Chapter Five

Friday, March 4, 2005, 2:28 p.m. 
Dayton, Ohio

John was the sole patron of the Dayton International Airport bar closest to his arrival gate. He checked his watch for the fourteenth time in the last half hour and shook his head, knocking back the last of his second vodka. Running a hand through his thinning hair, he held out the rocks glass and shook it, the clinking ice catching the attention of the bartender, who had been reading horse racing odds. A third drink was poured without any words exchanged, the room silent save for Warren Zevon singing about werewolves and the distant drone of a final boarding call.

He hadn’t trusted his sister’s ability to make a noon flight, calling her over a dozen times to make sure she was up and ready. Each attempt was met with a robotic woman announcing that the voicemail box belonging to ‘[static-crackling silence] ‘Leave it!’ [fumbling sounds]’ was full. When June’s flight spilled out into the concourse and she was nowhere to be found, he began pacing and crafting a poison-tipped ‘I told you so’ speech, which by now was a sprawling manifesto that became nastier and more self-righteous with each sip. It wasn’t until halfway through the third drink that he began to relax, his thoughts dissolving back to childhood.

When John was seven, he used to sit alone in the front room of the house and build what he called ‘The President Cabin’ out of Lincoln Logs. If the team wasn’t on the road, his father would sit at the kitchen table and scrutinize scouting reports while his mother, after putting Jerry Jr. down in his crib for the night, worked on the crossword and listened to the news, which always seemed to bother her and leave her solemn.

Each creation was slightly altered from the last, and when it was finished, he would usher his parents into the front room to inspect it. Jerry would ask a series of questions about the president, like where he was from or what kind of dog he had. Wilma would tell him that it seemed like a wonderful place to live, kiss him on the forehead and tell him to get ready for bed. As John headed to the bathroom to brush his teeth, Jerry would put an arm around his wife and smile, sometimes wondering out loud if their first born would be an architect.

‘Maybe the president’, she whispered once, laying her head on his shoulder.

It was a muggy evening in July, a little after eight, and John had just finished roofing that evening’s cabin. He had saved up a few blocks to build a porch, and was laying its foundation, when the Lagerstadt’s front window shattered. John let out a shriek, scrambling backwards as a brick demolished The President Cabin amidst a hail of glass shards.

Wilma held a hysterical John, whispering calming words while Jerry stared vacantly at the jagged remains of his window, clutching the brick, which had the words ‘NIGGER LOVER’ scrawled in bad handwriting on a piece of paper affixed with a rubber band. John was taken into his room, where he sat motionless at the edge of his bed, watching the blue and red lights from the police cars outside flicker through the darkness. His mother came in after a bit, bringing him cookies and milk that he normally wouldn’t have gotten, explaining the brick as ‘an accident’. Once she had gone, he cracked the door open with caution and listened as his father talked to the police about the brick and about Alvin, the man with the poofy hair that came over for dinner sometimes.

Later that evening, unable to sleep, John crept down the hallway and into the front room, where his father stood in the same spot he had clutched the brick earlier, still staring out the window, which now let in a slight breeze. Jerry ran a hand through his thinning jet black hair and turned to see John, who was shocked to see his father’s face glistening with the residue of wiped away tears.

‘The hell with them,’ his father said after they had stared at each other in silence for several seconds. His voice cracked in a way that John had never heard before. Jerry sighed through his nose and waved his hand towards the window before walking past John on his way to bed. ‘You just worry about yourself.’

‘Johnny?’ He had been staring vacantly at the faded formica bar, his hand resting on his eyebrows like a visor, the familiar voice pulling him from his daydream.

June, who had destroyed her phone in a rage over the notion that she was too infantile to be on time for a flight, had missed her flight, and booked one that took off an hour later on her husband’s credit card. Assuming that her brother had already given up and left, she decided to have a drink or two at the bar before renting a car.

‘Jesus, June, where the fuck have you been?’ The two had not seen each other in a little over four years. She noticed John’s hairline had crept back considerably, while he studied the crow’s feet that had begun to crack beneath her eyes. Her brown-rooted blonde hair — once fashioned into a ridiculous perm immortalized in her high school yearbooks — now curled off her head with the utmost elegance, glossy and layered like the women in shampoo commercials. It looked out of place with the sweatpants and hooded Princeton sweatshirt she’d tossed on while hurrying to catch the flight she missed. He looked sadder than she’d ever seen him, and she suddenly saw his resemblance to their father with alarming clarity.

‘Sorry,’ she pleads in a pout. ‘The cab I took broke down and I missed my flight.’ She slides into the stool next to him, flicking her hair and smiling at the bartender, asking for a ‘screwdriver, Grey Goose, orange garnish on the rim, please’ (only after confirming that the orange juice wasn’t ‘the watered down stuff from the soda gun’).

‘The cab broke down?’

‘Yeah’, she says, flashing the bartender a hollow smile and mouthing the words ‘thank you’ as he lays down her drink. ‘On Milwaukee. It was a nightmare.’ She shakes her head and exhales, a few strands of her hair fluttering.

