A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theatre now. Like all evacuations it proceeds, badly. Appalling depravity, from left to right: a viral enthusiasm. Fear creates alarm, alarm is a sharp stick in the back of an old woman: she will scream and everyone will run. So, the casualties begin, unwarranted. The shouting, crying and screaming of the terrified is overwhelmed by the deafening approach of a very special hell. As if in a silent movie, tens of thousands (minutes ago, at leisure, putting "food products" in their mouths and booing a scoreless home team of well-meaning adolescents) scramble and claw their way toward a few small exits; children and the elderly are crushed in this herd of spectators, they are shoved down and trampled beneath the panicked stampede.
The cries of the weak and small are meaningless, here as anywhere else. Brief notes of pleading penetrate the thundering swarms of storming fans; their cries are irrelevant. The sky is a machine that has broken its governor; it roars to, and through redline, the sheer noise of it breaks your will. It changes from gray to dirty to black. Not a safe place. The sanctuary that was the deepest blue Iowa sky is now a seething hell. The children and elderly are crushed in the stands like so much of the trash that is purchased, consumed, thrown down to the concrete stadium floor. A swarming, surging organism of yellow and black pushes away, and up and out the small exits to the concourses. Many are dying, beneath the sensible shoes of these resolute Iowans. Stretch pants tear. Glasses are knocked free, then crushed underfoot. No one can find anyone. Distant sirens commence to whoop and blare.
A man called Ferentz stood calmly, head thrown back, a man in contro posto, a medieval David. Slowly turning his raptor's eyes south, and up, and southwest, he surveyed imminent death and ... spat out his gum. Calmly, without affect, he turned to face the measure of the next, and perhaps the last, few minutes of his life. The life of the man called Ferentz. Ferentz, spitting at death.
"See if I care," his lips a pantomime of disdain. A man defiant, a man at peace. "A broken down old truck," he thought. "A man too wealthy too care. A team lost in the funhouse of the new and different and shiny baubles of another football season. A man they say became stupid overnight. See ... if ... I ... care." No, this man called Ferentz thought. He didn't care at all, this man whose reverse double-pleated Dockers made even white polyester slacks a fashion-forward triumph.
There. It was coming. They always come. From there. Always there. No surprises, no gimmicks, no dancing here and feinting there. Straight on in, straight in and hot, and only fools expect a moment of kindness. He glared at the dirt-brown sky, a welter of late autumn sun, the blackest of clouds, and elevated, swirling dirt. A man called Ferentz watched, a thin grimace -- or was it an executioner's smile? really there is no difference with this man, this man called Ferentz -- spreading across his face. The sky deepened, grew heavy, and appeared to collapse and rush toward the ground. An odd, hard taste to the air. Metallic, alive, electric. The air buzzed with unreleased energy. The wind no longer sounded like wind: it sounded like the water blasting over the Coralville Dam during the last flood, a violent surging shock of FUCK YOU UP that encouraged spectators to stand back. And suddenly it was night. This had all happened in a few minutes. Snapping the 3x5 notecard from his Dockers he bent over and quickly noted,
"Tighten up evacuation. Job: who? Children: killed. Not executing. Pathetic."
Moments before 70,000 people had been chanting, "Fire Ferentz Now. Fire Ferentz Now." And why? Why? Pfft. Because he'd punted from the Michigan State 33 yard line on third and 18? He cared not, not this man, this man called Ferentz. The offense had just taken an illegal substitution, a sack, and then completed a four yard out. He was afraid of what came after that sequence, and besides, illegal substitution on first down? It was one thing to not understand football. But this is the man -- the coach Kirk Ferentz -- who chose to win a game 6-4, and that was a beautiful thing. This? this mob in wholesale panic? This disgusted him. He need not bear witness to this. He shook his head. They didn't even know how to run for their lives. A one-legged man, or an eight year-old, or an obese 65 year-old grandmother: no one can do it for them. Sometimes you must simply run for your lives. They hadn't prepared. There was a price for that.
