A mildly strange fact but true: Ross and I were going to the Yale Bowl. Yale vs. Dartmouth this year. And I had always considered baseball his only mistress. Still it should be fun, I thought. When was the last time I was at an official sporting event as part of the crowd? (Ross hadn’t yet spirited us away to Fenway.) My mind meandered backwards, thinking of many things, thinking of Michael, of course; thinking of Lawrence. Where was he now? How was he doing?
I met Ross at the office the afternoon of the game, bringing him coffee and a chocolate cupcake with orange icing, and we drove over to the field. Too late for the tailgating, we headed directly over to the stadium, reverb from the PA system floating beckoningly over our heads. We located his gang in the stands, some of his old friends from law school and a group of reporters from the New Haven Register, a preppy bunch complete with cool sarcasm and shots of peppermint schnapps. When they caught sight of the two of us walking toward them, we were greeted with bellows of “Fowler! Fowler!” Slightly curious as well that he would cast himself with this lot—respected by them, but not one of them.
The leaves had turned brilliantly this year. High up in the bleachers the air took on a phantasmagorical nature all its own, continually shifting from sparkling sunshine to a smoky haze rising from tailgaters’ grills to a sharp face-stinging breeze; it was a just few days before Halloween. Two of the more juvenile reporters there—clowns—had taken it to heart, one rigged up as Napoleon with the hat, boots, epaulets, etc.; the other assuming the form of a neon orange and black tiger. They were loud, amused by their own humor, and in desperate need of an audience.
At first they annoyed me, Napoleon sprinting up and down our section in order to favor each one of us with a personal audience whether we wanted this or not, his one hand semi-permanently stuck inside his jacket, naturally, so that he was constantly off balance, stepping on people, waving his free arm, blocking their view. Just a little bit too much schnapps, possibly, but someone there told me he never touched the stuff. He suddenly threw himself down next to me—so hard I almost rebounded off the bench—putting his arm around my shoulders, shaking me from side to side, lapsing from a bad French accent into some kind of hybrid pirate-Celtic lingo, “Aye, lassie, it’s been a long time since the lads have seen anything the likes of you.” Ross found this amusing. His tiger friend was oblivious to it all, down on the track in front us in a world of his own, doing a nerdy twisting dance and giving vent to sudden shouts of emotion that might have been connected to what was going on on the field, but that was unclear because, given the tiger head, most of what he said was unintelligible. As the afternoon and game—boring and secondary in nature—wore on, their antics began to charm even me.
Right before half time they decided to take to the field to help out. When the Dartmouth band marched in, there they were, cavorting around like drunken drum majors, each on opposite ends, sandwiching the band. Completely naff. Although our group let out great hoots of laughter, everyone else watching evidently assumed these two characters were mascots, though the question as to what possible connection Bonaparte and company could have had with Dartmouth apparently never arose in anyone’s mind. ‘God, they’re gonna get arrested,’ I said to myself, standing on my seat to get a better view. The band with its reputation for bizarreness took it in stride and played along. When they marched off the field, Napoleon and the tiger were the last to go, bringing up the rear, making twirling, bowing exits, excruciatingly hamming it up for the crowd which gave them a huge hand.
It was only when the home band, the Yale band, took the field and Napoleon and the tiger re-emerged to prance around yet again that people, including security personnel on the sidelines, began to understand that these were free agents, associated with and responsible to no one. Security began to edge onto the field to try to isolate and corner them without creating too big of a scene, but the boys managed to elude their pursuers, doing a dodging, high-stepping dance, weaving in and out among the marching, abruptly turning trombones whenever they got too close. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. Ross laughed so hard he couldn’t catch his breath. I had to pat him on the back.
Eventually they came back to us unscathed—flushed and full of glee. Every detail of their coup was rehashed with relish. The tiger finally took off his head, so I could see the grinning person underneath, his blond hair plastered to his head with sweat. Napoleon stayed in character, receiving his due praise with the dignity befitting an emperor. Each seemed larger than life; each seemed to have the whole world spinning smoothly in the palm of his hand.
A year and a half later this young Napoleon would die, tearfully asking his tiger friend at the end to forgive him for what he had put him through. Set upon by a disease that could not be conquered, and that took him without mercy or grace. He was 26 years old. His death was one of the saddest things I’ve ever known. But he is still alive in my mind at times, still master of the field. In autumn—the time of ghosts. At the sunset hour before the birds take flight, before the darkness pools like India ink.