‘What was wrong with it?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says, plucking the orange slice from the rim of her glass and laying it on a napkin before taking down half of her drink in one pull. ‘They had to send another cab to get me.’

‘What other reason could a thirty-four year old have for missing a flight?’ He glances up at ESPN highlights, trying to suppress a smile. When they had talked earlier in the week, John had said ‘just make sure you don’t miss your flight’, to which she replied, through gritted teeth, that she was thirty-four years old, and could manage to make it to the airport in time, thank you very much.

‘Go fuck yourself,’ she says with a weary warmth, taking another pull from her drink and kissing him on the cheek. John could trace the paths of the jagged black lines that snaked out from the pupils of her marble blue eyes, which were predictably dilated.

‘How’s David?’

‘Good’, she says nodding and pursing her lips. ‘He’s meeting with some investment group about a property in Tribeca.’ June knew that no such property existed, that it was invented to avoid making the trip, and that David was probably out somewhere with with whoever he was fucking that drew him to Manhattan like a magnet. ‘How’s Jude?’

‘He’s doing well,’ John says, smiling for the first time. ‘He came out to visit for two weeks over Christmas. Getting good grades, playing JV basketball. Has a girlfriend.’


‘No, it’s Becca now.’ He knocks back the last of his drink, holding up two fingers towards the bartender and wagging them between June and himself . ‘How did you know about Sarah?’

‘We talk.’ She finishes off her screwdriver and shrugs her shoulders, grinning and sticking her tongue through her teeth. ‘I’m the cool aunt.’ He laughs and shakes his head.

‘His flight lands in an hour. I tried to get him for a few days, but Rachel’s just flying him in and out. I guess he’s in a school play and can’t miss rehearsals.’

‘How about you?’ she asks, lowering her eyes to meet his, which are fixed on the wet ring in the middle of his bar napkin.

‘I’m alright.’

‘Seeing anyone?’


‘How’s the store?’


‘What? Since when?’

‘About a year ago,’ he says, taking the first sip of his fourth drink.

‘What happened?’ He doesn’t answer, taking a second gulp and turning his attention back to ESPN, pretending to be fixated on Alex Trebek pitching life insurance.

Free from his now ex-wife’s excessive spending, John, needing a diversion, took a large portion of his savings and invested in the cigar boom of the mid-90’s, opening a small store in a suburban strip mall. Business was ample for a number of years, leading him to quit his accounting job, but eventually the trend settled back down to merely connoisseurs. After treading water for a few years, he finally threw up his hands and failed to renew the lease.

‘Johnny,’ she growls through gritted teeth, punching his shoulder. ‘Talk to me.’

‘Went broke,’ he mutters, his drink rippling as he sighs into it.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I didn’t tell anyone. Dad just found out last fall.’

‘David and I could’ve helped you.’

‘Like I would take money from that prick.’

‘Here we go,’ she says, rolling her eyes and slamming her palm onto the bar, which draws the attention of the bartender, who glances at them with the look of a substitute teacher too weary to instill order.

‘You asked for it,’ he says with the laugh of someone who doesn’t find it funny. ‘You know I don’t like the guy.’

The bartender goes back to his racing sheet. June focuses on chips in her nail polish, and her brother stares at the same Brett Favre highlight he’s already seen half a dozen times. They both berate themselves for jumping so quickly into the bitter anger each swore they wouldn’t engage in. All of the internal pep talks and mantras and promises to be the better person meant nothing. They both tell themselves to apologize. Neither one does.

‘You hear the new Springsteen?’

‘I miss the Telecaster,’ June says, resting her head on his shoulder. John kisses his sister’s forehead, which tastes like chalk, before calling for another round.

Chapter Four

Saturday, October 29, 1989, 10:48 a.m. 
Rockford, Illinois

J.R. had just lit the half of a stale Newport he’d fished from the ashtray sand, pacing in front of the gas station, when his father’s Tar Heel blue Skylark pulled up. He tried to flick it away, but could already see Jerry’s pursed lips swaying with the metronome of disapproval.

‘You got enough money for cigarettes, but you can’t buy a damn bus ticket?’ Jerry rolled his eyes and waved his hand, while J.R. threw his bags in the trunk. ‘I don’t know why I bother.’

Jerry cocked the car into drive and pulled off, white gravel crackling under the weight of the tires. He slipped an Oakridge Boys cassette into the deck, but snapped it off after half a song, sighing through his nose, a topography taking shape on his forehead.

‘So what happened this time? No defense, right?’

‘It’s not my defense,’ J.R. muttered, staring at a passing silo, his bell still rung from the roach he’d smoked at ten a.m. in anticipation of this very one-man firing squad. ‘I failed a physical on my knee.’

‘They should’ve examined your head. You’ve got no business monkeying around with some barnstorming team. The Sweet Sixteen was your swan song, my friend.’

‘I was averaging eighteen points a game.’

