By Matt Valenti
I trust, Dear Reader, that you will forgive me if the tale I am about to repeat frightens you more than it ought, but this is a tale that insists upon being told.
Though I had good reason to doubt the veracity of the story when first I heard it, nevertheless, it has left me with a sensation of nagging anxiety that, like a perverted old roommate from college who has overstayed his welcome on your sofa bed, simply won’t go away.
Therefore, I beg of you, by all means keep this story well hidden away from the eyes and ears of the more impressionable and naïve among us in this fair city of San Diego—including small children, foreign tourists, and members of the city council.
* * *
As is customary for me after working all week, Saturdays are a day for me to trade the heavy cares of work and career and for the much heavier ones of marriage and family life.
I had supposed the scariest thing I would face this past Saturday was the gelatinous black goo made up of decayed Eucalyptus leaves, roof rat crap, and carbon soot from Lindberg Field’s flight plan, which I was scooping out of my gutters.
But worse horrors were yet to come.
My thoughts were turning to the six-pack of gluten-free, locally crafted pale ale awaiting me in the fridge, and the hammock beckoning to me from under a pepper tree, when shrill banshee voices accosted me from below the eaves. It was my two daughters. They reminded me, in unison and at a decibel level clinically proven to wake the dead, that I had promised to take them to a friend’s party in Clairemont in less than an hour.
I descended from the ladder as one descending into the pit of Tartarus. Roof rat crap sounded like pure ambrosia compared to the agony of attending another children’s party. My policy:
“Nay,” I say, to Pin the Tail on the Donkey; “No thanks” to Hot Potato; “Nevermore” to Telephone. I was temporarily mollified, however, when Daughter No. 2 reminded me that this was no mere birthday or re-gendering party, but an honest-to-god spooky Halloween party.
That’ll be a change, at least, I thought. But my trepidation returned tenfold when Daughter No. 1 added that it was a “dress up party” (her words) and that under no circumstances was I to dare attend it without a sufficiently advanced costume. An hour later, I flopped across the sidewalk of a cul-de-sac near Genesee wearing a wetsuit and fins, with a mask and snorkel strapped to my face. It was 93 degrees out.
My daughters, each dressed as Nicki Minaj from her Anaconda video, were unfazed by the heat.
The party itself was typical: in place of Hot Potato there was Bobbing for Apples. Instead of Pin the Tail there was Touch the Slime. Other differences are not worth commenting on, except that there was a plentiful supply of gluten free beer in the host’s fridge (the gods were finally shining upon me) and—here we come to the frightening tale I’ve promised—there was the unexpected appearance of a mysterious man in the backyard, who, around sundown, began to tell the fateful tale.
He was an older, distinguished-looking man with the same gray hair, goggle-eyed glare, and befuddled intellectual bearing of Phil Donahue—though with none of Donahue’s self-effacement. I was shocked to realize this was same man I had seen a couple years earlier while waiting on line to see Santa Claus in Fashion Valley Mall.
On that latter occasion I had learned his name was Mark, and that he was the lawyer and lead negotiator for a wholesome, strapping young billionaire’s son named Dean, who oh-so-wanted a new stadium for his professional football team, and had come to Santa to ask—no, demand—thathe find one under his Christmas tree that year.
On this occasion, however, there was no pleading, no crying, no foot-stomping. Dean had stayed at home. Seated before a group of youngsters and a sprinkling of adults, Mark began the tale as the light faded from the October sky and a full moon rose above the darkened treetops.
“A long, long time ago,” he said, “some people built a football stadium in a far-off, lonely place called Mission Valley. They built it out of substandard concrete, thrown together in a hurry—” Shocked sighs from the audience.
“What was worse,” Mark went on, his voice lowered to a hoarse whisper, “is that, unbeknownst to the people who built the stadium, they were actually building it on the site of an old Indian graveyard.”
There were audible gasps in the audience.
“Hold on, wait up a second there, Mark,” one off the adults seated on the lawn cried out. He was a tall, lanky man with strawberry blonde hair. Despite his advancing years and receding hairline there was an aura of San Diego State frat boy about him, which was suprisingly endearing.
“Let’s get the record straight,” he said. “Qualcomm Stadium wasn’t built on an Indian graveyard. It was actually built on an underground plume of toxic petroleum.”
Mark glared at him. “Be quiet, Kevin. You don’t know what you’re talking about, turncoat.” The Donahue-lookalike turned back to the children. “Well, many years went by, and the place began crumbling apart, it was so old.”
One of the children asked, “How old?”
“Almost fifty years old,” hissed Mark ominously. “It’s so old it has become uninhabitable.”
