A storm rose over the salt flats and with it came a beaten up pick-up truck that had survived the fire. It rattled into the town with more roar than it should have bothered and stopped with a thunk. Downtown. A one hundred meter spike rose high in the sky. Around it, wooden trestles, rotten and falling apart.
The wind whipped through some rags at the top. At one time this town had been the tallest place in the Nevadan wastes. Now, only a few buildings marked the former homes.
A man stomped out of the truck. A red bandana covered the bottom of his face. Two crud-covered eyes beat their sight to a nearby shed. His hands clutched at the rope on the door, and he pulled. The first winds of the storm whipped at his back. He entered. Dust of the boom-and-bust eras chased him. But the wind slammed the door and shut failure out. The shed was dark and alone, except for a board laid over two paint cans. Three crones knelt beside it, heads down in thoughts, only to lift them for the dust. The man finally took his form.
“That was the most amazing quarterbacking I’ve ever seen.”
He ripped the bandana from his face and took a breath. Saliva mixed with caked mud around his mouth. A frantic search in a pocket turned into a fist he held open, and something dropped on the board with a whack.
The three crones shrieked with the storm
Monster Truck Voiceover: Inside the C.L.A.N. presents: Battle in the Desert. The stalwart Nevada Snake-eyes against the upstart Salt Lake City Gulls. Every week our on-the-field reporters get wired up and go onto the frontlines of the opposing sides. It’s in your face, with all the races lining up and running down, for a spot in the playoffs and the ultimate dream of every professional Ameri-ball player... the Union Bowl!
The defensive side of the ball sloughed off the field. Heads down. The offense hustled past them. A season could still be saved. The Gulls rallied around their quarterback, their field marshal, their #16. He dropped back to pass and surveyed the damage, the gridiron. He cocked his arm back to throw the bomb. Fat boys formed a pocket around him. Some to protect, but most to kill the little man. Helmets shattered. The home colors fell back into a dog pile. Beneath the ruins, a man whimpered for his Israelite god. #16. The vaporization of his leg was replayed endlessly in the living rooms of red-blooded America.
While the Salt Lake City coaches gathered in their masses, a ball was tossed to a man with black hair. He threw bullets with the same slow windup the pros had hated. Upon his head, a red helmet. It bore a decal of a seagull. Game day programs counted the man's number, for he was the backup quarterback, and he was #6. The wind lifted his team jacket from his shoulders, and he ran four yards into a cloud of dust. The crowd lost all visibility. A storm was rising. His storm.
The crud-covered man blew his nose into his red bandana, his voice raised above the assault of sand on a cold tin roof, rusted by the alkaline rain from a million year old dead sea. There was gunfire in the grains. He kept pace with the storm.
“Mack Bethlehem slouched over that darn huddle, and you can only guess what he said to those boys... the boys who call him Mack. Where others of his talent were moved to wide receiver, or special teams, he was at least a Wildcat QB, or the last option. It's his leadership, you see. The intangibles. The things the pros talk so much about, but didn’t listen to in their own scouting reports when it came time to draft him into the Cee-El-Eh-En...”
Black-n-silver attackers collided with a wall of white-n-red defenders. Both sides used their strength of arms. Their hands went up and all over. They pushed and pulled and punched and slapped. Soon desperate, they clawed and scratched for very last inch of earth. Armored masks were designed to protect the soft organs of the face. Useless. Fingers readily dug into the wet pits of eyes. Heads were soon twisted, and the big men grimaced, their necks nearly broken, their helmets almost turned around.
The white-n-reds broke first. Their knees buckled, their legs slid in the dirt. They fell back, and more black-n-silver men ran into the gaps. Speed had overcome size, yet it was numerical advantage—cold hard numbers—that proved decisive. Numbers were the main factor of force. The rout was on. The trenches of the defenders were overrun. Behind the lines, #6 scrambled away from the pressure. Cornered, big men in black-n-silver grabbed him, and one by one pulled him into their clutches. Soon flattened, his white-n-red comrades could only watch.
