Punter Nick Gallow thought he was getting away from it all on vacation to Montana. But even amid the grandeur of the Rockies, trouble seems to find him
Editor's note: Welcome to the The MMQB's Summer Beach Read. This week we're publishing an original four-part football mystery, "Night at the Boneyard," by Bill Syken, based on characters he created for his novel to be published in 2015. Read Part Two on Wednesday, Part Three on Thursday and the conclusion on Friday. Enjoy!
“We're one pick away,” said Clint Udall, the general manager of the Philadelphia Sentinels, addressing the coaches and scouts in his team’s draft war room. “It’s going to be either Newton, the fullback from Washington or, ah, Wilson, the guard from TCU. Show of hands, who wants Wilson?”
“How about Curly Fries?” interjected Freddie Gladstone, the Sentinels’ vice president of operations. “Let’s put the name ‘Curly Fries’ on the card.”
Sentinels head coach Jerry Tanner, seated beside Udall, rolled his eyes, while the assistants and personnel men looked nervously at one other, at their laptops, anywhere but at Freddie, who, despite whatever his official title indicated, was really in the room because he was the 32-year-old son of the Sentinel's owner, Arthur Gladstone. The owner himself, more interested in his real estate empire, had departed for another hemisphere after the draft’s first round, leaving his only offspring to represent his interests.
“There's no one on our board named Curly Fries,” Udall said, pointing at a huge white board full of names, most of them crossed off as the draft entered its seventh round. “There isn't anyone with that name in all of college football.”
“I know,” Freddie said. “That’s what makes it funny. If there was a real Curly Fries, choosing him just because of his name would be juvenile.”
In front of Udall sat a phone, the landline for calling in picks to the team's representatives at the main draft site in New York.
“We are one pick away, Mr. Udall...” says the G.M.'s assistant.
“The time is now, guys, don't you see it? Freddie said. “This is the chance to make a pick that will go down in history. Curly Fries. It will be an all-time classic. Am I right? Am I right?”
An awkward silence passed. Freddie had left the room for about fifteen minutes after the Sentinels' sixth round pick and returned bearing the pungent odor of marijuana. No one said anything then, and no one is saying anything now.
“Chicago just made their pick,” the assistant says. “We're up. Wilson and Newton are both there...”
“Of course Wilson and Newton are still there,” Freddie said. “The Wilsons and Newtons of the world will always be there, that's what makes them Wilsons and Newtons. I say it's time for Curly Fries!”
“Raise your hand if you want Wilson,” Udall said loudly.
Ten of the twelve men in the room raised their hands for Wilson. “I agree,” said Udall. As he reached for the phone to relay the pick in to New York, Freddie shot up from his chair, lurched toward Udall and attempted to wrestle the receiver away. Freddie is a quarter-century younger than the team's general manager, but he’s 5-foot-7 and weighs about 135. Udall is a former professional fullback himself and remains thick of neck. His grip on the phone was solid, despite Freddie pulling at it with two hounds.
“Curly Fries!” Freddie screamed, craning toward the phone’s mouthpiece. “We want Curly Fries. CURLY FRIES!”
Thus did it happen that the Sentinels missed their seventh-round pick. Amid the hubbub in the war room and the confusion on the other end of the line in New York, time ran out. The next team up, Kansas City, took Wilson. The Sentinels ended up with Newton one slot later, after their vice president had been forcibly escorted from the room.
I am Nick Gallow, the punter for the Philadelphia Sentinels. I learned about the draft incident the way most of the world did, reading about it in explicit deal in the national media. The story was leaked by someone—more likely, everyone—in the room, no doubt in hopes that once the truth was out about the owner’s son, he would be kept at a distance when serious business was being conducted.
The story saddened me, because Freddie is, in fact, my closest friend on the team. That incident also explains why Freddie and I are now vacationing in Montana. Freddie's father had wanted him to go into rehab, but Freddie had negotiated down to a “retreat,” which this trip is supposed to be. “Marijuana isn't even addictive,” Freddie had told his father, and his father had answered, “This isn't about treatment, this is about appearances. You need to show that you have recognized you have a problem and are taking action. Whether this action helps you straighten out your life is entirely up to you.”