‘You want to go pretend that you’re Pistol Pete in the middle of nowhere, and I’m supposed to pay for it?’ Jerry roared, his tone half-furious, half-amused. ‘The bank is closed!’ J.R. rested his forehead against the chilled window as rows of corn blurred by.

‘Why don’t you call the Washington Generals, see if they got a spot open?’ J.R. fought to suppress a smile. ‘What’s a pack of cigarettes go for now, anyway?’

‘Buck seventy five.’

‘My God Almighty,’ Jerry said, shaking his head. ‘You know, when I was your age, cigarettes were-‘

‘Twenty-eight cents a pack,’ J.R. murmured with regurgitated apathy, his forehead still pressed onto the glass. ‘You put three dimes in the machine, and there were two pennies in the cellophane. Except, you and your buddies used exact change, so they only cost you twenty-six cents.’

Jerry grinned for the first time, which dissipated the tension a bit. J.R. sat up and cracked the window half an inch.

‘What’d you end up doing with the car?’ his father asked in a much softer voice, after a minute or two of silence.

‘Sold it to a junk man.’

‘What’d he give you?’


‘There you go,’ Jerry said, palming his son’s left knee and shaking it. ‘I ever tell you about the time your brother blew a flat?’

‘Yeah, you told him to ask The Who to pay for it.’

Neither spoke for the next hundred and twenty miles.

Against his father’s advice, J.R. had signed on with the Rockford Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association after going undrafted, a non-guaranteed deal worth roughly $8,000 a year. Most of his paychecks were surrendered to landlords and coke dealers and bounced check fees the day he got them, his father covering his basic living expenses.

‘How’s J.R. doing?’ the Western Union clerk would ask the once or twice a week Jerry passed the slip through the steel valley dipping under the bulletproof glass.

J.R. was notified of his release from the team three weeks before he called his father collect from a payphone to raise the white flag and ask for a ride. It happened in a booth at a Burger King just off I-88, an hour after he’d put up 21 on the Quad City Thunder in a close road loss. The coach asked to eat with him alone, which meant only one of two things, and J.R. knew that he wasn’t being called up to the NBA.

The tone was tender at first, his coach struggling to make eye contact, brushing a thumb and forefinger over the bottom of his mustache while he talked about what a talented player – and more importantly, a good guy – J.R. was. But it didn’t take more than a minute after the ax fell before the dude was wiping a glob of mayo from the corner of his mouth, the inspirational-quote-book bland platitude about not giving up barely understandable through the wad of Whopper he chewed on.

‘Just work on your defense,’ the coach said after he sucked down the dregs of his soda audibly, giving J.R. a soft chuck on the shoulder and winking before getting up to dump his tray. ‘You’ve got talent.’

J.R. spent the next few weeks holed up in his apartment with a leather-skinned barfly ten years his senior who wore too much makeup and had a smoker’s cough. He frittered away his final paycheck on whiskey and coke to fuel the marathon sex that kept him from feeling.  They would doze off to dawn Magnum, P.I. reruns before waking up at dusk to do it all over again. After he’d spent his last dime and milked every last drop of goodwill, J.R. finally threw in the towel, giving his landlord notice and calling his father.

Like his older brother, J.R. had been an All-State scoring machine that led Custerville High School to a district championship. Unlike his older brother, J.R. had swished a buzzer beating three in the state final with an Ohio State scout in attendance, which led to a scholarship offer. He wound up topping the Big Ten in scoring his senior year, taking the Buckeyes to an unexpected Sweet Sixteen appearance in what was supposed to be a down year for the program.

After graduation, he had moved back into his old childhood bedroom, a living situation which he told himself and girls in bars was only temporary – a layover between Columbus and wherever he was drafted. His old high school coach had given him a key to the gymnasium so he could work on his jump shot and keep in shape. The musk that smelled like childhood and the humming clack of passing trains kept him up at night, various chirping bugs providing a score for his silent anxiety. But the thought of escaping it all lulled him to sleep, and motivated him to wake up before dawn for extra free throw practice.

‘Drafted?’ Jerry said with a shake of the head and wave the hand one morning over breakfast, after hearing J.R.’s response as to why he was spending so much time at his high school gym. ‘What you need to do is go look for a job. No NBA coach wants a black hole who can’t play defense.’

‘Jerry!’ Wilma scolded through gritted teeth, a dropped fork clanging against her plate. It was loud enough to catch the attention of a few Captain’s patrons and staff.

‘Says the guy who told me the Big Ten would eat me alive’, J.R. mumbled, his words muffled by a wad of French toast lodged in his cheek.

‘Can we please have just one peaceful meal? Could you two do that for me, please?’ Wilma asked, the first question in a harsh tone, the latter a pleading one.

‘You’re upsetting your mother,’ Jerry said, stabbing at the yolk of his egg, yellow blood trickling across the plate.

‘You’re the one upsetting her,’ J.R. growled, pushing out his chair with a stuttering skid loud enough to make half the place look up. ‘Fucking grouch!’ he yelled with such emotion that his voice warbled a bit, the bell of the door punctuating his exit.

