Category Archives: Small town America

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

And for God’s sake…Clean your room!

It can be a battle cry or a plea, a conversation starter or killer, the opening ante or the last card played in high stakes parent/child “it’s our house/my room” poker. Sure, I know there are families where kids’ rooms are well-kept, but I have never lived in such a house.

I could Google the topic to find statistics and studies to determine if there is a correlation between neatness, character, academic achievement and all-round “great kid” status.  But in this election year where we are inundated with polls and prognostications, I have no desire to research another flash point issue in which an expert shrugs his shoulders and says: “At the end of the day, it’s anybody’s guess.”

No, this is one topic where we can rely upon anecdotal experience to yield unreliable results.

My oldest brother, Scott, was a hall of fame slob, the color of his carpet unknown until he moved to college and the debris field cleared. He was also class valedictorian, varsity basketball player and trumpeter in the band.  After he graduated from college and got his own apartment I was stunned when he scolded me for putting a beer bottle on his coffee table without a coaster.

My other brother, Tim, was a Boy Scout and National Merit Scholar who vacuumed his carpet and made his bed every morning, without Mom asking. In my book, and Scott’s, Tim was a traitor.

I do not recall whether my sisters, Amy and Holly, rooms were orderly. But that being the case, they must have been acceptable.

I was not a tidy kid.  But I was child number four and Mom was running low on energy by the time I reached my teens, closing the door with a groan more often than engaging me in debate.

One day, however, she reached a breaking point and rolled in the big gun: Dad.

Now, in general, Dad displayed little interest in housekeeping. He kept the TV room and the area around his easy chair organized. Lucky Strikes and stainless steel Zippo lighter squared against a chrome ashtray, remote or, in the prehistoric days of my early childhood, one of his five kids within range to change channels. That was about it.

But he lived in Mom’s house and she had spoken, so the order was issued: “Clean your room.”

Skeptical of my return minutes later, we marched upstairs for inspection. Seeing the bed made and floor rubble free, Dad strode toward the closet.

“Dad,” I blurted.

Dirty clothes, empty boxes, stinky sneakers and a basketball spilled on top of him.

“Nice try,” he said. “Now clean your room.”

Like his uncle Scott, our son Michael has morphed into a respectable housekeeper. I spent a week with him this summer at his apartment and was amazed by stacks of washed dishes, folded towels and clean sheets.

Our daughter, Anissa, has not reached this point. Mainly because she has never met a hangar, hook or organizer she liked.

Upon entering the house her shoes go one way, purse another, jacket a third. Car keys have been located under seat cushions, on bathroom shelves and beneath her bed. Dirty clothes are abandoned in the laundry room, languishing until dresser drawers and closets are bare.

Last week we moved Anissa into her dorm room. Excited, she flipped off her Birkenstock sandals and went to work. Later, we prepared to run her and her roommate, Stephi, to Target for supplies.

“Where’s my Birkenstock?” Anissa said.

We all stared at her bare left foot.

“Where’d you take them off?” I foolishly asked.

My wife, Yolanda, sighed. Anissa shrugged, her palms up.

We shifted suit cases and boxes, propped up the futon, checked under both beds. Nothing.

“Well,” Anissa said, “this is a new one, even for me.”

Stephi, filled with the fearlessness of youth, attacked the futon like she was wrestling an alligator. She flipped it to the floor, peeled back the fitted sheet and shook it until it coughed up a Birkenstock.

“I knew it had to be here,” Stephi said, eyes shining.

Hours later, as we drove home, a picture of Anissa’s made bed and well-organized desk glowed from the screen of Yolanda’s Android.

“How long do you think it’ll stay that way?” she said, gazing wistfully at the photo, saving it in her gallery.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” I said.

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Filed under 21st Century America, August 2012, Brothers, Empty Nesters, Family, Housekeeping, Small town America

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Dream a Little Dream

“What’s the skinny guy sayin’?”

Jake Plotner plopped on the bar stool next to mine in the cool darkness of the American Legion.  Jake’s a sixty-something fireplug with blue eyes and white flat top who claims to be the small town cousin of the late, great Chicago columnist Mike Royko’s alter ego Slats Grobnik. I cannot confirm the identity of either fellow, but they both enjoy a good conversation over a cold beer. Some say Jake retired from a local factory where he ran a press that punched tin can lids. My son Michael worked a similar machine one hot summer.

“Toughest job I ever had, Dad,” Michael said, this from a kid who detassled, painted barns and shoveled soybeans and other things for farmers since the age of fourteen.

Jake punched that press for forty years according to local legend.

Without a word the blonde bartender handed Jake a beer and the three of us stared up at the TV.

Thanks to the proliferation of 24/7 news channels Americans have a choice in how the events of the day are presented on TV. We have networks that lean conservative, liberal and the one that’s in every airport which appears to be simply dazed and confused at this point. But the channels do share a few things in common like banner headlines signaling “Breaking News: Kim Kardashian Divorcing after Seventy-Two Days of Marriage,” a plethora of “buy gold” commercials and talking head “experts” who seem to have so much time on their hands that they do not work a day job. Or maybe being an “expert” is their day job.

Give me a steaming cup of Joe and the morning paper.

I gestured at the flashing screen.

“He says since Congress hasn’t acted on comprehensive immigration reform he’s not enforcing the law to deport illegal immigrants under the age of thirty who meet certain requirements,” I said.

“It’s good to be King,” Jake said. “But heck, his party had control of Congress for two years and never did nothin’ about it. What’s ‘Mister Gentleman’s Quarterly’ got to say?”

