Angel’s Share, East Village. 2:47 am, January 4th, 2016
The reverberation of the celebratory fireworks subsided 45 minutes ago. The final revelers exited 30 minutes ago. And the house lights would shut themselves down in 3…2…
His voice echoed. Tonight would be the same as every since the conclusion of Week 10. The problem? It wasn’t supposed to be. He froze for a second. Emptiness.
What happened? What went wrong? Why wasn’t tonight different?
He walked to the stream of moonlight cutting through an outside window. Every night for nearly two months, the little guy with the Groucho mustache would have too much to drink, stumble over his own two feet, and pull down the curtain dressings for this window. Every night for nearly two months, the curtain would be back in place when Todd Bowles arrived from his Jets coaching duties to serve as guest of honor at the Angel’s Share July 4th Ball.
“John?…You there, John?” Todd spoke in a hushed cry. It did not matter; goodness knows the amount of screaming, yelling, and cursing (yes, Coach Todd Bowles cursing) that he had released in his nocturnal prison. There never was any response. Still, it felt right considering the heaviness for which this game carried. This game, which was much bigger than a football game, regardless of the playoff implications it had presented (and delivered).
“John!” He kept his distance but continued his lock on the window. It was filthy. It had been filthy every night since Rex Ryan and the waitress had vanished together, and even without being able to see through it, Bowles was sure the friendly confines of New York City were not what awaited on the other side. The tension built up in his chest. He looked to the revolver that sat on the bar top next to the photo in a walnut frame with engraved vines around the edges. For nearly two months that six shooter had sat on the bar loaded with a single round chambered (“so just a one-shooter then,” John had once joked). He sat alone and wondered if it was the answer. It was, after all, how he’d found John in the first place.
In late November, the game after losing at home to Rex Ryan, Bowles suffered a 24-17 loss to the Houston Texans (a team he had never heard of) behind the three passing touchdowns by T.J. Yates and Cecil Shorts III (two players he had never heard of). It was his lowest point, he recalled, and when the fireworks ended, the partygoers vanished, and the lights self clicked off for the tenth time, Bowels (now blushing with embarrassment at the memory) decided the revolver had been there for a reason. It would be his only escape. He spun the cylinder and placed the barrel to his temple. He did not close his eyes. The hammer clicked to a void, followed by a knock from outside the window. A knock that introduced Bowles to Dr. John Nash.
Now Todd sat again at the bar with the revolver in his hand. Truth be told, he was hoping the threat would be enough to bring John back to the window. Since that tenth night, when they agreed to work on a method to break Bowles from this repetitive fate, John had never failed to appear on schedule. Todd wondered why tonight was different. But, then again, he wondered why he was back here tonight at all. All their calculations suggested that the outcome of the Jets Week 17 game should have released him already. But regardless, here he sat, and at the window John was not.
He swiped his palm across the side of the revolver and heard the slowing clicks get louder as they neared his ear. This was no threat. If John couldn’t find the answer, Todd had one.
Click-click…click…..click……..click……..click…….click…………cuh-lick. Todd could feel by the balance of his piece that the chamber in line was occupied. It was a relief.
A knock came from the window.
“Goddamnit John! I nearly blew my –” Seeing his associate back in the window jerked him back to reality and he tossed the gun on the bar top, flinching from the weapon as if it were suddenly covered in snakes.
“There’s no point in being nuts if you can’t have some fun with it.” A response that should have surprised and angered the nearly-headless Bowles; it did neither. “Look, you’ve opened the portal to potentially escape. What lies beyond it, though, I do not know. Just follow your instincts.”
Bowles walked to the entrance door with the frosted glass panel. The door that had been locked every night for nearly two months. He turned the knob and as the [Door Flew Open] to reveal darkness. He closed his eyes and stepped into the nothingness.
Bowles opened his eyes to find himself standing in an extravagant board room. He stood with his back to the wall, looking over the shoulder of a silver creation that was mechanically signing a stack of contracts, non-disclosure agreements, and checks. A man with a familiar and untrustworthy face was speaking to the signature machine.
“Brock’s value as a percentage of marketing ratio with regard to home wins is undeniably in favor of the Broncos organization. But my sources — which is Rex Ryan, between you and me — thinks you could make the Bills 2016 roster and sell many an upstate New York pizza next year.”
Bowles, only-half listening, saw the door with the frosted glass panel across the room. No one seemed to have noticed his arrival and he was now skirting along the wall, hoping he could tip toe across the plush carpet and make his way to the exit before anyone —
“Halt, non-credentialed viewer!” The silver being arose holding a very large, very shiny, and very pointed-at-Bowles firearm.
