Published Monthly

Peculiarly American

by Pat Tompkins

“I’m in the spirit business,” he said.

Mitchell hoped he’d misheard the man settling into the seat next to him. Jesus, this could be a long ride. “Spirits—as in whiskey?”

“No, sir. Spirit. Singular.”

Why didn’t he ever get an attractive single woman as a seatmate? Mitchell removed his mock tortoiseshell eyeglasses, which were steamed up. He was trapped in the back seat of a bus—what travel agents called a motor coach—with this big guy and the window to his left, the toilet to his right, and heating vents behind his shins. His calves cradled his laptop computer.

“I’m a sales rep for Nationwide Spirit, Inc.,” the large man continued.

With a mix of fear and curiosity, Mitchell asked, “What do you sell?”

“Why, spirit, of course,” he said with a chuckle, knowing that strangers never recognized the name of his organization. “My name’s Jimmy.” He held out his hand.

“Mitchell.” They shook hands. Spirit—was he some religious nut? Jimmy had a powerful grip. Mitchell supposed that was essential for a salesman. He put his glasses back on.

“Actually, Nationwide Spirit is in the cheerleading business. We sell uniforms and operate a chain of training gyms.”

“I didn’t know cheerleading was popular.” Hadn’t that rah-rah stuff gone the way of slide rules and saddle shoes?

“It’s not just popular, it’s booming. Do y’all have any idea how many cheerleaders there are in this country?”

Mitchell shook his head and wondered if cheerleading was a peculiarly American phenomenon.


Pulling his hand through his thick brown hair, Mitchell mentally calculated: pro football teams had cheerleaders, let’s see, a couple dozen squads of probably 12 each, plus college teams—that was what, 1,000 dozen more? And then all the high schools.

“Three or four hundred thousand?”

“No, sir. This year we surpassed 3.3 million.”

“Really?” Mitchell tried to picture them, but it was like cubic feet. He just didn’t have a concept of it. If you laid each cheerleader head to toe across the country—somewhere in there was a bad joke.

Jimmy nodded. “Yes, sir, 3.3 million. That’s a whole lot of pom-pom shaking going on.” He patted his knees. “And what line of work are you in, Mr. Mitchell?”

“No, Mitchell’s my first name. I’m a lawyer for a software company in California. Zyrelogic.”

“What sort of software?” When it came to computers, the only thing Jimmy was familiar with was a spreadsheet program.

“Relational database management systems—stuff for banks and airlines, the government—organizations with lots of data to manage. I deal mostly with licenses and trademarks.”

They sat breathing air scented by damp wool with top notes of sweat and coffee. A blizzard had prevented their flight from landing in Chicago, so they were flown to South Bend, Indiana, and were being bused to O’Hare airport. As Mitchell slid his feet forward, a crackling cellophane wrapper stuck to his black loafer. When he pulled the wrapper off, he noticed that Jimmy wore brown lace-up Hush Puppies. There was no place to dispose of the wrapper, so he dropped it and the heater blew it forward.

Jimmy faced the window, huffed, and wiped a patch of glass clear with his hand. Mitchell turned to look out the frosty back window. In the twilight, snow twirled, falling on empty fields and windbreaks of bare trees. They could be anywhere, but they were still in Indiana.

“What brings you to Chicago?” Jimmy asked.

“A bus, apparently,” said Mitchell and glanced at Jimmy to see if he smiled. “Actually, I’m on my way to a funeral.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“My brother-in-law. Brain tumor. Died while he was watching the Super Bowl.”

“Sounds like it was sudden.”

“Totally unexpected.” Mitchell shrugged. “Maybe that’s the best way."

Jimmy nodded.

“I’m sorry for my sister, of course. He was only 44.” What a way to go—watching a football game on TV. Now his sister was an official football widow—not that he’d ever say that. It wasn’t funny. Well, it was, but. He’d never liked Kevin. Partly it was Kevin’s profession—he sold insurance. “At least they didn’t have any kids. That would be rough.”

“And you—your family is at home, wherever that may be?”

