This work first appeared in Yemassee 23.1.
Brett Favre, that colossal asshole, was tanking our trivia team. He refused—refused!—to answer the sports questions. What did the other members of Mistake Hole know about sports? Nothing.
“Guys,” Brett Favre said, “I’m into new things.” His eyes lit up as the waiter brought his Jägermeister.
We pointed out to Brett Favre the jeans commercial, the one where he plays football in the mud. We pointed out the championships. The record books. “These things are known about you, Brett,” we said, “they’re in the ether. They’re their own trivia questions.” And then, to bring us back to our task at hand: “So surely you know who the backup quarterback was for the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, the team that was once your rival, later your retirement hobby?”
But he shot us down. When the Trivia Galaxy host approached, we handed her a blank slip of paper. And we frowned. Brett Favre sipped his black liqueur.
On his deathbed, Brett Favre told me some quintessential truths about myself and the human race. It was heavy stuff. But before we grew old and approached death with toothpicks in our hands, we passed the days together on the beach, at diners, in our cars, at the movies, inside the desiccated husk of Shai Hulud on the scorched surface of Arrakis. We were unbelievers. We couldn’t agree on American Psycho’s ending. We argued into the night about bakeries. About children. Over socks. We had trouble confirming memory.
On most days, I would have called Brett Favre a very close friend, a lover without the physical stuff, a confidant. On the others, I would have called him a washed-up, stubborn jackass molded from bad clay. I would have called him a Southern figment, something that appeared in the Wisconsin snowdrifts. A snowman who could throw a ball. A person without a soul, with unburned coals for eyes.
He only ever called me by my name, and he always said it kindly, like he was sounding out the words for the first time and thinking about each syllable.
If I had kids I would have taken them to work on the days set aside for bringing your kids to work, but I never wanted kids, so on those days I took Brett Favre. The office loved it. After I brought him the first time, the number of Bring Your Kids To Work days increased threefold.
At the office Brett Favre passed the pigskin with the office males. A ceremony!—though one I felt excluded from, if I am being honest, even though I shouldn’t have felt that way, this being the 21st century, my Internet-minded workplace being progressive, Brett Favre being a decent enough person, etc. Still, I observed their interactions from near the watercooler. I made signs with my hands and arms as if I was calling plays from the sidelines, and Brett Favre winked at me and obliged by juking down the hall or diving over a table or spinning around a chair. He stiff-armed my manager into a trashcan, spiked the ball into a cubicle, and dumped a gallon of Gatorade over himself. The office cheered.
Later I listened to the men gossip, watched them cluck about and preen in the presence of my friend. “An American hero,” my coworkers said to me the following day. “A modern gunslinger.” They never requested autographed memorabilia, though Brett Favre would have provided anything if asked. The photographs taken with him in the wide hall, the grinning men lined up in the I-formation, were memorable enough. “He’s like a cool older brother,” they said. “Everyone deserves to know that kind of person.”
We—Brett Favre, myself, the other members of the always-defeated Mistake Hole trivia team—were at a country-rap event, Streets & Fields. The concert was something of an exposition, which meant it was a large public show and also an explanation.
Brett Favre knows incredible things about music. He knows dates, locations, producers, recording methods, narcotics consumed. He knows 8-bit MIDI standards and famous woodwind arrangements. He knows compositional intent.
We—myself, the other trivia losers—we were standing near the bar drinking our beers while Brett Favre spat back every word to the cowboy hat-clad singers and rappers on the stage. In between sets he looked solemn, like a man in church. He bought drinks for all of us—tequila shots and mid-shelf beer—and did not smile. He looked aggrieved and encouraged, about what I didn’t know.
I woke up rested in a hotel room on a pull-out bed. I’d kicked my socks off sometime the night before. I’d slept with my contacts in, and my makeup was smeared. Brett Favre snored on the bathroom floor, clutching a water bottle to his chest.
“Brett,” I said. This was around a year before he died. I was older but not as old as I am now. We were sitting in the local library. “Brett, listen. I don’t know what to do with these books. Why did you check out so many books? Look, you need to be serious right now: this is an unmanageable pile of books. This pile is well past the point of appropriate. How are there this many books on the fads of the 1970s? Where did you find these? What do you want me to know about these rocks and these lite-up boards? Brett, can’t you just tell me what you’re thinking? There are more books here than I could ever read. Brett, there is more here than I can handle.”
“There are things,” he said, arranging the titles into neat stacks, “that I want to remember.”
Brett Favre had covered his kitchen table with newspapers before Darlene and I arrived. A bottle of Riesling chilled in a bucket of ice on the table, two scented candles flanking either side. Evergreen.
“Crab legs,” Brett Favre said, “are my favorite.”
This made me think, not unkindly, of my parents, and of warm winters spent on the Florida Panhandle. I looked across the table at Darlene. Darlene, who knew the television questions, was my oldest friend. She and Brett Favre didn’t always see eye to eye. Brett Favre was seven inches taller, for one. But the deeper disagreement was in their bones. Darlene sometimes argued with me about Brett Favre. “Why do you keep inviting him out?” she’d ask me on nights just the two of us met for dinner, or drinks, or Netflix. “Why do you feel the need to be inclusive?”
At the kitchen table I shook my head at Darlene, a small tic to the left and then to the right, not calling a play so much as bottling it up. I didn’t want her to say something cruel. It was so easy to hurt an athlete’s feelings.
Brett Favre’s back was to us. He pulled, one by one, the ruby red splays of crab legs out of the giant pot, steam escaping everywhere, and set each on a large ceramic platter.
Darlene shrugged at me. “I don’t like seafood,” she said loudly. Brett Favre paused, his hand and his tongs in the pot. On the plate beside him, steam leaked through cracks in the crabs’ shells, the sound like some kind of keening.
