Chapter Fourteen

Friday, March 4, 2005, 3:47 p.m. 
Dayton, Ohio

Somewhere deep down in the sun-deprived soil under the moss that had grown over his brain, there was an awareness that John was repeating the sins of his father. And the most irksome ones, at that. But the knowledge didn’t stop him.

‘You need a haircut,’ John said the second after his son unwound from hugging his Aunt June. ‘Your mother let you get on a plane dressed like that?’

‘Like you’re one to talk,’ his sister groaned, smacking John’s chest with a backhand and bending down to Jude’s eye level. ‘When he was your age he had a mullet and wore silk shirts.’

‘I didn’t have a mullet,’ John protests, rolling his eyes and waving his hand.

‘You looked like Steve Perry!’ She begins to laugh, and Jude joins the chorus, despite not knowing who Steve Perry is.

‘Fuck you,’ John says, sighing through his nose and rubbing a hand over his head, lips curling upward for a tic before he can will the facial muscles back down. ‘Your mother packed nice clothes in here for tonight, right?’ His tone turns authoritarian as he glares down at his son. Once Jude nods, the trio starts walking down the airport hallway.

‘Your aunt looked like Debbie Gibson,’ John says, rubbing his son’s hair. He smiles down at Jude and holds his hands outside of his head to demonstrate the hair’s volume. ‘Mall perm.’

‘Fuck you,’ she says with a grin, backhanding John’s chest again.

‘Don’t swear in front of the boy.’

Jude could tell that both of them were drunk. It was easy to tell with his dad, because he was almost always drunk. And his Aunt June was like this when he stayed at her place last Winter Break, after his plane to Dayton was grounded at O’Hare because of snow.

It was the night her boyfriend (now husband/his uncle) had talked her into letting Jude drink tequila with them and watch Trees Lounge on VHS. David made him eat the worm bobbing in the bottom of the bottle, telling Jude that it would ‘put hair on his chest’. He cackled with glee an hour later when Jude started puking in the toilet with cartoon-like bombastic heaves.

‘It’s not funny,’ his Aunt June had snarled through a clenched jaw, smacking a hand across David’s chest.

Jude didn’t mind that his aunt and dad were drunk. Actually, he kind of preferred it. They seemed happier this way. They seemed like they loved each other.

His father and aunt had always sniped back and forth, on a scale ranging from passive-aggressive to outright hostile. Their feuding caused many uncomfortable silences during holiday dinners, until Aunt June stopped showing up at Thanksgiving and Christmas altogether, the year after Jude’s mom had moved them to Texas.

‘Good show,’ Papa Jerry had muttered, waving his hand and rolling his eyes after Aunt June, furious with her brother, threw a wine glass at the wall and stormed out of the last family Thanksgiving dinner she ever attended.

That was the last time he could remember seeing the two of them together.

‘You dad wore a white leisure suit to prom,’ she whispers in Jude’s ear, bunching and pinching the skin over his collar bone, while John filled out paperwork for the rental car. ‘He looked like Tony Manero.’

She giggles, which makes Jude do the same, even though he doesn’t know who Tony Manero is.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Thursday, March 3, 2005, 1:39 p.m.
Cincinnati, Ohio

‘I know you’ve never been his biggest fan,’ Dale from Middletown says, his tone spiced with agitation. ‘But show the man some goshdarn respect, is all I’m sayin’. He’s earned it.’

‘I do respect him, Dale, and thank you for the call,’ Trip Seymour responds as the bumper music begins to creep in. ‘I’ve always said I respect the man. But all of this is a bit much, isn’t it? Jerry’s a great guy, no one’s arguing that, but you don’t name arenas after great guys. It’s an honor reserved for legends and winners, and I’m sorry, but Coach L. is neither.’ Trip’s producer holds a finger in the air and twirls it around as an intern slides a piece of ad copy in front of him.

‘Alright, we’ve got to take a break. This segment has been brought to you by McMicken Window & Door. McMicken has been serving the greater tri-state area for over thirty years, with the best quality and lowest prices. Folks, I had McMicken install weatherproof windows in my own home, and you wouldn’t believe the money I’m saving on heating and cooling bills. Call them today for a free estimate, that’s McMicken Window & Door, 513-555-twenty-three, twenty-three. We’ll be right back.’

‘You’re listening to the Trip Seymour Show, on Cincinnati’s home for sports talk, WSAI AM 1360,’ a recorded baritone voice bellows as Trip pulls his headphones from his ears and makes a beeline for the bathroom.

Trip had been languishing away hosting overnights on a fledgling Dayton AM radio station for years after he’d earned a broadcasting degree from Southern Ohio. Every now and again, he’d get an invite to fill-in whenever a host at one of the bigger Cincinnati stations called in sick or was on vacation, but the gigs never seemed to raise his profile like he’d hoped.

One day while guest hosting during the February doldrums, when there wasn’t much Reds or Bengals to talk about, Trip had been trying to fill a segment talking about the recent Southern Ohio-Xavier game – a once interesting rivalry that had turned one-sided in recent years. He took a call from someone complaining that Jerry’s uniform policy was hurting Southern Ohio basketball’s recruiting, and Trip launched into a diatribe defending it.

‘Can you picture Larry Bird wearing the parachute shorts these kids are wearing? It looks like they’re wearing skirts. And listen, I’m not some crotchety old kook, OK? I used to wear bellbottoms. But I’m sorry, this is ridiculous. I’m with Coach L. one-hundred and ten percent on this.’

Sparked by his rant, the phone lines lit up and a debate caught fire, even drawing some national attention. Trip was invited back to guest host more and more, eventually being offered a drive-time slot on Cincinnati’s third most popular AM station. But his dream come true became a nightmare when the show’s numbers fell below the sagging ratings of the host he was hired to replace. Desperate to make a splash, he started disparaging the beloved Coach L. as often as he could, the man he’d gotten his big break by defending.

‘Are we seriously worshiping a guy who almost won a big game, once?’ he asked during a show that garnered the highest ratings the station had seen in months. ‘I mean, I’m a Southern Ohio alum, and frankly, that’s embarrassing. Lagerstadt needs to go, I’m sorry.’

