The Enormous Screen

My friend Sam, born in Iowa City, raised in South Carolina and now a somewhat reluctant Bostonian, bought a five-foot-wide flat-screen TV not long ago. Apparently the delivery guy was not willing to bring the TV all the way into Sam’s spacious apartment, so the mini-monolith sat at the top of the building’s central staircase in its giant cardboard box for a few weeks. Finally Sam convinced someone to help him haul the TV the rest of the way into his home and set the thing up on his wall. We had a plan to watch the World Cup together on this piece of equipment—not the whole tournament, but at least the first-round match between the U.S. and Ghana. At the appointed time, my daughter, my wife and I arrived at Sam’s door, walked into the building and climbed the entry stairway, traveling the same route the 60-inch flat-screen had traveled before us.

Before the game started we all went out to the deck. Sam’s wife was there with her 93-year-old grandmother, who was visiting from Chicago. When I saw this woman with her cane propped next to her, I immediately wondered how she’d made it up the entryway stairs. The staircase was steep and had an awkward dogleg turn at the top. When I’d made the climb behind my not-quite-4-year-old minutes before, my hand hovered near my daughter’s back the whole time. (These days, whenever my daughter notices me making protective gestures like that, she tells me to stop it. “Stop it, Daddy! I can do it myself.” But this time she didn’t notice, and it was a relief to keep my hand there, just in case, without evoking her toddler ire.)

Sam’s wife’s grandmother was chatty and sharp. When I told Sam it was time to go inside for the game, the blue-eyed 93-year-old said, “Go ahead, we won’t miss you.” I think she was hoping for a witty rejoinder, but I knew I was outmatched. With an apologetic laugh I slinked in toward the gargantuan TV.

Just before the game began, Sam gave me a quick tour of his flat-screen’s functionality. “See, this thing has voice commands, and we can switch back and forth from cable to Internet super-quick,” he said. “Actually, I think the picture is clearer if we watch online—should we try that?” Sam did something with the remote. The stadium in Brazil momentarily disappeared. It took a few moments to navigate to the crisper online picture. When the game reappeared, the American players seemed to be celebrating something.

“They are pumped!” Sam said.

“Wait,” I said, “did something happen?”

“No, I don’t think it started yet.”

It was odd. The camera was in close on a huddle of American players who had not yet broken a sweat; they were smiling and embracing, cradling one another’s heads in their clean, dry hands.

“It’s just unusual to really hug so much before the game starts,” I said.

The announcers were chattering excitedly. A replay came on the screen and we saw, for the first time, the stylish goal Clint Dempsey had scored just 36 seconds after the match had begun. Messing around with the flat-screen, we’d missed the goal. But I was so happy the U.S. team had scored that I decided Sam’s TV was a talismanic engine of good fortune; if we’d been watching the game’s first minute, Dempsey would have kicked the ball over the crossbar.

Of course no television can influence the outcome of a match. Furthermore, no television, regardless of size, can do more than offer a fragmentary sketch of a World Cup or any other sporting event. The five-foot-wide flat-screen makes a promise: I will immerse you in the game! You’ll practically be on the field. But we are not on the field, not in the stadium, not in Brazil. Our gaze is constrained by cameras; we are offered the illusion of authority by slow-motion replays; we get the briefest glimpses of fanatical spectators wearing bright wigs and patriotic makeup. Who is that man in the crowd, howling with joy after the first goal is scored? What a face! Full of animal passion. We don’t know him. We will never see him again.

The U.S. held its 1-0 lead for about 80 minutes. Aside from that brilliant start by Dempsey, Ghana was the superior side, attacking urgently, showing great skill on the ball and exhibiting seemingly endless stamina. On the other hand, every 20 minutes or so a different American player grabbed his hamstring and grimaced in pain. It was excruciating to watch.

My wife and daughter left at halftime. Then, midway through the second half, Sam’s wife came looking for him. Sam was sitting next to me, watching the game, with a pile of basil leaves in his lap.

“My grandmother is hungry now,” Sam’s wife said.

“I know, I’m making dinner,” Sam said. Despite his stockpile of herbs, though, this was clearly not the case.

He got up and went to the kitchen, saying, “Call me if anything happens.” When Sam spoke, a message appeared on the screen:

VOICE COMMAND? PLEASE INPUT

I waited for the words to disappear from the screen, but instead a visual menu of unwanted options spread across all five feet of the display. I didn’t want to call Sam for help, because his wife was already upset at him for dinner-related negligence. I began pressing buttons on the remote. I turned the TV off. I turned it on again. The picture re-formed and there was the match, the Ghanaians continually sprinting and threatening, the Americans desperately defending.

I was sitting alone in front of the enormous screen when Ghana scored to tie the game.

When I screamed “No!,” the gleaming TV failed to recognize my word as a command.

Sam had cooked up a kind of focaccia, spreading olive oil over an Afghan flatbread and then covering it with cherry tomatoes, red onion, feta and mozzarella. The basil leaves were scattered on top, crisped and oily. I sat at the table and ate with Sam, his wife and her grandmother. The meal was delicious.

“This is good,” Sam’s wife’s grandmother said. “What is this?” She ate more of the flatbread than I did.

At one point, Sam’s wife said, “Just to be clear, I am not pregnant.”

Her grandmother replied, “Of course, a woman can hide that sort of thing if she chooses to.”

Her husband had passed away a few years ago. Eventually she revealed that she was seeing someone: “I know it’s funny for a 93-year-old to have a new boyfriend,” she announced to the table.

“What’s funny about it?” Sam asked. “That sounds very nice.”

His wife’s grandmother beamed. “The new man in my life likes deep-water fishing,” she said. Throughout the meal she hinted at a wealth of stories: she’d lived in Egypt for three months as a young woman; she didn’t watch sports because she believed her favorite teams lost whenever she tuned in. She rarely made an effort to embellish or finish her stories. I came to see this as a practice, not an accident.

Javier Soriano/Getty Images

The American defender John Brooks scored the winning goal for the U.S. by authoritatively heading in a corner kick. Brooks, who was born in Berlin but was eligible to play for the U.S. team because of an American parent, claimed that he’d prophetically dreamt some nights before about scoring in the game. He’s 21 years old. That seems so young to me that I wonder if he’s had more dreams than experiences. When he is 29 Brooks might be a veteran footballer playing in his third World Cup. When he’s 41 he might climb up a narrow staircase behind his toddler, worried the child will stumble. Maybe he will make it to 93 with his memory intact. Some friend of his granddaughter will ask to hear the story of the goal he scored in the waning moments of the match in 2014. What was it like to do that—to be there on the field, to experience such a thing? Brooks will rely on language to convey his living memory. I wish him luck.

Clearly you need to write another piece about grandma! I enjoyed this

— Tyson    Jul 3, 09:53 PM    #

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