Chapter Three

Friday, March 4, 2005, 10:11 a.m. 
Chicago, Illinois

Right around the time her father was walking out of Captain’s, June dreamed that she was sitting on the front steps of her parents’ house, watching her brother Johnny mow the lawn in the hazy southwest Ohio summer heat of their youth, his t-shirt soaked in a V of sweat, the sun waning, like she always used to. In the dream, John was still the pimply teen with a goofy haircut frozen in her memory, but she was her current age. Once she realized this absurdity, the bottom fell out like the cartoon coyote once he looks down, and the hum of the mower’s engine morphed into the buzz of her cellphone on the nightstand.

It was the brother she had been dreaming about, calling for the seventh time and leaving a third voicemail. She paws for it with a zombie lurch, and once she sees the half-dozen missed calls she snaps out of her fog in a panic. Breathing rigidly through her nose, which is red and sore and encrusted with stalactites of cocaine-laced mucus, she steadies herself, playing a few seconds of the first voicemail – just enough to confirm that her brother’s tone isn’t some solemn ‘Dad is dead’-type thing. Her darkest fear put off for another day, she snaps the phone shut in the middle of her brother’s message and grabs her robe off the bedpost, making a bee line for the wooden cigar box on the entertainment center shelf in the living room where her husband kept the pot.

The weed was usually crumbly and stale, as neither one of them smoked very much. David almost never touched the stuff, having it around solely for June or guests. The only time she ever really toked was when she needed to level off the neediness of a coke hangover and David wasn’t around for an empty, puffed-face sunrise fuck. She fumbles the first few attempts before settling for a gnarled and uneven twig (David usually rolled them for her).

Splaying out on the couch like dropped luggage at a destination, she curls her painted toes over the edge of the glass coffee table and lights the joint with a grill lighter she found in the junk drawer. It doesn’t take more than two or three drags before she drifts off into a thought process as familiar and predictable as her father’s breakfast order. There are endless variations of it – some hopeful and determined, some broken and frightened – but they all boil down to the same basic tangent.

She tells herself that she should stop doing cocaine. And she should probably stop drinking, too. She should just smoke weed. Weed is the best drug. It keeps her calm. She writes more when she’s on it. She should start writing again. And she should leave David. Quit doing blow. Put the brakes on the drinking. Just smoke weed and write. And leave David.

Every now and again, she’ll stay off marching powder for a brief spell, or buy a typewriter at a flea market, or pick an arbitrary fight with David. But that’s about it. These thoughts are so frequent that they’ve been sanded down to little more than an tired mantra, no less hollow than the recited buzzwords of a hotel seminar preying on the desperate. The resolution to change floats away and dissipates with the smoke that inspired it. She puffs down about three-quarters before letting it smolder in the ashtray as she dozes off, her thoughts drifting back to her first year of college.

Free from the ten o’clock curfew that had plagued her social life throughout high school, and looking for a distraction from the recent death of her mother, June had spent most of her second freshman semester closing down the bars with boys who had III’s and IV’s after their names. It was on a night like this that she had met Alan, a sophomore business major whose father was a conservative congressman from New Jersey. It was supposed to be a one night thing – despite being handsome, Alan was kind of vapid and dickish in a way that repelled her. But they kept ending up with each other at night’s end, to the point where one morning she woke up and realized they were dating.

For months, her father had been planning to visit Princeton the day after the Red Men were scheduled to play Rutgers, which was the same day Alan – by then her boyfriend of nine weeks – was throwing a party on his family’s yacht at Pine Orchard Country Club. June hadn’t noted the date conflict until two days before, when her father called to let her know the hotel he would be staying at (the same one he always did, and she mouthed along the words with an eye roll as he said ‘the Holiday Inn there, off Independence Way’).

They met outside her dorm at nine in the morning as planned, booze still crashing against the walls of her throbbing brain. Fall was just beginning to deteriorate into winter, the color of the leaves standing out against the overcast sky. Jerry stood with his hands tucked into the pockets of a Southern Ohio windbreaker, watching the occasional student pass as he waited, giving a ‘Hey, there’ with a smile to those who made eye contact. Walking down the concrete path on her way back from Alan’s, June spotted him a good thirty seconds or so before he noticed her. His eyes had been sapped of their sparkle, and for the first time in her life, June saw her father as a vulnerable person. They flickered like a bug zapper when he first saw her, giving a quick glimpse of their old life.

‘June, you’re too thin,’ he whispered after pulling away from a hug that seemed to linger a bit longer than usual, as had been the case since Wilma’s passing. He looked her up and down with disapproval. ‘Are you eating?’

‘Yes, Daddy’ she sighed with a roll of her eyes. This was not a lie, although she often threw it up afterwards.

‘And those pants, my God Almighty. You get those at Salvation Army? You look like a homeless person for crying out loud.’

‘Daddy, these are what everybody wears now.’

‘Everybody sounds bright,’ he muttered, turning towards the parking lot. ‘Let’s go get some breakfast.’

‘You tired?’ he asked, after she’d leaned the car seat back and closed her eyes.