Above him, now turning right, he heard the press box grind and sway in the violent air. He briefly contemplated it, a kind of fantasy: the press box, the donor palaces, lifting like an iron queen, poised in mid-flight, suspended and spreading in momentary balance, before exploding and crashing to earth wiping out another few thousand fans. Well, Ferentz thought, quickly dispatching the image, that may not happen. If it does? Not clear. Not clear at all.
It is said, though no one knows, it is really just a mythical suggestion really: at this moment it is said that Ed Podolak pulled a flask from his jacket and said, "Finally. This one day-at-a-time thing is invalid. Because this is the only and last day." Perhaps his mind drifted to the countless evenings at the LIttle Nell, mornings on Buffet's boat drinking the first beer, cold as a mountain stream, and the late nights in college bars, the girls and their ta-tas, sleeping on the Pentacrest ... We don't know because in the gathering storm the power cut out, the sky turned to a descending blackness, the glass exploded from the pressbox and rained plates and shards across the unfortunate. Podolak has never been seen again. Some say he is a silent partner in a strip joint in Tahoe, others a man serving $1.00 draws to old men in overalls in Atlantic. Many sat in that press box. Some remember when the Iowa City Press-Citizen covered Iowa football, others when the P-C was more than a few tables over a bar. All gone.
The man called Ferentz stood calmly. He hadn't game-planned this. No sub 28" barometer settings in his game plan. (Ferentz grabs another 3x5, pauses, collecting his economical thoughts, the thoughts of a man in full of thoughts in full.) Ferentz: the man. He writes:
"Weather. Fatal. Unprepared. Whose deal?"
He didn't care. He had acquiesced to this no-huddle crap and run plays on 17-second intervals. He had run his team up and down the field twice already, that was the basketball part, only to stall out when it was time to play football again and beat the shit out of them. Huh! Ferentz thought. Good at basketball, terrible at football. He looked at the sky? And fuck this, he thought. It was like looking straight up into a 50-foot breaking wave, before it hammered you into the coral, crushed your ribs, and drowned you in 90 seconds.
"You want to slow the game down?" the man called Ferentz said, to the darkening globe. "You're doing me a favor. You have no idea how pleasing I find this."
His perceptions slowed, sound dimmed, his eyes adjusted to the murk. He was home, this was where he belonged. A 4x8 sheet of glass exploded at his feet. He stepped out of the glittering shards, and absent-mindedly pulled a long sliver from above his left eye, then reached behind him, right side, rather close to his liver, and pulled worse. The colorfast Dockers now revealed spatterings of blood, marring their perma-pressed shape.
The band, holding position to the last, played like the orchestra on the Titanic: The Sky is Crying, only dirgelike, half-speed. Anyone who ran, they were told, would not make the trip to the bowl game. They played on, weeping, relentless in their own funeral march. For this was Iowa football, and even the band knew the value of a good death, a triumph few understood and fewer would know.
Across the field, a white-faced man ran with the focus of a man who would rather die of another heart attack, than be present for the impending violence. He started well, his face a mask of stone and anger. His players followed; they were more afraid of him than death. D'Antonio seemed to run in quicksand, his feet seemingly mired to the Fieldturf, running slower, and slower. Like all men expecting death, he hoped it would be sudden, unrecognized. D'Antonio's team began to break ranks like a company of ill-fed conscripts. They threw down their helmets and sprinted, both arms pumping. Little Spartan helmets, littering the field, useless to them now. The sky was exploding and they thought only of home. Home, or pink lavatories. It mattered not, not on this day. In the chaos, D'Antonio seemed unable to breathe. He attempted to scream at them to maintain discipline. He had no voice. The roaring of the sky turned sound to small eddies in a roaring flood of good-bye, good luck, and please shut-up. The frenzied mass of green and white no longer thought, no longer heard him. Spartans broke like the ill-fed conscripts on the Highway of Death, their pathetic helmets now cast aside like so many Springfields, ant-like figures as the 'Hogs rolled inverted and pulled through into their dives, going to guns. Now that was a ground attack. D'Antonio was crushed beneath his pathetic fearful boys as they sprinted, visions of pink tiles their only thought. He lay still, briefly rose to his knees, and fell.
