The Favorite

Garner is broke, unemployed, single, good to his mom and afraid of nothing but himself

Updated: March 4, 2011, 11:04 AM ET
By John Brandon | ESPN The Magazine

This short story appeared in the March 7, 2001 Fiction Issue of ESPN The Magazine.

SINCE GARNER HAD BEEN BACK, the only weather had been a reedy sunlight that couldn't manage to heat up a day but did manage to make everybody squint.

Garner had on his darkest sunglasses, and his mother wore a floppy hat. His mother's hair had reached that point where you couldn't tell if it was light or dark or mostly gray, but her eyes were still sharp as ever.

The Favorite
Tim Morris for ESPN The Magazine

GCU. Georgia Coastal. The Marsh Cats. Garner's mother liked to attend one game per year, to cheer the team in person. The team was 4-0, and they were getting the upper hand again today. They were still running that same old spread-option offense that half the big teams were running. They had a plow horse of a quarterback who never failed to convert a third-and-short.

Garner had been raised on football like all the boys here, but he'd always looked forward to the day he'd be done with it. Football had been part of the small-town mediocrity he'd needed to escape. People had seemed proud of Garner when he'd played, and there'd been no denying he was pretty good at it, but his relief had been profound when he'd stripped his pads off for the last time -- when he'd done anything in this town for the last time.

And now he was living here again, after more than a decade. Back in this string of dull, interchangeable villages, all with the same seafood restaurants, each with one high school and a refurbished downtown made up of half a dozen blocks. A few bored lawyers. A trickle of docile tourists. People raised here spoke with the accents of people who were stuck somewhere and didn't mind being stuck. Occasionally, a chef got out. Once in a blue moon, a painter.

Just before halftime, the Marsh Cats finally got into the end zone. Garner asked his mother if she was hungry, then filed down out of the bleachers and made his way to the concession stand, which, besides the standard candy and chips, was offering boiled shrimp from a huge pot and a burger topped with onions. Garner watched the man inside the stand pick up a coffee cup and sniff it, then drop the full cup into the trash. The man's mustache was neat but he had a big belly and knobby knuckles. When he looked at Garner, his eyes changed. Garner ordered two burgers and the guy started getting the buns ready. He stopped and straightened up and said, "Ethel's boy."

Garner nodded. The man wiped his hands and offered to shake, and Garner obliged.

"I used to work with your mom at the carpet mill," the man told Garner. "She kept us in line. We used to call her the vice principal."

Garner chuckled, not completely falsely.

"I always wanted to tell you I'm real happy you take care of her like you do. When you left, we were all kind of wondering."

Garner didn't know what to do but thank the man. He didn't see burgers anywhere, though he could smell them.

"I hope you don't mind me saying, because it's not my place and I'm aware of that, but your mother deserved a good husband and didn't get one, and she deserves a good son and it's gratifying as hell that she did get that. I'm not trying to run down your father to you."

"No, you're right," Garner said. "She deserves good people."

The man slid a long-handled spatula out of a drawer. "Most guys with scratch like you got, they don't spend a whole lot of time buddying around with their old mom. Just thought somebody ought to say it to you."

"Appreciate it," said Garner.

The man slipped out the rear door of the stand, where there must've been a grill, and Garner stood alone, leaning on the counter.

MOST MORNINGS Garner rose before his mother and stared at the news on TV while hazy, reluctant light swelled up behind the blinds. In the quiet dawns, Garner felt he could think, felt he could hatch a viable scheme. The situation was that he was out of work. He'd made it through a stifling Atlanta summer in a fog of denial before, finally, only a few weeks ago, admitting the obvious to himself -- that without the income that had caused him to be rich, he was suddenly poor. That simple.

No one knew this, and no one could. He'd been the kid who'd been too smart for these brackish burgs and had made it big on the outside. Being a wealthy young man had become part of his identity. Now, though he was accustomed to fine living, he would soon have no way to pay for it.

He still had a few of his suits, and he had his phone working. To cut off his phone would be to fully admit defeat. And he had one last pack of Russian cigarettes out of a case he'd bought himself on a trip to Moscow back in January. He smoked one now and again, but mostly he gave them away. He didn't like looking at the ornately decorated pack -- it reminded him of all the traveling he'd done for work. He remembered the view of that severe, windblown square out his hotel window. He remembered all the Russians walking around with ice cream cones even though it was freezing cold.