He quickly became a man listeners loved to hate, which spiked the ratings. Railing against Coach L. and calling for his ouster became a staple of Trip’s show, and the success of this contrarian position led him to adopt similar stances on a number of topics. ‘Michael Jordan is a quitter.’ ‘Pete Rose is a scumbag who doesn’t belong in Cooperstown.’ ‘Ken Anderson was overrated.’ His daily goal became to anger whoever tuned in, which was a winning formula up until The Streak.

‘I feel for the man,’ Trip said after the twenty-first loss in a row. ‘Believe me, I do. But if you can’t do the job, you can’t do the job. I don’t care if your kid died. That’s sad, but life goes on. And if you can’t win, you’re no good as a coach.’

The station was deluged with angry calls and letters, and Trip was fired from Cincinnati’s third most popular AM station. He spent a week drinking whiskey in dive bars, loathing himself for the callous things he’d said in the name of ratings. These contemplative regrets probably would’ve carried on for a few more weeks, maybe even longer, if he hadn’t been offered the morning slot on Cincinnati’s most popular AM sports talk station – the flagship home of the Reds and Bengals. Trip picked up right where he left off.

Staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, Trip pulls a few sheets of tan paper towels from the dispenser and wipes his forehead, which is drenched in sweat, despite the studio being so chilly it often required additional layers, even in the winter. Anti-Coach L. rants had been buttering Trip’s bread for years, and had become second nature to him. But keeping it up on the eve of the man’s retirement was a bit much, and even he knew that.

Trip pooled some cold water into his cupped hands and splashed it on his face before dashing back to the studio. He slid into his chair and slipped the headphones over his ears just as his producer pointed at him and the on-air light glowed red.

‘Alright, we’re back, this is the Trip Seymour Show on AM 1360, the flagship station for your Reds and Bengals,’ he opened, a silence continuing after the bumper music faded out. Normally, Trip had a prepared paragraph or two to spout off to begin every segment, but now found himself unprepared and rattled. ‘Let’s take some calls.’

‘Jerome in Custerville,’ Trip said, parroting what his producer had just said into his headphones. ‘You’re on the air.’

‘Trip, old buddy, how are ya?’

It took a second or two for the familiar voice to register, but once it did, Trip could hear his heart thump and feel his temples pulse. He pressed the mute key with a quivering finger and cleared his throat in an attempt to prevent his voice from cracking like a teenager in the throes of puberty.

‘Coach,’ he finally said after regaining the footing of his charlatan radio voice. ‘What a pleasant surprise.’

‘It’s been awhile, I figured I should give you a call, see how you’re doing.’ He could almost see Jerry’s uncharacteristic cheek-bunching grin through the phone, which put Trip at ease and terrified him all at once.

‘Well, Coach, I’m glad you did,’ Trip replied, trembling like a drunk in need of a drink. ‘Good to have you on the program.’ Jerry said nothing, Trip’s cocksure persona wilting away with every second of fizzling dead air. ‘So…you, uh, ready for tomorrow? Big day.’

‘Let me ask you something,’ Jerry started, clearing his throat. ‘Do you even like sports?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘My God Almighty, the way you talk, watching a game sounds like getting a root canal. Michael Jordan scores 24, you’re mad ’cause you think he could’ve scored 25. Every little thing sends your blood pressure through the roof. I know guys worked on the railroad their whole lives that liked their jobs more than you seem to.’

After the few first seconds of dead air, Trip’s producer stretched his lips out like a frog, peaking his eye brows and bunching his shoulders. A silent ‘Well?’ from the other side of the glass.

‘Well, Coach, I-‘

‘If you ask me, you’d be better off in some other profession. Find something that makes you happy, Trip. You only get so many days, my friend.’

Trip could hear a faint chuckle as the static-fuzzed click of the phone being hung up rang in his headphones.

Chapter Twelve

Tuesday, June 28, 1988, 5:44 p.m. 
Custerville, Ohio

Wilma had pried the tin lid off the tea canister she stuck spare money in, and was fishing out the $20 J.R. had asked her for, when Jerry walked in the front door.

‘I see you mowed the lawn like I asked,’ he muttered, bending down to pet Cash, the family’s black cat, who purred like a Harley while slithering around Jerry’s ankles.

‘I was busy,’ J.R. said, snatching the $20 clasped between his mother’s fingers and stuffing it into his pocket. ‘I’ll do it tomo-‘

‘You’ll do it now,’ Jerry growled. ‘There’s enough daylight left. Get to it.’

‘I have plans,’ J.R. said, looking at his mother and widening his eyes in a silent cry for help. ‘Keck will be here to pick me up any minute now.’

‘Keck, there’s a winner,’ he said with a wave of the hand. Jerry’s venom disappeared for a second as he put the file folder tucked under his arm on the linoleum floor, scooping up the cat and cradling it. He smiled as he rubbed Cash’s stomach and kissed his nose, but the calm was short lived, his anger roaring back the second he laid down the cat and picked the folder back up. ‘Plans for what?’

‘Eberly’s Pub is throwing a draft party for me.’

‘Eberly’s,’ Jerry said with an eye roll and a wave of the hand. ‘Lots of winners over there.’

‘Jerry, leave him alone,’ Wilma hissed with gritted teeth.

‘At least they believe in me.’

‘You’re not getting drafted!’ Jerry slapped the folder onto the kitchen island counter, a few pages of scouting notes spilling out and fluttering. ‘The sooner you get that through your head, the better off you’ll be, my friend!’

‘Jerry, stop it!,’ Wilma scolded. ‘Now!’

‘Will, don’t encourage this,’ Jerry plead wearily, reshuffling fallen papers into the jaws of the beige folder as J.R., hearing Keck’s sputtering engine pull up, made a dash for the back door.

‘I believe in you, too!’ his mother called out over the rusty hinge squeaks, just before the metal door rattled shut. ‘Have fun!’

J.R. had figured he’d fall to the third round at worst. Mid-to-late second, most likely. But he had been harboring hopes of being a first round selection in the back of his mind for the last week or so, the notion growing in the darkness like fungi. The Suns had sent scouts to just about all of his playoff games, and owned a stockpile of picks acquired from Cleveland in the Kevin Johnson trade. They had even called the house to do a phone interview with him the week before.

