On the Monday morning after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Chicago Bears, Patty Salvatore waited until her kids had left for school, locked the door to her bedroom and pulled out a box full of panties.
Passing over a soft pink low-rise bikini, a red g-string with a pouf of white fur, and rainbow-striped boy shorts, she picked out a leopard-print thong. This, she thought with a smile, is the one. The one I'll send to Jerome Bettis. The one he deserves for barreling right past Chicago's linebacker Brian Urlacher and into the endzone. She sprayed one, then two, spritzes of perfume on the panties, picked out a red and white card from her dwindling stack of stationery and wrote:
"My Dearest Jerome, Keep up the good work. Love Always, Ginger Mae."
Pausing, she laughed. Ginger Mae was a silly name, but one she had chosen after a co-worker had sent her an e-mail forward indicating that the name of your first pet plus your mother's middle name was your stripper name. Patty drew a smiley face beside her signature and sealed the envelope with a red lipstick kiss. Then, she picked up the log sheet she kept and filled in the final score of the game, type of panties, player name and the date sent.
Finishing, Patty threw on her coat, checked to make sure the grocery list was still in her purse, and grabbed her keys. As she walked through the house, she gritted her teeth, ignoring the pile of dishes and silverware that Robbie and Stacey had left in the wake of their morning routine. Monday mornings were precious to Patty. She wasn't about to let one be ruined by her kids.
Walking into the post office that particular morning, she found it hard to believe that she had been doing this for almost five years—ever since her ex-husband Tom had taken their Steelers season tickets as part of the divorce settlement. Although she had never once received any mail in her Post Office Box, Patty continued to check. Even during the off-season she looked, hoping that someday somebody would reply.
Other than the blanket notices she occasionally received from the post office, her Monday morning trips were in vain.
Patty tried not to let it bother her too much. She tried to reassure herself that she had other things to be grateful for—she, after all, had gotten the kids and the house. Tom was left with the endzone bleacher seats and a bottle-blonde girlfriend named Desiree.
Lately, Patty wasn't exactly grateful that she had custody of the kids. Now that they were teenagers they only seemed to need her for money or to settle their scores. She had become not a mother but an ATM and a referee. She imagined herself sometimes on Heinz Field, Robbie and Stacey on either side of her, the crowd roaring, knowing that no matter what her call was, somebody would accuse her of being wrong.
Patty got out of her mini-van and sighed. Sometimes, during her Monday morning trips, she fancied herself as single and childless, a young woman full of hope dropping off love letters to her plethora of admirers and wondering with glee which one would be her Prince Charming. Instead, Patty was single and bitter, long ago ruined for any dreams of true love.
Young, single women had hope. She had family-sized bags of Doritos and the Steelers.
Each year, long before football season started, Patty picked out 20 pairs of underwear at the Victoria's Secret semi-annual sale—16 for the regular season and 4 to cover any playoff games or a possible Super Bowl bid. Since Patty's butt was far too wide to fit into anything that Victoria's Secret sold, she always blushed checking out with her tiny delicates, concocting a story about a younger, thinner sister who loved receiving underwear as gifts.
Once the panties were purchased, she kept them in a cedar-lined box in the left bottom drawer of her dresser, underneath the decorative sweaters she wore for each of the holidays—a black and orange one with pumpkins, a dark green one with turkeys and pilgrim hats, a blue one with a nativitity scene, a red one with hearts, and a pink one with colored eggs and bunnies.
Around the end of February, Patty went to a local stationery store and bought discounted Valentine cards which she also kept, in their original packaging, in that same box.
In the weeks leading up to the football season, Patty stocked up on perfume. Last year, she used a vanilla body spray that only cost about four dollars at the grocery store. That season, the Steelers had made it the whole way to the AFC championship game, only to get beaten very badly by the New England Patriots whose quarterback, Tom Brady, was so attractive that Patty had temporarily considered sending him underwear as well but had later decided against it due to time and financial constraints.
This season's scent, "Exotica," sold itself as a surefire way to turn on your man. But at the beginning of December, the Steelers were in a position where they needed to win every last regular season game to even win a chance at the wild card playoff game.
With a silent prayer for victory, Patty dropped her manila envelope into the mail slot and turned the key to her box.