A news ticker ran along the bottom of the TV highlighting civil war in Syria, Iranian nuclear denials and the announcement that a Reality TV couple was having a child. GQ appeared on cue, square-jawed with every black hair in place, sixty-something like Jake but not showing the wear and tear of forty years in a factory. He said something about not necessarily disagreeing with the idea of not deporting young illegal immigrants who fit the criteria but objected to the skinny guy’s unilateral pronouncement. GQ also called for comprehensive immigration reform.

Jake and I swigged our beers. The blonde wandered to the end of the bar.

“So they agree?” Jake said blue eyes wide. “We need new rules on this whole deal, right?”

“Yep.”

Jake brushed his flat top and shifted to face me.

“This is crazy. These guys agree we need to secure the border, be reasonable about the folks already here and set up a new system to make it fair for everyone who wants to come to the U.S. That’s what they’re both sayin’, right?”

“You’re correct, my friend,” I said.

“Then why the hell don’t they get it done?”

“Devil’s in the details, I guess. But some say it’s not good politics.”

“Come again,” Jake said leaning on the bar.

“Stirs the pot.  Fires up each party’s base. Helps get the vote out. It’s not about governing or doing the right thing like both sides claim. They don’t want to make proposals that the other can criticize and turn against ‘em.  It’s all about winning elections.”

“Geez,” Jake said, rubbing his chin, “with all the problems this is causin’ for all sorts of people, it’s hard to believe that even politicians can be that cynical.”

Our eyes met and we laughed.

“Another round,” Jake called to the blonde. “And for Pete’s sake…change the channel. I’d rather watch the Cubs lose than listen to any more of this.”

The screen glowed with green grass, blue sky and a Cub batter kicking the dirt after a swing and a miss.

“Hell, at least he’s swingin’ the bat,” Jake said, raising his glass. “At least he’s swingin’ the bat.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Barack Obama, Chicago Cubs, Corrupt Politicians, Exploitation, Immigration Reform, Institutions, July 2012, Mitt Romney, Newspaper, Small town America

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.

Most.

Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Alec Guiness, Baby Boomers, Cemetaries, Citizen Soldiers, David Lean, Donald Trump, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, June 2012, Legacy, Small town America, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Pyramid of Giza, The Movies, Tombstones, William Holden, World War II, WWII America

Take It to the Limit

Take It to the Limit  (excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues.) This is a repost. I needed a shot of  70’s style high school basketball and a reminder to live in the moment. 

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the Hilltopper’s student section chanted.

“No way that was a charge, Jack,” Jenkins shouted as he jerked Jack up from the floor. “Keep takin’ it to the hole.”

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the students yelled as the referee signaled four and four with his hands, Jack’s uniform number, to the scorer’s table.

It was the rematch against the Black Hills Miners, midway through the fourth quarter of the suspended boys’ first game back, and Jack’s dunk over J.J. “Davy” Crockett would have given St. Jude its first lead of the game. Instead they remained a point down, and Jack picked up his fourth foul.

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!”

The St. Jude crowd, stinging from the treatment at Black Hills, had been rowdy at the start, screaming like banshees during a tight first half. They hushed when Black Hills opened up a thirteen-point lead in the third, but revved up when St. Jude closed the gap in the fourth. Coach Collins took full advantage of the experienced gained by Tompkins, McElroy, and Pitman during the suspension, and rotated eleven players in and out of the game. Like a prizefighter saving a reserve of energy for the final round, when the fourth quarter rolled around Collins unleashed his rested starters along with the two-two-one full-court press. Not as deep as St. Jude, the Miners felt the squeeze, turning the ball over and letting the Hilltoppers back into the game.

As he ran up court after the foul, Jack glanced to the sidelines and saw Black Hill’s coach Stan “The General” Patton striding in front of the visitors bench, forever in his white shirt and black and red striped tie, hands clapping, grinning face a contorted scarlet, violet neck veins bulging. Patton was thrilled with the call, Jack thought, hopeful it might stem the Topper tide.

“Let ’em holler, Crockett,” Patton shouted. “That was a helluva play, boy. Way to sacrifice yourself. Good hustle, good goddamn hustle. Now let’s get two.”

Jack passed the half court line and the scorer’s table and looked to the Hilltoppers bench, expecting to see Collins shouting similar encouragement. Instead, Collins stood with his hands on his hips, staring into the howling student section, while Scooter shouted at the ref.

“You owe us one,” Scooter yelled, hoping to plant a seed for the next close call. “No way Crockett had position. No way.”

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” echoed through the Wreck.

Collins turned and marched to the scorer’s table and snatched the PA announcer’s microphone. “Not here, not here,” he said into the mic, looking toward the student section.

The bullshit chant slowed, but did not stop.

“I said, not here!” Collins shouted and pointed at the students. “Not at St. Jude. We’re better than that.”

The chant faded then died, leaving a muffled murmur that rolled like an ocean swell around the gym. Collins handed the mic to the announcer, signaled for timeout and strode toward the bench.

As he did so the subdued swell transformed into a growing wave of cheers and a building crescendo of applause. The students began a different chant.

“We are HILLTOPPERS…We are HILLTOPPERS…WeAREHILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS!” The noise ricocheting off the concrete block walls as the entire crowd joined in.

Patton stared at Collins like a father caught in a lie by his son. The blood drained from his face, grin turning to a glare, as he stopped marching and called his players to the bench.

