Life is a series of constantly unraveling phenomena. Its secrets are both universal and found within our own backyards. For some, these mysteries are known as Strange City Tales…
The quick steal brought the sell-out crowd to their feet. Their screams rose as the power forward pushed deeper down the court. He hit his man under the basket with a no-look pass to be deposited with authority. The dunk set them into the lead and the home crowd exploded in kind. The visiting team called a quick time-out and the cheering redoubled as the teams headed toward their benches.
“Did we win yet, dad?”
The cotton candy was long gone and the child’s attention span was beyond the contested inter-conference rivalry his father insisted was riveting.
“Not yet, Max. We’re winning now, but there’s still more game to go.”
The child kicked his feet into the air and pouted, “I’m bor-red.”
A voice beside them cut in, “You’re just in time for the best part. Here comes Boondoggle and Frenchie.”
The man sitting to their left had just been one of 25,620 that comprised the night’s capacity crowd until he leaned over to draw Max’s interest. He pointed toward the tunnel where the spotted dog and ambiguous conquistador would emerge. True to his word, the pair belly-slid to the center of the court a moment later.
Boondog!” The boy shrieked in instant captivation. “He’s silly.”
“Here comes the best part,” the man directed, “the tee-shirt cannons.”
The felted cheerleaders began firing merchandise over the heads of the people in their row. Max hollered in excitement but the novelty was short lived as the time-out drew to an end and the mascots retreated.
“Daaaad, I didn’t get a shirt.”
“You know,” the other man started, “if you stand by the aisles after the third quarter, you’ll be in a good spot to catch one when they come back again.”
“Sounds like you’ve been to a game before,” Max’s father threw out some small talk in a halfhearted attempt to get a read on the man sitting beside them. “Are you a season ticket holder like me, or something?”
The other man shrugged. “No, I just started coming back recently. I noticed the mascots, they got a routine, I guess.”
“Hear that, Max? We can still meet Dunemoggle.”
“Boondoggle,” Max corrected.
“Sure, right, Boondoggle.” His father laughed as the words fell from his mouth. “They don’t make them like they used to, do they?”
The other man nodded, but wore a face as though he couldn’t hear the father.
“I said, these new mascots, they’re not like the old ones, right? You remember the other ones they had when we were kids?”
The other man shrunk back in his seat. “Other ones? I- no, I don’t think so.”
“Of course you do,” the father insisted while he crested on a wave of nostalgia. “They were classics. They had a few when I was real little. Then they had that stupid bear. You remember him?”
The man shook his head from side to side, “What? No. No, I don’t.”
“Well, you’ll see him soon enough. They’re having retro night here this week; throwback jerseys and everything. I heard they’re even having all the old mascots show up for that game.”
Max’s dad was distracted, picturing the garish costumes that beguiled him as a youth. An air horn in the crowd snatched him back to the present. When he shook his head clear he saw his son studying the man beside them with cautious uncertainty. The stranger’s face had flushed pale green as he shivered in his seat.
“You okay, mister?”
There was no answer. The other man stared off into the distance, searching without looking at anything.
“Hey, you need any—”
“I said, I don’t remember them!” the stranger snapped.
The neighboring seats murmured in protest to the outburst. A few shot sideways eyes without daring to turn their heads. Max’s father wordlessly lifted his son from his seat and turned toward the aisle steps. He considered saying something but the man had already forgotten the rest of the world.
Their departure was lost to him while he rocked back and forth in his seat hugging his sides. His eyes darted over the heads in the crowd. Through gritted teeth he demanded, “Where is that god damn polar bear!?”
The buzzer beater would have given Cleveland a puncher’s chance, but it bricked off the back iron and left them with plenty of ground to cover. The crowd was left deflated with the errant carom as the players headed back through the tunnel for the start of halftime. Chad and his friends worked themselves into a rowdy froth, sour that their team was behind. They whooped and jeered at the midgame entertainment, clapping each other on the back as they spat obscenities at the jugglers and their matching sequined waistcoats.
“Booo! We want the cheerleaders!” Chad screamed to his mates’ leering approval. “Where’s the girls?”
“Yeah!” His friend thought of something to add, “We, uh… cheerleaders. Fuck yeah!”
“This team doesn’t have cheerleaders anymore,” a voice behind them announced. “They haven’t had any for the past three seasons.”
Chad’s attention turned to the quiet man who had the seat across from their group. He blinked, as if the interruption had been a trick of the eye.