"Seven for six, Mark. Suck it," Ferentz fairly spat out at the sight. These moments were the measure of all men. "Now, get off my lawn."
Oddly, the student section remained inert. Only half-filled (this was an afternoon game, the drinking had begun at 7 a.m., and only a few had yet stumbled past security to their seats), their limbs splayed and movements erratic, the young students were oblivious to the impending mayhem. A few girls crawled slowly up the steps to the exit, their backs heaving as they sobbed, or are they vomiting again? It didn't matter, Ferentz thought. More will be saved than destroyed by this onslaught. All the pretty flowers, these young scholars, all the pretty flowers -- and his poet's eye briefly saw this fine university as a valley of poppies, swaying gently in the Helmand spring breeze. He had been there, of course, he knew. It was always this way: a vision of perfection, before hell burst forth and death descended from above. He shook his head. That had been a bad day. No time for poetry, though, this man called Ferentz knew. Death is nigh. Men are only to be born, or borne swiftly to oblivion.
To his right, the o-lineman stood quietly, massive arms displayed as they chewed on their switches of Fieldturf. They had been arguing a moment ago: turkey hunting: black powder or shotgun? Scherff slowly fingered his sabot, his good luck sabot, dreaming of deer trails and fat turkeys before the slaughter. But they showed signs of the growing unease. They began to edge toward their teammates, a group of them, earnestly looking up to Ferentz and awaiting the signal to move en masse to the safety of the locker room. Their feet shifted. Ferentz looked at them and his eyes spoke "Shame. On. You." They looked down and stood still.
To his left, Brian stood square, his eyes alight with joy. Finally it was happening, finally he too was home. All manner of shit, about to begin. Next to Brian, Steve. It was Steve's first time. They're always afraid the first time. Steve bent to grab his helmet and place it on his head, a futile act of self-preservation. Brian barked at him and ripped his helmet from his brother's head, while the old man watched. "Pray," the man called Ferentz thought. "Pray, Steve, that you do not fuck up." He considered Steve's future. He's a little under the radar, Steve, Ferentz thought. Underrated. We like that deal. Another beaten-down, broken-down Ford. That's a deal we can understand. Let the rest of them drive a Prius. "We're in the shit now, Stevie," bellowed Brian. Somewhere in his Dockers he found a Rocky Patel Edge Torpedo, and fished out his Zippo, cupping and lighting the cigar, face brilliant. Steve appeared ready to cry. "What?" Brian bellowed. "Evy did!"
Rudock drifted quietly back to the bench and sat, alone. Furtively he reached under the bench, thinking no one saw him, and retrieved a book. But Ferentz saw it all, he saw everything and the sight enraged him. His quarterback was reaching for his Bible, reaching for God? Because of this? This ... this ... event? He needed a quarterback who would dig his own grave, spit in it, and dare anyone to give him a shove. Not this. Ferentz' lips closed into a thin line of suppressed contempt. God cares not for football. God cares not for delicate flowers, God cares not for boosters on high. As if on cue the first flames burst from the luxury boxes, a metric shit-ton of alcohol combusting. (That's a lot of Templeton.) Ferentz reached up with both hands and grabbed his headset with two hands, flung it at his feet as he turned to berate Rudock, bench him and his Bible for good. He had no idea. Beathard better be ready, he thought, Goldilocks better be ready. He took two steps toward Rudock before he realized his error. For Rudock was highlighting pages in an organic chem text.
"Fucking intellectuals," Ferentz muttered to himself.
So in the gloom this man called Ferentz took stock. His team was holding fast. Weisman was over there doing one-arm pushups, Morris and Kirksey, helmets missing, marched in circles, exhorting calm, toughness, the execution of rare manhood. Nico Law stood alone. No helmet in sight. Doing breathing exercises or some shit. Ferentz walked up to him.
"Law!" Ferentz shouted. The din was painful. It was like shouting into a jet engine.
"Where's your helmet, Law?"
"I figure if I need one there will be plenty lying on the ground, Sir!" Law shouted.