“What the hell does he mean ‘we’re better?’” Patton yelled at the Miner’s team physician, Dr. Keck. “Uppity—”

“C’mon, Stan,” Keck said, grabbing Patton by the arm and turning him to the bench.

Collins did not hear Patton or chose to ignore him. He unbuttoned the top button of his blue Brooks Brothers suit jacket and knelt on one knee in front of the St. Jude bench, head down. The five starters sat facing him, drinking water and wiping sweat off with white cotton towels.

Collins waved away the clipboard Scooter offered.

“You want to sub for Jack?” Lane asked. “That was his fourth, and we’ve got three-plus minutes to play.”

“Nope, we’ll keep him in,” Collins said, lifting his head. “Need his offense.”

Collins’s brown eyes roved from Jenkins to Gudy to Brewster to Connolly to Jack. He pointed to his head then thumped his chest with his fist. “That’s what it comes down to!” he shouted. “Keep up the full court pressure. Run the offense. Trust yourself and your teammates. Remember the ‘Law of the Jungle.’ Now let’s win this thing. I’m sick and tired of losing to Patton and the damn Miners.”

Collins stood and extended a steady right hand forward. Scooter, Lane, and the five starters covered it. The boys standing behind Collins closed in tight.

“We are,” the team shouted in unison with the surging crowd, “HILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS… WEAREHILLTOPPERS!”

Because of the foul the Miners had to take the ball the length of the court, allowing the Toppers to set up their press. To make it more difficult, the Black Hills basket was on the side of the court away from their bench, making it impossible for his players to hear Patton.

“Jack, Gudy, Brew,” Collins shouted as the huddle broke, “because of Jack’s fouls he’s going to play safety on the press. Brew you take Gudy’s spot at right middle. Gudy you go to left middle. All right, let’s go!”

“This ain’t the NBA,” Patton shouted in the huddle. “No shot clock. So be patient. Get a good shot or make ’em foul. We have a one-point lead. We’re in the bonus. Foul puts you at the line. Remember, as long as we have the lead, the pressure’s on them to get the ball and score.”

Crockett inbounded the ball to the Miners point guard, a five-foot seven, one-hundred thirty pound watermelon-seed-slick kid named Freddy “Mercury” Morrissey. Jack did not know if the nickname paid homage to Queen’s smooth-sounding lead singer or the Miami Dolphins running back, Mercury Morris. Or if Mercury was what every fast kid was called by his buddies or by ground-down veteran sportswriters tired of trying to dub jocks with fresh handles. Regardless, the soot-freckled Mercury Morrissey gave opposing teams fits.

The full-court press on, Jenkins and Connolly, tried to trap Mercury in the corner, but he squirted free and hit Crockett in full stride with a looping pass at the top of the key.  Gudy and Brewster tried to close, but neither possessed Jack’s athleticism and Crockett crossed half court, avoiding a ten count.

Jack hung back in Brewster’s safety position, knowing he might have picked the pass off.  It was on such a play he drew his fourth foul. He leapt high, snatched the ball and drove to the hole. But Crockett, as swift as Jack, slipped in front of him and picked up the charge, forcing Collins to adjust the boys’ places in the press to protect Jack. But Jack reminded himself to not be too aggressive. He was the safety now, the last line of defense. With Gudy trailing the ball, Jack kept Crockett and the Miner’s center, Kurt Svenson, in front of him as the rest of the Toppers raced to pick up their man. Crockett waited for Morrissey than passed him the ball.

Then the cat and mouse game began.

Crockett and the three other Miners ran to the separate corners of the half court, leaving the point guard inside the half-court circle with Jenkins guarding him.

“Four-corners,” Collins shouted. “They’re running the four-corners offense. Stay with your man. Deny the ball. Force the five-second call. Don’t foul unless I tell you to. Jack, stay with Svenson. Gudy take Crockett. Brew pick up the other forward.”

The four-corners offense was designed to protect leads at the end of games and score, to move the ball within the square, the players in the corner cutting across the middle to free a man for an easy path to the basket or a backdoor pass for a lay up. It ate up clock, wore down the defense, and resulted in easy baskets or fatigue fouls and trips to the line. It required a strong point guard like Morrissey who could make free throws, but his teammates needed to be good ball-handlers and shooters as well. Morrissey could not dribble the ball for three-plus minutes.

The St. Jude crowd, recognizing the four-corners, booed.

“Play ball, Patton,” the students yelled. “You gutless wonder!”

But Jack knew Patton made the right call. The Toppers had momentum, closing the Miners thirteen point lead to one. Out of timeouts, the only way Patton could hope to get a measure of control was to slow the game down. On his haunches at the far end of the Black Hills bench, leathery palms cupped around his mouth, shouting instructions his players could not hear, Patton knew the issue could not be forced, this game one the Miners must survive, not go out and win. Patton reveled in the catcalls, as the fans grew restless watching the Toppers chase Morrissey and the Miners around. Better to hear boos than cheers when the Toppers stole the ball off the press and Jack or Gudy slammed home dunks.

The old warhorse knew how to win a basketball game.

It surprised Jack, however, that Patton would keep Svenson in the game, the lumbering Swede easy for Jack to guard and avoid a fifth foul. At six foot nine, two hundred and fifty pounds Svenson was a man among boys. Clogging the lane with his bulk, he forced high-fliers like Jack and Gudy to adjust their drives, while his shoving and leaning took a toll on Brewster. But he could not dribble, shoot the ball, or rebound reliably.  Svenson was a basketball player only because Patton said he was.

