(an excerpt) by Bill Snyder
Half-court…00:05 no time…drive…can’t…stayin’ zone…00:03…pretty far…gotta take it…slow down…everybody yellin’…don’t listen…shut everything out…rim…dribble… plonk…rim…square…plant…rim…forehead…rim…flick…what’s that…can’t see…blind…needed more time…felt right…nice spin real nice spin…looks good…be good be good Johnny be good be good Johnny just like ringin’ the bell…it’s goin’ in!!!
Jim Collins’ yellow-flecked feline blue eyes widened. The ball floated through the air before slithering through the net. The scoreboard changed to:
VISITOR 55 HOME 56
The referee standing at center-court waved his hands over his head signaling the game was over.
– Great shot, man.
– Way to go, baby.
– I dig it, I dig it.
The royal blue-and-white clad basketball team of Annunciation High School ran from the court champions of the Philadelphia High School Holiday Basketball Festival. ‘Cool’ was king in December, 1959 and ‘cool’ was the emotion they showed running off the court. Two teammates patted him on the back. In the locker room the team formed a tribal circle as Coach Chandler beckoned to Jim to stand in the center rubbing his close-cropped black hair with affection.
– One helluva clutch shot. Big time play!!!
They clapped their way into an open shower room. Jim suffered through a blur of water and soap soads while one wise-ass teammate doused him with buckets of cold water. Afterwards supine on the locker room bench, he remembered all the times he had practiced that game-winning shot in a darkening playground, an unlit gym or outside his house under the streetlight; all for the feeling of watching the numbers change with no time left for anyone to undo what he had just done. Complacency engulfed him in quiet reverie like a Sunday morning in church after receiving Communion. Wearing tan khakis, a navy blue turtleneck, and his red Rebel Without a Cause jacket, Jim drifted into the cool evening with Chuck Berry’s just like ringin’ the bell echoing in his ears.
A blue and white bullet-nosed 1954 Ford waited at the curb. The air in the car was warm and heavy, laden with the smell of burning tobacco from the butt that had just been flicked out the window. His father, a big broad-shouldered man, sat hunched over the wheel.
– I’m glad ya made that last one. When ya missed those fouls earlier I was sure ya were goin’ to be the goat in that game. Ya had that number 7 in your hip pocket. Ya coulda done all night what ya did at the end
– Yeah, I know. I should’na had to make that shot. We shoulda been way ahead by then.
Gerry Collins didn’t look at his son as he spoke in a matter-of-fact tone that brooked no disagreement. He had played semi-pro basketball in Catholic church halls in the 30’s where the game was played in a cage so that the home fans couldn’t harm the opposition. At five years old he had his son dribbling and shooting at a peach basket he hung on the side of the cellar stairs. There was no doubt in his mind that Jim would be the player he never was. Jim wanted a cigarette to soothe the nervousness that came on him whenever he talked to his father about what happened in the games he played.
– Well, I’m glad you did make it. It won’t hurt for the Big 5 coaches to see it in the paper tomorrow.
Pride resonated in Gerry’s voice.
– Hadn’t thought about that.
Jim slid further down in his seat pleased that Diane would read the newspaper tomorrow.
– Yer gonna save me a lotta money when ya get that scholarship. I never had the chance yer gonna have. They’ll be offerin’ more than tuition too. Maybe somethin’ like Chamberlain got for goin’ to Kansas. Everybody figured he was goin’ Temple all the way. But ya can never tell what a nigger’s gonna do. He just took the money and ran.
The word ‘nigger’ felt like sandpaper rubbing an open wound on Jim’s skin. He turned to the empty street and wished his father hadn’t come to the game.
– Nobody’s in Wilt’s class. Never seen anybody like him. He just goes over everybody.
Gerry parked the car in front of the row of houses that he described as ‘a brick cigar box.’ Jim numbed himself like his hero Jim Stark entering the house with his eyes cast to the floor. The black-and-white linoleum squares and the eggshell white cabinets in the kitchen were the same as all the other houses on Osage Avenue. His mother stood absent-mindedly at the sink with a fork in her hand as Jim hung his jacket on the door.
– They won by a point, Jim made the winning shot.
– He did, did he? That’s a blessing. Wha’ can I fix ya to eat, lad?
Marcia Collins used an Irish brogue sometimes when she was happy, even though she was second generation Philadelphia Irish.
– Somethin’ quick. Meetin’ the guys at Dinger’s.
– Always in a rush. You spend a lotta money on meals you could eat at home. Sit down and I’ll make ya a sandwich. Howse about a Butter Burger?
– All right.
Jim agreed to a frozen beef sandwich congealed with margarine that was the usual game-night menu. Eating in silence broken now and then by Marcia’s questions, Jim and Gerry answered tersely, occasionally looking to each other for agreement. Jim finished, got up from the table and grabbed his red jacket.
– See ya Ma, Dad. I’ll be home around 1. Can I have the car?
– No. Be back by midnight.
Gerry looked up, then took another bite. Margarine oozed from the corner of his mouth.
– How about tomorrow?
Asking was Jim’s ploy. It was tomorrow night that he really wanted the car.
– We’ll talk about it later.
His father mumbled through his full mouth.
Opening the kitchen door onto the landing shared with the Kaplan’s house next door Jim bounced down black cast-iron steps to the alley between his row of houses and the next row on Comly Street. At the corner an emaciated oak tree stood watch like a lonely sentinel over the backboard Jim had nailed to a streetlight. He nodded to the tree promising to work on his foul shooting over the weekend even though 5 for 7 wasn’t bad. Although he hadn’t argued about the missed foul shots, he was pissed for the way his father had of turning good things into bad. He hastened his pace to ward off the night’s chill.
Dinger’s hoagie shop was flooded with fluorescent light. Jim closed the door squinting. A white metal and glass case was filled with cold cuts and cheeses in the front of the store. The case butted up against a white Formica service counter where the cold cuts were wrapped to be taken home. On the right were several white shelves stocked with bread, rolls, and snacks. Six red naugahyde booths, a Formica soda fountain lined with red faux-leather chrome stools, a grill for cooking and a pinball machine filled out the rest of the space. The back of the store was an adolescent playground filled to overflowing.
Jim lit a cigarette walking toward the pinball machine that stood under a still cloud of smoke. Assuming a pose of detachment he stood hands-in-pocket at the rear of the pack. Black leather motorcycle or royal-blue corduroy with Annunciation lettered in white script across the back were the de rigeur jackets for the boys of 1959 West Philly. Legs crossed at the ankles, arms fully extended, middle fingers loosely caressing flipper buttons, Reds Hennigan shook the machine with intense nonchalance and made a split-second flipper save to keep the ball in play. A resounding BOCKKK announced a free replay as Reds turned from the machine and squeezed through the crowd. Seeing his friend he grabbed one arm and twisted it behind Jim’s back with a laugh.
– Hey, numb nut.
Simultaneously Peanuts Hopkins came from behind putting Jim in a headlock.
As part of the ritual Jim grimaced as though he were in pain. Reds and Peanuts laughed and pushed him into the last booth against the wall.
– 61st and Callowhill here we come. Gonna celebrate. Diane’ll want ya all to herself for winnin’ the tournament, but it ain’t gonna happen. Awww Jimmy.
Peanuts falsettoed, grabbing Jim’s crotch.
– She’s home tonight, hadda stay home to be ready for the SAT’s tomorrow. Ya got no competition. Who’s drivin’?
– Just cross my palm with some cash for gas and I’m all yours.
– How many points, man?
– I’m not sure.
Jim knew he had 21 – 8 field goals and those 5 of 7 fouls.
– Only ones that mattered were the last ones. Man I’da been shittin’ if I had to take that shot. Didn’t think ya were gonna get it off.
Peanuts was Jim’s best friend. They had grown up together on the same block of Osage St.
– Yeah, I heard ya screamin’. I was lookin’ for somebody open under the basket, but they had jammed everything up. There wasn’t enough time. They gave me the shot so I took it.
– Yeah, yeah, I saw man. Very cool. You takin’ SAT’s tomorrow?
Reds Hennigan held out his hand palm up. Jim slid his hand across it palm down.
– No man. April when the season’s over. I gotta another year before I’m a BMOC like you.