‘Phoenix, I think,’ he kept saying over and over whenever someone at the bar asked. ‘Maybe Sacramento. Who knows? I’ll just be happy to be drafted.’

He tacked the last bit on every time, even though he didn’t believe it. Winding up as the last pick in the last round would still be a ticket out of Custerville, sure. But he needed more validation than that. 14th pick, to the Phoenix Suns. That was his ideal scenario, and for the last week or two he’d drifted off to sleep while crafting rationalizations as to why it wasn’t just a pipe dream.

When Dan Majerle’s name was called at 14, J.R. kept up his smile, and ordered a shot of Jameson. Sacramento had the 18th pick. They needed a shooter, and had shown considerable interest in him. One of their scouts was in attendance for his 47 point effort against Valley Forge. He talked himself into it so much that his heart sank when the Kings passed on him.

They passed on him again at 29, as did every other team in the second round. TBS ended their coverage a few picks into the third, Eberly ordering a doorman to take down the ‘WELCOME TO THE NBA’ sign off the wall the instant J.R. disappeared into the bathroom.

‘You’re gonna get picked,’ Keck reassured as he chopped lines on the toilet lid in the men’s room stall. ‘I read a thing, dude…even Michael Jordan’s high school coach cut him.’

J.R. just rolled a bill against his thigh and snorted the line before unlatching the stall door and heading back out to the bar. Keck joined him a minute or two later, and they both sipped their beers in silence for what felt like an eternity. The whole thing felt like J.R.’s worst nightmare, only too detailed to be a dream. He tried to remain expressionless and not make any eye contact, bargaining with God for someone to sink a dollar in the jukebox. Anything to kill the murmurs and quiet pity fogging the air.

‘Lagerstadt!’ J.R. didn’t need to swivel on his stool to know that it was Donvan Cordero – the point guard for Custerville Catholic High, who stole his girlfriend junior year, and outplayed him all three times they faced each other.

Taking the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 was enough for J.R. to claim victory in the rivalry. Especially after learning that Cordero had lost his scholarship at Dayton State the previous season. Apparently, he had hurled the ball at his coach’s face during a last second time out he didn’t want called. Broke the guy’s nose, and Donovan was expelled. Last J.R. had heard, Cordero was back in town and working at a pretzel place in the mall. But despite the scoreboard of their history, Cordero had him in that moment, and they both knew it.

‘Is this the big draft party?’ Donovan’s friendly tone was as insincere as his game show host smile. ‘Where’d you get picked?’

J.R.’s stool skidded and tipped over as he whirled around to clock Cordero in the jaw. Before the doorman tackled him, he got a few clean punches in – bloodying Donovan’s nose and chipping one of the prick’s bicuspids. When the dust settled, it was an arrest for assault and felony cocaine possession, the latter offense being dropped from the report once the booking officer recognized J.R.’s last name.

‘Good show,’ Jerry said, shaking his head and waving his hand as J.R. staggered from the police station toward the Buick, his path meandering like a Family Circus kid.

‘Leave me alone’, J.R. slurred, taking a few swipes at the passenger side door handle before his impaired coordination caught hold.

‘I don’t know why I bother,’ Jerry muttered, cocking the car into drive and pulling off.

 

Chapter Eleven

Friday, March 4, 2005, 8:26 a.m. 
New York, New York

Julius “Swish” Mayfield rubs his eyes after cranking both of the diamond-shaped shower knobs. He lets out a long yawn that makes his body wiggle, and lumbers towards the black bag hanging over the closet door. Unsheathing the blue-shirt-red-tie Perry Ellis ensemble his stylist had chosen for him, he lays it out gingerly on the undisturbed half of the bedspread. While the hissing water heats up enough to start fogging the bathroom mirror, Swish tugs at the sleeves and pant legs to pull them taut, running a hand over any bunched fabric. By the time he jumps in the shower, the suit is so smooth and straight it looks like the wardrobe of an invisible stickman drawing sprawled across his bed.

He hums the Chi-Lites to himself while scrubbing every inch of skin with a soapy washcloth, taking tenfold the time and care he normally did. The prepared remarks that had been re-written and printed out by network interns scrolls across his brain like a cable news ticker. He bobs his head with the beat of the syllables as he mutters the script to himself in an attempt to memorize it. But Swish’s focus keeps getting derailed by something he had left out of the words he was parroting. A memory that never made it more than three or four words into his spiral notebook before being furiously censored with a pen.

Julius was conspicuously absent from the 1987 Sports Illustrated cover. He didn’t subscribe to the feel-good, moral victory aspect of the story when it happened (and still didn’t all these years later). While the photographer was forever preserving the swarm of Swish’s teammates carrying Coach into the locker room, he sat in the robin’s egg blue paint of the NCAA logo at center court, head bowed, elbows resting on his knees, a towel over his head to hide and muffle the crying jags that seemed to echo throughout the Hoosier Dome.

Many details had been lost to time and repression, but the one thing Julius can still remember to this day – with a clarity that can make him shudder in the shower as if it had just happened – was the words ‘it’s over’. He repeated them in his head until they had lost all meaning. Tears ran down his cheeks and hung from the edge of his chin before a plummet that ended with a splat on the hardwood.

‘You alright?’ asked a janitor sweeping the debris of the first row after everyone had filtered out, his voice ringing through the empty cavern that had felt so alive to Swish just a half hour ago. Julius didn’t answer or move, his mind still running the film of that last second shot bouncing around the rim before vomiting out as the buzzer signaled the third-overtime’s end, the dotted bulbs of the scoreboard lit to indicate Indiana by one, all of it set to ‘it’s over’. ‘It’s over’. ‘It’s over.’

‘That’s enough, Mayfield, let’s go.’ He recognized the voice as Jerry’s halfway through the throat-clear preceding Coach’s words, though it was a more vulnerable tone Julius hadn’t heard before, sapped of its usual gruff bite. Pulling the towel off his head, he looked up to see the familiar red sweater over a blue dress shirt as Jerry walked towards center court, hands tucked into the pockets of his khakis. ‘No use crying over spilt milk.’