#6 rose from the ground and dusted the field from his whites. He staggered with his first steps, shook it off, and trotted off the field to the Salt Lake City sidelines. A coach with a baseball hat walked over to him, pushed a clipboard in his hands. #6 dismissed it and joined his big men. They sat on a bench to suck some wind.
Monster Truck Voiceover: We now join the game in the late second quarter of the Snake-eyes/Gulls game... down 0-13, backup quarterback Mack Bethlehem, talked to his confused offensive line, to try to rally them from behind...
A camera caught #6, as he drained a paper cup of his favorite sports drink, before he crushed the cup and flung it on the ground. He approached the big men on the bench, stabbed by painkillers, brought back to life with oxygen masks, their glassy eyes heavenward. Desperate. He laid his hands upon the sweat-covered sheens on their heads. In anointation. Almost to calm the beasts for what lay ahead.
A storm kicked up the dust from the desert and turned the sun as black as sackcloth. The lights of the stadium were turned on. People in the crowd lifted game programs over their heads. The game continued. Gulls possession. #6 went back to pass. His line immediately collapsed, and two black-n-silver pass rushers attacked him. He zigzagged away, almost to will his body into a different shape. For escape. He had a second. His arm went back and loaded a shot. It went forward. As soon as he let go of the ball, a pass rusher hit him. Right on the six. The projectile was launched, its arc took it up and over the action. Downtown. A man in white-n-red ran underneath the missile and caught it. #17 didn't break a step. He reached his target. An official in black-n-white stripes raised his hands. Praise the lord. The stadium roared. The storm fed off the madness.
The man noticed the room’s walls. Gutted. Exploded from the inside out. He coughed blood into the bandana. He was almost out of time. In front of him, a figurine of twisted wires of red and blue danced with the power of its coppery light upon the wooden board suspended on two paint cans. Invisible hands guided it, prodded it. Towards its destiny.
“The score was 13-7, Snake-eyes. The Gulls defense stiffened up like a nineteen year-old's prick on prom night. And they held them real good. They made some key red-zone interceptions. They're ballhawks, really. Should be. It's their coach. Solomon Spaulding. He's a defensive genius—could have used him during the Siege! But the press, they have a nickname. The Hoodie, they call him. The Hoodie.”
“So there it was, the fourth quarter, same score. The Gulls got the ball back... and Mack took the field. Two minutes left, and he had that chance that all boys dream about in the backyard to drive down the field and score the winning touchdown.”
The storm picked up speed...
Gee! Ewe! El! El! Es! GULLS! WIN!
#6 ran onto the field, took command of the huddle, and crouched over #66 with his hands between the legs of another...
On the sidelines the men in white-n-red pressed towards the sidelines, as far as they could get onto the field without censure by the game officials. A man wore a bright red sweatshirt with a giant seagull on the front. He folded his arms in front. Sunglasses covered his hawkish visage. Beneath the hood a headset covered his ears. Earlier he had spoken for a straight minute into the microphone. Now, silence gripped him, just as he had commanded his other coaches.
Behind the benches. The cheerleaders. In the regalia of white-n-red skirts and halter-tops. They showed more skin than team colors, usually their long bare legs and exposed cleavage earned them the attacks. Not now, now they merely pranced around, the crowd aroused, and culled into a pack.
Gee! Ewe! El! El! Es! GULLS! WIN!
The jumbotron replayed the Salt Lake City advance. Each play of a catch or a run earned a second round of cheers from the crowd. They reacted exactly as they had before. They jumped up and danced, again and again. It was almost as if they had forgotten what happened before. Only the television reminded them.
The Gulls on the sideline followed the plays down the field. At their head stood the figure of the man in the red hood. His dark sunglasses further obscured his emotions. Every so often he would speak a command into his headset. Then silence. The play was run, and he would lead the rest of the team down the sidelines.
Gee! Ewe! El! El! Es! GULLS! WIN!
The great clock on the scoreboard kept track of the action, and for the last few seconds, it was all anyone watched. After each play, the crowd looked back at the game clock. For the moment, the most important player was not on the field...