Hennigan was in his senior year at Annunciation with a football scholarship to Notre Dame. A seventy-yard last-minute touchdown run on Thanksgiving had clinched it for him. He was the leader of the Annunciation crowd and wore a leather jacket styled after Brando’s in The Wild One. The three of them rose from the booth and headed toward the door with Georgie Lozinak and Steve Naddeo following. The only 19-year-olds still in attendance at Annunciation, Georgie and Steve were permanent members of the weekend beer runs to Sam’s Bar on 61st Street.
– How’re things in Denmark? Little better tonight?
Joe Aldinger, the owner, was a slightly built middle-aged man with a pencil-thin mustache and slicked-back hair.
– Everything’s cool.
Jim pushed through the front door.
– What was that shit all about?
Peanuts led the way toward the car.
– About a week ago I came in here upset. Dinger told me I had a Hamlet complex. Hamlet’s from Denmark, man, you dig?
Jim had run from his house to Dinger’s a week before wearing a dripping wet t-shirt and practice sweats after his nightly shooting practice. He hadn’t told anybody why.
– Dinger thinks he’s so cool but he’s a real jerkoff. Plenty of room.
Peanuts snickered opening the door of a wood-paneled red Chevrolet station wagon.
– My old man’s probably steppin’ out tonight. Borrowed my Merc so I got these All-American wheels.
Jim sat in the front seat between Peanuts and Reds. Georgie and Steve sat in the back. It was a short drive to Sam’s. Peanuts parked the car in the middle of the block and turned off the engine. Taking money from his pocket, Reds turned and handed it to Steve.
– Three bucks. Get us six quarts of Ortlieb’s. It’s on us tonight, Jim.
– They only sell four quarts a piece. We’ll get eight. Let’s do it, Georgie?
Steve opened the curbside door.
– Yeah. We’ll be back in a couple. Later.
Peanuts, Jim and Reds watched George and Steve enter the side entrance with yellow neon lettering that read – Ladies Welcome. In a few minutes they were back empty-handed.
– New bartender. He asked for our driver’s license. I told ‘em we forgot to bring ‘em. He wouldn’t sell us the beer.
Steve slumped into the back seat.
– That’s bullshit. After all the money we spent in there. South Philly?
– Let’s wait a while. Maybe somebody will come by.
Reds rolled down the window and leaned back resting his elbow on the slot where the window disappeared into the door as he watched the street chin-in-hand.
– I can do without the beer.
Jim wished Diane and he had been able to meet after the game.
– Yeah, yeah, we dig. Ya jes don wanna us to get ya drunk. No way, Jimmy boy, yer ass is ours tonight.
Peanuts grabbed Jim’s leg at the thigh.
– Lay off, man. That hurts.
Peanuts was the group’s clown usually good for a laugh. Jim wasn’t laughing; his thigh felt like it was being held in a vise.
– There’s Stickney’s brother. Give me the money.
Getting the bills from Steve Reds opened the car door and hurried to the corner where two men were crossing the street. The trio talked briefly before Reds handed them the money. The two men went into Sam’s while Reds waited at the corner, hands-in-pockets, shifting from one foot to the other. A few minutes later the two came out with four brown paper bags and the three of them walked back to the car.
– Big party, tonight heh? Not so long ago we were doin’ the same thing.
Pete Stickney stuck his head in the car, looked around, laughed, and walked away.
– Good and cold.
Steve put the bags of beer on the floor. Peanuts drove off and parked across the street from the Cobbs Creek Playground.
– Let’s go man, go. Gimme three of them cold babies. Whose got the key?
Peanuts turned to Steve and Georgie impatiently.
– Cool it, man. I got it. It’s covered, ya dig.
Steve bent over, opened the bottles on the floor and handed three to Peanuts. Peanuts gave one to Jim and one to Reds. Jim didn’t like the bloated feeling beer left in his stomach. He was not in the mood to drink the two quarts expected of him.
– Ahh man, this is what I’ve been waitin’ for – a cold Ortlieb’s.
Peanuts threw his head back mocking a local beer commercial. His bottle was half-empty when he took it from his mouth and turned up 1340 on the radio dial where Georgie Woods, The Man With The Goods, was introducing the next song:
– Here’s a request for Jim from Diane. Great shot my daddio of daddies. Let’s dedicate this to Annunciation High. You are Philly’s Holiday Tournament Champs! The Monotones from Newark, New Jersey with Charles Patrick singing lead.
Peanuts turned up the volume even higher and grabbed Jim’s leg again.
– Oh Jimmy!!!
Everyone in the car began to sing:
Tell me, tell me, tell me
Oh, who wrote the book of love
I’ve got to know the answer
Was it someone from up above?
I love you, love you darlin’
Baby, you know I do
I’ve got to read this book of love
To find out why it’s true.
– Man, she’s serious. Be careful.
Reds drained the last drops from his bottle.
– Not really. We just dig the song.
Jim’s blush couldn’t be seen in the darkness. Peanuts took the bottle from Jim’s hands and examined.
– Aw man, yer not drinkin’ yer ba. Come on, baby’s gotta drink his ba. Open up now, drink yer ba.
Squirming from behind the wheel Peanuts sat on Jim’s lap laughing. With his hand and forearm pressing into Jim’s neck he tilted Jim’s head back so that he could force the beer into his mouth.
– Get the fuck off me, man, I don’t feel like it tonight.
Jim laughed at first, but anger welled the longer Peanuts straddled him.
– Leave him alone, man. We’ll get him later, when Diane’s around.
Reds dug his elbow into Peanuts’ ribs.
– OK, man. We’ll get ‘em at the party tomorrow.
Peanuts slid back behind the wheel.
Jim only drank half of the one bottle, Peanuts drank the rest. It was just after 1AM when they finished the beer and left eight empties at the curb. On the way home Peanuts spotted a red wagon in front of a house and pulled over. He dragged the wagon from the sidewalk, lifted the tailgate and took a seat in the wagon.
– What’re ya doin’?
– Come here.
Jim walked to the wagon and Peanuts handed him the handle of the wagon.
– Lay down in the back there.
Peanuts pointed to the station wagon’s cargo space.
– Reds, drive this piece of shit faster and faster until I yell ‘chicken’. Winner’s the one who goes the fastest.
Reds took the wheel and drove while Jim held onto the wagon handle from the back of the car. The handle was bobbing up and down as Reds accelerated.
– Hey man, I don’t know how long I can do this.
They hit a pothole. The wagon flew high in the air. Peanuts bounced two to three feet above the wagon and settled back down with a thud almost turning the wagon over.
Reds stopped the car.
– How fast, man?
– 33 miles an hour.
– Who’s next?
Peanuts looked in the back of the car. Steve and Georgie maintained their silence.
– C’mon ya pussies!
Peanuts opened the back door waiting.
– No man, yer nuts. Ya almost flew outta that fucker and got hurt like I did last week in that other chicken game you made up. I ain’t doin’ no more of that shit.
Georgie sunk further into his seat in the back of the station wagon.
– No takers, heh. Okay, ya fuckin’ pussies, I guess it’s over. Take us home, man. Sometimes I think that’s how he got killed.
Peanuts got back in the front of the car pushing Jim against Reds.
– What you talkin’ about?-
Reds looked to Peanuts. Peanuts was leaning against Jim dead asleep. Jim shrugged him off propping him against the door.
– He thinks Dean was playin’ chicken with the other car but they didn’t move like he figured they would. It was too late when he swerved. We hadn’t even seen ‘Rebel’ yet when he died. I couldn’t fall asleep the night I saw that movie. Couldn’t believe he was dead.
Reds drove the rest of the way in silence before dropping Jim off at the streetlight backboard. The house was dark as he groped his way up the stairs. He flicked the light on next to his bed, lighting a small room filled with college pennants, basketball trophies, a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, a forty-five RPM record player, and a Blaupunkt table radio. He turned the radio on and lay on the bed hands clasped under his head.
Wasn’t nervous. Didn’t think. Just shot. Why it went in. Old man never told me that. Found out myself. All those times pretendin’ no time left. Concentrate on rim. Nothin’ else.
Didn’t feel nervous. Felt I could do whatever I wanted.
