look? Was there deadness, just beyond his eyes? Like he’d take your lunch money, even though he already had a lunch?”
The kid cocked an eyebrow. “We drank some microbrews and talked about how I preferred the original Police Academy, whereas he preferred Police Academy 3: Back in Training.”
The Commissioner stepped up to the podium. “Welcome everyone to the 29th annual Grand National Rochambeau Association World Championships.” He went on to say that he hoped everyone had enjoyed the nice continental breakfast, and then made a joke about the hotel’s matching bedspreads and carpets. He said to wait for his mark before commencing with the first-round contests and looked down at his watch that ticked so loud Westinghouse could hear it twenty feet away. Perhaps it was just near the microphone. Perhaps Westinghouse had finally learned to enhance his senses through focus. “Ready,” he said. “Set,” he said. “Shoot!”
Westinghouse stared into the kid’s eyes and raised his fist, the muscles aching from preparation and expectancy, the opponens pollicis cocked.
“One.” His thumb was a rigid clamp, his mind devoid of thought or emotion. “Two.” They pumped their fists, arms hinged at elbows. “Three.” Microbrews? “SHOOT.”
Westinghouse whipped out his clippers. The kid bowled a rock.
“One.” He’s a rookie. Rooks over think this. Keep it simple. “Two.” His eyes paint his weakness. “Three.” Who prefers Police Academy 3 to the original? “SHOOT.”
This time Westinghouse went bowling. The kid slipped him some parchment.
There was a moment of calm before the first cheers and exultations spread through the tables. Westinghouse remained silent. He dropped his hand to his lap, relaxing even the abductor digiti quinti, and drifted away, repeating the match in his head. He replayed the position of the kid’s mouth, the way he dropped his shoulders before he rolled the rock, the way he reclined in his chair as he shaved the tree. Oh, what loathsome luck of the draw. An unpredictable amateur. He may not have known what he was doing, but like a drunkard tossing Velcro office darts, eventually he was going to hit the bull.
The kid probably thanked Westinghouse for his spirited competition. He may have shaken and said “Good game, friend” or maybe even addressed him by name. But Westinghouse wasn’t his friend, and he didn’t look up. The wounds were too fresh and he wasn’t ready to exchange Christmas cards. Westinghouse stood, his eyes fixed on the red and green and brown carpet, and exited the room exactly twelve minutes after entering, a year of preparation and sweat and focus engulfed by a Grand Ballroom beneath a fifteen-foot chandelier in a hotel separated from Interstate 80 by a row of poplar trees. A hotel that contained mini-bars featuring assortments of less-than-premium nuts for a more-than-nominal price.
Westinghouse packed his bags. He stared at the painting between the beds, and without the shield of focus to dull his judgment, he realized just how terrible the artwork really was. The painter had no sense of drama. The plow was abandoned mid-till, halfway between the start and the finish. The painter had no sense of detail. The plow was heavy enough to warrant the use of at least a mule, but nowhere in the picture could he find any trace of livestock. There weren’t even any hoof prints in the tilled soil to suggest that the mule had just given up and walked away, tired of the daily grind.
Westinghouse passed through the lobby, rolling his bag behind him on a baggage trolley he’d found in the hallway.
“Oh there you are,” someone said.
Westinghouse looked up to see the original concierge, the Art History major, manning his spot at the front desk.
“Petunia mentioned that you’d asked her about the Texan.” Westinghouse’s eyes dulled. “Petunia, you know—the night clerk.”
“I wanted to tell you that I ran into your friend the Texan last night as I was leaving through the back and you were here getting focused,” the concierge said. “He’s beatable. I mean, he looked rattled or something. I wouldn’t really know. I’m not a pro like you or anything, but I’m pretty sure he’s fodder this year.” The Art History major paused and regarded the trolley. “Are you taking a break after the first round?”
Westinghouse shook his head and adjusted his grip on the trolley. “I’ve got to get back on the road so I can make the mid-major in Tucson next weekend,” he said. “I need to get there as soon as possible to prepare. I need to survey the territory, count my steps, pace my focus.” He spoke as if reading from a script he’d written and re-written years ago. Familiar but foreign, like they weren’t even his words at all.
