Tuesday, December 23, 1986, 3:14 a.m.
‘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.’