The red-hooded man spoke to an official. Time stopped. He pointed at the field. #6 trotted over, took off his helmet. From out of nowhere, another man in the athletic livery of the Gulls sprayed water into his mouth. #6 swished it in his mouth, spit it out. The red-hooded man spoke to him. #6 nodded and ran back onto the field.
Time resumed. #6 took the ball and exploited the exposed flank of the enemy. He rushed forward, lowered his shoulders, and blasted his way across a line in the sand. With only the extra point to go...
Gee! Ewe! El! El! Es! GULLS! WIN!
The crowd ejaculated with jubilation and invaded the field. A tempest of red papers preceded their advance, it hung in the wind and swirled around the stadium, until it fell to earth and covered the field in a sea of crimson. Mobs waded and splashed in the celebratory litter. They tore down the goal posts and carried them on their backs. On to Calvary, onto the field. Someone would have to clean this mess. But not them.
One by one, jubilant players rushed off the field, into the stadium tunnel, their voices and the clicks of cleats, amplified by the cavernous dark of concrete and steel. Their shadowy silhouettes seemed alone, ciphers to measure the scale of things. Only when they walked through the training room doors did their solitary wanders end. Joined by other shades.
Monster Truck Voiceover: Mack Bethlehem, star college quarterback from Southwestern Utah Technical College, scored the go-ahead touchdown, and with it, clinched the final playoff spot in the Inter-mountainous Sub-Conference, Guadalupe Hidalgo League. The local boy does good! The Salt Lake crowd goes crazy! A city starved for good news since its destruction... gets it! The Gulls are going to the playoffs...
The sand storm engulfed the city by the Great Salt Lake, shrouded it in darkness long before the scheduled conclusion of sundown and the blackness of night. The obscurity grew thickest around Never Forgive, Never Forget Stadium. The team had long filed out of the locker room. Men with families, wives who had waited with children in tow. Team executives filed past, limousines waited to take them to the palisades above the town. A gaggle of hanger-oners waited last. The milled at the exits, in the hope they might see the last of the players, and usually their wait was rewarded but not tonight.
Mack joined the star wide receiver of the Gulls. #17. Billy D. They walked through a side tunnel to their cars. Each carried a duffel bag loaded heavy to their ankles with stuff. They took a route to avoid the worst sand pelts of the storm, but mostly, to evade the crowds of fans. The tunnel was dark, it meandered through a lobby. Only a few spotlights lit the halls. Billy D. had spent most of the post-game in a joyous mood. Playoffs, baby, playoffs. Their journey soon took that away. It lay lost in the gloom. For now at least, he had forgotten the game. Mack strode behind him, his thick black hair still wet from the showers. His raccoon eyes were bruised, bloodied, but unbowed. They soon heard excited voices ahead of them, in the light, and recognized them as more fans. They took another detour and turned towards the darkness into a section of the stadium still under construction.
Billy D. looked from shadow to shadow.
“Money's been good to Rigdon.”
Mack felt the dark press into him, the exhaustion of the game made him restless. So too did the trip. He just wanted to be home.
“The occupation’s been good to him too. Wonder what he is, when the hurly burly’s done. Maybe little more than a bloated Americrat.”
Filaments of dust rose to meet their journey. Mack struggled for a second.
“What is this place?”
Mack's silence grew heavier, from which he felt he could not rise. He just saw more unfinished concession stands. Hi-tech nachos and hot dogs. Creature comforts were aliens to his desert world.
“You said, 'money's been good' to the Man. Well, here are more attractions he wants to put in.”
Billy D. removed a splinter of dust from his eye to see unopened crates of wondrous toys.
“The selling of the selling is what gets people to come. That's what they want to see...”
Mack walked neck-n-neck with Billy D, suddenly competitive.
“He's made a killing during the occupation.”
Mack could feel a cold blast of wind morph out of an earlier draft. Professional Ameri-ball draft day. Billy D. as the #1 pick.
Billy D. answered with the choice of a route none had taken before.
“This team was never meant to win. How does it go? 'Ameri-ball is an extension of politics by any other means'?”
