Basketball Story

Basketball Court

~1~

The Moon is a Ball

      Alone but not lonesome, a child shoots hoops under a full and cloudless moon. An old utility pole supports a plywood backboard covered by a repurposed piece of aluminum siding. The ball makes a painful percussive sound every time it hits the board.

      He dribbles, making careful sure not to lose the ball for the deteriorated pavement in front of the basket. He shoots. He scores. Dribbles, shoots, scores again. Stars twinkle and cheer.

      A bare light bulb attached to the house helps illuminate the boy’s world. As the light attracts flying bugs, the bugs bring the bats that swoop in and out, grabbing their dinner on the wing. K’chunka, chirp, twinkle. The moon is a ball too.

      “Hey now boy, I told you about that backboard in the middle of the night. You got neighbors Douglas, who happen to like sleeping. I wanna hear them crickets and nothing else. You hear? And start shooting with your left hand or they gonna read you like a book.”

      The child never says a word back. He takes in the silence of the crickets once Granddad has retreated from the upstairs window. The moon is a ball. He moves to the side of the basket, about 10 feet out. He checks his feet and exhales, shoots, swish. The delay of the raggle taggle net allows him to get to the ball before it hits the ground and he switches to the other side of the basket to shoot with the other hand. Swish, chirp, twinkle.

 

      Douglas narrowly made it out of a small county high school in a small inland state. He played for his high school team sophomore, junior, and senior year. They didn’t try out freshmen unless you were spectacular, and as a freshman, Douglas was not spectacular. And he was very good, or became so. When the path was open, he drove to the hoop. When unopposed he took the jumper and generally made it go. He had skills but lacked tenacity. He displayed team spirit but no killer instinct. Try as they might, in three seasons of near county play-offs, the coach and his whistle could not raise the temperature of Douglas’s game. When scouts from the state colleges came shopping, coach assured them that he was a good boy, from a good family, and that they could put a fire under him, that the tiger in him was just below the surface. The deal would be this: a smallish state school, free ride, which means tuition, room & board, and a job on campus to provide some spending money. He would be required to maintain a C average, and he would play for the team. Coach Whistle would get a new roof on the house from an unknown benefactor, thank you very much. No one in Douglas’s family ever had gone to college, old story.

      And really, Douglas is a good boy. He’s not a dim bulb at all. It’s just that his world view goes out about as far as the edge of town. When books ceased to have pictures in fourth grade, that was about the last time he finished a book. Math and some science came a little easier. The exactitude of right or wrong seemed an easier lift for Douglas. If he got the procedure and stuck to it, his answers were correct. He stayed out of trouble and got through high school because he was a well behaved jock, old story. All of this together, the C average in college would be daunting.

      His basketball skills made him social at home but not outgoing, not like the football guys. He could concentrate and practice for hours and take coaching, but his is a gentle soul and this was reflected in his game. Drive or shoot when easy, but attack his opponent...not so much. This brought his appearances and points at the foul line to near zero.

      But if this gentle soul were to be ripped from hearth and home and dropped into an alien, cosmopolitan, and broadly competitive landscape, what then? The athletic department at a smallish state school wagered Douglas could and would play ball with bared fangs and sharpened talons.

      The kid’s last night home would be observed, not celebrated. Grandmother prepared his favorite foods, which, as luck would have it, was what he ate all the time. The wisdom and advice of his Granddad was served up in large portions, and Douglas feasted on the deep sonorous truth of that voice. The steamer trunk was already packed. The three would rise early, have breakfast, then a neighbor would drive them to the bus terminal, old story. No words, no display of affection could adequately express the love and pride the old couple radiated for their precious grandchild getting on the bus of possibilities.

 

~2~

New in the Hood

      Hours later, cramped and stiff, Douglas and a few other freshmen, all summoned a week before classes were to start, got onto another bus, a shuttle, from the bus station to the campus. This pre-semester week or so would be their “orientation.”

      Instead of taking the weary travelers to their assigned dormitories, the shuttle delivered them to an academic building. Assured by their upperclassman chaperon that their belongings would be safe, they were brought to a lecture hall in that building, a steep indoor amphitheater. Douglas had never been in a space of this configuration. No church or gymnasium with bleachers or auditorium felt and sounded like this.

      They would be waiting for another bus load to arrive, so they were directed to take flip desk seats and to look over the information packets found beneath their seats. The packets contained useful orientation sorts of things: map of the campus, map of the county, significant phone numbers, names and extensions for faculty, staff, and offices. There were codes of behavior, by-laws, dormitory regulations, and eligibility requirements for fraternities and sororities. There were promos and coupons for off-campus eateries or watering holes, which they were not allowed to patronize.

      Front, center, and bottom of the hall was an unoccupied lectern and dais. On either side of this arrangement were school, state, and national flags. As the second bus load came in and took their seats, the dais people came in as well. There was an academic dean, the chairman of the Phys Ed Department, a minister, and a vice president from administration who all sat at the dais as per the name and title placards directed. Two representatives of campus security stood at ease by the flags. Let the orientation begin.

