For an Oklahoma mosquito, the fall football schedule means king-size festivities, and they must prepare all year for this season, which lasts about ten weeks, right up to when they decamp for the winter.
No need to wander pathetically in gardens and patios, following the vague trace of carbon dioxide in the air, in search of a tear in a screen through which to enter a sleeping household. A stadium full of fans represents tons of available flesh, conveniently installed in parallel rows of bleachers, exposed unshielded to the American night.
And there’s the kickoff. Our little fifteen-ounce ball grows heavier with speed, and knowing that, it flies above the stadium in a predictable arc whose trajectory is followed by hundreds of pairs of eyes. Once it reaches its apogee, it starts its descent, aiming for the arms of a kickoff returner who’s ready and waiting downfield, who has trained to absorb the shock, and having caught the ball, sets off running as if nothing in the world mattered.
Like him, the quarterback also takes his role to heart, surrounded by his linemen who form a mobile rampart of bodyguards, cutting a path for him, watch out, they’re on the move now, slicing through the defense, that’s what they’re out there for, and when they meet resistance, they push, while the other side pushes right back, big torsos with a job to do, shamelessly violent, no latitude for qualms, apparently.
Yes, but he has to throw a pass at some point, not just hog the ball the whole time, though now it looks like he’s going to try to run it through; brain’s on fire under that helmet, eyes scanning the scene, assessing the situation, he fakes to the right, then pivots, well-worn strategies that still work, not sure how come they still work, no time to stop and think about it with the defensive line bearing down and the clock ticking, can’t fall back on the same old plays, the memorized formations, and there’s a wide receiver who’s giving you some authoritative distress signals that seem to be saying what the fuck are you doing, are you going to pass it or what, and he does look to be in position, doesn’t he? Overhead, the vast black sky, and underfoot, this rectangle of tart green grass is all you can see, but you still haven’t made up your helmeted mind, between yielding to the wide receiver’s pressure to throw, and your own desire to try for the down on your own, and right at that instant, you start to wonder about yourself, how you got there, everything that conspired for you to be the one clutching a football to your chest. But you’re brought back from this split-second of self-scrutiny in the frenzy of action, in the heat of the game and the fear of defeat, when two powerful arms grab you around the legs, making any further yardage impossible, and with the ball still in your possession, you feel the turf moving toward you and you’re down, you fumble the ball in the process, the ground hits you smack in the face, and that’s all, the clock stops, get up, it’s starting all over again.
The defense lines up again, drawn like a curtain, everyone knows what to do, the opposing quarterback sets up the play, and snap. He hesitates, should he pass to the wide receiver, who’s open and waiting, or to that other one way downfield, whose touchdown sprints are history-making, whatever the case, even while hesitating, he’s still inching forward; when crunch time comes, he’ll decide. And he decides, since everything happens so fast, of course. It’s to the wide receiver, here, see what you can do with it, and on it goes, the game plays itself out beneath those big American skies, those wide-open spaces.
Our invisible little flying critters are sharing that same space and sky, wings humming, performing figure-eights in the cooling air, zigzagging to dodge the occasional swat, happy hunters.
Even though it’s autumn, and they know they’ll soon have to find someplace to spend the winter, our bloodsucking friends are enjoying the feast, and they’re always at their very best after dark. Under the blazing stadium lights, against the blackness of night and the chiaroscuro of the playing field, they’re just happy to be alive and thriving. Armies of these dipterans with their invasive labrum are making reconnaissance flights above the bleachers. The collection of bodies below, it has to be said, looks to them like an all-you-can-eat buffet, they hardly know where to begin as they fly dizzily about, giddy to the point of nausea almost, but they’re so happy.
Of course, there are always a few tough customers who’ve come coated in citronella, but their proportion is statistically insignificant; overall, this is a pretty approachable crowd. And then there are those who fell for those insect repellent bracelets you can buy in all kinds of colors, green, fuchsia, electric blue, but they don’t work at all, they’re just fashion statements, wrist candy or whatnot (if you want to know the truth, geranium is the only thing that really does the job, but can you imagine every fan showing up at the stadium with a potted geranium on his knees?), and the mosquitoes stuff their guts just the same, bracelet or no bracelet, no surprise there.
They take all the time they need to choose a target; look, there’s an easy one, how about that bald head right over there, all those appetizing vessels exposed and available, O how delightfully vulnerable they are, it brings a tear to the eye. That helpless, white roundness against the night sky, under the stadium lights that bounce off it like a dead planet in the path of some distant star’s rays. It feels like a moon landing to the mosquitoes. One particularly anthropophilic specimen, newly arrived on the bald planet, pauses a moment to reflect on the skull’s owner who will be going back home in a little while to his house beneath the shade trees, greeted by his loyal dog that has spent the entire evening sprawled on its oversized doggy cushion, performing its guard duties with a kind of vigilant indolence, though its heart is plagued, as always, by the nagging suspicion – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – that this time, its master will not return.