What I’ve been waitin’ for.
Shoulda made the foul shots. Fuck him.
No sense callin’ now. Sleepin.’
First time saw her wearin’ dumb uniform 69th street Terminal. Bunch of ‘em in tunnel. Couldn’t believe it. White blouse, blue blazer, blue skirt, white socks, saddle shoes. Escapees from the convent. Hurry up girls May Procession starts in a minute. Go to confession. Tell the priest now can’t kiss your boy friend.
96.5. Joel Dorn. Milt Jackson MJQ.
See what’s goin’ on with Holden
… … … … … … … … …
Fuckin’ sanitarium? Weird kid. Made me laugh. Made me cry. Not crazy just wanted to be the catcher.
Time for Evans. Turn it on…Da da da da da dum di da da dum di da da da dum. Little kids playin.’ Peaches jumpin’ rope in the alley. Wonder where she lives now? Wanna cry sometimes. Niece’ll always know. Waltz for Debby’s for her. Hope it makes her happy. Wish I had a sister, wish…
SAT’s over. Almost 12. Slept long time. Showered last night. Piss boner. Keep hands off it Splish splash ain’t takin’ a bath, ain’t no party goin’ on.
Sports section. Left it here.
THIS ONE’S A WINNER!!!
Never had picture in paper before. Flashbulb’s what it was. Almost blinded me. Read it later. Saint Joe’s-Villanova tonight.
Really quiet. Wonder where they are? Hope they didn’t fight again. Can’t take much more.
Pisses me off. Make last shot. He’s bitchin’ about foul shots. Never be good enough for him.
THIS ONE’S A WINNER!!!
Lot more where that came from.
Don’t think about it. Block it out it’ll be alright.
The bowl on the kitchen table held a note from his mother. They had gone shopping. Pleased to be alone in the quiet house, Jim ate two bowls of cereal then left the empty bowl in the sink.
It was only a five-minute walk to the Dutch Colonial home on Cobbs Creek Boulevard but it may have just as well have been intergalactic travel. Diane’s house stood behind several oak trees across from Cobbs Creek Park. Unlike most homes the two-story grey limestone building had been turned at a 90 degree angle from the street to face the driveway running beside it. Jim climbed three steps to the portico and waited outside the centre hall and foyer overlooking the driveway. Diane’s father answered his knock leading him into the living room that spanned half the part of the house that fronted the Boulevard. A large fireplace bordered by a white Colonial mantle stood between two sets of French doors opening onto both ends of a screened-in porch. The wall opposite the fireplace held a built-in bookcase stocked with Einstein, Milne, Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Service, Dickinson, Hemingway, and engineering textbooks.
– Sit down, Jim. How’d you guys do last night?
– We won, Mister Hynes.
– Close game?
– 55-54, 54-53 somethin’ like that.-
Jim couldn’t remember the actual score.
– Real close game. How did you do?
– Good, made a couple of mistakes, missed some foul shots, but overall played well.
Jim squirmed on the sofa where he and Diane played the closing acts of most weekends.
– That’s not how I heard it. I ran into Coach Chandler this morning. He said you made a shot with no time left and won the ball game. Congratulations.
Mister Hynes got up from the couch patting Jim on the shoulder. Jim blushed self-consciously.
– I’ll tell Diane you’re here. She was v-e-r-r-r-y disappointed she wasn’t there. Are you having dinner with us tonight?
– I don’t think so. There’s a party at my friend’s house tonight. Told my Mom I’d be home for dinner.
Jim was disappointed turning down the unexpected invitation. He enjoyed dinner with the Hynes’ family. The living room filled with exuberance as Diane came rushing down the stairs. She wore a pair of faded Levi’s, bottoms turned up over saddle shoes, and a white blouse. At 5’6”, she was fair-skinned with silver-green eyes. Smiling at Jim, she brushed strands of her blond hair away from her face. Sometimes Jim thought brushing the hair from her eyes was an affectation, but affected or not it always had its effect. He always paid more attention to her.
– Joann called last night from the drive-in. She told me all about it said everybody was talking about you. I called Georgie Woods and asked him to play Book of Love. Did you hear?
Diane took his hand.
– Yeah I heard. Thanks. It was kinda weird. We were drinkin’ beer across the street from the playground and we all started singin’.
– Drinking at the playground’s very cool. I can see the headline now – Star Ballplayer Lands in Jail on Big Night.
Diane’s voice was filled with sarcasm.
– I know it’s hard to talk about what you did without sounding like a bullshitter, but I want to know how it felt and I don’t care if it makes you blush. We ARE not talking about my SAT exam.
She pounded him on the chest like one of the b-movie beach-party girls they both loathed her mood swinging from sarcasm to feigned petulance. Jim laughed.
– No, we’re not, surfer girl. It felt good, real good to make that shot but it wasn’t like a surprise, if ya know what I mean. I’ve practiced makin’ it and I’m expected to make it. But when everybody was yellin’ and the clock was runnin’ down, it got pretty strange. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. I was nervous but it’s hard to talk about. It was just another game, if ya did anything besides study you’d have an idea of what it’s like. On the playground the first to get 16 baskets wins. Somebody always makes last shot before the game’s over. The difference between the playground and last night is the game clock. I looked at the clock and wished I had more time, but I didn’t so I had to shot before time ran out, on the playground you have more time.
– You make it sound so, so easy.
– It is easy so doggone easy. It’s what the game is about. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.
– You’re so full of shit. You driving tonight?
– I’m not sure. I’ll know when I get home. My old man wouldn’t say last night. If I don’t have the car tonight, Peanuts will have to pick me and you up.
Remembering the Celtics and Bob Cousy were on the Game of the Week he got up from the sofa. They held hands as they walked to the door.
– Why are you leaving? You just got here?
Diane took a couple of Cokes from the refrigerator while Jim thought about Bob Cousy and behind-the-back passes. She pointed to a kitchen chair and sat down.
– Are you still reading Catcher in the Rye?
– Nah, I finished it last night. Holden Caulfield? He was fuckin’ cool.
Diane swept her hair from her eyes. Jim’s cat eyes met hers
– He was so real I kept forgetting that he was just a character in a book and not a friend. I really wanted to meet him. I didn’t want the book to end. Until I read what he said about feeling lonely I thought I was the only guy that felt that way. I guess we’re all pretty much the same. He wound up unhappy and laughin’ at it all. I guess that’s why he was put away. Ending bothered me though.
Diane answered with a purr.
– He wanted to be the catcher for his brother. I think he’s gonna be fine and get out of there and go back to school. Maybe being crazy isn’t all that bad.
She leaned over and kissed him.
– Kind of ironic though. Holden wanted to be the catcher in the rye but had to be caught and put away. Not that crazy is all bad. Sometimes it’s a choice people make. Life’s like that I guess. Not mine though. What about tomorrow? What d’ya wanna do?
Jim squeezed Diane’s hand.
– It’s supposed to snow, let’s go sledding in the park.
Jim looked away. The clock in the kitchen read almost three o’clock.
– Yeah, that might be fun. 7:15?
Diane walked him to the door.
– Everything OK?
– Yeah. I’m kinda tired from last night. Gonna take a nap.
Jim lowered his eyes.
The house was still empty when Jim flipped on the TV and dialed in the Game of the Week. New York was one of the slowest teams in the NBA. Madison Square Garden’s rims were hung with long tapered nets that held onto the ball a few seconds before releasing it to the floor giving the Knicks a chance to get back on defense. Every year the Knicks lost more games than they won.
– Celtics could’ve won that game by 20 points if they wanted. They kept it close ‘cause it was on television. Cousy slowed down their fast break to keep it close. It’s all Jews – the TV networks, the NBA, Jews run it all. Ever since that Jew bastard fixed the World Series, pro sports is one big fix.
Jim’s father came into the living room for the last few minutes of the game the Celtics won 129-124.
– How come nobody knows about it but you?-
Jim tried to keep an edge from creeping into his voice.
– Because everybody’s in. Don’t ya understand, they’re all makin’ money on it – the owners, the players, the refs and the TV?
His father’s certainty made Jim edgier.
– You’re unbelievable.
Jim got up from his chair and went into the kitchen. He began to put away the groceries.