      Later, Douglas and his trunk were dropped off at his dormitory. He was met on the steps by, again, an upperclassman with a clip board. She checked him off and proceeded to show him the ropes.

      First stop was an office from which Douglas received his keys, then to the second floor suite he was to share with four other guys. Douglas had been assigned to the smallest of five rooms off a larger ‘family room.’ The window in Douglas’s room looked out onto the next building. Seniority meant a lot here. His roommates would be straggling in over the next couple of days, in time for the start of the semester.

      The spectacle of those dorm mates—students, men and women, and all strangers, showing up, one after another, in station wagons loaded with family and luggage as though they were coming back from or going on vacations was a wonderment to the disoriented freshman.

      Douglas knew white folks back home, but he didn’t live with them. He had had no white friends, but suddenly, things were different. As soon as a couple of weeks from that point, Douglas would stop barricading his door when he went to sleep.

      One of the roommates, a fella named Jud was a junior and played on the basketball ball team Douglas would advance to after a probationary freshman year on the junior squad. Of course, that plan was far from writ in stone. Unbeknownst to Douglas, Jud would be keeping an eye on him, as Jud was in service to the chairman of the Phys Ed Department.

 

~3~

Jason in the Rust Belt

 

        The Physical Education Chairman was Wynfield Parkers Lattimore. His job description and the sign on his door said Dean. Dean Wynfield Parkers Lattimore, but he preferred the ring of Chairman. To him, it insinuated authority over his subordinates who didn’t doubt his seniority under any title, and there were those who didn’t fall in with the subordination thing.

      He is a tall and distinguished man, square-shouldered, and always immaculately attired. Even in the gym, his workout costume held its creases. I ask you, have you ever seen sweatpants with tailored cuffs?

      The Chairman went to the barber in the morning, Mondays and Thursdays, and more if warranted. He might enter the shop with his newspaper, sit and wait his turn in the chair, inspect the finished result, leave the same bill by the blue sanitizing bottle, nod approval and gratitude, and then leave never having uttered a word. The barber thought this arrangement ideal.

      In high school and college he went out for and succeeded in track & field. He could have gone out for football or basketball and would have done as well in those team sports, but no. In his mind, when he won an event, he won an event. No one else. And he always won the event. Losing a game, even a playground pick-up game due to the inept play of another, did not sit well with Wynfield. For this hard-ass demeanor, he didn’t get many games or keep many friends. This is how he was and who he is. Walking, running, or standing still, Wynfield P. Lattimore was a commemorative statue in search of a pedestal.

      On the track, his college career was magnificent, an unbroken string of V’s with trophies in search of secure available shelf space. Academically too, an unbroken string of A’s, a perfect G.P.A. When romance too became competitive affairs, his opponents politely left the field.

      Any, and I mean any, graduate program would have snatched him up in a heartbeat, but for him there was only one achievable objective, and in that perfectly timed hand-off, that objective was being held in Moscow.

      He went through the qualifier meets like his car was double parked. Boom boom boom, 3 events. The light at the end of his tunnel vision came from shiny gold medals.

      Well didn’t President Carter nip that one in the bud. Neither family nor the friends he didn’t have could ease the anger and anguish he reeled from. He did not climb out from under that wet blanket for a full year. Funny thing about consistent victory: it prepares one poorly for defeat, and sometimes not at all.

      Providing both distraction and vengeance, working for Ronald Reagan’s successful run for the White House was just the thing for Wynfield. Brought him back to functionality...altered but functional.

      He returned to school for a graduate degree in Education. He could have joined any track team just for showing up and smiling, but no, no thank you. The spirit wasn’t broken, however, it was altered...redirected.

      There was in those two years of grad school an enduring fling with an older Literature professor, but she was looking for Ulysses while he was after Ithaca. He helped coach various undergrad teams, graduated with honors, and then bounced around some situations until he arrived at where we find him now, a smallish inland state college and born anew: the Chairman.

~4~

Lay of the Land

 

      The campus was not a very huge sprawling place. Quick enough, Douglas had walked or jogged off the whole thing. Map in hand, he scoped out where he would take his meals, where his classes would be, and where the athletic facilities were. He learned the paths and he learned the short cuts. On the page it all seemed a maze, but on foot it quickly enough became back of hand.

      Back home, using streets and avenues seemed the most indirect path for getting anywhere. His habit was to make a beeline through backyards and between houses. Thus, the neighborhood was his home and his backyard. Now, the campus would become so. His home, his backyard, and his court.

      In that week before classes started, every day after lunch, Douglas made a beeline to the athletic fields. Indeed he thought this a holy place, his notion of how heaven might appear. There were no fences but for those around the tennis courts. The grass was green and nobody slept on the benches.