The house must be screened in, like all houses around here, mesh rectangles that click into place on all windows and screen doors. So you can only imagine, dear friends, the long and difficult search for a chink in that armor, a worn spot, any warped area that has pulled away from the frame, enabling the little winged creatures free entry onto the premises to commit their evil deeds.
Our mosquito is picturing in full Technicolor the happiness that awaits as it finally springs into action. Here’s how you do it: you station at just the right distance from your desired target (you have built-in stabilizers), you choose an axis, and down you go to plant your rostrum in the epidermis. Within seconds, you’ve injected the victim with a little homemade anesthesia, so that he feels nothing on contact, and while you’re at it, with an anti-coagulant: voilà, everything’s ready now for the draw. Like sucking through a straw, you take it in, lucky to have such extensible abdominal membranes that allow you to stretch and fill with the divine nectar, whose endless range of subtle flavors – and this is a homage to your victims – you’ve yet to fully explore.
Let’s not kid ourselves, this puncture is soon going to cause the bald man’s scalp no end of grief. The numbing effect can last only so long, and once he’s in bed, under the covers in the humid autumnal night (still too early to switch on the central heat), probably replaying some highlights of the game as he gets comfortable, our pre-sleeper reaches his hand to his head, unconsciously at first, to scratch the site of the bite, but then, fully aware of the itch-inducing inflammation, will scratch more vigorously, as he mumbles a string of unflattering epithets with regard to our little critters and their insatiable appetite. In this house he thought sealed securely against such invaders, he’ll try to retreat into the swampy world of dreams, all the while scratching the now reddened area, hoping to calm the irritation when he’s actually making it worse.
Our miniature vampires still have blood on their probes as they leave in search of their next victim. Meanwhile, a half- back plowing downfield, cleats tearing up the turf, gets tackled, fumbles, loses possession, the ball gets picked up by an opposing lineman, the ref whistles the turnover, and it goes on like that, another receiver makes a catch and puts a knee to the ground, etc., while the flesh of the hale and hearty fans in the stands continues to furnish an inexhaustible supply of nutrition in the cooling night air.
How many times did Tom and Donovan sit in those stadium bleachers, eyes riveted on the bulked-up bodies that fought over possession of the pigskin with such impressive energy (you can say whatever you want, but twenty-two guys whose whole world depends on an oval-shaped leather ball, there’s something amazing and mind-blowing about that, really makes you think, proclaimed Mike). The white-stripe yard lines set against the grass shining beneath the floodlights that exalt the surreal green, and since most of the action takes place midfield, the graceful goalposts at either end have to wait their turn. In the background, the water tower looks almost fake, a fat metallic bulb on stilts, a curious silhouette against the empty sky.
Look at those distorted forms stuffed into all that padded gear, as they seem to shuffle around a little before crashing into each other (the defensive linemen divvy up the work, there are never enough of them when it comes to holding back the opposing team who, let’s face it, are giving our guys a hard time out there; no, this is not a piece of cake, you have to take some hits if you want to stop them, throw yourself into it, forget your mother and father and plunge into the fray, which is exactly what they do), their exaggeratedly wide shoulders making them look like a herd of stampeding bison tearing up the grassy plain.
These guys’ bodies are protected like crazy, there’s a whole ritual to the pregame swaddling.
You want to try it out, just to see? Suit up in one of those uniforms? To start, you lay out your first layer, like a winding cloth to wrap a mummy, but not a full-body wrap, just a strip here, a strip there, giving precedence to the joints: base of the thumb, ankles, and don’t forget the knees, of course, using your basic Ace bandage, a practical, adaptable material, light and easy to handle.
Let’s keep going. You then apply a plastic corset to your ribs, held in place by a pair of wide suspenders (everything in varying shades of white, so as not to clash with the Ace bandages).
All right, now for the elbow pads, thigh and butt guards, tailbone protector, tell me if I’m going too fast, and knee pads, a mixture of plastic and foam that you insert into specially designed pockets in your pants.
But wait, there’s more. You now put on your shoulder pads (this is the most impressive feature, the one that makes you look like a buffalo). The foam contents are treated with an anti-bacterial substance, since a player is likely to be doing quite a bit of sweating out there on the field, not that anyone holds that against him, but they’d prefer that the foam be treated to avoid the mold and mildew that could proliferate in the dark dampness of a football uniform. You lace up easily, thanks to laces located conveniently right below the sternum, and then someone helps you into your jersey, which goes over everything else.