“This team’s got mascots.” The stranger counted them off finger by finger. “Two of them, actually, for some reason. They’ll come out afterwards. Tonight’s halftime show is the Amazing Prestinis.”
The two standing beside Chad turned to each other with bemused shrugs.
“I heard you asking about the team, the cheer—”
“What are you doing?” One of Chad’s mates laughed down his attempt at conversation. “Get out of here, dude.”
Another frat brother flicked his cup of beer at the stranger, splashing him across the front of his shirt. “For real, beat it.”
The man didn’t understand. “What?”
“I said ‘leave’. Why don’t you get out of here?”
Why didn’t he go? The stranger considered it. Why couldn’t he answer? He staggered back against his seat. “Leave?”
The unseen voice of the house announcer broke across the arena speakers. “Be sure you remember to wear your throwback jerseys, folks. Retro night is this Saturday.”
The audience fell into the distance, lost in a deep droning washout. The man lost focus of the snarling fraternity. Chad and the others, the edges to their figures had bled into the swirling periphery. They were shouting something in the far, far away but they no longer existed to the stranger, so complete was the sudden disorientation. He fought his way to the edge of the row and escaped toward the nearest stairs, climbing on his hands and knees.
The stranger wiped the sweat from his upper lip and tried steadying his pulse. Some fresh air would sort out the knot of confusion that tied him up; if he could just get to an exit. He took stock of his surroundings for the first time since fleeing his seat. He couldn’t tell which section he had spilled into. Nothing looked familiar any longer.
He took the nearest concourse heading down. He knew it would have to pass the front gates or at least the garages through which he could escape. The further he descended the more aesthetics that the tunnel lost. Before long the windows were gone. Soon gray cinder blocks encased him on all sides. He had gotten turned around several times and could no longer tell up from down, let alone a way out.
Something in the blackness ahead stood out, a snatch of white among the void. He squinted his eyes, adjusting for the lack of light. At the far end of the tunnel, a figure stood half in shadow.
“Hello? Hello, is… am I, do you know where I am?”
Nothing responded back.
The stranger’s pupils widened. Whatever it was, it stood upright, but it wasn’t man. He strained his sight. White fur streaked across the darkness and was lost again. Something shuffled unseen and the fur was closer, then gone. A flash of light flicked ahead of him, exposing a pair of oversized wraparound sunglasses. Was that—
He gave chase but the bear stepped around a corner and was off. By the time the stranger closed the gap he was twice as far away. The stranger rushed ahead, following deeper and deeper. He pushed harder, breathing heavy as his chest tightened. It was all too much for the man, but he needed to reach the mascot. He needed to escape. The white bear was just ahead. He pushed on, barely able to stay on his feet. A black curtain kicked open as they both dashed through together.
The stranger crashed into an usher as he was forced to come to a sudden stop. He was back where he started; alone among the 25,620. He could see his seat from where he stood at the top of the steps. The bear was nowhere in sight. Somewhere in the arena a buzzer went off. The next quarter had begun. The game was not yet over.
The stranger sat apart from the others, resigned to his seat just below the rafters. He gripped the program guide in a white knuckle vice. Time had ground to a halt with both team’s coaches turning the last moments of the final quarter into a war of attrition. Another whistle brought the point guard to the line to shoot more free throws. After missing the first shot the guard dribbled, wiped his brow, dribbled, adjusted his wristbands, wiped his brow again, took a deeply existential sigh, wiped his brow, and missed. Then the other team called for a timeout.
“Come on!” he lashed out at the ants below.
The floor routine had taken over while they cut to commercial for the home audience. He tapped his shoe, waiting for the game to resume as the house announcer ran through a battery of administrative bric-a-brac.
“Tonight’s record attendance is…”
“…ive sober or get pulled ov…”
“Corndogs on the lower concourse.”
“…And be sure to be with us tomorrow night for a real fan favorite, retro night!”
He couldn’t take just sitting, waiting; not when the end was so close. He descended from the nosebleeds and passed through the black curtain that led to the concourse. Despite the break in the action, most of the crowd remained in their seats for the timeout. He walked without thinking, content to just be in motion. Several minutes passed in silence as the stranger covered ground.
The bend was gradual this time, imperceptible. Before he could pull away he was already lost; moving again without going anywhere. His walk paced to a stride, then to a jog, then to a sprint. Soon the slap of sneakers against concrete was all that droned out the screams. Racing until he was out of breath, he finally doubled over, sucking in air. When he stood he was in the windowless tunnel once more. Had he been heading here the whole time, had he ever left? He could no longer tell the difference, but something else was becoming clearer.