“I’m not married. I live in San Francisco.” And I’m straight, he was tempted to add, but hoped it was obvious.

Jimmy shifted closer to the window, wincing as he banged his elbow. He had a theory that homosexuals weren’t real sports fans.

“If you’re going to be in Chicago a while, maybe you’ll get a chance to see Michael Jordan play.”

“I don’t really follow pro sports much. Although I have heard of Michael Jordan.” Mitchell smiled.

“He’s something to see. Yes, sir.” Jimmy nodded, admiration for the athlete mixed with a sense of confirmation of his theory. “And live—that’s the best way.”

“I’m with you there. TV has spoiled a lot of games—like football. Everything’s an instant replay. Why pay attention? If something happens, they show it to you ten times. Then in slow motion, just to be sure. And the announcers. They never shut up.”

“Professional flapjaws,” Jimmy chuckled. “I’d love to see the Bulls, but I’m on my way to Atlanta. Summer Olympics 1996. But who knows? I’ve got a snowball’s chance in Hades of making my connection tonight.”

Mitchell wondered what possible link there could be between cheerleading and the Olympics, but decided it would be best not to know.

“Now there’s something I watch on TV,” Mitchell said. “I enjoy the Olympics, especially track and field. In fact, I planned to go when they were in L.A., but never made it. That’s sports to me—individual competition, not teams.”

“I believe you’re in the minority there.”

“I guess.” Mitchell sat up straighter. “It depends. Golf is individual, but it’s not a sport. It’s not even exercise. It’s a social thing, handy in the business world.”

“Arnold Palmer might argue that there’s some skill involved.”

“Sure, there’s skill. I play. I know it takes skill. Even bowling takes skill. But bowling is not a sport.”


“Absolutely. Tennis is a sport.”




“Downhill, definitely. Cross-country?” He raised his eyebrows. “Possibly. Water skiing, no way. I’ll tell you what’s not a sport—car racing. Now, that takes skill and stamina, good reflexes, all that, but.” Mitchell wagged his head. “Not a sport.”

Someone opened the door to the toilet and Mitchell held his breath until he heard it snap shut. “I mean, even the Olympics have some very strange competitions. The biathlon—skiing and shooting? Come on. And synchronized swimming—I can’t watch that.” He sighed. “It’s appalling the amount of attention devoted to sports, especially pro sports. If every person who spent an hour watching some game also spent an hour doing community service—volunteer work—then maybe this country wouldn’t be going down the tubes.”

Jimmy squinted into the darkness. “That's an interesting theory. I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

“Don’t get me started. We focus way too much on sports in this society. What kills me is how attached people get to their local teams. Look at the San Francisco Giants. I’ll bet there isn’t a guy on the team who even grew up in the Bay Area. And half the fans are from somewhere else originally. Some guy from Nebraska rooting for some player from Ohio because they’re ‘San Franciscans,’ even though neither of them actually lives in the city. It’s pretty strange.”

Jimmy cocked his head and frowned. “It’s not strange at all. They’re looking for a community—some connection.”

“Sure, I understand that. It’s just they get so worked up about it. Even my last girlfriend. She really cared if the 49ers won. I mean, get a life.”

“I think they’re trying to.”

“Maybe,” Mitchell said. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about the popularity of cheerleading. It goes hand in hand with teams, but, no offense, who needs it?”

“Well, we disagree again,” Jimmy said. “For starters, I’d say the girls need it. Nobody’s forcing them to get in front of a crowd and yell—they want to. It develops self-confidence and poise. Those routines can take real skill to perform. Some of those girls are regular acrobats.”

Mitchell waved his hand past his face. “It’s a waste of energy. If the team’s any good, it doesn’t need cheering on; if it isn’t any good, all the yelling in the world won't make it play better.”

“It’s enthusiasm, sir. Enthusiasm is all.”

