THE MAN FROM THE BLEACHERS

The chorus of whispers began when he took his seat. Middle aged, balding, and with a gut bulging above his black jeans, the man spread out his red, blue, and white towel on the flat and cold surface of the metal bleachers. He always sat in the same spot. He never missed a game. That is what terrified people so much. 

“I heard he never even went here,” one senior said to her friend. 

“That dude is the biggest creep ever. Definitely gives off pedo vibes,” a sophomore boy said to his junior cousin. 

“I don’t know why he comes,” one parent said under her breath. Unlike the others, she knew the man. Not personally and not as a friend, but she knew him because he was a local. Yes, he really had gone to the high school despite the contemporary rumors. He had been a non-entity—a perpetual fly on the wall and a shadow floating down the hallways. Eyes always glued to his flat-top sneakers. A forgettable in a forgettable town. He should have just moved away, she thought, or at least gotten married and had kids like any decent person. Instead, he came to high school football games. She only realized at the end of her unspoken diatribe that she did not remember his name. 

The crowd did not know why he attended the football games so religiously. They did not know because the man did not know either. He had never been interested in football during his youth. The sport meant nothing to him. High school had not meant much either. He never joined any clubs, never went to prom, and never went to parties. High school had been his job; he clocked in and clocked out. The daily reward was going home, where he proceeded to do nothing but watch television. The life that followed proved just as non-descript: four years of college and then a job in an office doing clerical work. Nothing but routine, routine, routine. The man was a type of gray thing that lived a gray life. And it never bothered him.

Until the day of the run. He had never worked out before. Never been a “health nut.” An annual check-up informed him that he needed to exercise in order to reduce his high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The doctor with the flattop full of gray bristles had suggested jogging as a pastime. The man dutifully complied, although he found he disliked jogging. It hurt his knees and ankles too much, so he switched to brisk walking. He found enough benefits in the habit to keep it up. 

One afternoon in early September, with the first crisp wind entering his rising and falling lungs, he stopped and took a break at what he assumed was an average parking lot. He rested gently against an SUV. He was careful not to trip the alarm. He did most things carefully, anyway. As he checked his pulse, his ears, usually dull to the world around him, heard the voice of God say something about a first down. But it was not the voice of God, but rather the voice of Mr. Michael Schaeffer, the band teacher and announcer for the Millersville High Cougars, the defending state champions in class AAA. Schaeffer’s voice, rendered tinny by the old microphone and speaker system, echoed all across the bowl-shaped field and came down gently into the parking lot. This was manna. There, the transfixed man followed the voice like a moth follows a flashlight. He reached the end of the line when he found the chain-link fence. Next to it was a booth that appeared empty, but actually contained a young teenager. The coffee-colored girl asked him for a ticket. The man shook his head. The girl informed him that one ticket cost twenty dollars. That was twenty dollars that the man did not have, either in his damp sweatpants or his wallet at home. He slinked away until he found the most isolated part of the fence. 

This became his vantage point and his perch and his eagle’s nest. From his high view he watched the rest of the game. Rather than green grass, the field was an ocean of blue-green turf. It was an artificial sea where young, barely pubescent boys sweated and bled in front of half-empty bleachers. The few who attended screamed and belted until their lungs collapsed. He suspected that these people were parents. He was right. Their passion was an attempt to propel their boys on, but to also give a barbaric umph to their otherwise drab lives. This was a type of war cry, he suspected. It felt tribal. It felt dangerous. 

And he liked it. He loved it instantly. 

He liked the plastic cracks of helmets hitting each other. He watched the tiny, ant-like legs plow forward. He watched them dance and pirouette into the endzone. He felt his spirit or his soul or whatever vibration that existed in his chest rise with each ringing of the cowbells or shaking of pom-poms. He could not articulate it, but he was possessed by high school football.

That night, rather than sleep, he spent the quiet hours until morning reading everything he could about the Millersville High football team on his desktop computer. It was like discovering his high school for the first time—he learned the words to the fight song, he memorized the important stats about championship wins and offensive and defensive records, and he jotted down the names of the current roster. The quarterback, Addison Cryer, was touted as a top prospect in the state, which most likely meant he’d ride the bench for the big university two towns over. Some online commentators even claimed that the kicker, Chris Shears, and the outside linebacker, Davidson Tallerico, could win scholarships. Everyone assumed that the Cougars would win their second state title in as many years. The only point up for discussion was which school was going to earn the dubious distinction of being runner-up.

