Sisyphus and the King
Sitting in a slow corner thinking about the last car I ever owned, again, watching dust dance in shot sunlight shafts. A man came to me, a stranger and in a soft voice he said “Albert?”
“Sisyphus” I said, so we could talk.
Call me Sisyphus; every day I roll my rocks higher without any hope for effect or reward but just occasionally the reward is in the rolling of the rocks themselves.
“What do you remember about goalkeeping?” he seemed to be peering under my eyebrows.
As I’ve said "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."
It was no accident; he’d unlocked the door with a calm and steady hand. I was already strapping up the gloves, spitting on them, planting studs in the earth, filling territory, a rock in the tempestuous waters of my defence; a lion in the mouth of a mysterious cave for any opposition. I was a sleek cat, ferocious guardian in those days.
“Would you like to talk to Lev Yashin in Vegas, maybe write a few words?”
“The Russian? But, …he’s dead.” I blurted out.
“Aren’t we all?” he replied as he walked back into the shadows from which he had come, some tickets now on the floor by my foot.
Lev Yashin, the Russian colossus, the Black Spider, the man who’d said “What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed? He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future!”
That’s my kind of goalkeeper; he might be the King of Goalkeepers. Why Vegas? I thought.
I was always a stranger but here in the Vegas candy bowl I felt like ordinary boiled sugar in an acid ocean of saccharine explosions. The hawkers, the hoods, the strippers, their marks; all screaming for attention over the nerve-jangling nickel waves of the slots.
Here the hot sun was cooking a Petri dish of degenerates, they were sizzling, devolving in the harsh light. Even the sand here was different from the ancient dust in Algiers, here the dream had been infiltrated, subverted with rhinestone and here, decadence was a badge of honour.
Walking in from the Nevada sun, the bar was unlit, I was blind. I put my hand out and followed my way along the wall until I could see again. I thought I was alone.
“Lev?” I called out but the sound sank into the velvet walls. There was a cough from a table near the exit, I looked over and saw two figures silhouetted there; a big man and a man in a cape.
They’d been playing chess, some of the pieces had fallen over but all I could see was the lamplight in the eyes of the great man. More than 270 clean sheets, and over 150 penalty saves in a career that spanned 16 years in Russian, European and World football.
He smiled, he knew I was tongue tied.
“Can I introduce you to my friend?” he said “Sisyphus, this is, ah… Lucky, Lucky Jackson.”
Big aviator sunglasses in the gloom, a lock of black hair hanging, a curled lip.
“Please ta meet ya, man” he held out a hand and I saw the rings.
“What…what is this?” I shook his hand, it felt warm and delicate.
Elvis laughed like only he could, can, Lev Yashin was smirking.
In a low voice he quoted my own words back to me "Truly fertile Music, the only kind that will move us, that we shall truly appreciate, will be a Music conducive to Dream, which banishes all reason and analysis. One must not wish first to understand and then to feel. Art does not tolerate Reason.” And I understood.
“Pleased to meet you too Lucky” I said.
What follows is a record of our conversation that day, Lev, Lucky and I.
Sisyphus: With all the ephemeral show ponies on display these days, is anyone really practicing the true art of the goalkeeper?
Lev [laughing]: Well, goalkeeping is a funny art, not normal…and I was a bit of a rebel for my times...
Lucky: I think most people have an instinct to rebel…
Sisyphus: What is a rebel but a man who says “no”?
Lucky: I couldn’t say no to the army…
Lev: No, army no, but goalkeepers too. Goalkeeper can’t say no to the shot hein, like girls can’t say no to cars eh Lucky?
Lucky [grins]: I once gave a pretty waitress an Eldorado, as a tip!
Sisyphus: Mon dieu! The coffee must have been good! It’s a matter of consent non?
Lev: The goalkeeper consents to put his body between the ball and the net, then he agrees to be famous…
Sisyphus: Fame is an aberration, a construct, a fake.
Lucky: Yeah, there’s a Me impersonator in Stockholm now, an old ham calls himself Blue Swede Shoes, huh! Even the Admiral wasn’t that bad, man…
Colonel Parker: A fella’s gotta eat! Hi guys, thought I’d find you all here.
Lucky: Man, you nearly gave me another heart attack, I thought you’d been fired.
Colonel Parker: Another day another boulder eh Sisyphus? Listen guys, I got a great idea…
The fast talking man in the Panama hat told us of his vision, a movie “The Penalty” an all action romantic comedy based around the adventures of a maverick yet charismatic goalkeeper in his quest for the heart of his one true love.
Colonel Parker: Marilyn’s gonna come back, play the broad, hey, how much does it cost if it’s free?
Lucky: I..I..I’m not sure about this…Marilyn ya say?
Colonel Parker: Monsieur Camus will do the scribblin’ and big Lev already has a contract to consult. I ‘m gonna leave you to work it all out, gotta go, hasta la vista babies!
Colonel Parker slips off out on to the strip. There’s a pause while the dust settles.