Garner heard his mother puttering around in the kitchen, the coffeemaker gurgling. His mother believed his life in the city was still running along smooth and sure, that he was taking a break from the grind and checking up on her because he was such a terrific son. Garner was duping her. No one understood what his business was, but they all thought it was booming.

THURSDAY, GARNER PUT ON A DECENT SHIRT and drove his mother's car to a dim bistro that, as far as he knew, was the nicest restaurant in town. He sat in the car smoothing his shirtfront until he saw her walking up, and then he rushed out to meet her before she went inside. She was wearing a simple dress and flip-flops. Ainsley. Ainsley Thomas. Parts of her looked the same as ever. Her ankles. Her pointy chin that had always made it seem she knew more than she was saying. She looked clean somehow. She was a nurse now, Garner knew. She was divorced.

They sat at a small table next to a window. They ordered croissants and some shrimp, and Ainsley got a glass of wine and Garner a beer.

"You drink now?" Ainsley said. She was smirking at him, or at least it seemed like she was.

"Sure," Garner said.

"You never used to in high school. People thought you were weird."

"I'm still weird," Garner said.

Garner didn't want to talk about himself, so he asked Ainsley questions. She'd gone to Coastal and held out as long as she could in graphic design before switching to nursing. She'd started dating a football player, a reserve linebacker. "He was slow," Ainsley said, "but nobody ever broke a tackle on him." After graduation, she took a job at a rehab hospital a ways inland while the linebacker started a mortgage company. They'd gotten along well, had done kind small deeds for each other, had gotten married. The mortgage business was rolling.

"Then the market collapsed," said Garner.

Ainsley shrugged. "The short version is he couldn't stomach living off my income."

"He was probably a good guy," said Garner.

"We never raised our voices."

She picked up a shrimp from the platter between them and started peeling it. The waiter came over and refilled her glass and dropped off two more napkins. Garner could see the wine was already getting to Ainsley. Her neck was flushed.

"And how's nursing?" Garner asked her.

"I don't feel like I'm burnt out on it, so that's good. I like the patients. My co-workers, not so much." Ainsley made a little sandwich out of a shrimp and a piece of croissant and bit it in half. "The fullback for Coastal came in yesterday," she said. She stopped chewing and glanced behind her. "We're not supposed to tell people this stuff. HIPPA."

"What's HIPPA?"

"It's the rules. You can't go around talking about people you're treating."

Garner sipped his beer. It wasn't cold anymore. "What's wrong with him?"

"Probably walking pneumonia. They're running tests. The coaches are keeping it hush-hush. And down the hall from him we got this guy on vacation from Africa. Something's wrong with his stomach. He says he's a prince."

"Number 41? That's the fullback who's sick?"

"I don't know his number. Regular-looking white kid."

"Hnh," said Garner.

"Know what else? He watches Murder, She Wrote. Isn't that funny?"

Garner laughed. He rarely laughed anymore in a way that felt genuine. The waiter came and topped Ainsley off again, and then she reached across the table and took Garner's hand.

"I didn't know I was missing you until I saw you," she said, her voice placid but raspy.

Garner's throat went dry. Sitting here was making him feel grateful to the world, an unfamiliar feeling of late, but he'd made no progress, overall. Life was still all luck or fate or something else discouraging to think about.

He drank the rest of his beer and paid the bill with a soon-to-be-maxed-out credit card, and he and Ainsley left the bistro. He walked her to her car and she invited him to sit in the passenger's seat. He started to say something and she interrupted him and said she just wanted to kiss him for a while, like kissing in a parked car was the most they could imagine right then.

WHEN GARNER GOT HOME, he went to his bedroom, shut his door and existed there in the dark. A hundred things were wrestling in his head. Ainsley. His job prospects. His suits hanging in the closet, dormant, losing faith in their owner. Garner didn't have a college degree, and that hadn't bothered him until now. His junior year at Emory, he'd been taken underwing by Mr. Downey, who'd been drawing a fortune as a one-semester visiting professor at the finance school. Garner had dropped out and become Mr. Downey's assistant, and after a few fast years he could do almost everything his mentor could. Almost. Downey had always kept Garner under his thumb, kept him dependent, and eventually Garner had lost patience and tried to go around Downey on a deal and now Downey was through with him. Garner hadn't heard one word from the man since they'd parted ways.