Ferentz bent over, made note to self: "Recruit more badasses from P.G. County."
A lone coach, the only man on the field with a paunch, stood alone. Ferentz looked at his coach and was startled by the beatific smile, the arms slowly rising, palms outstretched, upturned. Davis turned to the southwest, sank to his knees, arms in supplication. (Ferentz had seen this once, an NCO at Pleiku. Or was it Willem Dafoe? Who's to say, for poets such as Ferentz.) The power gone, the scoreboard no longer showed "0" in the Iowa column. Davis would die now and it would be an honorable exit, one his children would describe to their children and grandchildren. He closed his eyes and remembered that game when Colt completed 91% of his passes, and 78% for the year, Vince and the title. He waited. He was from Texas, he knew what was coming. He waited. Ferentz looked at him -- sideways -- not sure what it meant. He was tired of asking Davis what he was trying to do. "How did you get here?" Ferentz asked himself.
The F5 tornado, having ground and scoured its way from Keota to Wellman and Wellman to Windham, before detouring directly over University Heights and causing the U-Heights Police Station to explode in a shower of radar and laser guns, now appeared visible to the southwest. While apocryphal, survivors insist that floating bestride the killer storm was an enormous bellowing man, a kind of Old Testament god, spitting and roaring and smashing his face in rage at the sight of 110 boys and a few strong men who feared nothing. He saw the Israelite down there, the target of all targets. The Old Testament angry Iowa running back hating god could be heard for dozens of miles when the cell abruptly stopped short of the stadium, all 125 Iowans staring straight at it looking directly into the eyes of its passenger. They didn't care: not for him, not the 200 mph updrafts, not Twitter, not Vines. A sheriff unholstered his Glock, sneering at this blasphemous god.The stadium was empty now, save a few thousand drunk scholars who didn't know where they were, and of course the dead and damaged, some moving, some not. There are always going to be dead, and it's a tough game, Ferentz thought. Next fan in. Secondary explosions rocked the shell of the pressbox, strangely canted out over the stands, the blackened shattered bridge of a dead ship.
Police Artist Composite Sketch of Rumored Tornado-Riding Old Testament God. (Unconfirmed.)
Time stood still. (It does that in bad literature and bad parodies, notably the ones that rip off Stoops, mere parodies of parodies.)
"Kirk! Kirk!" Mary shouted down the basement steps.
A quiet, introverted man in his underwear roused himself awake. "Oh shit," Ferentz thought. "Think. Think fast. Where am I?" He had dozed off, the adrenaline and endorphins loading his brain, and just as quickly leaving him spent. He had sworn to himself never to lose track of the time down here, much less fall asleep. Now he was shaking himself awake, and like all men who never nap, had no idea what day or time it was. Why he was here, what he was doing. He looked down. Great. He was in his boxers and a t-shirt. His shirt was smeared, with what he wasn't sure; it was lit only by the moving forms on his notebook computer screen. Quiet slapping, pounding and the threatening yells of athletic grown men still reverberated in the humid basement room thick with sweat and the putrid air. Some of it was profane. "I am so busted," Ferentz thought to himself.
"Kirk are you down there? What in heavens name are you doing?"
Ferentz liked the dark. You watched All-22 in the dark. His notebook computer however was not displaying All-22. This was a problem. He had a plan but he didn't execute. Now he would pay.
The stairs creaked as she descended. An empty ice cream container lay melting at his feat. He'd been so intent, so engrossed, he'd forgotten about it. He wondered what his face looked like.
Mary stood in the doorway. Ferentz snapped shut the notebook.
"What in goodness name are you doing down here," she said.
"Nothing." He leaned forward, and smiled awkwardly, the most uncomfortable man in the world, nodding and ducking his head, seeking a miracle. Just as he was on ESPN last month.
"Are you … surely you're not … I thought we had put this behind us, Kirk! Kirk …" and she walked directly to the card table on which rested the notebook and slapped his hands away as he belatedly sought to protect it. This is a woman who had raised five children. If they wanted to be on the computer, it was in the kitchen where she could observe.
"Give me that."