In just twenty-four hours, he was addicted. He replaced his aimless walks with purposeful ones, with the purpose being walking from his house (previously owned by his deceased grandparents) to Cougar Field every Friday evening during the season. He timed and mapped it out so that he could get to the field at precisely the right time to see everything, from the marching band to the final whistle. He became covetous of his seat as well, which was in the upper right quadrant of the bleachers on the home team side. By the third game of the first season, he had perfected his uniform as well: a blue hoodie featuring the school’s Millie the Cougar mascot, a red watch cap featuring the school’s emblem, and black jeans. He later augmented his ensemble with a key chain that he purchased from a fundraiser held by the 4 H Club, a wallet that he bought from the concession stand, and a pair of headphones from Walgreens. He kept the headphones connected to the radio that he always had attached to his hip. From it he would listen to the game while watching. He preferred to hear each play called by the team of Steve Reed and “Big Cat” Paul Gustafson. The obvious chemistry between the two old timers sweetened the deal that much more. Plus, on rare occasions, he took glee in being ahead of them and their listeners, thereby having a type of basic foreknowledge that is denied to most mortals. 

That whole first season he listened, and he watched. By the second season, after the graduation of Addison Cryer, Chris Shears, and Davidson Tallerico, which caused him to cry through an entire Saturday, he worked up enough courage to leave his seat and stand down by the locker room. 

“Good game, guys.” These were the first words that he managed to say. They exited his crunched-up lips like a low grunt. Their softness and shyness meant that nobody heard him, thus nobody answered. Still, despite his first disappointment, he kept going back after each home game. “Good game, guys,” he would say. Eventually, a freshman player nodded at him and said, “Thanks.” That settled things for him. It was the clear highlight of his life. He had been acknowledged by one of his heroes. He felt both vindicated and complete. He soon transitioned to asking for autographs. And then it was pictures. The third season found him offering to buy the players Gatorade from the vending machines, or ice cream after the games. 

The Millersville High players at first thought he was someone’s dad. Then he became someone’s uncle. Finally, when nobody confessed to sharing blood with him, they pegged him correctly as their most committed fan. All was well for a while. The pimply-faced players appreciated his earnest admiration. A few saw the admiration as more akin to adoration and thus maintained a healthy distance. Still, the collective mood towards the man from the bleachers was generally positive. 

A rumor began that changed everything. Like lightning on a sunny day, it arrived with unannounced malignance.   

Like all high school rumors, no one knew its origin. It could have come from fact; it could have been pure fiction. But, like a cold or sticks of gum, it made its way through the school until it became commonplace. The man from the bleachers was a pervert. He liked to go to the games because it was part of his kink. He got off on teenage boys getting sweaty and hurt. He hung around the locker room in the hopes of being invited in. They said he masturbated all night long to the fabulous scent of used jock straps. He was a sicko—pure and simple. His offers to buy the players ice cream took on a dark hue. Without realizing or noticing it, the man from the bleachers had become the town legend. 

The fourth season saw more and more people move away from him. The bleachers around him emptied out, so that he was left alone. He who had spent his whole life invisible now became visible. The parents from the visiting team even knew about him, and before entering Cougar Field most warned their sons not to hang around after the game. They would whisper dreadful words like “pedophile” and “rapist.” Even the Millersville players saw him as a pestilence. The freshmen only knew him as a villain, while the older kids did not care enough about him to play any semblance of defense for his reputation. 

And yet, he remained. He never missed a home game. He maintained his tranquility and purpose by listening and watching and never missing a thing. He quit his job just so that he could never be dragged away from the game. He lived off his inheritance (his mother died halfway through the third season; dad had preceded her a decade before) and welfare payments. He ate only Chef Boyardee and macaroni and cheese out of the box. If he wanted to treat himself then he’d buy hotdogs with chili, coleslaw, and mustard at the game. He would wash it down with blue Gatorade, his favorite flavor. He was blissful because he was so ignorant of how much he was scorned. 

As with so much in life, fate sloughed off her sleeping blanket and placed her finger into the pool. Rather than rings, she made a widening gyre with an intent to swallow. The victim was pre-selected. He had always been selected. No free will on the occasion at all. Few know this, and fewer would want to. 

