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, the 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 worldview 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, an 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 were 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.
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 look over the information packets found beneath their seats. The packets contained useful orientation sorts of things: a map of the campus, a 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 clipboard. She checked him off and proceeded to show him the ropes.
The 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.
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.
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 shortcuts. On the page, it all seemed like a maze, but on foot, it quickly enough became the back of the 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 goalposts 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 were leg games, 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 schoolyards. Ever a good listener and obedient player, he played easy on concrete but played nonetheless.
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.
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 in 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, although 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.
Two Flies in the Web
Some weeks into the semester, inter-squad games or polite games with other nearby 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 spreadsheet 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 five 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 three 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 unearned suffering, particularly his Granddad. For the most part, all others were to Douglas as cardboard 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, general low-impact chaperoning, and providing a welcome into shootarounds 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 Ph.D. programs, and those letters were likely on the way. He was the dictionary picture of what we call a “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 spreadsheets for the benefit of others. For this reason, he attended many games and meets, although 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.
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's 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, the 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 see 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 was 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 handrail 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.
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 was 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, 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 from 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, the 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 fo 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 for 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 as 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 the 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 and 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 they were sounding more like original Bix 78s.
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.
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 effects 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 to be 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 nearly 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 that 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’s 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 she was 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 the 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.
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 to get 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.”
A few days later, Friday, after an hour in an oversized but crowded school van, the junior varsity basketball team with one coach and one grad assistant was delivered to the less fabulous Phys Ed building of another smallish inland college.
At that time, Douglas’s team did not have a winning record—more wins than losses. Their opponents that night were the dominant JV team in the region. Douglas did not imagine an underdog win here, but he was curious to play a team whose stats indicated they were at the top of the division.
After getting their locker assignments, the team was given meal passes and pointed to the cafeteria. It was 3:30. Warm-ups started at 6:00 and tip-off at 7:30. The home team and its coaches hoped the visitors ate too much, or ideally, had the white clam chowder.
Douglas was not sent into the game until the closing minutes of the first half. His team at that time was down by 16 points. Underestimated for his size and freshman rank, Douglas made an unguarded jump shot from 12 feet out, an easy basket. Next, he stole the ball from a distracted forward and made a great pass up court to a free teammate, who then failed to make the easy basket. The half was over, but Douglas would start the second half.
In the locker room at half time, basketball was not front and center on the minds of the team. Cheerleaders were, but the team would not be around after the game to get none anyways. Douglas and two others were dutifully attentive to the coach. The game that could not be won was more important to the smaller group than the leg show was to the larger.
The opponents won the tip-off, but their first pass was picked off by Douglas, who then tore downcourt unescorted and easily scored the layup. The modest but vocal crowd was not amused. After the basket was scored, Douglas handed the ball to the guy he stole it from, “Looking for this?”
Coaches at the college level like a zone defense strategy. It creates cohesion and discourages streetball showboating. Cohesion is a big deal, but for a basketball genius, the rigidity of a zone defense, or offense, is a structure to attack.
Fight your opponent’s strategy, not your opponent, hmmm?
In full-out games, Douglas had started to see new things on the court. He began to see lines between opposing players, not merely the players themselves. The player with the ball might not be the primary concern, but the lines along which the ball might travel were. He started playing the lines. He could reach into the transits, or just shut them down. The opponent would be forced to take low-percentage shots from outside.
He started to see what the opponent saw. Then he knew when the pass was coming. Not from the man with the ball but from the man expecting to get it. Douglas could make believe he was playing on the other team. And that was deadly.
That night the opponent scored half as many points in the second half as they had in the first. They could guard against Douglas’s shooting but they couldn’t figure out his defense. Their once flowing ball movement became timid and pointless. Their scoring opportunities now in short supply. The little freshman was a pain in the ass, but they wrongly blamed themselves for not finding better shot opportunities.
In the second half, Douglas made two steals and three jumpers. He went to the foul line twice on two very contested drives to the hoop when he thought the door was open. It was not.
Regardless, the visitors did not go home with a win. The scoring differential in the second half was about even, so the lead from the first half lasted through to the final buzzer.
On the bus ride back, some fell right to sleep. Some cackled about cheerleader underwear. Douglas dozed while visions of bishops and knights and a Queen danced in his head.
“What do you mean they stopped scoring in the second half but won anyway? Did they come back from halftime stoned? Something they ate? I want answers, Chet. What changed? What unplugged their firepower, or you just going to blink and drool?” Coach Lucinda was riled up. Not by the loss but by the lack of analysis.
The scorer’s table stat sheets corroborated what coach Chet could neither perceive nor articulate. All parties were looking at the same stats, but other than the chowder hypothesis, the source of this tactical breakthrough could not be gleaned from the numbers.
Coach Luc suspected what was going on. As the best coaches do, when not on a basketball court, she refrained from speaking to her players as though they were soldiers or pieces on a board. She engaged them as people sharing a porch or a stoop. If the game was on, they were combatants sent to the front. In those moments, thoughts interfered with action, with the mission.
Douglas was different, and something was awakening in him. Most people missed this change in him. Coach Luc was not one of them. She’d seen it before but not at this scale, this suddenly. Douglas was becoming a monster.
Exit Once and Always
December rolled in right on time. The final exams that reduced tougher souls to nervous wrecks did not traumatize Douglas. He studied, he read, and he did his work. The tests contained what the classes taught, no more no less.
In preparation for that week, he saw Darcy more frequently, and the sessions stretched longer. HannahLee was not burdened that year by a lot of academic credits, so Douglas spent much of his study time with her in the studio. Reading and writing on the couch beneath Olympus, while HannahLee swiveled and sketched. Zeus tossed his lightning bolts, but Hera blessed this home.
Darcy would not go home for Christmas. He might miss his mail, which was most of what he cared about. He was working on a system, a theorem. He believed that the precisely ordered evaluation of stats and bios and input from coaches and physical characteristics as well as socio-economic identification and ethnic homogeneity of a team could provide a low margin of error prediction of how a team in any of the varsity sports would finish their season. He couldn’t predict the play of an individual or the outcome of a game, but would a team finish below or above 500—a winning or losing season?
He shared his thesis with no one, not that he had any knitting circles where he might discuss it. Darcy was smug as smug gets. What he knew mattered only if no one else knew it, and anyway, he didn’t need any bookie gangsters knocking on his door seeking a safe bet.
