People imagine that when one thing gets better, everything else will get better, too. We picture that when (not if) we win the lottery, all our troubles, from acne to a lousy sense of direction, will be solved. Maybe we played “what would you do if you had a million dollars?” too often. Our work crew took turns while riding home from detassling. Naturally, we wanted to imagine different lives then. We’d be up at 4:30 and in the fields by 5, which meant working in dew-soaked corn in the dark. That meant we were drenched and shivering by 5:10, our jeans ten pounds heavier and our jacket sleeves pouring little rivulets down our arms and backs. We’d wring out our scrawny gloves and count blisters. By 6:30, we could recognize faces; by 7, we’d watch steam rise off one another’s backs as the sun ironed our sopping t-shirts. Sometime between 7:15 and 7:30 the heat would burn all the air out of the rows, while we sweated and gasped and wished we were still cold. Crazy how we go from misery in one extreme to misery in another without any ability to store up and balance. We’d work until 1:00 or 2:00, depending on the day and how many kids were getting woozy. If we got in eight hours (sometimes a challenge because our crew bosses needed so many smoke breaks), we’d pocket a whopping $26.80 for our efforts—minus taxes. So every day we’d take turns describing how we’d spend our million dollars. Most of us weren’t farm kids who actually had some money (they were working for their parents in their own fields). We were working for minimum wage, several of us were fifteen or even fourteen because farm laws let you work in the field at fifteen, even though you couldn’t work a “real” job until you turned sixteen…and our crew bosses weren’t super picky about ages or birth dates, since they weren’t thinking much about staying out of trouble with the law. None of us were about to turn them in; we were just happy for a little spending money, and most of the other kids’ parents were thinking about staying out of trouble with the law—by staying as far away as possible. My dad might have said something if he ever found a reason, so I wasn’t about to give him one. The crew bosses weren’t from families who’d been on the school board, or any other board. When kids like us imagined a million dollars, we talked about the Ferraris and mansions we’d buy, but we assumed servants would also take care of all the things we didn’t like. Wasn’t that the point of getting rich?
Before Guinevere and I started dating for real, I think I believed that being with her would solve all my struggles. I might have thought it as likely as winning the lottery, too. Now, somehow, I have Guinevere for my girlfriend—and the rest of my life is getting worse. Stupid game.
Basketball season ended. We came within two points of making the state championship game, further than our school had ever gone before. Our guys played out of their minds in the last two games, first stopping an all-state center who was five inches taller than any of our players (Trash might have earned himself a spot on a Division Three team for that) and then falling one basket short of upsetting the number one seed. This might sound self-centered, but I am what I am: every victory felt like it proved I was exactly where I belonged. Noel Kinton’s reasoning was sound, but no one looked at our team barnstorming through the state tournament and thought, “Wow, if only that short third-stringer were in! Imagine how much stronger they’d be.” What infuriated me most was that I no longer thought so, either. I didn’t feel like a starter or star getting ripped off; I felt like a bench-warmer sitting in my rightful seat. When you don’t start, don’t play, and never get to prove yourself (including to yourself), your confidence seeps away like a battery left in a drawer. It might have charged that flashlight brilliantly at one point, and it had a long stretch when it still could have gotten the job done. Eventually, though, if you popped it in, you’d get nothing. Our third-to-last game, the Elite Eight, our first game at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall, to everyone’s shock we blew out the three seed. The Julian Titans might have had an off game, rumors circulated that their top scorer played with the flu, or maybe our guys were just pumped with so much adrenaline, playing in a 16,000-fan arena, that nothing could stop us that day. We held an eighteen point lead with three-and-a-half minutes to go. Coach looked down the bench, right at me, and waved me over. Only our top seven guys had played—come on, this was the Elite Eight—but we’d buried them. The second string was supposed to get a couple minutes. But Coach called me.
For a moment I thought he wanted me for some other reason; that’s how unprepared I was for him to stick me in. For context, I’d sat out an entire game we won by fourteen—and in which we’d led by twenty-six before the bench-warmers went in—against the last place team in our conference. He made some excuse about not liking our second-string’s “flow” and that it had actually gotten kind of close toward the end, which I took to mean, “Those guys let it get down to 14; I couldn’t risk what might have happened if I’d let you in there.” Coincidentally, I’d scored six points in a minute-and-a-half the game before and Gene Revell, the reporter for our local weekly paper and one of my dad’s few friends, printed a picture of me hitting a fadeaway jumper in the sports section. No kidding. That was the week after Guin and I got together, and, for about thirty seconds, I had won the Cosmic Lottery and it was all coming together. Dad opened up the paper, looked at my picture, and smiled. He didn’t know I was watching. I had planned some kind of “I-told-you-so” or “so there” or even “would you look at that?” But I couldn’t. He looked happy.