– The McCloy woman didn’t even speak to me, she’s got some nerve, walkin’ in the store aisle and not sayin’ hello. She thinks she deserves special attention because she’s a widow. Won’t bother me if I never see her again.
Marcia was emptying a can of peas into a pot.
– Ma, I don’t think she even knows who ya are.
The McCloy’s were the Collins’ arch enemies. They had moved into one of the Dutch Colonials on Cobbs Creek Boulevard last spring. Mick McCloy was Jim’s major competition for the playmaker spot at the start of fall practice. Gerry was angry because he thought Jim had won the spot the year before as a sophomore. He became angrier when Liam McCloy, a Notre Dame grad, took the whole team to Franklin Field for the Penn – Notre Dame football game inviting the parents to Philadelphia’s Union League for dinner after the game. Gerry thought it was the father’s plot to win Jim’s spot on the team for his son. When Liam died from a heart attack before the season no condolences were expressed. Jim was the only Collins at the funeral. Marsha set pork chops, mashed potatoes, and the peas on the table.
– Dad, can I have the car tonight?
– Yeah. Jus’ bring it back in one piece.
Gerry turned to Marcia.
– I’m thinkin’ of joining a car pool to get to work. Elaine Reidy’s puttin’ one together.
– Drive to work with Elaine every day?
– Big party tonight I have to change. Dinner was good, Ma.
Jim turned on the radio in his room to Jocko Henderson’s ‘Rockit Ship’ show – Philly’s most popular R&B program. Jocko played the week’s top songs every Saturday night. After hearing the number one song, Jim took a 45RPM record from a brown paper sleeve, put it on the red and gray plastic spindle of his record player and turned up the volume to drown out his parents’ voices arguing downstairs. A teenager yearning for a place and time other than the here and now he played Johnnie and Joe three times.
Over the mountain cross the sea there’s a girl waitin’ waitin’ for me da da da da da da.
Better hurry. Want her bad. Dick hurts. Really hard. No touch.
Likes to talk. Girls understand. See us different. See us the way we wanna be. See how I really am she’d be scared. Always ready to run…run run runaway.
Over the mountain across the sea there’s a girl awaitin’ for me. White bucks, khakis, madras, v-neck very ivy nobody sees real me…last year pegged pants, blue suede shoes…stay off of my blue suede shoes…she digs it, I dig it…one two three o’clock gonna rock around the clock tonight gonna rock until the broad daylight…
June 1943 Mary and Jim Doyle moved to Osage St. to help raise Jim while Marcia was working as a secretary to make ends meet. Marcia named her first-born after her father thinking she’d name the second after Gerry. Her mother was still calling Jim, Little Jim, even though he towered over her husband in his junior year in high school. Mary had told Mrs. Kaplan that first summer in one of their across-the-landing chats, “I’m spoiling Little Jim rotten to forget all the terrible things that are happening in the world.” Raising her grandson softened the war’s sting – Kevin, her only son, was in the Marines on one of the embattled islands in the Pacific.
She and her husband had survived the Depression partly with money she earned in a hospital laundry. Big Jim, his moniker before the Depression, had lost the Big Jim Doyle clothing store and was out of work for five years, sitting in the basement making, selling and drinking bootleg whiskey. When he finally found a job as a cotton buyer traveling through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi he was no longer the dapper clothing store proprietor Mary had married. The Depression and unemployment had changed Mary’s quick-to-smile boyish prankster into a quiet, penurious porch-sitting cigar-smoker. Big Jim Doyle spent his summer evenings during the War sitting on the porch hunched over his radio, blowing smoke rings for Little Jim, listening to the cellar-dwelling Phillies’ lose enough games to become one of the losingest franchises in baseball history. He explained baseball’s history to his toddler grandson to divert his mind. The fear of his son’s capture by the Japanese on that God-forsaken name-forgotten Pacific island vanished when he described Ted Williams refusing to sit out the last day of the 1941 season hitting over .400 or the legendary World Series that Babe Ruth pointed to the center field flag pole where he was going to wallop the next pitch in Wrigley Field. Mary also used Little Jim to escape her fear; the fear of news that never came with unwanted condolences from the Department of Defense. Each Sunday night Mary and Big Jim urged Little Jim to put on his show. He would mimic Walter Winchell’s opening line – “Good Evening Mister and Misses America and all the ships at sea” perfectly. They laughed at the child’s precociousness while listening to the gravel and machine gun fire of Winchell’s analysis as though it were a Papal encyclical. Eventually the Doyle’s bond with their grandson grew stronger than the bonds they had with their own children. It was a bond that developed out of the fear that Jim was growing up in a world where war and depression were more commonplace than peace and prosperity. What kind of place would be left for their first-born grandchild after Pearl Harbor, Hitler, Auschwitz, Nagasaki and Hiroshima?
While Gerry served in the army Marcia began having nightmares. They were an unspoken ordeal among many wives on the home-front. Marcia’s dreams were signs of how threatened she felt “losing the only man I’ve ever spent a night with.’ She wouldn’t talk about anything that went on during those nights like many other women of American-Irish Catholic upbringing. Sex was unmentionable because thinking about it was sinful. When the war ended and the nightmares didn’t Marcia began seeing a psychiatrist. Besides the nightmares Marcia had become fixated that Gerry was seeing another woman. At the end of the third session the shrink hypothesized that Marcia resented how close her mother was with Little Jim. When she told her mother what the psychiatrist had said, her mother became furious. Mary Doyle knew nothing of Freud, but she did know her bond with Little Jim was a bond of love that was strong and true. In her heart no one, professional or otherwise, could make her undo that bond. Marcia’s psychiatric treatment eventually led to the glazed look derived from electroshock therapy. Mary couldn’t accept what went on, especially the theory that her love for Little Jim was a source of Marcia’s problems. When she told Big Jim about it he agreed and they said the rosary on their knees every night for three months for the Blessed Mother’s intervention. When Marcia told them she was putting her faith back in God and wasn’t going back to the shrink they told each other their prayers had been answered.
Much later, Marcia told her mother it was something else that was really bothering her. She suspected Gerry had been involved with someone while he was in the army. Marcia tended to imagine many things, so Mary discounted what she had been told. She knew that her daughter resented her husband for volunteering for the service when he could have stayed home and supported his family. The war had been hard on everyone and she thought Marcia would get back to being herself. A week or so later, Marcia told her mother about a letter she had found from another woman. Mary couldn’t decide if Marcia was fantasizing, especially without seeing the letter. She didn’t want to believe that her son-in-law was a bastard who left his wife and son at home to cheat on his wife. She never discussed Gerry’s infidelity with Big Jim because she knew he would have demanded the truth and she wasn’t sure the truth would be what they would or wanted to hear.
Gerry had joined the Army with mixed motives. He didn’t have to serve because he was married and parent of an infant. As an intelligent man he wanted more out of life than a high school education could get him. Enlistment was a chance to make good as an officer and pilot in the Army Air Corps. His younger brother had pulled off getting pilot’s wings and he wasn’t as smart as Gerry.
Explaining to Marcia he had to go to keep his job because when the war was over the returning vets would get all the jobs, he enlisted. He left home believing that he would be commissioned and be flying in three months. His marks in the IQ test were high enough to qualify as a pilot but he flunked the flight school physical with less than perfect vision. Assigned to a communications unit as a wireman, he was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for training and then to Madison, Wisconsin. In Madison he tested radio equipment before it was installed in the fighter planes he had expected to fly. Deeply depressed hanging out at a local bar he heard about a job opening at a meat packing plant on the night shift. Since the radio testing work was being done according to a shift schedule, Gerry took the meat packer’s job for extra money. He didn’t hesitate at the chance since he knew Marcia was having a tough time at home working while his mother-in-law took care of Little Jim.
Most of the meat packing plant workers were women. Their men had gone off to fight. When they found out that Gerry was a soldier he found himself on the firing range. Introverted and shy, he never imagined himself as the target of flirtation and desire, but every day he was told how tall, dark, and handsome he was. When he overheard Ellen Dean, the best-looking girl in the plant, joke about how fitting it was that he worked in a packing plant because he was “a real piece of meat she’d love to pack into her bed” he made it a point to get to know her better. For several days he wondered what it would actually be like in her bed. Finally one night as they were leaving work, he asked her to go out for a late snack. She told him that she and a friend were stopping at a local bar. Later that night he found out what it was like in her bed and they began an intensely passionate affair. Both of them were certain when the war ended, the affair would end. They knew it, feared it, liked it. Until the war ended they did nothing but enjoy the recklessness of fierce sex.