HannahLee’s sister showed up in a big new Chevy Blazer to fetch her home for the holidays. It should come as no surprise the Battles and Douglas hailed from opposite ends of the state, so driving him home was impossible, which might have been nice. Instead, they dropped him at the bus depot. People stared when a young black man embraced and kissed the homecoming queen on crutches. The stare of envy is toxic, and there before them was what travelers in all directions wish to find but rarely do.
Autumn stayed late that year, maybe to stick around for the holidays. The trees kept their leaves, and the wind didn’t blow cold down the street. Would the holidays too be late this year?
The house was tidier now, inhabited by no men instead of two. Grandma hung on to Douglas as though she would never let go, and that embrace became an examination as well. Douglas was bigger and stronger. No longer just the recipient of her deepest affection, her boy was hugging back at her.
As the kitchen, dining area, and living room were all pretty much one space, the smells of the kitchen, the twinkle of the tree, and the love and devotion of that woman and that home sang to Douglas like a chorus of angels.
The next day at church, folks who had known him his whole life noted he seemed bigger, stronger, and he wasn’t slouching. He was afforded the respect which he used to witness as his Grandfather’s due. The Minister blessed him, and over a long handshake expressed how proud his Grandmother and the whole congregation were of him. He inquired if there was anything Douglas needed.
After church and a big community luncheon, when Grandma had gone down for her nap, Douglas changed into workout clothes and went for a cruise of the hood. The shopping area of the town was not the primary locus for Douglas; the playground was.
He could hear the bang of the backboard and the cussing before he could identify the faces, voices, or jump shots. They stopped playing as Douglas entered the playground through a hole in the fence. Only pussies came in by the open gates.
“Yo yo yo, check out homeboy in the college sweats! Well, ain’t you a sight Douglas. You gonna read us some poetry?” Didn’t take long to choose up sides, half court 3 on 3. All knew who was on whose side, they just did.
How different it all seemed now, not changed but different. The asphalt surface and the sound the ball made when he dribbled were freaky different. Someone slept on a distant bench, and the wire garbage cans were more than full. The backboards were kind of dead and the rims kind of floppy.
“If someone got up behind the board on a ladder, they could tighten the bolts of the rim.”
“Start the game college boy, we want to see what they taught you while the Sun’s still up.” Douglas knew them all, their real names, their nicknames, and their moves. Some were a little older or a little younger. None played on the high school team, and some didn’t finish high school at all. Tomorrow morning they would go to their jobs if they were so fortunate to have a job.
Since no one called fouls in a playground, having the ball was like an invitation to catch a beating. You either shot the ball or got rid of it. Mostly they shot, and Douglas was suddenly aware of what his coaches were teaching him and what sort of play they discouraged. His dribbling skills didn’t matter when he could just be shoved and the ball taken away. His shots weren’t working when they hit the board and just dropped, as if they had hit mush.
How slow his old friends all seemed now. The game was now a contest of brutality, a marathon, or even a gamut. Grace, skill, and cooperation meant nothing here, and this was plain as day. He wasn’t getting angry, but he did want to score a point for higher education. He wanted to showboat. He saw the lane and drove hard to the basket. Douglas didn’t see how it happened, but he went down hard. He lost the ball, hit his head, and grabbed his ankle while the opponents scored and chuckled.
“Where you think you’re going, college boy? You know those moves don’t work around here.” Game over.
He was able to put some weight on it, so he knew it wasn’t broken, but it would be a long walk home. Coaches told him not to play full out on asphalt or in games that don’t count. They told him! He left the playground, limping through the open gate.
Grab Some Horizon
“A tight-knit” community would best describe what Grandma and Douglas had with their parish. There was little difference between those in the congregation you knew your whole life and those who were actually blood kin. Sometimes the former were closer.
Christmas Day would be spent at church. Not in a sermon or service but a grand luncheon, a potluck the envy of angels. If space aliens came to this event to learn how earthlings feasted, both for substance and ritual, likely those aliens would never leave.
For this reason, Douglas, Granddad, and Grandma’s special dinner was, for their tradition, Christmas Eve, and this would have been the first without Granddad. His absence was overwhelming, but Grandma was done crying. Now her attention was all on Douglas.
A few gifts lay scattered around the tree. After a fine dinner and toasts to Granddad and to each other, and to Grandma’s surprise, HannahLee, they resolved to exchange their gifts then. Douglas retrieved the two designated gifts from under the tree. He held back as Grandma tore the wrapping off of hers. A deluxe radio & cassette player for the kitchen or wherever she chose to take it. There were some pre-recorded tapes of some of her favorites and some blanks too, in case she wanted to record off the radio. The old radio was new when they got it, but now it crackled for retirement. There was space in a small attic for that purpose.
For size and shape, Douglas knew he was getting books, and for the first time, he looked forward to just that. And still, surprise lurked beneath the paper and ribbon.
He had heard the story about running back into a burning sharecropper shack to get some belongings out, but now he learned the object of that heroism. Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois were the object. The three books had been read and reread so many times, they made Granddad’s chair seem brand new sitting in a store window. The hardbacks had softened, and tape, glue, rubber bands, and even band-aids were employed to keep them in one piece.
“These were his, now they are yours. I know you know what they represent. Cherish them but read them. When you seek his company, this is where you’ll find him. Value them above all things, even though you couldn’t get a quarter for all three.”
She wanted to ask in a direct way about that HannahLee person but held back. Douglas had had girlfriends, but Grandma sensed this was different. She did ask where HannahLee was from.
“The other side of the state.” An evasive truth.
“Oh,” replied Grandma.
The day after New Year’s, Douglas was back on the bus. Classes would start on the third. On parting company at the bus station, Grandma handed Douglas a gift for HannahLee. He was baffled. It looked like another book. A larger thinner book, but a book. With complete respect for his grandmother’s intuition, he slipped it into his pack with an appropriate thank you, embraced the divine woman before him, and got on the bus. He continued to wave as he found his seat, and the bus lurched and drove off.
He felt on this ride back in a good place. His head was clear. No worries or fear or regret. Maybe a little regret he had eaten so much home-cooking and church social food, but he forgave himself. Clearly, his pants were a touch tighter going back to campus. Would this slow him down on the court? Would HannahLee notice?