At this point, all that’s left are your socks and cleats, and you’re ready, go have a look in the mirror.
You exit the locker room, running to warm up, and you spill out onto the field. You put on your helmet, which you’ve been holding under one arm (the helmet is also heavy-duty, hard plastic outside, air vents, generously lined inside with individual sections of foam padding, adorned with a more or less flattering face mask composed of plastic-coated metal bars, whose grillwork can vary according to what position you play, and attached to all that, a chin strap. Every player gets his own custom-made mouth guard, molded to each one’s jaw and teeth. Some players even have polycarbonate visors, steam-proofed to avoid the inconvenience of having your vision blurred by your own breathing, which would be a real shame). And you let it all wash over you, the noise from the stands, the humid, sweaty atmosphere, the first signs of autumn in the air. The sound of your own footsteps is absorbed by the grass and the foam-lined helmet, you look mean, your eyes sharpen, but at the same time, you feel so cushioned, not an unpleasant feeling at all, you’re at once vigilant and trusting, you’re about to plunge into a very special time, suspended and yet accelerated, as the time of adventure always is.
Immersed into this very special texture of time, you start to move, a supersized, augmented body, you’re an alien, a steel reinforced animal, all plastic and nylon, with a little bit of flesh vibrating somewhere inside.
To that flesh, our bloodthirsty insect friends shouldn’t expect to gain easy access. The hurly-burly of those twenty-two bodies in action gives them scant opportunity. They’re moving too fast, too unpredictably for you to land and pump from that slippery skin covered in so much protective gear as to make the job impossible. No, you won’t be setting any records with these guys.
You might think it possible to somehow slip in between the helmet and the face mask, but frankly, I wouldn’t advise it: you risk getting trapped inside, stuck in a pearl of sweat, where you’d expire in darkness while you look out through the mask and see the playing field waver as the runner dashes to first down under the blinding stadium lights.
Still, if you know how to go about it, there are plenty of other occasions out there on the field.
The second-string bench warmers look like sitting ducks, over there on the sidelines, not doing much, except watching the A-list play. Looks like just the thing we’re after, and what a win for us if we can score a bite off one of them and get away with a gut-full of their blood, flying over the stadium secure in the knowledge that we’re not just any old mosquitoes. Though I have to admit that they’re all so jittery to get out there and play, so tight and focused on the moment, that they contract their muscles in a way that makes it hard for us to perform that first puncture. So I guess we could also keep our distance and look down on them with an air of I wouldn’t stoop to that, as if to say that we’ve got better things to do.
After that, it’s a matter of taste. You’ve got your referees, seven in all, scattered evenly around the field, wearing striped polo shirts and white trousers, but it’s not their fashion statement that’s at issue here. Their ball caps fit too tightly, while their exposed arms, neck, and cheeks hold out a certain potential. The top ref makes hand signals when necessary, and he’s got dozens to choose from. He’ll run through quite a few: arms raised, arms down – my personal favorite is the illegal pass: facing the press box, top of the right hand pressed flat against the lower back, and I also like the incomplete forward pass, where he crosses his arms over his chest at shoulder height. But all of them are fun to watch.
The refs have to keep their eyes glued to the action, this isn’t the time to get distracted. The optic nerve sends high-speed information packets that need to be processed immediately (an fMRI would show a high activity level in certain cortical areas), and need I mention that there is no room for even the glimmer of a question as to the presence of mosquitoes in the vicinity. No, their undivided attention is devoted to spotting foul play, to watching who’s moving where, to registering and understanding all the stats, they’ve got plenty to think about as it is. Which is why we can allow for a nosedive into their epidermis, for what it’s worth.
The most delicious are the majorettes, though. Ah, the majorettes! Those bare legs, what a feast, and so easy to find a tasty vein right beneath such delicate skin, so fine, so yielding to the puncture, still fragrant from their cherry and pear-scented shower gel, with just a hint of salt brought on by all that strenuous dancing.
Or, instead of hanging out on the gridiron, you could also go all the way up to the press box where all the journalists and announcers sit.