Lev: He seems like a nice man da?
Lucky: He’s the devil in disguise, huh!
Sisyphus: There can be no devil without God and if there is no God…
Lucky: Y-you know, more than anything I’d wanna be a good actor, a great actor but I always ended up doing those soft movies, darn.
Sisyphus: Hmm, a penalty is a dramatic moment Lucky, maybe we can do something.
Lev: I can help, I’ve saved more penalties than anyone, ever, I think.
Sisyphus: Didn’t you used to wear all black too?
Lev: Yes, they called me the Black Spider, big scary black spider, but only a bad thing for the other team, hah, for Moscow I was their pet, their friend.
Lucky: Yeah man, I know that feeling, big scary with a soft heart
Sisyphus: Does the penalty fit the crime?
Lucky: I am in double trouble on this one sir, my mama told me ”You do the crime you do the time” but the Admiral, man, he did a whole lotta crimes and I’m doing the time see…
Lev: Ah, the gulag …
Sisyphus: So what kind of part would you really like to play?
Lucky [scratches head]: Ah… singing-millionaire playboy, race driver, sir
Lev: Isn’t that what King Con made you do before?
Lucky: Only about 25 times Sir
Lev: Couldn’t we make this goalkeeper er…less realistic?
Sisyphus: This time the hero should seek understanding, the strike is the question, the save is comprehension which is also the goal …
Lucky: I could use my Karate, you do Karate in football right?
Lev: It’s normally called shoulder barging, but they don’t do that in penalties, they just shake their hips and stare a bit.
Sisyphus: Stare a bit, hmmm.
Lucky: Shake their hips, yeah?
Lev: Yeah, then the striker strikes, the goalie dives, saves and the whole stadium go crazy, it’s the best feeling in the world…
Sisyphus: Surement, but there is that stare…
Lucky: And the hip action…
Lev: Well, yeah but it’s a big moment, the tension, a time for men to be men.
Lucky: A man is just a little boy wearing a mans body
Lev [laughing]: Yes, you feel like a little boy in front of 80,000 screaming people.
Lucky: I know man, I know.
Sisyphus: Hmph, we should be focusing on the moment, non?
Lev: Actually it goes a bit silent in that moment just before the penalty is taken
Sisyphus: During the staring bit
Lucky [stands up]: With the hips, like this
[Elvis lifts his arms a bit, snarls and slowly gyrates to a sudden brass band thrust. Camus falls off his chair]
Lev: Hey Lucky, be careful man, he’s an intellectual he doesn’t understand those things
Lucky: Hey, sorry man, I got into the moment.
We ended up editing our footage down to a 7 hour stare, with strategically placed hips and glimpses of Marilyn in the stands. Elvis read the voiceover with dark liquid power, a eulogy that spanned the perspectives of each of this trinity.
In a moment that stretched out forever, the tunnel vision was a metaphor for the solitude of existence and the ultimate futility of the actions of the striker or the goalkeeper, even the manager.
I thought it was funny but Colonel Parker wasn’t too interested in the movie itself, he said "I don't give a damn about your movie script, I don't understand it and don't try to explain it, just sell it!" Later he apologized "Hey sorry guys, you don't have to be nice to people on the way up if you're not coming back down."
But when it got around to the filming he kept asking the producers for more money for every frame showing Elvis’ hips as he set himself on the goal line.
The film was never released, it turned out that Colonel Parker (a.k.a. King Con) was really a Dutch midfielder. He’d embroiled the genetically enhanced van de Kerkhof twins in a Total Exploitation scam to expose Elvis across all media, leading Michels’ to Total Football and players covering all positions.
That was why he’d never allowed Elvis to tour Europe, in case Bill Shankley discovered the secret and sought to turn Ron Yates into a playmaker occupying the hole just behind Roger Hunt. Hell hath no business like the beautiful game.
We met once more in that dark bar in the middle of downtown Vegas. We were all back dressed in black, sensing each others existence in the pale lamplight. Not much was said, we’d all died before.
In the end we stood on the strip that night and together we looked around, Lev saw a world of forbidden neon fruit, I saw electric fishing nets for fools.
Elvis just breathed it all in and when he breathed out the world seemed brighter. He swung his black cloak off, reversed it in a violins sweep and paused to fix a diamond clasp. The virgin white satin now shimmering in the city lights, the rhinestone, diamante and pearls their own luminance.
Elvis grinned, his plump cheeks, the star in his eye, his imperial radiance, seemed to be the source of all we purveyed.
The return of the King.
He hugged Lev Yashin with regal grace and Lev was swiftly whisked off by the men from the institute in a black sedan.
“See you on the other side, man” he said as he put his arms around me too. For an instant I knew what he meant. I started to say something but with a sideways look and a flick of his hair he was gone.
It was as if all those fake stars on the strip had suddenly become real. The goalkeeper, the philosopher the King; crying culture in the face of their destiny, choosing freedom for a chance to be better men.
I lit another cigarette, put my head down and started walking again.