End Game If you’ve ever seen one of those fat guys who think they’re tough simply because their bellies hang over their crotches like a scenic overlook in the Rockies, then you would recognize Rudy Bilodeau. He’s like many guys my age, former high-school athletes gone to seed who haven’t learned that thirty years after the whistle ending the last game is long enough to give it a rest. You know the kind; give them a few beers, and they’ll relive every second of every game they ever played, like those endless films the coach used to show the Monday following Friday’s or Saturday’s game, running the eight-millimeter projector back and forth, asking if that was really you on the third call for holding, or wondering aloud why you didn’t key on the guard in front of you instead of taking the motion fake from the running back when you got your clock cleaned on a crack-back block. The Rudys of the world run those same films in their heads, embellishing where their memory has deserted ship and lying when they think they can get away with it. They dream of putting on the pads again, and they still think of the cheerleaders in Peter Pan terms: girls in red tights who never grew up. The stark truth is the girls are all middle-aged women, most with kids who are cheerleaders or football players, and the only equipment that still fits is the helmet. Rudy wrote the book on old jock stories. He was the biggest guy on our football team, which is to say that he was fat even in high school, and the easiest to trap block because he always went for the same outside move by the tackle. To compensate, he would use his bulk to push smaller guys around, grabbing their face masks, and punching them in the groin in the middle of the pile. He even started biting when he found out that Conrad Dobler, a guard for the Cardinals when they were still in St. Louis, did it. Rudy wasn’t very good at one-on-one drills against guys with some talent, but he would look for a cheap shot whenever he could get it, usually when the action slowed just before the ref whistled the play dead. But as luck would have it, even Rudy had his day in the sun.We were playing Harding for the division championship, and Rudy as usual had been blocked out of the play. But defensive pursuit turned the quarterback inside where one of our all-state linebackers hit him hard enough to pop the ball loose. Rudy tripped over his own feet and fell on the fumble on our own six yard line. He accidentally saved the game for us and enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame, complete with name and picture in the paper. Although a marginal player by anyone’s standards, he got credit for saving a sure touchdown that would have knocked us out of a shot at the state title. We lost the big one by four TD’s to Rocky Mount, a one-horse town that must have recruited their team from Green Bay’s rejects, but the Harding game was enough to secure Rudy’s reputation forever, in his mind at least. Rudy wasn’t exactly a mover and shaker back then, even off the field. Once, the coach had to beg Rudy’s algebra teacher to let him catch the team bus to go to a game because Rudy hadn’t done his homework. I would have to drag out my old yearbook to check the organizations he belonged to, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Other than football, I don’t think he did anything, even date except for a homely girl all of us used to call the Roadrunner because of the way she scurried through the hallways on the way to class, book-laden arms crossed over her shallow breasts and her eyes straight ahead. I think the Roadrunner even cut him loose after a couple of movies. Knowing Rudy, it was probably the burgers at the drive-in after that killed the relationship. Rudy went after food the way a piranha goes after an injured gazelle. Oh yeah, I remember one other thing: under his senior picture, someone on the yearbook committee with a sense of humor had put “Death Before Disaster.” Somebody said later that he thought it was something the Rangers had for a motto and liked it so much he had it tattooed on him someplace. I’ll give him credit for trying to enlist in the Army after a stint as a convenience store clerk, but he never could make the weight.You might think that I’m being too hard on the guy, maybe because he beat me out of my position or stole my girlfriend, and I still hold a grudge. Nice try, but that’s not how this little story plays out. Rudy was a second-string defensive tackle, and I was the starting offensive right guard. Sure, just like the deodorant—I’ve heard all the jokes. Rudy would usually get into the game when we were either losing beyond redemption or so far ahead his clumsiness wouldn’t hurt us too badly. The only guys Rudy could beat out on the depth chart were smaller juniors and dumber seniors—and there weren’t many of the latter. He got into the Harding game that time because the starting tackle had broken his ankle the week before. It was either Rudy or a 165-pound kid who would have been meatloaf by the