Who knows if the conversation actually went down this way. But that's how Freddie reported it to me. As soon as the final June minicamp broke, leaving me with a month off before training camp in late July, Freddie and I flew out here. He had found us a lodge in the northwest part of the state, near Whitefish, with the plan that we would be here two weeks. Some days we explored Glacier State Park or shot a couple rounds of golf. One day we attempted fly-fishing in one of the clear-running streams near our lodge. Freddie lasted about an hour; after not catching anything he lay his rented rod in the grass, sat on a log and played a game on his iPhone in which he tossed a crumpled up piece of paper into a garbage can. It was an abomination against the beauty that surrounded us. But at least he wasn't making trouble.
Mostly we had been back in our suite early, after dinner at the lodge or in the restaurants in Kalispell or Whitefish. Tonight, though we are out, and Freddie is behind the wheel of our rented Chrysler Sebring convertible, taking us to a place he said one of the lodge staff had told him about. He steers us directly to a roadhouse called the Boneyard. It is a high-roofed wooden structure that looks as if it might have served some industrial function in a previous incarnation. Neon beer signs dot the windows, and the parking lot is full—mostly pickup trucks and motorcycles. Our Sebring will be the only two-door in the lot.
“The guy at the front desk said this place has good burgers,” Freddie says.
“You had a steak at the dining room 40 minutes ago,” I say.
“C'mon man, one night of fun. Nine days of monkdom with Nick Gallow, one night of drinks with the locals. It sounds like an entirely fair trade-off to me.”
The Boneyard looks even more enormous from the inside. The central feature is a huge horseshoe-shaped bar. There's also a dance floor and room for a band to set up, though it doesn't look like one is playing tonight.
“I'm going to go see if there's a jukebox,” Freddie says, though none is visible. “Find us some seats.” Freddie curls around to the far side of the bar. I have an impulse to chase after and corral him, but I let it go. I’m happy to support Freddie, but I don't see it as my job to discipline him. That is not, to my mind, what friends are for.
I find an empty stool at the bar and order a club soda. The one television on this side of the bar is showing a Dodgers-Giants game. It's the third inning, and the Dodgers are hitless.
From my perch I spy Freddie, not at any jukebox but at the other side of the horseshoe, being poured a shot of what looks like tequila. I catch his eye. He smiles and raises his glass in a toast. I toast him back.
The baseball game is into the fifth, with the Dodgers still being no-hit, when Freddie returns.
“Hey Nick,” Freddie says. He's coming to me with a broad smile on his face and an enormous man in tow. If we were in the Sentinels locker room, I would guess Freddie's new friend was a lineman—albeit one who had been slacking off on his cardio.
“What's up, Freddie?”
“This is Dean,” Freddie says, and the big man nods. Dean has a narrow black mohawk and a line of facial hair on his chin. “He wanted to bet me a hundred bucks I couldn't beat his friend in a football-throwing contest. I told him I couldn't, but my buddy …”
“Why don't we relax and enjoy the evening,” I say, cutting Freddie off. “No need for any bar bets.”
“What's the matter?” Dean cackles, in a surprisingly high voice. “Chicken?”
“How about a punting contest,” Freddie says. “Who can kick the ball farther, your friend or mine … ”
“Sure,” Dean says, his tattooed arms spread magnanimously. “Punt, pass, kick—whatever you want.”
“Let's do the throwing thing,” I say. If I engaged in a punting contest for money and Dean and his friend found out who I was, that would be trouble. While I could throw a football well—I’d been a quarterback in high school and started one game in college—it wasn’t something I’d ever been paid to do, unless you count serving as a low-level camp arm, which for me meant little more than throwing interception drills to Sentinels linebackers every now and then.
“You want to go more than a hundred?” Dean asks.
“A hundred's fine,” I say, standing up.
“Okay, let's go out back.” Dean says.
Freddie and I follow Dean to his truck, where he grabs a bag of footballs in a mesh drawstring sack, an odd thing for a man to have with him. Then we circle to the back of the Boneyard, and I’m struck by the beauty of the scene. Where the lot ends, the land drops down deep into a valley, then rises up to the mountains opposite. The night sky is filled with stars. Coming from Philly, it's a little breathtaking.
A half-dozen guys are hanging out behind the building, smoking cigarettes and holding beer bottles. The guys are, like Dean, notably large and brutish. Then there is one who stands alone, looking out over the valley. He is tall, about 6'5”. He has a lean physique, but his hair is so long and his beard so overgrown that he seems half-animal.