He called out to what he knew lurked in the shadows ahead. “You can come out.”
It didn’t move but the stranger’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness. An outline of white fur was growing visible. A hideous black and coral and pale blue jersey broke up the beast’s form as it stood waiting.
The stranger inched closer. “I see you. Hey, what do you want, huh?”
He stepped before the polar bear. Even in this dim lighting he could see his own reflection in its wraparound sunglasses. For time unknown the two faced off without either willing to break first.
“Whammer. Why are you here?”
No answer, but this time the failed mascot pointed back at the man.
“Me? Why am I here?”
Now the mascot pointed at its own grinning head.
The stranger reached up and buried his fingers in the animal’s thick pelt. He lifted the mascot’s head, raising it from the rest of the body. Only more shadows spilled out. He could see nothing through the darkness. It was in this abyss that he understood. There was nothing to see. There was no one else inside.
“No,” the stranger refused still. “Who are you? Tell me. Tell me who you are.”
“He already did,” a voice answered from behind.
Another voice joined in. “Thought it was kind of obvious, actually.”
The decapitated polar bear head fell from his hands as the stranger spun around. It was Boondoggle. Frenchie the Ambiguous Conquistador stood beside him, gesturing with his oversized gloved hands.
“Took you long enough,” Boondoggle broke the silence growing between them. “We were beginning to think you took your talents to South Beach.”
“You two?” The man staggered backward. “What’s happening? I don’t understand.”
“Sure you do,” Frenchie countered. The two mascots turned to one another and then back to the man. The gaze of their jet black pupils went beyond him and toward the empty suit.
“No mascot ever really goes away for good,” Boondoggle’s permanently outstretched tongue bobbed against the side of his face as he talked. “Fans just forget after a while. But you, you’re beginning to remember, aren’t you?”
The man looked back at the polar bear suit, now knowing why it had been empty all along. Its discarded head stared up at him waiting to be recrowned.
“This isn’t me. That’s just a costume. I’m a human being for Christ’s sake.” He pounded on his chest, “I’m flesh and blood. I’m not Whammer, I’m… I…”
The two mascots nodded in patient sympathy.
The man was beginning to hyperventilate. “Why can’t I remember my own name?
“Because you forgot that you never had one.”
Whammer buried his head in his paws. The polyester jersey itched against its fur as he shuddered. “What do I do now?”
“It’ll all come back,” Frenchie promised. “Tomorrow is retro night, after all.”
The pass hit the transition man on his way to the basket and the home team was up twelve points by the time the visiting coach called his first timeout. A whistle blew and the players left the court to allow for the brief diversion. The lights dimmed and a spotlight followed a streak of white fur as it dashed across the court. A small trampoline was slid into position at the last moment and the mascot delivered an assisted slam dunk to the cheering crowd.
“It’s a new one!” Max shrieked to his father.
“Hey, that’s right.” Max’s dad perked up. “Today’s throwback night. I remember this one. Slammer, I think.”
“Look, dad! He’s got shirts.”
The father and son pushed toward the aisles. The polar bear was tossing the cheaply printed apparel in a different direction but by the time gravity had its way they were drifting over Max and his father like unmoored sails. The ten year old reached up and plucked a shirt from the air. The one-size-fits-all dragged along the ground after he pulled it over his head. The pair returned to their seats with the son now distracted enough to get through the next quarter.
“Hey, look at that!” A man with a heavy beard had the seat next to Max and his father. He barked in excitement when they returned. “You got yourself a souvenir. Way to go, kiddo.”
Beside the bearded man sat a moustachioed partner who spoke with a vaguely European accent. “Yes,” he added, “looks like you were in the right place at the right time, young man.”
Max’s father considered it. “Yeah, had a guy tell us last week where the hotspot was. Guess he knew what he was talking about.”
“We always do.” The bearded man agreed.
The mustached one wagged his finger. “Once we remember, at least.”
Max’s father screwed his face into an unsure smile. “How’s that?”
The effete European waved off the moment’s confusion and turned his attention to Max. “So, did you like the new mascot tonight, my boy?”
“Yeah, he looks funny.” Max snorted.
“Max here really got a kick out of him,” his father agreed. “Too bad it was one night only.”
“You never know,” the scruffy one cautioned. “These things end up having a life of their own. Once fans remember what it was they loved it’s hard to give them up again.”
Somewhere in the arena a buzzer went off. The game had resumed.