Photo: Laura Kranz
The last two-and-a-half weeks have passed pretty smoothly, for my life. I’ve kept quiet, played hard, and become a model physical education student–well, not exactly, but I’ve been on time.
The razzing about Guinevere has nearly subsided, though the guys have started calling me “Billy,” as in Joel. Trash named me, of course.
“The singing ugly man with the gorgeous female! You could be ‘Billy Joel, Junior.’ How old you gotta be to legally change your name?”
They’re still disbelieving, but the evidence looks strong from the outside. Guin and I have eaten at Mick’s this whole week (twice she paid), and she sees me every night after practice. She even waited for me with the other guys’ girlfriends in the lobby after the game on Tuesday (the players call it “The Squeeze Gallery”).
I’d say I’m dreaming except it’s clear I’m still trying out. Two guys were talking with her when I got to the lobby. Guin and I don’t kiss or even touch, really. She’s just spending time with me while making up her mind. Besides, she’s always getting irritated with me when we’re at her house. I think it’s still about her parents. Am I supposed to antagonize them?
And, of course, my home hasn’t exactly become The Waltons.
I came home after my Saturday graveyard at Grocery Warehouse to find Dad waiting for me. He wore his pajamas, once navy blue, now nearly gray with elbows and knees worn transparent. He looked pale.
“Where have you been?”
“I’ve been at work, Dad,” I said. I had on my stockboy whites.
“Don’t patronize me, you little pissant. Whose car did you just drive home?”
“That’s right. I better know where you are when you’re using my goddamn car,” he thumped his sternum hard enough for me to hear it across the room. “Where have you been every other night this week? Coach Brighton doesn’t hold four hour practices, does he? Huh?”
“Course he doesn’t. No way he’s got the balls. Dumb bastard probably needs lots of time to come up with those pathetic game plans, anyway. So why don’t you try answering my question now?”
Usually, he assumes I’m at Jeff’s. Had he called to check on me? Jeff never said anything…but he might have missed his parents’ answering the phone.
“I’ve been spending time with a girl,” I said. I’m truthful only because lying is too dangerous.
“‘I’ve been spending time with a gaaa-urrl,’” he mimicked, falsetto. “Skipping around here with pansies in your hair, you think I’m blind, some senile vegetable propped up on the couch?”
He waited for a response. I shook my head.
“What’s her name?”
If I didn’t tell him, I knew he would find out and most likely arrive there. I censored that scene from my mind. Ironically, he wouldn’t forbid me to see her because he wants me to “make my own decisions.” But he would advise lavishly.
He rolled his bloodshot eyes. “Good Christ. The lawyer’s daughter. That’s perfect. Just what you need.” I swallowed a grin at the idea that he knows what I need. “Her grandfather was on the schoolboard when I was coaching. You know that?” Guin’s parents moved here partly because of her grandparents. Her grandfather died our sophomore year; she wore black for a week.
“No, Sir, I didn’t.”
“He was. Only one who never spoke the whole meeting. I still don’t know which way he voted. I’ve got to warn you, Son. Girlfriend won’t help your game, just sap all your energy.” He says this as if I’ve asked his advice during our father-son chat.
“‘Yes, sir,’ like you know that. Shit, you don’t even care, do you?”
About what? Guin? Basketball? The school board’s vote twenty-four years ago not to renew his coaching contract? Yes, yes, and no.
“I care very much, Sir.”
“Do you? Are you working as hard as you can every minute of every practice? Every second? ‘Cause that sonofabitch isn’t going to play you unless he thinks he has to, unless he can’t afford not to. You dive for every loose ball? Does anyone beat you in sprints?”
“Yes, Sir. I mean, I play as hard as I can. The only two guys who ever beat me in sprints are faster than—”
“No way I could have fathered someone this dumb! Sprints aren’t about ‘fast.’ Sprints show who’s in shape and who’s got more heart. Say what you mean: you let two guys beat you because they’re in better shape than you are. Are they the guards who start instead of you?”
I couldn’t answer. At four eighteen A.M., he had found my limit.
“You’d play better if you weren’t wasting your energy on that girl.”
I stonewalled. I was ready to walk out, which means he either shouts after me or tries to stop me.
“And if you don’t waste all your energy on her, she’ll find someone else who will.”
“Good night, Dad.”
I looked him in the eye before I left. But he didn’t fight me that night. Or shout.
“Believe me. I know,” I heard him mutter as I closed my bedroom door.