Another thing Garner couldn't get out of his mind was the fullback. Garner had noticed the kid last Saturday, the best blocker on the team, one of those kids who had that innate knack for colliding squarely with another human. He was stout enough to lead inside and quick enough to pull wide on the speed sweeps, and when the offense got stuck they'd sneak him out of the backfield and throw to him. Garner had even seen him directing traffic before the snap.

He found his phone on the nightstand and looked up the lines. Coastal was favored by 19 points on Saturday. They were on the road, at North Florida. Three touchdowns on the road. Their star fullback had pneumonia and nobody knew he'd be out yet.

Garner stared into the dark and gripped his phone. He must've slept an hour here and there, and in time, as it had to, the shy, bluish light rose up into the world. He showered and dressed and drove his mother's Honda directly west on Route 8 until he came to a town two counties in where no one knew him. He had to wait 15 minutes for the bank to open, and then he went in and withdrew everything he could from his checking without having to close the account -- a little over two grand. The teller asked if he needed anything else and he said he did. Garner had an old money- market account he'd opened with the commission from his first big deal with Downey. He'd never touched it, was never going to touch it, until he was old, when he'd be able to tell people that it was the first money he'd ever made, just before he did something magnanimous with it, maybe gifted it all to some ambitious young man he would have begun to mentor. It had been accruing paltry interest for years and it was over five thousand now. Garner took a deep breath and told the teller he wanted to close the money market.

He drove back to the coast and pulled up behind Cuss Seafood, an ancient, tidy diner where everyone knew the owner took bets. He poked his head into the kitchen and asked for Cuss. After a minute, a wiry black man with one of his eyes messed up walked out and accepted Garner's bet like it was 20 bucks. It was hard to tell if the man was looking at Garner or off into the live oaks. He peered at Garner's driver's license, scribbled in a little booklet, then slipped Garner's cash into a sturdy blue envelope stamped LOWER COUNTRY ENTERTAINMENT. "You sure this just for entertainment?" he said. "We a entertainment outfit."

SATURDAY MORNING, Garner's mother's hot-water heater crapped out. He insisted that he'd take care of it, having no clue how much a hot-water heater cost. Down at the end of the block he puffed away at one of his Russian cigarettes, and when he got back to the house his mother's friends were appearing.

Garner said his hellos. The big woman with the high heels, the skinny lady with the ball cap. He listened to reports on all the women's children, one a kid named Lucas, now a guy named Lucas, whom Garner had been buddies with when they were younger. He was still in town, his mother told Garner -- he was a tutor over at the college, the head tutor now. They gave Lucas the important cases, the athletes and exchange students. Lucas' band was rehearsing, she said, or he would've come over for the game. They were getting ready to record a demo, so they had to practice every chance they got.

Garner did just enough smiling and nodding and then claimed he wasn't feeling well and retired to his room to watch the game on his tiny old TV. He couldn't be around people at the moment. He couldn't tell if he was jittery or drowsy.

The first minutes of the game proceeded exactly as he needed them to. One drive ended with a dropped pass, another on downs. The only scoring opportunity in the quarter was a North Florida field goal that sailed well wide. Everyone on the field was testy. Both teams were getting whistled for late, crunching hits out of bounds. The coaches were already stripped down to T-shirts and fuming at the referees. The Coastal running back had no pop and wasn't falling forward like he usually did, mostly because, to everyone's but Garner's surprise, the team's starting fullback had been a late scratch.

Everything was moving quickly. The stands were half-empty, Garner noticed, like even the fans hadn't been ready for the game. Bad shotgun snaps and booming punts. When Coastal finally hit a long post route to a lanky receiver named Forde, the play was called back for illegal procedure because the backup fullback had jumped. Watching the Coastal players begin to celebrate and then stop celebrating and drop their heads at the sight of the yellow hankies on the ground, optimism filled Garner's guts. Some days you could tell an offense was not going to get it together.

At halftime, Garner was snapped out of his reverie by a rare call on his cell phone. It was Ainsley. She didn't so much invite him as tell him he was going to come over to her house for dinner Thursday, her night off. She was going to cook Indian. She'd already been to Savannah for the spices. She wasn't in the business of rushing things, she told Garner, but she also wasn't in the business of stalling.