Brett Favre could be stubborn, and he could make mistakes. His stubbornness regarding the unimportance of the mistakes he made could be difficult to deal with.
Cell phone pictures sent under cover of darkness.
Voicemails left and later denied.
Painkillers swallowed like mini marshmallows.
Cars vandalized, streets slept upon.
Answers demanded of unsuspecting friends.
Bad feelings passed around, from person to person.
He made the mistakes of a teenager, and like a teenager, he didn’t know how to own up to them. This is forgivable in a friend when you’re both young and learning how to be. It’s harder to understand in someone when you know they should know better, when you know that they’ve lived a better life in so many respects than you could ever hope to live.
A phone call with Brett Favre from a long ago April. I wanted to talk strategy for the next week’s trivia game.
“Have you reconsidered sports?” I asked. There was a pause on the other end. I could hear chatter in the background, then the swell of dramatic music. “Where are—?”
“I’m watching The Royal Tenenbaums. Have you seen this? I love this movie.” There was a slurping sound.
I hated The Royal Tenenbaums. We’d talked about this before.
“Brett, you know I—”
“Right, right. Not your favorite. I forgot.” Slurp.
Braying laughter, the sound of a broken glass, the muffled clunk of a dropped phone, further swelling music.
“What,” Brett Favre said to the phone he had not picked up, his voice distant, “do you think about video games? Let’s talk about the tape. We gotta watch the tape of the last few years. What would you do if your wife left you? Your husband? Would you buy a dog? I want a dog. I want something furry to sit next to me on the couch. I want it to out-fart me. Out-think me. Talk nicely, a kind companion.” He laughed, the music faded, and then he sighed like he’d been let down, and then he hung up.
I never knew much of Brett Favre’s family, though the funeral bear hug from his younger brother likely told me more of them and their values and their general worth as people than a lifetime of friendship could have. It was a good hug, is what I mean. The hug felt sincere in a way I don’t know how to explain, even now, weeks after it occurred. Weeks after we put Brett Favre to rest in an unmarked—his request!—grave. Even tonight, lying here in what will eventually be, after the passing of some indeterminate number of years, my own deathbed, I still don’t know how to explain his sibling’s sincerity.
Brett Favre’s brother was not grizzled, but he was graying and unshaven. He left little tear spots shaped like the dark entrances of caves on the left shoulder of my brown corduroy jacket. I had nothing else to wear to the summer funeral, no other appropriate clothes. Just a business skirt and a corduroy jacket. My face glistened with sweat. Brett Favre’s brother offered me a handkerchief and said, “I know, I know, I’m going to cry for days.”
My full-size bed frame belonged to my father. Or my mother? I was told it was used by someone in my family before me; I don’t remember who. So I could say this bed is familiar to me, rather like the offensive plays Brett Favre might have studied but never executed.
On his deathbed, Brett Favre requested private audiences with all of his friends, and as the youngest, I went last. He chewed on a toothpick as he flipped through channels on the TV. He looked healthy to me, but he knew it was time. Alone together in his room, he told me that he wished he had kept more of himself in mind. “Forget about everyone else,” he said around the toothpick. “There’s more to life, so always remember that.” He paused. “Just don’t let anyone forget about you.”
He would be game through the end, of course. Signing empty IV bags for the nurses, shaking doctors’ hands, taking pictures with a stethoscope pressed to his chest while shrugging amiably as if to say, “Hospitals, right?” He gave the attending and staff each a pair of Crocs, then laughed when the doctors and nurses immediately put them on. “Comfort is obviously important around here,” he said. He settled into the bed and unmuted the TV. The Packers were playing.
When the press learned of the news—Brett Favre was dying and dispensing wisdom—they crammed into the hospital room for one final postgame interview, their mics and cameras and wires jutting forward like the excited appendages of a cyborgic beast.
They asked about his energy, about his health, and he would only say, “This feels like the right time.”
Career retrospective? “No comment.”
Rivalries laid to rest? “I like to think I’ve made my peace.”
Apologies for prior poor conduct? “I hope we’ve all moved past that by now. But, for the record, I am and always have been sorry.”
Advice for young quarterbacks? “Don’t go to law school and don’t play football. Try dentistry.”
And on, and on. Quotes designed for online news and infinite dissection—he was coy until the end. He looked bewildered in some moments, but then the cowboy professionalism came back, like it always did.
Brett Favre’s death felt real to me because it was real, because I felt something real for him. We were friends. I was never one to fall to sentimentality, and I rarely missed anyone. I’d always been fine with family far away, with friends close but not constant. I’d weathered the coming and going of friends and lovers like I was a lighthouse on the rocks—implacable and unchanging, aware. This was how I wanted to be.
So imagine my surprise that, when seeing Brett Favre’s graying-but-not-grizzled younger brother standing by the new dirt of the markerless grave and wiping his nose and pressing hard the heels of his hands to his eyes, I felt a serene sadness fill me from the stomach up, a true welling of emotion. Imagine my surprise to know that I was crying too.
My favorite memory of Brett Favre is of the two of us playing catch in a field behind my apartment. You could hear cars on the interstate, trucks thrumming by. The air, as always, was thick, humid, unpleasant. I don’t know how many times we threw the ball to one another. Hundreds of times. We were in that field for hours, until the sun went down and it was too hard to see. My muscles ached. The motions—set, throw, catch, set, throw—were clockwork. I don’t think we missed a pass. I felt, for that evening, like a professional, like Brett Favre had brought me into his world and was trying to keep me there for as long as I was willing to stay.
Chase Burke is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, but he calls Florida home. His stories appear in Sycamore Review, New South, The Journal, GIGANTIC Sequins, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. Find him on Twitter @cpburkejr.