I’m almost dressed after our short Thursday pre-game practice. An extra hour with Guinevere! Jared and I leave the locker room together these days; he has become my honorary chauffeur after practice or when Jeff’s unavailable. In contrast to Jeff, his questions about Guin are respectful. Last night it was:
“What do you think she’ll major in at college?”
“Nill, why do people make fun of me when you’re the square root of everything?” I asked.
“I’ve wondered about that, too. I’d guess it’s because you fight back.”
I can’t stop thinking about that today.
“Hey, BJ!” Trash yells. “Coach wonders if you can spare a moment of your precious time.”
“’Kay,” I yell back. I catch Jared’s eye.
“No problem,” he smiles. “I’ve got my lit book here.”
“Nill, we’re seniors.”
“Yes. And in six months we’ll be freshman again.”
“What do the words ‘get a life’ mean to you?’”
“Oh, I’m trying. Why do you think I give you rides, Billy?” I have to laugh at that.
I walk into Coach’s office. It’s been less tense between us. Maybe that just shows I’m not fighting back anymore. Or am I going to get to…?
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Could you close the door, Kingsley?”
I close it, which mutes the guys’ caterwauling.
“I want you to know I’ve seen the improvement since our conversation. You’re working harder than ever. I appreciate that you are doing your part to help the team work together smoothly.” He looks very serious as he says this. I must have been a major pain in his rear.
“Your change in attitude makes it harder to say this, but I hope it will help you take it well. Tomorrow night is ‘Senior Night.’ Traditionally, that means we start all seniors. But we’re playing Quincy tomorrow. We both know we have to beat them to win conference, get a bye in the conference tournament, and a decent ranking for state. After these two weeks I’m sorry to say this, but I can’t start you tomorrow night. I’m not starting Jared, either, and he’s had a model attitude for four years. I’m sorry, Paxton. I just need you two to take one for the team this time. Okay?”
Okay? This time? As if there’s going to be a time when I won’t have to? Is it worse that I’m being denied a charity start, or that four years’ effort leaves me needing one? Bottom line, do I suck so bad that letting me spend the first minute and fifteen seconds on the court would cost us the game? And if he thinks so—as clearly he does—what can I say now to his dimpled chin and crew cut, looking all stern like a commander asking for “volunteers” on a suicide mission, that would change his mind?
“Thank you, Paxton. That’s very mature of you. Could you send Jared in?”
Noel Kinton is working late again. I’m getting more comfortable with him, meaning he paralyzes me less than he did at first. Still, I’m not disappointed.
“Hi, Paxton! Come in. How are you today?” Gretchen Kinton asks, as if she’s been waiting all day to hear the answer.
“Well, to be honest, I’d say sadder but wiser. How are you, Mrs. Kinton?”
She studies me a moment before answering.
“You’re quite an introspective young man, aren’t you? Wisdom can demand payments we never agreed to make. I suspect you already know that. But why, with all that wisdom, can’t you remember my name? It’s Gretchen. Gret-chen.”
We both laugh. Her joyful duck honk makes me laugh harder just as Guinevere comes down the stairs. My heart skips a gear.
“Mom, you didn’t tell me Paxton was here.”
“He wasn’t until a minute ago, Honey, and then I needed to make sure he’d come to the right home. He was looking for your grandmother, Mrs. Kinton.”
Guinevere doesn’t smile.
“Now, if we’ve straightened that out, I’ll just see to a few things before supper. Call me if you need anything, Hon. Glad you’re here, Paxton.”
Guinevere’s eyes are icy and we haven’t spoken yet. Did I do something? I just got here, and she asked me over. Does my bubble have to burst today? I vote no. Do I get a vote?
Her top lip raises slightly. She can sneer like this at teachers all day and never get caught. But I know her expressions.
“Guinevere!” I snap. Ice water gushes down my spine as her name echoes off the arched ceiling. Deep breath. I study the photographs that line the staircase. Black and whites of beautiful, frowning women. Generations of Guineveres driving men insane. Deep breath.
I return to the present where she’s examining me as if I’m some germ she caught.
“Guinevere, I’m standing in your doorway and you won’t talk to me. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go.”
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
I grab the door handle. Good of her to wait until today so that I can take two for the team.
“Okay. Bye, Guin.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“You invited me. After lunch, walking back to school? Quote, ‘You’ll be over early, right?’”
“No, not ‘why did you come over.’ What are you doing here? What do you hope to accomplish? Quote, ‘What’s going on here,’ Paxton?”
