Commentary

Bleacher Couch Man

Cole Griffith is either a noble warrior or a middle-aged hoopster who doesn't know when to quit

Updated: March 7, 2011, 6:08 PM ET
By Jess Walter | ESPN The Magazine

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

This short story appears in the March 7, 2011 Fiction Issue of ESPN The Magazine.

One day, future archaeologists will dig up the bones of these men, in the rubble of what was once Spokane, Wash., and conclude that here fell a fearsome band of noble warriors. To illustrate his theory, Cole Griffith offers his friends his broken self.

"Fractured wrist, separated shoulder, torn ligaments in both knees -- what else could they think I'd been?"

The other warriors chime in. First Eck: "Blind cab driver?" Then Hadel: "Gerald Ford?"

Then Van Goose with the truth: "Middle-aged basketball player who didn't know when to quit?"

But Cole with a revelation is a puppy with a shoe. "No, this is what happens," he says. "One day you're chasing a mammoth to feed your family -- and then you fall into a crevasse. A hundred thousand years later, you're in a museum. Or you're on your way to see a courtesan, Vesuvius erupts, and thousands of years later your corpse is a tourist attraction."

As he speaks, Cole pours himself a quarter glass of beer. He will do this all night in a losing attempt at moderation, short-pouring his way through two pitchers. "Just watch us get ready for a game -- braces, splints, wraps, bands. We're like soldiers, man. The guys who come across our tomb will write epic poems about our glorious deeds."

Eck says, "I hope we get someone who writes buddy comedies instead."

And Hadel: "Marci's gonna kick my ass if I'm entombed for all eternity with you guys."

But Cole is rolling now, holding out his wracked hands, unfurling his jammed and broken fingers: "Imagine what they'll make of these -- a healthy, vital man with hands that look like they belong on a 90-year-old woman!"

It's too much for Eck: "Did he just say his hands belong on a 90-year-old woman?"

And Van Goose: "Keep your hands off Hadel's wife."

This goes on for three more hours -- or, as these guys measure time, for eight pitchers and two whiskey rounds -- as, one by one, Cole Griffith's saber-sharp insights are turned on him by his friends, his teammates, the fierce band of marauders of which he considers himself the leader. It is a Tuesday night, and these are the Fireside Pub Foaming Forties of the Spokane County recreational basketball league, Double-C division.


Consider Cole Griffith, 10 hours later, curled up asleep on the middle level of a strange, three-decker couch in the center of his loft apartment above the Van Gessen Furniture warehouse, Van Goose's family concern. Unfolded, the man is 6'1", with an unruly hedge of black hair and perpetually heavy stubble on his full jaw. The book on Cole Griffith is that he's given to laziness, that he's become a chronic shortcut-taker, that he's failed in every career he's tried and performed even worse in relationships. And yet the man sleeps easily, well into the morning of his 42nd birthday. At 8, he ignores his buzzing cell phone. At 9, his phone going off again, he mumbles into his flat pillow, "I will, I promise." Finally, at 10, when the doorbell rings, Cole Griffith sits up, grunts and slides into the nearest pair of pants.

He crosses the room and opens the door wide. It's Andrea. His ex-wife. She says, "Happy birthday."

"You think?"

"Are you alone?"

He looks around. "Apparently."

She comes in. "The girls asked if I'd make you dinner on Friday. I tried calling."

Cole looks around for --

"Ten," she says, then, "a.m." Then, "I wanted to catch you before you made plans. So? Will you come over?"

"Yeah. Sure. Thanks."

Andrea is a personal banker. Today she exudes business hot in a short brown skirt and leather boots with spiky heels. Cole crunches the numbers: The outfit is precisely 12 percent hotter than he wishes it to be. After five years of divorce, he and Andrea have finally found a level of communication that eluded them during 11 tough years of marriage; the last thing Cole wants is for some early-morning attraction to mess up that equilibrium. He goes to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

When he comes back, she's casing the joint. "You seem a little roughed up. Out late?"

"We had a rec-league game."

"How'd you do?"

"We lost. Eck missed a wide-open layup at the end."

"Oh. Poor Daniel. So you lost by one?

"Twelve."

"Ah." She's staring at what Cole once saw as the key to his financial recovery -- the bleacher couch. It is a massive, three-tiered, upholstered sofa, each level staggered and raised, so that prickly siblings or homophobic male friends can lie on it and watch TV without ever touching one another. There exist in the whole world exactly two of these unwieldy, 600-pound prototypes; the other sits forever unsold in the warehouse downstairs.

"There's something else I wanted to ask you about," Andrea says.

