It is a bleak Saturday afternoon and I am watching the Alabama-Texas A&M game at my house in rural North Alabama. The wife is at work, the girls are in the other room, and the season is slipping away.
My great-grandaddy Elmo is with me. Elmo's been dead since '90. He sits on the sofa, giant black dress socks rising up out of his slippers and climbing halfway up his old man legs. His dentures pop in and out of their moorings with each new play, waggling around in his lips like a real-time barometer of Alabama's performance,
Johnny Football spins out of a sack, mumblety-pegs the ball to himself, and wings a touchdown pass to the same white receiver he's been throwing to all game. Shades of South Carolina in 2010.
"AW GREAT GOD THEY'VE LOST IT." Elmo roars. His hand twitches reflexively for the remote, but it is not there. This is my house, and the remote is on my side of the couch.
"TURN THAT MESS OFF." he insists, as is his wont. When Alabama sputters, they must be punished, and this is done by turning the game off for a few minutes and pretending to not care anymore.
The phone rings. It is my neighbor Martha, who is watching the same thing we're seeing. She is next door, thirty feet from my living room, hunkered down in her den, which is covered wall-to-wall with Daniel Moore prints and commemorative Alabama trinkets.
"Matthew," she says gravely, "What's wrong with these boys?"
For the next few minutes I listen as Martha empties her craw of grievances. Someone has paid one of our freshmen to throw the game. Our offensive coordinator refuses to run the ball because he's trying to get McCarron the Heisman. Sunseri and Hee-Haw Clinton-Dixon can't cover anyone. Then the game returns from commercial, and Martha ends the conversation. The action demands her attention.
Elmo points a scraggly finger at the television.
"Bill Curry callin' these plays?" he barks.
Saban's good, Grandaddy. You'll like him.
"Bear'd be running the ball."
We buried Elmo in Maple Hill next to Nana. I was just a kid when he went. He left us before things picked back up, before Stallings came back and gave us a glory run for the old timers. The DuBose and Shula years would have killed him all over again. Mike Price wouldn't have fooled him for a second.
The boys are rallying. Yeldon pushes the ball into A&M territory. The kid goes low, snaking forward for an extra yard, and suddenly the ball pops out. Elmo doesn't wait for Verne Lundquist's delayed garblings.
"We've lost it." he proclaims instantly.
I can't listen to Gary Danielson's incredulous post mortem, so I hit the mute button. I can't turn the game off either, though. Sometimes when one slips through your fingers you just have to hang on for a few minutes and linger where the victory would have been.
Elmo's dentures have gone back in his mouth. He takes off his George Smiley glasses and begins cleaning them with his shirt. He's the man who gave me my first baseball glove. Who passed down the DNA of what it meant to be an Alabama fan.
"Your momma and daddy still living in South Huntsville? Your momma used to make the best homemade gravy. Put a drop of that stuff on the top of your head, your tongue'll beat your brains out tryin' to get to it."
No, Grandaddy. Mom and Dad split up. She moved down to Fayette County.
He says it is no matter. Says he will take me and Jean down to the Piccadilly if I am hungry.
Jean passed, Grandaddy. Sharon, too.
Elmo and I just sit. The television is still on mute. The A&M players are gathering in front of their fans and singing the Aggie War Hymn.
Things ain't like they used to be. Elmo's gone, and it's just me and Martha, trying to teach the girls how to say "Roll Tide" even when it hurts.