“But my school was built in 1954,” the child replied (oddly enough, in hyperlink). “It’s more than ten years older than the stadium and doesn’t even have air conditioning. We’re roasting in there.”
Mark grimaced. “Be that as it may, a school isn’t nearly the same as a football stadium, don’t you think?”
“It’s more important, right?” asked the child. Such an innocent child.
Mark ignored the question and continued. “One day, the owner of the team that played in the stadium had the fright of his life. He saw some ghastly figure flitting in the dark shadows of the corporate luxury boxes.” Mark bent low to the ground and uttered an unearthly moan, designed no doubt to scare the kids. “Do you know what it was he saw?” he asked.
“A ghost?” several of the children called out nervously.
Mark nodded slowly. “The ghost . . . of Lost Opportunities! The most frightening specter in the entire business world.”
I’m sure I was not the only one to feel a shiver run up my spine.
Mark went on. “The owner of the team began to believe that the stadium was cursed, and the team in grave spiritual danger.”
“Is that why my Dad says they’ll never make it to the Super Bowl?” a little girl in the back called out from behind her Donald Trump mask.
Mark winced but otherwise ignored the question. “The owner of the team went looking for the ghost. He looked down into the stadium’s darkest, dankest stairwell, and heard a low, moaning voice coming from deep within. So he crept down, one step at a time, peering warily into the darkness.”
Mark paused for effect, and the kids were utterly silent.
“He heard a voice, a very low and quiet voice. It seemed to say, ‘Where’s my . . . ? Where’s my .. .?’”
Mark smiled sadistically at the children, most of who were shivering with fear, and went on.
“The owner of the football team was trembling head to toe, and sweating bullets, yet he felt drawn deeper and deeper into that stairwell. And now the voice grew louder, it’s demand becoming clearer: ‘Where’s my five . . . ? Where’s my five hundred . . . ?’ it wailed, piteously.”
Now Mark’s face took on the aspect of an ancient prophet. Spittle flew from his mouth and his eyes bulged.
“What did the voice want? What was it trying to say? Now the ghost of Qualcomm Stadium was wailing in deep distress, and team’s owner finally understood what it was saying: ‘Where’s my five hundred . . . Where’s my . . . five hundred million dollars?!’”
The children shrieked in terror.
“So fearful was he of this booming voice that the poor team owner briefly thought about jumping headlong over a railing, down to his near certain doom. Yet still the voice continued to cry out, ‘Where’s my five hundred million dollars? Where’s my five hundred million dollars? Actually, where’s my seven hundred fifty million dollars, after inevitable cost overruns? Wooo-oooo-oooo!’”
By now the children were frightened stiff, yet Mark showed no sign that he would slacken in his loyal pursuit of the full telling of this horror-filled tale.
“The owner promised the ghost he’d go to the city that built the stadium, and ask for the ghost’s blood price, plus maybe a little more. But sadly, he knew the city elders would balk—they were always so shortsighted, so foolishly unaware of the unending battle between Good and Evil being played out in America’s Finest city.”
Here the lanky man named Kevin grunted his disapproval. “Kids,” he said with a politician’s smile, “we’re doing everything we can to appease the ghost at Qualcomm Stadium so the football team can stay in town. Speaking of which, would you like to watch a really, really cool video I helped make?”
The children uttered an unimpressed groan, and returned their attention to Marks’ riveting tale.
“Well, the team owner ran back up the stairwell and headed straight out of the stadium, screaming in terror all the while. He knew that people like Kevin here would just offer lip service to the ghost, that unless a brand new stadium was built in downtown San Diego the ghost of Lost Opportunities would haunt him forever. He was so frightened, in fact, that he gathered his team up and they ran all the way to Los Angeles.”
A hush came across the children, and I could see Mark leaning closer, his eye gleaming with the thrill of scaring the daylights out of these defenseless little children.
But by then I’d heard enough. My heart was pounding as I retrieved Daughters Nos. 1-2 from the crowd, thankful that we’d always taught our children that there’s no such thing as ghosts, but worried nonetheless that the poor dears would be afflicted by nightmares later that night while sleeping under their Walking Dead bed sheets.
As it turned out, it was I who suffered from nightmares that night. In my fright-filled dreams I was running from an enraged ballot measure that had sprung to life and was chasing me down, demanding I vote “yes” to a complex funding scheme I couldn’t understand in the least. I still tremble to think of it.
My advice is to take Mark’s dark tale seriously, Dear Reader. Though not one word of it may be true, the horror of it will linger for years to come.
Matt Valenti is a San Diego based freelance writer and author of The Newts: A Political Satire of Mythic Proportions