"Claire."

"Oh." Claire is Cole's most recent ex-girlfriend: 34, yoga enthusiast, community-college Spanish instructor, vegetarian except for bacon.

"Did you really call her father a nazi?"

Cole really did call Claire's father a nazi. Three times, in fact. Cole had endured two hours of Tea Party bombast before Mr. Bruin started in on health-care reform, and Cole -- already four bourbons in -- muttered the word nazi into his glass. After that, it went fast: "What did you call me?" and another "nazi" and, "Get out of my house!" and, "Jawohl, Herr Kommandant!" on his way out. He hasn't spoken to Claire since that night. But Andrea has, apparently.

She sighs. "So Claire's dad is a blowhard. So is yours. So is mine. Frankly, so are you. Who cares? The man's dying of lung cancer. You can't let him rant for an hour?"

"It was two hours."

"I know this isn't my business, Cole, but Claire's a sweet girl. This is the first one that Rita and Alex have liked."

"They liked Marla," Cole says.

Andrea's you've-got-to-be-kidding-me eyebrows fire like the needles on a lie detector. "Marla who stole Rita's bike?"

Cole opens his mouth to protest. Technically, Marla borrowed Rita's bike, then just didn't give it back when she caught Cole with that waitress. But the distinction seems a little wispy at the moment.

Andrea puts her palms up peaceably. "I'm fine with you spending your life living above a furniture store," she says. "This is the last conversation in the world I want to have. But in case there's any part of you still alive in there, I think this is it for you, Cole. I don't think you get another chance."

And here's something neither of them can possibly know: Andrea is right.


Thursday night, another game, and this time the Foaming Forties are down by 19. It is a bloodbath. Their opponents, the Yo 420 Blazers, have started five guys in their 20s; the Forties have just one man under 40. Cole's intrepid band of warriors is being crushed by a team of slackers too baked to care. At the low point, just before halftime, Cole stands at midcourt, watching one of his teammates air-ball a free throw. The Blazers point guard, who has scored a dozen in board shorts and skate shoes, sidles up to him and says, "Hope that dude doesn't go into labor." The dude in question, Jay Colburn, or Cheese, as Cole and his teammates call him, is the youngest and newest member of the Foaming Forties, a 36-year-old in his first season. Cheese is in spectacularly bad shape, just eight years from a fatal heart attack. Even now his beer gut is so pronounced the thing actually has dimples.

"I don't think that free throw line is regulation," Cheese says as the Forties mill around after the buzzer, waiting for the second half. There is nothing to talk about except where they'll go for beers after the game. That's when Cole tells them he's quit drinking.

"And I've quit breathing," Hoss says.

Cole insists he's serious. Yesterday morning, he says, his ex-wife came over to tell him that he needed to get back together with his ex-girlfriend. Eck opens his mouth to comment, but there are so many things wrong with this scenario he can't figure out what to address first.

For two days, Cole says, he's been mulling Andrea's words, and this morning he had what could only be described as an epiphany -- a major life change. What if future archaeologists aren't fooled by his stupid rec-league basketball injuries, he says? What if they see his moldering bones for what they truly are: the remains of a divorced loser who lived and died above his friend's furniture warehouse, eating microwaved refried beans from a can?

"Mmm," says Cheese. "With Fritos, right?"

But Cole won't be distracted. From this moment on, he's decided to be a better father, a better man. He's going to clean his apartment and look for a real job. And he's going to follow Andrea's advice and apologize for calling Mr. Bruin a nazi.

Eck grins. "You should totally make Wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut."

"No," Cole says, "I'm really going to apologize. Look at me. I'm a 42-year-old unemployed divorced father of two. I sleep on a bleacher couch. And other than my daughters, the only thing I care about is this." Cole points to the scoreboard. Falcons 35, Visitors 16.

"I'm ready to start living again," Cole says.

It is quiet for a few seconds, a moment of evolutionary transcendence: fish flopping on beaches, apes rising onto two legs, emotionally retarded men reflecting. Eck can't look away from the scoreboard. Eight seconds tick off. "Hey," he says finally. "We should totally change our name to the Visitors."

"Or Guests."

"Or Forfeit."

But this muscle-memory irreverence hides a truth: Cole's conversion has caused some kind of change to come over them all. Scientists have long theorized that human socialization can distort the normal time line of evolutionary change -- millennia of adaptation occurring in seconds. As one, these men are now ready to live. To grow. And they begin directly, in the second half, by fighting back against the Yo 420 Blazers. Eck and Cheese are earth-movers in the post, using their bulk to push skinny weed-smokers aside for offensive rebounds. Cole swings the baseline like a metronome, hitting three-pointers from both corners. When a loose ball rolls in front of him, Van Goose actually dives on it. For 10 minutes, the Forties are their young selves again. They claw to within five.