“Excellent, RQBOCOP!” The untrustworthy man almost stumbled over his words in excitement. “If you destroy Todd Bowles, you will instantly establish yourself as the leader of the 2016 Buffalo Bills! The offseason metrics on advertising expenses in the northeast during El Nino conditions are prime for a new quarterback for a non-playoff team!”
Follow your instincts. Todd’s instincts were to dial up a corner blitz to attack this immobile threat and leave him planted in the ground before he could get to his third progression (which would laughably be Chris Hogan in Buffalo).
“Buffalo?! You think that cold is worth that market?” Bowles reached in his pocket and RQBOCOP poked the gun at him, a reminder of who was in charge. “It’s okay. I got something for you.”
Slowly he drew a fist from his pocket. “Look, it would be against the rules if I gave this to you. But would you make sure your wife gets this?” He winked and flipped a quarter to the machine-man. “Cash. Untraceable, right? Now, unrelated, we may need to talk in the offseason about the Jets needs for a quarterback in our large market city.” Another wink and, as RQBOCOP studied the silver piece stamped 1920, Bowels leaned to the table and picked up one of the many Microsoft Surface Pro Tablets that were available to the guests at this meeting. “Now let me show you a couple plays that we could draw up just for –“
Bowles broke in a sprint for the door.
“Stop him! Small market dominance is more profitable 88% of the time than sharing a large market, even in oligopolic conditions!” The untrustworthy man could talk plenty but he would never dare to try to stop Bowles.
Whether or not an informal cash option agreement was adequate did not matter. Bowles did reach the door and the untrustworthy man’s voice faded as he entered the darkness.
Before he could see where he was, Todd Bowles could feel his surroundings. Dank. Smokey. He could smell his surroundings. Dank. Incompetent (that was a smell?). He could hear his surroundings. It was the voice of an ornately dress individual leading a legion of part-time employed men. After preaching short messages, the group would respond in unison. It was muffled but Bowles had an idea of what the message was, that is, until a sack was ripped from his head and all his senses became crystal clear.
Arms fueled by oversized biceps lifted Bowles as a smaller member of the crowd, the single woman in the group from what Bowles could tell, sifted a box of chalk around his feet. The leader dressed down Bowles in front of his audience.
“Behold a new head coach with losses to Philadelphia, Houston, and Buffalo! Yet he does not blame officiating once! He says the games ‘are what they are’ and focuses on his game plan and….and….TEAM DISCIPLINE!”
The audience murmured sounds from which Bowles could pick out only select words: New York, overturned, Beergh, Seahawks.
“27th in penalties! That is 27th in fueling our needs!” The leader punched a scepter over the crowd, instigating an immediate reaction.
“FLAGS FOR THE FLAG GOD!”
Smoke bellowed as the female approached him again, this time without the chalk in her hands. Through the clearing smoke, he could see the door with the frosted glass panel about ten yards behind her. It hovered above the glowing red pool that provided the heat and light for this gathering. There was silence.
“May I just get by to that door, please?”
The referee stood unamused and unresponsive.
“If I could just get to the door, I’ll be out of your hair for good.”
Still unamused. Still unresponsive.
“Look! I need to get to that door! It’s not your job to hold me prisoner! You don’t even know why you’re standing in front of me! You’re just in a cult and –” He could see her hand twitching nervously by her waistband. Her eye held a slight twinkle. Tension filled the room.
“Ma’am, can you just explain to me what this is about? Please?”
The hand stop twitching. The blank stare returned. No saw no twinkle. He felt no tension.
Follow your instincts. Surely Rex had been here before. His Bills lead the league in penalties. If he wasn’t their god, based on the crowd’s reaction, he had to at least be the equivalent of a cardinal.
He dipped his toe into the chalk line she had poured. He watcher her reaction as slowly pivoted his ankle and brushed aside the arbitrary barrier. The twitching, twinkle, and tension returned.
“You don’t know what the fuck you are doing here! I’m getting to that fucking door and there’s not one fucking thing you can’t do it about it you stupid cu –” he stepped across the line and the rest of his tirade was lost in the immediate calls from the crowd; an onslaught of verbal chaos from which Bowles could only decipher: “Now coach,” “Coaches Box!” and “That’s it!”
The woman looked him in the eye, blew her whistle, and thrust her flag into the air. The action was duplicated by the audience as a sea of yellow flooded the indoor sky. The calls had become cheers and Todd Bowles gave in to instinct. Still gripping the tablet from the boardroom, Todd bent his arm to the side of the official and whipped the tablet into the pool where the door hovered. The official threw her hat in the direction of the sinking tablet. The audience followed suit.
“Three thousand dollar fine!” One voice called from the crowd.