Mack growled. It was hard for him to tell what made him do so. The statement? The cold blast of air that put the taste of dirt in his mouth? He might choke on the dust. Yet his kind had taught him to eat the salt of the earth if he had to.
Mack and Billy D. had entered a larger part of the uncompleted lobby. Construction tape and plastic sheets were ribbons in the cold salty air. In the back lay a light, it shone through the suspended dust as neither illumination nor beacon. It was a dead star but the strange silhouettes around it suggested a world alive.
They entered, an invisible hand had knocked away the plastic sheet that served as a barrier against the night. The storm had free rein now. It lashed against the workspace of left behind tools, workbenches, and other devices that opened up places for development. With the labors of men stilled, the sands on the winds formed a miniature mountain range and Mack and Billy D. were adventurers who braved the wide-open scale not yet bridged by progress and moved across the dark valley towards the sole star in the sky.
They walked through a doorway and closed the door behind them.
Mack looked above him. A sign read Monsters That Never Were. He saw shapes in the shadows. Things reached out with their stubby arms with razor claws attached. Tails were raised, frozen, and ready to thump the earth. Each one roamed its respective diorama, each background a matte painting of extinct fauna of broad leaves, smoking volcanoes, great things that flew nevermore, and shallow warm seas in onetime basins.
Billy D. motioned towards the great light that hung in the rafters. Three women appeared against unfinished backdrops of Lamurian tropics. Dead and extinct lands. Billy D. flashed with startled fear, nearly gasped, and asked.
Mack retreated for a second into wild thoughts. Where he lay fearful of the way mysteries rearranged in his mind. He would sooner dash them apart, then let them build a picture. Too late, in this case.
He had one.
Three Gulls' cheerleaders still decked out in team livery and all in a row. Each occupied an unfinished display. Where brighter suns warmed the tops of primordial forests and bathed the waves of tepid inland seas.
Yet here were flightier fancies. Here, imaginations placed dinosaurs into the epoch of the Great Apes. Savage digits had twisted leaves and branches into leashes, and placed bridles upon scaly, feathered necks and heads. One even rode upon one's back.
One cheerleader with fine threads of black hair dropped a strip of slickened newspaper into a bucket of wet plaster of Paris. Clumps of white material hung in her bangs.
“We hope your don’t mind. We just wanted to celebrate your victory.”
Another cheerleader with ruddy cheeks lifted the air filter off her face.
“It's been a tough year, and you both deserve it.”
A dusky cheerleader wiped wet plaster on her apron.
“We just wanted to give you a proper send off. Off to Texas you go.”
Billy D. walked in front of the spellbound Mack.
“You three are weird.”
The three cheerleaders backed away from a brontosaurus with a cock-eyed Gulls hat on its head. Each looked screwy as they walked on a soil of ground up rubber tires and sneaker soles. The recreated diluvial deposits of the Pennsylvanian Era. They almost bounced on their feet.
“Oh, really? Rigdon. He's too busy in his new hot tub to notice... isn't it in the shape of a...”
“A gull. It’s shaped like a gull.”
“Right, of course it would.”
Laughter, then a resumption of the play-by-play.
“He'll be in his mansion, too busy to notice. And the grounds men... restless serfs in his demesne. Besides, Rigdon would pat us on our asses—or try to, at least—for our praise of the heroes of Salt Lake.”
“Guys, relax! The game is over. You're in the playoffs!”
“Yes, let's hear it for our new starting quarterback!”
They raised their voices in unison.
-Mack Bethlehem! Quarterback of the Salt Lake City Gulls! And Billy D! Most Valuable Player of the Year!-
Mack scrambled for more time, improvised.
“After all the abuse... this year.”
Billy D. fought off the contact and stayed on his route.
“James Idaho is the starting quarterback. He will be ready to play by Sunday.”
The cheerleaders laughed. The dusky girl shook her hair.
“Didn't you watch the replays of that hit? His leg is shattered. Obliterated. He might never play again.”
Billy D. whistled with a view from such heights.