‘This was it, Coach,’ Julius said with a sniffle. ‘Last game.’

‘Let me tell you something.’ Jerry’s knees crackled as he bent down and clasped a hand over the back of Swish’s neck. ‘Indiana’s gonna wake up tomorrow with their own problems. The point guard, Bobby Knight, the equipment manager, all of ’em. Something will still make them toss and turn at night, even though they’re moving on to round two. Shot goes in, shot is off…either way, life’ll kill ya. But win or lose, you have to learn to live with yourself.’

‘I thought I had it,’ Julius whispered, his words muddied by spittle, a thumb and forefinger pinching the bridge of his nose. He wiped at tears pooling in the pink triangles of his eye ducts, smearing glistening slug trails across both cheeks. ‘I let everyone down.’

‘The hell with everyone.’ Jerry rubbed his fingers in circles over the back of Swish’s sweat-soaked neck. ‘You had a good look at the basket, elbow was lined up with the rim, textbook form. They can’t all go in.’

‘I just wish this one did.’

‘We all have wishes, my friend. Most of them won’t happen.’ He slapped a palm against the back of Swish’s soggy jersey and let out a groan as he rose, knees popping again on the way back up. ‘Tomorrow’s another day.’

Julius draped the towel back over his head as the clacks of Jerry’s heels became quieter and quieter. The low buzz of the hot lights came back into focus as silence settled in under the cover of damp linen.

‘Be on that bus in twenty minutes, or you can find your own way back to Custerville,’ Jerry yelled at the mouth of the locker room tunnel, the alien softness that had appeared in his voice reverting back to its familiar angry bark.

It took the hot water running out before Julius tuned back into the present, the sudden spray of cold making him leap out of the shower with a cartoon yelp, sack shrunk and dick turtled. Toweling himself off, he began reciting the script out loud again from the top.

‘Good evening,’ he says, staring at himself in the mirror. ‘What to say about a man like Coach?’ He repeats the second line, this time with a delivery that’s a little less wooden. The third try is more somber, with a deeper voice, like a trusted news anchor. He clears his throat before the fourth take, which puts emphasis on the word ‘man’. Rolling his neck around like a pre-fight boxer, he exhales and droops his shoulders, rubbing his face as he psyches himself up for the fifth attempt, this time switching the emphasis to the word ‘Coach’. His eyes locked in a staring contest with their reflection, Swish takes a half-dozen more cracks at it, each attempt different than the last, though the line itself never changes.

‘What to say about a man like Coach?’

Chapter Ten

Friday, March 4, 2005, 11:28 a.m. 
Dallas, Texas

Knowing that he’d have complete freedom for a few hours, Jude had gotten one of the bloated Rudolph-nosed drunks from the trailer park near his middle school to buy him two packs of Kools the night before. That morning, he stuck one in each pocket of his cargo shorts, banking on his mother parting ways before he had to empty them out for the airport metal detector. His heart thumped like bass notes right up until she kissed his cheek and ruffled his hair just outside the ticket gate.

Once he collected the two packs and lighter from the dull blue bin birthed out of dangling plastic strips on the other side of the conveyor belt, he shuddered a bit, his skin goosebumpung with joy. Outside of the red sticker they made him wear to indicate that he was a minor flying alone, Jude felt like an adult for the first time in his life. Having been dropped off with a little over an hour before takeoff, he pulled up a stool at the bar opposite his gate, pointing to the sticker on his chest and ordering a soda.

‘Sweetie, I don’t think you’re allowed to do that,’ the woman behind the bar with bulbous cleavage and pungent perfume says in a Southern drawl. He had de-veined the strip from the cellophane and lit up a Kool the second she laid his Sprite on the napkin.

‘It’s OK,’ he says, taking a drag and blowing it through his nose, which burns his nostrils, but is worth it for how cool he feels it makes him look. ‘My Dad lets me.’

She gives him a skeptical look for a few hanging seconds, but he doesn’t crack from the grin of a guilty man in an interrogation room who knows his rights. After she walks back to the limes she had been slicing, a rat-nosed tan guy with slicked receding hair and a Hawaiian shirt sitting next to him shakes his head with a smile. He gives Jude a covert thumbs up before going back to his newspaper and scratching around the gold rope necklace nestled in a thatch of chest hair.

Jude knew the bartender would back down if he didn’t waver. He had picked that up from Patrick North, a tenth grader from the trailer park who had a fake I.D. and could already grow facial hair. Pat was kind of dumb, but he always acted confident, so everyone listened on Friday nights in the bleachers when he said made-up stuff, like that Rod Stewart had to get his stomach pumped because he swallowed too much sperm, or whatever. And then they’d all parrot it at lunch on Monday, as if the bullshit he spewed was well-known gospel. Which always inched the legend of Patrick North, wise alpha not to be fucked with, just a little bit taller.

North could even make teachers back down. Last year in History class, Mr. Elston made a crack about Patrick asking ‘do you want fries with that?’, after North tried to wing it through a presentation he obviously didn’t prepare for.

‘At least I’m not a bald bitch, you bald bitch,’ Pat said, folding his arms over a laundry-faded Penny Hardaway jersey and grinning. The whole class started laughing, and Mr. Elston’s cheeks got real red. He sent Pat to the principal, but the scorecards were unanimous. Elston postponed the last two presentations and made the class read from the textbook until the end of the period while he fidgeted at his desk, running a hand over his head every thirty seconds or so.

Jude hadn’t been all that excited to fly out to Ohio for his Papa Jerry’s retirement. He loved his grandfather, but wasn’t looking forward to staying at his house. It smelled like mothballs and creaked a lot and he got yelled at if the T.V. was on after ten p.m. He was also somewhat hesitant to see his father, who had seemed a little too overenthusiastic ever since Jude had moved to Texas with his mom – like their weekends together were supposed to be the solution to all of his dad’s problems or something. That was a lot to live up to, and Jude had his own problems to worry about.