“Wow, you’re driving all the way to Tucson?” The concierge shook his head in disbelief. “I hear it’s fantastic out there this time of year.”
Westinghouse narrowed his eyes. “I really wouldn’t know,” he said, and then pushed through the doors to the parking lot.
He tossed his shoulder bag into the backseat of his green 1985 Camaro before removing his atlas from the glove compartment. The binding had been repaired with electrical tape, torn pages with staples. Westinghouse started the engine, letting it warm up, chunking and clunking before finally turning over. Meanwhile he traced his finger over the thick red lines on the maps on pages 58, 57, 7, 87, 22 and 4, plotting the most direct route to Arizona. With his index finger near Kingfisher, Oklahoma, pain and tightness seized his carpals into green-shaded New Mexico. Westinghouse paused. He looked down at the almanac to re-orient his finger along Interstate 40 before cranking the window. An Appalachian breeze swept into the car, blowing the adjacent page over his anchored hand. He looked out through the trees to the highway. He allowed his focus to slip. The trees blurred and the passing cars flickered like the frames in a silent movie. Westinghouse relaxed his hand. The pain radiated outward until it became numbness in the tips of his fingers. He removed his hand, closed the almanac and then turned the ignition. The Camaro rattled and refused. Westinghouse entertained the thought that maybe it wouldn’t start this time. He grew hopeful, anticipated the car’s final breath. He turned the key again, this time pressing firmly on both the clutch and the gas as he nudged the gearshift into the grey area between neutral and first. This car lurched, now rumbling and re-animated. Hope disappeared. He cleared his mind, refocused before he even dared to understand what the fleeting disappointment had meant. Westinghouse replayed the match in his head, the two brief rolls, studying the kid’s every facial tick and tell. Rock. The corner of his mouth flinched. Paper. It was there in his eyes. He began repeating “Shoot like you’re awesome” and pulled himself into a labored, restless round of focus that lasted until he believed it, staring into the menu at the drive-thru window of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“How long have I been here?” he asked the speaker box.
“Five. Maybe ten minutes,” the speaker box said.
“Oh,” he said. “I was just so focused. You might wonder how I can focus so…” His voice trailed off, disappearing in the rumble and lurch of the car engine. Westinghouse started at his hands clutching the wheel. Lines and creases, age, the vein that always stuck out a little too far on his left hand.
“Sir, if you’re not going to order anything I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We aren’t busy, clearly, and I don’t really care what you do but my boss thinks you’re repelling customers.”
Westinghouse shook his head. “No.” He paused. “No. I mean, I’m… good. I’m going.” He lifted his foot from the brake and allowed the car to roll away from the window.
The number of cars in the parking lot meant that the Championship Dinner hadn’t yet concluded. Westinghouse again parked in the far corner of the lot overlooking the highway—only a pristine royal blue Chevelle loitered within four spots of his hard-ridden Camaro. An uncle once joked that he’d be buried in that car.
Westinghouse brushed his hands down the front of his suit, one last attempt to smooth out the wrinkles. A little tight in the shoulders. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d put it on. Entering though the hotel front door, he waved to blue-haired Valerie who paid him no attention. He acted casual, slipped into the back of the ballroom. He didn’t want attention. He just wanted to sit at a table for a moment, wearing the suit, to be a part of it, at least for one night. He wanted to get a taste of the pageantry, to see what victory might look like.
He found a table near the back with two empty seats. He’d missed the table service and dinner and the one complimentary beverage. Only a glass of water remained at his place setting. From the moment he sat in the chair, Westinghouse felt studied. A glance up at his tablemates confirmed this. T.D. Cooper, the kid, watched him from across the table. He recognized the look. In the wake of focus, the dull, creeping numbness had become rage. And before completely subsiding, the rage had returned to nothingness.
Applause shook the silence. The crowning of the Champion. The toast. The room stood. Westinghouse and the kid followed. Westinghouse clenched his hands, popping the trapezium, scaphoid, et al, along the midcarpal joint before raising his hands to applaud. To applaud who? He craned his around anonymous tablemates, stood on tiptoes before finally gaining a view of the stage where that usurping siren Katie May stood behind a plywood podium. She lowered the microphone and cleared her throat.