“Officially sponsored product!” Shouted a voice from the back.
Then, repeated in unison, “FLAGS FOR THE FLAG GOD! PENALTIES FOR THE PENALTY THRONE! FLAGS FOR THE FLAG GOD! PENALTIES FOR THE PENALTY THRONE!…”
Todd Bowles walked around the ref and to the edge of the pool. Between the door and him now floated a bridge of black caps. The leader approached him, handed him an official AFC Championship game ball, and stepped back to allow Bowles passage. Holding the gift and looking over the chanting crowd, Bowles felt alive.
He spiked his Bose headset on the bedrock floor to an eruption of cheers and an encore flight of yellow laundry. The cheers continued, but faded away, as he walked across the caps and, once again, opened the door and entered the darkness.
A flash of light temporarily blinded Bowles. As his eyes tried to focus to his new surroundings, his first thought was of how exhausted he felt. Months of trying to escape this hell were taking their toll and, now, how many more times would he need to escape into that door?
Blurred figures in a white room began to take shape. Blue figures. Were they Bills players? No, one of them was talking with big words and a foreign accent. Chargers? No, he listened intently, no Boltman guitar music. P*triots? Maybe, there was a chemical closet and a bunch of glassware coming into focus.
“Zo ‘ooh iz rezponzible for zis?” The smart one had gotten close enough to Bowles that he could see that the blue was not a jersey but a denim vest. As his focus improved, he could see that all of the dozen or so occupants in the room were wearing them — well, all but one of their fat compatriots, who was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt advertising (well, advertising under the crusted food, it seemed) Skyline Chili — and the vests were covered with a series of patches.
“Oh man. Sweet. I thought I was the only one on this trip.” The voice came from amongst cloud of smoke in the corner.
The sweatshirted one responded, “I took a trip to Fenway once. Well, many. But once for my cousin Harold’s bucket list. He pawned his insulin to get us tickets, which was alright but didn’t even yield enough for seats AND refreshments so when –“
Bowles didn’t even have to remember to follow his instincts. It simply, well, happened. He heaved the ball at the speaker and targeted it square on his mouth. The velocity of the ball, coupled with it’s inadequate internal pressure, caused it to form a mold around Skyline’s face and hold in place, rather than fall to the ground.
The entire group looked at Bowles, then Skyline (who was on his back kicking and trying to pull the football away from his air holes), then the smart one. She looked only at Skyline and, after a minute when his kicking had ceased, walked over and peeled the pigskin from his face.
She studied the texture of the ball in silence then turned to Bowles. Showing up in a gang’s clubhouse and assaulting a member was a pretty poor use of following his instinct and he was now regretting it.
“From vhere deed you get zis artifact?”
What could Bowles say? The truth wasn’t believable. And a lie would likely not go over well with this motley looking crew. Fortunately, Skyline had recovered before Bowles could open his mouth.
“Oh boy! That was scary! Lost my breath for a second. Now I know what those kids at Treblinka went through!” The members of the group seemed to have tuned him out. Bowles wished he could do the same.
“Zo you are looking for Rex, zen?” Bowles perked up. “Vee do not have heem but he just vent through zat door.”
Again it stood, the door with the frosted glass panel. Begrudgingly, the tired traveler pulled himself up and approached the nexus.
“Wait!” The voice struck Bowles as one of steel and of fury. “If you leave the ball, you may take the card.”
“Did he remember to get the card?!” A voice asked from the locker room (and was ignored).
Sitting on the table was a post card. Without thought, Bowles took the card and put it in his pocket. He was tired and he felt lost. He was traveling on instinct alone and, with no destination in mind, he stepped through the door into the darkness.
Were it not for the cool breeze, Bowles would not have known that he had arrived in a park at night. From the blinding light of the clubhouse to a midnight encounter, Bowles needed a moment for his night vision to restore. But a moment he did not have.
From the bushes it came. “Quack quack! Stanford is for architects.”
Bowles looked around but did not respond. A rustle from the bushes then, “Quack quack! Ugly Caucasians, Lovely Asians.”
Bowles stood still.
“Coach? Aloha, coach?” A young man popped out from the bush. “Pardon me, stranger, but would you know where my coach is?”
Bowles was tired. He began walking down the now-visible path. Even the familiarity of….of….he couldn’t even remember. But wherever it was, surely it would be a welcome change to this existence of crippling insecurity and perpetual Brandon Weeden-esque displacement. He did not speak. He handed the postcard to the young man without breaking stride. His instinct told him to just keep going.
The young man looked at the postcard and called over, “Cooper Square? Are you from New York?”
Bowles stopped. In a flash he remembered New York and the Jets. He remembered John. He remember the Speakeasy. And he remembered that cursed son of a bitch, Rex Ryan.