At first, the four-corners worked to perfection. Morrissey zipped in and out, dribbling, cutting, faking drives to the hole and then reversing, a gasping Jenkins focused on keeping the slippery guard from slithering past for an easy layup. After fifteen to twenty seconds, Morrissey gave up the ball to Crockett, or any teammate besides Svenson, who passed or dribbled for five to ten seconds before returning the ball to Morrissey. A minute fell off the game clock like a raindrop from heaven, and the frenzied St. Jude fans howled in frustration.

“Deny the pass,” Collins shouted at Gudy, Brewster, and Lane the next time Morrissey had the ball in the middle. “Jack, Jenkins. Trap the ball. Trap the ball!”

Patton, hearing Collins, jumped up and whistled and waved like a traffic cop, desperate to signal his players. But Morrissey, back to the Black Hills bench, could not see Patton, and the coach’s whistling was lost in the hooting and hollering of the Toppers fans. Morrissey dribbled hard to the hoop on the right side of the court where Jack stood keeping his body between Svenson and the ball. Jenkins denied Morrissey a path to the basket, the little man stopped short of the baseline, spun to his right and shifted the ball to his left, expecting to see Jack with Svenson and squirt between them and Jenkins toward the half court line.

But as Morrissey spun, Jack abandoned Svenson, planted his right foot on the base line and spread his left leg wide. Jenkins closed fast also and within a split second they bottled the slick Mercury on the baseline.

“One…two… three…” the ref counted, right hand holding a silver whistle in pursed lips, ready to blow, left arm marking the count with hatchet-like chops. If he reached five, the Toppers took possession. Morrissey’s eyes searched for an open cutter between Jack and Jenkins’s arms and elbows, but Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster stayed on their men, cutting off all hope.

In the corner stood the statue-like, blond-haired Svenson, arms extended, eyes wide, hands trembling.

“Mercury, Mercury, Mercury,” he dry-mouthed, not wanting the ball but compelled by a sense of duty to call for it.

“Four…” the ref roared, left arm slashing.

Morrissey kept his pivot foot in place, ball faked toward half court then jab stepped to the baseline extending his short arms toward the crowd behind the basket and wrapped a short bounce pass around Jack’s right leg to Svenson. The big man bent low, caught the ball and held it above his head looking, like Morrissey had, for an open man. But Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster had their men covered, Jenkins stayed with Morrissey, and Jack turned and closed fast on Svenson. Jack planted his left leg on the baseline, keeping his body between the center and the basket. Svenson would have to find an open player or dribble the ball up the sideline toward center court, a perilous trip even for an expert dribbler.

“One…two…” the ref began again.

Jack thrust his arms to the sky and edged as close to Svenson as he dared without fouling. The Swede’s blue eyes bulged, sweat rolled down his flushed face. No man open, no timeouts left. The massive Miner had one path to freedom.

“Three…” the ref yelled.

Svenson pivoted away from Jack, brought the ball to his waist and laid it with a solid THUMP against the hardwood, shuffling up the sideline, white, size fourteen, Converse high tops skimming the floor, eyes on the ball, big body creeping like a man lost in the dark.

THUMP went the ball again, and Svenson slid down the line, Jack pressing him on every step.

The St. Jude fans screamed. The few Black Hills fans in attendance and the entire bench, including Patton, stood frozen, never having seen the senior center dribble more than a few times in succession during the course of his three-year varsity career.

THUMP, THUMP…Svenson dribbled twice in succession and took a full step forward, confidence growing.

“Sven!” a sprinting Morrissey shouted, freed from Jenkins by a pick from Crockett .

Svenson, releasing the ball for another dribble, lifted his head and turned a few degrees to see Mercury streak by, arms waving, and as the big man’s head rose, his huge foot followed. He dropped his hands to catch the ball and whip it to Mercury, but instead of one last reassuring THUMP against the hardwood there was a muffled THUD as the leather ball landed on the toe of the Swede’s big sneaker and bounced out of bounds.

An ecstatic St. Jude student wearing dark glasses and a Blues Brothers fedora caught the ball as the ref shouted, “Toppers ball!” and pointed toward the St. Jude basket.

Svenson clutched his head as he ran down the court. Crockett patted him on the back. Patton kicked the floor, cursing not Svenson but himself for not pulling the big man during the timeout.

“Run the offense!” Collins pointed to Jenkins as he took the inbounds pass from Connolly.

Unlike a lot of coaches, Collins did not call timeout to set up a play at the end of a game. He believed this was where good coaching and practice paid dividends. No need to diagram a play and allow the rattled Miners to set up an inbounds defense. The Toppers either executed the motion offense as taught or not. “Practices are class, games are tests,” he said many times. “And the end of a close game is like a final exam. Let’s see how you do when the pressure’s on.” He could not play the game for them. He would not play the game for them.

Jenkins dribbled the ball toward center court, Mercury Morrissey picking him up at the half court line.

Jack and the boys waited for Connolly to join them, each player taking his position, readying themselves for the action to come, hearts revving like the Indy 500 field waiting for the green flag. Jenkins picked up his dribble at the top of the key and fired a pass to Jack on the right wing. Jack held it strong in triple-threat position, two hands on the ball in shooting position, ready to sink the jumper or pass or dribble penetrate. Crockett was in his face, bouncing, waving his arms, a bundle of nervous energy, determined to block Jack’s shot from the wing or stop his drive to the hole.

“Make somebody else beat us,” Patton hollered.