I rub my eyes with one hand until I get an image of Dad rubbing his eyes like this and stuff my fists into my jeans.
“You want to know if I like you?” It feels like the most imbecilic thing a human being could say, but what else is she looking for?
“My God, I thought you were at least honest. You really want to play that way? Fine.” She steps back formally and clasps her hands. “Oh, Paxton Kingsley, how delightful to see you. Won’t you come in?” She turns her back and strolls into the living room as if escorting me. I consider walking out, but I can’t.
If you don’t waste all your energy on her… Shut up, Dad. Like it matters.
She gestures flowingly, a game show model. “Please have a seat, kind sir.”
I sit where she points. She sits at the opposite end of the room.
“Guinevere, this isn’t all that funny today. I didn’t have the best practice.”
“When do you?”
“I tell you about basketball because you ask. You won’t hear another word.”
“Well then what are we going to talk about, Paxton?”
“We can talk music or school or whatever you wa—” Midword, I remember Jeff telling me about some girl antagonizing him because she wanted him to break up. That’s too childish for Guin. But so is this conversation. “If you’re trying to get rid of me, just tell me.”
“Not until you answer my question.”
I should leave before I go ballistic, but instead I’m replaying everything she’s asked. My eyes are probably bugging out. Am I really about to lose this—whatever it is—without even knowing why?
“‘What. Are. You. Doing. Here. Paxton?’” Over-enunciated, showing I’m simple.
Suddenly, I’m grinning in spite of what’s about to happen. I feared she’d drop me because I’m too obvious. I mean, Losers act aloof. Isn’t that why girls like Losers?
Even now, I’m still too cowardly, especially with how she’s acting, to tell her bluntly.
“Guin, do you have any idea how long I’ve liked you?”
She snaps up rigid, her back an ironing board.
“You think I’m stupid? You’ve been waiting the last four years to get in my pants.”
“You are stupid. I’ve been waiting four years just to ask you out. I don’t want to have sex with you; I want to marry you!” That came out wrong.
She laughs in my face, taking an endless minute to stop.
“What is your problem? You’re a religious freak, aren’t you?”
Now I laugh.
“Where did you get that?”
She’s staring at me and wrinkling her nose, a first-whiff-of-pot expression. Has no one ever laughed at her before?
“Oh, Lord, Paxton, look at yourself. You barely curse, you don’t drink, you haven’t tried anything, and you’re talking about marriage—” she tilts her head to the side and opens her eyes impossibly wide. She’s beautiful. I can only nod. “—and what else? You eat healthy and avoid caffeine. I don’t even know what that works out to. Not a Catholic priest. A Mormon?”
I look at the ceiling. Its corners have these miniature wooden braces that don’t support anything. Probably named something I should know. I want to ask why there isn’t a picture up there of God reaching down to bless the Kintons. The grandfather clock’s gold pendulum is tsk-tsking at me. I know how Grandfather Kinton voted on my dad. In the kitchen, Gretchen is running the blender.
“Could we walk?” I ask. With the pendulum’s next swing, she’s grabbing coats and leading me out
“Mom, we’re going for a walk,” she calls, not looking back as she reaches for the door.
“Okay. There’ll be smoothies when you return,” Gretchen answers. “Are there any fruits you don’t like, Paxton?”
“No. Well, tomatoes,” I call. Gretchen honks. I think Guinevere just clenched her fists, but I can’t see her face. Does she hate her mom’s laugh?
We walk silently past manicured lawns dotted with hexagonal stepping-stones. Still no snow, but I can see our breath. It’s too cold for walking but she doesn’t complain and I’m numb.
I start to open my mouth to try to explain why I’m like this when she asks, “Why do you do that?”
I flash inventory myself—no bodily noises or smells, hands in pockets, not humming or muttering, not looking at her body.
“With my mother? What are you after?” She asks, staring down the sidewalk. She’s never avoided eye contact before.
“I was just trying to be friendly. I thought—”
“Every guy says that. Chuck Lundquist told her he liked her sweater, then claimed, ‘I was being polite.’ We went out for two months and he never complimented me on anything. Not once. When I accused him, he made a joke out of it. ‘How ’bout the three of us?’” She bares her teeth and I wish I could ask what she’s inflicting on Chuck in her mind. “But you do it, too, even though you’re St. Francis or something. I almost think this is worse. I hope those friendly little chats were worth it, because I was starting to like having you around.”
I saw one of those “In Search Of” shows about floating islands. Standing on one must feel like this. I was about to tell Guinevere Kinton how utterly screwed up my family is, but instead–
“You’re jealous of your mom?” I say it impeccably wrong: how could anyone be that stupid?