When he turned to the young man he saw a look of sadness on his face. He held up the back of the postcard to reveal the fate of the coach he had been looking for.
“I’m sorry, son.” It seemed like the right thing to say, instinctively.
“That’s alright, I guess. I mean, I dunno, maybe in another life.” He kicked a rock. “Thank you for bringing me the news. I felt like I’ve been in limbo for weeks now.”
“I know the feeling.” And Todd Bowles really did. “And seeing as how I helped you out of yours, perhaps you could help me out of mine?”
“Stop right there. Let me tell you something. You are not Rex Ryan. You are Todd Bowles. Yes, you are both defensive-minded head coaches with substantial first year success with the Jets. But that is it! You make your future because, so long as you keep chasing Ryan, two things are going to happen. One, you’ll never find success on the field. And two, you’ll never be free when you are away from the team.”
“So what do I do?”
“Through that door are three wise men. They will instruct you on the path to salvation.” And, to no surprise, now next to Bowles stood the door with the frosted glass panel. He stepped, for the last time, into the darkness.
Bowles felt a sense of warmth. He was standing on a country club patio before three well-dressed gentlemen. He surely stood out in the setting yet they paid no immediate attention.
“…but I dare say the leadership of Master Woodson shall not retire with him.”
“As a team, perhaps, but I worry of young Marcel and his, ahhhhh, Umcka partaking.”
“As my son is performing his research thesis on metylhexanamine, I’m afraid I must agree with your concerns, be it the 2016 problem of Los Angeles or our fair Oakland.”
The three men lifted their highballs and repeated, “Fair Oakland” in a toast before sipping.
“Now,” the one with the ‘X’ embroidered on his jacket addressed Bowles, “I assume you are the gentleman who is looking for the, mmmmmm, how do I say this?”
“Actually, I am not looking for Rex. I just want to go home.”
“Oh is that all?” The man with the ‘W’ tie pin laughed at the simplicity of the request. “Hendrick, chap, please help him on his way so we can remove ourselves from the chases and races of these petty millionaires.”
“It is quite simple for you, actually,” Hendrick set down his empty glass and waved to the bar behind Bowles. “Simply speak that which always, always, guarantees a good time. Because that is what sailing one’s own ship truly is — a good time.”
A familiar and sweet smell hit Bowles first. Then around him stepped the waitress, bussing the empty glasses and placing four brown bottles on the table before them. “You know, I’ve served this to the 49ers quarterback, boys.” Her playful warning was met with hearty chuckle and a comment from Hendrick about the coach of their cross-bay rivals spinning a sign about a block from a Berkeley-area off-ramp.
When the waitress turned back, Bowles saw the smile that had been absent for nearly two months. He looked down from her face to her chest (follow your instincts) and read her name tag.
“Nice to see you again, Lin Sue.” He smiled.
“Nice to see you again too, Coach. Hope to have you in again soon.” His eyes followed as she walked away.
“Well now,” Hendricks and his associates held up their bottles, “what would a lad announce to let those around him know that he’s an individual that is not reliant on the opinions, positions, or fates of other?”
Coach Todd Bowles reached down and held up the fourth bottle, tapping it against those of the three wise men. “I guess one would announce that he is,” he smiled, “#UpForWhatever.”
Seated in a booth at Angel’s Share, Mike Maccagnan swiped past the final slide in his offseason targets list. It was 2:47 am and he was exhausted. He knew his head coach was exhausted too. There were no patrons left and only a single employee stood behind the bar, wiping down surfaces and knocking out other clean up duties. There were no firearms on the bar.
“Look, I know tonight seems like the wrong time to go over this but this is my routine. This is my approach. I have my targets in place the minute Week 17 ends. It’s just how I am.”
Todd Bowles ran his fingers over the scratch that ran across the center of the chestnut table. He looked to his general manager and smiled. “What a season.” He stood up and walked to the bar where the waitress from the country club was hand drying a highball glass.
“On the house, Coach. Your Jets really impressed this year. Have a good night.”
“Thank you, Lin Sue.” He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She was noticeably surprised and blushed at his familiarity.
He continued to the door, always with the frosted glass panel, and held the knob without turning. The phone in his pocket buzzed and he pulled it out to see he had an email.
Sent: Monday, January 4, 2015 2:47 AM
To: <2015 NFL Coaches>
Subject: RE: Cruise
The phone back in his pocket, Bowles gave a final look to the window and, somewhere in the New York lights that shouted through the sparkling clean glass, he could see his friend John. He waved, opened the door, and stepped through the doorway, into a bright future as the New York Jets Head Coach.