Mitchell didn’t know what to say. His ankles were baking from the heating vents, but otherwise he was glad to be wearing his camel’s hair overcoat. Still, it was snug; he wore it so rarely that he wasn’t sure if it had fit so tightly before; maybe time to start skipping pastries at office meetings. He peered around Jimmy; they were approaching the South Side of Chicago now. The falling snow looked brighter against the darkness.

Jimmy looked out the window for a minute or two in silence as the bus passed high-rise housing projects and storefronts covered by accordion grates of metal Xs. He turned back to Mitchell. “Looks like a war zone—occupied territory. What those people need is enthusiasm.”

Shifting in his seat, Mitchell said, “I don’t think enthusiasm is going to help a kid caught in the crossfire of rival gangs.”

Jimmy seemed not to have heard him. “Poverty is nothing but despair. An absence of enthusiasm.”

Mitchell rolled his eyes. “I thought poverty was a lack of education, bad health, unemployment." Maybe he should tell the president about this—just say no to poverty.

Jimmy closed his eyes. “Do y’all know what enthusiasm means? God-given inspiration. Comes from ancient Greek.”

How’d this guy know that? Mitchell made a mental note to look the word up. He had studied Latin once.

“What I mean, sir,” Jimmy explained, “is that enthusiasm is hope in action. And with hope, anything is possible. Nearly anything.”

“Maybe it’s hard to be hopeful when you’re surrounded by crack addicts.”

“I’m sure it is. I never said hope was easy. But it’s essential.”

Another 20 miles to the airport and then he had to get to his sister’s house in Oak Park. She’d been a cheerleader once—in junior high. What had it done for her? Perhaps he’d ask her. But talk of school days might make her feel old.

He wondered if he should cancel his rental car and take a cab instead. He’d driven in snow only once. No point dying in a car wreck on your way to a funeral. He peered out the window. It was snowing less now. He glimpsed the Sears tower and twisted to see more of it.

When Mitchell turned forward, he saw Jimmy looking at him. “I haven’t been here since that was built. Tallest building in San Francisco is about 50 stories.”

“Y’all have got that pointy-headed skyscraper out there.”

Mitchell grinned. “That’s the Transamerica pyramid. Downtown San Francisco is a regular mini-Manhattan now.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what people are thinking of, constructing high-rises in earthquake territory.”

“They’re our modern-day cathedrals,” Jimmy said, smiling and pointing a finger toward the roof of the bus. “Make you look up, feel humble.”

“Maybe,” Mitchell said. “But I’ll bet that on Sundays, more people go to the ballpark than to church. We worship athletes. And their salaries.”

Jimmy winced as though he’d heard a bad pun. “We admire skill. It’s a beautiful thing to see, a team playing well, a crowd cheering them on.”

Mitchell jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “There’s the hope for those kids. The boys all want to be basketball stars.”

“We all need a dream.”

“Sure, but how many college players actually make it to the pros? And if they don’t, where does that leave them? You can’t make a living on free throws.”

Jimmy pulled back his shoulders. “I believe y’all are overlooking the positive aspects of sports.”

“I know, teamwork, builds character, and all that. It’s pretty sad that for some people a highlight of their life is the time their high school team won some game.” It was even more pathetic for cheerleaders, who simply yelled and jumped around. But why tell a man he had a foolish job?

“Well, sir,” said Jimmy, “I must admit I have fond memories of

playing fullback for the Whitcomb High School Gators.”

“Hey, I was on the swim team. Went to the state finals. But it wasn’t the high point of my life.”

“What was?”

“What was what?”

“What, when you look back on those years of youthful endeavor, was the highlight? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Let me think.” Mitchell gazed at his lap. The first time he’d had sex, with Sherry Sager, but no, he’d been too self-conscious to have enjoyed that. Getting accepted to college had been a good feeling, although his first choice had turned him down. He’d held the school record in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, but that hadn’t lasted long. He blinked; nothing came to mind.

Then Mitchell saw an exit sign for the airport. Finally. He laced his fingers and stretched his arms in front of him. “You know, I really couldn’t say.”

“The best is yet to come.”