Outside of the freedom to smoke like an adult in public, Jude had mostly been looking forward to the trip as a breather from the specter of Patrick North. Despite serving as a model template for his attempts at cool, Jude had somehow managed to get on Pat’s bad side, which filled him with a dread powerful enough to fear every corner he turned. It had gotten to the point where he found himself breathing a sigh of relief when Patrick wasn’t implausibly waiting for him in the Rite-Aid greeting card aisle, or the airport bathroom, like a horror movie villain.

Jude had tried to keep his head down and his mouth shut as The New Kid when his mom moved them to Dallas after the divorce. This was a strategic effort to avoid the wrath of bullies like North. But for some reason, Pat ended up liking him. Jude had no idea why.

On his way home one day, a group of kids walking behind Jude had started calling him ‘dork’, their voices amplifying as he pretended not to hear them. ‘Answer us, dork, what’s with that stupid shirt?’, ‘Did your Mommy pick it out for you?’, stuff like that. They threw rocks at him and stepped on the back of his shoe so his heel would slip out, making him stumble.

Jude was scared, so he just kept trying to pick up his pace, but then next thing you know Pat North appeared out of nowhere and yelled ‘Lagerstadt’s alright, leave him alone!’ Jude’s tormentors scattered like cockroaches confronted with the flip of a light switch, and North slung an arm around his shoulder, the stench of his unwashed armpit permeating the air.

”You’re cool, Lagerstadt’, Pat said, swaying their bodies and rubbing a fist into his head playfully, but a little too hard.

Jude’s social life picked up after that. No one messed with him anymore, and Pat introduced him to weed, and taught him about all sorts of things he was oblivious to – good rap songs, and what to do to make girls like you, and the fact that if you ask a cop if they’re a cop, they legally have to tell you.

‘What have we fow-how-how-hound!,’ a sweaty Patrick sang in an off-key wail with closed eyes and gritted teeth one night while they all drank Natural Light outside his mom’s trailer. ‘BABY I WISH YOU WERE HERE!’ he screamed, an air uppercut punctuating every drum note, unaware that he had skipped a lyric and was singing over the ‘same old fear’ part.

Jude had never heard the song before, but two beers deep with pretty girls around and a joint burning, it sounded like poetry that first time. Later, he would learn that Patrick wasn’t insightful, and Pink Floyd is vapid. He also ended up having sex for the first time, with the girl seated to his left that night. Her name was Becca, and unbeknownst to Jude, she was an unrequited object of Pat’s affection.

At first Pat would ask him about her, trying to sound like an easygoing hound dog friend casually wanting the details. But the questions became more hostile over time, and eventually when Jude started spending all his time with Becca, who he really liked, Patrick’s older brother-like affectionate warmth went cold.

He started hearing whispers that North was vowing to fuck him up the next time they crossed paths, and Pat stopped answering the phone or returning messages Jude left with his mother. They had made eye contact the weekend before his flight to Ohio, at the Saint Gabriel Fair. Holding a sagging paper plate weighed down by snowcapped fried dough, Pat gave him a rapper album cover glare while dragging an index finger across his throat, the lights of a low-rent carny ride flickering in a whirling circle behind him.

As pathetic as Jude suspected Patrick’s mugging was, all it takes is a pathetic guy with a grudge and nothing to lose, then next thing you know, you have a bloody nose and a ruined day, your reputation drowned in the mud. Maybe not the Freddy Kruger of his nightmares, but nonetheless a danger you had to keep a constant eye out for.

Jude could finally relax, because Patrick North wasn’t on this flight. Nor would he be in Ohio when the plane landed. He really liked Becca, and was pretty sure she liked him, too. They had little inside jokes that only the two of them knew about. She had woken up early that morning to call him and wish him a good flight. Without the boogeyman of Patrick around to make his nerves fizz, Jude was able to bask in that. He smiled so wide his cheeks bunched, dragging on the medicine-tasting menthol of his Kool until the ash hung with a droop.

‘The hell with this North kid,’ his grandfather had told him over the phone the night before. Jude had blurted out a brief rundown of the situation in response to Papa Jerry asking if he had a girlfriend. Normally, their conversations were a chore for Jude – an obligation to plow through with canned answers he peppered with feigned excitement over the next holiday visit. But the Becca/North thing had been weighing on him, and his Aunt June – normally his go-to confidant for these sorts of things-  hadn’t returned his calls. So without thinking, he just let it all out.

‘The hell with the girl, too. They’ll all come and go. Look out for number one, my friend. Don’t trust anyone for anything in this world, they’ll only let you down. Just worry about yourself.’

The advice sounded like it made sense, but it didn’t provide Jude any insight or relief. He thanked his Papa Jerry, and told him he’d see him the next day before putting the phone on its cradle and heading upstairs to pack his suitcase.

Jude took a final puff from the Kool before stubbing it out, wincing a bit as the Sprite he sucked from the straw burned the back of his throat a bit.

Chapter Nine

Tuesday, December 23, 1986, 3:14 a.m. 
Liberty, Indiana

‘This motherfucker’s crazy, man,’ Alvin Jr. said, looking up at the TV and shaking his head with a grin as watermelons exploded on the pavement. His driver’s license never stopped clacking with woodpecker fury against a cheap round table so small his knees pressed against its underside.

‘Dave’s the best. The best, dude. You gotta start watching him. He’s the man. Way better than Johnny.’ J.R. sat on an itchy maroon and green floral pattern bedspread draping the mattress, his legs dangling over its edge with the fidgety swirls of a kid on a sugar high. His elbows were tucked into his chest, wrists bent downwards, fingers wiggling. ‘He did this thing last month where they put a camera on a monkey’s back, and-‘

‘You look like a fucking wizard casting a spell with T-Rex arms, man,’ Alvin interrupted. He had the same amused grin and shake of the head he’d just given the TV, but this time he stopped chopping at the powder, the plastic license laid down with the thwap of a casino river card. ‘Owl eyes and shit. Maybe you need a break.’

‘I’m fine,’ J.R. said, his tone betraying the fake laugh emitted to show he could take the joke. ‘I paid for half, cut out two more. You’re not my dad.’