What they didn’t count on was Ellen’s husband getting killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Ellen was inconsolable. The guilt of cheating hadn’t bothered her until her man had been killed. Before she found out he was dead she just knew he was coming back and when he did she’d be his just like she had been before he left. When she found out that he wasn’t coming back, she was overwhelmed. She told Gerry how much her husband had trusted her and now he was going to be buried in his hometown shacked up with another guy. She kicked Gerry out of her bed the night the Marine Corp delivered the news of her husband’s death, then called him three times the next day. Each phone call was more distraught. Sorrow, remorse, joy, the pleasure of infidelity were chanted as a litany of shame. She made Gerry stay away to keep their relationship a secret from the family. About a month after the funeral, Ellen asked him to return. The fire of passion had not been requited.
As the end of the war approached they clung to each other like two prisoners awaiting execution. To unwind the tension they drank and fucked every day as if V-E Day had been the day of their death. When Gerry’s discharge notice came he didn’t tell Ellen, instead he called her with an excuse that he wasn’t able to see her the night of his discharge and the next morning he caught the first train to Philadelphia.
Marcia kept a framed photo of the day he returned on the dining room breakfront. It was a scene that was repeated in late 1945 all over the USA. The Philadelphia Inquirer had published the original photo in a Sunday magazine article about Philadelphia’s soldiers returning to their families. Mother and son were waiting by a stairwell at 30th Street Station. A photographer noticed Marcia holding Little Jim. The little boy climbed down from his mother’s arms and ran to his Daddy. Gerry picked Jim up and swung him around in the air and held him close then Marcia ran to Gerry. The photographer took the shot. The photo looked like all the other joyful homecomings that took place that morning – a father holding his son with his wife in his arms as sunlight streamed through the art deco windows. Gerry was back. But the sanctuary of their marriage was gone, destroyed by his indiscretion.
Gerry tried to write Ellen a farewell several times. Each time he tore it up, eventually concluding that no farewell was the best choice. He did not count on Ellen taking matters into her own hands. During one of their nights together they had talked about how they would contact each other if they ever needed to (pregnancy was a possibility given their recklessness). Gerry had given her his mother’s home address. A month after he returned home, his mother gave him a thick letter postmarked Madison, Wisconsin. He pocketed it, stunned by the flood of emotions at the sight of Ellen’s scribbled handwriting. Her letter broke the emotional dam he had built so that he could leave without saying goodbye. He read the six page letter on the subway on his way to work looking for the dreaded word that never appeared. Ellen spared no epithets to express her anger at his betrayal. What bothered him most was that she bottom-lined him as a coward. She didn’t understand how much he had battled with himself over how to say goodbye before he finally rationalized that it didn’t make any difference since they both had known it was going to end anyway. But her repeated “coward”, “no good bastard”, and “fucking liar” had the effect she desired. He felt emasculated getting off the subway and called her collect at the first available phone. Her husky sleep-filled voice sounded vulnerable and seductive. He hung up as soon as heard her vulnerability and seductiveness. The sound of her voice broke through the dam he had built flooding him with memories of the nights that had been his introduction to uninhibited sex. He spent most of the workday thinking of what he wanted to say to her. At the end of the day he stopped at a local watering hole for the courage of a double scotch before placing another call from a telephone booth in the corner. There was a long moment of silence after he said hello, no longer vulnerable and seductive Ellen began. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She only stopped ranting when the operator broke in to tell them they had a minute left. Right away Gerry said he was sorry, she was right, he had been a bastard, but he felt that his choice was better than any other he could have made when it came to breaking it off between them.
– Fuck you, you no good pussy-lickin’ snake. I won’t be as easy to shed as your uniform. You’ll be hearin’ from me plenty.
Ellen hung up. Gerry was stunned. He hoped Ellen’s threat was an empty one, but from the emotion of her voice he feared that she was going to make him pay. He was right. His mother gave him one letter each week for the next 3 months. The letters weren’t as long as the first, but Ellen’s expletives and loathing for him were creative since each week she chose a different animal to describe Gerry’s behavior towards her. Eventually the missives became less frequent. Overall there were about twenty stored in his footlocker in the attic at Osage St.
He had put the first one in his jacket pocket and forgot about it. Marcia found it as she was cleaning out the hall closet. She didn’t think twice about taking it from his pocket and left it on the kitchen table for him when he came home from work. As the day went on her curiosity got the best of her. She didn’t recognize the name on the return address. Who would write to Gerry from Madison that he hadn’t told her about? She read the letter on the living room stairs recalling the 30th Street Station homecoming and the first month he had been back from Madison. It hadn’t been the same between them. It had nothing to do her anxiety or the passion she hid when they were in bed together; it had to do with what had happened while he was gone. Marcia knew from the day he came back they were not the same couple who slow-danced on Steel Pier while Frank Sinatra sang “I’ll never smile again until I smile at you.” What her nightmares during the war had been telling her was true.
She didn’t tell Gerry about finding the letter or the other ones she found going through his pockets. The nightmares resumed. During the war she had dreamed over and over of Gerry lying dead in a foxhole. After the war her recurring dream became a dream of her own death. She was buried alive in the mahogany china closet she kept in the dining room wearing her wedding dress. Just about to suffocate in the dream she’d wake up screaming. Gerry always tried soothing her with susurrations, but she would turn to the Blessed Virgin statue in the corner of the room. She finally accused him of being untrue to her never mentioning the letters she found in the inside pockets of his jackets. Unrelentingly, she went at him with a harpy’s fury that was abetted and invigorated by his silence. From the intensity of her accusations Gerry thought it useless to respond. Finally, listening quietly with his arms crossed on his chest one day, he had heard enough.
– Are you finished yet or are ya goin’ to go on forever? Because if ya are, I’ll close your mouth for ya.
Gritting his teeth, he stood before her both hands clenched into fists.
– I’ll finish when I want and I’ll never be finished with you – you, son of a bitch.
Having been threatened Marcia used profanity for the first time. She coupled it with trying to cat-scratch Gerry’s face. Gerry grabbed her hand and punched her.
– Had enough? That oughta shut ya up for a while.
Pitilessly he sneered at her as she sunk to her knees at his feet.
– You stinkin’ pig. Go ahead, hit me again, it’s the only bang you’ll ever get from me.
Marcia stood up, spitting in his eye. Gerry punched her again. Just then Jim toddled into the living room. He ran to his mother, pushing his father away. Gerry didn’t resist.
– Little Jim, I said somethin’ real bad. Yer father got mad and told me to be quiet, but I wouldn’t. That’s why he hit me, to stop me from sayin’ it again.
Marcia put her arms around Little Jim and pulled him close, so he couldn’t see the red welt forming below her eye.
– Yeah Jimmy, I jes’ wanted yer ma to stop bein’ mean; I didn’ mean to hurt her.
Gerry slumped on the couch ending the opening of a family drama that ran uninterrupted for 12 years. Gerry and Marcia acted from scripts of pretense and prevarication hiding from Jim the harm they inflicted behind masks of fear and loathing.
Someday we’ll build a house on a hilltop high just we two. Amazing. Shearing blind. How can he play?
Warm in there. Christmas lights. Used to think all Moms Dads were like mine. Pissed off. Frownin.’
What do I know? Difference between Coob Creek – Osage. Mine’s way Osage is.
Emergency on, radio off.
Money. House. Private school. All different. Wouldn’t go if I could.
Wouldn’t leave neighborhood. Prep school pussies.
Gonna have some fun tonight.
Jim rang the doorbell. Without a word 11 year-old Kyle Hynes opened the door and went back to watching TV.
– How’s it goin’?
Jim sat on the sofa in the living room.
– Everything’s cool.
– Hi, Jim. Who’s winning?
Mister Hynes sat next to Jim.
– Penn 6 – 0. Dad, Brown stinks.