Like the bus in which he rode, Douglas was cruising forward. Yes, he wore the crown of his grandmother’s love, but other than that, so much of what was past was fading or going to the back of the line. Objectives on a not-too-distant horizon seemed now in reach, and Douglas was spoiling for a fight.
He hadn’t planned how he would get back to campus from the bus station, but there was HannahLee and her sister. Perfect.
In One’s Image
Before rising from his seat, seeing HannahLee waiting anxiously at the bus depot was the Christmas gift Douglas didn’t know he was waiting for, and no gift finer.
The deep embrace of the unlikely couple caused passers-by to stare and wonder. HannahLee’s sister Mallory saw it for what it was but couldn’t claim to understand it herself. It was a sight.
When the spell wore off and they could separate, Douglas put his hand out to Mallory and they exchanged hellos and felicitations. While that was going on, HannahLee dug through her bag and retrieved a wrapped gift. Delighted again by this sight which he knew to be books, Douglas reached into his bag and pulled out Grandma’s gift.
“I’ve no idea what this is, but it’s from Grandma. It might be a book, but I don’t think so. I confess I don’t have a gift for you. I feel like an ass.” his chin now fallen to his chest.
“You call that confessing? Anyways, there’s nothing to confess, but next year will be a double pal-o-mine.” Exchanged gifts in hands, they returned to each other’s arms. Mallory rolled her eyes.
Leaving the bus station, they climbed into the Blazer and headed off for dinner. The only near-campus eateries Douglas was familiar with so far were the ones decorated with fraternity banners and team jerseys. Mallory’s destination was not that at all. No student bodies there and no jerseys.
The best evidence for that, besides the tablecloths and votive candles, was that from an unseen corner of the dining room, Dean Lattimore sent over a bottle of champagne. Upon the ritualized delivery, the waiter pointed out Lattimore who then raised his Old Fashion to the trio. Douglas rose spontaneously just because, and Lattimore gestured him to sit. The Dean returned his attention to his table mate, obscured behind a potted plant.
“Who’s that?” asked Mallory.
“Dean of the Phys Ed department,” responded her sister.
“Wow, Douglas, you must be good,” said Mallory, raising her flute and tossing it back. He was good, and Lattimore knew that as well as he knew a Battle when he saw two. Clink.
One’s first bottle of real champagne is a heady memory, both for the sparkling candy magic of Bacchus’s most refined gift, and for the event it commemorates. In that moment, Douglas glowed with contentment, but he had no reference to measure that this was the eve of things. Bubbles rose in regular order guided by the light of the votive that directed them all.
The next day, after a morning of registration mambo, the book store, and a wheelchair jog on the track, Douglas and HannahLee were back in her studio, he on the couch reading Z. N. Hurston and she on her perch working in watercolors. Her time at home was not conducive to her endeavors, so now she painted like an open firehose.
“Baby, what’s your Grandma’s address? I’d like to send her a note, ahh, a thank you for the gift she sent.” After reciting the address, Douglas inquired what the gift was.
“An old photo of you as a child.” Actually, it was a photo of Douglas, Granddad, and a large trout hanging on a line. It was framed, dated, and signed.
To My Loving Wife
Who Holds the Camera
To My Heart,
There was a small card slipped into the frame. It said,
Take care of our boy, in time he will
be yours only. I’m happy to know
Until we meet,
Or, you may call me
Portraiture is a funny skill. Whether rendering herself or anyone else, HannahLee could perform it with creepy accuracy. For some, her portraits were unsettling and even off-putting. There were few portraits of her family for that reason. There should have been many.
Hannah reproduced the photo for Grandma but instead of 9"x7" she did it 36"x24". And there were alterations. She lost the trout. Fishing always seemed to her a cruel and objectionable pastime. Her brothers and uncles reveled in it.
She added explosive color where the photo was black and white. Teachers insisted watercolor was her gift. She did not contest that but believed herself best served by charcoal. But her skies were so blue and clouds puffy white. It’s an industry secret among great painters what the color of water is exactly. HannahLee knew and she didn’t learn it in class.
The powerful magic of her transposition was in how she confused the two faces in her painting. The older figure was silver-haired Douglas, happy and proud as a soul might wish to be. The child’s figure, a beaming youthful Granddad absent an odyssey through Jim Crow America on his horizon. The card said:
“Our” boy works for me!
We’re together soon,
Douglas did not see this before the framers came to take it to the shop for framing, packaging, and shipping. Unannounced, Grandma got it in a week. It was the sort of service HannahLee could just put on the family account. The family had many.
UPS delivery was not a common occurrence for Grandma or anyone on her street. No small wonder the driver found the address at all. When neighbors came to inquire, they found Grandma alternately crying and laughing all morning and into the afternoon. Then she went to the cemetery with cut winter flowers tied in a red ribbon and told Fred the news.
Call Me Coach
10 or 15 minutes before the conclusion of the first J.V. practice, the gym doors opened, and in strode Coach Luc. Not permitting herself to interfere with Coach Chet’s sessions, she headed straight to the bleachers for a good view of the action. Coach Luc did not notice Darcy at all. He was high up in the bleachers, so he quietly packed his bag and slipped out through an upstairs exit.
When Chet blew his whistle to conclude the session, Douglas was in a Globetrotter circle with a few guys. No one whistled “Sweet Georgia Brown.” He hadn’t noticed Darcy’s exit, but Coach Luc’s entrance and presence were like that of a full moon. And didn’t she look good in those warm-ups… As the team was filing out and returning balls to the caddy, Douglas heard his name called.
On the walk to her office, he wondered if this would be some kind of inquisition about dating a white chick whose family butters the Phys Ed department’s toast. The conversation walking only covered “How were your holidays?” Once in the office, the mood changed abruptly.
“I got a problem, Douglas.” she began while hanging her whistle upon a black marble bust of Eleanor Roosevelt. Douglas gulped as his college career passed before his eyes. “I lost two critical players over the break. One knocked up his cousin, so they eloped to Canada. The other one drove his car into the mayor’s swimming pool, drunk as the entire Russian navy, moron.”
“You want me to play on the senior team?” Douglas started to breathe again, but what Coach Luc was proposing knocked him for a loop.
“Well, that is what we are talking about here, isn’t it.” Coach put her feet up on the desk.