He sat there for a while, just grinning, then looked up and saw me. His expression dried like cement, still a smile but hard and jagged.
“That’ll show the bastard,” he said.
It didn’t. Coach accused me of showboating three different times at practice that week. Then he left me to watch while the other scrubs got to play most of the last quarter (and blew half our lead). So when I tell you I thought he called me for something else at the end of the Elite Eight game, it kind of makes sense. He might have taken the opportunity to point out what Curt did that made him better than me. For all I knew, he wanted me to go ice the champagne,
But he grabbed my jersey, snapped, “Get in there,” and slung me toward the scorers’ table. I almost fell down. For a split second, I felt relief. How embarrassing would falling on my face in front of nine thousand people from home, plus all these strangers, have been?
“For Curt?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Yeah,” Coach said, keeping his eyes on the game.
“Seven for twelve,” I told the scorer.
He flicked his thumb on the horn and nodded at the court. “You’re in.” The ball had just rolled out of bounds. In eight seconds, I’d gone from daydreaming about seeing Guinevere after the game to having the ref hand me the ball to trigger our out of bounds play.
The four starters stared at me. I hadn’t called a play.
“Three!” I shouted.
Belucci and Fitch popped out from the blocks and set picks, Trash cut his man through both of them, I passed to him under the basket, and without looking he tapped the ball to Chad Hollingsworth, who hit a twelve-footer. We ran back down the court, I could hear people cheering, and I had an assist-to-the-assist.
I’m doing it!
I wish Coach had taken me out right then. Can you imagine? In for two seconds, did my job, and immediately yanked! I might have attacked him and I certainly would have called it the cruelest thing he’d ever done to me; in retrospect, it would have been the kindest.
I’m sorry, but I have to give you the play-by-play, though I hope you’re not so sadistic as to want it. They brought the ball down, I got picked and fell down and my guy scored. Fitch yanked me to my feet, said, “Watch the pick,” and Trash inbounded the ball to me. I dribbled it up and my guy went for a steal, I crossed over, and someone else knocked it away. I didn’t see him coming, had no idea how he got there, and he ran up court, got the pass from my guy who had dived for the loose ball, and laid it in while Belucci chased him. I got there in time to get another in-bounds pass. I turned up court to look before I started dribbling. They were in man-to-man, my guy was waiting at half court. I dribbled up, he started to go after it again, I went around him instead of crossing over, another of their players switches over to put on a half-court trap, and now my guy is coming back to cut me off. I keep dribbling, looking up for the pass before I get caught on the sideline—and the ref blows his whistle. He’s whipping his arm up and down at the ground and demanding the ball. My dribble hit the line.
I run as fast as I can to get in position for defense. I’m there first. The game clock says “2:48.” I’ve committed two turnovers in about twelve seconds. The lead is sixteen. I don’t look at our bench. The crowd is screaming, I can hear hysterical sounds but no words. Trash runs past me again and hisses, “Don’t–” something, but I hear just the one word.
In basketball, time screams by and later you get to replay every second, every action, every choice. When it happens you have no time to think; later, you can’t do anything but think.
Their point guard is bringing the ball up again. I’m down in my defensive stance, glancing all around me for the pick I know is coming. He’s three-and-a-half steps from the top of the key—which, by the way, Coach Brighton would bench any of us if we shot from that range unless the buzzer was sounding—and he pulls up and fires. He nails it. I was two steps away. Fourteen points. Belucci grabs the ball as it leaves the net, steps behind the line and passes it to Fitch. Fitch dribbles the ball up the court. Fitch is the shooting guard. He passes it to Trash who passes it to Hollingsworth who passes it back to Trash and they’re running the offense and I’m chasing after them, trying to get back in the rotation. I’m supposed to cross the lane and set a backdoor pick for Fitch so he can post down low for Trash. But Trash shoots, and now my man and Fitch’s are both pushing for the rebound, but I’m closer to the basket, and I’m jumping and maybe I can tip it back up—or in!—and then Fitch’s man reaches an arm over my head without even brushing my hair and yanks it down one-handed. They’re pushing it up, looking for a fast break because they are fourteen points behind and trying to avoid elimination in the state tournament and the guy I’m supposed to be guarding is crazy fast and somehow now he’s leading the break and we’ve got one guy back and they’ve got three and I’m running as damned hard as I’ve ever run in my life and I’ve almost caught him and he’s gonna fake left and pass right, I’ve been watching him do it all game, and I lunge to cut off that pass—and he pulls up for the shot. I plow right through his back. The ball goes flying sideways, he sprawls on the floor, I’m skidding across the out-of-bounds line.