"I thought you were in the business of kissing," Garner said.

"I am," she said. "I'm expanding, is all."

"Demand must be high."

Ainsley scoffed. "Seven-thirty," she said.

Garner was still holding his phone and staring at nothing when he noticed that the third quarter had begun. Coastal was pressing, but suffered one penalty after another. The offensive line was in disarray, and when one of the tackles came to the sideline he hurled his helmet into a fence. Afternoon was waning into early evening. Garner's appetite was returning, but he didn't want to leave the bedroom and break the spell.

All the scoring arrived in a fourth-quarter rush. Coastal managed a field goal and then North Florida ran back the ensuing kickoff and then Coastal, almost out of time, called the same old simple dive play up the middle, a play that had been stuffed all day, and somehow none of the linebackers were home and two defensive backs got tangled up with each other trying to make the tackle. Sixty-yard touchdown. A three-point victory for Coastal. Garner had won his bet. He'd won it by a mile. He'd done something crazy and it had worked out for him. He'd won.

Garner showed up early at the diner, walking around back with the deliverymen dropping off the morning catch, and collected his money from Cuss, who said, "The rich get richer," when he handed it all over. Then he raced inland to the bank, again getting there before it opened, and dealt with the same teller. He drove back home, paid off a lesser credit card, had his mother's new hot-water heater installed and made sure he was paid up on his phone bill. He filled the Honda with gas, ran it through a car wash and bought a bunch of imported beer for his mother's fridge. He went for a jog and shaved. He felt like his old self.

It wasn't until late on Tuesday that Garner's euphoria dissipated. He was lying motionless in his little bedroom, absently listening to a sports-radio show when he faced the fact that the North Florida game had been a temporary fix. He'd settled a small card, but there were two big ones still bearing down on him -- bills big enough to put him in worse shape than he'd been in a week ago. Plus he couldn't stay with his mother forever. He needed a destination, but more than that he needed a car. It was going to take more than one game to get him to a place where he could start over.

WEDNESDAY, LUCAS DIDN'T HAVE TO TUTOR and didn't have band practice, so Garner got him out to a rickety pier on the marsh flats where they'd gone fishing countless times as kids. The pier looked as if it were about to collapse, but it had looked that way 20 years ago, too. It was on a minor canal and in the first hour Garner and Lucas didn't see another soul. The sun was out but it was pale, like a headlight that had been left on too long. Garner felt disoriented. This guy he was sitting with on this rotten pier had once been his best buddy. He was dating -- he guessed you'd call it that -- Ainsley Thomas. Sleeping in his old bedroom, driving these old roads. There were probably the same fish down there in the weeds, leery as ever.

He had brought out gin-and-tonic fixings and today, for the first time in a while, was drinking right along with his company. Lucas was an easy-moving, evenhanded guy. Garner could sense bitterness in him, but he'd buried it deep. Like Garner had built an identity for himself out of plenitude, Lucas had built one of composure. It was wearing thin, Garner could see. When Garner started complaining about the town, the same complaints he'd always had, Lucas jumped right in.

"Everyone's so satisfied," Lucas said. "Even when they're not happy, they're satisfied. Even when they're griping, they're satisfied to be griping."

"I know what you mean," said Garner.

"It's like my mom," Lucas said. "She's so proud of me all the time. Always telling everyone about me. What's she proud of? What have I done? Nothing. But at least I realize it."

"You're attempting to accomplish something worthwhile," Garner told him. "Worthwhile endeavors are risky and they take time."

The water was lapping under the dock to its own unfathomable rhythm. Lucas told Garner he was tutoring and busing tables only because he needed a van. With a van, his band could play out-of-town gigs. Once they were playing steady, they could think about moving to Charleston. There was a record label called Bottle Tree that would probably sign them, once they had more of a fan base. Lucas wanted to tell Garner all this, wanted to explain himself, wanted to be judged.

Garner took his Russian cigarettes out and saw there were two left. He offered one to Lucas.

"Don't smoke," said Lucas.

"Me neither." Garner kept holding out the clay-colored cigarette until Lucas took it from him. They lit up and Garner tossed the pack away.

"What exactly is it you do?" Lucas asked him.

"I'm an exporting consultant," answered Garner. "That's what I'd call it."