      There was a soft surface track that ran around a great multi-purpose field. Imposing and permanent goal posts at either end of the rectangle declared who wore the pants in that Phys Ed Department. Then there were those tennis courts, garnished with awkward pretty girls mostly, but not all.

      Douglas understood well that so much of sports was about legs. Except for chess maybe, all sports was a leg game, and the legs he saw out there on the tennis courts, mostly, by his estimation, were just for looking, maybe walking. Maybe dancing.

      On one side of the field, the bleacher side, stood the great and almost windowless Phys Ed building. It was closed during this orientation period, and Douglas could only imagine what wonders were contained inside those Rockefeller granite walls. He knew the basketball arena was in there, and the pool and gyms and equipment and classrooms and offices, and who knows what else.

      On the other side of the track and before a stand of pine trees were three playground sized basketball courts without cracked or crumbling surfaces. The lines were painted fresh and perfect, and the nets swayed gently. Most remarkable to Douglas was a ball caddy full of perfectly inflated b balls, just sitting there. Back home, those balls would have been gone in an hour, and the fancy caddy would vanish in the night. When the wind blew right, the courts and the caddy smelled like trees.

      Back in high school, the coach, who figured he was college inventory, had warned him not to play full out on concrete or asphalt. That the damage which prematurely ended careers, was youthful damage suffered in school yards. Ever a good listener and obedient player, he played easy on concrete, but played none the less.

      Later in the week, there was Jud and some of the guys from the A team that Douglas would in time advance into. With Jud’s say so, Douglas was welcome to shoot around or play h.o.r.s.e. or even some 3 on 3 half court games, easy though, easy 3 on 3.

      Though there were some good shooters, he found them flat-footed and predictable...one handed. When passing to them, he might have hit them in the head or just passed out of bounds, both of which happened. But predictable is almost like dependable, and they did show respect when Douglas made an unlikely shot. Their defense was tenacious, and they seemed to have an appetite for rebounding and blocking shots that Douglas was not accustomed to at all.

 

~5~

Madame Coach

      The semester began Monday morning, on time, no kidding. Not  having anticipated all the commuter students, Douglas was taken aback by the mass of people into which he would now be matriculating. If not for the help and guidance of his acclimated roommates and Jud in particular, he might have drowned in the tide of people and details. The game was on, full out. Even if he was up on time, his roommates knocked on his door. “How do they know my schedule?”

      In those first days of classes, a woman came to Douglas’s attention. By no means a freshman or student, she might have been a teacher or maybe administration. She was older not old, maybe 40 maybe more. At first sight, boy Douglas was paralyzed by how radiant and beautiful this person appeared. She was light-skinned and fit as fit could be. Her features were indescribable, as if every ethnicity contributed their very best for the creation of an ideal being. Her most outstanding feature though was, whenever Douglas saw her, she seemed constantly surrounded by people who, by their posture and their step, seemed to adore her. Adore, in a deific use of the word.

      Her name was Lucinda Wilcots and how surprised was Douglas when she strode into the gym in workout sweats and blew her whistle on the first day of junior varsity team practice. The word would be “very,” he was very surprised that this woman was the head basketball coach. “Damn!!” A capable assistant coach ran the J.V. team, but he happily danced to Coach Luc’s tune. She knew the names of the freshmen players before a word was said but had them introduce themselves to the team and herself formally. Then she watched some shoot around but left before the drills began.

      Coach Wilcots was one of the subordinates not subordinate. She got her spot before the Chairman got his. He would have tossed her 11 minutes after his name went up on the door, but even in small doses, seniority in academia is powerful medicine.

      His great objection to Lucinda Wilcots was simply that she would not heel. That was a trait, though he admired in the abstract, did not want to contend with in his department, and didn’t coach Luc know it. She didn’t rub it in, but she didn’t have to.

      Coach Luc saw Douglas clearly, fairly. His back story was, in some retelling, similar to hers, and a little different. She saw a polite and respectful kid who should have dribbled less and studied more, but the dribbling got him into college. The coaches’ role was to keep him in college through to graduation. This was not a novel challenge for coach Lucinda Wilcots.

      In the eyes of the Chairman, once a champion bound for glory but cruelly cloth-lined, Douglas was more than a diamond in the rough. He was a diamond yet to be unearthed, and to be plundered. It’s not that the Chairman saw some remarkable potential in Douglas, which would have been a stretch, but that the Chairman would be a creator of a monster, somewhat in his own image. A competitive, victorious monster, and this child would be the subject of the exercise.

      Douglas’s achievement would be the Chairman’s achievement. The team and coaches’ achievements would be his achievement as well. The banner(s) would hang in his gym, and the trophy would shine brightly close to and upon his office door.

      Now the Chairman knew quite well, low or uneducated intellects were inadequate to the challenges of leadership and success. A dull mind trumps any and all advantages in complex endeavors.