Headphones over their ears (don’t even think about going for the earlobe, you’ll never make it), commentators do the play-by-play, and you can’t tell how much personal history each one brings to the job. They go wild over a pass, exalt over a first down, or fret over missed opportunities, their eyes stuck like magnets to the field whose green glows electric under the lights. But isn’t there something in their voice, despite their level of involvement in the game as witnessed by the force of their delivery, some vocal inflection that conveys a sense of their private self that they’ve had to set aside for the duration of this sports event? It’s hard to know how much their tone of voice can say about personal concerns, mental states, or unresolved issues, all of which have nothing to do with their attitude toward the outcome of the game or the injuries sustained by this or that player – Oh man!, it looks like he’s taken a bad hit – but which have everything to do with entire chapters of their life that get folded and put away as soon as the microphone is turned on, since the requirements of the profession make no allowance for all that; and yet those personal issues manage to redeploy and lift into the evening breeze, just a rustle of the vocal chords that involuntarily communicates a secret emotion.
If Colorado is playing tonight, you’ll see Ralphie over there, off to the side, hello old girl, waiting patiently in a small paddock hardly larger than she is.
Who is Ralphie? Well, she’s a live bison, mascot of the Colorado Buffaloes (every team needs one, right?) that gets released and paraded around the field by a group of handlers; poor creature has no idea what this performance is all about, but carries out her duty with remarkable sangfroid, though never ceasing to wonder why she’s there, at this particular moment, in front of a packed stadium.
The Ralphie you see there isn’t the original, since there have been many successors over the years, each bearing its dynastic number. At the time of this writing (look, it’s snowing, for once, on the streets of Paris, outside my window), I can only speak for Ralphie V, a frisky female with no more insight than her predecessors as to the reasons she gets displayed like that before the overflow crowd, but she’s more or less submissive, eyes on the freshly mowed grass that looks pretty pathetic compared to the meadow where they have her graze, no, nothing very appetizing here, she gallops forward without salivating amid the deafening cheers, it’s unpleasant but she’ll get through it all right, as she always does.
The rest of the time, I guess you could say there’s not a bison around that’s as pampered as this one. Luxury ranch, great view of the mountains, all the fodder she can eat, unlimited pasture, a buffet of alfalfa and oats, you could do a whole lot worse than grazing your brains out under the big Colorado skies.
The first Ralphie, inaugurating the series in the mid-sixties, officiated for a good dozen years, something you wouldn’t necessarily know about, I would guess, before stepping down in favor of Ralphie II, who didn’t last quite as long, and was forced out by Ralphie III, who, it turned out, was still a little young. But she did perform adequately, except for one slapstick incident when she broke free from her handlers; those things can happen, and have happened, over the long history of the Ralphies.
The fourth of the dynasty came to her title at the right age. A coyote had nearly killed her when she was still a young calf, and one wonders whether she was psychologically scarred by the episode. Not at all unlikely. Her stadium career was more eventful than the others’, her personality more unstable, her reactions less predictable. With those sullen looks of a bison who’s seen it all, but still has a few tricks up her sleeve, she was less docile, which demanded extra focus on the part of her very nervous handlers who were understandably worried that she would take advantage of her overwhelmingly superior strength and break free to go head-butt someone, let’s see, what might you enjoy, maybe that line of smiley cheerleaders over there, with their inane high-kicking and swirly short skirts, knocking two over and goring another, not a pretty picture, definitively discrediting the line of Ralphies, the pride of every citizen of Boulder, Colorado. Something about that early trauma made people feel protective of her, I guess, and her occasional escapades were simply her way of struggling with the horrible memory that would return to haunt her, though they left a certain bitterness in the hearts of the good folks of Boulder.
Our Ralphie V is more easygoing, an uneventful upbringing, nothing noteworthy in her biography, we’re delighted for her. Born in 2006 and full of promise, even though one of her horns is slightly damaged (several versions of how that happened are in circulation). Truth be told, she does have a few pranks to her credit, but you can chalk those up to youthful insouciance, nothing to write home about.
The inhabitants of Colorado towns love it when Ralphie passes by in her pickup truck, I can tell you that for sure. They rush to their windows, Look there’s Ralphie, and soon the whole household is trying to get a glimpse, good old Ralphie, everyone’s always happy to see her behind the metal bars of that truck, or supporting the home team at games, they feel a wave of affection for her every time that truck passes, with her name in big gold letters on the side, Hey, there she goes, it’s Ralphie.
Just as your Ralphie predecessors did, you forge your own idea of what life’s all about, accepting the shabby paddock at the stadium, the skimpy pickup truck you have to ride in, the ludicrous laps around the football field to the roaring cheers of the crowd, especially at halftime (they’ve gotten all warmed up by then, up there in the bleachers), because there’s also the air out there on the prairie, where they come and brush you down, talk to you in a language you don’t understand but which sounds friendly and admiring – these are great moments of happiness, out there beneath the open sky, with everything you need right at hand.