"Is that fun?"

"Used to be."

"Everything used to be fun." Lucas baited again. "We're not catching them," he said. "We're feeding them."

He took a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke leak out his nostrils. Garner extracted the lime from his cup and sucked on it.

"Which all players do you tutor?" he asked.

"The dumb ones," said Lucas.

"Any of the good players?"

Lucas shrugged. "I haven't really been following the team this year."

"How about Nigel Forde, that receiver? You tutor him?"

"Nope. Never tutored that kid. He doesn't need it."

Just then Lucas' rod bent. He got a grip on it and dropped what was left of his cigarette into the water. The fish was stubborn, but it wasn't running anywhere. Lucas wasn't smiling. He was peering at the water and cranking. The sun was way above, hiding in its own light. The tall weeds were leaning with a tepid breeze.

"Lucas," Garner said, sounding as sober as he could. "Lucas, you can't tell anyone I told you this, but I'm having money problems."

Lucas' cranking slowed, but now the fish was visible beneath the surface of the water. It was chasing itself around.

"You're the only one who knows," Garner said. "I'm broker than you are."

Lucas raised the dripping fish out of the weeds and stoically got a grip on it. The fish didn't flail. It had done all its fighting. It wasn't an eating fish and wasn't big enough anyway, so Lucas freed it from the hook, lowered it off the side of the pier and released it. He and Garner watched it swim off casually, as if nothing had happened.

"Broker than me?" Lucas said finally. "That's pretty broke."

Lucas looked a little smug. He looked almost young again. Garner had him. He could tell this already, just like back in his old life when he knew he had a client where he wanted him.

"We're going to redistribute a little wealth," Garner told him. "We're going to cause some money that someone else currently possesses to be possessed by us."

"That should be easy," Lucas said. "Someone else possesses almost all of it."

Garner told Lucas about his first bet, when the fullback had been out. He explained that with the fullback returning, the Coastal offense was expected to recover its swagger, but if they didn't have Forde, the only deep threat, the opposing defense would put nine men in the box and stuff all of Coastal's running plays. He informed Lucas that they were going to frame Nigel Forde for cheating.

Lucas didn't cast his line back out. He rinsed his hands in the water and sat heavily. He looked at Garner with an open, almost challenging expression on his face.

"I was wondering why you wanted to go fishing with me," he said.

They decided the simplest thing would be for Lucas to plant a copy of a test in Forde's bag. There was a midterm coming up in two days for a geology class all the athletes took. The players always hung out on the first floor of the advising building after lunch. It would be a piece of cake. Garner would make the phone call to the dean while Lucas was in a session. Forde might be found innocent, but he'd be out for at least a couple games.

"It's still gambling, though, you know?" Garner said. "There's still a chance we could lose."

"I'm losing now," said Lucas.

ON FRIDAY, Garner stood outside the L&R Market on the edge of town, a stunted myrtle not quite shading him. He had considered, overnight, that Lucas might back out, but Lucas had not backed out. Lucas had, just minutes before, called Garner's cell phone and hung up when Garner answered, meaning the test was planted. Not only had Lucas not backed out, but the morning before he'd gone to campus he'd dropped off his own $4,000 at Garner's mom's house to add to the bet. It had taken him three semesters to save it. There was more than $10,000 split between the pockets of Garner's jeans, tight lumps he could feel against his legs.

His date with Ainsley had not gone well. He had been too drunk and could feel the proof of that in his temples. He'd kept trying to be sweet and it hadn't come off right. He had seemed different, she said, and at the end of the evening she had given him a long look that somehow expressed disappointment in herself as well as in Garner. He would have to patch that up soon, in a few days, but he wasn't going to get distracted right now. He was going to pick up the receiver and put his coins in the slot and punch in the number for the school. Then he was going to drive to the diner and give Cuss all of the money he had. This was the sort of thing he was capable of. He didn't need to rely on luck. It wasn't luck that had ever been on his side. What he had were endless schemes and the sand to pull them off. He wasn't frightened of anything but himself.

John Brandon was raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida. He has written two novels -- Arkansas and Citrus County. His favorite recreational activity is watching college football.

John Brandon is the acclaimed author of Arkansas, Citrus County, and most recently, A Million Heavens. He is writing weekly on college football.