      His meetings with all the coaches were scheduled and procedural. His “encounters” with Douglas appeared to be mere run-ins. Chairman knew who, what, where, and when anything inhaled within the confines of his Phys Ed Fortress.

 

~6~

Two Flies in the Web

      Some weeks into the semester, inter squad games or polite games with other near-by schools became almost weekly events. Douglas always got some minutes, but there were bigger stronger upperclassmen on the J.V. team  who had not advanced but played effectively. What made the b ball coaches nuts with Douglas was this: in practice, clearly, he was the best free throw shooter on the team. From the foul line, he was ice cold and deadly. In full out games though, he never got to the line because no opponent had cause to foul him. The sight of that stat on the game spread sheet would make coach Luc livid and she would go after the junior coach.

      “Teach him to drive, god damn it!! He’s a point guard for chrise sakes. If he’s not at that line 5 times a game in one month, you’ll be coaching J.V. field hockey, You smell me?” Lucinda knew well when she could hit her subordinates’ buttons and, when not to.

      Lattimore took this point debit into his long and educated stride. Now would begin the long workout. He would exercise 3 muscles in this first stage effort. To elevate Douglas’s game = elevate of Douglas.

      First, their chance encounters in the Phys Ed building became conversations in Lattimore’s office. Most folks found the Chairman too austere and oppressive, which indeed he was. But if Douglas could stand it, well, “more power to Douglas.”

      The Chairman’s office, really a shrine, initially was a shock to Douglas. The trophies and medals and ribbons and diplomas and framed letters and clippings, for a spell, dazzled Douglas. To the infrequent visitor, it was all just creepy. What Douglas got exclusively though, was the recited narrative of Lattimore’s life and accomplishments including the dastardly theft of Olympic posterity followed by his time in the wilderness.

      Douglas started to see a very real person in front of him and across a vast and fancy desk. To that point and to that time, Douglas saw only his Grandparents in that way, flesh and blood products of a life of un-earned suffering, particularly his Granddad. For the most part, all others were to Douglas as card board cut-outs that came and went in his life. Not knowing the word “empathy” does not preclude a soul from knowing or having empathy.

      He started to hear the tenacity and even venom of a competitive animal chained to a junkyard fence. It started to dawn upon him that his people were not the only ones to feel cheated, unfairly denied, robbed of opportunity, and made to know the crud taste of uninvited anguish.

      Along with his victory memorabilia, Lattimore’s office contained books. Behind the desk where he swiveled and sat was an entire wall of books, floor to ceiling, books, books, books, like a little library. Granddad had some books, but you could have put them all in a milk crate. Douglas wondered if this dude had read them all.

      Lattimore would ask if he had read this or that and Douglas would blink and say “no.” This response was anticipated, and thus he knew where to start.

      “Here Douglas, try this.” He stood and quickly scanned the nearby region of the shelves. Finding the slim work he had in mind, he grabbed it, tossed it over the desk, and it landed in front of Douglas. “You only need to read the lines highlighted yellow. The rest is commentary. Next time you’re here we’ll dissect it together. I’ve loaned out a few copies of Sun Tzu. Some came back unread, but some didn’t come back. I hope this one doesn’t come back.”

      The second muscle in the Chairman’s campaign was dormmate Jud, who would be, as already arranged, eyes, ears, and big brother. Checking homework, sharing study hours, getting him out for classes on time and general low impact chaperoning, and providing a welcome in to shoot arounds with the A team who mostly treated Douglas like a freshman or maybe, a mascot. As it was incumbent upon academics teachers of freshman athletic scholarships to provide progress reports to the Phys Ed Chairman, to his satisfaction, Douglas was looking like a ‘B’ student. Hmmm.....

      The third muscle was a mighty and great one. Now, a lower intellect, which Lattimore could never be, might have sent in a skirt as some agent of half-assed mind control, but diluting the exercise with sex was anathema to the Chairman. After all, he was Chairman Lattimore, not Pimp Lattimore.

      On campus, there was a graduate mathematics student waiting for an acceptance letter from some elite PhD programs, and those letters were likely on the way. He was the dictionary picture of what we call “nerd.” An academic powerhouse, he was educated as broadly as the day is long, and he was Black. And he was crazy. In polite circles one might say “complicated,” but this guy, trust me, was way more than pedestrian nuts.

      He was isolated in a crowd of three or more, scared of his own shadow, socially inept to the point of friendless, without humanizing vices, afraid of girls, heights, people who cough, and a trunk load of other things, you know, perfect for military R&D.

      Not perfect for the Chairman’s objective but very very useful, Darcy DeWitt would be a critical X in the playbook for the making of the monster Douglas.

      Darcy did record keeping and stat analysis of all the varsity teams. He could have done all this work in his head, but the money arrangement required he put it onto spread sheets for the benefit of others. For this reason, he attended many games and meets, though he never cheered for the “home team.” In fact, he didn’t care a wit who won or lost. He was not one bit athletic himself, not one bit. He couldn’t catch a basketball if you handed it to him, and before giving up, he couldn’t walk in the right direction on the track.