“Hey Joe,” Dean calls to Longhair. “Got a guy who says he's better than you at throwing a football.”
The man turns and at first says nothing, as he looks me up and down from behind the strands of hair that cover his face. I notice that our bodies are essentially similar. I’m 6'4, 225, and I keep my body fat around five percent. I’m marking him as some kind of athlete; I wonder if he is doing the same to me.
“Where you from?” he asks finally. His voice is deep, the words clipped.
He chuckles briefly. “Okay then.” He points to a barrel-shaped trash can about thirty yards away. “First person to drop a ball into that barrel wins. You can go first, Philadelphia.”
I smile inwardly at this challenge, because I've done this before, back in college when I was a quarterback. It's a drill designed to develop accuracy on throws to the corner of the end zone. Just loft if up and drop it right in there.
Dean tosses me a ball, scuffed and worn, and with two hands I cradle it shoulder high. I drop back three steps, the loose gravel of the parking lot crunching beneath my feet, and throw a high, lazy spiral. The ball rises up to the stars, then dives down and hits the bottom of the trash can with a clang that is deeply satisfying. I haven't caught any fish in Montana, but this makes up for it.
“Yes!” says Freddie, clapping his hands, with a joy I wish he would contain. “In your face,” Freddie shouts toward Dean. “Give us our hundred.”
“Now, hold on,” I say to the bearded man, who’d watched my throw and its result impassively. “Our host still gets a turn.” Even though he had said that the first to make it was the winner.
“Damn right he does,” Dean says. He pulls another football from his sack and tosses it to Joe, who calmly spins the ball a couple times to find his grip. I notice that his hands are enormous, even for a man his size. The ball looks like a child's toy with his long fingers wrapped around it. If he ever did play organized football, that’s a physical trait the scouts would have loved.
He pushes the hair from his face, and his eyes lock onto the barrel with steel concentration. He takes a couple smooth lopes back—it could be ballet, so artful does his motion seem—and then lets sail a high ball. His, too, finds the bottom of the barrel.
“Yes!” exults Dean, though the thrower betrays no emotion. Dean grabs another ball at his sack and throws it to me aggressively, saying “Think fast, jackass!” and laughing, even though I get my hands up to prevent the ball from hitting my face.
The hairy man is studying me, and I him. For the first time I catch a clear glimpse of the eyes. They are blue and still. And familiar.
“Oh my God,” I say. “You're Jonah Volt.”
He does not answer, only stares. “Jonah Volt?” Freddie echoes, incredulous. “Mr. Electricity?”
My competitor turns to Freddie. “Please do not call me that.”
It is Jonah Volt. He steps toward me. “Who are you, exactly, Philadelphia?”
“My name is Nick Gallow.”
“Punter,” he says. “Philadelphia Sentinels.” He sighs. “Let's go inside. You and me talk.”
The legend of Jonah Volt is this: He was the quarterback in Miami for seven very good seasons, a beloved scrambler with a penchant for improvised plays and miracle finishes. But then he quit abruptly, despite having years and plenty of guaranteed money remaining on his contract. He held no farewell press conference, granted no interviews to explain why was leaving. He just sent the front office a hand-written note that simply said, “I'm retiring. Thanks for everything, Jonah” Also in the envelope was a check for $4 million, the pro-rated amount of signing bonus he owed them. He was said to have returned home to his native Montana, but that was all anyone knew.
“So you hustle civilians now,” I say to him as we take seats at the bar. I see the Dodgers have finally gotten a couple hits.
“Just the tourists,” he says. “Money goes to the food bank. Or, sometimes, the drink bank.” He waved his finger in the shape of the Boneyard's horseshoe bar.
“When did you play quarterback?” he asks me. I tell him the story, short version: High school, state championship, small college, injured my sophomore year by a helmet to the chin that hospitalized me for three days. By the time I healed, my job had been taken by my understudy. I switched to punter my senior year as a way to get back on the field.
“In other words, Jonah, I would have killed to be you,” I say. “Why'd you give it up?”
Jonah takes a swig from his beer and looks at the row of bottles behind the bar. “You just get to a point where you've had all you can take,” he says. “You go along with things that aren’t right because you think, This is just the way it is, it can't change. But then one day you realize you can change everything in a second. You just need to do it.”