Jack jab-stepped and head faked, but Crockett did not bite and stayed on him like cling wrap. Brewster and Gudy flashed off screens, but neither could get open or in a good position to do anything with the ball but pass it back. The idea of slashing past the overeager Crockett passed through Jack’s mind, his streetball, man-on-man instincts ready for the challenge. He glanced at the game clock. 1:20 left. Too soon. Jack saw the hulking Svenson lurking in the lane, threw a ball fake at Crockett and whipped the ball to Jenkins at the top of the key who fired it around the horn to Connolly on the opposite wing. Jack raced into the lane and set a pick for Gudy. Jenkins cut toward the hoop on the right as Brewster set a screen.

And with that, the Toppers cranked up the motion offense, the ball not touching the ground as the players flashed and dashed across and up and down the lane. Jack and Gudy popped out on the wings, Connolly and Jenkins rotated through and back up to the point. Brewster crisscrossed the court, setting picks, pivoting, back to the basket, the big man taking the occasional interior pass, looking for a cutter, throwing a fake at Svenson to keep him honest, set him up for the next play, then firing the ball to the wing or the key.

A low murmur of ooohs and aaahs spread across the bleachers, the standing crowd appreciative of the contradictory notion of the motion offense; its precision and free-flowing grace playing off each other, the ball be-bopping between the boys like pinball with a purpose. The mesmerized fans, like cool-cat-customers in a jazz club, let loose no prolonged cheers or screams. Everyone in the gym, including the Black Hills folks, was in the moment, marveling at the cuts, picks, passes and brief solos of the Toppers. Brewster’s work in the lane, Jack’s head and shoulder fakes on the wing, Jenkins taking two quick dribbles into the lane, then popping out, testing, poking, prodding, looking for a crack in the Miners defense. And the Miners countered, lunging, scrambling, Crockett face-up on Jack, Svenson leaning on Brewster, Morrissey scatting around Jenkins. Their defense flexed but did not crack, as the crowd admired the simple beauty of a well-played game, the ten boys dancing an unscripted basketball ballet, the finale approaching with every tick of the scoreboard clock.

Patton paced and shouted.

Scooter chewed his nails and prayed the rosary.

Lane, decked out in a pearl shaded leisure suit and wide-collar blue shirt, perched on the edge of the bench, fingertips tingling, ready to take the last shot. Always the gunner, confident he would drain it, astonished whenever the ball failed to fall but, with a true shooter’s self-assurance, certain the next one would.

Elbows on his knees, game program in his left hand, gold cross stuck to his sweating palm, brown eyes darting as the ball zoomed around the court, Collins leaned forward on the bench, fighting the urge to shout, not wanting to interrupt his players’ rhythm, break their concentration.

“Let ’em play,” he told himself. “Let ’em play.”

As the clock ticked down below twenty-five seconds, Jack weaved his way through the lane one more time, taking a pass from Connolly in the right corner. Crockett fought through Brewster’s screen, a step late getting to Jack, but managed to stay close enough to stop Jack from firing. Jack glanced at Crockett’s eyes.

“He’s gassed,” Jack thought and nodded toward the far corner as he tossed the ball to Connolly on the wing, faked Crockett to the left, and sprinted toward the hoop, crossing out of bounds over the baseline as Brewster slid toward Jack from the lower block and set a crushing screen on the trailing Crockett. As Crockett sprawled on the floor, the slow-footed Svenson tried to reverse course and stay with Jack.

In full stride, Jack peeled around Brewster, sweaty shoulders sliding white on black, black on white, hopped back in bounds and raced toward the left corner, free of all defenders. Connolly, who held the ball for a beat after Jack’s nod, ball-faked his man to buy Jack time, then cleared it with a blur to Jenkins at the top of the key who zipped it to Gudy on the left wing who fired a fastball back to the corner where Jack caught it with his right hand and jerked to a halt with the shriek of rubber-on-wood. He did not hear the crowd or coaches, nor did he think of his mother vanishing for days at a time, his father drinking himself to sleep, he felt no worries about what people thought, had no cares about winning or losing the game. The sound and fury of life, all the bullshit and the noise, floated like flotsam and jetsam in his wake as Jack propelled forward on his singular, simple mission, soul lost and found in the flash of an instant.

Pivoting toward the hoop on his left foot, he squared his shoulders to the basket; legs bent at the knees, his body strong from Collins’s constant conditioning, and pulled the ball in, left hand resting on its side, right hand in shooting position. Although slow as an overloaded grain truck creeping uphill, the desperate Svenson took one last labored stride, shot his arms in the air and lunged toward a jumping Jack.

At the height of his leap, Jack felt the dimples of the leather ball as it rolled off his fingertips. He watched it arc toward the hoop, spinning like a satellite in the weightlessness of space, reaching its apex, then tumbling down toward the welcoming white net, landing with a cuuuuuush.

He knew it was good the moment the ball left his hand, knew it without thinking, knew it the way a loved baby knows his mother will comfort him when he cries, instinctual, unspoken, understood.

He struck the pose for a split-second, right arm extended, Svenson stumbling past him and collapsing in a mismatched heap of alabaster knees, chest, hands, and body, smacking the beige floor boards with a shuddering thump, while all eyes in the building watched the ball slide through the net.

The Wreck exploded. The St. Jude fans jumped and shouted, the Black Hills faithful groaned.

And with that, like an alarm awaking him from a deep sleep, Jack returned to the world. Conscious now of the crowd, the players, and the scoreboard clock ticking down, the game still on.

“Get the ball, get the ball,” Patton shrieked.

“Set up the press,” Jenkins yelled.