The summer between the fourth and fifth season, Jimmy Bonaci, the team’s fullback, died in a car accident. The reason for the accident was no mystery: Bonaci was higher than a kite on spiked weed that he had purchased from his brother’s best friend, while the other driver was a divorced dad drunk on homemade wine. Their cars met over the centerline on the highway. The dad survived, while Jimmy Bonaci died drowning in his own blood-filled lungs. The town agreed that it was a tragedy that the young one died while the older one lived. They got closure in that case when the dad went to jail for manslaughter. The minority who saw the injustice in punishing one impaired driver for an accident involving another impaired driver dutifully kept their comments as private as possible and mostly unsaid. 

The next event, or rather the next turning, occurred when Mr. Ryan Hawkins, a newly minted English teacher fresh out of the local university, got busted sleeping with one of his students. The student’s name never made the papers, or the radio given that she was fifteen. However, Hawkins’s name appeared everywhere. For a time, he replaced the man from the bleachers as the premiere pervert of the county, and he was treated as such. The school fired him, while the state revoked his teaching license. The name “Ryan Hawkins” never recovered, but the man himself managed to get married and have a respectable life in Ohio under a new name. As for the girl, her secret was never a secret at all in the school, and she was shamed off of the cheerleading squad. By her senior year she was eating pills like others eat pizza. 

It was in the man’s sixth and seventh season that things fell apart. The well-built house crumbled, and it was ugly to witness. It started on the football field. After winning yet another championship, the Cougars had back-to-back losing seasons—a first in school history. Running back William Simpkins underperformed after a sensational freshman year, while an early injury to quarterback Kyle Preston, plus an interception-heavy string of games for back-up Alex Menard, created chaos in the offense. The Cougar defense was no bright spot either, as the once dominant school tumbled to the bottom of the rankings in rush and pass defense. The seasons were abysmal. The nadir came when Coach Randleman, a forty-year stalwart of the school, suffered an incapacitating stroke. Coaching duties fell to his son and offensive coordinator, Danny Randleman. Junior floundered and showed a greater propensity to lose his cool than to win on the field. His dad’s death was the end of it all—the Randleman family temporarily walked away from coaching, leaving the position to be occupied by a rotating cast of hapless coordinators. 

The cascading misfortune occurred away from football, too. Pedestrian events, from a burst pipe to a gas leak, caused the school to close down more than was desired. Then, in May, while most of the students were focused on the approaching end of the year, Meredith Blakeley, a junior, went missing from her family’s townhouse. No panic occurred on day one. The sheriff’s department rehashed the usual litany of “teenage runaway syndrome.” 

“She will be home soon enough,” the deputies told her worried parents. 

“She was probably bored. Can’t blame her. Nothing worth bothering about in this town. Even our football team stinks,” the deputies said to each other. 

Day one bled into weeks, and then months. Intense focus on finding Meredith in the early summer snapped like a heatwave in August, and by the new school year, only the Blakeley family were still looking. Even the “Missing Person” posters had either flown away or had been discarded. The janitors and street cleaners who put so many of them away for good would argue among themselves about whether or not Millersville High was cursed. Among those who believed it, there was no consensus on the root cause. The only point of total agreement was that things just kept getting worse in Millersville, and the bottom had not yet been reached. 

They were right. 

Eight years and two whole classes since the man began watching football, Millersville High experienced the unimaginable. After so many stories, and after some breaking news cycles, the national epidemic had finally visited the small-town high school. Thankfully, unlike so many before it, Millersville’s event ended without blood. Drew Marquez, the second-string offensive lineman, gave up his gun as the police closed in on him. For the fourth period social studies students that he had been taken hostage, they went home that night frightened and perennially scarred, but at least they went home. The teacher, Mr. Randolph, would change professions that same year and became something of a minor celebrity. He exploited his experience as an entry point into progressive politics, but his candidacy went nowhere. As for Drew, he was put on trial, and as a newly minted eighteen-year-old, was charged as an adult. His conviction was a forgone conclusion. However, when it ended, nobody cared. The only thing the good people of Millersville cared about and talked about were the accusations. Drew Marquez, after placing his hand on the Bible and swearing to tell the whole truth, explained to the courtroom that he took a gun to school that day not to hurt or kill, but to finally get people to pay attention to him. He was suffering, he said. He was a victim of repeated sexual assault. Each incident happened not at home or along some dark trail, but at the football field. The assaults happened after practice and after games. The man, whose name Drew Marquez did not know, would always approach him and offer him a drink or something to eat. These items were laced with slow-acting drugs which rendered Drew Marquez semi-paralyzed. In this fugue state the offensive lineman was raped anally and orally. 