If he grew frustrated with his life, I imagine it had something to do with the “Mr. Electricity” character the media turned him into. His own team was complicit. Every time he threw a touchdown pass, lightning bolts lit up the giant stadium scoreboards.
“It's certainly quieter here than in Miami,” I say.
“Yes,” Jonah says. “Nice to have a little room to swing your arms.” He says this flatly, though, without any joy.
“You ever miss the game?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “But I'm here.” He waves at the bartender for a fresh beer. “I actually coach a little, a semi-pro team,” he says. “We're called the Hill Rats. Small-time, twenty-five guys total, if everyone shows up. The pay is nothing. But it's good football. Dean's a lineman and our equipment manager, in case you were wondering about the balls.”
“We got a game tomorrow night up at the high school if you're still going to be in town.” He smiles. “Maybe I'll put you in for a couple plays.”
“Me?” I say. “You should put yourself in.”
He laughs. “Nah, these guys play too rough for me.”
We talk for a good half hour. Jonah asks about teammates of mine whom he knows. He greedily gobbles up my gossip.
We’re approached by a woman who is tall and broad-shouldered, with a slim, flat nose. Her long blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail.
“Hey Jonah, you going to introduce me to your friend here?”
“Nick Gallow,” Jonah says. “ This is Dacey McAllister.” She holds her hand out for a shake, and I feel her skin is rough. “I'm a punter too,” she says, with a broad smile.
“It's true,” Jonah says. “She's a Hill Rat. She kicks, punts, covers even. She had a big tackle last week. She can hit.”
This Dacey is also very drunk. She's resting her hand on my shoulder, but it seems more for support than as a come-on.
“Can I show you my punting form?” Dacey asks, leaning in close enough that I can smell the whiskey on her breath.
Before I can demure, she takes my hand and leads me to the empty dance floor. I lean against a post, and Dacey, though tipsy and wearing cowboy boots with heels, goes into a stance that is entirely professional, both balanced and relaxed. She reels off a step-step-step and then brings her leg forward with a swiftness and intensity that lifts her off her feet. She topples sideways, and straight into me. I catch her, my arms around waist that is sturdy and strong.
“How'd I do?” she asks.
“Not bad,” I say. “Forty-three yards, good hang time, no return.”
I look over at Jonah, who is talking to one of the men from out back. He then gets up and leaves the stool, and here I am alone with Dacey. I look around to see where Freddie is, but I can't locate him amid the crowd.
“I'm buying you a drink,” Dacey says. “What'll it be?
“Club soda,” I say.
“You the designated driver?” she asks.
“I am,” I say. “But I don't drink anyway. Health thing.”
We go to the bar, and she orders my club soda and a Wild Turkey 101, and then Dacey tells me about herself. She works on and off in natural gas drilling. She'll be on a job for months, and then come home and party until the money runs out. “Got two months until I have to work again, maybe three,” she says gleefully.
Freddie comes back to me on his own, looking sick. I don't want to ask how much tequila he's had, but it's time for him to stop.
“I have to go,” I tell Dacey. “Nice meeting you. Maybe I'll see you at the game tomorrow night.”
“You should come,” she says. “The Hill Rats are a good time.”
Freddie and I head to the parking lot, and I hold him by his fleshy upper arm. He detaches from me as we near the Sebring and heads toward the driver side, but I shout “Keys!” at him. He slides his hand into his pocket, fishes around, says, “They must be in the car,” and stumbles around to the passenger side. The keys, I see, are on the driver’s seat.
The route home is straight highway, until we hit our turnoff. As we climb the winding path to the lodge, I hear a clump in the trunk. The clump returns every time we hit a bump or take a curve.
“That sound wasn't there before, right?” I say to Freddie, who’s now half passed out, his head slumped against the car window.
When we reach the parking lot of the lodge, I go to the back of the car and open the trunk, and there I see him.
I recognize the mohawk and the line of beard on his chin, even though the right side of his face is masked with crimson. “Dean,” I say, my head close to his ear, but there is no response, no motion. I shake his enormous shoulder, nothing. His chest is still. Dean is dead.
Read Part Two of Night of the Boneyard on Wednesday.
Bill Syken's first Nick Gallow novel will be published in 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books. Follow him @bsyken.
Photo credit for bison skull interstitials: Getty Images