He had never been in Coach Luc’s office before and now started looking around. The Dean’s office was imposing and built to impress, an immodest homage to his greatness where a visitor was supposed to be not at ease. Lucinda Wilcot’s office was the opposite of that. There were team photos ordered by year. Her own graduation photos with teammates or her family who looked much like Douglas’s family. The chair in which he sat was as comfortable as her own seemed to be and the clutter on her desk was ordered, at least in her mind.
“Cat got your tongue, young man?”
“Can I play on both teams?” Douglas had become fond of the J.V. team and Coach Chet.
“No, you’ll be on crutches in a month.” Douglas began to wonder if this coach knew about his girlfriend, why that reference? “And anyway, your academic profile cannot suffer for this. All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy. I must say though, your grades before the break were above average or expectations. How do you account for that?”
“You’ve seen my grades?” Douglas’s back straightened.
“Douglas, you got a full free ride to play basketball. Of course, I’ve seen your grades, and besides, academia is like a vicious laundry circle with tenure.”
Thinking about HannahLee and school work, he realized the two-team idea would mean time away from her and that was not negotiable.
“And something else, this is important; some of the friends you’ve made on J.V. will resent you being bumped up still a freshman. To my knowledge, there has never been a freshman on the senior team. But if you get a swell head about that, you will not even touch a basketball for the rest of your college career, you smell me?”
“And don’t call me ma’am, short stuff. Coach, you are to address me as Coach. I worked for it and I earned it, Coach, you call me Coach.”
“Yes Coach.” Douglas fidgeted.
“I’m not done. Resentment from the team you leave is not the biggest or only piece of the problem. You’ll be playing with juniors and seniors who would prefer to see their junior and senior teammates get the minutes that will be given to you. Were those guys as good as you, we would not be having this discussion.” She tossed a lozenge wrapper into a nearby waste basket.
“I think, on the court, I get along with folks pretty good. I’ve played pickup with some of those guys and they seem cool with me.”
“You’ve played with some of them, not all of them, and the ones who don’t play in friendly games are the ones you’ll have to worry about. Dig?”
Douglas’s thoughts limped back to that last game at home in the playground. Really, he didn’t see who tripped him.
“Get out your head, short stuff. I want your thoughts on this desk now. This ain’t therapy here and time is not a luxury at this moment. You can go either way, but I need an answer now. I can take care of reshuffling your classes, but that’s the easy part. By now the J.V. team has left the building. Go take your shower, then come back and give me an answer. Tell me what you choose to do. Go.”
With a half-hour delay on either side of his mandatory post-practice shower, Douglas would be an hour late for a session with Darcy. Sorry, Darcy.
The locker room was vast in the absence of jock banter and towel snapping and boasting. In silence now, you could really smell the sweat and the sneakers and disinfectants that failed to neutralize the first two. The showers had that tile-borne resonance one only hears when it’s quiet, and he liked it. It was as though sound had its shadows.
Solitude and steam brought his thoughts first to HannahLee and then to the matter at hand. It seemed in this meditation, that the last 10 years had not provided as much change, as much upheaval as the last 6 months, and it all seemed to him like a scripted thing. He considered if this was the moment for prayer, a prayer for guidance, but dismissed the idea quickly as it popped up. Grandma would object there, GrandDad would not, HannahLee not. Mr. Elligman? Coach Luc and the Chairman were all about their own motives, and Darcy was an incomprehensible freak.
He went through the final rinse and turned off the shower. Let’s do this.
“Okay, I’m in,” Douglas told Coach looking directly at her but seeing a rope bridge across a ravine. “What’s the first step?”
“I’m way ahead of you, Short Stuff, way ahead.”
A New Scale
High above the court was a broadcast booth not yet used for anything more than sending games out to the edge of town. A motionless and solitary outline of a figure could barely be seen from down below. Not lit from its interior, the two rectangular windows stared down like great black eyes. No one, not Coach Luc or Douglas or anyone else knew they were being studied intently.
Mr. Elligman and the Chairman had keys for every door in the facility, and everyone, of course, trusted Mr. Elligman.
Coach drilled the team methodically. As in music, playing slow is just like playing fast. She did not drill the team for speed, rather she sought accuracy and trust. Taller players in the forward and center positions were made to run backward and find their appointed spots by counting steps or referencing the half-court line. Shorter shooting guards shot jumpers for 20-minute stretches while forwards and centers watched and predicted which way the bounce would go when the shot missed. They practiced fast breaks and they practiced outlet passing to moving targets. They practiced two-man attacks and three-man attacks, weak hand dribble drills, and everything else. Over and over until it seemed Coach would wear out her whistle. The Chairman knew she was the right man for the job. This is what he paid her for.
After a few weeks, forwards started receiving and hanging on to Douglas’s un-telegraphed passes and that was deadly. In basketball, when a man receives a pass and then scores, that pass is recorded as “an assist” for the passer. Douglas did not see it as such. If the player he passed to scored Douglas credited himself as having scored and that was Douglas’s little secret. He was starting to “play” the team and the team started winning. Junior and senior players saw their scoring stats inching up and sometimes, doubling. Short Stuff got them the ball when the scoring was easy money. No player or coach missed what was going on here and no one objected.
Coach told Douglas she could not appear to be treating him deferentially. Douglas said, “Good.”
Chess with Darcy became a more competitive affair, fool’s mate a thing of the past. When Darcy went to the bathroom he wondered if the rookie was reading his chess books. Of course, he wasn’t though he was reading Darcy.
To tell the truth, Darcy was starting to crack up more than usual. He had received some acceptance letters but none yet from the elite schools he wanted. His prediction system was showing a low margin of error, except when the basketball team was the subject. They had been playing in the mid-300% range and now they were safely playing mid-500% ball. This reality was in direct conflict with Darcy’s statistics. He started to frequently break pencils and to smell funny...funnier than usual.
His tutoring of Douglas continued during this time. Try as he might, Douglas found it impossible to demonstrate his gratitude or reciprocate for what he thought was Darcy’s generosity.
The union of HannahLee and Douglas had become seamless. They ate together, they studied together and when Douglas needed to go to the athletic fields, often HannahLee came along with her pad and charcoals or sometimes a fold-up easel. Sometimes they would go around the track together, he behind the chair. Some afternoons they would go around until the stars came out. Folks who witnessed them could not long suppress their envy.
To see them gliding along under the moon and the stars, one might wonder who shined on who.