The one voice I can hear is Coach, who is screaming “Time Out,” louder than any other sound in the Assembly Hall.
The ref whistles and points down at me, still on the floor.
“Flagrant foul, number seven!”
Our guys trot over to the bench and surround Coach. The other team’s fans are going insane. One minute, fifty-seven seconds left in the game. They’re still down by fourteen. They get two free throws and then the ball.
The ref sticks his head into our huddle, right next to me but facing only Coach Brighton, ignoring the rest of us. He’s thick with big forearms and looks like our town cop. His thin gray crew cut drips sweat onto my shoulder.
“That was a bad foul. If I had any reason to suspect, I’d call a bench technical, but…” He looks up at the huge game clock above our heads. “I’m not going to see any more of that.”
“Nope,” Coach agrees. The ref is gone. Coach turns to us. “Now here’s what we’re going to do. Curt, you need to–” And that’s the end of my high school basketball playing career. Their guard makes both free throws, they score again on their set play from out of bounds, then our team runs a spread offense, Belucci gets fouled and makes both, and the rest of the game is free throws and rushed shots. We win by fifteen. They had closed to within ten, and the paper will make it sound like they made a brave run at the end before we slammed the door. But that isn’t what happened. I happened. Their point guard destroyed me and they scored eight points on my turnovers and foul. Even though Curt handled that kid all night and played one of his better games.
It may just be my delusional pride, harder than a zombie to kill, that clings to believing that I could have been as good as Curt or better (and even that fantasy is downgraded after this game). But as I sat and watched the last two games the boys varsity basketball team played my senior year, I no longer felt angry at Coach Brighton. Maybe he did screw me over, sometime three years ago, and maybe he always had it out for me like I assumed. But I’m the one who got out on that court and made an ass of myself.
My dad didn’t speak to me for two weeks. To grasp the depth of that reaction, you have to remember how much he speaks on an average day. He didn’t even talk to himself when I was around, he just went about his business silently. Since his business is complaining about the world and its injustice toward him, I didn’t think he could do it. It was like, for two weeks, I had one of those Fifties dads. I’d call that a silver lining if I could, but it wasn’t.
Guinevere suggested Coach Brighton hoped for the outcome I gave him.
“It makes him look right about how he’s treated you the whole time,” she said. She wasn’t pretending I’d done okay, or any better than I had. For that, I was grateful.
“True. But that team coming back against us in the Tournament makes him look bad. Especially when we were cruising.”
“So what was he trying to prove? I don’t get it.”
“I think he was doing me a favor. Throwing me a bone. Not giving me a chance, exactly, I mean, not like if I did well I’d get to play more next game. But I kind of wonder if he was paying me back for Senior Night. Or something.”
She looked at me and shook her head.
“It’s over now,” she said.
Before it was over, we came back on the bus from Champagne. The town had lined the street with their cars, honking, waving, shouting, dangling their banners about what an “Amazing Team” we were, how “Proud As PUNCH” they were of us. A snowstorm had hit while we were gone, so everything looked fresh and white, which made the hand-painted signs look neon. The bus took us to the school, where we were led into the gym by our cheerleaders. Pandemonium. A rock concert, but everyone knew all the musicians personally. All the folks wanted to shake our players’ hands, slam them on the back, talk about their “accomplishments” and compare this to great teams of the past. They kept saying how our team had honored the town.
The mayor got up on the stage behind the basket where the jazz band plays and got everyone’s attention. He talked about small town character, determination, hard work, life lessons from sports. People cheered him like he had made the winning shot. Then he called up Coach Brighton.