Inside, a white envelope was stuffed tight into the hole. Figuring that it had been stuck in the wrong bin, she looked at the address, shocked to find that it was addressed to Ginger Mae, P.O. Box 33768. There was no return address but it was stamped with a Pittsburgh seal.
Patty took a sharp breath and looked around the vestibule, which was mostly empty except for an elderly woman cussing under her breath as she fumbled with her keys.
Heart pounding, Patty stuffed the envelope into her purse and marched to her car where she ripped it open, exposing a letter typed on Steelers letterhead. She could barely catch her breath as she read.
Dear Ginger Mae,
On behalf of the 2005 Steelers team, I'd like to say hello and thank you for your letters. Although we have many fans that send us letters, particularly items of clothing, none of them have been as persistent and intriguing as the ones sent to us by you. There is always locker room discussion after a victory about who will be getting Ginger Mae's panties this week. While we understand and respect your right to privacy, we would very much like the chance to meet the mystery woman behind the underwear. Along with some business partners, I recently opened a restaurant/bar called The Locker Room on East Carson Street. Enclosed is a voucher for a free meal. Please know that I have given your name to the hostess with instructions to seat you at the best table in the house and to call me immediately if you are ever to come dine at my establishment. Go Steelers!
Hines Ward, No. 86
When Patty finished reading the letter, she tucked the voucher into the plastic fold of her checkbook with her other coupons. Then, she crumpled the letter into a ball and peeled out of her parking space so fast she could smell the rubber burning for miles.
In the narrow aisles of Giant Eagle, Patty tried, in vain, to follow her grocery list and ignore the crumpled letter at the bottom of her purse. Sidestepping an elderly man waffling between the green and red peppers, she marched straight towards the bakery.
Monday mornings were the only time she liked to shop for groceries. Other times of the week were for the attached and hopeful—the young mothers whose small children looked at them with rapt attention as they manuevered through the cookie aisle, newly-yoked couples making a game of their grocery shopping—splitting up at the beginning and reuniting somewhere in frozen food, their eyes glowing bright and mischievious with lust and optimism, none of them able to fathom a time when their love would fade.
Mondays mornings were for misfits—widows and widowers procuring prescriptions and weekly helpings of prune juice, grave shift workers stocking up on Mountain Dew and frozen entrees, and stay-at-home moms with children who had long ago outgrown them—dull-eyed women with soft bellies and dreams of happily ever after that had only recently been traded away for new ones—that their son might make captain of the basketball team or their daughter might be crowned prom queen.
Patty felt at home with these people. Negotiating her way down the cereal aisle, she thought for a moment of The Locker Room. She knew, deep down, that she would never have the nerve to show up there, but still, her mind swirled fast with fantasy—a candlelit dinner with her and the team's very young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Sure, he was 25 years younger than her and probably didn't take his women with cankles, but who could fight destiny?
Patty dropped a box of Count Chocula on the floor. Startled, she looked up and down the aisle. A stockboy at the end of the aisle stared at her. He had on baggy pants like the kind Robbie wore. She suddenly felt very paranoid, remembering that she had caught Robbie in her room last night after her shower.
"What are you doing?" she had demanded, pulling her terrycloth robe tight.
"Looking for an envelope," he said, the words coming out fast and direct like a line of spit.
"They're in the kitchen," she said. After he left, she checked her bottom drawer. Not a thing was out of place.
Still, what if he had found her box and was playing a joke on her? Why else would a 16-year old boy need an envelope so urgently on a Sunday night?
Patty threw the box of Count Chocola into her cart. Quit being ridiculous, she told herself, tucking her chin-length curly brown hair behind her ear and leaving the aisle. Robbie was misunderstood, but he certainly wasn't mean or hateful.
Patty pushed towards the meat section, thinking about Robbie. Once she had held him on her lap, protecting him from the world at large. Now, he skulked through their house a pale-faced, black-haired stranger with baggy pants and Slipknot t-shirts. She would ask him, she decided. She would ask him why he had needed an envelope. There would be an easy explanation. She had nothing to worry about.
As Patty waited in line at the deli, she realized that for the first time in many years she had something she actually wanted to tell somebody. Usually, she avoided any kind of serious conversation with acquaintances. It was her belief that the more information you gave people, the more ammunition they had to use against you.