She whirls around. I hold my breath and clench.
“What are you, blind? A eunuch?” She’s furious. I choke back an insane urge to laugh again—uh, no, wrong on that count. Fortunately, she keeps talking. “You think I don’t hear what the guys at school say? And the girls are worse! Competing with each other, clothes and make-up and cheerleading,” she mimes a dainty pompom wave, which gives me cover to snicker a little, “and they backbite me about her! ‘Jealous’ of her! As if it’s her fault, when she doesn’t even notice. That’s it, Paxton. There’s your answer. If she were deciding who I date, you’d be in great shape. You’ve made puppy dog eyes at me for so long, and you’re a decent guy, I thought for once…” she stops for a minute, swallows hard, then tilts her head back and stares at the sky. I can’t tell if she’s about to cry or so pissed she can’t finish.
A wise man might keep his mouth shut.
“Can I say something?”
She rolls her eyes, still bottling it up. I take the deepest breath my lungs will hold, and plunge.
“You got me. The first second I lined up next to you freshman year, I thought ‘too bad she’s butt ugly, but I’ll bet her mom’s…” I scowl and nod, “so right there, I plotted to spend four years avoiding dating anyone else—much less having sex—talking with you every chance, going to all your concerts, even giving you advice about your loser boyfriends, all so that eventually you might ask me to dinner where I would finally get a chance to…hit on your mother!”
She’s cracking at the edges, fists clenched but fighting back a smile. I’ve got way too much momentum to stop.
“In fact, I faked this whole ‘no sex, no swearing, I want to marry you’ act, just to keep you from knowing what a pervert I am. It’s got nothing to do with my psycho father threatening me since I was four that if I drink alcohol he’ll throw me out of the house. It’s got nothing to do with my parents screaming obscenities at each other over every meal and before bed and when they wake up and every freaking second in between. It’s certainly got nothing to do with my dad getting my mom pregnant so that they had to get married even though they could barely stand the sight of each other, and abusing my sister for having the nerve to be born so that she ran away from home.” Oh, God, forgive me Trinket. I’m sorry. “No, it has nothing to do with my pathetic hopes to escape them and have a real marriage and a real family. It’s all because I thought that my little ‘tomato’ comment would make your mom forget your dad—Harrison Ford, right?—and throw herself at me. I’m busted.”
“Here’s the deal, Guinevere. You’re mom is nice to me. I’ve never gotten that from a mother before. She honks when she laughs and she still intimidates the hell out of me, but she’s not as scary as your dad and she’s kind. She looks bland next to you, but that’s not her fault. Or maybe it is, genetically, but she clearly adores you. They both do. And that’s what you’ve had every day of your life, while this is my first month of being treated like a person by any parents. I love you, Guinevere. You know that. You just have to figure out…”
There’s a moment, right after you tell every secret you’ve kept your entire life, that you feel weightless and clean, like you’d made a Rumpelstiltskin deal with your demons and now you’ve finally named them. I’ll bet people with the sense to tell their psychiatrist or priest get to feel that longer; I’ve just said it all to Guinevere. Not only am I still an outcast (or “religious freak”) stuck in my nuthouse life, but I’ve most likely scared her away, permanently. Oh, and I told her off while I was at it. So the clean feeling is there, but leaking fast.
Guinevere stands frozen, her right thumb and forefinger pinching her bottom lip. Is she breathing?
“Don’t forget to move.”
She blinks and gasps. Then she takes a step back. She stares at me another moment, then turns around and walks away. I watch for a few seconds, then close my eyes.
Oh, my God, I hate you, Paxton. Fuck it, I’m not trying anymore. Do you hear me, God? Of course not. How could you. You’re just–
“What did you say?”
She’s standing right there in front of me. I’ve got both hands pulling my hair, and I might have said some of that out loud.
“You have a sister?” she asks.
I try for a smile.
“No, Paxton, I’m an only child. Like you said you were.”
I made it this long, Trinket, and you’d like Guinevere. It’s not like they could make you come home now. I know they’re lame excuses, but I really need your help right now.
“I’ve lived like an only child for nine years. I didn’t want to lie by telling you she’s dead. That’s what my parents believe. I always assumed you’d heard about her but didn’t want to bring it up. She left me a note not to tell anyone so that they couldn’t find her. You really want to hear more about my family?” I ask.
She nods. Then she reaches over and holds my hand for the first time and we start walking again.