– Give me a break, Kyle. Brown’s my alma mater, Jim. Matter of fact I’ve got some tickets for the game tonight. You interested?
Dan Hynes took four tickets from his shirt pocket.
– Villanova and St. Joe play in the second game. I’d love to see that game.
The winner would be favored to win Philadelphia’s Big 5 college championship.
– Second row behind the team bench and the others are a little further back. Brown’s coach and I were fraternity brothers. We had lunch today. He gave me the tickets but we have our office Christmas party to go to. I was hoping you might be interested.
– Kind of late to use all four, but if Diane wants to go we can use two. We’re goin’ to a party but we could go to the game and be late for the party.
Diane bounded down the stairs in a Scotch-plaid pleated skirt, white blouse, dark green sweater, and penny loafers.
– Hi, yer Dad’s got some tickets for the Palestra tonight. Saint Joe Villanova. Ya wanna go?
– What about the party?
– We can go after.
Jim rose nonchalantly, very much wanting to hear Diane say the right thing. The right thing being she wanted to go to the game with him.
– OK, let’s go. Never been to the Palestra.
Diane had been curious about Penn’s gym ever since Jim told her Annunciation would play there if they reached the City High School championship game. The name Palestra fascinated her, especially since it was named for the gymnasium of Greek antiquity where the Olympic wrestlers trained.
– We have to hurry. Free parking down there can be hard to find. I usually take the EL with my friends.
– I need gloves.
Diane hurried back upstairs.
– Thanks for the tickets, sir. I’ll find somebody to take the other two.
Jim put the tickets in his jacket pocket.
Diane stood at the door, gloves in hand.
– You’re welcome. You kids be back by one.
– Thanks a lot, Dad.
Diane wrinkled her nose at her father knowing he gave Jim the tickets because he didn’t like the idea of them going to a party all night.
Jim knew a vacant lot under 30th Street Station from childhood trips with his father. He always parked there when they went to the Palestra. Fifteen minutes after leaving Diane’s he parked the car along side the unpronounceable Schuylkill – hidden river in Dutch – that separated the train station and West Philadelphia from downtown. Beneath street level it was dark and damp; the empty rail yard adding grimness to the cold night. Jim took Diane by the hand and assumed the role of protector for a green-eyed girl a long way from the hallowed halls of Villa St. Mary.
– Up those steps and we’re on Walnut Street.
To ease her mind he pointed to a black forged steel stairway that ascended to a well-lighted sidewalk. A damp northerly wind blew across the river with the hint of snow. Heads tucked into turned-up collars to ward off the cold they turned south on 33rd Street into a cluster of people walking hurriedly while the air above them turned into a halo from scarf-muffled conversations. Several vendors were hawking warm roasted peanuts and soft pretzels on the other side of 33rd street where the Federalist buildings began Penn’s campus that dated back to Ben Franklin. The walking pace slowed as they reached an oblong building with illuminated brick facing and large panels of plate glass configured into a colonial arch. Jim pulled Diane behind him in his rush to get to college basketball’s Mecca. Two young men stood by the doors calling to the crowd for tickets. Jim wiggled his index finger. They came forward and he handed them the extra 2 tickets.
– Thanks, man.
The two guys hurried to the back of the line obviously excited as they saw the seat numbers on the tickets. Once inside the Palestra Jim’s vision was momentarily blurred from the changes in light and temperature as the crowd queued up to hand tickets to a pot-bellied man chewing an unlit cigar butt and wearing a blazer that matched the red of Penn’s Red-and-Blue crest. Ticket-taker jobs were a stipend from the University to leftovers from its football heydays. It was a job not quite as hard for football players to get as diplomas had been. The ticket-takers were from an era when the Ivy League recruited jocks who weren’t the “student-athletes” the Ivies boasted of in 1959.
A tiled hallway wound beneath the grandstand that surrounded the basketball court. Thirty years of dried sweat and rubbing liniment scented the air with the smell of past competition. Within the trophy cases of sports memorabilia Penn’s stone-faced, lantern-jawed athletes posed in pictures from the turn of the century to the present day. The daguerreotypes and photographs showed legendary football teams made up of the sons of Pennsylvania’s coal miners and Philadelphia’s insurance executives.
– It’s like the Coliseum in Rome.
Diane noticed the picture of a bloodied Penn football player that reminded her of Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators. She followed Jim into a covered upward-sloping archway. The archway ended on a plateau 10 feet or so above center court where she was stunned by sound and fury.
– THE HAWK IS DEAD…THE HAWK IS DEAD.
The Villanova student body chanted from the other side of the Palestra.
– THE HAWK WILL NEVER DIE…THE HAWK WILL NEVER DIE.
Came in response from the St. Joe student section in the seats behind them.
Jim and Diane sat down while Brown inbounded the ball. Diane huddled on the wooden grandstand bench wrapping both hands lightly under Jim’s left biceps.
– Why are the fans yelling so much about the Saint Joe hawk while the Penn game is still going on?
– That’s the way it is. City Series games, especially Saint Joe-Villanova are like wars. The two schools waitin’ to play start cuttin’ on each other. It’s all part of the Big 5.
Jim’s voice rose to be heard over the noise. The excitement of the crowd was palpable. Small red light bulbs lit in a pattern of numbers on the scoreboard showed that a little more than 3 minutes were left. Penn was comfortably ahead. At game’s end a wing-flapping hawk led five male cheerleaders in crimson sweaters and gray slacks onto the court to a rousing cheer from the St. Joe student section. The St. Joe mascot wore a bedraggled feather outfit and stood at the side of the court flapping his wings incessantly. Villanova’s students regarded the Hawk mascot and the Saint Joe student body as motley escapees from a West Philadelphia Jesuit lunatic asylum just inside the city. On the other hand St. Joe’s students viewed Villanova’s Main Line campus as a suburban Philadelphia playground for the wealthy bastard lineage St. Augustine’s descendants had begotten in sinful debauches.
A sudden roar went up from the other side of the Palestra when Villanova’s wildcat mascot led ten blue-and-white clad players onto the court. The crowd noise rose again when St. Joe’s crimson and silver cheerleaders followed the hawk from the opposite end. Diane tightened her grip on Jim’s arm. The Palestra had morphed into the Plains of Troy.
Both teams finished warming up and the cheerleaders took to the court as the hawk and the wildcat engaged in a mock fist fight. The P.A. announcer introduced 10 unintelligible starters’ names in the midst of the fevered pandemonium of 9,000+ screams. The names didn’t matter. Both teams were local kids the crowd knew by sight anyway.
Jim sat hunched over watching everything as if memorizing the visual landscape he would describe in a myth at some later time – the coaches, players, referees, even the scoring table just to his right where white placards with red numbers for personal fouls were used to show the player’s fouls. The game’s pace and quality were inversely related – the faster the pace, the worse the quality. The opening minutes were a hyperactive mêlée of mistakes and turnovers. It took almost two minutes before either team made a field goal. Villanova was first making a short jumper that was celebrated with rolls of blue and white toilet paper thrown from the stands. The game had to be stopped for several minutes until the court was cleared of the debris. The game’s rhythm was established eventually after five minutes of fast breaks, bad passes, and traveling violations. Neither team was superior with one then the other taking the lead. As the game’s quality rose the crowd’s frenzied cheering threatened to shatter the sweating glass that was part of the roof. The first half ended with exhaustion etched in the players’ faces; their exhaustion mirrored by fanatically strained faces urging their heroes to go harder, go faster as they left the court for the locker room.
– Ya want somethin’?
Jim got up stretching his back.
– I could use something to drink.
Taking Diane’s hand, he led her back through the archway to the outer hallway. The earlier liniment and sweat scent of past competitions had been overwhelmed by the smell of burning tobacco in the circular hallway. Jim went to a service counter window and returned with two containers of orange drink. Diane and he stood close to each other in the midst of the smokers’ murmured unintelligible conversations. Packs of young men looking for future dates walked back and forth in search of girls or old friends. Jim reached inside his sweater for a cigarette, but he didn’t put it in his mouth, instead he crumpled it in his pocket.
– Hey Jim. Thought you couldn’t make it.
Coach Chandler and Mick McCloy stopped in front of them.