Still, she ran through a list of people, trying to think of who to tell. There was Shelley at work who was always trying to set her up on blind dates. Shelley thought it was important for her to play the field. Shelley had been one of the first people she had confided in when she had discovered Tom's affair. But lately, Shelley had been hanging around with the nebby receptionist, Joni, and Patty worried that one slip of Shelley's tongue might have her secret spilled across the entire Accounting department.
Patty put her three pounds of ham, turkey, and swiss cheese into the cart and headed towards the freezer section. Who else could she tell? There was her friend Ellie. Ellie's kids were friends with Robbie and Stacey and Patty had spent many an evening with her over the years, shopping or eating while they both waited for the kids at various lessons and sports games. Except Robbie and Stacey hadn't been involved in any activities for a couple of years, so calling Ellie out of the blue to talk might be a little strange.
Realizing that both of her friends were out, Patty grabbed a family-size bag of popcorn chicken and tried to think of somebody who wouldn't think she was totally looney tunes for sending panties through the mail.
She almost laughed then remembering that the whole idea had blossomed from a pair of panties she had intercepted in her husband's inter-office mail. She had just happened to stop by his office one afternoon and his secretary, Sally, had let her inside his office, oblivious to the fact that the inter-office envelope on top of his desk from Desiree in Accounts Payable contained a black thong. It wasn't like Patty to open somebody else's mail, even her husband's, but the scent of perfume on that envelope had been unmistakable. Strange as it was though, Desiree's stupidity had given Patty a lot of joy over the past few years. It was hard to describe the rush she felt each week watching her favorite team driving down the field to victory with the anticipation of which player would get which pair of panties the next morning. The fantasies she'd had each week as she carried out her ritual, along with the vibrator given to her once as a gag gift, made for some of the best sex she'd had in her life. Patty almost smiled in the middle of the freezer section, but thought better of it and bit her lip instead. Masturbation, she knew, was a sin—just as bad of a sin as fornication and adultery. She had given up making promises to give it up altogether, but figured she should get some points up at the pearly gates for at least acknowledging that it was wrong and feeling sorry about it. Patty said a quick prayer for forgiveness and touched the gold cross at the nape of her neck.
Patty smiled, still thinking of Desiree. She had an odd affection for the woman who had stolen her husband. Desiree was a tall, lithe blonde with french-manicured nails, muscle definition in her arms, a Coach bag tucked under her shoulder at all times, and more black eyeliner than Patty had worn in her entire life. She was the kind of pretty that stopped men in their tracks. Much to Patty's surprise, she was also somewhat humorous, particularly in the way she treated Tom like a hapless puppy dog who just couldn't get anything right, which in many ways he was. Desiree was not only younger, but much more beautiful a girl than a balding, overweight guy like Tom should have ever been able to land. It was fun to watch the lengths he had went to to keep her over the years, including the brand new Porsche he could barely afford or fit into and the three pure-bred Persian cats who he was allergic to that slept in their king-size leopard print bed.
Desiree just might understand something this ridiculous, Patty thought, loading her groceries onto the belt and already looking forward to telling somebody.
Patty didn't find a time to ask Robbie about the envelope until a couple of nights later when his best friend, Angela Wyckoff, wasn't around. Angela, another pale-faced goth like Robbie, wore her jet black hair short and spiky and had her lip, septum, and eyebrow pierced. In the grand scheme of things, there weren't many people that Patty didn't like, but Angela was definitely one of them. Still, as much as Patty disliked her, she thought it was important for Robbie to have friends, even rude ones like Angela. Whereas Robbie faded into his black clothes and silver chains like he was hiding inside a fortress of solitude, Angela wore hers like a badge of honor—she was angry, misdirected, and hateful and she went out of her way to let people know.
Even worse than that, Patty knew that Angela's parents considered her to be a bad-luck omen during Steelers games and often locked her in her room during game time. Angela reacted by violently hating the Steelers and anything remotely associated with them and had laid into Patty many an evening for the Terrible Towel which hung permanently over the living room mantle.
Patty, therefore, made herself scarce when Angela was around and was quite pleased on Wednesday to come home from work and find Robbie home alone.
"Why did you need an envelope?" she blurted out before she even took her coat off.