She turned, walked slowly, tentatively, as though she never wanted to open that computer, never see what she should never see. Slumped in his chair Ferentz' eyes stared dully at the wall. The 500-yard stare. Why did I fall asleep? he thought. The remnants of his dream confused him; did we have Michigan State at home this year? Mary turned on the light with her elbow. She slumped slowly to the floor, her head shaking and hands trembling in fear of the next 10 seconds. Haltingly she opened the lid and time stopped. Ferentz wanted to be anywhere but here, anywhere but in this chair in a stained shirt with the dripping slop of forgotten ice cream at his feet. He turned to look at her, his friend, his partner, the love of his life. The woman he had misled.
"I don't know what to say," she said.
There it was. She knew.
The stillness of such moments is only exceeded by their sadness. Each sat there unmoving, lifelong partners unsure what to do. The angry, frightening sounds from the computer now returned. Oh man, he thought. I so hate autoplay.
"Have you been doing this … this … have you … do you do this often?" she said.
Ferentz sat, turned squarely to face her. His thoughts drifted to autumns past. 2002 was now the dream-age of a young man, a young man he would never be again. His children would never be young again. He might not ever feel the innocence that was that young man, coaching with his buddies from Worcester, beating just about everybody with athletes no one wanted. Doing it his way and his way only. Where did that man and that team go? Can they be found?
"Is it me?" Mary said.
"No. Well. Maybe."
Mary's eyes widened and filled with tears.
"It's not you, really Mary. No. It's really me. I love you. I love you more than anything. It's just … it's just …" Ferentz had never had this conversation before. He didn't know what to say.
"So am I, obviously." He smirked. No go. She didn't think it was funny. Note to self, Ferentz thought, reaching for the nonexistent 3x5 notecard: some men do not do irony well.
Of course, at these moments there's always a clock that ticks just loudly enough to remind both parties they cannot extricate themselves, and they cannot bear to wait to extricate themselves, and yet they are waiting.
"Does it … cost money?" Mary said.
"No. Well, strictly speaking, yes. It depends. Depends how you use it."
"Oh, and how do you use it?" Mary said.
Ferentz shook his head. Thank god she's not a reporter. I can't answer these questions. "We'll just have to sit down and figure out what we can do better."
Mary grew steely eyed. "What is that supposed to mean?" She stood up. "Well. I don't know what to say. I'm surprised and I'm disappointed in you. I think you'd best take a shower."
Ferentz didn't move. Screw it. Hail mary. Trickeration. Worked last year. "Well, actually, Brian pays for it."
She faltered. She appeared not to hear. She appeared far away. Her voice broke. "Is it me? Is it really me? What do I not understand?"
And then she snapped out of it. Who was this man and his tricks? How men disappoint their women, and in the most despicable, small ways.
"Wait a minute, buster! You mean to tell me you let you son buy you … that!" Her mouth curled. "That!"
"You won't let me have what I want!" Ferentz plaintively blurted.
Later. (There is always a "later." Also, a third act. Even in Iowa, currently the laughingstock of football programs, a program everyone forgets lost five games last year by 7 or fewer points. There is a third act. It begins on Saturday.)
Over a fine dinner of roast pork and steamed spinach, Ferentz explained how he piggybacked on Brian's DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket* just so he could watch the NFL games at home in the dark. He knew she didn't approve, but he felt it was a harmless liberty, and one he should take care of quietly on his own. Some things a man just had to resolve on his own, in the dark. Mary relented, and they added the option to their cable mix, though she did think it was an extravagance and they had previously agreed, and a family needed to draw the line somewhere. But a successful marriage involves compromise, if not dark rooms and notebook computers. And, some days, now, she even joins him in the family room when Marshall Yanda and the Ravens are featured. (Marshall was always a nice boy, very quiet.) They don't even argue about the remote. Pynch on me, Ferentz thought. It couldn't be better than this.
[*Ed. Note: Kirk Ferentz recently disclosed that he watched NFL Sunday Ticket at one of his children's homes, owing to the fact that his wife Mary found it to be an an unnecessary extravagance on their television subscription.)