You might think I’m exaggerating when I say this next part, so let me just be clear: it’s false that no one spoke to me; two kids talked to me. One, a thirteen-year-old, asked me where Trash was so he could get him to sign the kid’s high tops. The other, maybe a seven-year-old, gave me a high five and said “Great job!” because he got away from his parents and ran out to be first as we got off the bus. He got in trouble. No one thumped my back or mentioned accomplishments. I was completely anonymous in that melee of thousands, as if I had magnetic poles that repelled people from me. Given the choice between that and having people say, “Nice game” for my performance, I was grateful to be ignored.
But Guinevere must have been glimpsing a new world. She was used to attention and fawning and congratulations. She either excelled herself or was standing next to the guy who had brought home the trophy. I couldn’t remember her failing at anything. I had no idea what to expect from her. I’m not suggesting in any way that she’s shallow, but we’d only been dating about a month and she had no idea what she’d signed up for, any more than if she suddenly woke up and found that she now had my parents. I kept looking for her (there wasn’t any point in shouting for her, nor did calling attention to myself make my list of goals for that celebration), but I couldn’t find her. Of course, all the other players’ girlfriends were hip-to-hip with their guys. Nill had both his parents beside him, beaming like he’d been elected president. People were congratulating him, too, even though he and I had clocked roughly equal minutes during the season, I had scored more points, and had played two more minutes than he had during the tournament. Yet he was reveling in this. I had a moment’s pause: is there something wrong with him? Or is it wrong with me?
I’d given up looking for Guinevere by the time Coach Brighton stood to speak. He got a massive ovation. Do I leave now? I had stayed back near the exit, in case it got ugly. Now I looked over my shoulder to check my escape route—and nearly ran into Paige.
“Hi,” I said, because you have to say something after almost head-butting a girl.
“I don’t think the party’s over yet,” someone behind me whispered in my ear. I whipped my head back around, and there was Guin. Paige stepped past me, kissed Guin on the cheek (they always kiss!), and left without saying a word.
“Have you been here?” I whispered back.
“Yeah, we were watching,” she nodded. “There are places behind the stage where you can stand out of sight and see everything. We use ’em a lot when we don’t feel like watching the game but don’t want to miss our cue.”
“There are so many things I could say about this team–” Coach Brighton declared. The gym was quiet now, waiting for him to continue.
“What were you watching?” I asked. The man next to me scowled at us. He looked like he might be one of Trash’s uncles, huge shoulders holding up bib overalls, wearing clodstomper boots. He probably outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds, maybe closer to one fifty.
“You,” she said.
I ground my teeth involuntarily. People stared at me.
“Hush,” the man said. He really did say “hush,” not “be quiet” or “shut up.”
“…the kind of leadership we had on the floor…” Coach said. People all around us nodded.
Guinevere leaned her mouth right up next to my ear so that I could feel and hear her breath. She waited for his next dramatic pause.
“…great academic as well as athletic representatives of our community, and tremendous role models for our children…”
“I would leave with you now,” Guin mouthed, just audible above her breathing.
“…proud of each and every member of this team. They stood up to every test, came through under pressure, and–”
I turned away. Guinevere smiled at me, and it didn’t look like pity or even sadness. Then she reached her arm around me and stuck her thumb in my back pocket. We slipped out the door.
“That was getting a little warm for me,” she said as we trotted down the school steps, breathing in the sharp winter air.
“Why were you watching me?” I asked. I had planned to say, Why didn’t you stand next to me in the most accusatory tone I could muster. But her hand in my pocket negated that.
“I’m just learning about you. I think I’ve got some watching time to catch up on.”
All my thoughts about image and her not wanting to be seen with me and even my own humiliation tumbled to the ground like pick-up sticks, and I almost believed if I just stepped over them I coukd leave them lying right there.
“What did you see?”
“You looked sad. You looked a little like you were at your friend’s wedding but you wanted the bride. I guess that analogy’s not so great?” She snickered a little, then gave me her full smile. “Plus, Paige said she thought you might be looking for me.”
I took a few breaths, trying to compose my thoughts like our English teacher taught us, with only the necessary words.
“I worked really hard to be somebody that I’m not.”
“Yeah, you did,” she agreed. As I said, no sugar-coating. Nary a fleck of sweetener.
We walked in silence for several minutes. I had no idea where we were going. Probably nowhere.
“We’ll be out of school in three months,” she said.
“That’s fine with me,” I said.
“Then we’ll be starting college about three months after that.”
“Yup. That’s a weird thought. Where are you going with this?”
“I just thought, when you go to college and meet some pretty girl at a party, you won’t even have to tell her about any of this if you don’t want to. I mean, she doesn’t have to know you ever picked up a basketball. I hear college girls like intellectuals, anyway.”