‘Little bit’ she mumbled, burrowing her hands under her armpits and shivering. ‘I was studying really late last night.’

‘What’re you studying?’ he asked, poking his index finger into the eye-shaped hole in the knee of jeans and wiggling it around. She slapped it away and giggled, giving herself a mental pep talk before easing her seat up.

‘Veblen’ she said, swiping a fang of hair behind her ears.

‘Yeah? Who’s he?’

‘He wrote about the leisure class.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Rich people.’

‘What’s he say about them?’

‘He doesn’t like them. He thinks they buy things just to show people they have money.’

‘Sounds like a bright guy,’ he said, grabbing her knee and shaking it. ‘What do you think old Veblen would’ve made of those pants? Huh?’ He laughed and she gave a conciliatory smile before staring down at the floormat.

At breakfast, Jerry ordered a waffle with strawberries, a single egg sunny-side up, two slices of crisp bacon (‘make sure they’re crisp, now’) wheat toast with butter and a black coffee. June opted for one pancake, no syrup or butter,  a single piece of white toast, and a water.

‘That’s all you want?’ he asked after the waitress collected the menus and walked off.

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Honey, you need to eat more. Look at you, you look like Popeye’s girlfriend.’

‘Daddy, I’m fine. How’d the game go?’

‘Eh, we won by three,’ he mutters, taking a pull from his cup and exhaling. ‘Played sloppy.’

‘How’d Rick do?’

‘Ricky did alright. He’s like your brothers, all shooting, no defense. Everybody wants the points. They all think they’re Pistol Pete.’

‘How are you doing?’

‘Oh, you know.’ His eyes fell into his coffee and the silence that had become commonplace in recent months began to linger. ‘It’s not the same.’

‘How’s J.R.?’

‘Who knows,’ he groaned, waving his hand on cue. ‘He’s monkeying around with some goofy minor-league team in Illinois now. He took a physical for them yesterday. I told him they should’ve examined his head.’ June smiled at her father’s familiarity. ‘You know, your hair looks a lot better without all that dye and mousse in it.’ She didn’t say anything, her eyes suddenly drawn to the salt and pepper shakers.

‘So how’s school? You doing alright?’


‘You look like you lost weight.’

‘I haven’t.’

‘You need any money?’

‘I could use a little.’

‘What happened to the hundred dollars I sent you last month?’

‘I still have some of it.’ She had spent it the day she got it. Eighty on the jeans she was wearing, and the leftover twenty at the bar. ‘Saving a couple dollars for an emergency, like you always say.’

‘Atta, girl,’ he said with a nod, sipping his coffee. ‘I ever tell you about the time your brother Johnny blew a tire? Right after I give him money to go see The Who?’ His lips curled up into the first genuine smile of the day, but she had been too busy picking at her toast to notice.

‘Yes, Daddy, you told him to go ask The Who to pay for the tire,’ she said with a roll of the eyes and a sigh that fluttered her bangs. Her continued fixation on each and every butter clogged pore of her toast also prevented her from seeing his smile melt like a salted slug.

‘You want me to take you up to the store? Get you some groceries?’

Before she could answer they were interrupted by Diane and Lindsay, the slender bottle blondes with hot dog colored tans who lived across the hall from June. Unable to find her, the two had decided to try and shake their hangovers with some food before heading out to Pine Orchard. She introduced them to her father, and he asked them to sit down, which made June uneasy.

‘How long are you in town for?’ Diane asked in the perky tone reserved for parental visits.

‘Oh, just the night. I’ve got to be on the road early tomorrow.’

‘You’re driving?’ Lindsay asked in an incredulous tone, mouth hanging open. ‘How long is that?’

‘Oh, about ten, eleven hours,’ he said, sipping his coffee, the girls’ eyes widening at this information. ‘It’s not too bad, some really nice country along the way.’

‘So what do you guys have planned for the day?’ Diane asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Jerry said, clearing his throat. ‘You girls want to see a movie or something?’

‘Oh, we can’t’, Lindsay whimpered. ‘We’re going out to Pine Orchard today.’

‘Oh, yeah? What’s in Pine Orchard?’

‘A friend’s party’ Diane said, looking towards June for approval.

‘You girls don’t have enough parties out here?’

‘It’s on a boat,’ Lindsay explained. ‘June’s boyfriend’s.’ Diane shot her a teeth-gritted glare while June chewed a fingernail. ‘Well, his parents own it.’

‘When are you doing that?’

‘We’re leaving around noon.’

Jerry just nodded, changing the subject. He waited until Lindsay and Diane had fled for the bathroom to throw up the breakfast he bought them before bringing it up again.

‘How long have you had this boyfriend?’ he asked, lowering his eyes to meet hers.

‘Not long’ she whispered, studying a dessert menu she had no intention of ordering from.

‘When were you going to tell me about him?’

‘I don’t know. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I don’t even really like him that much.’

‘Then why are you going out with him?’ June began to ponder this question for the first time. ‘Honey, pick them, don’t let them pick you. I worked hard so you could do that.’ He peeled off a few twenty dollar bills and slipped them to her under the table.