Morrissey snatched the ball as Svenson and Crockett scrambled to their feet.

The Toppers’ scrambled to their defensive positions, no one slapping hands or smiling

Jack drifted to the left middle then remembered he was the safety as Crockett streaked down the opposite side of the court.

“Get back, Jack, get back!” Scooter shouted.

The game clock raced toward ten seconds as the ref started the five-count on the inbounds pass. Morrissey slid to the left side of the basket to keep his pass away from the backboard, set his stubby legs, and fired the ball over Connolly like a quarterback leading a wide receiver.

Crockett caught the ball over his right shoulder at the half court line and dribbled toward the left side of the hoop.

Jack, four steps behind and across the court, took an angle that would intercept Crockett in front of the hoop, if he could beat the fleet Miner to the spot.

But Crockett throttled down on his way to the basket, Svenson’s turnover fresh in his mind, not wanting to take any chances with the ball careening out of bounds.

Jack sprinted, fast-closing footsteps now thundering above the din of the crowd, Crockett glanced back and saw him, dribbled faster, passed the foul line, and went airborne six feet from the basket, the ball in his left hand, left leg raised, rim between Jack and the ball.

Jack took one last bounding stride and leapt towards the hoop, right arm shooting to the sky. Crockett, who decided midflight to lay the ball off the glass, not certain he could dunk with his weaker left hand, released the ball below the rim with a flick of his wrist, floating it up toward the glass. Jack soared, right elbow even with the basket and tipped the ball before it brushed the board. The ball bounced off the glass, dinged the rim, and fell to the court. Gudy, following the play, grabbed it before it went out of bounds and dribbled, playing keep away from lunging Miners as the buzzer sounded.

Collins, Scooter, and Lane turned to each other and slapped hands. Jack, Gudy, and the rest of the starters hopped, hugged, and high-fived.

Crockett and Svenson shook Jack’s and the rest of the Topper’s hands, as did Dr. Keck with Collins. But Patton and his assistants turned and double-timed with the rest of the Miners to the locker room. The St. Jude students, vengeance theirs, poured onto the court.

As the student body bounced and skipped like children playing in the rain, Jack scanned the stands for his family, relieved to see Mary Lou clapping and cheering. He smiled, a wave of satisfaction washing over him with exhilaration, surprise, and calm. Katy popped out from the throng and Jack swept her up in a hug. They turned and waved at his family then whooped and dove into the mob of screaming kids.

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Filed under 1970's, Family, High School, HIgh School Basketball, In the moment, March 2012, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Paint it Black

Excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues

“Really a classic case, she is…uh—”

“Mary Lou, Doc…”

Sam and Mary Lou were sitting in Dr. Thaddeus Musselman’s office two years earlier when the beefy, red faced psychiatrist diagnosed her paranoid schizophrenic.

“Yes, of course, Mary Lou,” Musselman said from a cushioned leather chair perched behind a polished oak desk, “quite fascinating, from a clinical point-of-view, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure, we get it, but can you help?” Sam said, sucking a Lucky.

“Well, there are drugs, like Haldol, the one we have her on now, and individual therapy sessions…”

“You’re going to drug her, then talk to her? That works?”

“Well, Mr. Henderson, not exactly like that. It’s more complicated. Cognitive behavioral therapy…uh, uh… than drugging and talking, as you put it…you see…”

Sam and Mary Lou stared across the shiny divide, in straight back hardwood chairs. Sam, legs crossed, squinting through the smoke, nodding. Mary Lou, hands in gray skirted lap, knees together, eyes darting from Sam to the doctor. Not speaking. Feeling like people who described near death experiences, soul hovering above, seeing all, but unable to engage in the human activity below as Dr. Musselman explained the progression of the “disease.”

Mary Lou recalled the intent look on Sam’s face as he tried to follow the doctor’s lead, to get what he believed to be the best treatment. She empathized with Sam’s struggle to reconcile the rational to the emotional, to accept her missing-in-action status, to not “take the illness, personally, Sam,” as Dr. Musselman put it.

“I’m not taking the illness personally, Doc,” Sam said, leaning forward, eyes meeting Musselman’s. “No more than I did Kraut bullets. But the holes they tore into my buddies, I took that personal. I don’t blame the illness, Doc.  But I sure as hell blame it for what it’s doin’ to my wife, to our marriage, to our family. I damn sure take that personal.  Let’s cut the clinical point of view crap, Doc.  Can you help Mary Lou or not?”

Musselman, face pale, nodded.  “Yeah, Mr. Henderson, I think I can.”

“Here’s your tea, dear.”

Grandma Henderson touched Mary Lou’s shoulder.

Mary Lou flinched and the oak rocker creaked to a halt.

She had been home a week and began every morning with a hot cup of tea laced with honey and cream, settling into the padded rocker in front of the crackling fireplace, hair in a bun, face bereft of makeup.

“Thank you, Etta,” she said, taking the steaming cup in trembling hands.

Mary Lou gazed out the front window where a November blanket of snow and ice made the dormant grass crunch under foot, the entire land frigid, the temperature never edging above freezing. A pang of guilt struck her at the sight of the lumps and bumps of dead flowers in her garden. She had neglected it the last few years, doing less and less each spring and summer until the wildflowers and weeds overwhelmed the colorful carpet of perennials, the sole nursery plants left, three bare rose bushes, their stakes like crucifixes.

“Farmer’s Almanac says we’re in for a long, cold winter,” Etta said, tucking in the quilt that covered Mary Lou’s legs.