~7~

The Starting Buzzer

 

      In part due to where he was raised and due in part to how he was being trained, Douglas scanned a space, large or small, quickly and precisely. With this detective eye he could not miss the solitary figure in the bleachers, never sitting higher than a few rows up during J.V. practices in the big gym arena.

      He was always writing and always alone. He blew his nose into what seemed from a distance, a towel, which he stuffed into a back pocket after trumpeting his success. The margin of change in his attire was near zero and on rainy days he carried a distressed umbrella.

      One day, on coming to the end of a session in the Chairman’s office, call it the 50 minute mark, after a cursory discussion of the Emerson Self Reliance thing, there came a gentle tapping on the office door. The atmosphere of concentration in that place had never been disturbed before, so Douglas jumped a bit. The Chairman did not, indeed, he looked at his fancy watch. The door opened and in came the bleacher nerd.

      “Darcy old man, nice to see you. We were just finishing up here. Have you met Douglas, point guard for J.V. basketball? Douglas, Darcy here is our master records & stats keeper for all the varsity teams”.

      Douglas rose and they shook hands, both feigning badly that to that point they were unaware of each other’s existence.

      “Oh, right, right, right. Yes, you wear 22 and never sees the foul line. 8 points a game is passing but 13 with free throws is what your team needs.” 

      Darcy was not without sting and it took the smile right off Douglas’s face. “Well, what do you have for me today, Darcy?” the Chairman interjected before this first encounter was thoroughly torpedoed.

      Darcy pulled a clipped sheaf of paper from his attaché and handed it to the Chairman. “Here is one month of softball stats. All permutations recorded including hitting averages against right or left handed pitching in both directions.” Darcy thought this jock thing beneath him.

      “Excellent Darcy, I’d be blind without you. Has coach Stelton seen these yet?” Chairman raised an eyebrow.

      “I imagine so Sir, I thought I heard weeping from her office?

      “Excellent, excellent! Would you men excuse me? I have some calls to make before I call it a day here. Douglas, I’ll see you on Friday and we’ll pursue Emerson some more.” Darcy rolled his eyes (which Douglas missed ), said good night, turned and left. Douglas picked up his book bag, stashed his text into it, and dashed out to catch up with Darcy. He missed the Chairman’s contented grin.

      Clutching the hand rail for dear life, Darcy descended the stairs slowly.

He was afraid of heights but terrified of elevators. He told folks who asked that it was half of all the exercise he got.

      A three headed turtle could not have intrigued Douglas the way Darcy did. Walking back towards the dorms together, as it was Darcy’s habit to stay with lighted sidewalks, Douglas traded his bee-line route for the longer one which provided him more time to study this new species of Brother before him.

~8~

Life’s Like Playing Chess

 

      If Douglas suspected that Darcy might get weird, it didn’t worry him enough to decline the invitation to see how the upper class lived. After all, Douglas was a jock from the ghetto.

      Most graduate students lived off campus but Darcy was afraid of automobiles. The grad dorms were only a few buildings away from Douglas’s dorm, so a brief visit wouldn’t wreck Douglas’s tight schedule.

      Darcy’s room was neat like no one even lived there. Everything was in its strictly appointed place. The kitchenette looked unused. There was a glass, a mug, a bowl, and a spoon in the drain next to the tiny sink. Douglas wondered if there was anything in the cupboard or the fridge. There was no TV or radio that Douglas could see.

      Quick enough, Douglas realized everything in the rectangular space was situated at right angles to everything else. Darcy’s slippers waited at right angles to his bed, splitting the distance from head to foot of the single use barracks sized mattress.

      At the far end of the rectangle and in front of a window, there was a table. The table was round, but the chess board that parked upon it was in regimental agreement with everything else, and the two interrogation chairs were not ones to argue. A short stack of chess books left on the window sill in haphazard order was the only evidence of humanity an eye could find.

      The chess pieces stood battle ready. Those with faces faced forward, and all were dead center in their squares. How bleak and lonely it all seemed to Douglas.

      “Do you play?” Darcy asked Douglas. The Chairman’s list included chess.

      “Nope, played checkers with my Granddad, but the chess club kids in High School slammed the door on jocks. I can’t really blame them.” Darcy eyed the door. “Can you teach me?”

      “Can you learn?” Darcy volleyed. Not one hour into their acquaintance, and the student suffered no sting from the tutor’s backhanded remarks.

      First he learned the names of the pieces, then their rank, then their mobility. Darcy explained all pieces were eligible for elimination except the king, who would get captured. This determined victory or defeat in the game.

      Next, Darcy removed all the pieces from the board except both kings, queens, one of each bishop, and one of each castle. In this exercise he demonstrated end game attack, entrapment. Two or three rounds of that and he started adding back the other castles and bishops, then the knights and pawns.