“Right.” He released his hands. Was it? When? He spent long days guarding a company’s trademarks, a bunch of graceless acronyms, pseudo-words naming products that would soon be extinct. He’d expected he’d have a wife and a couple of kids by now, a backyard for the dog to run around; on weekends he’d barbecue and take the kids bike riding. Instead he had a condo with an aquarium and a microwave oven. He’d never found Ms. Perfect. One Saturday a month he did pro bono work for the Remick Foundation, which helped retarded adults. He was lucky if he made it to the gym once a week. Jesus, talking to this spirit guy was depressing.

“When I was a kid I wanted to be a fireman,” Mitchell said.

“Me, too. I had the hat and a bell, and I’d race around, practice rescuing our cat."

Mitchell bobbed his head. “I just remembered a highlight—something I haven’t thought about for 25 years.”

“What’s that?”

“In the sixth grade, I was elected Fire Marshall of my school. Buchanan Elementary.” Somewhere was a black-and-white photograph of himself standing on the front steps of the brick school, between the principal and the town’s Fire Chief. With a silver badge pinned to his plaid shirt, he looked happier in that picture than in any other.

“Fire Marshall, huh? We didn’t have that at my school.”

“I put up posters about fire prevention and helped with fire drills. Met some real firemen, too.” It was the only time he’d been elected to a position, but then it was the only time he’d been a candidate. “Now I wear suspenders,” said Mitchell. “That’s about as close as I get to being like a fireman.” He paused. "Imagine never knowing when the alarm will ring. Lots of boring sitting around, then suddenly an emergency. Strange way to live. Hard to plan.”

“Seems we all live that way,” Jimmy said. “Like this blizzard none of us planned on.”

“Maybe so. I don’t know. I used to believe in firemen. Now I read in the paper about all the conflict in the station houses with women firefighters and blacks. I thought firefighters were everyone’s friend, and they can’t get along together.” Mitchell shook his head. “I believed in guardian angels, too.”

The bus slowed, then shuddered and came to a stop in front of an "Arrivals" sign. “Here we are,” Jimmy said, glee in his voice. He stuck out his hand as they stood up and blinked when the lights came on in the bus. “Enjoyed talking with you, Mitchell.”

“Me too.” They shook hands. “Good luck getting to Atlanta.”

“I’ll get there fine.” He fastened the toggles, little wooden footballs, on his topcoat. Hunched and shuffling along the narrow aisle, he was the last off the bus. Jimmy stepped into the chill wind. “Now that’s a wake-up call.”

Mitchell pushed back his thick sleeve to peer at his watch. Add two hours and it was 6:45.

“While they unload,” said Jimmy, “I'll get a paper. Be right back.”

When he returned, only nine or ten passengers had left with their luggage. He held up the sports section. “The Bulls are in town. I’m going.”

“What about your connection?”

“I already checked. I’m stuck here tonight.” Jimmy stood on his tiptoes to get a look at the suitcases on the sidewalk. “Why don’t you come along?”

“To the game? My sister’s expecting me. I’m already late.”

“When’s the funeral?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

“Well, don’t get me wrong, but what difference will it make when you arrive tonight?” Jimmy squirmed through the crowd to nab his small bag of faded canvas. He returned and set it down between him and Mitchell. “Travel light.”

“I guess I could call my sister. It just . . . it seems inappropriate,” Mitchell said, embarrassed by the thought that a game would be a welcome diversion. But his brother-in-law was dead—he’d still be dead whenever Mitchell arrived. And Kevin had been proud of Chicago’s basketball team. He grinned. “You know, I’ve never been to a pro basketball game.”

Jimmy tapped him on the shoulder. “No time like the present. Let’s go, Fire Marshall.”

Mitchell laughed—this guy was definitely a salesman. “OK. I'll get my bag and make a phone call.” He inched forward and spotted his big leather suitcase. With his computer in one hand, he hefted the suitcase with his other hand. Mitchell vowed to start traveling lighter.

Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Writer, the Paumanok Review, Threads, E2K, flashquake, and other publications. She's appalled by the amount of TV coverage beach volleyball got at the Athens Olympics.


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