‘Thank you, Daddy.’

‘Go with your friends.’

‘Dad,’ she protested with wooden acting, wanting exactly that, but feeling cruel doing so.

‘Have fun at your party,’ he said, tossing his hand. ‘You earned it.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Eh, I’ll just get on the road a little early. We got Tennessee A&M this week, couldn’t hurt to take a little extra time to prepare.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Go have fun. We’ll see you kids at Thanksgiving.’ Jerry put his hand on her’s and smiled, his lifeless eyes glinting again for a second. She couldn’t help noticing the ‘we’, as if her mother was still alive. ‘I’m very proud of you, honey.’

‘Thank you, Daddy.’

Her brother’s eighth call snaps her out of her reverie and back into present day Chicago. She grunts and hurls her phone, its microchip guts exploding against the wall.

Chapter Two

Friday, March 4, 2005, 5:07 a.m.
Cicero, Illinois

Alvin Jr. hated F Troop. Bunch of dudes bumbling around in Civil War costumes, misfiring cannons because they’re too busy looking at titties. Every episode revolved around the soldiers trying to pull a fast one on the neighboring Native tribe, who were played by white dudes painted Chief Wahoo red that spoke in choppy English.

The tribe always came out on top, though. They had their shit together, even had their own corporation. Which as far as Alvin could tell was the whole joke – the Natives, who were normally archaic dumbfucks, are actually smart, and exploiting the white folk. Reversal of what you expected, right? Ha motherfucking ha.

The first few notes of the theme song were enough to make his jaw tense and back molars squeak as they ground against each other. But he never bothered to change the channel.

It aired in an hour block from five to six a.m. every weekday, on one of those antenna channels that ran ancient sitcoms sandwiched between ads for low-cost catheters, reverse mortgages, and payday loans. Right around the time the sun started to run like a punctured egg yolk, when the crickets’ disjointed symphony gave way to the rumbling hum of newspaper trucks. The hour that Alvin often found himself on all fours combing the hardwood floor for any stray white specks, promising himself that this was the last time, a rerun of the exact vows he’d made the day before last, and the day before the day before that, etc., etc.. Like clockwork.

Once a Newport & Absolut man, Alvin had been reduced to Pall Mall Greens and plastic pints of that four dollar bottom shelf rubbing alcohol with the Russian skyline on the label. Right around the end of F Troop‘s first act, after the floor had been surveyed and the mirror long since licked clean, he’d pour the last finger of vodka with trembling hands and light up one of the half-smoked cigs he’d stubbed out hours ago. If he had any weed, he’d roll a blunt, and if he didn’t, he’d try to slice open enough roaches to cobble together a Frankenstein of blunts past, which tasted awful but smoothed out the jitters.

Normally this was when he began to formulate whatever excuse he would craft as to why he was going to be late or couldn’t make it in to work. He would honk bloody pieces of squid meat into a tissue and pace and clear his throat, sometimes rehearsing the words out loud.

But he had requested this day off months ago. He had plenty of time to cool out and come down before he had to leave for the airport. Might even be able to pick up another gram if his guy was still awake.

The sweatlogged skin of Alvin’s back peels from the leather with a hiss as he sits up and cradles his temples with his hands. The couch is stoplight red, its black legs jutting out rather than standing vertical, the cushions thin in the name of fashion over comfort. It looked like something out of a drug dealer’s swank pad in a blaxplotation flick, and would carry a four figure price tag in any vintage furniture shop. But Alvin wouldn’t sell it for a kilo.

He bought it with his first paycheck from The League. Rick Mahorn slept on it once. Dominique Wilkins spilled beer on it. He got blown by one En Vogue’s backup dancers on it.

He used to be somebody for a minute, once upon a time. Alvin Ellison Jr. was a name. Dunked on Ewing once. Got so much air he smushed his junk in Pat’s face. Rejected Barkley, too. Put that shit up in the sixth row with a slap that rang out. That one was on a Sunday national telecast, Marv Albert and everything. ‘Ellison with the rejection!’ Marv roared as the arena exploded. The call had been worn down to a warped warble on the VHS copy his mother had recorded, but Alvin could still hear it clear as day, whenever his mind wandered.

For a long time he’d talk about that shit first chance he could – longwinded, animated retellings whenever the opportunity presented itself – to girls, bartenders, whoever would listen. Hell, he’d shoehorn it into the coversation if it didn’t fit organically. But as the years passed, he began to talk about it less and less, the shine of its badge dulling with every year he did something lesser. After awhile, telling the college kid working the summer at the plastics factory with you to look up your NBA stats became more pathetic than prideful.

These days he only bothered to bring it up when he was trying to get laid or hired. He hadn’t done either dance in awhile, but figured he’d have to do the latter soon. Showing up late twice a week with bloodshot eyes and a stuffed nose, trying to unfurl last night’s blood tipped dollar for the vending machine – he knows he’s not fooling anyone. Matter of time at this point.