second quarter. So football’s got nothing to do with it. And if the Roadrunner wouldn’t have him, the rest of us felt pretty safe.I’m telling this part of the story to give you a little background and to help you understand why someone would want to take a twelve-gauge shotgun and transform Rudy from 278 pounds of brainless blubber into 276 pounds of dog food. Rudy lost a bit of himself in the process, which accounts for the disparity in weight and the reason why his marginally grieving wife opted for a closed casket at the funeral. Since nobody really gave a shit about Rudy—except whoever killed him—it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference if Doris had ridden him through the center of town propped up in his favorite recliner with the remote in his hand in the bed of their old Ford F-150. For most of us who knew him, it was sufficient that we wouldn’t have to listen to Rudy’s stories any more and endure those pickled-egg farts that he thought were so clever.To tell the truth, I hadn’t given Rudy much thought after high school. I tried college, got laid, got bored, and then flunked out after my sophomore year when I was too hung over to take my finals. Well, swimming nude in the fountain in front of the women’s dorms (they weren’t co-ed back then) might have had some bearing on the decision to leave early. After college, I joined the Army to be all I could be and discovered that all I could be was an 11-Bravo grunt who jumped out of perfectly good airplanes with over a hundred pounds of equipment strapped to him. I was foolish enough to fall for a DI’s blandishments about my size and strength and decided then and there to become a machine-gunner. The DI neglected to tell me that the machine-gunner was always the first man to draw concentrated fire, but even that might not have mattered, because man oh man, did I fall in love with that M-60. But that’s a story for another time. I spent four years in the military, made buck sergeant, got the clap in three different cities, food poisoning in four more, learned all I could about weapons, demolitions, and small-unit tactics and was sorely disappointed when there were no wars for me to fight. Worse, none loomed on the pre-9/11 geopolitical horizon, so at the end of my hitch, I opted out and caught the first flight back home. Which is where I bumped into Rudy again.I had been back two days and living at my parents’ house (bless their patience) until I could find a place and a plan of my own. I strolled around town for a little while, nodding to people I barely remembered and drifting into a couple of the old places, most of which had been replaced by McDonalds or Wendy’s. The sun started to bake me around 2:30, so I made my way to Johnny’s Billiards, one of the old hangouts where underage kids used to buy ice-cold Busch Bavarian if we could reach the counter with the money. Johnny’s been dead a long time now, but it was still the place to have a cold beer and shoot a couple of racks of nine-ball. I pushed open the door, and the air conditioning blast immediately dried the sweat on me, reminding me briefly of the NCO club at Bragg. The interior was dark but not so dark I couldn’t make out Rudy, taking up all of one bar stool and most of the ones on either side of him. He had a Budweiser long-neck in front of him and was shoveling the free popcorn faster than a front loader humping sand after a blizzard. The back of his neck had three rolls of fat hanging over the collar that made his ears stick out like the doors on a V.W. Beetle, and a bald spot about the diameter of a tennis ball peeked out from under black hair that needed an oil change five thousand miles ago. Some sort of brown uniform shirt had pulled loose from his pants in the rear, displaying maybe three inches of mottled cleavage when he leaned forward to make a point. He still hadn’t learned to polish his shoes. Hell, he couldn’t even reach them by this time.Rudy had set up shot glasses and empty beer bottles on the bar to resemble a football lineup and was taking the other customers through some befuddled version of a game long gone. Jethro Tull was doing Thick as a Brick on the Wurlitzer in the corner, which somehow seemed appropriate. I didn’t know any of the other people in the bar, at least on my side of it, but the bartender was a guy who had graduated a year behind me. He looked shrunken, like most people who decide to stay in town after high school instead of moving somewhere else, but he also looked grateful when he could walk away from Rudy’s replay at the other end to say hello.