Ever curious about what made her team’s quiet, champion dynasty player Douglas tick, Coach Luc invited Douglas and HannahLee for dinner. Instead of some quiet off-campus restaurant, she had them at her home.
Coach had a lovely cottage provided to her by the college, a benefit bestowed to select tenured faculty. It was just a few blocks from campus, maybe a half mile, but in those parts, a half mile can put you out in the sticks.
A lovely home, a lovely night, and a lovely meal, it came as no surprise Coach would be a capable cook. Douglas was reminded of his Grandma’s cooking back home. At the Battle manor, a cook might be let go for presenting these sorts of dishes.
Douglas could not extinguish the coach/player rapport, not entirely, but HannahLee and Coach (she called her Coach so as not to confuse Douglas) got on like reunited siblings. It dawned on Coach that the sight and company of these two together caused her to dwell on her solitude and her longing for a union the likes of which HannahLee and Douglas shared. But for now, simply being a spectator would be a blessing to Coach Luc.
Before too much wine was poured and the hour ran too late, HannahLee and Douglas tendered their thank yous and good nights while collecting themselves to go. HannahLee had come into the house leaning on Douglas and leaving her chair outside. Not trusting Douglas’s present steadiness, Coach got under her other arm, and together all three went to the door to safely ensconce HannahLee in her carriage.
Of course, HannahLee and Coach embraced. Now no longer siblings, as mother and child they shared a hug for the ages.
“Good night, Coach.”
“Good night, Short Stuff, I’ll see you in the morning. Don’t forget your mouthpiece.”
Once back on campus, it was understood unspoken that an evening such as this could not be concluded yet. They had a spot and the spot had a bench. HannahLee left her chair for the bench and there they sat; silent, seamless, and content.
Under the cover of cricket silence and the dark of night, a figure lurked in the bushes not far from where they sat. The sight of these two simply sitting in the moonlight would raise envy in anyone. If you don’t believe me, just ask the moon.
The Low Down Gritty Nitty
To be clear, I must repeat, Darcy’s insanity was bursting from its shell like a pupescent cicada in summer with an eye to the fall. Yes, he had brought Douglas up to a B+ grade level but from there on up, the ascent could only be credited to the rookie. And didn’t Darcy know it. The chess parity was galling, but Douglas’s overall performance, academic, on the court, or socially, was tearing up Darcy’s great theorem and tossing its shreds into the compost. That a couple of acceptance letters from the elite schools had shown up provided no relief. Neither did medication.
He attended games hoping for better results by tweaking the data entry, but nothing worked. Try as he might, he could not quantify the human element to fit in a column or an axis. Life and the matters of the heart cannot be reduced to numbers. Darcy would never grasp that.
He had started talking to himself, and the conversations devolved into arguments. The arguments continued into his sleep. Neighbors whose names he did not know became peeved and concerned.
Aware that he was witnessing a nervous breakdown in slow motion without really comprehending what a nervous breakdown was, Douglas resolved he would bring Darcy’s behavior to the attention of the Chairman. Of course, this would not be news to the Chairman, not even close.
He had hoped Darcy would just say thank you and sail away to some doctoral program and be a tossed grenade somewhere else. The Chairman most definitely did not want to run this event.
He cut a fat check to Darcy and kept him on the payroll and relieved him of his statistician responsibilities for the duration of his time at the college. The fat check was like a gratuity. This the Chairman thought would defuse the Darcy problem until he shipped out for Ph.D. pastures. Without intending to do so, he had created a monster that he did not need or want.
Mr. Elligman went along on the bus for the State-wide round of 16. He was being paid as chaperon/coach, but he was just keeping an eye on Douglas, upon whose shoulders so much depended. He loved his time with Douglas and did not consider the assignment a task or obligation. Indeed it was halfway to a vacation. Douglas, on the other hand, did not find Mr. Elligman’s company in any way restrictive or censorial. He was there to play ball and Mr. Elligman’s facilitation of that objective was his good fortune. He delighted in his dry wit and informed perspectives similar to those of his GrandDad. He loved his time with Mr. Elligman.
No vacations on the court though, these college tournaments were and are grueling, murder. The first two days are 4 games each day. This is the elimination we are talking about here. Lose a game and you’re on the bus home. On the third day, four more games, and the fifth day is the semi-finals; 2 games in one day. When the two finalist teams are decided, a coin toss decides on whose home court the state championship will be played. Grueling.
Douglas & Co. were slotted the second game on the first day. Though by no means pushovers, the opponents were dismissed. Coach Luc had Douglas warming the bench until the second half. Here I must say, in basketball, inactive players and coaches sit in chairs. Football has benches.
During that time on the bench, Douglas was not inactive, he studied the opponent. Who shot with which hand from which side, what were the set plays, who was a threat, and who was not. And which players displayed synchronicity with their teammates was a big deal for Douglas. Interfering there would be the most efficient way to reduce their point production.
He studied his own team as well. Who was focused, and who was distracted. Who was moving into a good position for open shots but not getting the ball.
During halftime, Douglas related as much of his observations as possible to Coach Luc, and this intelligence informed her decisions, hence victory. Douglas and Mr. Elligman attended all six remaining first-round games that day and the next. He took notes, somewhat in Darcy style but without the sweating and mumbling. Going into the second round now, Douglas had a good bead on any team that might show up on the court.
Douglas would have preferred to have dinner with Mr. Elligman and or Coach, but both of them insisted that ‘the meal’ was critical to team cohesion, and of course, Douglas knew they were right. He called HannahLee before he closed his eyes.
The second round provided a tougher opponent than the first. Douglas sat out the first quarter, and then Coach sent him in. He went straight to work shutting down the passing lanes. After two steals leading to easy buckets, the opponents didn’t pass so much and that was the end of them. Douglas didn’t score so much, but his passing to shooters and to those well-positioned under the basket was just plain masterful, deadly.
The third round was tougher. The opponent had been doing their homework too. When Douglas stepped onto the court, the opponent was shutting him down, either not letting him get the ball or not letting him pass it, and generally keeping him on the perimeter of the game. With no other recourse, Douglas started shooting, with a vengeance. A step back away from his defender if there was one, and straight up and in. They started to double-team Douglas, but that opened up someone inside who got the ball and scored.