Muted by the Haldol, but mind clearer than it had been in weeks, Mary Lou snuggled deep into the quilt, alternately drumming her fingers and sipping the tea, her emotions as flat as the Midwestern landscape.

Mary Lou stared into the flames, thinking of her father, Wally.  There was a man who built a good fire. Always kept one going in the pot belly stove of his general store.

 

“Tell me about Wally. Wally Weller, right?” Musselman had said at a session, yellow legal pad propped in his lap.

“Yes…what do you want to know?” Mary Lou said, stretched out on a cushy leather couch, Musselman within her peripheral vision.

“Let’s start with how you remember him? What’s he look like in your mind?”

“Well, I guess when I think of him it’s as a younger man.  Black hair, clean shaven, cigarette dangling from his lip.”

“What was he like?”

“Busy.  Daddy was always busy.  Always at the store.  Owned a general mercantile a few blocks from our home. Seemed like he lived there.  Have to girls. Not really selllin’ merchandise as much as I’m sellin’ myself.  No Wally, no sales.”

“Hard worker, then?”

“I suppose.”

Musselman shifted in his seat.

“A religious man?”

“Daddy?” Mary Lou said with a laugh. “Not any you’d recognize.  He did believe in God, but more for practical reasons than from any kind of faith.  Sure as hell can’t hurt, he’d crack.”

“Any one memory stand out?”

“I remember I always hugged him,” Mary Lou said, folding and unfolding her hands. “I don’t remember him ever hugging me or Momma or Sara. We always had to hug him.”

Musselman’s pen scratched the pad.

“Anything else? Any specific memories.”

“Gosh, I don’t know. It’s been so many years.”

“Try.”

“Well, I guess the spring concert my senior year of high school.  I was featured on piano.  I remember stepping into the spotlight. The house lights were down, so I could not make anyone out, just heard the applause.  I played exceptionally well.  A Mozart waltz.  When I finished and stood to take a bow, the lights came up.  There, in the front row, clapping like crazy were Momma, Sara and my Aunt Thelma, Momma’s sister. But no Daddy.  He didn’t make it.”

“Why?”

“At the store.  No Wally, no sales.

Musselman cleared his throat.

“Any other memories?”

“I remember when he was dying,” Mary Lou said, squirming on the couch. “He wasn’t old, fifty-five.  Just at the end of the war. I thought it odd, someone as busy as Daddy, dying just as the world was experiencing a rebirth. It was the cigarettes. Emphysema. The lack of oxygen affected his memory.”

“Did you talk before he died?”

“Not really. I know he worried about me. Momma told me.  He never understood my need to play music. Didn’t understand what purpose it served.  He only let me go to college because I received a scholarship.  He wouldn’t have paid for it…saw no reason.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, wiping a tear.  “I remember one of the last times I saw him.  He was sitting with Momma.  I gave him a hug and a kiss and scampered away, off somewhere… But I remember as I reached the door hearing him say to Momma: Who is that girl?

“How old were you when your father died?”

“Nineteen.  Momma died six years later. Polio. Shriveled away in an iron lung.”

 

“Mary Lou, it’s noon. Why don’t you have lunch in here with me?” Etta called from the kitchen.

The two women sat facing each other across the forest green table, Etta posture perfect, Mary Lou slumped. They ate grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup with Saltines and drank cold milk in silence. The Paul Harvey Show crackled from the AM radio on top of the fridge. The commodities report followed with that day’s prices of corn and beans.

“Bumper crop,” Etta said. “Low prices. What’s a farmer to do?”

“Not farm,” Mary Lou said.

Etta laughed. Mary Lou straightened up and loosed a weak grin.

“Amen, to that, Mary Lou.  Amen, to that.”

Finished, Etta cleared the table and Mary Lou, exhausted, retreated to the rocker and fell asleep.

 

A whoosh of cold air, the slam-bam of the back door, and the high-pitched voices of Becky and Maggie, home from school, rang through the house. The seven hours of their school day had slipped by like a single breath. The girls’ cheeks were rosy and chilled as they kissed her. Their fresh auburn hair, their skin soothing to the touch, their inexplicable, naïve, and infectious happiness pulled Mary Lou out of the chair and into the kitchen.

“C’mon, Mom, let’s bake with Grandma.”

Maggie scaled the side of a long-legged stool and took charge.

“Chocolate chip, Mom. That’s what I was thinking of all day in school. Warm, chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven.”

“Hmph,” Becky said. “That explains why you spend so much time in the corner of Mrs. Harper’s room. Thinkin’ ‘bout cookies instead of your work.”

“Tattletale. Miss Becky the goody-two-shoes of Washington Street School. You—”

“Maggie,” Mary Lou said, “you’ve never been in trouble at school. Goodness gracious, what’s gotten into you?”

Maggie bent her head to the floor, wringing her hands as Becky gaped at Mary Lou then Etta.

Etta knelt, opened a cupboard door, and hauled out two mixing bowls.

“Maggie, you and your mother can discuss your behavior when your Dad comes home. Becky, you take care of yourself and let your parents take care of Maggie.”

“But they’re not. They’re not taking care of any—”

“That’s enough now, Becky,” Etta said, eyes lowered as she lifted an electric mixer from a cabinet. “Let’s bake cookies.”

Becky stomped on the floor, walked to the avocado green refrigerator, and got eggs, milk, and butter. Her sister’s back turned, Maggie put her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers, and stuck out her tongue .

“Maggie,” Etta said, “get down off your throne and get the wooden spoons out of the drawer.”