“Jesus, Crawford. It’s been, what, six, seven years? Carol was in here last night, and she said you were back in town and staying at your folks’. Looks like the Army was pretty damn good to you. You’re still about the same size.” And on and on he went until he finally got to the end and the usual “Good to see you again.” It was neither good nor bad to see each other again; it’s simply where we both happened to be at that particular time, but custom demanded the lies. You have to keep in mind that we all called each other by our last names back in high school, so I wasn’t offended that McDonald (first name Boyd) called me Crawford instead of my given name. It seems like during my brief collegiate career and my stint in the military, I was always Crawford. Of course, when I was in the Army, that’s what was stenciled across my chest, and most of the time I feel like it’s still there. Even my wife calls me Crawford. I guess I’m just one of those guys who just inspires use of the surname.While Boyd and I made noises as if we really were glad to see each other, Rudy turned his big head and looked our way. You could always tell when Rudy was pissed off; his face flushed and his eyes took on a porcine look, and he had a habit of clenching and unclenching his fists. Just then, his right fist was full of Budweiser, but his face was red, and the eyes looked like brown stones under a foot of water. He hadn’t changed much; he still resented anyone who could possibly steal his thunder. But he recognized me and swiveled to face me, the stool creaking ominously under the strain.“Crawford? That you?” He got precariously to his feet, swayed like a Ponderosa pine in a stiff wind, and made his way down the bar. “Holy shit, man, I haven’t seen you since, fuck, that fifth reunion thing.” I could see an American flag stitched above the shirt pocket on the right side, but it was displayed backward, the stars in the upper right corner instead of the upper left. A military-type name tag hung carelessly above the other pocket just below a silver badge of some sort. A tiny revolver served as a tack for his clip-on tie, the point of which missed his belt buckle by a good five inches. He switched the Bud to his left hand and held out his right. As soon as I took it, I knew he would try to crush my hand in his. It was his way of asserting himself. When I let my hand go limp in his, confusion flickered across his eyes. He frowned briefly and released his grip, then lifted a haunch onto the stool closest to me. I didn’t bother to tell him that I had never attended any reunions; it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. He nodded toward the other end of the bar.“I was just showing the guys how we beat the living shit out of Myers Park for homecoming that time. Remember? They had that All-State asshole on defense that had all the scholarship offers, and you and Kenny double teamed him on the first play from scrimmage and Bob Mathis ran seventy-six fuckin’ yards.” He shook his head and took a hit off the Bud. “That was one of my best games. Made seven unassisted tackles and had two sacks. Damn, those were good days.” Then he looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time. “Hey, last I heard, you were in the Army or something. Doris said she read about it in the paper.” He looked at both sides of my head like he was inspecting a dog he contemplated buying. “The haircut doesn’t do much for you.”It was a typical shot, and I ignored it. “Yeah,” I told him. “I got discharged about a week ago. Thought I’d come back here and see what was happening before I decided what to do.”He reached across the open space between us and slapped me hard on the shoulder. I rolled with it and didn’t react.“Still hard as a goddamn rock, but you’re smaller. They run all the weight off you? Always heard that army chow was pure shit. What’re you now, 195 or so?” He paused there for just a second. “Maybe if you stay long enough at your mama’s house she’ll build you up a little, put some meat back on your bones.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the other drinkers had heard. For Rudy, it always came down to size because that’s all he had.“I’m about where I was during that Myers Park game,” I told him. “A little over 200 but not much.” I took the draft Boyd handed me and reached for my pocket. Rudy put his paw on my forearm. “You don’t pay for nothin’ while I’m in here. Isn’t often we get a celebrity back in town to pay us peons a visit, so you just sit back and enjoy yourself.” He nodded to Boyd. “Give Crawford here whatever he wants and put it on my tab.” He turned back to me bleary eyed. “Least I can do for an old teammate. Right?” He thumped me again on the shoulder, this time a little bit harder, and his eyes got that squinty look that bouncers in bars all over the world know means trouble.It was a situation that was headed toward ugly in the fast lane. Rudy was half drunk and looking to flex his muscle, and he and I had never been friends even when we played together. In military parlance, I was a target of opportunity. His best days were behind him, and he would have had a hard time taking a ninth-grader who could bob and weave a little, but the beer and fat produced an alchemical combination that filled the vacuum between his ears with visions of Rambo and grafted on him the balls of a bull elephant during rut. That is, Anheuser Busch had accomplished in a matter of hours what the military spends months in doing: the transformation of a normal human being into a goal-directed psychopath who couldn’t wait to see someone else’s blood on the ground. The bar was suddenly very quiet.