Not playing dirty or overly aggressive ball, someone put a hard foul on Douglas in the act of shooting. He hit the deck hard. Two of Douglas’s teammates rushed over and picked him up like a dropped rag doll, the other two went after the offending party. Douglas leaped in and defused it before anything that might precipitate expulsions could get started.
Coach was so happy, some who were there said they saw a tear in her eye. From that moment on to the end of the contest, Douglas & Co. never took their foot off the opponents’ neck. The buzzer rang. The game was over, and they would be going to the finals.
High above the court in a private and darkened box, The Chairman patted himself on the back. He would have given himself a medal if he had one around.
After the conclusion of the second game that last day, a quick coin toss decided that Coach Luc and Douglas & Co. would be bringing the final game home with them. Not bad for a first year at college. Upon his return, HannahLee did not permit him out of her sight for the entire weekend.
There was now one short week for a month of preparations. Not bad at all.
Douglas, HannahLee, and Mr. Elligman shared a bench at the bus station. Mr. Elligman had consented to chauffeur detail for picking up Grandma from the station, and he was glad to do it. He was looking forward to meeting her. He had sent her a condolence card after taking Douglas to the bus station prior to the funeral. Now he could meet the author of the quick response thank you note which he deemed a show-off display of gratitude and brevity. The document took its place in the box with his track medals.
In came the bus, and soon enough, there was Grandma smiling like a lottery winner. HannahLee got to her first, even on her crutches.
“Grandma!” They fell into each other’s arms.
“Uhhh, Grandma, I’m over here,” peeped a suddenly neglected Douglas.
“Hush Douglas, the girls are talking,” replied Grandma behind closed eyes.
“Who is this good-looking tall glass of water?” Grandma asked with control of one of each of the two children’s hands.
“Moses Elligman. And you undoubtedly are Louisa. How was your trip, not too uncomfortable I hope?”
Releasing Douglas’s hand, she reached out to Moses who received that hand with both of his. “Comfortable enough, but I’m about ready for some lunch and maybe a washcloth.” Douglas was not then aware they were already acquainted, if only by mail.
While Douglas retrieved her luggage, Mr. Elligman pulled his trusted Blazer up as close as he could to where Grandma and HannahLee were standing, leaning really, upon each other, the very picture of bonding on a bond. Into the truck and off they went, the happiest happy quartet.
Louisa would not permit Moses to duck lunch, and he capitulated easily. He had already spent the whole morning at the fortress dealing with the details of the coming assault of the Big Game. “What’s another hour?”
This would be the highest-profile event the building had seen yet. After triple-checking and sanitizing the locker arrangements, expediting the media people, stocking bathrooms, and general housekeeping, the caterers attached to the VIP boxes were being an unholy pain in the ass. Lunch, and this lunch in particular, seemed to Moses just what the doctor ordered.
“You’re having a salad, Grandma?” Douglas asked in mild disbelief.
“Dr. Copeland said if I keep eating batter-frieds and red beans and sweet potatoes, I’d be next to Fred sooner than later, and I’d like to stick around a while if that’s alright with you. Besides, bikini season is right around the corner.” Louisa, HannahLee, and Moses clinked their wine glasses, and Douglas chimed in with his iced tea.
“Long life and may God bless.” The waitress had brought Short Stuff’s table a round of red wines, but Grandma would be drinking his. It was a fine and jovial lunch. Folks close by felt the warmth radiating from that table like heat from a Franklin stove.
The arrangement made was that Grandma would stay at Coach Luc’s. HannahLee would be on board for when Coach would be engaged with the team. Given the alternatives and the geography, Douglas knew this to be the way to go. He was not immune to pedestrian fear of mixing groups of people, but concentrating on anything but basketball in that long moment was unfocused and misdirected energy.
Mr. Elligman dropped them off at Coach’s place. HannahLee had her folding chair in the back of the truck for the walk back. Douglas was getting out the luggage and the chair when Coach popped out her front door and introduced herself to Grandma. Even though she had been prepared in advance, Grandma was dumbfounded to meet this cover girl who coached a men’s basketball team. After Mr. Elligman tendered his “see you in the mornings,” “good nights,” and “it is a pleasure to finally meet you too, Louisa,” he gritted his teeth, remounted the vehicle, and headed out once more to the fortress, riding into a Battle Royale.
Coach had been home an hour before they arrived. She had prepared her first-floor guest room for Louisa. She would call her Louisa too. Lucinda and Louisa, love at first sight. If you didn’t appreciate Grandma, there was just something wrong with you, and if you were on her grandson’s side, you were okay with Grandma. Coach Lucinda Wilcots was to Grandma, Wonder Woman.
After that face towel and a change out of her traveling clothes, Grandma came into an ideal kitchen, bathed in sunset light from over the fields. The table shined back with sandwiches and fruit salad and iced tea and a bottle of port with fancy glasses and a bowl of dates and another with pecans. They had waited for Grandma to say Grace. Grandma wondered if Grace in that moment, in that setting, might be redundant, or even greedy. And Grace rolled down triumphant.
With the sunset came HannahLee and Douglas’s exit. First, while Douglas was opening the chair out on the stoop, there was a silent glance meeting of the girls, and it was agreed Short Stuff would be getting none tonight. The beast with two backs would stay a’slumber. Grandma hugged and blessed both her children. Nearly overcome with joy, Grandma thanked the Lord for allowing her to live so long to be in this moment. She summoned the spirit and soul of Fred. Then came getting HannahLee into her chair for the walk back. Overly attentive to this procedure at first, soon enough, Grandma too figured out she need not fuss about HannahLee.
“See you in the morning, Short Stuff. Don’t forget your mouthpiece.”
Douglas’s roommates were explicitly directed, “If he is not in that dorm and in his pj’s by 8 o’clock, you are to send out search parties.” No kidding. And he was. There was a little chess in the family room, but that was all.
The opponents would not be on campus until lunch tomorrow. Anything like a motel in a 20-mile radius had the ‘No Vacancy’ light on. Enjoying the company too much, Coach was not thinking about tomorrow. One with the couch, a bowl of popcorn, and each other, the girls watched a movie. The Chairman dined alone in a jacket and tie. Mostly he drank. This was his flight to Moscow. Some on the team spent their evening on their knees, some in silence on their backs, and some, on two backs. But none at peace before the battle. Moses Elligman sat alone with John Coltrane and a flask of bourbon in the vast hollow of the nearly dark gym. That space was lit only by the myriad little red lights of the tonnage of media gear.