The joviality was sucked from the air for a few seconds as they looked into each other’s eyes, Alvin dwelling on the guilt of corrupting Coach’s kid while J.R. focused on delivering a stare to signal he wasn’t just Coach’s kid. It was too close to call who broke from the stare first, J.R.’s eyes drifting to the uninspired painting of a sailboat that hung over the headboard nailed to the wall within a millisecond of Alvin’s panning back to the goofy-looking gap-toothed dude in khakis throwing food off a building on the TV bolted to the opposite wall.

Despite being born only a few years apart and entangled together in the history of their fathers, Alvin Jr. and Jerry Jr. lived in worlds that felt separated by galaxies. Their orbits had brushed up against each other over the years, but J.R. always thought of Alvin as an elder. They had played on the same court together in pick-up games, and J.R. held his own, even locked Alvin’s ankles with a slick move once or twice.

But he still always saw Alvin Jr. as the sweat-glistening giant he’d watch whenever Channel 10 aired Red Men games, the distance further separated by his mother’s nagging orders to turn the TV off and finish his homework. Alvin also felt this space between them, J.R. etched in his mind as the middle school kid who asked rambling questions the time he went to dinner with Jerry’s family during his recruitment (which was a mere formality, Alvin Sr. having repeatedly told him ‘You’re playing for Coach L. and that’s final’ whenever the subject came up, his father’s stare and cadence stern enough to wither the notion that Alvin Jr. had a choice in the matter).

‘Do you like Earl Monroe, Alvin? I like him. He’s the best. Not many people know him because he doesn’t play anymore, but he played for the Bullets, back when they were in Balt-‘

‘Earl Monroe drank his milk and finished his dinner,’ Jerry had barked in a harsh tone, his face softening as he looked up and smiled at Alvin Jr., who faked a grin as he chewed at dry chicken. ‘What are you so worried about Earl Monroe for? He’s not worrying about you.’

‘This is great, Mrs. Lagerstadt,’ Alvin said after swallowing down the mouthful of tasteless white meat as fast as he could in a race to diffuse the tension. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Alvin never budged from the hollow smile that hid his despair. Not only was he going to be forced to play for Southern Ohio – where his every last statistic down to the decimal would be measured against his father’s – but all signs pointed to the coach being a dick, too.

‘Trust Coach L., and he will make you a man, son,’ Alvin Sr. had always told him, but in that moment he couldn’t see it. He just felt for J.R., whose neck had wilted down after he’d been scolded.

On this night, however, Alvin and J.R. had been elevated to peers. They ran into each other on the patio of Captain’s Grill & Pub. By day, Captain’s was a greasy spoon bustling with the conversational small-town patter of locals and professors (and coaches). Nightfall saw it morph into a sweat-fogged pack of beery-breathed students howling at the moon.

This particular evening had been a bit more quiet, most of the students having gone home for Christmas break, leaving only the townie kids who had returned or never left in the first place, all of them in good spirits due to not having to jostle the mob for position to buy beers. They could catch up and tell jokes and recount old high school stories without going hoarse in an effort to yell over the throng, most everyone’s guts warmed by the embers of nostalgia.

‘Mr. Buckeye over here!’ Alvin bellowed, walking over with arms open after he and J.R. first saw each other across the patio. Their palms thumped against the backs of the leather coats each had bought in an effort to look cool while they hugged with a half-drunk sway. ‘How you been, Big Ten?’

‘Good, good’, J.R. said. After they pulled apart, his eyes fell to the gum-encrusted and beer-soaked concrete under his sneakers. He tucked his hands into his coat pockets while his cheeks surged red like a telethon thermometer after a generous donation. J.R. was both flattered and flustered by the nicknames. It had been happening since his name first appeared in a Big Ten box score, and for the most part, he’d gotten used to it. Even basked in it to the point of obnoxiousness at times.

But this was Alvin Ellison, Jr. Even after such a welcome-to-the-club greeting, the guy still seemed larger than life. This was a man who not only once witnessed J.R. being berated by his mother for not eating broccoli, but who had also became the talk of the town as of late. Most of the call-ins to the Red Men Teepee Talk A.M. radio show that season had been people gushing over Alvin and making declarations that he would be the first player drafted into the NBA out of Southern Ohio. And here he was, praising J.R.’s status loud enough for the whole patio to hear.

The daunting reverie began to sweat away in trickles as they sat on the splintered patio table and talked ball over split pitchers of beer. It thawed into a slush after Alvin leaned over the table and whispered ‘you party, right?’ with a wink. J.R. didn’t know what that meant, but pretended to.

‘Yeah, all the time,’ he answered with a sly nod, not wanting to lose the feeling that he and Alvin were hanging out together, rather than Alvin having some patronizing beers with Coach’s kid. The slush had melted into flowing water once they’d decided to go half on a stomped-on eight ball and a motel room just over the state line that smelled like mildew.

‘This is your first time, ain’t it?’ Alvin had asked hours earlier after J.R. began to twitch and ramble mere minutes after he struggled to snort the first line like a rookie.

‘Nah, man,’ J.R. responded, sniffing and swiping a finger across the bottom of his nose, his lie buoyed with confidence in the delivery, which was fueled by coke and the sudden belief that he had arrived, and belonged here, hanging with the big boys. ‘We party all the time in Columbus.’

To put an exclamation point on the ruse, J.R. had snatched the scissored Burger King straw off the table and vacuumed up another line. The act unsettled Alvin with a vague feeling of guilt, but he just nodded as if impressed by it, which only fed into J.R.’s giddy realization that guys like him and Alvin were superstars on their way to the bright lights of the big stage – members of a rare tribe who understood each other’s need to blow off the steam built up by such elite pressure.

Alvin’s suggestion that maybe he needed a breather was sharp enough to puncture the swell of J.R.’s notion. It had the same effect on Alvin’s puffed up rationalization that he was just helping Coach’s kid along (boys were gonna be boys, anyway; might as well give the kid a few pointers to help him along the way, etc., etc.) The truth – that Alvin was just using and corrupting the kid because his half of the money meant a bulk discount, and that J.R. was just a scared kid on cocaine for the first time trying to seem cool- sank in for the two as they sat in the silence of diverted stares, both of them suddenly aware of the air conditioner’s hum, each coming to the independent feeling that the sound resembled the air slowly wheezing to escape and deflate the cocoons they’d built for themselves.