      Douglas’s attention was excellent, but his retention was like hot tar, 100%, and Darcy was impressed. After an hour they were playing real games start to finish, but these ended quickly in fool’s mate. Darcy stopped and demonstrated some classical openings, which Douglas absorbed brilliantly. Indeed he found relief in the creation of lanes and bringing out pieces within a defensive structure.

      He didn’t beat Darcy that first day and didn’t really come close, but he learned how to play chess.

      Douglas thanked Darcy for his hospitality and the lesson, and collected himself to leave. He wondered if he could teach Granddad this game, more nuanced than checkers.

      “Let’s play some more soon, rookie.”

      There was little to no ceremony saying good night to Darcy.

 

      Alone again, he made a beeline for the cafeteria. His schedule had been interrupted by the impromptu chess session, so he ate quickly and headed for the gym, last stop in his day.

      Douglas had been granted pretty much carte blanche access to the facility by the custodial chief, who often worked there by himself after hours.

      In these solo sessions, the drills he did in practice with the team, he now drilled by himself. The big gym was dark but for the half a court Mr. Elligman left illuminated when he knew Douglas was coming.

      He would begin with free throws. When he made 5 in a row he would switch hands, 5 in a row and switch back. Then to dribbling, first weak hand and then strong hand, then back and forth and all around, moving forward, backward, and side to side. After driving to the hoop a while, both hands, he might finish up with push-ups, sit-ups, and jump rope.

      His name was Moses Elligman. He was a gentleman.

      At that last dinner at home before leaving for school, Granddad told his child in the clearest terms possible, “The most important thing, as long as you walk God’s green Earth, is that you conduct and comport yourself as a gentleman. Nothing good is coming your way if you forget it. You’ll know who are your friends and who are not. Good sense starts right there.”

      By this measure, Mr. Elligman appeared and behaved as the perfection of a gentleman. Tall and fit, his stride was nothing but elegant. He endowed his custodial blues with purpose and dignity. Trimmed white hair and beard only added to the soulful luster, the power. Soul Power.

      Douglas addressed him Mr. Elligman. Not Mr. E or Moses or anything else. Mr. Elligman. Excepting his Granddad, Douglas could not think of another man who commanded his respect, without action or word, as did Mr. Elligman. Even Minister Peakins back home couldn’t carry the towel that perpetually hung from Mr. Elligman’s back pocket.

      Moses Elligman had been on the same doomed track team as the Chairman. His big event was relay, but he ran other events as well. He was a superior athlete but one without that furious competitive gene that Lattimore possessed, for better or worse.

      When the news came that Carter pulled the USA out of the Moscow Olympics, he took that news in his elegant stride. He had lost a brother in Vietnam, so considered the diplomacy of Carter’s withdrawal a sober and measured response. And anyways, the Olympics weren’t paying, so...next case.

      He dabbled with a baseball career where the money was good, but all the spitting just revolting. He got to triple A, but walked away. Folks don’t spit or chew tobacco in track.

      Some of the folks from the track team stayed in touch, Christmas and funerals sorts of things. When Lattimore proposed a coaching spot at a small inland college, Moses heard the dinner bell and came at a sprint. Unfortunately, the money was not that good, resume be damned. However, the custodial job plus what Lattimore would pay him under the table to keep tabs on randy coaches, seemed most agreeable to Mr. Elligman, so he took that high wage—low stress position. He was an effective manager custodian of a multimillion dollar facility, his uniform fit, and his name was embroidered on his breast pocket.

      Moses Elligman knew like bees know flowers, jobs didn’t come with dignity. You had to bring your own from home. When he found out he was pulling down double what the track coach was making, he shook his head, chuckled while he painted fresh lines for the 100 yard dash.

      Some nights, if Mr. Elligman’s inspections and inventories were completed, he might come and sit in the bleachers while Douglas drilled. He might bring the portable cassette player (then and now called Boom Box) his grandchildren gave him for Christmas along with a collection of Coltrane—Miles—Mingus—on cassette. Light had started coming through the vinyls he so cherished and were sounding more like original Bix 78’s.

      Douglas would dribble and drive while soul song prayer of want and joy poured from John Coltrane by way of his horn. A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme. Mr. Elligman listened to the blues, and he listened to the ball, and it all bounced around together, a happy ghost in the vacant gym. Half the court was lit. The rest was darkness, except for the exit signs. A Love Supreme.

      On a night such as this and some days later, a campus security guy entered the gym. On hearing the court level doors working, Mr. Elligman was up, down the bleachers, and encountered the officer before he stepped onto the court. Douglas could not hear what they discussed, but Mr. Elligman’s head fell forward and his shoulders drooped. The officer handed him the paper that was the matter of his visit. He turned and left the same way he came, the closing doors percussed finality. Mr. Elligman strode slowly to where Douglas stood rigid with the ball on his hip.