“Rudy—“ Boyd began.“Shut up, McDonald,” Rudy said without bothering to look at him. He sat the empty long-neck down on the bar, dropped both hands to his thighs and leaned toward me. His breath smelled like a dead cat’s asshole “You know what, Crawford? I always thought you started all them games because you kissed so much ass your fuckin’ nose should have been brown.” He tilted his head to one side then the other. “I could have started if Coach Patten had been fair about it. Ask anybody.” He reached for the Bud and drew wet circles on the bar with the bottom of the bottle. “Then you went off to that fancy college, and that’s all anyone around here talked about that whole year, like your shit didn’t stink.” His lip actually curled like he could smell it. “The rest of us stayed here and went to work, got real jobs, but nobody said a goddamn thing about that. No, it was always Crawford this and Crawford that, like the rest of us were stupid or a buncha Porta Ricans.” He smiled at me, and I got ready. He slowly, lazily reached out a hand, as if to pat me on the cheek. When it got halfway there, I told him once.“Don’t.”The hand hung in the air like a puppet’s, waiting for its master to pull its string. The smile wavered but stayed in place. “Don’t?” he asked, a bloated monarch on a vinyl throne.“Right, Rudy. Don’t.”He slowly dropped the hand and rocked back on the stool. Like most big men who are accustomed to getting their way because of their size, resistance was a puzzle for Rudy. For him, smaller men were always supposed to yield, and he didn’t understand when the scenario went wrong. It was even harder to decipher when his synapses were all pickled.“You know . . . .” he started and then trailed off. Maybe he lost his train of thought or maybe it suddenly occurred to him that this wasn’t a high-school football game. He put the Bud back on the bar, slid off the stool, and hitched up his pants. He stood there looking at me for a few seconds and then bobbed his head once in my direction. “Nice talkin’ to you again, Crawford. Maybe we’ll run into each other again. That is, if you hang around long enough. Guys like you, they usually got other things to do.” Without waiting for a reply, he waddled to the door, stopping just before he got there to turn around and tell me, “I can still kick your ass one-on-one.” He spun back around, staggered a little, and used the window for a mirror to finger-comb his hair before slapping the door hard on his way out. I turned back to Boyd, who blew out a long, slow breath.I stopped by the pool room a few more times after that but never bumped into Rudy. In fact, I saw him only once more after that. He was a rent-a-cop and working a roadhouse about three miles out of town. Why the hell a company with any civic conscience would arm someone like Rudy is a mystery, but he had the requisite pistol, augmented by a Sam Browne belt, cuff case, and holster, all in patent leather. He even had a couple of extra magazines for the Glock 10-mm. that had probably set him back a couple of month’s pay. I drove past the place unseen while Rudy was doing his best to direct traffic and control the Friday-night crowd with nothing better to do than drink and fight. Our town was like that; if you didn’t go out on Friday to look for trouble, you stayed home and watched television. You couldn’t go to the library because we didn’t have one, and the pharmacy closed at 8:00.So there was Rudy in all his splendor, hand on the butt of the Glock as he waved beat-up cars and trucks into the gravel parking lot. He had his game face on and must have read a manual somewhere on directing traffic, because he had all the proper hand motions, always keeping the elbow stationary. At least he had mastered that. After the funeral, I heard that he had a nasty habit of pulling the gun on anyone who confronted him, a needless exercise because everyone knew everyone else out there and nobody but Rudy had a gun. I never understood why he wasn’t arrested. This was rural Indiana, for Christ’s sake, not Gary or Chicago. But it was that authority thing working again, and the gun and badge gave Rudy something he could never get on his own, and even if the grudging respect—or fear—was artificially induced, it was all right with Rudy. He was finally running something.He didn’t get to run it long because eight days after I saw him that last time, he was lying dead in a drainage ditch behind the Kroger store. As I said, someone had stopped his clock with a twelve-gauge. One shot to the back of the head had done all it needed to, but whoever was behind the shotgun that night wanted more. Another shot had been point-blank in the face, and a third was a contact wound to the groin. The shock was not that someone had finally killed Rudy but the sheer brutality of the murder and the sexual overtones, like maybe Rudy had been fooling around with