[with apologies to Charles Dickens]
It started last Friday. I flew to Chicago for some family business, landing at Midway, and stayed at my brother’s house. I got in late. The Southwest flight landed at midnight. I grabbed a Chicago-style hotdog with the works [Poppy seed bun, all-beef dog with the thick skin that pops when you bite it, a kosher half-sour pickle spear, wedges of tomato the length of the bun, primary yellow mustard – not brown, no speckles, just yellow mustard, nuclear fluorescent green relish, six small green hot sport peppers, and celery salt sprinkled over it all] from the 24 hour food stand in the terminal, and inhaled it on the way down to baggage claim. I always have a hot dog within five minutes of landing in Chicago. I should have taken my time. The baggage handlers were on strike, or the union was taking a break, or the Chicago Southwest Airline baggage claim is incompetent, but it took two hours before my bags spilled onto the carousel.
I was not in a good mood. This was the “tweener” weekend. The Bears beat New Orleans the previous week and punched their ticket to the Superbowl. The Superbowl was yet another week away. The mindless euphoria in the city added to my irritation. It permeated the airport, the streets, the radio, TV and seemed to be in the very air I was breathing. It was inescapable. Everyone was wearing Bear hats, Bear sweaters, Bear scarves, Bear buttons. The Bears were on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in every rack. They were on every radio station and every commercial on TV. From the cab I saw one billboard that said “All Bears All the Time”. That said it all. “Bah! – Bullshit!” I said out loud, startling the driver. If I see one more smiling Bear-bedecked fool give me the thumbs-up and saying “Duh Bears.”, I swear I am going to hit them. My head rolled back in the seat of the cab and I closed my eyes. What is wrong with these idiots. The Bears cannot beat Indy. Peyton will chew ‘em up and spit them out. He is exactly the kind of quarterback in exactly the kind of offense the Bears can’t handle. “What blind fools they are!” I practically spit the words out. Young quarterbacks folding in the Superbowl is as reliable as the sun setting in the west. Brady was the exception that proves the rule. Grossman has no chance.
Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in Chicago. I have been a Chicago sports fan all my life. Cubs, Bulls, Bears. They are my lifelong teams. But I am a realist. I have been around these teams too long and I know exactly what to expect. I have seen it all before. The Cubs a few outs away from the World Series, and Steve Bartman knocks the ball away from Alou’s mitt. Grossman throwing an incomplete, 4th & 1 pass to Muhsin Muhammad with a minute to play in the Division championship last year against Carolina. The Eagles running roughshod over the Bears in the divisional playoff game at the old Soldier Field in ’02. No. They are not going to fool me this time. These are not the ’85 Bears. Rex Grossman is no Jim McMahon. Thomas Jones is no Walter Payton. Brian Urlacher is no Mike Singletary. And Lovie Smith is no Mike Ditka Why can’t these idiot fans just be happy with the Conference Championship and let it go. I don’t have the time or psychic energy to waste on another disappointment. Been there. Done that.
The cab ride was uneventful, except for one odd moment. When I reached for the door handle, for just a second, I thought it looked exactly like Mike Ditka’s moustache. I reflexively pulled my hand back. It was just a trick of the argon streetlight streaming through the ice streaked window. I jumped out of the cab, knocked on the door, woke up my brother and went in.
I was too keyed up to sleep. The only place I could get a decent signal from his wireless network was at the kitchen table in the corner. I poured myself to a healthy shot from his 15 year old Laphroiag and sat down in front of the Dell laptop, stealing a glance at the digital clock glowing above the microwave. 3:23 AM. I thought writing a post would get my mind off of the moronic Bear insanity in which I was immersed. I was on California time, and too wound up too sleep, but I was too tired to write. I don’t know how long I sat there in the dark, staring across the top of the glowing laptop, watching the lake-effect snow swirl around the Weber grill just outside the window.