      “Your Grandfather passed away in his sleep last night, Douglas. Your Grandmother requests you come home immediately. The funeral will be the day after tomorrow. She says you are to miss very little school.. He passed peacefully, and family and neighbors are with your Grandmother now.

      Please accept my deepest condolences Douglas. May I drive you to the bus station in the morning? There are no buses sooner than that.” 

      The ball dropped from Douglas’s hip and he began to weep as he had never had cause to before. Mr. Elligman held on to him until the sobbing subsided. A Love Supreme.

~9~

The Love Supreme

 

      The bus ride home was pure contemplation. He reflected on his life, his Grandparents, his home, his upbringing, and the change that was now occurring at a rate best described as upheaval.

      Before the bus pulled into the first rest area for refreshment and relief, Douglas came to understand he could not have recalled his life so entirely a few quick months ago. Now he could recall events he forgot he forgot. He could recall conditions leading to an event and the aftermath of an event and how it all resonated within him yet. As if in a long fall from a tall building, it all marched before him in parade arrangement.

      Memories used to come in reverse size order, danger, fear, and pain at the front of the line. Later came content and satisfaction, a briefer portion of the line.

      But now the memories ordered themselves differently. They came to the stage more by subject than by impact.

      Now appeared the precious hours of dinner with his Grandparents and the smell of greens and ham hocks and a reciting of Grace that was never routine. All else lined up behind these bright moments in such a way so to be gone from sight. Not forgotten but greatly obscured.

      A neighbor retrieved Douglas from the bus station. It was twilight, and dinner was on the stove. Another close neighbor had supplied the meal as Grandma was not up to cooking.

      In the past, when only three were having dinner, there was a fourth setting and a fourth chair. Now, there was a third setting and a third familiar chair, well-worn and baring the scars of repair.

      “Your Grandfather loved you very much. He prayed for you three times a day and whenever anything reminded him of you.”

      “I love you Grandma. Maybe I should put off school for the semester and be here with you for Chri...” Grandmother snapped off his sentence with absolute parental finality.

      “Don’t even think it young man. Those words don’t pass from your lips. My sister will come and stay a while. You’ll be home for “a visit” over the holidays. Your business is to graduate your education with the tenacity of the generations that got you there, so mind your business. I’ll be fine. Probably be finding church sisters in the linen closet soon enough. You and school is one word now. Be great. Honor your Grandfather.”

      Douglas slept in his room, just as he had left it. Many of the objects and posters and such things seemed the affects of another person, a stranger. He heard his Grandmother’s sobs through the wall. Then she stopped and was asleep. Douglas brought a chair to the window so to stare at the quiet street. The moon was nearly full, the b ball hoop unattended. Bugs and bats still made their rounds. The moon is a ball too.

      The following day was the funeral. Many tears rolled from many eyes, but all backs were straight. Surviving friends from the service saluted. Granddad was laid to rest in a family plot a short distance from the church. Right next to him was the reserved space for when his wife came to Grace beside him.

      Douglas was back on the bus the very next day. He slept in his dorm and was back in class on Monday morning.

      On that very next Wednesday, Douglas was in a literature class. He thought the reading list fruity and maybe irrelevant, but he enjoyed the teacher, eh, professor a great deal. He was argumentative and permitted no one to not participate. When he read aloud, he appeared possessed, and though not his Granddad’s baritone, the authority of that voice made Douglas sit up straight.

      That particular day he was reading ”Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Most of the class had never read it, and near none had ever heard it. At its conclusion, the reader spoke one thunderous word “Thoughts.” Two people spoke up and expressed with some reserve, that they enjoyed the meter and rhyme scheme. Professor Palladin snapped the volume shut, a startling exclamation of his disappointment and then recited the last stanza in a somehow altered meter which obscured the rhyme. He could do that.

      “It’s not a damn pop song. Don’t hear the poem through your feet. What is he saying? What is Mr. Wolfe saying, anyone?”

      Douglas cleared his throat, “He’s saying that his Father should battle death like an enemy. I disagree. And, I think Wolfe is being selfish. Sometimes a peaceful gentle death is a reward for a life well lived. A life of devotion and respect and love.”

      Then there was silence. Rarely does anyone have Palladin playing defense which impressed the class more than Douglas’ insight, and the class rambled on, slightly more charged than before Douglas spoke.

      At the conclusion of the class, as folks were shuffling out, from a few rows back, a girl said “Hey” as she saw Douglas rising from his seat. Her syllable hit him like an arrow. She was yet to rise, and along with Douglas they were the last remaining in the room. Generally, Douglas was of the first 5 out of a class like that. Not today. Douglas approached slowly, suddenly shy for the awareness of being studied.

      “I heard what you said and you said what you meant. More than I can say for other members of the student body I know. Have you lost someone recently?”

      For a moment out of time, Douglas didn’t speak. Possibly, couldn’t speak. “My grandfather.” Silence again, two times.