‘Throwing watermelons off a building,’ Alvin finally said with a laugh, picking up his license and separating out two more from the pile as he shook his head. ‘Richard Pryor would get arrested for that shit.’

 

Chapter Eight

Friday, March 4, 2005, 3:38 p.m.
Custerville, OH

Rick Wilhelm’s office and wardrobe signified a successful man. He often folded his fingers into a steeple as he sat at the large oak desk of a Division I athletic director, framed photo of picturesque wife and daughter placed on its edge, exhaling with a prideful relief at how accomplished he had become. But sometimes the sigh was one of regret and confusion, feeling like a fraud – a child dressed up in an adult costume pretending to play-act like they were conducting grown-up affairs. Either way, he had a habit of pulling a bottle of Lagavulin 16 from his desk drawer and sipping down a finger while he thought it over.

He had dreaded asking Jerry to step down. Coach had been like a father to him, and was a near-deity in Custerville. But business was business. It had to be done, and when Jerry accepted his fate without the slightest objection, Rick couldn’t believe his luck. He’d spent close to a week feeling too queasy to eat, watching Sportscenter reruns at 3 a.m. in his den while he scripted potential awkward scenarios and considered how he’d respond to them. Rick doubled up and drank two fingers after Coach had hugged him and left his office that day.

The still fresh, yet-to-scab-or-scar guilt made him shudder and ask his secretary to hold any calls while he poured himself three fingers. Rick had arranged every last tribute at no expense to soften the blow and properly honor Jerry’s forced retirement. But it still made him feel rotten and fraudulent.

It only took a few sips before Rick began to think about the very thing he had poured a drink in order to forget. A memory he had long ago flung down into the well of his soul, learning over time to ignore the echoes of thrashing in the bile that stagnated at its bottom (and the classiest selection to drink when he couldn’t).

June Lagerstadt, Coach’s seventeen year old daughter, had been the epitome of forbidden fruit. A senior at Custerville High, she was still coltish and mousy, less than six months removed from losing her braces. She had begun to grow into her alluring beauty – an attractiveness that was only enhanced by her off-limits status – and had become not only a go-to punchline for locker room sex jokes, but also the fulcrum of a unanimously agreed-on bet that would net any Red Man player who managed to bed her a prize pool of $10 per teammate.

A man wants what he can’t have, but Rick, the star point guard, could have anything he wanted back then. When June showed up at a Sigma Nu kegger with some high school friends one Saturday night, Rick poured her a half-foam red Solo cup of cheap beer and promised not to say a word to Jerry. As he ran two clasped fingers over his lips and flung an imaginary key over his shoulder with a wink, her knees buckled just a bit. He knew right then and there, and leading June by the hand as the pair exited the party a couple hours later, Rick discreetly slapped palms with a few teammates on the way out, his tongue poking out from a chesire grin.

‘Do you ever worry about things?’ she whispered to him later that night as he felt stifled by the muggy sweat haze from their bodies pressed together.

‘Like what?’ He squeezed her shoulder with the arm that was draped around it, which tingled from the weight of her neck pinning it against his pillow.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, softly tracing a finger along the whale belly white of his upper arm’s underside. It was close enough to his snake-pube infested armpit to cause Rick to jerk with ticklishness, but he braced himself to avoid showing it, basking in the glow of her idea that he was a wise person worthy of seeking advice from. ‘Just, like, feeling scared, I guess. Like you’re not ready for it? And feeling weird because it seems like everyone else is.’

‘Not really,’ he said, kissing her forehead, clearing his throat a bit after licking the makeup residue from his lips. Rick understood the anxiety she described, having felt it nightly as he tried to fall asleep, but wanting to maintain the status of the pedestal she had placed him on. ‘It’ll get easier as you get older. I promise’. She wriggled into his body and purred like a cat, running her tongue over his neck before pecking it with a subtle kiss, her best learned guess as to what a sultry sex object would do in such a situation.

He ended up throwing away the sheets she bled onto, and can still hear the heartache in her voice when he told her a few days later after incessant calls to his dorm that he wasn’t interested in a long-term thing. It was a wounded warble, every decibel still clear and sharp enough all these years later to make him down the rest of his whisky in a knee-jerk reaction to the discomfort. He coughed and gagged a bit, wiping the dribble from his chin with the back of his hand, careful to avoid getting any on the French cuff of his dress shirt.

After composing himself with a shrug of the shoulders and a tug at his tie knot, Rick stared at the framed Sports Illustrated cover of Jerry being carried off the court that hung on his wall, suddenly aware of the air conditioner’s hum. He ran a hand over his slicked hair brittle with gel and let out a long sigh before pouring himself another finger.

Chapter Seven

Friday, March 4, 2005, 2:51 p.m.
Custerville, Ohio

‘Does he know you monkey around on pot?’ Dylan asks as Kathryn flicks the lighter, everyone tittering like a Three’s Company audience over the bong’s gurgle. The question bothers her enough to distract from the tubed smoke swirling into a cloud too heavy for her lungs to clear, which causes an eye-watering coughing fit.

Dylan had been Kathryn’s latest crush ever since they started sitting next to each other in spring semester’s English 301 class. Like all previous crushes, she had let an initial interest snowball to the point where his every word or move was molded into the narrative of a handsome partner who would solve all her problems and shock her with his selfless devotion, despite knowing next to nothing about him.

She had found the nerve to ask a few times if he wanted to join the half-dozen of them that ritually got high after class on Fridays (the presence of others padding the blow of any anticipated rejection). She invented half a notebook page of cool lines to pair with record album stares tested in a mirror, but froze up with her mouth open when he finally said ‘yes’.

His joke had come after someone brought up that tonight was Coach’s last game. Kathryn’s fellow Captain’s employee and friend Tiffany remarked that Coach loved her (drawing out the O’s in ‘love’ with jazz hands), which prompted Kathryn to mention that she had a pair of third row tickets Jerry had given her.