someone’s wife. Then most of the people decided that couldn’t have been it because we couldn’t think of anyone who would even look twice at Rudy except Doris, and she was blind in one eye. I think we all expected Rudy to get blown away eventually, especially after he bought the Glock, but we thought it would be in a bar when he confronted some stranger who was even more eager than Rudy to shoot someone. We never anticipated something so, well, workmanlike.We’ve got six full-time cops in our town, and a couple of part-timers, and they all worked diligently on the case. Jack Porter, the sheriff, even called the staties in for some help on the forensic end of things, but no suspects turned up. Nobody had seen or heard anything, and Rudy’s truck was parked right where it was supposed to be. Or maybe the list of suspects was so long it would have been impossible to carry on the town’s business while interviewing all of them. Whatever the reasons, a month went by without an arrest and then another. Our local paper kept a running commentary on the “investigation in progress” with cryptic comments by Jack or one of his deputies. After sixty days or so, no one expected any breaks, and to tell the truth, no one even cared.Oh, we didn’t want some homicidal maniac running amok in our midst, but we didn’t exactly bolt our doors and stay off the streets, either. Nearly everyone was convinced that Rudy’s murder was a personal matter and should stay that way. Whoever killed him must have had a good reason, and most of us could think of more than a couple. Hoosiers are like that; we tend to take things pretty much at face value.Doris took the news in stride, probably because the ten-grand from the insurance eased the pain of bereavement. She made a down payment on a new trailer and was raising Dachshunds the last I heard. My dad recently told me that she was dating some guy who worked in the mills. Whoever it is has to be an improvement over Rudy.I knocked around town for a few more weeks and then went back to college on Uncle Sam’s ticket. It took me two years and one summer to finish, and I loved every second of it—but I didn’t go to any football games. I started out as an engineering major but switched to education because I wanted to teach, a decision that provoked derision from my younger classmates. They kept telling me that I would starve, that the curriculum had been dumbed down so much that the kids didn’t know anything and didn’t care. They showed me depressing polls from USA Today described kids who couldn’t identify Canada as our northern neighbor or could name more of Santa’s nine reindeer that Supreme Court justices. One even confirmed that only half of adults knew the Earth orbited the sun. Every time CNN broke in with a school shooting someplace, someone would come and get me to make sure I knew about it. And of course Columbine put the icing on the cake. As six of us watched the story unfold, the other five all stared at me, collectively giving me the look that said, “And you want to work there?”But throughout those last couple of years, I kept thinking about Rudy and the person who killed him, two people in a violent pas de deux that should somehow be didactic for the rest of us. Maybe I could carry the lesson to where it would count, to the kids growing up on too many cop shows, video games, and action movies, where the victims get up after the show’s over instead of staying dead forever like they really do. I remember one kid from Oregon, I think, who shot several students and killed a teacher in a well-planned ambush. He was twelve years old, and once in jail that night, he started crying for his mother and said that he wanted to go home. Go home? That’s what I mean about not having a clue. The kid had killed someone, wiped off the face of the earth a good person who had dedicated his life to teaching kids like him. He was gone forever, and his killer thought he should be able to go home. That’s when I was sure I wanted to teach. I interned in one of the local middle schools and put out résumés before I went to grad school. I ended up teaching part-time for a community college and then moved to a high school in Lafayette after graduation. I’ve got the usual assortment of students: some are smart, some are stupid, and most fall in the middle of the spectrum somewhere, just like the old bell curve distribution. Most don’t want to be where they are, and I always think that’s a shame. I look at the kids carefully, usually when their heads are down while they’re taking a test, and wonder how many of them are potential Rudys or killers of Rudys, and each day I tell myself that I’m going to do the best I can to make a difference, to keep that particular game film from revisiting history. Most days, I’m not sure if it’s working. Some days, I’m not even sure I would know if it were. All I know is that I have to try. Maybe it’s what I owe Rudy for beating him on the football field, and then again, maybe it’s what I owe his killer for doing what none of the rest of us could.