The first few notes of the Three’s Company theme rip through Alvin’s meandering thoughts, an alarming occurence that normally means he has 4 minutes to catch the bus that will make him 18 minutes late. But today is a paid vacation day. Not only that, but a day that his alma mater is paying for his airfare and lodging to visit campus. Today is Coach’s day, a realization that makes Jack Tripper’s pratfalls less amusing as Alvin hesitates before pressing the seventh digit of his dealer’s number.

Chapter One

Friday, March 4, 2005, 9:03 a.m.
Custerville, Ohio

Jerry Lagerstadt walks into Captain’s Grill & Pub a little after nine every morning, nine-thirty at the latest. If he’s not there by ten, and the team isn’t on the road, a staff member will put in a call to make sure he’s OK. A magnet schedule is affixed to one of the coolers in the kitchen, and the general manager always consults it as a part of his opening checklist, muttering the verdict to his hungover and/or still drunk subordinates. ‘Jerry’s in Michigan today’ or ‘Let’s get ready for Jerry’. Rule #10 in the Captain’s Employee Handbook is ‘Don’t mess up Coach’s breakfast’ (a fact that would bother Jerry, if he were aware of it).

He always sits in the same corner booth, wearing the same red sweater over the same blue button up with thick and crisp 70’s-style collars that jut out like fangs, the outfit he’s worn for every game he’s ever coached, so ubiquitous that whenever the team is nationally televised – which happens far less than it used to – students bet on how long it takes before the color commentator makes the inevitable crack about Coach having a closet full of the combination. It’s such a popular Halloween costume on campus that the local thrift store sets aside any variation of red sweater or blue button-up that comes through until October, when they’re quickly snatched up by unimaginative seniors and freshmen who think they’re being innovative.

The Enquirer and USA Today are always tucked under his arm, and he always orders the same thing: one waffle with strawberries, a single egg sunny-side up, two slices of crisp bacon (‘make sure they’re crisp, now’), wheat toast with butter, and a black coffee (or, as it’s known to Captain’s patrons, ‘The Coach L.’). This routine has been routine since long before most of the people in the place were born.

Jerry began frequenting Captain’s over thirty-seven years ago, midway through his first season as coach of the Southern Ohio University Redbirds basketball team. Back then, the team’s nickname was the Red Men, it was orange juice instead of coffee, and he was usually joined by his wife and two year old son. The table swelled to a party of five over time, and Jerry swapped the orange juice for coffee with cream and sugar as the pressure to win mounted. As the kids got older, the table dwindled down to four, then three, then two. Eventually, it was just Jerry, and the coffee was just black.

He holds the distinction of being the longest tenured active coach in the NCAA, and his 635 wins rank thirty-fourth all-time among men’s coaches. No one on campus has ever seemed to mind his 435 losses. Nor do they talk about The Streak.

Southern Ohio is best known for their appearance in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, where Jerry’s sixteen-seed Red Men almost took down the one-seed and eventual champion Indiana Hoosiers, losing 96-95 in triple overtime. The team became media darlings for a week or so, were thrown a parade through campus, and Coach L. got a breakfast plate named after him.

He is also known for his insistence that his player’s shorts extend no further than five inches above the knee. The rule was first implemented when baggier shorts became fashionable in the early 1990’s. It was mostly just a punch line at first – Arsenio Hall made a few monologue jokes about it, Jim Rome called him an ‘old fool’, and Olbermann or Kilborn would always make a crack about them whenever the team got a highlight clip (which at that point was usually limited to getting spanked by a contender).

One dreary February afternoon a local talk show host delivered a rant praising the policy. This led to the sophomore sports columnist for The Southern Ohio Student writing an editorial that blasted the dress code as bigoted, which sparked a flurry of campus debate. Fliers were distributed outside the library, and a dozen or so students marched in circles outside the entrance of the arena, chanting ‘Hey, ho, hey, ho, this racist has to go.’ The paper received over seventy-five letters in defense of Jerry, including one from Alvin Ellison Sr., the school’s all-time leading rebounder, and the man Jerry nearly quit his job over in 1968 after lobbying administration to make Ellison the school’s first black scholarship athlete. When questioned about accusations of racism, Jerry never bothered to defend himself. He would just shake his head and wave his hand.

The dress code uproar set the table for the nickname controversy, which led to a change from ‘Red Men’ to ‘Redbirds’, a shift that infuriated many alumni, but didn’t seem to bother Jerry much. ‘Call us Red Assholes for all I care’, he quipped when asked for a reaction. Hours later, he would call the team’s beat reporter and ask that ‘Idiots’ be printed instead of ‘[expletive]’, a request that was granted.

Jerry most recently made the national radar two years ago for cutting blue-chip forward Shawnelle Bowie the morning after the sophomore blue-chip forward was arrested for marijuana possession. ‘I have no use for anyone monkeying around on pot’, he was quoted as saying, which quickly became a popular sports talk show soundbite, as well as a punch line among the student body. Bowie – arguably the best talent Southern Ohio had ever seen – transferred to Ohio State and was drafted last June by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Kathryn has been waiting on Jerry three mornings a week since her freshman year. As a result of his local celebrity and generous tips, a rotation was implemented in an effort to ensure that everyone had a fair chance to serve Coach, until the day he casually mentioned to the Captain’s G.M. that Kathryn reminded him of his daughter. The manager had never seen Jerry’s eyes so alive, and it’s been her table ever since.