So was the eve of the Big Game.
A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme.
The Big Game
Douglas slept well, not long but soundly. He did not dream, but instead, was thinking in his sleep. He awoke composed, rested, and ready for the day. Getting to the game on a full or undigested stomach would not be the way to go. His plan was an early heavy breakfast and a light late lunch.
He sat up not long after dawn, consulted his bedside photo of Fred and Louisa, read the day’s chapter of Copperfield, proceeded into his sweats, and then to the john with his toothbrush. He made an effort to move about silently but figured Jud might already be in motion too. He was not up for talking before a cup of coffee that day, so he got out of the dorm express.
Conversations stopped when he entered the cafeteria. Douglas stopped. In a wink, he knew all eyes were on him. Then most in the room rose and all in the room applauded. Not knowing how to respond, he did as everyone else, he applauded. The staff, the students, and anyone else present roared like lions. Good Morning.
From breakfast, he went out to the track for a few laps, not to exceed jog exertion, and then headed back to the Arts building where he would see HannahLee for possibly the only time that day and until after the game.
Perched before an easel, coffee in one hand, charcoal in the other was HannahLee, who endowed so much meaning into his life now. He wondered briefly if this was a good condition, but when he put his arms around HannahLee, thought was suspended leaving only breath, pulse, and the joy light of content.
At around two o’clock while staring out a window, Douglas saw the visitor’s bus go by. “Here we go.” Douglas collected himself. Rising from her chair and onto her crutches, she moved towards the door with Douglas. HannahLee did not feel the supergravity of this moment the way she knew Douglas was feeling it. She searched for something to say in the intervals her lips were not engaged. Perfect moments generally defy vocabulary and grammar. “Do you have your mouthpiece?”
Walking back to the fortress, he found himself reciting out loud from “Leaves of Grass.” He did not know until that moment he had committed extended passages to memory. Halfway to the destination, a tall junior-class teammate named Burton came up beside Douglas. “You talking to yourself, Short Stuff?” asked Burton, trying to slow his gait down to stay in step with the startled freshman.
“Song of Myself, Burton, Song of Myself.”
The fortress was buzzing like crazy. Douglas and Burton went around back and entered the building through the groundskeeper’s garage, and from there they made it to the locker room. Hanging on each man’s locker was a small gift bag from the Chairman. They contained good chocolates, a gold coin, and a card inscribed with a note from the Chairman and a quote from Sun Tzu or maybe Homer. Douglas’s was from Yeats, no citation needed.
By about 4:30, with the team showered and dressed, Coach had sandwiches and fruit laid out in a top-floor meeting room. Nervous overeating would not be permitted. There was coffee and water and conversation and prayer. Douglas partook and contributed to much of that. And there it was, back downstairs, through the locker room, and out onto the court for warm-ups. The whole state held its breath while the two teams searched for their own. Game time was 7:30.
“You the secret weapon our coach been talking about? Hell if I can see much of a threat.” said a large opponent from across the half-court line.
“Is the whole clan or just yo mama coming to see you get spanked tonight, Billy Bob?” Pure Sun Tzu, thank you, Chairman Lattimore. Billy Bob was not amused.
Bookies, or bookmakers, will find the big game like ticks find a dog outdoors. Once protective of his grand theorem, on that night Darcy sought out the bookie, and she was not hard to find. A strange woman that Ms. Belinda. Though a gangster in the Midwest might operate similarly to one from say, Boston, in appearance they are different. With a pheasant feathered maroon fedora and matching trench coat, the plump Ms. Belinda could have been attending a Batman villains convention.
How much would Darcy be betting against the team? Remember that gratuity check thing? That much and more. He had crunched and re-crunched the numbers and resolutely wagered that Douglas and company would disappoint, and he, Darcy, would say, “Ha ha ha.” Ha ha ha ha ha.
HannahLee and Grandma, attended to by Moses, entered the gym through the big double doors. He escorted them to their seats a few rows up and behind the home team bench. All those along the route cleared the way in a show of respect. Grandma saw this plainly for what it was and tendered her thank-yous.
The contest was afoot, pieces were arranged and facing forward. The national anthem was heard, the lights went down.
Only the court was illuminated.
The jump ball went up and was tipped to Douglas. He did not take a step, he pivoted and launched a bull’s-eye to his man already in motion toward the basket. First blood and the crowd roared...half the crowd. With a secure lead, Coach sat down Douglas halfway through the second quarter. Approaching the bench, he looked up to find Grandma and HannahLee beaming like glory. Only “thank you” entered his mind. He sat down with a towel on his head. He scanned around the arena and thought he saw his GrandDad’s silhouette high up in an open window. Then he blinked. GrandDad wasn’t there, and the crowd roared again.
At the conclusion of the first half, Douglas had some points, 11 excellent assists, 4 outright steals, and 3 intercepted passes, 2 of which the opponent needed a second to figure out where the ball went. At the half when the bell sounded, he walked off the court slowly, surrounded by teammates. He looked like a small Caesar in the phalanx of his guard.
In the locker room, talk was subdued. As her team was playing on the money, there was no call for lively oratory. The plan was simple; stay with the script, avoid trouble, and no unforced errors.
The visitor’s halftime redirection of strategy was quite lively. They would jam up the paint (area under the basket), and no passing on whichever side Douglas was guarding. With the game on again, this adjustment seemed to work, and the visitors were catching up. At the start of the fourth quarter, the game was about tied.
Douglas was driving toward the basket for a pass to an unguarded outside shooter when three opponents caught him in mid-air. All four went down, three got up. An unholy wail of pain was heard above the crowd, and then the gym was silent. Douglas’s left leg below the shin didn’t look right. Now weeping, Grandma covered her eyes. The screaming alone was too much to bear. He screamed some more when they moved him to a stretcher. Mr. Elligman was by his side when they carried him off the court and to the locker room, where a physician would attend to the leg. Knowing themselves to be in that moment powerless, HannahLee and Grandma stayed where they were, but ceased to have any interest in the game. The Chairman was stoic and blank, which was no small feat in a V.I.P. box with a pack of well-wagered Battles. Darcy expressed absolutely nothing, but inwardly, in Darcyworld, he was accepting the Nobel prize in economics.