Robbie looked up from the TV. His dark eyes narrowed, confused. "Huh?"
"You were in my room the other night. The envelope. What did you need it for?"
Robbie paused for a moment and Patty could see him replaying Sunday night in his mind. For a second she thought she detected a thin slice of fear in eyes, but then he smiled.
"Count Chocula," he said, standing up. "If your UPC code ends in a certain sequence you can be put into a drawing for a "Count Chocula for Life" certificate. Wouldn't that be awesome?"
He pulled out the box and showed it to Patty. Sure enough, there were rules for a "Count Chocula for Life" certificate.
"Mom, what did you think I was doing with an envelope?"
The question hung between them, loud and accusing.
Patty shook her head. She knew that Robbie wasn't capable of doing something so mean. She smiled. "Nothing, honey. Nothing."
She reached out to ruffle his hair but he scooted away before she could. Her arm hung suspended in the air like that for a second—waiting.
Over the next few weeks, Patty played the part of a normal mom, doing her Christmas shopping and decorating the house in red and green from floor to ceiling. On Monday mornings she continued to mail panties, but she decided not to give too much more thought about that letter she had received.
She did a really good job of ignoring it until the Steelers beat their arch rivals, the Cleveland Browns, on Christmas Eve. All that build-up to Christmas and Patty found herself home alone that night as Robbie and Stacey passed the evening with Tom and Desiree.
Since they weren't home, Patty decided to wrap up her package for Ike Taylor right after the game. Usually, she didn't package things until right before she was ready to drive to the post office. But knowing that the kids were going to be home from school on Monday, she decided it would be okay to pack everything up a little early. That way, if they were out of bed by the time she was leaving for the post office, they wouldn't be suspicious if they came looking for a hand-out or a ride and her door was locked.
Patty opened the box and carefully packaged a red lace g-string for Ike Taylor. After she sealed the letter, she decided, suddenly, to add an extra note.
I received your letter last week and while I am flattered that members of the team value my opinions and would like to meet me, I would prefer to keep my anonymity.
Love Always, Ginger Mae
When she was done, she folded the letter to Hines around the pink envelope for Ike, placed it gently into the box and closed her drawer.
A whole day later, after a very long Christmas during which Stacey sulked all day because Patty wouldn't want to let her invite her friends over and Robbie got mad because he had been given an Ipod Nano instead of the full Ipod he had asked for, Patty found herself back in the parking lot of the Brentwood Post Office. Having just mailed the note to Hines, she felt like she might explode if she didn't tell somebody right then—that she might miss her opportunity and it would be just one more thing in her life she had missed, like that time her and Tom had waited too late to get tickets to see Elton John at the Mellon Arena and they had sold out before they called. Or the fact that she had waited so long to ask anybody to the fall formal her senior year of high school that the last guy without a date had been Tom. If only she'd asked Jake Pinto, a grade-A dreamboat, maybe she'd still be married right now.
Patty got out her cell phone and dialed Tom's house.
"Desiree, It's Patty. I was wondering if you could meet for lunch sometime next week, just to talk."
"Oh god. Is Tom cheating on me? You do know the only time the ex-wife calls the new one to meet for lunch is to deliver bad news, don't you?"
Patty laughed. Desiree was just as insecure as she was beautiful.
"No. Well, I guess I should actually say, not that I know of. But it's not about Tom. This is just, just. I need to talk to somebody."
Desiree sighed. "I have a really busy week next week—nails on Monday, hair on Tuesday . . . but let me look at my schedule." Patty heard some paper rustling in the background.
"Okay, I can definitely do next Thursday, but if you're really in a rush to talk I could fit you on Wednesday after waxing. My face might be a little red though . . . "
"That's fine. I mean, you're risking being seen with a fattie, so I think we'll be even."
"Patty! Haven't you heard that big is beautiful?"
"Then why are you so thin?"
"Because, Patty. You have to be BRAVE to be fat these days. It's an act of defiance and I'm too much of a chicken shit."
Patty almost admonished her for saying that last word. Do you talk like that in front of my kids, she wanted to say. But Patty was worried about what Desiree might think of her if she really did admonish Desiree for swearing days before she confessed that she'd been sending underwear to football players for the past five years.