“I hope this isn’t your subtle way of breaking up with me?”
“Oh, no. You’re going to have to try a lot harder than being a lousy basketball player.” Then she smacked me on the rear and ran off.
I chased her down and tackled her into a snowbank.
I know I’m young and have a lot yet to experience, but I’m wondering: is anything better than kissing in the snow?
So no, dating Guinevere hasn’t solved all my problems. On the other hand, being with Guinevere makes many things better, including the ones which might otherwise be unbearable. I don’t know how that fits with my lottery analogy, though.
Three weeks after the season, I can’t say I miss practice, but I’m antsy. That’s what my mom calls it. I’m used to burning a few thousand calories a night. I’m used to running ten miles a day on top of practice and I have gone the past two years with two or three nights a week sleeping four hours or fewer so I can put in my twenty-four hours at Grocery Warehouse. But they fired me. They didn’t call it “firing.” They said that they needed to make some changes in their scheduling, they needed someone who could work five graveyard shifts a week instead of three, because they couldn’t find someone who was willing to work just the other two. But they had all cheered me and wished me good luck in the tournament and said that being gone to State for that weekend wouldn’t be a problem…and then I came back to the news that I had no job. Mitt, my boss, didn’t even talk to me; he just left a message with Dad, who wrote it down because he wouldn’t tell me.
Jeff says I’m paranoid, connecting my disaster in the tournament with getting fired. We’re cruising, which, before, I could do only when there was time in the summer. But Guin’s rehearsing with the pit orchestra for the school musical, and though I’ve got homework, I’m not going to hang around home to do it.
“They don’t even pay attention, Jag-off. I doubt if they knew you got in the game.”
“Dude, how long have you lived in this town? Name one person who didn’t pay attention to those games. And not even just basketball. Who didn’t know that Mrs. Peterson’s car got its headlight broken–”
“That was not my fault! A rock spun off my tire and that’s where it landed! It was stupid, freakish bad luck and it could have been anyone!”
“Uh, yeah, I know your view on that. I agree; it could have happened to anyone who was going sixty-five down Maple.”
“My point is, everyone knew. If you asked them today about Mrs. Peterson’s head light, you’d spend the day hearing theories of who climbed her fence, who was getting back at her for winning the grand pie prize at the fair, and who got written out of her will because of it. So not only did they know how I played, but now everyone in town is almost certainly talking about how Mitt fired me because I sucked in the tournament.”
“Well, not as much as they’re talking about how Guinevere hasn’t broken up with you.”
Usually I’m grateful that Jeff has a car and drives me around everywhere. But, were I driving my car, I would have locked up the brakes and sent Jeff’s unseatbelted body through the windshield head first. So today, I’m extra appreciative that Jeff has a car and I don’t, because that would be punishing the messenger. It’s not Jeff’s fault.
“Man, I have to get out of this town.”
He doesn’t respond at first, he just looks out the windows at Midtown Bank, the post office, the vet’s office.
“You can see that, can’t you?”
“Pax, you don’t care what people think. That’s one of the things about you. Nobody thought Guin would ever go out with you in the first place, but you didn’t care that you made a damn fool of yourself trying to get her. It didn’t matter to you that people said you were gay. You don’t give a shit what they say about your father…”
Remember, this is my best friend. And he’s trying to encourage me.
“There’s a difference between not letting it bug me and spending the rest of my life listening to it—or having people clam up when I walk in.”
Again, Jeff lets my answer hang for a few blocks.
“Besides,” I say, sick of hearing my own thoughts, “aren’t you supposed to have my back with this stuff?”’
“Frick, Pax, they don’t say it to me, they just tell me what other people are sayin’. I deal with anybody who talks shit about you in front of me.”
So what that my best friend doesn’t take physics or talk about 1984? (He hated it.) I’ve offended him by implying that he wouldn’t punch someone to defend my insane father. And I actually hate, worse than almost anything, how the good folks in our community talk about him. Because it’s one thing for me, when I have to live with him. But some of them helped get him this way with their little McCarthian blacklisting, and now they mock him for sport. I’m lucky to have Jeff for a friend, but he’s going to have to visit me wherever I end up, because I’m not setting foot in this junior high school of a town ever again.
Though that could be tough if Guin marries me.
“Wish You Here Here” comes on the radio. Bum bada bum boummm… Jeff turns it to 11 and we drive.