“MVP... there's no way they’d vote me MVP. Sports writers write in the blood of racism. Always have, even when they don’t. Said I was too dumb to play quarterback in the league. Then said I wasn't tough enough to play wide receiver.”
The cheerleader with the fine threads of dark hair motioned towards them.
“Come here. We want to show you this, before we have to take it out. It's too much, we're sure. But it doesn't matter. We've seen the future, and so too will the sports fans of C.L.A.N.”
Mack's feet felt heavy. Only Billy D's first bold steps forced Mack out of his fear. He followed, as if pulled by strings, and nearly lost his footing and tripped. On the big heels of Billy D. Maybe the presence of the two other cheerleaders chilled him. They had slunk behind them, trailed them, joined him. In the presence of the throne of science, he trembled.
They entered a recreation of the Last Ice Age. The first to tread on virgin fields of cotton balls, as the dust of talcum powder flew up with their footfalls. An airbrushed backdrop of mountains drowned in the flow of a glacial river. In front, models of cavemen. Dressed in the skins of beasts, and armed with spear, flint, and hammer. The actors upon the stage.
Mack could not remember what he was supposed to say.
He heard laughter.
Mack walked to the edge of the caveman powwow, chest to chest with the beasts. The heart that beat was savage. He could not tell where one began, or would end. He dared touch one of the models. Gingerly. He waited for the pulse of life beneath its plastic skin, prepared to pull back his hand. He felt nothing. Only a cold hollowness. He yearned to escape the shadows, and searched for warmth.
In the painted sky a ball of fire tore across the heavens with a plumage of red. In the center of its fiery cross, there lay Mack's number. #6. The ice-covered heights beneath the comet seemed to melt from the heat.
The cavemen surrounded another caveman, yet different from the rest. As lifelike as the abilities of plastic would permit. Shaved, not showered, but with a haircut of the era. Some wondered when the rat-tail had come into style. Upon its shaggy chest, a Gulls jersey, the home white colors. The red number was seventeen. Mack now understood the deal with the other cavemen. The jersey on each one was #17 jersey, too. An unbroken line of fans and admirers.
Or the beginnings of a new race of man.
Mack yanked back his hand.
Residents of the Great Salt Basin woke to the domination of the same sports story. The fanfare of the playoff-bound Gulls. The siege of the city during the wars had left nearly a quarter-million dead, mostly men. Those who lived might have felt a bit more excited, if not for the usual trials. Reconstruction staggered in place. But after a few maddening hours of constant celebration, even the most jaded were infected by the fever. The playoffs would start in a week.
After every game day sabbat, the team gave the obligatory injury report. It was always a bleak affair, a laundry list of the fallen, unable to play, gravitas was unevenly bestowed upon each name. The reporters asked in-depth questions about the star players, and them alone. The ones the team needed to play. But today all questions revolved around star quarterback James Idaho. Everyone knew the answer before it could even be asked. He was done for the season, but not all seemed lost.
Mack first heard the news he would start against North Texas when reporters caught him on his way out of the locker room. Those who watched the interview on television said it was almost as if someone had shot him. Or better. As if deep in sleep, then roused awake. To learn it was a dream. But not fake. Reporters asked what he would do now. He said he was on his way out of town. To see his mother in the unreconstructed south.
JD Mitchell has been a public access cameraman, meat cutter, history biographer, and teacher. In this time, he made a series of cut-n-paste collages and filmed them as a series of videos for a science fiction story and later made a stop-motion movie based on the same story. Since then, he’s mostly been focused, most of which, as well as critiques of the Cascadia bioregionalist movement, a parody of the old 1970’s Japanese anime series Space Battleship Yamato, storylines of an outsourced America on the brink of civil war, and writings from his post-collage world, can be found on his blog: “Making a Science Fiction Movie”. He also is selling the collage books he made from screenshots on his videos on Etsy. He lives with his beautiful wife, a talented artist (Instagram @jerkdivision), and his awesome newborn son, in Berkeley, California, home to the biggest busybodies in the world. If interested in his larger world of dystopian football leagues in a post-American world, check out the following Tumblr page, which is a collated collection of posts about each team with each representing one piece of American history.