      “You were close. How’s your Grandma?”

      Douglas was submerged in a miracle the likes of which he had never read in any scripture. “Grandma’s tough as they come and grateful for what she had. She had me on the bus back here day after the funeral. Thank you for asking. My name is Douglas”

      “HannahLee. School’s out, let’s walk a while.” HannahLee zipped her book bag, flipped over her desk thing and then reached behind her chair for two crutches, serious crutches but giddy for the way they were decorated...personalized. Douglas had not noticed them until that moment. His focus was narrowed to a face.

      First she used a crutch to move the chair/desk next to her out of what would be her way. Then with a muffled grunt, pulled herself upright. Once balanced and secure, she reached for her bag.

      “Oh please, let me.” HannahLee let him, and he slung her bag over the same arm that held his own. She smiled, and Douglas took his first breath.

~10~

A Drink from the Spring of Aphrodite

 

      “How’d you hurt your leg?” Douglas asked from a jock’s frame of reference. He considered a drive to the hoop, a slide into second, or maybe a fight in the playground.

      “I tripped on a pile of cancer. Ate my leg bone like a Christmas ham” HannahLee stopped walking, and Douglas stopped walking. She reached down and pulled up the leg of her loose fitting jeans to reveal a high tech system of braces that ran from her ankle up past her knee. What could be seen of her leg was withered and scarred. “Two steps without my ‘irons,’ and most likely I’d break the bone again. The doctors want me in a wheelchair for two years. Much of the time, I concede to that, but then, there are other times. If possible, I’d prefer to hang on to my leg; I’m kinda attached to it. Maybe, fond, yeah, fond of it.”

      Again, HannahLee suspended their stroll, this time in front of a building that Douglas was not familiar with. Some folks coming and going from this facility carried musical instruments or wore jeans splattered with paint. Black or white didn’t matter. These were Arts majors, a race unto themselves. Once again, Douglas found himself in the company of the other other half.

      It was getting late in the day, so most of the students were leaving the building.

      “What do you do here? What’s your major?” Douglas felt the inbound lines of conversation stretching from basketball to football scale. He could he thought, ask this woman anything.

      “Fine Arts. Painting and drawing and things like that. Kind of low impact pursuits. Nothing too competitive and conveniently stationary. How about yourself?”

      Douglas hesitated with his answer. A frank response seemed, in that moment, a cruelty and possibly counter-productive to the enchantment at hand. He could have said ‘undeclared major,’ but a dodge like that he thought dishonest. “I’m a Phys Ed major. I’m here on a basketball scholarship; I play for my supper. Everyone told me it was my ticket out, whatever that means.”

      “Are you good?”

      “Back home they told me I was, and I doubted them. Now I don’t know, but now is getting further from then. I don’t know.”

      With a mighty hand attached to a mighty arm, HannahLee grabbed him by his college sweatshirt and said, “Come see what I do.” Douglas followed attentively.

      Had Douglas not grabbed the brass ring of a basketball scholarship and stayed home after high school, he might have sought employment at one of the 47 outlets in 3 states of the “Battle Ready Muffler Shops.” HannahLee was herself pacific and gracious and a Battle nonetheless.

      She was on track to attend an Ivy League school in New England, but those plans changed when her deteriorated leg broke the first time. After a full year of cutting edge therapy, proximity to home and the Mayo Clinic made the current educational institution the best choice.

      Besides being completely wheelchair accessible, HannahLee was granted other exceptional amenities. This was due to the Battle family cutting a big fat check for the “art of the state” Phys Ed facility and program. Small town, no?

      Much like Douglas’s access to the Phys Ed fortress, HannahLee had carte blanche access to the Arts building. They afforded her a room of her own with good light where she could spread out and need not make concessions to others. She had specially outfitted chairs that swiveled or elevated her just right to make it easier getting in and out of her wheelchair. Despite her tragic episode still unfolding, HannahLee was a child of privilege.

      Barely an hour into this union, Douglas was hovering over HannahLee, but soon enough realized she was in her space and her element and that his concern was bothersome. She needed no help navigating her dominion, so he took a cruise around the studio.

      “So much output. Do you sleep here?”

      “Sometimes.” HannahLee pointed to a stained couch beneath a grand landscape sarcasm of the Phys Ed building as Olympus midst a midnight thunder clap. Though he recognized the building, he was not yet apprised of the backstory. After a ball game, all that’s left is statistics, but Douglas was measuring a moving van should she ever leave or graduate this place.

      When the unguided tour led him back to HannahLee’s perch, he was confronted by an image of himself more revealing than if he were studying himself in a mirror. No one before had ever rendered him so. He didn’t think it could happen that fast. It had. It did.

      Next he was under the spell of a self-portrait in charcoal. He spoke to the portrait, but the artist heard and answered.

      “Can you part with this one?”

      “I wouldn’t call it parting.”