– Hey, coach, Mick. This is Diane. She’s why I couldn’t come to the game with ya. Her Dad had a couple of tickets to the game so we decided to come here before going to the party.
– Nice to meet you, Diane. I talked to your Dad this morning. You know we both went to Brown, don’t you?
– Hello, sir. No I didn’t.
– He was two years ahead of me. Looks like this game will go down to the wire. Have fun.
– That was close.
– What do you mean?
– Almost got caught. Let’s go back.
Jim showed her the shreds of the cigarette he was about to light in his pocket. He stuck them in his empty orange-drink container before throwing it in the trash.
Both teams played up to their potential at the start of the second half. The lead was never more than five points with crowd noise getting louder as the fans exhorted one team then the other with the ball changing hands and both teams sprinting one way then the other. With seven minutes left in the game St. Joe’s coach called for a time out. His team sat on the bench backs directly in front of Jim and Diane. Jim leaned over as close as he could to hear the coach’s strategy. He told them to put pressure on the basketball – playing a full-court court press with four players set up in Villanova’s backcourt in a two-by-two zone defense with the fifth player defending the basket against breakaways. Taking his quickest guard aside he told him to remember the Villanova playmaker always went to his right with his dribble and the Saint Joe guard should go for the steal or charging foul if it was there. Pressure basketball was a risky tactic, but it was a trademark of St. Joe teams that were often out-manned, but rarely out-hustled. They had won many games against more talented teams playing their brand of pressure basketball. The coach sent his team back onto the court and took a position kneeling on one knee at the bench hollering instructions as his players played out the tactic. In the final seven minutes St Joe’s forced five turnovers converting them into easy baskets. They won by five points. In the game’s last minute the St. Joe student body began to hoarsely sing off-key.
– Ohh when The Hawks! Ohh when the Hawks! Ohh when the Hawks Go Flyin’ In!
Leaving the court, Bobby Galli, one of St. Joe’s guards waved at Jim. Galli had played for Annunciation 2 years before and had been Jim’s teammate in Ocean City’s Summer League last summer. He came over to the stands and motioned for Jim to come down onto the court. Jim congratulated him and introduced Diane. Bobby said he had seen Jim’s picture in the morning paper. He called to a couple of St. Joe’s players and introduced them to Diane saying that Jim might be playing with them in two years. Diane was impressed by her informal welcome to the college in-crowd of Philly basketball. After chatting they left the now-silent Palestra hallway walking through a trash man’s nightmare of discarded hot dog wrappers, empty drink cartons and discarded cigarette butts. Back on 34th Street the early evening promise of snow had been kept. Joining a line of single men with hands jammed in their pockets and couples holding hands, Jim bought a bag of soft pretzels from a vendor on the corner at Walnut St.
– So I’m your girl and the reason you weren’t going to the game? Your picture in the paper. That’s a big deal.
Diane squeezed his hand. Jim squeezed back.
– I have the paper at home. I remember somethin’ flashin’ in my eyes when I took the shot. Blinded me for a second. They were really great seats your Dad gave us. St. Joe’s won the game when they went to a zone press. Jim chomped into his pretzel mumbling through the broken pieces of dough that had hardened sitting in the cold.
– Your coach probably told my Dad about the party. Everybody knows what hellraisers you guys are. My Dad doesn’t want us at those parties. I don’t know what a zone press is and I don’t care, but I’ll cut your picture out of the paper.
Diane huddled closer.
– Saint Joe’s coach made a move in the second half that’s called a zone press. He changed defenses. Maybe coach gave your Dad the tickets.
The cold had permeated their bodies by the time they reached the car. Shivering they held hands while the heater kicked in as Jim drove through the deserted sidewalks Philadelphia’s W.C. Fields claimed were rolled-up at 9PM. There was an empty parking space in front of Peanuts’ house. Little Richard screeched, “Well long tall Sally she’s built for speed” as they got out of the car. The front door was open even though the temperature was dropping through the 20’s. There were about ten couples drinking, dancing, talking or necking in the rec room in the basement. Peanuts, glass in hand, staggered toward them. The smell of bourbon almost sickened Jim as Peanuts flung his arm around Jim’s shoulders.
– Hey, man, where ya been? Never mind, don’ answer. Ya been nice to my friend?
Peanuts turned to Diane.
– We went to the Palestra. Villanova St. Joe.
– Thash bullshit. The two of you were on Karakung. Diane was congrashulayshun’ you for las’ night.
Peanuts’ grip tightened where Jim’s neck and shoulder met. He almost toppled the two of them onto a girl in a tight white sweater sitting on the couch.
– You tryin’ to kill me? Don’t pay attention to him, he’s intoxicated. There’s drinks behind the bar. Get me one will ya, Jim?
Sheila, Peanuts’ steady girl, giggled and dangled an empty glass in front of her. She was blue-eyed and platinum blonde, with curves and tits most of the neighborhood had seen from Comly Street standing below her bedroom window.
– Sure, Sheila. I’m havin’ a beer. How about you, little girl of mine?
Jim took Sheila’s glass turning to Diane.
– Get me a coke. Thanks. Hi, Joann. Where’s Reds?
Diane strolled to a red-headed girl on the other side of the room.
– He went for more beer.
Joann Ryan was Reds’ steady. She went to Annunciation Girls, sister school to Annunciation Boys. Jim handed Diane her soda before joining the boys by the radio listening to a low-powered black AM station playing rhythm and blues.
– Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll!
Peanuts warbled along with Chuck Berry.
– Hey baby, ya can’t sing like that when yer sober. Yer only good when yer drunk.
Sheila had become prostrate on the sofa. Her attempt at feigning sobriety was melting with the ice cubes in the glass on the floor beside her. Jim strolled over to Diane and Joann standing in the corner.
– I want to leave. We’ll never get out of here if we wait around for Reds
Jim and Diane whispered so the others couldn’t hear..
– We’re cuttin’ out.
Speaking to no one in particular, Jim picked their coats off a chair. Just then, Reds came down the steps carrying a case of beer.
– Hey, man. Where you goin’? The party’s just startin’.
– We went to the Palestra. I’m beat man.
– Oh, man, yer full of it. You’ve never been so beat ya couldn’t party. You two better be careful writin’ that book of love. Be cool, man.
Reds laughed giving Jim skin. Jim returned the favor. The nightwind had quieted. Cotton-like snowflakes drifted soundlessly through the beams of the headlights. Jim was becalmed by the unblemished snow remembering the phrase ‘miles to go before I sleep’ as he guided the snow-crunching Ford through deserted Cobbs Creek Boulevard to Diane’s Dutch Colonial.
– I’m glad we left. The snow’s pretty. I never feel like gettin’ drunk when everybody’s already drunk, ya know what I mean?
– Yes. I’m glad Peanuts isn’t like that every weekend. Do you think he’ll drive tonight?
– Probably not. Reds is pretty cool makin’ sure things don’t get out of control.
Jim turned off the engine after marring the pristine snow on Diane’s driveway with the Ford’s tire tracks.
– I hope you’re right. Peanuts was in no shape to drive.
A light shone from the top of the stairs when Diane opened the door.
– I’m home.
Diane peered up the stairway.
– There’s ham and cheese in the fridge. Don’t forget the lights when you come up.
Mrs. Hynes unseen voice welcomed them followed by the sound of footsteps to a bedroom down the hall. Jim sat at the kitchen table watching Diane make the ham-and-cheese sandwiches. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until she gave him one. In the living room the remains of a few burning embers were in the fireplace so he threw two logs on the fire. In a few minutes flames were ablaze. Diane opened the curtains on the French doors for a view of the falling snow and took her spot on the floor in front of the fireplace.
– I owe ya one for all the good stuff you give me to read. Especially the Salinger.
Jim sat down beside her.
– How and when are you going to pay up?
Diane tilted her head teasingly. Cuddling against him, Diane’s green eyes and golden hair were lustered by the firelight. The crackling of the wood knots was amplified in the the silence of the snowfall through the windowpanes. They began to kiss innocently until tongues touching, passion overwhelmed innocence. Surrendering to their heightened desire Diane loosened her bra and Jim’s lips found her erect nipples. Suddenly she pushed him from her.
– I can’t do this. Sorry.