"You're such a hypocrite," Desiree would say, grabbing her designer purse and storming out of the restaurant.
Patty fumbled with some papers on the counter to pretend that she was also consulting her calendar.
"Next Wednesday works for me, too."
A week later, on the first Wednesday of 2006, after the Steelers had finished their regular season with a victory over the Detroit Lions, Patty sat across from Desiree at The Original Fish Market. Since Tom was away on business all week, Desiree made the most of her time with Patty, describing her morning wax session in explicit detail.
"I mean, have you ever had a bikini wax? They hurt like hell and this new girl, she just . . . "
Patty pushed her silverware around on the glossy wood table and suffered through Desiree's description of her morning which, already verging on ten minutes, seemed to be being told in real time. Patty smiled, watching Desiree's mouth moving and thinking about the crumpled letter in her purse and the postcard she'd found on Monday when she sent out a pink cotton low-rise bikini to Willie Parker. It was a postcard of Heinz Field addressed to Ginger Mae. The message, written in all caps with a black felt-tip pen, said: "We got your note. We still want to meet you."
It was also in her purse and the more Desiree rattled on, the more Patty wondered if maybe she should just keep her purse and her mouth closed.
But of course, when the food finally arrived—salmon salad with lemon juice for Desiree and fried shrimp with steak fries for Patty, Desiree became suddenly interested in Patty.
"So," she said at the exact moment Patty shoved a handful of fries into her mouth. "What'd you want me for?"
Patty gestured to her closed mouth, but realizing that another chance to jump into the conversation might not happen if she did not act fast, she swallowed down what she could without chewing, coughed a little and started babbling.
"Well, it's kind of odd," she started, explaining that Desiree had to swear she would not laugh at or tell anybody about this conversation. After Desiree had given her solemn word, Patty pulled her purse onto her lap and, hands shaking, dropped the pieces of correspondence onto the table between them.
"What's that?" said Desiree.
Patty cleared her throat.
"Do you remember that time I found your panties in the interoffice mail?"
At home later that night, Patty pulled out the cedar-lined box, deposited the letters from the Steelers and thought about Desiree's reaction to her confession.
"That's awesome," she'd said, handing the letters back to Patty with a look of admiration.
Patty sighed, feeling like she could breathe a little easier just having gotten all of that off her chest. But Desiree was ready to act.
"Oh my god," she said, stabbing at her salad but pulling up an empty fork. "I know! I can pretend to be Ginger Mae. I mean, if you're going to meet the Steelers you at least have to get me in on it since it was kind of my idea that you stole."
"No," she said. "This isn't something that's going to become a reality. I just, I just needed to tell somebody, that's all." Patty grabbed the letters off of the table and stuffed them into her purse. While Desiree had protested at length that Patty would regret her decision not to take advantage of such a golden opportunity as this, Patty maintained her stance that all of the letters could be an elaborate scheme and that it could very well be from somebody planning to prosecute her for harassment should she ever set foot in The Locker Room.
In fact, the more excited Desiree got about it, the less excited Patty became.
"I don't know," she said as she left. "I think the panties stop here."
Sitting on the edge of her bed, turning the box over in her hands, Patty knew that she couldn't give it up that fast. This had become an addiction over the past few years, always this one comforting thing to think about and control while everything else spiraled out of control around her. Who cared if Robbie was skipping school with Angela and Stacey had backed their mini-van into the neighbor's mailbox when there were panties and football players to think about?
Patty stared at the box. After smoking for almost sixty-five years, her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of years ago. Patty could still see him in his favorite recliner, unhooking his oxygen tank and wheezing as he lit a cigarette.
"It's already got me," he told her right before he died. "I may as well keep doing what I love."
There was something else her father had told her that day.
"For a fat girl, Patty, you sure are pretty."
Patty looked into the mirror and smiled. He was right, she thought, I am really pretty. And she was going to take that pretty smile right into The Locker Room.
A few weeks later, on the Thursday evening after the Steelers had clinched the AFC division title by beating the Indianapolis Colts, Patty sat parked right across from The Locker Room waiting for Desiree to show.
The kids were almost ecstatic when she'd told them that she was going to dinner with Desiree. She wasn't sure if it was because it meant that she would be out of their hair for almost an entire evening or if they had actually noticed how reclusive she was and were happy that she was maybe trying to come out of her shell.
