Jeff Phillips: Ribbons


When I usually roll into SamZo’s Subs for a quick dinner, it’s dark out. The red rimmed light fixtures from the seating area are at this time of day reflected in the display case where the desserts are arranged: whoopie pies, double fudge brownies, M&M cookies, and sometimes cannoli, stand in formation and are slowly picked off throughout the night.

While I wait in line for my ham and provolone smothered in olives – or baked ziti in the colder months – if I look away from the counter, my periphery will catch a shadow slapped up against the aforementioned display case. A dark shape of a face, small hands splay and occasionally fog the glass, blurring the baked goods. The head is at the right height as if it were Cody, the boy whose head was cracked open in the same spot just before Thanksgiving.

You may remember Lance Lockwood, age 10, the darling of the flag football team sponsored by SamZo’s. His head also suffered a blow when he went to catch a pass, too far to the side for comfort. He raced to receive it before it was out of bounds, and as he reached his hands up, his feet slipped in the muddy grass. It had rained the night before, and the autumn morning, despite sun without cloud coverage, hadn’t dried up yet. As Lance’s footing twisted, his upper body was catapulted to the side, and down, hard. The helmet cracked against the aluminum of the first row bleachers. As his head was forced up, his neck and lower body continued its descent; the spinal cord was severed and Lance was dead on arrival at the county hospital.

In solidarity, to honor Lance’s much too early departure, the team wore black ribbons at the following weekend’s game, in place of the usual yellow strips of nylon flapping from their hips. Mrs. Lockwood, always a regular at Lance’s games was there, and when Coach Grishaw gave her two ribbons to wear on the sides of her hips, she fought tears, which continued the rest of the game, while she cheered louder than she ever had before. “Do it for Lance! Score score score, please God, score for my Lance!” And they scored a total of 11 touchdowns, setting a league record. When the clock ran out and they were the clear victor, the team huddled around her, attempted to lift her in the air, but she collapsed in the grass and heaved a deep cry, a contagious one too. She had been tomboy when she was a child, played football in the backyard with her brothers, but never got to play in a league. When Lance first expressed an interest in football when he was 4, she found an avenue for her unsatisfied love of the game, and fostered the development of his skills by passing the ball, chasing him across the lawn, forcing him to find his footing and speed. Sometimes she’d take him to Gippers Bar and Grill for buffalo chicken and to watch the Patriots. Football on the whole was their special thing. Mr. Lockwood had a bad back from working at the fiberglass factory, didn’t like to drink, and would rather read a mystery paperback on the recliner.

After the major victory, she stopped by SamZo’s, as the owner, Sam Zorago, offered up free sandwiches to the team. Usually at least a few of the SamZo’s players with their families would go there for lunch, certainly the Lockwoods often went, but it was especially rowdy with every player, their parents and siblings turning up, riding high off a superb win. Mrs. Lockwood arrived, black ribbons still in place. As she stood in line, that kid Cody, Stephen Dunn’s little brother, an energetic 6 year old, ran up to Mrs. Lockwood and reached for one of the ribbons, like he was playing the game too. An upsurge of defense rose in her, she didn’t want to ever take the ribbons off. As far as she was concerned, as long as the ribbons were on her person, so would Lance’s spirit, so would the overwhelming elation of his talent bleeding into the rest of the team to carry on and win, win big, for Lance. Always for Lance. Cody’s first reach didn’t connect. Her hips pivoted away with a fast twitch of avoidance.

“How dare you!” she hissed.

Cody still wanted to play the game. He reached again, this time faster, and his fist closed around the cluster of black fabric. He pulled and the left one came free. She seethed. He laughed, he wanted to remind her it was a game they were playing. Then she spat on his head. A hot wad hit the front bangs of his blonde bowl cut. The crowd around the counter quieted. They had an audience. Cody felt like their attention was too quick to turn on him as the enemy. So he yelled to Mrs. Lockwood “he wasn’t that good anyway!”

That was when all the rage she had stored up throughout her life, incubated to a greater charge by the recent tragedy, shot forth from her palms as she thrust Cody into the glass. There was a crunch as the back of his head made contact. She thrust again. And again. A total of 10 times; the sound of the blow became more akin to a bag of pebbles slapped on pavement, as the hair, flesh, bone – the repeated target – was grinded to gristle and pulp, until Cody slumped down and didn’t get up. It was as though the unfolding of the collision occurred at the same fast-forward speed as Lance’s final spill, while the bystanders were weighted down by the same slow-motion murk that infects the nerves when one doesn’t want to believe what is happening. A woman was able to bash a boy 10 deliberate times before a signal for rescue could gain enough potential for action. By the time a few dads had her restrained, she had already forfeited her rush.

When she was brought in for questioning, she didn’t put up much of a fight. She knew she had now caused someone else to experience the same sort of hollow in which there is no filling, an injustice that sits heavier than any conceivable pushback. It was a hard thing for the townsfolk to remain supportive of her. A few friends from the Lutheran church, some of whom she had grown up with, went to Sunday School with, been to the baptism of each other’s children, continued to bring her baked goods and casseroles as she awaited trial. Her husband paid her bail, but didn’t want to talk to her much after that. He’d seen a brutality unbecoming of companionship. Despite her expressions of sorrow for how she handled herself, he sensed a gratification fulfilled that she would never admit to. There was an unspoken agreement in the community not to demonize Mrs. Lockwood, she was a victim too, though unraveled and rewired, and Cody’s mother now needed the same kind of rallying that occurred around the flag football field. The new focus of everyone’s sympathy wanted nothing to do with ribbons, she made public statements that were ambivalent, both respecting Mrs. Lockwood’s grief but desiring of appropriate punishment. In her private fantasies she imagined driving her son’s murderess’ head into the glass case instead, pulling her neck back over the jagged edges until the carotid artery painted the desserts with a cherry red. Her imagination would lose control of the scenario, and Cody’s frightened face would appear on the other side of the counter, and she would cry so hard she couldn’t breathe.

The prosecution team was kind to Mrs. Lockwood, as she pled guilty to second degree manslaughter, for a conviction of 7 years in the state penitentiary for women. Mr. Lockwood would only visit her on holidays. He used to like to travel to Europe, but couldn’t afford that after balancing out the legal fees. He’d still travel around New England, sometimes send her postcards, scribbling notes of how much he wished their son was with him, but he never, ever mentioned how much he wished she were also there with him. Whereas Mrs. Lockwood pumped Lance up with football dreams, he cherished the evenings he read to him before bed. In his mind they were taking trips together in his imagination: if it was science fiction, they were off to the moon as a duo. He still tried to take those imaginary trips but they fell flat now that they weren’t backed by possibility.

She wasn’t allowed to bring those ribbons to wear over her prison jump suit. She didn’t want anything to do with them either. She now considered them a prop, easily absorbent of wrath, spreading malcontent ripples like a bullfighter’s flag. If you see the shadow in the glass, the one I mentioned previously, you can sometimes see a black ribbon, transparent, fluttering, falling, in the faint reflection too.

ribbons counter


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