She walked to the French doors hooking her bra.
– I never wanted you like this before.
Jim’s cock was rock hard. It hurt. He rolled on his back and put his hands behind his head. Diane’s virginity was sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful. She feared having sex, but it was a fear that lacked the shame she had been taught by the nuns at Villa Saint Mary. Her fear was about a consequence she didn’t want; the consequence of getting pregnant. Kneeling down beside Jim she stroked his eyebrows and kissed his eyelids, then led him to one of the French doors. A white coverlet had spread over the street as though Mother Nature had woven a quilt that included the story of the purity of their unconsummated love.
– I want you too, Jim. Why not stay here tonight?-
She embraced him like a sister; her head nestled on his chest. It was the first time he had heard a girl say ‘I want you’. Maybe she was asking him to stay. Maybe she wanted to give herself as much as he wanted to take her. Is that what she wanted? He paused for a moment but was afraid to ask the question that could change their lives.
– I can’t. I have to get the car home.
– Call home. Tell them you’re stuck in the snow. We can stay up all night.
Diane’s eyes glistened. Jim decided without asking the question. She wasn’t going to give him what he wanted even if she wanted it too.
– My father will want to come and get the car. He won’t want to leave the car here all night. I better go.
Confused, he kissed her gently and put on his jacket. A new sweetness engulfed them. They kissed gently at the front door. Diane’s submission in his arms brought on hardness between his legs again. He took her hands from his face lowering them to his sides to halt the sexual arousal then whispered a melody he first heard as a toddler at his mother’s knee.
– Amapola, my pretty little flower.
She smiled at the term of endearment. Once during the twilight of a summer evening Jim had sung the song to her sitting on the boardwalk as they watched the moon rise over the Atlantic. She squeezed his hands to let him know her restraint was hard then tugged at the collar of his red jacket.
– Good night, James Dean.
Stepping outside into the falling snow his hard-on shriveled between his legs while his body fought the bone-chilling wind with an athlete’s resistance. Ice clogged the car door he pulled hard to open. He waved to Diane standing in the doorway as he backed the car onto Cobbs Creek Boulevard. Just a block from Osage his front tires went into a skid toward a huge oak. Pressing the brakes in near panic he stopped a foot or two short of the tree. With a grateful look at the St. Christopher statuette atop the dashboard he drove the rest of the way home more slowly.
The lights were on in the house when he walked in. He hung his jacket on the kitchen door hoping his parents had just forgotten to turn them off. Broken china and glass were scattered on the floor in the dining room as evidence they had not forgotten anything, but instead had begun another act of the family drama. His mother sat sobbing on the sofa while his father was slumped in a chair his muscular arms folded across his chest. Jim winced at the black and blue mark on his mother’s right arm. She was also pressing an ice bag to her face.
– Oh, fuck me, not again. I can’t stand this shit.
Emotions surged through him like ocean waves pounding a seawall. The wretched look in his mother’s eyes made his stomach churn while pyretic anger torqued from his sternum into his neck muscles.
– None of that language here. Your mother started up again about me cheatin’ on her, then she started throwin’ the dished like she does. I hit her and she stopped.
His father spoke in the matter-of-fact way he had torquing Jim anger even more.
– You’re worried about my fuckin’ language after what you do?
– Your father didn’t mean it. It’s all over now. I’ll be all right.
The ice bag slipped from Marcia’s hand. Her left eye was badly swollen.
– Yer both fuckin’ nuts. Why don’t ya fuckin’ kill each other and be done with it.
Jim’s hands clenched into fists drumming against his legs.
– I won’t have ya talkin’ like that in here. Cut it out.
Marcia got up from the sofa touching Jim’s face. She needed reassurance and forgiveness. Jim didn’t forgive or reassure instead he pushed her hand away and reached for the door. She put her hand on his wrist to stop him from turning the door knob.
– Please lad, don’t leave. This is no time to be leavin’.
The Irish brogue re-appeared. Jim stared at her for a moment. There were tears streaming down her face. He tried lifting her hand from his wrist. She tightened her grip. He twisted her arm and she fell to her knees. She looked dully at her wrist and rubbed it with her hand.
– That hurt.
– I didn’t mean to. He’s the one who really hurts ya. I’m just tryin’ to get outta here in one piece.
– Both of ya sit down.
His father joined them at the door.
– Sorry Mom, I’m gettin’ outta here.
Jim reached for the door knob again. This time his father grabbed him by the arm.
– Lay the fuck off!
– Yer not goin’ anywhere!
His father grunted, jamming him against the wall. Jim pushed him backward, knocking him over a chair. Marcia moved away. Gerry got to his feet and swung his forearm into Jim’s neck, knocking him down. Jim curled into the fetal position. His mother began wailing.
– Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you’ve hurt him!
She moved toward Jim, but stopped short. Gerry grabbed Jim by the shoulders.
– Get up, yer not hurt. Stop actin’ like a candy ass.
Jim lay limp his mind going at warp speed in different directions. He stayed on the floor kicking his father’s leg half-heartedly.
– Leave me alone. Keep yer fuckin’ hands off me, motherfucker!
– I told ya stop talkin’ like that!
His father kicked him in the ribs. There was the popping sound of tearing cartilage. Vengeance in mind Jim got up savagely, dropped into a crouch and surged straight ahead. He lowered his shoulder into his father’s mid-section toppling him onto the hardwood floor. Closing his eyes at impact he heard the sickening sound of his father’s head slamming on the floor. Opening his eyes to a pool of blood on the floor beneath his father he touched his own face to see if he was bleeding. None of the blood was his. Looking down he saw nothing but a lifeless stare. Jim got to his feet.
– Now I’m the fuckin’ bad ass ya been teachin’ me to be.
The body on the floor didn’t move.
– Are you all right?
Marcia bent over Gerry’s body. Jim turned the door knob, stepped outside and hesitated wanting his jacket. His mother sobbed hysterically behind him. He didn’t go back inside, instead he ran with no destination in mind into blinding snow that had turned into a blizzard.
Fuck him! Killed the motherfucker! Didn’t mean to. Fucking nightmare. Fuckin’ cold out here.
WHY? WHY? WHY? Why do I even care?
Wanted me to forget it. Pretend like the other times. Told me last Christmas justa bad night you know shit happens she’ll get over it told her I was sorry gets crazy sometimes you know says I’m cheatin’ says she’s losin’ her hair.
Then she wakes up screamin’ in the middle of the night. Rememberin’ the secret. Can’t pretend. Remembers gettin’ beat up.
Can’t pretend anymore. Not deaf dumb blind. I’m a hurtin’ sonofabitch. Will not pretend it doesn’t hurt…they’re the great pretenders.
Doesn’t matter what she said. What she did. He’s wrong. Punched her hard. Swollen eye. Arm all messed up. End up like the other times. Black and blue for a week. Buy her something.’ Tell her he’s sorry. Never look you in the eye. Never tell the truth. Hide everything. The pain. The secret. No hidin’ everybody’s gonna know now.
Ribs are killin’ me. Gotta keep goin.’ Shoulda called from Diane’s. Wouldn’t want me home with her like that.
Don’t belong. Not into rosaries, masses, novenas. Always at church prayin.’ Crazy ideas he was cheatin’ on her.
Sweater’s wet. Gettin’ colder. Snow all over me. Shoulda taken jacket.
Warm up there. Sneak in. Wake her up. Run away. My problem not hers. My old man’s dead not hers. Her house not my house. Have to decide. Where? How?
Snow’s pain in ass. Kick it the fuck outta here. Kick everything the fuck outta here. He’s dead I’m fucked.
Ooh ooh yes I’m the great pretender.
Bill Snyder, a Merida writer, began writing short stories and poems for the Philadelphia literary arts newspaper, The Queen Village Crier.
He published articles in technology journals and presented software development concepts at technology conferences during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
He has also edited and been a reader at Zoetrope: All-Story magazine in San Francisco where he currently workshops his writing.
Bill has taught English Literature and Composition and Computer Systems Management in various universities and preparatory schools in the Philadelphia area.
His blog can be found at icareinmerida.wordpress.com. which includes some of his work-in-progress.
Painting: Luis Carlos – detail from CAMALEON AMARILLO