Patty hadn't been on the South Side on a weeknight in a long time and felt herself and the night prickling with possibility as she watched the bedlam overtake the neighborhood's main drag, East Carson Street, a long narrow road parallel to the Monongehala River packed tight with bars and shops.
The night felt charged, electric particles hanging in the air like the whole place could ignite. The entire city had been like this ever since the Steelers had pulled off a nail-biting win over the Indianapolis Colts. This was a football town. So much so that one man had suffered cardiac arrest whenever the team lead by only three points and a Jerome Bettis fumble was recovered by Indianapolis with a 1:20 left. Patty had breathed a collective sigh of relief with her entire city whenever Ben Roethlisberger had tackled the Colts player before he could run it down the field for a touchdown that would have ended the game. That tackle had earned Ben a lacy pink thong.
Patty stepped out of the car, smiling as she thought of Ben. She stood on the sidewalk waiting to cross the street. Overhead, Steelers banners waved over the street in black and gold arches, signs taped to business and apartment windows chanted "Go Steelers," and every car that passed sported a Steelers flag, bumper sticker, or license plate. As people walked in and out of the storefronts and bars they smiled at one another, shouting "Here we go Steelers" to the cars stopped at traffic lights. As Patty prepared to cross the street, the grizzled driver of a red Chevy Cavalier gave her the thumbs up sign. Startled, she drew her coat a little tighter to her body, imagining that he had been making fun of her weight. Touching it, she remembered that she had worn her Steelers coat. He had been giving her the thumbs up for her coat. She smiled, standing tall as she crossed the intersection and spotted Desiree's blonde hair and long legs making their way down the street to meet her.
Desiree waved. "Are you nervous?"
Patty started to answer, "I—"
"Well, I'm not even Ginger Mae, and I'm nervous . . . "
Desiree followed Patty inside, where a bored looking hostess in a white polo shirt and black pants leaned against a podium. She straightened up a little as they walked in.
"Two?" she asked.
Patty nodded. Desiree hit her on the arm and Patty leaned in towards the hostess. "I was told my name was in your book."
"My name—Ginger Mae."
The girl wrinkled her nose, skimmed the black book and shook her head.
"I don't see anything, but there's not really, like, a system for reservations or anything."
Desiree stepped forward. "Look, honey, these weren't reservations. These were instructions. This one here is a VIP. Hines Ward told her that she'd get the best seat in the house if she were ever to come in here and that you should call him immediately to tell him that she's here."
The hostess looked Desiree straight in the eye. "Right. And if I had a dime for every time somebody gave me that line, I'd be rich." She shrugged. "Do you want a table or not?"
They nodded and she led them to a corner booth right across from the bar.
Patty felt sick to her stomach. She wasn't sure if she'd be able to eat.
"Desiree, maybe we should leave. They didn't even know who Ginger Mae was, what if this is all some kind of a—"
"Don't say it. It's not a set-up. That girl didn't know the reservation book from her ass. You're going to meet Hines Ward tonight. I can feel it."
Dinner was long. Desiree didn't shut up about her cat, Mitzi, who had just been diagnosed with arthritis and Patty couldn't stop staring at the swinging doors to the kitchen, praying that any minute Hines Ward would walk through and give her that thousand-flashbulb smile of his, lighting up the entire room. Instead, she watched as a parade of college-age servers, bartenders, and cooks filed in and out of the kitchen, carrying on raucous conversation and carrying various trays, utensils, and condiments.
The restaurant was packed. As Desiree talked, her words filled up the air like a cloud of sweet perfume. Patty felt nauseous, but tried to ignore it. Halfway through dinner, Patty swore that she saw Angela Wyckoff flitting from the women's room and up the stairs.
"Did you see that?" She pointed at the stairs. "I think that was Angela."
Desiree turned around and shook her head. "I don't see her. Why would that little punk be here anyway? Doesn't she hate football?"
Patty nodded. "I don't know. Maybe her parents made her come. They're big fans."
"I don't think Angela is the kind of girl who can be forced into doing anything. If her parents told her she had to come here she'd probably slash their tires or their throats or something. That girl is a real menace. Did you notice that sometimes she wears different colors of eyeshadow on each eye? That's just plain stupid."
"Right," said Patty.
A few minutes later, their waitress brought the check, and Desiree announced that she was not going to pay her portion of the bill until they called Hines Ward to tell him that Ginger Mae was here. When the waitress said that they were not allowed to call Mr. Ward, Desiree promised her fifty dollars if she could get around that rule.
"You shouldn't have done that," said Patty, already putting on her coat. "We should just go now."
"We're not going anywhere," said Desiree through clenched teeth. A tall gentleman wearing Dockers and a black shirt approached their table.
"Hi, ladies. I'm the manager here, Tim. I heard that you were looking for Hines. Is there something I can help you with? "
"Nope." Patty slid out of the booth. "We'll just be leaving."
Desiree motioned for Patty to stop. "Come on, Patty. Show him the letter. I'm not leaving until you show him the—"
"Desiree, I think we should just leave." Patty stood up.
"A letter. What letter?"
Desiree looked at Patty with the pitiful look that Robbie and Stacey gave her when she told them no. Please, Mommy, please.
Patty pulled her purse open and gave the letter to Tim. Her face was so red, she could barely look at him. First Desiree, and now some strange guy named Tim who managed a restaurant. She may as well have written an article about the whole thing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Tim raised his eyebrow as he scanned the letter. "I'm really sorry but this seems like some kind of a hoax. I mean, I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that Hines told me last week that somebody in the front office goes through all the fan mail and that the players never see it . . . "
Patty took a step back, leaning against the corner of the nearest booth. Somebody in the front office goes through all the mail. She could feel her heart sinking like it was going straight through her body, down her stomach and bowels into her legs, dropping past her feet and through the wooden floor, somewhere far beneath this moment, this excruciating moment with Desiree looking at her wide-eyed and Tim, the manager, offering to take her phone number, no doubt seeing the terrible look on her face and trying to say something that might appease her.
She saw it all very clearly: five seasons' worth of panties, cards, and envelopes in a pile somewhere in the company mailroom, the kind of damp, concrete room with cracks in the walls and boxes everywhere, a staff of three, or maybe even two, who read her letters each week and got a good laugh.
Right then, a familiar laugh from the restaurant hooked itself into Patty's ear and she looked up, paralyzed. On the stairs, barely concealed by the wooden banister and the Steelers memorabilia, Angela stood watching, a huge grin on her face. Beside her, Robbie stood still without expression or emotion, just a blank absence from which Patty could not turn away, a deep empty space where she hoped that if she waited long enough there would be something, anything to show sign of humanity or kindness. There was none, not a single motion on his face—no smile or frown or anger, just nothing, until Desiree turned in the direction of Patty's gaze and saw him standing there.
"Why you little—"
Patty turned, abruptly, her eyes filling with tears as she left before she could find out what expletive Desiree had called him.
Outside, Patty doubled over, gripping her stomach and dodging past a horde of expectant fans, jubilant and smiling as they staggered down the sidewalk. She leaned against the building, standing still and trying to block out what had just happened—that terrible blankness on Robbie's face. Her own son had done this to her. Her own son. She closed her eyes, trying hard to remember something good. Eventually, her mind whirled back six years to that feeling she used to get in the endzone seats with Tom, at those times when the Steelers ran the ball in for a touchdown at the exact moment when they needed it the most, that rush of adrenaline and power mixed with that floaty feeling she always got from beer, one of Tom's arms wrapped around her waist, another swirling his Terrible Towel in exact rhythm with the rest of the stadium, the world spinning gold as far as the eye could see.
Instead of gold, when she opened her eyes, Robbie stood beside her, his face crumpled and contorted, his skin glowing white.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't—It wasn't—It wasn't my idea. It was Angela's. I didn't mean. I didn't mean to hurt you, Mom. Mom? Mom?" In that instant, the way he said her name like a question, she saw a raw vulnerability about him that she hadn't seen since he was a toddler. She recognized that look he used to get when he had thought he had lost her in a crowd, panic creeping up his features in slow motion—his whole world about to crumble.
In the frigid January air, Robbie stood beside Patty apologizing.
"I'm sorry," he said. Over and over. Patty leaned against Desiree for support, holding on to her arm and this moment, her son's apologies swirling in the air like thin threads of smoke.