Mary Lou wheeled around on the white linoleum, lost in her own kitchen.

“Here, dear,” Etta said as she touched Mary Lou’s elbow, handed over a bag of chocolate chips, and guided her to the counter. “You make these better than I do. I’ll preheat the oven. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and let you and the girls make cookies. Is that OK?”

“I’m not sure I remember…”

“You will, Mary Lou. All the batches of chocolate chip cookies you’ve baked? You could do it in your sleep.”

“I feel as if I am. I don’t know…”

“C’mon, Mom,” Maggie said and tugged her away from Etta, who twisted a black knob on the oven to 350 degrees, poured a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table with a Good Housekeeping magazine.

Butter, eggs, vanilla, flour, salt, brown sugar, sugar, and baking powder were arrayed on the tiled countertop. Mary Lou stared at the assortment, hands trembling as she reached for the stick of butter, picking at the edges of the wrapper, struggling to loosen the corners.

“Let me crack the eggs,” Maggie said, scooting the stool up to the edge of the counter, balancing on skinny knees next to Mary Lou, tiny freckled hands steady, as she snatched an egg from the cardboard carton and rapped it on the beveled edge of the mixing bowl.

Mary Lou twitched at the sharp click.

“Look, Mom, clean break,” Maggie said, eyes shining.

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, forcing a smile, letting Maggie crack another egg while she added butter, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla, then beat the mixture with a wooden spoon, gauging the increments more from instinct than memory. She looked across the counter where Becky poured the flour, salt, and baking powder, measuring before dumping them in a smaller bowl, sifting them together.

“Can I use the electric beaters to mix everything, Mom?” Becky asked.

“No, me, me!” Maggie shouted.

Mary Lou beat the eggs, butter, and vanilla, trying to remember how she had determined the portions a moment before, then, seeing the sugar and flour, her mind returned to her father’s store and the shelves with kitchen staples. Wally used a long wooden stick with a short hook to retrieve items from the top—“Can a corn”—he hollered, five pound bags of flour and sugar toppling into his big, soft hands like a pop fly in baseball settling into an infielder’s glove.

“Mom?” Becky said.

Mary Lou kept mixing.

“Maggie, you cracked the eggs,” Etta said as she rose from the table and walked to the counter. “Let Becky mix, you can dump in the chocolate chips.”

Mary Lou felt her father’s touch on her elbow.

“See, you remember. I knew you would.”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” she said, pleased because her father never touched her.  She turned to smile and welcome his approval, but Etta stood by her, not Wally. Mary Lou stopped mixing and gazed down at the bowl, lips pursed, eyes vacant.

“I think I’d like to go back… to the fire,” she said.

“OK, Mommy,” Maggie said. Still crouched on her knees, Maggie hugged Mary Lou about the neck and kissed her cheek, then busied herself with opening the chocolate chip bag. “We’ll bring you cookies when they’re baked.”

Becky shook her head, seized the bowl from Mary Lou, dumped the contents into her own, plugged in the electric mixer and punched the button. “Yeah, thanks Mom,” she shouted, beaters whirring.

Mary Lou averted Becky’s gaze, stumbled back a step, and wiped her hands on a towel.

“Just for awhile, girls, just for awhile…I’ll be back,” Mary Lou said, then turned and scurried to the rocker, swirled the quilt over her shoulders, hands and legs shaking as she drummed her fingers on its solid oak arms, the twilight shadows of November creeping across the snow-covered lawn, the fire popping and snapping, thoughts once again drifting to the past, to her father—

“Hi, Mom.”

 

Mary Lou jerked up to see Jack.

“Looks like your fire needs help.” He snatched a couple of logs from the wood bin and set them on the smoldering embers.

“Oh my. I drifted off. What time is it?”

“’Round six o’clock. I just got home from basketball practice.”

“Is your father home?”

“In the kitchen. He said I could come in and wake you. It’s almost supper time.”

“Where are the girls? Have they finished the cookies?”

“Yep, I grabbed a couple when I came in. Don’t tell them, but they’re good. Grandma must’ve helped.”

“Actually, I did,” Mary Lou said, straightening up. “Don’t spoil your supper.”

“You must be feeling better. You sound like a mom again.”

“Again? I didn’t realize I had stopped being a mom, Jack.”

Jack frowned as he turned his back to Mary Lou, grabbed an iron poker and jabbed at the logs, poking and prodding them until flames flickered along the base of the stack then leapt to the top. He grabbed a few smaller pieces of kindling and propped them on end across the bigger logs. The hearth glowed.

Mary Lou stared at her son kneeling on the red brick. Taller than Wally, just as lean, hair not black but brown and just as thick and unruly. The muscles in his straight, broad back undulated beneath a red and black flannel shirt as he stirred the embers, the heat in the room rising as the flames brightened.

“I’m sorry, Jack.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jack said into the fire. “You can’t apologize for something you can’t control. It just pisses me off, you know…the way things are.”

Jack rose, placed the poker in its holder and sat down on the floor to the right of Mary Lou, his legs bent, forearms resting on bony knees, long, lean fingers dangling.

“Not bad, if I say so myself,” he said examining the fire. “Better, huh?”

Mary Lou reached out, hand no longer trembling, and stroked her son’s hair. The giggling voices of Maggie and Becky floated down from upstairs. She could hear Sam and Etta talking, Sam telling a story that made his mother laugh.

“Much better. You build a good fire, Jack. You build a good fire.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, In the moment, Mental Illness, Rolling Stones, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues