“It’s ok,” Clancy said. “I’ve always been hopelessly unathletic. You know how some kids are always picked last at recess because no one wants them on their team?”
Sabina nodded. “That was you?”
“No,” Clancy said, “I didn’t get picked at all. They made me be the referee.”
His technical designation was “all-time ref,” but Clancy seldom used this terminology unless relating the entire story. On that fateful day at Brocklee Elementary, Clancy was one of an even number of guys who took to the field at recess. Even numbers should have meant even teams, but as the two captains picked their squads, Andy Logger did the math and realized that he would be stuck with Clancy. Midway through the fifth round of the draft, Andy paused to announce that his knee was sore that day. This was, apparently, a chronic ailment, heretofore borne in stolid silence. Not wanting to aggravate the injury, he proposed that he should be “all-time QB,” meaning he would play quarterback for both teams.
Everyone was familiar with the concept, as it was commonly employed with smaller, odd-sized groups. The honor of the all-time QB position usually went to the guy with the best throwing arm. Whether Andy Logger had the best arm was a matter of opinion, but he was certainly good enough to be the all-time QB. Moreover, it was his football—one of the fancy new Nerf balls that whistled when you threw a tight spiral—which gave him a certain degree of authority in deciding the rules. On top of all that, his logic was unassailable. The quarterback was the only player who didn’t have to run, and his knee was acting up. Clancy thought it might have been a ploy so that Andy the Glory-Hogger Logger could spend all recess throwing whistling Hail Marys with his cool football. No doubt some of the other boys harbored this same suspicion. But it just as easily could have been a ploy to avoid picking the slow, uncoordinated Clancy, who had repeatedly proven to be more of a liability than an asset.
Possible ploys notwithstanding, everyone agreed to Andy’s proposition, and the draft continued. A few picks later, only Clancy remained on the board. Since Andy was now essentially a member of both teams, the two squads now contained an equal number of players. Neither team wanted to pick up Clancy, citing the ludicrous reason that it would be “unfair” for one team to have more players than the other. Bringing new meaning to “Mr. Irrelevant” (the title traditionally awarded to the player picked dead last in the NFL draft), someone suggested that Clancy could be the “all-time ref”—a previously unimagined position. The idea caught on immediately. Clancy agreed, since it seemed to make everyone happy. Besides, it meant he wouldn’t have to do a lot of running, and he found the uniqueness of the position somewhat appealing.
Playground football not being a heavily officiated sport, Clancy was largely ignored for the rest of recess and in time lost interest in the game. He was, in fact, not even watching during the game’s crucial play, his attention fixed on a large bird that seemed to be building a nest atop a large nearby tree. The All-Time Ref returned from his Audobon moment and found himself in the middle of a heated controversy. “Ask the ref!” someone shouted as Clancy’s classmates swarmed around him. Half of them seemed to be celebrating a touchdown while the others carried on about something to do with a sack. “Sack! Sack!” they cried hysterically. “It was a sack!”
All eyes were on him, and suddenly Clancy was the most important person on the field. “Sack or touchdown?” they asked. How absurd. It was like asking “lunchbox or home run?” It was a binary choice, but the question wouldn’t parse. His brain scrambled to connect the two seemingly unrelated nouns. He looked thoughtfully towards the endzone, as though replaying game footage in his head. In reality, he was thinking he might catch sight of a wayward brown paper bag. Had someone left their lunch out on the field? Had it interfered with the play and resulted in a touchdown? He elevated his gaze skyward and squinted an eye in a show of intense concentration, as though considering the nuances of a complex multi-factor rule of the game. In reality, he was scouring his personal lexicon. Besides a sack lunch, what other kinds of sacks are there? A sack race. They use potato sacks for those, don’t they? Big burlap sacks. Made of sackcloth. Sackcloth…which goes with ashes. People used “sackcloth and ashes” back in Bible times. He knew it had something to do with mourning but was fuzzy on the details. It was probably just a poetic way of saying they put their ashes in a cloth sack. Although “sack” could have been a verb. If you sack groceries, it means you put them in a sack. So maybe if you “sack cloth and ashes,” it means you put cloth and ashes in a sack. Either way, it was hard to see what it had to do with mourning. But everyone grieves in their own way (that’s what his mom always said), and those were different times. Bible people used to do all kinds of weird things, like grinding their teeth when they cried. Clancy didn’t know why. But he did know that sackcloth went with ashes just like weeping went with gnashing of teeth. Thoughts about Bible times and “sack” as a verb reminded Clancy of another kind of sack: you could sack a city. Like Rome. The Visigoths—whoever they were—they sacked Rome. Which meant they pillaged it. There was probably some rape involved, too, since rape and pillage seemed to go together like…well, like sackcloth and ashes. But he couldn’t make that fit in this context. Admittedly, he had been distracted, but if either team had engaged in any raping and pillaging, Clancy was pretty sure he would have noticed.
Clancy’s mind worked quickly, but it still took several seconds to call up and dismiss every kind of sack he knew. Recess was almost over, and his classmates were clamoring for a ruling. “Sack or touchdown?” they demanded for the umpteenth time. Clancy decided to try come at it obliquely: to elicit more information with a casual question.
“Sack?” he would ask dubiously. His tone would imply total familiarity with the term and at the same time express doubt as to how it might be relevant in this particular situation. If the sack proponents didn’t speak up to make their case, he could follow up with a more explicit prompt. “Why do you say ‘sack’? What’s your reasoning?” From their response, he hoped he could glean enough context to figure out how a sack and a touchdown are mutually exclusive terms. If the touchdown proponents offered a well-reasoned rebuttal, he might be able to decide the case solely on the merits of each side’s argument. Maybe he could even come up with a bold compromise to flush out the liars, like King Solomon did when he decided to split the baby. “It was both,” he would wisely proclaim. “A sack and a touchdown.” The team who willingly accepted such a ruling would prove themselves false; the team who would rather concede the argument for the good of the game would prove themselves true. Clancy would then reveal the ruse and rule in favor of the latter team, and his great wisdom would be celebrated throughout the school.
It was a brilliant plan.
“Sack?” he said with careful inflection.
Looking back on it later, Clancy decided his delivery must have been off. Perhaps he had been too excited in the rush of the moment and had spoken too loudly. Perhaps he had spoken too softly, and the nuances of intonation were swallowed up in the noise. Or perhaps the subtleties of his locution were lost on that rowdy bunch of Philistines…
Whatever the reason, the implied question mark was ignored, and his single-word query was taken to be his ruling. One team rejoiced, the other cursed his ineptitude…and Clancy’s career as ref came to an ignominious end. For all time.
After that, he took to playing four square with the girls during recess.