Last fall, after she showed up late to work one morning in tears, Jerry drove Kathryn up to the lot where her car had been towed, and paid for its release. On the way there, she rested her forehead on the chilled window, thinking about a boy that hadn’t called her back, while Jerry told her about the time his oldest son blew a tire a few days after borrowing $30 for Who tickets.

‘So he asks me for money to fix the tire. I say, ‘why don’t you get The Who to pay for the tire?’’ Kathryn had never heard Jerry laugh so much, and she could see the glowing embers of life in his eyes. Though she remembers it fondly now, at the time she just faked a laugh and kept staring out at the cornfields. She tried to pay him back the $80 a few months later, but Jerry just gave her his signature dismissive wave of the hand, the same one he had given referees and reporters for so many years, a vertical snap of the wrist that resembled the flick of a snake’s tongue, usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes.

‘Eh, what am I going to do with it?’ he said. ‘You go have fun with it.’

Every now and again, just as she is about to walk away from the table, Jerry will call her name to stop her, his eyes soften and he smiles – like he did when the told The Who story. He asks if he’s ever mentioned that she reminds him of his daughter, in a rehearsed tone of feigned uncertainty, and she pretends he hasn’t asked the same question a dozen times. It’s been going on so long now that she often knows he’s about to ask a few seconds before he does.

‘Oh, she lives in Chicago with that husband of hers,’ he’ll say, and proceed to relay whatever details his daughter had mentioned to him over the phone the last time they talked. ‘They got a dog, poor thing, with no yard to run around in.’ ‘She says they’ve been getting a lot of rain.’ ‘The taxes they pay out there, my God Almighty’, ‘The husband, he’s always running around somewhere on business trips.’

‘Morning, Coach!’ she chirps, placing his coffee on the table just as he’s sliding into his seat. Kathryn’s face is framed by the two jagged slits of candy bar brown hair that swoop down from the sides of her bangs. Pencil lines of makeup encircle marble blue eyes that look out of place on her dark skin, which is splashed with freckles only noticeable in a certain light. ‘Big day today, huh?’

‘Eh, just another day’ he says, waving his hand. ‘World’s not gonna stop for me.’

Jerry’s hair is combed the exact same way as it is in the 1974 team photo that hangs on the wall near his table. Time has seen the front lines erode up his forehead, and the ghost white specks salting the temples of ink black hair in the picture have taken over completely. The face framed on the wall is creased with the same angry scowl that he still makes most days in the present, although his nose has swollen and strawberried, small broken veins inching up his nostrils.

The only photograph in Captain’s where his face isn’t locked into his signature grimace is the 1987 Sports Illustrated cover that hangs a few frames down the ’74 photo – the iconic picture of his players carrying him off the court after the loss to Indiana. In that one, he’s beaming, like he does when he talks to Kathryn about his daughter, and sometimes Kathryn likes to study it when there’s no one around as she sets tables in the morning.

Tonight will be Jerry’s last as the coach of the Redbirds. A few months earlier, he had been visited in his office by Rick Wilhelm, Southern Ohio’s second-year athletic director, and starting point guard for the ’87 Red Men. Rick, with his gel-brittle hair and Perry Ellis suit – the same kid frozen mid-scream in the forefront of the Sports Illustrated cover, who had once shown up to Jerry’s office in tears, thinking his girlfriend was pregnant – explained to Jerry the difficulty of recruiting kids to play for ‘the short shorts’ team, and talked about the alumni’s wish to ‘go in a different direction’. Jerry, who still called him ‘Ricky’, stopped him halfway through his stammering lecture, and told him that he understood. He announced his impending retirement the next afternoon.

Rick, knowing in advance that this would be Jerry’s last year, had scheduled the final game against Michigan Tech, the Great Lakes Conference’s perennial bottom feeder (although that spot had recently been occupied by Jerry’s 7-20 Redbirds, their worst performance since The Streak). Jerry was to be honored at halftime, with his family and former players in attendance. The alumni had voted to rename the arena after him Rick had even gotten Bobby Knight to record a message of congratulations.

Jerry normally began a study of the previous evening’s box scores with the first sip of his coffee, but today he was distracted by a group of fraternity brothers seated at the table across the room from him. He couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces of conversation, most of it bragging about girls bedded and alcohol consumed. At one point, he could make out the words ‘monkeying around on pot’, which was followed by raucous laughter. He looked up from his paper just in time to see them avert their eyes from his direction, stifling snickers.

‘Don’t worry about them,’ Jerry always said to his children and his players. ‘Worry about yourself’. He repeats the same worn and tired advice to himself silently, sipping coffee and feeling more alone than he ever has.