A chill seeped into the room. It was more than a chill. It felt like the knife edge of a Lake Michigan winter wind slicing into my soul. I shivered but still didn’t move. It was almost like I was in a trance, sitting there, staring out the window at the snow.
Then I heard it. A scraping sound. A metallic sound, a cold, dragging, shuffling sound. It was distant at first, but became louder, heavier, punctuated with clanks and scratches, as it drew closer to the door directly at my back. But still I did not move. I just sat there staring out the window, lit by the laptop in the dark cold room. Then - Somehow I was standing by the door. I don’t know how I got there. I was just - there. I could sense a presence, a heaviness, something was out there, just on the other side of the door. I watched my hand reach out as if it belonged to someone else, turn the knob under its own volition, and open the door.
It was Abe Gibron. He looked… well… he looked dead. In fact, he was dead. But he was still standing there looking at me. His eyes were sunk deep into the gray pallor of his fat face. But it was Abe Gibron all right, at his full 300 pound 1974 Chicago Bear coaching weight. And he was standing outside the door substantial as his bulk, yet somehow insubstantial as I could see right through his girth at the chain-link fence behind him. Startled, I fell back on to the kitchen floor as he flowed right through the storm door, filled the doorframe and floated into the room. He seemed to glow with a wispy pale light. I could see all of him now floating blimp-like in front of me. Large linked iron chains draped over both of his shoulders, wrapping around his great girth, entangling in his legs and dragging on the ground behind him. In his right hand he gripped long streaky blond hair wrapping through his fingers, from which dangled a severed male head. He held it casually, almost unnoticed, like he was holding a coach’s clipboard at his side. He slowly raised his left arm until it was pointing directly at me.
“You know me.“ He said. Speaking slowly, ponderously.
“Well, yeah.” I said. “ You look familiar, but I kind of suspect that you are actually an undigested bit of the hot dog that I ate when I got off the plane.”
His head rolled back, his jaw dropped open to his chest, and an indescribable scream filled the room sending me scurrying backwards in terror, crab-like, into the farthest corner by the cabinets.
“Okay! Okay! … You are Abe Gibron! You coached the Bears to three last place finishes from ’72 to ‘74 - Please go away!” The spirit, quiet now, looked down at me again. Finally I cried out “Why are you here?”
The spirit spoke again - "It is required of every NFL coach, that the spirit within him should walk among his fellow-men, if that spirit did not enjoy a Superbowl in life. It is doomed to wander through the world -oh, woe is me!- and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth.”
“Bummer… That is rough, Abe. But why do you wear those chains?”
“I wear the chains of my losing seasons, one link for every Bear loss while I was head coach. I forged these chains in life and I am now condemned to wear them in the hereafter for all eternity.”
“Okay. Okay, I got it... But what is the deal with Bobby Douglass?” I asked, pointing at the severed head.
His eyes rolled, he shook his head slowly and sadly, took in a deep breath then let it out slowly. The room filled with the smell of rotting barbecued pork ribs.
“Hear me!" cried the Ghost. "My time is nearly gone!”
I didn’t say a word.
“I have been sent to warn you! You will be haunted by Three Spirits. One Spirit of the past. One Spirit of the present. One Spirit of things that have yet to come to pass. You have been warned!”
Then – I was alone sitting at the kitchen table again, slumped back in the chair, in front of the laptop, staring out the window at the snow, in a warm kitchen exactly as before. It was all a dream. A waking, lucid dream. It had seemed so real. I stood up, the trance broken. The whiskey in the glass was gone. I uncorked the bottle and spilled a few drops as I poured it unsteadily with my shaking hand. The glass was emptied again before it hit the table. “Just a dream!” I thought. And yet… I could swear that I could still detect the scent of barbecued pork ribs hanging in the air.
No, it was just a dream. I looked at the digital clock again.
It was still 3:23 AM.
I cannot go on right now, it is just too traumatic – I’ll have to finish the story on Friday.