“First, I’d like to thank all of my competitors,” she said, her hands clasped and unclasped, fidgeting behind the podium facade.
Westinghouse had heard enough. Katie May’s win had clearly played a role in the decimation of T.D. Cooper. He took one sip of water and then exited through the ballroom doors, past the unresponsive concierge and into the parking lot. He didn’t have to check the brackets to know what had happened. The kid had beaten the Texan (another stunning upset) and then Katie May had used his usurped focus to beat him like a rented mule.
The familiar voice repeated itself.
Westinghouse turned. The Texan leaned with his back against a lamp post, legs crossed at his ankles, suit jacket lapels pulled up around his neck. One hand rested inside his coat pocket, the other hand held his lighter, operated unaware of the rest of his body. His thumb ignited the flame and then released. He did this two more times before Westinghouse gathered his thoughts.
“Yeah, you know, everyone calls you Shooter. And not in one of those ironic ways laced with derision. You’re intense. Kinda scary with that voodoo chant of yours. What is it, ‘Shoot like a killer?’ or something?”
Westinghouse’s gaze locked on the lighter. Simple. Chrome. No frills. The Texan paused. He cupped the Zippo in his palm.
“My dad gave this to me on my twenty-first birthday.” The Texan must have read something into Westinghouse’s focus on the reflective, polished metal. “Oh he’s not dead or anything. Lives in Boca with his girlfriend. Though it would probably make for a better story if he’d given this to me on his deathbed. It’s not a sentimental thing—though everyone always assumes I’d kill a man before giving it up. I’d rather just let them think it than clear anything up.”
Westinghouse had catharsis in mind. “I’d like to borrow it,” Westinghouse said, his intentions still only latent, undeveloped and inexplicable to anyone outside his head.
The Texan paused. “You smoke?”
“I do not.” Westinghouse shook his head. He unclipped the tie from his neck and eyeballed the length from knot to tip.
As the flames engulfed the Camaro, a crowd of suit-wearing shooters gathered around. Once the flame had traversed the clip-on fuse into the gas tank, the rest had taken seconds, maybe minutes. Westinghouse wasn’t sure about the duration. Time had slowed. Brilliant yellows and reds seared his retinas. His pulse raced. His hands shook, even as he tried to clamp them down inside the pockets of his suit. Murmurs traveled in waves through the crowd. Whose car is this? Should we call the police? The station’s right there. Can’t they just look out the window? Westinghouse wasn’t going to speak up. To claim the car within the inferno defeated the purpose of the act. He wasn’t looking for notoriety and had not, in conception, weighed the potential for public spectacle. This was catharsis. This was the release of years of focus-driven repression. Practice. Focus. Sleep. Practice. Focus. Compete. Repeat. Meanwhile something else had been building, damned up over time.
The crowd gathered in a semi-circle, ever more closely as the heat receded. Westinghouse surveyed the stunned, gawkish faces. Among them he found the kid, standing by himself, an empty old fashioned glass held idly in his left hand. Westinghouse slipped through the crowd until they stood face to face, extended his hand. The two shook, but neither spoke; each man understood his place in the moment. Words could only complicate or confuse the meaning of the gesture.
When the police arrived, Westinghouse had already left the parking lot. The crowd remained even as the flammable material disintegrated into ash and the flames retreated. Fireman arrived, doused whatever remained. The Texan hadn’t questioned him. He hadn’t tried to stop him. When Westinghouse had finished bathing in the heat of the fire, he had retired to the Texan’s minivan, tossed his suitcase into the back and climbed in through the passenger door.
“I’ll drive you all the way to Tucson since we’re both headed that way,” the Texan had offered, but Westinghouse declined, requesting instead a drop at the bus station where he’d catch the next bus west and figure the rest out later. Then he closed his eyes, cleared his mind of all thoughts or mantras and let the flames dance and flicker on the back of his eyelids. He imagined the light from the fire reflecting off the unmanned plow in the hotel room, the glint from the gold leaf paper dancing across the wall of the darkened room, gradually dimming until it disappeared into nothing.