There were 9 minutes and 47 seconds remaining in the game, after a long time out. When play resumed, Coach was up and on her feet. The opponent was coming on strong, and the tied game quickly turned into an 8-point deficit. Some were still rattled by Short Stuff’s anguish, while others were waiting for a ball that wasn’t coming.
“What does it look like, Moses?” The Chairman approached Mr. Elligman who was leaning against the wall by the locker room door. Wynfield struggled mightily to maintain his composure, even his posture. Moses was despondent.
“Down below his shin where his ankle is...” the Chairman hung on every word, “now there’s another ankle.” Wynfield Lattimore, no longer elevated or in control, fell to leaning on the wall beside his old teammate. Both men’s flasks were empty.
On what was to be a drive to the basket for the opponent, the lead man stopped abruptly, so that the man with the ball behind him crashed into his distracted teammate. Time out. The Chairman under one arm and Mr. Elligman under the other were carrying Douglas back out to the bench. His feet did not touch the floor, and the busted leg was wrapped with ice packs and gauze and who knows what else. Carefully they set him down in a chair and somehow elevated the leg. Coach breathed deeply. There was a 4-way glance meeting and play resumed. They were down by ten. Douglas started yelling stuff too, but no one recognized his voice.
Then, a funny thing happened. There appeared to be a multi-colored centipede writhing its way from Grandma and HannahLee down to where Douglas sat incapacitated. Hand over hand, the crutches were being passed down to Douglas. When both were in his hands, he said, “Get me up.” And they did, and he was up. His nostrils flared as tears of pain passed over them, but he was up, and he seemed taller than before. All on the court stopped for a second, which may have cost the opponent a basket, but no one cared. Even the refs were transfixed by Douglas’s indomitable force of will. Yes, there are superpowers.
The team bounced back with a vengeance, and I mean that in a literal sense, vengeance. There were blocked shots, fast breaks, iron-clad defense, and good shooting. It took 6 minutes and 52 seconds to come from a 12-point deficit to a 4-point victory. No one had ever seen the likes of it, well worth the price of admission. All but one in the arena was standing and applauding. Coach was surrounded by reporters. Players shook hands honorably. HannahLee went along in the ambulance to the E.R.
Quite a night.
A Night Full of Stars
Small hospital emergency rooms in college towns are generally quiet places. The staff of five were anticipating what the ambulance would drag in as they had watched the game on the TV by the nurses’ station. Were they not working that night, they would have been in the stands. That game was the biggest thing to happen there since maybe telephones.
Taking their turns glancing at the institutional clock on the wall were Grandma, Mr. Elligman, Jud, HannahLee’s sister Mallory, and a local reporter who, it must be said, knew where the scoop was. Brava. Coach and the Chairman were obligated to the team, the festivities, and of course, the Battles.
That the Battle sisters and Jud were waiting on Douglas at the E.R. was something akin to defiance. Truth be told, I suspect Mallory was looking to score some overtime points with Jud, who still had his game uniform on under his sweats.
A smiling nurse came through the double doors separating the waiting room from the interior and stopped to hold the doors open. Behind her came HannahLee and Douglas. Now, Douglas sat in the wheelchair, and behind him, leaning on her powerful arms, HannahLee was pushing off of her good leg, and both of them beaming like glory.
The crutches lay across Douglas’s lap, and the busted leg was elevated in an attachment to the chair. The cast allowed only his toes and heel to peek out, and it extended up past his knee. This would need to stay on for 6 weeks, and then there would be braces and wrapping for a couple of months more. The attending doctor appeared soon after, wearing the team cap Douglas had signed and awarded her. When the reporter asked Dr. Kronmuller if Douglas would play ball again, she said she didn’t know but hoped so. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Still a little loopy from the anesthesia, Douglas was not in the best shape for an interview, but Grandma provided a spectacular commentary. The waiting room was a joyous place, and all at the soiree toasted the win with doctor-prescribed bourbon served neat in sterilized specimen cups. Quite a night.
The following day, a crowd gathered in front of the graduate dorm building. Having conquered his fear of heights somehow overnight, Darcy, standing nervously on a window ledge, was the focus of attention. Folks on the ground looking up wondered how someone so smart could be so stupid. He didn’t hear the voices telling him to go back inside, but he was likely hearing other voices. Then, his posture stiffened, and he stepped off. The crowd held their breaths as he fell 11 feet from the second-floor ledge. Shrubbery broke his fall, but his glasses shattered. The pens were fine.
By that time, Campus security had arrived on the scene. They restrained him, threw him in the van, and whisked him off to County Psych Ward.
The Coach and the Chairman, Lucinda and Wynfield stood shoulder to shoulder and close inside the half-court circle of the empty arena. Wynfield’s arms were crossed and clenched so tightly Luc had to force and wriggle her arm in to interlock with his. Where would the first State Champion banner hang? There would be more to come, but the placement of this first one was critical.
Moses and the banner were in the bucket of the hi-lo way up with the rafters. He controlled its elevation and the movement below. He delighted in how small the couple appeared beneath him, and how big the golden fleece seemed in his hands. If postures don’t lie, Lucinda would be making the call for the location of the banner. Postures don’t lie, and anyway, even as a young man, Moses could take coaching.
Things were moved and space was allotted. Now, central to everything in Grandma’s sitting area and visible from the table with its 4 chairs, was a life-size portrait of Douglas and HannahLee. Both stood erect, their wheelchairs behind them and almost out of the picture. On the wall behind and between them was a smaller youthful portrait of Fred and Louisa, a painting in a painting. For Grandma, this grand work would ever be a source of peace and reflection throughout all of her days.
Alone with the souls of those who brought him to this moment and place, a man shoots hoops under a full and cloudless moon. High-power lights illuminate the court, but the streaks of gray in his beard and around his temples are brought out by the glorious light of the moon.
Standing still at the foul line, he dribbles once or twice and shoots. Swish. He continues this meditation until the ball caddy is depleted and then retrieves the scattered balls to repeat the drill from another spot.
His name appears beneath the college logo on the breast of his natty workout suit. His only other adornment is a modest wedding band.
After an hour or so, he is done. Balls are returned to the caddy, and on leaving the court he opens a utility box attached to one of the light poles, turns off the floods, and locks the box. Home is a one-mile jog away.
Wrapped in the dark again, he can breathe deeply. The trees smell sweet, and stars twinkle in celestial harmony. The moon is a ball too.