As for the Oklahoma team, ours that is, it’s something else altogether: what you see at the beginning of each half is a small-scale covered wagon, painted in school colors, pulled by two rugged-looking, snow-white ponies, their minds a blank behind their blinders, and driven by a guy standing, reins in hand, eyes on the field in front of him, while some beauty queen or other sits next to him, smiling and waving to the crowd, bare-armed.
This kitschy paraphernalia is supposed to replicate the arrival of the settlers, folklore for the sports field, conjuring up some warped western nostalgia, revisited and reprocessed into a cleaned-up, palatable version, a page of American history impossible to turn.
This is the mascot of the Sooners, a reference to the great land rush, to those who arrived sooner than others to stake their claim, but today, it’s just a source of chauvinist pride: the Sooner, the Better.
The clear advantage of this mascot over the Ralphies is that a Conestoga wagon can have no second thoughts as its wheels turn obediently on their axles, experiencing no pleasure or pain. The assemblage of planks and canvas, hinges and dowels, neither aches nor moans, just dashes around the field in the absence of any self-awareness or emotion, indifferent to the floodlights or the noisy strangeness of the scene.
But let’s get back to our mosquitoes: at this point, out on the playing field, the Sooners are still clasping that nearly weightless ovoid object as if nothing in the world were more important, that leather egg they want to keep all to themselves, defend from the enemy like furious, heroic mother hens, exhausting themselves before the cheering crowd.
While the players keep acting out the timeless desire to keep things for oneself, the learned behavior of sharing only with people you know, and the atavistic urge to steal what the adversary possesses, the mosquitoes resume their flight pattern around the stadium, but hasn’t something in them changed? Has a new sensation replaced their earlier unmitigated enthusiasm, when they flitted about carefree, heedless of what tomorrow might bring?
Earlier, they were basking in the warm glow of impunity, in the undisturbed happiness that opulence alone can afford, and now, all of a sudden, they’re not in such great shape. Something insidious has seeped into their souls, and the ribbed wings they deployed with such vim only moments ago now feel heavy and limp, like sails that have taken on water.
And there’s a reason for this: the same profusion that made them so giddy has now exhausted them. They no longer know what to do with so many choices.
Our little critters are having trouble exercising their free will, and they’re thinking that recent events must have stirred up some murky, unconscious reason for this new indecisiveness, circumstances they’d thought buried and forgotten but that have resurfaced to undermine their will, turning them into mindless, irresolute creatures. Things that go back to their childhood, because it’s not at all the same thing if your mother deposited the egg from which you hatched on the surface of a cute little pond (where inverted images of surrounding trees were mirrored against a blazing blue sky), or on the banks of some river (where the reflected landscape gets blurred), or – what were those mothers thinking – in rainwater collecting in a discarded truck tire, or in the effluvia of a sewer pipe, or any other insalubrious location where your mother had the poor judgment to drop you off, believing that mere moisture (and subsequent proteins) would be enough to nourish the larva that you would become in a dozen or so hours; for she doesn’t think for a moment, the poor dear, that the place where you open your eyes for the first time could possibly count for anything in later life.
Its mother, whom, might I add, it has never seen, who just did what she had to do, when it came to egg-laying and all, but who, after leaving you on your own, like a mother abandoning her child on the steps of a church, hit the road again, the way the proverbial cowboy does, moving on, a trail of tear-stained regrets in his wake.
So it’s not impossible that our reluctant mosquitoes, befuddled by their own ineptitude, started thinking back to those puddles of their birth, to their orphan journey into the world (whether in a magnificent landscape or the bottom of some gutter), since, one way or the other, you had to learn how to get along on your own without parental help, and how those early days affected their self-image and the way they relate to others, and which, in the long run, have rendered them so incapable when it comes to decision-making. We’re ruminating on all that while the frenzied fans cheer on the players, increasingly excited as the clock counts down the final minutes, and we fret over our unresolved issues that still tie our guts up in knots and spoil our enjoyment of all the available flesh on offer, we can be really stupid sometimes.
All of that by way of saying that, yes, Donovan and Tom did spend a lot of time in the bleachers attending football games, just like the other undergrads did, side by side, sharing in the suspense inherent in the sport, exclaiming at the beauty of a block or pass amid the scramble and click of colliding helmets that glint and dart under the stadium lights, helmets housing stubbornly bellicose thoughts, all intent upon a single goal: to take possession of that seemingly insignificant fifteen-ounce prize, the coveted pigskin.
They were there for the beauty of the game, no doubt, but also because the girls went, and it was so wonderful to watch them follow the action, all tense and excited, but equally wonderful when they’d get bored with the game and begin looking around, and sometimes, your eyes would meet theirs, but often you could tell by their look that they had retreated into some interior world, where God only knows what was going on.
Image © Josh Hallett