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