She had driven out to Tri-County Mall the Tuesday before to buy a dress and shoes for the occasion, and labored over a handmade card for Jerry she intended to pass him at game’s end. Dylan was the one she wanted to take with her, and she had crafted elaborate scenarios of how the night would be a precursor to their inevitable romance while she was making Jerry’s card and trying to think of a casual way to ask him. But now hearing him mock Jerry, she realized needle-to-balloon that he was an invention of her own imagination, and just another sleazy boy she had built up to be a prince.

Kathryn’s mind raced too much to pay attention to the rest of the circle’s conversation, her brain whirring so loud it drowned out their dialogue, aware enough of social cues to flash timely smiles and nods and say ‘I know!’ at the right moments, but counting the minutes until she could get away.

She left with a lie about an upset stomach and without offering Dylan her extra ticket, sobbing as she walked home through the stench of frying oil and stale beers that clouded the uptown Custerville alleyways. Feeling small and foolish, she was grateful for the drizzling rain that lowered the odds of male strangers who crossed her path noticing her tears and stopping to ask if she was OK.

‘Don’t worry about him,’ Jerry had said to her one morning during the innocence of freshman year, waving his hand as he pulled cash from his pocket, peeling off $10 more than the bill. ‘Worry about yourself.’

At the time it felt as if he was some sort of shaman reading her thoughts, but she’s come to realize over time that Jerry probably just noticed her eyes being drawn to the boy three tables away like magnetic north and understood.

‘Worry about yourself,’ she whispers to herself in the rain, which makes her sniffle and smile and shiver a little with hope.

Chapter Six

Thursday, November 18, 1999 – November 24, 2000
Custerville, Ohio

The Streak started with a 72-57 home loss to Michigan State that tipped off less than twenty four hours after Jerry had dragged the cold and bloated purple-yellow-black body of his son from a piss-stained, tattered sofa in a storage unit, like his little boy was a bag of fertilizer. Before calling the police, Jerry had peeled off J.R.’s shit filled underwear and wiped away the soupy mess from his ass cheeks. He filled a trash bag with the various needles, burnt spoons, cloudy baggies, beer bottles and tin foil strewn about. Carrying it at arm’s length in a delicate pinch as if the contents were contagious, he walked to the third dumpster from the nearest one, drops of stale beer that leaked from the bottom of the pregnant plastic dotting his path.

None of his players were aware at the time. Jerry hadn’t told anyone. Their performance that night was simply the result of poor shot selection and superior competition.

He didn’t say anything the next day either, but word had gotten around via the senior citizen gossip mill, a factory whose production rivaled that of the town’s sororities. Maureen O’Malley’s son-in-law was the first officer on the scene. He told her, she told the beauty shop. They told their husbands, who brought it up at the deli. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, shaking their heads with lowered eyes, caught between the relief that it hadn’t happened to them and the realization that it could.

Everyone knew by the next game, a 63-58 road loss to Coastal Carolina. The whole team had attended the funeral, which took place the day before, all of them wearing ill-fitting suits either too tight or too baggy. A few tried to stammer condolences to Jerry, which he heard out as long as he could, eventually hugging them in an embrace far longer than social comfort allowed, palming the backs of their heads.

The closest he ever came to addressing it with the team was during halftime against Akron. It was a game that boosters and diehards had penciled in as an easy W when the schedule came out earlier in the year, though current reality found them down 31-22 at the half, on the verge of their tenth straight loss.

‘You know, I’ve got my problems,’ Jerry said, pacing with his hands clasped behind his back. ‘We all do. Hell, Akron has their own problems. But they’re out there executing!’ His voice cracked in a way that drew every eye to his, causing him to clear his throat and let silence settle in. ‘My God Almighty, box out! Rebound! Fundamentals!’

Akron outscored them 40-18 in the second half. The thirty-one point loss was the worst of Jerry’s career.

A 59-58 home loss to George Washington was their fourteenth in a row, breaking a school record that dated back to the program’s first year. Everyone began to feel the weight of it, though no one brought it up. The local A.M. sports talk hosts and callers who would normally be ranting and calling for Jerry’s head instead took on solemn tones, going down the schedule and trying to talk themselves into the next sure win.

The team held a player’s only meeting after a 79-67 home loss to Pennsylvania Tech, a game most had figured was their best hope to end the skid. It was Tech’s first win over the Redbirds in four years, and brought the total to twenty-two straight, dropping them to 2-22 on the season. The meeting was called by senior point guard Rodney Meeks, alarmed that Jerry had failed to deliver a single criticism in the locker room after the game. No yelling, no speech, not even an angry wave of the hand. He just muttered Monday’s practice time and walked into his office, closing the blinds.

Number thirty, the last game of the season, was a home loss to Eastern Kentucky so sparsely attended that the Bon Jovi snippets meant to pump up the crowd rang out over the silence like salt rubbed in the wound. Jerry had seen bigger crowds for Blue-Red scrimmages.

After an 0-2 start to kick off the following year’s campaign, Jerry and the Redbirds faced Indiana in a home contest that was compensation for Southern Ohio having traveled to Bloomington to pad the Hoosiers’ win column the previous two seasons. Despite the low odds, the town worked themselves up into a frenzy over the idea of ending the skid at thirty-two against their ’87 Goliath in Hollywood fashion.

With a pulsating home arena behind them, the Redbirds roared out to an early 33-20 first half lead, the crowd stomping and clapping with every rebound. The beat reporter debated whether or not he should mention the dead son in his article while he squirted mustard on a hot dog in the concourse at halftime. All of Custerville buzzed with energy brought on by the possibility.

But life rarely works out in Hollywood fashion for outmatched teams, and Southern Ohio went cold in the second half, losing 70-59, the thirty-third straight notch on the belt of failure. By the end of the third quarter you could hear the echo of every last sneaker squeak. Subsequent losses to Marquette and Rhode Island gave Jerry and Southern Ohio the distinction of having the longest losing streak in NCAA history.

‘Thirty-five,’ Jerry said in a whisper while visiting J.R.’s grave like he always did on the last Friday of every month, stabbing his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker and sighing while stray snowflakes did languid pirouettes in the air before landing on the frost-hardened ground. ‘Thirty-five.’