The story cut through the town like a machete and left ugly and crass wounds. The sheriff’s department tried to get to the left of it by repeating that they had no evidence to verify the story. They all but directly said that Drew Marquez was lying. Nobody listened. The people, especially the students at Millersville High and their parents, already had their minds made. 

“It’s time to party, bro!” Tight end C.J. Nuzum grabbed the man by his shoulders and dragged him into the locker room. It was the first game of the new season, and the Cougars were flush in the afterglow of their victory. Their losing streak had come to an end at the expense of the Candlewood High Black Bears. The game had not even been close, as the Cougars rushed for four touchdowns to stomp all over the Black Bears, who only managed a lone field goal. The crowd erupted into applause and cathartic war yawps after Michael Schaeffer announced the final score over the intercom. The man, all alone, jumped up and down a few times with his clenched fists pumping like pistons. Euphoria and habit sent him down to the locker room, where he expected a few autographs and pictures. Instead, the man received an invitation of a lifetime to enjoy the fruits of victory alongside the team in their most private quarters. He did not need to verbally accept the offer; his full face of awe was all that was needed. The man had finally reached his goal of being accepted as a member of the team. 

The players, both jv and varsity, circled around him as soon as he entered the locker room. While the door was closed and locked by the strength and conditioning coach, the man from the bleachers reached emotional transcendence as each player shouted gleefully in his face. They kept their eyes wide and friendly so as not to alarm him. Some hugged him; others slapped his back or taught him elaborate handshakes. The music in the room was pumped up so loud as to be disorienting. The throbbing bass and staccato booms of the 808 were meant to further obscure events in the periphery. He did not care ultimately. Even if he knew what was coming, he would have accepted it as part of the necessary process of achieving his ultimate desire. Others dream of Heaven or beautiful women; he dreamed of the football team until the team put him to sleep. 

The first blow could have come from anyone. The events that transpired in that locker room will always be cloaked in mystery, for widespread guilt turned into absolute silence. Everyone got dirty. Some only touched sin lightly by throwing a weak punch or a desultory shove. The older boys, the ones scheduled to leave for college, or the ones considered the leaders of the team, engaged in more grotesque activities. Some kicked and stomped the man’s head after he had lost consciousness. Some pressed their knees to his testicles and leaned forward to distribute all of their weight onto the target. One player, long rumored to be the cornerback Clint Strakal, inserted the rounded end of a janitor’s broom into the man’s rectum. After an hour, the players took their showers. Their uniforms were tossed into industrial-sized trash bags that would be burned later that night. The locker room would be swept and mopped and sanitized twice over. As for the body, two members of the coaching staff were designated as the disposal crew. They were given the barest instructions: take it somewhere remote and bury it deep. 

The men drove well across the county line and into a neighboring state. They pulled off the highway and followed a circuitous and nonsensical series of country roads until, at one a.m., they left a blacktop for a gravel trail that ended in clearing. They removed the body along with two shovels and a bottle of bleach. They walked some distance into the woods until they found a fallen and thick tree branch. They began digging at the natural marker until they reached what they suspected to be six feet. The mutilated body was dumped down in the wet mud and semi-soft dirt. The entire bottle of bleach was poured over the remains before the earth was moved again. By sun up, all was complete. The deed was done. The crime was covered up.

When the new season started, a few in the first game crowd wondered about the man’s whereabouts. By game two, they agreed that he had changed his tune and was now listening to the games at home. By game three, everyone assumed that he had moved away. Game four and he was forgotten. The Cougars were undefeated, and that was more important than some weirdo superfan. 

That season came and went. The Cougars kept winning. Classes enrolled and graduated. The man from the bleachers stayed away. It was just as well, because he, the unnamed wraith, had transmogrified through the years into the source of all of Millersville’s ills. He was the pedophile rapist who ruined Drew Marquez. He was the man who had murdered and cannibalized Meredith Blakeley (body never recovered). He had killed Jimmy Bonaci and dated a fifteen-year-old cheerleader. He had cursed the whole town until, like a season, he disappeared. 

Arbogast is a poet with a blog. You can purchase his new poetry collection, “Nocturnes”, here