But the Blazers do not take the Forties' resurrection well; they push, fight, complain. One of the kids, who has forgotten his jersey and Magic Markered a nine on his bare chest, has drawn the suddenly unenviable assignment of guarding Cole; he keeps running into screens set by men 60 pounds overweight. With four minutes left in the game, skinny No. 9 is chasing Cole around when Cheese steps up in front of him. The effect is like a door slamming on a blue jay.

Everyone stops. Number 9 lies prone, all the latent dope smoke and microscopic Dorito particles knocked clean out of him. Then the Blazers' skate-punk point guard pushes Cheese, curses him out and spins to yell at the ref, a Bengali exchange student augmenting his Taco Bell salary by officiating this game, the sixth one he has ever seen in his life. And then, as so often happens when fragile male identity is at stake, war breaks out.

Eck gets in the face of a young man still on his childhood dose of Ritalin. Hoss has hold of some white-boy dreads. Someone says, "Fat-ass grandpa." Someone says, "Patchouli-smelling piece of crap." Someone says, "You wanna go?"

Future archaeologists weep. Hope for humanity dies in a middle school gymnasium. If 10 well-fed men gathered to play a friendly game can't get along, what hope can there be in Gaza, Kandahar, the Sudan?

But then here comes Cole Griffith, changed man, into a world teetering on ruin. He moves from scuffle to scuffle, pleading, pulling teammates away, soothing pissed-off potheads. In the last Foaming Forties brawl, eight years ago, Cole broke someone's nose, wrestled with some guy's girlfriend and ended up chasing the ref to his car. Now, the man is Gandhi in baggy shorts. "Don't do this!" he shouts. "Chill!"

And the peacemaker is somehow on the verge of pulling this miracle off when skinny, shirtless No. 9, his hydroponic wind finally back, leaps to his feet and heaves an epic punch toward Cheese. It is a roundhouse that Cole senses but cannot stop -- his old-woman hands rising too slowly as he slides between his teammate and No. 9 and takes the full force of the blow to his own mouth.

Future archaeologists hold their breath. Both teams go quiet, waiting, already a little changed by what they've just witnessed. A man took a punch for his friend. This is not an everyday occurrence. On the gym floor, humanity bleeds.

Then Cole Griffith stands, blood pulsing from the wound on his face. "It's okay," he says. "Everybody's fine. Just stay calm."

All around Cole, angry men become the angels of their better natures. Both teams offer to forfeit the game. They practically devolve into another fight offering to drive Cole to the emergency room.

At the hospital come nine quick stitches from an amused PA, who shaves Cole's heavy scruff, then sews up the jagged lightning bolt of a laceration below Cole's nose, in the valley of his upper lip. As the PA pulls the black sutures through, he narrates quietly: "You can get these out in a week. No problem. Gonna have a nasty zigzag scar, though. Harry Potter lip. Cuts like this are crazy. Compression blow, actually cracks the skin." Eck drives his friend back to the gym. "So, there's really gonna be a new Cole?"

"Dude," Cole says, "There already is."


Next morning, Cole Griffith rises early and stares out the window. Watches the traffic. Then he takes a deep breath and begins cleaning his apartment. He throws out months of leftover food. Does 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups. Turns on his computer and begins updating his résumé. Goes to the fancy market and buys ingredients for a Southwest corn salad his girls always loved.

He arrives at his ex-wife's house promptly at 6, presents salad, talks adult to her boyfriend, Carlo, asks his daughters every question he can think of about school and remarks with honest delight when he opens a birthday gift from them -- sweatpants. Sixth-grade Rita does a killer impersonation of the way middle school teachers walk. Shy Alexandra sits across from him at first, then migrates to his lap and finally loops her arms around his neck like shoelaces, exclaiming at the rough black stitches on his upper lip. Cole makes plans to see the girls in three days. At the door, Andrea squeezes his hand.

Cole thanks her for dinner. And then he tells her how much she inspired him with her pep talk. "Although," he adds, "I still can't believe Claire called you to tell on me."

"Tell on you?" Andrea spins. "What are you, 8? She didn't tell on you, Cole. I called her. Rita started her period. She wanted to tell Claire. So I called her."

Occasionally, the details of Cole's own life are like a kick to his gut. He recalls the birthing room at the hospital, the doctor holding up this gooey, scrunchy little thing -- Cole taking quick inventory: closed eyes and matted hair, a clipped cord and those bulgy girl parts -- and it's not the memory that hurts. It's the dire realization he had at that very moment: I will never hurt this thing. I will love this thing forever.

And now this thing is 11 and has started her period. And she didn't call Cole, distant, juvenile Cole; she called his ex-girlfriend. Shameful self-awareness and a willful, lifelong ignorance of the cycles of female reproduction combine to wrench him nearly to tears. "Is she ... okay?" Andrea smirks. "It's just her period, Cole. She's fine."

And here now is Cole Griffith, sitting in his 12-year-old piss-bucket Chrysler Sebring in front of his ex-wife's house, weeping into his hands. He's still crying when Andrea's head appears up the walk, in the window of the front door. He starts the car, pulls out, parks two blocks away. He thinks of his girls and the years he's lost already. Then he thinks of Claire, and her father. When he's done crying, he pulls out his cell phone and calls her. She is curt, distrustful. Cole goes straight to what he called to say: "I'm sorry. No excuses, no justifications. I'm just gonna be a better man. And I want to start by apologizing to your dad. Over dinner. At my place." He knows how empty the words must sound, how trite, expected. And yet, they are the only words that fit.

A confused and speechless Claire tells Cole the following Friday night will work, a week from now. Cole is about to hang up when he says, "Claire, I can't wait to see you."

"Okay," she says.

And for the second time in a week, the second time in his life, Cole has what can only be described as an epiphany: I should marry this girl.


Consider Cole Griffith over the next week, working out, applying for jobs, calling his old girlfriend Marla and retrieving Rita's bike, picking up his daughters from school, getting rid of the bleacher couch, buying normal furniture at the Salvation Army. He hangs two paintings. He buys a vacuum. He finds himself practicing his apology over and over: "Mr. Bruin, you are most certainly not a nazi."

Friday morning he wakes with special purpose. He goes to the fancy market again, decides on penne pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, a fennel salad, a tart Spanish cheese and bread. The attractive young checker has tattooed hands and bites her bottom lip as she runs his dinner through the scanner. "What time should I come over?" she asks. Cole just smiles, but is that the old tug he feels -- badness? He marvels that he ever gave in to it; it is so small, so insignificant in the face of his redemption. And yet, there it is. Back at the apartment, he works manically, getting the meal just right. He loses track of time. At a quarter to 6, he realizes they will be there in 15 minutes.

Cole Griffith darts into the bathroom and slips out of his clothes. He is darker than he remembers, older: lines around his eyes, a week's black beard, the other tangle of hair on his chest and the sad settling around his middle. He thinks again of the girl in the grocery store, probably 25, 26, closer to Rita's age than his.

Then he starts for the shower, and future archaeologists take note of the rituals and habits of the specimen they will one day call Bleacher Couch Man.

Bleacher Couch Man has always shaved in the shower, hot water softening the heavy scruff and soothing his face. He does this now, and as the razor glides over his chin and cheeks he suddenly remembers the zigzag stitches in his face. He pauses just a moment, then shaves up to either side of them.

Of course, in the grand scheme, this in itself doesn't change a thing. Not really.

He jumps out of the shower, his breathing heavy. Did he know all along what he was doing? Was some kind of dark self-preservation guiding his right hand? He wipes the fog from the mirror and the shaving cream from his face.

Grinning back at him in the mirror is Cole Griffith, Bleacher Couch Man, a thick dash of stitches and heavy black whiskers beneath his nostrils -- forming a nearly perfect facsimile of Adolf Hitler's mustache. The doorbell rings.

It's not as if he were now committed to goose- stepping to the door, throwing it open, and saying, "Willkommen!" Cole Griffith could still cling to the precarious redemption he's earned, could still be a better father and explain away the mustache. He could apologize for calling Mr. Bruin a nazi. Hell, he could even ask Claire to marry him.

Perhaps this is what he will do.

But it seems meaningful, almost profound, that as he pulls on a pair of pants, Cole's deepest wish is that the rest of the Foaming Forties were here to see this. He realizes it's possible that the mammoth hunter had just given up on feeding his family when he fell in that crevasse. He imagines that the Pompeian nailed the courtesan to the bed just before the volcano erupted. He wonders what time the tattooed grocery girl gets off work. He revels in the knowledge that none of us is truly the author of his own life. He moves for the front door. And he hopes that Van Goose will give him the other bleacher couch.

Jess Walter is the author of five novels, most recently The Financial Lives of the Poets. Among his other books are The Zero, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Citizen Vince, a winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award.